Fruitvale restaurant owners meet with officials over public safety concerns

Wahpepah’s Kitchen and Red Bay Coffee say more should be done to curtail violence and sex trafficking in the area.

Red Bay Coffee owner Keba Konte speaks at a Fruitvale public safety meeting on Wednesday April 6, 2022. Credit: Amir Aziz

Around 70 small-business owners and other community members gathered in person and virtually at the Fruitvale-San Antonio Senior Center on Wednesday to share their concerns with local officials about public safety and what they described as worsening crime in the neighborhood, particularly in the vicinity of the Fruitvale BART station and the nearby business corridor on International Boulevard.

Councilmember Noel Gallo, who represents Fruitvale, organized the meeting that included BART Board Director Robert Raburn, Oakland police Capt. William Febel, BART police Lt. Yolanda Joseph, the city of Oakland’s manager of business development, Micah Hinkle, and Chris Iglesias, CEO of The Unity Council, an organization that advocates for small businesses in Fruitvale. 

The panelists heard testimonies and fielded live questions from the audience, and also took questions directly from Gallo, who moderated the discussion. Brittany Garza, an assistant to the councilmember, said the questions were “based on the daily and ongoing concerns that we get from residents and businesses.” 

Nearly all of the community feedback shared Wednesday had to do with property crimes and recent episodes of violence in Fruitvale, including shootings and homicides. Some business owners shared stories about incidents that occurred in front of or near their shops. 

“In March 2022, a fight occurred outside the restaurant, and an individual was shot right in front of our employees,” said Rikki Hopper, a co-manager at Wahpepah’s Kitchen on E. 12th Street in the Fruitvale Transit Village next to the BART station. “Two weeks later, a woman was accosted, and undressed in front of the restaurant.” Those incidents led to two employees resigning out of fear for their personal safety, said Hopper. 

Hopper, who is the daughter of the restaurant’s founder and chef, Crystal Wahpepah, said the family is committed to keeping the restaurant in its current location despite the recent violence. “Crystal grew up in the Fruitvale area, attended neighborhood schools, and her dream to own a restaurant in her beloved Fruitvale district was realized,” she told the officials. But “like many other Fruitvale Transit Village businesses, [we need] additional security services from OPD, Unity Council, and BART, immediately.”

Wednesday’s community meeting was inspired in part by a similar public safety meeting organized earlier this year by merchants in Oakland’s Dimond and Laurel neighborhoods, after more than 200 small-business owners who were surveyed by the Laurel District Association said crime and safety were their top concerns.

Violent crimes involving firearms have risen in Oakland in recent years, but commercial burglaries and most property crimes haven’t increased significantly, according to police data.

Still, residents who spoke at the meeting Wednesday expressed feeling an increased sense of unease navigating the bustling Fruitvale business corridor. Dawn Lulua, who helps oversee safety compliance at Native American Health Center on International Boulevard, said her organization has had a challenging two years dealing with public safety issues. 

“We have faced six robberies from our COVID-testing tent, three catalytic converters stolen from our van, the list goes on and on. Last year we had 15 recorded safety incidents for our staff,” including robberies and physical assaults, Lulua said.

Raburn, the BART director, asked if community members noticed a decrease in crime when BART police cars are parked outside the station, and several in attendance said yes. Joseph responded by saying that BART police will do its best to deploy additional units to the Fruitvale station. Raburn made the case for deploying extra canine units to the area.

A panel consisting of BART and OPD representatives, city staff, and the CEO of The Unity Council listens to community members’ concerns about safety in Fruitvale’s bustling business corridor. The meeting was held at the Fruitvale-San Antonio Senior Center located in Fruitvale Transit Village.

Febel, the police captain, encouraged Hopper and other community members in attendance to report exactly when they witness criminal activities, so that OPD can share the information with BART police. Doing so, said Febel, will help that agency plan their patrols in the area.

Iglesias of The Unity Council suggested that increasing capacity for the city’s MACRO program in Fruitvale could improve public safety there. Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland launches this month and will provide a non-police response for certain 911 calls and mental health emergencies. “We have a COVID testing site [in Fruitvale] that we’re willing to give to the MACRO team so that they can be there all the time helping to deal with mental health issues,” he said. 

Iglesias also said his organization has hired armed private security officers to police Transit Village, which was developed and is overseen by The Unity Council, though he noted that this is an expensive solution.  

Keba Konte, owner and founder of Oakland-based coffee company Red Bay Coffee, which has a new cafe and headquarters on International Boulevard, joined others in calling for more financial investment in the neighborhood. “We are hiring right now, and one cure to crime is a job. So that’s one thing I can offer,” Konte said. He also cited the blatant sex trafficking of minors along International Boulevard as an ongoing concern. 

Echoing OPD Chief LeRonne Armstrong’s recent comments at the Dimond-Laurel public safety meeting, Febel made the case for hiring more police officers to patrol the city. The Oaklandside asked OPD and BART representatives during the meeting how they would utilize additional officers if more were added. 

“The old mindset of policing used to be that if you had a bunch of robberies at an ATM on Brookdale [Ave. in East Oakland], for example, you’d send squads of police out there and start finding people,” Febel said. “But that really eroded public trust—that was a bad way to police.”

Febel said that OPD would instead use the additional officers to conduct what he called “intelligence-based” policing, where officers “specifically target those involved in the crime so that we don’t have a negative effect on our communities.”

Some in East Oakland have advocated strongly for public safety solutions that don’t involve policing. Cesar Cruz, one of the founders of the grassroots organization Homies Empowerment, said officials need to diagnose the root causes of crime rather than simply increase police presence. 

“Part of the diagnosis is that we understand the impacts of intergenerational poverty, where it comes from, and what creates conditions for violence,” Cruz said. “Right before the pandemic occurred, we already had record levels of poverty. Now, you add these layers of COVID, poverty, rising inflation, and it creates the perfect condition for people doing what they have to do to survive.” 

Still, Cruz said he understands why local business owners want to see their public safety concerns addressed. “No one wants violence,” he said.