Megan Wilson
Writings > Code 33

Code 33

by Suzanne Lacy, Julio Morales, Unique Holland, David Goldberg, Michelle Baughan, Raul Cabra & Patrick Toebe
Intersection of the Arts
San Francisco, California
May 2-June 16, 2001

In 1998 a group of artists and activists led by Suzanne Lacy and T.E.A.M. (Teens + Education + Art + Media) initiated a project with youth and police in Oakland, California to clear the air and open up dialogue between the two disparate groups. Over a two-year period "Code 33" came to be the term for an ambitious, large-scale collaboration whose participants included 150 youth, the Oakland Police Department, the Oakland Mayor's Office, the Community Probation Program of Alameda County, Oakland Sharing the Vision (a neighborhood revitalization task force), California College of Arts and Crafts, the Alameda County Office of Education and the Oakland Museum.

Most recently, the project was presented as an installation by Lacy and "Code 33" collaborators Julio Morales, Unique Holland, David Goldberg, Michelle Baughan, Raul Cabra and Patrick Toebe at Intersection for the Arts in the Mission District of San Francisco. To understand the implications of the exhibit as "another platform to address immediate social issues and to build community through the experiential, experimental art process" it is important to know the circumstances and the event from which this installation grew (1).

"Code 33" is a police term for "emergency, clear the air." Depending on the source, the interpretation has ranged from addressing a volatile situation in the name of public safety to creating a cultural environment of racial profiling and stereotyping that has marked young people as targets of public scrutiny and legislative punishment. In Oakland one quarter of the residents are youths. One of the predominant fears among this population is of the police, and not without good reason. The arrest rate for Oakland's kids and young adults has grown by 35% over the last 10 years, and in March of 2000 California passed Proposition 21. This measure increases the number of youths tried in adult court, disables the prudence of judges and corrections professionals to determine appropriate interventions and allows youths to be liable for crimes committed by others if they are deemed gang members (defined as an informal group of three or more people).

"Code 33" was initially manifested as a highly produced pop performance spectacle with 150 youth participants and 100 police officers that took place on October 7, 1999 on the rooftop of a parking garage. An audience of roughly 1000 community members looked on and listened in as youths and police engaged in a dialogue exploring the realities and stereotypes experienced and perceived by both.

A buzz could already be felt at Oakland's 19th Street BART station. Five floors up atop the roof, the sun was just starting to set, casting a golden halo over downtown Oakland. Groups of kids were huddled together outside, talking feverishly and looking up periodically to greet the arrival of friends. A battalion of nearly 50 black, red and white cars and trucks with headlights ablaze lined the lot, creating a dramatic display. Twenty-eight video monitors bordered the cement edges of the rooftop with intimate portraits of residents from Oakland's diverse neighborhoods filling the screens. In the center, on 29 slightly elevated platforms, sat circles of six to eight people - two or three uniformed cops and four to six youths clad in red "Code 33" t-shirts. Sound and camera crews documented the interactions; spectators hovered around, voyeuristically drifting between the groups. The exchanges ranged in levels of intensity, but overall the interactions appeared to be a productive introduction to addressing each other's concerns. The mood was fairly still yet somehow anxious. After an hour of discourse, hip hop music blared into the space. Moments later, a helicopter's revolving blades were heard, its blinding spotlight pouring over the crowd, eventually landing on the fourth-floor terrace where a troupe of teens were performing a lively dance routine. The evening wrapped up with a community response segment. Mini-stages of grassy knolls, surrounded by white picket fences were filled with groups of neighborhood residents discussing the evening's impact and future steps toward integrating the experience into subsequent action.

More striking than the conversations or any notion of community building, however, was the theatrical display with its incredibly detailed and contrived choreography - the roles, the uniforms, the colors, the music, the helicopter, the synchronized dance, the Leave It To Beaver landscape of the final act, etc. Steven Bochco's critically-shamed follow up to Hillstreet Blues‹Cop Rock - came to mind, and I couldn't help but wonder if the officers were going to break into a ballad. I was surprised that one of the posters promoting the event had the tag "Yo! this ain't no MTV rap" because it could easily have been mistaken for a music video production. In retrospect it could also be seen as an early prototype for the current reality show craze: Real cops, real kids can they see eye-to-eye? You vote. Yet this interplay between fact and fiction is where this breed of interactive community art becomes the most intriguing, as well as confounding.

The questions that surface reveal the complex, if somewhat disturbing, nature of our mediated culture: Under what other guise would it be possible to gain the trust of so many youth and convince them to participate in a series of discussions with their perceived (and often real) enemy? Could the debates have reached the same level of candidness without the slick performative apparatus? Would an event of the same nature organized by the YMCA, held in a gymnasium with fold-out chairs and everyone in plain clothes, have generated the degree of community interest and media coverage that "Code 33" did? Finally, why shouldn't the conflict resolution process also be fun?

Despite its psuedo-reality-show appearance, the success of "Code 33" makes a strong case for the power of and necessity for this alternative approach to community concerns. Since the event, the Oakland Police Department (OPD) has incorporated the series of tapes produced by the project into the Department's youth training program; the OPD's police chief, Richard Word, has instituted a Chief's Youth Advisory Team; "Code 33" organizers worked with students at Fremont High School to produce a similar event between students and teachers called Eye to Eye, which produced a half hour documentary; the project's organizers presented the "Code 33" model at an urban planning conference in Oakland in December 2000, hosted by the OPD; artists Unique Holland and Lacy are working on a book about their Oakland projects; and the "Code 33" team has been approached by the Richmond, California Police Department to develop a similar project for their city.

The exhibit at Intersection for the Arts mimicked the performance in its use of popular aesthetics (the colors, graphics and large-scale video projections) and structure. Five stations of chairs (four available for sitting and one for a monitor) were configured in circles and positioned as the focal point at the center of the space. A large screen video projection of a daytime drive through the streets of Oakland, shot from the vantage point of an anonymous driver, provided a neutral backdrop to the tension and emotion visible in the exchanges between police and youth on the monitors. Perhaps in anticipation of a future installation, the conversations (taped during the performance) were shot from the perspective of a participant in the dialogue. It was a nice touch and it worked. However, the perceived intent to join in the ring and listen to the concerned voices was missed due to the formal and technical arrangement of the piece. Instead, most of the viewers' time and energy was spent straining to hear what was being said as the volume had been set low and the close proximity of the other monitors created a competition for air space. The back of the gallery was divided into two sections - a space filled by a projection of the hip hop dance from the performance, and an alcove lined haphazardly with posters, documents and plans from the year leading up to the performance.

In the article "Points of Departure: Public Art's Intentions, Indignities, and Interventions," published in Sculpture Magazine in March 1998, Patricia C. Phillips states, "Process and negotiation are invaluable, but they are never isolated from intent or content. They are not unquestionably or uncritically good."2 Using Phillips's observations that process and negotiation inform the success of a community art project and the methodology used to translate that experience to a gallery setting, an evaluation can be made as to whether "Code 33" integrated its content into its form. After the elaborate care taken with the process and negotiation of the "Code 33" performance and its purpose, I was lost during its transference to the gallery environment. Rather than engaging the viewer in a dialogue, the experience was cold, removed and withholding. In addition to the problematic formal and technical choices, what was missing was the connective tissue of context (as in: wall or supplemental text) to guide visitors through the space and provide information to help give a better understanding of the concerns at hand and how art was and can be used to address these concerns.

In spite of its shortcomings, the exhibit was accompanied by two events that did provide a platform for community members to share their experiences and connect with one another. The young poets from Youth Speaks, an organization committed to working with and supporting young poets and writers in the Bay Area and throughout the world, addressed the public on issues relating to their lives and the "Code 33" project. A critics' roundtable, featuring Meiling Cheng, Jennifer Gonzalez, Grant Kester and Armando Rascón, was held to examine the role of art in community political life.

Through its provocative approach, the "Code 33" performance challenged the traditional assumptions and associations of public art and provided an innovative model for engaging community members and addressing public policy. In contrast, the follow-up exhibition lacked the attention to intent and content that was needed to build upon the project as a whole, however, it offered a point of departure for the ongoing discussion and evolution that concern the appropriate formats for the presentation of public projects. Perhaps most significant, however, will be the reflections of the participating youths in the years to come - their experiences at the time and the impact "Code 33" will have on their lives and their relationship with the police. I was unable to find anyone who could give me any measurable data that would support the direct effectiveness of the project on its role in police/youth relations in Oakland.3 So the question still remains, were they really heard?

MEGAN WILSON is an artist and writer living in San Francisco.

1. Publicity material from the exhibition.
2. Patricia C. Phillips, "Points of Deqparture: Public Art's Intentions, Indignities, and Interventions" in Sculpture Magazine (March 1998, Vol.17 No. 3)
3. The question was posed to both the Code 33 project coordinator and the Oakland Police Department.