Armed robbers traveling the city in “hundreds” of roving caravans and shooting off more than 175 rounds had the Oakland Police Department in retreat during the week of Nov. 15, according to OPD Chief LeRonne Armstrong.
While the mass robberies took place over several days in California’s Bay Area, Armstrong said in a recent press conference that gunfire forced his officers to draw back to safe locations the night of Nov. 19.
Whom were the armed robbers targeting?
“Our department encountered roving caravans of hundreds of vehicles targeting cannabis operations locations—several throughout the city of Oakland,” Armstrong said. “As officers were approaching these vehicles to take action, we encountered over 175 rounds being fired, which made us stand at a safe distance. But we recognized in that moment that serious gunfire was being used during the midst of these attempted burglaries and robberies.”
A 22-year veteran of OPD and its chief since February, Armstrong said what is going on in Oakland is not much different than what surrounding cities also experienced in the Northern California region.
While the string of high-profile robberies throughout the Bay Area also included other retail shops and pharmacies, the losses and damages encountered by dispensaries continue to highlight the public safety risks associated with the cash-only cannabis industry. A lack of banking access, without passage of reform efforts like the SAFE Banking Act, is one reason that cannabis businesses may remain ongoing targets for violent crime.
During the week of Nov. 15, more than 25 licensed cannabis businesses in Oakland had their stores and offices vandalized as well as millions of dollars of products stolen, according to Amber Senter, CEO of MAKR House, a cannabis manufacturer and distributor headquartered in the city.
Senter also chairs the Board of Supernova Women, a nonprofit organization that works to “empower Black and Brown people to become self-sufficient shareholders” in the cannabis space through education, advocacy and network building. Supernova Women hosted a press conference earlier this week to address the recent string of organized robberies.
“We are here today because cannabis businesses in Oakland are under attack,” Senter said. “We’re being attacked by violent crime in the forms of shootings and robberies, and we are furthered burdened by unstainable taxes.”
In addition to guns, the caravan robberies involve mass groups of burglars who arrive in swarms, often using sledgehammers and crowbars to flood into stores and grab valuable merchandise before fleeing in their vehicles.
According to Senter, the robberies are affecting cannabis cultivation, manufacturing, distribution, retail and delivery operations in the city. Cumulatively, these small and mostly equity-licensed businesses now face more than $5 million in losses, she said.
The aftermath of the most recent spree has owners of these businesses pleading for solutions from law enforcement and city officials as well as tax relief from local and state government.
During the Supernova Women press conference, held in front of Oakland City Hall, Senter asked for three requests on behalf of cannabis business owners in the city:
- The restoration of a command-level cannabis liaison at ODP, as well as real-time responses to violent crimes with follow-up investigations from the department into those crimes
- For Oakland city officials to write off the cost of providing basic city services, including security measures taken by cannabis business owners, and the repeal of local cannabis taxes for all businesses regardless of size
- And for the repeal of the state’s cultivation tax as well as a significant reduction of the state’s excise tax.
When California’s Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act went into effect, the state began collecting a 15% excise tax, a sales tax and a cultivation tax on cannabis.
California’s current cultivation tax is based on $9.65 per dry-weight ounce for cannabis flower, $2.87 per dry-weight ounce for cannabis leaves and $1.35 per ounce of fresh cannabis plants that are weighed within two hours of harvesting, according to the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration.
J. Henry Alston Jr., co-founder and chief operating officer at James Henry SF, a Black-owned cannabis equity brand in California, called the events in Oakland “heartbreaking.” Alston’s company employs 14 people who have been trying to grow their business since first launching in 2017, he said.
“The week before Thanksgiving, our business was robbed five times,” he said. “I had to watch people run into an establishment—where we have a family culture for our team members and the people that we work with—I had to watch as they [dragged] out our safe with our tax money, city, state, federal funds that there’s no amnesty for right now. The business owners are liable for those funds. We’re asking not only for tax amnesty; we’re asking for effective solutions.”
Despite being hit five times in one week, Alston said his business was fortunate because none of his team members were hurt in the midst of mayhem.
“But there were a couple of my colleagues out there that were not so lucky,” he said. “And my thoughts go out to those family members and to those individuals that weren’t so lucky in those robberies, and not only had personal property taken, but lives—brothers and sisters on both sides.”
As of Nov. 30, Armstrong said Oakland has “over” 127 homicides in 2021. Currently, OPD has a 44% clearance rate for homicides (resulting in arrests and charges), according to Lt. Frederick Shavies, the homicide section commander for the department, who also spoke at an OPD press conference.
During the evening of Nov. 20, there was an exchange of gunfire at an online cannabis dispensary business in East Oakland, according to KPIX, a CBS affiliate in the Bay Area.
Matthew Davis, a security guard at the business, told the news network that he went to investigate suspicious noises in the building and found thieves inside the dispensary, then called for backup from his fellow security guards and the police.
“On my way out, I heard gunfire, back and forth, back and forth,” he said. “Several [shots]. So, then I came out of the gate [and saw] a guy laying on the ground. The police told me to stay back.”
Police officials said more than 10 people in several cars came to the Pendleton Way site and gained entry after threatening someone inside at gunpoint, according to The Mercury News. Once inside, the robbers grabbed a large amount of cannabis and started to flee, police said. They were confronted by two security guards outside, and a gun battle ensued, police said.
According to The Mercury News, one of the suspected robbers, a 32-year-old Oakland man, was wounded in the exchange of shots. He was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where he was in stable condition, police said. The other suspects fled.
While there were homicides connected to carjackings and other events police responded to throughout the city, Armstrong did not connect any of the homicides directly to robberies targeting cannabis businesses during his press conferences. However, Senter said she believes at least one person died in connection to the targeted cannabis robberies during the week of chaos.
“We are scared,” she said. “We have families and, as you can see, we have two operators here who are pregnant. And we’re real people. We have families to take care of. Two weeks ago, four people were shot. One person died. This is serious. We don’t want to get shot. We don’t want to get killed. Over cannabis? It’s more dangerous now than it was before it was legal.”
Raeven Duckett, who co-founded Community Gardens, a cannabis delivery, distribution and manufacturing company based in Oakland, said she started her company with her husband and cousin. She grew up in Oakland, as did the rest of her family, she said. And now she has a 15-month-old son.
“I love Oakland,” Duckett said. “I see it as an honor to be able to sell weed legally in a place like this. I am literally my ancestors’ wildest dreams. With that said, there is a dangerous imbalance in the way cannabis companies are treated by local officials and police and the way we are taxed.”
Duckett said her team’s manufacturing capabilities are made possible through EquityWorks! Incubator, a shared social equity cannabis facility in Oakland. That facility was broken into and ransacked, she said.
Duckett claimed that Oakland cannabis companies are paying nearly 600% more taxes than non-cannabis companies in the city, “yet when organized crime organizations target our facilities, we get little to no response and zero compassion from local law enforcement and city officials. Our businesses are hurting. We as operators are scared. Cannabis operators deserve the right to a safe work environment and local support in a city where we pay an exorbitant amount of taxes.”
In a follow-up OPD press conference on Nov. 30, Armstrong said his police department has since responded to the mass burglaries by deploying tactical teams of specially trained officers at four quadrants of the city to help ensure quick responses.
Armstrong also thanked Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf for her commitment to work with city council members to identify additional academies and resources to help assist his department, as well as her proposal to back off next year’s planned hiring freeze. The smallest staff he’s had in several years, Armstrong said OPD currently has 676 officers—compared to 740 at this time a year ago.
“What I was concerned about was the amount of firepower that we continue to be confronted with every time these caravans come into Oakland, and our patrol officers having to drive into those situations,” he said. “We had two shootings at police officers [last weekend], and I have some serious concerns that when officers are responding to these caravans, they’re being met with gunfire.”
In turn, Armstrong said he will continue to deploy his specially trained tactical teams. That promise came during his Nov. 30 press conference.
During the Supernova Women conference one day earlier, Chaney Turner, who chairs the Oakland Cannabis Regulatory Commission, didn’t provide much confidence in OPD.
“It should not take hours for Oakland police to respond to a violent burglary,” Turner said. “People are literally standing by and watching their lives work be ruined. And let’s not get it twisted. It’s not just individuals deciding to go and rob dispensaries. This is all organized. It’s organized. And so, the city needs to get organized at protecting these businesses.”
Turner said the recent struggles among cannabis businesses in Oakland is a very frustrating time for industry leaders, especially for those who have championed equity and access to safe medicine, and come from a background of compassion.
The purpose of legalization and equity was to generate wealth for communities and individuals who were harmed by the drug war, Turner said. Now, the same people who were harmed by the drug war are being harmed by not being protected by the people who are paid to protect them, Turner said.
“We just want people to be safe and smoke their weed in peace and run their businesses,” Turner said. “But, due to the current circumstances of our country and our city, we can’t do that. We are at a time right now where cannabis is in danger in Oakland.”