On February 27, 2013, historian Robert Stanley Oden gave a lecture about his book From Black to Brown and Beyond: The Struggle for Progressive Politics in Oakland, California, 1966-2011. (University Readers, Inc.: 2012). at the Main Branch of the Oakland Public Library. Please find notes from the talk below (notes taken by mk30). Check out aStorify about the event by tdlove5.
"When I moved to Oakland in 1958, it was considered an “All American City.”"
Before the 1960s, Oakland was run by whites and conservatives who maintained a regime that tried to maintain the status quo which excluded black Americans from the political process. At that time, Oaklanders were struggling with the Oakland Redevelopment Agency. Housing demolition and highway construction reshaped West Oakland. The business structure wanted the freeway to link the area with Contra Costa County and suburban areas. Their interests were not with the people who lived in Oakland.
During the Civil Rights Movement (especially after 1965), black nationalism began to rise in Oakland. The Black Panther Party became a catalyst for change in Oakland and shook up the white power structure. It disrupted the status quo not just with armed resistance, but with audacity.
[The book] From Blacks to Brown and Beyond deals with how Oakland changed from white republican politics. The machine was dominated by Knowland, Kaiser, Clorox, and the Oakland Tribune, with a hand-picked mayor and city council - Oakland had an at-large city council then which made it very difficult for blacks to get elected, even though 40-45% of the population was black at the time. Because of the actions of the Black Panther Party, in 1972, Bobby Seale ran for mayor and Elaine Brown for city council. The BPP [Black Panther Party] saw Oakland as a place where they could transform the city into a democratic one. Bobby Seale beat Otho Green in the democratic primary (Green was supported by the democratic party apparatus). After this, the BPP gave away 10,000 packages of groceries with a chicken in every bag as part of its electoral mobilization activities. Seale ran against mayor John Reading and the power structure reacted and defeated him. Seale got 43% of vote. This sent a message to the white power structure. Change came in the next 4 years with the election of Lionel Wilson to mayorship (supported by BPP...they mobilized for him). The BPP and the black community expected Wilson to support their aims. Wilson was from a middle class black family and his focus was not necessarily community-oriented. His campaign contributions came from business, doctors, and other powers that wanted a more moderate direction.
The book looks at what happened when the city actually elected black mayors. After 3 terms of Wilson and 2 of Elihu Harris, there was a need to understand what had happened and whether black mayors were effective. There were many problems that people wanted to see alleviated (joblessness, crime, poverty, education). It was difficult for those mayors to accomplish those things. There were a number of external factors that made it difficult to make any improvements in Oakland. Especially in the Reagan 1980s with federal-level hostility to poverty alleviation and especially to the BPP). Reagan eliminated social services, community development, funds for housing, and other programs that provided federal assistance to Oakland. Those external conditions made it difficult for any Oakland mayors to make changes.
The federal government was not the only cause of failure. The mayors took a trickle-down economic approach. For example, all of them pursued a goal of downtown development. There was an expectation that employment would come to other residents in Oakland as a result. The mayors used this as a driver of change. Instead of looking at neighborhoods, communities, and cooperative mechanisms of change at the community level, they took a top-down approach.
Several major topics covered in the book:
1) Municipal election process: What did it take for the mayors to get elected? What were their electoral coalitions and how did they govern?
2) Downtown development in Oakland: Downtown development is a barometer for how a city develops. When you see downtown development, the neighborhoods are devastated. But a lot of focus and private sector money goes to downtown. How did these mayors fare with regards to downtown development?
3) Port of Oakland: The port is important in the city and has always been an economic driver. How did they relate to the port? It used to be run as an old boys club. It was a place where white business owners were able to set the price structure and set benefits. Until Wilson’s election, very few people of color were able to get jobs at the Port. Wilson was a key factor in opening the port to black workers.
The book operates under a model of political incorporation. The model examines to what extent a particular change is symbolic vs substantive.
Lionel Wilson had disdain for the progressive community in Oakland. Cassie Lopez (sp?) ran for City Council in 1983. She was challenging Marge Gibson who was an attorney from the hills (and who was supported by Wilson). Lopez lost by 126 votes. Acting as Gibson's backer, Wilson used a number of tactics (red baiting, etc.) to ensure Lopez's defeat. This was a lost opportunity to bring progressives into office. Wilson wanted to keep the urban regime moderate, pro-business, and pro-growth.
Elihu Harris came into office when Wilson was descending in power. People in Oakland still wanted to see someone make change. Harris took up the strong mayor issue. He was a competent administrator and politician (he knew how to navigate the political system, knew how to raise money, knew the communities). Black mayors in Oakland and in other parts of the country become susceptible to pro-growth politics. They often employ a method of cooperation with the business and corporate community, at the risk of demobilizing and alienating the poor community. The poor community became demobilized because the people they elected did not come through with their campaign promises. Harris was not as antagonistic towards progressives as Wilson, but could not cooperate with the progressive community.
Harris was reelected as the progressive community could not come up with the funds or organization to defeat him. Harris pushed for the strong mayor government in Prop 10. He lost the fight from both the right and left - he was called “King Elihu,” etc. Most of the opposition was from the right and was coupled with a lack of enthusiasm from the left (if he hadn’t previously demobilized the left, the measure would have had a chance of passage as it lost by 5 points). He decided not to run for mayor again.
Overall, progressives were disappointed with the Harris regime.
Jerry Brown was based in Jack London Square “plotting to take over Oakland.” He was able to successfully assess the political terrain in Oakland. He campaigned on a Civil Rights platform, on “equal opportunity,” and on the idea of “Oaklanders first.” He campaigned as a revival of the progressive spirit. He received support from progressives across the board - from the black community, from environmentalists, etc. He beat a number of minor league candidates (candidates who were not at the same level as his organization) and won fairly easily.
When he became mayor, he turned his back on the progressive base. He campaigned on the idea that he only wanted people to contribute $100. A lot of people contributed $100 from the business community. A third of his contributions came from outside of Oakland. He was able to formulate a governing coalition and agenda that had no relationship to the community that supported him. He wasn’t beholden to that community because his contributions came from all over the US. He didn’t feel an obligation to carry through with his campaign promises.
At his first inauguration, he first discussed building 10,000 housing units in downtown Oakland. He did not campaign on this issue. He did focus on the arts. He contributed to refurbishing the Fox Theatre. The environment he created helped bring art galleries, music venues, and restaurants (elements that nurtured the rise and import of the creative class) to Oakland.
Jerry Brown on crime: He did not talk about the sociological reasons for crime or creative ways to solve crime. He took a law and order approach. This resulted in the Riders, renegade police in West Oakland, who illegally arrested people of color. His first decision in office was to fire Chief Samuels, the black police chief at the time. After being in office for 2 months, was Jerry Brown in a position to assess whether Samuels was effective in order to fire him? This alienated the black community (who felt that the black community needed to trust the OPD).
On education: With black middle class flight, education in Oakland deteriorated. Brown began manipulating the school board by “running out” superintendents who in many instances understood the community. Brown created 2 charter schools: 1 military school (he supported discipline, but this is not what the community wanted), and created an arts school (but how many children does that affect?).
He saw Oakland as a stepping stone to higher office. For progressives in the black community, he did not really engage with that community or any other progressive communities in Oakland (including the white progressive community) to the extent that was hoped for. People wanted a truly inclusive government.
Jerry Brown was successful in getting Measure X passed, which led to Strong Mayor.
Every decision ran through the Ron Dellums community (no one knew who they were). They made decisions on endorsements, etc. Dellums was begged to run for office by progressives in Oakland. There was a lot of optimism with a multicultural and young coalition that supported him. He defeated Ignacio de la Fuente with no runoff.
He initiated task forces that covered issues around the community that got people involved in problem-solving. He started things and couldn’t finish them. The task forces didn’t happen, no money was allocated to them.
Dellums also ran into major problems: the killing of Oscar Grant, the killing of four police officers on March 21st, 2009, ref strike, battle with city administrator Deborah Edgerly, the killing of Chauncey Bailey. He could not overcome these issues. His lack of administrative attention and focus led to him not running again, which disappointed the progressive community. This opened the door for Jean Quan.
In the 2010 election, Don Perata had money, but not the organizational/community base necessary to win, especially with the institution of the new ranked choice voting system which rewarded organizing. However, Jean ran into “the buzzsaw of Occupy Oakland.”