Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA





February 9, 2007

Let us begin this week’s discussion with the question where we ended a previous column: “So what actually happened at the Paramount, and how did the allegations of anti-Latino racism get blown up by some into the defining moment of that event?”

If you missed the Paramount controversy, it concerned reports of anti-Latino slurs amongst the booing that took place in the audience following the re-election of Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente as president of the Oakland City Council during the January 8th Citywide Inaugural Event. While the booing was immediately reported, it wasn’t until several days following the event itself that reports on anti-Latino slurs accompanying that booing began dominating media coverage of the inauguration.

After analyzing news reports that came out both immediately after the Paramount inauguration and afterwards, conversations with several people who attended, and various email exchanges, with readers and officials, the conclusion is that, yes, some openly anti-Latino slurs were made during the booing. These anti-Latino slurs were apparently only made by a handful of people, at the most, and were not heard by most people who attended the event including most, if not all, of the reporters and media representatives who were covering it.

Emails from two City Councilmembers who were on different sides of the Council President issue give a clearer picture of what took place that day.

“I have been asking people the same question because I didn't hear racial slurs either from the stage,” Councilmember Nancy Nadel wrote. “However, one of my staffmembers, Marisa Arrona, heard someone say ‘go back where you came from.’”

And from Councilmember Jean Quan: “My two staff who are Latina and the several Asian guests heard anti-immigrant comments ranging from making fun of his accent to ‘go back to where you came from’ to more nationalist ‘black is back.’ On stage I only heard booing but when we held staff meeting the next day they were very teary and upset. My two white staff members confirm their statements. It made me very upset. When I left the theater one of the Latino news reporters was very upset and asked me what I thought. I didn't know what he was talking about.”

But while this begins to give us a clearer picture of what actually happened at the Paramount, it does not explain how or why reports of the anti-Latino slurs came eventually to dominate the coverage of the inaugural, as if that was the major thing that happened rather than something which was both precipitated and witnessed by a few.

For that, we need to examine a timeline of the media coverage itself.

In a letter published in both the Daily Planet and the online Grand Lake Guardian following my first column on this subject, Jim Puskar, Business Manager of the Jack London Acquatic Center, expressed skepticism that I would actually be looking into whether anti-Latino slurs were made, and that reports of the slurs in the Oakland Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle ought to be enough to confirm them.

“While I applaud J. Douglas Allen-Taylor’s insistence in ‘tracking down what actually happened...’ at the mayoral inauguration ceremonies, I can’t help but suspect that he is more interested in disproving the reports of bad conduct toward Mr. de la Fuente,” Mr. Puskar writes. “I read accounts of this behavior in both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Oakland Tribune, both of which I consider to be responsible newspapers. In fact, one of the most vociferous critics of the behavior was offered by Chip Johnson, an African-American columnist in the Chronicle.”

And later, after I queried Mr. Puskar in the Grand Lake Guardian why he believed I was “more interested in disproving the reports of bad conduct toward Mr. de la Fuente" he replied that “I base my suspicion on your decision to investigate the veracity of statements made by reputable journalists from two news organizations and by members of the community, who stated that the conduct at the inauguration actually did take place.”

Regular readers of my column will know that I make a habit of investigating the veracity of statements made by reputable journalists. Sorry guys. I know too many journalists.

What did the reputable journalists of the Tribune and the Chronicle actually say about the anti-Latino slurs at the Paramount event?

Chronicle reporter Chris Heredia filed two stories immediately following the January 8th inaugural, neither of which mentioned anti-Latino slurs.

In his story “Dellums Sworn In As Oakland Mayor” filed on January 8th, Mr. Heredia wrote only that “Dellums stepped up to address the audience—many of whom cursed De La Fuente's re-election—calling for civility and to set a good example for Oakland's youth.” And the following day, in “Mayor Calms De La Fuente Protest,” Mr. Heredia only described the booing that followed Mr. De La Fuente’s re-election as “angry heckling.” Mr. Heredia’s article concluded by saying that “De La Fuente said in an interview later that he was disappointed in the crowd's reaction, calling it a bad day for Oakland,” again with no mention of anti-Latino slurs.

Reference to such slurs did appear in both of the stories filed immediately after the inaugural by the Tribune’s Heather MacDonald. In her January 9th article “Dellums Promises Better Days” she wrote that “several people said they were embarrassed by the bitter partisan fight amongst the council members over the re-election of Ignacio De La Fuente as president and appalled that some in the audience booed him, mocked his Mexican heritage and cursed him.” In a companion story filed the same day, “Council President Booed But Re-Elected,” while MacDonald reported that Mr. De La Fuente “said he felt racially attacked by the cat-calls and curses,” Ms. MacDonald herself did not include anti-Latino slurs in describing the outburst in her lead paragraph, saying only that “the raucous audience booed loudly when De La Fuente was nominated.”

But three days following the inaugural, on Thursday the 11th, Mr. Heredia’s Chronicle accounts of the disruption, at least, had taken a distinctly different turn.

In an article “Reid Speaks Out On De La Fuente Re-Election” (the “Reid” part referring to former De La Fuente Council ally Larry Reid, who unsuccessfully challenged Mr. De La Fuente for the Council presidency), filed on the same day that Latino and Asian-American Oakland leaders were holding a press conference denouncing the anti-Latino slurs, Mr. Heredia was now writing that “the 6-2 vote in favor of De La Fuente, a Latino, was preceded by a citizens' public comment session that included calls by African American leaders for De La Fuente's removal as well as some name-calling and racially tinged criticism of his leadership.”

Calls by African American leaders for De La Fuente’s removal? Why the emphasis on African Americans? Those who were at the Paramount event remember that there was a long line of citizens who spoke during the public comment period requesting that Mr. De La Fuente not be re-elected to the Council presidency, some of them African-American, some of them white. The first person to speak during public comment, in fact, was a white woman, local progressive political activist Leslie Bonnett, who asked that Council elect another white woman, Councilmember Nadel, to the presidency. Of the 15 citizens who spoke at public comment at the inaugural and took a position on the Council Presidency, six African-Americans and three whites spoke against Mr. De La Fuente’s re-election. Four whites, one African-American, and one Asian-American spoke in favor. Other than the fact that no Latinos spoke, it seemed a typical multicultural Oakland mix on both sides. While race may have certainly been a factor—it is hard to get away from that in this country—political factors appeared to predominate. Mr. Heredia himself referred to that in his January 11th article, noting that Mr. De La Fuente “also upset progressive activists who have accused him of being in the pocket of developers and unsympathetic to the plight of Oakland's poor and working class.” The race of those “progressive activists,” however, was left undefined in Mr. Heredia’s article.

And in an article filed the day after the press conference denouncing the anti-Latino slurs, Mr. Heredia continued to put emphasis on the opposition to Mr. De La Fuente’s Council Presidency re-election as an African-American affair, writing in “A Call For Unity After Racist Incident At Inauguration—Dellums' Swearing-In Tainted By Crowd Mocking De La Fuente,” the Chronicle reporter said that “the racial divide to be bridged remained apparent. The news conference had no members of the African American community who had called at the inauguration for City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, a Latino, to step down.” But Mr. Heredia himself described the January 11th news conference as being held by “Asian American and Latino community leaders,” and no white leaders were mentioned in his account among the citizens denouncing the anti-Latino slurs. So why emphasize only that no members of the African American community showed up? Why not point out that no white folks who had called for Mr. De La Fuente to step down showed up, either?

How, and why, did the Paramount inaugural disruptions and its aftermath segue into becoming an exclusively African-American/Latino “racial divide?” in some parts of the local media? Some thoughts on this, to follow.