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





February 16, 2007

This being the third (and final) column on the subject of the disruption at the City of Oakland’s Paramount Theater Inaugural last month, some readers may be wondering with all of the other issues to talk about, why so much time is being spent on this.

The problem is that there were three separate events within the inaugural that have gotten confused together, as well as misreported, and that confusion and misreporting could have serious consequences both in Oakland and elsewhere. So setting the record straight is important.

The first of these events involved the speakers who came up to the microphone to request that the Council elect someone other than Mr. De La Fuente as president, the second was the booing that ocurred both during and following the Council’s vote, and the third was the anti-Latino slurs that were called out by some audience members in the midst of that booing.

One of the articles most responsible for muddling up these issues together was San Francisco Chronicle reporter Christopher Heredia’s “A call for unity after racist incident at inauguration Dellums' swearing-in tainted by crowd mocking De La Fuente” published on January 12, four days after the inauguration itself and on the same day that Latino and Asian American leaders held a news conference denouncing the anti-Latino slurs.

In his article, Mr. Heredia wrote, in part, that “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. After those calls were not heeded and De La Fuente was re-elected in a special council meeting at the inauguration, loud jeers—some racially offensive—interrupted the ceremony.”

But loud jeers—some racially offensive—by who? Since African-Americans were the only race highlighted in Mr. Heredia’s article as opposing Mr. De La Fuente’s re-election, the reader is left with the impression that when Mr. De La Fuente was re-elected, it was African-Americans—and only African-Americans—who then resorted to racially-offensive taunts and jeering.

In the first two columns in this series, we pointed out that the anti-Latino shouting was a very small part of the booing that accompanied the Council presidency election, so small that reports of the slows only showed up in one newspaper account immediately following the event—the Oakland Tribune—and most reporters present said later they hadn’t even heard it.

Were the anti-Latino racial taunts at the Paramount made only by African-Americans? To my knowledge, no-one has come out and publicly charged that they were.

Was the booing and jeering itself against Mr. De La Fuente’s re-election—the vastly larger part that did not include racial slurs—done solely or even primarily by African-Americans? No subsequent newspaper account has mentioned the race of the people who booed. For my part, I was sitting in one of the front rows and taking notes, and while I heard the boos, I was paying attention to the reaction of the officeholders on stage and did not look around to identify any of the people who were participating in the demonstration. But knowing the long tradition of boisterous activism among Oakland’s white progressives, and knowing how many times they have clashed with Mr. De La Fuente in the past and how vociferous has been their opposition to some of the Council President’s actions and positions, I find it amusing that someone, anyone, would think that some of our good, white radical friends and neighbors did not let their voices be heard when the booing began.

A talk with one attendee at the inauguration confirmed that belief.

“I was sitting upstairs in the balcony,” a city employee told me this week (her name is not being published with this column so that, well, she can remain a city employee), “and I heard the booing and catcalling from people in the balcony. I didn’t hear any racial remarks. And I was quite surprised at the fact that so many white people were booing and whistling. I don’t think there was any racial aspect to it, at least where I was sitting. I just feel it was people who were frustrated with the status quo.”

The city employee added that “what happened during that short time shouldn’t overshadow the whole event, which was very dignified and positive.”

Meanwhile, because of the booing and the disruption—by a minority of inaugural participants—it is now widely misunderstood how polite the speeches actually were during the public comment period preceding the Council vote, particularly the comments from African-American leaders.

From Oakland Black Caucus Chairperson Bishop Keith Clark: “Let’s continue the spirit of change, please, ma’am, please, sir, and let’s get a new president of the Council.”

From African-American Small Business Council President Daryl Kay: “I want to thank Mr. De La Fuente for eight years as president of the Council. You have done a yeoman’s job. But for all of us who have faith in the future direction of this city, I believe, brother, it’s time for you to step down. Mr. De La Fuente, brother, you’ve been great. Everybody has their day, but it’s time.”

And from Frank Tucker of the 100 Black Men of the Bay Area: “We respect what you’ve done, Mr. De La Fuente, but we also know that we’ve got talent in the rest of the Council. Let’s put another one of our talented people in the most powerful Council position we have.”

(Mr. Tucker, by the way, has been widely reported to be romantically linked to Oakland City Councilmember Desley Brooks, the top African-American publicly associated with opposition to Mr. De La Fuente. Although talk of African-American/Latino disunity dominated some area media several days after the inaugural, the most enduring visual memory of the inauguration itself, captured in several published photographs, were the old political enemies Ms. Brooks and Mr. De La Fuente standing onstage, eyes closed, heads bowed and pointedly hand-in-hand during Allen Temple Baptist Church’s Reverend J. Alfred Smith’s prayer. This was hardly the picture of black-Latino discord that later came to be characterized as the spirit of the inaugural event.)

As a matter of fact, the impression that there was widespread anti-Latino talk during by African-Americans during the public comment period at the Paramount inaugural ends up boiling down exclusively to one man, the last speaker, who identified himself as Reverend Daniel Willette of the Fruitvale District.

Several people who attended the inaugural said they remembered that in opposing Mr. De La Fuente, Mr. Willette accused the Council president of only working for Latinos, and that immediately afterwards, Mr. Willette then said that what Oakland should be doing is concentrating on helping African-Americans.

What this only shows, however, is that eyewitness memory is not always the most reliable record of an event.

A review of the KTOP videotape of Mr. Willette’s remarks shows that he never mentioned the word “Latino,” and that what he actually said was that “we can’t have one who’s working only for one ethnic group in our City Council. We’ve got to have one who works for all America. We can’t have one who is just going to work for one type of people.” In the context of his position opposing Mr. De La Fuente, it is fair to assume that Mr. Willette—who was by far the most belligerent of the public speakers—was accusing Mr. De La Fuente of only siding with Latinos. But it’s hard to argue with his sentiment that “we can’t have one who’s working only for one ethnic group in our City Council,” and it becomes a stretch to bend that statement into an anti-Latino statement.

And as for Mr. Willette’s advocating for only African-Americans?

Well, what he said was that “Afro-American people is the ones here in Oakland who is being affected by the murders. So we’ve got to cut that down by communicating with our young children.” It’s hardly the pro-black, anti-Latino diatribe that some thought it was, but it is understandable that many in the audience that may not have fully heard what he was trying since as he was saying it—because Mr. Willette had filled out no speaker card and had gone over his time limit with no sign of slowing down—Mr. De La Fuente was interrupting Mr. Willette at that point, saying “excuse me, sir,” and trying to get him to stop talking. In addition, people’s memories may have been clouded by the anti-Latino slurs that a few audience members were reported to have shouted out.

The conclusion to all of this investigation? Were there anti-Latino slurs shouted out by a few people at the Paramount city inaugural? Yes. Were those people, whoever they were, wrong to shout out anti-Latino slurs? Of course. Did those anti-Latino slurs characterize the bulk of the event? Not even remotely. Is there racial tension between African-Americans and Latinos in Oakland? Yes. But it’s complicated—as all issues are that mingle race and politics and power—and that’s another issue to be tackled in another column, on another day.

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NOTE: In last week’s column, Mr. Jim Puskar was identified as the Business Manager of the Jack London Aquatic Center. The comments that were included with the column were Mr. Puskar’s alone and not those of the Aquatic Center. Mr. Puskar did not associate his quoted remarks on the Paramount inauguration controversy with the Aquatic Center, and the identification in the column was not meant to imply that those remarks were connected with the Aquatic Center in any way. Sorry if there was any confusion about that.