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

Portrait by John W. Pearson




July 27, 2007

One of the great attractions of the herd—or of the mob, it’s more dangerous younger cousin—is that once joined, it relieves the individual of having to make many individual investigations and decisions. That was always the case, from the dawn of time, but it is increasingly appealing in a world that is growing both more complicated and more illusion-driven, simultaneously. When every line of every speech or presentation or newspaper article must be closely searched and scrutinized for both accuracy and hidden agenda, the mind wearies, and the soul longs for a safe haven where there is a comfort that everyone around you is moving along with the same assumptions, right or wrong. Thus, the herd is joined, and followed.

While there are some people in and around Oakland who are taking careful and thoughtful looks at the administration of Mayor Ron Dellums and coming out with insights and criticisms that help us all understand what the mayor is doing and where the city may be heading, that appears to be the minority. Discussion is being currently dominated by a group of folks—how large, who knows—who decided somewhere along the line that Mr. Dellums was and is wrong for Oakland, and everything he is doing or planning on doing, with no exceptions, only proves that point.

Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson gets paid to make periodic observations of the East Bay, and so you have his recent “Dellums Still Not Talking To Council Or To Voters” in which he asserts, in part, that “last week, Dellums became a party to negotiations aimed at ending the [Waste Management workers] lockout, but outside the closed doors he has said little to reassure the public that the dispute will be resolved soon.” Based upon the 33 comments that currently appear online in the Chronicle in response, a large number of those commenting agree.

“It's not surprising that Dellums doesn't know what to do with the garbage strike,” a reader signed “opinyonated” (all of the commenters used pseudonyms) writes. “On the basic, ‘Simcity’ issues that run a city, he's helpless. … It's a disgrace that a city is drowning in garbage because of complacency.” From “concernedoaklan”: “The garbage strike is symptomatic of how little clout [Dellums] has. Its amazing that the mayor of the biggest city in the East Bay cannot whip the Teamsters and Waste Management into shape. I bet that Dellums just doesn't want to step on Teamsters' toes and WM is hell-bent on punishing Oakland for electing this anti-business mayor.” And from “GetMeOut”: “Ahhh poor people that live in the areas that have not had their trash picked up. Serves you all right. You voted in a Mayor that cannot and will not do anything about it.”

Respectfully, I disagree.

The error in these judgments about Mr. Dellums’ role in the Waste Management lockout comes, I believe, from a fundamental misunderstanding both of who Mr. Dellums actually is—as opposed to what folks’ perceptions of who they believe him to be—and the role needed to be taken in successfully mediating a dispute.

To explain, a little history.

I met Ron Dellums 41 years ago, in the fall of 1966. That summer, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Chairman Stokely Carmichael had made his famous “Black Power” speech during a march across Mississippi, virtually exploding Mr. Carmichael into the spotlight as the new, young national Black leader. In the fall, a group at UC Berkeley—perhaps the associated student union, but memory fails me—invited Carmichael to speak at the Greek Theater. That upset the chairperson of the Black Student Union at Cal—his name escapes me, too—on the theory that in those racially polarized times, it appeared an affront to the African-American community to have Mr. Carmichael come to the Bay Area in his first trip as the new national Black leader to talk to white students at UC, as opposed to a gathering of the people he had been annointed to lead. A number of local Black college students and activists, myself included, agreed with the UC BSU, and there were threats of a Black boycott of the Carmichael Greek Theater speech, along with a possible picket line.

Someone called a meeting of the young Black activists to try to settle the dispute. It might have been Mr. Dellums himself, who was a Berkeley City Councilmember at the time. He was certainly in attendance at the meeting, looking very different from the rest of us—10 years older, for one (which makes considerable difference in temperament and maturity when you are 18 or 19), and notably wearing a suit and tie even in those more relaxed-dress days.

We youngsters spent the first half of the meeting ranting—and oh, Mary!, could we rant in those days—and Mr. Dellums listened patiently, as was his way. Only when we were finished did he begin speaking, agreeing with us that it appeared disrespectful and belittling for Mr. Carmichael to skip the African-American community on his trip to the East Bay. He said he thought that we—the student activists—might be able to raise enough of a stir to force Mr. Carmichael to cancel the trip altogether, but he wondered if that might be wasting an opportunity. Why not let ASUC pay for Mr. Carmichael’s trip to California and allow him to speak at UC, Mr. Dellums tactfully suggested, but ask him to first speak to an African-American audience after he got here. That way, Mr. Dellums explained, we would get the respect we were asking for and deserved and, in the bargain, white folks would be paying for it. We considered it a moment, and agreed, and Mr. Carmichael later came and spoke at UC and at a Black venue as well and, if I remember correctly, also took a tour of San Francisco’s Fillmore District, which was then a largely-African-American community. It was a historic and highly successful tour all around, by all accounts.

It was, of course, a brilliant suggestion Mr. Dellums had made, more brilliant as I considered it years later, and realized that Mr. Dellums had fashioned a classic compromise, one that satisfied the needs and wishes of both sides. But there was one more element—perhaps the critical element—that helped make it possible. Had Mr. Dellums called a press conference and made the suggestion himself, without calling in the Black student activists, we almost certainly would have rejected it out of hand, because it would have been imposing a solution upon us, making it appear as if we were backing down on our demands, settling for less. By making the suggestion in a private meeting, and then letting us make the announcement, it made us look like we had come up with the idea ourselves and were not backing down, but were being reasonable and trying to work with all sides.

That’s how successful mediation works, trying to find a solution that both sides can live with, and then letting the two sides take the credit.

But that, of course, is how Mr. Dellums has consistently worked. While his national reputation was forged in the Vietnam War era as a shouting, fist-shaking, dashiki-wearing radical, that was more a product of the media—you know how we in the media tend to distort—and his real work was quiet persuasion and compromise behind closed doors, trying to stick to his core principles while figuring out ways to get his opponents to bend in the direction he wanted. It is why he was able to eventually become chair of the House Armed Services Committee—hardly the spot for a wild radical—and why he retains to this day the respect of conservative members of Congress who served with him, who almost universally say that while they often disagreed with his positions and goals, they could not find fault with the means he used to go about trying to accomplish them.

One needs to take this history into account in trying to figure out, and judge, what Mr. Dellums has been trying to accomplish in the Waste Management workers lockout, even if one disagrees with those methods.

When I first heard about the lockout, my assumption was that Mr. Dellums was involving himself in quiet mediation to try to solve the labor dispute, and even a non-careful reading of news items from the first days of the lockout shows that he was. But when some citizens—and some of my media colleagues—applauded Mr. Dellums’ tough statements against Waste Management after a week or two of garbage had been piling up, and the subsequent filing for an injunction against the company by Oakland City Attorney John Russo, I saw that as a bad sign rather than a good one. It was an indication that the earlier attempts at quiet mediation had not been working, there was considerable distance between the two sides, the lockout might drag out longer than any of us hoped, and the mayor needed to apply public pressure.

The Waste Management lockout has left Mr. Dellums in the classic no-win political situation. While some critics are clamoring that the mayor should have taken a tougher public stance earlier, there is no evidence that this would have forced Waste Management or the Teamsters into an earlier settlement, and there is every reason to believe that it might have delayed such a settlement. And had the mayor come out earlier and demanded a settlement, and no settlement thereafter immediately came forth, how many of the commenters to the Chronicle do you think would have then told us about how toothless and ineffective they believed the old mayor had become?

Meanwhile, when and if the settlement comes, almost no-one will give Mr. Dellums credit for pulling it off. To paraphrase the Confederate spy and former actor Harrison said in Michael Shaara’s “The Killer Angels,” the best of such work is done in the dark, with no audience present to applaud.

There is certainly much room for criticism of Mr. Dellums, both in general and in his actions concerning the ongoing Waste Management lockout. I would tend to take those criticisms more seriously, however, were they based upon what the Oakland mayor is actually doing or, at least, trying to do.

[Note: this column was written and submitted to editors on Thursday afternoon, July 26, some hours before the announcement of a settlement in the Waste Management lockout.]