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




April 23, 2009

Let’s call this one of Oakland’s teaching moments.

For many years, both in this column and in its previous incarnation, the Oakland Unwrapped column for the old Urbanview newspaper, I’ve been talking about the more-or-less systematic minimizing of the presence and effect of African-American culture in Oakland. I don’t believe this is the result of some great conspiracy or secret plan of action written down in detail somewhere, more a confluence of various interests that have come together to push things towards the same end, that of pushing African-American cultural activities out of the city. Or, more correctly, African-American cultural activities that are operated and controlled by African-Americans themselves.

Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, closed. Sweet Jimmy’s, closed. The The Oak Tree, in Jack London Square, which got accused of encouraging “a sideshow of a sideshow” in the street outside its doors, whatever the hell that was supposed to be. The Bird Cage on Telegraph, which tried to bring in hip hop acts in its last days. The Carijama Festival shut down. Official Oakland now endorses and embraces the dying Black music form of blues now that it is a weak echo of its feisty and exuberant youth, while the blues of the new millennium—hip hop—is actively discouraged by Oakland officials and Oakland police from being showcased at large venues in the flats of East and West and North Oakland where it ought to flourish.

And so I noted, with interest, an item in the Picks column of the entertainment section of last week’s East Bay Express:

“Famed Bay Area jazz club Yoshi’s is upping its … street cred. With two venues now, the club caters as much to the grown and sexy R&B crowd as to the jazz purists who would otherwise be at home listening to their Don Cherry Pandora stations. Now Yoshi’s is ready for its inaugural hip-hop show, featuring Mos Def…”

Let’s stop for a moment, and get some things straight.

I am a great fan of Yoshi’s, despite the little mixup with their ten year anniversary CD (they overlooked African-American artists, you might recall), and think they have been a tremendous cultural asset to Oakland’s downtown. The last show I went to there was last weekend—the magnificent and unparalleled Rachelle Ferrell in concert unplugged—and there is not another venue in the area with the sound system to handle her. I am glad that they are moving into hip-hop as well.

But I suppose it’s a legacy of my old socialist training—as well as the echo of the anger coming down through the years from my slaverytime ancestors—that I carry the belief that the ones first and foremost to benefit from a creation ought to be the creators themselves. And the young African-Americans (and Latinos) of Oakland, spitting out rhymes as they walk International or MLK or beat out rhythms on the seat backs of the AC Transit buses as they ride, are the creators of hip hop, creating and re-creating as they go about their lives, and they’re not likely to make it to a Mos Def Yoshi’s show, even if they were Mos Def fans.

This slowly increasing sanitizing of Oakland’s culture—call it a gradual lightening of the city’s diversity shade—has primarily had its effect on African-American cultural activities. But that may have suddenly changed.

Last week, the Oakland Post reported that “there will not be a Cinco de Mayo parade or a Dia De Los Muertos Festival in Oakland this year. Also in jeopardy are the annual Black Cowboys Parade and the next Chinatown Street Festival.”

“At issue,” the Post article says, “is the requirement by the Oakland Police Department that those who want to hold events must bear the full cost of security, mostly police overtime, in order to qualify for permits. The cost and number of police is determined by the OPD Special Events Unit.”

According to the Post, organizers of Cinco de Mayo, which blocks off several International Boulevard streets in the Fruitvale for the event, paid $37,000 for OPD security last year, with the city picking up the rest of the tab. This year, the article said, OPD is asking for $80,000 for the same event, with no city help to be forthcoming.

November’s Dia de los Muertos, also in the Fruitvale, has already been canceled, according to the Post article, and the annual Chinatown festival, which brought 100,000 people into a 10 block area in that community last August, could also go by the wayside.

This is absolutely devastating. These annual events are part of what makes Oakland, well, Oakland.

The squeeze on the Dia, Cinco, Black Cowboy, and Chinatown affairs has nothing to do with police disapproving of these festivals—which are highly popular and well-attended—but may simply be the result of a combination of Oakland’s budget problems caused by the economic downturn and the Dellums Administration crackdown on what was once runaway and out-of-control police overtime costs. Overtime was a big perk for police officers, and there have been charges that police officials have been using their control over event security to try to make some of that money up. Keep that in the back of your mind. We’ll have to get into that issue in more detail another time.

But couple the drying up of city support for the popular, ethnic festivals—all neighborhood-based except for the Black Cowboy Parade—and Oakland’s lavish spending on the renovation of the Fox Oakland Theater. The Fox renovation was part of the eight-year program under the Jerry Brown Administration to create a brand new neighborhood from scratch in downtown and uptown Oakland—to attract new residents from outside who had to be enticed to come and live in the city—while neglecting the city’s many existing neighborhoods. Much of the city money that went to the Fox creation and the massive uptown Forest City development project probably couldn’t have been saved for use in supporting the community festivals, but money is money, and cities have a way of shifting these things around in such a way that had Oakland not paid so much attention to uptown during the Brown years, the city would not have faced the prospect of losing the heart of its diverse soul.

Coupled together, we could easily see the day when Oakland’s black, brown, and yellow cultural events are available only at upscale prices from the gilded chairs of the renovated Fox while the actual ethnic cultural centers themselves are only a dim and dead memory, in the same way that today’s San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf is only a faux, tourist-trap replica of an area that once was home to a lively and alive fisherman’s culture.

Little was done or said outside of African-American circles during all the years African-American cultural events and centers were under attack in Oakland. Perhaps now that the danger has spread to the larger ethnic community, there will be a joint effort to save what are uniquely Oakland institutions, and all of them, before they disappear.


Any prolonged discussion of the March 21st MacArthur shootings—such as we’ve been having over the past month—cannot be complete without some mention of the ghastly and entirely inappropriate way former State Senator Don Perata attempted to politically exploit it. We have often criticized Mr. Perata for various actions, with good cause. But his response to the MacArthur shootings is a particular low, even for the former Senator.

In a March 31st column (“Dellums’ Presence As Risky As His Performance”), Chronicle East Bay columnist Chip Johnson—a longtime Perata booster—wrote that Mr. Perata “said the events [surrounding the March 21st shootings and its aftermath] have persuaded him [Mr. Perata] to run for mayor in 2010. ‘I wasn't trying to be coy (on a mayoral run), but this just galvanized it for me because you just can't stand there and do nothing,’ Mr. Johnson quoted Mr. Perata as saying. ‘People know what I've done to ban assault weapons and other things I've done, so they ought to know that I'm running for mayor.’" ("Perata Will Run For Oakland Mayor")

The next day, Kelly Rayburn of the Tribune reported on the Perata mayoral run announcement, writing that “the 10-year state senator had hinted for months he was considering a run but said he finalized his decision after attending the funeral service for four Oakland police officers Friday.” It was at the funeral services that the Oakland Police Officers Association—and almost certainly others—orchestrated the move to prevent Mr. Dellums from speaking.

If there is anyone in Oakland surprised that Mr. Perata is going to run for mayor of the city—unless a longtime federal corruption investigation halts his plans—then that person has simply not been paying attention. Mr. Perata has been making his intentions plain not just for “months,” as Ms. Rayburn indicated, but for years.

Given that background, for Mr. Perata to assert that he made up his mind because of the circumstances surrounding the MacArthur shootings and the police deaths plays upon a citywide tragedy for personal political gain, and plays us as if Oakland residents are rubes and fools who cannot see through the charade. Does anyone honestly believe that Mr. Perata would not have run for mayor of Oakland if the four officers had not gotten killed?

If one ever wonders why I have never supported Mr. Perata—and why I take every opportunity to criticize his actions—it is because I believe Mr. Perata’s interests are only in his own advancement and gain, and not for the welfare or betterment of those of us he is supposed to represent. Just as he has in so many other instances, Mr. Perata showed no concern over the real causes of the MacArthur shootings and how those underlying problems might be solved, only in how he might exploit a tragic situation to further his own cause. Shameful, y’all. Shameful.

I hope I have made myself plain enough.

Safero Home | UnderCurrents Home