Red, Bike, & Green: The Interview!

(first published on Project Oakland on )

The link between transportation and racial justice has been an explicit part of American culture since Rosa Parks ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycot in 1955, if not earlier. Most of us understand, if only intuitively, that who moves around, where they move to and from, and what they move upon interacts with complicated histories of oppression, rebellion, and innovation.

This is one of the reasons why Oakland’s Red, Bike, and Green collective  is so exciting. They have not only created an an affirmative, welcome spacing for Black urban cyclists but also established a platform for a new discussion of the politics of mobility in the city.

I recently had a chance to ask Red, Bike, and Green about their work and views. The following is a transcript of our exchange.

~ Chuck Morse

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Q. Can you tell me how Red, Bike, and Green (RBG) got started and what exactly you do?

Design by Nick James

A. Five years ago, becoming more and more disenchanted with driving, the cost of regular car maintenance, insurance rates, gas prices, and the overall expense of having a car, Jenna Burton decided to ride her bike more regularly. She began to think about creating a space and culture for Black folks that would promote biking as a safe and viable mode of transportation. Burton organized a small group of Black bikers to go on random weekend rides. Further conversations with colleagues and friends led to naming the group Red, Bike, and Green. For those unfamiliar, Red, Bike and Green is an ode to Marcus Garvey’s idea that Black people in the United States need their own nation and flag, which would be symbolized in the colors of Red, Black, and Green.

With a little help from some friends, Burton officially launched the first season in April of 2010. Red, Bike, and Green now rides every third Saturday and First Friday of the month from April until November of each year.

Q. One way that White supremacy operates is by limiting the mobility of Black people and people of color generally—from the laws that prevented people from moving into a specific neighborhood to the ongoing police harassment of motorists (i.e., “driving while Black”). Do you believe that encouraging Black people to get around by bike is a way to challenge White supremacy? If so, how?

A. Yes. And no. First and foremost, we see RBG as a psychological and spiritual departure from White-supremacist values. While we are not gathering with the intention of directly challenging White supremacy, we are not trying to feed that machine either. If the indirect outcome of being pro Black (not anti-White) and asserting autonomy is a challenge to White supremacy, then so be it. We are functioning out of a love for Black people and the need to create a space where we feel safe and part of a community that cares about our well-being.

When you see fifty plus Black people on bikes in ANY neighborhood it is a symbol of Black power. The rides are a way to make a space where Black love and healthy Black living is visible. As a result of RBG’s success in outreaching to a community of Black folks who have largely been ignored by mainstream bike culture, it has given us a platform with which to fight different sorts of oppression and we are grateful for that.

Q. Black people have long been marginalized in the cycling sports—from the prohibition on African-American membership in the League of American Bicyclists, which was not rescinded until 1999, to more subtle signals that push Black people out of bike networks. What do you think about the racial dynamics of the bike scene in the East Bay today? In what ways is it an affirmative, inviting place for Black people and how is it not?

What is affirming is that there are groups that have advocated for bike lanes in some neighborhoods, which make it safer and easier to ride for all bikers. Who are the bike lanes for is the question.

It is easy to assume that biking is a really accessible and easy way to travel. But a simple understanding like that discounts not only the cost of the bike but also other factors that weigh in when thinking about riding. Can you afford to fix your bike if it is broken? Is it practical for your lifestyle (i.e., do you have children)? If your bike is stolen, can you replace it? What’s the morale before even deciding to get on a bike?

If we were to use a metaphor to illustrate the racial dynamics of the bike scene in the East Bay, it might read something like this: Red, Bike, and Green is like English Breakfast Tea being dropped in an ocean—it’s not going to turn anything Black. The bike scene in the East Bay is largely a White space and since Black people are traditionally overlooked in bike culture as well as multi-racial sites of organizing, an organization like RBG fills a void.

Q. There is a tendency in Hip Hop culture to celebrate cars, particularly luxury cars, as symbols of power and even defiance. Do you believe that encouraging bike riding among Black people is an important counter-tendency to this trend? If so, why?

A. RBG is cultivating a culture of healthy living that incorporates more alternative and economic modes of transportation, such as bike riding. It’s important to encourage bike riding as a counter tendency to materialism, but we want to be careful not to give Hip Hop (or any one culture) the monopoly on defining blackness. The side that’s been dominated by mainstream media has fixated on a particular kind of Hip Hop, where luxury cars are flaunted as being Hip Hop.

As an anecdote, when Burton started riding her bike in 2008, the Black folks that she would see riding were largely folks that couldn’t afford cars. By and large, they rode a bike out of necessity. And over the years she has seen a change. While it is still not commonplace, there are a lot more Black folks on bikes.

Part of the reason why RBG exists is to try and bridge the gap between the folks that are already riding (the avid cyclist; the sports enthusiast; the college educated, single, twenty/thirty something, without kids, health conscious rider) and those that haven’t given riding a second thought. And one thing RBG does pretty well is create a visual aesthetic around Black folks riding bikes, care of our designer, Nick James. The material that is produced for RBG intentionally uses the rich history of biking in the Black community. I guess you could say we are redefining Blackness too.

Q. Do you have sister groups in other cities?

Yes. In Chicago and Atlanta.

Q. In an ideal world, where will Black biking in the Bay Area be in, say, five or ten years?

A. Hopefully there will still be Black people left in Oakland and the Bay Area.

Q. How can people get involved with and/or support RBG?

A.Follow us on Twitter or Facebook.  Or you can donate through Paypal on our website at www.redbikegreen.com

Photo by Jewels Smith

 

Mayor Jean Quan’s 10K2 Housing Plan—Don’t Do the Math

(first published on Project Oakland on April 15, 2014)

Last month, when Oakland Mayor Jean Quan gave her annual “State of the City” address, the 10K2 Plan was the only major, new initiative that she announced. With an election coming up in November, and faced with persistently low approval ratings, she clearly hoped that it would help her persuade voters to give her a second term. Under the program, she pledges to add 10,000 units of housing to Oakland—25 percent of which will be affordable—at some time in the future.

Quan’s policy is designed to appeal to people with interests that are typically counterposed. On the one hand, the addition of 7,500 units of market-rate housing will be great for the wealthy tech workers pouring into the region. These are the people who can pay thousands upon thousands each month for a small apartment and who are driving up housing costs, by all accounts. On the other hand, the addition of 2,500 units of affordable housing will be good for poorer residents; these are the people who can’t pay high rents and are being pushed out in droves. On top of all this, the expansion of the housing stock will put some downward pressure on housing prices generally, enlarge the city’s tax base, and create some new jobs. Apparently, this is a win-win-win policy.

Quan looked unusually confident during her presentation, as if she knew that she was scoring a political victory, and pundits gave her performance high marks. The East Bay Express immediately lauded her plan’s environmental aspects. Zennie Abraham, one of her harsher critics, said that she had “finally found her political legs” and grown from an “accidental mayor” into a “real mayor” who understands what it means to exercise power. Her odds of winning reelection started to look a little better.

In some respects, Quan is merely rebranding and taking credit for a construction boom that is already underway but, still, she has presented this as a plan and we should assess it as such. The issue that Oaklanders need to consider when doing so is this: has she found a way to increase the city’s housing stock, make space for those driving displacement, while also protecting the working class’s ability to live in the city? Can Quan actually perform this magical balancing act?

The answer to all of these questions is no. Although the 10K2 Plan contains some modest measures intended to mitigate displacement, it will necessarily make the city more of a place for the rich and the rich alone. There are two reasons for this.

First, the 10K2 Plan embraces an economic model that has been ruinous for Oakland’s poor and urban areas throughout the country. After deindustrialization and “white flight” gutted the city in the mid-twentieth century, planners and policy makers have set out to rebuild the city’s economy around shopping, entertainment, and housing. We see this not only in the 10K2 Plan, but also in Quan’s boosterism on behalf of local sports teams, the hotel and restaurant industry, the monthly Art Murmur gatherings, etcetera. These things generate some jobs (and some tax revenue), which politicians are quick to celebrate, but the jobs are low-end service jobs that are almost always insecure, lack benefits, and do not pay salaries that could support the rental or purchase of a market-rate home in Oakland. The 10K2 Plan embraces this model and, as such, furthers the city’s commitment to an economic form that more or less guarantees that its poor will remain poor and have to go elsewhere.

Second, adding 7,500 market-rate units will bring many thousand more—let’s say 15,000—wealthier residents to the city. These people will push for planning and policy changes that will make Oakland less hospitable for lower income folks. We can expect more parklets, dog parks, and bike lanes, which are great for people with lots of leisure time but maddening for those rushing to get to work. We can also anticipate an increase in heavy handed police tactics, a necessary tool for managing marginalized and discontented populations. Subtly and not so subtly, these things will indicate that Oakland’s streets are not for the working class.

In reply to these criticisms, defenders of the 10K2 Plan might argue that at least the low-end service jobs being produced are jobs, which is better than nothing at all. This is a “logic of lesser evils” argument used to bludgeon people into accepting the bad because it is not worse, but Oaklanders shouldn’t have to endure substandard employment or an economic model that pushes the poor from the city. Likewise, Quan’s allies might say that the city can institute policies to ensure that its planning and design decisions express all residents’ concerns, not just the upper class, but this is naive. These new Oaklanders will demand that the city reflect their needs and they will have far greater resources to force it to do so than the poor. It would be unrealistic to expect otherwise.

Although Quan was able to deliver an effective stump speech, no one should be confused about the class-bound nature of her 10K2 Plan, such as it is. It portends more displacement not less, despite the presence of superficial half measures oriented toward working class residents’ needs. There are so many things that cities can do—foreclosure prevention, improve rent control, encourage land trust conversion, etcetera—but this is not what we see here. In essence, expanding the housing stock without challenging class inequality will always serve the upper class. Indeed, no politician will ever be clever enough to create a policy that can override the basic class conflict between the rich and the poor that is dividing our society and our city. Quan may try her best, as she fights for reelection, but we should not be deceived. Housing justice and economic equality are inextricably linked.

~ by Chuck Morse

The Leftwing Alternative in Oakland’s 2014 Mayoral Race

(Posted on Project Oakland on January 2, 2014)

Doh! There is no leftwing alternative in Oakland’s mayoral race and there won’t be one. The three credible candidates—Jean Quan, Joe Tuman, and Libby Schaaf—are pro-business, pro-gentrification Democrats and no viable left candidacy will emerge from the fringe. Why is this? Because the left has basically checked out of municipal politics in Oakland and that is a huge mistake.

I know it seems nuts to say that the left is absent in Oakland. Wasn’t it just yesterday that Occupy Wall Street protestors swarmed the streets of downtown? And isn’t there always some demonstration or another going on? Whether it’s up in the Hills (isn’t that where Angela Davis lives?), in the flatlands of East and West Oakland, or anywhere in between, there are literally scores of lefty writers, activists, and on-going and ad hoc groups. That’s why it made sense when the New York Times called Oakland the “last refuge of radical America” in 2012.

However, there is a big difference between having leftists in a city and actually having a municipal left. As it stands now, no group is advancing a program to transform the City of Oakland as such. No one is pushing or even talking about comprehensive changes designed to fundamentally alter how the City works or how it fits into the region. People occasionally prod the City to change this or that policy, but no one is trying to rewrite the rules as a whole.

Could the left have an impact on the city government? Experiences in cities elsewhere suggest that it could. Activists have used Richmond’s City Hall to challenge “big oil, big soda, and big banks,” making it one of the most progressive cities in the country, to cite the East Bay Express. Up the Pacific coast, socialist Kshama Sawant just won election to Seattle’s City Council. She has urged Boeing workers to take over the factories and explicitly positions herself against capitalism. Last July, Chokwe Lumumba became the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi; he describes himself as a revolutionary and wants the city to foster a “solidarity economy” that would include things like “worker-owned co-operatives, co-operative banks, peer lending, community land trusts, participatory budgeting, and fair trade.” Even Jac Asher, the new mayor of that corporate barfpark known as Emeryville, has called for the inclusion of worker-owned cooperatives in new development.

And there is a history of local engagement with the city. The Black Panthers ran Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown for Mayor and City Council, respectively, in 1973; this was part of their “Base of Operations” campaign, with which they hoped to seize the city government, take control of the Port, and turn Oakland into a hub of global communist revolution. In fact, the Socialist Workers Party, which positioned itself to the left of the Panthers, also ran candidates for local office that year. In the 1980s, the Oakland Progressive Political Alliance pushed progressive candidates and, back in the Stone Age, the Socialist Party ran Jack London for mayor.

I’m not saying that the left must run candidates for local office. Electioneering often slides into pandering and it is not clear what a left candidate could actually accomplish if he or she were to win office. What I am saying is that we can’t afford to ignore City Hall.

The City presides over an annual budget of approximately a half billion dollars and exercises enormous influence over what happens here. Much of this has to do with development—where it occurs, what it looks like, and who pays for it—and it also has a big impact on policing, schools, among other issues. On a broader level, the City is the main institution that ties us together as citizens—a key point of reference for democracy in the city, or at least the idea of it. Whether or not we choose to engage the city through elections, we do need to engage it.

At the very least, Oakland leftists should start talking about how to transform the city. What would Oakland look like if it was restructured around social justice and emancipatory ideals and linked up with worldwide movements for change? What policies would we implement and why? What policies would we abandon and why? These are tough political questions. We need to start wrestling with them.

As Oakland’s mayoral election heats up, we can expect the candidates to debate who can create the most “business-friendly” climate in the city and, above all, who can put more cops on the street. While this happens, we should start laying the foundation for a real alternative. There are thousands of us here, and we can draw upon what’s going on in cities elsewhere, from elements of local history, and maybe even come up with some bright ideas of our own. Oakland is a great place. It could be awesome.

~ Chuck Morse

Oakland Streetscape: These Benches are Revolting!

(First published on Project Oakland on March 28, 2012)

Social struggles occur in diverse places in Oakland: at street protests, in debates at City Hall, and sometimes even where you plant your butt! Take the benches in this photo: though modest and unassuming, they are actually a salvo in the battles over public space that are presently unfolding in Oakland and cities worldwide.

They sit steps from a West Oakland park known as a hangout for the homeless and super-poor. At this park, it is common to see a half-dozen shopping carts full of belongings, people drinking from paper bags, and to smell pot smoke wafting through the air. Those present are almost always black men, middle-aged and up, with a sprinkling of younger adults and women of assorted ages. I have only seen kids there twice during the dozens of times that I have passed by and the absence of swings or play gear of any sort suggests that no one expects them to show up more regularly. I have never witnessed the police harassing people there, though surely it would not be hard for them to come up with  reasons to do so if they wished. It appears that authorities have decided that it is okay for the uber-marginalized to congregate at this site. Something similar would not be allowed in Berkeley or San Francisco, which rank among the “meanest” cities to the homeless in the United States.

An inspection of these benches yields insights into their origins (click the photo above for a larger view). First of all, we can see that they are not city-issue products. Local authorities construct benches out of steel, or a mix of steel and composite wood, whereas these are simply painted wooden planks bolted to the sidewalk with cheap “L” brackets. We can also conclude that they are not the work of a business hoping to accommodate its customers—they lie in front of a trash-strewn lot, not a store or restaurant. Everything indicates that some guerrilla decorators installed them surreptitiously, presumably under the cloak of night and inspired by the outrageous thought that poor people also have a right to sit down.

The built environment is inherently political. This is obvious in the case of things like monuments and palaces, but seating and politics also have a particularly strong connection. In Home: A Short History of An Idea, Witold Rybcznski sketches the long evolution of approaches to seating and argues that what has changed over the years is less the technology of seating than its cultural use. He points out that seats are often means of articulating and representing power. We see hints of this in our everyday language: the head of an academic department is the “chair,” a judge “sits” on “the bench,” the center of authority in a country is the “seat” of power, a monarch occupies “the throne,” etc.

But what does it mean when someone covertly builds seats for the marginalized in a city like Oakland, with its vast quantities of public space that have been privatized and in which thousands have been stripped of their right to assemble due to encounters with the Prison Industrial Complex? It is an act of compassion and also an act of resistance. To write the needs of the impoverished into the physical structure of the city itself, even in a small way, is a gesture toward reclaiming public space, toward reopening the commons.

Changing society and changing our practices of domesticity and comfort have always gone hand in hand. The Black Panther Party housed its members in austere, barrack-like “Panther pads,” whereas hippies built kaleidoscopic homes in the form of geodesic domes—their larger social visions influenced their sense of space and decor, and vice versa. Whatever forms we might invent in the future, these benches point to a politics of seating in which the purpose of seats is not to bolster authority and coercion but to recuperate the city for the oppressed. While plain and easy to overlook, they are among the many signs that rebellion is alive and well in Oakland.

~ Chuck Morse

Fighting banks and fighting back in Oakland: the Goldman Sachs “rate swap”

(first published on Project Oakland on April 17, 2012)

Politicians and financial experts typically describe Oakland’s links to banks and other institutions of finance capital in a language that conceals relationships of domination and exploitation. The spreadsheets, flow charts, and jargon about “best practices” and “fiscal responsibility” make the ongoing extraction of resources from the city and the impoverishment of its residents seem as natural and immutable as the laws of gravity. Of course, beneath all of this are material, tangible interactions between people, which we can name, criticize, and—if we wish—abolish.

A group called the Coalition for Economic and Social Justice (CESJ) launched an important challenge to Oakland’s ties to finance capital at a meeting of the Oakland City Council last February. Led by Minister Daniel Buford of the Allen Temple Baptist Church, members took the podium to condemn a “rate swap”deal that Oakland signed with Goldman Sachs fifteen years earlier. Declaiming this swap as immoral, they ruptured the supposedly “value-free” language customarily used to characterize such deals and implicitly created a context for a much broader discussion of the city’s economy. This is a historic achievement that we must build upon, but, to do so, and to ensure that the coalition’s challenge is not emptied of its richness, we need to put the rate swap in the context of a broad, critical perspective on the city’s economy and its relation to finance capital. This is true for at least two crucial reasons that I will describe below.

But, first, the “rate swap” at issue is an arrangement between Goldman Sachs and the city, in which the financial giant converted $187 million of city debt from a variable rate debt to one held at a fixed interest rate of 5.6 percent. At the time, this “rate swap” seemed like a prudent way to avoid anticipated increases in the interest rate, but subsequent federal intervention in the economy has pushed rates far below 5.6 percent, thus obliterating the fiscal advantages that Oakland had hoped to reap. The pact has turned out to be a bad deal for the city and one that will likely continue costing it several million annually, until its contract with Goldman Sachs expires in 2021.(1)

The CESJ sees the swap as an expensive injustice and argues that the city should extract itself from it. It is unjust, the group contends, because Goldman Sachs accepted funds from the 2008 bank bailout—using taxpayer monies to insulate itself from the financial chaos of the time—but has not renegotiated its contract with the taxpayers of the city of Oakland. In other words, it hoarded all the benefits of federal intervention for itself when it should have shared them. This is especially egregious when one considers that the city has been in continual fiscal crisis due to revenue shortfalls and has had to cut basic services as a result. “If Oakland has $5 million a year to throw into the hole that is Goldman Sachs’s pocket,” Buford told the council, “let’s use that money to build a clinic out in East Oakland, do job programs in West Oakland. Let’s use that money for some constructive purpose, rather than to line the pockets of Goldman Sachs.”

However, it is critical to recognize that the Goldman Sachs deal is not an anomalous case of bank abuse. Nor is it even the most harmful financial injustice afflicting Oakland. Rather, it is one instance of a much broader trend in which elites have compelled cities and their citizens to bear the brunt of their fiscal recklessness—that is, they caused the 2008 economic collapse, but force us to pay the bill. The tsunami of foreclosures that hit Oakland is another example of this. Though banks’ risky lending practices led the housing market to implode, private homeowners are the biggest losers: one report claims that Oakland homeowners will forfeit 12.3 billion in home values as a result of the calamity.(2) With respect to the city budget specifically, the foreclosures are an immense drain: there is disappearing tax revenue but also the vast costs associated with blight, evictions, and homelessness, to name only some of the most onerous burdens. As with the Goldman Sachs rate swap, the banks have been bailed out, but the citizens of Oakland are still paying.

Second, even if Oakland manages to extricate itself from the Goldman Sachs rate swap, international banks and lenders will still have a decisive—and coercive—power over the city’s economy. This problem did not arise because Oakland politicians handed over the city’s fiscal reigns in an act of cowardice or corruption, but rather because of changes in the nature of municipal finance. Specifically, cities have lost millions in revenue as a result of the federal government’s retreat from urban policy over the last thirty years—long gone are the days of expensive programs like Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” initiative—and, in California, because of the passage of Proposition 13, which greatly reduced access to income from property tax. These developments, in turn, have prompted cities to take costly risks with bonds, rate swaps, and other mechanisms in an often vain attempt to meet obligations and fund basic services. Sometimes these risks work out well for a city, many times they do not (they have not for Oakland), but, in either case, cities are gambling their fortunes in a game that has rules set by inaccessible, unaccountable financial institutions designed to serve the 1%. Oakland’s relation to Goldman Sachs is only one manifestation of this.

CESJ’s efforts are suggestive of the last time that Oakland’s economy was radically politicized. This was in 1973, when the Black Panther Party ran Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown for Mayor and City Council (respectively). Seen as part of the Panthers’ “Base of Operations” campaign, they enlisted the party’s newspaper and countless community events in a vast project of popular education on the nature of the city’s economy, one designed to help people see how it functioned and for whom. Though neither Seale nor Brown won office, their candidacies helped break the grip of the white elite that had run the city for decades and led many to imagine what a truly just, equitable Oakland might look like.

Oakland faces a new constellation of obstacles and possibilities today. The CESJ have done an enormous service by changing the discussion of municipal finance, if only momentarily, and by taking issue with the city’s ties to the world of finance capital. Their refusal to accept the rarified discourse of urban finance reminds us that we have the ability to identify, judge, and terminate relations of injustice. We must do this in the case of the  Goldman Sachs rate swap, but that should be just one step in a much broader effort to extract the city’s economy from the grips of finance capital and to reconstruct it in such a way that it will truly serve the people of the city.

~ Chuck Morse

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1. Darwin BondGraham has authored the most extensive and well-informed articles about the Goldman Sachs rate swap. You can find his exemplary work in the East Bay Express and also on his blog.

2. Figures come from The California Reinvestment Coalition and Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, The Wall Street Wrecking Ball: What Foreclosures are Costing Oakland. September 2011. Accessed on April 13, 2012.

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The Uhuru House and the Battle for Community Control of Housing in the 1980s: Traces of the Oakland Commune

Rent control has a long history in the United States. Implemented by various municipalities during WWI and the federal government during WWII, it was initially a means of addressing wartime “housing emergencies” and neither a source of great controversy nor strongly linked to social protest.  This changed after the tumult of the 1960s, when a new configuration of “the personal” and “the political” emerged that made our homes into sites of contestation in novel ways. Many began to see rent control not only as a tool for regulating a particular financial transaction but also as a means for asserting community—however loosely defined—against capitalism. In California, this impulse was evident in rent control movements in Santa Monica, Berkeley, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, and—last but not least—Oakland.

Oakland’s best known tenants’ movement culminated in 2002, when housing activists persuaded voters to approve the “Just Cause” ordinance (Measure EE). Though it did not provide rent control, it gave renters crucial protections against arbitrary (“no cause”) evictions. Fights over this statute took place in the shadow of San Francisco’s dot.com boom and, as such, provided a window into Oakland’s unique response to the seismic shifts in regional real estate that it had occasioned.

Oakland was also the location of a remarkable and largely forgotten campaign for rent control in the 1980s, when activists associated with the Uhuru House put two measures on the ballot that would have revolutionized the city’s approach to housing if they had been approved: Measure 0 (1984) and Measure H (1986), two virtually identical initiatives whose purpose was to create a form of socialized housing under the control of decentralized, autonomous “Community Control Housing Boards” that were to be spread throughout the city. Although Oaklanders rejected both by a large margin, they helped define a pivotal moment in the city’s history. They facilitated the emergence of what Adolph Reed has called the “Black urban regime” by prompting established Black leaders to clarify their attitude toward the radical Black movements that had helped put them in power and, secondly, they foregrounded the rich, decentralist alternatives to liberalism that had begun to appear with increasing frequency.

Oakland and Lionel Wilson

The Uhuru House in 2012. The faces on the building’s facade are (from left to right): Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, and Omali Yeshitela.

The Uhuru House was (and is) headquarters for a constellation of projects led by Omali Yeshitela, a Pan-African, revolutionary socialist who moved from St. Petersburg, Florida to Oakland in 1981. Positioning itself as a liberator of people of African descent worldwide, his group runs an evolving and elaborate network of organizations and businesses. There is the African People’s Socialist Party (its political wing), the African People’s Solidarity Committee (the Party’s White support group), as well as numerous companies that presumably finance the political endeavors (Uhuru FurnitureUhuru Foods, among others). Like many socialist sects born of the 1960s, the group has a propensity for grandiose rhetoric, which, given its negligible influence on current affairs, suggests an exaggerated sense of self-importance and also that it inhabits a highly idealized political space. Its distance from prevailing political discourse in Oakland was especially conspicuous when it lauded Lovelle Mixon as a hero because he murdered four policemen after a traffic stop in 2008. Continue reading

The Development Without Displacement Report: Some Strengths and Shortcomings

This first appeared on the Project Oakland blog on April 25, 2014.

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1Social discord tends to get people writing. Books and essays become especially vital tools when the world seems out of order and doesn’t work in the way that you think it should.

Indeed, the housing crisis in the Bay Area has unleashed a torrent of writing on housing costs, displacement, and changes in local culture. It seems like new articles on these issues appear daily, if not more frequently. A lot of the work is forgettable, some of it is pretty great, and all of it enriches the massive discussion that we are having throughout the region about how our lives, homes, and the economy interact.

The recent publication of Development Without Displacement: Resisting Gentrification in the Bay Area is a landmark in the maturation of this dialogue. Produced by Causa Justa / Just Cause with help from the Alameda County Public Health Department, it sets a new standard for reflection on gentrification. Attractively packaged in a glossy, four-color binder, it is well-written, thoroughly documented, and full of instructive, compelling graphics. It sets out to explain what gentrification is, how it operates locally, and what can be done to stop it. It is the most comprehensive, insightful treatment of gentrification in the Bay Area to date and will likely serve as a key reference for people grappling with the issue in the years to come.

Like any text, it has strengths and weaknesses. In the interest of encouraging dialogue about it, I will note three of each below.

Three Strengths

  • It portrays gentrification as a social process and, by doing so, breaks with the highly individualistic approach to the subject that is so common among Bay Area leftists. That is, a lot of the discourse about gentrification looks like this: first you identify the “gentrifiers,” then you counterpose them to the authentic “community,” and then you agonize over how these two groups relate to one another. Are the “gentrifiers” being arrogant or insensitive? Should the “community” actually welcome them? And how exactly do you distinguish a real “gentrifier” from a real “community” member anyway? Who gets to decide? Questions such as these drive much of the dialogue about the topic locally. Focused on existential matters of identity, they trigger lots of posturing and handwringing but have little relevance to housing justice. Fortunately, Development Without Displacement dispenses with this approach altogether by zeroing in on the economic forces and government policies that make gentrification possible.

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SPUR comes to Oakland: expect three things

Originally posted on the Project Oakland blog on November 17, 2015

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The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association—or SPUR—will open its Oakland branch at 1544 Broadway this December. SPUR has had a huge influence on San Francisco’s politics over the years and will probably have a big effect in Oakland too.

What can we expect?

Dr. Robert Ogilvie, director of Oakland SPUR

SPUR’s mission is to promote “good planning and good government in the San Francisco Bay Area.” To them, this means championing government policies focused on ensuring a dynamic and stable capitalist economy in the region. They pursue apparently “progressive” goals like “transit oriented development” (think: bike lanes) and resist things like strong unions or other assertions of working class power. Made up mainly of planners, architects, academics, lawyers, and real estate people, SPUR advances its agenda through research, education, and advocacy— reports, ballot recommendations, and public forums on development issues. They have already released a study on downtown Oakland and have begun holding regular talks.

I suspect that they will impact Oakland in the following three ways:

First, SPUR will shake up the dominant political class. SPUR’s people are professionals who specialize in being professional—their fancy reports and declarations are usually coherent, well-argued, and fact-based (even when wrong politically). As such, they will put pressure on Oakland’s politicians, who have gotten away with loads of buffoonery for decades. Thanks to SPUR, we will be less likely to see things like Jean Quan’s totally invented “100 block” crime plan, Rebecca Kaplan’s vapid cheerleading for the Raiders stadium, or Mayor Schaaf’s ridiculous ban on nighttime protests. Continue reading

Progressive Urbanism and its Discontents in Oakland

This post first appeared on Project Oakland on September 5, 2012.

From Blacks to Brown and Beyond: The Struggle for Progressive
Politics in Oakland, California, 1966–2011
by Robert Stanley Oden
Cognella Academic, June 2012, 352 pages

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Oakland’s recent history is rich in contradictions. When voters elected Lionel Wilson—the city’s first Black and Democratic mayor—in 1977, they took a decisive step in the ouster of the white, Republican, pro-business regime that had run Oakland as an exemplar of American municipal apartheid for decades. Wilson’s ascendency was part of a vast transformation in the composition of local political elites, who now largely reflect the political and racial background of the population that they govern. Indeed, since then, most of Oakland’s mayors have been “minorities,” all have been Democrats, and several have had roots in social movements. Similar claims can be made about those who have occupied the posts of City Manager, Chief of Police, Economic Development Director, and Port Director, to cite only the most significant positions. In many respects, there was a revolution in city affairs, one that we can analogize, with some justice, to the 1994 defeat of apartheid in South Africa.

And yet, despite these momentous changes, the city has been and remains a site of profound inequality, bitter racial hierarchies, state violence, and environmental breakdown. Although people of color and Democrats sit in every level of local government, Oakland is a profoundly brutal, unfair, unjust, and crisis-ridden place.

How is this possible? To answer this question, and work our way toward a more comprehensive emancipatory politics, we must explore how such apparently antithetical processes could unfold simultaneously in the course of the city’s history. And this is why the recent publication of Robert Oden’s Blacks to Brown and Beyond is an event to celebrate. Despite some weakness, it has much to offer this inquiry and will hopefully become a point of reference for Oakland activists. Continue reading