Oakland: A Tale of Two Cities

by Randy Shaw, 2012-12-04

Oakland, California has become a tale of two cities. It has a burgeoning restaurant and club scene, with its historic warehouse district, Jack London Square, Uptown and Temescal joining long thriving commercial districts in Rockridge, Chinatown and Lake Merritt. It has the activism, energy, and spending power of young people priced out of San Francisco, as evidenced by the early success of Occupy Oakland and the thousands flocking to the first Friday night Art Murmurs. Yet Oakland has also had 115 homicides in 2012. Its major crimes have risen 23% in the past year, and its police department is so dysfunctional that this crime wave has been accompanied by a 44% decline in arrests. Oakland is plagued by poor mayoral leadership, and lacks enough revenue to maintain quality services. Can Oakland turn this situation around in 2013?

It seems no matter how disturbing the murders in Oakland get---and the November 25 killings of two teenage girls is pretty disturbing---little consistent attention is paid to the ongoing mayhem. The two girls were shot the same weekend of two other killings. People have either become anesthetized to Oakland’s mayhem or feel powerless to change it---or perhaps those enjoying the scene in Rockridge, Lake Merritt and Jack London Square view the violence as akin to occurring in a separate city that does not affect them (though shootings in the latter and robberies in the former make this sentiment unlikely).

Regardless of the reasons, the lack of public urgency, protests and activism around Oakland’s wave of violence is troubling.

To be sure, Oakland is not the only city experiencing such problems. Chicago’s homicide rate this year has also sharply spiked. But there were specific explanations for the Chicago uptick, while the killing of the two girls were among the many murders in which authorities claim to have no clue as to motive or circumstance.

And as noted above, if there is a city with a lower arrest rate than Oakland it is news to me.

The Chicago homicides dominated the local news cycles in a way that the Oakland crime wave has not. The fact that the shooting of two teenage girls has provided none of the region-wide soul searching provoked by so many other crimes makes this heinous crime even more disturbing.

Oakland’s Leadership Deficit

One reason people are not focused on Oakland’s murder and crime wave is a lack of mayoral leadership. Mayor Jean Quan is no more responsible for this crisis than New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was for Hurricane Sandy, but you sure do not see Quan going around the city reassuring residents and promising action the way Christie did.

Progressives elected Quan and former mayor Ron Dellums. I was wrong about both.

I envisioned Dellums would inspire a new generation of young African-American leadership to public service. I did not realize that he had already “checked out” from politics. While I had lower expectations from Quan and realized she was disorganized, I saw her consensus and participatory decision-making approach as just what Oakland needed.

Unfortunately, as we learned around Occupy, Quan has not stayed true to this approach, or her own history.

Oakland has an acute leadership deficit that cannot wait until the November 2014 mayoral election to be fixed. This deficit requires Council members and the progressive activist base to fill the leadership void left by Quan, and to take a much tougher and more public approach to the mayor than has been the case.

Oakland finally has some new faces on the City Council. They include Dan Kalb, who ran in San Francisco for D5 Supervisor in the race Ross Mirkarimi won in 2004. Kalb is a problem solver, and will clearly prove an asset to the city.

But I see Rebecca Kaplan as key to filling the leadership gap. Kaplan now represents the entire city on the Council, having trounced Ignacio de la Fuente in their November 2012 race.

Kaplan is great at winning elections, but it is now time to evaluate her on her success at reducing Oakland’s crime and violence, and at improving the city’s police department. Kaplan’s ranked choice voting strategy with Quan put the latter in office, and with Quan proving unable to govern effectively and no new mayoral election until November 2014, Kaplan must provide the leadership Oakland needs.

Kaplan lacks the mayor’s formal power, but this does not mean that she and her progressive backers cannot put forth and agenda and publicly demand that Quan and a Council majority adopt it. If Quan is smart she will follow Kaplan’s lead, as the mayor has found herself alone on too many critical city issues.

Oakland’s Structural Revenue Problem

Oakland also suffers from a structural revenue problem that makes it hard to provide quality public services. Consider these four factors:

1. The city of Piedmont, an adjacent largely white and affluent enclave that robs Oakland of millions of property tax dollars each year. Piedmont allows people living in what should be Oakland to have their own school system and avoid low-income residents.

2. Emeryville’s massive shopping centers bring millions in annual sales tax revenue. Corporations have turned Emeryville into a retail bonanza right on Oakland’s border, with Oakland getting none of the benefits.

3. The mismanaged Port of Oakland also diverts millions of dollars from the city, while removing vast real estate from direct democratic control by city government.

4. For decades Oakland relied on federal funding to supplement its economy, and federal cutbacks over the past decade have really hurt the city.

But Oakland’s funding problems do not excuse a police department so dysfunctional that if may soon be placed under federal receivership. The police-mayor relationship is terrible, the police appear to not learn from past mistakes, and there seems to be little of what the character of Lester Freamon in The Wire used to describe as “real police work.”

Its up to the progressive movement that elected Quan and Dellums to mobilize and assume leadership for addressing Oakland’s core problems.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron