Column: Undercurrents: Brown Administration Never Tried to Solve Oakland’s Problems

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday December 01, 2006

The outgoing administration of Jerry Brown-its time left in office now measured in days rather than years or months—continues to recede into the background of Oakland’s consciousness as the city and the region focuses on the excitement of the incoming new mayor. 

That’s a mistake. There were assumptions made and things which occurred in the last eight years which Oakland citizens ought to examine, now, while they are fresh in our minds, to see what was done right and what was done wrong, both how, and why. 

One of the most insidious aspects of the Brown administration—[insidious: 1. characterized by treachery or slyness; crafty; wily 2. operating in a slow or not easily apparent manner; more dangerous than seems evident]—was its masking of its own failure to mount a serious attack on the root core of many of Oakland’s problems by attacking, instead, citizens who were trying to solve those problems themselves. 

To quote a popular ‘70s term, the Brown administration was especially adept at the practice of “blaming the victim.” That was never more on display than in Mr. Brown’s relationships with Oakland’s African-American community. 

Oakland is awash in violence, and the African-American sections of the city is a particular battleground. Mr. Brown never developed or articulated a coherent, organized, comprehensive anti-violence strategy. Instead, he appeared to embrace quick, headline-grabbing solutions at points where the publicity got too bad and/or when his future political goals demanded it. Often that meant attacks on citizens or groups who, in the course of trying to provide alternatives to violence, became victims of violence themselves. 

Most of this is old ground, often covered in this column before. 

One of these instances was with the now-defunct annual Carijama Festival, which once filled North Oakland-West Oakland’s Mosswood Park every Memorial Day weekend with a celebration of Caribbean, African, and African-American culture. Carijama stopped in 2005 after several years of violent incidents. Everybody involved—festival organizers, police and city officials—agreed that there was nothing about the festival itself that promoted violence. Quite the opposite. The festivals were family and community-friendly, giving citizens a free place to go during he holiday, and my memories of the events will always be people sitting or stretched out on blankets across the Mosswood Park lawn, barbecue pits sending out luscious smells, some folks up dancing, children playing in the trees, young men and women exchanging smalltalk and cellphone numbers, and the ever-present Caribbean music coming off the park stage. The violence—and, again, this was agreed to by everyone involved—occurred with young people who came to the events late, almost as they were breaking up, who then got into disputes either among themselves or with police who tried to get them to leave the area. 

Was there a way to prevent the violence by latecomers while preserving the festival itself? I don’t know, because there never appeared to be a concerted effort by the Brown administration to do so. Instead, it was easier to take actions which eventually ended with the closing of Carijama for good. 

That was also the case with Oakland’s downtown African-American club scene. Two of the area’s longstanding clubs—Geoffrey’s Inner Circle and Sweet Jimmy’s-have either severely curtailed their activities or gone out of business entirely because of problems associated with the city’s response to violence near the clubs. Neither Geoffrey’s nor Jimmy’s catered to a crowd or a type of music normally associated with Oakland’s street violence. The two clubs were longstanding anchors of Oakland’s downtown scene, with Geoffrey’s especially bringing positive, national fame to the city as the regular stopover for celebrities and sports figures when they visited Oakland. Despite the fact that both clubs invested heavily in security measures, problems of violence sometimes developed in or around their facilities, as problems of violence often develop around many Oakland events run by responsible, non-violent entities (the arrests at Raider games regularly top at over a hundred, for example). 

Did Mr. Brown recognize that Geoffrey’s and Jimmy’s both provided positive places for people to go downtown at night—supposedly a goal of the Brown administration—and work with the owners to keep the both establishments open while keeping down the violence? They didn’t, if you listen to the owners themselves, who said that police and city officials continuously cracked down on them to do something about violence that was not emanating from their establishments, and that they had no control over. Jimmy’s, sadly, went out of business entirely, and Geoffrey’s eventually dropped his club openings to one night a week, a loss to Oakland’s downtown scene that will be difficult to overcome. (By way of full disclosure, the owner of Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, Geoffrey Pete, is my cousin.) 

As you can imagine, what the Brown Administration treated badly in regard to organizations catering to people not usually associated with Oakland’s violence—Carijama, Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, and Sweet Jimmy’s—was distinctly worse when it came to areas of the community where the violence was centered. 

Nothing illustrated this failure more than Oakland’s sideshow policy in the Jerry Brown years. 

Although the history of the sideshows has been obscured—often deliberately—a minimum of searching easily reveals what happened. Sometime during the 90’s, young African-Americans on Oakland’s east side sought safe places to gather in the midst of the city’s violent-prone street, club, and concert scene. Initially, they gathered after hours in the parking lot at Eastmont Mall, where sometimes several hundred people assembled in their cars to play music, dance, exchange telephone numbers, and, yes, engage in that old-time East Oakland sport of spinning donuts. 

Two things stand out from those early, parking lot sideshow days. The first is that during one of Oakland’s most intensely-violent periods, little violence was associated with the original events. The second is that there was little or no complaint from the community about the events, since they were away from a residential neighborhood, and not taking place in the middle of the street. 

Why and how did the sideshows move from the relatively violence-free, non-obtrusive events of the Eastmont days to the often-violent street events of today? 

The first thing to remember in this sad tale is that it wasn’t the wish of the sideshow participants themselves. Instead, the sideshows were pushed out into the streets by Oakland police, who broke up the events at Eastmont, and then again when they relocated to the Pac’n’Save parking lot lower down on Hegenberger. Once on the streets, the sideshows suddenly became a massive problems within the communities in which they were operating, leading to increased police crackdowns, including mass ticketings, arrests, and towing of cars. This contributed to a downward spiral, a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy in which the police actions drove away many of the saner sideshow participants who were in it for the socializing rather than the illegal aspect. They were gradually replaced by participants to whom the game of running from the police was more attractive. That led to more police crackdowns, tipping the balance in the participants further and further away from the responsible to the irresponsible, leading us to our current mess. 

More than once, former Oakland Police Chief Richard Word said that breaking up the parking lot sideshows had been a “mistake.” Unfortunately, that bit of information got consistently drowned out in the clamor and din to shut the sideshows down. 

A group of the original sideshow participants—led by documentary filmmaker Yakpasua Zazaboi—approached the Brown administration several times with requests for the city to set up a legalized sideshow. That may have been the solution to shutting down the illegal, street sideshows and providing a safe, sanctioned, and legal outlet for many of Oakland’s forgotten youth. Or it may have been unworkable. So far we don’t know, since the proposal was never addressed in an adult, responsible way by the Brown administration. Instead, the original sideshow participants—the young African-Americans who had suffered the most under Oakland’s violence and who had tried to find a place in Oakland to gather where violence wasn’t happening—were rebuffed and dismissed by Mr. Brown and his associates, criticized from the chairs around City Council, in the press, and by many adults in the neighborhoods without ever sitting down and meeting these young people, or listening directly to what they wanted. 

Mr. Dellums has started out on a different foot, with one of his neighbor-to-neighbor meetings scheduled for tomorrow (Saturday, December 1 at Claremont Middle School) aimed specifically at listening to the concerns and ideas of young people in Oakland. Perhaps the sideshow issue will surface then, from a different perspective. 

As my father used to say, there is a many a slip between the cup and the lip. But the Dellums administration, thankfully, appears to be trying to drink from Oakland waters that are far removed from where Mr. Brown used to quench his thirst. Let’s hope he keeps it up.