Public Comment

Commentary: The Ox-Bow Incident in Oakland

By Jean Damu
Tuesday January 22, 2008

Almost everything I know I learned from sitting in front of the television watching old movies. 

Recent events in Oakland recall the 1943 Western classic, The Ox-Bow Incident, made before American right wingers awoke from their united front against fascism stupor and drove all the communists out of Hollywood. 

In the town of Ox-Bow, during the early days of the West, when towns were not blessed with the paragons of blind justice and eminently fair and qualified law enforcement agencies we enjoy today, three cow herders are falsely accused and hung by a lynch mob for the murder of a local rancher, who it turns out was not even murdered. 

Leigh Whipper, the Hollywood pioneer and founder of the Negro Actors Guild who unbelievably goes un-credited in this film classic (apparently even the communists couldn’t get the studios to credit black supporting actors), plays Sparks, the itinerant black preacher of Ox-Bow who gives voice to the humanitarian conscience of the Ox-Bow townspeople who unsuccessfully take a stand against the lynching. 

I watched this film for perhaps the 10th time the other day and became intrigued by the role of Sparks in the lynching. Of all the lynchings I had heard or read about, black folk usually made themselves “unavailable” when white America went into its nationalistic fervor/holiday mode of lynching. 

I spent an entire day reading about lynchings, usually of African Americans, and scoured many books at the University of California’s Bancroft Library to see if there was one recorded incident of a black man playing the anti-Sparks, one who actually supplied the rope. Although there are numerous occasions in U.S. history of blacks owning other blacks I couldn’t find one example of a black person being so twisted in emotional development as to have participated in a lynching. 

Which is why the Ox-Bow incident in Oakland is so disturbing.  

Apparently because the Barry Bond’s trial is on hiatus and we are between baseball seasons, the Bay Area’s daily newspapers, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Oakland Tribune, feel they can move beyond the crassness of simply spiking readership by publically lynching Barry Bonds and get about with the more serious business of stoking the flames of mob mentality by publically lynching Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums. 

But what is so disturbing about the campaign against Dellums, even more disturbing than the campaign against Bonds, is that a black man, Chip Johnson of the Chronicle, is playing the anti-Sparks, the town drunk, who provides the rope and bullies the mob into action. 

Two years ago former Congressman Dellums was minding his own business, enjoying life as most former members of Congress do, raking in the cash by lobbying for the same corporations they were supposed to have been protecting us from. 

Then the congressman’s friends decided he would be an excellent antidote to everything that ails Oakland, he could fix Oakland’s crime problem and most importantly he could make them feel good about living in Oakland. In fact he made them feel so good they drafted him for mayor and elected him. 

Today Dellums has been mayor for one year. His most notable successes have been ending the union busting-inspired garbage strike, facilitating the amazingly quick fix of the portion of the freeway that melted following a fuel truck explosion and overseeing a 10 percent decline in Oakland homicides. 

What? Homicides went down 10 percent in Oakland last year and nobody informed us? Does a lynch mob draw up a bill of particulars before it throws a rope over the nearest tree? 

Obviously here are massive problems in Oakland; in fact the rate of serious crimes rose three percent last year. 

But the Chronicle’s Johnson wrote in the Jan. 15 edition, “The only way a politician could get any softer on crime would be to hold a party in honor of convicted felons and pass out manuals on how to beat the criminal justice system.” 

In fact Johnson has written likely more columns attacking Dellums in just the last year than he wrote addressing the previous mayor on any issue in the previous eight years. 

Meanwhile in San Francisco, last year the city experienced its highest homicide rate in more than a decade, its’ highest since 1995 in fact. Meanwhile the mayor, most noted for his high-profile serial monogamous relationships and an alcohol-fueled tryst with his campaign manager’s wife, is not held in the least accountable, for anything, ranging from his personal behavior to the crashing of the city attorney’s witness protection program, to the genocidal conditions that exist in much of much of the city’s public housing. 

One is forced to wonder, why is a black mayor of Oakland held to levels of accountability to which his white predecessor was never held and to which his counterpart in San Francisco who is white is not held? 

What is at work is more than a simple racist double standard of treatment that has worked against Barry Bonds and the steroid issue. 

In Oakland what seems to be at work is racism in response to changing demographics. 

White people, for whom Chip Johnson, a black man, has become their primary voice, are fearful of having to exist as minorities in a majority black, brown and Asian city, which is Oakland. 

As of the 2000 census, white people make up just one third of the Oakland population and there is no question it is white people who are largely behind the effort to expand the size of the Oakland Police Department, an agency Oakland blacks have long distrusted, in order to alleviate conditions that have historically been assigned to black and other minority communities. 

The strange and uniquely tragic aspect of the situation in Oakland is that it is a black man who unlike Sparks in The Ox-bow Incident speaks out against the lynching, holds the rope and pours alcohol on the racist fires of white rage against the black mayor.  


Jean Damu is the former western regional representative for the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N'COBRA), taught Black Studies at the University of New Mexico, and currently serves as a member of the Steering Committee of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.