Activists Push Dellumns to Fulfill 'Ban the Box' Promise

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Tuesday April 01, 2008

Posted Thurs., April 3—Under “friendly” but pointed pressure from community activists to fulfill a campaign pledge, Oakland Mayor Dellums has set a May 31 deadline to begin removing barriers to the hiring of formerly incarcerated people for City of Oakland jobs. 

In a statement read to a Tuesday afternoon Frank Ogawa Plaza “Ban the Box” rally, the mayor said that removing the requirement that job applicants reveal criminal convictions will begin in the city’s Public Works Agency, with other departments to follow. 

The “ban the box” slogan refers to the fill-in box on employment applications where applicants are asked to check if they have been convicted of a crime. Activists say an admission of a prior conviction knocks many, if not most, ex-offenders out of many jobs where their conviction status is not relevant, preventing them from making a living and in many cases forcing them back into criminal activity. 

Activists first began calling on Oakland to implement “ban the box” at a July 2004 Peace and Justice Community Summit held at Oakland’s First Unitarian Church on 14th Street, a few blocks from the City Hall site of Tuesday’s rally. At that time, Jerry Brown was mayor of Oakland. 

At a Maxwell Park Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council meeting in mid-March, Dellums told NCPC members that he had concentrated on his full policing plan in recent weeks, because “I wanted to take the police issue off the table” and move on to the issues of violence prevention.  

“Crime and violence are not solely a police issue,” the mayor said, noting that he now wanted to move forward “immediately” in the city to address the issues of “poverty, health care, education, and the revolving prison door. These issues have been neglected for a long time.” 

But at the City Hall rally of over 100 activists and community residents sponsored by Plan For A Safer Oakland—a coalition of organizations focusing on prisoners and formerly incarcerated issues—speakers said they wanted to make sure Dellums’ “immediate” meant exactly what it said. 

Many of the participants held signs with such slogans as “Jobs Not Jails” or “Stop Discriminating In City Hiring.” 

Responding to the announcement of the May 31 deadline for removing the conviction question from Public Works jobs, rally emcee Tony Coleman, of All Of Us Or None and the American Friends Service Committee, said “we’ve been promised before. It’s good to hear, but we’re going to keep up the pressure.” 

In a press release for the event, rally organizers put the blame for the delay in implementation of Dellums’ “ban the box” promise on Oakland City Administrator Deborah Edgerly. While saying that Dellums had made the promise over a year ago to “remove the question about past convictions from city employment applications and to set aside city jobs for formerly incarcerated people,” Edgerly “has yet to implement this policy.” 

Privately, Dellums staffers tried to deflect the blame from Edgerly, who has announced her intention to resign. 

Dereca Blackmon, executive director of the Oakland-based Leadership Excellence youth training organization, told rally participants that activists would come back to City Hall on May 30, the eve of the Dellums deadline, to “visit.” “On June 2, we’ll hold another rally to either celebrate or to take it to the next level.” 

Blackmon said that the “number one problem named by politicians is crime,” and that “the number one solution is opportunity.” 

Dorsey Nunn, an organizer with All Of Us Or None organization, said that the cities of San Francisco, East Palo Alto, Boston, Seattle, Chicago, and St. Paul-Minneapolis had all banned the prior conviction question on their city employment applications. 

“I wish Oakland had been the first to ban the box,” Nunn said. “We’re only asking them to do nothing more than other cities have done.”  

Nunn called the conviction question “structural discrimination,” saying it was the same as prior employment questions that “asked ‘Are you a Negro.’” 

Also speaking briefly at the rally was 3rd District Councilmember Nancy Nadel, described by emcee Coleman as “a very good friend of us.” 

Nadel, who serves as chair of the city’s formerly incarcerated re-entry steering committee, said, “We have been trying to ban the box in Oakland for years, but it wasn’t until we got this mayor that we started to get movement. This is the first time we’ve gotten a definite date” for implementation. 

Nadel ran against Dellums for Oakland mayor in the 2006 election. 

Nadel also praised Reentry Employment Specialist Isaac Taggart, saying he “is doing a fantastic job.” Taggart was hired by Dellums in January of this year to coordinate the city’s effort to integrate formerly incarcerated persons back into the city. 

Tying down the exact number of formerly incarcerated individuals in Oakland is difficult, according to Oakland-based Urban Strategies Council Chief Executive Officer Junious Williams, Jr., but the number is enormous. 

Williams said that an estimated 6,000 individuals are released on parole into Oakland every year, with approximately 12,000 total parolees living in the city. He also said that there are 17,000 individuals on probation in Alameda County, 60 percent of them in Oakland. 

“We are not going to rebuild Oakland if we leave out large sections of the community,” Williams told rally participants. “If the pathway back into the community [from incarceration] is employment, then we have to have jobs. [Banning the box] is simple justice. It’s the right thing to do.”