Undercurrents: Chronicle Freezes Out Brooks, While Columnist Switches Gears

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday August 14, 2008 - 09:01:00 AM

From time to time, people ask me why I periodically highlight Oakland Councilmember Desley Brooks’ summertime constituent entertainment events, but rarely, if ever, do the same for other local officeholders. It seems to me that the reasons ought to be obvious, given recent history and the current social situation in East Oakland. But perhaps I need to go over it again. 

Three to four times a summer, for the past several years, Ms. Brooks has been holding free concerts at Arroyo Viejo Park at the far southern end of her council district. Arroyo sits in the middle of one of the roughest areas of Oakland, surrounded by one of the city’s most violent killing fields, the center of one of its drug trafficking hubs and close to the prostitute stroll between 73rd and 98th along International Boulevard. When they began, many people privately predicted that Ms. Brooks’ events would quickly end in violence, as did Mosswood Park’s Carijama some years before. They did not. I’ve gone to about half of the events since they began, and I have yet to hear so much as an argument. At first, the Arroyo Park events had the typically large police contingent roaming through the crowd, but gradually, the police presence has been reduced, until now only one or two police attend, standing inconspicuously under the trees to the side. Instead, the events are patrolled by Fruit of Islam men from Minister Keith Muhammad’s Nation of Islam Oakland mosque. 

Whereas in the beginning, when the Brooks events first started, there was an uneasy anticipation of problems, now people come out with the expectation that they are going to have nothing but a good time, with no violence. That is an important changeover, and the major reason why I continue to talk about the Brooks events. It is the first step in recreating an East Oakland “community,” where residents learn to trust each other and their ability to retake their streets and parks and schools and business districts, reclaiming them for community and family benefit. For those of us who believe that Oakland’s violent neighborhoods must be rehabilitated from within, by their own residents—rather than “pacified” from without—it is a major step, a small, planted seed that has been steadily growing, to bear fruit in later years. 

Usually, the Brooks events are produced by local musical entrepreneur D’wayne Wiggins and highlight singing groups and musical acts, many of them native to Oakland or the Bay Area. On Sunday past, Ms. Brooks took a different turn, sponsoring a “Comedy on the Green” show, emceed by local comedian and television star Mark Curry. I estimated more than 500 in the crowd by the time the show ended at 7, by far the largest I had seen in the Brooks events. For the first time—probably because of the Curry involvement—the Brooks Arroyo Park event got coverage from two local television stations and the Chronicle and the Tribune. But the newspaper coverage was vastly different in at least one aspect. 

Witness the first two paragraphs from the Monday Oakland Tribune story by reporter Sean Maher: “Dozens of East Oakland residents turned out to Arroyo Viejo Park on Sunday afternoon for a day of free stand-up comedy, health programs and a tip of the hat to deceased comedian Bernie Mac. In what Councilwoman Desley Brooks (Eastmont-Seminary) said she hopes will be an annual event, ‘Comedy on the Green’ featured famed comedian Mark Curry as master of ceremonies, promoting the theme, ‘Where there is laughter, there is hope.’” 

Now see how San Francisco Chronicle reporter Chris Cadelago described the same event: “Hundreds of people, many from East Oakland neighborhoods, opened the inaugural Comedy on the Green celebration Sunday at Arroyo Viejo Community Park not with a laugh, but a moment of silence. Oakland comedian Mark Curry, host and master of ceremonies, began the afternoon of stand-up comedy with a quiet moment for comedian Bernie Mac, 50, who died Saturday from what his publicist said were complications from pneumonia.” 

If you noticed that Ms. Brooks was missing from the Chronicle account—conspicuously missing—you win the prize. In fact, Ms. Brooks is not mentioned in the Chronicle article until the next to the last paragraph, when it notes that Curry said he “partnered with Oakland City Councilwoman Desley Brooks on the event to ‘give people a fun day.’”  

Hard to see how the Chronicle reporter missed Ms. Brooks’ major involvement in the event, given the large banner hanging on the bandstand with the councilmember’s name and photograph prominently displayed, or the fact that Congresswoman Barbara Lee—who spoke—praised Ms. Brooks for organizing the event, as did Minister Keith Muhammad during his brief remarks, as did Mr. Curry, repeatedly. 

The Chronicle has been making something of a habit of criticizing Ms. Brooks in recent years, including a recent Chip Johnson column that led to Ms. Brooks suing Mr. Johnson and the Chronicle in Superior Court in Alameda County for defamation. But I would not suggest that any of this had had anything to do with the newspaper downplaying the councilmember’s role in organizing the successful Sunday Arroyo Viejo comedy event. You’re free to do so yourselves, though. 

And while we are on the subject of my good friend, Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson… 

Some of you may recall how last year and earlier this year, Mr. Johnson went on something of a crusade about Oakland’s crime and violence problem, writing a series of columns on the issue and severely criticizing Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums for not moving faster or more effectively on the problem. 

On Aug. 7, 2007, following the assassination of Chauncey Bailey: “The assassination of a well-known journalist, the arrest of members of a local Muslim group—including a man who confessed to the shooting—and seven other shootings over the last few days have left Oakland residents reeling. … For some Oakland residents, especially those living in high-crime areas, the brazen daylight shooting of a public figure underscored that no one can take personal safety for granted on these streets. For others, it signaled the abysmal failure of the city’s elected leaders to come up with a strategy to address the violence.” 

And again on Oct. 16 of that year: “What gets me most about our big-picture mayor is that he continually ignores the big picture. He talks on and on about tackling big ideas and empowering big visions while continually side-stepping Oakland’s biggest issue. Public safety is the big-picture issue, Mr. Mayor. Don’t you get it? For residents of Rockridge, East and West Oakland, Crocker Highlands, Adams Point, Glenview and other neighborhoods where street crime is increasing, the single biggest issue for residents is reducing crime.” 

And on Oct. 30: “Oakland residents are fed up with random crime—from assaults to burglaries to armed robberies—that is being carried out with seeming impunity on the city’s streets. Whether the answer is more cops, a restructured department or something else, businesses and residents across the city want improvements in public safety—and sooner rather than later.” 

And what was the solution to Oakland’s crime and violence problem advocated by Mr. Johnson in his columns? Over and over, it was for Mr. Dellums to hire more police. 

On Oct. 9 of last year: “It’s clear, given both the recent and past problems between the city’s police department and some parts of the black community, that any plan to beef up the department will have to be part of a major restructuring of the agency. Because as it stands now, the department can provide neither the investigative and protection services desired in middle-class neighborhoods and lacks the contacts, reputation and community standing to make inroads in the city’s toughest areas.” 

And on Oct. 16: “But despite Oakland’s soaring crime rate and its sinking arrest rate, Mayor Ron Dellums is being dragged into a public debate about hiring more officers. Late last month, Dellums said he believed Oakland residents didn’t want a force larger than the 803 sworn officers authorized by a public bond measure. But at a town hall meeting in North Oakland on Saturday, he changed that tune, describing the recruitment push as a rock-bottom minimum number of officers. And by the end of the meeting, Dellums was acquiescing to residents who called for a force as large as 1,000 officers… The point brought home again and again by residents who attended the weekend town hall meeting was that public safety and adequate staffing levels for the Police Department should be the mayor’s top priority. Anything short of that, including bans on bottled water and smoking at bus stops, is small potatoes.” 

In those days, it sounded like Mr. Johnson was paraphrasing that old rap song: more po-lice, more po-lice, more po-lice. 

And when Mayor Dellums first announced plans for a parcel tax measure to hire above and beyond the current 804 authorized officers, Mr. Johnson was initially ecstatic, writing on May 20 of this year: “Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums dropped a bombshell on Monday, announcing a plan to sponsor a November ballot measure to boost the police force by an additional 150 officers over the next three years by raising property taxes. It’s the biggest news from Dellums since he took office in January 2007, and if he can pull it off, it would be the best thing that’s happened to the city of Oakland for years.” 

Well, not exactly. 

By the time the actual introduction of the parcel tax measure came about earlier this summer, Mr. Johnson had suddenly switched gears. On July 15, he wrote: “In May, when I supported the mayor’s plan to craft a ballot measure asking voters to approve a parcel tax to hire more police officers, I heard from more than 150 angry readers. Most were residents unwilling to hand over another penny to the city. That was the before City Administrator Deborah Edgerly’s dismissal... The scandal involving the city’s top administrator has further eroded the public’s confidence in Oakland’s leadership.” 

After supporting Council President Ignacio De La Fuente’s call for a cleanup of City Hall finances before asking residents for more money for police or anything else, Mr. Johnson concluded: “I support any reasonable, affordable plan to bring the Oakland Police Department up to speed and provide residents with a full complement of police services, but not under these circumstances.” 

Under these circumstances? 

So where does that leave all those Oakland crime victims Mr. Johnson seemed to be so worried about last year? 

It seems to be getting more and more difficult to figure out what Mr. Johnson actually stands for, but at least we can be sure what he will always be against. Mr. Johnson is becoming as reliable as a compass, except that rather than always pointing north, as the compass does, the Chronicle’s East Bay columnist seems to always be pointing himself in the opposite direction to which Mr. Dellums is currently going.