UnderCurrents: Reporting on Dellums Often Clouded by Conclusions Already Drawn

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Wednesday February 04, 2009 - 06:22:00 PM

Some years ago, I was part of a team asked by a progressive American organization to do a brief study of anti-black racism in the country of Cuba while we were there working on another project. During our tour of the country for about six weeks, we conducted interviews (as much as we could do with our limited Spanish) and made observations. While almost every Afro-Cuban we spoke with felt they were doing better economically since the 1959 Revolution, there were deep remnants of racism that Cubans seemed to neither acknowledge or even recognize. The country’s various beauty pageants, for example, all featured exclusively women of fair skin and European features and hair; women of visible African descent were not considered standards of “beauty.” And at one of the nation’s insane asylums—a system the Cubans are particularly proud of—the patients put on a minstrel show for the visitors, complete with blackface and buck-and-wing dancing. Our hosts could not understand why the African-American portion of the contingent was aghast. 

When we got back to the United States, we wrote up a report in which we concluded that while anti-black racism had a different history in Cuba than it did in the states, it had by no means been eliminated. 

There was a problem, however. Shortly after the Revolution, Cuban President Fidel Castro had declared that racism had been eliminated in Cuba, and the American group which had assigned us the study had close ties with the Cuban government. When the group later published a pamphlet on our study and results, the conclusion about the continuation of anti-black racism in Cuba had been, um, purged. 

The lesson I learned from this little experience is that it is the damned exceptional individual or organization that reverses a conclusion once it has been made. There seems to be a locking-in process that takes place, and any additional evidence—however contrary to the original conclusion—tends to get modified, bent, completely altered, or sometimes simply flat-out ignored so that it does not contradict or get in the way of the opinion already formed. 

That, I think, is what has been working with so many of the critics of the administration of Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums. Many of those critics declared the administration a failure early on—some of them even before Mr. Dellums took office—and so it should be surprising that everything they subsequently write reaches the same conclusion. 

Even, as I said, to the point of altering the facts. 

In a Tuesday column in which he somewhat bizarrely concludes that Mr. Dellums “sounds as if he’s already abdicated control [of Oakland’s streets] to the [Oscar Grant] protesters,” Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson writes the following about the mayor’s widely publicized walk through the tumultuous crowd down 14th Street on the night of the first Grant rioting: “Dellums, against the advice of his security detail, walked out and addressed angry protesters who shouted him down until he retreated back into Oakland City Hall. His words fell on deaf ears, and before the night was over more than 50 businesses were damaged in the mayhem.” 

There is something of a failure of logic and timing here. If Mr. Dellums words “fell on deaf ears” and vandalism ensued, then it would not appear that Mr. Dellums was “abdicating control” of Oakland’s streets, only that he was able to exercise control. Further, if you follow Mr. Johnson’s truncated timeline, Mr. Dellums addressed angry protesters, they shouted him down, and then they went out and damaged more than 50 businesses. In fact, the businesses and vehicles along 14th Street were damaged before Mr. Dellums appeared on the scene. It was the damage on 17th Street and along portions of Telegraph, Broadway, and in front of the federal and state buildings that occurred afterwards. 

But Mr. Johnson does a more serious alteration of facts. The Chronicle’s East Bay columnist makes it appear as if Mr. Dellums stepped out of City Hall to address a crowd of protesters—against the advice of his security detail—was shouted down, and then retreated back inside City Hall. In fact, there was a much longer series of events that occurred, as we have written before. There was no crowd at City Hall initially when Mr. Dellums came on the scene on the night of Jan. 7. The crowd and the police were strung out along 14th and adjacent streets from about Franklin to Oak, and the advice from security, presumably, was for the mayor not to walk down into that area. Instead, Mr. Dellums chose to walk down 14th Street down to about the area of McDonalds, addressing individuals and knots of people as he did. He was not shouted down along 14th Street, and did not retreat. Instead, he engineered a backing off between protesters and riot police, and then walked back up 14th Street to City Hall, bringing many in the crowd of protesters with him. The rest dispersed, and there did not appear to be any more trouble on the lower end of 14th Street that night. 

It is easy to see how Mr. Johnson might have gotten his facts mixed up about the events of the night of Jan. 7, since he was not observed in the downtown area that night. That is hardly surprising, since Mr. Johnson rarely attends many of the newsmaking events he writes about, choosing either to watch them on television or read about them in the newspaper, presumably, or talk with others who were actually there. Reporters and columnists can’t be everywhere, of course, but Mr. Johnson is so noticeably absent that when he showed up at a Ron Dellums press conference on the new staff appointments last week, a buzz went through the crowd of reporters and staff when he walked in the room. It seems somewhat odd, isn’t it, that the two major local columnists who beat the drum about Mr. Dellums’ failure to show up at City Hall are one—Mr. Johnson—who rarely shows up himself—and another—East Bay Express columnist Chris Thompson—who may not even show up in the East Bay at all. 

But Mr. Johnson and Mr. Thompson are not the only local columnists whose analysis of current events appears unduly colored by past conclusions. 

Late last month, in writing about Mr. Dellums’ State of the City address, Tribune columnist Byron Williams wrote, “If I were grading on style points, Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums’ State of the City address, deserves an A-minus. … [T]he mayor gave a lucid, extemporaneous address for approximately 60 minutes. The problem, however, was content. In this all-important area, I give the mayor an incomplete. The mayor began with roughly 30 minutes about his reflections of President Barack Obama and the historic symbolism of his inauguration. That’s fine, but what about Oakland?” Mr. Williams concluded that the mayor failed to give either a detailed analysis of the current state of city affairs or detailed proposals as how to solve them, which Mr. Williams called “another missed opportunity, which is sadly the hallmark of this administration.” 

But Mr. Williams has already concluded that the Dellums administration is a resounding failure, writing two weeks before, following the swearing in of the new Oakland elected officials for Mr. Dellums to resign, saying that his “call for Dellums to resign is not based on a set of tangible results; rather it is the intangible of his body language that strongly suggests he does not want to do the job.” 

Interpretation of body language aside (isn’t that something they’re fond of doing on the Fox News Channel?), Mr. Williams also does a woeful job of reporting in the earlier column, writing that some said the mayor’s absence from the city inauguration ceremonies was because he was “attending the memorial service two blocks away for C. Diane Howell, publisher of the Black Business Listings and founder of the annual Black Expo business trade fair. Others dispute the claim that the mayor attended the service. I called the mayor’s office for a confirmation of his whereabouts, but my inquiries were not returned.” Odd. It would have seemed fairly easy to confirm that Mr. Dellums was at the Howell ceremonies, since the mayor was sitting on the dais in the Marriott auditorium in full view of a couple of thousand people in the audience, his name was listed on the program, and he gave remarks. But, yeah, facts are sometimes difficult to tie down. 

The real problem with Mr. Williams’ state of the city column is that in having declared the Dellums administration a failure, he appears to have little curiosity in looking into what was a deeply interesting story surrounding the mayor’s staff appointments. 

Mr. Dellums, indeed was somewhat lackluster in his State of the City address, which would not have attracted much notice from another public official, but which seemed especially odd about the mayor, since he is one of the best public speakers of our time, and rarely flubs such chances. Usually Mr. Dellums is well prepared—some might even say over-prepared—but at the State of the City he had little of substance to say. But there may have been a good cause. 

Earlier in the month, Mr. Dellums had announced that he would make his new staff appointments, including the new city administrator, during the week of Jan. 26. It was widely assumed that he would make those announcements during his State of the City. Many of us left City Hall that night puzzled that he hadn’t. That same week, it was announced that contrary to expectations that he would be rehired in Oakland as city administrator, former Oakland City Manager/Administrator Robert Bobb announced he was taking a one-year contract with the Detroit public school system. A few days later, Mr. Dellums announced that interim City Administrator Dan Lindheim would be hired for the permanent slot. If Mr. Dellums was, in fact, prepared to speak almost exclusively about his new staff hirings during his State of the City address, with the Robert Bobb hiring as the centerpiece, it would be understandable if he found himself at the last minute with his star catch gone, and nothing with which to subsititute. 

There may be a fascinating back story to this. We learn from both Mr. Bobb and Mr. Dellums that the job was offered to Mr. Bobb, but he ended up turning it down, reportedly after making contract demands that Mr. Dellums could not—or chose not to—meet. Mr. Bobb, it may be remembered, was hired by Mr. Dellums to do the national search for the new city administrator, and there are now rumors that the other choices recommended by Mr. Bobb turned down the job. There is a sort of Cheneyesque quality to Mr. Bobb’s actions, and one now wonders if he set up the process to back Mr. Dellums in a corner, making himself not only the best but the only viable candidate outside of Mr. Lindheim, and then using that leverage to try to bargain for a sweeter deal. But I’m only speculating here, and the truth of the Bobb hiring/not hiring we will, perhaps, never know.