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Why We Can't Afford to Ignore City Hall

Oakland’s Absent Left

by CHUCK MORSE

Despite Oakland, California’s reputation as a hotbed of radical and progressive politics, there is no leftwing alternative in the city’s mayoral race and there won’t be one. The three credible candidates—Jean Quan, Joe Tuman, and Libby Schaaf—are pro-business, pro-gentrification Democrats. It seems that no viable left candidacy will emerge from the fringe. Why is this?

The left has basically checked out of municipal politics in Oakland and that is a huge mistake. I know it seems nuts to say that the left is absent in Oakland. Wasn’t it just yesterday that Occupy Wall Street protestors swarmed the streets of downtown? Isn’t there always some demonstration or another going on, whether it’s up in the Hills (isn’t that where Angela Davis lives?), in the flatlands of East and West Oakland, or anywhere in between? There are literally scores of lefty writers, activists, and on-going and ad hoc organizations. That’s why it made sense when the New York Times called Oakland the “last refuge of radical America” in 2012.

However, there is a big difference between having leftists in a city vs. actually having a municipal left that cares about changing things on a local level.

As it stands now, no group is advancing a program to transform the City of Oakland as such. No one left of the center is pushing or even talking about comprehensive changes designed to fundamentally alter how the City works or how it fits into the region. People occasionally prod the City to change this or that policy, but no one is trying to rewrite the rules.

Could the left have an impact on the city government?

Experiences in cities elsewhere suggest that it could. Activists have used Richmond, California’s City Hall to challenge “big oil, big soda, and big banks,” making it one of the most progressive cities in the country, to cite the East Bay Express. Up the Pacific coast, socialist Kshama Sawant just won election to Seattle’s City Council. She has urged Boeing workers to take over the factories. She is openly and proudly anti-capitalist. Last July, Chokwe Lumumba became the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi; he describes himself as a revolutionary and wants the city to foster a “solidarity economy” that would include things like “worker-owned co-operatives, co-operative banks, peer lending, community land trusts, participatory budgeting, and fair trade.” Even Jac Asher, the new mayor of that corporate barfpark known as Emeryville, a small city adjacent to Oakland, has called for the inclusion of worker-owned cooperatives in new development.

There is a history of Left engagement with Oakland’s politics. The Black Panthers ran Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown for Mayor and City Council, respectively, in 1973; this was part of their “Base of Operations” campaign, with which they hoped to seize the city government, take control of the Port, and turn Oakland into a hub of global communist revolution. In fact, the Socialist Workers Party, which positioned itself to the left of the Panthers, also ran candidates for local office that year. In the 1980s, the Oakland Progressive Political Alliance pushed progressive candidates and, back in the Stone Age, the Socialist Party ran Jack London for mayor.

I’m not saying that the left must run candidates for local office. Electioneering often slides into pandering, and it is not clear what a left candidate could actually accomplish if he or she were to win office. What I am saying is that we can’t afford to ignore City Hall.

The City presides over an annual budget of approximately a half billion dollars and exercises enormous influence over what happens here. Much of this has to do with development—where it occurs, what it looks like, and who pays for it—and it also has a big impact on policing, schools, among other issues. On a broader level, the City is the main institution that ties us together as citizens—a key point of reference for democracy in the city, or at least the idea of it. Whether or not we choose to engage the city through elections, we do need to engage it.

At the very least, Oakland leftists should start talking about how to transform the city. What would Oakland look like if it was restructured around social justice and emancipatory ideals and linked up with worldwide movements for change? What policies would we implement and why? What policies would we abandon and why? These are tough political questions. We need to start wrestling with them.

As Oakland’s mayoral election heats up, we can expect the candidates to debate who can create the most “business-friendly” climate in the city and, above all, who can put more cops on the street. While this happens, we should start laying the foundation for a real alternative. There are thousands of us here, and we can draw upon what’s going on in cities elsewhere, from elements of local history, and maybe even come up with some bright ideas of our own. Oakland is a great place. It could be awesome.

Chuck Morse is a writer, translator, and editor. He lives in Oakland, California and blogs at Project Oakland.