Want a Renewal? Rid Your City of Blacks


Writing about Antonio Ramos, who was fatally shot while painting a peace mural in Oakland, California, New York Times writer Laura M. Holson saw the killing as interrupting the re-fashioning of Oakland as a sort of west coast Saint Moritz, a glitzy city in the Swiss Alps that my family and I visited in March, which, before the invasion by the wealthy, was a farm community. She calls this makeover of Oakland a “Renewal” (NYTIMES, Oct.3.) Renewal for this writer means that due to a conspiracy involving former Mayor Jerry Brown, developers, the police and criminal banks, thousands of blacks have been driven from the town so that now up-scalers from Marin and San Francisco can dine at 5 star fake French restaurants.

Oakland didn’t need any renewal. It was OK as it was. Now it’s losing its soul. A sign is the restrictions placed on musicians, dancers and poets who gather at Lake Merritt each Saturday. Now you have to have a permit to play drums. In Holson’s hasty attempt to cast Oakland as a backward dump, before cultural missionaries arrived, she failed to explore why people get shot here and in other cities. For starters, Oakland’s crime lab is a mess-only one-third of homicides are solved so a shooter knows that they can get away with murder.

Just as journalists who serve media that see big profits in shaming blacks don’t examine the source of guns, white-owned suburban gun stores, like the one outside of Chicago, where Jesse Jackson sat-in, during a little-noticed event, they neglect to tie the murders to fights over drug turfs. They also neglect to mention other ethnic groups involved in the drug trade, some of whom are deemed “model minorities” by the media.

Holson’s failure to mention that homicide rates grew in the cities when allies of the Reagan administration introduced crack in order to raise money for their contra warriors.

My neighborhood changed overnight during the summer of nineteen eighty-nine as crack houses were opened.

Black and Hispanic lives don’t matter here. Eighty percent of the police don’t live here. They’re commuters from white cities. They don’t give a fuck. They are the front line troops employed to cleanse the city of blacks.

The New York Times writer says that Oakland could become Brooklyn by the Bay. That’s supposed to be a compliment! Brooklyn is where the Village Voice discovered that the police instruct their officers to make arrests of blacks. We don’t need another Brooklyn. She wrote, “As little as two years ago, Oakland seemed to have escaped its reputation as the troubled sibling of its more glamorous sister, San Francisco. Guidebooks and media outlets eagerly described the Oakland Renaissance, in which eight-course tasting menus at the Michelin-star-rated Commis restaurant attracted international jet-setters, and housewives from Marin County wheeled Peg Perego strollers alongside artists with body piercings at the popular First Friday art exhibits downtown. Just the other week, Uber, the ride-sharing service, agreed to transform one of the city’s barren department stores into a gleaming technology beacon. Oakland, it appeared, had finally arrived.” Reputation as the troubled sibling of its more glamorous sister, San Francisco? This is the Oakland in the view of east coast journalists who drone in, scribble a few stereotypes about the city, do some slapdash interviews and then drone out.

Despite its problems, all of which are shared by other big cities, the pre-invasion Oakland was a working class city where, as the late Robert Maynard, publisher of the Oakland Tribune, observed the problems of diversity had been resolved. This all changed with the election of Mayor Jerry Brown, who campaigned as a populist, but then, as soon as the inaugural confetti was swept up, ripped off his mask and he turned into Giuliani west. Brown, and his developer friends, who contributed to his campaign, set out to woo dot-comers into Oakland. He called his scheme “elegant density.” His endorsement of Libby Schaaf, the current Mayor, assured her victory. She ran on a Lee Atwater-lite platform. All about “public safety.” To emphasize the point, Schaaf spent her first day in that office hanging out at police headquarters. The banks, which are now being sued by for predatory lending practices* by a plucky black City Attorney, Harvard graduate Barbara Parker, tag-teamed with Brown’s political structure and the blk hlywd
developers to issue subprime loans to blacks and Hispanics who were eligible for conventional loans. The police acted as real estate scouts on behalf of the invading Siliconers (who work at tech operations where few blacks are employed because Intel was invented by a race science quack, according to one theory) and though the locations of crack houses were known, those located in my neighborhood were halted through the efforts of private citizens not the police. In fact, during Crime Council meetings that my daughter and I attended elderly blacks were always asking why the drug dealers were so cozy with the police patrolling their blocks. With the help of my daughter Tennessee I got a crack house closed down. It took us about two years because the absentee landlord was permitted by the city to defy citations. (One thing you won’t here from ex-law enforcement commentators, who make CNN resemble an outpost for the notorious NYPD, or MSNBC’s pro-police “Morning Joe,” is about the hundreds of millions that the police have pilfered from drug dealers in exchange for immunity from arrest.)

One newcomer, Sarah Medina, writing in a blog called Headlines (April 18, 2013), seemed to welcome the decline of the black population and a re-fashioned Oakland, where whites from California can arrive and raise families and stuff and where upscale hipsters can hang out in coffee shops and ice cream parlors. “While white creative class expatriates are moving to Oakland to start a family, avoid San Francisco rent, or just to have more garden space – they’re driving rent prices up throughout the city and forcing minority residents who represent Old Oakland eastward where remnants of the violent lifestyles that made Oakland notorious in the ’90s are still visible.” Violent lifestyles that made Oakland notorious? That really has to be a one-sided portrait. And Oaklanders don’t need the invaders to bring a “creative class” to Oakland. We already had one. It was a thriving city of writers, artists, musicians, poets, white, black, Hispanic and Asian American. We didn’t need newcomers to create art shows. We’ve had plenty. Oakland is also the home of Pen Oakland called by The New York Times, “the blue collar, PEN” and The Before Columbus Foundation, whose American Book Awards are administered by a distinguished panel of Latinos, Asian-Italian, Jewish, Irish, and black Americans. Our board includes Joy Harjo, who just won the prestigious Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, which bestows the honor annually “to recognize outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry” and Juan Felipe Herrera current United States Poet Laureate. The Oakland Blues sound has international appeal. When some of its musicians traveled to Scotland, they were put up in a castle.

A theater scene that produces everything from the great Mary Watkin’s opera about civil rights heroine Fannie Lou Hamer to Tyler Perry’s dressing up like his mom at the Art Deco masterpiece, the Paramount Theater. The East Side Cultural Center is one of the few places in the world that produced Amiri Baraka’s musical, “The Sisyphus Syndrome,” with music by David Murray.

This is the kind of arrogance, Euro Narcissism, among some Europeans that begins with their boast of bringing enlightenment to this hemisphere that contained civilizations dating back at least 10 thousand years. But she’s right about the soaring rents that are driving blacks from the city, who, because of the banks, are more likely to rent than own homes. “Recent reports show that Oakland’s rents and home prices have increased faster than virtually any city in the nation. Oakland’s median rent is now $2,650, according to Zillow. Oakland’s median household income is $52,583, according to the US Census. Thus the median household must spend 60 percent of its total income to rent the median home, which is twice the level that is considered affordable,” according to CounterPunch contributor Darwin BondGraham, (East Bay Express, Oct. 7 ,2015). In fact, Lukas Brekke-Miesner, who describes himself as “a white boy whose family has lived in East Oakland for three generations,” used the term “Columbused” in a brilliant article printed in the blog Wine and Bowties, August 10, 2015. The title of the article was “STRANGERS IN OUR OWN LAND.”

“Being from Oakland is a great source of pride for most of us, but with each passing year, many of us are increasingly feeling like strangers in our own city. This is not an isolated phenomenon. We walk down streets where we used to know everyone and feel like we’re the newbies due to the sheer volume of unfamiliar and unwelcoming faces. We nod at passersby who refuse to make eye contact. We play hip-hop at Lake Merritt and are asked to turn it off, and, more recently, cited by OPD. We cruise through working class neighborhoods that used to be home to our Black, Latino, and Southeast Asian patnas and see young pale faces walking dogs as white flight doubles back on itself, seeking to lay claim to the communities they rejected before.

“For those of you not from here, this may sound fickle and minute, but it’s not. And it feels eerie as hell. It’s also not an accident. Many, including Jerry Brown, have sought for years to attract more folks with money to Oakland. That didn’t necessarily seem like a terrible idea in the early 2000s when downtown was fairly empty, and new development felt necessary to infuse Oakland with new energy. But that seed of an idea has crescendoed into a wave of migration and money that is transforming the face and economics of Oakland.

Nowadays my friends and I, who grew up in these streets and were educated in these schools, can’t even afford to buy homes in many parts of East Oakland. Wherever there’s decent housing stock, there are people snapping it up for cash at exorbitant mark-ups. Some, like overseas Chinese investors, are buying, renovating and flipping houses. Others are indeed looking for a home, but many of those who are moving in don’t actually want to be a part of the neighborhood around them. Rather, they want to makeover the neighborhood in their image. They are purchasing property many of us already love so they can ‘learn to love it,’ as one carpetbagging jay cat recently wrote at the now defunct Bold Italic.

“Many of the new folks who have recently parachuted into Oakland feel like the city is this exciting secret they’ve discovered. And while some neighborhoods are being Columbused (rediscovered and reimagined for privileged folks), many of their core elements are being invisibilized in the process.”

What Becky O’Malley, publisher of the Berkeley Daily Planet said about Berkeley, now the whitest city in Contra Costra County, could apply to Oakland. She wrote:

It seems to me, Berkeley is returning to its Republicanesque roots as a tony bedroom suburb for San Francisco. The Claremont neighborhood was built as a ‘streetcar suburb’ with trains to San Francisco’s financial district coming right up to the Claremont Hotel. The Uplands was one of the original transit-friendly developments.

Houses in the Claremont-Elmwood neighborhood dropped precipitously in price after the tumultuous ‘60s. When we moved to upper Ashby, to a house we bought at a bargain price, we were surrounded by communes, but lately investment bankers have been moving in. There goes the neighborhood! Prices are now back in the stratosphere.

Now downtown Berkeley is on the verge of becoming the same thing. Easy transit to The City is fostering development of expensive luxury housing which will be convenient for well-paid people who work in San Francisco, viz. The Residences at Berkeley Plaza project now being promoted for 2211 Harold Way. The prices of family-size houses in all parts of town are skyrocketing. And the demographic profile is reverting to the status quo ante, mostly white.

With the invasion comes a stepped up racial profiling. I’ve already felt the chill at a restaurant where I have been buying take-out coffee for years. Racial profiling is even taking places in some of the most arty zones of Berkeley, according to Judy Juanita. She wrote a letter to Anna Devere Smith, who was performing at the Berkeley Rep. at the time.

“To Ms. Smith:

“I went to Berkeley Rep Friday evening for the preview of Anna Deavere Smith’s new play about the school-to-prison pipeline. Very absorbing. An opportunity to contemplate racism that turned into an opportunity to experience racism. The theater is doing outreach to bring Smith’s play an audience beyond its typical white, upper middle-class Berkeleyite. My friend K., who happens to be a white, Mohawk-wearing lesbian, invited me and four other blacks. K. stayed in the lobby waiting for another friend but directed three of us upstairs, center front row – great seats! A young white female usher looked at our tix, stamped general admission, and refused to seat us…. She walked away. Momentarily, a young black female usher came over and politely asked us to move. We politely told her about K. She was adamant that we needed to sit somewhere else, but we adamantly pointed to K.’s name on the seats. We concluded that she had been sent as a black emissary (used to be called Uncle Tom) to get these Negroes out of these prime seats.

Judy Juanita

Using a black or Hispanic to do the dirty work for white racial profilers is an old Colonial trick. The British perfected the strategy in Ireland and India. Using Irish person against Irish person and Indian against Indian.

Another writer, a black woman responded to Judy Juanita’s complaint in the East Bay Express about racial profiling in one of those cities that has a reputation the world over as a progressive.

She wrote:

You always get those looks as if you’re out of place. There’s always an undercurrent of suspicion. Clerks ignore you in the store. White people step in front of you as if their needs are more important. The underlying pattern in interracial encounters is very similar to what one would expect in the very Deep South.

When you experience this several times a day, day after day, you become an expert in identifying all the ways people use to make you feel not equal to them. People can claim all they want that racism was not their intention but some behavior is so ingrained it operates subconsciously, and the effect is the same – no respect for the dignity of all human life.

Penny L. Williams

Of course, cranky old Ishmael Reed, referred to as “a writer from a previous generation” in The New York Times, and a “crank” by Harper’s, had complained about his treatment at the Berkeley Rep June of 1997. At the invitation of Vinnie Burrows, who performed in his play, “Hubba City” at the Nuyorican Cafe, he’d gone to the Berkeley Rep to see her and Delores Mitchell star in “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 years.” A young black man, an employee of the Rep, asked him hostile questions, followed him around and even spied on him as he talked with the two actresses.

The old police policy of quarantining blacks is alive in Berkeley and Oakland. In fact, an incident had occurred February 4, 2015, when a black man was talking to some women, who were seated outside of a restaurant. A waitress told him to “scram.” Since he was a well-known comedian, W. Kamau Bell, he had outlets like the Berkeley Planet, where he was able to express his views about the incident. He wrote this on his Facebook page:

“One of them asks about the book I am holding. I show her the book. Seconds later there is a loud series of knocks on the window of the Elmwood Cafe. They are coming from inside of the restaurant. I look up and see one of their employees staring daggers at me. The employee then jerks her head to her left aggressively, and I see her mouth say something to the effect of SCRAM!”

He wrote:

“Umm…actually a black man being told to leave a restaurant because the restaurant believes that his presence is harassing four white women and their kids, even though there is literally no evidence to support that is TEXTBOOK racism.”

Progressive Berkeley had become the whitest city in the county. The Berkeley black population had been reduced to ten percent, Richmond’s black population had been reduced by fifty percent. San Francisco to four percent and Oakland’s black population had been reduced by twenty-five percent under Jerry Brown, who announced that he was going to break black power in Oakland and was congratulated by progressive pundit Joan Walsh. She said that Brown would end a “racial spoils system.” Yet, none of the previous black elected officials were indicted for taking “spoils.” The three black testimonies, on the other hand, were greeted with skepticism by some of the whites who responded to their complaints. Some doubted that what happened to both was the result of racism. One white man called Judy Juanita’s witness “hogwash.” For over one hundred years, some whites have accused blacks of making up things. Or being “paranoid.” Or not experiencing what they say they’re experiencing.

The Black Repertory Theater is one of the last holdouts against the Columbusing of the Adeline district that the invaders have renamed Lorin. Luxury condos are going up where once the rents were affordable. As a result, Sean Vaughn Scott, who runs the theater with his mother Mona Vaughn Scott the relationship between the Black Rep and the city, continue to be strained. They run a true community theater, where Cecil Brown and I can get our plays performed without them being workshopped to appeal to people who can afford tickets. They run a summer’s program with little support where kids some of whom are considered incorrigible by other institutions, get to perform in musicals like “The Wiz.” Last summer, they did a rousing performance “Annie.” Sean Vaughn Scott wasn’t interviewed by Laura M.Holson. She instead interviewed an Adeline coffee shop owner who welcomed the invasion. The Times’ writer and the city want this area to become maybe another Queens? The Black Rep. and other Adeline residents are resisting this Siliconization. Sean feels that the city is hostile toward the resistance. “The city won’t handle the theater’s trash and repairs, including a leak in the roof, which has been there for years, hasn’t been fixed.”

For those who view Gentrification (a term coined by coined in 1964 by British sociologist Ruth Glass) as a black and brown vs white issue, the old colonial partition trick, Sean said that the loudest protestors against this gentrification move are whites who wish to live in a zone inhabited by a diverse population. Maybe a coalition of blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asian Americans can halt the Columbusing of our city. But of course, such a clash of cultures isn’t new for Oakland. After the earthquake, those who promoted the City Beautiful movement wanted to remake San Francisco into a new Paris. Oakland writer Jack London and his fellow writers and artists wanted it to remain Frisco.

*On September 21 I filed a federal lawsuit against Wells Fargo, the nation’s largest mortgage lender, to recover damages caused by the bank’s widespread predatory and discriminatory lending in Oakland.

The lawsuit charges Wells Fargo with targeting African American and Hispanic borrowers, including minority churches and congregations, for predatory mortgage loans in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. Evidence shows that Wells Fargo issued more expensive and higher risk loans to minority borrowers despite the fact that they qualified for more favorable loans that the bank regularly issued to white borrowers.

The bank’s discriminatory conduct devastated individuals and communities, increasing poverty and wiping out or drastically reducing wealth for minority communities while bankers prospered. Wells Fargo and other banks knew when they issued predatory loans that many of them would result in foreclosure. None of the responsible bankers have been held personally accountable in any meaningful manner, and the leaders of these institutions earned millions of dollars generated in part by issuing toxic loans to minorities.

We will not tolerate this activity, and we are working with other municipalities to stop this unconscionable behavior.


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Ishmael Reed is the author of The Complete Muhammad Ali.

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