Thursday, July 30, 2015

Oakland’s Last Chance: Or, If It’s Too Late To Save The Kaiser Convention Center, What Next?

Today, we’re told that Oakland is entering a new era, as we’re witnessing a rapid—if not exactly revolutionary—transformation in Oakland’s economy (which some refer to as a “boom”). Of course, there’s a debate: is it better? Is it worse? Or some of both? Is the recent development throwing out the baby with the bathwater or, even worse, throwing out the baby and replacing it with more bathwater? Indeed, there’s a range of opinions from those who argue in rational tones of fiscal policy in the form of pro-development and anti-union fiscal hawks to those who argue in more impassioned terms of civic responsibility. Yet, amid all the talk of economic boom, Oakland has been steadily losing its middle class, its diversity—especially its black community—and even its culture. Yet the city still has a chance to begin to remedy this situation.

In this light, it’s important to revisit more closely the debate over resurrecting the Kaiser Convention Center’s Calvin Simmons theatre—once a hub of Oakland culture-- as a viable performance space. According to the city’s RFP, any proposal for what to do with this space should include “as many community benefits as possible” including “local and small business participation, commitment to living and prevailing wages, commitment to labor peace and opportunities for job training and mentoring, a high number of jobs created for a range of training and educational levels, and a provision of high quality public facilities and amenities.” (Oakland Post, July 1-7, 2015).

In short, these guidelines seem straightforward in recognizing the need for a true center to Oakland culture. A problem, however, arises when high-paid lawyers have been at work on a twisted interpretation of these words that resemble Orwellian double-speak in their ingenuity. We’re told that the Orton proposal for use of the space is in accord with what these city RFP zoning guidelines demand to create a “multi-floor rehab combining office, flex, public access and food uses.” Notice how “high quality public facilities and amenities” is transformed into mere “public access and food uses.” The facilities won’t necessarily be public, just the access. This sounds more like a store, or a hallway lined with stores and offices (and, reportedly, a brewery). It’s clear that this proposal would “transform the majority of the interior of this building into offices for private business.” In short, this empty public space will become a privatized shell of its former public/civic cultural glory.

By contrast, an alternative proposal from Creative Development Partners shows more understanding of the original intent of the city’s zoning guidelines in ways that would better contribute to the entirety of Oakland’s culture and economy: “The CDP proposal is built around community benefits, including creating 1,700 jobs and a career training program in partnership with Laney and Merritt College for jobs in hospitality, culinary arts, creative arts and landscaping, as well as a partnership with OUSD’s Linked Learning proposal.” This proposal, which “envisions the building as a hub for local music, cultural and performing art companies to use as a rehearsal and performance space,” clearly betters the Orton plan in its adherence to the spirit as well as the letter of the city’s RFP.

The CDP plan to draw talent and “content providers” from the students of the state- funded community college across the street from it is a win-win situation for not only the city (and the developer who has found a way to make it turn a profit), but also would help Laney College successfully fulfill the hope of its mission statement (or ILO) of community service and vocational training. Despite being underfunded by the state (and in the midst of an accreditation battle), Laney College is one of the few cultural institutions in Oakland that understands the meaning of the word “community.” Nationally known not only for its “world class theatre program at community college prices,” as Michael Torres proudly claims, but also its culinary, cosmetology, and construction program, Laney provides a pool of talent that is woefully underutilized by the city of Oakland to the detriment of both. And it is to the credit of the creative ingenuity of Randolph Belle and the CDP team that they have recognized how this can help create a better Oakland in which gentrification doesn’t have to equal displacement and an increase in the wealth-gap.

Once again, however, the city has seemed to miss its opportunity, as they’ve all but broken ground on the Orton proposal. [i]But if it’s too late to save the Kaiser Convention Center from the plutocrat’s privatizing plans, it must be understood that this empty arena serves as a symbol of a larger vacuum left by the de-funding of Oakland’s old infrastructure, but also of the hope that we may yet regain what was good about the old Oakland. Beyond merely being a gesture of civic pride, an initiative like the CDP plan can both serve the need of consumers as well as those who value “labor peace” by providing high-quality locally-based affordable culture (arts and entertainment in the broadest sense of the words) that could foster a much needed alternative to the mass-cultural mediocrity that has colonized Oakland (The McDonalds-like culture of Hollywood whose business-as-usual is to rob from Oakland’s economy and communities on a daily basis).

Oakland’s got talent, and many people (human resources) who are willing and eager to work here, who would prefer to stay here and give back to the community rather than resigning themselves to be part of the brain-drain exodus of innovative creative sensibilities to LA or NYC, for instance. These people, however, need incentives to stay here and currently this city is not providing them. It’s not even on any legislative agenda, in any way beyond such lip-service as the mayor’s toothless “Made In Oakland” campaign promise.

2. Schaaf’s “Black Arts District” & The Role Of Locally Owned Media

Consider, for instance, the mayor’s symbolic declaration of a long stretch on 14th Street in downtown Oakland as a “Black Arts District” this past February. This could be an amazingly positive win/win initiative that could benefit all of Oakland did this gesture have any practical teeth. After all, Oakland’s culture, which has largely been a black culture, is a legacy every new resident who calls Oakland her home should be proud of, or at the very least curious about. But it’s been swept under the rug, or never considered seriously as part of a comprehensive practical solution to Oakland’s ills (which some—a very powerful minority—of course don’t see as ills). What—beyond empty words--could a possible Black Arts District look like?

I won’t here propose anything in detail, but I do think we need to encourage homegrown innovative creativity to consider how this can benefit Oakland’s culture and create a cultural export that could help Oakland’s economy. In considering such possibilities, the tech companies are of course welcome to contribute to the discussion as long as they don’t dominate it, and deny the central importance of a grass-roots (worker owned) entertainment venue and arts center that is clearly rooted in the local, from the ground up (we already have enough trickle-down cultural and economic initiative, and look where that’s gotten us).

One example I should mention before closing is the role of radio—good old fashioned terrestrial radio—in helping to create this.[ii] Although Pandora and other Oakland Corporate Tech Firms tell us the days of radio are largely a thing of the past, and not a worthwhile arena for the expenditure of venture capital (or even cultural capital), the fact that the most powerful international media conglomerates currently cling tightly to their ownership of the three (3) radio stations licensed by the FCC to be broadcast from Oakland shows that radio still has a power, and that that power—in its current form—serves a particular agenda, an agenda that, no matter how you slice it, is resolutely anti-Oakland culture.

The fact that corporate conglomerates have systematically hurt Oakland’s culture through their control of the programming of these radio stations is barely a blip on the radar on most people’s thinking of how to improve Oakland; this is due to purposeful miseducation (For instance, how many Oaklanders today even know about former mayor Elihu Harris’s valiant, if ultimately failed, attempt, to keep Oakland’s radio programming local? How many even know Oakland has a radio station?). But, with concerted effort, we could remake these broadcast outlets into a positive good for anybody who truly values the “Made In Oakland” slogan.

It also goes largely unsaid that these corporate owners of Oakland’s airwaves are actively violating FCC regulations that demand that programming must originate in the city to which they’re licensed, and must serve the public interest of the community in which they are located. This illegal corporate maneuvering has become standard operating procedure across the country as these regulations are not enforced (thanks to the lobbyists’ revolving door, for instance), a form of taxation without representation people feel helpless to fight against when there’s so many seemingly more immediate problems (racial profiling, police brutality, to name but two). Yet, at root, the corporate control of radio, gentrification and the PIC are part of the same phenomenon.

I don’t have to be so fatalistic to agree with those who say “you can’t fight city hall” to agree with those who argue “it’s much harder to fight Clearchannel and Disney who in many ways have more power than City Hall.” I’d like to hold out some hope that City Hall, in fact, could be persuaded to become our ally in the fight against Clearchannel, et al.

Our demands our simple: the city should help provide economic incentives, and remove economic obstacles, for a team of locally-based culture workers and investors to buy at least one of these radio stations from the corporate behemoths on the condition that this station will be part of a job training and job creation program for the citizens of Oakland. Ideally, this would be a commercially self-sustaining station that would mandate advertising rates that are affordable enough so that locally-based small businesses in Oakland could advertise (we don’t need Geico and Chevron to survive). Ideally, there would also be one non-commercial station (not merely an LPFM station like the Peralta School District’s 96.7FM, that doesn’t even reach all of Oakland, but more like San Francisco’s listener-supported KPOO 89.5) that would serve underserved populations, emphasizing educational programming (again, in the broadest sense of the word), working closely with Oakland public schools, trade schools and colleges and the diversity of Oakland’s musicians and artists: a true working class (and world class) radio station. Of course, these stations should have a “world wide” internet component, but they would be clearly connected to a place, a venue, a locally run art and entertainment center (even if this can’t happen on the site of the former Kaiser Convention Center)—either in the “Arts District” or in the so-called “Black Arts District.”

In Conclusion….
This admittedly broad outline could at least be a discussion starter. I believe that such a plan, in working closely with OUSD, could, in the long term, decrease drop-out rates, by giving hope to the disenfranchised that education truly means something as well as serve the public need for a new cultural hub that could do much to revitalize Oakland culture so that it may rival the current culture we too often import from Hollywood or NYC at Oakland’s expense. This could help reduce poverty, crime, joblessness, and the general disenfranchisement that is epidemic in this city (I’d even argue that—in the long term-- it could even have more positive effects in reducing hypertension, depression, and obesity than in the quick fixes Kaiser Permanente pushes). And, yes, I understand that Oakland’s City Council and the Mayor’s office could only do so much against the corporations--and that we need to work on many fronts—for any plan would be likely to take the form of a “public/private partnership” at first in order to have a chance of getting off the ground—on city, country, state and federal levels (it shouldn’t be too difficult to get Oakland congresswoman Barbara Lee’s ear with a well-developed proposal), but if the city can use what muscle it does have to advocate for this—rather than blocking or turning a blind eye to it—we can promise you this, we got your back! And if the city can’t help this become a reality, we’ll find others who can; we do, after all, have the power to vote you out of office—at least until you drive even more of us out of here. So, this is a matter of some urgency; the time for action is now!

[ii] Charles Hamilton, Stokely Carmichael’s collaboration on the Black Power manifesto, wrote:
“For blacks to gain control of a significant portion of the electronic media would be the most important single breakthrough in the black struggle, and would justify every bit of time, talent and resources expended toward its achievement.”  (1971, “Blacks And Mass Media”)
Works Cited:

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Inalienable Right For Water, Land & Housing

We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.
We believe that if the white landlords will not give decent housing to our black community, then the housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make decent housing for its people.

Some argue that the Black Panther’s demand for decent, “low-income” or “affordable” housing is a demand for a handout, which stands in opposition to the foundations of this capitalist society. But I maintain that the U.S. constitution understands housing as an inalienable right. An inalienable right means that no man, or private or public institution—can take away one’s right to affordable housing. The United States, of course, didn’t put its money where its mouth is, as it was founded on stealing the housing and the land of the people who lived here. And, as the government gained land assets and sold them to private individuals and businesses—through a long succession of “homestead acts” that could also be understood as “handouts,” they enforced some people’s inalienable rights, but only by denying others (see Luong Dang’s paper, and Richard Rothstein).

Today, the frontier is gone, the land is settled (and getting over-crowded) and “private property” is passed down through inheritance; people are born into a reality in which this inalienable right is not respected. Meanwhile, the CEO of the multi-national conglomerate Nestle can boldly proclaim that water is not a right, but a privilege. Water and land serve as useful analogies here if seen in a broader historical perspective.

Before civilization developed the public water systems we now take for granted (until Nestle’s and other large corporations can use their muscle to ensure that it isn’t), people used to drink from, and wash in, streams and rivers. This is called primitive, and/or uncivilized and certainly had its disadvantages—especially as the population grew—and these disadvantages successfully convinced enough people to think public water systems and the civic convenience they afforded was a form of progress. Yet it also must be said that this that this convenience—this social amenity—which may have seemed like a luxury—also became a necessity because the same technology that made public water systems possible is also what caused some rivers and streams to be dirty and contaminated so you couldn’t drink in and wash in them anymore.

Thus, you could view “public water systems” as a hand out, as the CEO of Nestle’s does, but it was a necessary handout, a form of compensation for what was lost (or even a form of reparations for damages). Since the keepers of civilization (the government) had sanctioned the taking away of the inalienable right to natural water sources, the showers and faucets in houses in private houses, or in public places (like back when public bathhouses were much more common) were an attempt to restore that right. The same dynamic applies to land, though it’s a little harder for people to see that, since housing is a little more complicated and so many of us own no land.

Land, we’re told, can be owned privately (though you can’t take it with you when you die), and as long as we base our society on that assumption, housing will not be treated as an inalienable right. The Panthers knew this. 30 years earlier, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew this, and both set out to create mechanisms that would treat land, and housing, more as an inalienable right than unregulated capitalism permits. FDR’s New Deal, as a government program, was more successful than the Panthers in achieving this, at least for a while, but by the time the Panthers were formed in 1966, what was good about the New Deal had been largely eroded. And, today, in a protracted era of real estate investment, it’s even worse.

These ruminations may not be sufficient to counter those who still maintain that the Panthers modest demand for “decent housing, fit for the shelter of human beings” is a handout. It’s clear from their demand that the Panthers were willing to work to build their own housing, to be an effective caretaker of the land. They’re not asking to steal the house in which the white landlord lives, but rather to be able to own their house just as the white landlord is able to own his. They are looking for equality. The government aid they ask for is no more than the government aid the landlord received. They are looking for fairness, and an equal footing. The government—lest it be forgot—certainly has no problem giving handouts to real estate developers and large corporations like Nestle that are able to sell public water supplies even during a drought.

Thoughts on the Second Amendment inspired by Peralta TV’s film on The Black Panthers.

One thing Doris Thompson’s analysis of Merritt College: Home Of The Black Panthers suggests is the importance of the law-book for the Panthers. According to Thompson, before the Panthers came along the miseducation of black folks promulgated by the school system kept many black folks ignorant of the laws that could theoretically be used to protect and defend their rights. If the Constitution grants a right for a well-regulated militia, the Panthers asked, could we make use of this law as white people are able to? Or will whites once again apply a racial double standard?

The government confirmed the double-standard in its war against the Panthers (while today’s white militias are often still granted government protection). If the government had decided to do away with the Second Amendment all together, their crackdown on the Panthers would have been at least part of a consistent policy. In the subsequent decades, it’s become clear that the government wasn’t afraid of black people with guns as much as they were afraid of organized black people with (unloaded) guns; they feared the well-regulated militia. This fear led them to infiltrate the organization to breed internal mistrust, and encourage black on black crime by any means necessary (as their Hollywood entertainment division pushed Blaxploitation in the 70s and Gangsta Rap since the 90s).

Meanwhile, the most vocal proponents of the right to bear arms today (such as the NRA and white supremacist groups) tend to ignore, or erase, the constitution’s requirement for a well-regulated militia, and argue that it’s a right of the individual; such an interpretation of the law of course leads to more crime in general (white-on-white as well as white-on-black crime).  And, in retrospect, it’s clear that the Black Panthers understood the meaning of the second amendment more than today’s most vocal advocates of the right to bear arms. As the movie points out, crime rates decreased when the Panthers patrolled the police with their unloaded guns. Yet, this history is often erased and distorted.

Today’s schools, for the most part, still don’t teach the true meaning of the constitution just like they didn’t in the days before the Black Panthers. This is why—on the rare occasions they bring the Black Panthers up (which they usually don’t, unless pushed), they ignore the importance of the law book—that Huey and the others would read the officers their rights—which was ultimately more the point than the gun. For the Panthers, like Malcolm, understood the relationship between the Law and Brute Force, the Ballot and the Bullet.

In international diplomacy, it is understood that the threat of force can be an effective bargaining tool to bargain from a position of strength. Domestically, the Panthers asked: is the threat of the bullet (as opposed to the bullet itself) the only way to ensure that any victory at the ballot may mean anything? The Panthers put that question to the test and, alas, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they, and, more broadly, the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s in general proved the large scale impotence of the ballot without some show of collective strength to back it up.

Today, the civil rights act and the voting rights act have been dismantled, and other powerful external forces have caused the fragmentation of the large scale show of strength and unity that characterized the struggles of the 50s and 60s. The lesson that many take from this is that the ballot won’t work, and the bullet won’t work either—so the question emerges—if neither the ballot nor the bullet can effectively unite the black community in the struggle against police brutality, The New Jim Crow and American Apartheid, what can? Certainly body-cameras on police, or even community policing will not be enough. Can boycotts still work? A collective show of strength through the community’s “spending power?” Would it be enough to establish worker owned collectives?

The Panthers had a comprehensive program of demands that understood the need for long-term systemic demands, starting with economics and the importance of education. They fought on many more fronts than patrolling the police. Today, these struggles continue, but they need to be coordinated with each other in a comprehensive program (so the anti-gentrification activists work together in a larger organization with the anti-police brutality activists, for instance—since the two are at root part of the same oppression). In retrospect, perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Panthers was their role as teachers—teachers who showed by doing—and what they have the power to teach is still a threat to the power structure.

 Although in many ways the largely women-lead #BlackLivesMatter movement (as well as organizations like #Asians4BlackLives) have learned from the legacy of the Panthers, and speak to today’s issues more effectively, and there is much more to say and do, but I will end with a quote from Charles Hamilton, Stokely Carmichael’s collaborator on the Black power manifesto, from 1971 that I believe is still deeply relevant today:  “For blacks to gain control of a significant portion of the electronic media would be the most important single breakthrough in the black struggle, and would justify every bit of time, talent and resources expended toward its achievement.” Today, blacks have even less control of the mass media than they did in 1971, and that is one reason why racism is as at least as bad today as it was then. The white-owned media has been very effective in creating racist stereotypes that often affect people on an unconscious level, and lead to an implicit justification of discriminatory government policies. The question is: how do we act to change this, beyond the ballot or the bullet?