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The Oakland City Council has a chance to do something about homeless camps. But will they?


No issue in Oakland is as contentious as homeless camps. They have proliferated across the city to a shocking degree in the last three years, and the government of Mayor Libby Schaaf, as well as the City Council, has proven utterly incapable of doing anything about it.

Most American cities are suffering from homelessness and the blight of encampments, but Oakland seems unique in that regard. Most other cities have at least taken steps to manage these camps, for instance by limiting them to certain areas that are not close to schools, commercial centers, public parks and crowded intersections. Of course, whenever a city tries to limit camps, they immediately run into flak from pro-encampment activists, who accuse the city of everything from callous disregard to institutional racism.

Oakland, alone among California cities so far as I can tell, has been so intimidated by these activists (whose favorite thing to do is pack City Council hearings and disrupt them so violently that they have to be canceled) that Schaaf and the Council have simply sat on their hands and done nothing, as the camps have taken over what used to be a very nice city. But all that could change tomorrow: the City Council is set to vote on a proposal that would clear most places of camps and limit them to appropriate areas, preferably on the city’s outskirts.

Predictably the pro-camp activists already are raising a howl. “Redlining!” one of them alleged, which is of course nonsense; “redlining” is when banks refuse loans to people who are perceived to be bad financial risks. The anti-camp side (including me) responds that restricting camps to appropriate areas actually benefits homeless people, because services such as porta-potties, water, food distribution and healthcare can be centralized and made more efficient, rather than scattered across 78 square miles and dozens if not hundreds of individual camps. That this is obviously true, seems to me beyond debate, but the pro-camp activists still aren’t buying it. What Oakland has to do, they insist, is give each of the 4,000 homeless people a permanent home, as well as complete food and medical care, job training and all the rest. Where the city is supposed to come up with the hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars to do so, they never explain, except to offer nebulous “raise taxes” non-solutions. Raise taxes on whom? A struggling middle class? Small businesss like nail parlors that are already on the verge of failure? Corporations that are fleeing the city for friendlier locations in the suburbs?

I do not think it’s “uncompassionate” to manage homeless camps. Any city that purports to govern itself has the responsibility to keep the public safe and to protect the businesses that are so important to jobs and the tax base. In Oakland, business owners of all races and ethnicities have been pleading with city government to please make the camps on their streets and sidewalks to go away. It is well-documented that shoppers refuse to visit commercial areas overrun with homeless camps and the drugs, prostitution, violence and mayhem they so often spawn. Stores that otherwise would have been healthy have been forced to go out of business or relocate because of encampments literally at their front door, hardly an ideal situation during the pandemic and economic shutdown.

I’ll be watching tomorrow’s City Council vote closely. This will be a chance for Council members to actually do something courageous and productive, instead of kowtowing to the shouters and doing nothing. I actually have some hope this time the Council will act correctly. Even if they approve the new package of proposals, it won’t be nearly enough. Individual campers will refuse to comply, and the city will prove unable to rise to that challenge since the police will refuse to intervene, so frightened are they of being sued by profiteering “civil rights” attorneys. Frivolous lawsuits will be filed challenging the constitutionality of any new camp laws–suits that get tied up in the courts for years, and drain the city’s treasury. And the pro-camp activists aren’t going anywhere; if anything, they’ll up the ante.

But really, Oakland is in a perilous situation. We’re on the verge of becoming a third-world disaster like the slums of Rio or Caracas, if we’re not already there. Two, three years ago I was in a very small minority when I called for the camps to be relocated to places, like the former Oakland Army Base, where services could be concentrated. People called me the most dreadful names, and even threatened me. Today, tens of thousands of Oaklanders who are generally sympathetic to the plight of the homeless have realized that the situation is totally out of control. They’re demanding their elected officials clean things up and, for once, those City Council members might actually listen to their constituents.

The San Francisco School Board is completely out of control


Its members need to be recalled and replaced.

These pointy-headed apparatchiks are foisting their way-out political correctness upon the schools, students and parents they’re supposed to represent, and reaction against them is mounting.

First, the board earlier this week announced they were doing away with the competitive entrance requirements for San Francisco’s top high school, Lowell. For decades, only students with the best scores and other achievements were allowed to go to Lowell. This kind of competitive, academically-excellent high school is found in many other cities. New York, for example, has The Bronx High School of Science, where only the top students are admitted (I was). And San Francisco has Lowell. Or used to. Now, amidst charges of racism, the School Board has announced that admission to Lowell will be on a random lottery basis. This has predictably outraged parents whose kids have devoted themselves for years to getting the scores required for admission to Lowell. Many of these kids are of Asian descent. Going to Lowell was a touchstone of their entire lives, but now, the School Board is giving them the finger.

Then yesterday the Board hit a new low in stupid behavior. They’re demanding that 44 public schools change their names because those names “are associated with slavery” or other forms of “oppression.” The schools include Washington, Lincoln (??!!?), Roosevelt, Jefferson, Francis Scott Key (of “Star-Spangled Banner” fame), Lowell (supposedly James R. Lowell was a racist), Robert Louis Stevenson (??!!?), John Muir (of the famous Yellowstone photographs) and even—most bizarre of all—Dianne Feinstein, our Senator and the former mayor of San Francisco, who 30 years ago is said to have restored a vandalized Confederate flag flying at City Hall. The School Board, apparently, has concluded Feinstein is an arch-segregationist.

Asians in particular—a huge political force in San Francisco—are galvanizing against the Lowell plan, as well they should. Ending the competitive admissions process there is a slap in the face to them; they ought to resist it with all their combined might. And while the news about the 44 schools to be renamed just hit the press and there hasn’t been much time for parents and others to organize their resistance, that is sure to come. Some people have pointed out that, even if there is a rational conversation tucked away inside of the School Board’s kneejerk reaction, the time to have that conversation is not now, during a pandemic, when students (especially minorities) are struggling with distance learning. The School Board mandated the 44 principals to come up with alternative names by Dec. 18, even as those same principals are confronted with some of the worst crises of their careers and have no time to waste on such trivial irrelevancies. In a town as politically fractious as San Francisco, any “alternative name” is going to be opposed by multiple groups and endlessly debated, leading to shouting matches and lawsuits, and principals are going to be distracted from their real job: educating kids.

You have to wonder where these School Board members are coming from. What planet do they live on? How do they determine their priorities? The schools need funding, skilled teachers, plans for dealing with COVID and leadership. They don’t need a pointless reshuffling of their names, not at this time, or probably ever. George Washington? Abraham frigging Lincoln? Dianne Feinstein? My lord, the School Board has lost its collective mind!

Curry and Gates. Hooray for decent people!


Steph Curry interviewed Bill Gates for Steph’s new interview series, and it was so inspiring to see these two wealthy, powerful people talking thoughtfully about important things.

Mr. Gates spoke passionately about global poverty, disease, inequality, education, telemedicine, climate change, a green economy, and how the COVID pandemic has set back global philanthropic efforts for years. Mr. Curry brought his usual intelligence and passion for the poor and disadvantaged—which those of us in Oakland are familiar with—to his questions.

What a contrast with Republicans. They blather about family values (while violating them), cutting taxes on rich people, denying science, and rightwing fox “news” conspiracy theories like Hillary’s emails. No concern whatsoever from the Trump cult for the concerns of Americans. Watching the Curry-Gates exchange, I tried to conjure up a Republican equivalent, and the best I could come up with was Tom Brady interviewing one of the Koch brothers.

Brady: So, Mr. Koch, what is your most important goal?

Koch: We have to lower taxes on white billionaires like me even further because poor people are lazy and stupid and deserve what they get. We have to get government out of everything except making war and banning abortion. And we need to rely on dummies like you to shovel up our propaganda to the masses.

I don’t know if Steph is doing this interview series with a view toward his post-basketball life, but he’d make a great politician and so for that matter would Bill Gates. Consider the contrast between Gates and the fake billionaire (now that we know his taxes), Trump. Mr. Gates spends his time and money trying to find solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. Trump by contrast spends his time banging porn stars (or watching them on his computer), playing golf, stiffing vendors, hiding his financial scams and advancing the careers of hacks like Coney Barrett, whose religious beliefs he privately thinks are stupid. (That’s the one thing I have in common with Trump.)

It’s common among Republicans to condemn popular figures, such as movie stars and athletes, for speaking out on issues. They hate it when, for instance, Sean Penn or Robert DeNiro or Colin Kaepernick go public with criticisms of a do-nothing, greedy Republican Party. Of course, when Brady, Jon Voight or the hideous James Woods say nice things about Trump, Republicans jump up and down with joy, so there’s a little bit of hypocrisy there. But you might notice that, at least in Hollywood, the outspoken Republicans are by and large washed up old fogeys nobody cares about.

But Curry! What an amazing story. He and his wife, Ayesha, are such a breath of fresh air. With their money (net worth around $130 million) they could live a private life of great luxury and not get involve in the sometimes poisonous world of politics. But Steph Curry has a moral conscience. He feels a responsibility to poor, young people, and to great causes, such as global warming. The Currys’ foundation, Eat.Learn.Play, combats hunger and obesity (“Eat”), supports public education (“Learn”), and provides low-income kids with safe places to play (“Play”). That is God’s work. The next time you hear some sleazebag like Franklin Graham or Donald Trump mention the word God, try not to throw a brick at your T.V. But know that you’re looking at a profoundly immoral liar.

Northern California braces once again for wildfires


The Bay Area, including Napa-Sonoma wine country and the Santa Cruz Mountains, once again is under a “Red Flag Warning” today and tomorrow and possibly extending into Friday.

A Red Flag Warning is an official National Weather Service bulletin to “alert fire departments of the onset, or possible onset, of critical weather and dry conditions that could lead to rapid or dramatic increases in wildfire activity.” In California, this tends to happen when a gigantic ridge of high pressure positions itself over the north-western Pacific, shunting the Jet Stream northward and thus preventing precipitation, including fog, from reaching the coast. Winds shift from their normal onshore (west-to-east) and instead flow east-to-west. As they pour off the coastal hills (the Diablo Range, the East Bay Hills, the Vaca and Mayacamas Mountains), they pick up speed and heat. Humidities plunge to single or low-double digits, and all the elements are in place for the kinds of massive wildfires we’ve seen in recent years.

This is, I don’t know, our sixth or seventh Red Flag Warning of 2020. I don’t know for sure, but I think that’s a record. For sure, California has hit a record in terms of acres burned in 2020: more than 4 million and counting. The previous record was half of that. This year, the number of lives lost and homes destroyed isn’t as high as in, say, 2017. But the damage to wine country has been substantial and will be long-lasting.

It used to be that a weather forecast like today’s—high in Oakland around 90 degrees, humidity about 10 percent, abundant sunshine—was greeted with great gladness. It’s not that warm in the Bay Area during the summer and fall (as visitors know), so we relish the few days when it’s shirtsleeve weather.

But all that changed on Oct. 19-20, 1991. That’s when the Oakland Hills Firestorm hit. I reported extensively on it when I was a local reporter. It started on Saturday, Oct. 19, when a pretty good-sized fire roared up in the hills above the Caldecott Tunnel, which leads from Oakland to the suburban community of Orinda. That fire triggered a rapid response from the Oakland Fire Department, which managed to snuff it out in a few hours; they benefited from the fact that there was very little wind. I remember that fire: the plume of smoke went straight up into the air, instead of horizontally, in a “lighthouse beam” pattern indicative of wind.

Problem was, the fire wasn’t really out. The Fire Department only thought it was. Around 9:30 a.m. the next morning (Oct. 21), it came back to life, amidst the worst possible weather conditions: 91 degrees, humidity about 8 percent, and very strong east winds that approached hurricane force (true!), even at sea level. The fire raged out of control all day, until, miraculously, the wind shifted from offshore to onshore. Fire department officials were grim when they told me, “We didn’t put that fire out. Mother Nature did.” There was no question in their minds that the fire would have taken out downtown Berkeley, raged into downtown Oakland, and southward, through Montclair towards San Leandro. As it was, it killed 25 people (including an OFD Batallion Chief) and destroyed more than 3,000 homes and condos, making it at that point the worst “urban-wildland” fire in American history.

After that, no one looked at hot, dry conditions anymore with undiluted pleasure. Instead, it became “fire weather.” That response has been hugely exacerbated since 2017, what with all the fires. Now, whenever there’s a forecast like today’s, everybody’s first reaction is, “Damn.” It can have psychological impacts. When I woke up this morning—knowing full well what the weather was predicted to be—I smelled the acrid, ashy smell of wildfire smoke. Luckily, it was all in my imagination. But that’s what living through these things does. Spooks your mind.

There’s a memorial to the Oakland firestorm at the Rockridge BART station, in north Oakland. (This short video shows it.) The first time I saw it, I cried, and I still do, to this day. An artists’ collective had invited the public to submit 4” x 4” paintings, which the artists turned into tiles for the wall. Many of the drawings were by children. Many remembered pets. (“Pooky. 1988-1991”). Bill Clinton made one. That fire hit Oakland hard. For me, the experience was even more emotional than the Loma Prieta Earthquake of Oct. 17, 1989, which wrecked downtown Oakland. I think it was because the earthquake was over in a few seconds, but the threat of the fire went terrifyingly on all day, that day of Oct. 20, 1991. Even those of us in the flatlands, miles from the fire’s epicenter, weren’t safe. (I had a “go bag” all ready, including a crate for my cat.) A few days after the fire was over—when thousands of firefighters had gone home, but the burn area was still surrounded by National Guard—Marilyn and I drove up Broadway Terrace to check it out. We lasted for about 5 minutes before, sickened and nauseated, we turned around and went home. That death zone was no place for curious tourists.

Oakland (and Berkeley and the surrounding suburban cities) will burn again. No doubt about it. Trump can rant all he wants about “forest management,” but these wildfires are routine expressions of nature. They can be mitigated but not eliminated. Maybe we shouldn’t have allowed people to build homes on the urban-wildland interface in the first place, but that’s crying over spilled milk. We’re not going to relocate all those people—from southern Oregon down to San Diego—any more than we’re going to relocate people from the hurricane zones of Texas, the Gulf states and the Eastern seaboard, or relocate people from Tornado Alley. Trump should really stop making political hay out of natural disasters, but, of course, he won’t. We’ll have to stop him ourselves, by defeating him in a landslide on Nov. 3.

Meanwhile, that Red Flag Warning is in effect right now. Keep your fingers crossed for us, please.

What is Biden appointed six drag queens to SCOTUS?


Can you imagine the outcry on the right if Democratic Presidents had installed six Gay men on the Supreme Court? Republican closet cases like Auntie Lindsay Graham and Matt “Pool Boy” Gaetz would be howling for blood. The fagbashers in the “proud boys” would be torching gay bars. Franklin Graham, between whatever furtive sexual things he does, would invoke the name of God and consign the Democratic Party to hell, while his bestie, Jerry Falwell, Jr. would—oh, right, he was busted for having illicit sex, so he’d probably keep his mouth shut.

For that matter, what if Democratic Presidents had installed six Black people on the Supreme Court? OMG, the racists would be spurting seminal fluid through their noses. Or what if Democratic Presidents had installed six Muslims on the Supreme Court? Rand Paul’s hair would be on fire. John Cornyn would fulminate against “atheists and terrorists in charge of American law.” Jeanine Pirro, on fox “news” channel, would be spitting Catholic indignation right through the T.V. screen.

Then why is it okay for Republican Presidents to stack the Supreme Court with radically rightwing Roman Catholics? If you can give me a rational answer, you win a free lifetime subscription to this blog. The reasons Republicans love conservative Catholics are several. Conservative Catholics are reliably reactionary. They hate homosexuals and they hate a woman’s right to choose. They will toe the Vatican-GOP line in violation of their oath to obey the Constitution. Of course, they also conveniently “forget” the Pope’s constant admonition to Catholics to be charitable and loving, and to respect and protect the environment. This “cafeteria Catholicism” comes in handy when you’re a political hack on the Supreme Court, like Coney Barrett.

The truly weird thing is that Catholics and evangelicals are natural enemies, like cobras and mongooses. (Mongeese?) They both believe the other side is going to hell. Catholics think that evangelicals are heretics, while evangelicals think Catholics worship idols (e.g. the Pope). Given their preference, each side would wipe the other off the face of the Earth. But politics makes strange bedfellows! Catholics and evangelicals need each other the way sharks need remora fish to pick the parasites from their mouths. It’s also weird, when you think about it, why Catholics and evangelicals support the rightwing Likud Party in Israel. Again, if given their preference, Catholics would burn every Jew in the world in the flames of the auto da fé, as they did in the good old days, while the evangelicals cheered from the sidelines with Hosannas. That’s because both sides crazily believe that the Second Coming of Jesus Chris cannot occur until certain prophecies concerning Israel are fulfilled and—oh, it’s all too tedious.

But here we are, with the heaviest concentration of Catholics in the history of the country currently on the Supreme Court. (Sonia Sotomayor is also Catholic, but she understands the importance of separating her religious beliefs from her jurisprudence, in a way the other Catholics do not.) Many of the Founding Fathers were deeply suspicious of Catholics. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, wrote in one letter, “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government,” while in another, he observed, “[i]n every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.” George Washington was not so hostile to Catholics as Jefferson or John Adams, but Washington realized the potential dangers that too-strong Catholicism posed to the young American democracy. “As mankind become more liberal,” he wrote in a message to Catholic Americans, “they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protection of civil government.”

What Washington knew and was expressing, in his ever-so diplomatic way, was the Catholicism in the 18th century was a most illiberal religion. And it remains so, which is why Republicans have such a bizarre affection for it. Democrats are scared to death to appear to be anti-Catholic, which is why they’re pussy-footing around the subject in the Coney Barrett hearings. When Dianne Feinstein, in 2017, told Barrett, “The dogma lives loudly within you”—a true statement if ever there was one–she meant Barrett’s religious dogma. But so severely was Feinstein bashed for being “anti-Catholic” that Democrats are loath to bring up the topic again. “God forbid a Democratic senator did go after this candidate [Coney Barrett] on the grounds of her religious belief,” said Stephen Schneck, a national co-chair of Catholics for Biden. “I think it would create a huge backlash that would certainly hurt the Biden campaign.” But look: Democrats aren’t criticizing Barrett’s religion. They are criticizing her interpretation of her religion, and her nasty habit of not being able to separate her personal religious beliefs from the Law.

Democrats shouldn’t roll over and play dead when it comes to pointing out the anti-democratic biases of radical rightwing Catholicism. Biden himself is a Catholic; but, like Sotomayor, he’s one who doesn’t allow his religious prejudices (whatever they may be) to interfere with his political and judicial opinions. We need more Catholics like Biden and Sotomayor, and we certainly could do with far fewer Coney Barretts, Clarence Thomases, Samuel Alitos, Brett Kavanaughs and John Robertses on the Supreme Court or anywhere else in the halls of power in America.

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