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

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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.


Northern California braces once again for wildfires

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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.


Oakland is the new epicenter of COVID-19 in the Bay Area

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The big news in Alameda County and Oakland, the county seat where I live, is that coronavirus is pretty much out of control. Infections are rapidly rising, hospitalizations are up, and so are deaths.

The center of the superspreading seems to be Lake Merritt and the adjacent Lakeside Park, which have aptly been called Oakland’s Crown Jewel. Unfortunately, the park continues to draw thousands of people, especially on weekends, who are coronavirus scoffers. They refuse to wear masks or to socially distance; with our beautiful weather, and with so many places of employment shut down, they gather early each day, their numbers swelling, until by afternoon the entire 122-acre park is basically one huge party.

The city and county have already issued requirements for masks and social distancing. The city has outlawed weekend parking around the park’s perimeter, and has instructed food trucks and kiosks that they can no longer do business there. But nobody’s listening. On a walk yesterday, the food trucks were gone, but there were literally hundreds and hundreds of kiosks, selling everything from candy and barbecue to clothing and jewelry. Cars were parked bumper to bumper even though every streetlamp bore an official city of Oakland notice prohibiting parking. Thousands of people were out and about, enjoying the 78-degree sunny weather. Some brought their dumbbells with them and were working out; many had boom boxes blaring loud music. In Snow Park, a smaller little city park across Lakeside Drive from Lakeside Park, some sort of organized activity was in progress: perhaps 500 young people jammed together, and barely a mask to be seen.

This situation naturally has caught the public’s attention. Many people, including me, are asking why the city is issuing regulations if it has no intention of enforcing them. Debate has erupted on social media, especially nextdoor.com. The two sides, if I can summarize their claims, are, one, the city should absolutely ban these gatherings and, if necessary, shut down the entire park. The other side is saying, basically, fuck off. In the words of one person who was replying to me specifically, “Mind your own business.” I don’t reply to such silliness, but someone else did, a woman I don’t know. “This is my business,” she informed him, adding that she’s a person of color and that the “fan effect” of epidemiology means that no one is safe, even if they make a point of staying away from the park.

How sad, how tedious it is that we’re having this conversation. I look around at all the people not wearing masks—young, old, Black, White, LatinX, Asian—and here’s what I see: smug, arrogant people. They may believe themselves to be “liberal” but in fact they’re playing the Trump game. (The person who told me to “mind your own business” even said that claims that Lakeside parties are spreading COVID-19 are “fake news.”) It’s pathetic that the President of the United States of America refused to take coronavirus seriously from Day One, and gave cover to the ignoramuses who don’t care if they’re party to the spread of sickness and death. One wants to approach these unmasked people and ask them what the hell is wrong with them, but one can’t, of course: these people are angry and rebellious anyway, and to challenge them is to risk a physical confrontation. So those of us who venture to the Lake must do so cautiously. And, of course, it’s not just the Lake that is the problem. These same morons who are contemptuous of public health at the Lake must be equally contemptuous in their own neighborhoods and homes.

This virus is spreading uncontrollably in my city and thousands and thousands of people just don’t give a damn. But pressure is mounting on our incompetent, politically ambitious mayor to do something about it. In my judgment the police are going to have to start citing people in large numbers. They have to ticket the illegally parked cars. They have to fine the kiosk vendors. And they definitely have to give citations to unmasked people.

I fully understand that this may not the best use of the police and that, in a city like Oakland, where so many people hate the cops, it could lead to flash points. But who else can stop the virus spreaders from their irresponsible behavior? The city has announced they’ve hired “ambassadors” to patrol the Lake. I go there every day (masked and keeping social distance) and have yet to see one. There can be nobody in the city of Oakland, or anywhere else in America for that matter, who doesn’t know exactly what’s going on. A boob who’s partying by the Lake is not going to suddenly “see the light” because some minimum-wage “ambassador” in an official shirt tells him to please wear a mask.

I fear for my city.


Oakland is waiting…

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“WE ARE UNGOVERNABLE” screams a chalk graffiti on a sidewalk not far from the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building at 1301 Clay Street, in downtown Oakland. The building, one of the city’s largest, was constructed in 1993, in a style that might be called Nineties Moderne. Meant to assert the power and authority of the U.S. government, it is neither ugly, as federal buildings from the 1950s are, nor particularly charming, although it does have a certain whimsicality. It consists of two 268-foot high towers, topped with pyramids and connected by a sky bridge. Its offices house the I.R.S., U.S. Coast Guard, and the Veterans Administration, and also include a federal courthouse and a post office. On May 29, a Black private security guard, hired to patrol the building during one of the protests following George Floyd’s murder, was assassinated; his white murderer has since been apprehended.

The “UNGOVERNABLE” graffiti is but one of thousands of others, expressing all sorts of leftist views, chalked or spraypainted onto sidewalks, shop windows, the plywood that covers shop windows, walls, doorways and bus stops throughout downtown Oakland, which has probably had more violent demonstrations than any other American city in recent years. Starting in the Autumn of 2011, when the Occupy movement was at its height, Oakland can reliably count on three or four tumultuous protests a year.

It’s impossible to know exactly who scribbled the “UNGOVERNABLE” graffiti on that sidewalk, but the person clearly wanted us to know his or her political leaning: the “A” in “UNGOVERNABLE” is capitalized within a circle, the international symbol of anarchism. The “A” stands, of course, for anarchy; the circle stands for “Order.” Together, they are said to mean “society seeks order in anarchy,” a phrase dating back to a French political tract from 1840, when “anarchism” was not against government in general, but against capitalistic banking interests. Our modern day, so-called “anarcho-punk” movement, which arose in the punk rock days of the 1970s, is against all government; it thrives in polyglot cities like Oakland. Actually, “thrive” might not be the most accurate description; since membership, as it were, is secretive and the people themselves prefer anonymity, we don’t know their numbers. But there seem to be—to my observation, anyway—a great many anarchists in Oakland. They tend to wear black, and be surly. And when they claim to be “UNGOVERNABLE,” we must take them at their word. They obey no authority, indeed they flout it. They respect no law, they have no bounds to which they will not go if given the opportunity, and this includes looting, vandalizing, robbing and torching small businesses whose employees usually are low-income people of color.

President Trump of late has famously sent federal troops to Portland, Oregon, and appears about to do so in Chicago, to protect (so he claims) federal property. On Tuesday, he threatened to do it in Oakland, which he called “a mess.” If the anarchists do strike in Oakland—and it’s inevitable that, sooner or later, they will—will they target the Dellums Federal Building, the only federal outpost (other than local post offices and a Social Security Administration unit) in my city of 430,000? If I were an anarchist, here’s how I’d be thinking: It’s the Wee Willie Keeler rule of “hit ‘em where they ain’t.” Willie Keeler was talking about baseball, but his rule applies if you’re trying to break the law and avoid getting busted. Trump has announced that he is prepared to “protect” the Dellums Federal Building with federal troops. Therefore, one strategy for the anarchists might be to avoid that particular hot spot and, if they’re truly intent on causing mayhem in Oakland, find another (non-federal) place to do it. There are plenty of options.

On the other hand, if you’re an anarchist seeking confrontation, then a run-in with federal troops might be just what you’re looking for. There’s already a public outcry against what Trump did in Portland. Our local anarchists might figure that a battle with Trump’s Troops could garner a great amount of sympathy for them, or at least further outrage against Trump. Then, too, if the anarchists are truly courageous (as opposed to sneaky little thugs who get away with their hit-and-run carnage under cover of darkness), they might consider themselves martyrs to stand up to the Gestapo, even if that means putting their limbs and lives on the line.

I walked over to the Dellums Federal Building yesterday afternoon. All quiet. The ground-floor windows were plywooded up, as they have been for weeks. A few employees came and went; a handful sat on benches in the bright, sunny courtyard, eating lunch. There was no sign of security, except for a single private guard off to the side, who looked like he couldn’t have fended off a child. And yet, as I took pictures, I couldn’t help but feel that someone was taking pictures of me. Surely Homeland Security, or the Border Patrol, or the FBI, or whoever these mystery federal agents are, already is scrutinizing the Dellums Federal Building. Surely Trump’s Troops are hunkered down nearby, maybe at the old, abandoned Naval Base in Alameda, ready to spring into action at, literally, a second’s notice.

We shall see. I’d hate to see more violence here. My city is broken and bleeding; what with the pandemic and the economic collapse, we can’t take much more. I went on nextdoor.com to express my prayer—that’s the word I used—that there will be no more violence in Oakland, a city I love. The resulting comments were, I suppose, predictable: I was immediately accused of favoring “property over lives.” Sigh. Sometimes I wonder why I even bother.


Will Oakland Kill Its Infant Marijuana Industry?

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For years, my town of Oakland has been at the center of the commercial marijuana business in America. Downtown is studded with medical marijuana clinics and small shops selling paraphernalia. (I, myself, have had a medical marijuana card for a long time.) Oakland’s pot entrepreneurs were forward-looking visionaries who never doubted that pot would be legal someday. They wanted to be like Henry Ford or Thomas Edison: in the forefront of an industry that would be very, very big.

On the last election day—which also saw the catastrophic election of Trump—California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 64, the California Marijuana Legalization Initiative (sponsored by my old friend, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom). It now is legal for Californians 21 years or older to grow and use pot. The proposition also placed two different kinds of taxes on pot: one on cultivation, for growers, and the other on users, at the retail price end. However, and apparently, Prop 64 does not mandate that other jurisdictions, such as cities and counties, cannot place additional taxes and restrictions on commercial marijuana. That’s where Oakland enters the picture—in a way that does not paint a very flattering picture of it.

A hard-core splinter group of city councilmembers is pushing for Oakland to do things that would effectively kill Oakland’s nascent pot industry, thereby undoing all the work of recent years. These council members are demanding that retail licenses be granted only to people living in districts—largely Black—in which large numbers of residents have been formerly convicted of violating marijuana laws, when weed was illegal. This would effectively limit license holders to those living in minority districts; its proponents call it “an equity permit program” but it’s really race-based discrimination against everyone else who lives in Oakland.

I suppose you could argue that minorities have been disproportionately convicted of drug crimes, although whether that’s true for pot, as opposed to crack cocaine, is arguable. Even if it is true, two wrongs don’t make a right. This is a misguided attempt—when you examine it closely—at a kind of reverse discrimination I find troubling.

As if this proposed rule isn’t bad enough, the rogue supervisors pushing it have another dumb idea: they want the City of Oakland to seize 25% of all pot business profits for the General Fund. Put yourself in the shoes of an aspiring marijuana entrepreneur: your margins are going to be thin enough, what with massive competition (including from Big Tobacco). Now, these morons from Oakland want to take one-quarter of your profits! Are you really sure you want to open a pot business in Oakland?

It’s unbelievable. Oakland is a city badly in need of revenue. The 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake destroyed downtown; it was twenty years before it began to recover, and then, Wham! the Great Recession put us right back into the hole. Since then, however, downtown Oakland has seen an exciting revitalization of restaurants, clubs, wine bars and the like, capped by Uber deciding to headquarter here, in the old Sears building (which also happens to be in the heart of the marijuana district). Revenues from pot dealers would have brought extraordinary sums into the City’s coffers. Instead, selfish, short-sighted councilmembers are trying their damnedest to kill the goose that’s laying the golden egg. Oakland politics has been broken for years because of race, and it’s really time for narrow-minded politicians to think of the City as a whole and put their parochial concerns aside.


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