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Welcome to the Coalition for a Better Oakland!

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The Coalition for a Better Oakland is the name of a political action group I have co-founded with a few colleagues. Our goals are twofold: to end the blight of homeless encampments that are polluting our parks, underpasses and sidewalks, and to support the Oakland Police Department, which is embattled on all sides, fighting a record surge of crime and at the same time having to deal with the insanity of the “defund the police” crowd.

For the last several years I’ve felt increasingly isolated in my city. Could I be the only one worried about these twin issues of cops and camps, which after all are interrelated? During the pandemic, I turned to social media, especially nextdoor.com, to share my thoughts. I discovered that I was not alone. Many others felt the same way I did. I then found myself being censored and blocked from nextdoor.com. My political views, apparently, were at odds with those of the anonymous censors who can throw someone off the platform with no warning, no explanation, and no right of appeal. I began to see the connections between the censors at nextdoor.com and the various radical groups who seemed to have such an outsized influence at City Hall. Both were not interested in anyone’s views except their own. Both indulged in what we now call “cancel culture.” It was all very discouraging.

I have now abandoned nextdoor.com and will not return. (Their latest salvo into cancel culture was to inform users that the term “Black Lives Matter” is acceptable, but that “White Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” will be cause for expulsion.) But before I abandoned that dreadful platform I met (in the digital sense) a group of like-minded men and women and it is with them that I have started the Coalition for a Better Oakland. The exciting news is that, after months of delay, we will launch our website this Monday; and I will certainly share it here with you. We hope to become a political force in the city. We want to endorse candidates in future elections, and we want to influence the debate in the City Council, the Police Commission and in the City Manager’s office. For too long the radicals on the extreme left have been the ones to dominate meetings, hold demonstrations and intimidate politicians, including our Mayor, Libby Schaaf, into positions they clearly are uncomfortable with, but feel compelled to accept. We believe that we—the Coalition—represent the thinking of a majority of Oaklanders, most of whom are too busy getting on with their lives to be able to spend time on the computer researching issues or showing up at City Council meetings. We want to inspire that majority, rally them to our side, and tell the current crop of Oakland leaders that their day is done.

One of the things I, in particular, have had to do is protect our young Coalition from being a Trojan horse for rightwing extremists. When you’re supportive of the cops, and when you’re saying that homeless people do not have the right to set up tents wherever they want, you tend to open yourself to the charge of being a white supremacist trumper. I am a lifelong Democrat—everyone who knows my blog knows that since September 2016, I did everything in my power to take Trump and his Republican Party down. I fail to see why a moderately-progressive liberal like me cannot at the same time be a strong cop supporter. How did Democrats allow Republicans to own the issue of crime and policing? I don’t know, but it’s time we reseized the initiative.

And by the way, I’m convinced that the reason Democrats lost so many seats in the Congress during the last election, despite Biden’s victory, is precisely because of the stupid “defund the police” movement. The American people hate it, they’re afraid of it, and they find the people arguing in favor of it distasteful and irrational. My own feeling is that the reaction against the “defund” movement has already set in. Fewer and fewer politicians are using the phrase. As a political slogan, it’s easily the dumbest I’ve heard in my life. Yet here in Oakland, ambitious politicians still insist on 50% cuts to OPD’s budget—even though the local media is telling us that the neighborhoods most impacted by crime want more cops on the beat, not fewer. It strikes me that the people who are most insistent on “defunding” are (a) politicians who don’t give a damn about anything except power and (b) well-off white suburbanites who are appeasing their own guilt.

Well, I wanted to share this news of the Coalition for a Better Oakland with you. On Monday (barring some unexpected glitch) I’ll be able to give you the link, including sign-up information.

Have a great weekend!


Can we talk about cops?

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A small group of us had a long meeting yesterday with an Oakland Police Department (OPD) senior cop. This was part of our imminent launch of a new political action group we’re organizing, the Coalition for a Better Oakland, to address some of the catastrophes in Oakland created by years of government mismanagement, political corruption and misguided extremist political ideologies.

It was the first opportunity any of us had ever had to sit down informally with a top cop of long experience and leadership, and have a frank conversation. We agreed at the outset that nothing was off the table. No tape recordings were made; I took a few notes, but that was it. We could ask him whatever we wanted.

I asked the cop why he had agreed to meet with us, and he was earnest and passionate as he explained that OPD will meet with anyone who’s trying to help them. Cop-hating in Oakland is an old game. There was a story in the newspaper the other day about a LatinX cop who went to a coffee shop in Oakland and was refused service. Cops get spat at, they’re routinely given the finger, and in general they have to be on their guard all the time when they’re in uniform. Anti-cop rhetoric in Oakland is strong and pervasive. Everywhere you go, there’s graffiti: FTP (fuck the police) and ACAB (all cops are bastards) are the most common, but there are also calls for murdering cops. It must get very tedious for a uniformed officer just trying to do her job!

For my part, I felt a responsibility to let the cop know that I, and the two others from my group at the meeting, were not psychos or freaks of some kind. We’re not “badge chasers” or anything like that, but citizens of Oakland who hate what’s happening to our city, and who no longer feel safe just going about our daily (and nightly) routines. For thirty years I never felt uneasy walking at night downtown. Over the last year or two, I do. Murder is soaring: we’re on track to set a record this year. Street attacks, robberies, muggings, carjackings—every day there are stories in the paper, and then, of course, the anti-Asian assaults have made national headlines. With all this going on, you’d think the City Council would be considering increasing OPD’s budget; the department is currently staffed only at 50% of the needed levels. But no. The City Council’s so-called “Reimagining Public Safety” task force continues to call for more defunding of the department and re-routing the money into such things as “immediate housing,” “restorative justice,” “decriminalizing homelessness” (which by the way is based on a lie, since “homelessness” has never been against the law), removing the forensics crime lab out of OPD and into a “non-police” organization (since, according to the Reimagining people, the forensics lab—staffed by technicians—is somehow a hotbed of “police misconduct”), launching a proposed “basic income” program (Oakland’s just-announced program this past week was threatened with a lawsuit after Oakland said it would send money only to people of color, excluding poor white people), eliminating funding for OPD’s helicopter (!!!), radical changes to recruiting and hiring, in which intellectual standards are eliminated in order to make the process decrease “bigotry and bias,” and scores of other proposals—some good, some downright stupid.

No doubt, these proposed changes are well-meant, but they do represent an ideological bias of their own: that police are inherently evil, and that crime is largely the fault of systematic racism. The bottom line is that career cops in Oakland are frustrated, feel disrespected and insecure, are leaving the department for greener pastures, and the people of Oakland are increasingly left to their own devices.

There are so many issues to unpack. One thing we talked about at our meeting was the theory, often advanced by “defund the police” people, that goes something like this: Change is hard. Whenever change threatens an existing institution, its rearguard will resist it ferociously. Therefore, the rearguard has got to go, since change is inevitable and good.

That theory sounds plausible. Many of us were taught about the “paradigm shifts” that occurred in the 20th century in science. We learned that the rearguard resisted the new approaches of quantum mechanics and relativity. The Nazis in particular called these “the Jewish sciences.” They also resisted the new forms of painting, such as Abstraction and Expressionism, in favor of “social realist paintings” that, today, are considered sheer rubbish. So, yes, there is a valid school of thought that says change is good and resistance to it is bad.

But when it comes to quantum mechanics or Expressionist paintings, human life and welfare are not threatened! What threatens public safety here in Oakland is an out-of-control criminal culture which seems to be encouraged by the guardians who are supposed to be protecting us. This is particularly true concerning Oakland’s Community Police Review Agency, whose primary role seems to be encouraging citizen complaints of misconduct against officers. The Agency’s chair came under widespread criticism for forcing the firing of the former police chief (because, it was alleged, she was white), and a city-mandated review of the Agency’s performance accused it of widespread abuse of power.

Race is at the heart of almost everything that happens in Oakland, and it’s sad that common sense seems to have been removed from every conversation. In Oakland, you’re either “woke” or you’re engaged in systematic racism. There’s no middle ground. If you’re against sideshows, according to this extreme view, you’re discriminating against the cultural practice of a particular group. Never mind that sideshows are a huge menace in the Oakland flatlands, where legal traffic is blocked, pedestrians are threatened, and people actually die. This is the kind of impasse that has brought Oakland to its knees, and is why we created the Coalition for a Better Oakland. We believe our common sense approach to issues of crime and homeless encampments represents a majority of Oaklanders, as opposed to the handful of anti-cop activists who disrupt every City Council meeting, a good proportion of whom demand the complete elimination of the police department, with the funding going to shadowy programs they and their friends run.

I have insisted from the get-go that our Coalition is nonpartisan. I refuse to concede that anyone who supports cops is a white supremacist. Anyone who reads my blog knows I’m a Democrat who is unalterably opposed to the far right. This past week, I took steps (along with some of my colleagues) to prevent a self-professed “militiaman” from being part of our group. We have to be very careful to prevent rightwing, insurrectionist radicals from getting anywhere close to us. If that happens—and I am monitoring it—I’ll leave the group. It’s the extremes on both sides—the Jan. 6 proud boy/QAnon freaks and the BLM rioters who tear cities apart—that are the enemies of the people, not the cops.


MANIFESTO: Encampments, a blight on our city

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One of the compelling reasons we launched the Coalition for a Better Oakland is because we believe something must be done about the proliferation of homeless encampments in the town we love.

We recognize and acknowledge that the causes of homelessness and many and complex. We sympathize with our unhoused sisters and brothers, and would like to work with the city to find solutions to the current catastrophe. But our common-sense point of view, which we believe is widely shared by Oaklanders, is not being heard in the councils of government. In fact, it is being repressed.

Mayor Libby Schaaf seriously dropped the ball when she was first elected, back in 2015. Already at that time, camps were proliferating. Many people asked Mayor Schaaf and the City Council to begin managing the camps, instead of allowing them to spread in an uncontrolled manner.

What did Mayor Schaaf do?

In glowing rhetoric, she talked about “a bold new plan” to reduce homelessness, but it was always in the vaguest terms, with no practical solutions.

She assured homeless people that if they moved to Oakland, they would find housing, medical treatment, and other services.

She told homeless people Oakland would “treat them with compassion.”

When San Francisco, Berkeley and San Jose began efforts to manage the spread of camps, Schaaf assured the Bay Area’s homeless population Oakland would “shelter all residents.”

She even suggested that Oaklanders “open their houses to homeless people,” although she herself, she explained, had no room for any in her house.

With rhetoric like that, no wonder homeless people flocked to Oakland. They heard that they would be taken care of. They heard that they would be received with open arms. They heard they might even be able to live with the mayor! And they believed these things. But they were not told the truth. There was no plan, no money, no conceivable way to give them what they needed. Libby Schaaf was just making it all up.

Thus, by October, 2020, when the camp situation became so unbearable that even the most liberal Oaklanders were begging government to do something about it, the City Council, under enormous pressure, finally acted. With Schaaf’s strong support, they passed, unanimously, a resolution limiting tents to certain restricted areas, and prohibiting them everywhere else, including parks.

Schaaf promised that the new regulations would begin to be enforced in January, 2021. But guess what? Nothing happened. The City Council wouldn’t even abide by its own rules. Our parks remain overrun. Underpasses, rights-of-way along BART lines, intersections and miles of streets are lined with encampments and the piles of junk associated with them. (Take a look at Frontage Road, in West Oakland.) And, as the public has tragically seen, fires at encampments are burning down cultural centers, museums and businesses. With fire season just around the corner, that is a serious concern.

Why did Schaaf make unrealistic and unachievable promises to homeless people? It was cruel to invite them to Oakland. Everyone knew, or should have known, the city was in no shape to care for them. Maybe Schaaf was speaking out of truly idealistic motives. Maybe she was pandering to, or intimidated by, the screaming demands of the small but vocal minority of radical pro-homeless activists. Maybe she just wasn’t thinking clearly.

WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE US?

To answer this, we have to backtrack a few years and consider what Schaaf could and should have done when she took office. She should have announced that the city intended to manage the camps in a way that was both compassionate to the homeless and reasonable to the people of Oakland.

But she didn’t.

She should have made it clear that public parks, like Mosswood and Lakeside, were off limits for tents.

But she didn’t.

She should have created sanctioned places where homeless people could legally put up their tents.

But she didn’t.

She should have told the truth to homeless people: Don’t come to Oakland! We can’t take care of you; we don’t have the money.

But she didn’t.

She should have taken on the pro-homeless crowd and told them that they had no idea how to govern and that their demands for free housing, food, medical care and job training for 4,500 homeless people, possibly for life, were insane and would bankrupt Oakland.

But she didn’t.

SO WHAT’S THE ANSWER?

We here at the Coalition for a Better Oakland know this: A city that loses control of its streets is in trouble. We strongly support the City Council’s Oct. 2020 policy that restricted encampments to “low sensitivity” areas. That decision was—as Schaaf herself said—“a compassionate response to an unacceptable condition.” If camps were located in manageable areas, like parts of the Port, the former Oakland Army Base and other conglomerate areas to be identified, services could be provided more efficiently to homeless constituents. Campers themselves would be relieved of the constant threat of street sweeps, knowing that they could safely remain in approved areas. Their legitimate security concerns could more easily be addressed. Such a policy would be a win-win for everyone.

But Schaaf knuckled under to the activists. The City Council drifted further into radical, unrealistic politics after the November elections. And every day, the situation grows more dire.

Look: this issue is neither Democratic nor Republican, neither rightwing nor leftwing, but common sense. The Coalition for a Better Oakland is nonpartisan. We Oaklanders are hard-working, tax-paying, compassionate, and politically savvy. We deserve parks where kids can play—parks that have not been desecrated. We deserve a city where cultural centers and museums and small businesses are not burned down. We deserve streets where we can walk in safety and not dodge human excrement, rotting garbage, passed-out bodies, and hypodermic needles. We want to see our leaders do the job they were elected to do and manage these camps. It can be done—it should be done—it is legal—and it is morally right.


Monday Meander

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Our seder was small, only the three of us. But sweet and sentimental. We remembered those who are no longer with us, including Gus, who was much beloved by Maxine and Keith. Maxine used to enjoy lying down on the sofa while we watched T.V. after dinner, and she would want Gus to snuggle with her. But Gus was really more comfortable with me. So I’d pick him up, put him beside Maxine on the sofa, and give him that “stay there!” look, which he obeyed. But he’d never take his eyes off me.

Then, on Sunday, the three of us went for a nice walk on the San Mateo side of San Francisco Bay. There’s a brand new park down there, paid for by Facebook, which has built and is in the process of opening some big buildings for artificial intelligence research. I must say the buildings were ominous looking; with their great slabs of flat plate glass they reminded me of Mark Zuckerberg’s face. But the park itself is gorgeous: beautiful pathways and gardens right on the Bay, with tremendous views of San Francisco and the East Bay. It’s a short walk to Coyote Point, where we also went. This is all part of the San Francisco Bay Trail,

a planned 500-mile walking and biking trail that will completely circumnavigate San Francisco Bay. It’s been in the works for about 20 years and is nearing completion. I covered its launch years ago. Our Bay has certainly suffered many depredations over the centuries, but the good news is that our California sentiment (preservation, a love of scenic beauty and open spaces, all informed by our benign climate) has prevented large parts of the California coast from being despoiled, the way the coast has been ruined in Florida or along the northeast. Easterners and republicans love to make fun of “the land of fruit and nuts” but really, they’ve wrecked their own environment, and I think they’re just jealous of us.

For example, I got a comment today on Facebook referring to the “train to nowhere.” Now, that is a derogatory phrase invented by republicans to refer to a stretch of BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit train, that will connect the East Bay to the city of San Jose and thence to Silicon Valley. Objectively viewed, this is one of the most important transit developments in the country. But the republicans declared war on it because the Bay Area is very Democratic. The republican propagandists dubbed it “the train to nowhere,” a huge lie, and trump killed the funding. I’m sure it will be refunded because it’s so obviously important, but it’s just another example of republican malfeasance. The same republicans who hurl slurs like “the train to nowhere” are now trying to drive Gov. Gavin Newsom from office, using the same lies and slogans. They have no real way of criticizing him, of course, since he’s been a good governor, so instead they appeal to people’s anger and resentment, especially the resentment of rural inlanders against the more prosperous and creative coastal areas. The inlanders always have despised the coast (San Francisco, Los Angeles, Silicon Valley) because they recognize that coastal Californians are better educated, healthier and more entrepreneurial than they are. It’s too bad; inlanders have some good qualities. But they can’t seem to celebrate themselves without having to denigrate someone else. Well, that’s Trumpism, in a nutshell.

I hope everyone has a good week! More tomorrow.


Passover, post-Pandemic

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I’ve had a complicated relationship with my birth religion, Judaism.

I was raised in what I suppose you’d call a “conservative” Jewish home. We certainly weren’t orthodox—keeping kosher and all that. My father attended synagogue, but I always thought it was more for the social aspects than the religious ones. For example, he ran the Bingo game. My mother never went to schul. She just didn’t care all that much—despite the fact that her father had founded the first synagogue in Oklahoma!

Still, my parents made sure to send me to “Hebrew school.” This meant that, from the age of seven, at least three days a week after regular school, I had to attend two hours of religious classes at Congregation Hope of Israel, three blocks from where we lived. We studied the Hebrew language, Jewish history and culture, and religion, and as I got nearer to my 13th birthday, I was heavily drilled in preparations for my bar mitzvah.

When I was really little I believed in God with a simple faith. By my early teens, the complexities of life began to overwhelm me, and that faith was diluted, never again to fully return. With my education, my rationality convinced me that much of the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) was made up. I mean, burning bushes and seas parted? To this day, people who believe in the inerrant literalness of the Bible are, to my way of thinking, mentally ill.

But there’s always been a bifurcation in Judaism. Lots of Jews claim to be culturally Jewish. I’m not sure exactly what that entails. I Googled it and found a couple of elements that are said to comprise “cultural Judaism”:

• Judaism’s commitment to activism

• its encouragement of intellectual curiosity

• its emphasis on the importance of community

• an identification with Jewishness without believing in the religious precepts

• a proud recognition of the importance of Judaism to world history and philosophy

I guess all of those apply to me.

In the next week I’ll be participating in two formal Jewish events. Tomorrow is the first evening of Passover, and I’m going to Maxine’s and Keith’s for our seder. It will be the first meal I’ve had in their home in more than a year. Just the three of us…I know we’ll raise glasses to the ones who used to sit at that same table but are no longer here. We’ll say the usual prayers, most of which I’ve known by heart since we used to go to Seders at Aunt Yetta and Uncle Sam’s apartment, in Brooklyn. But I can’t say the Passover story means much to me.

Then, next week, my grand-nephew Jamie is being bar mitzvahed up in Seattle. The ceremony will by via Zoom, and Jamie’s mom, my niece Janel, asked me to do an Aliyah. This Hebrew word has a variety of meanings, all connected with the concept of “going up” or “higher.” For example, Jews who emigrate to Israel are said to make an Aliyah. In this case, my Aliyah is being called to chant a series of bracha, or blessings, in Hebrew. Normally this would be done at the altar, but I’ll be doing it from my living room. Being invited to this particular Aliyah is a great honor. Of course, I’ll have to rehearse over the weekend to get the pronunciations and tune right.

I certainly have no problem with people, like my niece, who are observant of Judaism. In general, it’s a nice religion with many good things in it, and one of the things I like best is that Jews have never been evangelical; that is, they have no interest in recruiting, and would prefer that outsiders not try to get in. I don’t particularly care for the Jewish rightwing extremists—the ultra-Orthodox, who have made such a mess in Israel with their hatred of the Palestinians and distrust of science. But I don’t like extremists in any religion; our evangelicals can go jump in a lake, as far as I’m concerned, and Islamic extremists are really crazy.

So, to my Jewish friends, Happy Pesach! Now go and enjoy the roast lamb, drink lots of wine, and be happy.


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