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My wishes for 2021

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Happy 2021!

We’re all glad to see that wreck of a year, 2020, disappear in the rear-view mirror! We’re also glad to see the orange pig, the catastrophe, the human detritus, the so-called 45th president of the United States, disappear into the trash bin of History, along with his wicked family and followers.

Here are some things I’m looking forward to in the new year.

THE END OF THE PANDEMIC Trump did his best to conceal its seriousness because he wanted to hurt America. As a result of his deliberate incompetence, we’re now looking at the worst economic downturn since the Depression. Still, the pharmaceutical industry has developed multiple vaccines, so we can see light at the end of the tunnel. In typical fashion, the Trump regime has refused to federalize the distribution process, so that far fewer Americans than were expected have been vaccinated so far. But once the Biden administration is in place, we can expect professionals to take over, not the partisan hacks appointed by Trump. Maybe by the summer, we’ll be able to gather again in public places.

PUNISHMENT OF THE TRUMP CRIMINALS Biden still insists he’s not out for retribution. Obama, too. He’s out there plugging his new book and in every interview I’ve seen, he goes out of his way to emphasize that retribution and vengeance are not his preferred way. He understands why Democrats are angry, he says; he knows they want Republicans to pay the price for the truly awful things they’ve done and continue to do. But, he adds, he tries to put his emotions side and ask himself what is best for the country.

Well, that’s fine for Obama to say. I love and respect the guy, but he’s wrong on this. Holding criminals to account isn’t mere “vengeance,” it’s applying justice where justice is warranted. When the Allies held the Nuremberg Trials after World War II, that wasn’t some kind of “emotional” response of vengeance. The world had just witnessed the gravest acts of criminal murder and warmaking in history. To have allowed the culprits to get away with their crimes would have been an insult to every decent instinct, to the notion of law, to world order, to the memory of the murdered. The crimes of the Nazis screamed out for punishment, and punishment is what they got. Granted, the Republicans have not committed genocide. Their crimes are not of that scope. But nobody is asking for them to be hung on the gallows, or to be committed to prison for decades. “Let the punishment fit the crime,” goes the saying. There are a variety of punishments that can fairly be imposed on these Republicans. Fines, shorter prison sentences, public shaming, not being allowed ever again to hold public office…

In fact, that’s what the voters demanded when they elected Biden. Seventy-seven million Americans said loud and clear that they want Republicans to be treated like the wayward brats they are. Democrats went to the polls in the expectation that their anger would be assuaged by Joe Biden. To let Republicans walk away scot-free is unacceptable. The reason that Western Civilization developed a criminal justice system is because humankind understands the need for all people to behave decently, legally and respectfully. Republicans, led by their Fuehrer-in-Chief, continue to commit grave political crimes, including an attempted coup d’état—crimes that pose the greatest threat to America since the Civil War (and, yes, I include the Nazis: our country was never in serious danger from Germany). But America now is in serious danger: from fascism, from dictatorship, from religious tyranny. Unless you’re a total pacifist (and I think most of us aren’t), then you have to admit some things are worth fighting for. And some crimes are worth punishing.

ECONOMIC RECOVERY As the vaccines are given and more people are immunized against the Trump virus, we’ll start re-opening the country. Like everyone else, I’m grief-stricken by what’s happening to our small businesses. It breaks my heart to see the shuttered restaurants and bars in Oakland, many of which will never reopen. I have my own questions about how much of the shutdown was really justified. If large numbers of people are allowed to gather in supermarkets, what’s so bad about letting diners sit ten feet away from each other in outdoor dining establishments? I’ve let my Governor, Gavin Newsom, know that I think he could safely reopen parts of the economy, including the schools. Ultimately, I have to trust the healthcare experts. Unlike Republicans, who don’t believe in science and love to attack expertise, I do trust our doctors, nurses and epidemiological professionals, like Dr. Fauci. So I’m hoping and praying we can reopen the economy as fast as humanly possible.

A GOOD WILDFIRE SEASON Speaking as a Californian, these last several years of record wildfires have been horrifying. So many lives lost, homes destroyed, businesses harmed. We need a break! I hope that 2012 will see the lowest numbers of wildfires in recent history.

A NEW OAKLAND A’S STADIUM AT JACK LONDON SQUARE Poor Oakland has lost the Raiders and the Golden State Warriors, due to the incompetence and uncaring of the Schaaf administration. It’s a dismal record that’s unprecedented for any other U.S. city in losing professional sports franchises. We still have the Oakland A’s—so far. But Schaaf and her friends don’t seem to care if we lose them, too. It would be an unmitigated disaster. Sadly, lots of people in Oakland don’t understand the value of professional sports teams. They believe, wrongly, that the taxpayers support them (they don’t), and that a new A’s stadium would be paid for by the public (if it’s built, it will be entirely with private funds). Lots of folks on the Left in Oakland put pressure on Schaaf to get rid of the A’s, and she has an unfortunate tendency to kowtow to the loudest voices. I give the Oakland A’s ownership great credit for keeping their cool in the face of the absurd hatred they encounter. They’ve identified a lovely spot on the waterfont. I know the area well: I frequently walk there. It’s completely underutilized, a barren expanse of warehouses that contributes nothing to the city. A beautiful new ballpark will revitalize the entire neighborhood and bring much-needed tax dollars to Oakland, and allow my city to enjoy the self-respect of hosting a pro sports team.

Well, those are some of my wishes for 2021! I wish you a happy, healthy New Year!


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.


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