Why Oakland Is the Perfect Backdrop for Kennedy’s VP Choice

American Values 2024 | March 25, 2024. By David Talbot, Columnist, The Kennedy Beacon

Oakland, California, is a mess. Just like my hometown, San Francisco, its sister city across the Bay. You’ve heard the tales of woe over and over again in the media. Downtown Oakland is a shuttered ghost town. Crime is rampant. There are homeless encampments everywhere. The piles of uncollected trash invite outlaw dumpers throughout the state. As businesses flee, along with the city’s tax base, Oakland is facing the same “doom loop” that is now threatening San Francisco.

Yes, Oakland is a poster boy for liberalism’s failure.

Just ask the billionaires who own the sports teams that once called Oakland home. In recent years, the Golden State Warriors took their championship basketball franchise to a gleaming new arena in San Francisco and the NFL’s Raiders decamped to Las Vegas. Now John Fisher, the wealthy owner of the A’s baseball team, is planning to join the Raiders in Vegas, attracted by the city’s gambling operations not by the relatively small fan base. When the A’s’ Las Vegas stadium is built, it will be right next door to a casino, cementing the sketchy relationship between professional sports and gambling.

Now the billionaires who still call the Bay Area home want to revitalize Oakland. It sounds good, right? Since the 1970s, when Oakland elected its first black mayor, Lionel Wilson, the city has been led by a series of liberals, including Jerry Brown and Ron Dellums. But this Democratic leadership has only resulted in today’s crime-ridden urban squalor. Throw the bums out, you cry!

The problem is the billionaires’ vision for the new Oakland. If you loved what wealthy tech industry moguls and investors did to San Francisco the last dozen years, you’ll cheer the Oakland they want to create. A city that is only affordable for those who make comfortable six-figure and seven-figure incomes and evicts everyone else. Oakland’s black population has already plummeted to about 20 percent, from a high of 47 percent in 1980. Oakland will become even less diverse and vibrant if the billionaires get their way.

Ron Conway, the billionaire tech investor whose lavishly-financed electoral efforts have corporatized San Francisco politics in recent years, is a major funder of the recall campaign against Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao. Conway’s crowd blames Thao, who has been in office for only a little over a year, for the crime and homelessness that have plagued the city for a long time.

Saabir Lockett, founder and executive director of Pathways 2 Peace, an advocacy group for the formerly incarcerated, denounced Conway’s campaign at a recent press conference. Lockett, who pointed out that Thao has long been involved in efforts to improve public safety, said, “The recall efforts against the mayor came about the day she was put into office. We see the hustle, we see the game, and we won’t be deterred by the threats, or the public shaming, and we’ll continue to stand up for democracy.”

After a turbulent year at the Oakland Police Department, Mayor Thao just announced she has hired a new police chief, Floyd Mitchell, who began his law enforcement career as a patrol officer in Kansas City, Missouri, rising to become the first black police chief in Lubbock, Texas.

Conway is also backing the recall campaign against Pamela Price, the progressive district attorney in Alameda County (where Oakland is located). Like Mayor Thao, Price took office in January 2023. His pro-corporate forces also triumphed in this month’s San Francisco elections, taking control of the local Democratic Party machinery and passing two reactionary ordinances, giving police more surveillance powers and subjecting welfare recipients to mandatory drug tests.

(For the record, I debated Conway, who crowed about recalling progressive San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, at a 2022 tech forum. “This ruined city is on you, Ron,” I told the billionaire, who has financially supported the last two mayors in San Francisco.)

To get a sense of the real Oakland, the grassroots Oakland, I spoke with two friends, longtime residents of the city. Quincy McCoy has lived with his family in Oakland for 25 years. A communications consultant, McCoy was until recently general manager of KPFA, the Pacifica Radio station that covers the East Bay, among his many media and community roles.

“No, I don’t think the city’s a mess and enough with the recalls,” he texted me. “Oakland is one of the most diverse cities in California and is under attack by the right for political reasons and it’s furthered by the mass media. Like any city, we have our troubles that are systemic and costly to adjust, like housing, education and the criminal justice system. Folks should turn their focus on those issues instead of just highlighting the crime rate.”

A few days later, McCoy texted me again: “Hey, I saw this on a T-shirt in downtown Oakland today. ‘In Oakland as it is in Heaven.’”

Another friend shares McCoy’s enthusiasm for the city, as well as his disdain for the billionaire-funded recall campaigns. “The recall elections are anti-democratic,” says Liam O’Donoghue, a local historian and host of the popular podcast East Bay Yesterday. “They’re nonstop ‘democracy’ because no sooner are progressive officials elected than they have to campaign all over again to protect the seats they just won. Big money is raising the bar for electoral politics.”

“Yes, Oakland has its share of problems, but they’ve been going on for decades,” O’Donoghue continues.

Some of Oakland’s afflictions – like shuttered stores and the shoplifting that plagues those that remain open – have been aggravated by the rise of online shopping, not by city policies. “Amazon is to blame for the epidemic of closed stores,” O’Donoghue observes. The online retail giant even sells many goods stolen from stores, he says.

O’Donoghue, who often speaks about Oakland’s past at public events and offers boat tours of the East Bay, says he can feel it: the rise of Oakland from the ashes of the Covid pandemic and other urban crises.

“I was out walking in Rockridge (a lively Oakland neighborhood) this afternoon,” he told me last week. “It was a glorious, sunny day and everyone was out. There are parties and barbecues every weekend around Lake Merritt. Across the street on Grand Avenue, a wonderful new store called Clio’s has opened – it’s a combination bookstore and bar and attracts all sorts of authors and readers.

Continued O’Donoghue, “All of my public events are now sold out. After being shut in for so long, people want to see each other and talk to each other again.”

If Bobby Kennedy Jr. can tap into Oakland’s new energy when he introduces his running mate on Tuesday, their presidential campaign will also get a big lift.

We don’t just want to be reminded of what’s wrong – we want to know what is right. We want a sense of what’s possible, how we can rebuild our broken country.

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