Undercurrents: Exercising Patience as the Dellums Era Begins

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday January 05, 2007

Late in the summer of 1864, shortly after his combined federal armies of the West entered Georgia’s largest and most important city, General William Sherman sent a telegram to President Abraham Lincoln with a brief message included. “Atlanta is ours,” Mr. Sherman said, “and fairly won.” 

Something similar could be said by Ron Dellums, who became the new mayor of the City of Oakland this week by virtue of his victory in the elections last June. Those elections were fairly fought, with no taint or hint of scandal concerning their outcome, the citizens of Oakland having come together—uncoerced—and decided upon their own, by majority vote, that Mr. Dellums is their choice to lead the city over the next four years. Such was also the case with Jerry Brown four years ago. 

Mr. Brown has come in for considerable criticism and first- and second-guessing since then—within this column as much as anyplace in and out of Oakland—but that has been almost solely in response to his actions and activities, or lack thereof, during his tenure as mayor. What has been forgotten in recent years is that Mr. Brown came into office with a considerable portion of goodwill, and was given ample time and space to either prove or disprove his abilities and desires. 

In December 2000, for example, I wrote in defense of Mr. Brown’s hiring of his old friend Jacques Barzaghi in the old “Oakland Unwrapped” column (the forerunner of “UnderCurrents”), saying that “by all accounts, Jacques Barzaghi plays an important role in Jerry Brown’s life as friend and confidant, and I don’t see anything wrong with public officials bringing such folk into their administrations.” 

This was written at the beginning of the Barzaghi sexual harassment scandal, some days after the investigation began into the charges that Mr. Barzaghi had verbally assaulted and demeaned a female city employee during an official trip to the presidential inaugural in Mexico City. Even then, a year into Mr. Brown’s first administration, he was still being given considerable leeway. If Mr. Brown’s soul was lost—to broadly paraphrase the old spiritual we used to sing in the black Baptist church—it was nobody’s fault but his. 

Mr. Dellums deserves that same opportunity. 

He comes into the mayorship with his own ideas and plans, but also with considerable, pressing problems left over from the outgoing Brown Administration. Everybody is providing advice, including Mr. Brown who, according to the report on the NBC11 website, providing Mr. Dellums with a plan to fight Oakland’s soaring crime rate. 

According to NBC11, “The plan, drafted by consultants from New York, recommends that the Oakland Police Department set up geographic zones in the city. Each zone would be overseen by a captain.” 

“This way,” the television quoted the outgoing mayor as saying, “you get one top person totally responsible 24 hours a day for crime and the work against crime and the protection of citizens. I think if implemented this will drive down the murder rate It will put police where the criminals are and will match police deployment with criminal activity." 

And all the time, it was that simple. Where were these New York consultants, all these past eight years? 

Meanwhile, what the Dellums administration can only hope for is that it is not pushed into reckless action by pressure built up from the anxieties and unfulfilled promises of the Brown Administration. What Oaklanders—and residents of the surrounding communities so dependent, economically and culturally, on Oakland—need is patience. 

The danger will be to immediately use the city’s murder rate as an indicator of how successful—or unsuccessfull—Mr. Dellums is in pulling us up from the street horror of the Brown years. 

On Thursday morning, the Tribune reported the city’s first homicide of 2007, a man found dead on the street on 89th Avenue, with the paper noting that “Oakland’s first homicide in 2006 happened Jan. 9 and the final tally was 148.” What possible bearing can the date of Oakland’s first homicide of 2006 have on the date of its first homicide of 2007, other than for our good friends at the Tribune to make the not-so-subtle point that this year’s first occurred almost a week earlier last year’s and, by inference, perhaps that means we are in for a bloodier year than last? 155? 175? How long will it be before the papers begin publishing their comparative charts, as if this were a sports contest, and the number of bodies in the Alameda County morgue were somehow analogous to the number of points scored by Kobe Bryant, or home runs hit by Barry Bonds? 

The problem with this statistics-based approach to judging the return of health and safety to our city is twofold. 

The first is that some of the actions which would eventually lead to permanent violence reduction in the long-term may actually cause a spike in violence in the short-term. One of these we have discussed before: open-air drug markets. These are some of the immediate sources of Oakland’s most horrific instances of murder, violence, and crime. Oakland’s open-air drug streets and corners are controlled by a complex array of drug gangs operating under various forms of hierarchy, alliances, and territorial boundaries. When these alliances are stable, there is a lessening of territorial disputes and attempts to take over each other’s turf, thus a lessening of drug-related shootings, thus a lowering of the city’s murder rate. But when police come in a break up some of the more lucrative drug-dealing areas, groups can converge from different factions and different parts of the city to try to fill the vacuum, sometimes resulting in bloody turf wars. The more effective the police are in shutting off these outlets, the more the profits of the drug gangs are squeezed, the more violent become their wars over the remaining profit centers. The danger is that in responding to persistent public calls to lower the murder rate, police are tempted to let things be, and allow many of the long-term, open-air drug dealing to go on unmolested. Perhaps it is this type of thinking which has allowed some open-air drug centers to operate in some of the darker and poorer areas of the city, seemingly unimpeded by police, since the years the crack trade began. 

The other danger to using the homicide rate as our immediate measure of success in city safety is that a serious, adult attack on the long-term causes of Oakland’s crime and violence is not going to have any immediate, measurable effect, not, at least, one that can be put down in a graph on the front page of the Tribune or the East Bay Express. In the last 20 years—coinciding with the rise of the crack trade and the continued erosion of the city’s industrial workplace base—many of neighborhoods and communities have witnessed an enromous period of uncertainty and disruption that have gone virtually ignored by the various city administrations of those times. Pile that on top of the unresolved and swept-under problems of the two centuries previous and you are left with an enormous reservoir of problems that are not going to be resolved with a clever six or seven month program typed into a computer by New York consultants. 

And the problem of crime and violence is only one of Oakland’s present difficulties. There are myriad more. 

Does this make the task hopeless? Impossible? Hardly. But it’s not the sort of task that’s going to be finished in a day. Or a month. Or even a single mayoral administration, no matter how bright and promising it may appear at its offset. 

The administration of the City of Oakland is Ron Dellums’, for the next four years, at least, and fairly won. 

What he needs now is a little space. And some help.