#BlackLivesMatter, Bernie, and me, an Old White Lady Speaks

As Obama’s days in office wind down, the #BlackLivesMatter movement is picking up and maybe that’s not a coincidence. At the same time that the movement against wealth inequality has found its candidate in Bernie Sanders, many are wondering if he understands the urgency of ending White Supremacy, and they were wondering this before his appearance at NetRoots Nation.

So let me start with my own confession as a white woman, an old one at that. I watched the takeover on stage of Bernie’s speech, the part I could see on video, and remembered the city council takeover here in Oakland. I experienced a mix of emotions while watching both.

On the one hand, at the city council meeting I was genuinely annoyed that the meeting I had been waiting for-in order to speak to the council in support of a long fought battle to strengthen the Citizens’ Police Review Board-was not going to happen. As the city had inexplicably pulled our item from the previous meeting agenda, an item that we have reason to believe might curtail police brutality, I thought, wait, not now, you didn’t tell/ask me!

Yeah, folks I’ll admit to being miffed at being left out of that discussion, and I saw that some people at that meeting were a bit frightened given that a week before Oakland’s downtown had seen an unusual amount of smashy-smashy. I even tweeted about our need to be heard at the meeting.

But, if you look back, you have to give it to the folks who planned that action, it stopped a vote that might have eventually been stopped by a lawsuit, but the action emboldened young activists who were members of #BlackLivesMatter and #AsiansforBlackLivesMatter to take the process over when their voices weren’t being heard; and they got a victory, a big victory.

And therein lies the rub. Your average middle class, middle-of-the-road Oaklander/American doesn’t feel comfortable with people who don’t follow the rules. Interestingly, when I wrote a blog denouncing the city’s measures to limit public seating at its meetings after that, some of my more progressive friends disagreed with me.

Fast forward to Bernie’s appearance at the NetRoots Nation event, and that’s how lots of my movement white friends, certainly not all, responded to the shouting down of their beloved Bernie Sanders. How did I feel when watching? I felt: pained, pained that Bernie didn’t have a clue how to respond and worried because he needs Black activism to succeed-just when we had begun to believe that he is a serious candidate-saddened that he didn’t seem to understand the differences between his economic agenda and one that seeks to end institutional racism, pissed off a little that he was exposed this way and something else, elated.

Yes, elated that the #BlackLivesMatter folks are so courageous and effective. That was truly Shakespearean. They addressed the audience and the candidates (or the other actors in our presidential play) and said, something’s rotten in Oakland/America. And the Bush era of restrictive “free speech zones” like I experienced when Hillary came to Oakland back in 2007 are over, thank god (See http://grandlakeguardian.org/index.php/drake/2007/10/08/sunday_rally_for_hillary_clinton .)

You might say that’s what Bernie is also talking about to audiences of thousands. Yeah, he is, but he has missed a big hunk of our reality, a steaming pile of smelly shit-white supremacy-institutional racism-the urgency of people dying at the hands of the state for no other reason than being Black. And that doesn’t even cover the reality of the everyday lives of Black and Brown people who live in rotting neighborhoods, go to worn out schools and languish in jails that resemble the Bastille.

I’m lucky. There are members of my family who are Black (biracial if you will, or African-American if Black is too straightforward for you.) They check me when I make stupid, naive or even offensive comments if I haven’t been able to check myself first. Maybe as a Leftist I would care as much without their prodding, but really, it wouldn’t be something I would think about every day. No one wants to have to focus on racism everyday but some folks, obviously, have no choice.

So what’s the problem, is Bernie a traditional old lefty who really believes that class trumps everything? Quite possibly-even though all the evidence for anyone with eyes to see and a heart to feel-will tell you that a relatively wealthy, even a very wealthy person-of-color, will still experience the destructive force of white supremacy at many points in their lives. So long as racism is a deep, almost impenetrable part of our nature as Americans, there is no hiding place, no safe house, no shelter from its ugliness, its deadly consequences. This movement, some call it the New Civil Rights Movement, using social media, is addressing what has existed but been invisible to white Americans for so long.

So on facebook and my local Democratic club listserve, for instance, when I brought up that Bernie, despite his huge turnouts had recently failed a test at NetRoots Nation, the response surprised me. Some found the problem with the #BlackLivesMatter folks and some with Bernie. Most missed the point.

In fact the first response I often saw from old Lefties was that perhaps this was a conspiracy by Hillary’s people to damage Bernie to which I have to say, paranoia only gets us so far. BUT even if it were true (and it’s not, that’s dismissive) how come Bernie couldn’t respond by listening or by talking about his plans to dismantle institutionalized racism? He saw what they said to O’Malley yet decided to carry on with his usual speech.

The comments ranged from, “I am at a loss to understand the tactics of shouting down speakers. I have always been at a loss to understand that kind of action be it from the Left or the Right. Let’s work to solve the problem of racism in America and not make it worse by helping elect Ted Cruz or Donald Trump. Those who make progressive candidates look bad in the press especially when the candidates have done or said significant things about issue in the past help the opposition not their cause.”

Or, “Were there meetings with Sanders beforehand by the BLM folks? The gal who spoke was speaking out of emotion. The issue is very important, and very emotional. So are lots of others. What will we see next? Pro-Palestinian folks storm the stage at the next Bernie event? Gun control activists? Global warming folks?” True but that’s not the problem of the people who are leading the campaign against white racism, a movement, which does, in fact, work in coalition with most of those other folks. The point Bernie’s defenders are missing is that he cannot succeed if Black voters doubt his concern and his sincerity (Bernie’s strength, normally.)

Given our knowledge of the “new Jim Crow” times we are in, this comment kinda blew me away, “ALL of the issues are important because ALL lives matter. Factions need to learn to work together so we can accomplish better lives for all of us. We need to be a coalition, not individual groups clamoring to be on stage all the time. People championing individual causes have learned to play to the media for attention (as they needed to). Now they need to step back and stand in solidarity with all of the people this system is crushing.” It’s not a bad statement, clearly one that is knowledgeable but the, “now they need to step back,” was all I could see. Really, you wanna tell Black folk and other POC to step back, to wait, seriously?

A white woman who was there described the impact on her, “I would not say the goal was to shout down either candidate……This candidates’ forum was large and well attended. So besides just addressing the candidates, it seemed they wanted the conference/activists to engage on the issues of police brutality and the loss of black lives, and this was the best opportunity to be really visible….Many were crying. It was powerful and emotional for me to witness and for all the participants. It was close to the stage and I was next to them, clearly witnessing all as it unfolded.”

She went on, “Bernie really should have dropped the script and taken the moment to show empathy and connection to those activists right when he walked on stage. Instead he came off like a cold, political operative. He could have just said, ” I feel your pain, black lives matter and I absolutely want to engage with you to address these issues”. And she added that “He really appeared like a very disconnected old white guy at that moment. He then dashed off stage without a goodbye. He had scheduled a smaller meeting after with some black leaders which he canceled.”

Another one of my friends looked up Bernie’s statements on the issues involved and had this to say, “I went back and looked at the various statements he has sent out since his campaign began. There is essentially nothing on race. The only message I could find that had to do with our nation’s current turmoil on race was a message of condolence to the families of the people who were murdered in South Carolina. Even that message did not talk about the need for America to move ahead and bring true equality to all its citizens. It just said: ‘we are all with you in our hearts.’ Very inadequate.”

Ashley Yates, one of the organizers, was asked “Why Bernie”, on MSNBC and responded that Bernie is just the person they need to address and I can’t disagree. If he is the one we’ve been waiting for, he needs to respond like he knows something about us, about all of us. Don’t be mad at the activists, irritated maybe, but you might find you’re more disappointed in Bernie, since this is a self-inflicted wound. As Yates said, “We need bold and courageous leadership right now. We don’t need people who are gonna be cowardly and people who are going to be defensive.”

For some of us, the hope that Bernie brings is tinged with the sadness,the beginning of mourning that the White House will return to its previous state of whiteness or as described by Larry Wilmore of the Nightly Show, “The UnBlackening.” Despite whatever disappointments we’ve had with Barack Obama, I will miss his intelligence, his wit, the leadership of his brilliant wife and the sight of his beautiful family, along with his unique outlook on the world. I will miss the time we had a Black president who despite his desire to bridge the gap, got it-you knew he got it.

As an old white lady, I will admit to my moments of irritation with disruption, annoyance with having to prove my progressive, race conscious bonafides over and over, but I am also uplifted when I despair and grateful when I’m angry. These smart young Black, Brown, and Asian women and men are fighting to not only survive their lives but to live them fully and they will not stop for anybody.

Today’s All in One Rant-Oakland City Council Continues to Flail, CPUC Raises our Rates, and Traffic on Grand Avenue

Today’s blog is a compilation of rants/lectures on various community/political topics happening in the Bay Area or beyond this week, including the city council becoming known as the-gang-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight, the CPUC raising our electricity rates while restricting public attendance, and the proposed Grand Avenue Road Diet. I’m leaving out the process for a decision on renewing use of the Kaiser Auditorium and the possible “Grexit” topics which interest me but are beyond my unpaid-grade to comment on.

1st up-My Advice to the gang-that-doesn’t-want-to-be-known-as-the-gang-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight.

This city council, which is full of human beings, (before you denounce them be sure you are willing to look each one in the eye and say mean or hyperbolic things. This is a small town in many ways.) many of them new to the job, has made itself look very untrustworthy recently by 1)ignoring the advice it got from the city attorney on the 12th Street parcel and 2) forcing the courts to open the meetings to the public again, not to mention silence on the mayor’s nightime demonstration crackdown which I have to mention because you won’t!

From now and very far into the future, folks who don’t even care about these 2 things will think of these guys as the gang that couldn’t shoot straight or worse, as a corrupt body of self-interested purveyors of bullshit.

I don’t believe either of the above but I would advise that each council member, recent or longstanding, who is remotely concerned about this, pull together an advisory group of diverse (not just gender or ethnicity but socio-ecnomic and political) constituents now and listen! You need realistic, down-to-earth advice from folks who will back your decisions in the future. You need to solicit new views and ideas, views of the young and radical as well as the old-and-get-off-my-lawn folks and those who don’t know the name of their council members-maybe those people are the most important because they will ONLY remember your mistakes.

I need my city to work and that doesn’t mean fantasizing that their are magical people out there raring to run who will do it all differently. We elected you all and you need to find your way fast-get some breadcrumbs from your neighbors and use them-otherwise—the woods are deep and perilous.

CPUC Strikes Again Or Watch Your Electricity Rates Rise and Wonder Why!

Last Friday I trekked into San Francisco to attend the California Public Utilities Commission and speak against PG&E’s proposal to increase electricity rates for the lowest consuming users while lowering rates for the most profligate users and imposing a flat fee on everyone which hurts the same folks who always get hurt the most but you knew that, sigh, teeth grinding…..

Initially the CPUC proposed a flat rate for everyone which like a flat tax penalizes the lower echelons and favors the wealthier classes. In other words, it’s the opposite of progressive. 350.org was really concerned that conservation would be discouraged and that people who were considering signing up for solar would be similarly affected. Part of the reasoning given by the CPUC was that conserving users were being subsidized by wasteful users-gasp-from each according to his need, etc-and that PG&E is being hurt by solar power (I don’t think they actually admitted that one.)

When I got there, I discovered something I’m growing tiresomely used to-I was told that the meeting was being held in a small room, due to some BS about construction, and I would have to wait in a holding pen, I mean, room, and then returned to said pen to listen to the remainder of the meeting. However, there were too few attendees to force us out and we sat together in the little room and listened to each other.

Some of the speakers, organized by TURN, 350 Bay Area, and other organizations like an East Oakland church (didn’t catch the name)spoke on the effects of the flat use proposal and how it would hurt seniors and others who could barely pay their bills now not to mention (which they did) that it was counterproductive to conservation of our resources! My old school chum (who didn’t seem to remember me from SDS and SF State) Paul Kangas suggested that climate change was the number 1 peril that we face and I suggested that wealth inequality was right up there with it.

Just that morning progressive Commissioner Mike Florio had proposed an alternate structure that while still flattening the rates somewhat took it back to 2 tiers (I think we have had a 4 tier system til now) and cut the flat fee in half. This is the proposal which passed-it’s better but will cause an increase in most of our bills.

While we can’t be sure of this, many noted that PG&E looked like it was just trying to recoup its losses after blowing up an entire San Bruno neighborhood and finally being fined something close to the cost of that little mishap in which several people lost their LIVES. Also, PG&E is not happy that so many folks are conserving and/or having the nerve to go solar. It’s hurting their bottom line. Please remember that while PG&E is known as a public utility because the public relies on them, they are in fact a private monopoly which is driven by profits for their shareholders, not the public good.

Back to the meeting, I was surprised by the paltry number of speakers and the limited response from a few groups who knew about this meeting and its far reaching power to affect our lives. But the pastor from Oakland set us straight on some of the reasons for this. He mentioned how interesting it was that the meeting had been changed to take place on the day before a national holiday, July 4th, and in the midst of the summer vacation season.

If you don’t know, electric power does not have to come from a giant corporation, like the one which laughingly can’t seem to keep the lights on on a sunny day, if the wind blows. Some cities and states have real public utilities, generally resulting in lower rates with greater reliability-our own East Bay Municipal Utility District could take over the job.

I learned all of this as chair of a group we formed during the Enron-induced California “energy crisis” which nearly bankrupted our golden state-we called it the Oakland Alliance for Community Energy, or ACE but it faded as 1) the faux energy crisis faded with Enron 2) our state legislators resisted real change in how we make, consume and pay for the energy we use.

At least we now will have some choice through the Community Choice Aggregation policy that allows us to band together in regions in order to purchase energy from renewable and reliable sources. But this a complex topic and I don’t pretend to know as much about it as I once did. Please go to the Utility Reform Network, turn.org, for much more info and ways to organize against future egregious increases.

Grand Avenue Road Diet-Meeting tonight at the Lakeshore Baptist Church, 7pm

As a former Grand Avenue merchant and a one-time president of GABA, I applaud the road diet proposal.It comes in various versions, only one of which includes the car-backing-into parking proposal. Another one offers a protected bike lane which would really encourage bike ridership. I might even chance it. When I had my shop on Grand, I bought a bike to ride to work so I didn’t have to take up my customers’ parking spaces or accrue tickets (you’d be surprised how many merchants do both.) But I got scared of riding around drivers and found it easier to walk up and down the steep hills in our area so I gave up.

As a Grand Avenue merchant, I tried to find out why Lakeshore was so much more successful than Grand (not as true anymore.) I consulted a retail specialist and among other things, she explained that a street that is very broad with fast traffic discourages walking and breaks up the retail frontage experience.

Broad expanses of concrete are also not attractive or conducive to folks who want to hang out with friends and family in the area. I noted with dismay that drivers seemed to think of Grand Avenue as one big freeway on-ramp. It felt dangerous to even think of crossing the Avenue.

So first we tried adding planters to break up the concrete experience, then when Danny Wan was briefly our council member I asked him to get us the sidewalk bulbouts that pedestrians now use successfully. At the time the lights only turned red when you electronically requested them to.

All of that combined to slow traffic a bit and make the neighborhood appear more friendly and cozy (the German term geműtlich describes it better) but it’s still too fast. The upper end has fewer shops than service businesses with many buildings which appear cold and forbidding. This is where traffic picks up speed, and one is inclined to utter prayers prior to stepping off the curb.

Hopefully, we have come a long way from the days when we tore up the streetcar tracks and widened highways in every neighborhood to make it safe for cars but not for people. Grand Avenue feels a little less like a river pounding through the district now; but it’s still a fast flowing stream where a meandering creek would better suit a pedestrian/bicycle/business friendly neighborhood.

I’m grateful for WOBO and the city’s interest in this issue. See you tonight.
Pamela Drake
Director of the Lakeshore BID