A real alternative for mayor in Oakland

The Oakland ISO explains why it's supporting Dan Siegel's campaign for mayor.

Dan SiegelDan Siegel

LEADING CIVIL rights lawyer and activist Dan Siegel is campaigning as an independent candidate for mayor of Oakland, Calif. The Oakland branch of the International Socialist Organization endorses this campaign because we believe it can contribute to building more capable, coherent and confident movements for social and economic justice.

Oakland is a major West Coast port, a celebrated cultural center and one of the most multiracial American cities, but is also beset by high unemployment, violent crime, racist police, rapid gentrification and struggling schools. Siegel's program for addressing the social crisis represents a challenge to the political norms that have been disastrous for the majority of Oaklanders.

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Where Does Siegel Stand?

Housing Rights: A tech-fueled economic boom centered in nearby San Francisco and Silicon Valley is driving rapidly rising rents and extensive African American out-migration throughout the region. Oakland is no exception; the city has lost a quarter of its Black population since 2000.

Siegel will seek stronger rent and eviction controls, and advocate for an elected rent control board, as well as city-provided legal counsel for tenants. He also supports a mandate that new construction projects include large numbers of low-income housing units. And Siegel backs the formation of a Joint Powers Authority with the nearby city of Richmond, which would use eminent domain powers to seize and refinance underwater mortgages to keep local residents in their homes.

Low-Wage Workers' Rights: Siegel promises to use the power of the office of mayor to raise Oakland's minimum wage to $15 an hour, starting with city workers, and vigorously support efforts to unionize food service and retail sectors. As a first step, Siegel is supporting the "Lift Up Oakland" initiative on the ballot in November, which would raise the minimum wage to $12.25 an hour--his campaign is organizing volunteers to hit the streets to collect signatures.

Immigrant Rights: Oakland is a destination for large numbers of immigrants from Asia and Latin America, many of whom are undocumented. Siegel will reaffirm Oakland's status as a "sanctuary city" by directing local police and other city officials to refrain from collaborating with federal immigration authorities. He will also advocate expanding the city identification card program to all residents, regardless of legal status.

Quality Public Education: The Oakland Unified School District enrolled 55,000 students in 2000--today, 37,000 are enrolled. Decades of state budget cuts coupled with the proliferation of privately administered charter schools has led to a huge drain of students and resources from the public schools. Trapped in a vicious cycle, the remaining under-resourced public schools are blamed by politicians for being unsuccessful and inefficient.

Siegel proposes a moratorium on new charter schools. He plans to use city funding to provide universal pre-K education for all Oakland children between the ages of 3 and 5. He also supports expanded after-school programming for children and adults. These proposals, not to mention his support for increasing teacher salaries, constitute important steps toward revitalizing public education in Oakland.

Jobs and Infrastructure Improvement: The unemployment rate in Oakland remains over 10 percent, with much higher concentrations of joblessness for youth and workers of color in parts of West and East Oakland. Siegel supports bringing more jobs to Oakland with a privately funded waterfront stadium for the Oakland Athletics (he explicitly opposes providing the team owners with any public funds.) He also aims to increase spending on infrastructure improvements such as street repairs and city-provided internet access for all.

Public Safety: Oakland is consistently ranked one of the most dangerous large cities in the country. City officials have attempted to arrest their way out of this problem, only to facilitate the development of a corrupt, brutal and notoriously racist police department. The Oakland Police Department (OPD) even failed for the last decade to implement court-ordered reforms after a scandal that exposed four police officers for engaging in assault, kidnapping, planting drugs and cover-ups.

Most Oakland mayoral candidates offer a simple solution for the problem of violent crime: hire more police. They advocate for this despite the fact that the city government already allocates nearly half its discretionary budget to the OPD. Siegel's position stands out clearly from the rest of the field. He opposes enlarging OPD and argues that the city will be safe only when Oaklanders enjoy social and economic justice. As he said in a candidate forum on public safety:

How can we really make this city a safe city when half the young people in Oakland don't have jobs, when the high school graduation rate for African Americans and Latinos is barely over 50 percent? We will continue to have a crime wave in this country that will not stop until we address the issues raised by Occupy...three times as many people are in prison as there were thirty years ago, yet we all feel unsafe.

Siegel promises zero tolerance toward police misconduct and opposes racial profiling in the guise of stop-and-frisk, youth curfews and gang injunctions. As a lawyer, he has represented the family of Alan Blueford, the high school senior shot dead by OPD Officer Miguel Masso in May 2012, among many other cases.

All of this shows why Siegel deserves support from those seeking to challenge the New Jim Crow in Oakland.

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Is Community Policing the Answer?

Siegel is an advocate for "community policing." He proposes deploying more police to walk neighborhood beats, made possible by transferring some of them from inefficient citywide units and by civilianizing office work.

Here, we disagree with Seigel. Deploying more police, especially Oakland police, to walk neighborhood beats will lead to more potentially deadly interactions with young people of color, which is exactly the opposite of Siegel's intention.

The historical practices and institutional structure of professional police forces are such that we should always expect them to protect the privileges of the 1 Percent. In the U.S., this means the very often violent enforcement of a highly unequal and racist social order. As Siegel himself said when he spoke on the second anniversary of Alan Blueford's murder by the OPD, when police terrorize young people, people of color and union members, "They are doing their jobs." The problem is how the system is set up, not simply a few bad cops.

Siegel's plan includes civilian oversight of the police and strict accountability enforcements. Many of these demands have a long history in the civil rights movement. We don't doubt that Siegel sincerely hopes his proposals will decrease police brutality by giving local residents more control over the police force.

However, we don't have any faith that the ongoing damage done to Oakland by the OPD can be contained without building a powerful mass movement against police brutality and the racist criminal injustice system.

In fact, the OPD must be drastically downsized as a precondition for any real transformation of the city budget. Nearly half of the current budget--43 percent--is allocated to the police, which cost the city, on average, $180,000 each per year in pay and benefits. Cutting the OPD in half would free up more than $50 million per year. This turns out to be roughly the amount of money the city would need to hire 600 teachers--at $90,000 a year in pay and benefits--to provide pre-K education to all Oakland kids.

Despite this important difference of opinion on community policing, we believe Siegel's reframing of the public safety problem as an issue rooted in social and economic injustice intervenes positively in a crucial debate about the future of Oakland.

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The Democratic Party and Oakland

Siegel recognizes the limits of a single campaign for mayor. If elected, he will be faced with a City Council that has grown accustomed to partnering with big business and protecting a corrupt police department. Winning real change will require organizing Oaklanders to resist these forces.

That is one reason why Siegel's mayoral campaign cannot be only about electing him. It has to be about building a political alternative to business as usual. Siegel took an important step in this direction when he decided, before the campaign began, to deregister from the Democratic Party in favor of "decline to state" status--that is, as an independent.

Practically speaking, Oakland has been a one-party Democratic town since Lionel Wilson's election in 1977. There are no Republicans on the City Council, and Barack Obama received almost 90 percent of the presidential vote in 2008 and 2012. So Siegel's decision risks alienating the Democratic establishment that dominates Oakland. Why did he take this risk?

No one fighting for economic and social justice misses the racist Oakland Republican establishment that lost power in the 1970s. But the policies of the last three mayors--Jerry Brown, Ron Dellums and Jean Quan--expose the limits of the Democratic Party. All three campaigned from the liberal-left flank of the party. But once in office, all three prioritized the interests of the 1 Percent.

This flip-flop was most obvious in the case of Jean Quan. Whatever one thinks of her motivations, in 2010, she personally stood between police and protesters during demonstrations over the murder of Oscar Grant by a BART transit officer. In 2011, she ordered the police to attack the Occupy Oakland encampment in front of City Hall in the newly named Oscar Grant Plaza.

Quan's actions in 2011 prompted Siegel to sever a decades-long political relationship with her. He tweeted, "No longer Mayor Quan's legal advisor. Resigned at 2 am. Support Occupy Oakland, not the 1% and its government facilitators."

Siegel's decision to quit the Democratic Party stems, at least in part, from a recognition that we need a new party for the 99 Percent to confront the two parties of the 1 Percent. His best chance for winning is to polarize the race between himself, as the candidate standing for radical change, against a field of "me too" candidates who represent mere shades of grey among the status quo.

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What Will Oakland Look Like in Ten Years?

Many different sorts of people see opportunity in Oakland. The Bay Property Group distributes promotional material that asks "Why Invest in Oakland?" Its answer:

Fifteen years ago, the recognition might have been unthinkable, but a thriving culinary scene and revitalized nightlife culture have placed the city of Oakland as #5 in the New York Times "Places to Go" in the world...The Art Murmur...is attracting an estimated 20,000 people...tenants are flocking to Oakland as a new, hip alternative to San Francisco's pricey rental units.

Oakland can't easily offer the rock-bottom taxes and space to sprawl that technology corporations have found in Silicon Valley, but none of that was necessary for San Francisco to attract vast amounts of high-tech investment. Instead, San Francisco has catered to businesses that want to offer a desirable place to live and work, while benefiting from the existing infrastructure and networks that have been built up around the Bay. San Francisco, however, is filling up, and Oakland is right next door.

Will the majority of Oaklanders be able to use the dramatic expansion of the regional economy to shift the balance of social and political power in their favor? Or will the city that was site of the last general strike in the U.S. and home of the Black Panther Party become another place where workers are defeated and African Americans expelled?

Home to relatively strong unions and a diverse ecology of community organizations, Oakland remains one of the most left-leaning cities in the U.S. We experienced the power of the 99 Percent when Occupy Oakland briefly dominated city politics by demonstrating its ability to take over the streets and shut down the Port of Oakland. But in the years since, protests and pickets have mobilized far fewer numbers.

Siegel's campaign will not solve all our problems--no one is more aware of that than Siegel himself. But if enough activists join his campaign, it could begin to cohere a post-Occupy Oakland left--one which can organize in the streets, on picket lines and for the ballot box simultaneously.

If Siegel wins the election, his ability to advance his best proposals will depend on the power of movements that back him now--and, it must be said, movements that will need the organizational and political clout to keep him accountable to the people who put him in office.

This is why the Oakland International Socialist Organization supports Siegel's campaign for mayor. We encourage community and labor activists and all Oakland radicals to do the same. You don't need to agree with Siegel about everything in order to see that his campaign can play a role in building more unified, better organized and more aggressive movements for economic and social justice.