Oakland struggles after the spectacle fades

June 21, 2017

This year's NBA Finals brought the wealth gap into sharp relief, writes Luke Pickrell.

EVERY SO often, the national spotlight turns to Oakland, California, a city of about half the population of its better-known neighbor San Francisco.

For the past three years, that spotlight has come courtesy of the NBA Finals, where the Golden State Warriors, led by the god-fearing "baby-faced assassin" Stephen Curry and an all-star crew, have met the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James.

Along with the Finals come a slew of celebrities and other sports personalities, plus the teams' billionaire owners: Joe Lacob of the Warriors, with a $1.5 billion fortune accumulated as a venture capitalist at Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers; and Dan Gilbert of the Cavaliers, who wrangled his $5.9 billion as founder of the notoriously criminal Quicken Loans Inc.

These two men--not to mention Warriors minority owner Peter Guber at a mere $800 million--are well within the super-rich 1 Percent. As the league's PR slogan goes: The NBA Cares--about the filthy rich.

Meanwhile, the "other half" barely survives in Oakland. The city has a murder rate that is five times higher than across the Bay in San Francisco--with the casualty rate for young Black men in Oakland higher than for Black men in the U.S. military serving in Afghanistan.

A homeless encampment underneath an interstate overpass in Oakland
A homeless encampment underneath an interstate overpass in Oakland

Because of gentrification, rents have been rising at a double-digit pace each year, but the income of low-wage workers sure hasn't. At the time of the 2010 census, the unemployment rate in West Oakland was more than 40 percent, and two-thirds of residents lived below the poverty line.

But all of this is hidden from most viewers behind the dizzying array of lights and sounds. We are asked to tune in to the game and tune out of a world that capitalism has brought closer to disaster.

Those who have $133,000 they can do without can view the spectacle up close, though the rest of us are invited in via the warm glow of our television screens.

The elite enter the arena via doors locked to the rest of us, opened by keys made of dollars and power. Everyone stands for the National Anthem--an exercise in nationalist propaganda like few others. The stage is set, cue the lights and the game begins.

Then the series was won--rather easily at that by the Warriors--and the spectacle starts to wear off, with the celebrities fading back into the covers of magazines, the champions showering in champagne, and the fans preparing for work in the morning.

On a Thursday in mid-June, the championship parade was routed through downtown Oakland, attended by masses of people. The celebrating took place far away from where the homeless encampments are swelling under freeway overpasses (see 5th and Harrison, 7th and Alice, East 12th and 22nd) after being pushed out of parks.

Oakland's story isn't unique to any other city where the NBA Finals have been held. Only the details are different: the locations where the homeless take shelter, the statistics of a police department that enforces the rule of private property and is allowed to rape and kill with impunity.

MY POINT isn't to scold those who enjoy basketball or any other sport. I watched the clinching victory in game five, and I cheered when Kevin Durant caught fire in the fourth.

But I also drove past the homeless camps on the way home--and noticed how many cops were patrolling the streets.

We want to remember that reality, too, in a world where the wealth gap is the largest it has ever been--where eight people are worth more than the poorest half of the population. It's a world in which extreme wealth and mind-bogglingly dumb celebrity culture can converge in a sports arena--named after a corporation, funded by public dollars, and guarded by militarized police--while thousands sleep in tents and go hungry.

The Warriors are champions, but it means little or nothing to most people in Oakland--at least nothing that can make their daily scramble to get by any easier.

And now, the team will take its all-star cast to a new arena in San Francisco by 2019--yet another example of capital's unfettered mobility across land and water. Whatever jobs were tied to Oakland and revenues that came into the city because of the Warriors will vanish, too.

Meanwhile, homelessness is on the rise; Libby Schaaf will remain mayor, where she can help out local and international developers; and the Oakland Police Department is still as brutal as ever, adding its share to a list of killings nationally that, as of this writing, already includes 565 names since January.

The Warriors will get rings and can party like kings, but after the spectacle fades, Oakland's troubles--like Cleveland's, Detroit's, Baltimore's, and many others--remain. These troubles are connected by a common source of pain: capitalism. That's the reality hidden beneath the Finals glitz in Oakland.

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