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Can Oakland’s New Leaders Save Its Schools and Port?

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Students and parents protesting at school board meeting.

Candidates who pledged to make Oakland work for everyone swept the November elections. They face two huge hurdles to making that real: proposals to close more schools, and to build a stadium plus luxury housing at the Port of Oakland.

Progressive-leaning candidates swept the November 2022 local races in Oakland, CA and they take office at a flashpoint in the Black and Latinx working-class town’s decades-long struggle against gentrification. The breadth of the victories caught even the activists who worked on the various campaigns by surprise: winning the mayor’s race by a razor-thin majority, capturing all three city council seats that were on the ballot, electing an outspoken criminal justice reformer as District Attorney to serve all of sprawling Alameda County (which includes Oakland), and creating an anti-austerity majority on the Oakland Board of Education for the first time in nearly two decades.

With little opportunity to savor its victories, the city’s new leadership must confront two central issues that define the moment: defense of the city’s public schools against closure and privatization, and the push to ignore resident needs while accommodating development interests. This includes ceding public Port of Oakland land to a private developer to build 3,000 luxury condos, a mall, and a new stadium for the Oakland A’s baseball team. The proposed project threatens to cripple the Port of Oakland, a major economic engine of Northern California.

The city’s new leaders have a chance to pivot towards solutions that work for the majority of residents, but they’ll need the backing of ongoing organizing to do so. In a city that has long stood as an international center of resistance—from the Black Panther Party through Black Lives Matter—this is not out of reach.

Development schemes and school closures

Today’s Oakland has a relatively unknown history. In the 1920s it was the Northern California headquarters of the KKK, which had its office on the city’s main thoroughfare. Then Oakland experienced migration from the South, which brought Black families whose children included Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, founders of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense; Sylvester Hodges, Oakland’s most effective and anti-racist school board member; and the family of Paul Cobb, activist and owner of the Oakland Post newspaper. These and other militant individuals, and the organizations they built, reshaped Oakland’s racial dynamics, and by the late 1970’s, the Black community had real influence in the city.  

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But in 1999 Jerry Brown took office as mayor. In his eight-year tenure, he aggressively pursued expensive development projects, working closely with powerful State Senator Don Perata. The two also maneuvered to close public schools in order to move in more affluent folk who could pay for the projects their developer-supporters wanted to build.

What do school closures have to do with taking over Oakland for development?

A 2021 Stanford study found that the one thing that is a consistent factor in gentrifying a neighborhood is closing a Black school. The extent to which anti-Black racism dominates America is starkly demonstrated by this study. The combination of low test scores and the reality of anti-Blackness leads affluent families to conclude immediately that a neighborhood with a Black school is not for them.

A consistent factor in gentrifying a neighborhood is closing a Black school.

Two prior attempts to take over the Oakland school district foundered on the determined resistance of Oaklanders, under the leadership of Sylvester Hodges. But in 2003 State Senator Perata, using his muscle in the legislature, made sure the third attempt did not fail: the state put the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) into receivership.

Takeover advocates argued that the district was in debt $37 million. Other districts had been allowed to use their own construction money as collateral for their debts. Oakland was not. As part of the takeover legislation, Perata saddled the district with a $100 million loan, debt that Oaklanders did not need or want and would have no control over spending. The state administrator, Randy Ward, had plenty to spend on outside developers, contractors and consultants, including billionaire real estate developer Eli Broad, who was allowed to pilot his neoliberal national superintendent training academy, invading Oakland with his trainees as state administrators and senior staff.   

There was opposition to the takeover, to be sure, but it was ineffective.Tthe teachers’ union president at the time advocated for the takeover, with the unprincipled argument that control by the state would be better than the local school board.

In the subsequent 20 years, a sequence of state administrators and trustees, along with the state-appointed Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT), have kept the schools in perpetual upheaval, misnamed “school reform,” and forced the closure of many schools, supposedly to achieve the ever elusive and receding goal of fiscal stability.  

FCMAT, a state-funded non-profit agency that operates with no public accountability, had been charged with one thing—approving the budget. Yet $100 million later, FCMAT still claims that the budget is out of whack despite its constant surveillance, advice, and threats of vetoing local decisions. Even if the agency’s assignment had been legitimate, which it wasn’t, its performance was clearly a massive failure.

However, the “reform” project of Perata and developer friends met its actual objective, which was not improving Oakland’s budget, but playing with millions of state taxpayers dollars to close existing schools and create others more appealing to the newcomers moving into the developers’ creations. Since 2000, Oakland has created 39 new charter schools, giving it one of the highest rates of charters in California. A clear, sometimes overwhelming majority of students displaced by the shuttering of public schools have been Black.

Brown, Perata, and more recently Mayor Libby Schaaf (a Brown ally) facilitated the construction of expensive housing that literally no one currently living in Oakland can afford.  In Alameda County a low-income family of four has between $54,000 and $86,300 a year. About half of all residents are in this category. In 2021, Oakland developers built 180 units that could be afforded by this group and 2,500 that could not.

Oaklanders have slowly become conscious of the relationship between the new condos they can’t afford; rents on their old apartments that they also can’t afford; and the loss of schools that they and their parents once attended.   

Choosing finance and real estate over production

Economist Michael Hudson (The Destiny of Civilization) describes “finance capitalism’s self-destructive nature.” Oakland could be the poster child for this assertion, as it barrels towards sacrificing its thriving and growing Port to build 3,000 luxury condos, a mall, and a new stadium for the Oakland A’s at the Howard Terminal. The project is spearheaded by the A’s billionaire owner John Fisher, a Trump-supporting Republican.

The importance of the Port of Oakland to the local and regional economy is hard to overestimate. As the ninth-busiest container port in the U.S., it loads and discharges more than 99% of the containerized goods moving through Northern California, especially serving as a gateway to the world for the export of California’s agricultural products. Together with two other California ports, Oakland moves about half of the nation’s total container cargo volume, according to official Port figures.

The Port has also continued to employ new generations of the African American families who moved up from the South during the Great Migration. It has been a community anchor as a stable source of family-supporting jobs, thanks to the relatively high wages the workers have been able to win through their union, International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10.

Mayor Schaaf and port commissioners she appointed said repeatedly the 55-acre Howard Terminal is unnecessary for the viability of the Port, arguing that the property has not been used for cargo vessels for nearly a decade. But maritime officials say the land is crucial as a staging area where cargo-bearing trucks wait for loading and unloading.“Howard Terminal is currently operating at 100% capacity. It is currently a critical component of the fluidity of the cargo flows into and out of the Seaport, primarily acting as a near dock container staging area,” Port of Oakland Maritime Director John Driscoll wrote in a 2019 memo. “The importance of this continues to be dismissed as ‘truck parking’ by those who don’t understand the logistics of our maritime business.”

Maritime officials say the Howard Terminal [site of the proposed stadium/housing complex] is crucial to Port operations as a staging area where cargo-bearing trucks wait for loading and unloading.

With the viability of the Port at stake, negotiations between the city staff and the Oakland A’s development team continue behind closed doors. Though details of the development proposal and negotiations have not been made public, the Council has received an update from City staff that there is nowhere near enough money to finance the project. The cost to the public would “significantly exceed the A’s previous estimate,” Assistant City Administrator Elizabeth Lake wrote in a September 2021 informational memo. How much that cost will increase and how the city plans to pay for it is unclear, not to mention the cost to local taxpayers and the crippling impact on the City’s ability to fund other desperately needed infrastructure for the next 45 years.

Meanwhile, Oakland residents have real transportation concerns that the city does not have the funds to address. So, it is not surprising that many Oakland residents, including baseball fans, are wary of the project. December 2021 poll showed that 46% of Oakland residents did not support using public money for this project, compared to 37% who did. The poll also found that even among A’s fans, who comprise a 53% majority of the electorate, support was tepid at best.

An alliance of businesses that utilize the Port, supported by Port workers and community groups, is fighting to stop the developer’s encroachment on their ability to ship products around the world in a fast-growing global economy. Industrial uses and residential uses are incompatible in any space. Clearly the residents of wealthy condos will not be content adjacent to a 24-hour-a-day dirty, noisy Port.

Dems, developers, and the building trades

It goes without saying that Republicans generally support developers, but most of the Democratic Party leadership also supports both developers’ projects, including Fisher’s, and the denial of the right of Oakland residents to elect a school board that is able to make decisions without the threat of veto by FCMAT or a trustee. Governor Gavin Newsom, Attorney General Rob Bonta, State Senator Nancy Skinner and others have consistently rejected the pleas of Oakland parents and teachers to relieve the Oakland Unified School District of the debt from the $100 million loan foisted on them in 2003. In one legislative trick after another they have ensured that the district could not be liberated, and the main educational action of the agencies they direct have been to insist on closing more and more schools. None of the districts treated in this way are in affluent places like Moraga or Piedmont.

Under political and legal pressure, Attorney General Bonta announced in November 2022 that his office would investigate the possible discrimination involved in Oakland’s school closure plan.

On the development side, these Democrats have worked closely with Fisher in his effort to take over a chunk of public Port property. They have passed new legislation; provided funds and grants; fiddled with environmental regulation; and on and on.

Operating on their side is the mainstream press supporting corporate candidates and corporate explanations in their reporting. And then there are the construction trades, which operate as part the growth coalition. The building trades spend money on candidates who will uncritically line up to support developers’ projects in order to obtain jobs for their members. Most of the members of the trades do not live in Oakland, and these unions continue the racially discriminatory membership policies that exclude Black people from getting work in construction. (Dept. of Race and Equity Report)

Progressive push-back

The Oakland Education Association (OEA), as part of the nationwide “Red for Ed” wave, struck for seven days in February 2019. Parents, teachers, and community members packed school board meetings and twice occupied schools to prevent their closure. OUSD proposed closing 19 schools in 2021. In the end only three were closed or reconfigured. And, at least partially as a result of unending protests, none of those school board members who supported closing schools chose to run for re-election.

The OEA now has leadership with a social justice orientation. In addition to the traditional bread and butter issues, President Keith Brown has led the union to oppose school closings and work with parents. He is now president of the Alameda Labor Council. The ILWU as well takes stands in many local and international struggles; it refused to handle cargo from apartheid South Africa and has done the same recently for apartheid Israel. Teachers and longshore workers supported each other in a rally against both school closures and Fisher’s project at the Port.

Community organizations and progressive Democratic clubs have bolstered the electoral work, These include the John George Democratic Club, the Wellstone Democratic Club, and the East Oakland Democratic Club. Niagara Movement Democratic Club, ACCE, Oakland Rising, Oakland Progressive Alliance, Black Women Organized for Political Action, and others.

Even before the November 2022 election, a progressive/liberal alliance led the Oakland City Council. Two years ago Carroll Fife won a council seat, joining three other progressive women and a couple of generally progressive men. Fife, formerly the director of the Oakland office of ACCE became well-known nationally with her leadership in the successful “Moms 4 Housing” campaign that caused a major corporation to actually concede one of its many unused houses to the unhoused families that took it over.

They have also created an alternative to calling the police, MACRO (Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland), in response to many domestic disputes and mental health crises. The city created a new Department of Race and Equity, in an effort led by former Councilmember Desley Brooks before her ouster in a campaign spearheaded by Mayor Schaaf. The creation of this new department has made it possible to document and challenge structural racism.

But despite the many progressive measures they passed, the majority of council members have not been willing or able to hold off John Fisher’s play for the Oakland Port. In fact, only two of seven voted against the various steps in moving forward the massive, expensive and ultimately destructive project, and conversations with some of those who vote “Yes” make it clear that their reason is fear of having the construction unions spend money to defeat them.

The two members who vote “No” provide a clue to what is needed to “save Oakland”.  Councilmembers Fife and Noel Gallo each have an independent base. They are not dependent on the construction trades, the Democratic Party leadership or the non-profits to support them in elections. Fife was an effective organizer before she ran for City Council, and those who worked on her election campaign have maintained an organization that regularly does door knocking and holds events on behalf of projects that are consistent with her vision.  She holds Town Hall meetings of people in her district to hear what they have to say about issues. So, while the construction trades have endorsed her, she would survive even if they did not.    

Councilmember Gallo has a more eclectic set of issue positions, but his ability to act independently on the Council also relies on his independent base. Among other things, he goes out with community members to clean up streets in his community. Like many of Oakland’s poorer neighborhoods, his district receives inadequate city services and is overflowing with trash from illegal dumping. Gallo’s volunteer efforts convey all kinds of messages to his working-class district from, “I’m willing to get my hands dirty,” to “I can be trusted because I’m one of you.”

Progressive candidates who have won in Oakland have done that sort of broad and deep organizing. Ron Dellums, who won the Mayor’s race in 2006, had represented the district in Congress for years. So, his views and his community service were familiar when he ran for Mayor. Jean Quan, a moderate progressive, who beat Don Perata, had knocked on every door in the entire city as part of her election campaigns.

Progressives in power

Almost every progressive candidate and ballot measure won in Oakland’s November 2022 election. Two of the new school board members, Jennifer Brouhard and Valarie Bachelor, ran to stop school closures, and since the election the new school board has already taken action to reverse the closure of five schools scheduled for closure next year.  

 The new mayor, Sheng Thao, has a progressive history on housing, homelessness, police issues, and multi-racial alliances. She has not opposed billionaire Fisher’s project, but she did campaign with the pledge that the project would not go forward unless it met the needs of Oaklanders. There are two new City Council members Jenani Ramachandrin, an immigrant rights attorney and progressive activist, and Kevin Jenkins who replaces Loren Taylor, an ally of the developer-oriented outgoing Mayor Schaaf  

Pamela Price, a civil rights attorney and the new Alameda County District Attorney, has promised to prosecute police, when this is appropriate, unlike her predecessor.

And every progressive ballot measure passed, including some which will have a significant impact on affordable housing.

But these electoral victories do not mean that developers and their political allies will give up.  Ranked-choice voting is being challenged. Mayor Thao is already being critiqued.

 The County-FCMAT apparatus is questioning the decision of the school board not to close five schools. And Carroll Fife is receiving violent, racist threats,

The movement will need to have Fife’s level of organizing strength to sustain and advance progressive policies and candidates against the money of the construction unions, the billionaires, the police associations, and the corporate Democrats.

Some potential may come from the rankrd-choice electoral coalition put together by civil rights attorney and activist Walter Riley, the authors of the article, and other individuals and groups, which might provide a jumping off place for on-goiing city-wide organizing  

 We need to organize residents who understand that the issues are different from the way they are reported in the mainstream press.  The positive accomplishments of the Dellums’ Mayoral administration were not widely recognized, because the movement that elected him did not have an organized network to provide an alternative to the lies of press figures like Chip Johnson of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Organizers need to be flexible enough to combine electoral work and the sort of direct action typified by Moms 4 Housing.

And, since Congressmember Barbara Lee is running for US Senate, we need to figure out a progressive candidate to replace her in the House. None of those mentioned most frequently are nearly as left-leaning as Lee herself or Ron Dellums, her predecessor.

Featured image: Students and parents protesting the planned closure of Roots International Academy at the Oakland school board meeting in January 2019. The parents’ fight to save this school helped galvanize the city against school closings, and made defense of community schools a central issue in the teachers’ strike a month later.

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