What Brown v. Brooks Means For Black Folk

February 14, 2018

On the morning in the fall of 2015 when I heard about the argument and physical confrontation between former Black Panther chairperson Elaine Brown and Oakland City Councilmember Desley Brooks—two prominent Oakland African American women leaders—down near Jack London Square, I could only shake my head and say to myself that regardless of which one of the women got the blame and who was actually at fault, this was going to end up being bad for Black Folk in Oakland and the Bay Area as a whole. Nothing that has happened since then has changed my opinion.

Let’s try to sort out as much as we can, in order to explain why I feel that way.

Two years ago, Ms. Brown was seeking public assistance for her Oakland and World Enterprises non-profit organization—including land from the City of Oakland—in creating an affordable housing complex in West Oakland dedicated to formerly-incarcerated persons. On October 30th of that year, by all accounts, Ms. Brown and Ms. Brooks got into a argument at Everett & Jones Restaurant near the Oakland waterfront after Ms. Brooks indicated that she would oppose the proposed land deal with Ms. Brown’s organization. The argument turned heated, and ended with Ms. Brooks pushing Ms. Brown, causing the former Panther leader to fall and sustain injuries. Ms. Brown says the pushing was unprovoked. Ms. Brown says she was defending herself from an attack by Ms. Brooks. Ms. Brown eventually sued both Ms. Brooks and the City of Oakland in civil court, winning a more than $4 million verdict that is mostly charged to the city.

Other than who was at fault in the shoving incident, all of these facts are uncontested by either side in the dispute.

As for who was at fault, who was right and who was wrong, I’m not going to get into that. The first reason is that I would only be guessing. The second—and most important—reason is that while the right and wrong of it are extremely important to the two women involved in the Everett & Jones confrontation, it’s what has happened and is happening surrounding that confrontation that are more important to the interests of Black Folk in the area.

Let’s start with Ms. Brooks.

The District 6 Councilmember has amassed a lot of enemies over the years, both political and personal, and one of the immediate effects of the Brown/Brooks confrontation is that these opponents wasted little time in using the civil jury verdict against the city and Ms. Brooks to attempt to strip the long-time East Oakland City Councilmember of most, if not all, of her political power.

For example, in a January 31st joint San Jose Mercury News/East Bay Times editorial, the newspapers editors said that “if Brooks refuses to do the right thing by resigning and then stands for re-election later this year,” then voters in her district 6 should should vote to remove the Councilmember from office in the November November (“Replace Oakland City Council Bully Desley BrooksMercury News/East Bay Times January 31, 2018).

But Ms. Brown and her proposed housing project did not come out untouched by local media and official agencies in the wake of her confrontation with Ms. Brooks.

“The Oakland City Council is scheduled to vote tonight on a deal to sell city-owned land near West Oakland's BART station to a nonprofit that improperly obtained hundreds of thousands in county tax dollars, according to the Alameda County Grand Jury,” The East Bay Express reported in an article about Ms. Brown’s project in June of last year (“City of Oakland Poised to Give Public Land to Nonprofit that Improperly Received $710,000 in County Funds” East Bay Express June 20, 2017).

“The nonprofit, the Oakland and the World Enterprises,” the Express article continued, “was set up by former Black Panther Elaine Brown to build affordable housing and operate an urban farm in West Oakland. ... [A]ccording to the Grand Jury, Brown's group was given $710,000 by Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson at the same time Brown was a paid staff member in Carson's office. ‘[T]he dual role of the county employee in these transactions constituted both a failure of good governance practices by the county of Alameda and a conflict of interest,’ concluded the Grand Jury in their investigation, which was published yesterday.”

It’s not certain that local media would not have weighed in with criticism of the Brown affordable housing project funding even if the confrontation with Ms. Brown and Ms. Brooks had not taken place. But it can’t be doubted that the confrontation helped to put that housing project funding directly in the media spotlight.

At least for now, in any event, the Alameda County Grand Jury report did not appear to be having any immediate adverse effect on Ms. Brown’s land deal with the City of Oakland or with other public money involving her West Oakland affordable housing project.

Meanwhile, however, the major blows were landing heaviest against Ms. Brooks.

While the News/Times editors said in their January “Replace Bully Brooks” editorial that Ms. Brooks’ “assault of former Black Panther leader Elaine Brown in a restaurant altercation that will cost Oakland taxpayers $3 million is the final straw,” they asserted that “for 15 years, the city has endured [Ms. Brooks’] self-centered behavior. ... After all,” the editors continued, “this isn’t the first time the four-term councilwoman has abused her power.”

And what were Ms. Brooks’ “abuse[s] of power” were the editors alleging that should cause District 6 voters to turn her out of office? The Mercury News/East Bay Times editors were happy to provide them.

“For example,” they noted, “in 2013, the city auditor found that Brooks interfered with the construction of two city recreation centers, meddled in the contracting for demolition of an Oakland Army Base building and threatened a city employee’s work assignment.”

I’m sorry to have to backtrack a little again, but to understand—and rebut—what the News/Times editors were talking about here, we’re going to have to give a little history lesson to try to uncomplicate a four-year-old controversy as briefly and as simply as possible.

In the spring of 2013, citing the fact that while “the City of Oakland's Charter has included a bold provision to ensure the appropriate separation of duties and functions and to shield City staff from City Councilmembers’ political interference and demands for special treatment,” then-Oakland City Auditor Courtney Ruby conducted a city audit supposedly to see if Oakland City Councilmembers were violating that “bold provision” by interfering with city staff in conducting city business.

“After interviewing more than 40 employees, reviewing 27 hotline reports, and examining thousands of Councilmembers’ and Council Aides’ emails and select phone records,” the City Auditor’s office eventually concluded, “this audit was able to substantiate 14 instances of Councilmembers or their Aides violating the City Charter, Section 218, Non-Interference in Administrative Affairs.” (Non-Interference in Administrative Affairs Performance Audit FY 2009-10 – FY 2011-12)

Despite the fact that the City Audior had noted that “for many years there have been signs that problems exist with Councilmember interference” with city staff functions, the audit itself could only find violations involving two City Councilmembers: Larry Reid and Desley Brooks, with the heaviest criticisms falling on the office of Ms. Brooks. Mr. Reid and Ms. Brooks were the only African-Americans sitting on the Oakland City Council during the time period the city audit was examining. You can take that as coincidence or not. Your choice. Rightfully sensing in advance that this might cause the results of the audit to come into some question, the opening memo of the audit explained that “This audit was not designed to account for all occurrences of interference nor did it catch all instances of interference during the audit’s scope. Instead, it was aimed at confirming reported instances of interference that had occurred...”

The explanation did not help. The concentration by the audit on the only two African-American Councilmembers in a City Council notorious for cutting administrative corners led many observers at the time to charge that the city audit was either racially biased or a political hit-piece designed to try to turn Ms. Brooks’ District 6 voters against her when she ran for re-election in 2014.

If you’re interested in reading more about the details of the city audit’s findings against Ms. Brooks and Mr. Reid, one of which provides my own reporting on the substance of one of the findings (“Fight for Army Base Jobs Linked to Audit IssuesOakland Post April 5, 2013), and the other which provides Ms. Brooks’ answer to one of the other findings (“Auditor: 2 on Oakland council broke lawSan Francisco Chronicle June 5, 2014).

What is more important is what actually came out of the findings in the 2013 Oakland City Auditor’s Non-Interference Audit. The quick answer is: nothing.

The audit itself noted that ‘[t]his audit does not make any legal determinations; such matters will be properly referred to the appropriate law enforcement authorities. However, the City Charter is clear on the seriousness of Councilmember interference, stating that ‘violation of the provisions of this section by a member of the Council shall be a misdemeanor, conviction of which shall immediately forfeit the office of the convicted member.’ Conviction can only be determined in a court of law. What, if any, consequences related to these violations have yet to be determined by the appropriate parties.”

If any legal charges were ever brought against either Ms. Brooks or Mr. Reid regarding the incidents cited in the city’s 2013 Non-Interference Audit, I’m not aware of them.

Shortly after the city audit was issued, the Oakland City Council attempted to censure Ms. Brooks—though not Mr. Reid—over the findings. Nothing came of that attempt, either.

In July of 2013, what was then The Oakland Tribune (they have since abandoned the Oakland name and now call themselves the East Bay Times) published an editorial asking for that censure. “The problem has reached crisis stage in Oakland where some, most notably Councilwoman Desley Brooks, have stepped way over the line,” the Tribune editors wrote. “After stinging criticism from the city administrator, city auditor and grand jury about Brooks’ meddling, it’s time for the council to act. Council President Pat Kernighan has called for censuring Brooks. The action, to be considered at a special meeting July 25, would be symbolic because there would be no fine or other penalty. But it would send a long-overdue message. It’s time to assure city residents that council members will stop acting on their own to advance their personal agendas, bolster their pet projects or benefit their political backers. It’s time to assure city employees that individual council members cannot overrule their professional judgment. The long-standing ‘culture of interference,’ identified in City Auditor Courtney Ruby’s investigation, must end.” (“Oakland Tribune editorial: Oakland council should censure Desley Brooks for overstepping authorityOakland Tribune July 18, 2013)

The Tribune editors also dismissed out of hand that the audit had only brought findings against the city’s two African-American Councilmembers.

“Some have claimed the auditor’s report is racially biased because it singles out Brooks and Reid, who are both African-American,” the Tribune editors continued. “We find that allegation offensive. Playing the race card here is inappropriate. An ‘everyone else does it’ defense claim is unacceptable.”

The Oakland City Council took up the issue of censuring Ms. Brooks in July of 2013. After sometimes-heated deliberations the motion was defeating, with not a single Councilmember voting for censure and even then-Council President Patricia Kernighan (who was the member who had brought forth the censure motion) abstaining.

A year and a half later, with the audit findings still recent history, voters in Oakland City Council District 6 re-elected Ms. Brooks as their Councilmember over three named opponents.

To recap, both local law enforcement officials, the Oakland City Council, and Oakland City Council District 6 voters all looked at the findings against Ms. Brooks in the 2013 Non-Interference city audit and found in it no cause for action against Ms. Brooks. The editors of the San Jose Mercury News/East Bay Times continue to think otherwise and, as we have seen, have resurrected them as part of their campaign to get Ms. Brooks out of office by resignation or defeat at the ballot box that was given new life by the findings by the Brown v. Brooks civil jury.

That was by no means the only actions coming out of that jury finding, none of which are good for Black Folk in Oakland and the Bay Area as a whole. But we’ll have to wait until we can gather together again to continue this discussion. Until then...


Contact Jesse Allen-Taylor at safero@earthlink.net
Writing Pages Of J. Douglas Allen-Taylor