Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet




February 18 , 2010

Mayor Ron Dellums’ office held an event that they called “Peace Conference 2010” at the Claremont Hotel last week, which caused Inside Bay Area writer Tammerlin Drummond to post a highly-critical column in response.

In the media advisory put out the week before the conference, Mayor Dellums’ office said that during the conference, the mayor “will unite the interfaith community in a comprehensive approach to address solutions to youth violence. … The conference will bolster Oakland’s efforts for peace through social outreach programs, networking and collaboration between interfaith communities. Participants will explore successful solutions for building positive relationships with our youth and offering alternatives to a life of crime.”

The conference was intended for faith-based organizations working with youth—not specifically for youth themselves—with “break out sessions” during the day consisting of workshops on restorative justice for Oakland youth, juvenile probation, and youth outreach.

As indicated from the title of her February 14th column (“Crime Summit For Oakland Or Campaign Rally For Mayor Ron Dellums?”), Ms. Drummond thought the conference was set up more for electoral than for social problem-solving purposes.

“Beyond the speechifying,” she writes, “there was nothing new or fresh or that pointed toward anything remotely resembling a road map to deal with the public safety crisis. The whole affair felt like a campaign rally before a clearly pro-Dellums crowd...”

Ms. Drummond also said that the upscale, Berkeley-hills-border setting for the conference was inappropriate, asking that even though the Claremont provided its facilities for free, “why didn't the mayor ask one of the churches working in the trenches to act as host? Is it such a novel idea to hold a crime conference in an area where gang shootings, drive-bys and other really scary stuff are actually happening?”

And, finally, Ms. Drummond wrote that the mayoral peace conference was far different in scope and reach from the crime summit she herself had called on Mr. Dellums to convene early in January after a particularly heinous Oakland robbery murder. “My suggestion,” she said, “was that Dellums bring together council members, police representatives, victims of violent crimes, youths from different demographic and racial backgrounds, organizations that provide youth services, representatives from juvenile hall, probation and parole, spiritual leaders, business leaders, residents from neighborhood watch programs, media representatives and other stakeholders who could begin to draft a concrete plan of action—drawing upon what has been effective in other troubled cities plagued by violent crime.”

Some thoughts in response.

First, and briefly, naming the event a “Peace Conference” and pledging that the mayor would “unite the interfaith community in a comprehensive approach to address solutions to youth violence” was an exercise in hyberbole that should have been avoided. When you raise expectations like that, you guarantee criticism when those expectations cannot be met.

As for the Claremont location, I was initially skeptical myself, thinking that the resort atmosphere might not be conducive to a serious discussion about Oakland’s youth violence. I changed my mind after wandering through the crowd of attendees. The faith leaders and members who were in attendance at the Peace Conference were either already active in programs directed towards youth violence, or worshipped in institutions located directly in the heart of Oakland’s killing fields, or both. I think, now, that it’s a little condescending to think that these particular folks need always to confer in “an area where gang shootings, drive-bys and other really scary stuff are actually happening”—as Ms. Drummond contends—in order to keep their hands on the plow. They see enough scary stuff—or the effect of it—every day without having to meet within its midst.

Further, Mr. Dellums’ office has sponsored or participated in numerous meetings and forums and conferences at various other venues around the city, including, as only one example, an all-day Neighborhood Summit on violence and crime-related issues sponsored jointly by the City of Oakland (under Mayor Dellums’ direction) and the Neighborhood Services Division of the Oakland Police Department held in May of 2008 at Laney College. It’s a cheap shot to single out last week’s Claremont event as if it were the only venue the mayor’s office has used for these types of gatherings.

Finally—this being an election year in which Mr. Dellums has the opportunity to run for a second term of office, everything the mayor does (or doesn’t do) will be evaluated in terms of the upcoming election unless and until the mayor announces he will not run again.

Thus the participation of Mr. Dellums and his wife, Cynthia, in a Haiti earthquake relief concert two weeks ago at Sweet’s Ballroom could give the appearance to some of an attempt to boost his possible re-election chances, even though Mr. Dellums was an active supporter of Haitian relief long before there was an earthquake or he was mayor of Oakland. In an election year, things tend to get viewed through an electoral lens, whether it be justifiable or not. That’s just the nature of democratic politics.

Meanwhile, in calling for Mr. Dellums to convene a more “broadbased group” to come together to draft a “concrete plan of action” to address Oakland’s violent crime situation, I believe Ms. Drummond is being overly optimistic. The more broadbased the group that is asked to participate, the less likely you are going to be able to come up with a single plan of action in any reasonable period of time.

Instead, I would suggest that we try to narrow the scope of our discussions rather than broaden them to try to create a unified theory of violence prevention.

A followup to the mayor’s Peace Conference, for example, might be an all-day workshop session solely designed to discuss best practices of holding violence-free youth-oriented gatherings in Oakland.

As workshop leaders, I would invite District 6 Councilmember Desley Brooks or leaders of East Oakland’s East Bay Dragons club, who regularly hold free outdoor concerts or community barbecues—without argument or other difficulty—in some of Oakland’s most violence-plagued neighborhoods. Minister Keith Muhammad of Oakland’s Nation of Islam is often invited to speak at Oakland events, but I would also like to hear from leaders of his organization’s Fruit of Islam, who provide security for many community-based events in the city. When FOI security is present, there never seem to be problems, and it would be instructive for them to explain the theories behind how they accomplish it.

At a workshop on holding violence-free youth events in Oakland, I’d also invite the representatives of Youth Uprising organization and the Oakland Police Department and Mayor Dellums’ office who put together a similarly successful “For A Safe Town” youth barbecue and gathering at Verdese Carter Park at 98th and Bancroft last October. These leaders and individuals have come up with formulas for safe, violence-free, youth-oriented community events in Oakland.

In addition, I would call in representatives of the Stanley “Tookie” Williams Foundation in nearby Richmond, who have contact with the individuals who helped broker—and maintain—the highly-successful peace treaty between the Crips and Bloods gangs in Los Angeles.

I think there are many who could benefit from wisdom and experience of these individuals and organizations in sharing the strategies and tactics on how violence prevention and community building can be accomplished while focusing on or including youth in community events. That would be a good alternative to Oakland’s general practice of simply shutting youth of color out of many such events.

There is also a need for a more general discussion, but I think a conference in which we come up with a “general plan of action” to attack Oakland’s violence is premature.

Besides the need for individual city workshops on subjects such as holding violence-free youth events, I renew my call for Oakland to convene a major (meaning multiple-day) conference on the causes of urban violence. We have a wealth of human resources in this city—police and city officials and private organizations that have been working to stop the violence, victims of Oakland violence, countless individuals who have participated in the city’s street violence and then gotten out of the game, and academic institutions both within the city and closeby full of scholars who have been studying the problem for year. The subject of such a conference ought to be “Why Is Oakland Violent?”

It’s long past time that Oakland stopped offering solutions to a problem whose cause we do not yet fully understand.

Despite some criticisms about the way the Mr. Dellums’ Peace Conference 2010 was hyped and handled, I see nothing wrong with the mayor pulling together faith-based leaders and organizations to discuss the problems of violence in Oakland. If anything, I think more of such gatherings with differing Oakland constituencies should have been held throughout the mayor’s first term. While talk without work is dead, to paraphrase the passage from the second chapter of James, Oaklanders don’t get together and make medicine over our problems nearly enough to have yet reached that point.