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Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 11 a.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Listen to full episodes at kalw.org/crosscurrents

The legacy of Black political power in Oakland

Photo credits: Harry Haryanto
The Oaklandside

As part of our election coverage this year, KALW is listening to what community members want to hear, and amplifying the work of other local news organizations. KALW Elections Production Manager Johanna Miyaki went to an event co-sponsored by oaklandside and CAPITAL B, a black-led, national nonprofit news organization. It was part of Capital B's Black Political Power Tour. She Spoke with Crosscurrents host Hana Baba about the event.

Hana: Hey Johanna!

Johanna: Hey Hana!

Hana : So, what is the “Black Political Power Tour”?

Johanna : So, Capital B is visiting seven U.S. cities to talk about the issues that matter most to black voters and their beliefs and attitudes related to the election. They'll look at where black political power is being eroded and where black leadership is on the rise.

Hana: What was going on at this event you went to in Oakland?

Johanna: So, about 150 people came to Oakstopin downtown Oakland for panel discussions with community leaders and experts, people had a chance to engage with each other and local civic organizations.

Hana: What did organizers say were some general trends among black voters right now?

Johanna: For that answer I want to go to one of the panelists at the event, TRACEY ROSS of Frontline Solutions. She was born and raised in Oakland, and she talked about the political temperature of black voters.

"About a third of black votersare what you could call the rightful cynics. They're the folks that are like, well, I voted for Obama. you know Obama was in the office, Trump was in office. Biden is in office.Nothing has changed in my neighborhood. I don't think anyone, any of our options are good.There's about 20% that you would call the,, next gen optimists who are like, I, I, I think that the system can work for us. I wanna push and work within the system, but Sometimes I vote sometimes I don't. And that's over 50% of black people who you might get the vote. You might not. The other 50% are, you know, more of the loyalists, they tend to be older black folks who have said, you know, I'm very pragmatic. I, I, I'm with Biden because he's my guy and I, and I've seen how this country works."
- Tracey Ross

Johanna: She says, this last group holds the belief that, if they don't hitch their wagons to the candidate that can win, they’re not going to have political influence.

Hana: We hear a lot about voter apathy but what I'm hearing from you is that it’s much more complex.

Johanna: That's right, Hana. It's interesting because it's often assumed that older black voters will show up and vote democratic, and younger ones are just apathetic. but TRACEY ROSS said there are good reasons for voter pessimism.

"You can't shame people into voting and you can't say the other guy is gonna be bad again if you feel like your life has not changed materially under, from president to president to president. I think that being an apathetic voter is actually a logical stance.  It, it takes a lot to remain optimistic, I think in these times and it takes a lot to be hopeful if you're dealing with broken promises. If you're dealing with communities that are not safe. If you are are hopeless, why would you hope? And I think that that's why it's not, it cannot be for a political season that you come in and all of a sudden you care about black people." - Tracey Ross

Johanna: And, she said the way to engage black voters is to be involved with people on the ground all the time, not just during elections.

"And I think that if the political infrastructure campaign infrastructure is smart, they will get connected to the folks that are doing the hard work because if you actually care about, you know, making change in communities, you the hero of the election cycle cannot be the politician." - Tracey Ross

Johanna: She says, the hero of the election cycle has to be the people.

Hana: What other election related topics did they discuss at the event?

Johanna: They talked about the difference between voter apathy and voter attitude. apathy being voter fatigue or indifference. and attitude being more about why people vote the way they do. OMAR WASOW is Assistant Professor of political science at UC Berkeley. He warned against political celebrity, and people voting for who they want to have a beer with.

"I want people to not invest in the person of like, whether you like or dislike this person. I want people to think about like, the debate that is at its core, are we going to be a multi racial democracy? Right? Or are we going to fight for some sort of ethno nationalist like state that rejects the idea of multi racial democracy? there's a lot of political science that says it's not even rational to vote, right? Like you're going to spend all this time and you're gonna have no influence. So like, why would you do that?  Right. So, apathy is in some ways like the most rational thing. But, but I think too often people come to their apathy out of a sense of like, I don't want to have a beer with that person and it's like, that's not the game we're playing."
-Professor Omar Wasow

Omar Wasow- Assistant Professor in UC Berkeley’s Department of Political Science, Tracey Ross Director-Frontline Solutions, and Brandon Tensley-Capital B's national politics reporter.
Photo Credit: Harry Haryanto
Omar Wasow- Assistant Professor in UC Berkeley’s Department of Political Science, Tracey Ross Director-Frontline Solutions, and Brandon Tensley-Capital B's national politics reporter.

Hana: That’s a big picture overview of black political power, they kicked off this tour in Oakland, let’s zoom in on Oakland a bit.

Johanna: Right, so a lot of people associate black political power in Oakland with the Black Panther Party. it formed in Oakland in 1966. and the power then was that panthers were working outside of white institutions. A decade later, the election ofOakland's first black mayor, LIONEL J WILSON in 1977 would pave the way for black politicians in the eastern part of the San Francisco Bay area.

DAVID PETERS, is the founder of the West Oakland Cultural action network and the Black Liberation Walking Tour…he reflected on black power in Oakland.

"And so in the context of a generation of white flight leading up to 76 and Oakland becoming so much more blacker. It was a very optimistic time in Oakland. And so I would tell you that it was the first best time to be black in Oakland . Everywhere I went, people were talking about black pride and black is beautiful and black. There was this flowering of culture. And so I would say as important as Black political power is black power is more important, longer lasting and more omnipresent."
-David Peters

Johanna : So, one way that black power has shifted is with population: in 1980, Oakland was about 50% black… today its about 20% black.

Hana: So what did activists say is most important in Oakland today?

Johanna: What’s interesting to me, is the younger black community activists on the panels clearly hold many of the same values as people from earlier generations. they’re looking at how coalition building has to evolve to meet the challenges black communities face today. This is SANYIKA BRYANT, a political education organizer at black organizing project.

“Having political power I think is necessary if we're gonna have the coalition-al power, we'll be better positioned, I think to act within those coalitions, right? When we have like a certain level of unity, but particularly class unity, right? Like that class struggle, I think is, is one of the key areas where where we need to be focusing in on building actual organized power, right? Most of our people are in the east right now in the deep east of Oakland. dispossessed, organized organic, a lot of different organizations afraid to go and talk to folk, right? And, and I think that focusing in on pulling them in inviting folks in not throwing folks away, right? And rebuilding that rebuilding that social relationship between each other, I think is super critical if we're gonna be able to like effectively combat, you know, these, these powerful forces that we're contending with today."
-Sanyika Bryant

Hana: So, lots of ideas and thoughts..were there specific actions people suggested?

Johanna: Some panelists focused on Oakland’s black youth and the need to engage them directly in political work. This is MYA WHITAKER, the executive director of the Bay Area Urban Debate League.

"So I think that there's a real disconnect when people are talking to our young, that you have an expectation of where they should be and they're just not… so go cry about it and meet them where they are. So that's something else that falls back on the leaders of our community of we want our saviors but you, nobody showing up at them schools. So these are where your kids are, who need to learn how to be politically invested."- Mya Whitaker

Johanna: She really advocated for people to speak candidly with kids about money.

"I don't know why we're so shy about a financial conversation. But do you understand you need to be making 136000 to stay here. So why are we acting like that? Oh, I don't wanna talk about money but the kids. Well, that's why we're getting DISplaced out because they don't even know what they're up against. So I would say when it comes to organizing for us with political power, especially from my mindset with the youngest, stop talking to them about how you used to do it. What you used to have, they don't have it. You ain't never moved somewhere where the rent started at 2400. Never, you have no clue what they're going through.
- Mya Whitaker

(Left to Right) Mya Whitaker - Executive Director, Bay Area Urban Debate League, Sanyika Bryant- Black Organizing Project, David Peters, founder of West Oakland Cultural Action Network and the Black Liberation Walking Tour, Dr. Robert Stanley Oden, a former Black Panther member and professor in the Department of Political Science at Cal State University, Ashley McBride education equity for The Oaklandside
Harry Haryanto
Cityside Journalism
Mya Whitaker-Executive Director, Bay Area Urban Debate League, Sanyika Bryant-Black Organizing Project, David Peters-founder of West Oakland Cultural Action Network and the Black Liberation Walking Tour, Dr Stanley Oden a former Black Panther member and professor in the Department of Political Science at Cal State University, Ashley McBride- reporter for The Oaklandside

Hana: Ok Johanna, that is powerful, powerful statements. Thanks for sharing what you learned at this event.

Johanna: Thanks for having me on today, Hana.

You can find more election coverage on our elections page.While you’re there, take our survey, tell us what you are thinking about ahead of the election…we’re listening.

Crosscurrents 2024 Elections