On Tuesday evening, the Oakland City Council heard testimony from beneficiaries of violence intervention funding, voted to accept the terms of a grant from the United States Department of Justice, and approved a measure to close loopholes in the regulation of firearms and ammunition.
Over a half dozen people spoke in opposition to a resolution to accept grant funds of $1,875,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice to fund the salaries of 15 new police officers. The grant only covers about 15 percent of the total cost of the new officers and requires the city to spend an additional $10,245,763 of its own funds in order to receive the grant.
“What we need more than [new police officers] is housing,” said Karen Smulevitz, an activist with East Bay Housing Organizations. Smulevitz’ sentiment was echoed by a series of speakers who said the city should invest in housing and community programs, not more law enforcement.
“I’ve sat in a room with some of you talk about the need to enforce tenants’ rights,” Robbie Clark, an organizer with housing equity organization Causa Justa Just Cause, told council members. “You said there wasn’t funding” for a tenants’ rights initiative, he continued. Clark pointed out that, though city officials have said there is no funding for housing, officials have several times been able to find money to hire more police officers.
As the council debated the initiative, activists threw fake dollar bills with fake blood on them from the balcony of the chambers, briefly disrupting the meeting.
After over an hour of discussion, Councilmembers Noel Gallo (District 5), Abel Guillen (District 2), Dan Kalb (District 1), and Larry Reid (District 7) voted in favor of accepting the grant and the terms of the city’s $10,245,763 in matching funds. Councilmember Desley Brooks (District 6) voted no, and Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan and Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney (District 3) abstained from voting.
Guillen said he supported the measure in part because he recently witnessed a violent robbery in his district. Gallo also cited robberies in his district as one reason he supported the measure.
Brooks vehemently opposed the measure, saying that rejecting the terms of the grant from the Department of Justice did not mean that Oakland could not hire more police officers at all.
Grant matches are usually never more than half the total cost of any initiative, Kaplan said, expressing doubt about the terms of the grant that require the city to pay 85 percent of the initiative’s total cost.
At the start of Tuesday’s meeting, attendees poured into the council chambers, packing two overflow viewing rooms. Students of all ages, wearing matching black shirts, crammed into the gallery overlooking the chambers. Over a dozen pastors and religious leaders from the African American community lined up to speak during the meeting’s opening public comment period.
Most of the crowd was there to speak about the transportation of coal through Oakland and the eviction of Amethod Public Schools from its downtown location, though neither issue was on the meeting’s agenda.
Though councilmembers were originally scheduled to vote on the transportation of coal through the Port of Oakland’s new Bulk and Oversized Terminal at Tuesday’s meeting, the vote was postponed to February 16. Four counties in Utah, a stronghold of the coal industry, have approved a $53 million investment in the new terminal in an effort to export coal to Asia from the Port of Oakland.
At previous council meetings, speakers who opposed the transportation of coal have rallied outside the council chambers, citing both the negative effect coal may have on public health in Oakland and, more broadly, coal’s impact on global climate change.
But many of the people at Tuesday’s meeting spoke in favor of the transport plan. “[We won’t let] someone with an outside agenda come here to take our jobs,” said Louis Cherry, a general contractor associated with American Precision Builders, Inc. Cherry said he supports the terminal’s use for coal shipping because it will create jobs for Oakland’s African American community.
Pastor Michael Wakefield Wallace of West Oakland’s Mount Zion Missionary Baptist’s Church says he also supports the transportation of coal through Oakland because he thinks it will help create jobs for Oakland’s poorest communities.
Wallace’s opinion differs from the religious leaders Oakland North has previously covered, such as Reverend Ken Chambers and Reverend Will Scott, who organized a community meeting in West Oakland in November to talk about the correlation between coal production and climate change and urge people to speak out against the project. But neither Chambers or Scott spoke at Tuesday’s meeting.
Several students and staff members spoke during the public comment period to ask the council to both prevent the eviction of Amethod Public Schools, a charter school system, and do more to address the displacement of community-focused organizations across Oakland. The charter school’s director, Jorge Lopez, told the council that the school recently received an eviction notice from the building owner of its downtown campus, which houses Oakland Charter High School and Downtown Charter Academy, a middle school.
Students asked the council to help the school, saying it had benefitted them. “Eighth grade was the first time I heard the word ‘college,’” said Karely Ordaz Salto, who graduated in 2005. She said personally Lopez encouraged her to pursue higher education. “I am also a developer. I develop the future,” Lopez told the council, referring to community concerns about development and gentrification.
Both Oakland Charter High School and Oakland Charter Academy are ranked 10 out of 10 in California’s Academic Performance Index (API), which compares schools across the state based on annual student performance goals.
After the public comment period, council members heard from supporters of Measure Z, an initiative approved by Oakland voters last year, which allocates funding to violence intervention services.
Joshua Wilson, a case manager at Oakland California Youth Outreach (OCYO), a recipient of Measure Z funding, said the funding is invaluable to supporting young black men in Oakland—the demographic group most at risk of being incarcerated. “I felt like nobody invested in me,” Wilson said of his childhood in Oakland. Though Wilson managed to go to college and come back to help his community, he said he sees himself in many of the young men OCYO supports who made mistakes and ended up incarcerated.
Tommy Robinson told the council he just got out of prison two weeks ago after spending over a decade behind bars—six of which were in solitary confinement. He said OCYO has helped him adjust to being back in society in the short time since his release.
“This is the first year I was able to stay out of jail or prison since I was 18,” another speaker told the council, saying that OCYO had helped him find a job.
The council approved a resolution to authorize funding to various non-profits for violence intervention program through June 2017, in accordance with Measure Z.
Several councilmembers were moved to tears during a symbolic agenda item honoring Audree V. Jones-Taylor, director of Oakland Parks and Recreation, who is retiring at the end of this year. About 50 members of the city’s staff and community members gathered around Jones-Taylor to bid her farewell and share memories of their time with her in the city’s government.
“I want to thank all of you for having my back,” Jones-Taylor told the council. Joking that the council members won’t know who to contact once she leaves, she told her staff, “raise your hands, so there’s no confusion about who to call!”
In other council business, the council voted to approve the Safety for All Act, which will close loopholes in gun and ammunition laws and mirror a state initiative sponsored by California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom.
“Every day is the right day to take this action,” Kaplan, the sponsor of the Safety for All Act, told the other council members, explaining that she introduced the initiative in November and it was not a direct response to the recent mass shooting in San Bernardino.
“Shooting and homicides are up in West Oakland,” McElhaney said in support of the initiative, noting the nationwide debate about gun regulation. “We need to support [President Obama] in seeking reasonable gun regulation.”