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Oakland residents lead the fight to rename and reclaim public spaces

on December 19, 2020

At Oakland’s inner harbor near the water’s edge stands the bronze statue of Jack London—a famed 20th Century author, labor union advocate and racist who promoted eugenics and white supremacy. Communities of color make up 75% of the population in Oakland. This summer, Oakland residents petitioned to remove a monument dedicated to London and to protest the name of the popular commercial square and district named in his honor. 

Historically, there’s a well-established culture of renaming spaces and places in Oakland. While some people want to rename public spaces as a way to remember loved ones, others do so to reclaim their connection to their heritage and unceded land. And since the Black Lives Matter protests, there’s been a growing emphasis to rename public spaces as a way to resist systemic racism and repair harm.

Renaming as resistance

Dr. Bedford Palmer II is an associate professor and chair of the counseling department at Saint Mary’s College of California. He’s also a longtime Oakland resident and social justice consultant. This June, Palmer started a petition to raise awareness about the legacy of Jack London and why he thinks it’s time to remove the statue and rename the square and district that honors him.

“There’s a power to naming things,” he says. And it’s not just names that matter, but the legacies behind them, too. Palmer believes that while London may be notable for his literary works—among them “White Fang” and “The Call of the Wild”—his racist ideas to exterminate Chinese Americans overshadows these efforts.

“I understand that people make contributions, but the contribution of a racist is the contribution of a racist,” he says. “We need to call it out and pull it out, root and stem.”

In addition to the monument and district, Jack London’s name is popular all over Oakland. At least 25 restaurants, hotels, parking garages, transit terminals and other landmarks in the city bear his name. There’s even a senior housing development and a luxury kitchen and bath fixture retailer named after him. 

“It becomes so ubiquitous, so diffuse in the environment that you’re just like ‘Oh yeah, it’s not a big deal,’” Palmer says. “But it is a big deal. These symbols, they mean something to folks.”

Across the United States, following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin, Black organizers applied pressure to rename spaces named after white supremacists and to rename products with racist origins. In June 2020, the Quaker Oats company said it would change the name and imagery of their well-known pancake mix because it was based on a racist stereotype. In Jacksonville, Fla., the Duval County School Board voted unanimously to begin the renaming process of at least six schools named after Confederate soldiers. In Minneapolis, Minn., owners of the Calhoun Square shopping mall renamed it after the nearby lake, Bde Maka Ska, which means White Earth Lake in the Dakota language.

In Oakland, Palmer says the reckoning doesn’t stop at statues and monuments.

“How are we naming streets? How are we naming parks? How are we naming schools?,” he asks. “All these places, you have to kind of bow to white supremacy because they’re honoring people that would not be honored otherwise. What’s our relationship to names?”

This summer, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf held a news conference and said she would “fully support a re-examination and a robust community conversation about all of the names that we honor.”

Councilmember Larry Reid, District 7, also said he would issue an ordinance to change street names “if in fact they are named after former presidents who were slave owners.” Currently, nearly half a dozen streets fit that description, including Washington, Jackson, Jefferson and Harrison streets.

When contacted for this story, the Mayor’s office reiterated via email Schaaf’s prior statements, saying, “It’s a community conversation that will match Oaklanders’ values” and that Schaaf “looks forward to participating and contributing to it.” But the city has not appointed staff or allocated money toward the effort.

Still, Palmer is steadfast in his resolve to rename Jack London Square. He sees the present moment as a chance to “get rid of these icons and acknowledge the fact that these are symbols of genocide and oppression.”

Since his petition began, Palmer says the Jack London Improvement District, a collective of business and community stakeholders who promote the district as a cultural and tourist destination, contacted him to discuss possible changes. Palmer sees the organization’s interest as a positive step in an ongoing fight.

“It feels encouraging that it got that level of attention,” he says. “We’ve been fighting, our parents were fighting, our grandparents were fighting, our great-grandparents were fighting. It’s in every small and large struggle. We have to push forward.”

Renaming as remembrance

Wanda Johnson, 55, grew up in the East Bay. When she lived in Oakland, she remembers visiting De Fremery Park in West Oakland a few times but doesn’t know when it became known as Lil’ Bobby Hutton Park. What she does know is that Lil’ Bobby Hutton, like her son, Oscar Grant III, was shot and killed by a police officer in Oakland. More than 40 years separate her son’s death from that of Hutton—who was then 17 years old and the first recruit of the Black Panther Party.

In the near 12 years since Grant was killed at Fruitvale station by former Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer Johannes Mehserle, Johnson has spent each year channeling her grief to memorialize her son. Through her pain, she worked with BART’s Board of Directors to try to officially rename the space Fruitvale/Grant station or just Grant station.

“Because of his being killed unjustly, I felt that it is a part of history. And people need it to know,” she says. “Look at all the different statues that have been named after people, all the different freeways, the different schools. It is so people will remember. It’s a memorial so that you will be able to teach it to your children, your grandchildren, your great grandkids and to generations to come.”

The financial cost to renaming a public space is steep and, in this case, involves updating not just the BART system but all the maps and communication materials as well. Johnson was ready to fundraise to cover the cost of the renaming.

“One of the directors told me that it would be like a million dollars,” she says. “So we told him we could come up with the money and then he kind of rescinded on that conversation. I guess maybe he thought we weren’t going to be able to come up with the money to get it done.”

Since then, she says the conversation has stalled. 

Johnson says before that, there was mostly no resistance from the nine-member BART Board of Directors. In a unanimous vote, they voted in favor of a street sign and mural of her son.

If she is able to succeed at getting Fruitvale BART station renamed in her son’s honor, Johnson says it will ease some of her pain following his traumatic death. The physical space brings back difficult memories for her.

“At the BART station it is really different. When I go up there, which was not too often, it brings a flood of memories,” she says. “I can just visualize his presence laying on that platform telling the officer that he has a daughter and asking the officer not to shoot him. And yet he lost his life. But I know that it is a space where people come together and feel unified. I’m grateful for that.”

Renaming to reclaim land and heritage

Oakland native Corrina Gould can trace her ancestry in the East Bay to before it was colonized by the Spanish in the late 18th century. As the spokesperson for the Confederated Villages of the Lisjan/Ohlone, Gould has spent more than 25 years working to preserve and revitalize Indigenous culture in the Bay Area. Gould says the ability to name yourself, your land and your customs is deeply influenced by your ability to speak your own language.

“It’s about reclamation and visibility. If you’re not staying on a reservation, then it’s kind of hard to imagine that there were Native people in the area,” she says. “By us using the Chochenyo language—which is the language that was spoken in this area—to name places, it lets people know that all the places and cities in the East Bay once had a name before those spaces were called what they are now.”

To support this important work, Corrina Gould is joined by her daughter Deja Gould, who is the tribe’s official language carrier. For the past 15 years, Deja Gould has been responsible for revitalizing the tribal language, which was near extinct a few generations ago. As a Language Carrier, she learns the language and teaches it to other tribal members. After that, the process to rename spaces and places begins. It is a task that cannot be done haphazardly, Corrina Gould explains.

“Deja, she finds the words for us and so there’s this way of being intentional about looking at our language and reclaiming not just the language, but the space and place,” she says.

For Deja Gould, the work is extremely important but can also be a lot of pressure for one person. “Sometimes it’s difficult since I’m the one that’s being asked to name the spaces,” she says.

Additionally, she admits some invitations to help rename places in the Bay Area demand a lot of time, like her recent work with the Alameda Recreation and Parks Commission to rename Jackson Park—named after former U.S. President Andrew Jackson who drafted and signed into law the Indian Removal Act.

“Yes, the name should be changed, the park in Alameda, which is named after Andrew Jackson,” Deja Gould says. “But also the timeline, it’s like, ‘well, we want you to name this space but we need it by this time’ and then I’m also having to do travel work and then language work. And then I have two kids, and it’s COVID. And so all of these things together, it’s overwhelming.”

In a virtual public community forum to rename Jackson Park, one Alameda resident said she would rather the park “revert to the historical name” of Alameda Park “because it’s the simplest.” A tribal member of the Confederated Villages of Lisjan/Ohlone who was also present said it would be a great honor to name the park either Ohlone, Chochenyo or Alameda because it acknowledges her community as people who are “still here and relevant today.” On Dec. 10, with majority public support for the Tribe’s preference, the commission recommended the name “Chochenyo” to the Alameda City Council who will vote on the final decision early next year.

As a state-recognized tribe and sovereign community, the Confederated Villages of Lisjan/Ohlone have negotiated with Bay Area governments to rename not only the places within their territory but the land itself. Corrina Gould says that four years ago, she began to build relationships with city councilmembers in the City of Berkeley. She says, the more she shared the history of her community and what the land means to them, the more people were open to support change. This relationship building led to the city voting to update its city limit signs to acknowledge the Ohlone people and the unceded territory where Berkeley resides.

“Every point of entry into Berkeley says ‘Welcome to Berkeley, Ohlone Territory’ and that’s a huge win for our people,” Gould says. “It was a point of pride. It gives us a feeling that we are currently in government-to-government relationships and trying to figure out how to work together.”

Sometimes working together includes pushback but Corrina Gould says the emotional task is worth it. She says her grandchildren won’t have to fight the same battles and the work she is doing now helps all residents understand that the Ohlone live in the present and not just the past.

“If this work doesn’t happen now, the genocide will have been complete,” Gould says. “If we are not able to push forward and revitalize our language to really connect back to the land in the way that we are supposed to, it means we’re gone.”

This story has been updated. An earlier version incorrectly stated Dr. Bedford Palmer II’s title.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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