Ask nine pierced and tattooed punks what they think of former California governor, now Mayor, Jerry Brown and his effort to banish crime from Oakland, and you'll get an instant measure of how dramatically Brown has changed the city in his ten months in City Hall. "He's a f—k, announces Scrappy, a blue-haired 25-year-old with tongue rings, nose rings, and dagger-shaped earrings. "Oakland used to be a cool town, but now we can't hang out on the streets without someone saying you gotta go." Last time he wandered through downtown Oakland with his sleeping bag, Scrappy says, the police stopped him five times in seven blocks to ask about drugs. He shakes his head philosophically: "No, they don't like gutterpunks at all in Oakland."
Oakland used to be known as Baja Berkeley, but those days may be over. Brown, who won the mayoralty in a landslide in June 1998, carrying every district but two Hispanic ones, is on a fervent crusade to resuscitate this still-lovely city, long associated with urban failure. Should this most enigmatic of politicians succeed in his surprising new role, it will be a testament to an emerging national consensus regarding what cities need in order to flourish—public safety, order, decent schools, and a respect for private creativity.
Brown's election in this birthplace of the Black Panthers has a further significance: it may signal the waning of Oakland's counterproductive race politics. In voting for Brown, black Oaklanders decisively rejected a black political establishment they saw as arrogant and incompetent. Arising in its place is a new breed of black politician, personified by Oakland city manager Robert Bobb—passionate about results, indifferent to racial appeals, and determined to foster personal responsibility. Together Bobb and Brown are cleaning up a barnacle-encrusted city government and shaking off the failed orthodoxies of the Great Society.
Since taking office, Brown has relentlessly pursued four goals, ignoring backlash from disgruntled insiders and from anti-development community groups. He wants to bring 10,000 new residents to downtown Oakland by attracting unsubsidized, market-rate housing; to reduce crime 20 percent a year; to start charter schools; and to strengthen the arts. Sitting ramrod straight on the edge of a chair in a newly pressed white collarless shirt and dark jacket, his eyes downcast and his gravelly voice halting abruptly at the ends of phrases, Brown promoted his agenda at an East Oakland neighborhood meeting last August. Austere to the point of stiffness, rubbing his hands absentmindedly on his knees, Brown is an unlikely politician—but most of the group is eating it up. They ask hopefully about real estate values downtown, with the poignant yearning of Oaklanders to recover their city's vanished vitality.
A lesbian mother of two asks the inevitable, race-tinged question about "gentrification": "I'm concerned how you plan to maintain diversity over time downtown," she says piously. Brown squints at her from under his bushy eyebrows and shoots back: "There's no diversity there now. You have a homogenous population—the elderly, parolees, people in drug rehab, from mental hospitals, transients—concentrated, because people are working the system. This is not the vibrant civic culture some might have in mind."
This kind of talk is a far cry from Brown's rhetoric at the start of his campaign in early 1997. "I see Oakland as an ‘ecopolis’ of the future-a city that is both in harmony with the environment and in harmony with itself," he enthused then. Such language was right out of the obscure populist organization called "We the People" that he then headed from his $2 million loft building in the newly trendy Jack London area of waterfront Oakland. Having moved there from San Francisco not long after his disastrous 1992 run for president, Brown had continued to hammer away at his presidential campaign themes of corporate greed and political corruption, as well as to pursue the New Age interests he'd cultivated as California's "Governor Moonbeam" from 1974 to 1982: biodynamic gardening, yoga and meditation classes, and discussions on ecologically sensitive urban planning. His weekly talk show on far-left Pacifica radio featured various countercultural critics denouncing global capitalists, American inequality, and the "propaganda system of the so-called free world."
But once on the mayoral campaign trail, Brown noticed that Oaklanders cared more about crime, abysmal schools, and the continuing downtown economic vacuum than about environmental sustainability and social justice. He sagely jackknifed. Whereas as radio announcer he had mocked the war on crime as a media-driven "scam" serving only the interests of prison guards and "corporate criminals" (i.e., CEOs), as mayoral candidate he began speaking with ruthless honesty about Oakland's public safety problem. "Muggings, car break-ins, burglaries-this is real, no matter what anyone says," he declared a month before the election. "The city has to ensure your safety. Any administration that can coexist with an increasing number of people locked up in their own homes is not doing its job." Now that he's in office, the turnabout persists. As a talk-show Jeremiah, he had blasted welfare reform and argued that "crime in the suites" is more dangerous than "crime in the streets," yet now he is wooing large corporations to Oakland and complaining that welfare recipients are "working the system." On the radio, he complained of a "conspiracy" to lock people away, yet as mayor he plans to imprison as many of Oakland's criminals as he can get his hands on.
The truth is that, beneath his left-wing rhetoric, Brown has a realistic, even conservative streak, as he proved during his two terms as governor, when he held down state spending, called for mandatory prison sentences to increase the cost of crime, and announced the death of liberalism: "The fact that there's a problem does not mean that more government will make it better. It might make it worse."
Now that he's an elected official again, the realism is back. "If you countenance open drug markets, shoplifting, car thefts, you're not going to have a city," he says in his dark, high-ceilinged office, decorated with sixties classics like Paul Goodman's Compulsory Miseducation. Though he's not about to repudiate his recent left-leaning credos, he's not going to govern according to them, either. "You can look at the social dynamics [of crime] and realize what's caused this," Brown explains as he shifts back and forth between a modernist chair and a dark taupe couch. "But after you've looked at all that, now you're here, you're in the neighborhood. If someone's selling dope on the street—hey, you've got to get him out of there. It's that simple." He chooses his words carefully, gesturing expansively. "I want to deal with transforming the urban space. While I can give you an analysis of why this is from a global point of view, when it is time to effect improvement I'm going to use every lawful constitutional means to get those improvements within the time frame I set forth."
Watching Brown's ceaseless efforts to promote Oakland, residents are dropping their usual ironic defensiveness about their city and indulging in optimism. There is a palpable energy downtown, particularly noticeable among developers long-accustomed to bureaucratic inertia and crippling regulatory roadblocks. One morning last August, a beaming Ken Hofmann, co-owner of the Oakland A's, escorted an enthusiastic team of developers through City Hall's marble rotunda to tell Brown about their plans to convert an abandoned GM plant into lofts. Several weeks later, Brown repaid the courtesy by showing up at an East Oakland community meeting to support the project against the inevitable opposition, part of his ceaseless rounds of the city to encourage change.
Local real estate agent Dean Treadway marvels at Brown's determination to get things built. Treadway just brokered the sale of a $5.5 million property on Lake Merritt known as "Das Hole," named for the unfinished subterranean parking garage that has gaped at the site since the early 1980s. When the new owners announced plans to put up a 20-story condominium, neighbors strenuously objected that the project would cast shadows on the tiny downtown lake and disturb the ducks. "The opponents were nipped in the bud," marvels Treadway. "Brown doesn't put up with it. He just charges ahead, saying these projects will be good for the city." Indeed, Brown boasted of his unwillingness to brook opposition in his state-of-the-city address three months into his term. "Every single project that has surfaced in the first 100 days has been opposed," he said. "Many of these reasons are fine, but if we let them decide the day, we're moving back to stagnation."
Brown's market timing is excellent. Housing and office costs in San Francisco—just a few minutes across the bay from Oakland on the BART subway line—are astronomical; despite a 1 percent apartment-vacancy rate, anti-development forces there are crushing new construction and loft conversions. For the last several years, developers have been scouting out Oakland, attracted by its cheap land. San Francisco-based mega-developer Doug Shorenstein, for instance, delighted the city by buying the failed City Center downtown office and retail project at fire-sale prices several years ago, and polishing it to a fare-thee-well. Major tenants now include American President Lines, Deloitte & Touche, and Merrill Lynch.
Interest has heated up under Brown's 10,000-new-residents initiative; housing developers are flying in from across the country, drawn by Brown's determination to sell off all the city's big properties. Businesses are moving from San Francisco and Berkeley, too, drawn by 50 to 65 percent lower rents. "What continued to impress us was the city's very aggressive approach in getting major companies here," says Dick Partida, a vice president at Koret, a $300 million-a-year women's clothing manufacturer that left San Francisco for Oakland this year.
With an almost guileless personal directness coupled with intellectual intensity, Brown has won a following across all social classes. A table of off-duty cops at a bar in the Jack London district breaks into smiles when Brown walks in. "How's it goin', Mayor?" one officer happily asks him. Even Oakland's vagrants have caught the new civic spirit. Three men in various states of decay are playing dominoes in newly renovated, oak-shaded Lafayette Square behind Broadway, Oakland's main business thoroughfare. Condemning the city's new enforcement of quality-of-life laws, the men complain that the police harass them now for littering and open liquor containers. "How can you drink if it's not open?" jokes an older man encased in layers of filthy clothing. Yet a younger man in black overalls comes to Brown's defense. After scooting a crushed Budweiser can across the asphalt walk like a shuffleboard puck, he says: "I've seen a lot of good things Brown said he'd do in this park. He's made some excellent changes." He points with seeming pride to development on the periphery. "They're building new condos around here," he says, though he criticizes the lack of "affordable housing."
That even these citizens could find something to support in Brown's crusade shows how hungry Oaklanders are for a success story. For three decades, Oakland has been sold one massively subsidized development scheme after another-freeways, a West Oakland BART station that was supposed to ignite retail development, a convention center, government buildings, an abortive downtown shopping center, the Raiders' fiscally disastrous return, a soon-bankrupt ice-skating rink. All were supposed to bring the city back to life, but many projects only made things worse by tearing down existing buildings and leaving empty parking lots. And Oakland's once-proud history faded from memory, though it is still visible in the city's architecture.
Oakland sprang into existence during the California Gold Rush as a more Bourgeois—as well as sunny—alternative to San Francisco's wild debauchery. It prospered for 100 years. By making it the terminus for the first intercontinental railroad in 1869, the Central Pacific cemented the city's role as the shipping hub for the entire West; two more national railroads followed suit. Oakland's waterfront, where numerous factories processed California's raw materials before sending them overseas or back east, quickly became "one vast workshop for the Pacific Ocean," as an 1877 real estate brochure boasted.
Oakland started gracing itself with grand public buildings at the turn of the century. Wealthy San Franciscans ferried across the bay to the imposing Hotel Oakland for sun and healthful air; today, in the arc typical of many cities, the hotel provides subsidized housing to senior citizens. As development moved uptown along Broadway and Telegraph Avenue, department stores and movie theaters erected fantastical Art-Deco temples, like the immense, maniacally ornate Paramount Theater. Smaller stores were no less sumptuous; today, these little jewel boxes, encased in jade or celadon tile, with gold-leaf acanthus moldings encircling doors and roofs, often are struggling to survive or standing vacant next to burned-out buildings.
In the first two decades of the twentieth century, Oakland embraced progressive reformist politics and City Beautiful urban design, by contrast with San Francisco's gritty political bossism. For a while after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, it seemed possible that California's business nerve center might shift from San Francisco, nearly always visible under its fog canopy across the bay, to Oakland. But the construction of the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge in 1936 and 1937 ended that East Bay hope, by making San Francisco easier to reach and solidifying its status as the commercial and financial heart of the state.
World War II transformed Oakland. Along with nearby Richmond, the city boomed as the West Coast's largest shipbuilding center and the supply and distribution point for the Pacific war basin. Operating 24 hours a day, the shipyards drew in a flood of workers from across the country and rolled Liberty Ships into the Alameda Estuary after a mere three weeks in construction.
The city's population swelled by a third from 1940 to 1945, and a long demographic shift began: black residents grew from 3 percent of the population in 1940 to over 12 percent in 1950, nearly 23 percent in 1960, 34.5 percent in 1970, and 46.9 percent in 1980, making Oakland California's black capital. In the last decade, an influx of Mexicans, Chinese, and Filipinos has reduced the proportion of blacks in the 400,000-person city to around 40 percent, with whites at 30 percent.
Oakland's first blacks were proudly respectable "railroad men"—mostly Pullman porters, who settled into West Oakland around the train stations and shared the era's progressive beliefs. A 1913 editorial in the Oakland Sunshine, a black newspaper, typifies their civic-minded optimism: "What, I ask in all seriousness, with the advantages which our schools afford our young men, are their possibilities in the future? They are simply unbounded and indescribable." These old-timers were wary of the World War II migrants. Before the war, West Oakland had been relatively integrated and racially harmonious, but many of the new Southern migrants brought with them the expectation of segregation and, old-timers grumbled, an inclination to public disorder. But they brought spending power, too. Hot West Oakland jazz clubs drew people from miles around (as did the new prostitution, bootlegging, and gambling operations); a black professional class grew up to serve the new workers. Today, many view West Oakland's thriving war years as the Harlem Renaissance of the West.
The war's end brought Oakland's boom to a halt, and in the fifties giant companies such as GM and GE moved their plants out to bigger suburban tracts. While Oakland's surrounding Alameda County gained over 10,000 manufacturing jobs between 1958 and 1966, Oakland itself lost nearly 10,000 jobs—and 23,000 residents between 1950 and 1970.
The War on Poverty filled the vacuum. After the Johnson administration deemed Oakland ripe for the next race riot—based on unemployment and racial tensions, underscored by one black leader's threat to a federal official that "we'll have a Watts here, and kill and bomb"—the feds rolled in a $23 million pilot jobs program in 1966, hoping to forestall trouble. Governor Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, Jerry's father, welcomed Washington's decision to "conduct in Oakland a massive experiment in solving the principal urban problem, unemployment." Though the result of the experiment was pitifully few new jobs, 140 non-military federal programs were spending $100 million a year in Oakland by 1967, close to twice the city's own budget. The city became a laboratory for government poverty fighting, closely studied by Berkeley urban-planning professors.
The War on Poverty didn't end Oakland's poverty, but it did trigger a momentous political upheaval. Oakland had always been a Republican town. Its twentieth-century patriarchs, Congressman Joseph Knowland and his son U.S. Senator William Knowland, led the national party's conservative wing and directed local politics from the turquoise and rose tower of the Oakland Tribune, which they owned from 1915 to 1977. "Kingmaker" Joseph Knowland pushed the careers of such Republican notables as Earl Warren, later U.S. Chief Justice, and Alameda Assistant D.A. Edwin Meese, later U.S. Attorney General; William ("Senator Formosa") Knowland, infuriated that opponents were recruiting Berkeley students to demonstrate against Barry Goldwater's nomination in 1964, set off the Free Speech Movement by pressuring the Berkeley chancellor to ban political organizing on campus. Oakland's city council backed the Knowlands' conservative policies: it was committed to cutting taxes and skeptical of government's ability to solve social problems.
While Washington poured anti-poverty money into Oakland, the Black Panthers were on the rise there; Huey Newton had founded the violent black-power group in 1966, partly as a response to real and perceived police brutality. The Panthers glorified black criminality; they preached the murder of police officers and practiced what they preached. While wowing white radicals and the liberal establishment with their breakfast programs, free clinics, and Panther school, they were establishing a violent criminal empire in Oakland and pilfering from their community centers.
The Panthers co-opted a big slice of the anti-poverty effort, as their members took control of many community War on Poverty boards and doled out enough federal and state funds to make themselves formidable power brokers. By the 1970s, the Panthers had become an important force in Oakland politics and the state Democratic Party. Panther Bobby Seale made a credible run for mayor in 1973, and Panther Elaine Brown got 40 percent of the vote for a city council seat in 1975, with the backing of Congressman Ron Dellums and organized labor. In 1976, Governor Jerry Brown appointed her as his delegate to the Democratic presidential convention.
The next year, Elaine Brown parlayed her new clout into a political revolution. With her assistance, Lionel Wilson, a former judge, became the city's first black mayor—and its first Democratic one. Though Panther power waned thereafter, the group had been key to making Oakland a black-controlled Democratic town, with black majorities on the city council and the school board, and black chiefs of most city departments.
Like any political machine, the black Oakland machine viewed government as a jobs program. During a 1996 teachers' strike, school-board member Toni Cook rejected calls to cut the school bureaucracy on the grounds of racial solidarity. "I will not send people home without a job," she asserted—"and they look like me disproportionately." The city bureaucracy that grew up became legendary for haughtiness and intractability. When a big-money developer came to town to look at several city-owned properties, he arranged for the city development officer to show him around. As he waited for her outside one of the buildings, a sedan rolled past and slowed down; a set of keys came hurtling out the window. The development officer, late for another meeting, had simply thrown out the keys to the building and driven past.
Oakland has long harbored the full complement of urban ills. By 1990, 20 percent of the population was on welfare, and the poverty culture is still thriving. Crime spiked up in the 1970s, when brutal drug lord Felix Mitchell created the country's first large-scale, gang-controlled drug operation. Gangs still operate in the East Oakland housing projects where Mitchell reigned, contributing to a murder rate over twice that of San Francisco and New York. As in all western cities, appearances in the city's most dangerous areas are deceptive. Filled with Victorian cottages and 1930s bungalows rather than the oppressive brick projects of the East Coast, spread out horizontally under the huge sky rather than squeezed up vertically, East and West Oakland—in the flatlands between the estuary and the affluent foothills—retain some of their original charm during the day, despite the occasional stripped car, burned-out house, and trash-strewn vacant lot. "At night, it turns into something else," advises Archie, a recovering drug addict with a diamond stud in his ear and a big tattoo on his heavily muscled arm.
Despite missteps, Oakland has made some sensible efforts to fight its problems in the last decade, especially with its port initiative. Oakland's port was the first on the West Coast to reconfigure for containerized shipping, permanently squelching competition from San Francisco. Now it is further upgrading its facilities to best Los Angeles's and Portland's booming harbors. Nevertheless, frustration with the city's social and economic stagnation continued, leading to cracks in the black power structure well before Jerry Brown's candidacy. A white county-board member, Don Perata, won once-sacrosanct black seats first in the state assembly and then in the senate. An Asian developer launched a credible primary challenge to Mayor Elihu Harris in 1994. In 1996, a white progressive unseated an unresponsive black city councilwoman in West Oakland, the very heart of the black East Bay, to join a multi-ethnic council where blacks no longer hold the majority.
Most important, Oakland began sprouting a few highly articulate black critics of the status quo, led above all by Shannon Reeves, the dynamic young president of the local NAACP (see box, below). In a typical sally, Reeves charged in 1997 that the school board was "absolutely riddled with nepotism, cronyism, and favoritism. The district spends $100,000 on a new logo, because they worry that the old one looks like broccoli. But they don't worry about whether kids can spell broccoli." Reeves's refusal to hold his fire against government incompetence even when black politicians face white challengers has left many an incumbent fuming.
But nothing shattered the old alliances more than Brown's run for the mayoralty. Gus Newport, Berkeley's radical black mayor from 1979 to 1986 and an East Bay patriarch, came out in support of Brown early on. "All of the black regulars had been in elected positions for ten to twenty years," he explained in an interview. "They fell into the same culture; they didn't know where to go to get professionals to crunch numbers. Oakland needed a severe leadership change," Newport concluded.
The old guard tried to concentrate its forces against Brown by persuading some of the many black mayoral contenders to drop out. None did, and Brown swept into office with more black votes than all the other candidates combined.
To Brown's good fortune, he found waiting for him in City Hall a new-generation black official, City Manager Robert Bobb, who is too busy cleaning up Oakland to worry about racial correctness. If Oakland does revive, it will be as much due to Bobb's management as to Jerry Brown's high-profile mayoralty.
Hired by the Council in 1997, Bobb roared into town from Richmond, Virginia, like a hurricane, vowing to drive criminals and inefficient bureaucrats out of town and to beautify the city. Tall and strongly built, with a taste for bright suspenders, flared pocket handkerchiefs, and well-tailored suits, the deceptively soft-spoken city manager immediately began an urban cleanliness program that could serve other cities as a model. At his urging, the Council passed a tough blight ordinance that heavily fines businesses for broken windows and graffiti, and homeowners for couches dumped or laundry hung in their front yards. Trash detectives track down illegal dumpers and take them to court. Dilapidated houses now sport huge signs naming their often-absentee owners as public nuisances, and Bobb has demolished well over a hundred infamous properties that were blighting neighborhoods. Bobb wants to make all city employees ride along with street-sweeping crews to "start taking ownership for grime prevention," as his website announces. "I'm trying to instill a sense of pride," he explains in his large airy office overlooking City Hall Plaza. "In community meetings, I ask people who's been to Disneyland, and whether they put their hamburger wrappers on the street there. ‘If you litter,’ I tell them, ‘it says it's okay to commit crime.’ "
At the same time, Bobb turned to cleaning out the city workforce's deadwood. "We had assistants with an assistant," he recalls. He began by firing two black female department heads, igniting a firestorm among the black establishment that led to a City Council investigation—off limits to the public, for fear of publicizing the actual overrepresentation of blacks in managerial positions, according to a City Hall gadfly.
When Brown took office in January 1999, the housecleaning accelerated, for Brown shares Bobb's insistence on performance. "You have to be able to produce; this is what the world is about," Brown maintains. "That's what people in Oakland wanted." Bobb demoted four of 10 department heads, 60 employees received "performance deficiency notices," and the rest of the city's 4,800 workers got warnings that unless their performance improved and they could demonstrate a contribution to Mayor Brown's blueprint for the city, they would be fired. The head of the municipal union cried that Bobb was creating a "climate of fear"; non-unionized city workers rushed to unionize.
The climax came when Brown and Bobb took on the city's first black police chief, Joseph Samuels. The mayor and the manager saw Oakland's reputation as a high-crime city as its biggest bar to renewal, and though crime had been falling at the national average, that wasn't good enough for them. The two flew east to study New York's innovative crime-fighting techniques and came back convinced that Oakland needed an explicit crime-reduction target and a plan for reaching it. "I kept waiting for the police chief to tell me his goal," Brown explains. "He never did, so I got myself a new police chief."
Blacks and white liberals throughout the city saw the firing of Samuels as an act of profound disrespect. A group of the city's black elite stormed City Hall, threatening civil disobedience and warning that the Black Panthers would return if Bobb and Brown instituted "Giuliani-style policing." The mayor and the city manager didn't flinch. "It was an intense evening, an interesting evening," Bobb now chuckles when asked about the confrontation. But he and Brown don't care whether the heads of city departments are popular, he says. "Rather, can they convince me that they are in touch with the nuts and bolts of their operation, and have a strategic vision?" The new top cop, a respected young black department veteran named Richard Word, has signed on to Brown's annual 20 percent crime-reduction goal, which he intends to meet by questioning criminals about other crimes they know of, finding the city's 750 lost parolees, serving 1,500 arrest warrants, and prosecuting gun violations in federal court.
Last November, five months after the mayoral election, a Brown-initiated ballot measure to replace Oakland's weak mayor-strong city manager form of government with its opposite passed by a whopping three-fourths majority—a sign of how high Oaklanders' hopes are for Brown. Though the measure transferred much of Bobb's power to Brown, the manager shows no sign of chagrin at his redefined role, nor does Brown evidence any desire to limit Bobb's de facto authority. The "Killer Bs," as the two are known, have been an unbeatable team, loping around the city, browbeating it into change.
Their toughest challenge will be the schools—the greatest casualty of Oakland's decades of race politics. Even today, though Oakland students have among California's lowest test scores, and an overwhelming majority of tenth-graders can't read at grade level, the school board and the teachers waste time in race baiting and radicalism. Last January, for instance, because "prison and the death penalty are poignantly real issues" for minority students, the teachers' union voted to hold a "teach-in" on cop killer Mumia Abu Jamal—on the same day as the funeral of a policeman murdered in cold blood by a young sniper.
This, after all, is the school system that in 1996 brought us "Ebonics," the school board-approved plan to "instruct African-American students in their primary language"—black English. No one talks about this civic embarrassment in Oakland these days, yet two members of the task force that proposed Ebonics have jobs in curriculum development today, and the city's teacher training now includes elements of the original plan, says former school-board member and Ebonics proponent Sylvester Hodges. Add to this foolishness a bureaucracy so incompetent that it loses applications from prospective teachers for months or years at a time, despite a claimed teacher-shortage emergency, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Though the mayor has no direct control over education, Brown has tried to shame the system into reform. "It's shocking beyond words," he said of the bureaucracy's attempts to defend its performance in the face of a 75 percent citywide reading-deficiency rate. "There is a pervasive denial of what is happening." When Superintendent Carole Quan pointed out that test scores had inched up recently, he mocked her "pathetically low expectations"—and then focused his guns on her. Though Asian, she was a 30-year insider and an ally of the black contingent in the school administration. No matter; in Brown's view, she was an obstacle to change. State Senator Don Perata backed up Brown's campaign against Quan with a bill promising a state takeover of the schools if the board did not fire her.
The counterattack followed the usual lines, with a member of the still-extant Ebonics task force charging that the fight over the schools was about "white and Jewish control." But Brown refused to get drawn into the race baiting. "Remember, this is a very powerful group of people who don't want to change, and they are fighting like mad to keep the status quo," he coolly responded. Two months after Police Chief Samuels departed, Superintendent Quan tearfully resigned. The Killer Bs named Bobb's deputy assistant as acting superintendent. Determined to force deeper change, Brown appointed a commission to develop alternative means of selecting the school board, including mayoral appointment.
Brown is also urging parents to form charter schools as part of his blueprint for Oakland; when the teachers' unions got a bill through the state assembly requiring such schools to unionize, the mayor used his hefty political clout to kill it. Charters appeal to Brown's populist, anti-authoritarian side; in an interview, he mischievously proposes as one possible model A. S. Neill's rule-less Summerhill, where class attendance was optional and the exit-exam failure rate by the school's untutored Noble Savages astronomical. Brown endorses the Romantic critique of traditional schooling as an assault on children's natural wisdom and creativity, which makes him unlikely to oppose the radical teaching theories that, no less than the stifling bureaucracy, are holding today's students back. Yet with his usual heterogeneity, he readily acknowledges that the Catholic education he received as a child and continued in a Jesuit seminary was pretty darn good training as well.
Expect Brown's realism to triumph yet again over his ideological commitments. Brown understands the all-importance of basic skills and has proposed a very un-Summerhill-like military academy and elite selective high school. His preference for private initiative over big government and his unflagging emphasis on results just might galvanize Oakland's schools out of their stupendous incompetence.
The Brown and Bobb era might turn out to be Oakland's fourth seismic shift, as momentous for the city as the Gold Rush, World War II, and the black revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. The March fury, when Brown and Bobb were facing down Police Chief Samuels and Superintendent Quan, has faded, and the relaxed race relations already visible on the street finally may be reaching the black political class, as well. Some of Brown's most strident black critics now concede that he may be just the man to shake up the city.
If he succeeds, it will be not just because of his star power. It will also be because, for all his far-left pronouncements, he understands cities' basic needs for order and private development, and he is willing to beat down all opposition to achieve them.