June 16, 2008

Carrots Scream Too

"It's hypocritical, too, to pretend that existence is not violence. It's hypocritical — the way vegetarians are hypocritical. They think they aren't harming anything, but a carrot screams too." — from "Let us hold high the banner of intercommunalism and the invincible thoughts of Huey P. Newton minister of defense and supreme commander of the Black Panther Party", in one of the interminable official Panther communiques / newsletters collected in a recent celebratory history.

You can't go far in Oakland without hitting a living ghost of Huey or the Panthers, especially if you've got more than a smattering of local historical knowledge. Even if (like the vast majority of Oaklanders nowadays) you have only a vague idea who Huey or the Panthers were, you can't miss the murals and the place names, and, above all, the surviving attitudes. And that mixture of mordant realist humour and strident turgid authoritarian self-importance, especially, still marks so much of Oakland's African-American and "Progressive" politics, serving much the same purpose it always has: to mask powerlessness and to make damn sure nothing actually gets done (or at least to ensure that nothing gets done without referral to a massive round of self-important committees). But history and demographics seem to be passing Old Oakland by, and, in common with a lot of inhabitants nowadays, my Oakland's largely Hispanic, and the politics and culture don't refer back to the golden age of the Panthers (who, to be fair, had some truly positive social programs in West Oakland, especially), but to something maybe a little sunnier and more forward-looking. And in a part of the world where identity is so often defined in terms of resentment, that's leading to a deep backlash from the older identity politicians as Oakland slowly turns from being a black-majority city to being a hispanic town. A subdued Viva la evoluciĆ³n from me, I guess.

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