March 01, 2009

Power To The People

Reading Peniel Joseph's "Waiting 'Til The Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America" (Henry Holt, 2006), I'm often struck by just how central Oakland was to the Black Power movement in the late 1960's and 1970's, and vice versa: you keep stumbling over sentences like "[Eldridge] Cleaver [in exile in Algeria] lashed out at [Huey] Newton [in Oakland] during a televised international conference call [...] which had been originally designed as a show of unity between Oakland and Algeria.", and there's the detritus of those years all around Oakland, the attitudes, the power structures, the odd little murals and shopfronts in West Oakland or downtown, the ghosts of Huey and Eldridge in West Oakland and Berkeley.

Oakland as it is now really doesn't always make much sense without knowing about the Panthers and the whole Black Power struggle. And it's not just the lost, broken legacy of the Panthers' social activism (as Joseph points out, in Oakland as with so many other places, Black power (lower-case "p") became a reality just as the associated cities descended into dire financial and social straights, and became identified with failure), it's the attitudes (and attitudanalising) behind so much City Hall politicking and cultural pushes.

If there's ever a place that once took — and still takes — the idea of "unity between Oakland and Algeria" (where Algeria is being used in a broader sense than just shorthand for "the Black Panther camp currently exiled in Algeria") seriously, it's Oakland. Never mind that, inevitably, Algeria's a place most Oaklanders couldn't locate on a map of the world, and that the African touches here are so confused and, well, American.

But as for many Oaklanders (and as with California at large for many decades now), my Oakland is largely Hispanic and Asian nowadays, at least on a daily basis, and that's a fact that's caused increasing resentment in Oakland's black communities. Oakland's on the verge of no longer really being a Black majority town, and we're starting to see the same sort of politics of resentment playing out in local politics in particular nasty and coded ways.

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