Oscar Grant riot
The Irresponsibility of a Social Program Operator
An operator of Oakland-funded social programs appears to bear serious responsibility for the Jan. 7, 2009 riot that brought grief to working people in downtown Oakland.
Less than a week after a BART police officer shot and killed Oscar Grant on New Year's Eve, two people decided that the wheels of justice were not turning fast enough for them. They called for a protest at the Fruitvale BART station on the afternoon of Jan. 7.
One of the two, Evan Shamar, is an apparently naive 24-year-old photographer. He did the grunt work of driving around the Bay Area and handing out thousands of flyers. (S.F. Chronicle, Jan. 9, 2009)
The other protest leader is 38-year-old Dereca Blackmon, who quickly started a Coalition Against Police Executions (CAPE) and became a widely-quoted spokesperson on the Oscar Grant issue. (There is no apparent list of group members of the so-called "coalition.")
Blackmon expressed disagreement with the riot that grew out of her protest. "We are nonviolent, and we have a responsibility to spread nonviolence," she told the San Francisco Chronicle. She continued with a revealing remark, "We did not feel that there had been proper preparation for it to be safe," saying she has organized several demonstrations before.
"There had not been" proper preparation? Blackmon is talking about herself! She failed to do the proper preparation that would keep the protest focused on her issue of police killings. Blackmon was thoughtless at the least, negligent at the worst, on at least three counts:
Blackmon, leader of CAPE, failed to concentrate the protest on specific institutional demands. As far as we know, CAPE did not put one or two central demands on a banner and drive them home at the rally in speeches and chants. The people at the rally, justifiably upset and angry about the police killing, were left aroused with unfocused emotion to vent.
Blackmon and CAPE had no monitors, no people's security, for the protest. Such a step should be routine operating procedure for a self-proclaimed veteran organizer of demonstrations. Was Blackmon at the massive, peaceful San Francisco protests against war in Iraq in 2002 and 2003? No wonder her rally turned into a staging ground for a riot.
When protesters responding to Blackmon's call to assemble Jan. 7 decided to march from the Fruitvale BART station toward downtown Oakland, they passed by the BART headquarters building next to the Lake Merritt station. This was CAPE's opportunity to use the visible anger and militancy of the crowd. "Let's have a show of hands. Who will occupy BART headquarters?" Blackmon did not ask the crowd that question. An opportunity for headline-grabbing civil disobedience was lost.
In fact, it is not even clear whether Blackmon was still on the scene for which she had responsibility as protest organizer. A comment signed with her name on a local blog asserts she "watched the property damage at home." The same post says Blackmon "will never compare human rights to property rights" – displaying complete lack of distinction between global corporate property and the little braid shop of a struggling African-American woman. (A Better Oakland, Jan. 8, 2009)
Speaking via KPFA radio from a trip to Washington for the Obama inauguration, Blackmon said that while she disagrees with those who engage in vandalism as a way to get attention for her cause, she has no good answer for them.
Later Blackmon went on to excuse the riot, remarking, "Because young people were actively involved in the rebellion and many of them weren't educated about the consequences or have access to legal representation, [it] forced CAPE not to get involved with the whole good protestor/bad protestor thing," Blackmon said. "We chose to respect their choice."(Statement to Youth Outlook)
When you call a mass protest at the height of tension over a police killing, an incident splattered all over YouTube, you have a responsibility to do all you can to keep the action focused and effective. Blackmon plunged in without demonstrable regard for the likely outcome.
The result? Hard-working residents in downtown Oakland apartments and owners of truly tiny businesses (an African-American braid shop, a Mongolian cafe, etc.) were terrorized. They were levied costs from car and window vandalism they can ill afford.
The riot damage does not seem to matter to Dereca Blackmon, who with her partner owns a home in the Oakland hills, far from any riot threat. She declared, with somewhat shaky words, "The idea that we should take responsibility for anything that happened in the city later that evening I think is a little bit of a stretch." (KPFA audio of this remark, Jan. 16, 2009). Blackmon seems to have little sympathy for people who live from paycheck to paycheck. Until last year she was the $75,000-a-year executive director of a social program with the pompous and uninformative name Leadership Excellence.
Million Dollar Operator
According to her online resumé Blackmon was at Leadership Excellence from 2002 to 2008. In the most recent five years of her time there, the operation received more than one million dollars in grants from the City Of Oakland.
Blackmon's agency received money from two funds, one being Kids First. Here is a typical description of what Leadership Excellence claimed to do for a few dozen youth: "Through leadership development, a comprehensive reading curriculum and academic support services, the program is designed to develop leaders who can organize and lead positive changes in the community." (2006-2008 Early Childhood Program Summaries, Oakland Fund for Children and Youth)
When Measure Y passed, Blackmon dipped into that pot, too. She obtained violence prevention grants for "outreach, case management, employment, and recreation services to reduce drop-out rates at McClymonds High School and decrease violence in West Oakland community police beats 06X and 08X." (Measure Y description for 2006-07 grant) Like nearly all Measure Y "violence prevention" programs, there are anecdotes but no solid evidence of cost-effective results, and Oakland is no safer for handing money to a host of savvy program operators.
Blackmon left Leadership Excellence last year. With one or two partners she started Aya Solutions, which bills itself as "a consulting firm that combines research, training, and technical assistance support[ing] a greater goal of social justice." Aya Solutions already has a contract from the California court system worth between $140,000 and $240,000 to do some kind of research on equal justice for women and men in the courts.
By the time CAPE called a second protest event a week later on Jan. 14, Blackmon had formulated five demands in response to the police shooting of Oscar Grant. Since the district attorney had already announced he will charge the officer for the killing, and the BART board had already moved to set up civilian oversight over its police force, Blackmon had her work cut out for her.
Some of her demands were silly, like calling for the district attorney to resign. However, the payoff demand for social program operator Dereca Blackmon seems to be the one for "a network of healing centers for young people in Oakland."
To sum up, Dereca Blackmon failed to think through the likely consequences of her actions. She called a hasty protest without preparations to focus militancy rather than let a riot break out. For an experienced operator of social programs and a Stanford graduate, such thoughtlessness amounts to negligence – and elitist disdain for the working people of downtown Oakland who suffered the consequences.
Unfortunately, such reckless behavior is not characteristic of only one person. Blackmon is one of a crowd of social program executives who get government grants that are poorly supervised and not measured independently for palpable results. In Oakland these operators are part of City Hall's official conciliation with thug culture.
We suggest that Ms. Blackmon owes an apology to the hundreds of Oakland residents who suffered smashed cars and to the dozens of people struggling to make a modest success of tiny businesses on 17th Street and elsewhere downtown. Ms. Blackmon seems to have two main talents: self-promotion (she describes herself as an "inspired designer of workshops that change lives") and getting government grants. Perhaps she could exercise the latter skill to get funds for restitution to the victims of the Jan. 7 Oscar Grant riot.
– Jan. 15, 2009; updated Feb. 12