In The Birthplace Of Black Panthers, Black Leaders Battle Anti-Police Activists
Oakland is the site of an emerging normie coalition for public safety
No city has played a larger role in creating the Black Lives Matter movement than Oakland, California. In 1966, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale created the Black Panther Party For Self Defense there. In the 1990s, progressive CNN commentator Van Jones built his police and criminal justice reform organization in Oakland. In 2009, the killing of Oscar Grant by a BART transit officer resulted in anti-police protests so intense that 80 were arrested. And in 2012, after the killing of Trayvon Martin, Oakland activist Alicia Garza wrote “Black Lives Matter” on Facebook, and a movement was born.
In 2020, in response to the killing of George Floyd, Oakland was one of the major flashpoints of the national wave of protests against police violence. The city’s downtown was engulfed in riots. Arsonists started over 100 fires. Hundreds of stores were looted, particularly in Chinatown. Oakland’s city council, following the demands of Black Lives Matter activists, voted to cut $18 million from the Mayor’s proposed police budget, slash the number of future police academies from six to four, and put a hiring freeze on 50 vacant positions.
But today, some of the most prominent and respected black community leaders in Oakland, including the NAACP, church ministers, violence prevention advocates, and a former City Council member, are criticizing the Mayor and anti-police groups at public rallies and in interviews. The protests have attracted support from the city’s Asian leaders, too, despite the fact that the mayor, Sheng Thao, is the child of Hmong immigrants. Oakland, a city of 441,000 people across the Bay from San Francisco, is 22% black, 27% Latino, 16% Asian, and 29% white.
Last Monday, hundreds of Oakland residents attended an NAACP-organized rally at City Hall to demand that Mayor Thao reinstate police chief LeRonne Armstrong, who she fired earlier this month. Speakers, including Carl Chan, a leader in Oakland’s Chinese community, railed against the new Mayor, who, as a Council member, had supported the defund agenda. "For the first time in my 24 years at the police department, you're seeing the community support a police chief and a police department," Armstrong told reporters last week.
Oakland politicians remain staunchly progressive, and Mayor Thao is unlikely to change her mind. Last November, voters elected her and a progressive District Attorney, Pamela Price, an anti-police prosecutor in the mold of San Francisco’s ousted District Attorney Chesa Boudin. Price recently attracted national attention after reducing a potentially 75-year sentence for a triple homicide to just 15 years. “I have never seen a case pled down like this before," said the judge.
But community anger at the anti-police activism that was amplified by the national Black Lives Matter movement has been growing since at least 2021, when families of victims of homicide, most of them black, partnered with Chief Armstrong for a rally on Oakland’s Lake Merritt calling for an end to gun violence. At that rally, the siblings, parents and grandparents of young men killed by gunfire screamed at anti-police activists, saying, “You don’t have a right to be here!” Screamed another, “Not when black children are dying in the street every day!”
It’s a sea change from the Oakland of a generation ago. Terry Wiley, a former assistant D.A. who helped prosecute corrupt Oakland police officers in the early 2000s, said to the crowd at the NAACP rally, “If you told me that I would be standing here seeing a majority group of people of color asking that the police chief be retained, I would say, ‘that ain’t gonna happen in twenty years.’”
What is going on? Why are NAACP and prominent black leaders fighting for the police and against anti-police activists? And why are Asian leaders speaking out against an Asian mayor in support of the former black police chief?
Race, Sex, and Murder
Twenty-two years ago, four Oakland police officers called “the Riders” were caught beating up innocent people, planting evidence on suspects, forcing false confessions, and falsifying police reports. The scandal led to the department being put under federal oversight, which has lasted two decades and counting.
Federal oversight did not end abuses of power at OPD. In 2016, it was revealed that the daughter of a police dispatcher, a prostitute, had had sex with more than 30 police officers from OPD and other local departments in exchange for cash and tips to avoid arrest. One of the Oakland officers, who later committed suicide, had sex with her while she was still a minor.
But many leaders in Oakland’s black community say that the Oakland Police Department has improved enormously and that the federal consent decree should have been lifted long ago. John Jones III, a community advocate who has spent time in prison, told Public, “OPD has gotten much better. Much better. They killed two of my childhood friends. But when I see the police, I’m not triggered anymore.”
The department gained professionalism under Chief Armstrong, says former Chief Deputy District Attorney Terry Wiley, who was on the legal team that prosecuted the Oakland Riders. “How many black people have been shot by the police since he’s been the police chief?” asked Wiley at the Monday NAACP rally. “Zero. How much money has the City of Oakland paid out in civil rights violations since he’s been chief? Zero.”
Federal oversight was widely expected to end under Armstrong’s tenure. But Judge William Orrick III, who oversees the federal consent decree, extended it once again after learning of allegations that the Chief had signed off on unduly lenient treatment of an officer who knocked the bumper off of a parked car in a hit-and-run and accidentally discharged his weapon in an empty freight elevator and then tried to cover it up. An Internal Affairs investigator, not Armstrong, soft-pedaled the violations in his report. But Armstrong signed off on the report without reading it first. Mayor Thao suspended the Chief for this act of negligence, which was widely viewed as a precursor to firing him.
Nobody defends the Chief’s mistake. But in the context of soaring crime and a severely understaffed police force, the scandal seems to many like a sideshow. “If you look at the history of OPD, we’re not talking about the sex scandal,” said Jones. “I’m not excusing the incident, but it didn’t warrant the Chief’s dismissal.”
Armstrong has accused the federal monitor, Robert Warshaw, of being behind the Mayor’s decision to fire him. “Mr. Warshaw acted in the interest of his own pocketbook by manufacturing a false crisis to justify extending his lucrative monitoring contract,” Armstrong told reporters at a press conference following his suspension. The City of Oakland pays Warshaw’s firm more than $1 million a year.
Others have long shared Armstrong’s suspicions of the monitor. “The oversight of the Oakland Police Department has been corrupted by the federal monitor Robert Warshaw,” wrote former Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick to the San Francisco Chronicle after she, too, was fired. “The only reason the police department is ‘out of compliance’ is not because of its officers, policies or procedures. It is because Warshaw wants to keep milking Oakland for money.”
Former Council member Loren Taylor, who lost the mayor’s race to Thao by 682 votes, or 49.7% to her 50.3%, told Public, “We do have this pattern of Warshaw raising things that undermine progress at the eleventh hour.”
Bob Scales, a former Special Assistant US Attorney who worked in the Seattle City Attorney’s office when that city’s police department negotiated a federal consent decree, said this is a common pattern with federal oversight of police departments all over the country.
“There are always new things,” Scales told Public. “You can never be 100% perfect. There’s no way you will always do everything right all the time. Issues will come up that are really beyond the scope of the consent decree, and the monitor will say ‘I don’t like this, this is something that concerns us, and you’re out of compliance.’”
“It’s a racket,” he added.
Taylor wants the city to look into whether Warshaw pushed to make a confidential report, which was leaked to the public in mid-February, more disparaging of Armstrong “as retaliation for Chief Armstrong and the community publicly questioning the monitor’s motives and financial incentives.”
“It was the assassination of his reputation,” said Wiley at Monday’s NAACP rally of the leaking of that report.
Moreover, many of the black leaders interviewed by Public suspect that Armstrong’s failure to read the report was just an excuse to fire him by a Mayor who is captive to Black Lives Matter and other anti-police activists. In 2020, when then-Councilmember Thao voted, along with the majority of the council, to cut the Mayor’s police budget, Chief Armstrong was vocal in his opposition.
In response, in a 2021 interview, Cat Brooks, Oakland’s most prominent police abolitionist, said Armstrong was trying to “overthrow the agenda of our duly elected officials” and of seeking to “spread misinformation [and] to lie to Oaklanders [and] manipulate Oaklanders’ fear, pain and trauma.”
As anti-police protests strengthened, police fled the force, and crime increased. Today, the Oakland Police Department has a shortage of 48 police officers, putting it on the brink of falling below its legally mandated floor of 678 officers, while homicides have nearly doubled, from 68 in 2018 to 120 in 2022. The people suffering the most fallout are largely Oakland’s working-class black, Asian, and Latino residents.
Seneca Scott, a 43-year-old local black activist who ran for mayor of Oakland last year, helped build the movement of community leaders to demand that Mayor Thao reverse her firing of Armstrong. In 2021, Scott helped organize a rally of families of victims of homicide, attended by Chief Armstrong, calling for an end to gun violence. The families of the homicide victims were jeered by anti-police protesters affiliated with Brooks’ organization.
Scott describes the anti-police protesters as insensitive. “It was a mourning ceremony,” he explained. “They’re all holding up pictures of their dead homies. They had a casket there. A bunch of anarchists showed up. They’re all young. Almost all white. They’re on a bullhorn. They’re yelling out the names of all the people who the police had killed. They’re antagonizing us. They said Oscar Grant’s name, and Oscar’s mom turned around and said, ‘that’s my son, and you’re annoying me.’”
Scott of the anti-police movement, “Essentially, they’re saying public safety is racist.”
Loren Taylor says that when he opposed cutting the proposed budget for the Oakland Police Department, anti-police protesters showed up at his home. He said they were “a much whiter group” than one would expect to see in his East Oakland district.
Keisha Henderson, who served on the city’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, and Carol Wyatt, of Oakland’s Community Policing Advisory Board, agreed. “The anti-police activists are not from Oakland,” Henderson said. “These are not Oakland voices. I don’t see a lot of these organizations on the ground in the flat lands, in the black and brown communities.”
Added Wyatt, “I don’t know a lot of those people in West Oakland, Deep East Oakland. I think a large part of it is from the outside. Groups inside are trying to monetize it. They’re monetizing the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Scott blames White Saviorism. “We’re stray dogs to them,” said Scott. “A dog from a pound is grateful to you until the honeymoon is over and the dog just wants to be a dog. But you want it to be your dog — ‘I rescued you!’”
Why, in the end, are NAACP and black leaders in Oakland fighting against anti-police activists? Because the political war on the police has increased crime, the activists who championed it are predominantly privileged outsiders, and most black leaders reject Woke victimhood ideology.
Few believe Mayor Thao will change her mind and reinstate Chief Armstrong. “We’ve got a newer, inexperienced mayor who’s trying to prove something, who’s not anchored enough in the community to push back,” said Taylor. Nor do most observers believe District Attorney Pamela Price will moderate her anti-police, anti-criminal justice agenda any more than Chesa Boudin did in San Francisco.
But the firing of Armstrong has lit a fire under Oakland’s public safety advocates. “In the black community, it feels like a funeral,” Keisha Henderson said of Armstrong’s firing. “Like an unexpected death. We have been asking for this kind of representation for our entire lives. To have it in your hands, and you’re getting used to it, and you’re getting things done, to get then it stripped away, it’s like a slap in your face.”
At the NAACP rally on Monday, several attendees stressed that they believe that there are good police officers and there are bad police officers, and the ousted chief was one of the good ones. “I’m not a big fan of the police,” attendee Ron Mohammad, who said he has physically brawled with Oakland police officers, told Public. “Actually, I’m not a fan of the police at all. But I support those who understand that they came from us and they want to serve. Chief LeRonne Armstrong is one of those who come from us.”
Carl Chan, the Chinatown leader, praised Chief Armstrong’s response to the rash of high-profile attacks on Asians over the last several years. Afterward, Chan told Public that, looking back over the last 50 years, he has never seen so much support for a police chief from Oakland’s Chinese community.
Chan credited Armstrong for saving many Chinatown businesses. About 15 percent of Chinatown’s businesses closed permanently during the pandemic, partly in response to worsening crime and violence. Another 30-40%, Chan says, considered doing the same. But they decided to stay open because of Armstrong’s deployment of officers on Chinatown’s intersections. “We would have lost half of Chinatown if not for him,” Chan said.
Chan said that thousands of Chinatown residents had signed a petition opposing the cuts to the mayor’s proposed police budget that then-Councilmember Thao voted for in 2020. Thao is Asian, but Chinatown residents are prioritizing public safety over identity politics.
As such, what’s happening in Oakland may represent a political change much broader and more significant than a re-embrace of moderate law-and-order policies by black Americans. What’s happening may represent a wholesale rejection of the progressive obsession with race. “When black people enter a space in Oakland,” said Scott, “it doesn’t even trigger white people. This is one of the best places in the country for race relations.”
Until now, Oakland’s Woke anti-police movement has dominated the politics and media discourse, largely because they’re louder and are willing to commit more time and focus to their political project. But the spiral of violence and chaos overtaking Oakland’s streets helped change that equation, along with the organizing by Scott and others. The people at the NAACP rally ranged from church ministers to the formerly incarcerated. They all wanted the same thing: a good police chief who would keep their neighborhoods safe while treating residents with respect.
The city that gave birth to the Black Panthers and Black Lives Matter is thus giving birth to a movement defined by public safety over racecraft. Change is plainly in the air. Last year, Van Jones criticized Woke racialism on CNN. “I’ve never met a Latinx,” he said. “I’ve never met a BIPOC.” A few months earlier, a journalist reported that the founders of Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation had spent $6 million of the $90 million it received in 2020 donations on a luxury mansion. And one year after the Oakland City Council voted to cut $18 million from the police budget, it increased it by $11 million.
“This is Oakland, California,” said John Jones III. “We don’t need to generate any publicity about police brutality. The Panthers did that.”