Bill Whalen

Officials can no longer ignore Oakland riots

Demonstrators break windows at a Wells Fargo bank during a May Day protest in Oakland last week.
Demonstrators break windows at a Wells Fargo bank during a May Day protest in Oakland last week. The Oakland Tribune

In the post-Baltimore discussion over urban life and public safety, the numbers don’t add up.

While 96 percent of Americans expect more unrest this summer, per a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, only 44 percent of Southern Californians see a riot in their future, according to a survey by Loyola Marymount University’s Center for the Study of Los Angeles.

Maybe it’s haughty dismissiveness – the view from California that racial unrest only besets lesser states. Yet it may also be that Angelenos don’t pay much attention to what goes on in Oakland.

The other “city by the bay” has an eerie parallel to Baltimore. Anthony Batts was Oakland’s police chief before taking the same job in Charm City. But the city he left behind is no stranger to Baltimore-style unrest.

Last November, Oakland was the scene of 17 days of revolt after a grand jury in Ferguson. Mo., refused to indict a police officer for the shooting death of an unarmed young black man. In July 2010, after a grand jury found a BART police officer guilty only of involuntary manslaughter in yet another shooting death, Oakland erupted in arson and looting.

What’s truly sad about Oakland’s plight is that if California’s leaders care, it seems a closely guarded secret.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who served as Oakland’s mayor for eight years beginning in 1997, went there earlier this month – to promote his controversial Delta tunnel plan. His has not been a governorship devoted to solving urban problems.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi could champion the city’s cause, but they live on the other side of the Bay Bridge, in San Francisco’s upscale Pacific Heights, which is like life on a different planet.

Here’s a suggestion: Brown could take a page from his father Pat’s gubernatorial playbook and create a 21st-century version of the McCone Commission. That was the government study of the six days of rioting in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in August 1965 (34 deaths, $40 million in property damage). It took four months to produce a 100-page report, which (ironically) chronicled the same witch’s brew that exists today: bad economic conditions, bad schools and bad policing.

But who would run such a commission? In 1965, Pat Brown’s choice was John McCone, an industrialist and former CIA director who threw himself into the job.

My choice is Attorney General Kamala Harris. She’s black, spent part of her childhood in Oakland and cut her political teeth in Alameda County as a deputy district attorney. Unfortunately, she’s also a candidate for the U.S. Senate, and her campaign seems hell-bent on avoiding headlines and controversy. Good luck getting her to risk any political capital.

A second problem is that for Oakland to change, so must the status quo in Sacramento. Three days before Oakland experienced window-smashing May Day protests, the state Assembly’s Education Committee rejected bills overhauling how teachers get tenure and bad ones get fired.

Why does this matter? Perhaps America soon gets a new president more interested in Oakland’s economic conditions than Barack Obama, whose travels in that city usually take him in the direction of fundraisers at the historic Fox Theater. And perhaps state and local government can come up with an improved police code of conduct.

But it’s state lawmakers who have the power to liberate inner-city children by improving public schools. And that won’t happen until the Democratic majority in the Legislature has the courage to buck the teachers’ unions and do what’s responsible – such as changing tenure rules and offering school choice.

Such a shame: Oakland and cities like it may burn this summer, while selfish lawmakers fiddle.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at