The poor, or at least its semiprofessional representatives, were ready to rumble at last night's Oakland City Council meeting. The stakes: a new law that would allow landlords to convert up to 800 rental units to condos, which many current tenants have no chance of buying. The players: Council President Ignacio de la Fuente on one side, and fifty pissed-off tenants, union types, and nonprofit housing developers on the other. Said fifty gathered in a room just off the council chambers for an angry press conference, where angry people would say angry things while reporters, presumably experiencing a wide array of emotions, would write them down.
Fannie Brown, a board member for the community based organization ACORN, emceed the meeting. With iron-grey hair, gold teeth, and a jeans jacket, she clutched a copy of the People's Weekly World underneath the press conference itinerary. "We are calling up on the City Council to stop the attack on our renters," she said, "stop regentrification in our community. Because we don't need that." Then came longtime tenant advocate James Vann: "This proposal is a complete sham! Its sole purpose is to put dollars - lots of dollars - in the hands of developers." Next up: Amy Fishman, the executive director of East Bay Housing Organizations. "How long did it take to come up with this latest version?" she asked, "Two months? Is that public process?" "NO!" the crowd barked.
And on it went, until two people strode into the room with bad news. "We just found out that our item has been moved to the last on the agenda," a gentleman named Andre said to indignant groans. "What I don't want to happen is for the council to put us on the end of the agenda, try to wear us out, to keep us here till ten o'clock, and then we all dissappear. And the strategy will be as we disappear, then comes the other folks who are gonna say, 'Oh, this is just the greatest thing since sliced bread, you know, this is just wonderful, those troublemakers are just stopping African Americans from home ownership."
Immediately, the crowd went to a-strategizin'. Should they storm the chambers and chant? Should they make nice and ask that the item be moved up, seein' as how it's the most important business of the day? One man stood up and suggested they just stick it out. "I don't have to get up early in the morning." he said, "And I'll stay here till midnight, if that's what it takes. I will wanna go out and get a hamburger at some point ..."
"Maybe we can do take out!"
But Fannie Brown was having none of it. "We need to go them, let them know what we want, and stand firm," she urged. "Stand firm on what we believe and what we know to do what's right. And just take over the City Council meeting!"
"Uh, oh!" Andre said, smiling. "More aggression!"
After a few minutes, the crowd took a vote. Twenty-five wanted to send a delegation and ask nicely first, and about 21 wanted to get straight to mobbin' it up. Just as they deadlocked, in walked Richard Cowan, the chief of staff for City Councilwoman Jean Quan. There were no sinister motives behind moving the condo law to the end, he promised. There were at least five public meetings on the agenda that night, and they have to start at 7 p.m. by law. In fact, the council started the meeting three hours early to deal with the backlog. Storm the room, he added, and you'll piss off all the other people who came to do business before the council. "Basically, you have to wait your turn," Cowan said.
All fifty people shifted in their seats as they absorbed reality. There would be no adrenaline and chanting after all.
In fact, there would be no vote on the condo law. Instead, the council voted to study it some more, presumably because its advocates didn't have the votes. Councilwatchers have long suspected that incoming Mayor Ron Dellums would kill the condo conversion plan; hence the rush to put it together. Now, a panel of appointees will study it and eventually issue a recommendation. In a bizarre twist, outgoing Mayor Jerry Brown was given the power to appoint four members of the new panel. Apparently, some people think he still matters.
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