As an organization based in downtown Oakland, our hearts go out to the victims of the warehouse fire and their families.
No one in the EdSource family, as far as we know at this time, was directly affected by the fire.
But we feel the tragedy deeply, as we watch and experience Oakland’s struggles close at hand.
Oakland is beginning to share in the wealth spawned by Silicon Valley. As part of a major push to attract housing to downtown, initiated by Gov. Jerry Brown when he was mayor, trendy restaurants and coffee shops, art galleries and high-priced condo developments are all evidence of Oakland’s urban revival.
But this is not a uniformly positive development, as the Oakland fire has shown. Housing is unaffordable, even for many people who work here, opening the door to the appallingly substandard conditions evident at the Oakland “Ghost Ship” warehouse.
As we have written before, in the past few months, several young people have lost their lives due to gun violence in Oakland’s downtown alone. The murder of 17-year-old Reggina Jefferies, who was killed a block from our office, remains unsolved. She was an innocent victim caught in the crossfire of an unrelated gunfight – during peak late afternoon commuting hours, no less.
At EdSource’s annual symposium in October, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf talked about meeting with students at Castlemont High School, in one of what she called the city’s most “stressed” neighborhoods. The majority of those she spoke with said they had lost a family member to gun violence, most of them before they had turned 10 years of age.
She also talked about the city’s ambitious Oakland Promise program, which she is spearheading. It encourages young people to go to college and tries to remove financial obstacles to make that possible. So far, it has raised $20 million in private support. Among its multiple elements is setting up college scholarship funds for every low-income student beginning soon after birth.
She is still trying to find a permanent police chief, and is in the midst of a national search for one, complicated by a sex scandal that has shaken up the police department and the city. Oakland’s school superintendent, Antwan Wilson, whom Schaaf had hailed as a “fantastic partner” at the EdSource symposium, announced his resignation two weeks ago, after less than three years on the job. He will be leaving to become head of the District of Columbia public schools.
The Oakland fire also raises questions about the capacity of city government to carry out basic functions like enforcing its local and state fire codes. It is still far too early to know whether city departments could have done more within the confines of the law, whether they simply don’t have the personnel to crack down on fire traps like the one that burned, or whether there was incompetence – or any combination of the above.
City government must itself contend with the widely held notion promulgated by some of our nation’s leaders at the highest levels, including our incoming president, that government regulation is on its face bad, especially anything that supposedly interferes with commerce or business.
Oakland, like local governments throughout the state, has been starved by Proposition 13, the tax-cutting initiative approved by voters in 1978. The proportion of property taxes paid by residential property owners has soared, while the share paid by commercial property owners has plummeted.
Twenty-five years ago, Oakland suffered through the Oakland hills fire, the last tragedy that took anywhere near as many lives at one time in the city. But there are ongoing, less visible tragedies, especially those that result from daily incidents of gun violence.
We must make sure that there is never another tragedy like the one that occurred on Friday night – in Oakland or anywhere else. After the fire, there will be greater enforcement of fire codes, as there must be, even though it will almost surely force out young artists and others from the city.
There will also be a need for greater regulation of guns to prevent the daily loss of life that creates havoc in the lives of young people.
As of last Monday, there had been 76 homicides in Oakland this year, mostly the result of gun violence. Fortunately, that is a slightly lower number than this past year. But it is clear that even as Oakland works to help its children meet their full potential, the city itself has yet to fulfill its own. The fates of the city, and of its young people, are inextricably linked.
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