Jerry Brown – A Green Success?


A number of Greens started out in politics campaigning for Jerry Brown in the 1992 Presidential elections. It’s true, the once-upon-a-time Zen-Governor of California did describe himself as a “recovering politician.” His nightly radio show on Pacifica touched on all sorts of ecological and radical issues, and his thundering speech to the Labor Party’s founding convention in Cleveland in 1996 brought down the house.

Now Brown is the new mayor of Oakland, California. In the month he has been in office, he has been anything but Green.

There are five issues, especially, over which radicals, including many Greens, are taking Brown to task:

  • (1) His support for hi-tech “development” of Oakland.
  • (2) His paltry vision of “educational reform.”
  • (3) His propagandizing for U.S. Marine Corps maneuvers in the city.
  • (4) His opposition to a day of teach-ins in Oakland schools for political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.
  • (5) His focus on adding police and bolstering prisons to address “quality of life” crimes.

Brown believes there is now “a business-friendly climate in City Hall.” Recognizing that “there’s only so much room downtown” for development, Brown has turned to the decidedly “un-green” idea of what he calls “vertical density” for Oakland—that is, the erection of tall buildings. He summarized his perspective in a recent interview as “Go up, young man, not west.”

“Retail is coming,” he said in an interview in the San Francisco Examiner. “The president of The Gap—Mickey Drexler—came over here and was walking down Broadway and had lunch at Le Cheval just two hours ago. They’re (The Gap) dying to come here.”

The boycott of Gap clothing by labor unions seems not to have crossed the mind of this Labor Party featured speaker. Protesters at Gap stores across the U.S. point to sweatshop conditions bordering on slave labor in The Gap’s sub-contracted stores in the Caribbean and Asia. Yet this is the chain store that Jerry Brown sees as playing a large part in the revitalization of Oakland.

Activists are pointing out a major conflict of interest already developing with Jerry Brown—he’s been dating a Gap executive, at the same time as the company is seeking to gain favorable real estate and tax abatements for investing downtown and entry into the public schools. Through its privately funded Edison Project, The Gap is a prime sponsor of an attempt to take over McClymonds High School, which is currently public, and run it as a charter, for-profit school.

As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle (February 11, 1999), “Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown’s education policy can be summed up in two words: charter schools. Charter mania is sweeping through Oakland in what most politicians and school officials agree is a sign that parents have lost patience with the slow pace of change in the city’s public schools.”

The Edison Project is already operating four Bay Area schools. While not-for-profit charters do have advantages—particularly decentralized decision-making, room for innovation, flexibility—they also are a way for politicians to avoid responsibility for ensuring quality public education to large numbers of students, which requires a vast increase in funds for books, equipment, and teachers’ salaries.

Brown, of course, denies that his relationship with attorney and Gap exec Anne Gust and a $25 million pledge to Edison by Don Fisher, the founder and chair of The Gap, has anything to do with his support for charter schools.

But all Brown has to do is look at the record. Besides owning The Gap, the Fisher family purchased 235,000 acres of redwoods in Mendocino and Sonoma Counties from Louisiana Pacific and formed the Mendocino Redwood Company. Mendocino Redwood is currently logging the last of the old-growth trees. It has adopted all of Louisiana Pacific’s policies, such as clearcutting and the use of vast quantities of herbicides. The coast redwood forest will not recover from this assault, and at least one endangered species, the coho salmon, will be extinct within a year.

Handcuffed forest activists have been intentionally pepper sprayed when they attempted to block logging trucks from entering the forest. Earth First!er David “Gypsy” Chain was killed after warning a logger not to cut down the old growth trees. This is the legacy Jerry Brown is courting from Don Fisher and The Gap.

At the same time, he has butted heads with the Oakland Unified School District over its plan for teachers to discuss the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal in their classes last January 14. (Mumia is a journalist and former Black Panther who sits on death row in Pennsylvania for killing a cop in 1981—a crime many people, including me, believe he did not do. He had been sentenced to death following a trial that has been denounced by such unlikely partners as Amnesty International, U.S. Senator Arlen Spector, and Green Parties throughout the world, among many others, as blatantly unfair and discriminatory. On April 23 there will be a walkout of students around the world; and on April 24, thousands will travel to Philadelphia demanding a new trial for Mumia.) Brown opposed discussion of Mumia’s case in the classroom, saying: “It was a dumb idea. This is a school district where in three of the six major high schools, only 10 percent of the kids are at grade level in reading. What we need is to get these kids organized so that they can go somewhere.… That’s the issue.”

Finally, Brown agreed to support an “urban security” exercise and three-day military exposition in Oakland, which has anti-war activists (among them many Greens) outraged at Brown’s betrayal of his proclaimed anti-militarism views. The exposition took place in March. Sixty different military technologies and weapons were displayed. Also in March, the Marine War-fighting laboratory conducted a mock battle at the abandoned Oak Knoll Naval Hospital grounds. There was an aerial demonstration and glorification of the military’s preparations to “protect us” from domestic terrorist attack.

As Wilson Riles, Jr., formerly a representative on the Oakland City Council and now a member of the Black Radical Congress states: “This is outrageous considering the history and circumstances of Oakland. The bloated military budget has severely squeezed funds for urban programs; this will now be thrown in the face of Oakland citizens who will see $4.5 million pissed away on the Marines rather than in Oakland’s failing schools, deteriorating infrastructure, job producing mechanisms.

“Oakland is a community which has been very clear on its opposition to military spending and military adventures overseas. Voters passed by wide margins both a Jobs with Peace initiative and a Nuclear Free Zone ordinance. The Oakland City Councils over the years have passed hundreds of resolutions in opposition to the defense budget and in favor of more productive uses. This City stood in opposition to the docking of the Missouri aircraft carrier in San Francisco Bay. Its present and past congresspersons stood in stark opposition to military expenditures and for positive urban development. This City’s efforts to raise up examples for our youth of peaceful ways to solve problems rather than with guns and violence is being ignored.”                    

Students paid a visit to Brown’s office in mid-March, demanding to talk with him about his booster- ism for the military’s Urban Warrior war games in Oakland. Brown’s assistant called the police, who used a crow bar to pry open the door and sprayed the students with mace.

The radical Jerry Brown is out the window. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Is this the inevitable result of putting one’s efforts primarily into electoral politics? Or is it an exception? If the situation in California is any example, the Greens had better reevaluate their reasons for engaging in electoral politics and set definite goals as a movement in which electoral politics are only one facet of a strategy for social transformation.

Mitchel Cohen is a member of the Brooklyn Greens/Green Party of New York, and the Red Balloon Collective.