Danny Wan: The Conspiracy of the Unspoken Truths in Oakland

It was sad to see Oakland reach a new low on Tuesday. The police chief resigns, but attempts to bring down the entire Council with him. At the same time, he takes onto himself to absolve the Mayor of all responsibility.

On the other hand, the Councilmembers and many of the city “insiders” (political, business and otherwise) have remained curiously silent about the absolute chaos that I hear about third-hand. Chip Johnson, try as he may, is starting to sound like he is on a one-person crusade. We wonder…if everything Chip says is true, then why is no one esle “in the know” supporting what he says?

There are four common excuses that people use to explain this conspiracy of silence and the absolute absence of whistleblowers:

  1. everyone wants to be “civil” and polite;
  2. we don’t want to cause conflict between the races;
  3. lest that the spotlight be turned on the whistlblower’s own skeletons in the closet
  4. because everyone has an interest to protect (political, business, job) and blowing the whistle does not serve that interest.

I’ve come to the conclusion that, in order for Oakland to progress, its next leader has to be free of all the above 4 restraints on speaking the truths.

The truths are:

  1. What is disguised as “civility” is really a conspiracy of silence to keep from the public how bad things REALLY are.
  2. The racial tension is about to blow unless someone exposes that the cause of “race relations” in Oakland is too often exploited for personal gain rather than used for serious reconciliation and conflict resolution.
  3. Everyone with skeletons to keep in the closet either need to get out of politics or fess up to them and move on (the public is surprisingly forgiving).
  4. People with influence in city politics should decide whether it is the city’s best interest they are working for or their own self interest. If it is the latter, they need to be either exposed or should depart the scene voluntarily.

The longer the conspiracy of silence remains in place, the longer Oakland will keep sliding deeper into the hole. In today’s economic environment, the slide is just that much faster.

Danny Wan is a former Oakland City Councilmember and the current City Attorney for Morgan Hill.

29 thoughts on “Danny Wan: The Conspiracy of the Unspoken Truths in Oakland

  1. mark

    I don’t agree that there is a conspiracy of silence, nor do I believe that racial relations are “about to blow”

    What I believe is that most of the city wants the same thing. A safe secure place to live, and most of us are incredibly frustrated that we can’t get it. Our leaders are elected on their social agenda and not on there ability to pick up the garbage and to keep our children and streets safe. We need to stop talking about land trusts and art grants until our streets are safe.

    Unfortunately, we have a lot of “outsiders” setting our agenda, from the sierra club to our local unions. All their ideas sound good, but it has cost us our safety and our sense of community.

    Someone needs to start making some hard choices. Either our city council will make these choices, or the bill collectors will.

    The people have already made their choice. We are either moving out, or unfortunately, getting weapons to defend ourselves.

    I am right behind Chip!!!!!!!

  2. Erin Battlefield

    I am hunching that many, many of the skeletons are about to tumble out of the closet in Oakland. It’s all sort of on that trajectory, isn’t it? It’ll be sort of like a nasty abscess being punctured, smelly and yucky, but ultimately healthy.

  3. Izzy Ort

    “I am hunching that many, many of the skeletons are about to tumble out of the closet in Oakland.”

    I’m not so sure about that, but it does seem that the ground is shifting. Chip Johnson, though long a thorn in Dellum’s side, always leavened his columns with hopes that Dellums might become effective. Now he has essentially likened Dellums to a computer virus which cannot be deleted, and therefore must be quarantined.

    As for Carlos Plazola’s cronyism complaint, and his posting of it here, to me the salient point is not whether he’s opened himself up to charges of hypocrisy, but that he has picked a fight with the Mayor, and wants everyone to know it.

    It seems that Item No. 1 on Danny Wan’s list, being civil and polite, has already gone by the wayside.

  4. Carlos Plazola

    Izzy, I interpreted Danny’s #1 to mean that people don’t speak up because there is a “conspiracy of silence”. I don’t believe he was saying everyone should be civil and polite to fix things.

    This said, I didn’t interpret my own actions as uncivil or impolite but I guess that’s a matter of opinion. I find it impolite that while raising my children in the Oakland flatlands, I have a mayor who is appointing his long-time friend who has no experience in the job, as our city administrator, instead of actually doing the leg-work and making use of the $100,000+ he made us pay, to seek someone who actually has experience. Again, matter of opinion, I suppose.

    As for wanting everyone to know I am picking a fight with the mayor, one question: what gain is in it for me? It certainly doesn’t help my business. I’m not running for office. I don’t have a lot of extra time on my hands, and I’m not needing attention. Could it be that I am doing it because I actually care about Oakland? hhmmmmm.

  5. len raphael

    agree w DW’s observation of the tacit agreement of all our elected officials and external power brokers to deny the magnitude of the problems; and the incestuous economic and political situation here.

    this is a small city, and there will alwaybs be that revolving and not so revolving door between local pols, local lawyers, developers, and ngo operatives.

    to expect them to reform themselves is pie in the sky.

    to increase transparency and the interest of residents in caring about it, is the crux.

    re. racial strains: looking over that ktop5 survey of residents re. dellums, i don’t see big racial divides. walking and talking to oakland tech students, i don’t get hostile vibes that once were very common.

    so maybe DW is referring to racial power politics in dividing up the spoils of Oakland city expenditures and hiring. I could well believe that the race card will be played when the necessary massive layoffs and program cutbacks are made.

    -len raphael

  6. VivekB

    I see a lot more conflict between the classes than I do between races. I’ve recently gotten onto some yahoogroups and mailing lists where the open warfare on anyone with a decent management level job is nothing short of mind-boggling, as if anybody who oversees people is personally responsible for the entire US economy. I stay subscribed as I hope to understand that mentality, although admittedly I struggle to not speak up in defense.

    The classes may happen to be racially aligned though, I dunno, i’m not educated enough about Oakland demographics to answer that question.

  7. Erin Battlefield

    It is really fascinating and somewhat funny to me that as an example of class conflict, someone would cite being yelled at on an email list for being a manager.

    If your only exposure to people outside your own social class is on email lists, I suggest you get out more and talk to working class and poor people in person. I swear, they hardly ever bite. And only very few of them actually point a gun at you or anything.

  8. Izzy Ort


    “I don’t believe he was saying everyone should be civil and polite to fix things.”

    Nor do I. I understood Mr. Wan to mean rather the opposite- that there is a need for people “in the know” to expose incompetence, lack of accountability, or worse, and should not hide behind an ostensible desire to be “civil and polite”. I think a lot of people actually are reluctant to stir the pot for just this reason. Others may fear retribution, in the case of exposing the misdeeds of a superior, or may fear that any criticism they might direct at an incompetent associate could, rightly or wrongly, be similarly directed at them. This latter fear is particularly prevalent where supervision doesn’t know who is pulling their weight and who is screwing off, and does not want to know.

    Apparently in the last line of my post I did not make myself clear. I did not mean to imply that your complaint was “impolite” in the sense of containing intemperate language, or that politeness and civility should be overriding concerns. I do expect that the Mayor will see it as an attack on him, as well as Dan Lindheim, irrespective of the language employed. Perhaps I should have said “Item No. 1 on Danny Wan’s list, keeping quiet in the interest of being civil and polite has gone by the wayside.”

    Appearing to be civil and polite is not a priority for me. I’m also raising kids in the flatlands, not too far from you. In the last six months I’ve been robbed and had my house burglarized, and my only expectation is that things will get worse. While many people have voted with their feet, for me leaving is not an option, although I suppose I could send the kids off to stay with Grandma, like Londoners did during the Blitz.

    While I was hoping that Oakland might survive four years of inaction by the Dellums administration in a sort of holding pattern, Dellums has proven either incapable or uninterested in attending to even the most basic functions of his office. Since the Deborah Edgerly incident things have gone completely off the rails. Most of what I know of Dan Lindheim’s performance is what I’ve read on this blog, but if even half of it is true, I don’t want him as city administrator either. I’ve got no problem with your filing of your complaint, or the fact that you published it here. To the contrary, I was happy to see it. Good luck.

  9. len raphael

    (off topic, apols) EB, wb surprised if there were a huge range of cross class conversation in this blog. across income ranges from say full time student, actor artists to middle management. maybe a few upper 6 figure folks at most. and even less likely there was a range across net worth more than a couple of mill at most.

    still, there’s probably much little cross class contact in face to face bay area than there is on a blog like this.

  10. CitizenE

    This is the second Police Chief to resign and blame his departure on the City Council. Guess that is strictly a coincidence?

  11. bartholomew

    My take after 11 years in Oakland and 20 in the area – the fulfillment of this City’s potential is going to be realized by the next generation. Our job presently should be to recognize our limitations and plan for this future. We’ll get to enjoy A Better Oakland, but the Best Oakland won’t be here for a decade.

    To this end, it is our absolute and utter responsibility to do everything we can as individuals. Certainly the collective and the electeds will be the occasional bigger movers (at least visibly), but if we as individuals make a personal commitment and actually do something (as opposed to talking about other people doing something) we’ll change the climate, fertilize the soil, make it so much more likely that something good will sprout from this land.

    So – I ask you – what are you doing? Where do you volunteer? How do you make a difference?

  12. len raphael

    Bart and MH, nothing wrong w your approach, it’s more than 95% of residents or biz’s here do. But what is the basis for your assumption that natural economic or demographic forces are going to improve Oakland without substantial pushing by all of us now? There is a plethora of narrow interest groups pushing and a shortage of good government broader based groups doing sh_t.

    -len raphael

  13. Erin Battlefield

    “little cross class contact in face to face bay area than there is on a blog like this”

    I have daily f2f contact with people outside my social class, because I go shopping, I go to bars and restaurants, I ride Bart, I interact with people in my neighborhood in West Oakland.

    I know some people who basically lead the same life I do, but who don’t even see the people who cook their food, beg for their spare change, sit next to them on Bart. I pity those people, and wish they chatted with their fellow humans.

    I moved to the Bay Area from Europe, where class mobility is much better and most of my friends are like me: from working class families, with university degrees, and now in the lower middle class. I have _one_ friend like that in the U.S. All of my other middle class friends were born to middle class, college-educated families, and have not interacted with anyone from a different social class except if they hired them to clean illegally.

    It’s strange for me. Most of my friends will thoughtlessly make classist jokes about people like my parents, blithely assuming that I have to have been raised with wealth because I am white and I have an education.

  14. Michael H

    I don’t think I understand what you are saying Len. I am a firm believer that government works for us, not vice versa. Don’t we have the power to organize and push politicians to do what we want. The only reason interest groups have any leveral over politicians is financial backing for future compaigns, I know this isn’t the only reason, but work with the reasoning here. I think the gist is, that us as a people lack the motivation to get out and do something positive for their community, instead of sitting around complaining about it.

  15. V Smoothe

    “The only reason…” followed by “I know this isn’t the only reason”? Michael, you may be speaking for yourself with respect to people in Oakland not contributing positively to the community, but please don’t presume to speak for the rest of Oakland. There’s an incredible spirit of volunteerism in this town, which you will learn if you decide to start getting involved.

  16. bartholomew

    You think 97.5%? Hmm. That might be gracious. In as long as I’ve been active, largely in West Oakland, my predominant experience is a dominance of talk about what’s expected of government. I don’t disagree that this is a conversation worth having, but it has to be accompanied by an underlying expectation that government will be a follower, not a leader, in this community for years to come. It’s what we do in the meantime that matters.

    I believe that an eyes-wide Oaklander community, one that understands and appreciates personal responsibility first, will think initially of what they can do for the City (or their neighbors), second of what the City can do for them.

    I don’t think I run with a bad crowd, and of my friends, contemporaries and fellow small businesspeople, I can assure you that only a handful volunteer, donate or in any other way contribute to the community. Not that they’re selfish, clueless people, they’re just used to doing what most people do. What I’m suggesting is that, if Oakland is going to turn around, everybody each needs to do a little more.

  17. Michael H

    I’m sorry to say V, but what percentage of the total population of Oakland volunteers? I mean, I don’t have that concrete number infront of me, but I can make a guesstimate that out of the 400,000 people that live in oakland, and ONLY 20,000 people volunteer their time to POSITIVELY, that’s only 5%. That’s some spirit, and 20,000 people is being generous. My point was that it would be incredible if EVERYONE go out and contributed something, that’s all. By the way, you made the assumption that I am not involved, and that’s just bogus. No need to get snooty. I’m just contributing an opinion.

  18. VivekB

    Erin, that was merely the example cited. I know you don’t know me, but give me some credit here, I do occasionally manage to step outside my luxurious gold-lined cocoon to interact with the poor huddled wretched refuse masses.

    This is entirely off-topic to this entry though, so i’ll leave my comments at that.

  19. Sean B

    Well Erin, ain’t you special. And social mobility is pretty similar between the US and Europe. Guessing by your last name, you’re from the UK, which is even more similar to the US than the rest of the EU (and has even stronger class lines than the good ol’ us of a).

    Anyhooo, Oakland is definitely better now than when I was growing up. City Hall is a mess, but was it much different during Lionel Wilson’s time? The upside is Dellums will be gone in 2 years, and whoever will replace him will be better, that’s pretty much guaranteed. Of course a lot can happen in two years, so any suggestions on how to turn things around before then?

  20. len raphael

    Danny Wan,

    how’s about some specific examples of open secrets that everyone in city hall seems to know but don’t talk to outsiders about. you gotta know quite a few from your time on the council. if you won’t snitch now, how can you expect current members and other officials to rock the boat?

    past examples, probably Edgerly nepotism, budget deficits covered by fund borrowings.

  21. 94610BizMan

    “it would be incredible if EVERYONE go out and contributed something”
    For example what percentage make significant investments in Oakland based businesses (which pay Oakland Business Taxes) and create good jobs in Oakland or doesn’t that count?

  22. MarleenLee

    Since I am currently suing the City over Measure Y abuses, and have obtained and reviewed numerous documents regarding how that money has been spent, and taken the depositions of several City officials, my opinion is that, at least in this particular case, the level of incompetence and/or corruption went up and down, left and right, and all around. The reality was that everybody, at all levels (e.g. police department, Mayor, council members) all had an incentive to grab Measure Y money for whatever they wanted, and they all had their own reasons. The law and restrictions on Measure Y money be damned. So in this situation nobody was/is willing to point the finger at anybody else, because they were all guilty.

  23. len raphael

    M, so not a conspiracy but a mutual aid pact. yeah, that is consistent w the general feedback i’ve heard over the last decade from city employees who say criticizing underperformance of fellow professional category employees is grounds for exile within the bureaucracy. the organizational culture of oakland’s govt is fubar from the top on down.

  24. len raphael

    wonder whether oakland govt leaders and staff organztional culture is much worse than similar orgs, or just average but showing the strain of dropping revenues.

    group wide open secrets like the entire council “forgetting” they had been briefed twice before Tucker arrived on Paulson allegations, are common in other organizations such as hospitals where say all t he staff might know a certain patient’s death was caused by a doctor’s screwup, but no one reports it to outsiders. but the peculiar situation here is that even elected politicians who supposedly depend on residents approval, get sucked into the group mentality of ‘what goes on inside Oakland govt, stays inside”

    I’m guessing the causes are a combo of low civic interest in city govt; decline of mainstream media, but that’s common to other cities that don’t have our mass leadership denial or employee problems. somewhere the racial political history of oakland comes into play. no sure how or why. but in the transition from the old white boy govt of the pre 70′s to the late 70′s and beyond, something went awray. one theory is that oakland govt and staffing got balkinized along racial lines. unspoken deals/understandings were passed along where each group or fiefdom got a certain amount of resources but wouldn’t step out bounds by criticizing someone from one of the other groups. eventually evey groups performance declined.

  25. len raphael

    Danny W, weren’t you on the council when Russo sent each member a memo re. allegations against Paulson re suspect beating and possible coverup?

    Coming from legal counsel should protect the council members from say RICO or some such now, and since they were just allegations it would make sense to keep everything confidential.

    But did even a single member of the council at the time council object to the appointment of Paulson to head up IA; or why now they all say “i do not recall.. receiving the memo(s)”.

    What is it about oakland govt/politics that turns intelligent well intentioned people into ineffectual, dissembling dummies?

    -len raphael