Gap Opens in Downtown Oakland; Gephardt and Company Attack Bush; Vallejo Goes Solar

"The Riders" appear in court, as Oakland's painful police corruption case finally gets underway

Last Friday, Oakland unveiled its newest tool to help boost consumer sales and clean up the city’s mean streets: the Gap. The new purveyor of squeaky-clean chic can be found at 14th and Broadway–one of the first big clothing chains to move in after a nearly 25-year lull in retail development. (Would it be uncouth to mention that Mayor Jerry Brown has been dating Gap general counsel Ann Gust for years? Ah, perhaps it would.)

Maybe this heralds the advance of a brighter, perkier Oakland–but after the grand-opening reception, the preppy vanguard might be having second thoughts. As part of the festivities, the Gap hosted a breakfast that started at seven a.m. –and included a free mug. It takes an outsider not to realize that in a neighborhood like that surrounding 14th and Broadway, a free mug is going to attract a crowd. Gap officials had planned for only 250 guests–but a lot more than that stopped by the store for free juice, bagels, and said Gap-logo travel mug. Caterers ran out of juice and water. One Oaklander piled ten mugs in his bag. Then staffers began unwrapping more mugs from the back, and the eager crowd hovered, pushing and shoving. Eventually, people resorted to simply grabbing the mugs straight out of the box, making the server testy enough to start yelling at people to get back.

It doesn’t bode well for the chain’s neat stacks of basic T’s and classic-cut jeans, does it? Everyone in Oakland in khakis!· · ·

Security at the Federal Building in downtown Oakland was tight last Tuesday. So tight that you could not get past the gate with so much as a Swiss Army knife, which doubtless put the kibosh on any number of assassination-by-corkscrew attempts in the works for the illustrious members of Congress inside. Certainly the matter at hand was a rancorous one. Representative Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) had put together a hearing on the state’s power problems, and Congressmembers from all over the map had gathered to be publicly harangued on this volatile topic.

The state, which paid about $7 billion for power in 1999, is expected to pay $70 billion this year, and as various politicians on hand repeatedly pointed out, if the price of milk had multiplied by a factor of ten, we would all be in riot mode. Tensions were exacerbated by the fact that earlier that day, President George W. Bush had traveled to California for the first time since the election and met with Governor Gray Davis for less than an hour. The meeting had ended badly–Bush had firmly refused to consider temporary price caps on wholesale electricity, and the governor had left vowing that the state would sue the federal government for failing to enforce the laws that are supposed to prevent price-gouging.

Although you might have expected fireworks, up in the third floor auditorium the various politicians seated along an enormous table were, for the most part, looking cool and relaxed. In the center was the guest of honor, the sandy-haired House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Missouri), looking so sunburned that his pale eyebrows seemed to vanish into his face. Arrayed on either side was a good chunk of the House’s Northern California delegation–Lee, Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), Lynn Woolsey (D-Marin), and Ellen Tauscher (D-Walnut Creek), plus a few out-of-state visitors like Nita Lowey (D-New York). But the real scene-stealer was Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan), who, perhaps because he doesn’t actually represent a state with a power crisis, was off on a tear.

Conyers, recently off a plane, was the only person on the dais not wearing a suit (instead, he sported a well-worn brown leather jacket) and had a few strong words for the Californians. “I thought you’d be tearing up this Federal Building,” he expostulated. “We don’t have to prove there’s a rip-off because you know you’re being ripped off…. The question is what the hell are you going to do about it? I did not come out here just to have another set of polite discussions about this stuff. We’re in a state of complete economic chaos; it reminds me of the S&L rip-off that we went through a couple of decades ago. Same thing! I’m sick of all this ‘Let the market forces work’ stuff; the market forces do what people who are greedy always do–they take advantage of us. But they’re not going to take advantage of 280 million people with their eyes wide open!” Out in the audience: wild applause. Also, much sign-waving by a small but determined band of protesters holding “Power to the People” signs written in Magic Marker on 8.5″ x 11″ typing paper –who later startled Gephardt by crowding him at the podium as he tried to give a press conference, and who repeatedly jumped into cameramen’s shots every time he was about to get in a good sound bite. Memo to out-of-state pols: this is how we do it downtown.· · ·

On the other hand, at least someone is profiting from the President Shrub v. Gov. Boredom standoff. Stationed outside an Oakland Safeway, as per usual, was one poor SOB trying to inveigle shoppers into buying an Oakland Tribune subscription–a Sisyphean task if there ever was one. But this time he had a great selling point. On the cover of the Trib was a picture of Shrub and Davis; our man’s pitch: “Get yer official George Bush dartboard right here!” At the very least he got more than a few chortles and giggles. It was almost worth a subscription. Almost.· · ·

Last week began the first chapter of what is perhaps Oakland’s most sweeping police corruption trial in history: the case of “The Riders,” four West Oakland cops who have been accused of beating and framing dozens of young black men last summer. On May 29, attorney Michael Rains , who has emerged as the lead counsel for the defense, moved to exclude the press from the preliminary hearings, during which the prosecution’s witnesses would tell their stories before Judge Leo Dorado , who will then determine whether there is sufficient evidence to go to trial. Since an eventual trial is almost a foregone conclusion, and the jury will be selected from Alameda County residents who read newspapers, Rains argued that testimony that might be excluded from the future trial would be reported by the press and then poison the minds of potential jurors. But Neil Shapiro , a lawyer for the San Francisco Chronicle, disagreed. “Essentially, we’re asked to make a leap of faith that publicity deprives a defendant of a right to a fair trial,” Shapiro argued before the judge. “That argument has been made–and rejected–many times before.” Judge Dorado sided with Shapiro, noting that the defense could always move for a change in venue. But Rains said that was unlikely, leading the press corps to guess that the defense was banking on the hope that Oakland residents are so sick of crime that they will accept officers who bend the rules in order to clean up the streets.

The following morning, three of the four Riders walked through the courtroom vestibule, past a line of cameramen who lay in wait for them to shoot footage of their stony faces. (The fourth Rider, former officer Frank Vazquez , has been on the run since last year, so the trial is proceeding without him.) Defense attorneys took their seats beside the remaining defendants: Matthew Hornung , a blond white man with baby fat in his cheeks, and shoulders that could push a piano up a flight of stairs; Jude Siapno , an Asian man in a conservative suit with slick ropes of black hair that fell down over his forehead; and Clarence “Chuck” Mabanag , a black man who at age 35 is the oldest of the three. Just before ten in the morning, prosecuting attorney David Hollister called his first witness, and Kenneth Soriano , a twenty-year-old African American, took the stand.

Hollister meticulously took Soriano through his story: On the night of June 19, 2000, Soriano and his cousin discovered that their car was stolen and called the cops; Mabanag and an unnamed rookie officer arrived to take a report outside their front yard. Soriano’s rottweiler was straining at its leash and barking at the officers, and when Mabanag threatened to shoot the dog, he and Soriano started arguing. On the stand, Soriano claimed that Mabanag grabbed him, called in backup, and beat him to the ground. “Mabanag hit me in my gut, on my right side below my rib cage,” Soriano testified. “Other officers grabbed me, and Mabanag put me in a choke hold, like a sleeper hold.” Mabanag then threw Soriano on the ground, opening up a gash in his left eyebrow; after he was cuffed, Soriano said, officers kicked him at least three more times, searched him for drugs (“You ain’t got nothin’ on you, huh bitch?” the officers allegedly said), and threw him into a police car.

After a few minutes, Mabanag got into the car and wrote up a police report on which a number of lines were allegedly left blank. “He said I’m in a lot of trouble, and I had to sign this,” Soriano said. Those lines now contain accounts of Soriano apologizing for acting drunk and belligerent that night–apologies Soriano claimed he never made.

“Why did you [sign] the paper?” Hollister asked.

“‘Cause I thought I was in trouble,” Soriano replied.

“Why did you think you were in trouble?”

“‘Cause I was in the back of a police car, bleeding and handcuffed.”

Soriano’s testimony went on for two hours, and there were still more than thirty witnesses scheduled after him. At this rate, Hollister figures it will take until around June 20 for the preliminary hearing to conclude and a trial date to be set. Then the fireworks will really begin, especially when Keith Batt , the rookie officer who partnered with Mabanag that night–and who later turned in the Riders–takes the stand.· · ·

It was the day before the big heat wave, but nevertheless the crowd melted away pretty fast at Berkeley’s “People’s State of the City” address. After the food was gone and the soda either spilled or drunk, things quieted way down, especially when speaker after speaker disregarded the three-minute time limit due to overwhelming excitement over such topics as recycling and housing. Before the food ran out, we heard former city councilperson Nancy Skinner speak on environmental issues, Sara Syed on bicycles, and Terry Doran with a controversial speech titled “Education for Everybody.” There was even some song to inspire the lethargic crowd (there was only one heckler in the council chambers that night–two at the most); highlights included local singer Gwen Avery belting out a catchy “Berkeley on My Mind” on a horribly distorted PA system. But at the beginning, Councilmember Kriss Worthington , the brains behind the event, was pleasantly surprised to see the chambers full. It showed that you can attract a crowd to the council chambers on a Tuesday night, even when the best circus in town–the actual council meeting–is closed, he said.

Know the good thing about solar energy? No need for those pesky air-quality regulations or year-long applications before the California Energy Commission like those required for a regular old natural-gas power plant. Solar is the way the city of Vallejo has decided to go. With a grant from the CEC and some money of its own, Vallejo is building a solar power farm for itself that could save up to one megawatt from the power grid and create the largest such solar power generating facility in Northern California. Richmond, which is considering building a power plant on Chevron land, would do well to look northward when considering making a foray into the power business.

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