Author Archives: Darwin BondGraham

There are many ways to think about a city. One is that the city is a place. Cities are built environments with clear geographical boundaries. Each city is embedded in a region and connected to other cities-as-places. And people, goods, and capital flow between cities, accumulating in some and draining from others. This conception of the city is cadastral. It’s mapped out and made legible as a market through the measurement of physical boundaries and values like home prices, tax rates, and school rankings. As these values rise and fall, so to do the fortunes of the city.

A different way to conceive of a city is that it is a people. Instead of seeing buildings and streets and spaces all linked together in a specific legal and economic schema, this perspective instead finds the city in the people who reside there. The city is a sum of their social relationships, their cultures, institutions. This city is set, for certain, in a particular place, but it’s made a city by the ties of kinship, friendship, and communal obligations that enliven the geography. The community makes the city, and so if the community prospers, so does the city. If the people suffer, so does the city.

In Oakland, California these two conceptions of the city are opposed to one another. And for well over a decade the city-as-a-place has been erasing the city-as-a-people.

It began sometime in the 1990s. After decades of disinvestment, de-industrialization, and the flight of affluent households to exurbia—a process that made Oakland what geographer Richard Walker called a “dark star in an expanding universe,”—the tide of capital suddenly, and at first imperceptibly reversed. Real estate investors began pouring money back into Oakland, often benefiting from city and redevelopment agency subsidies, tax breaks, land swaps, and municipal bonds. Young and affluent white collar workers started moving into apartments and houses around the eastern edge of Lake Merritt, into the downtown, and Jack London Square, and North Oakland. By 1999, when Jerry Brown took over as mayor, the rise of Oakland-as-a-place had already started. But Brown’s 10K Plan accelerated the process.

Inherently a city-as-a-place initiative, the 10K Plan envisioned Oakland, or to be more precise a small slice of downtown Oakland, as a blank slate upon which to inscribe enough new units of housing, mostly condos and apartments, as well as retail stores, theaters, restaurants and all the other trappings of the ideal contemporary urban vitalism, to attract 10,000 new residents. The point was that Oakland’s government would partner with real estate capitalists to build up the city-as-a-place. In turn, this place would conjure a new assemblage of people, drawing in especially the coveted young, monied, hip, consumers seeking an urban alternative to San Francisco.

In an excerpt from Stephen Talbot’s 2001 documentary The Celebrity and the City, Jerry Brown explained the origins of his plan to re-populate downtown Oakland by remaking its places and spaces: “People would say, ‘well why can’t we shop in downtown Oakland? Why do we have I have to go to Walnut Creek? Why do I have to go to San Francisco?’ So that germinated the idea, let’s restore downtown Oakland,” said Brown.

To do so Brown and the real estate entrepreneurs gathered around him understood that they couldn’t just open up retail stores downtown. They had to bring a new and different category of people to Oakland. They weren’t going to build up Oakland for people already living in its borders. That would require tackling big social and economic problems like poverty, unemployment, housing and food insecurity, and institutional racism in the schools and criminal justice system.

Perhaps they had given up on such battles long ago. Brown certainly began abandoning progressive political economy in the late 1970s. He came to accept the straightjacket of neoliberal urbanism that the tax rebellions and withdrawal of federal aid to cities imposed. Since then it has been much easier to provide grants and credits and subsidies for the benefit of private real estate developers than it has been to institute policies that boost the incomes and opportunities for low-income city dwellers.

“We do want capital flowing into Oakland,” Brown said in 2001. He complained, however, that the 10K plan was being stalled by a “negative cheering section” that, “says that anything that happens, that’s going to disrupt something.”

“We’re going to be displaced,” Brown said, repeating the concerns he was hearing from Oaklanders. “They got a name for it: gentrification,” said Brown dismissively.

In the same documentary Brown’s mayoral campaign treasurer and friend, real estate developer John Protopappas is filmed standing outside a live-work loft project in West Oakland teasing a black man on a bicycle who is pulling a shopping cart filled with bottles and cans. “Come on, you gotta move in,” shouts Protopappas. “I don’t think he’ll be moving in,” he then says to the cameraman.

Oakland circa 1999 absolutely lacked “shoppers” downtown. Its built environment was dominated by office buildings filled with the employees of big corporations and law firms during the work week, but come 5pm and weekends the downtown would die as these employees escaped in their cars and via BART back over the hill to the East Bay suburbs. Downtown Oakland was decidedly not hip.

The people actually living downtown, the Oaklanders who weren’t following Brown’s desire of shopping, who weren’t economically capable of buying one of Protopappas’s condos, were predominantly Black, Latino and Asian, with many of the latter two groups made up of first generation immigrants. The low-incomes and high poverty rates afflicting this community meant that without any kind of intervention to empower them economically, they would not be the ones shopping at the new GAP clothing store Brown and his wife (a lawyer for the GAP) were so excited to open on Broadway. Oakland’s existing residents, at least those living in the flatlands, wouldn’t be leasing new apartments opening in Jack London Square, Temescal, and the Uptown.

Instead many of them were displaced through the process of “Jerryfication,” as critics called it. Many more stayed, and have since endured an influx of new residents who have bid up the prices of real estate, making survival in Oakland difficult in new ways. Whereas once life was made difficult by Oakland’s existence outside of key circuits of capital and employment, now it is Oakland’s incorporation into these circuits that is driving up prices and dispossessing long-time residents of their homes and communities.

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 10.58.30 AMBetween 2000 and 2013 Oakland lost 27 percent of its Black population, dropping to a low of 103,000. In that same time the city’s white population grew by the same percent, rising from 125,000 to 160,000. In the Census Tract that encompasses the Uptown District the Black population grew by 9 percent between 2000 and 2012. But the white population expanded by 74 percent, from 400 to 700 residents.

The success of Brown’s 10K Plan is evident in the numbers of affluent individuals who have moved into downtown Oakland and spilled over in North Oakland and around Lake Merritt. It’s also evident in the restaurant boom which has become a favorite story for culinary magazines to cover over and over again. And since Brown showed that Oakland could ditch its no-there-there and become a somewhere destination, each successive mayor and city council has sought to further advance the vision of Oakland-as-a-place.

Over the last decade, influenced by Oakland’s real estate entrepreneurs, the city government borrowed from the capital market to fund “quality of life” improvements, including a multi-million dollar makeover of Lake Merritt, the estuary and park around which home and rental prices have exploded upward in recent years. New bike lanes along MacArthur Boulevard and 40th Street connect gentrifying neighborhoods to 3rd wave coffee shops, $10 a bowl mac and cheese diners, and BART stations that shuttle a big percentage of newcomers to their downtown San Francisco office jobs.

The process has now hit full stride. Notwithstanding a recession, whole sections of Oakland are soon to be scraped clear of existing buildings and streets and rebuilt into simulacra of San Francisco’s SOMA or the nearby boomlet of Emeryville. The most ambitious is the West Oakland Specific Plan, or WOSP. Pronounced “wasp,” the plan calls for adding thousands of new homes, 85 percent of them market-rate condos and apartments, that will sponge up spillover from San Francisco’s extremely expensive housing market.

There’s also the Oak to 9th project, now being called Brooklyn Basin, a ground-up master development with 3,100 housing units that will be set on two spits of land protruding into the Oakland estuary. Years ago Oakland mayor Jean Quan was a leader in the radical student movement, an organizer of the Third World Liberation Front, and a self-avowed Maoist revolutionary. Now Quan spends her time recruiting other former Maoists—Chinese billionaire capitalists—to invest in Oakland real estate.

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 10.05.15 AM

Screenshot from the web site of Zarsion-OHP 1, LLC, developer of the Brooklyn Basin project, depicting the diversity of residents the new master-planned community will attract.

Zarsion Beijing Holdings, a Chinese conglomerate will finance later stages of the billion dollar plus Brooklyn Basin, which includes a marina and several shoreline parks. It’s already being marketed as a “vibrant new district” alongside photos of multicultural twenty-somethings and comfortable middle class consumers enjoying wine on the wharf, hosing down their yachts, and shopping for designer handbags. The developer Mike Ghielmetti, a long-time supporter and financial backer of Jerry Brown and current Oakland mayor Jean Quan, has set up a web site trumpeting that, “a diverse mix of residents will further enliven this part of the City, establishing it as a flourishing place for people to enjoy.” Gheilmetti told Forbes magazine that he’d love to see Chinese buyers scoop up Brooklyn Basin’s condos when they hit the market.

But like the WOSP, Brooklyn Basin is being built from the ground up to attract a diverse mix of residents within certain parameters. It’s bounded diversity; restricted to people whose income and cultural capital exceeds that of the city’s current majority. Brooklyn Basin is a plan to develop Oakland as a place, not as a people. Although the 2006 development agreement between Oakland and Ghielmetti required building affordable housing on-site, the total was only 15 percent of the project’s 3,100 units, or about 465 homes. This proportion totally reverses the actual ratio of above median income households to below median income households that currently live in the neighborhoods surrounding Brooklyn Basin. One in every three families living next to the site where Brooklyn Basin’s towers will soon rise is living below the poverty line, and the neighborhood’s median family income is $37,000, about 22 percent below the median household income for the entire city.

Perhaps some Oaklanders from the working class half of the city will find jobs building Brooklyn Basin. Or perhaps they’ll find jobs in the stores and restaurants that open there. But economic progress along these lines is an afterthought, and it’s also not necessarily progress. What will these jobs pay? Will the workers be able to keep up with the rising rents and other cost of living increases that come when a city truly becomes a destination for wealthy Chinese condo owners and Silicon Valley executives and lawyers buying second homes along Oakland’s waterfront?

Recent mayors and city council members have shown, in their efforts to transform Oakland, that they can conceive of the city as a people. Progressive public policies like a living wage ordinance, local hire requirements for city contracts, and most recently a majority on the city council supporting a significant city-wide minimum wage increase are among the most obvious measures taken to “lift up Oakland.”

But the city-as-a-place, as an investment platform upon which to assemble objects and spaces of consumptive desire, has long dominated the thinking inside One Frank Ogawa Plaza, City Hall. In their e-mail signatures, Oakland politicians and city staff are in the habit of including a link to a 2012 New York Times article ranking Oakland the #5 top place to visit in the world. The city that’s being made right now is increasingly incompatible with the city that is. The Oakland as-a-place being built is too expensive for the Oakland-as-a-people who live here. Where will they go? Likely further into East Oakland, the last section of the city that because of its geographic isolation from the downtown, and because of its deeply entrenched poverty, is not a destination, is not drawing in the same kind of speculative capital and middle class home buyers. To Richmond, Vallejo, Antioch and Pittsburg, and other non-destination cities further up and off the BART lines and under the shadows of refineries and power plants the displaced will move.

Next week the Oakland city council’s community and economic development committee will likely green light a 250 to possibly 400-unit residential building at 2100 Telegraph Avenue. The developer, Alan Dones, has already built offices and apartments in Oakland’s Uptown. Like most other big real estate projects requiring city assistance (Dones’s proposal is to build atop a city-owned parking garage) the city has significant say in what gets built, but the project’s plan only calls for 15 percent of the units to be affordable to moderate and low-income households.

And what does affordable even mean? Per Oakland’s official Housing Element, a state mandated plan, this would mean apartments that a single person earning $45,100, or a three person households earning $58,000, can afford. These are the official definitions of “low income” in Oakland. Moderate income is defined as a single person earning $74,950, and a three person household with an income of $96,350.

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 11.18.56 AMNo one who has ever set foot on the corner of Telegraph Avenue and 21st Street, where Dones’s project will be built, could possibly think for a second that these income levels approximate those of the neighborhood’s current residents. The reality of life in Oakland’s flatlands is that many households earn below $25,000 a year, and they must spread these meager dollars far to feed many mouths, pay ever-increasing rents, and pay for a highly regressive set of municipal services, from trash to transit. Even the affordable units, it appears, will be priced to attract outsiders. Uptown Oakland is in fact one of the most impoverished urban zones in California. The poverty rate in the surrounding Census Tract is 44 percent. Over half the neighborhood’s households earn less than $25,000 a year.

Ultimately the problem isn’t that too much market-rate housing is being built. It’s that too little affordable housing is being added to the city’s total stock. The authors of Oakland’s Housing Element admitted as much when they wrote the following:

“the City encountered some difficulty in achieving very low-, low- and moderate-income housing production goals in the 2007-2014 planning period. The increasing gap between housing costs that very low-income household can afford and the cost of producing very low-income housing units, combined with the limited amount of subsidies to produce such housing, continues to challenge the City’s ability to meet ABAG’s regional housing allocation for the City for these households.”

What’s getting built isn’t designed to benefit the people of Oakland who are already here and need something better. More so, there’s too much time and energy spent by Oakland’s government greasing the gears of real estate development at any cost, and not enough time crafting policies to make the city an economically just community. The result is what many of the people of Oakland feel today; their city is becoming unaffordable. Evictions are increasing in areas like North and West Oakland where huge demographic shifts are taking place. The city appears (although it isn’t) powerless to create good paying jobs for its existing residents, but it can and soon will create a surplus of expensive real estate. It’s all the result of seeing and treating Oakland as a place, and not as a people.


Jagdeep Bachher, chief investment officer of the University of California.

The news this week that the University of California’s chief investment officer (CIO) will not be recommending divestment from fossil fuel companies to the university’s governing board of regents isn’t a surprise.

A coalition of UC students, faculty, staff and alumni have pressed the UC regents to divest from fossil fuel stocks and bonds. On Tuesday, the UC’s CIO released a recommendation that regents not pursue divestment, and instead develop “a framework for the management of environmental, social , and governance considerations.”

UC’s CIO, Jagdeep Singh Bachher was recently hired by the regents to run the university’s finances, more than $90 billion in funds. Bachher previously helped run the Alberta Investment Management Corporation (AIMCo), the sovereign wealth fund of Alberta, Canada. While helping pick investments for AIMCo, Bachher steered the province’s money into coal, oil, and gas companies and projects in North America, China and beyond. He also prioritized renewable energy and clean tech investments. But nothing in his record indicates that he would support divestment from fossil fuel companies. Instead it appears that Bachher sees clean tech as simply one part of a diversified investment portfolio which includes fossil fuels.

AIMCo’s stock holdings, disclosed in this SEC filing, show that the Canadian province’s savings are concentrated in oil and gas companies. About $1.8 billion of the total $8.9 billion in stock owned by AIMCo, roughly 20% of the total, is in an oil, gas, or coal company.

AIMCo’s single largest stock investment is a $374 million stake in Bonanza Creek Energy, an oil and gas company that utilizes fracking techniques in North American oil patches.

AIMCo’s second and third biggest investment positions in publicly traded stocks are Canadian Natural Resources and Suncor Energy, two Canadian oil companies that are excavating the tar sands, arguably the most environmentally destructive energy projects in the world.

Screen Shot 2014-09-11 at 11.01.38 AMIn 2011 Bachher co-authored a paper about investment opportunities across the economies of Alberta, China and India. Bachher focused on investments in energy, calling Alberta a “veritable bank vault of natural resources,” meaning mostly oil and gas.

Bachher also portrayed these investments as opportunities to develop “clean energy,” but it’s clean energy built atop a fossil fuel base.

For example, Bachher singled out AIMCo’s investment in Calera, a California company that aims to capture CO2 emissions and use them to manufacture materials like cement. To leverage China’s five year economic plan, which includes contracting with Peabody Energy to build massive coal-fired power plants, Bachher hopes that companies like Calera will capitalize from the expansion of coal fired energy to utilize some CO2 emissions to create “green cement.”

Peabody Energy, one of the largest coal companies in the world, had a voice in UC’s recent deliberations around the question of whether or not to divest university funds from fossil fuel companies. As I reported in this week’s East Bay Express, Gregory Boyce, Peabody’s CEO, was invited by Bachher to speak to the UC regents task force considering the question of divestment.


Attorneys employed by the Stroock Stroock & Lavan law firm often are hired after careers in state and federal law enforcement and regulatory agencies like the Securities & Exchange Commission and California Department of Justice.

In a story this week for the East Bay Express I detailed how Benjamin Diehl, a Supervising Deputy Attorney General for the California Department of Justice, quit his post last year, and immediately joined a private law firm that represents many of the same financial corporations he was previously tasked with investigating and prosecuting.

By switching sides, by going from the DOJ’s mortgage fraud strike force, and consumer protection section, to Stroock Stroock & Lavan’s Government Relations group—Stroock is one of the most aggressive defense firms backing banks, mortgage lenders and servicers, and credit card companies in disputes against consumers and state law enforcement—Mr. Diehl is walking a fine line with respect to the law and professional ethics. Of course there’s nothing wrong with a lawyer taking a new job, and shifting gears in their career. But when a government lawyer contemplates switching sides, they must navigate a complex set of ethical and legal questions so that they don’t do harm to the public.

Public perception in recent years is that top federal lawyers in the U.S. DOJ, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and other enforcement agencies are simply cashing in on their connections and knowledge, and perhaps even going soft on Wall Street while in government, all in order to secure lucrative post-government jobs defending and lobbying for the financial sector. The revolving door between Covington & Burling and the DOJ has gotten a lot of press, for example. Much of the public has lost faith in the effectiveness of the justice system.

I inquired with Stroock as to what sort of systems and procedures the firm has in place to ensure that Mr. Diehl will be separated and recused from cases that he might have worked on as a member of the California Attorney General’s staff, and how the firm will ensure he does not breach his duty of confidentiality to the State of California with respect to detailed legal information he surely has about California’s prosecution strategies, but the law firm declined to comment. I also inquired with the California DOJ about Diehl’s exit, but received no response.

I asked in part because of the timing of Mr. Diehl’s departure from the DOJ and his hiring by Stroock. Mr. Diehl announced his resignation from the DOJ in October, 2013 and joined Stroock as special counsel in November of 2013. But e-mails I obtained indicate that he was having private conversations with Stroock attorneys at least as early as April of 2013, a period in which he presumably had significant influence over multiple financial fraud and consumer protection investigations and lawsuits, including enforcement actions directed against clients of Stroock. The subject of the conversations between Diehl and the Stroock partners isn’t clear, but you can read the email exchanges yourself.

Diehl was a frequent speaker and attendee at financial industry conferences put on by the American Conference Institute, and a legal education group called the Practicing Law Institute. These conferences are geared toward educating in-house counsel and defense firms that work for financial corporations, many of which specialize in defending banks from consumer protection lawsuits. Attending these conferences, alongside Mr. Diehl, were several partners of the Stroock Stroock & Lavan law firm.

Attorneys are supposed to zealously represent their clients. They have a duty of loyalty and confidentiality to their current and past clients. Attorneys shouldn’t allow the interests of any other party, or their own personal interests, including future career opportunities they’re hoping to pursue, to interfere with the duties of loyalty and confidentiality they owe a client. And the information clients share with their lawyers, as well as information attorneys generate through investigation, and work products such as prosecution and defense strategies, should be maintained in confidentiality under most circumstances. Sharing this information with oppositional parties is especially problematic.

If the information a former government attorney shares is general in nature, that is, if it isn’t confidential information related to specific investigations or lawsuits, or specific government regulatory and litigation strategies, then it’s usually considered legal and ethical for a lawyer to share with new clients.

Part of Diehl’s new job is sharing information about state attorney general enforcement actions against the financial industry. For example, last April Diehl spoke at an ACI conference offering: “Expert defense strategies for in-house and outside counsel on navigating class actions, litigation, and government enforcement actions in the consumer finance industry.”

Government attorneys in California have added layers of responsibility to uphold. All attorneys practicing in California must follow the California State Bar’s rules to “maintain inviolate the confidence, and at every peril to himself or herself to preserve the secrets, of his or her client.”

Attorneys employed by the State of California to represent the interest of the state’s offices, agencies, and ultimately the people of California, must follow the same rules as other government servants. The Political Reform Act puts several restrictions on state attorneys who leave government employment and go to work for the private sector. Specifically, California law bars government lawyers from switching sides and representing new clients in proceedings (court cases, negotiations, administrative hearings, etc.) that they previously worked on as government attorneys. This is a very specific prohibition with lifetime duration.

Government attorneys are also prohibited from making decisions that might materially affect a person or company with whom they’re negotiating with for a job. The law’s exact wording is:

“No public official shall make, participate in making, or use his or her official position to influence, any governmental decision directly relating to any person with whom he or she is negotiating, or has any arrangement concerning, prospective employment.”

Of course the exactitude of these laws leaves plenty of big loopholes. And the secrecy that lawyers can easily maintain, including government lawyers whose records, for the most part, are not subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act, makes it hard for the public to keep tabs on what crucial decisions an attorney is making, and how they might relate to post-government employment pursuits.

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 1.13.15 PMUrban Shield, a law enforcement conference that includes SWAT competitions, training exercises, briefings, and a large vendors show, is underway again in Oakland this year. The downtown Marriott hotel and conference center is packed with police officers and police-industrial contractors selling everything from machine guns to drones. Alyssa Figueroa of Alternet has a good story about Urban Shield and the protests against it this year, and Ali Winston and I wrote about the event last year.

I briefly walked through the conference this morning. What’s different this year is the size of the event. It feels bigger, and attendees said they thought there were more participants and vendors.

Here’s some photos from the vendors show.

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 1.25.01 PM

Guns are a big deal at Urban Shield. Salesmen from Sig Sauer chat about rifles and pistols. Sig Sauer’s gun factory is located in New Hampshire.

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 1.20.28 PM

A company named Execushield which claims to have been founded on September 11, 2001 shows off a video of its paramilitary security forces operating in Columbia. Based in San Francisco, Execushield specializes in providing security to high net worth individuals and Fortune 500 companies. A salesman manning Execushield’s booth said he could not talk specifics about clients.

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 1.21.20 PM

Members of the Brazilian Police are attending Urban Shield this year. Here the Brazilians get a demonstration of a portable explosives detection device.

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 1.24.35 PM

Drones are still in demand among law enforcement agencies, even though there has been significant public backlash. Here representatives of HaloDrop show off their drone aircraft which the company rents out as a service to government agencies.

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 1.21.06 PM

The .50 caliber AW50, manufactured by Accuracy International, a British weapons maker that specializes in military sniper rifles. Mile High Shooting Accessories, a vendor attending Urban Shield and distributing these weapons, says the rifles are increasingly popular with U.S. police agencies. The Alameda County Sheriff has bought several of these AW50s (for about $5,000 a piece), and the Livermore police have bought other models made by Accuracy International.

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 1.20.52 PM

A sales rep for Mile High Shooting Accessories of Colorado shows off various models of Accuracy International’s sniper rifles to Bay Area police.

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 1.24.18 PM

Participating in this year’s Urban Shield tactical competitions, the U.S. Marines.

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 1.51.00 PM

Arizona gun maker Patriot Ordnance Factory shows off its weapons at Urban Shield. Patriot sells weapons to the California Highway Patrol.

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 1.49.57 PM

Patriot Ordnance Factory’s weapons include the words “God Bless America” inscribed below the chamber.

Four years ago the Israeli Police Unit Yamam took first place in the SWAT team competition held at Urban Shield, a police training conference and weapons show held in Oakland, California. When word of their victory reached Israel it became the subject of a thread on a blog popular with Israeli military and security buffs. I used Google’s translate tool to try to figure out what was said in the conversation.

“Except for maybe the FBI, I did not find a single team that seemed serious enough, and that was really related to the war on terror,” wrote one commenter, downplaying the Israeli win over the numerous California police agencies. “In SWAT it is not unusual to find police officers already scraping filthy ages.”

But then another fan of the Israeli security forces chimed in:

“There are at least two units where I can say you are wrong: Richmond PD and Oakland PD, both operate in areas that sometimes resemble more the Strip than California.”

The “Strip” is a reference to Gaza, it appears.

Another commenter then suggested, “also quietly add NEWARK PD.” However, they’re probably unfamiliar with the Bay Area’s geography, and confusing Newark, New Jersey, with Newark, California.


Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 8.29.27 PM

A photo of the Israeli SWAT team that took 1st Place at Alameda County’s Urban Shield competition in 2010. (Source: Israel Police, Facebook page.) The helicopter in the background is one of the two Eagles used by the East Bay Regional Park District Police.

Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 9.04.03 PM

A Zim vessel laden with cargo.

(Update, Wednesday, August 20: here’s a full list of the Zim Piraeus’ cargo.)

Palestinian solidarity activists have blocked the Zim Piraeus ship from mooring and offloading its cargo at the Port of Oakland, California for over four days. But what’s on the Israeli vessel? What was it supposed to deliver to northern California?

It’s hard to say. I couldn’t find a any bills of lading for the Zim Piraeus’s August 16 scheduled stop in Oakland. These records may not exist until the ship actually docks and unloads. But I did find a lot of records that describe what Zim’s other ships normally deliver to Oakland.

The last Zim ship to moor at northern California’s biggest seaport was the Zim Savannah. It arrived on August 2 carrying, among other things:

1. Equipment for the McGinnis Geothermal Power Plant. The McGinnis Plant is being built in Nevada by a company called Ormat Technologies. Ormat is headquartered in Nevada, but as the company explained in its 2013 annual report: “The majority of our senior management and all of our production and manufacturing facilities are located in Israel.”

2. Marble slabs from Italy, likely to be used outfitting homes, hotels, and downtown offices with counters and floors. In fact, stone and tile seems to be a big commodity carried by Zim into the Port of Oakland.

3. French and Greek olives, Spanish almonds and artichokes, Egyptian lemongrass, and Argentinian rice.

4. The Zim Savannah also contained lots of other Israeli-manufactured goods and materials like solar water heaters built by Magen Eco-Energy, Ltd., Irrigation Equipment manufactured by Naandan Jain Ltd., polyethelene sheets from the Kibbutz Einat, pallets of magnesium chloride flakes, and thousands of kilograms of potassium phosphate mined near the city of Beersheba, Israel, being shipped to a fertilizer company in Missouri.

But Zim Lines also ships personal effects and records, and last November, when the Zim New York docked in Oakland it offloaded a case of what appears to have been materials of the World Zionist Organization. These materials were headed to the Pacific Southwest Region offices of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Check out the bill of lading for yourself.

Screen Shot 2014-08-16 at 4.54.21 PM

Protesters at the Port of Oakland on Saturday, August 16 march to a marine terminal to block an Israeli cargo vessel from docking.

On Saturday between one and two thousand protesters marched on the Port of Oakland to “blockade” one of its busy marine terminals and prevent an Israeli ship from docking. After confronting a line of police guarding the waterfront the protesters declared victory; the Zim Lines cargo was on a vessel that hovered offshore, afraid to dock, they said, and port workers wouldn’t be unloading it.

One protester looking beyond the line of police and barbed wire fences separating the people from the port explained that the purpose of the action was to “impede the flow of capital.” Stopping one of Zim’s ships—the company’s vessels arrive in Oakland about four times a month, according to Zim’s web site—was a small, but real economic blow against Israel.

Palestinian solidarity activists inside Israel’s biggest economic and military partner, the United States, have worked for years to build a boycott, divest and sanction movement. They’ve asked pension funds and universities to divest from companies that do business with the state of Israel, and they’ve asked academics and musicians to boycott Israel by canceling concerts and shunning conferences. They’ve had some success.

Screen Shot 2014-08-17 at 9.58.36 PM

California Governor Jerry Brown and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sign a memorandum of understanding, March 5, 2014 in Mountain View.

But if it’s a matter of stopping the flow of capital, the ports are a relatively small conduit of trade between California and Israel. For over 20 years California’s technology industry has been channeling billions of dollars to finance the growth of Israeli tech firms. The flow of capital between California and Israel is digital, transmitted as currency and intellectual property. And this flow of capital occurs mostly through the decisions of a small number private equity firms and perhaps as few as a dozen large corporations. These flows of capital supporting Israel’s economy are less susceptible to social movement pressure.

The amount of support of for Israel’s economy originating from Silicon Valley’s private equity firms is especially large. In 2001, during the first year of the Second Intifada, Sequoia Capital Partners, a private equity firm headquartered in Menlo Park, raised $150 million to invest in Israeli technology companies. This was Sequoia’s second Israel-focused venture capital fund. Last year Sequoia raised its fifth Israel-dedicated fund, totaling $215 million. Since 1999 Sequoia Capital has injected over $789 million into Israel’s software and electronics industries. Much of this money managed by Sequoia Capital was contributed by California investors, including major tax-exempt institutions like the J. Paul Getty Trust, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, but also from wealthy companies and individuals from San Francisco to San Jose.

Screen Shot 2014-08-16 at 11.05.02 AM

The offices of Sequoia Capital Partners in Herzliya Pituach, Israel.

Accel Venture Partners, another one of the giants of Silicon Valley private equity, set up its first Israel-focused investment vehicle in 2001. Joseph Shoendorf of Accel told the Haaretz newspaper in 2007 that Accel has invested over $200 million in 20 Israeli companies. He added that many of Accel’s investments in Israel are not the run-of-the-mill consumer apps and gadgets that are so popular in the Bay Area’s tech scene. Although Israeli engineers produce plenty of that, Shoendorf said, “the world’s security situation is expected to get worse, and as a result, inventiveness will increase. The armies of the world are seeking solutions to a problem, and will encourage technological answers.” Last March, Accel successfully raised $475 million for a fund that will burn a lot of its powder supporting Israeli tech companies.

A lot of California’s venture capital has been exported to Israel to fund military and cybersecurity startups. Israeli society, constantly mobilized for a counter-insurgency war and occupation, creates an environment in which the nation’s hi-tech firms see their main role as contributing to the security of the Jewish state.

Screen Shot 2014-08-17 at 10.07.21 PM

Google rents 8 floors in this Tel Aviv office tower.

But the U.S. tech industry is also steeped in surveillance and weapons companies, and even the big consumer and enterprise brands like Google, Microsoft, and Cisco produce militarized software and hardware for use here and abroad. The contributions of Hewlett Packard in creating Israel’s biometric tracking system to control the movements of Palestinians is well known. Hewlett Packard also maintains the Israel Defense Ministry’s server farms, a job IBM previously held. What makes the California-Israel economic connection powerful, however, isn’t so much the nature of the technologies being traded, and the capabilities they provide the Israeli state and military, but more so the sheer economic value of these transactions.

Foreign direct investment into Israel has risen since 2010, and the United States is the key source of capital for Israeli companies. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Israel received $1.846 billion from U.S. investors in 2012, a total that has likely risen over the past two years. That’s about two thirds of the total military aid the U.S. government provided Israel the same year.

U.S. investors have built up large positions in Israel’s economy, mostly through ownership of stock in Israeli corporations. In 2012 U.S. investors held a $19.7 billion stake in Israel’s economy, more than double the interest owned by all European countries combined. And corporations registered in the Cayman Islands, a tax shelter where thousands of American investors establish offshore funds, owned another $8.6 billion of Israel’s economy. For example, the Sequoia Capital Partners venture firm of Menlo Park raised $215 million last August to invest entirely in Israel. The legal place of incorporation for this fund? The Cayman Islands.

Screen Shot 2014-08-17 at 10.11.04 PM

Intel’s Haifa, Israel data center, opened in June of 2010. (

California investors own and manage stakes in Israeli companies like Mellanox Technologies, Ltd.. In 2002 Silicon Valley venture capital firms and several U.S. tech companies provided Mellanox with $64 million in funding. The American investors included three Menlo Park private equity firms, Sequoia Venture Partners, U.S. Venture Partners, and Bessemer Venture Partners, as well as technology giants IBM and Intel. Using this capital, Mellanox, headquartered in Yokneam, Israel, grew from a small company into a transnational technology giant valued today at $1.8 billion. It’s a key supplier of hardware to Hewlett Packard, IBM, and Intel. It’s main office in Yokneam looks like any other tech campus you can see in San Mateo County off the 101 Highway, with gleaming glass mid-rise buildings tucked among trees and grass.

Yokneam is in the heart of Israel’s Silicon Wadi (wadi being “valley” in Arabic). Prior to 1948 Yokneam was called Qira, the site of a Palestinian village and farms, but the area was “depopulated” and occupied by Israeli forces, and later settled and transformed into one of Israel’s most affluent cities.

Lots of Silicon Valley venture capital firms have also set up offices in Israel. The location of choice for California investors seems to be Herzliya Pituach, a posh ocean side district of the city of Herliya. North of Tel Aviv, Herzliya is named after Theodor Herzl, considered by many to be the intellectual father of Zionism. The Herzliya Pituach is one of the wealthiest spots in all of Israel, home to many of the nation’s elite families. Bessemer Venture Partners’ Israel office is located just a few blocks from the Marinali Marina yacht harbor, and a short drive from million dollar beachfront homes. Sequoia Venture Partners maintain an office on Ramat Yam in one of the high rise towers with views of the azure Mediterranean Sea.

The business links between Silicon Valley and Israel aren’t apolitical. Many of California’s venture capital investors and technology executives are staunch supporters of pro-Israel causes. They have established numerous nonprofit organizations to strengthen economic and political ties between California and Israel.

The California-Israel Chamber of Commerce, located in Cupertino, is funded by Silicon Valley companies, investors and law firms like Intel, Paypal, Silicon Valley Bank, and Morrison Foerster. Executives from these companies sit on the Chamber’s board of directors. Their ties to other pro-Israel political groups are numerous.

Zvi Alon, a director of the California-Israel Chamber, also runs a family foundation out of his Los Altos Hills home. Alongside a donation of $9,900 in 2011 to the California-Israel Chamber, Alon also made donations worth $36,000 to the Friends of Israeli Defense Forces according to tax records. Alon is also credited as being a founder of Israel21C, an “online news magazine offering the single most diverse and reliable source of news and information about 21st century Israel to be found anywhere.”

Operating out of offices on Montgomery Street in downtown San Francisco, across the Street from Israel’s consulate, Israel21C produces media promoting Israel’s technology companies. Recent articles published by the group include “20 top tech inventions born of conflict,” and a profile of the “maverick thinker” behind the creation of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. A recent film produced by the organization promotes Tel Aviv as a startup epicenter similar to San Francisco.

The General Consul of Israel in San Francisco, Andy David, is a board member of the California-Israel Chamber, as is the president of Silicon Valley Bank. Nir Merry, another board member of the California-Israel Chamber, was born and partly raised in Israel in the Ma’agan Michael kibbutz. His father worked in a hidden underground ammunition factory making armaments used by Jewish commandoes in the battles that created the state of Israel. In a talk to students at the University of California, Santa Barabara, Merry elaborated on the links between Israel’s technology companies and its military.

“I volunteered to become a commando. It’s quite related to the topic of innovation,” said Merry. “Because to be a commando we have to be very innovative.”

The California-Israel Chamber of Commerce will be hosting an international business summit in October at the Microsoft Campus in Mountain View where innovation will be among the topics.

Silicon Valley’s links to Israel have also been promoted through state legislation and the California Governor’s office. In March of 2014 Governor Jerry Brown signed a memorandum of understanding with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promising to promote economic links between California and Israel. The setting for the signing ceremony, Mountain View’s Computer History Museum, underscored the centrality of the tech industry in the agreement.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,637 other followers