Author Archives: Darwin BondGraham

Two weeks ago I reported on one of Oakland’s largest landlords, Neill Sullivan, the man behind the Sullivan Management Company (SMC). Sullivan’s firm manages three real estate investment funds named REO Homes. These three LLCs own approximately 270 properties, mostly single family houses and apartment buildings, mostly in West Oakland.

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Residential properties owned by REO Homes, LLC, REO Homes 2, LLC and REO Homes 3, LLC.

Neill Sullivan’s business is a for-profit venture, but he and his employees say that they’re seeking a “triple bottom line” that will show positive social justice and environmental gains, in addition to monetary gains.

Integral to Mr. Sullivan’s real estate play are the deep-pocketed investors and financial institutions backing him. These investors, and one of the banks supporting his acquisition of Oakland housing stock, also claim to have a triple bottom line emphasis that looks beyond profit.

As I explained in the story, one of these investors is Tom Steyer, a retired San Francisco hedge fund manager who amassed a personal fortune of well over a billion dollars. Steyer put up personal money to support REO Homes, LLC, one of Neill Sullivan’s acquisition funds. And a bank that Steyer and his wife Kat Taylor founded in 2007 also made loans to REO Homes, LLC to finance property acquisitions.

The CEO of One PacificCoast Bank, Kat Taylor, took issue with my presentation of these facts, writing in a letter to the East Bay Express last week that my report was an “outrage,” and a “gross misrepresentation” because of my inclusion of Oakland community voices who are critical of Neill Sullivan and investors like him who have monopolized a good share of West Oakland’s rental housing. Taylor wrote:

“OPCB is a triple-bottom-line bank mandated to achieve social justice and environmental well-being; at the same time, we are financially sustainable. Our ethical standards are beyond reproach and our procedures and safeguards meet or exceed those required by our main regulator, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.”

Taylor added that:

“Our ownership reinforces our mission. The bank’s foundation owns 100 percent of the economic rights of the bank. If and when profits are distributed, they can only go to the foundation, which is required by its bylaws to reinvest them into the low-income communities we serve or the environment upon which we all depend.”

But there’s another place that the One PacificCoast Bank’s profits have been going besides philanthropic ventures, according to tax records of the Foundation.

The One PacificCoast Foundation, the non-profit that owns the banks’ stock, has been heavily indebted to Tom Steyer. Steyer loaned the OPC Foundation $26.5 million to allow the Foundation to purchase 100 percent of the One PacificCoast Bank’s stock, effectively capitalizing the bank, according to the Foundation’s recent tax records. The OPC Foundation has been paying back that loan to Steyer, and according to a tax file from 2011, the Foundation paid $2.246 million in balance due.

Thus a lot of the profit generated by the One PacificCoast Bank that was channeled back to the Foundation was used to pay back Steyer for the loan, in addition to being doled out as grants to non-profits.

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Tom Steyer loaned $26.5 million to the One PacificCoast Foundation (then called the One California Foundation) to allow the Foundation to purchase 100 percent of the shares of the bank of the same name. (Source, One PacificCoast Bank IRS Form 990, 2011)

One PacificCoast Bank is linked to other major real estate investors besides Neill Sullivan. In fact, the One PacificCoast Bank and Foundation exist in a complex network of real estate ventures where the lines between for-profit enterprise, and tax-exempt philanthropy are blurred.

The One PacificCoast Foundation’s links to Bridge Housing Corporation are a case in point.

On the board of the One PacificCoast Foundation is Cynthia Parker, the president and CEO of Bridge Housing Corporation, an affordable housing developer. Bridge Housing has numerous real estate projects in the works in Oakland, especially West Oakland. The Mandela Gateway apartments are a Bridge Housing property. So too is the MacArthur BART Station’s planned 625 unit apartment complex called “Mural.”

What qualifies projects like these as non-profit and affordable is that a portion of the units are set aside for renters below the area’s median income level. For example, the Mural apartments going up next to MacArthur BART will include about 90 “affordable” units, or about 14 percent of the total.

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Not-for-profit doesn’t mean the executives aren’t highly paid. The total compensation of Bridge Housing’s CEO in 2012 was $493,000. (Source: Bridge Housing Corporation IRS Form 99, 2012).

The One PacificCoast Foundation directly supports Bridge Housing Corporation.

Also on the board of directors of One PacificCoast Foundation, at least until 2011, is Rick Holliday. Holliday established Bridge Housing in the early 1980s and he remains on Bridge Housing’s board of directors. But Holliday’s main focus these days appears to be his own for-profit real estate company, Holliday Development.

Holliday Development’s first project in 1988 was conversion of an industrial building in San Francisco’s SOMA into lofts. Today one bedroom units in the building, 601 4th Street, are priced at approximately $1 million.

Before the crash in 2008 that brought the Bay Area’s real estate market to a brief standstill, Rick Holliday was betting big money on West Oakland. That year the San Francisco Business Times ran a profile on Holliday and explained his ambitions for West Oakland: “Some developers see West Oakland as the next South of Market, a San Francisco neighborhood transformed from an under-utilized industrial zone to a booming office and residential district.” Holliday said he was “bullish” on West Oakland real estate.

SOMA’s median rent for a one bedroom apartment is currently about $2,500, making it one of the most unaffordable places to live in the United States.

West Oakland’s rents are quickly rising too. Holliday’s marquee West Oakland project, the Pacific Cannery Lofts sold out last year. Prices in the 163 unit property ranged from one quarter million to half a million dollars, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

townhellaneedsaraise-blThe Oakland City Council has the power to raise the minimum wage paid by employers in the city. However, after years of not using this power to raise wages, a coalition of community organizations and labor unions is proposing to “lift up” Oakland’s minimum wage to $12.25 per hour through a popular vote.

In response to this coalition’s campaign, vice mayor Larry Reid is now also sponsoring a minimum wage ordinance to boost the bottom of Oakland’s wage scale to $10.20 an hour starting in 2015.

There are several key differences between Reid’s wage proposal and what the coalition is seeking at the ballot box.

Not surprisingly it’s the $2.05 difference between the two minimum wage proposals that creates the most contrast.

Consider the fact that there are currently very few occupations in Oakland that pay less than $10.20 an hour, but there are numerous jobs in the city that pay less than $12.25. The impact that Reid’s minimum wage would have on Oakland’s lowest paid workers would be incredibly small because few employees fall below his minimum mandated amount. Add just $2.05 more and the number of workers who will benefit leaps upward by perhaps an order of magnitude.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent data for the Oakland-Fremont-Hayward metropolitan region only 0.6% of the workforce currently earns on average less than $10.20 an hour. But 6% of workers in the region earn less than $12.25 an hour.

That’s a major jump upward from a virtually insignificant number of workers to a small chunk of the total labor force. (I should note that the BLS statistics are for all of Alameda and Contra Costa counties, and here I’m assuming that Oakland roughly reflects the broader jobs picture in both counties.)

For the East Bay region, the BLS lists only 8 occupational categories in which the average worker earns below Reid’s wage proposal, but there are 39 occupational categories where average pay is below $12.25.

In other words, Reid’s minimum wage, if adopted, wouldn’t benefit most short order cooks, sewing machine operators, laundry and dry cleaning workers, child care workers, desk clerks, food preparation workers, personal care aides, waiters, and dishwashers.


Richard C. Blum and Dianne Feinstein enjoying a chuckle.

Last month I published an investigation examining the big corporate investors that have bought up the East Bay’s foreclosed homes, turning thousands of them into rental properties. Featured in the story was Cheri King, an Oakland resident who lost her house due to predatory bank lending and the foreclosure crisis. Now her home in East Oakland is owned by Colony Capital, a private equity firm from Santa Monica run by billionaire Thomas Barrack, Jr.

Last Friday it was announced that a hotel chain owned by Barrack, FRHI Hotels & Resorts, purchased Oakland’s Claremont Hotel. Joining Barrack in buying the Claremont is Richard Blum, husband of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Here’s what the company’s press release said:

“FRHI Hotels & Resorts (FRHI), the parent company of luxury and upper upscale hotel brands Raffles Hotels & Resorts, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts and Swissôtel Hotels & Resorts, together with California financier Richard C. Blum and his family, have purchased the historic Claremont Hotel Club & Spa in Berkeley, California, it was announced today. FRHI and the Blum family are equal partners and terms were not disclosed.”

Whatever the specific terms were, the general gist is that Blum and Feinstein are now business partners with Barrack.

What does this mean for victims of the foreclosure crisis like Cheri King, and homeowners currently fighting to stop foreclosure? In her effort to stave off foreclosure by Wells Fargo, and win back her home from Colony Capital, King wrote to Senator Feinstein’s office last year. According to King, Feinstein’s staff were responsive and helpful, but ultimately nothing has come of her attempt to bring the California Senator’s attention to the problem of continuing bank foreclosures, dual tracking, and the investors like Colony Capital taking advantage of this situation.

Now that Feinstein is a business partner with one of the largest foreclosure investors in the nation, Colony Capital, will there be a push for more meaningful oversight of the banks that are creating the inventory of empty homes for buyers like Barrack to buy up?

In a recent profile story for the East Bay Express my colleagues Ali Winston, Elly Schmidt-Hopper, and I noted that Oakland mayoral candidate Bryan Parker doesn’t support a minimum wage measure that’s picking up lots of signatures, and which will likely be on the city’s ballot this fall. The measure would require all employers in the city of Oakland to pay their workers at least $12.25 per hour.

When we asked Parker about the minimum wage measure in an interview we weren’t surprised by his non-supportive answer. Parker is a business executive who ran a division of DaVita, a Fortune 500 healthcare company that pays many of its workers very low wages. Previously Parker worked at several investment banks, the sorts of places where conservative, anti-labor economic opinions are dominant.

But a few days ago on Twitter Parker claimed we misunderstood and mischaracterized his position on wages. He tweeted that he supports a “living wage.”

Picture 1To clear up the record, here’s what Parker actually told us. We asked him, “do you support a $12.25 an hour minimum wage such as the ballot measure that will likely be put to voters?”

Parker didn’t respond with a “yes.” Parker told us that he supports the idea of a “living wage,” but that he isn’t sure “what the right number is.”

He then said something rather dismissive of the entire idea of using government to raise wages for the working poor. “What I want to think about instead [of a minimum wage] is more full employment,” concluded Parker.


The real value of the federal minimum wage has been made to decline since about 1968. This is one of the major causes of rising household income inequality in America. Ronald Reagan’s term in office coincided with the most consistent and effective attack on the minimum wage.

That’s supply-side economics at its most pure, and it’s also a talking point that has been used by opponents of minimum wages for decades. So to be really clear, when we asked about a minimum wage, we got an answer that wasn’t supportive, and that instead pointed towards a “rising tide lifts all boats” sort of plan.

Here’s the reason we likened Parker’s economic thinking to Ronald Reagan (see 1:33 mins in).

To be fair to Parker there’s some theoretical logic behind the full employment goal. In labor markets with lower unemployment rates companies have a harder time recruiting workers, even for the most unskilled of jobs. Tighter labor markets lead to rising wages as employers scramble to hire employees and retain them. Workers don’t fear quitting or losing jobs as they can just take another one. Wages tend to rise slightly during periods of low unemployment as workers have a smidgen of bargaining power.

Parker also told us he’s cautious about minimum wages because he believes they actually cause unemployment. “Employment would decrease,” said Parker. “Employers wont be able to afford as many employees. There’s extensive studies by economist showing that every time a minimum wage has been raised there’s been a deflationary impact on the overall jobs market.”

Again, that’s a very Reaganesque sort of statement. (See the above video link.)

Switching back into his business executive mode, Parker then told us that he’s a “data driven person.” This is why he doesn’t support a minimum wage and instead offers up the goal of growing jobs.

Problem is, a lot of the economic studies that claim to show a causal link between rising minimum wages and job losses are conducted by researchers working directly for pro-business, corporate-funded think tanks. When your paycheck comes from business interests who will profit from driving down wages, is it any surprise your findings are that higher wages for the lowest-paid workers are bad for the economy, even bad for those very workers?

For a recent example of this logic see Mark Wilson’s “The Negative Effects of Minimum Wage Laws.” Wilson’s consulting firm Applied Economic Strategies, LLC writes economic propaganda for the wealthy elite, attacking higher wages for workers, arguing that unions are obsolete, promoting tax cuts for the wealthy, among other policies that redistribute income and wealthy upward. Wilson was once employed by the Heritage Foundation, a think tank funded by ultra-conservatives like the Koch brothers and he served in George W. Bush’s administration. Oaklanders can probably expect some studies along these lines to be offered up this election season by local opponents of the minimum wage campaign.

The actual academic, peer-reviewed studies on the minimum wage don’t support Parker’s “data driven” opinions. Whether a higher minimum wage causes unemployment to rise at the bottom of the labor market is a controversial question that has been debated since Congress passed the first minimum wage law in the aftermath of the Great Depression, 1938. (It’s been debated alongside child labor laws — those opposing restrictions on using kids as workers in mines and factories were the same people opposed to mandated minimum wages.)

In fact, some studies show minimum wage increases actually bumped up employment rates.

Other state-level studies have shown that minimum wage hikes have led to job losses for low wage workers, but that the overall impact was still to redistribute hundreds of millions of dollars in income downward, even after accounting for lost income from fewer jobs, thereby improving the economic conditions of low-wage households.

A reason for the contradictory results, however, is that the minimum wage is an obviously political issue. It’s at the center of a power struggle between workers and businesses over the distribution of income from economic activity. Enacting minimum wage laws, or raising them on a statewide levels, or even in large metropolitan areas, causes the direct redistribution of millions in income from the top earners to the lowest paid workers. The net effect is probably to redistribute income from wealthy and middle class households to the poor, thereby lifting up the workers with the greatest needs. Many researchers who attempt to gauge the impact of the minimum wage on employment levels are already out to prove either the good or the bad in the policy. When researchers pick their methodological tools, data sets, and statistical formulas, it’s often the case that they’ve already subtly biased the outcome. The kinds of studies you trot out in support of your argument are just that; ammunition to support whether or not you’re for redistributing aggregate income downward via the minimum wage.

But overall the research —not just economic studies, also sociology, history, and not least the actual experiences of working poor families— is pretty clear. Minimum wages increase the overall share of income claimed by the bottom quartile or so of the workforce.


Page 139 of URS Corp’s 2013 SEC 10-K report shows the slight decline of the company’s U.S. military and nuclear weapons contract revenue, and the dramatic rise of its oil and gas division as a cash generator.

One of the biggest developments in Canada’s tar sands is happening on the 26th floor of the Transamerica Building in San Francisco.

It’s there that URS Corp has its headquarters, and its there that the company is building a formidable engineering and construction empire aimed at exploiting oil and gas reserves in North America.

As recently as three years ago URS Corp was mostly concentrated on pursuing engineering and construction projects not directly related to the oil and gas industry. During George W. Bush’s bellicose presidency URS Corp bought up several military-industrial contractors and then went on to win big contracts to “rebuild” Iraq and Afghanistan. URS also won plum contracts to manage nuclear weapons labs and handle radioactive waste for the United States. Warfare was the booming business back then.

Today’s big business is oil and gas, especially Canada’s tar sands, and in the hard to access geologic formations that produce hydrocarbons only through fracking. That’s why URS Corp is fast transforming into a giant oil and gas engineering firm. The company, along with many investors, seems to be taking the position that development of the Canadian tar sands stands a good chance of proceeding, as does the profusion of fracked oil and gas wells across America.

Today URS obtains 30 percent of its total revenue from oil and gas related work. They design and help build mining and refining facilities for tar sands oil. They build giant pipelines to transport oil and gas across continents. Back in 2011 URS Corp didn’t even have an oil and gas segment in its corporate structure.

As URS Corp’s managers describe in their most recent annual report, they purchased Canada’s largest oil and gas services company, Flint Engineering, to “significantly increasing our oil and gas services in North America, particularly to the unconventional segments of this market.” Unconventional oil means the black gooey stuff refined from tar sands and sucked from wells made productive through hydrological fracturing.

URS Corp specifically singles out the Keystone XL Pipeline as being crucial to the future profitability of their oil and gas business. “[S]hould the proposed Keystone XL or other similar proposed pipeline project applications be denied or further delayed by the federal government,” the company’s management explain, “then there may be a slowing of spending in the development of the Canadian oil sands.”

In another section of their annual report to shareholders, URS executives admit that “we may continue to be affected by a slowdown in project activity due to continued low natural gas prices and limited pipeline capacity for oil produced in the Canadian oil sands.”

It appears that URS Corp’s big bet on Keystone XL, the tar sands, and fracking, has attracted some other gamblers to the table. Two hedge funds have recently taken long positions in URS Corp stock. Two New York City hedge funds, both with offices in the GM Building on 5th Avenue, now hold about 17 percent of URS Corp stock. Glenview Capital Management and Jana Partners both ranked among the top earning hedge funds in 2013.

As I wrote last year, URS Corp is hardly alone among California companies with an interest in Canada’s tar sands, and the fracking boom. The Bay Area is an epicenter of firms, from Chevron to Bechtel, with multi-billion dollar interests in exploiting the last and dirtiest drops of oil.

google taxIf you google “money,” the search engine called Google, from which that verbification is derived, will tell you that there are 1.12 billion results. That sounds like a lot of anything, but consider this fact: Google Inc. makes $1.12 billion in profit every 33 days.

Last year approximately $60 billion in revenue flowed through Google, one of Silicon Valley’s tech giants. To put this kind of dollar churn in perspective consider that the state of California’s 2013 budget was $96 billion. Google’s own budget, it’s expenses on sales, marketing, salaries, and R&D was $45 billion, about half that of the largest state in the nation. At this point Google might as well be printing money. Google is sized like a mature blue chip industrial corporation, but it’s still growing like a startup. From 2012 to 2013 Google’s revenue rose 20 percent. It’s net income for 2013 was about $13 billion. That’s cash for the company and its shareholders. Google has so much money it has become something of a problem.

Where to put it all? The G-Men have tucked $58.6 billion into different pockets for safe keeping. Google has $10 billion in cash deposits. But why earn less than inflation when you can invest? Google’s financial engineers have bought $1.5 billion in foreign government bonds. Google owns your city’s debt, and the bonds of your local school district; the company owns $3 billion in municipal bonds. Google owns $7.3 billion in the shares of other corporations, perhaps the company you work for? Google might even own a slice of your mortgage; it holds $7.3 billion in federal agency-backed mortgage securities.

Part of the reason Google has so much cash is because it has come to dominate Silicon Valley’s key industry: advertising. More than 90 percent of Google’s earnings come through selling ads, either directly through its own web sites, or third party web sites.

But advertising is only hyper-profitable because Google has figured out how to dodge the tax man. Google’s effective tax rate was already well below the statutory 35 percent federal corporate rate, but last year it dipped even further, falling from 19.4 percent in 2012 to 15.7 percent in 2013. It’s hard to tell what Google actually forked over to the feds and to the foreign governments where it operates, but Google reports that its tax burden keeps dropping “primarily as a result of proportionately more earnings realized in countries that have lower statutory tax rates,” according to the company’s 2013 annual report. Many of the countries Google is referring to are considered tax havens.

But here too it’s hard to tell which countries specifically are hosting Google’s strategic shell companies, and how much Google is earning overseas. As Jeffrey Gramlich and Janie Whiteaker-Poe, researchers at the University of Maine pointed out in a recent study, Google began omitting information about its overseas subsidiaries in its SEC filings three years ago.

“Google’s 2009 SEC Form 10-K, filed in February 2010, disclosed 117 subsidiaries, 81 of which were located in 38 foreign countries,” note Gramlich and Whiteaker-Poe. “When Google issued its financial statements for the year ended December 31, 2010, its Exhibit 21 listed only two significant subsidiaries.”

So where did 98 percent of Google’s subsidiaries go? Did Google terminate them?

Gramlich and Whiteaker-Poe found that most of them still exist and are registered with authorities overseas, but that they have been purposefully omitted from Google’s SEC filings, likely in an effort to conceal tax planning strategies used to reduce taxes paid to the U.S. government and foreign nations. Google’s most recent filing with the SEC reveals only 3 subsidiaries. Two are in Ireland, and one is in Delaware, both jurisdictions that afford Google secrecy and basement corporate income tax rates.


An ALPR array with three cameras at the intersection of Linda Ave. and Kingston Ave.

The city of Piedmont has installed automated license plate reader stations at busy intersections ringing its borders. The ALPR system was proposed last year. Installation began in November of 2013 after Piedmont’s city council set aside $678,000 for the technology that uses computer analytics to instantly identify the plate numbers of every vehicle passing under the watchful eyes of precision digital video cameras.

Home to bankers, lawyers, corporate executives, and real estate tycoons, Piedmont, population 10,000, is one of the wealthiest municipalities in America. When it was founded in the early 1900s it was immediately given the nickname “City of Millionaires” due to the concentration of wealthy families within its borders.

Piedmont has always been very much defined by its borders. The city is completely surrounded by Oakland, a much larger municipality whose population includes 88,000 persons whose incomes fall below the federally defined poverty line. The median household income in Oakland is $51,000. In Piedmont it’s $206,000, over four times Oakland’s average. The median home price in Piedmont is $1.5 million, and the small city has virtually no rental housing, making it an expensive community to buy a membership in.


Vehicles pass under ALPR cameras installed by Piedmont on Grand Avenue at the city’s border with Oakland.


Gavin Ames said he broke his leg on Oakland’s pothole filled Jackson Street. The health problem cost him his job, leading to homelessness. The city forced him to leave his camp site next to the Kaiser Auditorium today and trashed some of his belongings.

The city of Oakland ordered several dozen homeless residents to vacate their camp sites around the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center today. A large crew of public works employees were ordered to dispose of tents, blankets, luggage, and other possessions. At least ten Oakland police officers were on scene also.

Pastor Preston Walker has lived in a tent under a buckeye tree near the Kaiser building for several months. He shared the spot with several other men. Their campsite is decorated with a flag of the United States, the words “no justice, no peace” written on it. An Oakland Athletics Baseball Club pennant hangs next to a sign reading “Occupy the Hood.”

Scrawled on the sign is a date; “January 28, 2012,” the day hundreds of Oaklanders attempted to take over the Kaiser building as a “community center.” Oakland’s mayor and city council authorized the police to use all means necessary to repel the march. Oakland police fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and threw stun grenades at the protesters. The building has sit empty since then.

“People are just gonna come right back here cause where are they going to go?,” said Walker. “Otherwise they’ll just squat somewhere else.”

Seven Oakland police officers chatted among themselves nearby, watching ducks and geese and a stray rooster pecking at the grass. The officers looked bored.

“I don’t think they want to be doing this, out here when there’s better things they should be doing,” said Walker.

On the other side of the building Gavin Ames is trying to figure out how to move his belongings before the city’s workers throw them away.

“I used to be a cashier at a Chevron station. I was living paycheck to paycheck,” said Ames. “Then this happened,” he said, pointing to the cast on his leg and foot.

“I fell in a hole in the street on Jackson, right here, downtown Oakland, broke my leg.”

Ames said he finds it ironic the city of Oakland’s public works employees are being told to remove him and other homeless residents. “They should be fixing the streets.”


City of Oakland staff, non-profit outreach workers, and Oakland police at the “clean up” of Kaiser Auditorium.

Joe Devries, a neighborhood services supervisor with the city of Oakland, said the city had reached out to those camped around the Kaiser building offering services since September. “This has been a long slow process, but we made it abundantly clear that people could not be camping here.”

Devries mentioned also that last week the building was broken into and copper was stolen. It’s not clear how that related to the homeless persons camped out nearby. Several of the homeless men called it just another excuse to remove them.

“People want to use this space as a park. The city has invested millions around the Lake here,” said Devries. “This is an area want to keep making beautiful.”


A large number of Oakland police officers watched over a public works crew as they removed a homeless encampment around the Kaiser Auditorium.

Five stationary cameras and a "point, tilt, zoom" bubble camera in an East Oakland neighborhood with a population that is 50% Black, 23% Latino, 16% white and 6% Asian.

Five stationary cameras and a point, tilt, zoom (“PTZ”) bubble camera in an East Oakland neighborhood with a population that is 50% Black, 23% Latino, 16% white and 6% Asian.

Race is a surveillance technology. Race can be theorized as an embodied, primarily visual means of perception used by the viewer to identify and track human bodies.

In the era of early mercantile capitalism race was deduced by skin color, hair, and facial features. Race was used to categorize humanity into castes of slaves and masters, free and bonded.

The anthropology and biology of the colonial era developed the idea of race as a “nature” in the blood, and as a fact measurable in the body’s proportions, the texture of hair, the size of the brain. All of this was scientific nonsense, of course, but the point wasn’t to grapple with empirical reality; the point was to justify slavery and imperialism based on what is otherwise an arbitrary and politically determined difference. In the plantation societies of the Americas every white eye was a camera, every Black body the object of surveillance.


A street sign in deep east Oakland circa 90th and International Boulevard, a mostly Black and Latino area of the city, warns pedestrians and vehicles that “all activities” are under surveillance.

Surveillance has always been about controlling the mobility of the poor and property-less, be they slaves or prisoners, wards of reservations, immigrants, or welfare recipients.

The poverty and violence of inequality constantly threatens to spill over into the privileged zones of wealth and tranquility.

Surveillance tends to be most concentrated on border zones between the enfranchised citizens and the marginalized denizens, or in ghetto and prison architectures designed to contain the boiling masses of the darker nations.


A PTZ camera along Broadway in Oakland’s downtown commercial corridor, location for the offices of fortune 500 companies, law firms, and valuable real estate.

Today the state and the military-industrial contractors that build and operate the contemporary surveillance systems adamantly deny the raciality of surveillance. Like those who deployed surveillance systems of prior centuries, the empirical evidence contradicts them. We know that NYPD stop and frisk tactics disproportionately target Blacks and Latinos.

We know that border reconnaissance drones fly mostly over the US-Mexico border, watching down upon non-white immigrants.

Biometric databases are used to capture the identities of “foreign” combatants, prisoners, border crossers.

These surveillance systems, vast projects that have consumed billions of dollars and countless labor hours, reveal obvious obsessions with the movements of racialized bodies.


The sign for a youth center in east Oakland tells Black, Latino, and other immigrant youngsters to “achieve success.” A PTZ surveillance camera watches over them.

In Oakland, California, local police and security agencies are in the early phases of building out a city-wide surveillance system called the Domain Awareness Center (DAC). The DAC will pull video camera feeds, gunshot detection alerts, and even information gleaned from social media, into one central hub. It will allow the Oakland Police Department to use the surveillance intelligence to deploy officers in real time, and also as evidence in later criminal prosecutions.

As with all surveillance it’s important to understand who will be watched, and who will be watching. Oakland is one of the Blackest cities in California with roughly 100,000 African American residents. 73,000 of Oakland’s African American residents live at or below the federally defined poverty level of income. 27 percent of Oakland’s population is Latino, and 16 percent is Asian. Poverty is high among these groups also.


Surveillance cameras peer around the corner of the building in which the Oakland Tribune, the city’s major daily newspaper, is located. The street poles in the background are decorated with banners of the Downtown Oakland Association, a business improvement district that is applying for grant funding to build out a private surveillance camera network that may eventually be linked into the city’s DAC system.


The eyes of authority watch over Black, Latino, and Asian youngsters at Fremont High School in east Oakland.


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