Those of us who live in the Bay Area find ourselves stunned at the condition of our democracy: a quagmire in Iraq, loss of privacy and civil liberties, global climate change. How did we let this happen to us? Is the problem only in Washington or Sacramento? We’re liberals in Oakland. We support domestic partnerships and an end to wars of invasion. For the most part, our politicians represent those views well enough.

Well, folks, maybe you should’ve been paying more attention to the deals going down in our little town, especially during the Brown years. Our backyard is as much a microcosm of our national nightmare as any city in the heartland, and we’re still trying to figure out what went wrong.

Here, in Oakland, we have also pioneered laws to criminalize our youth. We’re leaders in the corporatizing of public schools, where we have brought in the Broad Corporation to run ours. When it comes to such Floridian ideas as preventing the counting of votes, our city attorney’s office has led the way by halting the vote count on a referendum that would allow the people of Oakland to decide what will happen to its last remaining waterfront.

It’s been a year since the city council passed the controversial plan to turn our public waterfront into a village of high rises and semi-private parks. It’s too difficult to recap the twists, turns, and complications involved with the development of that plan and all the resulting lawsuits that are being contested today. You may get more information by checking out the various websites: Oak-to-9th Referendum Committee, Urban Strategies Council, Waterfront Action, Asian Pacific Environmental Network, and our local newspapers, including: the Oakland Tribune, the Montclarion, the East Bay Express, and the Berkeley Daily Planet. (Heck, you might have read Chip Johnson’s column, “Don’t let this house burn down,” on why locals should stop complaining and learn to love concrete).

But to briefly recap what led to the current astonishing and disheartening state of affairs, with Jerry Brown as our pro-developer mayor, Oakland jumped on the high-end (known as market-rate) housing bandwagon and began to look for parcels of land that could lure out-of-town buyers to high-rises away from our “gritty” (a favorite cliché to describe Oakland) streets, where most Oaklanders can only hope to rent. Since we’re a fairly built-out city, well-connected developers turned to publicly owned lands that had gone mostly unnoticed by residents. They found a large swath, a 64-acre parcel on the Estuary. This was waterfront land previously committed to public festivals and water-oriented commercial and recreational uses as a result of a community process led by the League of Women Voters, small business people, artisans, and long-time residents. After the city council passed the Estuary Policy Plan (EPP) in 1999, the fun began.

The City was charged to find an appropriate developer that would work with community groups to design the specifics of the EPP. It was understood that this was potentially very valuable public property, and that a delicate balance would have to be found in the mix of commercial, retail, and housing uses while preserving the existing artisan community and providing a large expanse of public open space. Any developer proposing a plan would have to work with and carefully listen to the surrounding and larger community. At least that’s what we thought.

Oakland resident and Green Party activist Kate Tanaka was attending a city council meeting one night and came to attention when she heard former city council member and former Superior Court Judge John Sutter plead with the council not to abandon the Estuary Policy Plan and ask why no grants from the state or feds had ever been applied for to implement the plan. He also asked why they were selling the valuable public parcel off for a mere $18 million. (For a reality check, the City is buying back a portion of the parcel for affordable housing at a cost of $29 million, then building the housing using our redevelopment funds).

Kate, a real estate agent, thought to herself, “Something really horrible’s going on here.” She had moved to Oakland in 1998 and didn’t know all the players or the history but decided to find out more. As Kate says, “with so many people suffering incredible poverty in Oakland, why is public wealth going to the lowest bidder?”

First Kate got involved with the Community Benefits Coalition, which was formed from neighborhood organizations, non-profits concerned with the needs of low-income communities, the Alameda County Central Labor Council, and others.

But Kate became disillusioned when she saw the Coalition sign onto the project after receiving some promises of affordable housing and jobs for locals, things which she thought were small concessions considering the size and value of this last large waterfront parcel. (The Coalition demanded and got concessions for 465 low-income, family housing units and a requirement that 300 entry-level construction jobs would go to Oakland residents.)

She and other members of the Green party joined with the League of Women Voters of Oakland, the Sierra Club, members of the 5th Avenue community, Coalition of Advocates for Lake Merritt, Oakland Heritage Alliance (whose principle interest was the Ninth Avenue Terminal), Piedmont Avenue Neighborhood Improvement League, and the Jack London Waterfront Neighborhood Association to lobby their council members to reject the proposal by Oakland Harbor Partners (comprised primarily of Signature Properties) and start over.