Jesse Douglas Allen-Taylor signing books at the launch of his novel Sugaree Rising in 2013. Credit: Courtesy of Pamela Drake

Journalist, political columnist, and activist Jesse Douglas Allen-Taylor, also known as Doug Allen to old timers, passed away suddenly on February 28 at his family home in deep East Oakland. His children announced Allen-Taylor’s passing on Facebook, where dozens of longtime East Bay residents paid tribute to his scholarship. 

I first met Jesse in the early 2000s during the state takeover of the Oakland Unified School District, when he encouraged me to publish some of my writing about police blocking the public from entering a school board meeting.

Allen-Taylor was an investigative reporter, historian, novelist, and mentor to young activists (and some older ones). He was an award-winning author who covered almost every aspect of life in Oakland and Berkeley, including by writing searing and influential political critiques of Oakland’s political leadership. He was a father dedicated to his four children and five grandchildren. He also chronicled the lives and times of his large extended family, the well-known Allen-Reid-Pete clan, who are some of the oldest Black families in Oakland and Berkeley.

Allen-Taylor wrote for almost every Bay Area alt weekly over more than three decades, from the San Jose Metro and East Bay Express to the Berkeley Daily Planet. Before working in the Bay Area as a writer, he spent decades in South Carolina as a freedom worker with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where he helped coordinate a campaign for renewal of the Voting Rights Act in 1981, among other vital and often dangerous civil rights activities. Allen-Taylor drew on his deep knowledge of African American history, from the Bay Area to the South, to help those of us struggling to understand a way forward in troubled times.

In this time when local newsrooms have shrunk or disappeared altogether, it’s hard to remember that once there were reporters who covered the AC Transit board and the Peralta Community College District board, not to mention city councils and the county Board of Supervisors. Each of these government entities makes decisions that affect the everyday lives of millions of people but are no longer covered by their own dedicated beat reporters. Jesse, at one time or another, covered all of them.

As a novelist, Allen-Taylor wrote Sugaree Rising, about a rural Black South Carolina community’s fight to survive during the Great Depression. The book won him the 2013 PEN Oakland Reginald Lockett Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition, Allen-Taylor edited the best-selling memoir of his cousin, the iconic National Park Service Ranger Betty Reid-Soskin.

Jesse Douglas Allen-Taylor reading from his novel Sugaree Rising.

Allen-Taylor’s investigations and commentaries appeared in magazines and web publications such as Southern Exposure, Colorlines, and Race, Poverty & the Environment. His subject matter range was broad, reflecting his intellectual appetite.

Here in Oakland, his research and thoughtful analyses influenced policy discussions about everything from policing and protest movements to development, gentrification, and city politics. His political commentaries were infused by his deep respect for African American culture and folklore.

Allen-Taylor never failed to speak up about the conditions of his neighborhood in deep East Oakland, its neglect by the city, the school district, and especially what he viewed as the poor treatment AC Transit paid to neighborhoods along International Boulevard during the building of the Bus Rapid Transit project.

From 1999 to 2006, Allen-Taylor carefully observed and wrote about Jerry Brown’s terms as Oakland mayor. He criticized Brown’s policies, which he felt resulted in the displacement of Black people and other people of color, and the gentrification of their neighborhoods. And Allen-Taylor blasted Brown’s quest to reduce crime, which arguably helped unleash “the Riders,” a squad of West Oakland cops who beat and planted drugs on Black people. He wrote in 2004 that Brown and his police chief, Richard Word, left a “trail of failure”—poor relations with the community and unfinished reforms—that still dogs the Oakland Police Department to this day.

Allen-Taylor also chronicled what he called “the police war on Black Oakland youth,” Including an effort by OPD and city and state politicians to crack down on sideshows in the early 2000s, a desperate effort that led to a police chase resulting in the death of a young woman.

One of the earliest recollections I have of Jesse was of the many discussions we had on the concept of legal sideshows—ones sponsored by the city that could engage youth without endangering participants or neighbors. Then-Councilmember Desley Brooks championed a program supported by then-Police Chief Richard Word, but it was opposed by many in the city, including then-Councilmember Larry Reid. People spoke of the liability, the comparisons to NASCAR notwithstanding. Perhaps it was a lost opportunity?

Allen-Taylor cared deeply about the Oakland Unified School District and described the 2003 state takeover and calls to slash OUSD’s budget and close schools as one of Oakland’s greatest public scandals ever. “His work around the state takeover created a path that I’m still following,” said OUSD Director Mike Hutchinson.

Possibly one of his most potent journalistic projects was Allen-Taylor’s unrelenting watchdogging of Don Perata’s campaign for mayor in 2010. All pillars of the Democratic Party expected Perata, a former state senator, to cruise to victory, but Allen-Taylor came up with a simple idea and designed a website around it: “Anybody but Perata.” The site featured a compilation of investigations by East Bay journalists into allegations of corruption involving Perata, and urged voters to take advantage of the city’s ranked choice voting system, which was then being used for the first time. When all the votes were finally counted, Jean Quan bested Perata to become the city’s first Asian American and first woman mayor.

“Jesse changed Oakland history,” said the well-known Oakland political activist Kitty Kelly Epstein. “He was deliberate, courageous, and thorough in compiling the available information. By the time the election rolled around, a person Googling ‘Perata’ did not  come first upon Perata’s  campaign website. Instead, the Googler came upon Jesse’s website first!”

Allen-Taylor’s influence lives on in the works of younger generations of activists and organizers, some who have taken positions in government to try to improve Oakland.

“Jesse was always great to talk to because he was a critical thinker who looked for underlying meaning, or the oft-time obscured truth in all things,” District 3 Councilmember Carroll Fife said. “He didn’t go along to get along. Rather, he carved a journalistic path based on truth telling.”

Much of Allen-Taylor’s writing on African American culture, East Bay politics, and more can be read on his website.