Several activists, including current and former members of the National Association for the Advancement of People of Color, or NAACP, raised concerns at a press conference yesterday in downtown Oakland about the group’s local chapter, saying it has attacked Oakland’s progressive political leaders including Mayor Sheng Thao, District Attorney Pamela Price, and several city councilmembers.
“The Oakland branch is currently using its position to hijack the legacy of the historic organization and using it as a weapon against their opposition,” said Doug Blacksher, a longtime Oakland resident, businessman, and the host of the Black Business Roundtable. “Ironically, this opposition is trained on Black women and other women of color who are working for the reform that is directly in line with the platform and agenda of the national NAACP.”
Also appearing at Tuesday’s press conference was Walter Riley, a long-time civil rights attorney and co-chair of the John George Democratic Club; Cathy Leonard, president of the Coalition for Police Accountability; Desmond Jeffries, director of recruitment and retention for the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office; and Chaney Turner, who chairs the Oakland Cannabis Regulatory Commission.
In a letter to the national NAACP, the group, which also includes retired SEIU 1021 field rep and East Oakland resident Millie Cleveland, public education advocate and coach Ben Tapscott, and activist Cheryl Walton, wrote that they want the Oakland chapter’s leadership to stop “reverting to lies, fear-mongering and the ‘tough-on-crime’ rhetoric that has targeted African Americans throughout our entire history in this country, evoking stereotypical narratives of Black criminality.” They also want the local NAACP chapter to remove members who they believe are using the organization for personal gain. They said the Oakland NAACP has become entangled with the Alameda County Republican Party’s positions, and they want the chapter to put an end to any connection it might have with Sam Singer, a public relations consultant who currently represents former Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong. Singer has also represented clients like Chevron, which operates the refinery in Richmond, and he frequently takes to social media to criticize Oakland’s mayor and other leaders.
The Oakland NAACP’s president, Cynthia Adams, dismissed these criticisms in a statement sent to The Oaklandside. “I have no comment to the false accusations that are intended to distract everyone’s attention from the retail thefts, robberies, burglaries, murders, business closures, and the overall lawlessness that has everyone in fear for their safety.”
Oakland’s NAACP chapter was founded in 1913, four years after the national organization was established. It has numerous committees that focus on areas like youth, labor, housing, and environmental justice, but over the past year it has been most active on criminal justice issues.
The local NAACP’s current leaders have repeatedly criticized city officials for failing to address Oakland’s uptick in violent crime.
On Monday, the Oakland NAACP held a press conference where they blamed Mayor Thao and other officials for missing out on a state grant to help address retail theft. The chapter recently released a 10-point plan it says will improve public safety, which includes increasing the police force to 1,000 officers and fully staffing the 911 center. The group’s advocacy for more police and harsher punishment has gotten coverage on the conservative Fox News network, where NAACP leaders blamed the “defund the police” movement for the rise in crime. Oakland NAACP leaders have said at press conferences and public meetings that they believe Oakland’s violent crime is a civil rights issue that requires their attention.
Defending former Police Chief Armstrong has been a major issue for the Oakland NAACP. Armstrong attended an NAACP-organized rally in January and protested being put on administrative leave by the mayor following the publication of a report that blamed him for the breakdown of OPD’s discipline process. A recent report from a state arbitrator criticized the investigations that led to Armstrong’s firing, which prompted the Oakland NAACP on Tuesday to demand the mayor reinstate him as chief.
The local NAACP did not endorse any candidates in the mayoral election, but it led calls for a recount of ballots following Loren Taylor’s loss to Sheng Thao in November. The group later abandoned the effort because they could not pay for it. Taylor is listed as an executive member of the Oakland NAACP and co-chair of the group’s “Legal Redress Committee” alongside Terry Wiley, a career prosecutor who lost the race for district attorney to Price last year.
Taylor declined to comment on the press conference or the letter critical of the local NAACP’s current direction. He told The Oaklandside he’s been an active member of the NAACP since he was in college. He’s been a paid member since at least a year before the mayoral election. He told ABC7 that he’s a lifelong Democrat and considers himself a progressive.
Wiley also declined to comment, deferring to Adams for any matter related to the Oakland NAACP.
Riley, the civil rights attorney, said the local branch’s leaders include people who failed to win elections and are now using the group to “attack” progressive lawmakers.
Members of the local NAACP chapter campaigned for the end of the city’s eviction moratorium that was implemented to keep renters housed during the pandemic, including by helping organize a protest at a City Council meeting in March. Some of the group’s members argued that the policy was harming small local landlords of color who stood to lose their rental properties if they couldn’t remove non-paying tenants.
District Attorney Pamela Price, the county’s first Black DA, has faced criticism from the local NAACP. Adams, the group’s president, wrote in a press release in July that the DA Price has failed to lead during a time of increasing crime. “Our District Attorney’s unwillingness to charge and prosecute people who murder and commit life threatening serious crimes, and the proliferation of anti-police rhetoric have created a heyday for Oakland criminals,” Adams said.
Riley said the city’s NAACP chapter is out of step with the priorities of the national NAACP, which emphasizes progressive criminal justice system reforms.
The local NAACP has noticeably failed to advocate for certain vulnerable Oakland groups like unsheltered people, said Turner, the cannabis commission and East Oakland resident. “I’m concerned because there has been complete silence from this particular chapter when it comes to issues that affect Oaklanders,” they said.
Leonard, the police accountability activist, said the local NAACP has also welcomed new members who have harassed and threatened people. She and others appeared to be referring to Seneca Scott, a political activist who is also one of the executive members of the NAACP. In the letter they sent to the national NAACP, Leonard, Riley, Blacksher and others noted that the East Bay Stonewall Democratic Club and Alameda County Democratic Club denounced Scott for making anti-LGBTQ statements on social media.
“Stop with the homophobia and hatred,” Leonard said. “That has no place in this society.”
Leonard, Riley, Blacksher and several others wrote in their letter to the national NAACP that they want help reclaiming what they believe to be the legacy of the Oakland NAACP.
On Thursday, the NAACP California Hawaii State Conference branch issued a statement in support of the Oakland NAACP.
“We are committed to unity over divisiveness and we welcome all seekers of justice to renew their memberships to be a part of the important conversations in the NAACP, leading the fight to end racial inequality,” said part of a statement from Rick Callender and Rev. Amos Brown, who are both members of the NAACP board of directors. Callender is the president of the NAACP CA/HI, and Brown is the NAACP San Francisco President.