After Budget Cuts, Oakland’s Youth Fight Over the Scraps

By Guest Columnist Mar 19, 2009

by Ryan Takemiya Over 100 people filled Oakland’s City Hall Tuesday night. Earlier this week, the Oakland City Council met to decide whether to repeal or amend Measure OO, a local bill passed in November that set aside money for youth after-school services. It’s been targeted as the city is looking for ways to pay off its astronomical debt, a result of the larger economic downturn. The city has to make $56 million dollars in cutbacks, and is cannibalizing itself in order to pay it off. At the City Council meeting Tuesday, this tragedy came to life as Oakland’s own children fought over the scraps. I work for Oakland Asian Students Educational Services, an after-school program in Oakland Chinatown that benefits directly from Measure OO funds, and was naturally horrified when I heard that any sort of repeal or amendment was on the table for Measure OO. A repeal would mean an instant loss of $4 million dollars worth of funding for city youth programs, 50% of which would be taken specifically from after-school services. But on Tuesday night, the City Council was pitting after-school programs against city recreation centers, claiming the cuts would have to come from one program or the other. It quickly became apparent that it didn’t matter from which coffer the money was going to be taken. Money from both Measure OO and Parks/Rec. go towards services that are used by poor youth of color from Oakland’s most destitute neighborhoods. Which meant kids of color were fighting other kids of color to keep their services. At the meeting, an unprecedented 100 people – mostly youth from both sides – signed up to speak, and each pleaded with council members not to shut down their programs. Council members threw up their hands and insisted one or the other would have to suffer, using this manufactured tension in order to deflect attention away from the fact that they were robbing poor people of color of essential services while maintaining budgets for things like the Police department. It’s part of a larger systematic dehumanization of youth of color. If inner-city youth services are deemed dispensable while Oakland PD’s budget is untouchable, then youth of color lose twice over. Poor youth of color are dehumanized and then criminalized through a barrage of different laws and cutbacks aimed at taking away freedom and resources from young people who can’t vote, which then leads to violence and incarceration. Without anywhere to go, youth will end up on the streets, and instead of promoting essential services, the city attempts to institute things like the recent controversial youth curfew. Instead of keeping kids off the streets in positive, enriching ways, the city takes actions to leave kids on the streets where their very presence is a detainable offense, and where they are in danger of experiencing violence. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The City Council ended up voting on a compromise that would amend Measure OO instead of repealing it. However, the vote was split 50/50, which means it is now up to Mayor Dellums to break the tie. But whatever he decides, the damage has been done. The city succeeded in proving to its own people that the very livelihoods of poor people of color are expendable. They taught the lesson, and Oakland’s kids are learning it well. Ryan Takemiya is an Asian American writer, lecturer and activist based in the Bay Area.