Geoffrey Pete is the kind of public figure who is easily shrouded in mythology. He’s been described as a power broker, kingmaker and city boss—lofty titles he chalks up to “urban legends.” Through the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, up to the present, Pete has kept his finger on Oakland’s pulse. Much more than a club owner, he’s an organizer and advocate in the African American business community. At times, a political insider and confidante, but also—most notably, during his face-off with OPD—a name no insider wants to drop. To understand Mr. Pete’s story is to understand a bit more the history of Oakland.
Oaklanders know him well. Renee Moncada was a cocktail waitress at Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, the memorable Oakland club and community venue that was THE go-to spot for people of color in the late 70’s and 80’s. “Geoffrey’s was more than just a club,” Renee recalled. “There was this vibe and this class and this element of ‘everybody wants to know your name’ and who’s who, and it all came from him, from Geoffrey. Everyone was there: Wynton Marsalis, Phillis Hyman, soul musicians, politicians, actors, basketball players, hustlers, just a little bit of everyone. He managed to create this atmosphere where everyone felt special but also, you know, it felt like family.”
Geoffrey Pete is a tall, elegant man with an easy gregariousness. When I introduced myself as Liza, he called me back “Minnelli” and referred to me that way thereafter. He speaks deliberately, suspending the conversation with long pauses rather than cluttering it with ums and you knows. You ask him what he ate for lunch and you might get a response that involves a quote from Casablanca, a reference to the Taft-Hartley act, a list of everyone on Oakland City Council in the year 1984 and an anecdote about Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
Other times, he’s serious and hard to unlock, and there isn’t much telling why. He abruptly ended our second of three interviews only twenty minutes in.
During the time we spent together, his phone rang, according to my calculations, every seven minutes. We didn’t make it down a single block of Downtown Oakland without someone trying to stop and say hi. “Mr. Geoffrey,” they called him, or else, “Uncle Geoffrey.”
Pete is insistent about downplaying his political engagement. “I am officially in the ass-kissing business. Unashamedly. I like it,” he told me. “Now, if I had not been a fool, if I had listened to the words of Slim Jenkins, legendary West Oakland barkeeper– what he said was ‘Politics and religion, keep them out of my establishment,’– I would have had a simpler time. It’s a rule that hospitality entrepreneurs would be wise to take heed of.”
Pete peddles advice like this with such conviction. You have to press him on his sincerity. In fact, he has done the opposite of keeping politics and religion out of his establishment. He’s endorsed City Council candidates he believes in, instead of candidates that are popular with his patrons. He’s used his club as a venue for press conferences, regularly alienating swathes of potential patrons who happen to be at political odds.
If you press him on any one example of personal sacrifice in the interest of greater good he’ll say, “Well I’d probably do it again just the same, but it’s not smart business.”
Pete’s story is one of many that make up the legacy of organized black political power in Oakland. His adulthood was forged in the radicalism of the 60’s, and he assumed a lifestyle of political engagement as a matter of course. He says his father was a communist and labor leader; his mother integrated the YWCA, his brothers were members of the Black Panther Party. His family members were COINTELPRO targets and one of his brothers was savagely beaten by OPD for demonstrating.
Geoffrey says he “didn’t have the courage [to join the Panthers]. That’s what it comes down to.”
According to Pete, there was a moment in the early 70’s, when it seemed like “power was actually going to change hands from the old city fathers, to African Americans.” White people were fleeing the city, making black people nearly half the population. Bobby Seale came in second in the mayoral race and then four years later Lionel Wilson (the first black mayor) was elected thanks to record black voter turnout. The City Council became mostly black, along with the school board superintendent and the head of OPD.
Instead of devoting himself to militant anti-establishmentarianism, Pete built off the success of the Panthers by pressing the city to contract with African American businesses and hire locally. “I did what I could,” Pete says, “but I didn’t do enough for local hire. That’s the biggest regret.”
But right at that hopeful moment in the early 70’s, “the city’s solid employment base, the manufacturing plants– vanished. They left the city desolate.” Pete recounted a tale of outsourcing known by so many industrial towns. “We once had the army base, the ship yards, General Motors, General Electric, American Can, Transamerican Delaval. We had Mother’s Cookies, Granny Goose. We lost all of that.”
Due to the firm closures and white flight of the 70’s, capital drained from the city. And then the crack cocaine epidemic hit. The era of black prosperity and political self-determination in Oakland was dead on arrival.
“That was a low point,” says Pete. By 1999, when Jerry Brown was elected, many welcomed the end of what they perceived to be an era of corruption by a predominately black administration. The Wall Street Journal endorsed Brown’s “promise to dismantle the African American-dominated political machine that presided over much of the city’s decline since the 1970’s.”
The lingering reputation of that “African American-dominated political machine” is intimately linked with Pete’s own reputation, because of his close ties and political involvement. He argues that prominent African Americans like him continue to be scrutinized for their success, even targeted outright.
Jed Silver, who was affiliated with Pete through the Bay Area Business Roundtable, shares Pete’s opinion that the specter of the black “old guard” is used today to drum up suspicion of prominent black figures– perhaps explaining overblown reputations as a mover and shaker. “There’s a feeling that Oakland is this black Democrat town, the fact of the matter is that was a long time ago. People still have a suspicion about it but those days are long gone,” Silver says.
Silver cited as an example the ongoing grand jury investigation of Alan Dones, who has been accused of foul play in securing his contract to redevelop parts of Laney College. “When someone like Alan Dones gets a lucrative contract everyone’s quick to try to find an explanation like (since) he’s some well-connected black man, something shady was happening.”
Pete has a similar history of being targeted in the midst of success. In 2009, he filed a civil law suit against OPD for what he describes as deliberate efforts to shut down black establishments in downtown Oakland. The suit targets an alleged pattern of charging club and restaurant owners overtime fees, citing an ordinance requiring that special events of a certain size pay for their own OPD enhanced security. Pete says that he refused to pay the fines, which came to thousands of dollars a month, arguing that they were racially targeted.
As the East Bay Express and others reported in 2009, Sergeant Kyle Thomas fabricated a story about an alleged shooting, drug dealings and fighting in Downtown Merchants Garage, where Pete’s customers parked. The garage then canceled Pete’s long–term lease even thought there had never been any prior complaints involving his patrons at the garage. Shortly after, Geoffrey’s Inner Circle shut down. Thomas later admitted that police had no record of a shooting, drug dealing, or fights inside the garage.
When Pete responded by filing a civil rights lawsuit against OPD, he says that his case was dismissed. According to Pete, the judge ruled that Sergeant Thomas’s “bald-faced lies” were not constitutional injury. He says that the officer was never sanctioned or disciplined for his misconduct. Geoffrey’s Inner Circle has since reopened but Pete remains embittered that “not a single official spoke out against the injustice.”
His story sparks out of the friction of a changing city. Pete has a bleak view about the future of black activism in Oakland. But perhaps his reluctance to credit today’s organized advocacy is similar to his reluctance to give himself credit for his own work as an activist. After witnessing the sacrifices made by his family members and others, perhaps it’s hard to register the strength in other forms of empowerment building.
“I can’t say enough about what Geoffrey has done for the broader community and for the African American community,” said City Council member Lynette Gibson McElhaney. “He’s always been the one to open his place up for community meetings and press conferences for people to get their message out. He’s given a holiday meal every holiday for the last five or ten years for people who don’t have a place to go—I mean a good meal. He knows how to bring people together and make things happen. Geoffrey just has a good heart.”