Every so often the national spotlight turns to Oakland, CA, a city of about half the population of its better-known neighbor, San Francisco. For the past three years that spotlight has come courtesy of the NBA Finals, where the Golden State Warriors – led by the god-fearing “baby faced assassin” Stephen Curry and All-Star Co. – have met the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James. In tow of the Finals come a slew of celebrities and other sports personalities, along with the teams’ billionaire owners: Joe Lacob (Warriors) accumulated his $1.5 billion as a venture capitalist at Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, while Dan Gilbert (Cavaliers) wrangled in his $5.9 billion as founder of the notoriously criminal Quicken Loans Inc. These men (including Warriors minority owner Peter Guber – $800 million) are well within the strata of the top 1% of income earners. As the PR slogan goes: “The NBA Cares” – about the filthy rich.
But all of this is hidden from the casual viewer behind the commodity fetish and dizzying array of lights and sounds. We are (firmly) asked to tune in to the game and tune out of a world that capitalism has brought precipitously close to disaster (assuming the end of days is not already upon us). Those who can do without $133k can view the spectacle up close, while the rest of us are invited in via the warm glow of our television screens. The capitalists and celebrity elite have entered the arena via the secret back door. Everyone stands for the national anthem – an exercise in nationalism and propaganda like few others. The stage is set. Cue the lights. The wealth gap grows wider, the ocean water warmer, the famines more intense – and there’s still no safe drinking water in Flint, Michigan. Start the music and introduce the players. A championship must be won.
And then it was won – and rather easily at that by the Warriors. Quickly, the spectacle begins to wear off as the celebrities fade back into the covers of magazine tabloids, the champions shower in champagne and return to their mansions, the fans prepare for work in the morning.
The story of the NBA Finals in Oakland is the story of every NBA Finals that takes place in any major city in America. On one hand, it’s a tale of two cities – one where the homeless live in tents under freeways and alienated labor reigns, while the police enforce the law of private property and rape and kill with impunity. On the other, it’s a tale of humanity under capitalism – in which the majority of humanity survives on almost nothing, while a minority lives in unfathomable opulence.
Already the championship parade rout around downtown Oakland has been put forward. Likely thousands of people – those that don’t work on a Thursday – will come out. The mood will be festive. The celebration will take place far away from where homeless encampments are are growing under freeway overpasses (see 5th & Harrison, 7th & Alice, E 12th St. and 22nd Ave.) and being pushed out of parks.
My point is not to scold those who enjoy basketball or other sports. I don’t mean to imply that the working class should remain abstinent from all pleasure until the day socialism triumphs. I watched game five, and cheered when Durant caught fire in the fourth. But I also drove past the homeless camps on the way home, and noticed how many cops were patrolling the streets.
Every so often, reality breaks through the spectacle.
These days, when the wealth gap is the largest it’s ever been (eight people own as much wealth as the poorest half of the globe’s population), it’s increasingly hard to ignore the misery of late capitalist society. It’s a world in which extreme wealth and mindbogglingly dumb celebrity culture can converge in a sports arena (named after a corporation, funded by public dollars, and guarded by militarized police), while thousands sleep in tents and go hungry. It’s a world in which the few profit, while the many live in misery. Whatever pleasure that can be gained from watching the Warriors win an NBA championship is, at least for me, rapidly fading. Sports – commodified and sucked of any real cultural meaning – is a money making machine. The game’s stars – while not the super-villains in this story – live in worlds of luxury, and the owners even more so.
The Warriors are champions, but it means nothing to most people in Oakland. The team will take its All-Star cast to San Francisco by 2019, yet another example of capital’s unfettered mobility across land and water. Homeless continues to rise in Oakland, and will remain a growing feature of 21st-century cities across the world so long as housing is a commodity. Libby Schaaf remains mayor, and her interests are those of the local and international real estate titans who will flee once the housing market collapses. In the mean time, many in Oakland risk their lives to find an affordable bed. The Oakland Police Department is still as brutal as ever, and will continue to enforce the laws of the capitalist class and add their share of killings to a national list that already includes 543 names since January.
The Warriors are get the rings and can party like kings, but after the spectacle fades, Oakland’s trouble’s – like Cleveland’s, Detroit’s, Baltimore’s, etc. – remain. These troubles are connected by a common source of pain – capitalism. Nothing, it turns out, is innocent. Celebrating just feels a little harder to do.