North Richmond is no stranger to conflict, but this is a strange conflict for North Richmond.
The small community, which straddles the boundary separating the city of Richmond and unincorporated Contra Costa County, has become the site of an acrimonious power struggle between ambitious community leaders.
Each side is driven to take the reins of the seemingly inconspicuous Shields-Reid Neighborhood Council, which meets monthly to chat about local happenings and plan events.
Leading one faction is Saleem Bey, a fiery, confrontational community activist whose style has garnered him allies and critics.
“Saleem is brilliant,” said Iyalode Kinney, a project manager for an urban agriculture program who has worked with Bey since last year. “But he isn’t diplomatic.”
On the other side stands Marena Brown, a manager in a county nonprofit youth services organization who boasts a booming voice and a self-assuredness that makes her every bit Bey’s match.
The North Richmond council has met off and on for decades in a laid-back capacity that generally hasn’t generated much attention, or paperwork. After more than a year as vice president, Bey, 48, became president in May 2010.
But in July, Brown won an election of her own. She’s now the president of a group of residents that began meeting a few blocks away in unincorporated North Richmond. They too call themselves the Shields-Reid Neighborhood Council.
Brown then took a step that no North Richmond council had taken in years: She paid $40 and submitted paperwork to be recognized by the Richmond Neighborhood Coordinating Council, an umbrella organization linking leaders from neighborhood councils across the city.
Brown has one attribute she thinks gives her an edge on Bey – she lives in North Richmond.
“(Bey) is not a North Richmond resident,” Brown said. “Would you let someone from outside your community represent you?”
Bey, who lives in Oakland, said residency is no prerequisite for leadership.
“I’m not a Johnny-come-lately,” Bey said. “I grew up coming to North Richmond … The definition of a community member isn’t where I live, but my level of concern and commitment.”
Bey’s name is big in the Bay Area. His brother-in-law, Yusuf Bey IV, was convicted in June of ordering the slayings of Oakland journalist Chauncey Bailey and two other men in 2007, in part to stop Bailey from publicizing the financial collapse of the renowned Oakland business Your Black Muslim Bakery.
Since 2008, Bey has been a vigorous presence in North Richmond, helping launch a youth baseball program and working in urban gardening projects. But he’s also left a wake strewn with embittered relationships and dismissals from jobs with local nonprofits.
Johnny White, a former council president who has worked with Bey but now counts himself as an ally of Brown’s newer group, said Bey is persona non grata with other North Richmond leaders.
“Pretty much everybody out here despises Saleem now,” White said. “He is isolated.”
While Bey’s brusque style has turned off many of the traditional leaders in North Richmond, his supporters maintain that he has significant support in the neighborhood, a grid of aging bungalows and housing projects that is home to less than 4,000 people.
Brown attended the July RNCC meeting as the representative from North Richmond. That prompted Bey, who was re-elected to the North Richmond neighborhood council on Aug. 17 – although some attendees have alleged that children cast ballots, ballots on which Bey was the only name – to file his own paperwork with the RNCC.
The stage was set for a showdown, which culminated in two noisy clashes at RNCC meetings this month. Compromise was not achieved.
“They’ve got some kind of power struggle out there,” said RNCC President Bea Roberson.
Brown, who attended the Sept. 19 RNCC board meeting with a handful of North Richmond residents by her side, denounced Bey.
“We are being hijacked by Mr. Bey and Mr. (Rev. Kenneth) Davis,” Brown said. Rev. Davis, 76, is a North Richmond resident and longtime activist who was voted to be Bey’s vice president Aug. 17.
The options moving forward are limited. The dueling councils could merge into one group, which seems increasingly unlikely given the vitriol on both sides. North Richmond could have two councils, one for the city and one for the unincorporated pocket. A third option would be for a mediator to assist in holding a new election pitting Brown and Bey against each other to determine leadership of the Shields-Reid Council, a course Bey is already lobbying for.
“I welcome a community-wide election,” Bey said. “I have the support on the street, and they have the support in boardrooms.”
But why is the Bay Area’s poorest community suddenly the venue for a power struggle over the unpaid presidency of a council that has no formal power?
Part of the answer may lay in a pot of relatively new monies, some residents and observers grumble.
In 2006, Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia led an effort to impose a fee on waste processed through the nearby West Contra Costa Sanitary Landfill station. The fund amounts to about $600,000 annually, and is overseen by a committee comprising three Richmond City Council members, three community members, and Gioia.
Most of the fund is used for additional Sheriffs patrols and code enforcement services, an allocation Gioia supports. Bey views the arrangement as a reverse Robin Hood scenario, with the county’s poorest community ceding scarce funds to enrich a county government that provides it inadequate services.
“It’s become a locked in line item,” Bey said of the expenditures.
Leadership on the neighborhood council could be a position from which to exert influence over the fund.
After filing paperwork with the RNCC, Bey submitted an application for a now-vacant alternate position on the committee, officials in Mayor Gayle McLaughlin’s office confirmed.
The increasingly internecine dispute has elected officials backing away.
Earlier this year, Gioia publicly accused Bey of trying to bully county officials into handing over funds. Bey last week said Brown’s group was Gioia’s “proxy council.”
Gioia said he has not taken sides.
“I think these issues (of community leadership) are best solved by the community itself,” Gioia said.
McLaughlin has rejected claims by Bey that she endorsed his candidacy, despite her attendance at Bey’s Aug. 17 election. On Sept. 19, McLaughlin sent the RNCC leadership an email assuring them that she wasn’t taking sides.
“I support the entire Shields-Reid community and believe that it is up to the residents of the Shields-Reid Neighborhood to determine how their Neighborhood Council operates and who will take on leadership roles,” McLaughlin wrote. “I have not taken sides with any one faction of the neighborhood in the past and I do not intend to do so in the future.”
So the struggle continues, and North Richmond’s crumbling infrastructure and high crime remain pressing concerns.
Leaders in a barely one-mile square patch of homes and housing projects remain worlds apart.