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Ruth Beckford, 93

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Ruth Beckford, the legendary dancer, choreographer and Oakland community activist died May 8 of natural causes. She was 93.

Beckford, known as The Dance Lady, toured with the acclaimed dancer/choreographer Katharine Dunham when she was just 17. She started the Ruth Beckford African Haitian Dance Company, taught Dunham technique at her dance studios in Oakland and San Francisco and started the first modern dance department at a recreation department in the country. As talented as she was as a dancer, her interests were wide-ranging; she took up acting, wrote three books, several plays and was always actively serving her community, usually in projects she started.

She was born in Oakland, the youngest of four children of Felix and Cora Beckford. Her mother said her feet moved to music when she was still in the crib. She began her dance training when she was 3, the only black student of Florelle Batsford, studying tap, ballet, Spanish castanets, baton twirling and acrobatics, her specialty. As a child, she performed acrobatic dance at talent shows that were sponsored at movie theaters on Friday nights. She usually won. She graduated from Oakland Technical High School.

Dunham offered her a position in her company, but Beckford elected to continue her education and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. She performed with the Anna Halprin and Welland Lathrop modern dance company, the only black dancer in the group. She said she could hear the audience gasp when she came onstage.

She was dedicated to dance but was determined not to be a starving artist, so she worked for the Oakland recreation department where she insisted the dance classes would be free of charge. She used dance to teach life skills and encourage the girls to be self sufficient and confident in their individuality. She stayed close to many of her former students for more than 50 years.

Beckford retired her company in 1965 and retired from teaching dance in 1975. She started acting with the Oakland Ensemble Theater and appeared in several movies, including “My Funny Valentine” with Alfre Woodard and Loretta Divine. Her play, “Tis the Morning of my Life” was produced in the Bay Area and off Broadway. At Dunham’s request,  Beckford wrote Dunham’s biography. She also wrote “Still Groovin’” and co-wrote “The Picture Man,” published just last year.

She consistently found ways to help her community. She started the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program for children at St. Augustine Episcopal Church, which became a model for breakfast programs in public schools. She founded the oral history program at the African

American Museum and Library of Oakland, capturing the stories of Oaklanders who were over 70-years-old.

She counseled homeless people at the Berkeley office of the Department of Social Services, was a life skills counselor for the Oakland Private Industry Council and visited women’s prisons to talk about life skills and women’s empowerment. In 2018 she was named Oakland’s Mother of the Year.

Beckford was known for her eloquent attire, which she designed. She still had the erect posture of a dancer at her 93rd birthday party. She was especially proud of The Ruth Beckford Museum at Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, 410 14th St. Oakland, open by appointment. In her words: “I choreographed my life. Step by step, year by year.”

According to her wishes, there will be no memorial service. But Ron Thompson, who helped her write her biography, reminds mourning survivors that “You don’t have to sit in a room” to memorialize Beckford. “For those who knew her, she will continue to live on in the hearts and minds she opened new worlds to.”

Digital Issues

Oakland Post: Week of February 1 – 7, 2023

The printed Weekly Edition of the Oakland Post: Week of February 1 – 7, 2023

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The printed Weekly Edition of the Oakland Post: Week of February 1 - 7, 2023

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Activism

Call to Protect Geoffrey’s Inner Circle from Threatened High-Rise Development

Geoffrey’s, located at 410 14th St., is part of the city’s Black Arts Movement and Business District which was formed in 2016 by reso-lution of the Oakland City Council to protect Black-owned businesses and enhance a downtown district that would encourage the historic African American legacy and cul-ture of Oakland.

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By Ken Epstein

Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, a downtown Oakland Cultural Center that has featured live jazz and served music lovers and the Black community for decades, is now under threat from a proposed real estate development that could undermine the stability and future of the facility.

Geoffrey’s, located at 410 14th St., is part of the city’s Black Arts Movement and Business District which was formed in 2016 by resolution of the Oakland City Council to protect Black-owned businesses and enhance a downtown district that would encourage the historic African American legacy and culture of Oakland.

Now, the Oakland Planning Commission is considering a high-rise building proposed by out-of-town developers next to Geoffrey’s, which would jeopardize both the survival of the venue and the Black business district as a whole.

In addition to running a business that has been a crucial institution in the local community and the regional arts scene, Geoffrey Pete, founder, has utilized his business to offer meals for thousands of unsheltered individuals and hosted countless community events.

The following petition is being circulated in defense of Geoffrey’s and the Black Arts district (To add your name to the petition, email info@geoffreyslive.com):

“The African-American community in Oakland has been seriously damaged by developers and public offcials who are willing and sometimes eager to see African Americans disappear from the city. Black people comprised 47% of the population in 1980; now they make up only 20% of said population. In response to this crisis the 14th Street Corridor from Oak to the 880 Frontage Road was established as the Black Arts Movement and Business District by the City Council on Jan. 7, 2016, in Resolution 85958.

Tidewater, an out-of-town developer, is proposing to build a high-rise building at 1431 Franklin, which will damage the Black business district and the businesses in the area including the iconic business of Geoffrey’s Inner Circle at 410 – 14th St.

We demand that the Planning Commission and the City Council reject this predatory building proposal and proceed with plans to fund and enhance the Black Business District.”

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Bay Area

Popular Chief LeRonne Armstrong Placed on Administrative Leave During Investigation of Police Misconduct

In a press statement, Mayor Sheng Thao said that placing Armstrong on paid administrative leave was not punitive but was a standard procedure when investigating possible officer wrongdoing. “We must do what we need to do to get out of that oversight,” she said, explaining that she wants to show the public and the court monitor that there will be no favoritism. A rookie officer or the top officer will face the same investigative process.

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In his remarks, Armstrong defended OPD’s internal affairs department and fellow officers who were criticized in an independent report that found “systemic deficiencies” in the police department.

“I did nothing wrong. I violated no policies,” said Armstrong, speaking at a press conference

By Ken Epstein

Refusing to accept administrative leave during a police misconduct investigation, OPD Chief LeRonne Armstrong fired back with a press conference of his own this week, organized by a high-profile corporate public relations and communications firm.

“I should be the chief of police and remain in my position,” he said. “I did nothing wrong. I violated no policies.”

Mayor Sheng Thao placed Armstrong on administrative leave with pay while his role in an officer misconduct cover-up scandal is investigated by internal affairs. The case involves a highly paid police sergeant who was involved in a hit-and-run automobile accident in San Francisco and is accused of later discharging a gun in an OPD freight elevator and disposing of the shell casings by throwing them off the Bay Bridge.

At a press conference Monday at the office of PR consultant Sam Singer’s office in Emeryville, Armstrong did not blame Mayor Sheng Thao for placing him on leave but instead denounced federal monitor, Robert Warshaw, who oversees the police department and evaluates its reform efforts as a representative for the federal court that has overseen OPD for two decades.

In his remarks, Armstrong defended OPD’s internal affairs department and fellow officers who were criticized in an independent report that found “systemic deficiencies” in the police department.

“This to me, clearly, is a last-ditch effort to destroy the credibility of me…and to make the community believe that Oakland police is involved in some shady business,” he said.

He blasted Warshaw’s “ulterior motives,” accusing him and his team of seeking a reason to continue to be paid over $1 million a year to oversee the department, which was potentially set to exit from federal oversight at the end of May.

“It’s hard to say a mayor who’s been in the seat for just a couple of weeks would be able to push back against a monitor at this point,” Armstrong said, adding that some city officials might be “intimidated” by Warshaw’s team.

City Attorney Barbara Parker said in a statement that her office agreed that the recent report on OPD deficiencies “revealed failures that call into question the integrity of (OPD’s) internal investigation processes.”

Many observers and police accountability activists are saying that the present scandal and subsequent community uproar over Chief Armstrong is best resolved by removing police misconduct investigations from OPD and instead turning the cases over to an independent civilian body.

Defending the department’s internal investigation, Armstrong said the investigation that was conducted was “consistent with the findings that were presented to me.”

“To work and get to this point and have it taken away from you hurts. It doesn’t just hurt me, it hurts my community because every day I come into this job to try to make Oakland better,” he said. Prior to this incident, Armstrong has been widely praised for helping make significant reforms at OPD and paving the way for an end to federal court intervention.

Armstrong said the sergeant involved in the case, who was identified in the media as Michael Chung, was placed on leave following the shooting incident, but that the chief was unable to review the case because Warshaw had taken over the investigation.

Sergeant Chung, one of Oakland’s most highly paid employees, received total pay and benefits of $492,779.77 in 2021, including regular pay of $160,828.84 and overtime pay of $276,959.38.

Armstrong, who has deep ties in the Oakland community, was born and raised in West Oakland, California, and was a graduate of McClymond’s High School. He joined the OPD as a police officer in 1999, after spending four years with the Alameda County Probation Department. He has a bachelor’s and master’s degree.

In a press statement, Mayor Sheng Thao said that placing Armstrong on paid administrative leave was not punitive but was a standard procedure when investigating possible officer wrongdoing.

“We must do what we need to do to get out of that oversight,” she said, explaining that she wants to show the public and the court monitor that there will be no favoritism. A rookie officer or the top officer will face the same investigative process.

“I want to make sure that everyone understands that, under our administration, that we take these findings seriously and it’s important that we look at taking the corrective action that is needed to make sure that we stay on track to make sure that we get out of the federal oversight,” she said.

“My belief is that, by holding ourselves accountable, we can be safer and a more just city,” Mayor Thao said.

At a federal court hearing Tuesday, Judge William Orrick, not addressing the criticisms of Warshaw’s role, said he was “profoundly disappointed” by the findings of the outside report conducted by attorneys hired by the City of Oakland, which revealed “significant cultural problems” that still exist after 20 years of court oversight.

The oversight began as a result of the negotiated resolution to a civil rights lawsuit in the Riders scandal in which plaintiffs alleged that four veteran officers, known as the ‘Riders,’ planted evidence and beat residents, while OPD turned a blind eye to the police misconduct.

“This is the third time since I’ve been overseeing the implementation of the (settlement) that the city has seemed to come close to full compliance,” Judge Orrick said, “only to have a serious episode arise that exposes rot within the department.”

Mayor Sheng Thao said she takes this case seriously, not a minor fender bender as some have dismissed it, and that said those involved will be “disciplined appropriately.”

“This particular misconduct is serious because it provides fertile ground for other misconduct to thrive,” she said at the hearing. “I will not tolerate toxic subcultures that try to demonize or deter officers who do the right thing.”

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