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A young mayor takes on inequality in HBO’s ‘Stockton On My Mind’

Can Michael D. Tubbs provide a blueprint for interrupting systemic inequality in his California hometown?

Michael Tubbs, the 29-year-old mayor of Stockton, California, has a guiding principle for his political career. He wants, he says repeatedly, to “upset the setup.”

In Stockton On My Mind, Emmy-winning director Marc Levin follows Tubbs as he tries to implement a turnaround in a city pockmarked by poverty, violent crime and various forms of structural inequality. The documentary begins airing Tuesday on HBO.

Before Tubbs became mayor, Stockton (population 300,000) had an unflattering reputation as one of the country’s most violent and least educated cities. Whatever wealth citizens managed to amass through homeownership evaporated during the 2008 financial crisis. Stockton became a hub of foreclosures, with homes losing as much as 80% of their pre-2007/2008 values. The city filed for bankruptcy in 2012.

Much like he did with the television docuseries Brick City, which focused on Cory Booker’s tenure as mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Levin is once again telling the story of a young, Black, energetic public official trying to turn his community around. It’s a steep challenge for any mayor, but especially for Tubbs, who, when he was elected on Nov. 9, 2016, became the youngest mayor and the first Black mayor in his city’s history.

Student Rogelio Vivero with his family in a scene from Stockton On My Mind, which begins airing Tuesday on HBO.

Courtesy of HBO

What becomes evident in Stockton On My Mind is just how difficult it is to uproot the systems that perpetuate inequality. Tubbs presides over a city that’s missing many of its Black and brown male residents because they’ve been incarcerated for multidecade stretches as a result of California’s Three Strikes sentencing law.

Tubbs’ story is remarkable because of the many ways he epitomizes both the rule and the exception to it. His mother, Racole Dixon, gave birth to him at 16, and as a toddler, Tubbs was present at her graduation from high school. His father, Michael Tubbs Sr., remains incarcerated for a robbery he committed when his son was 5 years old. Tubbs Sr. attempted to rob a drug dealer to pay for the funeral of his infant daughter, who had been born with multiple birth defects and died within a few days of being born. He was denied parole in 2018, and will be eligible again in 2025.

Levin tells the story of Isaiah Evans, a Stockton high school student who was facing a life sentence if tried as an adult. When Evans had a court date for a burglary charge, he was being prosecuted by the same district attorney who pursued the case against Tubbs’ father in 1996. Evans was tried as a minor, and released on probation in November 2019.

Tubbs’ administration has set about creating social programs to alleviate poverty and disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, among them an 18-month fellowship program called Advance Peace, created with private funds and aimed at interrupting youth violence with a monthly stipend of up to $1,000. He began another program, called Stockton Scholars, to fund small college scholarships for its participants. And he also implemented a universal basic income experiment (also privately funded) that would give a group of residents $500 per month for 18 months, entrusting them to know how best to spend the money. Analysis of the universal basic income study will be published in 2021. He’s fighting a war on two fronts, one against a criminal justice system that metes out harsher punishments for Black and brown offenders, and also a war against hopelessness and nihilism.

The Stanford-educated mayor shows an understanding and compassion for the problems Stockton residents face, and how violent crime is intertwined with poverty. Since he was elected, homicides in Stockton have declined by 38%, according to the film. He works closely with Raymond Aguilar, who was formerly incarcerated, to craft a policy that will interrupt violent crime. Aguilar was a former cellmate of Tubbs Sr.

Stockton On My Mind joins a bevy of political documentaries examining the shift in American politics being fueled by young politicos of color like Tubbs, including And She Could Be Next from directors Grace Lee and Marjan Safinia (available on PBS’s POV) and All In: The Fight For Democracy from Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés, which will premiere in September on Amazon Prime streaming.

I wish Levin had spent more time teasing out the parallels between Tubbs and Evans to illustrate how individual stories become sewn together to create a larger picture of systemic inequalities, and how difficult it is to stop them from getting passed from generation to generation.

Tubbs, a fearless speaker who uses his youth to relate to the high schoolers of Stockton, makes for an easy-to-follow character. I’m already hoping for a sequel that takes a close look at the universal basic income study.

As uprisings against racial inequality and police violence continue across the nation, Stockton On My Mind serves as a reminder of how much can be accomplished on the local level, where so many crucial decisions about policing are made. It may not be as sexy or high-profile as national politics, but Stockton On My Mind illustrates how one extraordinary young mayor can make a huge difference.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.