Friday, November 04, 2011

Occupy Oakland (re)Visited

Sometimes I get it right and sometimes I get it wrong, and sometimes I have to keep learning. A lot has changed in two weeks since I wrote about it, and I've learned a lot and continue to rethink my position on Occupy Oakland daily. In two more weeks I may be embarrassed by this post.

In the timeline of Occupy Oakland events, probably the most famous is the early morning of October 25th, when OPD was ordered to evict the occupiers from Frank Ogawa (renamed Oscar Grant) Plaza.  The city had been warning the protesters to move since October 21st, and conflicting accounts have been given as to how much communication there was between officials and occupiers, but I'm guessing that official accounts of how much they tried are overstated, and that the way Occupy Oakland works did indeed make these attempts difficult. The city doesn't work that hard to surmount difficulties, however, so I am not placing blame on protesters.  Police moved in on the encampment in the early morning hours for practical and safety reasons: there are less people in downtown Oakland at 3 AM, so if the eviction went badly (which it did), less people would be likely to be hurt. After the people were removed, clean up crews from the city would still have time to clean up before the city opened for business. 

The removal didn't go down smoothly.  The protesters didn't want to leave, and the police plan, if there was one, didn't seem to go right.  Non-lethal "defensive" weapons like tear gas, flash-bangs, and rubber bullets were used. It was bad, and it was quickly national news.  That night, it got worse, as the protesters came back, and so did OPD, along with police from something like 14 other agencies.  Tear gas, rubber bullets, flash-bangs- it was a scene.  Everything was live streaming all over the world: comments were made on Al Jezeera that this kind of scene would cause a US invasion in the Middle East, and they weren't far off.  Sadly, a war vet who was already on the ground was hit in the head with a tear gas canister in a clear act of police brutality which was caught on video and quickly became a flash point for the whole world. In a city known for its violence and for the violence of the police (not least Oscar Grant, which had the misfortune of occurring in Oakland while not actually involving OPD), October 25th was exactly the kind of event that brings Oakland into the center of media attention.

The whole thing was, unsurprisingly, handled terribly by the city.  Mayor Jean Quan was out of town when the police moved in on the Occupiers. (Note: I've never liked her.)  When asked, and she had to be asked because she wasn't going to take control of the situation and offer information, she said that she had no idea the eviction was going to happen.  This was unequivocally the wrong answer.  Either she really didn't know it was going to happen or she lied, and knew when it was going to happen, throwing her staff under the bus in an attempt to save face in a crisis. If she didn't know, it begs the question of what the hell is going on in this city (as if that question wasn't already begging an answer): police Chief Anthony Batts (fortunately) just quit a few weeks ago and Quan appointed Howard Jordan to Interim Chief, with rumors that she would eventually chose him as Chief.  It later came out that the City Administrator Deanna Santana and Interim Chief Jordan had been working on the plan for five days, and that Mayor Quan had signed off on the plan. It is still not clear to me exactly what Mayor Quan didn't know, or why her fundraising trip to DC was more important than what was literally an occupation on the doorstep of City Hall.

October 25th and the aftermath was, for me, like watching a dog fight at a dog park.  Totally foreseeable and totally preventable.  You put a whole bunch of humans with their lattes in a small fenced area with dogs who don't know each other, and there will probably be a fight. (Leave it to themacinator to throw in a dog analogy.) The dog park is the opposite of setting your dog up for success. The city's job is to set her citizens up for success. On October 25th the city failed both the protesters and the police. (The city also failed the rest of Oakland taxpayers who will foot the immense bill for the operation.)  Mayor Quan had initially told the protesters that they could occupy the Plaza. Then the protesters were told by paper notices that they had a certain amount of time to vacate the plaza.  Communication between police and protesters, between the city administrators and protesters, between any city agency and protesters, it appears, had been minimal.  I believe this is due both to lack of trying on the behalf of the city, and due to the way that the Occupy Oakland movement works. Multiple police agencies, all under the aegis of OPD, each with their own tactics and "tools" were ordered into a situation that quickly grew out of control.  Predictably, escalated police presence led to escalated violence on the occupiers side.  Where previously the Occupy Oakland movement had been almost universally peaceful, a night time operation involving hundreds of under-prepared police and hundreds of passionate protesters galvanized them into another afternoon and night of violence.

I was left very shaken on the afternoon of the 25th (before the night of violence that left Scott Olsen, the Iraq vet injured) and the 26th of October.  Mayor Quan called for protesters to come to the plaza between the hours of 6am and 10pm for "free speech activities" and I felt sick to my stomach. What exactly are "free speech activities" and why can they only take place during certain times?  I felt like dragging her back to Berkeley's invisible free speech monument. I wanted to remind everyone that Oakland has *real crime to fight, not a bunch of people camping and causing a rat problem.  I felt like screaming cliches about violence causing violence, and fighting fire with fire never puts the fire out.  I was not a happy camper.  I came to work the next day and my boss, who believes in positive thinking, was upbeat and optimistic, about how this was a great place for Oakland to start. If it were possible, themacinator would have been rendered speechless. It's not possible, so I answered with ranting about dog parks, Quan, etc. She answered with support for Quan, and that at least the police didn't use machine guns like in the '70s. But, aside from these absurdities, she has been right: Oakland may have found a way to move forward. 

themacinator has been rendered sleepy by all of this blogging and will save the rest for another day.