Saturday, January 26, 2013

Sane Oaklanders?

On January 15th, the Public Safety Committee met to discuss what became known as "the Bratton contract." Technically, the contract was actually a contract extension with "Strategic Policy Partnership," a law enforcement consulting group headed by Robert Wasserman who would bring in William Bratton as an additional consultant. The contract began in fall of last year (after, we learned at last week's full City Council meeting, being approved by the City Administrator while Council was on recess), and the Public Safety Committee was being asked to approve the extension of the contract in time and scope (pdf of agenda item). This scope included the addition of Bratton.

Lots of people came out to that Public Safety meeting. It was packed. One of the things that Occupy Oakland did that lasted long term was increase the public participation and interest in City Council meetings and goings-on. Every meeting, the #oakmtg hashtag created by two tweeters- the ones that I know about, at least- @dto510 and @RebeccaForBART, is packed. Clearly there are people watching every detail of the meetings, at least every exciting detail. I'm pretty sure that most people have given up on the dog part debate. So there was no way that Bratton was coming to Oakland without a fight. Bratton is the brains behind "stop and frisk" and "broken windows" policing in LA and New York. (Coincidentally (?) Oakland's new vandalism ordinance was on the agenda at the full City Council meeting this week, but because of the uproar over Bratton, was passed with very little ado. Community Rejuvenation Project has more details.)

It's starting to seem to me that Oakland has a little bit of a dual personality, maybe embodied by Mayor Jean Quan herself. In the mid- to late- '60s, Quan was an activist in Berkeley, fighting for Ethnic Studies programs, and helped to found Asian American Studies at Cal. She has history with union organizing. And then she swung to the middle. Only in Oakland could she seem to the right of many of her constituents with a background like that, but it's true: during Occupy it seemed like she was almost paralyzed by ethical dilemmas that actually meant something to her. Safety? Activism? Free speech? Dan Siegel, a long time friend, resigned as Quan's adviser over Occupy and has become a vocal occupy supporter. Maybe I'm stretching the analogy here, but it seems that just as Quan is torn between her liberal roots and her more mainstream life as a school board then city council member, and now mayor, Oakland is torn between being the proud but ornery, intellectual but homegrown and street smart liberal city by the bay and an upstanding community that could.

Public safety is where the dualities show the most. I'm pretty sure that everyone in Oakland can agree that there is a public safety issue in Oakland. The fracture comes when you ask people what to do about it. The police department is understaffed unless the police are the problem. The police are the problem, either because policing in general are the problem, or because the Oakland Police Department is a problem. The police department can be fixed through measures like the consent decree and bringing in consulting group, or it's a lost cause and Chief Jordan needs to be fired and the feds should just take over. (Feel like you're diagramming sentences?) Back to the original split: the police department is understaffed. The police department needs more money or it doesn't because the police budget is already 50% of Oakland's budget. More of the city's budget needs to be spent on social services. And on and on. In dog training, we say that the only thing two dog trainers agree on is that the third dog trainer is wrong. In Oakland, I'm pretty sure the only thing that two Oaklander's agree on is that the third Oaklander is crazy, or that their idea is way better. 

Every one of these view points was represented at the Public Safety At the Committee meeting all decorum was lost. The committee is made up of Libby Schaaf (D4, to my shame), and the three rookie council members: Dan Kalb, Lynette Gibson McElhaney, and the new chair of the committee, Noel Gallo. The Strategic Policy Partnership contract was Schaaf's proposal (along with Larry Reid, who is not on the committee), and she tuned out the second the meeting started. Which left the three rookies alone. Gallo is his predecessor in D5, Ignacio de La Fuente's clone in all ways except that he doesn't sound like he's chewing on marbles all of the time. The meeting room and balcony were packed, and Gallo lost control of the room almost immediately. Bay of Rage, an Occupy Oakland spin-off, had held a protest outside of City Hall before the meeting and came in just as the meeting started, packing the place with at least one hundred wound-up people. The majority of the people in the room were already predisposed to be doubtful of spending money the Bratton contract and are always wary of OPD after decades of mistakes, but the room was electric when these guys came in, some carrying signs that made me feel like I was at an A's game.

What ensued was a shouting match bordering on a melee. The Bay of Ragers often wouldn't let the city officials speak, which isn't that far out of the norm since Occupy became involved in City Council. They were loud and disruptive and many others in the crowd were annoyed- I could hear them hmph and tsk. I was annoyed. But the protesters also wouldn't let the citizens who had signed up to speak say their piece. They shouted people down- regulars who had come to speak on various topics, and people from groups like Make Oakland Better Now- a well informed activist group- who spoke in favor of the contract. The hecklers were mean and personal. They called people names and hurled insults of misogyny and racism, and compared speakers to genitalia. At various points people in the crowd would stand up and ask them to be respectful, to choruses of "yes"es. At one point one of these people used race-baiting, and a shouting match ensued. Gallo kept telling the police officers present (maybe close to ten) to escort people out and arrest them. They didn't. He told Chief Jordan to have his officers arrest them. Standoffs between the noisy boys and girls and officers ensued. (Penal Code 403 prohibits the disruption of a public meeting.) Throughout, rookie Councilwoman McElhaney emerged as a voice that people listened to: she was reasonable, asked reasonable questions, and the crowd often quieted for a time when she asked them to be respectful.

One of the last speakers was a woman from Pueblo. She asked the key question and got the key answer: no one on the dias had read the proposed contract. Not a single one of the council members knew what exactly they were being asked to move to the full council, or what the crowd was so upset about. On the flipside, not one person in the crowd knew exactly what they were upset about, besides the specter of Bratton in Oakland. Libby Schaaf made noises about having requested it. The committee members should not have had to request the contract: they should have had the contract and should have read the contract. The public should have had access to the contract being proposed. (I never read this stuff before meetings. I watch and learn.)

The committee talked among themselves for a bit. It was never in question what Gallo and Schaaf were going to say. Gallo had come out even before the Bratton issue in favor of "search and frisk" and had campaigned on law and order. Schaaf and Reid were behind the contract. But Kalb and McElhaney were torn. They clearly felt chastened by the fact that they hadn't read the contract, and are taking their new jobs seriously. Watchers of meetings often complain on twitter after the fact that Council doesn't listen to their comments if they vote the other way. This is a simplification: often council asks questions to staffers or delays their votes or makes caveats when they speak based on comments. It's clear to me that though the council members often sit up there looking bored and checked out (and they probably are), they do pay attention. Kalb and McElhaney did not want to vote on the contract- move it to the full council. But they also didn't want to stall it. McElhaney asked Wasserman questions about Bratton, and asked if he could come up with other consultants, ones that wouldn't cause as much rancor with the citizens he was supposed to be helping. Wasserman said he could. Procedural discussion ensued, and the committee moved the contract to full council with the instructions to Wasserman to come forward with alternate names. The twitterverse complained that no one listened.

Much was made in the news about the crazy meeting. And then new City Council President Pat Kernighan stepped in. She sent an email out to members of her district asking them to pack the seats of the City Council meeting, to help her "turn the tables" on disruptive forces. Thinking she could pack the house with her supporters, instead she waved the red sheet at the bull- the protesters came back for more, and in bulk. It's not clear exactly why she thought she needed people to represent her, when, as an elected official, she represents her constituents, but speaker after speaker (over 260 people signed up to speak to the Bratton contract) told Kernighan exactly how they felt about being invited: insulted. Please see this amazing response to Kernighan's email, by @tdlove5. Kernighan was begging "sane Oaklanders" to "reclaim" their government.

Rather than being pleased at the increased participation in city government, Kernighan expressed what city dwellers suspected: that they were unwanted, and that the council members were indeed not listening to them. The council, this email indicated, wanted to get on with doing their business in a nice quiet room, sit through some pro forma comments, and then move it along. Kernighan's behavior during the marathon meeting did nothing to dispel this. At one point she said a frequent speaker: "Oh, you're going to talk forever, aren't you?" with a noticeable eye roll. At other times, she appeared to have manipulated the order of the speakers to allow for preferential treatment to certain groupings of speakers, and rearranged agenda items over the objections of council members to make things run more smoothly. This meant that three very important agenda items were heard after 2 am.

The meeting was held with relative decorum until a large contingent of people left after one item concluded and the Bay of Ragers reentered chambers (they had been in overflow rooms). Although quieter, there was plenty of disruption. Councilwoman McElhaney was often able to regain control of the room, but Kernighan would have none of the usurpation of power from the rookie. Most strangely to me was that it seemed as though the discussion from the previous week had been completely forgotten. The proposed contract was introduced by Chief Jordan: he gave a powerpoint presentation about the project and what it would do, describing strategies of policing that sounded just like others he had given before. Wasserman was not present. On twitter, people pointed out that the contract was not available for public viewing on the city website, as these things usually are. (Again, I never look, so it was news to me that the contract wasn't there.) Everything, once again, seemed totally untransparent in a city with a Sunshine Ordinance. When it came time for discussion, no one mentioned Bratton or the fact that the Public Safety Committee had asked Wasserman to come back with other names. It was as if this had never happened. Only Councilwoman Brooks, who often plays this role, had serious procedural questions for Chief Jordan, staff, and other Council Members. She called out that none of them had had the contract presented to them in full (still?), and had to ask for it, which was not standard procedure. She had to ask the City Adminstrator about how the contract had been approved in the first place. She briefly mentioned that no one had come back with new names. She was the only Council Member to vote "no" on approving the extension. The contract was approved with some language saying that the strategies would be adapted to Oakland and only constitutional policing would be approved. (Stop and frisk has been ruled unconstitutional.)

Mayor Quan spoke in support of the contract. Mayor Quan rarely shows up at council meetings, and rarely speaks. Her reasoning for supporting the contract? It wasn't very much money. The police department eats half of Oakland's budget, she said, and the $250,000 is only 0.1% of that budget. It was worth it, she said to try something. Councilwoman McElhaney, after speaking about how torn she was said she "hoped we aren't throwing good money after bad." Councilwoman Brooks pointed out that Bratton will only be in Oakland 3 times in 6 months for the contract, and only 2 of those will be with/about policing. She couldn't get any answers on how much of the money will go to Bratton. Chief Jordan spent a lot of time in the media distancing himself from "stop and frisk" and reiterating that Bratton could give great advice, but ultimately the Chief would remain in charge.

So which is it? Oakland brass loves Bratton and he's a great mind in policing, so we'll pay him to give great advice? Or we're not into his policing, and we're not paying him very much, and he won't be here very much? We value democracy, so we want everyone to come and participate by sitting quietly in their seats or we value democracy so we want everyone to come and participate by speaking? Oakland has a public safety problem so we should listen to our constituents or Oakland has a public safety problem so we should listen to our City Council members?

Oakland is broken. There are a lot of great people trying to make things better, with a variety of tactics, some with louder voices than others. Community groups and individuals are brimming with knowledge and experience that, with the right facilitation, could make this community function. The answers are right here, I believe, as evidenced by the passion at these meetings. One speaker told the council Bratton's book is available on Amazon for $18.95, and suggested buying it and reading it in lieu of the contract. I'd suggest they all buy it at an Oakland bookstore, maybe pay a dollar more, or, even better, buy it for each cop at a local bookstore, and let Bratton and Wasserman stay wherever he is (Wasserman lives on Martha's Vineyard). The police department has had a plethora of consultants in the last decade. They've had federal monitors, and they're about to have a compliance director. They could afford to send a couple of captains to get PhD's for the $250,000 that they're going to spend on Bratton and Wasserman or whatever is in the secret contract, and apparently Quan thinks it's worth spending that money. Blaming the loud people at City Council meetings is not the answer. There were a lot of people from all kinds of viewpoints at both meetings speaking against Bratton, and Council disregarded them (though I do think that they listened). The silver lining is that hiring Bratton won't do anything. He'll be in Oakland three times, and then he'll leave. Chief Jordan can do what Bratton suggests or not. Which means he should just buy the book, and start listening to his constituents.