Mayor Jean Quan made the biggest mistake of her political life when she green-lighted the October 25 early-morning raid on the Occupy Oakland encampment and the heavy-handed police response later that night. The crackdown made international news, as demonstrators from as far away as Cairo protested in solidarity with the occupiers in Oakland. At first, Quan attempted to deflect blame, saying she was not involved in the detailed planning of it, and didn’t know which day it would take place. But later in the week, after being vilified by liberals and progressives from around the world, Quan took responsibility for what happened and apologized to the people who got hurt. She also allowed the campers to return.
It remains to be seen, however, whether Quan can recover from the debacle. For many Oakland progressives, her decision to crack down on the encampment in front of City Hall was a shock. Indeed, Quan was elected mayor last year in part because of her liberal cred. Few people expected that a longtime activist, who had participated in numerous political demonstrations over the years, would suddenly preside over police firing tear gas at protesters. The news catapulted her onto Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and prompted liberal TV commentator Keith Olbermann to call for her resignation.
In retrospect, it seems obvious that Quan got caught up in the gritty problems of the encampment and failed to see the big picture. In the eyes of the world, it didn’t matter that prior to the raid, Occupy Oakland had devolved from a protest against greedy and corrupt bankers to a demonstration against local government and police. It also didn’t matter that the camp had very real issues with public safety and sanitation. It was still an Occupy camp, as far as most people were concerned, and an attack on it represented an attack on the movement.
To be fair, it should be noted that Quan made the decision to clear the encampment under substantial pressure from some City Hall officials, media pundits, and Oakland residents who believe that she’s too soft on crime. Many of these same people are now arguing that if the mayor had only cracked down on the encampment earlier, then Occupy Oakland would have gone away peacefully. But such arguments clearly underestimate how frustrated people are about our economic and governmental system and the fact that it often rewards corporations, banks, and the rich, while forcing everyone else to fend for themselves.
Crackdown advocates also overlook Oakland’s rich history of political protest. It has long been one of the most progressive cities in the nation. And it seems abundantly clear that the Occupy Oakland demonstrators would have kept coming back even if Quan had cleared the camp on its first day.
The mayor also apparently failed to realize that appeasing the law-and-order crowd was not going to get her anywhere. Not only did the raid result in last Tuesday’s ugly confrontation with police, but doing it again likely would lead to an unfortunate replay. Cracking down also wasn’t going to win Quan any friends and supporters. Some of the same people advocating for the crackdown strongly opposed her candidacy for mayor, and many of them now want her to be recalled. Indeed, even if she had done exactly what they wanted, there is no indication that they suddenly would have started to support her.
Quan’s critics also contend that she has painted herself into a corner by allowing the occupiers to return. They say the protesters won’t trust or pay any attention to her or police because of what happened. That may be true, but it’s also true that Quan wouldn’t be in this mess if she had remained loyal to her liberal roots and, instead of issuing demands and approving raids, had worked harder to make Occupy Oakland a successful progressive protest.
In fact, it’s hard to see a way forward for Quan unless she does that now. If the encampment devolves into chaos and is taken over by anarchists who want to protest for the sake of protesting, she’ll be blamed again. But if she works diligently and cooperatively to keep the encampment clean and safe, then she may be able to regain credibility among Oakland’s progressive community and re-earn its trust.
Quan and Interim Police Chief Howard Jordan also must seriously investigate the use of force last week, including the use of tear gas, and whether other police agencies on hand used rubber bullets in violation of Oakland policy. The city also needs to seriously rethink whether the use of tear gas and bean bags is appropriate during protests. And it must get to the bottom of who shot Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen in the face, fracturing his skull.
But the success of Occupy Oakland is about a lot more than just Quan and police. If the camp deteriorates into something squalid and violent, it will represent a significant blow to both progressives and the Occupy movement. Indeed, the Occupy movement has the potential to be one of the most important progressive protests of this generation. It already has changed the national conversation from misplaced concerns about the federal government’s debt issues to the far more important problems that face the country — from joblessness and economic inequity to bankruptcies and the continuing foreclosure crisis.
Over the past several days, there also has been some evidence that Occupy Oakland may be headed in the right direction. Last week’s City Hall visit by liberal filmmaker Michael Moore seemed to invigorate the local progressive community. And the November 2 General Strike, if it remains peaceful and nonviolent, may help galvanize support for Occupy Oakland and convince more members of the local progressive community to get involved.
But if Occupy Oakland and other Occupy encampments devolve into chaos and anarchy, then the crackdown advocates will be viewed as having been right all along.
The Oakland school board voted 5-2 last week to close five schools at the end of this school year in a cost-cutting move, the Oakland Tribune reported. The vote came after hundreds of parents protested the closure plan. Superintendent Tony Smith, however, noted that the district has far more schools than it needs and doesn’t have the funds to keep them all open. … The Oakland Tribune will not be renamed the East Bay Tribune, Bay Area News Group executives announced. The Contra Costa Times, the Daily Review in Hayward, and the Fremont Argus will also keep their mastheads, reversing an earlier decision by BANG officials. The newspaper chain also announced that it’s killing Monday home-delivery to save money. … BANG also said it will lower the number of layoffs in East Bay newsrooms from 40 to 25. … And Governor Jerry Brown unveiled a sweeping public-employee pension overhaul proposal, but it appeared to be dead on arrival because of opposition by Democrats in the legislature, the Sacramento Bee reported.