A city’s political culture welcomes anarchy and violence
On January 28, hundreds of Occupy protesters raged through the streets of Oakland, Calif. The result was 400 arrests, three injured police officers, and thousands of dollars in damage. As I walked through downtown Oakland in early February, the city bore the mark of the Occupy movement: Anarchist and black-nationalist slogans were graffitied all over it, and the main square, Frank Ogawa Plaza, had been left a muddy cesspit.
In response to the riots, Mayor Jean Quan, a career liberal activist, called for the national Occupy Wall Street movement to disassociate itself from its Oakland offshoot (it didn’t). But the real problem is not that Occupy Wall Street won’t disown its Bay Area brethren, but that Oakland and its officials are so thoroughly bound up with the left-wing culture that they won’t disown the Occupiers.
Occupy Oakland has cost a nearly bankrupt city more than $5 million; in one weekend of protests, 450 9-1-1 calls were, in the words of police officials, “delayed or unanswered” because the police were tied up with the protesters; a person was murdered in the encampment; protesters broke into and vandalized City Hall and a YMCA; downtown businesses have been broken into and seen their sales drop by as much as half; and a general strike shut several bays in the Port of Oakland for one day, costing thousands of workers a day’s pay.
The city’s response to all this has been pathetic: Mayor Quan has continually called for “dialogue” and a “peaceful resolution” between the protesters and the government. She evicted the occupiers from the central plaza, then allowed them to re-encamp, and the city council has rejected two resolutions protecting the Port of Oakland from future shutdowns.
Oakland can ill afford such disorder. It remains one of the most depressed cities in America, with an unemployment rate of 14 percent. The downtown district is a wasteland of empty storefronts.
At city-council meetings, the few opponents of Occupy are shouted down and cursed at. Many local business owners were eager to explain to me that their enterprises had been adversely affected by Occupy’s presence and activities — but some were not eager to speak, citing the harassment that previous comments had aroused. Many business owners and citizens remain essentially supportive of Occupy — lamenting, perhaps, its increasing violence, but stopping short of calling for a crackdown. Unsurprisingly, the kind of citizens who informed me that “Ronald Reagan is the greatest fascist in history” have let their sympathy for a liberal cause override the need for law and order.
One ancillary factor in the rise of violence and lawlessness is the reputation of the Oakland police department. This reputation has nothing to do with the department’s current officers or their conduct at Occupy events, but reflects its history of conflict with Oakland’s poor and minority communities. Oakland’s diversity has, in the past, fueled a range of racial and social tensions, and Occupiers like to note that the Ku Klux Klan became a powerful political force (however briefly) in the 1920s. In the 1950s, the police and the city government made war on the civil-rights movement, and the police department has struggled with racial conflict ever since. Two events over the past decade exacerbated tensions: the exposure of four of the OPD’s most accomplished officers, the “Riders,” as corrupt and abusive, and the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant, who was accidentally killed by Bay Area Rapid Transit police. The “Riders” officers and those involved in the Grant shooting received nominal punishments, and this perceived injustice is a frequent topic of discussion among the Occupiers, who use the history of the local police to justify their sense of impunity.
On February 6, in Frank Ogawa Plaza, Occupy held an “anti-repression rally” and used an illegal public-address system. When the police arrived to remove the speakers, the protesters attempted to block their way, chanting “No justice, no peace, f*** the police!” The 20-year-old owner of the equipment, Brian Glasscock, admitted that he hadn’t bothered to apply for a permit, but said he was “pretty p***ed” and thought it “really unfair” that the police were “trying to quash the ideas of Occupy Oakland” by enforcing the law. To me, he explained that he didn’t believe he should receive a citation, because “we don’t believe in laws that restrict free expression.” He contended that the citation was “an example of Oakland’s heavy-handed policing, which doesn’t just happen to protesters . . . it happens to people in East Oakland.”
As for the police department, the protests are a huge distraction from its ordinary work. The president of the Oakland Police Officer’s Association, Sergeant Barry Donelan, a tall and imposing Irish immigrant and two-decade Oakland resident, explains that — despite widespread violent crime — his force has had to endure significant cuts in recent years, from 837 officers in 2009 to approximately 650 now: “Our officers would love to be out in the communities we signed up to serve; instead, we’re downtown dealing with protesters.” Given these challenges for the department, he believes the city needs a “consistent political strategy”: “The problem is the political leadership. They’re populating both sides of the skirmish line.”
On February 9, Mayor Quan delivered her state-of-the-city address. She didn’t mention Occupy explicitly, let alone condemn it. Her one indirect mention of Occupy came after she paraphrased President Obama’s American-flag metaphor in his State of the Union address, when she quipped, “We’ve had a little trouble with flags in Oakland lately” — making light of how, just one week earlier, outside the chamber in which she spoke, protesters had burned an American flag. (When an anti-Occupy speaker mentioned this act at a city-council meeting, he was shouted down by Occupiers, who, for once, were legally correct: Flag-burning, unlike rioting, is constitutionally protected speech.)
The city council has now twice voted down a resolution, proposed by council member Ignacio De La Fuente, directing the mayor and city administrator to make use of proper, lawful means to prevent any future port shutdowns. Port officials note that without this guarantee, given the supply-chain expenses of even a short shutdown, there is a real risk that customers will abandon Oakland.
If city officials are underreacting, the same cannot be said of Oakland’s remaining Occupiers, whose paranoia can scarcely be overstated. After supervising a large, unpermitted march down Broadway to Wiley Manuel County Courthouse, the Oakland police abandoned the Occupiers to their chants and speeches, but several Occupiers maintained that the government, whether the CIA or the FBI, was surely still lurking in their midst. The delusions run so deep that protesters frequently argue that new or parallel “people’s” institutions are needed. Sometimes this argument takes the form of the rather silly claim that Occupy has provided real benefits to the city, including distressingly disorganized attempts at outdoor soup kitchens, day care in Frank Ogawa Plaza, and, in the spirit of universal health care, free spiritual healing, meditation, and massages. Brian Glasscock, deprived of his PA system, charged that the police’s actions would prevent Occupy from “building infrastructure, providing the city services.”
Oakland is the home of the Black Panther Party, and its ghosts are never far from Occupy: Several supportive speakers at a city-council meeting cited their Panther background, and even Mayor Quan, when listing great Oaklanders in her state-of-the-city speech, profusely praised Huey Newton, the founder of the Panthers, who was convicted of murder (but had the conviction overturned).
At a courthouse rally for protesters arrested in January, two members of the Black Riders Liberation Party, Jabari and Tim, held a crowd of Occupiers spellbound, calling for a “militarization of the people” and making impassioned appeals to the heritage of black radicalism. When I asked Jabari whether he felt that the Occupy movement was addressing the sad situation of the black community in Oakland, he said yes, the Occupiers’ demands almost precisely match the Black Panthers’ ten-point plan. His comrades then pointed out that, “at first, the Occupy movement wasn’t for the release of political prisoners,” a key Panther issue, but in the end it was happy to endorse their demands. The Black Panther Party, besides its defense of “political prisoners” (most of them violent criminals such as Mumia Abu-Jamal and Jalil Abdul Muntaqim), was famous for its efforts in Oakland to organize night patrols by armed citizens in place of police beats. Many Occupiers cited the Panthers’ efforts to build a “people’s police” as a real framework for reform.
One white speaker, clad in black combat boots and a black trench coat, addressing a crowd of fists in the air, offered a “shout out to the Black Liberation Army!” (an American Marxist militant group that was funded by the KGB). Elaborating, she emphasized that “the people must protect the Second Amendment. . . . We are in a class war, and the penalty for treason in a time of war is execution.” Some in the audience did reject her views: One shouted, “No more talk about the Constitution, please! Really, it’s an imperialist slaveholders’ document!”
Many liberal citizens, however, recognize that Occupy isn’t the right way to garner support for political goals. Ignacio De La Fuente, of the city council, has a long history in progressive politics and labor activism, but has become one of Occupy’s most outspoken critics. He explained to me, “I believe in the right of people to speak and strike, but from the beginning, I felt that the Occupy movement didn’t care about the rights of other people, of workers, of businesses.” He personally blames the mayor and other council members for “refusing to enforce the laws . . . out of sympathy with the movement. I have sympathy with the movement, but that doesn’t mean that I will let them break the rules.”
One elderly Oakland resident of more than 30 years, Peg, explained that she lost her confidence in Occupy Oakland “way back in November, when they wouldn’t agree to nonviolence.” (Last autumn, the Occupy Oakland general assembly — the group’s decision-making body — approved, with more than 90 percent support, a “diversity of tactics,” rejecting a proposal for nonviolence.) She fervently supports many of the goals of Occupy, but sees their work as counterproductive because “they’re wasting government money, and that’s upsetting.”
Peg and other citizens, of all political stripes, have formed an anti-Occupy group called Stand for Oakland. At the recent anti-repression rally, they staged a silent counter-protest, standing on the steps of City Hall, staring down the shouting Occupiers right in front of them. Occupiers gleefully pointed me to one official from the Oakland Chamber of Commerce, Paul Junge, in the crowd, as good reason to dismiss the counter-protesters as corporatists and agents of the 1 percent.
The Stand for Oakland activists ruefully note that their city had begun to recover economically and socially. Violent crime has dropped in the last few years, and is now confined to certain areas. Some businesses and restaurants have begun to find Oakland’s lower costs attractive. But, as Tim Gallen, a representative of two Oakland business associations, explains, many of the downtown businesses most affected by the protests “are mom-and-pop businesses, some financed by second mortgages,” and “now they’re on life support.” Occupy has “suddenly sent the message that Oakland isn’t a business-friendly place, just when the reputation of the city was doing well.”
In the face of the Occupy movement, Oakland has chosen instead to prioritize its reputation as a progressive city, facilitating unfettered dissent rather than protecting the rights of all its citizens. Progressive politicians and the culture they have built are unable to confront the problem Occupy presents. Thanks to this dereliction of duty, Oakland remains an urban dystopia, and liberal utopianism has shown that it has little good to offer a troubled city.
– Mr. Brennan is the 2011 William F. Buckley Fellow at National Review.