I’ve gotta hand it to you, Mayor Quan, you wasted no time. As soon as you realized, to your horror, that Oakland’s city hall was located in downtown Oakland (public urination, incidents of violence, people without homes sleeping out of doors), you launched right into redecorating. By the way, love what you’ve done with the Darth Vader look.
My husband and I went to Oakland to attend the rally on Tuesday. We were walking back to our car at 5:30. As we rounded a corner, there they were, the Oakland police in riot gear, standing shoulder to shoulder behind a barricade, completely blocking the street between us and our car.
And when I say riot gear, I mean head-to-toe: black helmets, body armor, face shields down, and assuming a stance that those training manuals probably refer to as combat-ready. Each officer stood with feet braced wide apart and his baton in both hands.
I know that some of you who are reading this will ask, why didn’t you get a photo? I will tell you why. The camera was in my backpack. The first thought that ran through my mind was keep both hands visible. If they see you reaching into a backpack, they won’t know you’re reaching for a camera. All hell will break loose.
And the street on our side of the barricade was empty. We had walked in the opposite direction of the demonstration as they left the rally and headed toward city hall. And we stood for a moment just looking. We could feel the adrenaline pumping from across the street. I was carrying a picket sign. Someone at the rally had handed me a Nurses United picket sign. It said something very inflammatory and anti-American, like an economy that works for 99% of the people.
I felt as if I was holding the wrong sign. I should’ve had a sign saying:
We are American citizens.
We are unarmed.
We are not terrorists.
Please do not shoot us.
That was the way if felt, Mayor Quan, to be an American citizen walking down the sidewalk in your city at 5:30 pm on Tuesday, October 25th. To attend a peaceful rally at the Oakland main library, at which activists made somewhat clumsy use of the human microphone to repeatedly announce their intention to nonviolently march back to City Hall and peacefully re-take Frank Ogawa Plaza, aka Oscar Grant Plaza.
As one speaker followed the next, a line of motorcycle police filled one end of the street, completely blocking access to the street nearing Lake Merritt. Police helicopters droned overhead. We had walked from our car on 11th Street to the library at 14th Street, passing hundreds of police from 18 cities and towns, even from San Jose. The only thing missing was a column of tanks.
As we stood at the foot of the steps to the library, Michael and I look at each other and concurred, this is so completely unnecessary. This isn’t about maintaining order. This is intimidation.
This is what a police state looks like.
If you want to get rid of people whose presence makes you uncomfortable, one surefire way to marginalize them is to declare them a threat to public safety. And once they’ve become a threat to public safety, demonizing them is not too hard. I can think of no better way to demonize people than to call in hundreds of “peace officers” armed to the teeth; these people at Occupy Oakland are so dangerous, why, look what they forced the city to do–turn downtown into a military zone.
This is how the mayor decided to resolve the argument over how to use a tiny plot of land, which is basically city hall’s front lawn. On one side of this argument you have soft human flesh and unprotected human skulls and the folks with cardboard signs and slogans they chant and they are armed with a belief in the their first amendment rights. On the other side of this argument, you have helmets, body armor, guns, batons, and chemical weapons. I’m sure that when the mayor got on a plane to Washington D.C., leaving the city in the hands of its administrator, she was thinking, gee what could possibly go wrong?
The most radical thing announced at the rally on Tuesday was the intention to use nonviolent civil disobedience to re-take Frank Ogawa Plaza. If you feel entitled, Mayor Quan, to demonize people who use nonviolent civil disobedience to challenge the status quo, then please explain to me why one of the major streets in Oakland is named Martin Luther King jr. Way.
But the effect of all this military arming of downtown is that citizens who did not even intend to break the law in even a nonviolent way, who came to Oakland only to stand with them for an hour and show our support, and leave before even the nonviolent civil disobedience commenced–even we felt like thieves in the night. There was no question that that show of force was intended to do more than just enforce the law. It was intended to intimidate anyone who might even think of showing support for Occupy Oakland. Isolate people, one more step in eliminating their presence.
This is what a police state looks like.
But seriously, Mayor, I’m not entirely sure why returning downtown Oakland to the status quo is so high on your priority list. My husband and I lived in Oakland for many years. And as I recall, for downtown Oakland, the status quo is: public urination, incidents of violence, and people without homes sleeping out of doors. I’m still scratching my head trying to fathom just how those folks at Occupy Oakland upset the apple cart. Oh, of course, I get it–it’s the camping gear, isn’t it?
Those tents in all of the colors of the rainbow and the folks that went with them and all of their cardboard signs, and then those communal areas–the tents for the library, and the food prep areas, and the art tent–they were just sort of messy, kind of like their ideas. Well, this is what democracy looks like.
And, of course, we all know that the real change in the status quo of downtown Oakland is not that people are sleeping out of doors. That has been going on for decades. People sleeping in doorways are such a normal sight they’ve become part of the wallpaper. But when people pitch tents in front of city hall, they are no longer politely making themselves invisible. The tent cities represent such a powerful change in the collective psyche that some rich folks picked up the phone, called Mayor Quan, and said this cannot be allowed.
The fact that mayors and police departments in several cities are trying to shut the tent cities down means that these tent cities are extremely effective. People who stay up at night worrying over losing their home, or losing their job no longer see their experiences as a source of personal failure that must be endured privately. They are no longer pointing the finger of blame and shame at themselves. When they erect a tent city, they are making a powerful statement and saying shame on you to government and the corporations that own city halls and the US Congress, Supreme Court, and White House.
When we were in Oakland this past Tuesday, I could sense city hall’s desperation to shut down Occupy Oakland. Now, in fairness to Mayor Quan, I have to admit that we missed the first half hour of the rally; we live in Walnut Creek and drove through the Caldecott Tunnel at rush hour. Who knows, perhaps during that half hour when we were inching our way through rush hour traffic, someone addressed the rally and proposed something akin to the Visigoths and Vandals sacking Rome. That certainly seemed to be what Oakland was preparing itself for.
But seriously, Mayor Quan, do you think you could lose that whole military decor and the Darth Vader fashion show along with it? As someone who lived in Oakland for many years, I’ve gotta tell you, it doesn’t really go with the neighborhood.
When I lived in Oakland, I whiled away many delightful hours at the Oakland museum taking in the collection of carved snuff bottles, exploring the California history exhibits, and taking out of town visitors to see the fire engine that Oakland sent to San Francisco to fight the fire after the earthquake in 1906. I’ve bought green tea with tiny dried chrysanthemum buds, and had some surprisingly wonderful meals in Oakland’s Chinatown, which I consider to be one of the Bay Area’s hidden treasures.
It has been on my to-do list for a while now to go back to that neighborhood and see what the Oakland Museum looks like after its renovation. But following this past Tuesday’s adventure, I am a bit concerned. If I want to get to the Oakland Museum, will I need to make it through a circle of tanks?