Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Policing disorder: Oakland’s curious commitment to criminalizing Occupy

By Jonathan Simon

If you accept Oakland Mayor Jean Quan's framing of the problem here Saturday night, a crowd of unruly and overgrown children had a tantrum/play-date at the expense of Oakland's hard pressed citizens when some of the displays on the ground floor of Oakland's City Hall were vandalized (see the pictures in the SFChron here).

Attacking a century old model of the city seems pathetic and mean spirited. But that framing places the attention on the second act of an event which began when an overwhelmingly peaceful march and a long telegraphed "take over" of the empty Henry J. Kaiser convention center on the shores of Lake Merritt and close to the campus of Laney College was confronted by a violent all out assault from Oakland riot police supported by units from nearby police agencies (read the reporting of David Baker and Vivian Ho in the SFChron here). It is clear that the vandalism in City Hall, pathetic as it is, was a response to police violence and not a provocation for it.

Why exactly was it necessary to use violence against citizens, and expend no doubt large amounts of money, to prevent Occupy protesters from setting up a symbolic protest occupation in the shell of an unused property that provides a potent symbol not only of Oakland's industrial past but also of the role of government in creating an economy for the 99 percent (Kaiser being the ultimate New Deal entrepreneur, see Alonzo Hamby's 1993 review of The New Dealers, by Jordan A. Schwarz, in the NYTimes here).

The Mayor's stated positions in speeches and interviews amounts to "its illegal". But that is a bit like those on the far right who find in the "illegal" status of people here without citizenship or proper visas, justification to strip people of civil and sometimes human rights. Just because its "illegal" does not mean that government should adopt a repressive response, let alone violent means to address it.

What if Mayor Quan had welcome the take over of the Kaiser Center with a speech about the role the New Deal had played in building a middle class centered economy for Oakland and then laid out the following conditions:

The "occupiers" must coordinate with the Oakland police to assure the HJK center is a safe environment for women, children, and all who are involved in or visiting the symbolic take over and that living conditions in the Center remain decent.

The "occupiers" must maintain a decent and healthy physical environment in the HJK Center and its surrounding landscapes, and commit themselves to undertake repairs sufficient to make sure the occupation is safe and that the building is in better shape after the occupation than before.

The "occupiers" must not use the HJK Center to stage acts of violence against people or property anywhere.

Why are the Oakland police and the Oakland political establishment so committed to criminalizing the occupiers? Oakland has enough real crime for the police to focus on. Why not negotiate a security arrangement appropriate to any "occupation" and then back off, taking advantage of the positive social organization that will take place around any active "occupy" site, and redeploy police to crime hotspots?

These crowds, which include lots of people of all ages, including parents with children, should be welcomed in every part of Oakland. Frankly the city needs the energy.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.