The roots of Oakland’s discontent run deep


Reporting from Oakland -- A year ago, lifelong progressive activist and Oakland Councilwoman Jean Quan linked arms with protesters and faced off against a phalanx of officers in riot gear near this city’s graceful civic center.

On Thursday there she was as mayor, police chief by her side, trying to explain her response to Occupy Oakland.

Quan had ordered police last week to dismantle the tent city. Then she let the protesters rebuild. A general strike Wednesday started out peacefully but turned violent. Amid the unrest, residents have launched a mayoral recall effort. Business owners are demanding the encampment be shut down for good. Protesters vow to stay.


PHOTOS: Occupy Oakland

And Quan’s plan?

“To assess day-by-day,” she said at the midday news conference, “to come to a resolution that is safe for everybody.”

But what might that resolution look like, she was pressed. And when might it materialize?

“I wish I knew,” she said, the strain evident on her face.

Events of the last several weeks have raised knotty questions — about how this racially and economically divided city became home to the most active Occupy effort outside of Manhattan. About whether Quan, once celebrated as Oakland’s first Asian American mayor, can salvage her career. And about the future of the tent city and its steadfast occupants, who hope to spend the foreseeable future making a stand on Frank Ogawa Plaza.

Some of the answers seem to lie in Oakland’s history as a center of liberal protest, others in the decades of strained relations between residents and a Police Department now operating under court oversight.

Police have arrested Occupy protesters throughout the country. They have taken down tents and tried to evict campers in places like Denver, Minneapolis and Atlanta. But beyond the original New York encampment — whose protesters have marched on Times Square, the Brooklyn Bridge and Goldman Sachs headquarters — the most attention grabbing-effort in the nation has been Oakland’s.

It would be difficult to find a city more tailor-made for a protest against income inequality than this one.

Wealth is largely clustered in its rolling hills, poverty and crime in its hard-scrabble flats. Across the bay is flossy San Francisco, whose unemployment rate is just over half that of her beleaguered sister to the east. Nearly one-fifth of the city lives in poverty, and the median household income is almost 20% lower than the state as a whole.

At a meeting called Thursday night to address the fate of Occupy Oakland, Councilwoman Nancy Nadel described her home town as a “split society. We don’t have much of the 1%, but we do have 30% of our people who have Ph.Ds and 30% who can’t read above fourth-grade level.”

And for many of Oakland’s struggling residents, the juxtaposition of the rag-tag Occupy encampment against the graceful City Hall is telling.

“These people in these buildings, they don’t care about the people, the lower class,” said Darryl Cook, who came downtown with his wife this week to run an errand.

Cook, a 48-year-old truck driver, said he has had trouble finding work because of a criminal record from a drug habit kicked years ago. And he thinks Quan “needs to get. She needs to resign.”

His wife, LaTonya, decried everything from underfunded public schools to shuttered youth centers. Of their city’s politicians, she said, “Y'all caused this.”

Downtown Oakland was the site of the nation’s last successful general strike, a two-day protest begun 65 years ago by saleswomen at two big department stores who sought union representation. Only bars, pharmacies and grocery stores were allowed to stay open. Couples danced in the street.

The clerks didn’t get union representation, but “after the collapse of the general strike, there was another chapter” for Oakland, said professor Richard Walker, chairman of the California Studies Center at UC Berkeley — “popular organizing to try to overturn the … power structure.”

In the very next election, Walker said, “three of seven of the City Council people were elected from the left, from people who supported the general strike.”

Then in 1966, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party here. (Seale later ran for mayor and came in second.) One initial focus of the group was to protect black neighborhoods from police brutality.

The so-called Riders case in 2000 further strained ties between the black community and police department. Over 10 summer days, four rogue officers on the graveyard shift made a series of allegedly illegal arrests in Oakland’s tough northwest corner and were later accused of beating and framing black suspects.

One of the officers involved fled the country. After two trials, a judge dismissed charges against two others because juries deadlocked on most charges. The fourth defendant was found not guilty.

The city paid 119 plaintiffs $10.9 million to settle the case, which the city attorney at the time called “a bleak chapter in Oakland’s history.” The department is still overseen by a court monitor.

Then came the case of Oscar J. Grant III, an unarmed 22-year-old black man shot in the back by a transit police officer while heading home after a New Year’s celebration in 2009. Protesters demonstrated in the days after the shooting, smashing windows and setting cars ablaze.

More protests followed in July 2010 after the Bay Area Rapid Transit district officer who shot Grant —while he was lying face down on a train platform — was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter rather than more serious charges. Johannes Mehserle testified that he had meant to fire his Taser, not his gun.

Police officials blamed the worst of that violence on “anarchists” and outside agitators. They said a similar group was responsible for the smashed windows, graffiti and fires set after Wednesday’s peaceful general strike dissolved into violence, ending with more than 100 arrests.

Historian Lisa Rubens is among many who believe that the outrage and organization that grew out of the Grant case was a foundation for the Occupy Oakland movement, which is home to about 165 tents.

“I think the immediacy of the Oscar Grant incident meant that there was already outrage [over] the reaction of the police,” Rubens said. “And that tapped into a deeply felt and experientially based decline in all sorts of positions people have — joblessness, erosion of the middle class.”

Much of the anger expressed in Oakland this week — on the streets, in the Occupy encampment and in the City Council chambers — is focused on Quan. And some of her most ardent community backers have turned on her.

Kerie Campbell, 47, co-founded the “children’s village” at the encampment only to see it razed with the mayor’s backing. Toys, books and games were confiscated, along with a pair of father-son alligator boots that were slated for donation.

“I think her heart was with the movement, but she made a mistake,” said Campbell, who supports the recall effort.

Quan began meeting this week with business groups whose members are angry over the encampment and the mayor’s response to it. But many participants said they were left with more questions than ever.

“There are real business consequences to this occupation, to this agitation, to the protest,” said Paul Junge, the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce policy director. “Oakland is a great place, and there’s so much positive to sell about it, but we are fighting an uphill battle.

“With parenting, you don’t let the kids set the rules and the agenda,” he said of Quan’s approach. “Too much of the language is, ‘We’re asking them to do this.’ Hey, you have to establish law and order.”

PHOTOS: Occupy Oakland

The recall effort against Quan was started before this latest wave of unrest, and proponents must collect nearly 20,000 valid signatures to get it on the ballot. That is no easy feat, said Bruce Goddard, a political consultant who left Oakland for nearby San Leandro shortly after Quan’s inauguration.

“I would suggest that, if it makes it to the ballot, she doesn’t have a very good chance of succeeding that recall,” Goddard said. “I didn’t leave Oakland because Jean Quan got elected mayor. But it sure made it a hell of a lot easier to go.”