Mayor Jean Quan on Police Response to Oakland Protests: ‘We Need to Do Better’

A man cleans up in downtown Oakland after angry protests over the acquittal of George Zimmerman on Saturday night. (Francesca Segre/KQED)
A man cleans up in downtown Oakland after angry protests over the acquittal of George Zimmerman on Saturday night. (Francesca Segre/KQED)

On KQED’s Forum program today, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and Acting Police Chief Sean Whent discussed the police response to protests in the city over the George Zimmerman verdict. Last night, at least nine people were arrested, numerous acts of vandalism were committed, and a waiter who was trying to prevent masked protesters from smashing windows at the downtown restaurant Flora was attacked with what is reported to be a hammer.

Some may be wondering this morning why Oakland, once again, has been a particular target of protesters. One comment on the Forum website today:

“I don’t get it. Why do Oakland protests always seem to end up destroying businesses in their own community?”

And another:

“What responsibility, if any, does Mayor Quan take for the ineffective response to these ‘protests’ over the last two years? Certainly other cities deal with this effectively all the time.”

Others, though, may think Quan and the OPD are caught in a damned-if-they-do-damned-if-they-don’t dilemma. San Francisco Chronicle reporter Demian Bulwa, who was covering the protests, said on today’s show that while police were hanging back and definitely did not have control of the situation, they have been criticized in the past for escalating confrontations with demonstrators. In fact, just two weeks ago, the City Council approved a $1.17 million settlement with 12 Occupy Oakland participants who were injured during two 2011 protests by beanbags or flash-bang grenades. A couple of weeks before that, both Oakland and Alameda County agreed to pay $1 million in damages to arrestees who were protesting the sentence of Johannes Mehserle in 2010 for the shooting death of Oscar Grant.

“Evidence in the case showed that the Oakland Police Department violated a 2004 court order concerning the handling of large numbers of protesters,” the East Bay Express wrote.

And of course, OPD is now overseen by an outsider, an appointment made as part of a deal to avoid an unprecedented federal takeover due to lack of compliance with reforms mandated in a settlement over the Riders police misconduct case.

Acting Police Chief Whent said on today’s show that the lawsuits had nothing to do with the department’s lack of aggressive action during the recent protests. “You try to not provoke and to not get hurt,” he said. “Our focus is safety over property. … We’re going to review what happened. I think we probably could do better.” He said the crowd was very dispersed and hitting a lot of different areas, thwarting an effective response. Whent acknowledged that staffing was inadequate on Saturday, after news of the verdict broke, but said that on Sunday, “we planned better.” Last night, he said, “we staffed similar to how we did on Sunday expecting the same type of crowd, but obviously it was a different type of crowd that showed up.”

Quan also said “we need to do better,” and that there would be a review of the police response. The mayor said the decision to devote more police resources to demonstrations is not an easy calculation. “When we do that, we have to take police out of our community. (That’s) something we need to weigh every day and every event.”

The mayor made a distinction between “real demonstrators” and the masked vandals who have been rearing their heads at the end of protests. “There are people who were peacefully and legitimately demonstrating and (the vandals) consistently hide within these crowds,” she said.  “People who are from Oakland who do regular demonstrations actually have … as much security to keep people they don’t know out of their demonstrations as to actually doing the demonstration. These protests have been much more spontaneous and a lot less well organized. It’s frustrating to the organizers of the demonstrations, too.”

Quan characterized the violent protesters as coming from outside Oakland. “They obviously don’t know the city very well,” she said, citing the vandalism of two well-respected local nonprofits.

The Oakland Tribune held a live chat today with Paul Junge of the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, discussing how the local business community feels about the vandalism and the city’s response. He said, among other things, “There is frustration that the events happen again and again.”

Listen to the show

  • http://nonanarchist.org/ Strobe Fischbyne

    Oakland citizens need to recognize that, despite initial police errors made responding to the quite surprising street dynamics of Occupy Oakland, the City of Oakland and the OPD have indeed shown wisdom and restraint in responding to the more nakedly provocative anti-police actions. Following Occupy, police provocation became a regular feature of protests in early 2012, culminating in the May Day riot and looming as an ongoing possibility since then.

    To have officers taunted and belted with projectiles is indeed difficult, and often goes uncaptured. The same local TV news stations that worry about “lack of control” are affiliated with national networks which will be quick to point to “police abuse” if anyone is injured. The issue is not limited to how quickly police can respond to prevent broken windows, but how police can avoid being provoked by anarchists to serve as a storm trooper caricature from Star Wars, fueling the anarchist’s self-conception as a insurrectionary hero.

    When I say “anarchists,” I am not using the word as a slur akin to “dirty hippies,” but speaking of a real although often absurd doctrine that is embraced as much more than a passing fad by adherents. Essentially, self-described anarchists fervently believe that all state authority is inherently tyrannical, and if cops are provoked to injure protestors, the sleepwalking slaves among the populace all receive an edifying lesson in the repressive nature of the state.

    Indeed, purportedly non-violent anarchists such as David Graeber reject the term “protester,” for protest implies a desire to see grievances addressed by the government. Unwitting citizens often march alongside anarchists not understanding the depth of anarchist rejectionism, so labeling a crowd as “anarchists” is understandably avoided. Yet no informed, level-headed political scientists or commentators currently step forward to explain this current anarchist cycle.

    I wonder why Benjamin Barber, the well-known author of Jihad Vs. McWorld — and a man who loves to talk — is never interviewed on the topic. His first book early in his career, “Superman and Common Men,” remains an exceptional critique of anarchist doctrine four decades later. Barber is a particularly good choice, as he was initially supportive of Occupy Wall Street, though I’m unsure to what degree he now understands today’s surprising “anarchist revival,” as The New Yorker magazine terms it.

    Certainly there are many who had second thoughts about Occupy. Has Barber read Graeber’s book “The Democracy Project,” which acknowledges Occupy as an anarchist exercise?

    Anarchism eventually comes to be acknowledged as a real phenomenon in the press, as has already occurred in Eugene, Seattle and Vancouver, only because self-described anarchist groups take credit for acts such as arson. We in Oakland now joins these cities as a contemporary laboratory for contending with persistent and passionate anarchist activity.

    I support Quan and Whent’s position of “safety before property” in navigating a difficult and unexpected situation.

Author

Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks writes mostly on film for KQED Arts. He is also an online editor and writer for KQED's daily news blog, News Fix. Jon is a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S.

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