Oakland on display: City pays price to occupy the First Amendment


For nearly 24 hours, Occupy Oakland had contributed another chapter to the ongoing national Occupy Wall Street movement with mostly peaceful demonstrations on Wednesday, powered by a general strike, the city’s first since 1946. More than 7,000 people joined in several marches through the city, including a grand finale in the evening that culminated in a brief shutdown of the Port of Oakland.

It was a good day for the First Amendment. And when all was said and done, it was “Good night, thanks for protesting. God bless and have a safe drive home.”

If only.

The People Power Show started to turn ugly earlier in the evening when an Asian American protestor was one of two injured by a driver in a Mercedes caught in a swarm of people.

The protestors were reportedly treated for minor leg and ankle injuries and will be fine. The Mercedes driver was not arrested.

Tragedy averted, ironic moment restored.

It remained peaceful until the very early morning hours today when some protestors went into an abandoned building in downtown Oakland. It gave the police a real excuse to go in for a pre-dawn raid, inciting a few protestors–who had their own riot gear–bent on anarchy. Bonfires were lit, windows smashed. Tear gas was used. More than 60 arrests were made.

Leave it to a few people to wreck what had been mostly a great day for Occupy Oakland.

Said one disappointed protestor to reporters: “This was a baiting action by a very, very small percentage of people who wanted to show themselves off. They wanted to put on their riot clothes and toys and have a lot of fun and erase some of the accomplishments of the day…It was a bad end to a great day.”

But this is the problem of a movement that prides itself in no leader with no real specific plans to achieve lofty idealistic goals.

If you want an organic grassroots movement and continue to make it up as you go, forget about the 1 percent. They already hate you.

You may end up inadvertently alienating much of the 99 percent.

Even the thought of a general strike struck some as odd. How was that going to help them survive the economy?

In Chinatown, about a mile away from where the protests are centered, merchants were assured they wouldn’t be hurt by the marches.

Mayor Jean Quan even issued a statement that though she supported the protestors, she was mindful of those not participating in the strike.

“We must make sure that those who have to go to work and keep their businesses open are able to do so,” Quan said.

Such are the problems of a generic protest against corporate greed and the 1 percent.

Quan’s been largely criticized for her way of dealing with the protests. Last week when tear gas was used, she took some heat for her heavy handed response. But she redeemed herself when she allowed the encampments back to their spot outside city hall.

She’s not exactly lock-armed with the protestors, and she’s caught heat from some long-time Asian American activists. But she’s found some middle ground that allows her to back the protests, while still serving the entire city.

Tonight, the Oakland City council will vote to formally support the mayor with a resolution that city administrators “collaborate with protestors to make the Frank Ogawa Plaza site a safe and lawful place for continued demonstrations.

At least two members of the city council have complained that with police overtime and city services, the protests could cost the fiscally challenged city tens of thousands of dollars. The police estimate that a sweep of protestors last week cost $1 million dollars.

But what else can the mayor and the city do–buck the First Amendment?

Not in America.

If Oakland’s resolution passes, it could be a model for how local governments respond to the growing movement. Collaborate? Why not?

Even though it seems amorphous and lacking direction for now, the Occupy movement is an effective vent for public anger and a barometer of real sentiment. Every time I doubt the movement’s power, I think of the peaceful aspects of yesterday’s march.

I also think how just yesterday Bank of America abandoned plans to charge fees on debit cards. That doesn’t happen if an Occupy Wall Street weren’t around, ready to pick a fight.

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
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The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.
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