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Why defend the indefensible?

CORRECTED, at bottom.

Though support for Occupy Oakland is clearly plunging quickly, I’m amazed there is any organized support left for the encampment following the utterly predictable events of Occupy’s big protest last Wednesday. The next day the City Council heard public testimony and a staff report about the illegal encampment that has forced them to close their front doors. Unfortunately, ostensibly responsible and community-minded organizations chose to support the dangerous encampment.

After watching the City’s presentation at the meeting, with its meticulous catalogue of fire and other life-safety hazards, continuing to support the encampment amounts to callous disregard for the lives of employees – and, yes, residents – on the Plaza. Yet public comment in favor of the encampment included representatives of at least one City union (IFPTE Local 21 representing planners and inspectors among others), the Alameda Central Labor Council, the teachers’ union, Causa Justa Just Cause, the Ella Baker Center, and the mayor’s own Block By Block Organizing Network.

This is puzzling since the speakers are well aware of the problems with the encampment and how it undermines many of their stated goals. City employees represented by Local 21 and the Central Labor Council have filed complaints with Cal-OSHA, and only 5% participated in the General Strike last Wednesday. Block By Block’s tax campaign had to move its offices off the Plaza to Uptown, presumably because it’s impossible to attract volunteers in those conditions. Occupy Oakland has caused more blight than the Ella Baker Center has cleaned up in its year of Soul of the City beautification events. So why are these political groups supporting the encampment even after seeing its vandalism, violence, and evidence of severe life-safety hazards?

Consider that impacts to businesses, rather than downtown residents, are what is dominating the public debate. These organizations have broad political agendas that often, if not always, clash with the interests of businesses and employers, such as higher taxes, more restrictions on economic development, or costly mandates on private housing construction. The employees of these political organizations are attending the Occupy General Assembly and consenting to resolutions about occupying private property, yet unable to pass resolutions condemning vandalism and transit disruption. Days after the vandalism, the Ella Baker Center blogged that if businesses are hurt by the encampment, “maybe that’s the whole point.”

People who live in downtown Oakland are deeply frightened that their mayor did not want to order the police to crack down on the protest even after large fires were lit within a hundred feet of residences. City employees have already filed health and safety complaints with Cal-OSHA. Employees on Frank Ogawa Plaza have witnessed crimes including drug dealing, drug use, and prostitution from their office windows, and many fear that the encampment is becoming a magnet for sex trafficking. The police and city administration are well aware of these crimes and have documented them, yet continue to do nothing as the encampment approaches the one-month mark.

Many people initially supported the Nov 2 General Strike because they wanted to march against Wall Street and make a political statement. But why did that have to be done without permits? Why is bus and traffic disruption so important to Occupy, but nobody else is allowed to do that? The League of Women Voters recently got a permit to march around Lake Merritt in celebration of the centennial of women’s right to vote. Is that activity less “free speech” than what Occupy is advocating? But the fact is that November marchers intended to disrupt transit, intended to forcibly close businesses, approved the takeover of the 16th St building, and began engaging in vandalism at noon.

There is nothing beautiful left about Occupy Oakland. I don’t blame those who were inspired by its Utopian vision of bringing new ideas and activities to a public place, and naively thought that lawlessness could be contained. But the encampment’s atmosphere has scared away pretty much everyone at this point. Disrespect for the law, vandalism, and property seizures have become official policies of the movement. The General Assembly’s agenda has moved from Wall Street to Oakland-specific issues like policing, real estate development, school facilities, and the municipal budget. But the bottom line is that it is an unacceptable danger to people’s lives, and must be removed immediately.

Are labor, anti-police, and anti-business political organizations callously ignoring the dangers and damages of the encampment to further a political agenda? Who wins politically when public meetings are under-attended and businesses have to spend all their profits on security? These are the questions I asked when watching organized supporters press their case for the encampment.

The City Council is in closed session, presumably about Occupy Oakland, as I post this. We’ll soon see if they finally wake up to their duty to enforce the law – because every day risks a death or injury for which the City is now responsible.

Correction: I misinterpreted Councilmember Libby Schaaf’s speech on Thursday Nov 3. She clarified to me that she did not give support to the encampment and acknowledged her speech was not as clear and compelling as she would have liked.

Posted in california, citycouncil, cityworkers, development, downtown, housing, iz, janebrunner, libbyschaaf, nadel, oakland.

Cuts to basic services jeopardize Oakland’s recovery

Tomorrow two groups of four Councilmembers will present competing budgets for adoption by the City of Oakland. By far the most controversial of all proposed cuts is Mayor Jean Quan’s threat to cut 90% of the staff of the Oakland Public Library, violating the terms of the 2004 Measure Q parcel tax that provides additional funding for library services. Some observers claim that the library needs to share the pain like everyone else – and Councilmembers are quick to assure constituents that preserving the library is their top priority – but a cursory look at the city budget shows the library is being unfairly targeted for reductions.

General Fund contribution for the library was $12.7m in 2008, and last year it was cut to the Measure Q minimum, $9.1m. That’s a 28% cut in just three years! Parks and Recreation has been cut by 14%, and Public Works cuts have left our streets in deplorable condition. Meanwhile, outside grants have declined by only a small amount, and the City Planning Department has suffered almost no funding reductions (less than 4% cut from the General Fund). The Police Department has seen its total funding increase over that period even though the services it provides have been cut to the point that crime victims are coming to the library to get help filling out reports.

It is a statement of the backwards priorities of the sclerotic City Council that the most basic city services have been decimated while bureaucrats who do not help the public, and grants that go to politically-active organizations, have kept most of their funding.

But this isn’t just a matter of the City Council’s priorities. In order for Oakland to reverse the cycle of budget cuts, there must be new investment to lift property values, increase employment, and boost tax receipts. New residents and investors don’t care about planning codes or grants for private programs. They care about clean and safe streets, and basic services like libraries, which is the best-used city service (if you don’t count parking tickets!). If the library is decimated in order for the City to continue funding programs grants or Mayoral advisors, we won’t be able to attract the kind of investment that is needed to get the city’s fiscal house in order.

If you’d like to tell your City Councilmembers to prioritize the library and basic services you can email them at the addresses below. The first four Councilmembers are one group and the second four are the other. You can also join me and many other library supporters as we read books in front of City Hall today.


UPDATE June 21: Oakland City Council will hear budget proposals on June 28th.

Posted in california, citycouncil, oakland, taxes.

Five years of Oakland’s Future

It’s been five years since FutureOakland was launched into the wild (originally at, then V Smoothe and I started FutureOakland because we felt that our viewpoint was not being heard in the debate over the future of Oakland during the 2006 election. Dissatisfied with Ron Dellums’ evasive and vague answers to questions, we argued that he did not have a vision for the city and would likely underperform in office. That was just the first prescient observation that would characterize our approach to blogging – and continues here and at V Smoothe’s A Better Oakland.

When we started there was a blog that was a few months old, OaklandFocus, and a blog had just gone under, OaklandNews. A few other one-man blogs came and went during the election cycle, and in the next two years, team efforts launched and faded away. Today there are countless local blogs written by caring citizens, as well as local news sites like OaklandSeen, OaklandLocal and OaklandNorth. Appealing to blog readers has become a staple of local campaigns. Gatherings of bloggers attract business and political leaders as well as those looking for a good time. To some extent, this blog presaged the revitalization of culture and nightlife in downtown Oakland – V & I were downtown DJs when we started this blog and advocating for cabaret reform and downtown’s success were always a top priority. That’s why I started four years ago, to provide an apolitical outlet for news about downtown. But FutureOakland was always about more than just my own viewpoint.

Following the Deborah Edgerly scandal from its inception, monitoring the polarizing debate over Inclusionary Zoning, and explaining the planning process were efforts this blog made to break City Hall out of its cliquish comfort zone and encourage more people to be involved. I am ready to declare it a success. From Oakland Rising to the Oakland Builders’ Alliance, from Make Oakland Better Now to Walk Oakland Bike Oakland, there are more organizations and people engaged in the city and advocating for changes that benefit residents rather than city employees or contractors. New tools like Twitter, and the growing ease of creating a blog, have increased attendance at Council meetings and demystified the public policy process, empowering residents to voice their priorities to a Council that has been so entrenched for so long that many Oaklanders had simply given up on change.

The increasing engagement of citizens in the workings of local government has not gone unnoticed. The Oakland League of Women Voters is honoring long-standing local bloggers with their annual Making Democracy Work Award. In addition to me and V, the League is awarding Aimee Allison of, Becks of Living In The O, and Zennie Abraham of OaklandFocus. Though we often have differing opinions, we are all dedicated to democratizing the debate over Oakland’s future, by providing information and tools for ordinary citizens to exercise their voice in making of public policy.

I am deeply grateful for this honor, because my blog is definitely a labor of love that is sometimes risky and painful. I don’t think I’ve lost any friends over a post – quite the opposite – but all of the honored bloggers have taken the brave step of putting out unfiltered opinion in public, the product of a great deal of hard work, without much opportunity for compensation. The League of Women Voters is a respected nonpartisan organization that takes similar risks, such as their position on reforming the lobbying ordinance which has, somewhat predictably, upset City Hall’s many lobbyists. Please consider joining the League to support their important work, and joining us at the League’s annual fundraising Luncheon on April 27th – also it will be fun! Details are available here.

So what does the future hold for the award-winning local blog FutureOakland? I will continue to closely monitor City Hall and provide new insights on policies and policymakers, always firmly grounded in evidence, analysis, and the occasional trustworthy rumor. I’ll continue helping to organize blogger parties and build community. I’ll continue to put local news with a spin out in the Twitterverse. And I will continue to deepen my own engagement as I encourage others to be engaged.

My stab in the dark at political activism, in the form of launching a blog one drunken evening, has led to many rewarding friendships and opportunities for involvement. This year I retired as Chair of the City Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, joined the Boards of the East Bay Young Democrats and Walk Oakland Bike Oakland, and last year I directed policy and media for Rebecca Kaplan’s against-all-odds Mayoral campaign. I wouldn’t have had these opportunities to be deeply involved in the city I grew up in if it wasn’t for this blog – or more specifically, the fact that people read this blog. So thank you for reading this and caring about your community. If we’ve proved anything in five years, it’s that you can fight City Hall – or at least have an impact on public policy even in a big city.

Posted in blogoaksphere, oakland.