No one who watched the eviction of demonstrators from Frank Ogawa Plaza can feel good about the way this situation was handled. Nor can anyone fail to be stunned and saddened by the serious injuries sustained by Iraqui War veteran Scott Olson. The failures at the root of Tuesday’s terrible events, however, were not policing failures; they were failures of City leadership and management. For that we have to look to the Mayor’s office.
History tells us that even the best planned and most carefully executed police action of this type, involving demonstrators who typically show a range of behavior from absolute non-violence to provocation to assaults on officers, will invariably result in some injuries. Notwithstanding Mayor Quan’s attempts yesterday to minimize her own knowledge and involvement, the police in this case were simply doing as they were told.
Questions to be answered are these: how did things reach the point where this police action was necessary? Why did the Mayor and City Council send mixed messages to the demonstrators–one day “showing solidarity,” camping with them, leading them to believe they were welcome at the Plaza, and then later moving to an action like this when the demonstrators settled in for a prolonged stay?
The demonstrators had a right to peacefully assemble and express themselves. However, this was public land designated for multiple purposes. The City is responsible for that land. Well-settled law tells us that the City had both a right and a responsibility to balance the right to demonstrate on public land with narrowly constructed, content neutral restrictions that still allowed the demonstrators to get their message out. The responsible course of management from the start was to make very clear the city’s reasonable time, place and manner rules for the use of the plaza. No mixed messages, no trying to have it both ways.
Here is how it should have worked. The Mayor should have communicated with the group once it arrived two weeks ago, advised them of the need for a permit to occupy the plaza, and then spelled out what the requirements for the permit would be. In other cities (and here too), camping in a public plaza or city park is not permitted–but assembling for free speech is. As an example, a permit could have stipulated that the group may assemble, but could not camp. Group members would not be allowed there if they destroyed or damaged property, or impeded the ability of others to also use the plaza. As long as the permit restrictions were not drawn to censor what the demonstrators were saying, AND so long as the restrictions were narrow (not a big infringement) and tailored to advance a public interest (e.g., public safety) AND allowed the demonstrators to get their message out–the permit would be lawful under the First Amendment. The demonstrators would still be allowed to protest–and Tuesday’s chaos would not have occurred.
Mayor Quan managed the last two weeks’ events very badly. She exacerbated the management failure yesterday by denying involvement in the planning of the police action and trying to pass the blame to the City Administrator. While offering at best faint praise for the police (“The mayor said ‘I don’t know everything’ when asked by reporters if she was satisfied with how police conducted the sweep”) she inferentially faulted 1% of them.
This week’s episode conjures memories of 2010, when City Council members, including then Council Member Quan, inserted themselves between police and demonstrators in the aftermath of the Oscar Grant verdict, allegedly to protect the demonstrators from the police–but more likely to posture for news pictures in the middle of an election.
We don’t know if every officer at the scene did everything correctly. But we do know that the entire problem could have been avoided if the City had laid out reasonable, clear and consistent conditions for allowing the Occupy Oakland demonstration from the start. Tragically, the City’s leadership sacrificed clarity of position in favor of photo opportunities and mixed messages.