Protests are just the latest hit on a downtown that hasn't been healthy in decades
The impression I get from reading some coverage around the country is that other OWS branches don’t quite know what to make of Occupy Oakland. From the ground, I have to say it looks both familiar and dismal. After weeks, conflicts with the police, mixed messages from City Hall, and some graffiti and broken windows, I don’t know if BofA is trembling in its plutocratic boots, but downtown businesses are getting frightened.
Oakland’s downtown has always been a bit of a hothouse flower. Visitors are always startled at it—it doesn’t quite look like the financial district of a city that size. Too many empty storefronts, too little in the way of shopping and businesses. A friend works down there, at Clorox, so I have lunch in the area every so often, but my truest experience of it has been interviewing for jobs over a period of years. There are a lot of charter schools tucked into odd buildings in downtown Oakland—imagine that happening in the heart of LA or San Francisco, and you get the idea.
It’s not that it’s a ‘bad neighborhood’, an idea I’ve heard promoted mostly by people who want to suggest that Occupy might even be classying up the place. I walk around downtown Oakland without special concern, even after dark. People are friendly, the businesses that are there are pleasant, and attempts to build the place up have continued valiantly, even with the disaster that is the economy going on.
In this already fragile environment, weeks of protesting, the resultant drop in business, public hygience issues, and the real threat of property damage from the fringe element in the crowd have all taken their toll on business owners.
This has happened before. What comes up in my mind every time I see this kind of thing at work in Oakland is the violent protests that followed the shooting of Oscar Grant by BART police, and the fate of a small business called Creative African Braids:
The mob smashed the windows at Creative African Braids on 14th Street, and a woman walked out of the shop holding a baby in her arms.
“This is our business,” shouted Leemu Topka, the black owner of the salon she started four years ago. “This is our shop. This is what you call a protest?”
Wednesday night’s vandalism victims had nothing to do with the shooting death by a BART police officer of Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day - but that did little to sway the mob.
“I feel like the night is going great,” said Nia Sykes, 24, of San Francisco, one of the demonstrators. “I feel like Oakland should make some noise. This is how we need to fight back. It’s for the murder of a black male.”
Sykes, who is black, had little sympathy for the owner of Creative African Braids.
“She should be glad she just lost her business and not her life,” Sykes said. She added that she did have one worry for the night: “I just hope nobody gets shot or killed.”
Please note that the Sykes is described from being from San Francisco. In fact, after the Mehserles verdict sparked another round of riots, then OPD chief Anthony Batts said that 75% of those arrested were not Oaklanders.
I believe this is what you call ‘slumming’. This history is one reason I am very skeptical when I see less endearing Occupy Oakland protesters talking to the press about how they’re feeding the homeless, and no one else in Oakland’s doing that—I tend to suspect that these are the words of someone who knows jack about Oakland.
Occupy Oakland has thus far been more under control, and responsible members of the group have found themselves in the rather thankless role of cleaning up after the rogue element. But business is suffering.
Small businesses are getting hit hard.
The owner of Sankofa African Arts and Jewelry said that on the two mornings since protesters returned, her front doorway has reeked of urine.
She said her business has declined by 80 percent since Occupy Oakland began.
“I really, really want them to leave,” said the owner, who gave only her first name, Ellen. She has owned her business for 17 years. “What they are doing is making business worse.”
A camp supporter overheard her lament and shouted: “You would have lost your business anyway with the way the economy is going.”
Ellen burst into tears.
Moji Ghafouri said business has gone down 25 percent at her Caffe Teatro. Protesters also smashed one of her windows.
“I’m a small business,” she said. “If you’re against corporations or big business, I’m not them.”
Ghafouri said part of the problem is City Hall’s doublespeak - like banning people from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. and then letting people camp overnight anyway.
“If they’re not going to enforce it, don’t say it,” she said.
Wiljago Cook, 33, who set up her tent Friday, said the problems at the camp are endemic to downtown Oakland.
Because of Occupy Oakland, she said, “a lot of things that happen in Oakland have been brought to light.”
More and more businesses are feeling it, some places are seeing their business fade away, and the protests are scaring away deals on leases. A small retail outlet or restaurant doesn’t necessarily come back from something like this. Oakland’s hopes for the future are being trashed.
For a downtown that held such promise just a decade ago, it’s been painful journey.
“We own this restaurant because we love Oakland,” Rasche said. “You want to believe in it so bad.”
I don’t have an easy answer. While Oakland is not the Bay Area city I love best, I have a soft spot for it. While Occupy SF or LA is not going to do lasting damage to the cities that host them, Occupy Oakland well may, and as I said, I suspect that an awful lot of the ‘rogue element’ are not locals.
There is a dense and complicated mass of issues having to do with class and race going on here. Something we would do well to remember is that ‘99%’, in its near-all-inclusiveness can also be used to cover up a world of inequity if people are not honest with themselves.
Oakland is bleeding. I’m mad at Occupy, and I’m mad at OPD, and I’m mad at Jean Quan. Spare me the straw men. I don’t want people to be forced to abandon their protest, nor do I want anyone tear-gassed or hospitalized again, nor do I claim that BofA is a fine, upstanding and honorable institution. But I am also aware that in the worst economy in many decades, people are going to be put out of work, or never find it, because of the damage to Oakland.
I have no answers.