Jean Quan’s Big Mistake



Jean Quan won the mayor’s race last year in large part because of her liberal credentials. She and fellow progressive candidate Rebecca Kaplan represented a sharp contrast to the more moderate, law-and-order politician Don Perata. It was no surprise, then, that Oakland moderates started criticizing Quan almost as soon as she took office in January. They complained loudly that she’s too soft on crime and isn’t doing enough to stem the violence in Oakland. But if yesterday’s over-the-top police response to the Occupy Oakland protest is any indication, it seems that Quan has taken criticism from the law-and-order crowd much too seriously and has forgotten her progressive roots.

Indeed, Oakland police, following a decision by the mayor to clear the encampment, fired tear gas and non-lethal weaponry last night at some of the same protesters that Quan and Kaplan had stood arm-in-arm with a little more than a year ago during an Oscar Grant protest in downtown Oakland. The Occupy Oakland protesters, in fact, had even renamed the plaza in front of City Hall as Oscar Grant Plaza.

For moderates, Quan and Kaplan’s decision last year to stand with protesters and attempt to keep the peace between police officers and demonstrators was proof that the two councilwomen were unfit to be mayor. But for progressives, Quan and Kaplan’s choice seemed natural. It was an outrage to many people that Johannes Mehserle, the white BART cop who shot and killed Grant, an African-American man, while he lay face down on the ground, was only convicted of involuntary manslaughter. For progressives, the verdict, and the current state of our criminal justice system, needed to be protested.

Yet little more than one year later, Quan acted as if she had become the moderate she ran against, green-lighting a plan to bring in hundreds of police officers from nearby cities to break up what had been mostly a peaceful protest and encampment in front of City Hall. Quan has said she had no choice but to clear out the encampment, citing health and public safety concerns. But where was the Quan from last summer? Why wasn’t she in the encampment, working with protesters to operate a clean and safe demonstration?

In response to that question posed by this reporter at a press conference today, the mayor gave a muddled answer. She listed off the reasons for the raid: That the encampment had become unsafe, that is was unsanitary, that city officials had received numerous reports of people being hurt or needing help and not getting it. She noted that she had originally supported the goals of the encampment and still endorses the Occupy Movement’s overall goals, but said a troubling violent incident in front of City Hall tipped the scales for her.

It involved a mentally ill homeless man, named Kali, who brandished a knife at an Occupy volunteer, and the camp’s “security” detail beat him bloody with a two-by-four and he had to be hospitalized. “The man struck in the head with a two-by-four — for me, that was the emotional end,” the mayor said.

It also should be noted that the Occupy Oakland folks didn’t make things easy for Quan and city officials. Their decision to require Quan, Jordan, or City Administrator Deanna Santana to personally come and address the entire camp’s general assembly to voice concerns smacked of self-indulgence. The camp’s clumsy attempts to limit media access were no less egregious.

But those issues, in retrospect, did not justify Oakland — and Quan’s — heavy handed response. Quan also badly misread how the police raid would not only be viewed by her progressive supporters in Oakland but by liberals around the nation and the world. Yesterday, the Alameda County Labor Council, which represents all union members in the area and has generally supported the mayor, condemned what Quan and police had done, noting rightly that the mayor will now be viewed as being “on the wrong side of history.”

National liberal icon Keith Olbermann even called for Quan to resign Tuesday night on his television show. It was no wonder after the Occupy Oakland-police clash news story was the on the front of The New York Times homepage for several hours Tuesday night. In short, the whole world was watching, and what they saw was police firing tear gas and other non-lethal weaponry at demonstrators in an “Occupy” protest. It was not a positive moment for the city, especially when you consider the fact that the Occupy Wall Street Movement remains popular throughout the nation and the world.

It also doesn’t matter for most people that Occupy Oakland had devolved from a protest of economic inequality and how Wall Street banks screwed over the nation to a demonstration against Oakland police brutality and other local issues. For many, the Occupy Oakland protest, rightly or wrongly, was still an extension of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. And so Quan’s decision to raid it will be viewed as an attack on what most people view as a progressive movement.

Indeed, Quan and other Oakland politicians who supported yesterday’s police action should have realized that regardless of whether the Occupy Oakland had turned into a protest against them, in reality, it was, for everyone else, still a protest against greedy, corrupt bankers. Quan, in short, got too caught up in the moment and the problems of the encampment, and in doing so, lost sight of what may be the most important progressive movement of this generation.

She also still doesn’t seem to get it. At today’s press conference, she pointed to her progressive bonafides and reminded reporters that she has been in many demonstrations herself. Yet, she steadfastly repeated that the Occupy Oakland protesters would not be able to “occupy” the plaza in front of City Hall. Yes, she had reopened much of the plaza for protesting — but only during the day and evening hours. Camping, she said, would not be permitted.

But camping is what the Occupy Movement is all about. It’s about occupying a public space until the system that bails out banks that are “too big to fail” while forcing middle- and lower-income folks to fend for themselves is changed. Quan used to understand such things. She used to fight for them. But this week she lost sight of that fact.