There is a debate over the first amendment and preservation of property in Oakland right now, and the camps are fairly clear:
“I’m tired of seeing my city trashed.”
“Broken windows do not matter more than broken Black bodies.”
The mayor of Oakland recently enforced a sundown restriction on protests (possibly although not necessarily influenced by two SF Chronicle columnists who suggested similar measures after windows were broken, cars were damaged and buildings were tagged in the Auto Row neighborhood). This policy shift (which the mayor indicates is a policy already on the books which she simply chose to enforce) was executed during a peaceful protest to honor the lives of Black women, including Black trans women, who have died due to police brutality. Police also kettled and arrested numerous people (including a planning commissioner) at a protest of the curfew two days later and stood at the ready during the interfaith protest the next night.
Here’s what’s interesting about this issue to me:
Both sides agree with each other.
There are definitely differences of degree, but the vast majority of people involved in this issue agree on the fundamentals:
- Police brutality needs to end, and any systems that perpetuate systemic racism and bias need to end with it. (Even a growing number of officers are stepping up to say they do not want to be a part of a racist institution and are joining the The National Coalition of Law Enforcement Officers for Justice, Reform and Accountability.)
- Breaking windows hurts the neighborhood and hurts small business owners and hurts the low-income people of color who are often the ones cleaning up the mess the next day.
So the more I think about this, the more puzzled I am that we’re in a standoff between activists and the tough-on-crime mayor, when we are for the most part agreed on this. I recognize that there are some people who believe no one will listen to nonviolent protests and acts of violence are necessary disruptions, and I am not factoring in their perspective. I also recognize that there are some people who believe that the first amendment is something we earn, and by not stopping people from breaking windows during nighttime protests, we have lost the privilege of that amendment. But the truth is, most of Oakland, including the protesters and (I believe) our elected officials and most of the city are committed to the same basic values and priorities, and we’re not acting like it.
I used to care a lot more about results than about process. But this reminds me that results are largely reliant on process.
Here’s what I mean by that:
The march that mayor Schaaf exercised her “not new” policy on was led by people she should know. They are militant, they are powerful, they are fierce. And they are nonviolent. I have marched with them dozens of times, and no matter how passionate they are about issues of life and death, they have never once incited a crowd to property destruction, far less violence. They are driven by a desire for all of our neighborhoods (let me emphasize that: ALL of our neighborhoods) to be free of fear, whether that be fear of violence in the street or violence by those charged to serve and protect. The mayor, being a really effective politician, probably knew them by name. They, and their particular nonviolent march for the lives of Black women, should have been part of her equation, because in a town of our size, relationship can inform strategy in some really important ways.
The “new sheriff in town” strategy is actually landing really well with some of the people who voted for her (and with columnists), because protests that cannot be contained make them feel unsafe. Also, it signals that businesses wanting to move into Oakland will be protected; I am not naive about that particular aspect of signaling: it is likely as much about the people who are not here yet as it is about the ones who have recently arrived (and the ones who have lived here for a lifetime and want it to be a safe and vibrant place, even if that priority is not applied equally throughout the city while simultaneously preserving affordability for low-income residents). It is a smart political move for someone with an eye to higher office, and it is widely speculated that the mayor would like her legacy in Oakland to launch her to the state or national arena.
But good politics and good governance are not the same thing, and I find myself feeling a little sorry for the mayor right now, because I believe she also wants to govern well, and she was advised on this by people who are not concerned so much with weaving together a torn-apart city as with scoring points or looking strong. (The reason I say “looking strong” is that the application of containing nighttime marches to sidewalks increases the cover for people who do want to do damage and increases both real and perceived threats for both unarmed protesters and armed officers, resulting in higher risk of harm to even people trying to comply with the law, like commissioner Myres when she was handcuffed despite having moved to the sidewalk as requested by law enforcement.)
Good governance recognizes that most of the city wants both police accountability and protests that are free from property damage. Good governance recognizes that even the people protesting are potential allies. Good governance does not trade off a constitutional amendment for the appearance of standing strong, particularly when the city has made commitments to the federal government that it would preserve this particular right, the right to assembly, in its federal court order settlements in 2011 and in 2003 after a port protest that involved violence by police. Good governance recognizes that we do not actually need to be in opposing corners of the boxing ring when we have shared visions for this city. (Even my very pro-business pro-growth friends want to preserve diversity and love the rich heritage of Oakland; they just don’t have the tools to stop displacement because they’re not in constructive conversation with the right people. And my hardcore no-more-cops friends are also the people putting in the most effort to end violence in the most neglected parts of the city that everyone else has given up on, one young life at a time.)
And I will say this: while many of my colleagues have given up on the idea that any of our elected officials actually care about poor people of color, I as a faith-rooted organizer believe that even when I differ greatly with them on policy specifics (and some of them roll their eyes when I get up to speak or phone their offices because they know where we disagree), they are serving in large part because they care about their neighborhoods and the city. They certainly aspire to earn political capital, but that is not all that they are. That includes our mayor, and I hope there are people who can speak to the part of her that grew up in this city and knows the devastating loss of loved ones taken too soon and has been moved by the deep grief of families left behind as well as the woman who knows those small business owners and the people wrestling with whether it is worth doing business in a city where they have to deal with a whole different layer of stresses. I believe that since she is shaped by this city, she has plenty of experience with how systemic racism hurts people of color, hurts white people, and even hurts the police officers that she spent her first day as mayor supporting.
I believe that we can all still back down from brinksmanship at this point, and I hope that other advisors to the mayor will help her model leadership that creates a solution to honor our shared commitments to respecting property and creating a country where no one needs to fear the people who serve and protect. I think both of those things matter. You probably know which I think matters more, but I think both matter.
I hear rumors that in the near future there will be two simultaneous nighttime protests, one of people comfortable with property damage as a tactic in opposing police brutality and the other nonviolent but equally committed to opposing police brutality. It will be interesting to see if by then the mayor has had a chance to cultivate a practice of good governance. Now’s the moment.
2 thoughts on “Black lives, windows, and good governance”
As usual, Dear Sister Sanghya, you brilliantly articulate the supposedly “opposing sides” of this particular conflict and, simultaneously, show precisely where those sides could and should come together. I’d pray for you to become our new mayor’s spiritual advisor–if you want me to…. What I find most compelling about your reflection is integrous: the deepest integrity of the piece is that you go beyond the political “both-and” stance and into your prophetic “honor the complexities of all concerns” stance. This city and all of its people are hungry for and capable of holding all of the legitimate concerns here. Thank you, Dear One.
I appreciate how clearly you have written this. The point that is very important to me is the deep if not absolute relationship between ends and means. Violence begets violence. Yes, violence against humans is greater violence than violence against property, but the anger and alienation and dehumanizations of the unidentifird property owners becomes part of the mix. Even naive upper middle class whites can learn and be changed by powerful, articulate non-violent action. A restorative justice approach requires acknowledging who we are; understanding our actions; talking honestly with “others” and having them be honest back; finding common ground in a desire for safety, justice, and peace.