Posted November 24th 2011 at 3:30 pm by
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The Misappropriation of "Public Safety" in Occupy Oakland

I’m a casual participant and neighbor to two of the largest and most discussed Occupy camps in the US: I live four blocks from Occupy Oakland’s main camp, and I attend the University of California at Berkeley, home of Occupy Cal. Waiting on the bus in the morning, I wonder about hitching a ride with one of the four press helicopters that zip back and forth along my commute. It’s the least they can do at this point, really.

What is it like to live in a city and attend a school under occupation? It’s troubling, loud, and occasionally inspiring – in that order.

The Misappropriation of "Public Safety" in Occupy OaklandOakland is so broke, and the police department is so understaffed, that the police no longer respond to most types of nonviolent crimes. Even if you’re the victim of a violent crime, the odds of getting an officer to follow up on your armed robbery once the perpetrator has fled the scene are discouragingly low. Walking home alone at night requires an Orwellian mix of common sense and knowing denial.

So as an Oakland resident, the overwhelming police force dispatched to gas and arrest the members of a peaceful, if muddy, protest is troubling because it suggests that violently clearing a camp is more in the interest of public safety than responding to an unarmed assault.

The Misappropriation of "Public Safety" in Occupy OaklandIt is also troubling when these violent clearings of the Occupy Oakland camp scatter homeless people all over the immediate area. The camps’ open kitchen, temporary shelter, and other donations flowing to the Occupy Oakland protestors are also given to transient Oaklanders that stop by or join them. The camp uses Twitter to broadcast their wishlist to supporters.

To the City’s credit, they have started making some effort to move the homeless that live in Occupy Oakland into winter shelters, but for reasons others could explain better than me, many people do not or cannot accept those alternatives. So when the police announce they’re going to clear the camp by any means necessary, these people are deprived of the only services they have and are scattered.

The Misappropriation of "Public Safety" in Occupy Oakland

This jockeying back and forth between peaceful camping and violent evacuation went on for weeks. As it was starting to become clear from dialogue and events that the organizers and majority of participants in Occupy Oakland weren’t violent, but the public safety officers and a few wildcards actually were quite violent, a young man was shot and killed on the edge of the Occupy Oakland encampment.

This was Oakland’s 101st homicide victim of 2011. Unlike the 100 people killed before him this year, his death convinced the City to take immediate and decisive action for public safety. They cleared the camp, hurting far fewer people than on previous attempts, and the plaza remains clear to this day.

Does the plaza feel safer to walk past at night? Not particularly, because now it’s entirely empty again. But clearing the plaza was a priority for the Oakland Chamber of Commerce, who frequently warned of deep economic woe to Oakland’s small businesses.

There’s actually a lot of debate about the economic impact to downtown businesses from Occupy Oakland. Many downtown businesses are large corporations, and undoubtedly suffer during each strike. But many businesses are small, independent, locally owned, and fully embrace the movement’s moral outrage over this country’s growing economic inequality. These businesses are actually doing quite well.

Every time the Business Improvement District (which has mandatory membership) or the Chamber of Commerce (which represents the largest, often international companies working in Oakland) complain that Occupy Oakland is making downtown unsafe and driving away business, they induce the conservative mainstream media to swell and bellow fear, as they are wont, exacerbating the very perception they claim to oppose.

But they succeeded, and now downtown Oakland is trampled, empty, and dark once again.

The Misappropriation of "Public Safety" in Occupy Oakland

What does this mean for those of us who just want to get home safely?

Downtown residents were thrown under the bus in this whole ordeal. The city and the police tossed around “public safety”, claiming to work in our interests, but their “public safety” no longer means “preventing events that are unsafe.” In 2011, or probably any time since 9/11, it just means “maintenance of order and the status quo”. Riot police don’t give you directions or restrain a violent transient attacking pedestrians. Riot police attack pedestrians, too.

Don’t believe me? Have you seen the videos of police officers beating or pepper spraying students at UC Berkeley or UC Davis? Do these officers look like they’re protecting public safety to you?

I was an early supporter of Occupy Oakland, but I don’t like watching how the City’s push for “public safety” has effected the movement. As the discussion turns from income inequality to police brutality (a good thing to discuss), many people are becoming discouraged to see the original message lost. Others are just becoming more militant.

Not enough people are trying to take this incredible and unified sense of moral outrage out of the parks and put it into action. One of these such groups, Occupy Our Home, combines the need to protest with the need to protect individual victims of the unregulated banking industry. Can this or anything else take Occupy Oakland in from the cold and protect it from “public safety”?

Post by Ruth Miller.

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