In May, following a series of demonstrations that ended in vandalism and property destruction in Oakland, Mayor Libby Schaaf instituted a controversial ban on nighttime street marches in the city. The Oakland Police Department first enforced the heavy-handed policy on May 21 against a group of two hundred to three hundred African-American women during a #SayHerName protest that focused on police violence against women and transgender people. Before the demonstrators even began their street march, Oakland police threatened them with arrest and ordered them back onto the sidewalk, declaring through an amplified sound system that their march was "unpermitted."
Two nights later, Oakland police enforced the ban again on a large group of Black Lives Matter demonstrators who were protesting the new policy. That night, Oakland Planning Commissioner Jahmese Myers was among those detained and cited by police for "unlawful assembly."
Schaaf quickly came under intense criticism from civil rights advocates — and from the Express — for the new policy and for her tone-deaf response to the Black Lives Matter movement, which has sparked protests around the nation and raised awareness about police brutality. "We are at a crossroads with the City of Oakland, with this administration, and with the police," Myers told the Express after OPD had detained and cited her on May 23. "Black folks are having to fight for our lives. Low-income people are fighting for their right to stay in this city."
But supporters of Schaaf's new policy — and of cracking down on protesters — praised the mayor for implementing the ban. In a May 28 column, the San Francisco Chronicle's Chip Johnson wrote: "[T]he new approach requiring nighttime protesters to stay on sidewalks is completely reasonable because street protests have too often devolved into post-march madness."
Since then, however, Schaaf and OPD have backed off the street march ban and have allowed peaceful protesters to march through the city's streets. Last Friday night, OPD allowed anti-police violence demonstrators to march in the streets from the Fruitvale BART station all the way to City Hall without a permit. And the mayor seems to have realized that her initial policy was a mistake — sort of.
During an interview this week, Schaaf at first adamantly — and bizarrely — claimed that there never was a ban on nighttime protests. But when reminded of the protests in May in which police clearly prohibited demonstrators from marching on the street and forced them onto sidewalks, she eventually conceded that the city's policy has "evolved" since then and that her administration has attempted to find a "good balance" between safeguarding private property and respecting people's First Amendment rights (and Oakland's proud tradition of civil disobedience). "With time, we've gotten better at fine-tuning this policy," she said.
And she's right. Her administration has done a better job handling protests over the past few months — of honoring people's right to publicly voice their political views, while also protecting the city's business community from vandalism. There have been several protests in recent months that have ended peacefully and without property destruction.
Under the current protocol, it's up to OPD command staff to decide whether a march has gotten out of control and whether to declare an unlawful assembly and start detaining and citing people, Schaaf said. OPD also now tends to have a larger presence at demonstrations than before to ensure they remain peaceful.
It seems clear that the mayor realized early on that banning nighttime street marches likely violated city law. In an interview earlier this year, civil rights attorney Rachel Lederman told the Express that Oakland's "crowd control policy specifically states that OPD will facilitate marches in the street regardless of whether a permit has been obtained — as long as it's feasible to do so." Lederman should know; she wrote the policy as part of a legal settlement with the city.
In a later interview, Lederman told me that she had planned to take Schaaf and the city to court over the nighttime street protest ban — but decided not to when the mayor and OPD backed off of it.
It's also clear that Schaaf is reluctant to admit that she originally made a mistake — or even that there was a ban in the first place. She appears to be fearful of making such a public acknowledgment, perhaps out of concern of looking "weak" or that protesters would somehow think they had "won," and thus would feel emboldened to act more aggressively.
But the mayor shouldn't be reluctant. She was right to adjust the policy. It was unnecessarily heavy-handed. The adjusted strategy, by contrast, has been much more reasonable — and has achieved a good balance. In fact, there's an argument to be made that the city is now facilitating and managing protests better than it did under the last three mayors.
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