The Oakland City Council heard for the first time on Tuesday night an informational report on the First Friday art and food festival’s effect on the city’s economy and public safety.
The popular event draws between 10,000 and 20,000 people on the first Friday of each month according to city estimates, and involves an estimated 1,200 artists who show work at art galleries like Rock Paper Scissors, according to the city’s report.
According to the staff report presented by Deputy City Administrator Arturo Sanchez, the city of Oakland is spending more than $43,000 a month to staff the event in Oakland’s Uptown neighborhood. That comes to $304,500 spent from the Oakland Police Department’s general fund since September 2012, when 35 police officers were redeployed from neighborhood policing beats to patrol First Fridays.
An additional $16,000 each month is being spent on the private security firm VMA, the staff report outlined.
“Those 35 officers, I want to see them in East Oakland. My people need them. We’re dying out there,” said Councilmember Desley Brooks (District 6). “There is money going out the door like there is no tomorrow, and we don’t have that kind of money.”
Councilmember Larry Reid, who represents District 7, which includes parts of East Oakland, said he is opposed to dedicating so many police resources to First Fridays. “I’ve lived in this city for 30 years and this is the first time in my life of living in this city that I am actually afraid to live here,” Reid said. “This is not the appropriate use of our police officers when we just finished with 131 homicides last year 115 the year before.”
Police Chief Howard Jordan and Mayor Jean Quan said that 2011′s downtown Occupy Oakland created a “public safety emergency” that spilled over into the nearby Art Murmur and First Fridays. Growing popularity also required increased police attention, they said, as did the February shooting death of 18-year-old Kiante Campbell during a First Friday event. “As the crowd increased and the footprint got wider, we had to increase staffing as well as adding private security,” Jordan said to the council.
Quan said the city has an obligation to provide public safety, whether it’s due to swelling crime rates or an event like Art Murmur. “It grew faster than anyone expected and we had to respond to it,” she said. “We had some real situations because of Occupy. That’s how we got more involved.”
Jordan addressed Brooks, noting that problem-solving officers who have been involved with patrolling the Art Murmur were not redirected from East Oakland to downtown. “I never said we had enough officers to address the crime,” Jordan said. “But the special resource officers in East Oakland remain on those beats.”
“One of the things that I think we have to be mindful of is that this is not just a block party—it’s an economic engine,” said Councilmember Lynette Gibson-McElhaney, who represents District 3, where First Fridays takes place. “It has become a place where poor people are now earning an income. People are feeding their families,” she said, referring to the food truck owners and other small business vendors who operate during the festival.
McElhaney also said that the event is strengthening Oakland’s economy by drawing tourism to Oakland. “We are in charge of providing public safety for our residents, and also for our tourists,” she said.
Rebeccca Kaplan, the at-large councilmember, said that with the council’s direction, First Fridays can continue without as many officers being assigned to the event. “I do think that it is a legitimate discussion to have about reducing the amount of law enforcement resources being used for this,” she added. “I do think that there can still be a successful thriving art murmur event without this many police. We have to figure out how to do this with fewer police in order for events to proceed.”
Quan said that the council will address spending and the allocation of resources in the upcoming two-year budget plan, and encouraged councilmembers to look at First Fridays as an investment when making future decisions. “We’ll be looking at the budget soon,” she said. “We’ve grown the economy by about $8 million to $11 million this year and part of that is the restaurant and the entertainment district and Art Murmur is part of that.”
The remainder of Tuesday’s council meeting concluded swiftly. Two new BART directors were introduced—Zakhary Mallett for District 7 and Rebecca Saltzman for District 3. They took over in January after running successful elections in November, 2012.
The council approved a plan for the city to seek a $300,000 grant from CalTrans for a “complete streets” project, which aims to make public streets safer for all users of the road by striping in new bike lanes, for example.
The council also recognized Oakland resident Kevin Grant, who in 2012 was one of three winners of the California Peace Prize handed out by the California Wellness Foundation. Grant received the prize for his work preventing violence in Oakland, where he is a coordinator for the city’s Measure Y program.
Councilmember Libby Schaaf read a city proclamation honoring Grant for “more than two decades working to help youth and adults involved in criminal and juvenile justice systems choose alternatives to violence and crime.”