Oakland North’s biggest news stories of 2011
on December 30, 2011
Whew! What a year, Oakland! Even before Occupy Oakland provided a year’s worth of news on its own, 2011 was a banner year for city news.
The city government marked some prominent new arrivals — most notably Mayor Jean Quan, who took office after a hard-fought ten-way electoral battle — as well as some significant departures, including the resignations of Police Chief Anthony Batts and City Attorney John Russo, and the death of longtime City Hall watchdog Sanjiv Handa.
It was a tumultuous year as Oakland came close to shuttering most of its libraries due to a $58 million budget deficit, as the school board faced repeated protests over its controversial decision close five elementary schools, as a judge weighed the fate of the Fruitvale gang injunction, and voters began to petition for the recall of Mayor Quan.
Here’s Oakland North’s guide to the biggest local stories in 2011 — and please cast your vote in our poll for which of three of these events you think will most influence the city’s future.
As with every year following a big election, January kicked off with a round of swearing ins, including some historical firsts. Jean Quan became the first female, Asian American Oakland mayor, and Victoria Kolakowski was sworn in as the first openly transgender US trial court judge. The city also welcomed in a few new public services, including a new library on 81st Avenue and a new dog park in the Longfellow neighborhood, and made plans to amp up the city’s bikeways throughout the year.
The city’s police department got a dose of good news, bad news. On the 15th, nearly all of the department’s 57 problem solving officers returned to the beat after having been laid off during the 2010 budget cuts, but only a few days later, news broke that Police Chief Anthony Batts was being considered for the top cop job in San Jose. While he ultimately wasn’t offered the position, Batts said that his future in Oakland remained unclear, citing the city’s spike in violent crime and his frustrations with police understaffing.
Meanwhile the death of Raheim Brown, who was shot by Oakland Unified School District security officers after he allegedly attacked an officer with a screwdriver outside of Skyline High School set off protests among those concerned about police brutality.
The death of Raheim Brown continued to affect local politics, as community organizers held a tribunal to address officer involved shootings and racial profiling, and protesters continued to speak at school board meetings calling for the dismissal of the officer who shot Brown.
Meanwhile, debate at city council meetings heated up over plans for a Fruitvale gang injunction, which would levy restrictions on the movements of alleged Norteno gang members within an area called a “safety zone.” The City Attorney’s Office had filed for the injunction in October, 2010, but beginning in February, the council began to hear reports and public comments on the cost and efficacy of the proposed injunction, as well as concerns about the possibilities of racial profiling and civil liberties violations. Also in February, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Robert Freedman began hearing testimony in order to make a decision about whether to impose a preliminary injunction against 40 alleged members of the Nortenos.
The ripples of the 2008 financial crisis also continued to send ripples through the local economy, as the iconic Claremont Hotel on the Oakland-Berkeley border declared bankruptcy (but stayed open for business.) Meanwhile, in North Oakland, a new mainstay opened for business: Homeroom, the all mac-and-cheese restaurant.
Two of the biggest local stories in March involved food — the heated debate over the proposed ban on shark fins, and the levying of citations and possible fines against urban homesteader Novella Carpenter’s Ghost Town Farm, which kicked off a much broader citywide debate about backyard agriculture and animal husbandry, an issue that would continue to draw heated discussion throughout the year.
The Fruitvale gang injunction proposal drew continued public protest as witnesses continued to testify before Judge Freedman in the injunction hearing, including a dramatic moment in which an alleged gang member was actually arrested during the hearing.
And in what is surprisingly Oakland North’s most “liked” story ever on Facebook (700 votes and counting!) we got confirmation that the beloved “Super Longs” mega-drugstore would close this year. (We’re assuming that you all liked the story, not the news that the store would close.)
City officials began considering serious budget cutbacks after announcing the city could face a budget deficit as large as $58 million for the 2011-2012 year. Mayor Quan had initially proposed her Measure I parcel tax for a special summer ballot as a gap-closing measure, but the council did not address the issue in time, so the measure was ultimately placed on the November ballot.
Debate also began over the city’s regulation of mobile food trucks, as supporters pushed for looser boundaries over where they can do business, and critics warned that trucks can cause problems for brick and mortar restaurants, and that in some neighborhoods they are associated with crime and prostitution. (You can find Oakland North’s guide to East Bay food trucks here.)
In slightly sunnier civic news, the city began its annual pothole repair blitz, and Oakland North readers voted on the North Oakland’s very worst pothole. (Anyone remember which was voted the unholiest of the holey?)
May began with a bang as nurses at Children’s Hospital Oakland announced a five-day strike after the breakdown of year-long contract negotiations over health benefits.
After city officials proposed shuttering 13 of the city’s 17 libraries in an effort to handle the looming budget deficit, library supporters staged a series of inventive protests, including a story hour on the front steps of City Hall and a zombie-themed protest lurch down Telegraph Avenue, and packed city council meetings to argue against the cuts.
As Judge Robert Freedman heard final arguments in the Fruitvale gang injunction hearing, injunction supporter John Russo announced he’d be leaving his post as Oakland City Attorney in order to become Alameda’s City Manager. Russo gave a detailed exit interview to Oakland North citing some of his reasons for leaving and thoughts on his long term in Oakland city government; you can read it here.
Meanwhile, the world failed to end on May 21, the date predicted by Oakland radio host Harold Camping, although he promptly moved Judgment Day’s date back to October 21.
Former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle was released from jail after having served 365 days for the shooting death of Oscar Grant. (Mehserle had been convicted of involuntary manslaughter the previous summer, and had been sentenced to two years in prison, but was released early for good behavior and because of time served.) While the announcements of both Mehserle’s verdict and sentence had prompted violent protests in 2010, his release from jail was peacefully protested by hundreds in Oakland. A few weeks later, BART officials announced that they had agreed to a $3.1 million settlement with Oscar Grant’s mother.
Meanwhile Judge Robert Freedman ruled in favor of a preliminary gang injunction against 5 of the 40 alleged Norteno gang members named in the injunction, a ruling that imposed a 10 pm curfew on the men and prohibits them from wearing gang colors within a 450-block “safety zone,” among other restrictions.
The city council plowed its way through six different budget proposals aimed at closing the city’s $58 million gap, including plans that would close most of Oakland’s libraries, demand concessions from police officers, firefighters and other city employees, or add parking meters. The city’s Redevelopment Agency and Finance Management Committee voted not to come up with the $40 million needed to save the city’s Redevelopment Agency.
Debate over backyard farming continued as the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee ruled that Phat Beets Produce must get a permit to grow food at Dover Street Park, and the city’s Planning Commission voted to ease restrictions on growing and selling backyard produce.
But the discussion over urban farming wasn’t over; in July Oaklanders came out in force to debate the city’s regulations, particularly over whether backyard animal husbandry should be allowed. In other outdoorsy news, the parks committee split its vote over the hotly contested proposal for a Lake Merritt dog park, and the city opened the new East Oakland Sports Center.
The Oakland City Council voted in a new city budget just three hours ahead of the new fiscal year, which spared the libraries but authorized the rehiring of only 22 laid-off police officers, rather than the larger number called for by alternative budget plans. The next week the firefighters’ and civilian unions that represent city workers agreed to new contracts that were expected to save $23 million for the city, while the police union agreed to a new contract expected to save $65 million over four years.
The council also confirmed Barbara Parker as the new city attorney, and put Mayor Quan’s Measure I parcel tax on the November ballot.
In one of the highest profile crimes of the year, Oaklanders mourned the death of three-year-old Carlos Nava, who was killed in a drive-by shooting. Oakland law enforcement officials later arrested and charged two men in the incident.
Oakland Unified School District police chief Pete Sarna stepped down from his position in the wake of a complaint filed against him for an alleged racial slur against another schools officer. He was temporarily replaced by interim chief Barhin Bhatt, the officer who was involved in the January shooting of Raheim Brown, a decision that was heavily protested by Brown’s supporters. Within a few weeks, Bhatt was himself replaced by Lieutenant James Williams, a former Oakland Housing Authority police officer.
In what was perhaps a prelude to the nationwide Occupy protests that began the following months, Oaklanders began to rally against Wells Fargo, closing their accounts in protest of the bank’s foreclosure practices. And on the very local scale, residents near the Claremont DMV protested the removal of local trees. (By October, the neighbors and DMV had come up with some new plans to restore them.)
Meanwhile, hundreds of Oaklanders gathered together for the Throw Down for the Town, the first annual day of community service.
As the new school year got off the ground, so did an intense debate over the school board’s proposal to close campuses in an en effort to save the district $2 million. The district operates 101 campuses for a shrinking student body of approximately 38,000 students, the result of years of creating “small schools.” The board initially considered closing schools on a list of 10 elementary and middle schools, leading to several emotional protests from parents, teachers and students.
Meanwhile, Oakland nurses joined an estimated 21,000 statewide who went on strike to protest changes in their health care benefits, and a different protest broke out at the Oakland Museum of Children’s Art over a scrapped exhibit of art made by Palestinian kids living in Gaza.
Oakland’s festival season kicked into high gear, with the annual Pride festival, the Eat Real food festival, the Cannabis and Hemp Expo, and the festival-like atmosphere that surrounded the long-awaited premiere of Moneyball, the movie based on Michael Lewis’ book about how the Oakland A’s parlayed Sabremetrics into a winning 2002 season.
October included a 20th anniversary look back at the 1991 Oakland hills fire, including an analysis of what has changed since then, a look at some of the rebuilt homes, and residents sharing their memories of what they saved from the fire.
Mayor Quan presented her new “100 block” crime prevention plan at a town safety summit, at council meetings residents debated a proposed teen curfew, and the federal government warned medical marijuana-related businesses that they might face criminal prosecution and stiff tax bills.
But the biggest news of the month revolved around three sometimes overlapping news issues: schools, Occupy Oakland, and Police Chief Anthony Batts. On October 11, Batts announced his resignation, and in a later press conference cited city bureaucracy as an impediment to his work. Howard Jordan was sworn in as the interim chief. (Batts later gave a lengthy and comprehensive exit interview to Oakland North; you can read it here.)
Meanwhile, Occupy protesters, aligned with the Occupy Wall Street group that had begun protesting in New York City the month before, began camping at Frank Ogawa Plaza in front of City Hall on October 10. At first the camp seemed well-received by city officials and attracted celebrity speakers, while surrounding businesses reported that the camp was having a mixed effect on nearby shops. But within two weeks the camp had grown to over 550 people and city officials, concerned about public health and safety, warned campers to evacuate. On October 22, after a second set of eviction warnings, protesters held their first big march through the city and then partied into the night.
In the early morning hours of October 25, Oakland police officers evicted protesters from both the Frank Ogawa Plaza camp and from the smaller one at Snow Park, arresting 97 people. (Photo gallery here and raw video here.) Occupy protesters regrouped that afternoon at the library, and began a march to protest the eviction. The night turned violent and chaotic as protesters and police faced off in the streets, with police firing tear gas into the crowd. (Photo gallery here, and video here.) By the evening of October 26, Occupy protesters had again gathered in the plaza to conduct a general assembly meeting, and Mayor Quan, who had previously been in Washington, DC, on port business, had returned to town. The Occupy protesters voted in favor of a city-wide general strike for November 2, and once again poured out into city streets to protest, this time without confrontation with police. A few campers began to move sleeping bags back into the plaza.
Meanwhile, on October 26, the Oakland school board voted to close five elementary schools — Lakeview, Lazear, Marshall, Maxwell Park and Santa Fe — leading to a separate march to protest their closure.
As October wrapped up, protesters solidified plans for the November 2 strike and honored war veteran Scott Olsen, who had been injured during the October 25 confrontation between protesters and police, filmmaker Michael Moore visited the camp, which was beginning to re-grow at the plaza, and protesters conducted an October 29 march against police brutality.
As Quan faced criticism both at home and nationally for how the city had responded to the Occupy camp, a group filed a petition to recall her as mayor.
As the date of the strike (also sometimes referred to as a “day of action”) neared, tensions between Oakland city officials grew as the Oakland Police Officers Association released a statement criticizing the “confusing” orders being given to law enforcement by the mayor’s office, legal groups began investigating the police use of force and teargas, port officials urged protesters not to target the port, and local unions urged support for the general strike (if not for the term “general strike” itself.)
The November 2 strike began peacefully, as thousands took the streets to march, including related marches in support of Oakland schools. But by afternoon small groups of protesters had begun to act more aggressively, vandalizing banks and downtown buildings. By nightfall, the protesters had peacefully shut down the Port of Oakland, and many returned to the downtown area to celebrate. After midnight, confrontation erupted police and a smaller group of protesters that remained late into the night, resulting in more arrests and more use of tear gas. (Photo gallery here, raw video here.)
Throughout the month, community members — both those directly involved with Occupy and those who weren’t — debated everything from police procedures to the use of “black bloc” protest tactics and vandalism as a protest tool to the city’s response to Occupy to the sanitation at the camp to the role Occupy was playing in cities nationwide. Some Oaklanders showed their support for Occupy by participating in Bank Transfer Day.
The camp at Frank Ogawa Plaza quickly re-grew, and by mid-month city officials were urging campers to disband, especially after the November 10 shooting of Kayode Foster outside of the camp. By November 12, the city had once again officially ordered the Occupy protesters to leave, and after a wave of eviction notices, police conducted a second early-morning raid on the downtown campsite, making 32 arrests.
Occupy protesters responded by returning to the plaza later that night for a general meeting, by marching to Berkeley in support of Occupy Cal, and by setting up a new campsite downtown at 19th and Telegraph. (That one was also shut down by police.)
As the month drew to a close, the fate of Occupy without a downtown campsite seemed unclear, but there was one bit of closure as police arrested a man they believe was responsible for the shooting of Kayode Foster.
In December, parents filed signatures in a preliminary effort to recall five school board members who had voted in favor of school closures, and the city moved a step closer to allowing more mobile food vending with a proposal to create legal “food pods” in Oakland where vendors can gather during certain hours after paying an application fee; the proposal was quickly approved by the city council. City Hall observers were saddened to learn about the death of Sanjiv Handa, a constant presence at council meetings over the last 20 years, and the proprietor of the East Bay News Service.
But once again the biggest news was Occupy-related, as protesters called for a second march on the port. The march drew thousands and ended peacefully. Meanwhile, groups affiliated with Occupy attempted to set up new campsites, including an “Aquapy” raft floating on Lake Merritt (which was shut down by police), a lot in West Oakland (also shut down by police), and a vacant foreclosed home in West Oakland. City officials announced that they had commissioned an independent investigation into the police tactics used during confrontations with protesters, and it seemed like a good time to look back on the art and culture of Occupy.
Here at Oakland North, over the course of the year approximately 40 UC Berkeley journalism grad students wrote, shot, recorded, edited and published everything on this site. Thank you to all of our wonderful readers for your constant support, thoughtful comments and never-ending supply of story tips. Happy New Year — we’ll see you all in 2012!
Oakland North is an online news service produced by students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and covering Oakland, California. Our goals are to improve local coverage, innovate with digital media, and listen to you–about the issues that concern you and the reporting you’d like to see in your community. Please send news tips to: firstname.lastname@example.org.