Where the Streets are Reclaimed

There was some news coming out of my hometown this weekend. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf instituted a ban on nighttime protests in response to Sunday’s #SayHerName protest.

Mayor Schaaf argued that “there have been no changes to any city policy or enactment of any new ordinances in any way to prohibit peaceful protests,” however, it seems clear that this is a novel interpretation or implementation of city laws.

After night fall, Oakland Police Officers will “block demonstrators from marching in the streets.”

This, despite the fact that “Oakland crowd control policy specifically states that OPD will facilitate marches in the street regardless of whether a permit has be obtained as long as it’s feasible to do so.”

Of course, since its implementation, there have been protests every night as citizens peacefully test the limits of the new regulations.

Now, too be fair, Mayor Schaaf is in a difficult position. She was harshly criticized at the beginning of the month for the vandalism which occurred at Oakland’s May day protest.

And I don’t imagine Oakland to be a city where keeping demonstrations peaceful is easy. Oakland has long been known for its riots – for social justice and Raider’s games alike.

Some of that reputation is overblown racism from the wealthier side of the bay – but as an Oaklander myself, I have to admit, even riots make me a little proud.

So, reasonable or not, the city government sees two possible actions: minimally impinge on protestors rights, risking significant property damage, OR minimally impinge on property-owners rights, ensuring the safety of homes and businesses but restricting the freedom of protesters.

From that point of view, I’d expect most city officials to go with the property-owners. The first responsibility of any government is to ensure the safety of its citizens and their belongings. Justice will almost always take a back seat to that.

I see similar logic coming out of Baltimore and other cities – when a portion of the population turns to looting and vandalism, best impose a curfew. Keep the law abiding citizens out of the way, and clean up the trouble makers. That’s the best solution for the folks who don’t want any trouble.

In someways, that approach is not dissimilar to the shutdown of Boston which occurred following the 2013 marathon bombing. Police were searching for a suspect, a lot was uncertain, and they asked the rest of us to stay out of the way while they got their work done. Seems reasonable.

There’s just one thing: perusing a man who set bombs off across the city – even hurling explosives at police as they fled – is not the same thing as protecting a city from itself.

These are Oaklanders out on the street protesting. These are Baltimoreans and New Yorkers, and folks from Ferguson.

Whose streets? They chant. Our streets.

These are our streets.

I’m not convinced the problem is really a zero-sum game as it’s been laid to to be. Does it really come down to a choice of restricting freedom for protestors or restricting rights of property owners? Are those really the only choices we have?

That implies that government’s role is primarily to protect the rights of the majority. That whenever conflict arises, it is the minority who must suffer. It’s James Madison’s fear of factions all over again.

Our government was designed to prevent this.

But perhaps it could do a better job. Perhaps too often the rights of the minority are subjugated to the rights of the majority.

Indeed, they are – that’s why we protest.

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