Is it fair to blame the Occupy Oakland encampment for a murder on its doorstep?
That’s the question everyone’s debating today here in Oakland, after a young African-American man was gunned down by the campsite Thursday at about 5 p.m.
Some here say the victim was not affiliated with the camp; others say he was a frequent visitor, identified as “Alex” (police have not yet released his name). City officials don’t seem very concerned about that particular detail. Regardless of the victim’s affiliation with the camp, city council members and now the mayor say the camp has become a magnet for fights and other disturbances downtown. The police union this morning pleaded with the Occupy campers to vacate the plaza in front of City Hall. The statement read, in part:
“Yesterday’s murder was Oakland’s 101st homicide of 2011. It is time for us to stop directing all of our efforts at policing the small enclave of ‘Occupy Oakland’ and get back to our job of protecting the citizens of Oakland in the neighborhoods where our residents live.”
Occupy activists reject the notion that their camp is somehow distracting the police from patrolling the rest of the city. And they say closing the camp in response to the shooting is nonsensical. One activist told me, “By that logic, we should shut down the whole city of Oakland.”
They point out that residents of the camp tried to break up the fight, before the gun was drawn, and that their medics tried to help the victim until the EMTs arrived.
The camp members also tried to control the situation; right after the shooting, some of them blocked media photographers from getting close to the scene, and at least one camera man was assaulted. One camper told me to put away my recording gear or risk getting beaten up “like the others.”
The campers have good reason to fear that this shooting may spell the end of the encampment. Local merchants and members of the city council have been pressuring Mayor Jean Quan to evict them. (She did once before, on Oct. 25, but the campers were soon allowed to come back, infuriating downtown businesses.) Last night, she issued a statemement that read, in part:
“Tonight’s incident underscores the reason why the encampment must end. The risks are too great. We need to return OPD resources to addressing violence throughout the city. It’s time for the encampment to end. Camping is a tactic, not a solution. “
So residents of the camp are steeling themselves for another eviction. I chatted briefly with two young kids, a sister and brother, who’d been equipped by their father with German Army gas masks. In case of tear gas, apparently.
City officials are not eager for another violent scene. Many are sympathetic with Occupy’s larger political message, especially in the office of Mayor Quan. But they’re also extremely frustrated with the current standoff. One of them told me, “This movement got the whole country finally talking about income inequality in the country… but now it’s turning into a debate over camping.”
(Martin Kaste is a national correspondent for NPR.)