Businesses and Protesters Occupy a New Oakland Downtown

Posted on November 8, 2011

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The General Strike of Wednesday November 2, 2011, was an epic day for Oakland. But what would have gone down in history as one of the largest ad hoc mobilizations in history was later derailed by an outrageously violent police response to the occupation of a building adjacent to Frank Ogawa Plaza and concurrent vandalism to some businesses in the immediate vicinity.

Since then, one of the issues most reported on by media in regard to the encampment has been the economic impact on local businesses, especially small businesses in the area. Last Thursday night, the Oakland Chamber of Commerce’s Joe Harraburda claimed that Occupy Oakland was hurting local businesses. He also made claims about several businesses that had decided not to relocate or set up shop in Oakland, but he provided no data or evidence for his claims [meaning they can’t be taken seriously as anything but rhetorical devices].

Nevertheless, local and national news media have picked up on Harraburda’s narrative. As I wrote recently, Oakland Tribune’s Josh Richman, a guest on KQED’s the California Report, used Harraburda’s city council commentary to suggest that Occupy had hurt local businesses—again, with no evidence.

On Monday, prompted by these attacks and a really horrendous, but nevertheless influential, San Francisco Chronicle report, I interviewed and talked to several small business owners and their employees in the plaza and area—including the two oldest businesses in the area, Ratto’s and Delauer’s. Though by no means a scientific survey, my interviews were much more extensive than those of the Chronicle, which interviewed only the owners of one business and the Chamber’s Harraburda for their downtown business weather-check. Notably, I checked the Chamber’s member directory and found none of the businesses I spoke with there. Even B, the restaurant highlighted in the Chronicle piece, is not on that list. Indeed, I found few, if any, small businesses from Downtown Oakland on the 94612 zip code roster at all. The Chamber represents the large business and corporate interests of Oakland, not those of small businesses.

The experiences of these business owners are as varied as the members of the 99% movement itself, but one thing they all agreed on was the dismal economic history of the area. Elena Durante-Voiron, who owns and runs a one hundred and fourteen year old family deli, described the last few years as an economic “rollercoaster”.  Delauer’s, the famous Broadway newsstand, which was run by the same family for over one hundred years until recently, came dramatically close to shuttering its doors more than once in 2008. Abdel Al Banna, who took over the historic newsstand shortly after with a partner, said that he had “suffered” over the last few years. “Its been a hard time,” he said.

These economic travails have continued, despite a supposed economic plan by former Mayor Jerry Brown that failed to attract loyal corporate business. The Gap across the street from the plaza closed down a few years ago. Walgreen’s moved into the space, leaving a large crevice on the West side of Broadway that has yet to be filled.

The elephant in the room of Occupy Oakland reporting is the fact that the city is experiencing a relentless economic slide, where the unemployment rate is officially 16%–nearly double the national average. Recent reports suggest that some fifty percent of those most recently on unemployment no longer factor into the official unemployment numbers because they’ve exhausted their benefits, so the number is quite a bit higher without a doubt. Add to this furlough days from the city’s administration which represent several hundred unfilled seats in local eateries and coffee shops. In this light, the odd conclusions contained in the Chronicle piece, which categorizes the high rates of poverty and unemployment in the area as one minor factor in the unstoppable hemorrhage of downtown Oakland, are ludicrous.

Within the context of a downtown beset by institutional levels of disenfranchisement that affected business long before the Occupy movement began, experiences and opinions about Occupy Oakland amongst local business owners I talked to are surprisingly diverse. While the media are concerned with extremes, there are businesses which have experienced no difference in their receipts since the Occupy movement began. According to employees at Saigon, a Vietnamese restaurant in Frank Ogawa Plaza–which was notably mentioned by the city administration as under siege by OO protesters–there has been no difference in business there. The counter help at IBD, a sandwich shop across the street from the plaza, also scuttled the idea that business had been impacted, agreeing that nothing had changed.

I expected Elena at Ratto’s to complain about a slump in business because of almost weekly demonstrations from Ogawa to the jail just a block or two from her deli and sidewalk café on Washington Street. But she said there had been no effect, perhaps because the protests occurred after her closing hours. While she had experienced a decline of about 8% from the previous month, she was careful to note that this was an actual decrease in the rate of decline from August to September, when it was 12%. In her view, the sales decline was a product of other factors, those kinds of unpredictable and unexplainable things that small retail businesses struggle with from one month to the next when they try to reconcile and forecast their sales.

By contrast, Abdel at Delauer’s, told me that business had never been better; “more people, more business”, he said matter-of-factly. Basil, Abdel’s brother, on the other hand, who runs the Plaza Café in Frank Ogawa Plaza, had experienced a steep decline in business, which he attributed to fear of customers from offices adjacent to Ogawa about entering the plaza. But he also noted that business had never been good since he began running the café seven months ago. The losses of October–almost fifty percent–had lessened now that people were becoming comfortable with the occupation, and he reasoned that it would return to normal, and perhaps improve even more, as that comfort level rose with the secure reestablishment of the camp.

But Basil is an adamant supporter of the plaza camp, anyway. “I feel that I’m one of the ninety nine percent… I agree with these people.’ Basil also said he’s supportive of the diverse nature of the camp, including homeless members. “It’s our fault they’re homeless,” he argued. And contrary to many assumptions about plaza business owners, Basil said that the plaza is actually calmer now than in previous times. “…Kids getting off school would come and hang around the plaza, scream and throw chairs at each other…but now with all these people around, they’re not doing that kind of thing anymore.”

Obviously, none of the business owners I talked to were happy about the vandalism that followed Wednesday’s General Strike, and no one would expect them to be. But everyone I spoke to was very positive about the General Strike itself, and the march to the port, both in terms of the enormous business the teeming human flow created and the symbolism of shutting down corporate America for a day.

Nick, at Uncle Willie’s, a barbeque joint on 14th street at the epicenter of the march, said “it was one of the best days” in their six years of doing business there. “We supported the people and people came in here and supported us,” he said, describing how he and other employees stepped out to cheer on the marchers, and how marchers came in to the eatery, stuffing money in the tip jar for staying open the whole day. There were even more rewards after the shut-down, as hungry marchers cleaned the restaurant out. “We sold out of everything.”

Jesus at Burrito Express, a block up the street, agreed and described a line out the door of the eatery. And even Basil’s struggling business had one of the best days in its history. It was, in Abdel’s view, “the best day in the history of downtown Oakland” from a commercial standpoint.

What hysterical reporting about the damage to business obscures, is that Occupy Oakland and neighboring businesses are becoming interactive players in a new downtown Oakland dynamic—one where residents, businesses, workers and campers continue to develop into a remarkable, unique and unprecedented community. The business sector of this community has varied opinions about the evolution. Some business owners, like Elena, remain supportive of overall goals, but feel that the encampment has outlived its usefulness and protesters should find a new method of protest soon. Others have no complaints whatsoever; still others are enthusiastic, despite feeling as if they’re losing business in the bargain.

One thing seems clear: the construction of this new downtown community is something that the Chamber of Commerce, police and Mayor’s Office, all of whom have failed downtown over and over throughout the years, are not involved in. Though they do dabble in trying to destroy it from time to time.

This writing I’ve been doing is part of a larger project with the goal of documenting the history of this unique and unprecedented movement. If you’d like to support this project  feel free to visit and contribute to my kickstarter campaign