Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf Is Our East Bay Person of the Year
She inspired us like no other for this inaugural achievement.
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Schaaf was huge into Girl Scouts; her mom was the troop leader. “It fostered my love of service, but also nurtured my leadership,” she said. For a major Girl Scout service project, Schaaf challenged other Oakland troops to raise funds for the Oakland Zoo to buy an incubator for baby spider monkeys. “It was a powerful lesson,” she said. “It was amazing to me that one little girl could mobilize so many young people, with each girl putting in a little money, like 50 cents.”
She volunteered at Children’s Fairyland, was a ranger’s aide at Joaquin Miller Park, a high school cheerleader, dancer, pianist. And she worked. “My very first job was summers during high school, selling Ria shoes in Union Square.”
Schaaf went to Rollins College near Orlando, Florida, a small liberal arts school her aunt had attended before her. “It was the only place where I was accepted,” she said with a laugh. In the Bay Area, her political views were moderate, she said, but in Florida, she was “viewed as a communist.” She graduated in 1987 with a major in political science and a minor in dance.
After a brief stint working at a bar and as a concierge, she returned to California, moving in with her mom on Lake Merritt and piecing together various jobs—catering, driving visiting authors. She also joined her mom volunteering for the Festival at the Lake, a gig that morphed into a job as assistant director of operations. The grassroots festival, she said, “hit my sweet spot.”
Around this time, Schaaf and some friends started a group called Oakland Arts Party, which alternated volunteering with attending events. She and her mom “threw parties in her condo; we called it our intergenerational parties.” And, Schaaf got her first taste of political campaigning, helping elect Dick Smith to the Oakland Board of Education.
It was a time of personal contemplation. “At that point, I realized I couldn’t survive at having like five random jobs,” she said. “What were the careers in the arts for someone who wasn’t talented enough to be an artist?” She gave serious thought to the recording and film industries, which led her to entertainment law. Out came the LSAT prep courses, the applications, and the acceptance at L.A.’s Loyola Law School.
Entertainment law disappointed her—but not law school. “I didn’t like contract law,” she said. “But it turned out I loved law school. I loved the policy aspect of it. It’s man’s attempts to codify morality. I found that fascinating.”
Schaaf landed a job at a major law firm based in Oakland. But just as the drier sides of entertainment law didn’t captivate Schaaf, neither did the drier side of corporate law. “I’m a people person. … I was always trying to organize volunteer programs for the firm.”
She and her mom created a nonprofit volunteer organization, Oakland Cares, and Schaaf left the law firm in 1995. Schaaf met her husband, Sal Fahey, in a San Francisco bar in 1998 as part of a social group she organized with friends called “The Thursday Night Club.” A particle physicist who works for the electron microscope maker Gatan, Inc., her husband has work that fascinates her, Schaaf said.
Next up: Building a volunteer program for the Oakland schools; working for Oakland Vice Mayor Ignacio De la Fuente, Mayor Jerry Brown, and the Port of Oakland; winning her own council seat. “My career is like The Wire,” she joked, referring to the gritty hit TV drama about multiple facets of government in Baltimore.
For anyone familiar with the show, it’s a strikingly apt comparison.
For all the optimism of the early Schaaf administration, it should be noted that the early Quan administration also started out with a head of steam. The disappointing Ron Dellums administration was over, and Quan had vanquished Don Perata and his once-mighty political machine with help from ranked-choice voting. Then, just months into Quan’s first year in office, Occupy Wall Street turned up on the steps of Oakland City Hall. Outside of New York City, no other Occupy group more forcefully took up the cause of economic inequality than Occupy Oakland. But Quan, herself an old progressive, bungled the response to the group’s encampment at Frank Ogawa Plaza. Much like Schaaf would be just four years later, Quan was caught in the middle of a righteous-but-unruly social movement and a business community that criticized her for letting the protesters take over downtown. Later, after Quan sanctioned a crackdown on Occupy Oakland, even her one-time progressive allies began portraying her as an enemy of freedom and justice.
In early 2015, it became Schaaf’s turn to tangle with Oakland’s biggest, baddest special interest—its legion of largely peaceful, but sometimes-destructive protesters. Although the vast majority of the property damage that precipitated Schaaf’s protest crackdown occurred around Broadway’s Auto Row, Asian-American business leaders feared the group might also endanger Chinatown. Carl Chan, a board member of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, had seen Quan vacillate between extremes when dealing with Occupy, initially allowing it to germinate in front of City Hall, then violently dismantling the encampment, only to allow activity to return. “Libby inherited a lot baggage over this,” Chan said, so he and other business leaders were firm with her. “You don’t back down,” he said. “We need a strong reaction.”
The mayor and police chief apparently agreed, leading to a nighttime protest ban that Schaaf said was not a new city policy, merely an enforcement of existing laws. But the new rules startled the protest cognoscenti. And the idea of limiting protesters to walking on sidewalks and not the streets was met with derision, both by protesters and civil libertarians.
“We were working hard to stay within the confines of our court-ordered policies on crowd control, but utilize those policies better, which do give the police the discretion to use appropriate time, place, and manner controls,” Schaaf said recently of her efforts. “That is what we did. I know it came as a shock to people the first time we used it and there certainly was a big backlash.”
Schaaf ultimately navigated her way out of the political upheaval that followed the May Day protests, but it wasn’t easy. She backed down from the nighttime protest edict, including the largely unenforceable rule that protesters do their thing only on sidewalks. And the nighttime protest ban was likely illegal under the city’s crowd-control policy and potentially a violation of people’s First Amendment right to assemble.
“I’m sorry that it kind of rolled out in a way that did appear unclear and somewhat chaotic, and I think there was a lot of misunderstanding over how this new approach exactly meant,” she said. “It’s hard to explain very clearly because it’s not a black and white policy. I feel now we’ve gotten to a much better place where I’m hopeful that we have threaded the needle of creating a sense of security and order in our city while at the same time preserving and lifting up a great and time-honored tradition in Oakland of free speech, of free assembly, of protest. Because that is part of who we are. That is in the secret sauce.”
Most likely, the opposition to Schaaf’s reaction to protest violence still exists but is merely dormant. During her late-October state of the city address before a packed city council chambers, Schaaf consciously used the phrase “Black Lives Matter” as a backdrop while calling attention to some legitimate Oakland Police Department improvements regarding transparency and misconduct cases. Since the police department’s response to a mostly female contingent who marched to highlight the nationwide abuse of female black women was forceful—nine were arrested and 66 were cited for breaking the nighttime curfew—some involved in the cause took umbrage with Schaaf’s use of their moniker as a stage prop. Members of the group took to Twitter to slam the mayor with forceful and highly aggressive language.
“This is so offensive @LibbySchaaf you put Black women in jail for singing freedom songs in the street at night,” tweeted Nicole Deane. Activist Cat Brooks wrote, “She’s done nothing to show #BlackLivesMatter—Everything she’s done has shown us how little she think it does.”
In an interview after her state of the city address, Schaaf said those critics weren’t listening to her message very well. “That image seemed to have upset a lot of people, but my speech was not supposed to be about myself,” she said. “The speech was supposed to be about the state of the city, and I think it would an insult to the Black Lives Matter movement to not acknowledge it has been a really important part of what has happened in Oakland this year. I was making a statement supporting what I believe this movement is about.”
Then she added this self-aware caveat: “There are also people that I’m not going to make happy.”