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Recall Supporters Disrupt Oakland Mayor’s Public Safety Grant Announcement

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An Asian woman speaks at a press conference on the street as people surround her.
Mayor Sheng Thao (center) announces a $3.5 million state public safety grant as her supporters and protesters argue in the background on Feb. 21, 2024. (Nik Alternberg/KQED)

Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao’s downtown press conference on Wednesday to celebrate a multimillion-dollar grant for a public safety program quickly devolved into a chaotic scene when protesters seeking the mayor’s recall crashed the event.

Joined by City Councilmembers Carroll Fife and Nikki Fortunato Bas and other community leaders, Thao prepared to announce that the city had received a more than $3.5 million state grant to expand its street ambassador program, which aims to provide community support services and mediate nonemergency conflicts without relying on law enforcement.

But just as the event at Latham Square was set to begin, about a dozen protesters arrived, hoisting signs reading “Failed Mayor” and “Oakland Needs Intervention.” They remained quiet at first, but tensions escalated after a street-ambassador manager stood in front of them, arms outstretched, in an apparent attempt to block the signs from view.

As a shouting match ensued, Thao and the event staff hurriedly relocated to the far end of the plaza.

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“I just wanna say I love everybody — even those that have signs,” said Thao as she took the podium at the new location.

“Oakland is aggressively pursuing a comprehensive community safety strategy,” she shouted over the din of protesters and street ambassadors clashing behind her. “This program will promote safer and more secure streets.”

It was Thao’s first day back on the job since her mother died last week.

After a brief physical altercation between the two sides, a recall supporter called the police. Officers showed up minutes later but made no arrests.

The showdown highlights the mounting tensions over crime in Oakland. Unlike several other large cities in California — including San Francisco — which have reported drops in crime, Oakland’s crime rate has spiked in recent years. In 2023, incidents of violent crime in the city increased by 21%, compared to the previous year, while robberies climbed 38% and motor vehicle theft jumped 45%, according to Oakland Police Department end-of-year data.

The issue has largely fueled the efforts to recall both Thao and Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price.

During the event, Thao’s supporters accused protesters of pushing a “doom loop” narrative and not working toward real solutions. Protesters, in turn, accused Thao and other city leaders of failing to address crime.

Protesters calling for the recall of Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao — as well as City Councilmembers Carroll Fife and Nikki Fortunato Bas — face off with street ambassadors at the mayor’s press conference announcing new public safety funding in downtown Oakland on Wednesday. (Nik Altenberg/KQED)

“I mean, I used to walk everywhere. Then, I got scared. I started taking the bus. Then I got scared taking the bus. Now I drive everywhere,” said Zoya Liu, a West Oakland resident and one of the recall supporters at the event. She lambasted Thao for firing former Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong last February and failing to hire anyone to fill his position since then.

But Councilmember Fife, who supports Thao, said expanding the street ambassador program and other community safety initiatives are key to making Oakland safer.

“We are experiencing deep challenges, and it is going to take all of us coming together in a unified manner for solutions,” Fife said at Wednesday’s raucous press event. “We have a shared goal to come together in this moment with real solutions, and this $3.5 million investment into safety services is something our city needs most deeply. We can spread those dollars far.”

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The new grant funding from the California Department of Social Services would help grow Oakland’s street ambassador program in the Chinatown and downtown areas, with plans to expand to Jack London Square, Little Saigon and Lake Merritt in coming years, the mayor’s office said. Managed in partnership with local nonprofit Family Bridges, the program aims to build relationships with business owners and unhoused people and de-escalate certain conflicts without involving police.

Ambassadors also pick up trash, remove graffiti, escort people who don’t feel safe walking alone and try to deter some of the city’s most prolific nonviolent crimes, like car break-ins.

“We come out, we clean up Chinatown, and we communicate [with] our community,” said Somsak Uppasay, who works as a street ambassador in Chinatown. “It requires a lot of humanity and patience.”

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