Nelson and Winnie Mandela at the
Oakland Coliseum in 1990.
OAKLAND | ANALYSIS | The death of former South African President Nelson Mandela Thursday had a inextricable East Bay link. The U.S. support for his anti-apartheid reforms first ruminated in the Berkeley City Council. Upon release after 27 years of imprisonment in 1990, one of his first international appearances occurred on a bright, sunny Saturday among a packed house at the Oakland Coliseum.
On Thursday, nearly every local politician praised the life of Mandela with thanks and memories of his endeavors for social harmony, not only in his native South Africa, but the world. Oakland Mayor Jean Quan tweeted shortly after news of Mandela’s death, “Farewell, and thank you, President Mandela. You were an immense moral force for change, forgiveness and grace. We will remember you always.”
There is little doubt Quan’s words are succinct and from the heart. However, it is the height of hypocrisy for her to examine the life of one of the 20th Century’s greatest reformers, while living with the stain of her crack down on the Occupy Oakland movement two years ago. What was the Occupy movement, but a popular uprising with echoes of the South African struggle decades before, in addition, to every sprawling and churning demonstration anywhere in the world?
Occupy stood for social and economic justice. It stood for good jobs, access to education and a releasing of Corporate America’s grip on the common man. Is this any different than what Mandela sought? Gandhi sought? Martin Luther King, Jr. sought? Occupy did not stand for violence. It did not stand for breaking windows.
OPD cracking down on Occupy Oakland in 2011.
Often when transformational figures are lost to history, a raft of general positivity and veneration follows. It is no different with Mandela. People, who once bitterly opposed his ideology, now bestow him sainthood. We forget the U.S. federal government did its best to avoid Mandela reforms in the 1980s. He was a socialist, conservatives cried, a communist and a philanderer!
In the case of Quan, the life of Mandela represents an ideal she once strived to maintain as far back as a student during her participation in Vietnam War protests at U.C. Berkeley. By far, the most interesting aspect of Quan is this: How did she go from those rallies protesting against the “The Man,” to becoming the leader four decades later who brutally cracked down on Occupy Oakland protesters fighting for the exact same cause?
Unfortunately this personal disconnect happens in politics everywhere. We strive for an ideal of safety, but fail horribly in passing meaningful gun control. We value education, but sit idly as the cost of a secondary education routinely leads to a useless diploma and bankruptcy.
Mandela was less than perfect, but great enough to represent a unwavering core set of beliefs left untarnished, including peace and protecting the weakest among us. Unlike Quan, he did not order flash grenades and fire bean bags on his own people to stifle social progress just so downtown merchants could sell a trinket or two.