A person whose face is covered holds up a sign that reads, "Stop closures." Another sign reading, "Merchants on strike," is being held up by another person to the right. The name of a restaurant, Le Cheval, is in the background.
Merchants and supporters attend a press conference for the business "strike" outside of Le Cheval on Sept. 26, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

Some businesses in Oakland temporarily closed their doors Tuesday afternoon to demand that city, county, and state leaders do more to protect small businesses and community members from crime.

The exact number of businesses that voluntarily shut down yesterday, and for how long, is not clear. Organizers stated that over 200 small businesses were set to participate, but some merchants and leaders of some local business district associations said they were not aware of the event. 

A press conference about the voluntary closures drew dozens of merchants and residents on Tuesday morning outside Le Cheval, an Old Oakland Vietnamese restaurant whose owners have decided to permanently close this Saturday after 38 years of business due to a rise in vehicle break-ins and commercial burglaries in the surrounding area. So far this year, OPD has received 1,109 reports of commercial burglaries citywide, according to a weekly crime report released Monday. That’s a 9% increase compared to the number of commercial burglary reports citywide during this time last year.

Carl Chan, a realtor and Alameda resident who helped organize the press conference, called the business closures a “strike,” with participating owners being asked to close their doors for at least two hours from 10 a.m. to noon Tuesday. Chan said some business owners told him they would close for the entire day.

“Today, we want to collectively join together as one voice and make some demands,” Chan said at the conference.

Carl Chan, a realtor and Alameda resident who helped organize the business “strike,” speaks during a press conference in front of Le Cheval on Sept. 26, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

District 5 Councilmember Noel Gallo, former Alameda County District Attorney candidate Terry Wiley, Oakland NAACP president Cynthia Adams, and Kingston 11 and Calabash owner Nigel Jones also spoke at the event. Former Oakland mayoral candidate Loren Taylor and members of Neighbors Together Oakland, a nonprofit formed by former mayoral candidate Seneca Scott, were in attendance but did not speak during the press conference.

Jennifer K. Tran, president of the Oakland Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, said she believes that the rise in carjackings and armed robberies in the city over the past few years are the consequences of liberal policies and politicians. Tran did not specify during the press conference which policies she thinks have led to more crime.

“As progressives, it’s not easy to admit that we supported failed policies,” said Tran. “It’s time to admit the truth and stop following false narratives.”

During a phone call with The Oaklandside on Monday, Chan said the temporary business closures were intended to be symbolic of the local business community’s frustration with the lack of crime prevention resources, particularly after the city’s Economic and Workforce Development Department (EWDD) missed the deadline to apply for a retail theft prevention grant from the state.

Some attendees at the press conference chanted, “Extend the deadline, Newsom,” referring to the deadline for the grant application.

Jennifer K. Tran, president of the Oakland Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, speaks at the press conference for the business strike. Credit: Amir Aziz

Other business owners and attendees echoed their support for an increase in law enforcement presence and a tough-on-crime approach to prosecution, holding up signs that read, “Severely punish violent crimes” and “More officers.” Some people displayed signs reading “National Guard,” indicating their belief that the governor should declare a state of emergency to bring in heavily armed military forces.

Speaking at the press conference, Greg McConnell—a local lobbyist whose clients include real estate developers, Schnitzer Steel, and a company that hopes to build a coal export terminal in West Oakland—said a survey that his consulting firm commissioned revealed that 83% of “likely voters” in Oakland ranked public safety and crime as their biggest concerns and that 92% want city leaders to focus on reducing crime.

The survey, which ran from Sept. 14-18, included input from 400 randomly selected respondents, according to a statement on The McConnell Group’s website.

McConnell said at the press conference that he paid for the survey himself because he wanted to show city leaders “exactly what’s going on.”

“They sit up there in those ivory towers, and they don’t talk about the things that are real,” said McConnell, alluding to the Oakland City Council.

Questions surrounding the strike remain unanswered

Attendees at the press conference held signs reading “Save Oakland businesses,” “Merchants on strike,” and “Support our shops.” Credit: Amir Aziz

A flyer announcing the press conference circulated on social media last Friday, stating that “200+ businesses” were going on strike to demand direct assistance to businesses and lower crime rates. The flyer did not name an organization, group, or affiliation associated with organizing the action. Chan told The Oaklandside that “a volunteer” created it.

At Tuesday’s press conference, Chan emphasized that he was not organizing the effort on behalf of any particular group.

“Like many of us today, I am not representing any organization. I’m here just like any one of you in the business community, as a part of this city,” he said.

However, it is unclear exactly how many businesses overall closed their doors in protest on Tuesday or for how long. 

When asked over the phone Tuesday about the more than 200 merchants, Chan said he did not have a list of participating businesses but mentioned that “50-plus” businesses in Chinatown had expressed interest and that the number was “only growing.” He added that merchants in downtown, Uptown, Jack London Square, Little Saigon, and Rockridge told him they would participate, but he did not provide specific names.

Chan also shared a screenshot of an email from Shari Godinez, the executive director of the Koreatown/Northgate (KONO) community benefit district, saying that a street ambassador in that district had confirmed that many businesses in KONO were participating in the strike. He forwarded another message from Ali Albasiery, president of the Bay Area Small Merchants Chamber of Commerce, who told him that 123 Yemeni American-owned businesses closed as part of the effort.

The Oaklandside reached out to business association leaders representing merchants in Laurel, Rockridge, Temescal/Telegraph, Jack London, Lakeshore Avenue, Downtown/Uptown, and Fruitvale to get a sense of how many businesses in their areas had planned to participate.

Those who responded—in Laurel, Jack London, and Rockridge—told The Oaklandside that they weren’t aware of any merchants in their district who would be taking part in the effort.

One owner of a bar in downtown Oakland tweeted that they didn’t hear about the strike until they saw the flyer on social media.

Late on Tuesday afternoon, Oakland filmmaker and musician Boots Riley tweeted that he’d visited several local businesses purported to have participated in the strike, but found that some were unaware it had happened.

We found other discrepancies between the statements of the organizers of yesterday’s action and those of local business owners. In a media advisory that Chan sent to The Oaklandside, organizers of the strike listed multiple recently shuttered Oakland businesses that they say were forced to shut down because of crime. Some of these, however, closed for other reasons.

For example, Video Room, Oakland’s last video rental store, was mentioned in the group’s media advisory as a local business that has “[lost] customers and foot traffic due to vehicle break-ins, carjackings, robberies and assaults.” But in April, the owner told The Oaklandside that he closed his Piedmont Avenue store not due to crime but because of the pandemic and the shifting demand for Netflix and other streaming services.

The press release announcing the strike identified a Rite Aid drugstore as another Oakland business that shut down following soaring crime rates. But the Rite Aid location linked in the media advisory was in Castro Valley, not Oakland, as reported by the Castro Valley Forum.

Some businesses want more police and a ‘state of emergency’ declaration

Dozens of business owners and supporters attend a press conference outside of Le Cheval on Sept. 26, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

According to the media advisory, the participating businesses are calling on the Oakland Police Department to hire an additional 300 to 400 officers, or enough to bring Oakland’s total officer count to 1,000.

OPD is currently funded to have 741 officers, but because of retirements, medical leave, suspensions, terminations, and the difficulty the department has recruiting new officers, it currently has only 713, said Amber Fuller, acting human resources manager for OPD, during a Public Safety Committee meeting Tuesday evening.

At a cost of roughly $280,000 per officer per year, it would take approximately $85 million for Oakland to hire an additional 300 officers, according to the most recently passed city budget. The police department’s current annual budget is roughly $358 million.

The city has faced long-term structural budget shortfalls and most recently had to balance a $360 million deficit. Chan and other public safety advocates did not explain where Oakland would come up with this money to expand the police force.

The merchants are also demanding that city leaders “declare a state of emergency to leverage resources” from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, California Highway Patrol, and federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. 

Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao recently pushed back on this idea, saying her office is working to reduce crime by investing in violence prevention efforts and strengthening collaboration with county and state leaders, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. She also noted that California Gov. Gavin Newsom has already sent CHP officers to patrol Oakland and has given the city funds to purchase automatic license plate reader cameras.

Another solution the business owners would like to see is “direct assistance” to local businesses, which could involve loans, cash, or other help, “similar to programs that provided aid during the pandemic, in order to make up for losses from crime,” stated the media advisory.

Chan said in a phone interview that he and other advocates are also asking the city to lower the hourly parking rates or make parking free at city-owned parking lots and garages to attract more customers to commercial areas. He added that he wants to see more police officers patrolling the streets to help prevent car break-ins.

Despite calls for immediate action, solutions aren’t likely to happen quickly. The Oakland City Council passed a resolution last Tuesday requesting that City Administrator Jestin Johnson provide reports for the council to review on how to boost recruitment and retention of 911 dispatchers and police officers, expand the city’s violence prevention and intervention efforts, and create a grant program for local businesses to purchase security cameras. The city administrator’s reports are due to the council in December.

The city of Oakland says it is working on solutions

Business owners and public safety advocates hold up a sign reading, “We need a safe community!” during a press conference in downtown Oakland on Sept. 26, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

In a statement sent to The Oaklandside on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the city of Oakland said city officials are “working every day to strengthen community safety for our residents, small businesses and visitors.

“Community safety is a citywide challenge and every department has a role to play. We are actively partnering with businesses, nonprofit groups, state and regional governments to reduce crime,” read the statement.

In terms of recent efforts to revitalize commercial corridors and improve public safety, the city spokesperson mentioned the launch of Activate Oakland, an events sponsorship program providing up to $10,000 in grants for community events in any of the city’s business districts. The deadline for applications is Oct. 12 at 5 p.m.

Over the past few weeks, city leaders have also expanded foot patrols in commercial districts and worked with business groups to spread the word about Activate Oakland, according to the statement.

Oakland’s Economic and Workforce Development Department also received $550,000 this month from the Local Immigrant Integration and Inclusion Grant, which is part of the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development, to provide financial support to immigrant- and women-owned small businesses in Oakland.

“The City of Oakland values its longstanding relationships and engagement with the business community and will continue its dedication to engagement and constructive collaboration to address these issues,” the statement read.

This story has been updated with new details regarding OPD’s officer count.

Roselyn Romero covers small businesses for The Oaklandside as a 2023-24 Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellow. Previously, she was an investigative intern at NBC Bay Area and the inaugural intern for the global investigations team of The Associated Press through a partnership with the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting. Roselyn graduated from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo in 2022 with a bachelor's degree in journalism and minors in Spanish, ethnic studies, and women's and gender studies. She is a proud daughter of Filipino immigrants and was born and raised in Oxnard, California.