Here’s something that maybe only happens in Oakland: a young bunch of hackers, artists and Occupy activists organize themselves into a collective and assume the lease of a defunct heavy metal night club. Once a month, a few of their members hold a live talk show event, called Oakland Nights Live.
They invited the city’s mayoral candidates to be guests, and many of the fifteen showed up. Over the course of two nights, front-runners, including the incumbent Mayor, came to introduce themselves to this very particular constituency.
The event may have been a mayoral forum, but it was a long way from City Hall.
Jeremy Dalmas and Julie Crossman are the hosts Oakland Nights Live. It's a monthly, basically free, variety show that features performance artists and conversations with all kinds of eccentric experts and jolly misfits. They like to say they are scrappy, and the show does feel very DIY: It is sloppy and intimate and leans towards the absurd.
The set is made up of a raggedy couch for the guests, and for the hosts, a desk cluttered with house-plants, tchotchkes and mugs of whiskey. As with all talk shows, there’s a backdrop; with the tonight show, its the New York City Skyline; on the Daily Show its a map of the world. But here, the backdrop displays hand painted cutouts of Oakland landmarks and imagery from the Star Trek Enterprise.
Each candidate comes up one by one to be interviewed, and before being confronted with questions, they have to confront a more practical problem: how to sit on the sagging couch, while maintaining some semblance of authority. The first candidate in the saggy seat was Bryan Parker, port commissioner and local business man.
"I feel like I'm sitting in a bucket," said Parker, before getting creative, and hoisting himself up to perch on the back of the couch. This had the same effect as flipping a chair around to sit on it backward would have; by every indication, things were about to get real.
Once Parker had gotten himself settled, he talked about wanting "the people of Oakland to know [his] heart." For him, the connection to the city is personal.
"I want people to know that there was quite a bit of struggle when we were growing up that my connection to crime is personal, with the loss of my sister," Parker says. "I think it is my heart that allows me to appreciate what’s going on all over Oakland, to be able to talk to people all over the divided city and bring us together."
But it was clear early on that there was a definite crowd favorite. When Parker politely acknowledged his colleagues, the crowd responded to Siegel's name with roaring cheers. Parker retorted with good humor, "You can't clap louder for him than you did for me!"
Much of the applause came from people who have been following Siegel since the Occupy Protests, when he infamously split with Mayor Jean Quan over her crackdown on the encampment.
Siegel talked about what Occupy Oakland meant to the city. "I think Occupy was an incredible event in our country’s history, second greatest to the movement to end the Vietnam war," he says. "You had millions of people talking about the 1% and the monopoly of political power and Mayor Quan could have become a leader of Occupy and that’s what she should have done, instead of sending in the police."
Siegel was a natural ally for the radical crowd; some of the member collectives that share space with Oakland Nights Live coalesced around Occupy Organizing.
For this reason, there was a bit of tension when Mayor Jean Quan took the stage. Quan didn't give sitting down a second thought, she grabbed the mic and paced along the set, leaving the hosts in the awkward position of asking questions to her back.
Quan went deep into specifics-- from city-funded arts programming to crime stats to green card policies for city contractors. She had the chance to show a different side of herself when the conversation turned toward her time at Berkeley.
"I’m a child of the 60’s," said Quan, "so I respect all well-organized, non-violent protests that have a lot of people in them. And let me be quite honest," Quan went on, "a lot of people don’t know that my husband and I did organize the third world protests we shut down the school and I do believe in good civil disobedience but it is important to do no harm to other people."
But some in the crowd didn’t buy it -- you could hear some people whispering “hypocrite” under their breath.
Also in attendance was San Francisco State government and law professor Joe Tuman.
Tuman approached the couch and went straight in for the back of the couch-perched position. He bent forward on his forearms, evoking a stern and concerned school counselor.
"We don’t tell the truth," Tuman announced. "I want you to know before we talk about policies, I want to be honest, I want to condition your expectations... Otherwise every promise I make to you is just going to sound like another guy that’s making promises i can’t keep."
At large City Council member Rebecca Kaplan echoed these sentiments. "A lot of candidates will come up here and promise everyone a unicorn," she says. "And then in turns out the department of unicorns reports to someone else."
Kaplan was a hit with the crowd, leaning back comfortably in her chair.
But Kaplan and Siegel -- both well-liked by the occupy crowd-- had some serious competition.
Tonight was the first public appearance for mayoral candidate, Einstein. It was long anticipated and the pressure was on. It should also be noted: Einstein is a dog.
The story goes that Einstein was traumatized by tear gas at Occupy Oakland protests. That trauma politicized, no, radicalized the domestic pet.
Of all the politicians he, not surprisingly, was most at home on the couch.
There was really only question left to ask the canine candidate. The question? "Who's a good boy!?" Einstein, overcome, let forth with emphatic yelps. The audience dissolved into applause and laughter.
In all seriousness, this generation of Oakland voters is just beginning to cut their political teeth. Host Jeremy Dalmas says that bringing the candidates into a space like this can help humanize them, even if it didn't help him personally narrow down his choice. "If anything," he says, "I know less now than I did before."
The Oakland Mayoral Race has enough candidates to fill a rugby team, and enough forums to exhaust even the most avid political spectators. But the Oakland Nights Live events show more than where the candidates stand on the issues -- or sit on the couch. It showed their ability to engage a different kind of audience and demographic.
Because no matter who the next mayor is they will have to engage with this new crop of voters, who are sure to be protesting whomever gets elected.