Back in 2007, activist Echa Schneider (@ionecha) was rallying against a smoking ban making its way through City Hall that would shoo cigarettes away from bus stops and lines for the ATM. It was something of a last stand (“Go figure,” she says), but back then the ban was, in her words, unenforceable and brain-dead. She listened and waited for her speaker card to come up before City Council, but she admits, “I was just bored.” So she took to Twitter.
When Schneider started blogging about city meetings, it was still unclear if Twitter could be a tool for politics. “My friends said, ‘Everyone will unfollow you.'” Her website, A Better Oakland, was just coming in on a wave of Oakland-focused blogs in the aughts, including Jonathan Bair’s The DTO (@dto510) and Living in the O by Rebecca Saltzman (formerly @OaklandBecks).
Schneider started showing up to the meetings more frequently and live-tweeting, giving her readers a mix of civics class and moxie. She noted a lapse in local newspapers and stringers whose stories, she says, were too cut-and-dry, “us vs. them.” Schneider wanted to inject some color and “tell the story behind the story.” This is where the hashtag “#oakmtg” got its start.
On Twitter, #oakmtg is used as a shorthand for local politics and a pulse-taker of bureaucratic boards, councils, and committees. The hashtag became a way to tap in to an active community in Oakland with an activist-bent, and it quickly and quietly amassed a loyal following.
Today, bloggers like Tonya Love (@TDLove5) take inspiration from Schneider, who is now less active on social media, live-tweeting the meetings they attend regularly and trying to hold city leaders to their word.
Love didn’t run for class president in high school, and she shies away from labels like citizen journalist–“I’ve too much respect for real journalists,” she says, “the education they have.” She says when she started attending meetings she just wanted to be a smart voter who didn’t pick someone just because of a strong-sounding name. For Love, who works with Healthy and Active Before 5, Twitter also gave her the platform to ask more direct, personal questions of her government: “Why does health depend on zipcode?”
Love believes the #oakmtg community, the scene, is there to push representatives to be honest, tweeting truth to power. It’s an education in itself, the lowdown on leash laws, groundbreakings, or taxes on Airbnbs. It’s also a method of crowd-sourcing facts and figures and self-correcting, with users often times passing on links or asking for leads: “Can you point me to the law?”
There are still moments of radio-silence, Love says, with no retweets, no responses. There’s always the threat of the feed getting filled with vitriol or spam. And the truth is: politics is a slow process. It gets so withdrawn back into City Hall, she says, sometimes it’s difficult to trace a law or idea. Love says it almost feels like a second job, staying right on top of decisions in committee. And some meetings are just flat-out deadly. ” I can’t keep my eyes open,” she says.
But Love says this is how she’s gotten to know her neighbors, on-line and off, and the real talk of politics. “Voters care,” she says, “if a pot hole is warping, if they can’t get a job, or walk safely down the street. They care.”
But are any local politicians listening?
Many are on Twitter, or at least their staffers are, and Schneider says any good elected official will ask, “Where else are people talking?” Making an impact on their decisions, in the process, will always be a challenge.
Love suggests voters pound the pavement, speak up early an often. Recently, the #oakmtg hashtag was instrumental in organizing Oakland around flash points like the Domain Awareness Center (#DAC). It not only helped monitor political movement, a form of “sousveillance,” but effectively mobilized the group in real life.
Love says she gets frustrated when voices are being disrespected or shut out of a conversation. Right now, she is trying to see how much muscle #oakmtg actually has, how open it can be. She and a small team of local hashtaggers are gearing up for elections in November, planning something fairly unprecedented in the realm of “Tweetups”: a social media debate.
The #Oakmtg Mayoral Candidate Forums this summer will bring nominees together to answer top-voted audience questions culled from the internet and take additional responses from the #oakmtg hashtag as the night goes on.
@Greenkozi, a member of the team who asked to stay anonymous, said the debate will be rightly moderated, Twitter being an exercise in “what to ignore.” But it will still be difficult, Green says, to be perfectly neutral.
Greenkozi is taking classes online in library science. She says she’s always voted and even once wrote a letter to the President. She got a generic letter back, with a flat signature, of course, but it let her know someone was listening. “If it mattered to the President, it’ll matter to my city.”
“We need information to have democracy,” she says, and on the city’s website, with badly labeled PDFs and minutes, information is almost impossible. But she also fears #oakmtg is “just a place to whine,” a room for the “chattering classes.” Then again, she says, city council meetings are filled with bickering, and at least it’s easier to scroll back through a Twitter thread.
Whether or not #oakmtg makes it as a crusading force, Green says, it’s there to help voters make up their own minds, make their own decisions. It’s a permanent record, and her role as a blogger isn’t rattling cages or changing the world. “Just showing what’s out there might get [voters] more involved.”
For these hashtaggers, there’s always a day-job to go back to.
Schneider, now a web developer at the public library, stopped blogging right before the Occupy (#oo) protests and the marches to the port. At any moment, it helps to have #oakmtg to center the city, she says, and pry open government. Think about it, Schneider says, “Oakland’s stepped up to the country and even the state. Now Oakland’s looking harder at Oakland.”
The Live Forum will take place August 21 from 7-9 pm in the City Council Chambers, 1 Frank Ogawa Plaza. There will be a live broadcast on KTOP Channel 10/Uverse Channel 99 and a live stream on the city’s website . Find out how to submit a question for the candidates here.