By Asians For Black Lives Media Committee
Hundreds of Oakland Residents Created An Encampment That Offered Safe & Dignified Space City of Oakland Did Not Provide
At 8:30 AM on the morning of Thursday, February 2, 2017, at least 80 Oakland Police violently raided a village of homes and services for Oakland’s homeless residents which was then bulldozed by the Department of Public Works. The inhumane action went against the wishes of hundreds of Oakland residents who contributed to the creation of the sanctuary at 36th and Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, named “The Promise Land” by residents. Sixteen residents, half of them elderly, were displaced. An additional four guests who were seeking sanctuary for the night were also rudely awakened. Two of the evening guests who slept in The Promised Land open air living room, sought refuge because Cal Trans had destroyed their two encampments down the street.
Since early morning on Saturday, January 21, a network of Oakland community members took over Marcus Garvey Park, a public plot of neglected land at 36th Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Way in West Oakland, and had moved in small homes, a healing clinic, and other services, declaring it a people’s encampment for those who needed housing and basic needs and services. The group – which included folks living on Oakland streets, activists from #FeedthePeople and #Asians4BlackLives, The Black Land Liberation Initiative and various individuals from the community – said that the move-in demonstrated their ability to provide what the City of Oakland cannot to its most vulnerable residents.
Although the camp had grown extraordinarily quickly and shown incredible success in reducing harm for Oakland’s unhoused community in such a short time, it was cited for 18 code violations. According to City Hall insiders, both the mayor and the city administrator were motivated by bruised egos as justification for demolishing the widely-supported encampment.
“The City has proven how petty and ineffective they are. The crisis is our permit. Our code is humanity. Our regulations are immediate, healthy solutions that address the urgency of this housing crisis,” said Promise Land founder Needa Bee who is with both #FeedThePeople and Asians4BlackLives. “There are zero codes to follow and zero permits needed to build a tiny home. What they did was cruel and unusual punishment and the people who they hurt the most were the residents. The residents who were still asleep at the time of the raid were all elderly. The sixteen residents of the village have been needlessly traumatized and distressed by the Mayor and City Administrator. I am absolutely disgusted, but not surprised. Oakland has once again proved it isn’t a sanctuary city, nor does it show compassion to those most vulnerable and in need.”
The group aimed to demonstrate through their visionary encampment that housing is a human right. They also hoped to demonstrate that, in the face of a city government that failed to meet the needs of its people, it is possible for the community to unite to serve serve Oakland’s homeless residents in a dignified and humane manner. The group criticizes the inaction of the City of Oakland, saying that the City has proven to be disloyal to its long term families displaced in this city-initiated housing crisis. The group also claims that the City has not implemented sufficient efforts to address homelessness, such as building permanent public housing for those who have been displaced by the housing crisis, particularly Black and Brown residents.
“What #FeedthePeople offered us is a better situation than what the City has offered us,” said Red,one of the several senior citizens who was housed at The Village. “#FeedthePeople seems to get things rolling. They had a place for us to go to that was safe, dignified, and had services for us all. It’s hard to believe that the city actually bulldozed homes for homeless people in the middle of a housing crisis.”
As for the $20 million surprise bond city hall approved for building homes for the homeless the day before The Promise Land was raided, organizers understand that it was the power and effectiveness of their harm reduction based direct action and the movement that grew out of it that got the city to finally develop for those most negatively impacted by gentrification. For years activists and Oakland residents demanded the city to build homes for low income residents in the midst of this housing crisis, and the consistent response from the city was there was not enough money to do so.
“We are very clear that our unappologetic, bold and beautiful action pushed the city to finally do something they chose not to do for decades. As they say – direct action gets the goods. It appears the community wants to solve this question with its own effective solutions. The City should listen to the people of Oakland instead of bulldozer over them,” said Promised Land volunteer Ellen Choy of Asians For Black Lives. “But we know all too well the city is known for making promises it does not keep and those homes won’t be built for years. So despite the hostility we are receiving from the mayor and the city administrator, we intend to hold them accountable to their promise, and in the meantime keep building temporary homes for those who need them until those homes the city is promising are built.”
And the community’s solution was so effective homeless encampments around Oakland were referring to The Village as “The Promise Land”, which led to the name change.
“We call the encampment The Promise Land because every promise they made to us they came through on,” said Crystal, another resident of the village. “The city has made promises to us and has broken them all. They promised people at the city-sanctioned encampment on Magnolia permanent housing but instead gave temporary hotel vouchers to a chosen few that last four to six months. When that voucher is up, they are back to square one.”
The group began moving into Marcus Garvey Park before dawn on January 21, 2017 and set up the village of services. The center of the village, people on the land said, became a community space reserved for regular people’s assemblies, and provided services to the residents and the greater Oakland community. Volunteers and residents offered hot home cooked meals, edible container gardens, and a provisions distribution program for Oakland residents in need. The village was open to all who need services provided whether you live at the site or not. And no registration is needed.
“The city claims that neighbors complained they no longer had access to the park, but we never blocked anyone access to the park. We locked the gates of the park from dusk til dawn to protect the land and the people, but our private nightly security team let neighbors in to walk their dogs, and even offered neighbors keys to locked gates if they wanted to walk their dogs in the middle of the night,” said security coordinator Douglas Faatiligia. “We circulated a petition in the neighborhood in support of The Village over a four hour period and collected hundreds of signatures. And many neighbors came to volunteer and donated supplies. The interests of hundreds of neighbors and greater Oakland residents who supported the Promise Land were silenced over the irrational fear of homeless people a dozen or so recently arrived residents expressed to the city.”
The village was narcotics and alcohol free, and begins with prioritizing housing for Black and Brown folks, families, women, elders, and disabled folks. Two residents actually came to the camp seeking support in kicking decades old drug addictions. Both residents managed to stay clean and sober beginning the day they moved in. The city’s decision to destroy the village resulted in their journey to recovery being disrupted.
Organizers also hope that their version of what a compassionate community looks like inspires others to reclaim public land in other parts of Oakland, the Bay Area, and the country, to build similar havens of safety, service and community.
The encampment was never meant to be a permanent solution, but addressed the immediate needs and harm reduction of some of the City of Oakland’s more than 3,050 homeless residents. Oakland’s homeless population makes up 49.2% of all of Alameda County’s houseless. Homeless numbers are growing, spokespeople said, as a direct outcome of the city’s housing affordability crisis. The housing market in Oakland has skyrocketed, and a vast majority of landlords no longer accept Section 8 vouchers. Many of Oakland’s homeless residents have vouchers for Section 8 housing, but cannot find a rental agency that will accept the public housing program. Currently there are only 386 beds available in Oakland shelters. The day the city raided The Promise Land the shelter were all full.
The City of Oakland’s “Compassionate Communities”effort that claims to be a pilot program has earmarked $190,000 of the City’s general budget funds for addressing homelessness. However, the program only allows trash pickup and porta-potties for a single sanctioned encampment for six months. New residents do not get registered for inclusion in the program and were told to leave when the camp footprint was recently halved by force in preparation for permanent closure of the encampment by March 31. The programs are not scalable, and only a select few benefit. An interim housing provision gives residents hotel vouchers that last no longer than 6 months, an unrealistic timeline for finding permanent housing, and the program includes no proposals for long-term subsidized housing. This is not a pilot program to address homelessness. This is an experiment in camp removal and suppression. After being criticized for the false claims of the program, the city responded that their phase two of the program is to create a permanent homeless encampment made up of tiny homes not tall enough for residents to stand up in.
“Housing is a right. Being without a home is not a crime. The politicians that created this crisis are the criminals. Yet folks without shelters have been ignored, harassed, shuffled around, degraded, and criminalized. The responses from city officials, CalTrans, and police has not only been ineffective, but degrading and even criminal,” said #FeedThePeople member Chiedza Kundidzora. “Institutions like CalTrans continually violate homeless communities’ constitutional rights with their protocol towards folks living under freeways. They seize and destroy people’s property without due process, and as a cruel and unusual punishment for circumstances that are treated as criminal. What the city did to The Village is the epitome towards their inhumane stance towards homeless residents” she said.
Activists and residents hoped to unite communities that face displacement, destruction, terror, poverty, and violence to stand together in the fight for housing for all, and promote self-determination in the face of an illegitimate government. Their hopes were manifested much greater than they expected. “We not only mobilized The Town, we also mobilized the New Oakland to stand with and support the people they displaced. This is a beginning of a movement. This is the beginning of a paradigm shift where people are realizing they have the vision and ability and power that the city of oakland does not have,” Kundidzora said. “We started off as a network and in less than two weeks, we have become a movement. We aren’t going to stop. If anything the city’s display of inhumanity has galvanized more people to join us and clearly see the ineffectiveness and illegitimacy of City Hall.
ABOUT #FEED THE PEOPLE
#FeedthePeople, a collective of Oakland residents and activists, including some currently or formerly homeless, has been distributing food and supplies to homeless encampments in the East Bay for over a year. Every Wednesday, volunteers share hot home cooked meals, much needed supplies, hugs and support to people living on the street. They also provide advocacy and support to folks on the streets when they are harassed by police and politicians.
#Asians4BlackLives, a diverse group of people of Asian descent based in the Bay Area, focuses on nonviolent direct action for Black liberation. The group originally came together over two years ago in response to a call from Black Lives Matter Bay Area and the larger Black Lives Matter movement, to show up in solidarity with Black people in their struggle for liberation. The group has been involved in direct actions to support campaigns ranging from #StopUrbanShield to #BlackTransLivesMatter to #NoDAPL and regularly supports calls from Black-led groups for solidarity statements and actions. a4bl.tumblr.com @Asians4BlkLives