Beginning of the conflict
Residents at the West Oakland Wood Street homeless encampment have been embroiled in a land use dispute with San Francisco developer Fred B. Craves for almost 4 years. This particular conflict began on March 17, 2016 when Craves, a billionaire and head of Bay City Capital, purchased a plot of land located between 2201 & 2701 Wood Street. This is but one example of gentrification, which is a larger conflict between working class people and big real estate developers taking place all over the country. Gentrification is the relationship between real estate, local government, and law enforcement to displace working class people. It is often coated in this language of “development” or “relationship” with businesses, but it is a sharp contradiction between two classes with different interests. This contradiction is especially sharp in Oakland, as it is the nation’s most “intensely gentrified” city.
Craves set up a shell corporation called Game Changer LLC in 2012 specifically to engage in real estate speculation. He founded the firm in Delaware for tax reasons even though its office is in San Francisco’s financial district. His legal representatives have stated that he plans to build a biomedical research facility on the lot. This lot is one section of the West Oakland Wood Street encampment which is one of the largest homeless encampments in the East Bay and at any time anywhere from 100-200 people live there. Craves purchased a small parcel that sits in the heart of this larger encampment. For years the city has treated Wood St as an informal “dumping ground” for people with nowhere to go, pushing people to the encampment after evicting them from elsewhere. The plan to develop has the potential to make hundreds of millions of dollars for the developer and leave the residents with nothing and nowhere to go. This is not some “trade off.” Poverty, displacement, and gentrification are just the other side of the coin to massive profits and wealth accumulation in the Bay Area, just like many other cities in this country.
The initial attempts to displace residents
Although Fred B Craves bought the plot of land in early 2016, like many developers, he just sat on the lot. That is, until October 2018 when he began taking actual steps to develop it. During this time, residents of the lot began finding notices posted up around the area, threatening them with eviction if they did not leave by a certain date. It was at this point that organizers of the United Front Against Displacement began working to bring people together to develop a plan. Residents agreed that they could not move in the time given by these notices and even moving at all would not actually improve their situation. People would just have to be “homeless somewhere else” as one resident put it. The initial date came and passed without an activity, but on the second week of October, new notices were out up, listing October 16th as the new eviction date.
Early on the morning of October 16, 2018 police arrived at the lot in order to displace residents from the lot. Six officers arrived on the scene. Five activists rallied and formed a small picket line with residents. This caused the cops to quickly disperse. No residents were displaced. This would be one of many eviction defenses to transpire on the lot.
Shortly before this period, the United Front Against Displacement became involved in Wood Street. The UFAD is an anti-gentrification organization. Evictions and displacement attempts are some of the most violent stages of gentrification. Therefore we must actively defend against any eviction or displacement attempt. When venture capitalists and real estate speculators like Fred B Craves seek to develop land, they must first displace people by any means at their disposal. People must come together to oppose this, not because we want people living on the streets but because these gentrification efforts are not in our collective interests.
The developer unveils a “safe parking lot”
After the initial eviction defense, the UFAD and Wood Street residents organized several rallies against Craves’s development projects. We worked to educate surrounding residents of the stakes of the struggle and that if they did not come together, they would be next to get kicked out. However, the city worked to undermine our efforts by putting together “listening sessions”, where city officials would try to lie to residents that such projects were actually good for them and could lead into other housing opportunities for all residents. Due to our efforts, residents were prepared to call out this dishonest officials and these meetings backfired. Under this new resistance to their development plans, Craves shifted tactics. Craves struck a deal with the City of Oakland to lease the lot to the city to be temporarily used as a “Safe Parking Lot”. These lots are small, enclosed lots where people living in vehicles can park if they follow the various rules and restrictions imposed on them. Examples of rules used at other safe parking lots that the city has opened: curfews, no visitors, and random searches of personal property. They are highly regulated and are subject to rampant abuse by staff. The city uses these lots to claim that they support homeless people, but are actually a part of the city’s strategy to eliminate homeless encampments, control people, and put them in a jail-like situation. The city will open similar sites wherever there are a high concentration of encampments to offer a small portion of homeless people access to these new services. The remaining people that are not allowed in or refuse are removed from the areas surrounding these sites. These sites function as tools for the local government to eliminate populations of desperate people by offering inadequate shelter to a handful.
The planned lot at Wood Street was announced in the weeks leading up to the largest attempt to clear the lot. Organizers of the UFAD again worked to bring residents together against the eviction. However, the city had become even more directly involved and spent time building fear among residents. The eviction was to occur on November 19, 2019, at which point over 50 people were living on the lot. The city of Oakland sent out over 50 police personnel, over a dozen vehicles and two tow trucks. During this time, Fred B. Craves sent private security guards to offer residents anywhere from $40-200 to leave the lot voluntarily. This is paltry compensation to give someone to self-evict. For comparison, since that date, Craves has spent over $120,000 on private security to keep people off the lot. Although the UFAD mobilized about two dozen protestors, Craves and the city were able to push most people off the lot, leaving only a handful of residents in their homes.
What we failed to realize that while the eviction was a major threat to all residents, those residents were dealing with more than just evictions. Residents had real issues with living on the lot and living with each other. While we were able to unite with many residents that could not or would not move, many saw the eviction as a “fresh start” even if the future was unknown. Our inability to recognize this left us unable to work through these issues with residents and had a negative impact on the eviction defense.
It was after this point, that Craves filed a “forcible detainer” against the remaining residents and moved to evict them using the court system.
Residents and activists had little ability to intervene in the court process. Residents lacked money to pay for lawyers and activists were unable to find lawyers to take the case for free. Rather, then just passively wait for the case to resolve, activists spent the next year trying to prepare residents for when the court gave its expected verdict in favor of Fred Craves.
On the week of October 5, 2020, the remaining residents on the lot were informed that they would be forcibly removed from their homes on October 13. This sparked a massive eviction defense led by members of the UFAD. At five in the morning on October 13, over fifty people gathered to hold an eviction defense. People stood guard at different entry points with banners, megaphones, and signs ready to form a picket line. Most likely due to this, cops did not come, and no one was displaced.
The eviction defense carried out this way over the next month with people taking different watch shifts starting at 5 AM every day to guard against cops while others were on standby in case a picket line needed to be formed. Members of the UFAD hosted weekly coordinating meetings to organize the defense efforts.
Alameda County sheriffs arrived in the early afternoon two weeks later on October 29, 2020 to remove people from the lot. They set up a perimeter and did not allow anyone into the Wood Street encampment. As the sheriffs guarded the lot, a group of private contractors reinforced the gate. However, because UFAD members are familiar with the area and the people on the lot, a group of about twenty people snuck their way onto the lot and set up a picket line. Under threat of arrest, people were pushed to the street where over 100 people gathered there to protest and prevent the sheriffs from arresting residents. After a standoff that lasted several hours, the sheriffs left, and while ostensibly people were removed from their homes, no one had trouble getting back onto the lot. The sheriffs informed residents that they had fifteen days to move all of their belongings out.
The following week, residents were once again told they had to move out, this time by Oakland Police Captain, Bobby Hookfin. They were told they had until November 13, 2020. On that day, private contractors had heavy equipment ready to dismantle residents’ homes. The residents refused to move without a cash settlement so when police arrived, several people formed a barricade using wooden shields to protect the residents. The police left and Fred Craves’s private security and contractors were left without police backup so they in turn cleared the scene and no one was removed from their home.
The final push
During the next and final push to evict residents, police and private contractors assembled early in the morning on November 16, along with no less than four private security guards. On top of that, one contractor had gone out earlier that day and hired several men off the street, offering them money just to intimidate anyone forming a picket line. However, the eviction defense was prepared; a strong line formed and people held shields. Some of the hired hands tried to break the line but were unable to. Due to the resilient defense, Fred B Craves’ lawyer Pat Smith (who had said earlier that no negotiation was possible) was forced by the protest to negotiate with the residents. Each remaining resident received $2,500. Once the money was transferred into the residents’ hands, protestors put down their shields. The lot had been cleared but the remaining residents had reached a satisfactory resolution since the compensation was sufficient for them to leave.
Reflections and the path forward
Members of the UFAD understand that the final goal in the struggle on Wood Street is not to keep people living in an encampment; the final goal is housing for all. But this is impossible under our capitalist system. Thus, while we organize together and struggle for a better future, we must also fight against all incidents of exploitation, displacement or the harassment of working class people. This is why eviction defenses are integral to UFAD’s work. Every “deep cleaning” by the city, every removal of people from their homes at the behest of the rich, every displacement is the harassment of working people. We must continuously fight against this harassment and, when we win, we can celebrate these small wins along the way.
The primary reason that the eviction defense was so successful was that members of the UFAD were willing to go among the masses to discuss the larger political situations and build working relationship with residents at Wood Street. On October 29, the day of the coordinated eviction attempt between Craves and the OPD, there was no one from the UFAD watching the lot. But we were able to mobilize quickly because residents called and texted us. But there is need for more organization among residents. Having activists watch the lot all day every day with a large, mostly passive audience waiting and ready to mobilize is not a sustainable eviction defense model. Therefore, any prolonged struggle of this nature is contingent on not just trust between residents and activists but that residents are organized and able to take action themselves.
Despite trust and long-term collaboration between residents and UFAD activists, the lot on Wood Street was ultimately cleared. However, as an organization we gained much valuable experience on how to unite people in struggle and fight back. The struggle on Wood St is but one of many conflicts that we must be ready to carry on the struggle. Obtaining cash settlements was a serious material benefit to the residents, a small win- but this is not the ultimate goal of the UFAD. Under our capitalist system, where housing is treated as a commodity and working people are exploited more and more, gentrification will continue. What we want is an end to evictions and to eviction defenses. We want to live in a world that actually serves the people. We must come together, struggle together, and fight against our oppressors. We have a world to win!