The Shifting Tides of the Struggle: Bay Area Branch Update

Members of the UFAD Bay Area Branch lead a march to the Department of Public Works Headquarters in October, 2020

The Bay Area branch of the United Front Against Displacement (UFAD) was founded in October of 2018 in response to rampant harassment and criminalization of residents of the West Oakland Wood Street homeless encampment by the Oakland police, city government, and billionaire venture capitalist and biomedical executive Fred B. Craves. The UFAD opposes gentrification in all its forms, from evictions to the construction of luxury condos in working class neighborhoods. We are a mass organization whose membership wants to see the end of homelessness, gentrification,  and the rotten system that allows it to happen.

We believe that our approach to organizing is different than many other organizations in the Bay. While there are plenty of activists who claim to struggle against gentrification and the various social and economic forces that cause it, there are very few who are willing to go amongst the people and struggle earnestly with them rather than just be a mouthpiece for them. We organize at homeless encampments because we believe that homeless people are in a position to both understand the forces of gentrification quite well and to oppose it.

Gentrification, much like all oppressive forces in this society, can only be combated by building power amongst the people. But what does this mean? We believe that it is only when people come together to unite in the struggle that real progress can be made. We have to come together, imagine a better world, and take steps to make it happen. As Huey Newton said, “Power is the ability to define phenomena and make it act in a desired manner.” This can take many forms, from demanding better conditions in an encampment, to creating tenants’ organizations, to protesting oppressive government policies.

In our attempts to build people power and combat gentrification we’ve learned that taking this approach is not easy or automatic. We have made many adjustments and shifts along the way in our work, as we struggled to find a way forward. For example, during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, we spent most of our time participating in mutual aid projects. We built a community shower and hand washing stations and passed out food. These projects were somewhat successful as individual projects, but we were unable to get residents of the encampment involved in maintaining them.  Because residents didn’t get involved, these projects weren’t acting as supporting parts of a larger effort to unite the residents in the struggle. UFAD members were providing a service to the residents, rather than helping them to get organized.

And since we believe that organizing people in the struggle is so key, we don’t want to just provide services. Our primary focus at the Wood Street encampment (or anywhere we work) has always been going amongst the people, talking with residents in the area, and building relationships. These relationships are vital to the success of our work. Since we have been out at Wood Street at least three times a week, the people who live there trust us and we have built a strong rapport. When the police or CalTrans workers come to harass or evict people at Wood Street, one of our members will receive a call. People tell us about issues they are facing, sometimes to ask for help, and sometimes just to talk. This is a very positive thing because it means residents trust us. Sometimes, these relationships might devolve into just UFAD members providing a service like food distribution or eviction defense. We want to avoid these sorts of clientalistic relationships and instead encourage people to work together. 

Activists used shields to prevent the Oakland Police Department, Alameda County Sheriffs, and hired goons from displacing residents

Eviction defense

A major area of our work in the Bay Area has been organizing eviction defenses at different encampments across Oakland. Many people view evictions as one-off events, perpetrated against individuals who should be pitied but not protected. However, evictions are a fundamental component of gentrification. People in the Bay Area, and in every major city in this country, are consistently priced out of their homes which they’ve often lived in for years, if not most of their lives. If that does not work, landlords are quick to serve eviction notices for seemingly inconsequential things that might be hidden in the lease. These forces, as well as others like de-industrialization, low wages, and racist housing policies, have led to many people in the Bay Area becoming homeless. One would think that the threat of eviction and harassment would end there, but as we have seen at Wood Street, the city and private industry collaborate to evict homeless people from wherever they reside.

In 2016, billionaire venture capitalist Fred B. Craves set up a shell corporation called Game Changer LLC in order to get involved in speculative real estate. Later that year, Craves purchased a section of land in the middle of the Wood Street encampment and has been forcing people off the lot over the past two years. During this time there have been several eviction defenses with residents and activists standing their ground against the police and private contractors.

The situation escalated when Alameda County sheriffs arrived in the early afternoon of October 29th in 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, due to UFAD’s presence in the area, a group of twenty people mobilized quickly and snuck their way onto the lot to set up a picket line. Under threat of arrest, people were pushed to the street where 100 people gathered to protest and prevent the sheriffs from arresting residents. After a standoff that lasted several hours, the sheriffs left, and while people had technically been 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. This turned into a month long struggle with activists and residents of the lot on one side, the police, private security, and contractors on the other.

Ultimately, the residents were removed from the lot and forced to relocate to another section of the encampment. The five remaining residents only moved, however, after receiving a cash settlement. During the October 29th push, Pat Smith, who is Craves’ lawyer, said that a cash settlement was impossible. On November 16th (the final day of the defense) each resident received $2,500.

This outcome was only a partial victory, but an important one. The residents were able to get their demands met and the activists who engaged in the defense gained some valuable experience from the struggle. However, it is not that simple. Rather, this serves as an example of how limited our power really is under the current system. The state (represented in this battle both by the county sheriffs and the city police) has the means and resources to threaten, arrest, and outlast protestors. The billionaire investor has the resources to hire around the clock security. The residents did not see the basis for resisting past the point of compensation. Also, the cash settlement to a certain extent has become a point of contention amongst people at Wood Street. Residents who had been pushed off the lot in recent years were frustrated that they had not received anything. Instead of this defense serving as a galvanizing force, in some ways, it only led to more division. It is important to recognize that this defense was a success given the circumstances and it does demonstrate to people that victories can be won through collective struggle. However, people on Wood Street are still having difficulty seeing the basis to come together even when they have seen what is possible.

This last point is quite serious since gentrification is a dynamic and persistent force and any resistance to it demands the same. Although the lot has been cleared, there are still people living on the street that runs parallel to it. Obviously if Craves plans to develop this lot at all those people will be removed to access the water and electric lines. Therefore, there is a real basis for these residents to work together and start planning a resistance to future harassment. However, UFAD members have been unable to even get people together for a meeting. People equivocate about meeting for various reasons ranging from not being able to leave their belongings to a belief that they will not get displaced. Residents aren’t looking at the situation objectively and have to a certain extent resigned to nihilism. We still think that organizing against displacement is important and possible. Our experience at Wood Street has shown that eviction defenses can be successful when people work together. Though we still think getting residents together to resist future displacement is possible, we need to be objective about the present situation and what is possible in this moment. Understanding this, we have made a major shift in our work to focus our efforts more on organizing tenants in the nearby housing projects.

Coalition work

At first glance an eviction defense might look like a relatively straightforward action. One might think people just need to be able to rally in large numbers in front of someone’s residence and pressure the cops, the Department of Public Works, or different corporate lackeys to leave. But in reality, it is actually a much more complex, protracted struggle. Everyone involved has their own prerogatives and objectives.

During the eviction defense outlined in the last section, UFAD tried to work with several other groups but it quickly fell apart. However, even before the first day of the eviction defense, it became clear that some organizations had motives other than protecting residents. One NGO in particular, The Village, stated that it didn’t make sense to have an eviction defense because it would end up “causing more harm” to the residents we were trying to protect if we didn’t get everyone’s consent. After we brought up that many residents wanted us to help with an eviction defense, The Village decided to participate but refused to talk about how we could work together to make sure the defense was as effective as possible. When disagreements about tactics or political lines arose, members of other groups jumped to personal attacks, deflections, and threw out wild accusations.

While this could easily be seen as an example of interpersonal conflict, it is more complicated. The eviction defense coalition did not fall apart because people could not get along, it fell apart because of political differences. When groups insist that the only pathway to change is to sit in on city council meetings or collaborate with big organizations, they are actually advocating for “business as usual”. NGOs have a vested interest in keeping things the same, because if conditions change for people, some of these NGOs (and their necessary funding) will become obsolete. Or, they care more about personal branding than actually changing the situation. So when it seemed like other groups in the coalition were not actually interested in keeping them in their homes, staying in the coalition no longer made sense to us.

These same issues also came up in another coalition, one that supposedly opposed Oakland’s new Encampment Management Policy. This policy deems nearly all of Oakland as “high sensitivity zones” and formalizes the sweeps and removals of nearly every encampment in the city that the City of Oakland has been doing for decades. We know that this is not really anything new, rather merely a codification of the city’s actions over the recent years, but it should certainly still be fiercely opposed.

We wanted to organize a strong, united opposition to this draconian policy. However, other organizations in the coalition refused to engage in serious discussions around the correct approach to opposing the EMP. For example, some organizations wanted to spend the bulk of the group’s energy petitioning city council members, sitting in private meetings with them in order to ask them to oppose the policy. Others only wanted to make comments during public Zoom meetings instead of mobilizing people to on the ground protests or eviction defenses. When we argued that these tactics would not be effective, the other groups in the coalition again resorted to personal attacks.

This was what finally made us realize that we needed to leave this coalition. And as we predicted, Oakland City Council voted unanimously in favor of the new Encampment Management Policy. This was despite multiple council members stating earlier they would vote against it. This shows how politicians will do anything to save face in the moment but when push comes to shove, they do not act in the interest of the people.

While members of UFAD want to continue working with other organizations, and want to unite as many people as possible, these experiences have demonstrated how difficult it can be when people do not actually want to oppose gentrification. When people are not serious about building power among the people, coalition work can quickly devolve into unprincipled name calling or petty drama. Real work must be done to oppose gentrification, and coalitions can play a positive role, but the member organizations must be interested in collaboration and principled work.

Turn to the projects

Recently, our branch has begun working with tenants at Cypress Village (also known as Peralta Village), a housing project in West Oakland. There is a lot of history of tenants in West Oakland struggling against their oppressors. This is evident, but not limited to, examples like people protesting inhumane conditions during the postwar era when thousands of Black families were crowded into just a few blocks or when the Black Panther Party declared in their Ten Point Program: “WE WANT DECENT HOUSING, FIT FOR THE SHELTER OF HUMAN BEINGS”. The struggle for suitable living conditions has only intensified in recent years as developers and bankers continue to push people from their homes to build luxury condominiums that the working people of West Oakland cannot afford to live in. 

In recent months, we have joined in this fight. We were inspired to do this not only by the tremendous legacy of struggle in West Oakland but also by our comrades in Boston.  On the East Coast, the Boston branch started organizing at the Grant Manor complex during the beginning of the pandemic. Although UFAD members in Boston faced a shaky start since many tenants were originally uninterested in talking further, they continued to knock on people’s doors and talk to them about the situation in the projects. They soon found success when tenants told them about a rent increase and their desire to fight against it. Since then, tenants and UFAD members have worked together to hold protests, door knock, and even started a publication.

Members of the UFAD protesting in front of the law offices of Alan J. Horowitz who is one of the top eviction lawyers 
in the Bay Area

When the Bay Area branch decided to start talking to people at Cypress Village, we experienced a similarly shaky start, mostly due to mistakes in our approach. When we first started door knocking in June of 2020, we introduced ourselves and then asked people to join us for a community meeting in a nearby park. We started holding these meetings during the George Floyd uprisings to talk about police violence, white supremacy, and how to organize against these forces. These broad topics are important to talk about, but we assumed that they would be the most important for everyone we talked to. Essentially we were strangers with clipboards, inviting people to a park down the block to talk about big-picture issues, rather than talking about the specific and pressing problems they were facing. Activist types were often the only people who attended these meetings and we were unable to get a single tenant from the projects to attend.

So we shifted our approach. We looked to our comrades in Boston who were finding success by listening to people’s concerns and proposing ways people could come together around them. We started knocking on doors and asking tenants about their experiences. They talked and we listened. This simple approach led us to learn about the real conditions in Cypress. Tenants told us about rat infestations, rampant crime, and harassment by the Housing Authority. Perhaps the cruelest thing we learned about was that while the Housing Authority was slow to respond to maintenance requests, they were lightning quick to serve residents with eviction notices and other penalties. Equipped with this knowledge, we were able to transform our door knocking efforts. We were no longer only strangers with clipboards, we were people who had some knowledge about the situation and could offer ideas for what to do next.

So what came next? Tenants and UFAD members came together for weekly meetings. At these meetings, tenants were able to voice their concerns and, importantly, meet their neighbors, often for the first time. And while only sparsely attended (ranging from two to nine tenants) this working group has accomplished a lot. The major breakthrough has been that UFAD members worked with tenants to create a petition to be sent to the Oakland Housing Authority. This petition outlined the subpar conditions and put forth several demands including reimbursement for upkeep that should be the Housing Authority’s responsibility and an end to harassment. Within a month of circulating the petition, almost 100 residents have signed and tenants plan to host a rally to present the petition to the Housing Authority.

Many tenants at Cypress Village see the basis for consistent organizing and action. They have expressed the need for protests and direct actions because they have seen firsthand how city officials hide behind bureaucracy to continue forcing residents to live in oppressive conditions. This takes the form of always referring people to another department, always working slowly, or just flat out ignoring people. While some residents have put forward questionable or even dangerous ideas (such as suggesting that no change is possible or the idea that some people don’t “deserve” safe housing) ultimately most people see the need to struggle against the Housing Authority.

We will continue working with tenants and all working people of the Bay Area to oppose gentrification. In the last six months, our organization has more than doubled in size and our work has proliferated through the East Bay. As our organization has quickly grown, we have re-evaluated the work we do, and taken seriously the various issues that have become clear within our approach at different points in time. Only through struggle and methodical organizing can we build up the struggle against gentrification and win real victories. We understand how important it is to build strong power among the masses in order to resist the advances of the forces of gentrification. We encourage you to join us in the struggle!

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