After defeating the cops’ attempt to evict people from the encampment, there are some key questions: Where do we go from here? What is the future course of the struggle? How will the city try to evict people next? What can others learn from this struggle? How can we link up with other encampments and progressive forces around the area? This article aims to answer some of these questions, and chart a course forward for the struggle.
Comrades and folks in the encampment have grown more organized and militant after stopping the pigs' first eviction attempt.
How Did Things Get This Way
People have set up shacks to live in right on a spur from a railroad. They are in one of many homeless encampments around the Bay Area. This one covers a train track though—a rail spur leading off from the main freight line, a football field away, where trains still rumble by.
But the spur, like many strands in a city, is not a random loose end. It is connected with the larger history of a city and with the struggles of its working people. The owners of business and property have chosen not to use this rail. Homeless people have turned its neglect into their temporary refuge.
A few blocks away, a work crew sprays a road with water to remove dust and dirt shortly before using welding tools to dismantle a rail track on a nearby road. The road sits next to a large construction site, where luxury apartments are being constructed. Removing the rail that once served the port freight is part of the project. In a homeless encampment of tents and tarps on a park a stones-throws away, a crowd of day laborers and their friends look on as the work crew rips up the rail.
Like many places around the world, the demolition of port and transportation infrastructure is not the result of a lack of trade. Investors believe they will get more return per dollar by trading in new “luxury” apartment buildings than they would on the port and related businesses. In the meantime, countless jobs specific to port enterprises are lost. Goods and products will increasingly have to find a different way to make it to and from the region, clogging roads with extra truckloads of cargo. All because in the short-term, a few people can make a load of cash by tearing up the old port rail and building some expensive housing for people who are moving in to gentrify the city.
The wealthy and aspiring wealthy see a city created in their image. In the meantime the working people of the city, who once worked the port and related jobs, are shown to the curb.
Who Will Turn the Tide
Many people have been been pushed out of a neighborhood where they have lived their whole lives. Many have seen their families living here for generations, ever since port jobs drew waves of Black migrants from the South—where many still have ties even after generations. The capitalist development by companies like Google and Facebook have created jobs in the area for an aspiring wealthy class to make many times the average wages of working people. In the mean-time, worksites throughout the neighborhood have shriveled up. Many small businesses with family ties in the neighborhood have shut their doors long ago. Many poor people living in the area talk of uncles or cousins who used to own a well-known warehouse or diner back in the day.
Police brutality, harassment, and arrests are daily realities for the homeless, especially when being evicted.
Here, being pushed out of the neighborhood generally means being pushed onto the street. Many first hang on by living in cars, vans, or aging recreational vehicles. Eventually people are pushed out of these as police ticket and tow their vehicles. They then end up in tents and tarps on the streets. Many of those living in vehicles now will be in tents in the future. Without uniting in struggle, they and their friends face a future of harassment, evictions, and arrests until they die an early death.
There are some people who are beginning to fight back in an organized fashion. But at the same time, there are obstacles among the people themselves which make uniting difficult. The homeless encampments are a hodge-podge of competing activity. Certain people live on government assistance or other similar programs. Others scavenge recyclables. Some push drugs. Others see drugs as a threat to the health and survival of encampments at large. Others see trash piles as a primary nuisance that may attract the cops.
In the face of desperate circumstances, a minority of people turn to stealing what little property their homeless neighbors possess. Such thefts can have a devastating effect on trust among the people. It discourages people from approaching others in encampments who they are not familiar with. Even among their own neighbors, people are afraid that they risk theft if they leave their possessions unguarded. However, a certain independence and warmness exists as well. These are places where people are not in a hurry to end conversations. This stands in sharp contrast to the formality of guarded and semi-forced “chit-chat” typically found in offices and up-scale residential areas. In one encampment, neighbors help look after a friend who needs a wheel-chair to get around. At another, a nephew checks in every day with his uncle who was forced onto the streets after suffering an injury on a construction site. People often give unused building material or other objects to each other generously. With cash in short supply, a gift economy of sorts operates among the people to fill in some of the gaps.
Still, even those who have a method down of collecting donations and/or doing odd jobs know that the clock is running down until they will be driven out of their encampment by the city. Even if another spot is found after that, living on the streets and being pushed around takes a toll. A key question must be asked—who are the friends of the people in this situation? A few people united are essential to building a movement that can go against the influence of isolationism, individualism, and inertia within the encampments.
A protest outside the city hall in San Fransisco. Protests like these have put pressure on city governments and given people a chance to publicly voice their grievances against this unjust social system that treats the poor as expendable.
How Will We Win
Winning, at least in the short-term, will require the people, in mass, refusing to move themselves or their possessions. It will take the people themselves, collectively resisting eviction and working together for their own interests. This is is the foundation. If this is solid, other sorts of support—such as legal fights, and media attention, can come into place. But without some of the people unified around this goal, there is little foundation upon which to build the struggle.
Without people’s organization, the words and ideas of the rich and powerful quickly fill in the blanks where the words and ideas of the people belong. In one recent example of how this plays out, a well-intentioned journalist reported that the towing of vehicles mainly affected one lone individual rather than reporting on the dozens of others who were towed on the same day at the same location as this individual. By writing in this manner, the reporter made it seem as if this one story was the exception rather than the general trend of capitalist development in the area. This allows those with power to pretend to fix the problem by helping one individual who’s struggle was highly publicized. Meanwhile, the many others who are in a similar situation are left out in the cold, literally.
A lone superman will not save the day. Nor can we rely on the rich and powerful to change their ways because they feel sorry for us. Instead, action, resistance, and organization are the only way forward to advance the people’s interests in struggle.
In recent months, we have achieved a few basic victories. These were the product of effective stand-offs with the police. During these confrontations the police backed off evicting people when faced with the people united in defiance to their orders.
In one case, residents had begun to meet after a few social events were organized. A few days after a few protest posters were made and distributed, the cops showed up to evict the people. The protest started when a few people grew overwhelmed by the anger at the police threatening to kick them from a vacant polluted industrial lot.
First, a man stood on top of a barricade he had constructed, and told the cops that in 15 years of work he had never seen the cops make a bad situation better. A few of the cops smirked at him in response. Then another woman demanded to see legal papers from the cops. Another woman paced towards the cop with a pro-test banner fixed to a wooden cross.
At that point a group of revolutionaries started chanting “hell-no we won’t go”. Then people’s dogs started to bark in response to all the noise. The cops stopped smiling. They paced single-file back and forth for a little over a minute. Then they left.
However, inevitably, as this fighting force grows, there will be new challenges. We should be clear, the state at large can be content with a few holdouts on disputed property sites. The truth is that the process of gentrification is a messy business. Developers and politicians are generally surprised that they can get away with kicking out the masses of people in neighborhoods through corrupt back-room deals without more resistance and protest from the people. Rather than risk enflaming the people, these “city leaders” will be careful to try to win-over a few hold-outs, especially if some people show a willingness to “make a deal” with the city. The city’s main concern is that such a deal will convince some people to give up on or forget about the struggle.
But when the people actually start doing this stuff on a larger scale, things are going to get serious. They simply cannot deal with multiple groups of people refusing to be evicted, and demanding a right to live with dignity regardless of the property rights of the rich and powerful. Faced with this possibility, the violent heavy-hand of the state will come down fast.
Already business interests are whipping up a storm on media and among politicians, demanding that they “get a handle” on the homeless. In order to facilitate more gentrification in nearby San Francisco, the mayor supported a new law that allows the city to put homeless people in an institution for up to a year if the police cite them with eight infractions, the so-called “conservatorship law.” The same Democratic Party mayor opposed a tax increase on corporations that would have provided increasing funding for homeless programs.
But this is just child’s play compared to what will happen when people start protesting and resisting evictions and gentrification continuously and in mass. The moment they see that we can not be pushed around easily, cost calculations about lost profits will start to flash through their heads. In turn, they will likely panic and try different solutions, none of which will be good for us.
Repeated protests in Oakland City Hall (like this one) forced the city to admit that they had illegally sold or destroyed people’s RVs.
We have to be ready for all sorts of reactions. They may at one time pretend to want to “make nice,” with us. This could take the form of an agreement for the city to provide basic public sanitation facilities for the homeless in one location. These sort of strategies are generally aimed at dividing the people and convincing some of them that the city and the capitalists aren’t really “that bad” after all. They promoting the illusion that these oppressors are actually trying to help people. At another time, they will greet us with a vicious response to protests, in the form of tear gas or worse.
Either way, we must keep a cool head, and react in the way that best “serves the people” by expanding the struggle, and that sees our interest in unifying the people rather than selling out for a short-term “solution.”
If they grant us a small concession like a public restroom, we should in return demand bathrooms for all the people in the city. If they throw tear gas at us, we should not give up, but should unite even more people with our cause by exposing the real way the city deals with the people. No matter what the city and state does, we should do all we can do to take care of the needs of the people through our own actions, through mass discussions and through actions we take care of our needs. We cannot be fooled by the oppressors, and cannot believe that we can “win them over to our side.”
We already see a sign of such flip-flopping on the part of the city and their goons. The cops initially acted puzzled about what to do to “enforce order” in one encampment. When they asked one person to leave a park where he had placed a tent, the man replied he had every legal right to be there. The cop radioed for feedback, paced around for a few minutes and later left. This was a few years ago. Since then dozens of other people have become homeless in the area. One man tried to help neighbors by towing disabled RVs to the area and giving them for free or for low payments to friends and neighbors. In response, the police first towed away his truck, and then towed 20 others which were left unable to flee without the help of his motor. Cops laughed as people’s life possessions were towed away. The same cops told several people “Don’t be seen in Oakland again.”
A Black Panther cartoon warning young brothers and sisters to “Beware of the Pig” especially when they come offering gifts (the pig is holding out a lollipop).
The flip-flopping didn’t end there. Following angry protests in front of City Hall demanding the return of the towed vehicles, a representative of the mayor claimed to care about the displaced people. Then he did nothing to help them. A few weeks later, a cop handed out poorly made cheese sandwiches to people who the pigs had evicted from their vehicles. People were unsure of what to do. However, upon discussion, people welled up with anger at the nerve of the cops to think they could win us over by a poorly made sandwich. In a way, such hand-outs are a way of testing us. If we smile at an oppressor when he smiles at us one day, it is a little bit harder to stand firm when he is kicking people out of the neighborhood the next day. We should eventually have the clarity to not be so quick to forgive these oppressive pigs. If we throw the cheese sandwiches back at the cops today, we will be even more ready to stand together and resist their orders tomorrow.
The strongest tool that our opponents have is their ability to divide the people. A number of the people who are homeless are addicts, or have mental problems. The city will use this to their favor, by pretending that evicting the people from the streets is in “their own interests” because of such problems. Some people will believe the city. The city will justify evicting people from abandoned lots based on health and safety issues. If they cannot point to enough real health and safety issues, they will create them. During the Occupy Wall Street protests, police released prisoners directly into the occupation site to cause trouble.
However, if we educate ourselves about the actual situation, fewer of us will be fooled by such tactics and lies. Unifying the people has taken many conversations over time, and also required regu-lar meetings, both with-in encampments, and between them. In this way, people themselves have been able to identify those who are reliable comrades in struggle.
At the same time, the people develop their own awareness of the struggle and increase their own commit-ment to it. The struggle is no picnic, it’s a bumpy road with lots of twists and turns. It requires that people work together to figure out a way forward even in the face of setback. It also requires working to unite with new people who can join the struggle. This means learning to work with a bunch of people from different walks of life, and uniting all those who can be united in the struggle against displacement and evictions.
Only a few months ago, people in the encampment by the rail tracks did not know many of their neighbors on the site. But in struggle, people have met not only with these former strangers, but planned resistance with people in different encampments and even from different cities. In this way, what once was seen as the site of an abandoned rail spur is beginning to be seen as a main source of resistance.
A recent press conference outside the Alameda Countr Building which criticized the city and police for towing people’s RVs. These protests have drawn attention to the struggle, and put pressure on the city.