RUF has spent around two years organizing in West Oakland homeless encampments.This work has helped to develop militant resistance to local police and real estate developers attempts to harass and displace homeless people. Through our efforts outside activists and groups have begun to get involved in the struggle at the West Oakland encampment. There have been some new victories, but these also bring with them new contradictions and challenges.
Wood Street residents, RUF members, and local activists stand against the police and Oakland city workers to stop their efforts to evict the homeless from Wood Street.
The City of Oakland has launched a new series of attacks on the homeless. Oakland has almost 10,000 homeless people and over 90 homeless encampments. These people are forced into utter poverty in some of the most desperate conditions of people in this country. Over the past few months the city of Oakland, in collaboration with real estate developers, has ramped up evictions of larger encampments. This has been combined with a crackdown on people living in their cars and RVs. Through outright evictions at gunpoint, a series of new parking restrictions, and mass towings the City of Oakland has launched a coordinated assault on the homeless people in the City.
The Bay Area branch of RUF has worked to build resistance within encampments of homeless people in West Oakland. One such encampment is home to over a hundred people and was recently targeted for eviction by the city of Oakland. This encampment is located on an abandoned lot, between interstate 80 highway and Wood Street, an active big rig trucking line. People have informally lived on Wood Street for many years and the Oakland Police Department had an informal policy of directing vehicle dwellers there. So as people were pushed from other encampments and streets throughout the area, they congregated at Wood Street.
On October 8th, the City sent representatives to “tag” all the vehicles on the lot. These tags are notices that the vehicles will be towed if not moved by a certain date. The notices listed the vehicles as “abandoned or inoperable”, regardless of the vehicle’s condition. This designation helped to provide the city with a legal cover for the fact that it was aiming to illegally tow and destroy a number of vehicles that served as people’s shelters.
At that time there were over 130 vehicles on Wood Street and almost every single one was tagged for removal. Residents were also told by the city employees that they were going to be asked to leave the same day their vehicles were scheduled to be towed.
Members of RUF made sure to be present at each scheduled eviction date. The city is aware, at least to some extent, of our organizing efforts at Wood Street. In October 2018 RUF members worked with residents of the encampment to stop a prior eviction attempt. In part due to this, and in part to create a general sense of uncertainty for the folks living at Wood Street, the city repeatedly rescheduled the eviction date.
One of many community cookouts at Wood Street. These have been key in bringing folks together to talk about issues in the encampment and plan resistance.
However, given RUF’s well established links with the residents of the encampment, it was relatively easy to figure out the actual date and spread the word among the people living there. We have been organizing in the area for over a year, not only to fight back against eviction and displacement, but also to build up solidarity in the encampments and between them. Most importantly we have been spreading revolutionary theory and ideas among the people. This has been important to clarifying a wide range of topics from the way in which capitalism creates homelessness, to the capitalist control of city politics, and even the need for revolution to ultimately resolve issues like homelessness and poverty.
This organizing work has required prolonged and consistent effort. Through group meetings at the encampment, one-on-one conversations with residents, and regular cookouts, we have been able to clarify a lot to the residents, and build the basis for collective resistance.
We have also worked to develop links with activists and organizations outside the encampment to support the struggle there. This has included people from reformist social-democratic organizations, those disillusioned with the typical “left politics as usual” in the Bay Area, and even some ministers and members of religious communities. Not all of these people are revolutionaries, but they are committed to helping in the struggle against homelessness and displacement. In the lead up to the eviction date we coordinated with many of these folks to help in the effort to stop the displacement of the Wood Street residents.
In the weeks prior to the eviction, the city had been telling residents to move off of the lot and onto the curb outside the fence. This was less safe as the street offers less space and residents are at risk of being hit by the trucks and cars that regularly speed down the road. What’s more many residents have built up structures that cannot be easily transported to the curb.
However, some residents feared that disobeying city officials put them at risk of their shelters and belongings being seized and destroyed by the police. Many homeless people have experienced this time and time again in evictions. It is very rare for there to be coordinated collective resistance to an eviction which is capable of stopping it. Therefore, a number of residents had real doubts about our ability to work together to prevent the planned displacement.
In this atmosphere, many residents relocated to the curb the night before the eviction. However about 15 folks living in vehicles some others in tents and informal structures remained. On the actual day of the planned eviction, the city of Oakland marshaled police and other personnel in the area. This show of force included over 25 police vehicles, 50 personnel, and two towing companies.
Swarms of police and city workers decended on Wood Street in an effort to evict the residents and destroy their belongings.
The City of Oakland’s stated plan was to clear the lot of vehicles (and implicitly the residents) so that it could be cleaned and paved. The City also claimed that it would be used as a safe parking lot to be made available to the previous residents of the Wood Street encampment. In reality this plan was a smokescreen that served the interest of the capitalist who owns the lot. It is unclear if the City would even follow through with such a plan. The U.S. and City governments have a long history of cheating people of their land by means of false promises and phony contracts. In order to get rights to return to the lot after its paving, residents had to give their name and information to the police. Some speculated that this was a ploy, and the police only wanted people’s names so that they could target residents for retaliation.
However, even if they did carry out the planned creation of a “safe parking lot,” this would still not be in the residents’ interest. The official plan was for the lot to offer parking spots to around 60 people, but over 100 people live in the Wood Street encampment. What’s more the construction of the lot would take months, during which many Wood Street residents would have nowhere to go. And, the lot itself would be a temporary program, meaning that people would only be able to park there for a limited amount of time. If they did not find housing after a few months they would be evicted.
All of this shows that, even if the City did really construct a “safe parking lot”, residents at Wood Street who have lived at the encampment for years, would be getting a pretty bad deal in the process. Therefore, it’s in the interests of the residents for their community to remain intact and for them to not be pushed off a site that many have been inhabiting for years.
While some residents were not clear about all of this, others were. Therefore, when the City of Oakland tried to move towing equipment into the lot, activists rallied with residents and got between tow trucks and peoples vehicles. These collective actions caused the police to hesitate. They are not used to carrying out evictions in the face of united collective resistance. Generally folks at encampments are not organized, and many non-profit “homelessness advocacy” groups actually collaborate closely with the City to ultimately aid in evictions. So, the police and city workers were not prepared to face dozens of people standing up to their eviction efforts.
Instead of forcing people to move off the lot, the towing company instead removed the actually abandoned and burned out vehicles on the lot. The burned out husks had accumulated on the lot over a period of years and were a sign of the level of neglect seen in that area. After two days, the city had spent its budget on the use of the tow companies and had to conclude the operation; without completely clearing the lot. This was because they faced constant resistance and protest every time they tried to strong-arm residents into leaving the lot. So their entire eviction operation was slowed to a crawl, and they were only able to remove the burned out cars because they did not face resistance when doing so.
After two days of protests the City of Oakland ran out of money for the eviction. Other than towing the burned wrecks, they only had enough funds to tow some vehicles to the edge of the lot.
Bringing outside activists and local neighbors into the struggle has been a key way to build resistance against the City government’s plans. Given the incredibly high levels of homelessness in the Bay Area, and the absurd rents that landlords are charging, many progressive people throughout the Bay Area want to get involved in the struggle against homelessness, evictions, and displacement. However, many of the existing groups that organize around the issue have limited success. In the case of non-profits and social workers, it is worse. These people directly collaborate with the city governments to displace and evict homeless people from encampments. Much of this work is spun as progressive efforts to “create exits from homelessness” but it generally amounts to kicking people out of encampments and putting them into temporary housing programs like the “safe parking lots” or the Tuff Sheds. These lots and Tuff Sheds facilities generally have armed guards, are highly surveilled, and severely restrict the residents’ freedom of movement.
In a recent interview with a reporter, one resident of the Wood Street encampment said that he didn’t want to go to the Tuff Sheds because he had already been to prison and didn’t want to go back. He also described them as little better than a concentration camp. These remarks sum up how a lot of the residents feel about these “exits from homelessness.”
Given that the non-profits and social workers push the homeless into these terrible and oppressive living situations, many progressive people are disillusioned with these sorts of political organizations. Therefore, there is a real basis to get many of these progressive people involved in our efforts to fight back against gentrification, homelessness, and evictions. We have already had a lot of success in doing so, and will continue to expand these efforts going forward. We are currently working to coordinate with other encampments in the area, and to link up with the student struggles as well.
The importance of consistent work among the masses of people in the encampment cannot be overstated. None of this resistance would have been possible without the trust of the people built over many months of consistent conversations about the immediate situation and larger political topics. The swell in outside support and the summing up of many months of experiences played a decisive role in recent work to disrupt the planned evictions of homeless people by the City of Oakland.