An Update on the Struggle Against Homelessness and Displacement
Over the past year, RUF has been organzing among the homeless and semi-homeless in the Bay Area. The rents in San Fransisco are the highest of any city in the country, and Oakland and Berkeley are not much cheaper. Tens of thousands of working people have been driven from their homes and onto the street. In these dire conditions RUF has been building militant organized resistance and learning from our mistakes and setbacks in the struggle.
Oakland Department of Public Works workers destroy a homeless man’s shelter and destroy his belongings as park of an eviction at Raimondi Park.
As more and more people are evicted and forced to live on the streets all over the Bay Area and across the country, the situation for homeless people continues to grow more dire. This is a result of the deepening capitalist crisis that we are in and have been in since 2008. The stock market and corporate profits have “recovered,” shooting up to new heights over this past decade. But working people can hardly make ends meet. Rising rents, low wages, the shrinking availability of full-time work, and growing debt burdens have led to an increasingly desperate situation for most working people. Two thirds of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck, unable to afford an unexpected $500 expense. One third of Americans are so in debt that they actually have a negative net worth. Meaning that they have so much debt, that even if they sold everything they owned, they would be unable to pay off everything they owe. In short the rich are getting richer, while the poor keep getting poorer. This in an inevitable law of capitalist development and it has led to a massive spike in homelessness across the country.
This is particularly acute in the Bay Area where the rents are some of the highest in the country and at least 55,000 people are homeless. Generally people first lose their job or have an unexpected cost (like a medical bill or a parking ticket), and then lose their apartment after which they go to live in their vehicle if they have one. From there it is only a matter of time until the parking tickets pile up, their registration lapses, and their vehicle gets towed, leaving people with nowhere to sleep but the streets. In this context, RUF has been organizing among the homeless in the Bay Area, building serious and militant opposition to displacement.
Through these effort we have been able to stop some evictions and expose the ways in which the city governments serve the interests of the capitalist developers and routinely break the law in doing so. However, the struggle has not simply been one success after another. There have also been setbacks, failures, and difficulties. For example, after successfully stopping one eviction attempt at an encampment in West Oakland, we were unable to prevent the eviction of a number of people living in RVs at a nearby park. Many people’s vehicles were then illegally destroyed, along with everything they had in them, including everything from clothes to immigration documents.
Rents in the Bay Area are among the most most expensive in the country and have risen expontentially over the past decade.
After they were evicted we staged a series of protests at city hall, the offices of the company which towed the RVs, and other government building to expose the injustice and illegality of these towings and subsequent destruction of RVs and vehicles. These efforts included getting coverage of the evictions in a way that further pressured the city government and developers to temporarily halt evictions. We used this time to organize more in the encampments and to work to bring people together in a larger united front against evictions and displacement.
The struggle against displacement and evictions does not only concern homeless people, it is part of the larger working-class struggle against capitalist plunder and corporate barbarism. Also, given that Black and Latino people are generally among the poorest in the country, it is also part of the struggle against white supremacy. Therefore, there is a significant basis to unite a huge number of people in support of these efforts. Even if working people aren’t yet homeless, the rising rents and ever-shrinking job opportunities are creating the conditions that push more and more people onto the streets.
In our efforts to build a larger united front around this issue we have worked with various progressive groups and even some non-profit organizations. In order to work with these people we had to be clear that some of them were temporarily and unreliable allies at best. While they do oppose some of the oppression that homeless people face, these progressive and non-profit groups often still believe that there is a way to “solve” the issue of homelessness within the existing system. As such, they have a tendency to tail behind politicians and focus on various minor legal reforms (despite the fact that city governments, developers, and police routinely break their own laws).
What’s more many non-profit activists have a tendency to see their efforts as charity work, instead of understanding these efforts as part of the class struggle. Therefore, they tend to think of homeless people—and oppressed people in general—as agency-less victims in need of a kind upper-class benefactor. In contrast to this, our approach has been to join with the homeless in their struggle, and bring people together to discuss and debate the issues so that they can share their ideas and work together to coordinate resistance. We have seen first-hand how oppressed people have the power to fight back against their oppressors and win.
Given these issues with non-profit activists, we have also worked to get students and radicals in the area involved in the struggle. Additionally, we have begun to develop stronger links between this struggle against displacement and similar fights in San Fransisco and Berkeley. All of this has led to an emerging Bay Area united front against displacement. However, this work is still at an early stage, and it will require ongoing struggle to advance these efforts and prevent liberal politics from taking over.
This is all the more important because the relatively brief stay on evictions around the West Oakland encampment seems to have come to an end; they have begun to evict people in the area once again.
Ever since people were evicted from their vehicles last fall, Raimondi Park has filled with tents and more make-shift shelters.
A group of homeless people has been living in Raimondi Park for a little over a year. Residents had relocated there after being kicked out of various other locations in the area. Many of the people now living in the park lived in their vehicles until recently. But when the city illegally towed and destroyed their RVs and cars this past fall, many were forced onto the streets and into the park.
The public park had become a minor refuge from the harassment that they experienced regularly in the surrounding area. However, a new luxury housing development is being built next to the park. As part of an effort to prepare the area for further development, the City of Oakland has begun moving homeless people into more and more isolated areas.
In early May, residents were warned by the city that in the following weeks they would be relocated onto an easement created on the side of a busy street at the other side of the park. After hearing about this eviction notice we began to coordinate a response. Our hope was that we would be able to resist this eviction attempt as we had done last fall when the police tried to evict people at an encampment up the road. However, no RUF members could be there during the time of this eviction. What’s more while around fifteen non-profit and liberal activists agreed to be there to resist the eviction, only two actually showed up. These unreliable allies were particularly flaky when it came to their commitment to stand up to the police, even though eviction can often mean death for the homeless as they lose what few possessions and little stability they have.
Additionally the level of organization among the people in the park and at the nearby encampment remains relatively low. Some people have really come forward and seen the importance of the struggle, but many are nihilistic. Drug-use and alcohol are also big problems, as are fights and contradictions among the people. Many from the encampment will not walk the two blocks to talk with residents at the park, and vice versa. At the nearby encampment, conflict between residents led someone to light a number of people’s shelters on fire while they were sleeping in them. The residents of the encampment have since resolved some of these disputes, but these fires were not an isolated incident. A small minority among the homeless have a tendency to escalate disputes with violence and arson.
Given these circumstances, uniting the people in resistance is challenging, but not impossible. In the previous issue of Red Star, we wrote about how we were able to rally people to join in the struggle by a few of us working closely together with an orientation towards serving the people. However, in the case of the more recent eviction, we were not able to mount a successful resistance.
An eviction notice for residents of the park. Note that while the document claims that they will store people’s property, DPW actually just threw everything away.
Escorted by the Oakland Police Department, the Department of Public Works descended onto the park in the early morning on the day of the eviction. Some residents of the park had frantically tried to move some of their belongings during the previous days. Others had decided not to move, and hoped that they could mount a successful resistance and prevent the eviction. Some said that they felt that moving to the other side of the park, as the city demanded, was only the first step to being evicted from the area entirely.
So, most people still had a lot of stuff in the park that morning. The situation was made more challenging because local businesses and even people living in houses in the area started to dump their garbage in the park once they heard about the eviction. Most did this simply to avoid paying fees at local dumps, but some also wanted to provide further justification for the eviction by dumping garbage and blaming the homeless for the mess in the park.
The police and the Department of Public Works (DPW) showed up on the morning of the eviction with a small bulldozer, a few garbage trucks, a backhoe-claw attached to a dump truck, and around 30 DPW workers. City workers treated everything in the park as trash and worked quickly to get rid of all that they could. The liberal non-profit activists’ unwillingness to take a strong stand combined with the still low-level of organization among the residents of the encampment meant that we were unable to mount an effective resistance to this eviction. Equally significant was that no RUF members could be present to provide revolutionary leadership to the resistance and unite those who were wavering in the moment.
In the face of an eviction under the oversight of the police, it is necessary to mount a serious and militant opposition. In the previous issue of Red Star, we described how it only took a minute or so of chanting and protesting to drive away the police when they came to evict an encampment. This was in large part because RUF members and the residents of the encampment directly confronted them, chanting “Hell No We Won’t Go.” Even people who were uncertain about fighting the eviction joined in when they saw the strong showing of resistance.
In contrast, during this eviction at the park, only a few people were ready to resist, and without a larger unified resistance, those who were less certain did not join in the fight. Therefore, the police and DPW were able to evict people with relative ease.
Oakland DPW used machines like this to indiscriminately destroy the few possessions that the residents of the park had.
One resident of the encampment wondered why the DPW workers were so “gung ho” about trashing people’s stuff. He noted that they got paid by the hour, so there was no rush, and they could have let people move their stuff without trouble. However, some of the younger workers in particular seemed to enjoy destroying people’s shelters and throwing away what few belongings they had. He thought that some of them must have internalized all the anti-homeless propaganda that the wealthy spread to justify their evictions and “development” policies. Only after some residents protested, did the DPW agree to let some people move what remained of their property to the new site across the field.
A city official claimed that the move was to make room for summer youth athletic programs but residents were relocated even closer to where youth teams practice. While the City of Oakland put down some k-rails (concrete barriers) to protect residents from traffic and installed a single porta potty (to serve over fifteen people), the new location is smaller, more vulnerable to the elements, and puts them at risk of being hit by oncoming traffic.
As residents began to settle into their new location, other officers from the Oakland Police department showed up and warned the residents that they weren’t supposed to be there. They threatened them, saying that they would soon be evicted from this location, despite the fact that city officials had posted notices of the relocation. Plain-clothed officers took photos of the homeless people, trying to intimidate them. A couple days later an officer approached a man camped in this new location. He told the resident, “Next month, you all are gonna be moved out of here.”
How to Advance the Struggle from Here
The eviction at the park was a significant setback. We were not able to mount an effective resistance to prevent the eviction, and many people in the encampment had their possessions and shelters destroyed. However, despite these setbacks, the struggle is not over; it continues and based on the threats from the pigs, it seems likely that there will be another eviction attempt relatively soon. Through summing up our failures, we can learn from our mistakes and do better in the future. As the saying goes, “a fall in a pit, a gain in your wit.”
In order to prevent future evictions and win more victories in the struggle we need to strengthen and develop the organizations at all levels. In RUF we need to work better together to ensure that when the next eviction comes, we can have a number of members there, ready to lead the struggle and rally people to resist. We also need to advance the organization among those at the park. We can clarify the need to resist through talking with folks about the most recent eviction, as well as discussing the larger social issues that lead to homelessness and displacement. We must also work more closely with those at the park who are already serious about resisting eviction. They know the lay of the land and can help us figure out who in the park will be most likely to join in the struggle. They can also take the lead in developing stronger ties between the resistance in the park and folks at the nearby encampment.
*RUF has been working to link up the struggles in West Oakland with other anti-displacement struggles like the one at People’s Park in Berkley. *
Additionally, we need to strengthen the Bay Area united front against displacement. There were over fifteen activists from this group who were supposed to show up to stop the eviction. Only two did. This speaks to the dominance of liberal politics and individualism within many organizations in this united front. We need to identify who among these people are serious about the struggle, and which people and groups are consolidated to a charity and non-profit approach. The former we can work with in a big way; the latter will be unwilling to do much beyond the typical “call your elected representative” and “give some food to the homeless” initiatives. While we can continue to work with them on some basis, we can’t rely on them to show up to stop an eviction, or for other serious matters.
Another way that we can struggle against liberal tendencies within this united front is by further linking it up with other anti-displacement struggles across the Bay Area. We have already begun to develop ties with these struggles in Berkeley and San Fransisco. However, we need to strengthen these ties by both advancing the movement in these locations and demonstrating the basis to join up with struggles in other areas.
Throughout all of this, we must put revolutionary politics front and center and expose how homelessness and pauperisation of the masses are an inevitable result of capitalist development. By doing so we will expose people to the fact that revolution is ultimately needed to resolve the problems that they face in this capitalist society. We can and must sum up our mistakes, strengthen our organization, struggle against liberalism, have confidence in the masses of people, unite all those who can be united, and put the need for revolution front and center. If we do all of this we will surely advance the struggle against displacement in the Bay Area, which is itself part of the revolutionary movement in this country and the larger revolutionary movement around the world.
Through consistent protests at the Oakland Mayor’s office, we got the city to back-off evictions in the past. Similar demonstrations will be needed in the future.