This article documents one RUF comrade’s visit to the Bay Area, and his involvement in the struggle there against gentrification and displacement at a homeless encampment there. Other comrades have been organizing among the homeless and working-class population in the area for months. Through joining with the people in struggle they have been able to prevent many from being evicted, and mobilize the people in the struggle.
I recently traveled out to the Bay Area to see the work that some comrades in the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) were doing. For a number of months they have been doing outreach among the homeless community in West Oakland. Like many other places in country, the Bay Area is in the midst of a man-made crisis of displacement and homelessness. Money is flowing into the area, and a few wealthy bankers, city officials, and developers are making profits hand-over-fist. This accumulation of wealth comes at the expense of poor and working folks throughout the area, who are being pushed down and out by rising rents and disappearing jobs. This has led to a situation where 55,000 people are homeless in the Bay Area, if not more.
While many non-profit organizations and government bodies pretend to care about the homeless, the reality is that the vast majority of homeless people are left out to die. In this context there is a real urgent need to bring people together, get organized, and fight back. And that’s exactly what comrades in RUF are doing. I was lucky enough to get to participate in these efforts first hand and see the amazing work being done.
Before getting into the struggle itself, I want to step back and talk about the larger situation in the Bay Area. This context is important because it helps to clarify the significance of the struggle. It used to be that the area was a hotbed of manufacturing and shipping in the country. This was particularly true during and after WWII, when a lot of industrial development took place in the area and many Black folks migrated there from the South, seeking to escape the racism of the Jim Crow South, only to find a different form of white supremacy in the urban ghettos of the North. While the industry in the area provided employment to many, employment under capitalism is a brutal form of exploitation where poor people are forced to work long, hard hours in dangerous conditions for the enrichment of the few. Thus, many who fled the terror of the Klan in the South found new oppressive forces in the factory owners, foreman, police, and other white supremacist forces. And while Black and Latino working class people often faced the most difficult conditions, their white working-class brothers and sisters were often not much better off.
A map of one of the city of Oakland’s gentrification plans with the site of the struggle marked with a red star.
As the boom died down in the post-war period, the Bay Area and San Fransisco in particular underwent a period of “Urban Renewal.” This term is really a euphemism for the displacement of working-class people and poor communities for the benefit of the rich and wealthy. Basically, as factories and related industries closed down, the city government worked to replace them with commercial enterprises (which employ fewer people), luxury apartments, and various office buildings that employ wealthy and middle class people—instead of the working class folks who had previously worked in the city. With these efforts come the corresponding rise in rents, crackdowns by police, evictions, and gentrification. Urban Renewal initiatives left many jobless and pushed the area’s poorer residents further from the downtown areas, which were increasingly transformed into playgrounds for the rich.
In many senses, this is a process which continues to this day. Especially in the wake of the Black Power movement and the political struggles of the 1960s and 70s, capitalists sought to move their factories overseas and to other locations in the US without a legacy of revolutionary struggles. They felt that it hurt their profit margin to have their factories in places like the Bay Area and Detroit which had a long-standing history of revolutionary struggle and union organizing.
A similar process took place in many industrial cities around the country. As a result of this, poor folks in cities all across the country were forced into even more dire circumstances, unemployment rose drastically, and more and more people were forced to increasingly rely on various limited and inadequate government welfare programs just to meet ends meet. These programs themselves have come under increasing attacks and faced so many cutbacks that many poor people who are in the most desperate conditions do not even qualify for assistance.
As part of the ongoing process of “Urban Renewal” in major cities and the Federal initiative for the “Deconcentration of Poverty”—a racist scheme aimed at destroying Black and Latino neighborhoods—millions of poor people have been displaced from cities all across the country. To replace the manufacturing and industry that left cities like San Fransisco and Oakland, politicians and capitalists have worked to transform these urban centers into commercial cities full of middle-class office workers with a lot of disposable income.
This is particularly clear in the Bay Area where countless start-ups and Biotech companies have sprouted up. This has led to a big influx of tech workers who make hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. With this has come a huge real-estate bubble that has driven up the cost of housing to astronomical levels. Those working people “lucky” enough to be employed—and therefore work hard for the enrichment of some capitalists—have had to move farther and farther from the urban center. It is increasingly common for working people to have to commute several hours to work each day.
Many people at the encampment live in vehicles, and the location provides them with safety from towing and costly tickets.
And while the developers, banks, and politicians have driven most working class people from the city, they still need some of them to work there in various service level and minimum wage jobs. This sort of employment is essential in cities that are increasingly becoming playgrounds for the rich.
As part of this whole process known as capitalist development, many poor folks have been left out in the cold, both metaphorically and literally. While the rich get richer, the poor are left with fewer and fewer scraps. And many have been driven out of their homes and onto the streets. The crisis is particularly acute in the Bay Area. And it was in the context of one of the worst homelessness crises in the country that I traveled to West Oakland.
My comrades in the area had been working hard doing outreach to various homeless encampments in the area for a few months. They had begun to link up with folks in one section of West Oakland in particular. This spot, right by the freeway, and nearby an old railway station had a few hundred people living in a few block radius. There were a number of vacants and semi-repurposed old industrial buildings in the area, the decaying skeletons of the industry of years past. The industries which occupied these buildings—which employed and exploited the working people of the area—have left. They outsourced their production to other sections of the country or overseas. In their place, the city of Oakland plans to build a “high intensity Biotech campus.” In short, a mix of office workplaces for middle class tech workers and capitalists as well as the associated commercial playground for them to spend their substantial income on over-priced health foods, new-age healing quackery, and expensive micro-brewed beers made by their fellow hipsters.
The major obstacle to such “luxurious” forms of “Urban Renewal” are a few hundred homeless people living in the area. Some folks live in shelters and tents they had set up around a park with a baseball field. These shelters are often makeshift (although one made by an El Salvadorian carpenter was sturdy and a testament to his knowledge of his trade) and provide folks with little more than some basic shelter from the elements.
Folks slept in tents, in makeshift lean-tos made with tarps, and I even saw one guy sleeping on a old beat up couch outdoors with little more than cardboard to cover him. A number of other people were set up in RVs and cars parked around the park. Many of the folks living out of their vehicles can never stay in one spot for more than a day or two. The city has an extensive police force which constantly harasses them and forces them to move or risk losing their vehicles and every-thing in them. For many this can be a life or death struggle; they keep most of their stuff in their cars and RVs.
At this particular spot, many people had vehicles in need of expensive repairs before they could move, and had set up in this area because it had provided—at least temporarily—a respite from harassment by the pigs. Given this relatively stability many people had set up some of their things around their RVs. Others had built small structures next to their vehicles for their dogs, and set up chairs and couches so that they could sit outside during the day.
A block from the park was a larger encampment. This was set up on a group of connected vacant lots by the train tracks and freeway overpasses. Some folks here had RVs and vehicles on site, and others had set up shelters of one sort or another. One guy even had a San Fransisco Municipal Bus (in pretty good condition) that he lived in. Around the Muni bus and a few other RVs he and others had built up a rock wall.
Others lived in more makeshift structures or beat up old vehicles. A few burnt out cars without wheels were scattered throughout the encampment. I would later learn that tweakers who live under the freeway overpass will sometimes set people’s cars on fire in the middle of the night. In other places there are larger collections of stuff, including trash. The city provides no regular garbage collection to the encampment so people don’t have a way to get rid of their trash. Nearby businesses and even random people in trucks sometimes show up in the middle of night and try to dump their trash in the encampment. Sometimes they are driven off by the residents of the encampment, but sometimes they manage to dump the trash and then the homeless get blamed for being messy.
On my first day on the West Coast I went through the park with my comrades and they introduced me and another comrade from the East Coast to folks in the encampment and around the park. I was struck by how many homeless people in the area work regular jobs. Many are able to find at least some part-time employment, but this is not enough to cover the cost of an apartment in the Bay Area. In fact, even a full-time working-class job generally doesn’t provide enough income to pay the bills. When I first met Tommy, the carpenter from El Salvador, he told me about how he works a few days a week, doing skilled labor, and still can’t afford to pay rent in the area. Many people in the area and across the country are in a similar situation.
Tommy (second from right) with some friends at the park where he lives.
Tommy is a funny and articulate guy; he has seen some stuff in his life, but despite (or maybe because of) the struggles he has been through, he is kind and generous. Like many other homeless folks in the area, he also has some friends who have housing—for now—and stop by to catch up with him most afternoons.
My comrades had linked up with Tommy early on and worked with him on a petition aimed at uniting homeless folks around the park in resistance to their impend-ing displacement. They also met up with Larry who lives right next to Tommy in the park. In order to go forward with developing the Biotech buildings, luxury apartments, and upscale commercial shops, the City of Oakland first needs to displace the homeless people living in the area. Through talking with Tommy, Larry, and others in the area, my comrades had gained an understanding of the contra-dictions among the people there as well as the contra-dictions they had with the city and the developers. Weeks of discussions and meetings had helped them understand these issues and demonstrate their political conviction to the homeless folks in the area.
This is particularly important because there are a series of predatory non-profits and charity type organizations in the Bay Area. While these groups claim to want to help the homeless (and sometimes they have well-intentioned members), they generally maintain parasitic relations with people living on the streets. This is because these non-profits operate on the basis of conditional funding from big capitalist run organizations like the Ford and Rockefeller foundations.
These non-profits rely on these capitalist organiza-tions and government grants for their funding, and there-fore can’t get too radical with their political approach with-out losing their source of income. So, they keep the homeless at arms-length, and look to find a few that they can bring out for photo-ops to support one political candidate or another.
This was particularly clear when these groups came to the encampment. They would generally bring some food or other supplies to hand out, but they were generally afraid of venturing into the encampment or even getting too close to the people living there. My impression was that most homeless people in the area had a sense of what these non-profit groups were about, and so it was important for my comrades to clarify that they were trying to do something different.
Making posters with people in the encampment has been a key way to talk about obstacles in the struggle and how to fight back.
What do I mean by this? They weren’t there to hand out a few bags of food and pat themselves on the back for a job well done. And they weren’t trying to funnel people into the latest dead-end ballot initiative for a minor reform to a major problem. Instead, they were intent on going among the people, talking with them on an ongoing basis, hearing what they had to say, and working with people to bring them together in collective struggle against displacement.
Based on our initial conversations, it was clear to me that my comrades had a deep understanding of the situation at the park and the encampment. They had clearly learned, through discussions with Tommy, Larry, and many others, about some of the key issues that kept the homeless folks in the area from uniting in struggle for their common interests. And they saw that if the people didn’t work through these contradictions, not even the imminent threat of dis-placement at the hands of the police and city workers would be enough to unite them in resistance. So, while the people in the area have a shared enemy who is working hard to drive them from the area, and potentially even to their deaths, without working through the things that keep the people from uniting, they would not be able to support each other in the struggle.
Some basic things that divided the people in the area included people’s assumptions that they were better off than those around them. It was striking to see how even some homeless people can believe the vicious anti-homeless propagan-da spread by developers, tech capitalists, city officials, and other pigs. Even people living in very desperate conditions would convince themselves at times that they were above working with, or even talking to the people around them.
But, things are complex, and it’s not just a matter of people looking down on those around them. Some folks in the area do hoard a lot of stuff, and make big messes that bring rats around. Rats spread disease, and nibble on people’s toes while they try to sleep. Other people steal stuff from those around them, or rip people off in one scam or another. Some people use drugs to one extent or another, but most people in the area are pretty lucid even if they have a low-level habit. In some cases people have even fought each other, and burned cars and structures. These are real contradictions that divide the people in the area. Some can be worked through by discussion, others issues are more severe and can’t be resolved right away through conversation.
By talking with a lot of folks, my comrades had a pretty good idea of these issues and what divided the people. They had learned from talking with the home-less people, and listening to what they had to say. Based on these conversations they had been working hard to resolve issues among the people so that they could unite in the struggle against displacement.
Despite these divisions, there was also some important and inspiring cooperation among the people in the area. For example, a number of tweakers live under a nearby freeway overpass. At night they come out and try to steal people’s stuff. At the encamp-ment on the vacant lot some folks coordinate guard duty, and do their best to make sure someone stays up at night to keep the tweakers away. On a more basic level, one of the older residents of the encamp-ment, C, uses a wheel chair to get around. Others in the area look out for him in different ways. For example, when a charity organization came by to drop off food one day, Jesse who lives next to C’s RV, made sure to bring some food over to him. I saw others helping C out too.
These forms of cooperation show that even in the most dire circumstances, where people are struggling each day to stay alive, they still work together and cooperate. It’s not just a dog-eat-dog world, despite what the pigs who run this country would like us to believe.
However, by themselves, these basic forms of cooperation are not strong enough to overcome the oppressors who are working to drive people from the area in the name of capitalist development. Instead, an organ-ized and conscious effort is need-ed to bring people together to cooperate in new ways.
Things came to a head my second day at the encampment. There had been word that the police were going to show up and try to evict people. So we got there early to rally people in opposition to the evictions. When we showed up, some folks were in a panicked state. The pigs had yet to arrive, but people were working hard to get their stuff out of the encampment. C has an old RV that he lives in, but it doesn’t run, so he had got Iyesha (who also lives in the encampment) to tow the vehicle out. But she was low on gas, his RV was stuck, and people were worried that the pigs were about to show up and smash everyone’s stuff. So tempers were flaring, and people were starting to turn on each other.
In this situation, even though we didn’t want folks to move their stuff out of the encampment, as they had no where else to go, we jumped into the mix to deescalate the brewing conflict and get people to work together. It’s worth speaking about this more. Folks at the encampment had received some posted notice telling them that they had to vacate the premises by that morning. The notice seems dubious, invalid, and illegal for a number of reasons, especially because a local business owner (known to be hostile to the homeless encampment) had been seen posting it. And even if it was a real notice, according to a recent 9th Circuit Court decision it is illegal to evict or even criminalize homeless people for living in an encampment, mobile unit, temporary structure, or tent if there are no spots open in the shelter system—which there are not. But, above and beyond all of the legal questions (because the corrupt and undemocratic government of this country breaks its own laws all the time), the power of the people united in struggle has the ability to overcome oppressors of all sorts, and win victories small and large.
My comrades and I share this view, so it might seem strange that, when we arrived at the encampment and saw people moving out, we helped them work together to tow the RV, among other things. Why didn’t we just tell people to stop moving their stuff, and get ready to protest and resist? In fact, we had conversations along those lines the day before, even with some folks who were then moving their stuff out of the encampment that morning. But, in the heat of the moment, facing the possibility of imminent eviction, people were panicking. If arrested they could lose what few possessions they have, either from the city destroying them or from someone stealing them. And even if not arrested, they faced the prospect of being driven from the encampment, where some had been living for months, with nowhere else to go.
So, instead of trying to debate the people who were panicking and getting short with each other, we jumped in and helped people work together to move C’s RV. This deescalated the situation and prevented the argument from turning into open hostility. This was key, because it provided the basis for folks to work together later on, when the police eventually did show up. But, before they arrived, a fencing company showed up. The encampment is set up on a lot separated from the road by a fence with a bunch of holes in it. People have set up shelters all along the fence, and the company had been called in to seal the holes and thereby keep people out of the lot.
Larry lives in the park and has been a key leader in the struggle.
I went over to talk to the guys from the fencing company when they showed up in their truck. The two workers in the truck were from Mexico, and after a bit of conversation in Spanish it became clear that they hadn’t been informed that the fence repair was for a lot that had an encampment in it, and no one had told them that the people in the encampment had set up shelters all along the fence.
In order to seal up the fence they would need to move all of the people living in these structures first. I told them that the people living there had nowhere else to go, and that if they were forced to leave the encampment many would lose what little they had, and some would likely die. I explained that the company who owned the lot wanted to build a big Biotech development there and commercial space for wealthy people. In order to do this, they needed to drive out the poor people living in the encampment. The driver of the truck told me that he knew what it was like to be poor, and that it was getting harder and harder each year to pay for rent. It seemed like he knew what it was like to live paycheck to paycheck, and how little separates most working people from homelessness and destitution. They called their supervisor and told him they didn’t want to seal up the fence with all the people living along it and in the encampment, and eventually got his approval to head out without repairing the fence. Before they drove away they wished us luck in the struggle.
Around this point, the pigs showed up. Six burly officers stepped from their vehicles and began to tell folks in the encampment that they had to leave. At first, some folks started to comply. The cops, assuming that we were non-profit type activists, initially ignored us. A few actual non-profit types had shown up that morning.
They stood nervously on the edge of the encampment, afraid to venture in and talk with folks. It seemed like their main goal was to hand out some pastries they had bought, and it was easy to see why the cops were in the habit of ignoring such “activists” who do little more than provide an occasional meal to a homeless person and lobby for minor legislative reforms.
These three frames show the confrontation with the police. When faced with the united protest of people in the encampment they quickly retreated.
While some residents of the encampment were initially willing to comply with the police, others were less than happy about being told to leave. Cam in particular was less than happy. He lives in the San Fransisco Muni bus on site, and he was woken up by a police office drumming his night stick on the windows and telling Cam to get out of the bus and leave the encampment. I had never met Cam before, but he made quite the impression that morning. He responded to this rude awakening by yelling that he had been a paramedic and “in fifteen years of emergency medicine, I have never once seen a police officer make ANY situation better. You pigs always make it worse!”
He yelled this a few more times, and pretty quickly others joined in. Phi, who lives in an RV with a back porch she made with some friends, came out and joined in the protest. She held a big sign attached to a cross that said “These roots have thorns.” She had come up with this slogan in discussion with comrades during the week prior, emphasizing that if the pigs tried to dig up the roots the people had laid in the encampment, they would have to reckon with the thorns too. Maeve, who lives along the fence with her dog Bacon, joined in too, repeatedly telling the police officers that they were breaking the law by trying to evict people and demanding to see legal documents justifying the eviction.
As all of this was unfolding, my comrades and I unfurled the signs we had and began chanting “Hell No! We won’t go!” About ten or so local pitbulls who live in the encampment joined in, barking and scratching at the windows of the RVs in which they live. The pigs were surprised and scared. Suddenly six burly police officers with night sticks and guns were surrounded by dogs, homeless people schooling them on the law, and some revolutionaries letting them know that we all weren’t going anywhere. C, who had previously been trying to get his RV out of the encampment had joined us at this point, as had others. The day prior, C had come up with an idea for a protest sign, “Though I walk through the valley of railroad conductor, they will pay hell trying to punch my ticket, for I do have the law.”
I think this summed up the situation pretty well. The police, faced with some significant organized resistance that they had not anticipated, hightailed it out of there. When I later watched the video of the confrontation with the police, I noticed the typical non-profit activists watching from the fence outside the encampment, afraid to join in the struggle.
Cam and Bulldog share their views on the police.
Afterwards, one of my comrades informed me that the standard operating procedure for the pigs is to show up at an encampment and without providing any documentation or real legal justification, just tell everyone that they need to leave. Then the pigs just post up and talk among themselves while people pack up their stuff and head out over a number of hours. So without even the most basic legal documents, the pigs are able to drive people from their shelters with the threat of violence and unlawful seizure of property. When some people do stand up and push back against this, a few burly police officers are generally able to crack some skulls and intimidate others into compliance. And the public generally doesn’t care too much if a few homeless people end up dead or in jail. The politicians and developers in the Bay Area know all of this, and use these tactics go forward with their ongoing capitalist development projects for the rich, the result of which is gentrification.
That’s why the resistance at this particular encampment is so significant. It is an example of the power of the people united in resistance to oppression. It’s quite something to see first hand. This world is full of oppression and exploitation, the rich get richer and the poor are pressed into more dire situations day by day, so it is inspiring to see that people, even in the most dire of circumstances can come together and fight back against their oppressors.
This one standoff with the pigs wasn’t the end of the struggle at this encampment, it was the beginning. In the days that followed I met many people and saw the folks in the area come together in new ways. We had a group meeting with folks to prepare for future eviction attempts, and this marked the first time that people in the encampment had come together in this manner to strategize on how to best fight back.
On even more basic levels, I witnessed an increased degree of cooperation among folks in the area. For example, Jesse was sick one day, in part from staying up all night on guard duty, and Phi, who had just met Jesse a few days before, made him some ginger tea to settle his stomach. People had begun to talk to each other more, and some of the previous barriers to discussion were breaking down.
Folks in the encampment also now had a better sense of what my comrades and I stood for. One resident, who had been standoffish to us in the past, explained in conversation that she hadn’t been sure what we were about, and had seen some other “activists” come around that weren’t so great.
Thelma encouraged me to film Anthony cooking so that people could see how homeless people are forced to live.
I couldn’t help but think of those non-profit folks who were so clearly afraid to even talk to most of the homeless people in the encampment. After the protest, Thelma, who lives out of her car stopped to talk with us. She had heard about the protest, and was hoping we could organize something similar with folks who lived in their vehicles around the park. I also met her brother Anthony who has been homeless for twenty years. He told me some harrowing stories about growing up in the South, including an early childhood memory of waking up to see a family member lynched outside his house. Others around the area also shared stories about their lives and struggles.
As part of the struggle, in less than a week on the West Coast, I had come to know many homeless folks in the area pretty well. After seeing the amazing work they were doing with my comrades in the area, I was sad to leave. There are many who I met during this trip who I did not have a chance to mention in this article, but the folks in the encampment and the surrounding area left a deep impression on me.
I saw first hand how brutal this capitalist system is. Its brutality is all around us, but in the encampment it was particularly evident. In order for the rich to keep getting richer, the poor need to get poorer and poorer. And, at certain point, the rich come to conclusion that there are too many of us uppity poor folks around. We outnumber them, and we pose a threat to them, so they figure out socially acceptable ways to drive people from their homes and even kill them. No one pulls the trigger when someone starves to death in an encampment, or when someone overdoses, or dies an early death from a life of poverty and exposure.
But seeing all this wasn’t the most significant thing about my trip. That was the struggle, the resistance, and the shining example of the power of the people that I saw and was part of during the few brief days I was in the Bay Area. On my flight back to the East Coast, I thought of all the people I had met in the encampment, of the tireless work that my comrades were doing to further the struggle, and of the enormous potential that the people have when we join together in the struggle. I could not help but remember the words that Marx and Engels wrote over 150 years ago: Working people of this world have nothing to lose but our chains, and world to win.