Carroll Fife’s Fight For Unhoused Mothers Sparked A Movement Across The Country. Now She’s On The Oakland City Council Ready To Transform The City.
Fife has pledged to reinvest in the local community, aggressively combat the housing crisis, address income inequality, education, healthcare and more.
Eoin Higgins Nov 09, 2020
A year ago, Carroll Fife helped a group of homeless mothers take control of a vacant home in West Oakland as part of a grassroots effort to show that housing should be a basic “human right.” That protest—and the city’s controversial response to it—propelled Fife into the national spotlight and on Monday, following a concession from her opponent, incumbent City Council member Lynette Gibson McElhaney, the longtime activist took another step in her fight against inequality: election to the City Council.
Fife won her bid for the council after running on a broad platform promising to address injustice and racial inequities across the city. The platform was part of what she described to The Appeal in October as a long overdue program of dismantling systems of racial oppression that have lingered in America for decades since the civil rights movement.
“My perspective of the U.S. is this country has never atoned for the original sin of having people enslaved and used as property,” said Fife, executive director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment Oakland. “Everything we’re experiencing today is a result of not addressing that.”
Fife’s platform pushed back on the institutional barriers to Black people that come from a history of oppression. Last November, that pushback was evident in her work with the Moms 4 Housing movement that led to the two-month occupation of the vacant house in Oakland. That protest, which spurred similar occupations in Los Angeles and San Francisco, ended in January after sheriff’s deputies evicted the women. Moms 4 Housing ultimately reached an agreement with the property’s owner, however, that allowed them to move back in.
Cat Brooks, a 2018 mayoral candidate and co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, praised Fife as one of the city’s fiercest campaigners and said her City Council campaign was a chance to capitalize on the work done by local activists for years. Fife has the “right platform and the right message” for the current moment, said Brooks, and her policy priorities reflect a realistic response to the challenges faced by Oaklanders and the country as a whole.
“The radical is rational, that’s something I’ve been saying since 2018,” Brooks told The Appeal. “Radical infers something so far out there and crazy and not doable, not feasible.”
What’s radical instead, said Brooks, is that in the richest state in the richest country in the world, there are people who are on the streets and in need of housing, shelter, and food. The solutions proposed by Fife, on the other hand, are “humane, compassionate, rational, and feasible,” Brooks said.
“Socially, morally, and fiscally—the things that we’re talking about are rational and what make sense,” Brooks said.
Fife also ran on defunding the police and reinvesting in the local community, aggressively combating the housing crisis, taxing the rich, and the Black New Deal—a series of programs that include changes to California’s housing and policing crises as well as addressing income inequality, education, and healthcare.
Although Fife is motivated by undoing the harm of racial injustice toward Black Oaklanders, her policies will help everyone in the city, she told The Appeal. “I believe in equity,” Fife said. “And I believe in making sure people have what they need in order to thrive so everyone is OK.”
A longtime housing advocate, Fife wants to undo the effects of historic racism in California housing policy which have affected Black residents more than other groups. And with 70 percent of Oakland’s unsheltered population Black—in a city where Black residents only make up around a quarter of the people—there is still a lot of work to do, she said. Step one is ending the commodification of housing which has led to a speculator’s market in the city.
“My perspectives around getting speculators out of our city and decommodifying housing work for everyone,” she said. “Unless you’re a speculator.”
Watching her friends and neighbors “fighting just to exist” played into the decision to run, she told The Appeal, because there was space to help them in the halls of power rather than the street. “I know way too many people who’ve been beaten and broken, who are just trying to live a decent life,” Fife said. “They don’t have representation. They don’t have people standing up for them. And so I wanted to help.”
There are so many stories around housing and police brutality that “illustrate that the system does not work,” Fife said.
Defunding the police could help address those issues. Although it is seen as a fringe position in media and establishment politics, the policy, said Fife, is a matter of practicality. The department’s $302 million budget gobbles up nearly half of the city’s general appropriations fund, and residents aren’t seeing any benefit to that level of spending.
“We just don’t have any evidence that it’s actually giving us back the type returns that one might think with that investment,” Fife said.
“What is the purpose if they don’t come when you call, and they don’t solve incidents after they occur, and if they’re in the process of engaging in illegal activity—such as harassing Black folks, trafficking young women in the sex trade, planting drugs, and killing people,” Fife said. “What are we paying for?”
Dropping the budget by 25 percent and reinvesting that money into community initiatives would change things—rather than relying on reformist policies that, in Fife’s mind, provide little in the way of actually solving problems. Tifanei Ressl-Moyer, the Thurgood Marshall civil rights fellow at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, agreed.
“I think that she’s right when she describes this kind of reform not working,” Ressl-Moyer said. “That’s rooted in truth, it’s rooted in facts, and it’s rooted in history.”
Oakland residents have been pushing back against the oppressive nature of American policing, and the city’s department has earned that pressure, Ressl-Moyer said. Defunding makes sense, she continued, because people suffering in different aspects of life—be it housing, mental health issues, access to jobs and income—don’t have the necessary, adequate services on hand to help.
“The city budget is bloated for law enforcement and continually diminishes for health and housing services,” Ressl-Moyer said. “Pulling funding away from policing and into housing is logical and not at all a radical idea.”
Brooks told The Appeal that what’s happening in Oakland at the activist level is part of a nationwide effort by progressives to reclaim the Democratic Party for the left. Challenging establishment party figures, said Brooks, is the logical next step for activists who have seen their goals frustrated at the political level.
“People with a history of being frontline organizers and advocates are moving their work into the halls of power to effect policy change in places where organizers haven’t necessarily been able to get the goods,” Brooks said.
Although many progressives have given up on the Democratic Party, the reality of the American system doesn’t leave a lot of other options, Brooks said. That has led to organizing to the left of the party and stopped progressives from engaging with power.
“The Fife campaign is a perfect example of that at the local level,” said Brooks.
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