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Money For Militarized Evictions, But Not For Homes

Moms 4 Housing made a home for their families in a vacant house in Oakland. Yesterday, police in tanks and riot gear evicted them.

Moms 4 Housing supporters in front of the Oakland homeJane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images)

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In political discourse, hypocrisy abounds around the importance of children and the sanctity of families. In Oakland, over the past two months, a few mothers engaged in what might be seen as a basic act of love for their children — they found them a home. Yesterday, they were forced out of that home by police officers who arrived in an armored tank.

One of the mothers, Dominique Walker, had fled intimate partner violence in Mississippi, traveling back to Oakland, her hometown, with her two children in April. Walker, an organizer since her high school days, found a full-time job as well as a part-time job. Priced out of Oakland’s real estate market, she tried living with family members, who had all been pushed far from the city, but this involved hours of commuting and living on couches. The hardest part, she told Marisa Endicott of Mother Jones, was that her children didn’t have their own space and constantly had to move. “My children weren’t able to really be free.”

The situation in Oakland, as in the rest of California, is dire. The unhoused population has increased by 47 percent in the last two years, according to data published in July. Elaine de Coligny, the head of the organization that spearheads the county’s homeless census, EveryOneHome, told Mercury News that for every homeless person who found housing in the county another three people were becoming homeless. Black people make up only 25 percent of Oakland’s total population but are 70 percent of the unhoused. Across California, over 150,000 are without shelter.

Bryan Schatz wrote in Mother Jones in its March/April 2018 Issue: “The right to adequate housing—not just four walls and a roof, but ‘a safe and secure home and community in which to live in peace and dignity’—is decreed by the United Nations, but you wouldn’t know it by looking around California, where nearly a quarter of the nation’s homeless people live. The housing crisis is often described as a shortage, the only solution being that we build our way out of it. But for every American living on the street, there are 13 empty, off-market units. In Oakland, where buyers routinely offer hundreds of thousands of dollars over asking prices, there are nearly four vacant properties for every homeless person. It’s not so much an issue of scarcity, but of distribution.”

Walker and another mother discovered a vacant home in West Oakland and decided to move in and make it their own. They had learned that the home had been bought at a foreclosure auction by Wedgewood Property Management, a company that specializes in “flipping” houses — calling itself, Mother Jones noted, “a ‘leading acquirer of distressed residential real estate.’” Companies like Wedgewood, housing advocates have long alleged, contribute to a lack of affordable housing. The house had been vacant for two years.

The mothers made the house on Magnolia Avenue a home. “They washed the walls, installed a water heater, hauled their kids’ bunk beds upstairs and appointed the living room with a mix of plants and soft furniture,” wrote Conor Dougherty in the New York Times today. “They paid the water and electric bills.” They did this, knowing that they might not stay long. On Democracy Now!, Walker described the month they had lived there as a victory. Her children had thrived with the experience of some stability, she said. Her 1-year-old had taken his first steps.

But Walker and the other Moms 4 Housing mothers also wanted to draw attention to Oakland’s crisis and how it affects families besides their own. They went to court in December, and argued for a right to stay in the house. They argued that housing, rather than being treated as a commodity, should be viewed as a human right.

The ask has not been that Wedgewood simply give away the house. City Council members had asked Wedgewood to sell the house to a Community Land Trust, so that it could be used as affordable housing. Wedgewood refused to negotiate, saying that the city council members were encouraging “criminal activity.” It offered, instead, to transfer the families to shelters for two months.

Last week, a housing court judge ruled against Walker and the other mothers, saying they had no right to remain in the home. The judge recognized, in one sentence of the one-page decision, international arguments about the right to housing but said the court was not the right forum for those arguments. He issued an eviction notice and ordered that the eviction take place within the next five days.

On Monday, community residents mobilized in support of the mothers. A crowd of about 50 gathered on the street. That night, when word spread that sheriff’s deputies might be on the way to carry out the eviction, hundreds gathered.

The next morning, Dominique Walker and Carroll Fife, of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, went on Democracy Now! to talk about their home, case, and cause. In response to a question about what it meant to her to see community support mobilize so quickly and completely, Walker said, “Last night was amazing. It just showed me that it’s still Oakland. We’re still Oakland. We are a town of resistance and we fight back and we saw our community have our full backs. Within 15 minutes, there were over , I think, 300 people mobilized, in 15 minutes. That’s people power.”

Walker also talked about what the house, and the fight for it, has been to her and her family.

“It’s just been amazing to have a shelter for my children and to be this example for them. People always ask me, there’s children involved, and I want my children to know their mother was on the right side of history.”

It was while Walker and Fife were on the show that word came of the sheriff’s deputies arriving at the house.

“Squads of sheriff’s deputies in military fatigues and riot gear arrived just before dawn Tuesday outside the old three-bedroom house on Magnolia Street in West Oakland, Calif,” wrote Katie Shepherd in the Washington Post (it appears the children had been moved out of the house the day before). “A BearCat armored vehicle rolled down the still-sleepy residential street. Officers broke through the reinforced front door with a battering ram and sent a small, camera-equipped robot into the home to check for any potential threats.”

There has been an outpouring of condemnation since from Oakland community advocates and officials.

“They came in like an army for mothers and babies,” Walker said at a press conference just after the eviction. “This movement is just beginning, and we see what we’re up against, but we also see what they’re afraid of. They’re afraid of us mobilizing over 300 people in 15 minutes.”

She continued: “If you’re not angry, you should get angry that our tax dollars went to this extreme force to evict mothers and children.”

A sheriff’s office spokesperson characterized the eviction’s mission as keeping things “simple,” “non-confrontational,” and as “low-key as possible.” He noted that it had cost tens of thousands of dollars, and the city could send Wedgewood the bill. Presumably, those tens of thousands of dollars exceed the money the company was willing to spend on sending the mothers and their families to a shelter.

Community organizations have been trying to draw attention to a bloated sheriff’s budget and misplaced budgetary priorities in Alameda County for some time. The sheriff’s office budget, under Sheriff Greg Ahern, was $443 million in 2019. The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights has been calling for an audit of the office. Alameda County’s jail population is half of what it was a decade ago, yet the sheriff’s office’s budget is $144 million more than it was at that time.

At the same time, the Santa Rita jail, run by Sheriff Ahern’s office, has been described as “the most dangerous place in Alameda County” in the East Bay Express and has been reported to have had the highest death rate of any Bay Area jail system. Ahern has blamed a lack of funding for the dangerous conditions in the jail he runs. (Santa Rita jail is also where the mothers, and two supporters, arrested yesterday were taken. They were later released.)

Last March, state senator Nancy Skinner, prompted by concerns over jail conditions and the report of a woman giving birth alone in her jail cell, wrote to the county board of supervisors, calling for an audit of Ahern’s office.

In its report, the Ella Baker Center looked at a few of the urgent needs, including housing, that could be addressed with some of the hundreds of millions currently going to the sheriff’s office.

“100,000 would provide 1,000 HIV tests in community-based clinics. $1.3M would provide after-school programming to 1,000 students for 1 year. $27.8M would house over 1000 individuals in a market-rate apartment for a year. $10M would house 300 of Alameda County’s poorest families for a year in a subsidized apartment,” according to the report.

The eviction Tuesday morning showcased an asymmetry in resources — on one side, the mothers who had moved into an empty home to provide their families a few months of stability; on the other, a sheriff’s department with the money to spend on driving armored vehicles down residential streets.

On both sides of this debate, people have deployed the language of crime and criminality. Wedgewood’s spokesperson referred to the moms as “criminals.” Condemning the police’s militarized response, Oakland’s mayor, Libby Schaaf, said, “These are mothers. They are not criminals.”

Speaking to Mother Jones last year, Walker described the crisis she sees and is experiencing: “It should be illegal to have vacant houses and have people sleeping on the streets. I feel like there’s a moral crisis. There’s a profiteering crisis…I think that’s where the crime lies.”