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West Oakland’s class warfare

March 3, 2018

by Kheven LaGrone

Lee, manager of a section of the large encampment at the north end of Wood Street in West Oakland, had just lost his home and all his belongings in a fire that took the Oakland Fire Department a half hour to respond to in this January 2017 photo. – Photo: Walter Thompson, Hoodline

Oakland’s gentrification was supposed to benefit all Oakland residents; instead, gentrification displaced many of Oakland’s most vulnerable citizens. This gentrification caters to young outsiders with money. In order to attract gentrifiers, businesses opened that attracted and catered to them. As a neighborhood became more popular with gentrifiers, current residents, usually African Americans, had to be removed to make room for the gentrifiers. For example, some landlords illegally evicted long-time tenants in order to collect higher rent from gentrifiers.

However, Oakland’s gentrification may be failing because no one made plans for the displacement of the displaced people. So they live in homeless encampments visible throughout the city. Seeing these encampments, alongside the gentrifiers’ displays of privilege, highlights the inequality of Oakland’s gentrification.

Public records showed that this led to class warfare in West Oakland between the gentrifiers and the neighboring homeless encampment. The class war got little, if any, media attention. The area was Castro, Brush, Market, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Streets. The records were emails between the City of Oakland and the gentrifiers. The homeless did not have access to those emails. Thus, the gentrifiers had the power to define the class warfare and make direct demands on the City of Oakland; the emails also gave them the power to render their homeless neighbors as faceless and nameless.

The email class warfare included two businesses. One was the Kinetic Arts Center (KAC). According to its mission statement, “Kinetic Arts Center creates innovative and dynamic circus culture through exceptional classes, training and performance.”

Another business was Angel Cakes. Angel Cakes is a cupcake shop. According to their website, they’ll create “the perfect flavor and design combination for your event – from intimate birthday parties to wedding, baby showers, nonprofit fundraisers and corporate galas.” Customers could also drop in to buy fancy cupcakes.

In order to patronize these businesses, one must be privileged to have disposable money for such luxuries. In contrast, their homeless neighbors don’t even have money to pay for their most basic necessities.

Oakland’s gentrification may be failing because no one made plans for the displacement of the displaced people. So they live in homeless encampments visible throughout the city. Seeing these encampments, alongside the gentrifiers’ displays of privilege, highlights the inequality of Oakland’s gentrification.

No emails told us what a person living in a tent thought or felt while watching parents pay to have their kids in circus classes. However, the businesses did email about direct confrontations between them and the homeless community. On July 27, 2017, Kinetic Arts Center emailed the City: “Last night a homeless person from the encampment violently verbally accosted one of my employees while he was trying to lockup because my employee wouldn’t let the homeless person in to get water (which of course this person is not paying for).”

Angel Cakes sent an email in response stating: “We also had a problem on Friday where one of the tent residents who was obviously really high on something, kept coming in our store and bothering customers and staff about every 30 minutes between noon and 7pm on Friday. We called Fire/EMS to help him, but he refused service and it was super stressful.” Had the homeless man watched customers pass him to casually buy expensive cupcakes while he starved? His concerns seemed not to be medical. Did Angel Cakes ask or did they simply want him removed?

There were no emails from the homeless people to tell their sides of the confrontations. How did they feel being homeless among showy privilege?

The gentrifiers used the power of the Internet to organize and make demands on the City. These emails were often vicious and divisive. For example, on July 13, 2017, Kinetic Arts Center wrote:

“As a result of the trash piles and camps, the rats have migrated over to and are so bad at Kinetic Arts Center now (and at surrounding business) we are catching 6 a night! We have children here all day long at camp and in the middle of the day they are just hanging around next to the garden where the kids have their lunch.

“How do we deal with this? I am fast losing patience not to mention how depressing and dangerous it is working next to dangerous people who don’t care about living next to writhing garbage piles.”

Then on July 19, 2017, KAC wrote: “I am considering publishing a letter to my clients with a list of ways they help us all mitigate the problem including asking them to spread the word not to leave castoffs with the homeless as a gesture of kindness.”

There were no emails from the homeless people to tell their sides of the confrontations. How did they feel being homeless among showy privilege?

Then on Aug. 18, 2017, KAC wrote to the City, “When can we get these homeless moved? Please.”

This was an unfair vilification of the homeless. People in the encampments want a clean, safe environment. They are terrorized by the violence – and have only tents for shelter. They cannot control the trash outsiders dump near them. They complain about rats. Unlike her customers, the homeless do not have the privilege of leaving. If they had the money, they would move to a home.

KAC’s depiction of the homeless differs from the experiences with the Auset Movement. At least every month, the Auset Movement feed people in several encampments. They ask encampment residents what they need. The residents always ask for cleaning supplies, such as brooms and garbage bags. They especially ask for lots and lots of bleach.

Many times, gentrifiers prefaced their attacks with proclamations of sympathy. For example, in a Nov. 27, 2017, email to Rebecca Chekouras of the upscale Phoenix Lofts, the City acknowledged that she and many others opposed the Outdoor Navigation Center – which the City of Oakland meant to help the homeless. Chekouras responded the next day with an email to the City that included:

“I worked for several years with the Homeless Advocacy Project of the Bar Association of San Francisco. While I don’t claim any special expertise, I may understand some things better than the average citizen. I have some appreciation for how the stress of homelessness impacts an individual psyche. Owning tangible goods – a dresser, a couch – means something. Piling these abandoned items around a disheveled tent can sometimes provide a barrier against a hostile environment and enhance a feeling of safety. It’s understandable. But that doesn’t mean we need to accept it [emphasis added].”

Later, she demanded that the City ban the tents that provided the homeless with a small sense of security and protection.

In fact, the gentrifiers’ newsletter titled the “6th and Brush Street Homeless Neighborhood Newsletter” almost seemed to declare war between them and the homeless. Its very divisive mission “is to keep everyone informed about the current impact of our neighborhood homeless on our neighborhood. The intention is to, at the very least, make the non-homeless residents feel like someone is listening to us.” The newsletter’s role was to empower the gentrifiers by organizing and unifying them.

The gentrifiers’ newsletter titled the “6th and Brush Street Homeless Neighborhood Newsletter” almost seemed to declare war between them and the homeless.

Whatever the newsletter promoted, the City must not listen just to the “non-homeless”; the City must listen to the homeless as well. After all, the homeless people are citizens and residents of the City of Oakland. Many of them were born and raised in Oakland. They are entitled to the same protections as the people who the newsletter called “non-homeless.”

The newsletter even concluded: “We want the homeless gone from this neighborhood. It’s time for this neighborhood of homeless to be some other Oakland resident’s problem for awhile. We’ve done our time. Please move them to Montclair where those residents have far more resources than we do to pay for the water, and the garbage pick up, and the rat extermination.”

(According to an Aug. 1, 2017, email to the City, the managing director of Kinetic Arts Center is also the self-appointed editor-in-chief of the newsletter.)

The newsletter escalated the West Oakland class war. So which side must the City of Oakland take? Why isn’t this class warfare getting more media attention?

Kheven LaGrone, activist, writer, artist and curator, can be reached at kheven@aol.com.

4 thoughts on “West Oakland’s class warfare

  1. Will

    “As a neighborhood became more popular with gentrifiers, current residents, usually African Americans, had to be removed to make room for the gentrifiers.” We need to start calling gentrification what it is, ethnic(racial) cleansing. This is not “class” warfare.

    Reply
  2. H. D.

    I remember seeing the art on the kinetic arts center as a child, they’ve been there forever. This article was written by a clueless, delusional socal justice warrior with no connection to Oakland. Chastising and blaming a business rooted in Oakland for managing to capitalize on an economic boom. Homeless people have phones and internet like the rest of us, they can email. I’d be annoyed too if people were harassing my customers.

    Trash article.

    Reply

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