Moms 4 Housing: A Dramatic Eviction Revisited – The New York Review of Books

Posted: April 22, 2020 at 4:45 pm

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Philip Pacheco/AFP via Getty Images Carroll Fife, director of the Oakland chapter of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and a representative of Moms 4 Housing, in front of a homeless encampment in Oakland, California, January 28, 2020

In late February, before the Covid-19 lockdown confined me to the phone, I traveled to northern California to report on a growing movement against corporate housing speculation. The resulting story, Moms 4 Housing: Redefining the Right to a Home in Oakland, published by the Daily on March 9, was about a collective of African-American mothers who had occupied, and were then dramatically evicted from, a vacant house in the west of the city. Though the mothers later negotiated to buy the property with the help of a community land trust, their larger campaignfor the human right to housinghas only become more urgent with the Covid-19 pandemic.

At the time of publication, I was waiting on responses to several public information requestsfiled with the office of Libby Schaaf, the mayor of Oakland; the Oakland Police Department; and the office of Gregory Ahern, the sheriff of Alameda County, who oversaw the eviction. Neither Mayor Schaafs office, care of Rose Rubel, an analyst in the city administrators office, nor the Oakland Police Department, care of Alisha Banda, a police records supervisor, have responded to my requests. But on April 9, I received a batch of one hundred and seven emails, in PDF form, from Cynthia Wilson, a technician in the Sheriffs Office.

My primary goal in contacting Alameda County was to learn more about the eviction, which took place on the morning of January 14. As I recount in the original story:

[The mothers] found the street overrunnot only by a throng of supporters, thanks to a text-message blast, but also by a ballistic vehicle and sheriffs vans from Alameda County. A dozen men were dressed infatigues and helmetsandwielded machine guns. Under orders from Sheriff Gregory Ahern and Commander Shawn Sexton, they used a battering ram to knock down the front door of the housewhich the moms say was unlocked but the Sheriffs Office says was fortified. Everyone inside wasarrested

Alameda County declined to pursue criminal charges against the moms and their allies, but the Sheriffs Office has refused to apologize for its show of force. Sergeant Ray Kelly, the agencys public information officer, told me that the Sheriffs Office has no regrets and that the AR15s and ballistic vehicle were commensurate to the threat posed by anarchist and criminal elements among the moms allies, based on social media and tips from an informant. [Carroll] Fife believes that the Sheriffs Office was targeting Fred Hampton Jr., a Chicago-based activist who had flown in to offer support. Hamptons father, a prominent Black Panther, was murdered by the FBI in 1969.

I also wanted to understand the relationship between the Sheriffs Office and Wedgewood LLC, which owned the house the mothers had occupied. A lingering question was why Wedgewood had believed it to be within its rights to discard the mothers belongings after the eviction. Again, as I wrote in March:

The next day, the mothers returned to the house to gather their furniture and other belongings, as Wedgewood had promised they couldthough Wedgewood disputes this. Cross told me that they arrived to find everything thrown onto the street, in a broken, muddy pile.

The emails provided by Alameda County, while incomplete, help answer three crucial questions:

Did the Sheriffs Office try to persuade the mothers to leave the occupied house before the eviction?

Sheriffs Office personnel have repeatedly stated that they tried to prevent a confrontational eviction by offering to help the mothers, only to be rebuffed. Just hours after the eviction, Sheriff Ahern himself wrote in emails to concerned citizens:

We have offered assistance and services, but they were declined. We must follow the order of the court.

We made offers to the group through their attorneys to assist with various programs. Our offers and suggestions were refused. They told us They want the fight,

The mothers and their representativesattorney Leah Simon-Weisberg and Carroll Fife, director of the Oakland chapter of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowermenttold me that they never heard from anyone at the Sheriffs Office.

This contradiction may be explained by an email sent by Kelly on January 10. He emailed Ahern and five others:

I spoke with the moms group attorney, Francisco Gutierrez, and he was very amicable. He wants nothing more than to resolve this issue without a confrontation. I asked him if his clients would sit down with us and come up with a solution that was in their best interest. We also offered resources and access to assistance. He went to the moms [sic] group and they told him there will be no negotiating and they are not leaving. They were very adamant! The attorney was very complimentary of Sgt. Kong and the civil unit and understood our position.

Francisco Gutierrez is an attorney for Wedgewood LLC, not the mothers. It thus appears that Kelly was brokering a negotiation with only one party. When I recently asked Kelly whether he had ever communicated with a lawyer for the mothers, he said yesthat he had spoken with a man. The mothers have had only one attorney: Simon-Weisberg, a woman.

Why did the Sheriffs Office stage such a dramatic eviction?

On December 6 and 9, in response to a reporters query about the timing of the eviction, Kelly said in an email:

We are not looking for a confrontation or to escalate community tension.

I think these folks are looking for a showdown with law enforcement. Thats not going to happen.

This was reiterated a month laterjust three days before the evictionby his colleague, Sergeant Kenrick Kong, in an email to Emma Ishii, a staff member of a county supervisor:

As always it is the intention of the Sheriffs Office Civil Section to enforce Orders from the Court in as peaceful of a manner as possible. We are going to treat the enforcement of this order like any other order.

Yet it seems that, by mid-December, the Sheriffs Office was preparing for a clash. On December 16, after observing a court hearing on the mothers eviction, Lieutenant Patrick Jones wrote to Sexton and another colleague:

Moms for Housing came to Room 104 today. They filed six Claims of Right to Possession [RTP] for the Magnolia property. They had a crowd of 60 to 70 supporters with them. Once they exited the Civil Section Lobby, they announced the RTPs had been filed and we accepted them, causing their group of supporters to begin yelling and screaming. They then began to yell and chant, The people united will never be divided. I exited the Civil employee door, walked to the hallway next to the Courthouse Food Vendor, activated my BWC [body-worn camera] and I announced that yelling and screaming in a courthouse is unacceptable. There was a black male adult who immediately engaged me asking why I was being aggressive. I told him that yelling, screaming and chanting within the courthouse is unacceptable behavior. A white female, who appeared as though she might be their legal counsel, advised they were all leaving peacefully.

The Sheriffs Office deployed more than forty personnel and a BearCat armored vehicle to carry out the eviction on January 14, according to Kelly. A few hours after the eviction, Captain James McGrail emailed forty-five colleagues to provide instructions on how to file overtime hours and what to do if you rode home in the BearCat. He congratulated them for being superstars and attached two notes of praise from local citizens.

When I asked Kelly about these emails, he told me that its common for law enforcement to identify people by their gender and race, even outside of investigations, and that race had nothing to do with the nature of the eviction, adding that there were more whites than African-Americans among the mothers supporters. He said that the BearCat and other equipment were necessary because of aggressive conduct observed inside and outside of the occupied housewhich the mothers and their attorney deny.

Kelly told me that the Sheriffs Office spent more than $40,000 on personnel costs alone to carry out the eviction, all at taxpayer expense. In emails he sent to reporters between January 14 and 16, however, he stated that the cost was over $10k and would be billed to Wedgewood LLC. The company was never charged for any law enforcement expenses.

Why did Wedgewood LLC dispose of the mothers belongings the morning after the eviction?

Sam Singer, the spokesman for Wedgewood, told me in March that the company only ever agreed to put the mothers belongings on the sidewalk in front of the house. According to the mothers and Oakland City CouncilmemberNikki Bas, however, Wedgewood had promised to provide access to the house the morning after the eviction.

It appears that the Sheriffs Office told a Wedgewood attorney that the company was obliged to return the mothers belongings. On January 10, Captain Melanie Ditzenberger wrote to five of her colleagues and Scott Dickey, an attorney for Alameda County:

I received a call from Anthony Pacheco, the attorney who represents Wedgewood. I have spoken to him before, and he is very appreciative of our efforts He asked about the womens property, I told him that once the property was turned back over to Catamount [a Wedgewood subsidiary], they should secure the womens personal property for the amount of time required by law; and if assistance was needed; to work with OPD [Oakland Police Department].

She reiterated this in another email less than an hour later, to a different group of employees at the Sheriffs Office:

[Pacheco] was also concerned about the womens personal property and getting it out of the home. I said that once the Civil Unit affected [sic] the eviction; and returned the property to Catamount, it is their responsibility to secure the womens personal property for the amount of time required by law; and if they needed assistance removing it; to work with OPD.

When I asked Singer about these emails and what Wedgewood understood its obligations to be, he said, I never heard of this conversation.

Taken as a whole, the emails released by Alameda County reveal an agency struggling to coordinate a response to mass protestin the context of an otherwise ordinary eviction. And while the Sheriffs Office continued to exchange information with Wedgewood LLC and its attorneys, it did not communicate directly with Moms 4 Housing. Representatives of Moms 4 Housing told me that the mothers have had no contact with either the Sheriffs Office or Oakland police in recent weeks, but are currently making visits to homeless residents, in violation of the Bay Areas shelter-in-place order. As Carroll Fife explained, We cant shelter in place and say that we care about the community when theyre out living in the streets.

Read more from the original source:
Moms 4 Housing: A Dramatic Eviction Revisited - The New York Review of Books

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April 22nd, 2020 at 4:45 pm