Recently here in Oakland I got a call from one of my comrade’s squats. After 7 months of residency with little yet positive interactions from the buildings actual on-paper owners, the day had come when the owners decided it was time for everyone to go.
The community had been called via a phone tree, and I think the collective expectation in all our minds was a battle with the police. Banners had been prepared, and almost everyone was ready.
But when the supporters arrived at the scene, we learned that there are some things that us anarchists here in Oakland just hadn’t considered.
The owners, a black, Muslim family, had come and called the police. When the police came, they told the owners that they needed to file an eviction notice with the court and left shortly after. Following their departure, the owners, by now very angry, took matters into their own hands. They threw items out of the house, tore up plants in the yard, assaulted people multiple times with their feet, plates, bookshelves and fists, as well as attacking the folks outside with video cameras who had originally intended on doing cop-watching.
It was a couple hours of chaos. The squatters and supporters inside attempted soft barricades and ran around in confusion. At one point they did a banner drop that seemed pretty inappropriate for the situation, since it had been intended for the cops. The folks outside stood around in equal confusion. Some talked to the home owners about the situation, some got in arguments with them, some gawked from across the street, some took the squatters possession and animal companions to safe spaces, and a lot just didn’t know what to do or what to feel.
Racial tensions arose from both sides. The owners expressed a lot racist sentiment for the white squatters, while I witnessed a couple supporters say racist things themselves. One supporter, when asked by a black neighbor what was going on, responded “You people…” and proceeded to assume the neighbor was one of the owners and accuse them of assault. Multiple squatters and supporters criticized the family for wearing gold, saying that by wearing it they were oppressing “their own people”.
At one point the squatters themselves called the police. The police once again told the owners that they needed to file an eviction notice, and one of the supporters that had been inside pressed charges against one of the owners, who the police took away to jail. I am not sure, but the word was that he was cited and released.
Shortly after the police left the remaining owners left as well. In the couple of weeks following, owners would drive by multiple times in a day, and at one point assaulted one of the squatters on their way back home.
Eventually the owners showed up with baseball bats while only a couple of the squatters were home. The squatters had-had enough of the violence and left the house. It is now empty with no trespassing signs on the doors and windows.
Although this is an extremely brief summary of what happened that day, what happened has brought up a lot of questions about race and resistance.
This house was owned by a black family in a predominantly black neighborhood. It was abandoned for 13 years while owned by the family, and the owners had no intentions to inhabit it. It was squatted by predominantly young, white radicals. There was racism on both sides.
One of the first questions with this squat is: is this gentrification, and should the squatters have been more considerate to this in the first place? The squatters were doing things for their immediate community, like fixing bikes for the neighborhood children. They had support from their immediate neighbors and were giving advice to the ones in danger of foreclosure. But what is more important, helping the neighbors or the squatters being sensitive to their contribution to gentrification? And it’s important to keep in mind that in the neighborhood in question, West Oakland, there is an abundance of radical houses with young white inhabitants.
White privilege needs to be addressed. If the house had been squatted by people of color, would the police have not asked for an eviction notice? What if the owners were a white family? How could squatters in this type of situation address their privilege?
Another question is: is it okay for squatters to occupy a building when the owners, who are a family and not a bank, are ready to reclaim their property? Anarchists have a lot of rhetoric about how property is theft, and how private property is fucked up and no one should own land. If property owners are claiming the house, then they are saying it’s their property and theirs alone. When squatters claim a building, are they doing the same as the owners? Both have justifications as to why it’s theirs. Is one justification right and the other wrong? Are they both right, or both wrong?
A big issue from this experience was the decision to call the police. The owners called them the first time. As a black family, they did not get support from the police, which is unfortunately common for most people of color. The family then took action independently to reclaim their property. They made decisions independent of the state to try to physically intimidate people out of the building. I am not condoning the violence against the squatters and supporters, a lot of them were my friends and allies and it hurts me to have them hurt. I am not supporting pulling up the vegetable plants from the garden or throwing peoples bikes off of the second floor. But we as anarchists for the most part agree that we need to find ways to live our lives without turning to the police for support, and once the police didn’t help the family, they collectively found a way to reach their goals themselves.
The next time the police came; it was the anarchists that had called. This was a controversial issue within our community, for various reasons. The most obvious, why are anarchists calling the police? Are there times when it is acceptable for us to turn to the state for assistance?
Since the family had called and was willing to have people arrested, was it okay for the folks in the house to fight with the same tools as the family? If someone has a gun, you would probably rather have a gun as opposed to a knife. If the squatters had physically fought back, they would have been arrested. It’s also important to note that the family had brought children with them, and the squatters and supporters were very uncomfortable with the idea of fighting back with these kids’ parents.
I personally still don’t know what my feelings are about this, and I think a lot of the people involved feel the same way. Physical assault is a serious and traumatic thing, and I think it’s very important to support any victim of assault. The environment at the time was so chaotic it doesn’t appear that the folks on the inside had the ability to really get together and make a collective decision.
I feel that after going through this experience, it is really important that radical folks, especially in urban, multiracial areas, start pondering these questions and making personal decisions. Such as, is it ever okay to call the police? I’m sure there are a variety of different answers to the question. My personal feelings are no. I feel as radical folks, we need to do more expansive thinking and discussion on problem solving. One thing that will be more helpful to actions such as this one in the future is to spend the time before the action thinking of the possibilities and worst case scenarios and making a collective plan for all of them. It is best to be as prepared as possible, especially since in a bind an affinity group may not be able to make collective decisions.
And how should we treat our allies when they make decisions we don’t necessarily support. Here in Oakland the responses have been mixed. Some folks have completely turned their backs on the people involved in this particular situation and said that they are snitches. Some don’t think we should write someone off as a bad person or a snitch for calling the pigs under pressure. And others are completely supportive of the decisions made that day by the people involved.
It’s very easy for a community to become divided, but I think through sensitivity and honest communication we can keep a community strong.