Story of an unsafe house – an Oakland squat makes a stink

When I dropped into Oakland 8 months ago my plan was to hang out for a week or two, catch up with some friends, and continue south to Mexico. But not long after I arrived some friends and I took a liking to a well abandoned building. For 7 months an average of 15 people, 2 cats and 3 dogs called that building home.

At first only a few people from our greater community desired to live in and repair a building that had more than its fair share of feces, syringes, and garbage. Trash was bike carted out, toilets snaked, walls scraped and painted. Months of work went into the yard, now a flourishing garden. It took weeks of constant labor to get the plumbing functional and $280 for the water meter. We gathered wood to fix floors, make tables and bunk beds. We secured donations of windows and doors, and the house lit up more with each week.

It wasn’t long before the police kicked in our door, claiming we were burglarizing the place. We presented mail, keys, a water bill and an ID with current address; overwhelming evidence of legit occupancy. California civil code ยง1006 clearly states that occupancy is sufficient title of ownership unless it’s contested in court by other title holders. The burden of proof is on the non-occupants: a perceived owner must contest the ownership of the occupants in court. It is possible to get legal title of the property through 5 years of uninterrupted occupancy (and paying all back taxes) in a process called adverse possession. In the months to come we would be visited more by police, a city building inspector, and eventually people claiming to be the long absent property “owners”.

Once the house was established it removed much of the ever present risk that all we had created would be taken away without warning. It was easier to find people willing to work on and live in the space. Before long water flowed where none had before for over 15 years. The yard of head-high thistles and weeds was transformed into a garden of edible plants and flowers. Rooms once filled with rubble housed artists, lovers, travelers, animals, builders, and revolutionaries. We transformed silent and lonely spaces with conversation, music, and laughter. Projects were thought up and enacted. Plans were made. Life created.

We were able to achieve a lot in the following months, but we lacked resources for some bigger projects. Although donations from neighbors helped us make some structural repairs to the house, certain areas, such as the roof, were not repairable. For the roof we settled for some plastic sheeting to cover the bigger gaps temporarily for the rainy season. Electricity too, was a difficult situation. The meter had been completely removed by the electric company and to get a new one we needed to present a title proving ownership of the building. We used LED light arrays, wired to batteries in the mean time (although many wanted to keep the house off the grid permanently).

A main goal was to open up the first floor, a large open space, and the garden into a community center. Projects for the space included a radical library, free store, DIY bike space and event hall. We hosted garden work parties, often helped the neighborhood kids work on their scraper bikes, invited people to look through our free store, and held an event to raise funds and awareness for Black Mesa, but a lot of work and resources were still needed in order to open the doors to the public.

Snafu

It was around this time that a man claiming to be one of 8 owners of the building appeared in our back yard. At the time we had no reason not to believe him since his name did appear in the county records although later the issue of ownership became increasingly unclear due to numerous contradictory statements by the alleged owners. He had decided to check out his property while passing through town. He was surprised but friendly and told us how trashed the house was when he was last there, nearly a year ago, and how good it looked now. We told him how we had improved the house, protected it from being scrapped many times, and how we brought the house out of blight by following the directions of the building and coding inspector (replaced windows, cut down and disposed of high weeds, painted the front of the building).

He told us a bit about his family, black Muslims that had lived in and around the Bay Area for generations, eventually accumulating a fair amount of real estate. Later, his sister and co-owner also came to check out the house with two of her daughters. They seemed pleased and excited that the house was getting put to such inspiring use. Their liability was their main concern, so we drafted a waiver of liability, ready for their next visit. Everyone in the house was excited that the owners turned out to be so supportive of what we were doing. They assured us we were not going to get kicked out without notice.

That excitement was short lived. Another co-owner and family member came, and he was much more business minded. He said they were to sell the house, but the process wouldn’t be started until January, so we had that much time to figure things out. He came back soon after, the day before Thanksgiving, and told us we had to be out in eight days. We called him many times in those eight days, both directly and via a third party. We offered many alternatives, from working with a professional in bringing the house up to code in exchange for staying there, to rent-to-own agreements, to just plain paying rent, and all were rejected blankly. We brought up that we were legally entitled to a minimum of 1 month notice before getting evicted. They didn’t care, and claimed that they would be there that day with cops and friends to evict us.

We figured our worst-case scenario was that the cops would come, declare we were trespassing, and we would barricade inside and eventually be arrested. The situation was made more difficult because over half of the house’s full time occupants left to travel, coincidentally, just weeks before the eviction. We created a phone tree and invited friends to occupy with us.

On December 2nd the owners came with the police, as promised. The police asked us for proof of residency and we presented our water bill. The police then told the owners that they would have to file an eviction notice and packed up to leave. Before they had left unidentified associates of the owners (thought to be a combination of friends, relatives, and people they hired) hopped the fence to the back yard and succeeded in removing the barricade. What followed was truly chaotic and can’t be fully described from any one point of view.

After the hard barricade was broken and they gained entry, occupants were repeatedly assaulted and battered. The occupants, without much conversation or planning, sat in and around the back door forming soft barricades. During this time, individuals non-violently forming the soft barricade had book shelves thrown at them, were slapped on the face, had a dish rack with cutting knives thrown at them, and were trampled, in one case resulting in a concussion. Personal items were smashed and stolen, along with tools. Furniture was destroyed and thrown out the back door down a flight of stairs to the back yard. Veggies and bushes growing in the garden were ripped out of the ground and the donated lemon tree was trampled.

As people were being attacked many of those present including house members and supporters urged the police to be called. Despite our general distaste for the state, many felt we had no other option in response to the escalating violence. As the police liaison, I was responsible for making that call. When the police returned all those being most violent quickly left except one who was arrested. That owner, who himself tried to have us arrested, was put in handcuffs, and later cited and released.

In the days after we issued a statement on-line and continued to try and open dialog with the owners. They responded with threats, often made on the comments sections of various on-line articles. One of the owners’ associates, who was also very aggressive and violent at the attempted eviction, stalked the house and one night punched a house mate in the ear while he was entering the house. Those days were tense, as were the discussions on what to do.

Around a week later, in the middle of the day, a group of 8 or so men armed with bats and hammers stormed the house forcing the few people that were there out on to the street. Out front on the sidewalk the owner’s extended family, including middle school aged kids, were there to insult, degrade and threaten those they were evicting. They allowed some people to go in one at a time to gather belongings from the house but those people were intensely intimidated while inside and alone. Many personal items were stolen, and they damaged the house itself (ripped out walls, broke windows) apparently to make it unlivable. A group of friends and housemates were punched and slapped while they were leaving, a few blocks from the house.

The building, what we call the Safehouse, is still there on 3277 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland, trashed and empty. It’s hard to explain in words what the Safehouse was to those who had the experience of creating there. It was living proof that we indeed had the power to change the world (or a very small part of it) in a very real way. Things left wasted by our society could be reclaimed, reshaped, and used in ways thought impossible in our day and country. We may have failed at creating an overt, long term, squatted, community space and radical housing project (no small feat in the USA), but we now know that such projects are not only possible but inevitable if we can learn from our mistakes.