Oakland’s STAY AWAY Squat

“I was trying to grow food in my yard. The ivy and blackberry from the neighboring abandoned apartment building were coming over under and through the fence and up through the ground, making it impossible to clear the ground for beds. The building hadn’t always been empty. Maybe since the start of the housing crisis, another Oakland foreclosure. As it turned out, Bank of America, (who also owns my house) was the new owner and they were proving to be poor property owners as well as neighbors. As property owner, they were refusing to refinance my house to lower my payment and make it affordable, preferring instead to disqualify me for the loan and push me to foreclosure. As neighbors, their lack of maintenance was spilling across property lines and creating a major nuisance and expense.

“Can you blame them? Bank of America has some of the highest foreclosure ratings in the nation, that amounts to a lot of properties. A land grab of such proportions provided unique challenges for land maintenance and management. Well, a land grab could go both ways. I realized I would not be able to grow food until the other yard was cleared. In fact, I wanted to grow food on the other yard as well. I took down the fence and started hacking. And thinking, ‘Why is this building empty when people need housing? Why shouldn’t we take what we need? Why am I working alone?’ It was a big job and led to big thoughts. I needed help. People needed housing. I went to Oscar Grant Plaza and announced the vacancy.”

~our neighbor

It was in Oscar Grant Plaza, site of the Occupy Oakland encampment in late November 2011 when a person told me about a foreclosed and abandoned apartment complex adjacent to her home. The next day I was cleaning out a unit, getting water, gas, and electric utilities turned on in my name, changing the locks, and beginning to move in. Less then a month later all the units in the complex were occupied. Because more than one of the new occupants had received a stay away order from Oscar Grant Plaza — meaning they had court orders against them and would be arrested for going near the plaza as a result of their political activity there — it didn’t take long before our home was being called the StayAway.

With the help of our neighbor, who resourced many green waste bins every week from other neighbors, we cleared the back yard of ivy and blackberries, terraced the little hill that remained and planted kale, collard, calendula, mint, sage, rosemary, fava, lettuce, tomato, carrot, potato, artichoke, sunflower, and even some ornamentals. We took it a step further. We started a few guerrilla gardens in abandoned, trash filled lots — changing them into community spaces intended to break our reliance on capitalism and replace it with solidarity and sustainability.

It would not be an exaggeration to say tens of thousands of meals were cooked in the kitchens of our occupied complex. We made connections with a Latin produce market in the nearby Fruitvale neighborhood, bike carting hundreds of pounds of edible but not sell-able produce home every week. Dumpsters in the slightly more affluent Diamond and Laurel neighborhoods provided huge amounts of food for those who would forage them. Food banks and food stamps filled the gaps. All this food would generally make its way to port and bank shutdowns, eviction defenses, Occupy Oakland BBQs, or to rallies and marches of all kinds.

It was a surprisingly long time, about 4 months, before any representative from the bank came knocking. When one finally showed up, he told us we were trespassing and would be arrested. I told him that we were not trespassing. He left and came back a little later that day with two Oakland police officers. The bank representative told the police I was trespassing. I informed them that I was a tenant and that I had no prior relationship with this so called ‘representative’ of the bank. One of the cops had arrested me in Oscar Grant Plaza a few months before, in the first raid. He repeatedly asked if our home was Occupy related, and other politically oriented questions. I continued to tell him those kinds of questions were irrelevant, and this issue was a civil matter that did not concern the police. They eventually left, telling the bank representative to file an unlawful detainer (legalese for eviction lawsuit).

About two months later each occupied unit was served with a “Notice to Quit”, which means leave or we will sue you. For an eviction in California you are allowed 90 days before the lawsuit comes. When it did, two units (the one where I live and another) filed a “response”, which says we contest the eviction and want to take it to trial. Meanwhile one unit didn’t file in time and received a default judgment, which means you didn’t answer so you lose the case by default. And soon after, that unit got a “10 day Notice to Vacate”, which means you have ten days before the sheriff comes to make sure you’re out, or arrest you if you refuse.

We organized an eviction defense. In general, we had a big sleepover, put up a bunch of banners, (STOP PAYING THE BANKS, WE WILL STAND WITH YOU, etc.), and did some light barricading (i.e. put a couch in the stairwell and extra locked the front gate). At 6am on eviction day there were over 40 people in the yard. We also put an info table out front with information on the foreclosure crisis, predatory lending, and other resources and groups doing work in housing justice (plus free coffee!). A locksmith and sheriffs passed by and loitered a bit but never confronted us in any way. It was a beautiful and empowering day. That unit was supposed to be evicted over three months ago, but people are up there now, laughing as I write this.

There was another, less positive, aspect to this action that bears mentioning. For a week after the eviction defense there were individuals, in addition to those who had signed up to take shifts at the info table and defending the space, who stayed. The upstairs unit changed from an organizing and living space to a 24-hour rager, with yelling and loud music at all hours. Many verbal and a few physical fights broke out. Requests for calm or quiet were outright ignored or were responded to with intimidation. It was so bad that it was hard to attribute it all to alcohol and nasty people. It was hard to not suspect state involvement, but who knows, only time will tell. In the end what happened was, while everyone was out at an OO BBQ (myself included), personal belongings were put outside and the unit was barricaded from the inside. It took a lot of courage to do that, and the one who did it has my eternal respect. I mention this because it could have been an ugly end to nearly a year of beautiful resistance. I think this could have been avoided had we used a vouching model for who we allow into the space, and by communicating clearer boundaries as to what is mutual aid and what is just hanging out.

It was nearly a year after I started living here when I found myself in front of a judge and jury, arguing for my right to stay. I had demanded the jury, which I felt would not only give us a better chance, but at least postpone the trial for a month and made the lawyers work overtime. They filed pretrial motions ‘in limine’ that barred my speech, evidence, behavior and attire along with everyone else in the court room. I will quote one of the more interesting motions in part:

“Such subjects and evidence that should be barred include, but are not limited to, the ‘banking crisis,’ the ‘foreclosure crisis,’ the ‘Occupy Movement,’ ‘Occupy Wall Street,’ ‘Occupy our homes,’ ‘predatory lending,’ or any other reference to the alleged unethical practice of banks and/or mortgage lenders.”

They supported all of these pretrial motions with a “statement of the facts”, in part:

“Defendant [...] has apparently invited close to two dozen others who are similarly without right, title or interest to the Property. Defendant and his accomplices have not only refused to leave but they are apparently using the Property as something of a headquarters or rallying point for their protests against many groups, including financial institutions.” There is a hint of fear in that statement.

In the end, we lost. The scope of the trial was narrowed down to two questions for the jury to decide on. (1) Was the notice to quit served correctly? And, (2) Did defendant receive permission to occupy the property?

I may be able to appeal on technical grounds and, if I win, it could create more legal protections for squatters. I have been defending myself in court, pro per. Should I appeal it would only be with the participation of a radical pro bono lawyer. So email defendourhomes@gmail.com with any leads, to get involved, or to get our case # for your own research.

Most of us out there realize we will never own a home. Most will work their lives away to pay rent or bank loans till they die, a slave in a system whose debt they can never escape. Most will leave nothing to their children but debt and a dying planet. And that will never change by simply working with the state and the banks. If they have their way we will remain debt slaves forever. Our only hope lies in a community that organizes to defend their homes in a direct way; in a movement that defies the state and the banks; that refused to pay and refused to leave.

At the least, we can cause serious economic damage to the banks by fighting their foreclosures and evictions, thus taking back our power and forcing them to seriously rethink the way they encroach on us. But that is only an added bonus. Radical expropriation of land (squatting) is the rebirth of lands that are cared for and utilized, not owned and lorded over our heads to coerce us into slavery. Or as a friend of mine put it “i squat because i want to take an abandoned hole in the fabric of the universe and turn it into something autonomous and creative and
communal. And i squat because i appreciate the gift of life and don’t want to surrender my days to working for a boss and a landlord all the time. i squat because i like it….” We must stop paying and organize others to stop paying for this stolen land. It is something we can do now, not only to liberate ourselves, but to enact a different way of life that is a direct threat to this system of oppression.