Wednesday, January 17, 2018


 On October 13, 2017, San Francisco Bayview posted my essay “Hipsters de-Blacken Oakland, Cause the Encampments They Abhor.”  In the essay, I argued that Oakland leaders helped displace mainly native African American Oaklanders in order to make room for the hipsters and gentrifiers.  The gentrifiers/hipster benefited directly from this displacement.  Thus, the hipsters and gentrifiers have a duty to help solve the homeless crisis.  However, several commenters to my essay showed they used ignorance or denial to defend their “innocence.” 

One commenter sarcastically wrote “I really miss all the murders that would happen around my block before the hipsters came.” He stereotyped all displaced people as murderers.  By dehumanizing and vilifying the displaced human beings—even if it’s a lie—he justified hurting them.  Oakland must not be a part of this.

Another commenter wrote: “Since when do people have the right to set up tent cities on public sidewalks?” In my essay, I explained how the people in the homeless were victims of Oakland’s gentrification.  Yet, this commenter made the homeless into brazen lawbreakers.  Thus, he justified their removal.

Another commenter laughably wrote:  “Oh your gonna blame “white” hipsters now. * Get a grip asshole.  We are all being squeezed.  Just more divide and conquer rhetoric.”  This commenter obviously did not want to hear facts that went against his beliefs.  He used name-calling to try to shut me down.  From his position of privilege, he trivialized and dismissed the situation of the people the encampment by writing “We’re all being squeezed.”

All this commenter had to do was open his eyes and he would plainly see that the fashionably dressed hipster buying expensive food and drinks at a trendy bar is not suffering like a homeless person in an encampment. 

Did he really believe that they were ever united when he didn’t even want to hear them?

Seeing so many African Americans living in encampments and white hipsters at expensive bars and restaurants, how could one not think of race?   Yet, one commenter wrote that it was lazy people, not African Americans, who had been displaced. He wrote:

It seems that all you see is race.  You know what I see?  I see people who want to live in a demanding market, with a drive to be successful in it.  And no, you don’t have to be a “white hipster” to accomplish this.  It’s supply and demand.  The job market all throughout the Bay Area (not just Oakland) demands for more jobs, so people are here to supply it, and you can be any race.”

As he read in my essay, Oakland displaced African Americans in order to create that “new” Oakland that this commenter sees now. The commenter didn’t question why so many African Americans were displaced or living in encampments.  He simply dismissed any discussion of race in order to be innocent.

This commenter may soon see how reality determines one’s fate.  East Bay Times just published a “Bay Area Hammered by Loss of 4,700 jobs” (October 20, 2017).  This was in addition to the 2,400 jobs losses reported by the EDD for August 2017. Thousands of people are losing jobs—whether or not they work hard and have the drive for success.

If Oakland is to address its homeless issue honestly, it must not allow such commenters to remain ignorant of their roles in creating those encampments. Ignorance is bliss.  It allowed these commenters to have guilt-free fun even as they passed the encampments.  But Oakland must stop coddling these commenters and privileging them to be ignorant. Oakland must not make decisions that privilege such ignorance. These commenters should not just be “listened to”; they need to be “lectured to.” Hopefully, with more reality, they will eagerly support those less privileged than they are.

* I assume the commenter meant to write “Oh, you’re going to blame ‘white’ hipsters now.”


A July 31, 2017 article titled, “Oakland Residents Say Tent Encampments Threatening Neighborhoods” highlighted Ms. Hillary Nevis’s fight against the homeless. Ms. Nevis moved into her West Oakland home only about a year ago. She had seen the homeless encampment near her new home grow and she claimed the citizens had gotten bolder and threatening.  She complained to the city and about the city.  Homeless people live in fear of violence and dangerous conditions.  Yet, the article never followed how Ms. Nevis’s actions added to the hurt of any individual already at the lowest point in his life.  Thus, the article privileged Ms. Nevis to appear blameless for the conditions of people living in the encampments. The article insulated her.

Ms. Nevis and other gentrifiers, the City and developers all share responsibility for gentrification—the process and system that created that encampment.  For years, Oakland leaders wanted to make Oakland a hipster playground.  They invested in making Oakland attractive to outsiders/gentrifiers. City planners courted businesses and high-end condos that catered to them.

Making Oakland into a hipster playground meant whitening, or at least “de-blackening,” Oakland.  This would be necessary to attract more white hipsters. They would even market the “new” Oakland.

In order to create the “new” Oakland, many native Oaklanders would have to be displaced.  Oakland natives knew this and often said about certain parts of Oakland that “They’re going to get those Black folks out of there because the while folks want it.”  When asked what her biggest challenge for marketing a “new” Oakland, then-mayor Jean Quan told the National Journal:

. . . my challenge is to let people know what the new Oakland looks like. Somebody just sent me an email saying, ‘Oh, you should have more black police since more than 50 percent of your residents are black.’ And I’m like, ‘Actually, no, 28 percent of my residents are black, but we’re pretty evenly divided between blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians these days.’ But that’s their image of Oakland–and this is somebody who lives in the Bay Area.

In order to encourage a visible white hipster presence in this “new” Oakland and attract more gentrifiers, the City allowed them to break safety laws. A white artist told the City Council that when he came to Oakland in 2005, he felt welcomed. He had fun ignoring Oakland’s laws against unlicensed parties and living in illegal warehouses. In 2015, a party organizer even defied a policeman when caught breaking the law. However, the City treated those illegal parties as low-priority infractions.  (see East Bay Times,  September 18, 2017,“Officer’s 2015 Report on Illegal Rave at Ghost Ship Was “Low Priority”). Eventually 36 people were killed in one of those parties.

City leaders, developers, the media and politicians bragged about Oakland’s “new diversity” and “changing demographics.”  But they didn’t ask where the poor and displaced Black Oaklanders had gone.  In fact, many Black Oaklanders would not find new housing easily. Landlords found ways to evict current Black tenants and get white tenants.  Landlords with apartment vacancies openly discriminated against African American applicants. Thus, many displaced African American Oakland natives became homeless and some moved into the encampments.

While informed its readers of the struggles of Ms. Nevis, the article didn’t address how many of those people living in the encampments were displaced to make room for people like her.  The article didn’t even mention that most of the people living in the encampments were displaced native African American Oaklanders. Thus, the article avoided burdening its readers with an example of institutional racism.  It allowed the displacers to feel innocent.

Today, in the “new” Oakland, we see “cool” new nightclubs across the street from encampments.  The hip new people stand in line to get inside the club.  They hang out in front of the club. The “hip” people seem not to care about the homeless people facing them—and whom they helped displace.  Yet, the fact that the “hip” people are mainly white and the people in the encampment reminds us that not everyone benefited equally from the “new” Oakland’s “new diversity.”

Now, investors are buying up SROs in downtown Oakland. They’re evicting the poor African-Americans. They will renovate the buildings for privileged newcomers.  When the renovation is completed, the investors will most likely not tell the newcomers that poor African Americans were displaced for their benefit. They will be privileged to enjoy the building with no blame or guilt.

According to “those with and without homes feel like the city hasn’t done nearly enough to solve the crisis.” It’s not just the City’s responsibility to help find homes for the homeless.  Developers and landlords also helped create the encampment problem for the benefit of people like Ms. Nevis; they should help solve the problem too.  By helping the homeless, Ms. Nevis helps herself and her new community.  Simply complaining to the city is not enough. Demanding that the City evict the homeless won’t work; the homeless have nowhere to go.   

Ms. Nevis believes that “we’re not in this together.” That is not true.  We, including Ms. Nevis, are in this system/institution together. Ms. Nevis moved into a community with encampments, now she has to live with the reality—just like people in the encampment have to deal with their reality. 

The media also has a role.  They must remind the public that the homeless are full citizens; they are not vermin to be removed. The homeless are just as entitled to City protection as Ms. Nevis. The City must also defend its homeless citizens against being harassed, vilified and treated like vermin—just as the City would protect Ms. Nevis.  Perhaps Ms. Nevis feels unsafe living near an encampment, but it is even less safe for the people living in the encampment.

More important, if we are to solve the problem, we must not be distracted from the real problem. The first step to solving a problem is to identify it.  The problem with homeless is not Ms. Nevis’s discomfort. The problem is that people are homeless due to a system beyond their control and others benefited from it.  And we must remember that the encampments are the results of bad city planning.


West Oakland’s homeless encampments are communities of some of the city’s most vulnerable and abandoned citizens.  They are predominately African-Americans raised—and some even born—in Oakland.  Gentrification displaced them and left them homeless in their own hometown.  

The West Oakland Business Alert group is an association between the City of Oakland and the West Oakland Commerce Association (WOCA).  Its main goal is to create a better environment for West Oakland residents and to help retain businesses as well as to attract new businesses to the area.  However, they dehumanized the people in the West Oakland encampments in writing.  They created a list titled “Barriers to Economic Development and Business Retention in Oakland.”  The official City of Oakland logo was at the top of the page.  They placed people in the homeless encampments, along with illegal dumping, excessive blight, graffiti and hazardous material on public streets and sidewalks.

The City of Oakland’s Economic and Workforce Development Department held three Business Alert meetings in West Oakland from April to June 2016.  The meetings focused on “homeless encampments mitigation strategies for neighboring businesses.”  The meetings included other departments of the City of Oakland (including the Port department of the City of Oakland) and the Coast Guard. The Economic and Workforce Development Department did not include whether or not any Oakland citizens living in the encampments had a voice in the meetings. 

What were the “homeless encampment mitigation strategies”?  Can any “mitigation” be done without input from citizens living in those encampments?  How was Oakland, along with WOCA, really working to protect and serve its most vulnerable citizens living in the encampments?  One of the people living in the encampment, an Oakland native, told me that he and others in the encampment were told they had to move. He said they were offered no relocation support.  They were not told where else they could go. Ironically, the City of Oakland had declared a shelter crisis earlier this year and knew the displaced people had nowhere to go.

The staff person at the City who coordinated the meetings has retired. On September 27, 2016, the City of Oakland’s Community and Economic Development Committee, a subgroup of the City Council, met.  Several members of the West Oakland Commerce Association came and asked the city to assign another staff member to help with the Business Alert. 

George Burtt, speaking for the West Oakland Commerce Association, told the Committee that he had given them the list of barriers. He pointed out that he felt that “homeless, dumping, . . .” made it hard to attract new businesses to West Oakland.  According to Burtt, it also made it hard to attract workers because people drove pass a business and never came in. But the homeless are neighbors, not trash.  Perhaps West Oakland Commerce Association should focus on employing neighbors living in or the area around the encampments. Then they could attract businesses that serve these neighbors as well, like dollar stores.

For years, Oakland official led us to believe that gentrification was to include Oakland’s African-American communities; however, watching that meeting highlighted the reality of gentrification’s racial inequality.  Most of the people in the encampments are native African Americans displaced by gentrification; the members of the West Oakland Commerce Association who spoke at the meeting were white.  They wanted to further gentrify West Oakland and labeled the people living in the encampments as barriers to their goal. In effect, that gentrification would further hurt, not benefit, African-Americans citizens living in the encampments. The racism of West Oakland gentrification had been implicit and systemic; however, the racial makeup of the encampments made it visible and obvious.  The West Oakland Commerce Association asked the City to continue to support this racism.

Contrary to the requests made by the West Oakland Commerce Association, the City should not attract or retain businesses that dehumanize, disrespect or ignore a community of West Oakland native African Americans.  The City of Oakland must not support derogatory labeling of anyone, including West Oakland citizens living in the homeless encampments.  They are full citizens of Oakland. If the City of Oakland is involved with the economic development, it must benefit the people in the encampments not dehumanize them in order to attract people and business and workers from outside West Oakland. 

Any “mitigation” of homeless encampments must benefit the encampments.  They must be fully vocal and visible in order to be served.  Oakland should support entrepreneurs in the encampments.  Businesses can come to the encampments for day workers.  People living in the encampment can be a source of labor for contractors working on City of Oakland construction projects.  Oakland can support people collecting cans, bottles and other recyclables that help keep the neighborhood clean. In fact, WOBA should use its business acumen to raise money to provide shelter.  WOBA can also help produce a positive atmosphere by serving breakfasts, providing water and interacting directly with the people in the encampments.