Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Christmas 2015

The Auset Movement

Christmas in Oakland dawned beautifully with blue skies and crisp air. A few of us gathered to serve breakfast to those living in innovative housing— concrete mattresses with cement canopies – no indoor plumbing.

Damu Sudi Alii and Michael James
City Camping is not what it could be, especially for those living in Bay Area internally displaced camps which are popping up all over.  In fact, Oakland City Council is addressing this urgency at its first meeting this year.  Berkeley has criminalized its unhoused population, while San Francisco and Alameda are building housing to meet the growing need for supportive structures which include shelter, both permanent and transitional. These “homeplaces” are affordable and inclusive in its design, that is, invites residents to participate in all aspects of this community building process.  The internally displaced are a fragile or vulnerable community, despite its tough and invincible presentation.

Rain heralded the start of winter, the solstice that Monday, Dec. 21. Temperatures dipped into the 20s meant bone chilling cold—no air mattresses.

Tracy, Delene, Kwalin
Cold is a sleeping blanket and a leaky tent. Cold is the instability transient lodging holds for those without other options, despite money, savings and marketable skills. Cold bloodied is a system which dangles housing like a carrot at the noses of those without bargaining chips.
Jovelyn, Denise, Delene

Alicia, Amir, Wanda
I don’t know why so many black men are living in townships, on the peripheries of a social, political and economic dynamic that pushes them away, out of sight and or underground as if radar can ignore their massive tangible presence. On International between 82-84th Avenue, the place where the black men congregate is called, “the living room.” They are behind the check cashing place, rock throwing distance from Allen Temple. I saw a man going through the garbage at McDonalds on 97th Avenue earlier that week about 7:30 in the morning. It was raining and lots of black men stood in doorways or walked up and down the streets or sat in one of the few covered bus stops with benches.

Friday, Dec. 25, friend and allies and I met at 7:30 a.m., held hands and prayed to be a blessing and to being open to being blessed; we then caravanned off to “the spot.”
Not a creature was stirring, not even a rat – it was so clean. I learned later that there is a governing board which assigns tasks and keeps the peace.  The ages ranged from early twenties to 50s and 60s.  Under a freeway is certainly not a preferable location for a home, but if there is peace and harmony and freedom, I can certainly understand why these men chose their liberty over the isolation, restrictions and maybe even disrespect, subsidized or government housing often means. It is little better than imprisonment; one man I met had just been released from Santa Rita.

While Tracy went around tent to tent announcing our presence and reason for being there, a few folks stirred or sent husbands to see what was cooking that morning. Jovelyn had cooked up potatoes with fresh thyme from her garden. An alchemist, artist and poet with pots, I am sure she choose “thyme” on purpose. I just didn’t know how apropos an herb it was until long after the fact. Thyme, I learned is used to treat diarrhea, stomach ache, arthritis, colic, sore throat, and coughs, even bronchitis.  It was the perfect ingredient for an early morning breakfast where there is no running water, no bathroom facilities and folks are trying to stay well. One poor man had a really bad stomach ache already; hopefully the fresh thyme kept others from getting sick.

We set up the long table, put the pot of hot potatoes on it, another pot of boiled eggs, a tray of banana nut bread and blue berry cake and beef links. There was orange juice and milk too. We forgot forks, so Brother RJ drove to the store to pick up a box.  I found about ten forks and spoons in my car for a few folks. While others waited for more cutlery, residents from the area went shopping at the pop-up store which had shoes, hats, warm scarves, gloves, rain ponchos, underwear, nice coats, shirts, dresses.  Alicia and her son, Amir (18), and Kwalin helped people locate their sizes.

We had chairs and cafĂ© tables for those who wanted to sit and eat. There was also German Chocolate cake, tangerines, and other treats. The servers: Jovelyn, Denise, and Delene were as attractive as the meal. From a distance I noticed people chatting as they ate or were served. I heard that a man rode up on his bike and sang: “You Are so Beautiful to Me.” (I don’t know how I missed that.)

As people ate, Tracy shared information packages she’d made. Each one had an encouraging word from a variety of sources, such as: Dr. Howard Thurman, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Marianne Williamson, Chogyam Trungpa, Lao Tzu, Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, Leo Buscaglia, Aesop, Robert M. Pirsig, Edward Everett Hale, Buddha, Arthur Ashe, Seneca and Disraeli.

As people ate and talked and shopped, some stayed a while and visited with us too. Others loaded up bicycles and maintaining a delicate balance took off. A bicyclist carried an orange dress in his hand—perhaps a Christmas present for someone, as he steered with his feet.

Quite a few people welcomed the flashlights, sleeping bags, blankets and tarps, but the big need was for warm socks, coats and shoes. There were a lot of men who only had on flip flops. The women needed underwear and sanitary items. People also needed combs.

Everyone wanted water to drink and took extra bottles. It was good to see people drinking water like this.  Whenever I looked around I saw people talking, men and women laughing and having a nice time together. We didn’t pop in and then leave.  RJ had introduced me to the men and women there earlier that week. I asked the men and woman to tell me what they needed and told them I would return with friends that Friday before 8 a.m.

I’d checked the weather forecast and it was supposed to be sunny and it was.  The vibe was good. The men opened their community to us and we embraced. Alicia even had dog food for a man who rode by on his bike with a really cute pup, who peed on the clothes (smile).

When we first arrived we were trying to figure out how to serve the meals and took plates to some of the folks who were staying close or inside their tents. Tracy suggested walking around announcing our presence there that morning.  We did a little bit of both. Room service and open kitchen.

As already mentioned, one man was really sick. I don’t know what one does when he has the runs and no toilet.  Everyone was really polite and the volatile live wires were also loved and embraced with compassion as we had a closing prayer circle interrupted by police who were investigating a stolen car parked across from us. The police presence triggered a few of the men who watched them cautiously. One person walked from the prayer circle, distraught.  It’s understandable. Police and black men are a caustic mix most of the time.

I thought about my car parked in the red zone.

Jovelyn announced seconds and the kitchen sisters made plates which went quickly. The leftovers were put into containers and left for the community for later. We took the extra clothes and hung them on a fence like a clothesline. Tracy’s inspirational sayings also decorated the fence.

The resource list was for housing and other needs like tissue, sanitary napkins and toothpaste, showers. We also left the majority male population know that there was a City Council Meeting coming up Tuesday, January 5, 5:30 p.m. at City Hall, 1 Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland, to discuss the pending Homeless Ordinance. Kheven and Keith dropped by with fliers and personally invited the men to come and speak that evening.

While we were there other people popped by to talk to the men, talk to us and invite the community to other events later than day. None were close and some were too late in the evening to consider.  RJ said most of the encampment inhabitants were home by the time the sun set. I didn’t see many bicycles at this particular encampment, but several men and women rode by on bikes, some of the bikes were really fancy—gold and orange several feet in the air.

Michael James & RJ
The couple on the fancy bikes, a man and a woman, popped by for breakfast and then they were off. It was the perfect day for a bike ride.  As we wrapped up breakfast a Latino couple and their child drove up with two barrels filled with beverages and wrapped sandwiches they passed out.  It was perfect—our breakfast rolled right into lunch or dinner.

A bucket blaze took the chill off the morning air in front of one tent. Reminded me of scenes from South Africa where youth stand warming themselves in front of a barrel. Hands facing toward the flame, the boys stand as close as they dare to the flickering flames.  The elder woman in the walker wheelchair had a mini version of this.

I tried to convince a man seated across from her on the sofa who had three hats to leave one for someone else. He said he liked them all and besides that, he wanted to be color coordinated. I had to laugh. He was one of the men who needed shoes.  I think he wore a size nine. We only had one size eight. No one wore a size eleven. I think one of the men wore a larger size.

Two of the younger men had tents without sleeping bags. I was thinking we should get them heaters and toilets and air mattresses, especially for the elder who is recovering from a heart attack and other ailments, the other disabled man with a hip to leg brace and some of the other men whom city camping is taking a debilitating toll on their bodies.  Top on Tracy’s list was Operation Dignity Inc., which is a veteran’s services agency, but they serve everyone.

I saw a pitcher which looked to be filled with urine. I wondered where people used the bathroom or disposed of waste. Obviously the city serviced this community, as I saw garbage bins near most of the tents. (Two months later they were removed).

When looking at solutions to under or unhoused communities, one needs to realize that these communities have a continuity and act as support systems for its members. To move one of the community out and place him perhaps in housing where he is not connected to friends or loved ones, is a disservice to said person. If there are 100 people in a particular encampment, then if Caltrans plans to gate the open space, as it did in the Webster Street Tube, then there should be 100 housing spaces made available (preferably indoors) so this structured intentional family or community can stay together.

I wonder where all the families went who were living inside the Alameda/Webster Tube for over a year, their lives permanently disrupted? One young man at the encampment we visited Christmas day, whom I really liked, told one of our group that he had been living on the street since he was 12.  I couldn’t imagine what that was like, but his beauty reflected a community he was able to join which embraced him, loved him and allowed him to grow into the man he is today. But what is next? The hustle, city camping demands, is not a permanent lifestyle one can sustain indefinitely.

As I drove home later that evening the clouds floating just about the horizon like whipped cream, scoops of vanilla ice cream or so many cotton balls—against the same blue canvas I spoke of earlier, I couldn’t have imagined such a day.

I knew I wanted to do something meaningful December 25. I’d thought about the black men without houses, eking out a bare subsistence on the streets of Oakland; however, I didn’t know how much people cared. Donations poured in in the hundreds of dollars and then people came around to talk to the men, laugh, sing . . . we even had a musician, Michael James, come to play Christmas songs on his tenor saxophone.  His friend, my friend, Damu Sudi Alii stood speaking to the brothers there at the encampment. I saw them sharing laughter.

We call ourselves The Auset Movement: Loving Humanity into Wholeness. For those who know the story of Queen Auset (Isis), her husband Ausar (Osiris), their brother Set, you understand the concept dismemberment and being dispersed and what this means when we speak historically and presently of African Diaspora citizens.  This ejection of black bodies from civil society is intentional and not unexpected. The enormity is what is so alarming—so many black men hear: “Do not pass go,” do not draw the “Get out of jail free” card, nor do they thrive . . . if they make it out of the various booby traps alive. After the earthquake in Haiti, the internally displaced persons count was high. This crisis lingered long after the tremors ceased, when funds collected internationally never made it into the hands of the needy. Similar to the levees breaking in NOLA ten years ago August 29, 2005; it was the people, ordinary citizens, like Malik Rahim, co-founder, Common Ground Collective, who responded first.

Auset was not deterred when Set chopped his brother up into 42 pieces and scattered them like rainfall throughout Kemet. Auset found all but one piece, the phallus, which she sculpted and then awakened her husband’s spirit for a memorable night under the stars (smile). There she conceived Heru (Horus). Her love was so great for Ausar, she willed him to life. Likewise, we will not rest until all our brothers especially, (but our sisters too) are recovered (impediments or issues addressed) and our community restored.


With this in mind, as we packed up, The Auset Movement promised to return and return as long as “dudes are forced to live outside of town.” Visit us at or leave a message at 641-715-3900 ext. 810813 or 

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