by Carol Harvey.
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n Monday, April 11, in San Francisco, I felt it was not a romantic notion that my videographer Scott and I were embedded among partisan forces deep in enemy territory. We were all joined together in a viciously difficult corporate class war.
We met our band of resisters, from teens to elders, at the Panhandle tennis courts where San Francisco police squad cars lurked in the parking lot. Matt Crain, spokesperson for the protest, clarified for me the purpose of this day’s action.
“We are gathering here for a brief rally,” Crain said, “before we march through the Haight into the Western Addition to draw awareness to an apartment complex where the owner chooses to keep the place vacant and waste a resource as valuable as housing. Most folks don’t know that there are 30,000 vacant homes here in San Francisco” — while 6,000 to 9,000 people suffer homelessness.
Partisan is an apt name for a group resisting a dysfunctional system. The word suggests clever action and stealth in high danger. One partisan organizer talked about a more equal sharing of the world’s finite resources. The idea that any one person deserves to hoard and consume more resources than all others is absurd, he said.
When residential housing sits vacant solely to benefit a few, people recognize that is unacceptable. At some point of maximum frustration, he said, people will resist, rise up, recapture resources, and return them to the community.
His certainty that resistance will succeed seems borne out by the peoples’ revolutions in the Middle East, now cascading across the globe to Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Washington.
Even the schoolgirls, Sarah, age 16, and Zoe, 18, who I met in Golden Gate Park, said that the 400 families hoarding the nation’s wealth can’t shore up the current system. However, the slaughter of Yemenis and Syrians, so desperate that they die protesting despots and demanding democracy, attests to the powerful counter-resistance faced by partisans.
Paul Boden, the director of Western Regional Advocacy Project, a supporter of the Homes Not Jails protest, decried a new Republican budget in which “38 billion dollars in cuts is 80 percent against programs that serve poor people.”
This most recent budget-slashing bill, H.R. 1473, drastically slashed the nation’s domestic budget, and yet handed out tax credit extensions to wealthy corporations like Kaiser Permanente Medical Center “that we’re marching on today,” Boden said. Corporate landowners let these buildings sit vacant for years to get maximum tax credits from the federal government and make money keeping buildings vacant. “And, we got an increase in military spending,” he added.
Boden urged today’s resisters to join allies in cities nationwide to take a stand, “and have a good time doing it.”
Then, like any band of partisan resisters, they sped off billowing liberation banners — a swift, small army commandeering San Francisco streets.
The march rapidly moved out of the Haight’s “Summer-of-Love” area, which in a harsher societal climate, has turned into “Get-These-Punks Out-Of-My-Upper-Crust Neighborhood,” and proceeded north along the Divisadero corridor.
Poet Dee Allen’s strong voice cadenced, “Homelessness Is Not A Crime! Corporations are filled with Crime.” Organizer Jeremy Miller pointed a J’accuse finger at wasted, unoccupied buildings near the shut-down gas station on the Fell Street corner.
As the march neared the long-vacant Kaiser Permanente building on the corner of Divisadero and O’Farrell, I informed interested neighbors and business people that this was an occupation-in-reverse against a nonworking system. Believing that housing is a human right, not a free-market commodity that a few hoard for profit, resisters enter the vacant building, occupy the premises and symbolically return it to people who need it.
At McAllister Street, I passed three pre-teens. One girl smiled and asked about the marchers: “Who are those people?”
I replied that they are saying the empty buildings around here could house all the homeless people.
“It’s not right to have homeless people,” she mused. “They should have houses. I’m going to the store for my mom. I wish I could march, too.”
“Next time, you can,” I said.
“Okay,” she smiled. “I will!”
I was the last person in the building. I squeaked inside just as an officer slammed shut and locked the yellow door behind me into blackness. It was a rush. A kind hand guided me carefully up a flight of stairs through dark rooms faintly lit at bay windows opening out to the street. Inside, silhouettes wandered happily about greeting one another in excited camaraderie. Doing a takeover was fun.
Matt Crain met us in the foyer. “If you go straight down here,” he said, “you’ll see light on your right-hand side, and that light leads to the main lobby which has a stairwell going upstairs.”
“It’s huge!” someone exclaimed. It was large, but not as large as the 40-unit Leslie Hotel occupied by housing activists on October 10, 2010. Floor plans showed ground-floor commercial space containing a beauty shop and grocery store. About 20 residential units of studios and one-bedroom apartments housed families on the higher floors. A man I later met in the Walgreens on the corner said he recalled the eviction years before.
“This is a cozy little place,” he said. “Quite cozy.”
“There are dozens of pigeons living in here!” I replied
“Did you evict the pigeons?”
“The squatters did.”
“Did you eat all the pigeons?”
The building takeover at 1409 Divisidero was an “open occupation.” Open occupiers conduct public tours exposing to neighbors and visitors a building sitting open, unused and wasted.
The occupiers are compadres with shared values and objectives who mind-meld their takeover plans via spontaneously coalescing and dissolving, forming decentralized coalitions with names like “Stop the Cuts Bay Area,” “Creative Housing Liberation,” “Homes Not Jails,” and “Food Not Bombs.”
Though each occupation is unique, the 1989 video, “Takeover,” which documented the occupation of vacant HUD buildings by homeless people across the nation, provides a template.
On Demo Day, participants meet to make banners and posters for the march and site windows. Three huge signs cascaded down the 1409 Divisadero facade: From the roof, a sign declared, “Hella Occupied.” From a top floor, another sign said: “Kaiser Thrives, People Die.” And farther down, “Homes Not Jails.”
Prior to open occupations, advance notice is provided to participants and media. This time, occupiers announced the gathering place and time (but not the location of the occupation) by press release, on Facebook, and in Street Sheet. This explains the black-and-white patrol cars waiting in the park. Occupiers often divert the police to a central location where marchers, escorted by police cars, follow organizers to the pre-occupied squat.
The group’s researchers check public records, scout available locations, and find their way into a building. Once in, they check its safety meticulously, identifying broken stairs, boards with nails, wiring, electricity, water. The public cannot be brought into an unsafe building.
They note the building’s security, locating entrances, exits, windows, escape routes. Can sections or rooms be barricaded to protect from police, security, and landlords entering to evict?
The idea is to occupy the vacant building while the rally diverts police, and to draw out the stay for media attention. Lydia Blumberg, a participant in past takeovers, noted the march was timed to reach the location after the close of business at 5:00 to 6:00 p.m., when it’s harder for police to reach the landlord who has gone home. Often the site is held well into the following day before police can secure the landlord’s eviction notice.
At the empty Kaiser building, occupiers gained access early on Monday, April 11. Police didn’t issue citations until Tuesday, April 12 at 11:43 a.m. Total occupation time: 33 hours. Housing takeovers are a form of direct action in which participants are willing to be arrested for civil disobedience. In San Francisco, however, the sheer number of misdemeanor trespass cases costs taxpayers too much to litigate, so most charges are dropped.
Bob Offer-Westort, staff member of the Coalition on Homelessness, laid “mad kudos” on the partisans who, in a one-year period from April 2010 to 2011, achieved four rapid-fire occupations. “These takeovers have been pretty ingenious,” he said.
A year ago, on April 4, 2010, occupiers captured Jose Morales’ former home at 572 San Jose Avenue in the Mission District, a house that had been standing empty for two years while people slept on the streets. Morales, an elder, spent 14 years fighting an Ellis Act eviction from his home of 43 years because his landlord wanted to raise rents to market rates by “escaping” the rental business.
The next occupation, with much media publicity, occurred on July 20, 2010, when activists occupied the Sierra Hotel at 20th and Mission in protest of government cuts of social services that created increased homelessness.
On October 10, 2010, the Leslie Hotel takeover at 587 Eddy Street in the Tenderloin highlighted World Homeless Day and the Sit/Lie law’s criminalization of homelessness.
‘Kaiser thrives, people die’
Finally, at the fourth occupation on April 11, 2011, resisters took over a vacant Kaiser Permanente building, and marked this predator medical corporation with a banner reading, “Kaiser Thrives, People Die.”
Scott, the videographer, guided me up a staircase through a bright door to the roof’s view of the blue sky. The view impressed Berkeley occupier Crusty Shackleford. “In an hour and a half,” he said, “the sun will set. It’s going to get all pink, and the reflection is going to get on the buildings.”
Another occupier, Linda, was a runaway from family abuse in Los Angeles, and took part as an underage girl in squats during San Francisco’s early punk scene, where she suffered “horrible things to survive.” Since she nearly died homeless, she said she wanted to support the occupation. Now 45, after living 20 years in London where squatting is legal, she does permaculture and tends horses and chickens with her partner on a Redwood Valley ranch.
We four stood at the pinnacle of the Kaiser Permanente corporate behemoth on the rooftop of an empty building from which someone, probably homeless, was evicted while drying out. In a dusty bedroom drawer, Scott had found the 12-step book, Getting Sober.
But, evicting people and leaving buildings empty were not the only ways Kaiser hurts people. Early on, Edgar Kaiser designed this gargantuan medical corporation to profit off human health.
On a Feb. 17, 1971, Nixon tape, Watergate conspirator John Erlichman told Nixon, “Edgar is running this [Health Maintenance Organization] for profit. He can do it [because] the incentives are for less medical care, because the less care they give ‘em, the more money they make.”
“I like it,” Nixon answered, and on Feb. 18, 1971, he gave a speech proposing HMOs as “a new National Health Strategy” to the American people.
Shelter the Partisan Resister
We descended to the street. Surrounded by cops, media trucks and people, a large crowd chanted, and listened to poetry and music.
To much enthusiastic clapping, Dee Allen performed his poem, “Shelter.”
Master lock on steel chains
Boards on windows & doors
An old building interior’s bare
Down to the stairs & floors
Emptier than a tomb
While a sickened man sleeps outside
The cold, hard sidewalk against his back
His last abide
The Homeless People, a washboard accordion band, delivered a haunting arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s song, “The Partisan.” The slow cadence and washboard thumping echoed plodding hooves as the partisan guerrilla was hunted toward death, chased by the powerful enemies he resisted.
“An old woman gave us shelter,
kept us hidden in the garret,
then the soldiers came;
she died without a whisper.
“Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing,
through the graves the wind is blowing,
freedom soon will come;
then we’ll come from the shadows.”
When people’s health and well-being are based on a home, and a building is useable, a health care corporation leaving it empty is a savagely hypocritical act.
In a final statement, Jeremy Miller told demonstrators, occupiers, and passersby, “The fact that anyone should be forced to remain without shelter is criminal, is wrong, and is a situation that we will resolve if the powers that be refuse to.”