by Amir Soltani
At a time when homelessness has become a local and national epidemic, the City of Oakland is providing millions of Americans a rare glimpse into the politics of poverty and homelessness.
Alliance Metals, a small recycling center that serves as a lifeline for many of Oakland’s poorest residents, has been served notice that it must stop serving shopping cart recyclers on August 20, 2016. The price of disobedience is high. If Alliance accepts recyclables from Oakland’s poor and homeless recyclers after August 20, it will be fined $1,000 per day.
Justice means that everyone is equal before the law, and that means folks at the bottom of the pyramid cannot be crushed by the neighbors above them. Yet, in Oakland, the neighbors and the city officials are criminalizing an entire class of people. Only since they cannot do so by invoking race and class, they are doing so by criminalizing their profession.
If one shopping cart recycler can be framed for theft and another for addiction, then it follows that all shopping cart recyclers are, a priori, criminals. They can all be convicted and punished for theft and addiction. It is the logic of guilt by association — with the shopping cart as a racial and economic code, a code permitting discrimination and exclusion.
In a note to Alliance’s neighbors, dated October 5, 2015, and widely circulated on its official newsletter, the Oakland City Attorney’s office summed up the legal case against Oakland’s poorest residents. Written in deeply prejudicial language that reads like the summary judgment of judge, jury and executioner, the City Attorney’s notice reads as follows:
“Alliance Recycling at 3426 Peralta Street has been a consistent nuisance to neighbors since it opened in the 1980s.
“Neighbors say Alliance accepts stolen metal, encouraging theft of fences, construction materials and other items in the area, and that the thieves use the money they get from Alliance to buy drugs in the park across the street. Blight and trash have been constant problems.
“The business has operated under a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) that it originally obtained decades ago.
“Since 2014, my Office has been working with the City Administrator’s Office to address complaints about the business. After many notices and warnings, a few months ago the City issued citations for more than 40 violations to the business for a total of about $17,000 in fines.
“I am very pleased to announce that during our negotiations, Alliance agreed to give up its CUP and close its doors by August 20, 2016. If the business remains open after that date, Alliance will owe the City $1,000 per day until it closes.
“Because Alliance is giving up its CUP, no other recycling business will be allowed to open at that location.
“I believe this is a good outcome for neighbors in West Oakland whose quality of life has suffered as a result of this nuisance activity.”
Prejudice Enshrined as Policy
Oakland’s City Attorney is Barbara Parker, a distinguished lawyer respected for her service to Oakland. In 2015, she was recognized by the California State Bar as “Public Lawyer of the Year.” It is inconceivable that a letter that institutionalizes prejudice as policy and sanctifies injustice as law reflects her personal beliefs. Still, regardless of its source and origins, the letter was drafted, approved and released by her office.
Although a blemish on an otherwise remarkable record of public service, what is remarkable is neither the content nor the author of the letter. It is the silence of the rest of the City.
The Mayor, the City Council and the City Administrator have not called on the City Attorney’s Office to retract the letter. It does not offend their sensibilities or violate their beliefs. And so no one has accepted responsibility or issued an apology to the owners, employees, customers and friends of Alliance Recycling.
This silence speaks volumes. The fact that the letter is addressed to Alliance’s neighbors suggests that the City has adopted their perspective as its own. Apparently, no city official cares to defend the rights of the poor and homeless recyclers who will be gravely injured by this edict.
It also suggests that at least some City officials listen to and act on behalf of one, and only one, constituency — some of Alliance’s neighbors. For better or for worse, they have become complicit in a campaign organized by Alliance’s neighbors to discriminate against shopping cart recyclers by forbidding Alliance from serving them — a violation of state law.
When the City Attorney’s Office sanctifies slurs and stereotypes by parroting neighbors who claim that shopping cart recyclers are thieves and addicts, the City Council is silent. An administrative hatchet job — the demonization of one community, the recyclers, in the name of another, the neighbors — is accepted without a twitch.
The City of Oakland’s legal and economic resources have been deployed to protect the quality of life of the neighbors at the expense of the recyclers. Has the City Attorney’s Office clocked in a single hour or devoted a single intern to defend the quality of life of the recyclers? Are the City’s legal actions not a form of psychological and economic warfare planned by the neighbors to destroy a business and incriminate a community?
A Miscarriage of Justice
This is an even greater miscarriage of justice because Oakland’s shopping cart recyclers and their supporters were not granted due process in open hearing, a right extended to them on previous occasions when the same neighbors, acting through City Councilmember Nancy Nadel, tried to revoke Alliance’s permit on the grounds that shopping cart recyclers were a nuisance. On each of those occasions, the Oakland City Council, including then City Councilmember, now Mayor Libby Schaaf, considered the arguments against Alliance and unanimously recognized the right of Oakland’s poorest residents to transport their recyclables to Alliance using shopping carts.
They rejected the neighbors’ arguments and complaints by pointing out that the planning commission had zoned the area where Alliance was located for industrial use and that new residents moving into the neighborhood were not entitled to revoke Alliance’s permit or transform its business model because the presence of shopping cart recyclers offended the sensibility of some neighbors. The “inconvenience” was priced into the value of their properties that could be snatched at a fraction of the cost of San Francisco in the Dogtown neighborhood of West Oakland.
For 40 years, the City of Oakland has stood firm, procedures have been respected and the precedents have held. The rights of the shopping cart recyclers — most of whom are long-time African-American residents of Oakland — have been protected. Despite repeated attempts to relocate the recycling center and dislodge the poor, including police harassment and sting operations, Alliance has remained open for business.
And, perhaps not surprisingly, given the concentration and extent of structural and systemic poverty in Oakland, Alliance has grown. Even during global recessions, when the ranks of the unemployed expand and the price of recyclables collapse, Alliance has made a profit from serving shopping cart recyclers. For the poorest economic class, short of crime, recycling is virtually the only game in town.
Oakland’s Poor Residents Built Alliance
Although they are not organized or recognized as a union, Oakland’s poor have a great stake in Alliance’s future. If Alliance has grown, it has not only been because of investments of capital and purchases of machinery, including a majestic $500,000 bailer, by its owners. Alliance has grown thanks to the sweat and grit of a plentiful supply of cheap labor of poor recyclers of all races and ages, mostly African American residents of West Oakland. Their bones, sinews, sweat and tears are every bit as much a part of Alliance’s fabric as the land, capital and machinery that has sustained Alliance over the decades.
And while they may not hold the title to Alliance, they, along with its employees, have a vested stake and shared interest in its management, operations, licenses, permit and profitability. Alliance may not be their property. But it belongs to them, just as they belong to it. The bond is not only economic. It is historical, cultural, emotional and communal.
In the past, that is to say from 1980 to 2015, the City has respected their presence and recognized their voice. It has not subverted the democratic process to silence the recyclers, or to sanctify as policy and in law, an administrative coup that denies the people of Oakland, through their elected representatives, the members of the City Council, to deliberate and reflect on a decision that has broad, lasting and lethal consequences for Oakland’s residents, and, one might add, for Oakland’s future as a diverse city founded upon constitutional principles of equality and economic and racial inclusion, rather than exclusion.
Still, the failure of the City Attorney’s Office, City Council, Mayor and other administrators to retract this letter and issue an apology speaks volumes about the City’s complicity in a campaign organized by Alliance’s neighbors with the intent to ban shopping cart recyclers. It represents a grave injustice: an assault on the dignity, security, income and jobs of thousands of Oakland residents who rely on recycling to make ends meet.
Shutting down a business that has operated in Oakland since 1980 means slashing an artery that is the only legitimate source of income for countless shopping cart recyclers throughout the East Bay. They are the face of poverty, and not just in California.
Denying Their Humanity
They present all of us, as Americans, with a choice. We can discriminate against the poor, deny their humanity and wipe them out of our cities, as is the case in San Francisco. Or we can affirm their humanity as members of our community and create a level playing field where the rules are not rigged against the poor.
As Oakland City Council President Lynette McElhaney, in whose district the recycling center is located, told a community gathering at a screening of Dogtown Redemption in West Oakland, the housing, jobs, and health crisis in Oakland has racial and economic components, and structural and systemic causes, that are much bigger than Oakland.
Cities, counties and states are being starved, with budgets slashed at a time when we face a humanitarian crisis at home. There are no quick fixes.
But, at the very least, for now, in the absence of massive government intervention and infusion of capital, Alliance Recycling is a business model that does meet the needs and demands of Oakland’s growing underclass. It functions as a commodities market in which the poor can convert our trash — plastics, aluminum, and glass — into cash.
With total sales as high as $10 million, Alliance can pump up to $3 million dollars into the local economy, primarily into the pockets of the poor. That’s $1,000 to $10,000 in supplemental income for anywhere between 300 to 3,000 Oakland residents living beneath the poverty line. While many remain beneath the poverty line, our society’s trash saves them. Recycling allows them to salvage a minimum of dignity.
Bottles, cans and precious metals serve as a currency in neighborhoods battered by the flight of blue-collar jobs.
Desperately poor women do not have to sell their body. Criminals do not have to steal cars. The elderly do not have to beg. The sick are not forced to go without medicine. The young do not have to try to sleep at night without food. And yes, for some, it is also drugs, a release from pain, trauma and grief so deep and debilitating as to be unfathomable.
The Gift of Life
In the desolation that is West Oakland, society’s trash can be the gift of life itself. It is collected with sweat and tears, night and day, by shopping cart recyclers walking over hundreds of miles with the fruits of their labor in tow. Like pilgrims, they all converge on Alliance Metals where they redeem the bottles and cans for cash.
It is, in the truest sense, a church for the poor — a sanctuary. A space they can inhabit as their own. A place where many who have fallen on hard times have found redemption.
Landon Goodwin and Jason Witt, two of the recyclers we followed through the streets of West Oakland for years while filming our documentary, point out that recycling has given them structure, friends, family, faith. It has functioned like a mirror in which they have found the time and the space to reflect, recover and reclaim their lives.
Our film, Dogtown Redemption, which aired on PBS’s Independent Lens in May, is nothing if not a plea to shift the way we see, speak and relate to the poor. It is as much about our poverty, as it about theirs.
It is also an open question about who we are and how we relate to each other as Americans. Do we live by our nation’s creed, and honor the promise that binds us as one people united by our faith in and love for each other — or do we discount that promise by selling each other short?
The Path of Redemption and Love
Ours is a seven-year bet that we will not sell each other short. We are banking on an inclusive rather than exclusive vision of America and Oakland, one that is bound to the future of the recyclers — every single one of them. I’m betting that we will not abandon or betray each other, that Oakland and the Bay Area will choose the path of redemption, which is one of love.
There are two giant American flags in the recycling center. They went up after 9/11. Alliance’s employees, mostly Hispanic, put them up there. And Alliance’s customers, mostly African-American, haul in and sort their recyclables under them. Sure, they are tattered and dirty. But those flags, no matter how discolored, still mean something. They bind us all, rich and poor, as one.
How quickly Oakland forgets. But after the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, it was these very homeless recyclers — folks whose only roof is our highways — who were the first to climb and claw through slabs of collapsed concrete to pull us out of the wreckage of a civilization built around cars, and crippled by earthquakes. Nobody called them a nuisance then.
More Americans die on the streets from homelessness than from terrorism. But they die in the wrong budgetary silos. There is no department of homeless security. Their deaths on the streets are anonymous, largely ignored by the government and the public. Even as corpses, they are denied visibility and space.
Sure, the poor don’t look pretty or perfect in the cavern. They are in touch with all our waste, and all our fears, the remains of capitalism, the corpse of every depleted desire and disgusting emotion rejected as trash. But that is only to those who do not catch a glimpse of the recyclers’ soul and spirit.
We were lucky. In making our documentary film, we did catch a glimpse of the resilience, the courage and creativity, that goes into being a recycler.
The True Champions
You try finding and hauling a ton of trash with a swollen, aching leg like Jason’s, fractured ribs like Landon’s, a broken heart like Hayok Kay’s — and I will show you what true champions are made of. You try being a woman, walking the streets of Oakland at night by yourself, as Ros, Heather and Marvel do, protecting your bottles and cans from predators, and your body from rapists — and I will show you what it means to survive against all odds.
The recyclers are the ones facing and cheating death every day. They are the ones who defy Darwin.
Yet no matter how hard I search to find a note of redemption in the letter sent to the neighbors from the City Attorney’s office, I come up short. There is no trace in that letter of the characters or the recycling center we filmed in Dogtown Redemption. The letter is distant. It is stale. It is not only that it lacks objectivity. It lacks decency. It lacks fair play. Not a hint of humanity. No awareness of history.
It relies only on one source — and that is the neighbors. And it addresses only one source — the neighbors.
I don’t know which neighbors the City Attorney’s Office is representing. She has not disclosed their names. And they have not stepped forward with their accusations. Yet, if we are to believe the City Attorney’s Office, the neighbors — not some, all of them — say the recyclers are nothing but thieves who use the money from recycling to do drugs.
Miss Kay doesn’t play the drums. Jason doesn’t practice martial arts. Landon does not read the Bible.
Miraculously, recyclers don’t eat, sleep, smoke or drink. They recycle to do drugs. Or so the neighbors have told the City Attorney. And since she has never met a recycler, she has no reason to sift facts from fiction. The neighbors’ story must be true. All other stories, including ours, must be false.
In the scales at Alliance Metals, a commodities market for plastics, aluminum and glass, the trash the recyclers haul has a mass and a weight. Dirty bottles and cans still count. Gravity grants every recycler, no matter their disability or diagnosis, some kind of legal standing.
Their bottles and cans get converted into a financial figure: $13.02 for Hayok, $32.89 for Landon, $157.77 for Jason and Heather.
At the cashier, their faces are recognized. Their signature has meaning. There is, if only for a moment, a greeting. And to this day, their answer when asked, “How are you?” shocks me. “I’m blessed.”
In the midst of all that pain and poverty, there is faith. The neighbors may not love the recyclers, and the city may abandon them. But they know, in their heart of hearts, that Christ is on their side.
It’s fun to watch people line up for their money, relieved of the burden of their shopping carts, about to be redeemed. They exchange a story or a joke, cash in their slip and walk out, knowing they have survived another day.
The street has paid them. They have a few more hours. Maybe a day, or two, if their savings last. That’s as far as the future stretches. But at least, it stretches.
The scales of justice hanging in the Oakland City Attorney’s office do not obey the rules of gravity. The shopping cart recyclers are running out of time. So is their recycling center. Now they only qualify for tickets and fines.
Their bottles and cans are not recognized as a currency. Nothing that they carry in their shopping carts to deposit at Alliance has any worth. Their currency has been devalued. It cannot be converted into dollars. No redemption. Not in West Oakland.
The scales of the City Attorney recognize the rights and standing of only one party: the neighbors. The recyclers simply don’t appear on the scales of justice. They have no status, no representation and no personhood. Not as 3/5th of an American. Not as 1/100th of a human being. As shopping cart recyclers, they are redacted out of “We the People.” They have no government and no representation.
They are marked, en masse, for the penitentiary, the hospital or the asylum. And, let’s not forget the morgue. In a world where only the fit survive, the recyclers have lived past their expiration date. They are banished into a twilight zone that Michael Harrington dared to name in his classic on poverty, The Other America.
What makes the City target this population? They are accused by the neighbors of being nuisances who bring their recyclables to Alliance in shopping carts, not cars or trucks. The City has forced Alliance into an agreement in which they must turn on their customers, and violate state law requiring that recycling centers serve all their customers, whether they bring in their cans and bottles by unicycles, bikes or prams.
A Police Sting
Is the ban on shopping carts legal? Of course not. When Nancy Nadel sought to pass such a measure, the City Attorney’s Office appeared before the City Council and withdrew the motion, deeming it discriminatory and unconstitutional. The recyclers won that round.
So what happened the next day?
A sting operation. The Oakland Police Department launched an undercover operation by masquerading as recyclers selling Alliance stolen property. They sold Alliance $7 worth of PG&E wire. And then dozens of police cars raided and searched Alliance for stolen goods and drugs. They found nothing.
Still, the case proved, once and for all, that Nancy Nadel and the neighbors had every reason to label the recyclers as thieves and persecute them as addicts. They, after all, were the law. Except that after a long legal battle, the City failed in its efforts to revoke Alliance’s permit and agreed to settle the case by paying Alliance $75,000 and recognizing its right to accept shopping cart recyclers.
So what has changed since then?
Jay Anast sold Alliance to new owners, Joe and Lance. They were new to the neighborhood. They plunked down a few million dollars. They had no idea that the city was a wild and volatile beast and that no one was bound by precedent.
So the neighbors struck and the City pounced with the force of law — and $17,000 in fines and the promise of more fines. Alliance’s new owners threw in the towel, thinking that, at the very least, if they are in the City’s good graces, they will get their money back, and find another plot on which to locate their business.
But who represents the shopping cart recyclers? No one. Certainly not the City Attorney’s Office. There is no political capital to be gained from sticking one’s neck out for the poor. The shopping cart recyclers can’t afford lawyers. So they will not launch a class action lawsuit. No one recognizes the value of their labor. Not Adam Smith. Not Locke. Not even Marx.
RFK Spoke Out for Justice in Oakland
Who was the last presidential candidate to visit West Oakland’s de Fremery Park and speak about lifting all of America out of poverty? Nope, not Barack or Bernie or Hillary. RFK! Robert F. Kennedy visited West Oakland way back in 1968 and spoke out for justice. No one has spoken out since.
Truth is we don’t lift anyone out of poverty these days. We stomp on the poor. That’s what happened to one of the homeless characters in our film. Miss Kay was kicked to death while in her sleeping bag, on the pavement outside CVS in Emeryville last year on August 18. I guess she was one of the thieves and addicts preying on us all. Her sleeping bag was such a nuisance. Her shopping cart too. We had to walk around her. Terrible.
They die on the streets, every day, one after the other. Nobody knows their names. Or claims their corpses. Just ask the folks at St. Mary’s. Or Highland Hospital.
America is not about equality anymore. It’s about status and security — standing one notch above, or on top of, the rest. Why wonder about who is drowning around us when we can speed past them.
No chance of the economy turning on us and spitting us out of our homes and into the encampments. As long as the value of our real estate is soaring, who cares if millions of Americans fall on the wrong side of the parking meters?
Lose a job, or get sick, and you get cannibalized with interest rates and mortgage payments. Bailouts are only for the rich. The poor become shark food. Sorry, you can no longer afford a sanctuary, the dignity of a place called home. Or a bond called family. The bonds that matter are those that collect interest.
The Gods of Finance
The gods of finance are tight-fisted. They don’t dispense mercy. And the City is a landlord — not a charity. Everything and everyone has a lobby. But poor people? Forget it. They are on their own.
Ron Dellums told me as much, in our filmed interview. When speech equals money, law equals even more money, then the casino moguls get the loudspeakers. The poor get a mute button.
Barbara Lee, our congresswoman, has given us a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition for “exploring the complex dynamics of race, class and poverty in our Oakland Community.”
I’m touched, and grateful, of course. But, where, in which corner of Oakland, or Congress, can I redeem our certificate in exchange for a temporary, if not permanent, pass for Oakland’s shopping cart recyclers? What am I supposed to do with it? Frame it above my bed and watch Alliance Metals close? Burn it outside Congress? Shred it in City Hall? What is an appropriate protest?
When Alliance’s gate comes down, it will come down on people’s heads and hearts and lives. It will come down on their wheelchairs and canes, bikes and shopping carts.
I have seen how people rush to get their last load in. I have seen how they wait to get the first load in. I know what that place means and what that work does for them. When those wheels stop turning, people’s spirits will break, their health will decline and their hopes will be dashed. They will be stripped of their motivation and destination.
It takes an awful lot of courage and character to be sick, tired, broke, hungry, lonely and lost, as Miss Kay was, and still push a heavy shopping cart for miles and miles. But Miss Kay is dead, and soon the City will carry out its death sentence on thousands of Oakland, Emeryville and Berkeley’s poor.
Our film is over, and 1.3 million people watched Dogtown Redemption. And neutrality and objectivity means that I can’t smash my camera to pieces or jam it under Alliance’s gate on August 20, hoping that someone will be able to squeeze a few extra cans through.
The power to reverse the City’s decision is not vested in me. It is vested, or so it seems, in the neighbors. And in the City Attorney’s office.
MLK Fought for the Garbage Workers
Where is Barbara Lee now that the shopping cart recyclers need her? How long can we blame Paul Ryan for lacking the moral vision and courage to tackle poverty here in Oakland? Where are the students, the scholars and the senators? Who is going to form a circle around Alliance?
Didn’t Martin Luther King go and stand by the garbage workers in Memphis? Where are his heirs, the civil rights leaders? What happened?
We speak of America as the bastion of human rights. We have a Supreme Court that, in the name of equality and due process, has stood firm against every form of persecution and discrimination. Yet, in the land of the free, in Oakland, we are banning and banishing the poor. We are denying them the right to recycle trash.
This is the American legal tradition at its worst. An entire population is degraded and incriminated in the coffin of categories. And for what?
To uphold a utopian fantasy about an ideal neighborhood in which nobody’s peace is disturbed by nuisance activity — the sight or the sound of a shopping cart.
Catch this: we create the inner city by trapping people in poverty. Apartheid — you are deprived and denied access to the machinery of debt. So you can’t accumulate credit in your houses and neighborhoods, and splurge and spend like everybody else. That’s one chapter.
In the next chapter, we will develop your neighborhood. Rid it of blight. We’ll bulldoze your homes, shops and businesses under freeways, so cars and trucks can drive over you on their way to suburbs. And we will green light all the noise, pollution and traffic from all the trucks and containers heading to the Port of Oakland.
But you, Jason the recycler, you and your shopping cart, heading for Alliance, you are a nuisance to the neighbors. The rattle of your shopping cart keeps all of Oakland awake.
No City Official Will Help
The rest of us can pretend that we progressives are noble. If we are pushing to close the recycling center down, as Nancy Nadel and one of the neighbors told me, it is because Jay Anast, the former owner of Alliance, was supposedly cheating the poor by failing to offer them a salary, health insurance and pensions corresponding with our liberal ideals. We, the noble neighbors, the progressives, want the recyclers to have a more dignified life — real jobs with real benefits. As long as somebody else pays for our ideals.
But, oddly enough, neither the neighbors nor the City of Oakland are offering the recyclers an alternative to Alliance.
No thought has gone into a transition plan come August 20, the day Alliance will be forced to close. None of the neighbors and no one from the City has set up a rainy-day fund to spot the recyclers for up to $3 million in lost income. No, the recyclers can’t live or bank on our ideals.
At the very least, Jay Anast, the former owner of Alliance Metals, had the decency to give the recyclers what they had earned. At the very least, he put some of that money back into a state-of-the-art $500,000 bailer — a Ferrari — that the City of Oakland is now forcing the new owners to dismantle in a junkyard. Talk about depreciation.
No, we are not destroying America’s manufacturing base. We are only putting an end to nuisance activity. Get rid of industry — kick the crutch out from under the American people — and we will all learn how to live on the streets with nothing and no one, not even bottles and cans, to make ends meet.
Despite our many protestations of love, the neighbors have not started collecting funds, pillows and mattresses for the hundreds of recyclers who are going to be camping outside their houses after Alliance is closed. No one has conducted a survey of where they will live and how quickly they will be evicted if they lose their income.
No one has conducted a survey to see how many of those old grandmas and grandpas are raising kids, and how many kids will go hungry without the income from recycling. No one has conducted a survey to see how many recyclers suffer from serious medical conditions, and how sick they will get without the income from their recycling.
Oakland’s Bad Deal with Garbage Tycoons
How can Oakland waste $1 million on a failed consulting project for a fair bidding process on a garbage contract, then surrender a $1 billion, 10-year garbage contract to Waste Management, and explain away a 30-40 percent rate hike in garbage removal fees as poor vetting by staff, only to refer to shopping cart recyclers — the working poor — as thieves for stealing trash?
What is the sum total of the theft attributed to the poor in comparison to the $200 million-plus the City could have saved if only one city employee had bothered to read the rate tables and charts in the Waste Management contract? How is it fair that the recycling center and recyclers at the bottom of the garbage totem pole are accused of theft and fined, while everyone else gets a “get out of jail for free” card?
Is it the recyclers who have engaged in financial fraud, essentially swindling Oakland residents and businesses out of hundreds and even thousands of dollars for hauling their trash? And even from an aesthetic and environmental point of view, which is more offensive: the sight and sound of a fleet of monstrous trucks leaving dents and gashes everywhere or that of a tiny fleet of shopping carts with virtually no carbon footprint?
Why strip the shopping cart recyclers of their marginal income and existence — $3 million per year — only to guarantee the profits, salaries and pensions of city administrators and garbage tycoons whose pacts and agreements constitute a form of taxation without representation? Is it the recyclers who are playing a game of monopoly with our trash, taxes and treasure? How much do they charge for recycling our garbage?
Is it too much to ask those who gift-wrap $1 billion garbage contracts to Waste Management to spare a fraction of their charitable giving for Alliance, a local David that creates more jobs for Oakland’s poor than most corporate Goliaths? At a minimum, as penance, if nothing else, shouldn’t some fraction of the $30 million the City collects from the garbage contracts have been set aside to reduce the costs the City is planning to inflict on Alliance and the recyclers?
Turning Alliance around does not require a vast investment. It requires a little imagination and a lot of good faith. By providing only a few wrap-around services, such as drug counseling, mental health support, food, and faith, a lot of broken, tired and exhausted people would begin to recover. Landon Goodwin has done it. Thousands of people have seen him recover, get off the streets, and fly. He can show other recyclers how to do it. Why not invest in him? He knows each and every recycler by name.
Why not assemble an A-team of former recyclers and a B-team of churches, businesses, healthcare providers and nonprofits to transform lives with love, fellowship and faith? Isn’t that a better way of getting rid of shopping cart recyclers? Mending rather than breaking lives?
How can the City not see the value and potential of recycling, not only as an industry, but also as a culture? Why can’t the City view its poorest residents as environmentalists and entrepreneurs helping our society recycle its discarded waste? Why condemn them and drive them even further into poverty?
Why must the influx of tech companies into Oakland mean the eviction, exile and exodus of the poor out of their own neighborhoods? Do global tech companies — Google, Apple, Uber — inflating the price of real estate and deflating the price of labor on waves of foreign capital not have a social responsibility to find solutions for local communities drowning in the wake of globalization?
Isn’t destroying a multimillion-dollar business that functions as a sanctuary and a bank for the poor the real crime? Isn’t the dismantlement and foreclosure of families, factories, unions, neighborhoods, communities, mental health clinics across Oakland enough disenfranchisement?
What if the recyclers argue that the loss of their jobs, income, community is a discriminatory act, one that poses a grave risk to their life, health and security? What if they call for the investigation of the city officials working for the neighbors instead of all the people of Oakland? What if they ask for the Oakland City Attorney’s resignation and disbarment for sanctifying prejudice as law?
What if they argue that the City and the neighbors should compensate them for damages due to systemic discrimination against the poor? What if they cite the growth of the underclass as justification for raising taxes and fees on all the developers and homeowners whose presence has been a constant nuisance and drain on the city’s resources since the 1980s?
On August 20, when Alliance Metals is shut down, the City will declare that it has won its war against poverty, against thieves, against drugs, against homelessness. Mission accomplished.
The City Attorney’s office declares, with much finality, that “no other recycling business will be allowed to open at that location.” But is the City offering to open another recycling center within walking distance of Alliance if Alliance shuts down? Has the City taken into account the number of disabled and elderly recyclers who can barely walk the distance from their homes to Alliance? Isn’t relocating Alliance more than a nuisance to them? Who is taking into account the quality of their life? What about recyclers who suffer from serious health issues or are physically disabled?
I still place my hopes on Oakland, and on America, and even on the City Attorney and the neighbors, and on the possibility, however faint, that we will not let Alliance be shut down on August 20.
My hope is that we will not sell ourselves, or the recyclers, short. I am hoping that instead of manufacturing more homelessness and institutionalizing poverty, we tap into our sense of abundance and solidarity, and see the crisis around Alliance Metals for what it is: an opportunity to summon the imagination, the will, and the compassion to tear down the walls of prejudice and lift each other out of poverty.
Love and Giving: Miss Kay’s Legacy
Let’s choose a path that draws on our love and faith in each other, rather than our fear of each other. The future can become what we imagine it to be. If Oakland leads with its heart, justice will follow.
Even when she had nothing, even when suffering a life-threatening illness, even in the depth of her grief over the death of her true love, Miss Kay never failed to scrape her last $5 out of her pocket, and lend all that she had to a fellow human being.
One jolt of her love, and the City of Oakland and the neighbors would find the redemption they can neither find within themselves nor extend to the recyclers.
Amir Soltani is a human rights advocate and journalist. He is the co-director of the documentary film Dogtown Redemption.