An Open Letter to Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf from Amir Soltani
Dear Mayor Schaaf,
One of the great legends of the French Revolution is the statement Jean Jacques Rousseau attributed to a “great princess,” most commonly ascribed to Marie-Antoinette. Upon learning that France’s peasants had no bread, she declared, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.”
“Let them eat cake.”
When I moved to West Oakland, I was surprised to find that the poverty is so deep in the city that there is a virtual cottage industry of poor people who survive by picking up our trash. Yours and mine.
We are not talking about one or two people. We are talking about hundreds of people. Bottles and cans are their daily bread. No cakes for them.
They gather their bottles and cans as best they can, often on foot, but also with shopping carts, bikes and even prams, and convert their daily haul into cash at Alliance Metals, a recycling center near the MacArthur Highway on Peralta Street.
I have followed their lives for over eight years during the course of filming Dogtown Redemption. I have witnessed the hardship, the intelligence and the resilience that goes into recycling bottles and cans. I know what recycling means and what it does for them.
For Jefferson Miles, a longtime Oakland resident, and a retired longshoreman, recycling was a daily ritual. A heart attack had left him half-paralyzed and homebound. He did not sit at home with a cane. He moved through the city with his shopping cart. Recycling broke his isolation. And it kept his heart pumping.
For Thomas Sommerville, a Vietnam veteran who lived out of his truck, recycling was an honest, Christian way to make a living. It was crime-free.
For Ros, Marvel and Heather, recycling was the ticket out of prostitution. Picking up trash all day, to them, was about reclaiming their bodies and lives. That’s liberty with a very big “L.”
For Miss Kay, a former drummer for the band Polkacide, recycling was a way to fight back grief and mental illness. The walking and working structured her day and steadied her mind.
For Jason Witt, a high school drop-out, recycling has been a test of his character, creativity and resourcefulness — a job that allows him to overcome injuries and illnesses most of us cannot imagine.
I wish I could pretend that you do not know the recyclers. I wish I could pretend that they are strangers to you, and to the members of the Oakland City Council.
But they are not. As a member of the City Council, Mayor Schaaf, you have repeatedly heard the recyclers’ testimonies. You know what recycling at Alliance means to them. And not only to them, but to the countless faith leaders, medical and mental health professionals, homeless advocates, social entrepreneurs and business leaders who have stepped up to the plate and stood before the City Council and spoken in their defense.
I should add that over the past decades, the recyclers have had many defenders and advocates within the City, as reflected in the internal deliberations, reports and decisions by departments ranging from planning to legal.
The general consensus, for decades, has been that on balance, Alliance is a viable business, one that serves as a lifeline for Oakland’s underclass. One measure of this value is that Alliance pumps up to $3 million in the pockets of its walk-in and shopping-cart clients. Another is that the business has been operating in Oakland for decades. It has grown at a time when all other forms of support for the poorest citizens have been shrinking.
Its success is not a reason to destroy it. It is a reason to recognize how desperately poor people need legitimate sources of income and support.
As a member of the Oakland City Council, you have not just heard these voices and facts. You have also voted on them. So have the other members of the City Council. Every time the question of shutting down Alliance was brought before the Council, the Council has voted to keep Alliance open.
On one such occasion, I interviewed your distinguished predecessor, Ron Dellums. He dismissed attempts to shut down Alliance by denying Oakland’s residents the right to recycle trash as a “backhanded” way of “dehumanizing” the poor.
It is against this historical and political background that I find your administration’s failure to address the plight of Oakland’s shopping-cart recyclers a matter of grave concern.
First, until now, you have refused to disavow statements made by the Oakland City Attorney’s Office. I do not believe that Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker believes in the statements issued by her office. But she too has failed to disavow them. The statements of the neighbors are treated as if they are the letter of the law. Yet none of their charges has been presented in public, let alone ruled on by a court of law.
In letters sent to your office and that of the City Attorney, I have challenged your right to label shopping-cart recyclers, en masse, as “thieves and addicts.” Such statements have no basis in fact or law. The City of Oakland should not target an entire class of people, most of whom are poor, many of whom are African-American, and some of whom are disabled, by virtue of their economic status.
As you and the City Attorney are undoubtedly aware, earlier attempts by Councilwoman Nancy Nadel to ban shopping-cart recyclers based on their mode of transportation were deemed discriminatory and illegal, a violation of state law.
As Mayor, you have taken an oath and assumed an obligation to serve and protect all of Oakland’s residents, not some. Yet the entire process by which the City of Oakland has moved to shut down Alliance by labeling it as a nuisance is suspect.
After failing to shut down Alliance by banning shopping-cart recyclers, and after launching several failed sting operations with the intent to frame Alliance’s owners, employees and clients as thieves, the City suddenly found a convenient legal loophole and started fining Alliance thousands of dollars on the grounds that shopping-cart recyclers block traffic.
Faced with the risks of massive fines — as well as massive emotional stress — the new owners relented. The neighbors had essentially converted the City’s legal machinery into a private instrument for aborting a local business. The City Attorney acted on their behalf and reported to them. As reflected in the City Attorney’s letter to the neighbors, the law and facts were distorted, and fines imposed to secure “outcomes” that the Attorney’s Office believed would advance the “quality of life” of the neighbors.
No consideration was given to the impact of labeling shopping-cart recyclers as thieves and addicts. They were stripped of the dignity of their labor and robbed of their source of income without the slightest concern for the impact of such prejudices and policies on the quality of their life.
The poor were trashed. You permitted the machinery of the City to serve one and only one constituency. And you denied another constituency — an entire community of poor, largely African-American residents — the right to defend themselves. They were condemned and incriminated, a priori, as thieves and addicts. No facts. No evidence. The neighbors said so. And you believed them and acted on that belief. Or at least, permitted the City Attorney’s Office and others to do so.
And what is more, since the new owners had stepped into a trap, the City was in a position to blame them for breaking the rules, violating the neighbors and betraying the recyclers. In politics as in business, fair is foul and foul is fair — anything to please the neighbors. And everything to wipe out the source of nuisance, trash and blight — the recyclers.
Mayor Schaaf, all of this has happened under your watch. It is all very sneaky. Clearly, elevating the quality of life of some Oakland residents over the economic livelihood of hundreds of others does not bother or trouble you. It is your policy to sanctify prejudice as law. And it is your policy to institutionalize inequality by focusing your energy on protecting the quality of life of the middle-class and neglecting the quality of life of the poor.
You are blind to privilege even when it manifests itself as prejudice — the degradation of shopping-cart recyclers by neighbors. You give the neighbors the loudspeaker. But when it comes to the poor, you push the mute button.
Have no illusions about the price of your silence.
Words can kill multitudes. They shape prejudices. They feed perceptions. And they form policies.
We don’t need to look to Trump to understand that hateful speech leads to harmful actions.
Barbara Parker’s speech — at least what has come out of her office — is enough to make Trump blush. Somehow in Oakland, the supposed bastion of liberal and progressive politics, it is okay to label the poor, en masse, as thieves and addicts, and to deny them their only source of income. And it is okay to cut hundreds of recyclers off by destroying the recycling business that serves them.
This is the logic of collective punishment. The same logic, if applied to the OPD over the recent sex scandal, would mean closing down the Oakland Police Department on the grounds that all policemen are sexual predators. You are the first to defend the policemen. You insist on granting them due process instead of firing them, en masse. The City protects its own. The police are your boys. The recyclers aren’t. And so you have no qualms about shutting down the recycling center, simply based on what the neighbors say.
Let’s have no illusions about the impact of Barbara Parker’s words or your silence. When you incriminate an entire profession and label any group as thieves and addicts, you are setting them up for prison. And for poverty. And in far too many cases, for the morgue.
Nobody blames you for the crisis of poverty and homelessness enveloping America, or even Oakland. It is bigger than one person. But as mayor, you set the tone. You are the leader. You define the politics and the culture. Your values inform the people. You act and speak in their name.
When you are silent before the atrocity being unleashed against the recyclers, when you are silent when they are called thieves, and silent when they are called addicts, then you are degrading their life and distorting their work by failing to recognize and defend their humanity.
And when you fail, the city fails, the people fail and America fails. Everybody else knows that they too can fail to recognize the humanity of the poor. The OPD knows it. The neighbors know it. Kids know it. Criminals know it. The poor and the homeless are easy targets. It is okay to get rid of them. After all, their presence violates the quality of our life. They are dirty. They are foul. And they are offensive. Just like trash. Let’s get rid of them. And what better way to get rid of them than by destroying the recycling center where they congregate — the church of the poor.
Besides, nobody’s keeping tabs on them in the morgue. The cause of their death is not our prejudice or policies. It is not your absence or silence. It is they, the poor, who have failed themselves. Not us. Not the neighbors. Not the owners of Alliance. And certainly not you.
Of course, no one can know your constraints, your true intentions and motivations. Or for that matter, the content of your character or conscience. But one can judge you based on your conduct and your actions. And so far, I can assure you that you have failed — and failed dismally — when it comes to serving and protecting Oakland’s poor.
If you truly cared about Oakland’s shopping-cart recyclers, as some neighbors claim they do, then you would feel some responsibility for their fate once Alliance shuts down on August 20. You would have commissioned a study, and at least interviewed a handful of recyclers, to see if the claims about them by the City Attorney and neighbors pass muster.
Even if all the charges were true — and every recycler in Oakland was proven beyond a shadow of doubt to be a thief and an addict — you would have still searched for their humanity and dignity. You would have treated them honorably because you would act and speak in the name of all the people of Oakland, the living as well as the dead.
You would reflect what is best about Oakland by making sure that every citizen and resident, even and especially those who are lost, deserve a shot at redemption. That the thief and the addict are not just a thief and an addict, but to borrow from West Oakland’s native son, Ron Dellums, 1,001 adjectives, many of them sublime.
You would have seen their resilience, their creativity, their compassion and their courage. You would not stoop down to the lowest common denominator. You would not look at them through the narrow perspective of the neighbors, but with your own eyes and through your own heart. And that of Martin Luther King and Mandela, Kennedy and Roosevelt. You would be bound by the highest principles that hold our nation together. As a matter of constitutional duty, you would be the first to disavow the twisting of the law to harm the poor. You would guard the fabric of language because every life in Oakland, including that of the homeless, the thief and the addict, would matter to you.
I have been waiting for evidence of compassion. So far, I have found none. If you cared about the shopping-cart recyclers, you would have a plan for them. Given that the City accuses Alliance’s owners of short-changing the recyclers, you would have set aside at least $3-10 million annually for the next ten years — only a fraction of the $1 billion Waste Management contract — to offer an alternative to Alliance’s employees and the shopping-cart recyclers. You have done nothing of the sort. The question has not been asked. And the problem has not even been recognized.
Given all the hours of consideration given to the neighbors and their quality of life, how many hours have you and your office devoted to the fate of the recyclers after August 20? Can you share one internal memo to bolster confidence that over the past year you and your assistants have been planning to present Oakland’s poor with a better vision for their future? Is there, for example, a single scale or truck assigned to weigh and transport their bottles and cans to another recycling center?
Have you made any special provisions for the disabled recyclers who can barely walk to Alliance? Or are the disabled buried under the category of thieves and addicts too? What about the African-American women and girls? Councilwoman Brooks was appalled when they said that if Alliance shuts down they would “ho”? What jobs do you have in mind for them? And those with mental health issues? What will happen to them when they lose their community center, and find themselves lost in a world in which no one recognizes or greets them?
What is the plan, Mayor? Where are the poorest residents of West Oakland supposed to go in a game of Monopoly in which no one can afford the price of labor, land, space or time? And if there is none, what does that say about your vision for our City and people’s future? It is one in which the poor have not only ceased to count — they must cease to exist. Their very presence is offensive. All they can be and all they can expect from your administration is to be labeled as thieves and addicts. Why? Because the neighbors say so.
Do you know Moses, a homeless recycler featured on Fox’s local channel? He sells Street Spirit — the homeless newspaper — and he recycles at Alliance. He’s the guy with the “Homeless Lives Matter” sign. Pray tell, when Alliance is shut down, will you invite him to stay at your house? Will the neighbors? Of 200 members of his family, only 10 remain in Oakland. Do you wonder what happened to his clan? Were they all labeled as thieves and addicts? Or perhaps blight? How were they wiped out? How were they defamed and dislocated? How much silence did that take on the part of public officials?
Mayor Schaaf, on August 20, the City of Oakland’s guillotine will come down on their heads, hearts and homes.
It is happening on your watch, so you should be ready to take the credit for it. You and the City Attorney. Crack open the champagne. Maybe have a fundraiser. Be sure to invite the neighbors. Offer them the scalp of the owners of Alliance. And throw in a few recyclers. Perhaps you can even hang a giant sign over Alliance, and around the necks of all of Oakland’s poor: Schaafted.
August 20, 2016. Mission accomplished.
The truth is that the Mission is accomplished. Oakland is already dead. If there were life in it, if there were love in it, we would never label our poor as thieves and addicts. That’s not a measure of their poverty. It is a measure of our poverty. It is a measure of your poverty.
Poverty, as Landon Goodwin, one of our recyclers, now a pastor, reminded Lynette McElhaney at our West Oakland film screening, is a state of mind. So is prejudice. And privilege. They feed off each other.
Destroying Alliance on August 20 — the chop — is not about compassion, Madame Mayor. It is hateful and harmful prejudice masquerading as law. By virtually any definition, the systematic discrimination, incrimination and elimination of a vulnerable population is a form of state-sanctioned violence.
Sure it is happening on a small scale. What is the death of one recycling center or even one recycler in the grand scheme of things? The truth is that it is everything. It is our little corner of America. If you ask me, every square inch matters. Every life matters. Just as every death matters. And the test of a civilization is what we do at these inflection points.
August 18 is the anniversary of the death of Miss Kay. That is two days before your guillotine comes down on Alliance. I think a lot about why Miss Kay died on the streets. Why was she assaulted? Why are so many homeless people assaulted? Why do we fear, hate and hurt them? Why do we label them as thieves and addicts? How much pain and punishment get attached to these labels?
What happens when the City Attorney and the Mayor of Oakland lend the stamp and seal of their office to these charges? What does this language do to the most vulnerable, and often the most sensitive people in our midst? What does it do to the youngest and most impressionable?
While a few neighbors may consider the destruction of an American business and the elimination of jobs and the incrimination of the poor a victory, your job is not to reflect ignorance and cruelty, almost verbatim. It is to weigh and measure every word. It is to consider the consequences for Oakland. It is too late to commission a study. But one thing is guaranteed. There will be more homelessness and poverty in Oakland, not less. There will be more pain and more drugs, not less. And there will be more despair and more deaths, not less.
Madame Mayor: Have no illusions. The poor are paying the price of your silence.
Your silence robs them of their jobs. Your silence robs them of their dignity. Your silence robs them of their health. Your silence robs them of their homes. Your silence robs them of their hopes.
Oakland’s $1 billion garbage contract has already gone to Waste Management. Nobody is asking you for a share of the Waste Management cake. But please, for Oakland’s sake — if not God’s sake — break your silence. Do not deny the poor their dignity. Or their daily bread. Offer them opportunities and alternatives.
Amir Soltani is the co-director with Chihiro Wimbush of Dogtown Redemption, televised nationally on PBS. He spent eight years filming the lives of poor and homeless shopping-cart recyclers in West Oakland.