by Amir Soltani
Open letter to the City of Oakland and City Attorney Barbara Parker
Congratulations. You won. You stuck to your story. And your story won. The City won. The neighbors won. There is nothing like deploying the law to persecute the poor — to crush them, silence them.
That was a damn smart move. How did you find the perfect legal loophole? A bit like the fairy godmother, you waved your wand, and the law turned Oakland’s shopping cart recyclers into a nuisance.
Then you sprinkled some more of your legal magic, and they all turned into “thieves and addicts.” Bravo Barbara Parker. California is proud of your legal sleight of hand. I trust the outcome is satisfactory? Are the neighbors pleased? Have you received additional accolades?
Surely Californians can now recognize the importance of the Parker doctrine: the belief that the purpose of the law is to secure outcomes that advance the quality of life of “the neighbors”— to the detriment of everyone else. Nothing like exclusion. Perhaps now that it has been liberated, we can persuade “the neighbors” to rename the Fitzgerald Park after you.
Who needs the Kennedys? Their war on poverty is so 1960s, a distant memory. Your approach to poverty — a progressive donkey stomping on Oakland’s poor — is the Democratic Party’s Kodak moment.
What a masterful demolition job. You delivered on your promise to the neighbors. Madame City Attorney, you have made history. Or at least turned it inside out.
After 40 years, what a reversal of fortune for Oakland’s recyclers. After eking out an existence on the margins of society, you stripped them of the right to their labor, the right to their money and the right to their freedom. And, of course, their park.
Ahoy, O former people of Oakland, you pathetic thieves and addicts, lost and last tribes of America, sons and daughters of that radical left-wing tramp, Charlie Chaplin, listen up.
The oracle of Oakland is addressing you. The law speaketh, loud and clear:
“Thou shall not push shopping carts in the streets of our fair Oakland. Or else. Or else you perish.
“OPD will stop you, and slap you with tickets, and slash you with fines, and who knows what else.
“Somebody has to subsidize the City of Oakland law-and-order gang, why not you evil shopping cart recyclers. You are a disgrace — not us.
“Make way for the uberati. Get off our pavements, buzz off of our streets.”
The recyclers know who the OPD represents. It is your graffiti that gets written on every wall. And it is their faces and reflections that get wiped off every wall and washed out of every park.
Here is what else they hear from Oakland officials:
“Trash is city property. What is it about property that you poor people don’t understand? Touch it, and we will charge you for theft, assault, trespass. Trash is a revenue stream, not a welfare check. Every bottle and can that you touch makes you a thief. No, you have no right to the City Attorney’s discarded coke can.”
And it is not just your voice they hear. The neighbors say the underclass use their income to feed their foul habits. They say you recyclers aren’t just thieves, you are addicts too. You tax the patience and revenue of the virtuous homeowners, our beloved West Oakland neighbors, and the $1 billion garbage mafia that serves them, one trash can at a time.
Shame on you poor people. Shame. Just look at the mess your shopping carts leave behind. Look at all the crumbs. Your theft of all this waste is a scar on the environment. All this heat is making the city’s polar ice caps to melt.
And noise pollution, the rattle of that horrible shopping cart of yours outside my window, at all hours of the day and night. How dare you disturb our peace, and my sleep? Can’t I have a cappuccino in peace, on a weekend, without the sight of your shopping cart blocking my view?
And no, sorry, you can’t use the toilet at Starbucks. Or any other spot. Chamber of Commerce rules. Nope, you have to pay to pee. And, no, the state of your bladder and intestines are no concern of mine. The law is about technology, not biology. Of course, there is not a single spot where you can pee in Oakland.
No. don’t go behind the bushes. That’s reserved for dogs. You stink of sweat and urine. Humans shouldn’t smell. Why can’t you be polished and pretty? Like Libby, Lynette and Desley.
You, Eric the recycler, yes you. Stop protesting. That’s too masculine. You want to go to prison again? Good, so read what the neighbors have asked me to etch on your skin like a Scarlet Letter: “thief” and “addict.”
The age of the low-tech shopping cart is over. Oakland will now turn into San Francisco — a hi-tech enclave.
And how about a final bow? “No, no, please, neighbors, no standing ovation. Aw shucks, we at the City Attorney’s Office were just doing our jobs. And they are just losing theirs. I dedicate this legal loophole to the neighbors. This case — a coffin containing the remains of the recyclers — should help them recover from the trauma caused by shopping carts.”
Beautiful. Did you come up with the loophole all by yourself? Or did the neighbors help you? With an assist from the City Administrator? Was your office a part of their legal team? Or did they serve as your research assistants?
Do you have all the neighbors’ letters and pictures on file? Has the City Administrator collated them in alphabetical order? By any chance, might you share their names?
There is one decent neighbor — a budding Mapplethorpe — who loves to take indecent pictures of recyclers just when they are about to pee. Perhaps once this case is over the City could exhibit them at the Oakland Museum.
In your letter announcing the closure of Alliance Recycling, you draw quite heavily on what the neighbors say. Could you, at least, name five of the framers? Oakland’s version of Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, Hancock and Madison.
Why not offer us an insider’s view of the workings of democracy in America? We are all curious to know how a group as significant as Oakland’s shopping cart recyclers, gets redacted out of “We the People.” Or in this case, “We the Neighbors.”
The neighbors say that Alliance has been a consistent nuisance. The neighbors say that the recyclers are thieves and that the thieves use their money to do drugs in the park outside Alliance.
That’s all fine. But who are the neighbors? And how were the recyclers condemned in their court? Who was the judge? Who was the jury? Where is the evidence? How much were the damages?
Who has actually lost how many metal ladders? And how much sleep? How do the West Oakland neighbors monetize the damage from the recyclers? Look at how the price of condos in Magnolia Row, a block away from the recycling center, was once in the 200k range in 2010, and has now escalated to the 600k and 700k range. So is criminalizing the recyclers as thieves and addicts and shutting down their recycling center the best way to celebrate successful speculation in the hood?
Consider the imbalance — the inequality — between the neighbors you represent, and the recyclers. On a good day, a top-notch shopping cart recycler — not the disabled or senior ones who travel more slowly and more painfully — can make $104 if they pick up and haul 1000 pounds of glass to Alliance Metals. That’s roughly 7,000 glass bottles. If they pick aluminum cans, that’s 25-35 cans per pound, so it takes roughly 2,000 cans to total 65 pounds and earn $102.05.
Have you tried lugging, say, a 65-pound suitcase to the airport for one mile? How about through the streets of Oakland for five or ten miles?
Now put yourself in the position of Miss Kay. She weighed far less than 100 pounds. And heard voices. And had cancer. And looked for bottles and cans. Do you really think it is fair to take away her shopping cart, which is not only full of cans, but all her worldly belongings?
Do you really want the OPD to stop her for theft, make her empty her shopping cart, and leave her more stranded? Do you know how many bottles and cans she has to pick and deliver to Alliance Metals to afford 10 square feet of the 1,000-square-foot condos in Magnolia Row?
Is this what you studied law for? Is this why you entered public service? To rob the underclass — hundreds of Miss Kays — out of their recycling income?
Given all the streets and all the long miles that these folks have to travel every day while lugging that much weight, just to live another day, is closing Alliance Metals, without offering any of the recyclers an alternative, the righteous thing to do? Righteous is recycler Jason Witt’s word.
Is it a righteous thing to do when the City Attorney outlaws and closes the recycling center — and thus eliminates the paltry income earned by shopping cart recyclers who are barely staying housed — at a time when rents are skyrocketing?
Is closing a business that offers $3 million a year to folks like Miss Kay a proportionate response to the complaints of neighbors whose material losses due to the activity of the recyclers are negligible compared to what bottles and cans mean to the poor?
Do you expect me to buy into the narcissism of neighbors whose sense of entitlement recognizes no limit? How did they get to rig the scale of justice in your office so as to make the weight and worth of poor and homeless recyclers, as a population, utterly negligible?
How is it that gravity grants their labor some value but you and the neighbors do not? There is nothing wrong with them. What is wrong with you?
Did you actually step outside your office to verify the statements of the neighbors? Based on your surveys and data, how many of the recyclers are thieves? How many are addicts? Ten percent or 20 percent? OK. But what about the other 80 percent, including the seniors at St. Andrews Manor? Were there any other categories? Or just the two?
I interviewed West Oakland’s native son, former Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, during the filming of Dogtown Redemption. He grew up recycling. I’m happy to send you the videos where he describes this. And he shared a story with us about getting into a brawl in his Catholic elementary school after somebody had called him a dirty black African. Three categories.
His mother had replied that the only word that should have hurt him was “dirty,” and then only if it were true, and that he had every reason to be proud of his race and heritage, but that he was “1,001 adjectives.”
So please, do tell us, how did you, your staff and the neighbors come up with only two categories — thief and addict — when it comes to describing the activities of the recyclers? Who gave you and the neighbors the right to attack the pride, the heritage and the history of recyclers you have never bothered to meet, let alone befriend? Thief or addict. Pick one or both. And that is the only choice we are permitted on your menu?
But really, have you ever met a recycler? Or have you only encountered them through the surveillance cameras and slurs of the neighbors? Easier to meet them on the street, as flesh, than search for them in law books, as corpses.
Do you think you could risk your legal career and reputation by coming up with other words and adjectives to describe, rather than defame, Oakland’s shopping cart recyclers? Dellums did.
Are you sure that the only thing they have ever been or can ever be is thieves and addicts and nuisances to the neighbors? How many recyclers are senior citizens?
Do you know Winnie? Adorable. A grandma. Had you shown up at Alliance Recycling on the last day, or for that matter, any day, you would have seen her, accompanied by her four-year-old grandson. They recycle. In your eyes, if not your books, which one is the thief and which the addict?
I’m curious. How many recyclers did you and your staff interview? What amount of legal research and due diligence went into your decision? Of course, most recyclers are not wired. They don’t have an electronic or online presence.
They may not be members of the West Oakland Neighbors or the Dogtown Neighbors Association. But that does not make them virtual. They have names. They are still part of the neighborhood, aren’t they? So how is it that you see them only in relation to the neighbors, and then only as a nuisance?
Has the law — your profession — robbed you of the gift of empathy, as surely as it has the neighbors?
Why must you see the recyclers solely in relation to crime? What is this jaundiced eye? Why can’t you see the recyclers in relation to each other, as friends and family? Or in relation to their labor? As economic agents and entrepreneurs?
Why do you magnify the prejudice of the neighbors into the prison in which the life and humanity of an entire community is obliterated?
Given that many have been recycling at Alliance since their childhood, how is it that you do not see the roots, the history and heritage that bind them and their memories to every square inch of Oakland? Not by virtue of money and comfort, but by virtue of toil and trauma.
A few more crucial questions:
How does your office draw the boundaries between the neighbors and the recyclers? How do you tell the difference between a neighbor and a recycler? In your judgment, where does the quality of life of one American begin and where does the quality of life of another end?
How does the City of Oakland justify administering the law in a way to secure outcomes that benefit one set of residents at the expense of another? Does the marginal benefit you secure for some neighbors justify the shock to others? Is that a compassionate solution?
I must say that I’m still utterly perplexed — perplexed by the double standard that favored one group of neighbors, and the unequal justice that permitted the City of Oakland to deprive poor and hard-working recyclers of their very livelihood.
You must pardon me. We immigrants are naïve. We cling to the Constitution with our lives, thinking, perhaps wrongly, that America is a land of laws, and the law is what binds us together as one people.
Sure, in Europe, the old world, the elites rule. Privilege and prejudice are the norm. The people are the subjects of princes. And princes are the law. They are the state.
But Oakland is still a part of America, and in America, the people — the neighbors and the recyclers — are equal under the law. They are free to recycle without being incriminated, en masse, as thieves and addicts, and subjected to collective punishment based on what neighbors say or think about their profession or behavior.
That is what makes America different from East Germany, or for that matter, the Islamic Republic of Iran. We don’t spy on each other. We don’t make false accusations. We don’t assume guilt. And we don’t engage in collective punishment. Or for that matter, in arbitrary, cruel and unusual punishment. That is still not, even if it is fast becoming, our creed.
The majesty of our legal tradition and ethos is derived from our respect for individual rights. The weakest among us is endowed with the same civil, economic and human rights as the wealthiest of European monarchs and Arabian sultans. We are not a polite nation of servile sheep. We are a rowdy and rebellious bunch. We don’t stomach hubris — British or otherwise. And we don’t celebrate narcissism. We puncture it.
Your job, as the City Attorney, is not to convert California into a cheap duplicate of Arabia — a place where the function of the law is to inflate the quality of life of royalty. Nor is it to create the conditions for riots and revolution by treating the poor as the third estate. We are a fair and decent people. We don’t kick folks who are down — the way Miss Kay was kicked to death. Rather, we reach down, as down as down can be, and lift people up.
If we could lift all of Europe and Japan out of the wreckage of war and poverty, how is it that we have become so poor and so pathetic that we cannot lift 40 million Americans out of poverty?
Why are we waterboarding the poor? Why are we, Republicans and Democrats alike, turning on each other and turning the law into an instrument for treating the poor — American citizens, one and all — as terrorists with no rights and no security in their own homeland?
You are toying with tyranny. And, worse. You are acting as if we Americans are a bankrupt nation — a democracy whose people lack the spirit, will, imagination and resources to mobilize in defense of our poorest and weakest citizens.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf may spend more time and money on her pedicure than on the poor, and neither she nor Lynette McElhaney have intervened on the recyclers’ behalf.
There is no excuse for Oakland’s Mayor and City Attorney and City Council president to act like Marie-Antoinette’s sorority sisters in a sorority that taunts and tramples on the poor. I know a lot of police officers who are a hundred times more compassionate towards recyclers than the class of politicians and lawyers who run the city.
Libby Schaaf may be the mayor and Barbara Parker may be the city attorney. But you are both accountable, not only for robbing Oakland’s poor of their daily bread, but also for treating them as criminals who are owed nothing and can earn nothing but your utter contempt. Your silence is as obscene as your statements.
To this day, not one of you has offered an apology, let alone a resignation, for permitting the neighbors to hijack the machinery of the city and run the recyclers over for obstructing their streets.
You have not extended the recyclers — and the people who voted you into office — the courtesy of knowing why you have labeled hundreds of poor people “thieves and addicts” without presenting the facts or evidence against them.
To this day, we do not have the benefit of knowing which neighbors you represent and which you do not. How many hours have you clocked listening to the neighbors plead their case? Why not extend ten minutes to hear out the recyclers? There are some folks in the city who would do that —perhaps none with more class and grace than Mike Church. Did you ask him about the homeless recyclers he and Operation Dignity have saved? Do you know how many hundreds of people owe their lives to Mike, and I must add, Susan Shelton?
Do you know how much contempt the neighbors directed at them for intervening to save Oakland’s poor, with virtually no resources, no support and no respect. Did you try reaching out to Mike before making such sweeping and stupid generalizations about Oakland’s recyclers? I don’t think so. His humanity, humor and intelligence would have rubbed off on you.
You are all in constant email contact and on a first name basis with the neighbors. And yet, you are not in touch with any of the recyclers. You don’t know their names, and would be hard-pressed to find them. You inhabit the sky. They inhabit the earth.
That is why your policies and laws make no sense to anyone other than yourselves and the neighbors. Your reality is completely divorced from the life and work of the recyclers. You impose your own horribly grotesque projections and distortions on them as a matter of doctrine in the name of a caste system — a legal racket sanctified in the name of the neighbors.
The rest of us are still wondering why you have adopted and touted as law, a policy premised on prejudice, without offering a single fact in support of your statements about recyclers.
Quite apart from your contempt for the poor, you are making a mockery of Oakland’s City Council.
May I refer you to the Oakland City Planning Commission, the Director’s Report, on May 5, 2004. The subject is Alliance’s compliance with the Conditional Use Permit. The Commission recognized Alliance’s right to accept walk-in shopping cart recyclers and even made proposals about where in the yard the recyclers should sort their bottles and cans.
The Planning Commission concluded:
1) The business is in full compliance with the state Stormwater, Management Monitoring Program requirements, including a General Permit issued in 1996.
2) The owner utilized two “Ride On” sweeping machines, and the perimeter of the site is swept daily.
3) Shopping cart clearance is handled through contract arrangements with two retrieval services (Protect-a-Cart and F&J Cart services) 1-2 times daily.
It is signed by Gary Patton, planning manager.
Why would the City Planning Commission grant Alliance a Conditional Use Permit, and consider its shopping cart retrieval and clearance business a cure — a decision that implicitly recognizes and protects shopping cart recyclers — if they were all “thieves and addicts.”
What changed in less than ten years? The Dellums administration stood behind the Planning Commission. The Jean Quan mayoral administration did the same.
What made the Schaaf administration reverse course? How does the Schaaf administration make policy? And for whom? What led you and the City administrator to open up this case and start searching for your precious little legal loopholes? Why would the City suddenly start fining Alliance thousands of dollars for accepting shopping cart traffic when the City government had instructed them on where and how to manage shopping cart traffic in the yard?
Did the streets of Oakland get narrower? Did the shopping carts get bigger?
How was it that in the span of a month, the Oakland Police Department stopped and fined dozens of shopping cart recyclers for obstructing traffic? Was that on the instructions of the City Attorney or Administrator? Was it just a random occurrence that took place without the mayor’s knowledge and support?
Or were you acting on behalf of the neighbors — not only manufacturing the law but also creating the facts to destroy the reputation and credibility of a business, raising the risks and costs as an indirect way of bypassing the planning commission to eliminate an industry that serves shopping cart recyclers?
Doesn’t precedent, history and tradition have any force? Is the entire city unmoored — to use Susan Shelton’s word — with no moral compass, no legal anchor and no political intelligence? Is holding elective office just a popularity contest in which the pretty candidate with the best posters gets to perform open heart surgery on the body of the city?
Are you sure that the City of Oakland’s employees are all fools — another underclass whose opinions, reports and deliberations can be thrown out the window at the stroke of your pen?
Please explain why the City Slicker farm folks who converted the park outside Alliance Recycling into a vegetable garden to share cheap, organic produce with the poor would build a little cabin to feed the “thieves and addicts?” Why would the City of Oakland provide them with a significant subsidy to serve the poor, only to shut down a recycling center that provided them with money? As Jasmine Smith, one of the recyclers, told us, you can’t pay your utility bills with broccoli, no matter how delicious.
Do you know what happened to the City Slicker farm cabin? It was torn down. Not by the recyclers, but by the neighbors. They accused City Slicker farms of drawing the poor into the neighborhood. Their crime? Feeding the poor in the park. As the neighbors saw it, the City Slicker folks were confused about their mission. Their job was to fence the parks and force the poor out, under the guise of growing vegetables. In the eyes of the neighbors, environmentalism was supposed to be just a front for white liberals to get rid of poor blacks.
During an earlier operation targeting the poor a few years ago, was it not your office that declared that Councilwoman Nancy Nadel’s attempt to ban shopping cart recyclers violated state laws? And did your office not make the case, before the City Council, that discriminating against the poor based on their mode of transportation violates the equal protection clause of the constitution?
I was there. I filmed it. There were hundreds of recyclers in the room. And they were not alone. Their supporters from Oakland and across the Bay Area had turned up to speak in their defense. Pastors, doctors, social workers, mental health professionals, and yes, neighbors too.
Were we not the people? How can you dismiss and discount our presence as if we were a mob — a crowd rented to lobby on behalf of thieves and addicts? Do you think you can wave your magic wand and dismiss all of us as a nuisance? How is it that you and the neighbors can consign all of that energy and history to the oubliette?
Do you recall what happened the day after? Operation Recyclergate! After many failed attempts, the OPD succeeded in slipping a $7.50 coil of PG&E copper wire — legible only under a microscope — past Maria, Alliance’s weigh master. Dozens of police cars descended on Alliance in a major show of force and they began scouring the premises in search of stolen material and drugs.
Maria was devastated. She could not stop crying. She thought she had failed her boss, fellow workers and customers. Everybody else was terrorized and traumatized. Alliance had to produce records for hundreds of thousands of transactions. And spend thousands on legal fees.
The discovery process was fascinating. Recyclergate exposed massive collusion between the city administrator’s office and the OPD — including the redaction and deletion of emails.
Arturo Sanchez’s name kept coming up. Ironically, he worked for the city administrator in some capacity. And I distinctly recall being excluded from a meeting he was having with the neighbors. No more than six or seven people. Are they the same people you are representing?
So, please, review the Recyclergate case. The city lost. Alliance received a $75,000 settlement. Is that PG&E wire — valued at $7.50 — the basis for your claim that Alliance owners encourage theft? Does it not bother you that at the instigation of the neighbors, policemen posed as recyclers in order to frame an entire community as thieves? Is that a wise use of public funds?
Do you not think of the toll these operations take on a police force already stretched to the breaking point? Isn’t it you — the City Attorney — who has encouraged the police to manufacture theft and produce nuisance to please your clients, the neighbors? Isn’t that a massive waste of taxpayer money, to mention nothing about the damage to Oakland’s reputation as a city with a heart?
How can you and the City administrator conspire with the neighbors to bypass the City Council and the people?
The nuisance loophole enabled you to charge shopping cart recyclers for blocking traffic, and impose massive fines on Alliance, thereby imploding their business model by reducing shopping cart recyclers into persona non grata. Then the City offered the owners a year to relocate or face fines of $1,000 per day.
That is a true measure of how much you, the city administrator and the neighbors detest the poor, and how badly you want them walled off. Isn’t it a measure of impunity — your certainty that they are too weak, too tired and too broke to defend themselves? You hold all the cards, don’t you? You are the law. And, right or wrong, the mayor and neighbors all stand behind you. California lawyer of 2015.
The law is a weapon. You wield it without mercy. There are no consequences if you destroy property, decimate jobs and damage lives. In your case, the wages of hundreds of the poorest Oakland residents were eliminated by the City’s attack on Alliance, and the loss of income amounts to $3 million per year.
And the victims will no doubt show up in hospitals and morgues, at a hundred times the cost to the city and county. You see, you didn’t just take away their money. You took away, in the words of Maria, their home away from home.
No matter how sick Miss Kay was, when she got to the recycling center, even if she had two cans, she would find protection, in the form of friends. Landon would slip her $5. Bonnie would give her a blanket, and Jason a cigarette. That was a form of insurance, much cheaper than Obamacare. You took all of that away. You and your gang destroyed it for all of us. We lost our turf — the only place where we could stand and be respected because Miss Kay treated all of us as human beings.
So did Ruby, an older Chinese woman whose house is opposite Alliance. Ruby is old school. She had a grocery store in Oakland. And so for years, when mothers did not have money, she’d let them walk out of the store with milk, without blinking. She didn’t take pictures and call on the city to protect her property against thieves. She let it pass.
Ruby was not one to tolerate poverty. And to this day, those kids who drank her milk — the kids born into poverty and bound to shopping carts — remember Miss Ruby. They stop by and help her with her lawn. And they make sure she is okay.
Miss Ruby was a grocer. But she didn’t have a grocer’s mentality. Miss Ruby, Madame City Attorney, is my kind of neighbor. And you do not represent her. She would never — not in a thousand years — refer to the kids that she fed as thieves and addicts.
Miss Ruby lives directly opposite the recycling center. She is the one most impacted by it. Not by the nuisance, but by the legacy of poverty haunting the kids whose mothers’ only way of buying milk is by recycling trash in the recycling center you so cavalierly dismiss as a consistent nuisance.
Ruby’s getting old and frail. She will not live a great deal longer. And the sad thing is that among all the neighbors who have written to you, she is the one who leaves behind a legacy of love. I wish you and the neighbors had a touch of Ruby’s light and joy. She knew what it meant to survive against all odds. She knew what it meant to care, and to love. You don’t.
When will you begin to understand how much damage you and the neighbors have caused? It was an act of economic sabotage to charge Alliance’s owners, and by implication, its employees and customers, with “encouraging theft.” That is exactly what you have done: you have jacked up the cost of doing business with anyone pushing a shopping cart.
You have bankrupted a business. You have caused unemployment. You have manufactured homelessness. And you have not even had the moral imagination to think of a solution or an apology.
You talk about the quality of life of the neighbors, ad nauseum. Bullshit. They are all fine. They have all their material needs covered and more. And their property prices have shot through the roof. If they are victims, they are a victim of addiction to comfort and luxury. Volvos and Audis.
It is Miss Kay and thousands like her who are at risk. Instead of recognizing and supporting the City’s homeless outreach efforts — the attempt to scrape lives off streets hours before they expire — the neighbors whine about “Operation Indignity” not cleaning up styrofoam off the streets.
But what about the quality of life of the homeless people of Oakland? And the recyclers? Does your office keep track of hate crimes against the poor? Or do you consider it a waste of time to concern yourselves with people whose lives and work you label as a nuisance?
Miss Kay was killed. A neighbor tripped on her while she was sleeping outside the CVS store in Emeryville, and then began beating and kicking this small, desperately ill woman nearly to death. Despite the intervention of the Emeryville police and the dedication of the staff at Highland Hospital, she never emerged from her coma.
She is not alone. If you were to visit the recycling center, you would notice that many of the recyclers are wearing hospital wristbands. They are already on the edge, with anxiety, stress, and blood pressure off the charts.
They are exposed to every form of violence. They are each other’s only protection. Nature is bad and harsh enough. Why must you and the neighbors make their lives even more difficult?
Why let the OPD cite them for obstructing traffic? Why fine them and force them to empty their bottles and cans, and what little property they have on the street? Why treat them as thieves when you know that Alliance has a service that washes and returns shopping carts back to the supermarkets?
Why is it that instead of doing everything in your power to address homelessness and poverty, you not only let it fester, but make it worse? Is it not bad enough that a woman as beautiful and dignified as Miss Kay is forced to live on the street, with no protection whatsoever? Why treat her as filth and dirt? Why punish her as if she were a biological, economic and environmental hazard? Why project all our fears of death and decay on her?
Have you considered the recyclers’ complaints against the neighbors? Do you really know who the neighbors are? Have you followed what they say, or seen how they behave?
For some history, check out the West Oakland Neighbors’ old website: “My Beautiful West Oakland.” That is where you will find the neighbors labeling the recyclers as thieves and addicts. Also prostitutes. Is that website your source?
The neighbors don’t just target the recyclers. They are revolted by what they call the homeless “epidemic” in West Oakland. And they don’t just object to recyclers doing drugs in the park. They object to church groups, or as they put it, “packs of christens,” feeding the pigeons.
The neighbors also played an active role in urging the City and County to crack down on homeless people. They harassed the recyclers by urging the City and OPD to undertake, among other things, “shopping cart stings.” Here are some excerpts from their website, absolutely shot through with prejudice:
Enough is Enough
We’ve gone back and forth between the city and the County but the mess still piles up…the area around the underpass, Alliance Metals and the adjacent park are reprehensible (wow, I’ve used that word twice in two posts) What is going to get the City or County to take action…at least a little clean up or a stolen shopping cart sting.
The neighbors actively exchange photos of the homeless and recyclers on their website. And it is not only their cameras that they threaten to aim at their targets.
Smile for the Camera
We’ve been encouraging neighbors to take more pictures… Yesterday I found the following in my InBox: “You were right about them running from a camera. This series of pics was taken yesterday. I have had trouble with this guy before and instead of bringing out my gun I brought out my camera and he literally ran away concealing his face and hopping the fence…”
Although much of the neighbors’ statements focus on nuisance behavior, there is also a strong undercurrent of racial alienation and aggression.
We the People…
It seems “West Oakland for the people” means you have to be black to qualify as “people”…which is too bad for many folks…including our Councilwoman, Nancy Nadel.
Here is another example of their “thoughts” on race:
A neighbor wonders if we need a new word in the dictionary. She could be right. Read on…
“I was thinking about the term gentrification and how improving a neighborhood is seen as a negative thing. Well, what about ghetto-rification as a new word? Why isn’t it just as bad to come into a nice neighborhood and begin to sell drugs and toss garbage everywhere and crap in the streets-doesn’t that push people out too? After all, if West Oakland was at one time the largest middle class black neighborhood in the US-then what happened? I invite someone, anyone, to explain to me why because I am white, I am responsible for the degradation of the neighborhood…so why am I the problem? This neighborhood was a filthy haven for drugs, prostitution and theft when I moved here. It still is.”
Nancy Nadel, then the West Oakland City Councilwoman, was scapegoated for failing to crack down on crime:
Our city council member says she does not believe in jail. Well, then, I leave it to her to draw up the necessary adoption papers so that she can take legal custody of these kids and address their unacceptable behavior.
In protest, Nadel took on the neighbors for their email bullying:
Thankfully there are some of us intelligent enough to know that jail is not the only solution to stopping crime, nor does isolation by itself successfully end anti-social behavior. I was just listening to a news report tonight about much email bullying is done amongst youth on their networks. I wonder what analysis would find of these adult email networks.
Of course, Madame City Attorney, before adopting the divisive rhetoric of the West Oakland Neighbors as your only source of information about the recyclers and the homeless, you and Mayor Schaaf could have consulted with Nancy Nadel, Susan Shelton and Mike Church and countless other city officials. You didn’t.
Don’t you consider it odd that so many of the neighbors have such a strange obsession with Alliance’s toilet? Again the filth metaphor — when it was not attached to the body of the recyclers, it was attached to the owners of the recycling center. This by neighbors who had never actually seen Alliance’s toilet, and never knew Rita, the lady who took great pride in keeping Alliance’s toilet clean.
Could it be that the coordinated, relentless and systematic complaints about shopping carts is code for the racial and economic cleansing of the neighborhood?
Did you at any point consider putting yourself in the shoes of the recyclers? Do you know how many recyclers complain about strangers taking their pictures without their permission? Are you not alarmed by neighbors who are obsessed with the bodily functions of the homeless, acting like paparazzi trying to catch their prey in exposed and incriminating situations?
Isn’t that crossing a boundary — with virtue and morality as the puritanical front for voyeurism, and with poverty as porn? Surely, you recognize the power of racial, economic and legal codes. Racism, slavery and sadism manifest themselves as propriety, civility and civilization.
The neighbors act as settlers who want to turn Oakland into a replica of Jamestown. The recyclers have to conform with the rules and conditions of the neighbors. And so they are subjected to constant surveillance and policing: an obsessive desire to impose rules and regulations on the filthy body of savages engaged in foul practices in the wilderness — in our case, the park outside Alliance.
Anyway, you have done your job. Our appeals and petitions have been ignored. Oliver Stone’s letter failed to move you. The ACLU had no impact. The NAACP less. Protests led by Pastor Lankford came to nothing. No one cared to hear Eric and countless other recyclers — from the elderly to the disabled — describe what recycling did for them.
The owners of Alliance Recycling did the math and read the tea leaves. Who wants to fight the City of Oakland — and assume thousands of dollars in fines and legal costs — in the name of protecting shopping cart recyclers? How do you convince businessmen to lose money so you can wage a battle they have already lost?
In the end, the recyclers did not have a leg to stand on. Nothing worked. We did not manage to break through City Hall. So much for the power of film. And activism. Of course, I should have known better.
And so, with the stroke of your pen, after operating in West Oakland for over forty years, Alliance Metals was closed, for good, at noon on August 20, 2016.
Maurice, the security guard at Alliance, started pulling on the chain a few minutes before noon. He hollered, as he has for years, “we are closed, we are closed,” for the last time. Such stoic sadness. The gate came down. A few recyclers didn’t make it in, but one managed to slip through. Thanks to Victor.
In the end, it was all so normal. And yet it was the death of an epoch, the loss of so much and so many.
Now, Alliance will turn into condos. As the Clawson school has. And the kids who grew up in the neighborhood, as students at Clawson, and recyclers at Alliance, will become strangers in their own homeland.
Thank God for Larry, tall and lanky. How much I love him. After the gates came down, and long after Lance, the owner, had sold the sculptures that, like the recyclers, were fixtures in West Oakland, long after C3PO was yanked off his perch and hauled into his morgue, Larry stayed behind.
He had a job to do. And he did it. He has worked at Alliance as a day employee for 13 years. Through three heart attacks. And diabetes — a missing toe. Not a word of complaint, not from Larry. Just duty and devotion honed down into ritual, practiced to perfection. Boy does he know how to make buckets skate on asphalt. Juggles and shuffles them by the dozen.
Larry. Loyal to the very end, long after the captains had abandoned ship. It was Larry who climbed up a ladder, reached out as only he could, and pulled down the American flag.
Nobody from the City of Oakland attended the ceremonies. No sign of the mayor or the city attorney. Or for that matter the City Council president. And the neighbors? Nowhere to be seen. You would think they would want the credit for sinking a supposed slave ship that supposedly housed so many criminals.
Why, you could have easily snatched Larry’s American flag and waved it from the rooftop of City Hall. And all the poor neighbors, terrorized by the “addicts and thieves,” could finally attain their dream of picnicking in their park, without a thief or an addict in sight.
The funeral of Alliance, like the burial of so many other industries, was a solitary affair. It was a weekend in August. The mayor and everybody else were off, no doubt enjoying their month-long vacations.
All that remained was a relic, Ohio Smith. He was working on a Saturday, disturbing everyone’s peace. Engaging in “theft” to feed his one-year-old’s addiction to milk. Ohio held up his receipt as if it were his raison d’etre: $80 and change. Not bad for two hours, though it is hard to work at his rapid pace.
He asked the mayor — or was it a question voiced into the wind — how he was going to pay his utilities bill without the recycling center. Nobody appeared to have the heart to tell him the truth: He wasn’t going to be able to pay it.
For Ohio, the lights are going out. The City Attorney, acting on behalf of the neighbors, had designated him, and presumably his kid, a nuisance — a thief and an addict. Ohio Smith. Schaafted. August 20, 2016.
Congratulations to the mayor and city attorney. You won.
So much for Christ and the promise of redemption. So much for the lost sheep.
He told them this parable. “Which of you men, if you had one hundred sheep, and lost one of them, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that was lost, until he found it? When he has found it, he carries it on his shoulders, rejoicing. When he comes home, he calls together his friends, his family and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’” — Luke 15:3-7