Interview by Terry Messman
Street Spirit: You were born and raised in Iran before coming to England and the United States as a youth. After the Shah of Iran was overthrown in 1979, there was a long period of repression and executions in Iran, and then the war with Iraq. When did your family leave Iran?
Amir Soltani: The Iranian Revolution was in 1979. About a year after the revolution, my parents sent me to school in England. I was in Iran until September of 1980, when I was 12, and our international school was being shut down, and executions were beginning. Then the Iran-Iraq War happened, and two years later, my mother and my two brothers left Iran.
[Editor: The Iran-Iraq war began in September 1980, when Iraq invaded Iran, and raged until 1988. A half-million Iranian and Iraqi soldiers and an additional half-million civilians are estimated to have died in the war.]
Spirit: Why did your parents send your two younger brothers out of Iran?
Soltani: Because Tehran was being bombed by Iraq at the time, and my mother was concerned about the impact of all that on my brothers. It was a very dangerous time, and psychologically it was a difficult time. Also, ideologically, the revolution had become very intrusive and difficult. So when kids are younger, it was easier; but as they get older, it was a little trickier for my mother. So she decided to leave and eventually settled in Boston when I was 16.
I was 12 when I first left Iran. My parents sent me to school in England and I lived in England for three years. I went to one of their traditional British public schools. Then my mother left Iran with my two brothers and went to Cannes in France, and then from France they came to Boston. When they moved to Boston, I joined them when I was 16. So I have been in America since I was 16.
Spirit: When you joined your family in Boston, what was your first impression of America? Do you remember what you felt about things like civil liberties and human rights in your new country?
Soltani: Even compared to England, America was much more of a free and egalitarian society. It felt that way to me right away. All these concepts of equality and opportunity and education — all of that was really available to us. I mean, my mom found a job and a place for us to stay, and I went to school and I had scholarships and everything. The America that we came to in the early 1980s was just a different place from America today — a much more open society, a much more confident society, much more abundant.
Spirit: In comparison to England, you found greater freedom in America?
Soltani: Yes. England was so hierarchical, so bound by rules. You would walk around the school and you couldn’t walk on the grass. You had to wake up at a particular hour and wear a suit and tie. I went to one of the old British public schools, and it was very much the Old World, it really was.
I remember, on the first day of school in America, one of my friends went and sort of tapped the headmaster, the school principal, on the back and said, “How are you doing, Charlie?” I think it was the biggest shock in my life, because you’d never address the headmaster by his first name in England, and you’d never tap him on the back. There wasn’t a sense of the ease of informality and the ease of interaction in England as I found in America. It really was quite shocking.
The other thing that was really surprising to me was that, despite the hostage crisis in the Middle East, which was a clash between Iran and America, at the human level, the welcome that we felt here was really deep. I never felt any prejudice because I was Iranian or because I was Muslim. Not once. That was really remarkable when you think about the fact that I came here maybe three or four years after the hostage crisis. Yet I didn’t experience prejudice.
“You stood by your friends”
Spirit: You’ve defended the human rights of poor and homeless recyclers, and you’ve written a graphic novel about repression and executions in Iran. Your brother Abdi Soltani is executive director of the ACLU of Northern California. How did brothers from the same family come to America from Iran and end up so dedicated to the preservation of human rights?
Soltani: I think a big part of it was our mother because our home was always a sanctuary for people. It just always was. That was the way you were: Your home and your heart were opened to the world. And having received this blessing, you also felt that you had much to offer.
Really, a big part of it was just our mother. She would protect everybody. It was amazing. Everyone from family and relatives who were really hurt after the revolution and didn’t have a place to go, to complete strangers who were in trouble. She helped Iranians and non-Iranians alike. And it was always fun. It was never a burden; it was always a privilege. The stories that people shared with us were amazing.
The same was true of my father. After the revolution in Iran, one of my father’s friends was in serious trouble, and had he been caught, he would have been executed. And had we been caught sheltering him, it would have been very serious trouble. At a time when nobody would open their doors to him, my father did. It wasn’t even a thought; that was just what he did. You stood by your friends.
Spirit: Why was the life of your father’s friend in jeopardy?
Soltani: The man he helped was a high-ranking Iranian minister in Bakhtiar’s government. Right after the Shah left the country, there was this liberal democrat named Bakhtiar who became prime minister. His government fell very, very quickly, and then what followed was just a rash of executions and repression.
The Mightiest Systems Can Fall
Spirit: What effect did your awareness of the danger and repression and executions have on you as a boy in Iran?
Soltani: I think it just made me know how fragile and vulnerable life is — and that ultimately, systems and governments collapse. And what really holds people together are the bonds between us. It’s not systems. It’s not governments. It’s not armies. It’s our personal connections. That was one of the legacies for us. And not just for us, but I think for all Iranians.
Many immigrants who are forced to leave their country because of political or religious persecution, just know that you can’t trust systems. You can’t trust systems! They are imperfect. They collapse like the Titanic. The strongest of systems can fail. The mightiest can fall. But we still have the ability to build little rafts and make room on them for each other.
Spirit: Are you and your brother Abdi still close, would you say?
Soltani: Very close! He’s coming over for Memorial Day weekend.
Spirit: Why do you think you and your brother are still close? Lots of grown-up siblings don’t remain close as adults.
Soltani: That’s a good question. For one thing, we’ve lost one brother, Hassan Ali. [Editor: Amir’s younger brother Hassan suffered from recurrent bouts of depression and bipolar disorder and ended his life nine years ago at the age of 39.]
Spirit: What else allowed you to remain so close to your brother?
Soltani: Well, I’m proud of him. It’s a combination of my affection and pride — and he’s my younger brother! How could I not be close to him?
Spectral Sound of Shopping Carts
Spirit: Given your commitment to so many international human rights issues as an activist and journalist, why did you devote nearly 10 years of your life to filming the daily lives of homeless shopping-cart recyclers in Oakland?
Soltani: I moved to my brother’s place in West Oakland almost 10 years ago, and when I moved there, it was a very nice little neighborhood, except that whenever we would put the trash outside the house, we would see people come to sort through the trash. Initially, I wasn’t really paying much attention to it.
But when we put out the trash, somebody would come and they would almost be inside the trash can — with half their body in the trash can. They were looking for food, and they were so close to you, but almost in a different world.
You would not just see one person, but sometimes you’d put the trash out, and in one day, 10 or 15 people would come and look through your trash, rummaging either for food or for bottles and cans. It was actually very painful to see that kind of poverty that closely. It was just palpable.
At night when you’d be sleeping, you’d hear almost the spectral sound of the shopping carts outside in the streets. And I’d think to myself, “Who is out there at 3 in the morning by themselves with a shopping cart?” Just the loneliness of it, Terry, was hard to ignore.
Spirit: It was hard for you to ignore the loneliness. Yet many people come to the Bay Area from elsewhere, and even if they’re shocked at first by the levels of poverty, over time, they do ignore it. You are one of the few that did not ignore it. Can you remember why?
Soltani: That’s the key question, you know. When I was growing up in Iran in my grandmother’s house, my grandmother was very much a part of the fabric of the community where we were living. A lot of times, we would give food to people who were hungry outside or passing by. It was almost that you just didn’t tolerate hunger around you — it would almost be a reflection of who we are as a family.
So I grew up with the sense that you take care of the people around you, and I think it was really something that was a part of my grandmother’s culture. And I think in a lot of ways, it’s a big part of Islamic and Iranian culture — that those social bonds matter. There is a sense of connection, so that people are not anonymous to you. The people around you are part of who you are.
I think that must have been a part of my sensibility when I saw poverty and hardship in Oakland. But I also just wanted to know who is there on the streets, and how come they’re going through my trash. I think when you’re an outsider in America, it’s even more shocking, because I had come to America as an immigrant. My family had come to America after the Iranian revolution as immigrants, as refugees and exiles. That’s how Iranians came to America.
So now I’m housed and sheltered and perfectly fine, and I have my schooling paid for by scholarships, and then to come here and see the level of homelessness that you could see in Oakland, it really was a shock to me, Terry. It just didn’t make sense. The question for me really was: How can this be possible in America?
Spirit: Many of us who have been faced with homelessness for 30 years are still asking that same question.
A Scene from a Fellini Film
Spirit: When did you first get to know recyclers on a personal level?
Soltani: From the window of my brother’s condo in West Oakland, you could look out and see the street. Coming down the street one day was a gentleman who was half-paralyzed and he was pushing a shopping cart. He started rummaging through our trash for bottles and cans, and I went out both to meet him and to help him. His name was Jefferson Miles and he was a former longshoreman who had grown up and worked in Oakland.
We started talking and then Jefferson and I walked down to the recycling center, Alliance Metals, down the street. When we got to the recycling center, that place just blew me away. In some ways, it was like a scene from a Fellini film. All these people were coming there from all directions… It almost was like a pilgrimage site or a shrine for the poor.
Spirit: Very few have ever compared a West Oakland recycling plant to a sacred shrine. Why did you have the image of a shrine?
Soltani: Well, because it was a redemption center, and it was where people were coming with their offerings to this site. They were bringing offerings of bottles and cans to this center — to this aluminum idol, or whatever it is — and getting some money and managing to live and survive.
Spirit: You once described a two-fold redemption at work. Just as old cans and bottles were being redeemed, souls were being redeemed on the streets of Oakland.
Soltani: Very much so. In fact, what was interesting is that we eventually learned that the site of Alliance Metals had been a church before being turned into a recycling center.
But, Terry, it really was like a Fellini set. There were people that, if you were to see them on the street, you would think that by any measure, by any accounting, they would be dead — because of their physical condition, their medical condition, their mental health condition, their emotional condition, and the bad hand that fate had dealt them. But they were somehow surviving! And that, to me, was so moving.
Having struggled with depression myself, and having lost my own brother to manic depression, seeing what people were doing in order to survive was just so moving. The dignity that I saw in people was extraordinary. And the amount of work that went into it, just the sheer physicality of the labor, was also extraordinary.
I mean, somebody like Jefferson who was half-paralyzed, was still out there recycling. And it wasn’t just a question of being poor and needing this work, it was also that this is what kept him alive. Walking was good for his body; it was good for his heart. This was his exercise and it was supplemental income and it was a community for him. He had friends there, and people recognized him there.
Spirit: I saw a strong sense of community at Alliance. Almost everywhere else, the poor are just shoved out of society. But at Alliance, people looked out for each other. There was a sense that you mattered and you counted. People cared about you.
Soltani: Totally! Very much so, and the caring was on so many levels. As we looked into it, we realized that people would lend each other EVERYTHING — from cigarettes to blankets and to words of comfort. People would be on the lookout for each other. I mean, people talk about Obamacare, but the redemption center was Obamacare on steroids.
If Miss Kay was sick, I could just leave word at the recycling center, and I would find her. The recycling center was also an address. In America, if you don’t have an address, you really don’t have an identity.
When people were short on rent or something, sometimes Bonnie, the lady who was behind the counter at the recycling center, would lend them money. Or if they wanted to rent a place and they didn’t have a bank that would attest to their income, they would ask the landlord to call Bonnie and she would vouch for them. It was like a mirror in which people finally had their reflection.
The Generosity of Poor People
Spirit: You found that poor and homeless people often were more generous to one another, in comparison with more affluent people. How do you explain that people with less would often give more?
Soltani: That’s a great question. Landon, after he left the recycling center, kind of moved into a middle-class life in Vallejo. He often said he felt a greater sense of belonging and compassion when he was at the recycling center in Oakland than in the sort of suburban life that he now had. I think part of it is just vulnerability.
When people are poor, they can’t conceal their suffering or their needs or their injuries in quite the same way that middle-class people can. There are no walls around them, no closed doors concealing them. When they are hurt, they’re lying there in the street; they’re not shut off in a bedroom out of sight.
When you’re poor, you can’t conceal things in the same way. Your shame is public. Your pain is public. By the same token, it’s also where you are affirmed, and it’s much easier for people to stand by you. On a human level, unsheltered people are more invisible to mainstream society, but by the same token, their suffering is more visible to one another.
I don’t want to romanticize it too much, because the other side of being on the street is that people do get preyed upon, and the weakest get preyed upon the most. Also, they can’t afford doctors and psychiatrists and trips abroad and all the other things that allow middle-class people to deal with their suffering and their addictions. So you just have to rely on the people around you, and on the family that you can create around yourself.
Spirit: You could have just spent a few weeks trying to understand this world. Why did you care so much about the world of shopping cart recyclers that you ended up spending nearly 10 years of your life filming Dogtown Redemption?
Soltani: I thought it was important for people to see this world. There were so many perspectives on poverty. We had the perspective of some of the people who lived in the affluent Magnolia Row neighborhood, and we had the perspective of the recyclers, so I thought the film would serve as a platform for a much deeper dialogue about these issues than the typical reaction, “Oh, we don’t want poor people in our neighborhood.”
It just seemed that the conversations that were being held around poverty were themselves very poor. So we began making the film, and the more we followed the characters, it was almost like archaeology — the path revealing itself. We saw the layers of trauma, both in terms of the personal lives of the recyclers, and in terms of the racial history of America, and in terms of the economic history of West Oakland and the politics of West Oakland. The more you got into this particular place, the more it seemed like a vantage point from which you could see a lot of forces playing out.
The Kindness of Miss Kay
Spirit: You came to know several of the recyclers over the course of filming them for many years on the streets of Oakland. What was it like when you saw all the difficult trials Miss Kay was going through?
Soltani: Miss Kay was the most vulnerable of the recyclers that we were filming. In some ways, she was the most innocent of the characters we were filming.
When Chihiro and I first started filming Miss Kay and her partner Fred, the artist, I realized her life was very much like my own. She had immigrated to America from Korea when her family essentially escaped the Korean War, and had then lived in Japan and then come to America. Even though I was interviewing her, she was the one who asked me the most questions about who I was and where I came from.
As we were making the film, Miss Kay was the one who would get sick the most often. Seeing her sleeping in a pile of trash or shivering at night under the Emeryville Town Hall building when it was so cold, it was just so painful — especially because she was like the finest of people. In some ways, she was very much an aristocrat, because her sensibilities were so fine.
If somebody in the recycling center was hungry and she had five dollars, she would give them the whole five dollars. She wouldn’t even think twice about it. I think that is one of the reasons why her family had shunned her, because she was just so generous. She told me her family didn’t want to be around her “because they say I give everything away.”
She had mental health issues and she’d had addiction issues, but she was a lover. She loved her life partner, a musician named Ward. And you just saw these layers of this extraordinarily beautiful woman’s life just shattered. It was like holding a mirror in which you saw the way she is now, but you could still sense the beauty within her.
A Haunting Image of Loss
Spirit: I was floored by the scene when Miss Kay searches for the grave of her best friend Fred. She looks so absolutely lost and lonely and despairing, and when she finally finds the marker, she throws herself on his gravestone and collapses. That image still haunts me. It is a picture of everything we can lose in this life.
Soltani: Yes, it was just devastating. The credit for filming that moment goes to Chihiro Wimbush (co-director of Dogtown Redemption) who followed Miss Kay on that day. And when she died, we took her ashes to that graveyard and put them next to Fred, before taking them to her father who was the other great male figure and friend in her life. She had always told me that she would love to be buried next to her father. But even at the very end, that request was denied.
Spirit: Denied by her own family?
Soltani: Yes, denied by her family. When you don’t even get to be buried next to your father, that is really something.
Spirit: It feels like it’s part of the larger story in our country of homeless people being discarded and disowned, even by their own families.
Soltani: And what was so amazing, Terry, was in the very end, her sister covered all of the costs of her cremation. Miss Kay was in a coma in the hospital for quite a few days, and the number of people that came to visit her there, the number of her friends on the streets of Oakland, was incredible. The true love of her life, who was a guy named Ward, came and he was with her at the hospice.
A florist on Fourth Street named Gene came and brought the most beautiful dress for her. So she left this world with an enormous amount of dignity and just surrounded by love. But it was also a brutal end because she was assaulted.
Spirit: The standard role of the journalist would have been to film Miss Kay homeless on the street, and yet remain uninvolved. My wife Ellen Danchik was working at St. Mary’s Center for homeless seniors at the time, and she was greatly inspired by how much you cared for Miss Kay and how you helped her by seeking housing and services for her, and taking her to doctor’s appointments. Instead of being an “objective journalist,” you became personally involved in trying to help Miss Kay survive.
Soltani: You know, Terry, I don’t think there is such a thing as objectivity in this case. We never pretended to be objective. And the truth of the matter is that her life was — and remains — much more important than the film will ever be. So, yes, our friendship was deepened.
Chihiro Wimbush was my co-director on the film, and a lot of the beauty of the film was a function of the emotional bond between him and Miss Kay, and myself and Miss Kay. By the end, nobody even noticed the camera. We were so much a part of their lives that the camera just vanished.
I think you often end up filming the relationships that you have. This was the first film I had made, so I wasn’t thinking about whether we should spend more money filming this. Instead, I thought we should be giving this as much time as it requires.
Death on the Streets
Spirit: After you had become so involved in her life in so many ways — after all that, what were your feelings when she first became so ill with cancer and then was basically kicked to death in a fatal beating on the streets?
Soltani: It was a brutal end because she was assaulted while living on the street. I’m still deeply affected by it. Her death was awful, both the cancer and her death from the attack. I mean, they were both so easy to avoid. And in the end, it took such a toll on the people who had tried so hard to take care of her. It was very, very painful, and it’s still painful.
The person who attacked her also had mental health issues and suffered from trauma and now he’s in prison and he’s separated from his children. And I’m pretty sure that’s not what Miss Kay would have wanted for him, had she lived.
When we were making the film, every time we would stop filming her, I lived with the fear of: “Will I see her again?” It was just a constant fear. For seven years, she survived. And she didn’t survive because of us, so much as she did because of the homeless community. A fellow named Al Smith loved Miss Kay and he was such a noble stalwart of a soldier with her. They went through a lot together. There were other people who were caring for Miss Kay a lot more than we were, with a lot less than we had available.
Miss Kay’s death came at the very end of the film. We’d stopped filming and I was so looking forward to her seeing the film. So she never actually got to see the film. But even when she was in the coma, we didn’t abandon her, and I think she knew that. One of her biggest fears in life was worrying that she was going to be abandoned. And she wasn’t. So I feel as though, personally, that I honored my friendship with her.
Spirit: Through her story, you’ve also told an important story that is almost completely unreported in America. One of the most shocking things about homelessness is how many people die on the street at a far younger age than the average life expectancy. Many die of treatable illnesses and many more are assaulted and outright killed on the street.
Soltani: Oh God, Terry, this was the final assault on Miss Kay, but there were still other assaults on her. And she’s such a tiny woman on the streets of West Oakland. And it wasn’t just Miss Kay. I mean, Landon Goodwin, another of the main characters in our film, got attacked several times by gangs. It’s actually shocking.
When we were filming in the redemption center, people always were wearing these hospital wristbands around their wrists. It was just hundreds of them. Almost more people had the hospital bands than didn’t. And those numbers on people’s hands! I know it’s a leap, but for me, it kept on making me think of Holocaust survivors. The numbers, the numbers… The numbers were always on their hands. The names and numbers, names and numbers…
It was clear that people were constantly going in and out of hospitals. But the medical care wasn’t sustained for them somehow. They’d go in, get a treatment for a medical emergency, but they’d be back on the street and get destroyed very quickly afterwards. So our whole approach to homelessness and protecting people is just so shortsighted, and it wouldn’t take a lot to make it a hundred times better.
The Pastor of the Recyclers
Spirit: You and Chihiro also ended up greatly admiring another of the homeless recyclers you met at Alliance Recycling, Landon Goodwin. You guys began referring to Landon as the “pastor” of the community of recyclers. Why did you come to respect him so greatly?
Soltani: Landon’s heart is just pure gold — pure gold. He was religious and he would take care of a lot of people. He always had God and Jesus in him, very close to him, and he put his faith into practice, despite his addiction.
His faith was always a big part of who he was. And helping the poor was what living in the spirit of Christ was to him. His voice, his tenderness, his kindness — he was a sanctuary to a lot of recyclers. At the very end of our film, he not only pulled himself out of his addiction and poverty, he went back to pull others out. He was actually reclaiming people. He was the redeemer, and he was so inspiring.
Spirit: For me, one of the most inspiring moments in the film was when he walked down the aisle and was married to his bride. It just seemed a pure symbol of hope — a statement that love and redemption can be found even on the midnight streets when it all seems so dark.
Soltani: It was all so beautiful, Terry. We often think of a home as a material or a physical place, but actually a home is a human bond, more than anything else. A lot of homeless people have suffered assault or trauma, and so their trust — their ability to build those bonds — is damaged in one way or another. And that’s compounded by poverty and addiction and all those things.
With all the characters in the film, once they established a strong bond with another human being, their lives were transformed, often in very beautiful ways. Landon’s life was just magnificent — and still is, actually. He’s taking care of many kids, and he protects them. He’s a guardian. He is truly a husband in that sense. So the home was that human bond. Once people could see through the trauma and connect with another human being in a deeply loving way, the home would often follow.
The Towering Strength of Jason
Spirit: You also filmed Jason Witt and called him “the Titan of recycling.” When I wrote about Jason, I likened him to Sisyphus on the streets, endlessly pulling those heavy loads uphill, only to have to start all over again the next day. Jason shows that towering strength despite suffering terrible health problems that would have stopped a lesser man in his tracks.
Soltani: Yes. The other side of the Titan, as we discovered while filming, was just this extraordinary vulnerability he carried forward from childhood.
One of the beauties of filming for as long as we did was that we found there was an athleticism and discipline and mental rigor to Jason. He was always talking to me about martial arts and then we discovered pictures of him as a kid doing martial arts. At the age of nine or ten, he was a black belt and you’d look at his poses as a kid and they’re incredible. So I could never understand how it was that Jason went into drugs and homelessness and how his life took the path that it did. But a big part of it was sexual abuse which was not something that he could articulate as a kid.
Part of his journey of healing during the film was that he went back to martial arts and he connected with his master at the Contra Costa Budokan. Jason looked so scruffy that people at the martial arts center wanted to throw him out because he didn’t look right. But the karate master said, “No, I want him in the class.”
Spirit: Jason became a black belt in the art of the samurai sword, a highly disciplined form of martial arts.
Soltani: Yes, and the way Jason has excelled and the kind of mental acuity and discipline that Jason’s martial arts require of him, and the kind of training that it requires, is phenomenal. Here is somebody that everybody said can’t follow the rules, but you follow the steps and instructions in martial arts. And he can move that sword in so many steps and rules. The number of movements you learn and memorize blows everybody away. He was really reconnecting and reclaiming that person he was as a kid, and therein lay his powers.
It’s very interesting, because with Jason it was martial arts, and with Landon it was religion and with Miss Kay it was music.
In the old days in Persian medicine, the doctor’s job wasn’t just to treat the medical problem a person had, but to find out what ailed their soul — what the deeper injury to their soul was. In making this film, you realize that the art of healing also has to do with helping people to connect to what is vital and vibrant in them. It’s not what part of them is sick, but what part of them is healthy and vibrant.
Spirit: I saw that moment of healing in your film when Jason is demonstrating the samurai sword at the martial arts center, and all the brothers come around and put their hands on Jason’s shoulders, affirming him as one of them. You can see tears in Jason’s eyes at that moment. The healing of that moment shines through.
Soltani: Yes, and the belonging! The belonging! It was the same thing with Miss Kay. You would go into a music store with her, and even if she were half-dead, she would come alive. If you put a drum in front of Miss Kay, she would come back to life. Her entire being was music. I’m sure that if we had found a way to integrate music back into her life, it would have been the key to a lot of things for her.
The Faith of the Poor
Spirit: Landon did find a way to reconnect to his faith and his belief in family.
Soltani: Yes, with Landon it was religion. He really went back to the faith that made him tick, to God and Jesus.
You make a film like this, and you often wonder why it is that Christ is such a big part of the life of people who by any material measure should be furious with God and with Christ for abandoning them. And yet, amongst the poor, Christ is more alive than anywhere else I’ve ever seen.
Spirit: Yes, there is a deeper faith and awareness of God’s mercy than you find anywhere. You saw that same incredibly deep faith in the southern Black churches that organized the civil rights movement. The very people who were most oppressed found the deepest, truest faith.
Soltani: Truly, Terry. It’s the power of the Spirit at the very bottom of society. My God, what love can do. What faith can do!
Spirit: The recyclers found the opposite of love from Oakland’s political leaders. Why did city officials deliberately destroy the jobs and livelihood of hundreds of destitute people?
Soltani: The homeless people had lived in West Oakland for decades and this recycling center was the place where they would come and make their income.
Spirit: So it was their home and their neighborhood long before newly arrived residents tried to have them driven out.
Soltani: It was their community first. There was always some grumbling about the presence of the poor, but they were never viewed as outsiders and they were not treated as outsiders.
As long as Jay Anast was running the recycling center, he had worked there maybe 20 years or so, so he was very much part of the community, and he knew how to fight back, and he had the financial power to fight back and mobilize people. So there was no need for me to do anything but try to call it to public attention.
The recycling center was the target of stings by the police, and the recyclers were constantly photographed. The deceitful image that was created of them is that they were all drug dealers. We had this breakdown of community in West Oakland, so that a lot of the new people who had moved in stopped knowing who the recyclers were.
Because of technology, this negative communication about them was taking place on the Internet, on a level above the recyclers. The recyclers didn’t have the Internet, they didn’t have cameras, and they weren’t wired into the City. And that was where the organizers were working against them and that was how they were putting a lot of pressure on the Oakland City Council.
Government at Its Absolute Worst
Spirit: Did the mayor and council ever step forward to support the recycling center? It was providing several hundred jobs for the poorest Oakland citizens.
Soltani: Once Jay Anast had sold the place, the new owners didn’t really know what they were getting into. The new City Council person for that district wasn’t very much aware of what was going on with the recyclers and in the end, didn’t really defend them. The pretense was always there that everybody cares about the poor. But when push came to shove, it was, “We’re getting rid of this recycling center.” And Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf didn’t do anything about it either.
Every layer and level of protection that the recyclers had was gone. And the attack on them was so brutal. The Oakland city attorney sent out this note to the neighbors who had been complaining, essentially saying that the recyclers were all addicts and they were all doing drugs in the park outside, and stating that the City is getting rid of them because they’re such a nuisance to the quality of life of people who were moving into the area. This is what the city officially said!
Spirit: City officials chose to represent only the affluent new residents — and to sell out the longtime citizens of Oakland?
Soltani: It was just so brazen and so vulgar. It was so discourteous and so uncaring and so unjust. It was just government at its absolute worst!
Nobody even came out to see what the impact of their decision would be on the recyclers. Nobody wanted to know. Nobody did a study to see what happens when these people’s income gets taken away. It was just like, “Let’s drop the guillotine on these people — and they will disappear.” It was just so unjust and so cruel.
Spirit: When the recycling center was attacked, you defended the recyclers in outspoken articles, and joined the protests they held at City Hall. Why did you become so personally involved in the struggle to save the recycling center?
Soltani: We had made the film by that time; the film was over and done. It just felt that the right thing to do was to go to bat for the recyclers. And we actually raised enough money to address many of the concerns that the community had.
But people wanted the recycling center gone, because they just didn’t want the poor around them. I think what is happening in West Oakland, and in other places, is that the way people are looking at the world is diseased. It’s a game of Monopoly in which everybody’s interests are linked to the price of real estate — without the slightest concern about what speculation in land prices does to communities, does to industries and does to neighborhoods.
It’s just a game of Monopoly. The recycling center happened to sit on a very precious plot of land. And they objected to having all those poor people walk up and down the streets in a world where real estate agents are constantly displaying apartments to perfection for really grotesque, middle-class standards and sanitized conceptions of the home in which there is no trace of a human being anywhere around it.
This is a world where human beings and their biology are offensive, and where poor people don’t look good. It’s like the advertising industry and the real estate industry coming together to just destroy any possibilities for people who don’t conform to certain norms from having any standing in a city and in a society.
That is just sickness on a grand scale. It’s driven by the market and we will pay a very heavy price for it — a very heavy price.
This is the first of a two-part interview with Amir Soltani. The second installment in the July issue of Street Spirit will focus on Zahra’s Revenge and human rights issues in Iran.