The brave and strategically brilliant members of Moms 4 Housing have given the entire nation a wake-up call about the disastrous shortage of affordable housing and the power of civil disobedience to confront the injustices of gentrification and the eviction-for-profit system.
It is astonishing that a small handful of homeless women in Oakland were able to launch a quixotic campaign that successfully battled the gigantic injustices of our era — gentrification, real estate speculation, eviction and displacement, and soaring levels of homelessness in Oakland.
Yet, Moms 4 Housing paid a steep price for confronting the seemingly all-powerful Goliaths of gentrification and real estate speculation.
As a reward for their efforts to awaken the community about the suffering of homeless people, the women were defamed as thieves and criminals by the officials of Wedgewood, a Southern California real estate corporation that specializes in profiteering off the misery caused by housing foreclosures. Wedgewood has been buying and flipping countless abandoned houses in at least a dozen states.
The David and Goliath dimensions of this struggle became clear when Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies in riot gear utilized a battering ram, armored vehicles and a robot with surveillance cameras, simply to arrest two homeless mothers and two supporters. The women then had to face down a wealthy real estate corporation and a court system that seems stacked in favor of big business.
“They came in like an army for mothers and babies,” said Dominique Walker, a member of Moms 4 Housing.
What a long distance they traveled in such a short time. In November, the women entered the vacant house at 2928 Magnolia Street in West Oakland in an act of civil disobedience, and two months later, they were arrested before dawn on January 14.
After a thunderstorm of public criticism, Wedgewood suddenly backed down from their corporate tactic of slandering homeless mothers as thieves, and announced they would work with city officials to allow the Oakland Community Land Trust to purchase the property as a home for the homeless women.
First they attack you with riot police and battering rams, then they jail you, then they defame you as thieves – and then you win.
The vision of Moms 4 Housing reaches beyond their personal struggle to find homes for their own families. The women were acting for the survival of an entire community besieged by poverty, evictions and economic displacement. That is why hundreds of Oakland residents came out to stand in support of the homeless women during the police clamp- down.
And that is why so many people began chanting, “Let the moms go!” when the police began hauling them off to jail.
That chant awakened my own powerful memories of the housing takeovers carried out by the Oakland Union of the Homeless in the late 1980s and 1990s. The Homeless Union staged dozens of takeovers of abandoned houses, and in December of 1988, the Christmas spirit moved us to pull out all the stops.
We held a large Christmas celebration in a West Oakland church, with music, Christmas dinner for hundreds, and a huge toy giveaway to homeless children by our own kindhearted Santa Claus, Howie Harp, a disability rights advocate.
After Santa had given away hundreds of toys, the whole Christmas party began singing and marching to the abandoned houses the City of Oakland had moved to Preservation Park. We handed out official-looking deeds to the vacant houses to several homeless families, and then used sledgehammers and crowbars to break into the housing, demanding that all of the city’s vacant homes should serve homeless people.
Several of us were arrested, but when the police arrested our Santa and led him in handcuffs to the arrest van, still in his Santa costume, dozens of children began unexpectedly chanting: “Don’t arrest Santa Claus! Don’t arrest Santa!”
That moment is one of the most beautiful memories of my life. We were trying to give the community the gift of a Christmas dinner and presents and the greater gift of housing. What they gave us was even greater—a glimpse of the future where we all begin to care about one another.
“Don’t arrest Santa!” Those simple words were, for me, the gift of a lifetime.
That is one reason why I was greatly moved to hear that same essential chant once again by the people of West Oakland. It’s all about the heart and soul of a people who came out in support of Moms 4 Housing.
Just as hundreds of people demonstrated their support for Moms 4 Housing, the Homeless Union’s housing takeovers often brought out the best in human nature. Oakland neighbors who lived near the vacant homes brought us power cords so we could use their electricity, turned on the water, and brought us cooked meals and blankets.
That is exactly the kind of community support that materialized when Moms 4 Housing took over the vacant house. People brought food to the occupiers, and stood in solidarity in front of the house for hours. When the arrests came down, they demonstrated against the jailing of the women.
It’s an eloquent demand for justice. It’s economic redistribution. It’s Robin Hood taking from the rich and giving to the poor. It’s Martin Luther King’s vision of a Poor People’s Campaign. It’s the cry for compassion that springs from the very heart of a people.
It is welcome news if Moms 4 Housing is able to reclaim even a single home from an economic system ruled by profit, exploitation and greed. But what I find most heartening is that the women realize that the greater struggle is for the lives of every homeless man, woman and child in Oakland.
As Dominique Walker told a cheering rally: “This movement does not end today with us and with that house on Magnolia Street. We will not stop or- ganizing and fighting until all unhoused folks who want shelter have shelter.”
One home does not end homelessness. But it is a start. It is a vision of what our world could be. It is the cry of a small, outnumbered band of women for justice.
Terry Messman was a longtime anti-war activist and homeless rights advocate who co-founded Street Spirit in March 1995. He was Editor in Chief of Street Spirit for 23 years.