Yesica Prado interviews a resident of the Wood Street encampment through a chain link fence.
Unhoused Wood Street resident Jose Gonzalez (left) talks with SF Public Press reporter Yesica Prado (right) on Tuesday, April 25 near 1707 Wood Street in West Oakland. (Zack Haber)

Two journalists and two unhoused Oakland residents filed a motion in US District Court of Northern California on Tuesday that claims the city of Oakland and its police department have been violating their first amendment rights by restricting the press’s ability to document an ongoing encampment eviction at 1707 Wood Street, a tract of city owned land in West Oakland.Starting April 18, city workers began erecting fences around the area being evicted, and police officers began restricting access. The motion requests a temporary restraining order that would require the city and OPD to “use the least restrictive means to the first amendment” during the eviction and “allow access for journalists” and legal observers to witness and document it. District Judge William Orrick agreed to hold a hearing on the motion on Friday, April 18. (Update: Judge Orrick denied the motion. However, the city did give slightly better access to the site in the days after the lawsuit was filed.)

In an email, a public information officer for the city stated that the city fenced off the area in order to “safely and securely complete the work,” as “crews are operating heavy equipment, including bulldozers and dump trucks.” She also noted that the site contains “metal scraps, flammable materials, trash, debris, uneven surfaces, and contaminated soil.”

The 1707 Wood Street tract is the last remaining section of the Wood Street encampment, which once was Oakland’s largest homeless encampment with an estimated 200–300 residents, according to the city. The city began closing a portion of the Wood Street encampment last July, while CalTrans evicted residents from most of the remaining sections starting last September. In a press release, the city stated that it is closing the 1707 Wood Street section of encampment to enable the construction of a 170 unit affordable housing complex.

The 1707 Wood Street tract had, as of Monday, about 15 remaining residents, while about 50 residents had left the site since the eviction began on April 10. It has been the site of the Wood Street Commons, a community that residents, sheltering in tents, vehicles, and self made structures, have established after years of living together. Since April 10, city workers have towed or bulldozed the majority of these structures, or residents have moved them.

On Monday morning, Wood Street Commons members attempted to host a press conference on a public street at the site to share information about their experiences during the eviction. In declarations supporting the temporary restraining order, Wood Street Commons members Jessica Blalock and Lydia Blumberg, who are also plaintiffs in the motion, both stated that police officers blocked reporters they invited from KPFA, The Oaklandside, and Street Spirit from attending the conference.

“As a result of the Oakland Police Department cordoning off the camp,” Blalock wrote in her declaration, “I cannot speak with the media, and my ability to speak with the public is being restrained.”

Reporters Yesica Prado, of SF Public Press, and Lisa Gray-Garcia, who writes for several publications including POOR Magazine and 48 Hills, are also plaintiffs in the motion. They both stated in written declarations that police prevented them from attending the conference.

When asked why the city had blocked off journalists for the press conference, a city public information officer stated that “The press event planned by the residents was held within the work zone in the early morning before city escort staff had arrived. The city was not made aware of this event in advance.”

In total, eight reporters claimed, either in interviews or in court declarations, that they have been completely prevented from entering the 1707 Wood Street site since the fences were erected, or have had limited ability to enter it.

A city public information officer told this reporter that, currently, “public information officers are escorting members of the media, including independent journalists, into the work zone to observe and document activities.”

In an interview, Prado said that it’s been difficult for her to enter the site. She was able to enter on Tuesday, but had to wait at the fence for over two hours to be cleared by the city. When she was let in, she was only able to be there for an hour and said she was followed around by a public information officer.

“I would like to cover this right,” Prado said. “I shouldn’t have to fight [the public information officer] or be rushed.”

Prado has spent much of her time at Wood Street these days outside of the fence and witnessing from afar, which she said gives her an incomplete picture of what’s going on with the eviction.

Editor’s note: After initially publishing this story, Zack Haber gave a deposition for the 1st Amendment lawsuit.

Zack Haber is a poet and journalist who lives in West Oakland.