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City Begins Wood Street Homeless Encampment Clearance and Faces Protest

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On Nov. 5 and 6, the City of Oakland began a clearance operation of a homeless encampment on a privately owned tract of land west of Wood St in West Oakland and were met with local residents who protested against displacing homeless people.

“I’ve developed relationships with people that live there and I understand that their situation is precarious,” said local resident Dale Smith, who protested on Nov. 6. “I don’t think the solution the city is putting forth is going to work.”

The city plans to eventually clear the lot, which runs about quarter mile from north to south. Oakland residents have lived there for over five years in vehicles, tents and self-made structures. No one knows exactly how many people live on the site, but most residents claim there are over 100. The lot has become more crowded recently as residents have been evicted from other areas of the city. Some residents claim that police officers directed them to the site.

“The city has been reviewing the idea of converting this privately owned lot to a safe RV parking area that would serve West Oakland RV dwellers,” said assistant city administrator Joe DeVries, “but the owner would need to clean it thoroughly first.”

The land is owned by a corporation called GameChanger LLC, but the city hasn’t stated who the individual owner is. The East Bay Times has reported that GameChanger LLC’s owner agreed to lease the land to the city for the next two to three years free of charge. As the city’s stated goal for Nov. 5 and 6 was to clear all vehicles from the site, GameChanger also agreed to pay the estimated quarter million dollar towing bill to the city.

The city’s communication director, Karen Boyd, claims OPD identified 139 vehicles that needed to be towed. Although the majority of the vehicles were abandoned, many of the lot’s RVs, vans, and buses serve as homes for people who are unable to afford housing in Oakland.

Past Oakland homeless clearances and evictions have resulted in people losing their vehicle-homes to impound lots. The poorest of the poor were especially vulnerable to these losses, as vehicle-homes that no longer ran were most likely to be impounded. Since many of the lot’s residents had been evicted before and lost their vehicle-homes, they, and the protestors supporting them feared they would lose them again.

On Nov. 5, over 35 housed protestors joined their unhoused neighbors, held signs and chanted “shame” and “quit your jobs” as police officers walked through the lot, directing people out of the way so tow operators could tow vehicles. Some of the signs read “Don’t tow our homes,” “Stop the evictions,” and “Ayuda no destruye,” which means “help don’t destroy” in Spanish.

After word spread that during the present clearance vehicles that served as people’s homes would be towed off the lot and unto Wood Street, as opposed to impound lots, the number of protestors dwindled, though homeless people and their housed supporters were still unhappy with the move. Around a dozen protestors showed up on Nov. 6.

Natasha Noel, a lifelong Oakland resident who was evicted from her home of 17 years, sits in front of her RV with a sign rested on it that says “I live here. this is my home.” Photo by Zack Haber

“It’s more of a safety zone in here and out on streets it’s more public,”  said Jennifer ‘Harley’ Boslar, who was forced to move from the lot, “I feel like accidents can happen. A car could run into your RV. A semi-truck could run into your RV. People can get easier access to your RV than they can behind the fence.”

Wood Street, where many of the vehicles were moved, is a major route for big rig trucks. The Wood Street lot sits behind a fence with two small entrances, so residents have an easier time monitoring who approaches their vehicle-homes.

As of the night of Nov. 6, 15 vehicle-homes remain on the site. Police were unclear about when the remaining vehicles would be moved as the clearance was only originally planned to be a two day operation.

Natasha Noel, who grew up in Oakland and was recently evicted from her home of 17 years, still lives in an RV on the site and wants to stay there.

“I don’t feel like [moving] is a safe option at all,” said Noel. “On the street we’re likely to be towed at any second.”

Activism

Democrats in Sacramento Take Steps to Make Voting Easier

Recently, in some states, most notoriously Georgia and Florida, lawmakers have taken steps to restrict voting access and rights for many Americans. But in California, policymakers and legislators are doing the opposite, making proposals to simplify the voting process and expand access to the polls. 

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The electoral process is foundational to the durability of America’s democratic structure.

And as the battle for fairer voting laws rages on, politicians and activists on the political Right claim they are responding to allegations of widespread voter and election fraud. Those on the Left say they are rallying to fight a coordinated political offensive to restrict access to the polls and increasing reports of voter suppression.

Recently, in some states, most notoriously Georgia and Florida, lawmakers have taken steps to restrict voting access and rights for many Americans. 

But in California, policymakers and legislators are doing the opposite, making proposals to simplify the voting process and expand access to the polls. 

Invoking the violent history of voter suppression in the South that her parents endured, which sometimes involved murders — California Secretary of State Shirley Weber says it is a priority of hers to “ensure the right to vote.” 

“I tell people all the time that no number is good unless it’s 100% in terms of voter participation,” Weber told the Public Policy Institute of California. “Why didn’t 5 million go to the polls? We need to figure out where they are and what stopped them from going.”

In the California Legislature, an amendment to Senate Bill (SB) 29, which passed earlier this year, was one bill in a broader legislative effort to secure the right to vote in vulnerable communities.

Before that amendment passed, California law dictated that a ballot would be mailed to all eligible voters for the November 3 statewide general election in 2020 as well as use a Secretary of State vote-by-mail tracking system to ensure votes are counted. 

SB 29, which the governor signed into law in February, extended those requirements to any election “proclaimed or conducted” prior to Jan. 1, 2022.

A record number of voters participated in California elections in 2020. Some political observers attribute that spike to the vote-by-mail system instituted last year.

“To maintain a healthy democracy in California, it is important to encourage eligible voters to vote and to ensure that residents of the state have the tools needed to participate in every election,” the bill reads.

Senate Bill (SB) 583, introduced by California State Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton), would require the Secretary of State to register or preregister eligible citizens to vote upon retrieving the necessary paperwork from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

Citizens who do not wish to be registered can opt-out of the process altogether.

Newman stressed the importance of access and simplifying the voter registration process. 

“In our state there are an estimated 4.6 million U.S. citizens who are eligible to vote who have not yet registered,” Newman said. “Our obligation as the people’s elected representatives is to make the process simpler and more accessible for them.”

On April 27, the Senate Transportation Committee passed SB 583 with a 13 to 3 vote. The Appropriations Committee has set a hearing for May 10. 

Senate Bill (SB) 503, introduced by Sen. Josh Becker (D-Menlo Park), proposes that if a signature shares enough characteristics with a previous signature from the same voter, then it would be recognized as official on voting paperwork.

Current law dictates that a signature has to match exactly for it to be considered valid.

Disability Rights California (DRC), a non-profit advocacy organization that advances and protects the rights of Californians living with disabilities, has come out in support of SB 503.

“Studies have shown that signature matches disproportionately impact voters with disabilities,” Eric Harris, director of public policy for the DRC wrote in a letter. 

“Voters with disabilities, including seniors, are more likely to vote by mail and would have to sign their name on their ballots,” Harris argued. “A voter’s signature changes over time and for people with disabilities, a signature can change nearly every other time one is written. Some people with disabilities might have conditions that make it difficult to sign your name the same way multiple times.”

For now, the Senate Appropriations Committee has tabled SB 503, placing the bill in what the Legislature calls a “suspense file,” where it awaits further action by lawmakers. 

At the federal level, lawmakers have introduced two bills in the U.S. Congress to expand voting rights, the For The People Act of 2021 and the John L. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

The For The People Act, or H.R.1, proposes a three-pronged approach to expanding election access: Voting, campaign finance, and ethics.

Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau and senior vice president for Advocacy and Policy, compared the current voting rights battle to that of the Civil Rights Movement in a press conference about H.R.1 and the John L. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

“If you look at some of those 1960s shots of the C.T. Vivians of the world, of the Joe Lowerys and so many others that helped lead Americans to those registration sites, you’ll see them actually literally being beaten to the ground,” Shelton said, referring to well-known Civil Rights Movement activists. 

The John L. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021, or S.4263, would amend the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to restore the powers it lost after the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby v. Holder.  In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that laws requiring states and local communities to first clear any changes to voting their local laws with the feds, was unlawful.  

“Well, we’ve become more sophisticated in our disenfranchisement,” Shelton continued. “We want to make sure that we stop that disenfranchisement all along the way and that’s why we’re convinced that a bill named for John Lewis and a bill that speaks for the people are bills that need to pass.”

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Activism

Sen. Steven Bradford Brings Strength and Reason to Police Reform Fight

SB 2 would strengthen the Tom Bane Civil Rights Act. Enacted in 1987, that legislation prevents law enforcement abuses and other civil rights violations.

California State Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus (CLBC), admits that he will meet challenges along the way as he fights for police reform in California. 

     Last week, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing he defended a bill he introduced in the Legislature that, if passed, would decertify cops for inappropriate behavior. During that appearance, Bradford made a persuasive case for police reform that was, at turns, forceful and thoughtful, bringing a cool head but passionate voice to a topic that has created a bitter divide in the California electorate, pitting advocates of police reform violently against people who support law enforcement. 

      “This is a tough issue but it’s a righteous issue,” Bradford told his colleagues. 

      “And we want to be intentional about what we are doing here in California when it comes to police reform,” he continued during his passionate closing argument for police reform on April 27. “That’s what this bill does. It’s intentional in what we are trying to achieve. This is a fair measure and far better than any that exist today.”

     Co-authored by Senate President Pro Tem Toni G. Atkins (D-San Diego), Senate Bill (SB) 2 passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee with a 7-2 vote that same day. Also known as the Kenneth Ross Jr. Police Decertification Act of 2021, the legislation aims to increase accountability for law enforcement officers that commit serious misconduct and illegally violate a person’s civil rights.

     SB 2 will create a statewide process to revoke the certification of a peace officer following the conviction of serious crimes or termination from employment due to misconduct.

      Bradford praised the judiciary committee’s majority vote, describing it as progress that would put California on the “right side of history.”

     Atkins agrees. 

     “The passage of SB 2 (April 27) is another step toward the goal of achieving much-needed accountability in policing, and I thank Senator Bradford for his steadfast commitment to achieving critical and necessary reforms,” said Atkins. “As with anything this big, there is a lot of work ahead, and I remain committed to working with my colleagues to get this bill in the position to cross the finish line.”

     The California Peace Officer Association (CPOA) believes that Bradford’s bill would turn the California Committee on Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) into an investigative agency. A sticking point for the group is that the people who would be given the authority to probe police misconduct would primarily be non-peace officers. 

     “We, of course, know that not all reform is a good reform, and CPOA among others is open to ‘reimagining public safety in California,” Shaun Rundle, CPOA’s deputy director said in a written statement about several police reform and public safety bills scheduled for hearings. “What we didn’t imagine, however, was the continued attacks against a noble profession who have proven to improve and drive down crime in this state year after year.”

     With the passage of SB 2 out of committee, the legislation will move on to the Senate Appropriations Committee for consideration. If it advances out of that committee, SB 2 could head to a Senate floor vote. 

    During the Judiciary Committee hearing, which lasted for nearly three hours, a few senators expressed their support but asked Bradford to modify language pertaining to the Bane Act. 

     SB 2 would strengthen the Tom Bane Civil Rights Act. Enacted in 1987, that legislation prevents law enforcement abuses and other civil rights violations. Authored by California State Assemblymember Tom Bane, the legislation was created to allow victims to seek compensatory and punitive damages, attorney’s fees, and civil penalties.

    Supporters of police reform in California say the Bane Act has been undercut by bad court decisions over the years. They argue that it was once an effective law intended to protect the civil rights of people in the state but has since been weakened as an effective check against police excessive use of force. 

     The California State Sheriffs’ Association views SB 2 as problematic, in terms of hiring, recruiting, and maintaining employees. 

    “We are concerned that the language removing employee immunity from state civil liability will result in individual peace officers hesitating or failing to act out of fear that actions they believe to be lawful may result in litigation and damages. In so doing, SB 2 will very likely jeopardize public safety and diminish our ability to recruit, hire, and retain qualified individuals,” the California State Sheriffs’ Association said in a written statement.

 

    But Bradford says his bill essentially addresses rogue policing and hinders the ability of fired officers to find employment at other agencies even when they have a record of misconduct that got them terminated. 

    Among states that do not have a process to decertify cops for criminal behavior are Hawaii, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and California. 

    “We lead in technology, we lead in the environment, we lead in all those things that are important except for criminal justice reform,” Bradford said, referring to California’s reputation as a political trailblazer on several fronts. 

     People of color live in the communities where the majority of police misconduct incidents take place, Bradford said, adding that SB 2 will save Black and Brown lives. 

     “How many more people, regardless of color need to lose their lives because of the callous acts of law enforcement?” Bradford asked his colleagues. “There are two systems of justice in this country. But you’ll never know, and really understand. Its far different than anything any of you guys have encountered or will encounter.”

 

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The Story of The Mural Honoring the Women of the Black Panther Party

Vest says this project is also created in conjunction with the #SayHerName movement, and in response to the continued violence and systematic oppression of BIWOC, and as a result of the chronic blindness towards and seeming invisibility of Black women.

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Born and raised in Chicago, Jilchristina Vest moved to the Bay Area in 1986 when she was 19 years old. In 1995, after earning degrees in Black Studies, Women’s Studies, and Multicultural Education from San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco, she had a job working for OCCUR. 

There she learned about the rich history of African American success and activism in West Oakland and its connection to The Black Panther Party. And because of that history, Vest began her search for a home in West Oakland.  

After two years of searching and with the help of her friends and community, Vest bought a beautiful home. And about two-and-a-half years later, again with the help of her friends and community, the house was restored to its former glory.

Some 20 years later, Vest found a way to say thank you to Oakland, her friends, community and The Black Panther Party – all the reasons she is here. She has done it by assembling a team to install a 2,000-square-foot mural on the wall of her house to honor the unknown and unseen heroes of The Black Panther Party.

Located at the corner of Center Street and Dr. Huey P. Newton Way, work on the mural began in January of 2021.

Vest says this project is also created in conjunction with the #SayHerName movement, and in response to the continued violence and systematic oppression of BIWOC, and as a result of the chronic blindness towards and seeming invisibility of Black women.

The source of this story is the Women of the Black Panther Party Mural web site, https://www.wbppmural.com/

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