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Remembering Berkeley Homeless Advocate and Former Mayor Candidate Mike Lee

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Mike Lee Soon photographed not long before his passing early last week. Photo courtesy of Derrick Soo.

Activist and former Berkeley mayoral candidate Mike Lee died at age 64 of complications related to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease early in the week of Aug. 2, 2020.

Housing activists and many people experiencing homelessness across Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco expressed sadness at his loss and admiration for him in the wake of the news.

“He was an incredibly compassionate yet strong individual,” said Paul-Kealoha Blake, who has done homeless advocacy work in Berkeley for over two decades.

Starting in the mid-2010s, while Lee himself was unhoused, Blake would meet with him and other unhoused people regularly at the McDonald’s on Shattuck and University avenues to strategize about how to advocate best for unhoused people’s rights in general and to help them access services.

Many of the people Lee met were unhoused youth. He would help them secure shelter through local nonprofits and city programs.

“All of the kids knew him,” said Blake. “He knew the ropes and provided them with realistic inspiration. It’s one thing to talk to a kid and tell how they’re gonna have housing but it’s another to talk to a kid and say ‘It may be months before you get housing. It doesn’t matter. We’ve gotta do it anyway.’”

According to Blake, Lee went to that McDonalds because he knew it as a place where unhoused people hung out.

“We can’t expect vulnerable people to track us down,” said Blake. “That was definitely where Mike Lee was at. You go where people are at to talk to them: intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, as well and physically. He was incredible in that way.”

Oakland native and unhoused resident Preston Walker, better known as Pastor Preston, reports that Lee regularly came to homeless evictions in Oakland, sometimes deep into the eastern part of the town that sits farther away from Berkeley. He would help people stay as safe as possible and keep their possessions, which were under threat of destruction or disposal by the Oakland police and Dept. of Public Works. Health problems forced him to use a cane or a wheelchair but he still navigated public transportation to be present at evictions.

“It’s easier to talk to someone that’s unhoused when you’re unhoused,” said Walker, who remembers Lee as relating well to those being evicted, many who were, like Lee, also older and/or disabled.

Lee knew what it was like to be evicted as an unhoused person from his experiences in Berkeley and he stood up for his rights.

“He always had that warm smile but he never backed down to nobody,” said Walker.

In March 2017, Lee sued the City of Berkeley, claiming the city violated his constitutional rights in October 2016 during an eviction by destroying his property. Also in 2016, Lee made his most public fight for unhoused rights when he ran for Berkeley mayor.

“The idea was never that he was going to be mayor,” said Blake.

Lee used his platform to bring issues of housing and homelessness into Berkeley’s political and public discourse. According to Blake, who worked on the campaign, he and Lee had frank discussions about how it was impossible for him to win as he was not “running against a person but a machine.”

Rejecting respectability politics and the desire to appeal to everyone, Lee’s campaign, much the way his friends described his personality, had a cantankerous humor to it. Lee and his supporters put signs and stickers throughout town that read “Old bum for Mayor.”

He also used his platform to be serious. During a speech on Nov 7, 2016, Election Day, Lee described a brutal attack he alleges Berkeley Police executed against unhoused residents just three days before. During the same speech, he said,“Homelessness describes an economic condition, not a person.”

Lee’s mayoral run brought him into the mainstream Berkeley public’s eye but many activists in Berkeley and Oakland first met Lee in 2014, during the Berkeley Post Office occupation.

He, along with Walker, Mike Zint and several other unhoused people, lived in front of the post office at 2000 Allston Way for months in 2014, at times gathering large crowds to protest the sale of the building to a developer, Hudson McDonald, with whom USPS was negotiating a sale.

In September of that year, after massive public pressure, the city declared a Historic Civic Center District Overlay, which protected the post office that had been built in the 1800s from being sold.

Lee had deep roots in the Bay Area. He grew up in Portland, Ore., but moved with an uncle to Daly City at age 13, then moved to San Francisco at age 17. San Francisco activist and poet, Sarah Menefee, remembers Lee when he was “handsome and skinny,” and first met him in 1987. Her memories show that he was involved in activism and fighting for the rights of unhoused people at least since he was in his early 30s.

“He was always there with a take-no-prisoners attitude about homeless people having to stand up, be militant, speak for themselves, and not just be fodder for these non-profits,” said Menefee.

In the late ’80s, while he was living in SRO housing in San Francisco, Lee and Menefee helped organize an S.F. chapter of the National Union of the Homeless. Through the union, they organized shelter strikes with unhoused residents who they recruited from food lines. Then they would stage protests outside of homeless shelters they felt were mistreating unhoused people.

Menefee attributes this public pressure to the Coalition on Homelessness eventually creating rights of appeal which made it harder for nonprofits to kick unhoused people out of shelters for infractions or alleged infractions that they had previously been powerless to challenge.

In the ’90s, Menefee lost track of Lee and said she heard he moved to Las Vegas. Over two decades later she reunited with him at the post office occupation.

In September 2018, Lee secured housing through the Homeless Coordinated Entry System, a program he had long criticized. Menefee suspected that the City of Berkeley sheltered him thinking “it would shut him up.”

But soon after being housed, he publicly claimed in an article in The Daily Californian that he suspected his prominent status is what got him housed and that he worried others would not get the same opportunity.

“We may have won this battle, but we haven’t won the war yet,” Lee is quoted saying in the article. “So, it’s a start. One down, thousands more to go.”

Lee kept showing up to evictions and organizing with unhoused people. He also shared his apartment with other unhoused people, allowing them prolonged stays.

Up until his final years Lee sought out unhoused people to organize with. After seeing Oakland resident Derrick Soo broadcasting on Facebook about his situation experiencing homelessness in deep East Oakland in 2018, Lee tracked Soo down.

Impressed with what he saw in the small community where Soo said people got along well and took care of the space despite a lack of city services, Lee helped the people there get better tents and make connections with local food banks.

He named the community the 77th Ave Rangers and got people in the surrounding area and the media to visit the site to, according to Soo, “see who the homeless people are and not just their imagined stereotype.”

Eventually, Lee and Soo were able to successfully get portable toilets, weekly trash pick-up, and an agreement with the city for the police and the Public Works Dept. to leave the site alone.

“For a while the city had even hired a housing coordinator for us,” said Soo, “but that didn’t work out because there’s no housing to coordinate the homeless into.”

Lee acted as a mentor for Soo. For about a year, up until about a month before Lee’s death, they would message each other every morning.

“After our first meeting sitting down, eating lunch together, he said ‘you know, you should run for mayor,’ ” said Soo.

After a discussion involving more encouragement from Lee, Soo was convinced. He plans to run for mayor of Oakland in 2022.

Caption: Derrick Soo, a friend of Mike Lee, standing in front of equipment he uses to broadcast about his experiences with homelessness on Facebook on Aug 10. Photo by Zack Haber

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California Elected Officials, Civic Leaders React to George Floyd Verdict  

“The hard truth,” Gov. Newsom said in an April 20 statement, “is that if George Floyd looked like me, he’d still be alive today.” Newsom made the remark after a Hennepin County jury found Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, 45, guilty in the murder of George Floyd.

Photo by: Antonio Ray Harvey.
Assemblymember Mike Gipson (D-LA), Tecoy Porter, President of National Action Network Sacramento, Western Region, Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles), vice-chair of the CLBC, Senator Steven Bradford (D-LA ), chair CLBC, Assemblymember Chris Holden ( D-Pasadena) Assemblymember Kevin McCarty ( D-Sacramento) and Secretary of State Shirley Weber. Photo by Antonio Ray Harvey.

“The hard truth,” Gov. Newsom said in an April 20 statement, “is that if George Floyd looked like me, he’d still be alive today.” Newsom made the remark after a Hennepin County jury found Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, 45, guilty in the murder of George Floyd.
The jury convicted Chauvin on two counts of murder, homicide and one of manslaughter for pinning his knee on the neck of Floyd for nine minutes and 29 seconds on May 25, 2020.
The California governor joined other Golden State officials to speak out about the verdict and the enduring problems of police violence against unarmed citizens, particularly African American suspects.
“No conviction can repair the harm done to George Floyd and his family, but today’s verdict provides some accountability as we work to root out the racial injustice that haunts our society,” the governor continued. “We must continue the work of fighting systemic racism and excessive use of force. It’s why I signed some of the nation’s most progressive police reform legislation into law. I will continue working with community leaders across the state to hear concerns and support peaceful expression.”
Sen. Steve Bradford (D-Gardena), chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, took to Twitter to comment on the verdict.
“I’m overwhelmed to tears over this verdict: Guilty. #GeorgeFloyd did not have to die that day. His family is still healing from this trauma. We must continue to fight for justice in this country, for all of us,” he tweeted.
Earlier in the day, the California Legislative Black Caucus held a press conference to address police brutality and lethal force by peace officers in California and across the country.
“There may be calls about a crisis. There may be calls about an emergency, but they are not calls intended to initiate death. They are not calls for lethal force. They are calls for issuing de-escalation and resolution.” said Sen. Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles).
Kamlager, along with her colleagues – including Assemblymember Mike Gipson, who Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) appointed Chair of the Select Committee on Police Reform – spoke at the briefing. They called on their peers to pass the C.R.I.S.I.S. Act, or Assembly Bill (AB) 2054, legislation that proposes for communities to rely on social workers to intervene in some public safety incidents instead of police officers.
The bill was first introduced last year but died in committee.
California Secretary of State Dr. Shirley Weber also attended the Black Caucus press conference.
“You know it’s really hard after 410 years in this country to continue to raise the same issues over and over again,” Dr. Weber said. “When I look and begin to analyze it I realize that all we’re asking is to have what everybody else has…to be treated fairly – to be treated as a human being, to be treated just.”
President of the NAACP California-Hawaii Conference Rick L. Callender said justice was served in the Chauvin case.
“It was very clear that our very right to breath was on trial,” Callender told California Black Media. “For too long, African Americans have been subjected to the knee of injustice choking us out – in so many different ways. This verdict demonstrates that a badge is never a shield for accountability.”
Speaking from San Diego, Shane Harris, founder and president of the People’s Association of Justice, a national civil rights alliance that started in California, said the Floyd verdict represents a starting point for re-imagining policing in America through federal legislation.
“The reality is that there is a Derek Chauvin in a police department near you, and the question is whether our local, state and federal governments will step up to protect the next George Floyd from being killed in our country,” he said. 

“Chauvin had multiple complaints against him during his career on the Minneapolis Police force, but the city and the department failed to act,” he said “We will not have an Attorney General like Keith Ellison in every state going forward to press for justice like he did, which is why I call on the U.S. Senate to urgently bring the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 to the Senate floor now, pass the legislation and send it to the President’s desk to sign immediately.”
After 12 hours of deliberations – as people across the country and around the globe waited in anticipation – the jury returned with the verdict that held Chauvin responsible for second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter.
The jury consisted of six Black or multiracial people along with six White individuals. Chauvin’s attorney requested bail, but the presiding judge denied it, and Chauvin was taken into custody.
Under Minnesota laws, Chauvin could receive a sentence of up to 40 years in prison.
California Congresswoman and Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi (D-CA-12) drew some criticism on social media for a statement she made regarding the verdict. Her critics chided the Speaker for thanking Floyd for his “sacrifice,” a man who they point out was unwittingly murdered by a police officer.
Standing with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in front of the U.S. Capitol, Pelosi said, “Thank you George Floyd for sacrificing your life for justice. For being there to call out to your mom, how heartbreaking was that, call out for you mom, ‘I can’t breathe.”
“But because of you and because of thousands, millions of people around the world who came out for justice, your name will always be synonymous with justice,” the Speaker said.

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Post Salon Speakers Say Oakland Can Mobilize to End State Overseers’ Control of Schools

“We will not give up on the demand to protect majority Black schools from closures or on the demand that school closures is not a justified action at all for this board to be taking.” 

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The Oakland Post Community Assembly held a Post Salon last weekend on the role of the nearly. 20-year reign of the Oakland school district’s state overseers and their devastating impact the education of  students and families 

Frankie Ramos, doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley and OUSD parent, hosted the meeting, laying out the goals of looking at who the state-imposed trustee and the Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team are and what can be done to get rid of them.

“One of the challenges we are facing is trying to understand who really is in control, who really has power in our school district; there are forces behind the scenes that are definitely exerting power,” she said, and our communities need a “plan for getting out of their control so we can get back on track so Oakland students can thrive.”

Dr. Nirali Jani, professor at Holy Names University and a former Oakland teacher, said efforts to seize control of the school district began in 1988, a year after the first Black majority school board was elected in Oakland. The takeover was not accomplished until 2003, stripping the school board of its power and replacing the superintendent with a state receiver

“State takeover is a targeted attempt for corporate penetration and privatization of public land,” she said, and is  part of a “business plan” utilized to take over schools and other public institutions across the country.

In Oakland, the state gave billionaire Eli Broad and his Broad Foundation free hand to implement corporate strategies in the school district. 

Post Publisher Paul Cobb was a school board member at the time of the takeover. He said the state was supposedly coming in to help the district achieve financial stability.

But state control was marked by “unbalanced budgets” and “no audits” of how they spent district money, he said. “OUSD partially emerged from state receivership  in 2009, but it was $89 million in debt, much more than the original $37 million (in 2003).”

He said the state overseers, are pushing a “replacement strategy” to close schools. “We are witnessing the removal of Black and Brown populations from the schools” and the city, he said.

He said the community should call on Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is facing a recall and “is available to be pressured by all of us” to audit FCMAT.

The community can make similar demands of Rob Bonta when he becomes state attorney general and also ask candidates for Bonta’s soon to be vacated Assembly seat to step up and fight for the independence of the local school district, he said. 

Pecolia Manigo, OUSD parent, executive director of the Parent Leadership Action Network (PLAN) and an organizer for the Justice for Oakland Students coalition, explained that the coalition has been working for several years for “Reparations for Black Students” to  reduce and end the harm OUSD has caused Black students for generations.

The coalition won 15 of its 16 demands, but the school board backed down when threatened by state Trustee Chris Learned, dropping the demand to stop closing mostly Black schools. 

“One of the biggest demands was ensuring that majority Black schools were not targeted for closure,” she said. “This is a board that chose not to take a courageous stand, (instead) choosing to put (Black schools) on the chopping block to balance the budget.”

“We will not give up on the demand to protect majority Black schools from closures or on the demand that school closures is not a justified action at all for this board to be taking.” 

School Board Member VanCedric Williams said, “We have  to challenge the status quo. The status quo is just not acceptable anymore…we must force the district to pivot toward racial and social justice. We are a social justice city, and we have to call on our elected leaders” to join with us.

Jackie Goldberg, member of the Los Angeles school board and a formerly in the state Assembly, said  state takeover districts are targeted racially and  “an entirely undemocratic method of solving a problem,” putting people in charge who nobody elected and “nobody decided should here.”

She said, “These people are not committed to the districts, they are not from the districts, they don’t care about the district, they are getting paid very large amounts of money, and they are political appointees.” 

“This is a political issue, not a fiscal issue. It will be framed by the state  as an economic fight but it is not.”

She suggested Oakland could start a statewide coalition to demand an end to FCMAT and state trusteeship as a way to solve districts’ financial problems. 

School Board Member Mike Hutchinson said the district is under state control because of the terms of 2003 state loan and of AB 1840, a recent law that gives the district some money but with strings attached 

“We are actively working on that plan to pay off the loan early” and can refuse to take the AB1840 money. “We can be free of (both)  AB1840 and the state loan in the next four to six months,” he said.

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Chauvin Trial Shows Need for Broad Focus on Systemic Racism

Officer’s Conviction Necessary but Not Sufficient, Greenlining Institute Says

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OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – In response to the announcement of the conviction of former police officer Derek Chauvin on all three counts in the killing of George Floyd, Greenlining Institute President and CEO Debra Gore-Mann released the following statement:
“Today we experienced a small measure of justice as Derek Chauvin was convicted and the killing of George Floyd was recognized as the criminal act it was. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that one conviction of one cop for a killing the whole world witnessed on video will change a fundamentally racist and dysfunctional system. The whole law enforcement system must be rethought and rebuilt from the ground up so that there are no more George Floyds, Daunte Wrights and Adam Toledos. But even that is just a start.
“Policing doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Systemic racism exists in policing because systemic racism exists in America. We must fundamentally uproot the disease of racism in our society and create a transformative path forward.”
To learn more about The Greenlining Institute, visit www.greenlining.org.

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