‘You Can’t Evict Community Power’ – Next City

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‘You Can’t Evict Community Power’

The connection between food justice and eviction defense in Oakland.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an adapted excerpt from chapter 10 of A Recipe for Gentrification, published by NYU Press in July 2020.

On Tuesday afternoons, North Oakland’s Driver’s Plaza is a lively place. Neighbors gather to listen to music, play chess, hang out, and share a meal. The chef is “Aunti” Frances Moore, a former Black Panther and founder of the Love Mission Self-Help Hunger Program, which has been serving a weekly meal for much of the past decade. Those gathering at Driver’s are typical of “the old Oakland,” largely but not exclusively African American, and struggling to get by in this rapidly gentrifying city. Many are visibly disabled. Most are elders, though there are also younger adults and children ranging from elementary to high school age. Some rent rooms nearby while others are homeless, crashing with friends or living in vehicles.

While many food justice activists are more privileged, formally educated, and/or white, and have to work to connect to the experiences of those dealing with food insecurity, Aunti Frances shares their traumas. “I have slept on that sidewalk. I’ve slept on the rooftops. I’ve slept in the campgrounds and the shelters,” she says, “Therefore, I know how to give. I know what you need.” What is needed, according to Aunti Frances, is a healthy, well-balanced meal and a place to spend time with your neighbors and friends. This builds a sense that “we’re in this together and have to take care of each other.” Aunti Frances pays for much of the food with her Social Security check, though there have also been donations from neighbors and even a small grant.

More recently, through a partnership with Phat Beets Produce, a local food justice organization that seeks to support farmers of color and increase access to fresh food in marginalized communities, she has also been able to incorporate locally grown produce, and volunteers have planted fruit trees and tree collards in the plaza itself.

For the past eight years, Aunti Frances has rented an apartment a few blocks away. But the triplex where it’s located was bought by Natalia Morphy and her parents in 2016, who own several other houses in the city. Oakland’s rent control laws limit how much landlords can raise the rent on existing tenants, and follow the tenants even when the building is sold. Median rents have skyrocketed in this gentrifying city and can only be raised to market rates when tenants move out. So even though Aunti Frances pays her rent on time, her new landlords want her out. Rent control also protects tenants from eviction after a building is sold, but a loophole permits new owners of duplexes and triplexes to remove tenants if they move into one of the units. Natalia claims to have done this, though Aunti Frances has never seen her at the building. If the eviction is successful, it is unlikely that Aunti Frances will be able to find affordable housing nearby, as rents in the historically Black and working-class Oakland flatlands have soared. She’ll either be forced out of the city, or back onto the streets.

Former Black Panther and Oakland resident  “Aunti” Frances Moore. 

Along with an array of housing rights and anti-racist organizations, Phat Beets has been working to organize an eviction defense campaign. Under the banner “You Can’t Evict Community Power,” the campaign was launched with a rally in Driver’s Plaza that drew more than one hundred supporters, who marched with Aunti Frances to her home to attempt to speak with her new landlord. The campaign’s strategies are wide ranging. One organization is representing Aunti Frances in her eviction proceedings, while others attempt to convince the city council to close loopholes in the city’s rent control ordinance. A community letter signed by more than fifty nonprofit organizations seeks to persuade the Morphys to withdraw the eviction, as a “powerful act in the face of immense gentrification” and an “act of deep compassion.” Phat Beets is supplying food at events and is also working to garner public support.

Phat Beets is in many ways typical of food justice organizations across the country — their work merges support for community-based food systems like urban farms and farmers’ markets with a commitment to racial and economic justice. Their founder, Yahya’s brother Max, like many food justice activists, is college-educated and class privileged, as were most of the organization’s early supporters. Max identifies as mixed race, but passes easily in white-dominated spaces, and most of his early colleagues were also white-identified.

In 2014, the organization became radicalized through an encounter with a local realtor, who included their farmers’ market and community garden in a video designed to entice new residents to their North Oakland neighborhood. Phat Beets responded publicly with a caustic video of their own, calling out the processes of divestment and displacement that have long occurred in their neighborhood. Privately they reflected deeply on their own unwitting role in these processes, as well as the ways they benefit from new neighbors already interested in local and organic food.

These reflections have set off major shifts in the organization. They have moved beyond the creation of alternative food systems to engage in community-building and anti-displacement activism more broadly. Food provisioning has become a lens through which to organize on these issues rather than the ultimate goal. This shift in strategy has resulted in changes in Phat Beets’s racial composition; it is now made up of predominantly people of color. And while they have fewer customers for their CSA, they have strong alliances with community-based organizations like the Self-Help Hunger Program. Indeed, the two groups are in the process of becoming a single nonprofit organization in order to more easily share resources and expertise. But whether this can help to address the displacement of the Self-Help Hunger Program or Aunti Frances herself remains to be seen.

Food Activism and the Question of Gentrification

While it is difficult to define a relatively nascent social movement like food justice — the term has only become widely used since the mid- 2000s—it can be seen as “the struggle against racism, exploitation, and oppression taking place within the food system that addresses inequality’s root causes both within and beyond the food chain.” The movement is rooted in efforts to create more environmentally and socially sustainable alternatives to industrial food systems. These alternatives, as many scholars have argued, are too often available only to affluent whites; they are more economically feasible in upscale neighborhoods, the cost of the produce they feature tends to be high and they often invoke language that, while not explicitly racialized, subtly invokes white histories and narratives. Food justice activists adapt these alternatives to address issues of racial and economic inequality, and to build political power toward food system transformation. In addition to alternative food systems, they cite roots in anti-racist movements, invoking projects such as the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast for Children Program and civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farm Cooperative. However, despite missions to serve low-income communities of color, the degree to which individual organizations are authentically “of ” those communities is often cause for debate and, despite the existence of many well-recognized groups run by people of color, the largest and best-funded organizations are predominantly white-led.

Many food justice projects began in marginalized communities like North Oakland that are now rapidly gentrifying.

Oakland is the fourth most expensive housing market in the country, and the average rent has doubled since 2010. As in many other cities, gentrification in Oakland has built upon segregation and under-development, creating a rent gap that investors can take advantage of through the purchase of depreciated properties. As several excellent histories of the city have described, Oakland’s long-time status as a low-income, predominantly Black area was produced through a series of real estate and development decisions. Recent demographic shifts have been motivated by developers and city officials whose neighborhood-specific plans have attracted the construction of new housing and businesses. Speculation has made the purchase of existing homes or new condominiums by even middle-class residents nearly impossible, and rising rents have accompanied, and often outpaced, rising property values. Developers have lobbied to lower requirements for affordable housing, and many landlords have subverted and broken rent control regulations in pursuit of windfall profits, creating both displacement and homelessness. This process is a racialized one; the city has lost approximately one-fourth of its African American residents, while its white and Latinx populations are growing. It is also an economic one. Oakland’s supergentrification is affecting both low-income and middle-class residents, although the latter, of course, have more recourse and options. A recent study by the nonprofit Policy Link found that the number of Oakland units affordable to both minimum-wage workers and entry-level teachers is the same: zero.

Because alternative food systems are often essential to generating the kind of cityscape that attracts affluent residents and tourists, boosters draw on them to promote gentrification. As we have argued elsewhere, activists create spaces that become a part of the “authentic,” non-mainstream urban landscape that new residents seek out. Food justice organizations welcome new residents’ support for their often struggling farmers’ markets, community’s agriculture programs, and other initiatives, which depend on these more affluent consumers to create economic value for the farmers and entrepreneurs of color that the organizations seek to support. Boosters can then point to these urban farming projects as evidence of the city’s greenness, which can help to attract large-scale development. At the same time, activists like Phat Beets’s organizers are increasingly aware of the process of green gentrification and struggle to maintain their commitment to long-term residents.

Saying No to NOBE

In the spring of 2014, a real estate agent released a video that she hoped would increase interest in what she called NOBE. An acronym for North Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville, and encompassing both Aunti Frances’s home and most of Phat Beets’s projects, the neologism echoes other trendy designations like San Francisco’s SOMA (South of Market) or New York’s DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass).

Simultaneously, it allows urban boosters to elide the connotations of crime and blackness often associated with Oakland. In the video, the realtor highlighted attributes like walkability, “affordable homes” (at the time, just under a half million dollars, now much more), “new cool bars” and “great restaurants and cafes”—all evidence of what she called a “revitalization.” A moment later, she added, “We’re super psyched that there’s a community garden across the street. That’s definitely a bonus to this block!” The camera then panned to one of Phat Beets’s gardens, casting it not as a resource for the neighborhood’s many low-income, food-insecure residents, but as a selling point for the growing number of affluent buyers who threaten to displace them. This video was not an anomaly. Urban farms and farmers’ markets are regularly featured on real estate blogs like Movoto and The Matador Network as reasons, in the words of the latter, that “Everyone Cool and Creative Is Moving to Oakland.”

Phat Beets organizers were livid upon seeing their garden used to attract the kind of affluent newcomers whose arrival often signals the racialized dispossession of the land inhabited by low-income communities of color. Describing his opposition to the video, Max said, “Our work wasn’t the cause of gentrification, but our programs and our aesthetics were being used to sell land and help displace people.” Phat Beets released a scathing counter-video called Neighbors Outing Blatant Exploitation, mocking the real estate company’s obvious attempt to remake the neighborhood by, for example, defining NOBE as “a term coined by realtors to destigmatize North Oakland in order to sell the foreclosed homes of long-term black and brown residents to affluent white people.” In addition, they demanded their work be removed from the realtor’s video, issued a public statement against gentrification, and began to strategize with food justice organizations across the country to combat displacement of the community they seek to serve. Privately, they also reflected on the ways their work contributed to gentrification. Many of Phat Beets organizers were themselves new residents who, while not wealthy prospective homeowners, are generally middle-class and educated. Phat Beets also relies on new residents to sustain their farmers’ market and community supported agriculture (CSA) program. In their statement on gentrification, they wrote that “while we are aware and critical of our own role in gentrification through urban greening, we also understand the powerful possibilities that our programming can create when we unite in support of current residents and re-investment in the neighborhood.”

That support has led Phat Beets in a number of directions. They continue to work to create community-based food systems through their farmers’ market and CSA, which support farmers of color in the region, as well as their Youth Pickle and Catering Company, which hires low-income youth of color for catering gigs and to create value-added products like fermented foods. But despite the focus on supporting producers of color and racial justice education, including, for example, offering workshops on the Prison Industrial Complex and helping to organize a Black Panther Walking Tour of the neighborhood, these programs tend to draw in consumers who are affluent, white, and new residents. Phat Beets has also moved beyond its original mission to create alternative food systems in attempts to more deeply connect with long-term residents. Along with several Black churches, they are a founding member of the North Oakland Restorative Justice Council, which hosts restorative justice circles, community celebrations, and monthly peace and justice walks. In 2015, Max and Yahya began coming to the Self-Help Hunger Program’s community meals. After spending a few months getting to know Aunti Frances and others who spend time at Driver’s Plaza, Phat Beets and Self-Help began to collaborate.

In one example, Phat Beets spearheaded permaculture efforts at the plaza that have brought Self-Help and new neighbors together.

The most prominent permaculture element at Driver’s Plaza is an orchard in which each fruit tree memorializes, as Aunti Frances puts it, “one of our loved ones that have transitioned on.” There are also tree collards (a highly productive perennial leafy green), a living fence made of espaliered (flat pruned) fruit trees, and, for a time, a cobb oven and bench made of a mix of sand, clay, and straw. While the latter was removed by the city, the food production remains. Max explains how this helped to build community:

The trees, they built that bridge. There used to be a gap between new neighbors and people that come to that plaza. [Now] people come out. We have barbecues together. We have pancake breakfasts together. People are still separated. You have mostly white or older folks and they’ll bring out focaccia and whatever. We’re making pancakes and eggs. People start intermingling. And then they plant trees when someone dies. We’ve planted a lot of trees and they’ve come out. One of the folks there is a really great [new] neighbor. His brother died. We got together and bought a tree for his brother and made a plaque. It was building a bridge. [It’s a way of] welcoming people into a space that’s not their own. So now they’re coming and saying “we’re also part of them.”

Indeed, the living fence was initiated by a group of new neighbors. They first tried to obtain permission from the city, but after they were denied a permit, they began working with Phat Beets and Self-Help. Max continues:

The neighborhood group was really interested in doing something [at Driver’s Plaza] too. They tried to do the formal process, and then they got denied. Once they went through the experience, then we said, “Okay, we can help you guys do this. We can do it together.” Because we had already planted five trees. They wanted to plant a living fence so the kids could play in there. They were just like, “Fuck it. Let’s do it.”

While some new neighbors remain opposed or indifferent, many have begun to work alongside Self-Help and Phat Beets. Though it does not mention Self-Help per se, the neighborhood association’s website contains an article titled “NOBE-We Are Not” that reads “The acronym NOBE is nothing more than a realtor’s tool to attract high salaried ‘hipsters’ and to unreasonably and unconscionably raise sales prices … [Our neighborhood] has always been a friendly place to live and our association will continue to build relationships between all neighbors and our community through goodwill and hard work.” While we did not conduct formal surveys, we spoke to many supporters at the rally to defend Aunti Frances who were young, white, and new to the neighborhood. With help from Phat Beets, Aunti Frances and Self-Help have turned many of their new neighbors from opposition to allyship.

“We’re creating this new nonprofit so that Phat Beets is an equal partner on the program we call restorative economics. There’s a mixture of economic justice, food justice, and restorative justice, a sense of healing and building economic systems that build power.”

Oakland Communities United for Equity and Justice

Phat Beets’s composition has changed over time. Most of the younger, more privileged organizers have moved on, and they have hired more long-term residents and people of color, including Aunti Frances, into paid positions. In addition to collaborating with Self-Help, Phat Beets is also a founding member of the North Oakland Restorative Justice Council. Of the three organizations, only Phat Beets is a registered nonprofit, and they have used their acumen and privilege to support the other two organizations. For example, Max does much of the administrative work for all three groups and Phat Beets has served as a fiscal sponsor, writing grants that fund the other programs in order to amplify their work.

Currently, the three organizations are founding a new nonprofit called Oakland Community United for Equity and Justice (OCUEJ). This, according to Max, will allow some of the work that they do “to be more supported in a way that’s not so Phat Beets-centric.”

We’re creating this new nonprofit so that Phat Beets is an equal partner on the program we call restorative economics. There’s a mixture of economic justice, food justice, and restorative justice, a sense of healing and building economic systems that build power.

But whether this new nonprofit can enable long-term residents to stay in Oakland remains to be seen. For now, by creating supportive relationships with new neighbors, they have ensured that Self-Help’s community meals can continue, providing an opportunity for sustenance and gathering to a community dealing with the stresses of displacement and homelessness. They have also amplified the need for Oakland’s more privileged progressives to connect with and support the struggles of long-term residents. Though the broad and necessary policy changes have not yet occurred, there are hopeful signs that they are within reach. Community advocates have recently pressured the city council to close two important loopholes in the city’s rent control regulations, and a coalition is building to repeal a statewide law that prevents rent control of single-family homes.

Aunti Frances and her supporters have been active in these efforts, but her eviction is so imminent that policy changes cannot be made in time. As a result, supporters have waged a public relations campaign to persuade the Morphys against evicting her. They have sent hundreds of holiday postcards, asking Natalia and her parents to, in the words of one supporter, “stop the eviction of a beloved community member and powerful positive presence in this neighborhood.” For her part, Aunti Frances is optimistic that even if she cannot escape eviction, she will find a way to stay in the neighborhood and continue Self-Help’s work. She concluded the eviction defense rally with a characteristically positive statement:

Remember it’s not just Aunti Frances. It’s us. To let people who have just been displaced out of their home with no voice, [know] that they have a voice. I didn’t do this work for nothing. I will not be removed, and even if I’m displaced, I will not give up.”

Amidst chants of “Let Aunti stay,” supporters marched back to the plaza, ate a lunch provided by Phat Beets, and left to fight another day.

Postscript: Aunti Frances accepted a settlement from the Morphy family and moved out of her home in the winter of 2018. She was incredibly fortunate to find another apartment nearby.

Reprinted from “A Recipe for Gentrification,” edited by Alison Hope Alkon, Yuki Kato and Joshua Sbicca, published by New York University Press; © 2020 by New York University.

Alison Hope Alkon is Professor of Sociology at the University of the Pacific. She is co-editor of “The New Food Activism and Cultivating Food Justice,” and author of “Black, White, and Green: Farmers Markets, Race and the Green Economy.”

Yahya Josh Cadji is a member of the CSA Steering Committee of Phat Beets Produce. 

Frances Moore is a longtime Oakland resident, a former Black Panther and founder of the Love Mission Self-Help Hunger Program, which has served weekly meals to Oakland residents in need for nearly a decade.

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