In late February, before the Covid-19 lockdown confined me to the phone, I traveled to northern California to report on a growing movement against corporate housing speculation. The resulting story, “Moms 4 Housing: Redefining the Right to a Home in Oakland,” published by the Daily on March 9, was about a collective of African-American mothers who had occupied, and were then dramatically evicted from, a vacant house in the west of the city. Though the mothers later negotiated to buy the property with the help of a community land trust, their larger campaign—for the human right to housing—has only become more urgent with the Covid-19 pandemic.
At the time of publication, I was waiting on responses to several public information requests—filed with the office of Libby Schaaf, the mayor of Oakland; the Oakland Police Department; and the office of Gregory Ahern, the sheriff of Alameda County, who oversaw the eviction. Neither Mayor Schaaf’s office, care of Rose Rubel, an analyst in the city administrator’s office, nor the Oakland Police Department, care of Alisha Banda, a police records supervisor, have responded to my requests. But on April 9, I received a batch of one hundred and seven emails, in PDF form, from Cynthia Wilson, a technician in the Sheriff’s Office.
My primary goal in contacting Alameda County was to learn more about the eviction, which took place on the morning of January 14. As I recount in the original story:
[The mothers] found the street overrun—not only by a throng of supporters, thanks to a text-message blast, but also by a ballistic vehicle and sheriff’s vans from Alameda County. A dozen men were dressed in fatigues and helmets and wielded machine guns. Under orders from Sheriff Gregory Ahern and Commander Shawn Sexton, they used a battering ram to knock down the front door of the house—which the moms say was unlocked but the Sheriff’s Office says was “fortified.” Everyone inside was arrested…
Alameda County declined to pursue criminal charges against the moms and their allies, but the Sheriff’s Office has refused to apologize for its show of force. Sergeant Ray Kelly, the agency’s public information officer, told me that the Sheriff’s Office has no regrets and that the AR15s and ballistic vehicle were commensurate to the threat posed by “anarchist and criminal elements” among the moms’ allies, based on social media and tips from an informant. [Carroll] Fife believes that the Sheriff’s Office was targeting Fred Hampton Jr., a Chicago-based activist who had flown in to offer support. Hampton’s father, a prominent Black Panther, was murdered by the FBI in 1969.
I also wanted to understand the relationship between the Sheriff’s Office and Wedgewood LLC, which owned the house the mothers had occupied. A lingering question was why Wedgewood had believed it to be within its rights to discard the mothers’ belongings after the eviction. Again, as I wrote in March:
The next day, the mothers returned to the house to gather their furniture and other belongings, as Wedgewood had promised they could—though Wedgewood disputes this. Cross told me that they arrived to find everything thrown onto the street, in a broken, muddy pile.
The emails provided by Alameda County, while incomplete, help answer three crucial questions:
Did the Sheriff’s Office try to persuade the mothers to leave the occupied house before the eviction?
Sheriff’s Office personnel have repeatedly stated that they tried to prevent a confrontational eviction by offering to help the mothers, only to be rebuffed. Just hours after the eviction, Sheriff Ahern himself wrote in emails to concerned citizens:
We have offered assistance and services, but they were declined. We must follow the order of the court.
We made offers to the group through their attorneys to assist with various programs. Our offers and suggestions were refused. They told us “They want the fight,”—
The mothers and their representatives—attorney Leah Simon-Weisberg and Carroll Fife, director of the Oakland chapter of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment—told me that they never heard from anyone at the Sheriff’s Office.
This contradiction may be explained by an email sent by Kelly on January 10. He emailed Ahern and five others:
I spoke with the moms group attorney, Francisco Gutierrez, and he was very amicable. He wants nothing more than to resolve this issue without a confrontation. I asked him if his clients would sit down with us and come up with a solution that was in their best interest. We also offered resources and access to assistance. He went to the moms [sic] group and they told him there will be no negotiating and they are not leaving. They were very adamant! The attorney was very complimentary of Sgt. Kong and the civil unit and understood our position.
Francisco Gutierrez is an attorney for Wedgewood LLC, not the mothers. It thus appears that Kelly was brokering a negotiation with only one party. When I recently asked Kelly whether he had ever communicated with a lawyer for the mothers, he said “yes”—that he had spoken with a man. The mothers have had only one attorney: Simon-Weisberg, a woman.
Why did the Sheriff’s Office stage such a dramatic eviction?
On December 6 and 9, in response to a reporter’s query about the timing of the eviction, Kelly said in an email:
We are not looking for a confrontation or to escalate community tension.
I think these folks are looking for a showdown with law enforcement. That’s not going to happen.
This was reiterated a month later—just three days before the eviction—by his colleague, Sergeant Kenrick Kong, in an email to Emma Ishii, a staff member of a county supervisor:
As always it is the intention of the Sheriff’s Office Civil Section to enforce Orders from the Court in as peaceful of a manner as possible. We are going to treat the enforcement of this order like any other order.
Yet it seems that, by mid-December, the Sheriff’s Office was preparing for a clash. On December 16, after observing a court hearing on the mothers’ eviction, Lieutenant Patrick Jones wrote to Sexton and another colleague:
Moms for Housing came to Room 104 today. They filed six Claims of Right to Possession [RTP] for the Magnolia property. They had a crowd of 60 to 70 supporters with them. Once they exited the Civil Section Lobby, they announced the RTPs had been filed and we accepted them, causing their group of supporters to begin yelling and screaming. They then began to yell and chant, “The people united will never be divided.” I exited the Civil employee door, walked to the hallway next to the Courthouse Food Vendor, activated my BWC [body-worn camera] and I announced that yelling and screaming in a courthouse is unacceptable. There was a black male adult who immediately engaged me asking why I was being aggressive. I told him that yelling, screaming and chanting within the courthouse is unacceptable behavior. A white female, who appeared as though she might be their legal counsel, advised they were all leaving peacefully.
The Sheriff’s Office deployed more than forty personnel and a BearCat armored vehicle to carry out the eviction on January 14, according to Kelly. A few hours after the eviction, Captain James McGrail emailed forty-five colleagues to provide instructions on how to file overtime hours and what to do “if you rode home in the BearCat.” He congratulated them for being “superstars” and attached two notes of praise from local citizens.
When I asked Kelly about these emails, he told me that it’s common for law enforcement to identify people by their gender and race, even outside of investigations, and that race had nothing to do with the nature of the eviction, adding that there were more whites than African-Americans among the mothers’ supporters. He said that the BearCat and other equipment were necessary because of aggressive conduct observed inside and outside of the occupied house—which the mothers and their attorney deny.
Kelly told me that the Sheriff’s Office spent more than $40,000 on personnel costs alone to carry out the eviction, all at taxpayer expense. In emails he sent to reporters between January 14 and 16, however, he stated that the cost was “over $10k” and would be billed to Wedgewood LLC. The company was never charged for any law enforcement expenses.
Why did Wedgewood LLC dispose of the mothers’ belongings the morning after the eviction?
Sam Singer, the spokesman for Wedgewood, told me in March that the company only ever agreed to put the mothers’ belongings on the sidewalk in front of the house. According to the mothers and Oakland City Councilmember Nikki Bas, however, Wedgewood had promised to provide access to the house the morning after the eviction.
It appears that the Sheriff’s Office told a Wedgewood attorney that the company was obliged to return the mothers’ belongings. On January 10, Captain Melanie Ditzenberger wrote to five of her colleagues and Scott Dickey, an attorney for Alameda County:
I received a call from Anthony Pacheco, the attorney who represents Wedgewood. I have spoken to him before, and he is very appreciative of our efforts… He asked about the women’s property, I told him that once the property was turned back over to Catamount [a Wedgewood subsidiary], they should secure the women’s personal property for the amount of time required by law; and if assistance was needed; to work with OPD [Oakland Police Department].
She reiterated this in another email less than an hour later, to a different group of employees at the Sheriff’s Office:
[Pacheco] was also concerned about the women’s personal property and getting it out of the home. I said that once the Civil Unit affected [sic] the eviction; and returned the property to Catamount, it is their responsibility to secure the women’s personal property for the amount of time required by law; and if they needed assistance removing it; to work with OPD.
When I asked Singer about these emails and what Wedgewood understood its obligations to be, he said, “I never heard of this conversation.”
Taken as a whole, the emails released by Alameda County reveal an agency struggling to coordinate a response to mass protest—in the context of an otherwise ordinary eviction. And while the Sheriff’s Office continued to exchange information with Wedgewood LLC and its attorneys, it did not communicate directly with Moms 4 Housing. Representatives of Moms 4 Housing told me that the mothers have had no contact with either the Sheriff’s Office or Oakland police in recent weeks, but are currently making visits to homeless residents, in violation of the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order. As Carroll Fife explained, “We can’t shelter in place and say that we care about the community when they’re out living in the streets.”