News of the Occupation: Occupiers Past and Present – Oakland Union of the Homeless

Categories: News, Occupy Oakland Journal 2011

by Kevin Seal

(Kevin is a member of the Occupy Oakland Media Committee as well as a freelance journalist)

Several new proposals for action are underway in Occupy Oakland.  As these initiatives take root, occupiers are careful to note that this movement happens in the context of a lengthy history of protest in Oakland.  From the Black Panthers to the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights to Color of Change, there is a rich legacy of civil disobedience in Alameda County, and Occupy Oakland is helping bring these varied and long-standing communities together in action.

The occupation is looking at reclaiming foreclosed homes and preventing at-risk homeowners from losing their properties to predatory lenders and fraudulent banking institutions.  As this movement evolves and strengthens, it is instructive to study the Oakland Union of the Homeless, and the many successes this group had in the reclamation of abandoned houses.

On December 15, 1987, a homeless man named James Lee was killed by gunshot, prompting a Christmas Eve protest in which activists broke into and occupied an abandoned house.  Oakland police evicted the activists two days later, but the seeds were sown for a national movement.  With that action, Andrew Jackson, Glenna Jackson, Terry Messman (now the editor and layout designer of the newspaper Street Spirit) and several other activists founded the Oakland Union of the Homeless.

Over the following few years, this group reclaimed Victorian houses in Oakland, demanded low-income housing from then-Senator Pete Wilson, and staged a high-profile act of civil disobedience in which the Union’s members refused to leave Wilson’s office.  In 1990, the Union took over three more houses, and successfully petitioned California for an allocation of $1 million to the building of Dignity Housing West, an Oakland low-income housing development.  The 26-unit James Lee Court Apartments, just three blocks from Frank Ogawa Plaza at 15th Street and Castro, came from this demand, as did 46 other units in Oakland.  Dignity Housing West is in negotiation to acquire 1,000 more units in California and Nevada, and is working to establish a downtown Oakland office building for non-profit clients.

On the national level, 1990 also saw big steps forward from this movement.  The National Union of the Homeless got the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development at that time, Jack Kemp, to commit 10% of the agency’s vacant housing stock for the purpose of homeless housing.  Kemp ultimately broke his promise, and in response, poor and homeless people in Oakland as well as New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, and other cities began breaking in and taking over these houses.

The story of the Oakland Union of the Homeless has been told in two documentaries.  Takeover, from 1993, tells the story of the National Union of the Homeless; Homeless Not Helpless: Opening Doors, directed by a formerly homeless man named Jerry Jones, focuses on Oakland’s leading role in this movement, and on the direct actions of the Oakland Union of the Homeless.

Occupiers — and soon-to-be Occupants — have much to learn from these past movements:  pitfalls to avoid, opportunities to embrace, promises to question, communities to engage.  The momentum is larger this time, but the challenges are greater too.  Given the wide range of abandoned, bank-owned housing in Oakland, there is no excuse for people to spend the winter in the cold due to lack of financial resources.

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