A group of women activists who took over an empty house in a gentrifying Oakland neighborhood for nearly two months were forcibly removed by police Tuesday morning.
A judge ordered the women, who had been squatting in the empty, investor-owned home since Nov. 18, 2019, to be removed when he rejected Moms 4 Housing activist Dominique Walker’s argument that “housing is a human right” and that she should be allowed to stay in the vacant home.
“Housing is a human right. I pay bills there. I pay water, PG&E, internet. We live there,” Walker previously told the Associated Press. “We want to purchase the home; it needs to belong back in the hands of the community. It was stolen through the foreclosure crisis.”
Police, which included SWAT officers, broke down the door of the Oakland home and removed Moms 4 Housing activists Misty Cross, Tolani King, and Jesse Turner while supporters locked arms outside and chanted “shame on you,” according to KPIX. Another man, Walter Baker, was arrested outside the home.
“Today, this morning, the sheriffs came in. They came in like an army for mothers and babies,” Walker, who was not home at the time of the eviction and was the only occupant who was not arrested, told KPIX. She said that the police “did this strategically” while she was appearing on Democracy Now.
“I’m angry that my sisters are in handcuffs. Our supporters are in handcuffs right now, all because we have the right to housing,” she said. “This movement is just beginning, and we see what we’re up against. But we also see what they are afraid of. They’re afraid of us mobilizing 300 people in 15 minutes. That’s what we did.”
Sgt. Ray Kelly, a spokesperson for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, described the eviction as a “very difficult situation for our agency with a lot of concerns.”
“We are thankful the eviction was completed without any use of force or significant issues. Based on intelligence information from inside the house we had to plan for a wide range of contingencies. We faced a lot of hostility from activists and protestors,” Kelly wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News.
The sheriff brought an armored police vehicle “in the event there was any type of emergency that required,” he added. “We operated well within policy and the law. Like I said, the outcome was successful in the fact there were no significant incidents.”
The Moms 4 Housing activists formed after Walker, who was born and raised in Oakland before she moved to go to school in Mississippi, returned to her hometown and witnessed how the shortage of affordable housing had affected her community, she told BuzzFeed News. Homelessness rose 47% between 2017 and 2019 with black people making up 50% of the homeless population, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
“Talking to my community, everybody had the same story. Everybody that was originally in Oakland, they are either displaced hours away and have to commute to work. Or they are displaced out in the streets,” Walker said. “Our goal is to reclaim land back into the hands of the community, where it belongs.”
She said choosing that home in Oakland was a deliberate choice and that “a lot of the harm that happened in the community” came about because of investment companies like Wedgewood, which owns the property.
The real estate investment firm purchased the house for $501,078 and took possession of it days after the women moved in, Sam Singer, a company spokesperson, told BuzzFeed News in an email. The house is worth an estimated $630,722, according to Zillow.
“Wedgewood is pleased the illegal occupation of its Oakland home has ended peacefully. That is what the company has sought since the start,” Singer wrote. The company states on its website that it offers “a unique opportunity to qualified investors to access our portfolio of distressed residential properties.”
Singer added, “The solution to Oakland’s housing crisis is not the redistribution of citizens’ homes through illegal break-ins and seizures by squatters.”
Walker said the action was “never about this one particular house. This is not only an Oakland issue. This is a world issue. It’s a basic human right to have shelter to protect you from the elements. We don’t want them in our community. We want to make a statement that speculators are not welcome in Oakland.”
Singer told BuzzFeed News that the company is now working with the nonprofit Shelter 37 to “renovate the home, giving opportunities to at-risk Oakland youths and splitting the profits with the nonprofit so that other youths may benefit.”
Since making national headlines, the movement in Oakland has caught attention and support from local lawmakers. Democratic state Sen. Nancy Skinner has voiced support for the movement, saying that “nowhere should there be a vacant house anywhere in California when we have the housing that we have.”
“And it was totally legitimate for those homeless moms to take over that house,” Skinner said.
A Democratic member of the California State Assembly said it's the duty of elected officials to ensure “opportunistic landlords and corporate landlords” would not keep homes vacant, according to the Associated Press.
Walker said that over the next few days, she will concentrate on getting her “sisters out of jail” but hopes her organization can be a constructive part of finding solutions for the housing crisis in Oakland.