Fortifying Defenses: Oakland’s Wealthy See Class and Race, Not Humanity

Don’t recognize the person driving down your street? Any stranger, and particularly poor people and people of color, must be coming to steal, assault, murder… or do construction work.

Those are the only reasons people who don’t share race and class privilege should be around, according to emails bouncing through the neighborhoods where I grew up and where my family lives.

How Small Actions Add Up to Major Displacement

Stoked by fears of Oakland as the "robbery capital of the country," these listserves are a terrifying digest of fearful racism and classism, a veritable how-to series for displacing those who make up the majority of our city.

As Oakland’s population shifts and gentrification gains attention, it is easy to get lost in conversations about origin and race.

Rapid decline in Oakland’s Black population and huge influxes of people from out of town characterize the visible shifts in the city, but we can’t understand those shifts without bringing attention to the people, powers, and processes that cause rapid displacement.

Residents Feed Off Fear, Racism, and Classism

“I know that many on these lists are unaware of a very dangerous, in my opinion, proposed development,” wrote a resident of the Laurel neighborhood a few months ago on a listserve meant for “anyone who lives, works, shops or plays” in the area.

He was scared that a real estate firm called Urban Green Investments planned to build 65,000 square feet of residential units in the area, to be reserved for Section 8 renters.

The idea that a large number of families who have a hard time making financial ends meet could be supported by a new neighborhood institution was, apparently, a violation of the author’s safety.

“I have no problem with people on low incomes having housing and having housing in our neighborhood. But I don’t know that adding more is where we want the neighborhood to go,” another resident wrote in response.

Fears continued to be stoked by someone who shared a slice of their experience living near an Oakland Housing Authority (OHA) property:

“Shall I speak of the constant garbage blowing around?… They just don’t care!... Shall I speak about all the drug dealers? Legions of them... How many of you have had a single homicide, let alone 4 across the street from your houses? I’m guessing around zero... mainly because you are NOT living across from any low income OHA properties.”

Apparently worried by the uproar, Urban Green Investments wrote a friendly letter telling neighbors not to worry about the scary possibility of poor people moving in: “Our intent is to develop a new ‘above market rate’ community.”

While the Section 8 development plan never existed, the simple idea that it could was enough to cause threatening alarm.

Losing Sight of Other People’s Humanity

These emails strengthen the perception that those who qualify for Section 8 housing are defined first by their economic situation and race (and therefore criminality) and later, if at all, by their humanity.

Those who qualify for Section 8 housing are at the very least unwelcome in the neighborhood, and if they come, they might kill you.

Another email list, this one for the block I grew up on not far from the border of Piedmont, reeks of similar fears.

One resident reported a red Toyota, being slowly driven around the block by “a rather dark skin latino, seemed to be an in shape, medium/thin build, wearing a straw hat and seemed to be driving alone.”

No matter what the driver was doing, being a Brown man in a truck made that person dangerous.

Another resident tried to calm fears: “I saw the same vehicle and assumed he was working for someone.”

Of course: a dark skinned Latino man would only be driving through the neighborhood to cause some kind of harm or else be a worker!

Who Belongs? Who Doesn’t? And Who Gets to Decide?

In a critical conversation about gentrification, it is not neighborhoods themselves that are the problem or the idea of shifts in who lives where, but rather the ways that those shifts are enforced.

The same forces behind gentrification that displace people from their homes limit their agency over physical space.

Fears stoked, whether by the FBI or personal experience, are amplifying intolerance. Poorer people of color have never had much of a presence in Oakland’s wealthier neighborhoods, but they’re surely less welcome now.

These wealthier neighborhoods are no longer public.

Ideas sent around the second listserve for keeping the area safe include personal surveillance cameras, hiring private security and increasing police presence by contracting with the Piedmont P.D.

Equating increased policing with safety makes being in these neighborhoods increasingly dangerous for people who fit criminal descriptions, whether they are stealing things, doing construction work or walking home.

If knowing that many people in a neighborhood are out to get you isn’t enough to keep you out, getting locked up for simply being there will.

Unexamined Privilege and Selective “Community”

Our broader culture offers wealthier people comfort by thinking of those they consider outsiders as less-than-human.

In neighborhoods where poor and Black and Brown people are not highly visible, they are not considered part of the imagined community that is Oakland.

As these artificial impressions are communicated through email lists, my own fears skyrocket. I know that the privileged people who use these lists will exercise power, causing material effects of dehumanization, criminalization, displacement and segregation.

Oakland is diverse. I grew up relatively removed from most of the harms that the city is known for and I claim it as my home.

Rather than worrying about who could be doing harmful things in the neighborhood, can we focus on who we notice? Who stands out as out of place?

How can we materially integrate those outside of our circles into our imagined and material communities?

In trying to understand Oakland’s complex geographies, I challenge myself to see people’s humanity before I see anything else about them. I imagine a place where fear is recognized as such and is not used as cause for displacement.

The only Others are those we create.

Jesse Strauss is a writer, activist, and musician. Born and raised in Oakland, he has studied social and economic development in Latin America and reported for Al Jazeera in Qatar. Now he's back home, making music and fighting the prison-industrial complex as a member of Critical Resistance.

Photos from Shutterstock