You Can’t Evict Community Power: Food Justice and Eviction Defense in Oakland, CA

Alison Alkon | 12.11.2017
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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 them. “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 Francis pays for much of the food with her SSI check, though there have also been donations from neighbors and even a small grant. More recently, through a partnership with Phat Beets Produce, 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 sold to Natalia Morphy and her parents James and Alexandra Morphy in 2016. 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, the Morphys want her out. Aunti Frances was served eviction papers on November 19th. This is the Morphys’ third attempt to push her out. Rent control should make this impossible, but there are gaps in the legislation for unscrupulous landlords to exploit. If the eviction is successful, it is unlikely that Aunti Frances will be able to find other housing. She’ll either be forced out of the city, or into the streets.


Every so often, on sites like Civil Eats or similar ones, food justice activists reflect on whether gentrification is an unintended consequence of their work. Detroit’s Patrick Crouch worries that urban agriculture “inevitably attracts young white people” while DC’s Brian Massey is “increasingly finding that our work is being associated with, and even coopted by, the forces that are driving extreme gentrification and displacement.” Phat Beets is no stranger to these debates. In 2012, a local realtor profiled their community garden and farmers market as evidence of North Oakland’s “revitalization,” and the ensuing controversy prompted them to more deeply connect with long-term residents, including Aunti Frances. Together, they have tried to insulate the Self Help Hunger Program from the threat of gentrification. They have formed alliances with wealthier neighbors who used to call the police to report loud music or have cars towed, turning them from detractors to volunteers and donors. Bringing people together is one of the Self Help Hunger Program’s fundamental goals, and Aunti Frances’ warmth and generous spirit easily bridges divides between Black and white, rich and poor, and old residents and new.


So it’s no surprise that dozens of food justice, housing rights and anti-racist organizations, as well as neighborhood residents, have come together to support Aunti Frances. To launch their eviction defense campaign,” they planned a rally on Sunday December 10th to show the landlords the strength of Aunti Frances’ community support. They are also collecting signatures, accepting donations, and asking supporters to share Aunti Frances’ story.


Food justice can be defined as the struggle against racism and oppression within and beyond the food system. One form of this oppression is that, just as activists have increased access to healthy food and green spaces in underdeveloped neighborhoods, long-term residents are being displaced. Those interested in creating more sustainable and just food systems need to stand with Aunti Frances and her allies against evictions, and for the creation of livable, green and affordable communities in Oakland and beyond.