After police were called on a barbecue, black Oaklanders share stories of racism and evictions.
Kenzie Smith can’t get the voice out of his head. The woman could’ve ended his life with a single phone call, he said, and her threatening words play on repeat.
The 37-year-old Oakland man made headlines last month when a white woman called police on him for barbecuing at Lake Merritt, a public park he has frequented since he was a child. Jennifer Schulte, who called 911 to complain about Smith’s use of a charcoal grill, was soon nicknamed BBQ Becky, becoming the subject of viral memes and the most recent symbol of white Americans harassing black people.
“Every time I look at that spot, it’s a constant reminder. I’m always going to hear that voice,” Smith said on a recent sunny morning, standing in the grass where, weeks earlier, his leisurely Sunday had turned into a nightmare. “I honestly thought that I was going to die.”
Smith’s story reignited a national debate about racism in America, but in Oakland, the episode triggered a more acute pain. For some, it was a powerful depiction of the rapid disappearance of black Oakland – a trend that for years has been dramatic in San Francisco, just across the bay.
While African Americans in Oakland have been steadily displaced by gentrification, others who remain are treated like criminals in their own hometown.
‘Ground zero for displacement’
Oakland was a critical destination for African American families migrating from the south in the 1940s, a home to a “Harlem of the West” jazz and blues scene in the 1950s and the birthplace of the the Black Panther party in the 1960s.
The government, however, systematically devastated the city’s black communities throughout the 20th century. Officials constructed freeways, train tracks and federal buildings that literally destroyed homes and tore neighborhoods apart. Federal “redlining” practices embedded racial inequality and segregation into the city’s development, with banks allowing wealthy white communities to flourish while denying home ownership to black families. A corrupt police agency brutalized and jailed innocent black citizens.
“My question is, when does it stop?” said the Rev Thomas Harris III, the longtime pastor at Pleasant Grove Baptist church in West Oakland. While a typical service once brought 75 to 100 congregants, the numbers have dwindled to as little as 25 as black families have been pushed out of the area.
Now, the biggest threat facing working class black families who survived decades of racist policies is the extreme housing crisis plaguing the region. Pressured by the nation’s priciest real estate in San Francisco and the neighboring Silicon Valley tech boom, Oakland has one of the fastest-rising rents in the US.
While black residents made up nearly half of Oakland’s population in 1980, that figure dropped to 28% by 2010, and, if current trends continue, could fall to just 16% over the next decade. Some have been pushed to far-away suburbs or central California towns hours away. Others have returned to the south.
“It’s ground zero in the United States right now for this kind of intensity of high housing costs and displacement,” said Malo Hutson, a Columbia University urban planning professor.
If Josephine Hardy’s landlord successfully evicts her from her home of 47 years in July, she said her first stop would probably be a relative’s couch hours away. After that, she doesn’t know.
Three generations of Hardy’s family are now being forced out of their home of five decades, a painful process that began after an engineer at Intel purchased the three-unit property they have long rented in West Oakland.
The 69-year-old woman, who once worked for the public school system, lives in an upstairs apartment while her daughter and granddaughter share a unit downstairs. Hardy’s son was living in a third unit, until Itua Oiyemhonlan, the new landlord, moved him out, saying he would be moving in.
“We are being pushed out of our community,” said Hardy, in tears, as she sat on her daughter’s couch, recounting how a group of working-class black women built up the neighborhood and lamenting that their families can no longer reap the benefits. “We are treated like we don’t really belong here. It seems like our communities are so dispensable.”
Oiyemhonlan is also black and was born in Oakland. But Leah Simon-Weisberg, Hardy’s attorney, said the trend she had seen in recent years was wealthy younger landlords and large management companies buying rent-controlled properties with the goal of turning big profits by removing low-income families.
In many of her cases, the lawyer said, “they are predatory. They understand they’ll be able to push people out.”
Hardy said she had suffered from panic attacks since Oiyemhonlan bought her home and that she could not begin to think about moving her belongings, including heirlooms passed down from her great-grandmother, who was once a slave in Louisiana. “I thought I’d be here until I couldn’t climb those steps anymore.”
Oiyemhonlan did not respond to an inquiry and his attorney declined to comment.
When white neighbors call police
Theo Williams is a native Oaklander and African American artist who has found a way to remain in the city, even after his family lost their home. But in recent years, at least one neighbor has been less than pleased with his presence.
On 27 September 2015, Williams, who grew up by Lake Merritt in the 1980s, was part of a small drum circle with his group SambaFunk! Funkquarians when a white man who said he lived nearby showed up to the lake to try and stop them. The man said they were violating noise ordinances, but the group, which had been drumming there for several years and was outside for a rare lunar eclipse, kept playing. A confrontation ensued, and according to Williams, the man tried to grab his drumsticks.
The man called police, and eventually a squad of officers showed up, leading Williams to get a citation for “battery” after the caller alleged he had been assaulted. Prosecutors ultimately decided not to file charges.
“It was humiliating and disrespectful, but it was also a sense of disbelief that this was really happening, that this person would exercise this much privilege,” Williams said. “You don’t own me.”
Over the years, Williams, who lives in a small artist studio, said he has long experienced racial profiling and police harassment in his hometown: “My personal history is: constantly getting detained, constantly getting asked questions … It actually becomes very traumatic.”
But when white residents new to the community try and suppress black culture, residents said, it can be particularly hurtful.
Not long after the drumming controversy, Pleasant Grove Baptist church began receiving noise complaints for loud music – and the city responded by threatening a $3,529 fine, plus penalties of $500 a day if the “noise” continued, saying the property was the “site of nuisance activity”.
“It was disturbing. How can someone come into the community and begin to dictate to somebody who has been there for years?” said Harris. “We thought we enhanced the community, not bring it down.”
Elder Ron Rosson, then an associate pastor, said the anonymous neighbors filing noise complaints were “bullying” and that it seemed “racially motivated”. He noted the historical significance of religious music for black communities, dating back to slavery: “It’s our communication. It’s our liberty. To be told not to do that and to not express yourself in that way … that is not who we are. That’s not how we do church.”
The hostility toward black people in a gentrifying Oakland can extend beyond cultural institutions.
When a Whole Foods store opened in an abandoned car dealership near Marlena Henderson’s home, her family was thrilled to have organic produce and began shopping there regularly, she said.
Until 21 December 2017.
That day, her 13-year-old son walked into the store by himself to purchase a Christmas gift for his mother. He had saved up and called his mother on the phone, who talked to him about possible gifts, like scarves or body products, she recalled. When he later returned home empty handed and “too upset to speak”, she knew something was wrong.
The store’s security staff, according to Henderson, had accused her son of trying to steal, saying he looked “suspicious” shopping for women’s products and that they saw him enter a bathroom with his basket. They ultimately escorted him out of the building. She said a manager was later defensive, claiming her son frequently tried to steal and questioning how he could have the money to afford the potential gifts.
“He was humiliated and traumatized, all for trying to be responsible, trying to be generous, trying to do something good and going to a place he knew I loved,” she said, adding, “It could’ve gotten to the point where somebody called police who then shot my son.”
Whole Foods did not respond to a request for comment. Though they no longer shop there, the family lives nearby and cannot avoid the reminder, Henderson said: “It’s a memory for him that stings.”
‘Leaving it all behind’
For some forced out of Oakland, there’s no turning back.
“I was no longer willing to fight. It was too taxing for me,” said Karna Leggett, a 45-year-old lifelong Oaklander who recently moved to Texas after her father died.
She said she wanted to stay in the home, which she had rented since 1999 and where her father had lived for 40 years. But negotiations with her landlord, who was trying to take control of the property, dragged on for more than a year. Eventually, she gave up.
“They had made living there so distasteful to me that I just wanted to leave it all behind,” said Leggett.
(Daniel Bornstein, an attorney for the landlord, said Leggett “voluntarily” left after reaching an “amicable settlement”.)
Leggett doesn’t know how long she’ll stay in Texas, but one thing, she said, seemed clear: she’ll never be able to live in Oakland again.
Some have found ways of resisting. In 2015, after the noise complaints against black musicians, residents organized a “Make a Joyful Noise” celebration, taking over a public street.
And this month, hundreds showed up at Lake Merritt for a “BBQ’n While Black” event to protest the police call by Schulte, who could not be reached for comment. Kenzie Smith showed up to the lake on a recent morning to help clean up the section of the lake where many have been holding barbecues in solidarity with him: “I don’t want to give anyone any reason to complain,” he said.
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