You Can’t Evict Community Power

by Alison Alkon

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.

Aunti Frances shares the experiences of those dealing with food insecurity: “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.

In recent years,food justice activists have been reflecting 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 farmer’s 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 by forming alliances with neighbors. 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 are planning a rally this Sunday December 10th that will 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.

Just as activists have increased access to healthy food and green spaces in underserved neighborhoods, long-term residents are being displaced. Sustainable and just food means supporting residents who face eviction as well as creating livable, green, and affordable communities.

Alison Alkon is co-editor of the book The New Food Activism, our December #realfoodreads selection. Anna interviews Alison and chapter authors Joann Lo and Tanya Kerssen in this month’s podcast episode