2020 March


Voting Matters

All told there might have been 600 community college students and members of the public who came in waves through the 4-hour September 25 Teach-In on “The Power Of Your Vote.” At times this discussion of the importance of getting active around the 2020 election almost filled the 277-seat Laney College Forum auditorium.

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They heard powerful stories told by their peers, their teachers and community activists about the never-ending struggles by oppressed and exploited groups throughout the entire history of America for social and economic justice — long-past struggles like those that legally freed the slaves, more recent struggles like the battles for civil rights, current struggles that touch them personally, like the travesties happening around immigration, the tragedies of homeless students and teachers, the outrages of people priced out of needed health care, the apocalyptic extinction possibilities of climate change and never-ending struggles like safeguarding democracy by demanding that all citizens enjoy the right to vote.

Some stories were real tearjerkers – undocumented immigrants willing to risk everything they had ever known for a chance at a better life, Students wanting an education so much that they couch surf or sleep in their cars in order to attend school. Students struggling to rebound from horrible encounters with the U.S. system of mass incarceration. Students who have seen so much violence in their young lives that they couldn’t imagine a life without it. In this year of danger and discontent there was so much to talk about.

In Oakland the problem is gentrification with rapid and high rent increases, wrote student Kah’lea McClendon. “My parents are not lazy. Both of my parents have jobs, none of them are addicts, and none of them are bad people; but we still were homeless for three years.” The camera focused on Emma Denice Milligan, sitting in intense pain in her power wheelchair, stumbling with her speech impediment, bringing her story of how Dr. Ronald J. Robinson kicked her out of Summit Hospital after two weeks of failing to find the cause of her pain with the statement to her and her uncle, “She’s a drain on hospital resources.”

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voting matters 2_640x426

Why voting matters was the focus of the Teach-In, planned by a Teach-In Committee of students, teachers, administrators and community volunteers in conjunction with the college chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign. In a country as diverse as ours, with an economic system as exploitive as ours, and a political system as broken and captured by money as ours, why the hell would voting matter? To provoke discussion about that question, the planners used a combination of personal stories, newspaper articles, videos and small-group discussions that tried to merge the lessons of history – some ugly and others inspirational – with the optimism of the millennial generation and the demand for change being increasingly expressed by the growing number of once optimistic people now being pushed out of the economy by gentrification, robotization, and the fascist system of harsh controls being pushed by our two-party system. Among the videos shown was 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg’s “How Dare You!” speech to the United Nations. Last year she was sitting in protest outside the Swedish parliament building in Stockholm, handing out flyers that read “I am doing this because you adults are shitting on my future.”

“It’s a city within a city, temporary homes made permanent residence, located in Emeryville, California,” said student Jalana Spencer. “We call it Tent City . . . People live in squalor. Garbage is everywhere, welcoming rodents and things that feed. Portable toilets are overflowing leaving a pungent stench in the air. Dirty faces without names, it is an eyesore. Tented communities are popping up everywhere, blocking roads, trashing streets and making an unsafe environment for everyone around. Many people living in these communities are in need of medical care and financial assistance. There are many circumstances leading to how they ended up in their situation and we as a community should be more aware and understanding.”

Ethel Long-Scott, one of the founders of the Teach-in Committee and MC of the first two-hour session, kicked it off with a short welcoming speech.

“Many of us have watched the Presidential debates,” she said.  “The 2020 election, which we are seeing take shape right now, promises to be the most momentous in our history since the 1860 election brought us Abraham Lincoln as president and ushered in the U.S. Civil War.

“Back then the political system let the slave-owning south control the country by relying on the legal fiction that a slave owner had 3/5 of a vote for every slave he owned. Today, our political system gives corporations — through their influence in both major political parties — a deadly hold over our government, relying on the legal fiction that corporations are people and have more rights than humans do.

“Major splits are developing within the Democratic Party about how to proceed in the 2020 campaign. One strategy is to defeat Trump by compromising with corporations and supporting corporate-funded so-called middle of the road candidates like Biden. Another strategy is to confront the corporations and build on the working class mobilization unleashed by the Sanders campaign in 2016.

“Meanwhile in the neighborhoods more folk are organizing into strands of a movement, and working to pull those strands together. They are struggling to gain control over what people really need, led by a vision of a better society and a safer world.  The bottom line is that there can’t be political democracy without economic democracy. Whoever controls your bread and butter controls you. People are waking up to the fact that they need to fight to be in control of the things they need to survive.  We need political power, and voting our needs is key to generating a social movement aimed at securing the political power we need.

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voting matters 3_640x426
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“Why is this happening?” Long-Scott asked.

“Because more and more of us are falling into a new class, a class of people no longer needed by a market-based, profit-based corporate economy that’s replacing more and more human workers with robots and artificial intelligence.  Because corporations no longer employ us, they are driven to use fascism (corporate sponsored terror and dictatorship of government) to control us.

“What we the people need is … a plan, and a narrative. We also have no choice; we have to unite to succeed and survive, unite under the banner of our shared real needs.  United, we are the social force for a new economy that serves the needs of all people and the planet.  That’s why our vote matters today.”

Or as a discussion paper noted, “In this election year and in the coming years, your vote will have great power if we can channel our political energy toward a common goal; transforming our society so that all people have full access to all the resources of society to fulfill our basic needs of decent and dignified life on a healing planet.”

Dr. Kimberly King, the Laney psychology professor and Umoja (unity) program director who MC’d the second 2-hour session, said afterward she was getting “lots of excited responses from students . . . who attended. Several Umoja students were thrilled by the speakers and the perspective of coming together as poor people across colors to fight for what we need and deserve.”

An elerly woman pushes another elderly woman, wearing a mask, in a wheelchair | Getty Images

California calls for all seniors to stay home, closure of bars and wineries



An elerly woman pushes another elderly woman, wearing a mask, in a wheelchair | Getty Images

An elderly woman pushes another elderly woman, wearing a mask, in a wheelchair | Getty Images

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gavin Newsom called Sunday for all senior citizens and residents with chronic conditions to isolate themselves at home, as well as for all bars, wineries and brewpubs to close, launching the state’s most sweeping effort yet to slow the spread of coronavirus.

No other state has imposed such restrictions on residents age 65 and older. Newsom said his orders do not come with enforcement but that he expects residents and counties to follow his protocols. California has 5.3 million residents over the age of 65.

“This will be socialized in real time,” Newsom said. “I have all the confidence in the world.”

The governor’s announcement came a day after large crowds continued to enjoy nightlife in cities across the nation despite public warnings to avoid social activities. The weekend before St. Patrick’s Day drew green-clad revelers to many bars and pubs, and the city of Sacramento went so far Friday as to encourage people to dine out by eliminating nighttime parking fees.

Absent further action, the revelry was expected to continue Tuesday on the actual St. Patrick’s Day, which traditionally sees bars open in the morning to packed crowds across the nation.

“We believe this is a non-essential function in our state,” Newsom said of alcohol-focused establishments. Newsom himself has long owned a wine business.

Unlike a handful of other governors Sunday, Newsom did not call for restaurants to close, but to halve their capacities and create the recommended six feet of distance between patrons.

California now has 335 positive coronavirus tests, a 14 percent increase from Saturday, Newsom said. A sixth person has died, though additional details were not immediately available.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called Sunday morning for a “dramatic diminution” in activity at bars and restaurants across the nation. He told NBC’s Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press” that Americans should prepare to “hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing.”

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Sunday ordered the closure of all bars and restaurants through the end of March, and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine was taking similar action. A few cities in New Jersey on Saturday imposed curfews and banned in-person dining.

As positive tests multiply in California and around the nation, elected officials and health officers have scrambled to impose a cascade of restrictions on public life. On Thursday, Newsom’s office issued a directive urging people to avoid large gatherings and new rules opening access to state benefits and opportunities for telework.

He subsequently released an order ensuring shuttered schools could still receive funding, but stopped short of demanding statewide closure of schools, as governors elsewhere have done. The vast majority of schools in California will be closed this week, including those in 24 of the state’s 25 largest districts. Newsom said 85 percent of students in public schools will not have class this week.

Meanwhile, local governments on the front lines of trying to contain the virus have enacted further-reaching limits on public events — Santa Clara County and San Francisco have banned those larger than 100 attendees and sharply limited groups greater than 35. San Francisco went so far as to order bars with capacity limits higher than 100 to close for several weeks.

The economic damage could be sustained and wide-ranging. Businesses are bracing for potentially catastrophic losses of customers as workers who cannot do their jobs remotely confront the possibility of extended stretches without pay.

In an attempt to buoy the ever-popular restaurants and bars in the capital city, the Sacramento City Council provided an economic relief package for small businesses and waived parking fees at night and on weekends. Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg on Saturday afternoon tweeted, “Please safely patronize our local businesses during this difficult time,” a post he has since removed. That drew dozens of people to criticize the mayor for risking public health by encouraging residents to visit restaurants and bars.

After Newsom’s announcement, Steinberg said in a statement that “We must all fully embrace the direction the governor articulated today. This will require us all to make real sacrifices, but they are necessary to slow the progress of this pandemic. … I feel for our small businesses, restaurants and working people who will face economic hardship as a result.”

Widespread homelessness was already a paramount concern for California leaders before the virus began to spread, and the sprawling encampments that dot many large cities now loom as a potential source of transmission. Newsom said the state was working to get Californians out of encampments and into shelter, including trailers and motels assembled by the state, and he predicted that officials would be able to move residents experiencing homelessness without wielding “police state” powers.

“I think there’s a lot of mythology about resistance,” said Newsom, adding that “I just don’t buy that someone prefers to live in an encampment.”

Along similar lines, Newsom said his office would on Monday release guidelines about evictions. Policymakers across California are calling for a moratorium on evictions as residents face down the prospect of missed paychecks.

The governor also attempted to allay fears about the economic wreckage, saying that healthy budget concerns help to ensure that “we’ve never been in better position to weather a recession.”

Nolan D. McCaskill contributed to this report.


Vote Like Your Life Depends on It

By Amara Kassam and Larissa Campaña.  Members of the Laney Chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign that sponsored this event. 

On February 25th the Laney College Teach-In on “The Power Of Your Vote” sought to inform an audience of around 250 students of serious threats to our democracy. We featured key speakers such as Moms 4 Housing, O.P.E.N. and other advocates for housing, education and voters rights. We began our Teach-In with a reminder that the foundation of American capitalism was built on and by black slave laborers. As Ethel Long-Scott, activist and leader at the Laney chapter of the Poor People’s campaign stated, “As the billionaire class accumulates more and more wealth, more working people fall into insecurity, poverty, and homelessness.” As the concerns against capitalism start to spark national interest in the American public, we must ask why the only appropriate time for democratic socialist policy seems to be when big banks and big money need bailouts, and not everyday working people. Looking forward to the 2020 elections, we must be wary of the disinformation that will plague our fair election process. A common strategy for illiberal leaders globally is not to shut down voices of dissent, but to drown them out entirely. This is called censorship through noise, and with the constant flurry of meaningless headlines meant to distract from the drastic violations of human rights. While hundreds of thousands of people go unhoused, and big corporations sit on hundreds of thousands of square feet of empty housing, our media is turned to clickbait headlines about the president’s tweets. Our Teach-In aimed to do more than just inform people about the problems facing our democracy, it was aimed to empower a younger generation of students to have their voices heard through their votes. Disinformation is used to suppress our votes and control political dissent. The best way to combat these threats to our democracy is with protest, education, and with our votes. 

LA Moms4Housing

Another group of home-less moms and families are taking over a house — this time in L.A.

Oakland’s Moms4Housing movement, which proclaims that the human right to shelter takes priority over anyone’s right to profit from housing by keeping it vacant, has spread to Los Angeles. As the Los Angeles Times story below notes, the empty house taken over in mid-March by a group of homeless families, is owned by CalTrans, an arm of state government, and is part of a group of 460 properties that have been vacant for up to 35 years as a homeless crisis now rages around them. The Los Angeles group wants all vacant government-owned properties used to shelter the homeless. They were also motivated by the need to protect themselves from the threat of the Coronavirus.


MARCH 15, 20201:30 PM

Sisters Meztli Escudero, 8, left, and Victoria Escudero, 10, stand in the window of a va-cant house they and their families occupied on Saturday morning. The homeless and housing insecure protesters said they were inspired by a similar protest in Oakland ear-lier this year and by fear of the coronavirus outbreak.(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Weeks after a group of homeless mothers took over a vacant house in Oakland and managed to keep it, another group of moms is trying to do the same in Los Angeles.

On Saturday morning, the protesters and their families moved into a two-bedroom bungalow in El Sereno. They say they plan to remain indefinitely and potentially take over more houses.

They are calling on state and local governments to use all publicly owned vacant homes, libraries, recreation centers and other properties to house people immediately. They say the region’s extreme lack of affordable housing and the threat of the novel coronavirus pushed them to act.

“I am a mother of two daughters. I need a home,” said Martha Escudero, 42, who has spent the last 18 months living on couches with friends and family members in neighborhoods across East Los Angeles. “There’s these homes that are vacant, and they belong to the community.”

Escudero and her family moved into the house with Ruby Gordillo, 33, and Gordillo’s three children. The Gordillos had been living in a small studio in Pico-Union. Joining the two families in the El Sereno home is Benito Flores, 64, a welder who had been living in his van.

Like the Moms 4 Housing group in Oakland, the protesters in L.A. are receiving assistance from the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, an organizing group that has advocated for state measures to expand rent control and other tenant protections.

A group of housing insecure and homeless people and families and their supporters stage a rally on Sheffield Avenue on Saturday morning to “reclaim” a vacant house that they say is owned by Caltrans. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

But unlike in Oakland, where the mothers successfully pressured Wedgewood Inc. of Redondo Beach to sell a vacant home that the company was planning to renovate and flip, the families in L.A. are moving into a home that they say is owned by the state.

The home is one of many that Caltrans bought years ago in preparation for a now-aborted plan to extend the 710 Freeway. Decades of litigation and legislation stalled the 6.2-mile project before construction could begin, leaving transportation officials as landlords for 460 properties that range from modest bungalows in El Sereno to Craftsman mansions on stately streets in South Pasadena.

One of the best-known is the childhood home of chef Julia Child. The Pasadena house, built in 1911, has been vacant for more than 35 years.

Caltrans has started the process of selling the homes, which are required by law to be offered first to former owners and current tenants who meet certain income requirements, but the vast majority are still owned by the state.

Caltrans did not respond to a request for comment.

Escudero, who works two days a week as an elderly caregiver, said the mothers in Oakland inspired her to occupy the vacant home on Saturday morning. She said the protesters are trying to push the state and city to take care of homeless residents and those without stable housing, especially given the new risks associated with the spread of COVID-19.

“With the coronavirus, they want us to be quarantined in our homes, but some of us don’t have homes,” she said.

In speaking to supporters, the protesters, who call themselves Reclaiming Our Homes, said they understood what they were doing is illegal, but the more significant issue was that homes were left vacant while people in the community were homeless.

“They say it’s a crime to come and occupy these houses,” Benito Flores said. “But this is not a crime. This is justice.”

Roberto Flores, 72, who is a part of United Caltrans Tenants, said that the state agency has long neglected its properties. Tenants have sued Caltrans, alleging it has not followed its own rules to ensure that low-income and longtime residents get access to the houses. He estimates 200 of the agency’s homes are now vacant.

“They’re not fixing them, and they’re not renting them,” he said.

Volunteers help move Martha Escudero into a vacant house she and other protesters occupied Saturday morning. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Records kept by The Times show that in 2015, 37 of the El Sereno homes were listed as “uninhabitable,” including two dozen apartment units. Over the years, residents have complained of break-ins, mold and vermin infestations. That figure appears to have increased in recent years.

An investigation by the Pasadena Star-News found that 163 of the 460 homes sat vacant last year. Caltrans said at the time that the vacant homes would be sold according to state laws, but did not provide a timeline.

On Saturday morning, the families and their supporters moved furniture and plants from a U-Haul truck and into the bungalow. Escudero said they planned to bring in a generator for electricity and urged state and local officials to turn on water service.

Originally, the protesters had planned to take over multiple vacant, Caltrans-owned houses in El Sereno. But in the pre-dawn hours, the Los Angeles Police Department was alerted that multiple men were attempting to break into a property, said Los Angeles police Officer Drake Madison, an LAPD spokesman. Two people were arrested and cited for misdemeanor trespassing, Madison said.

By late morning, officers had gathered across the street but were not attempting to evict the families. While they watched, supporters stood, chanting, “Housing is a human right.”

In recent months, homeless and low-income residents in Los Angeles and the Bay Area have cited the state’s affordable housing crisis as justification for simply taking over houses. Saturday’s attempted occupation is just the latest example.

California has an estimated shortage of 1.4 million homes for low-income families and its homeless population stands at about 151,000 on any given night — an increase of 16% from last year.

Last month, Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo proposed using eminent domain to force a landlord in Chinatown to sell his building. Cedillo’s proposal came after tenants protested a plan for the building to switch to market-rate rentals following the expiration of an agreement with the city to keep rents low. His effort is awaiting a hearing at the L.A. City Council.

A group of homeless and housing insecure protesters and their supporters hold a rally on Sheffield Avenue on Saturday to take over a vacant home. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

In Oakland, the group of mothers occupied the house for two months before they were evicted in January. After that happened, Wedgewood agreed to give community land trusts, affordable housing organizations and the city the right of first refusal for the vacant home and about 50 others it owned in Oakland. The company is finalizing a deal with the land trust for the property, which is intended to house those who had occupied it.

The case attracted national attention and Gov. Gavin Newsom helped broker the deal, which was announced on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and portrayed by some as a successful act of civil disobedience.

The protesters sent a letter to Newsom on Saturday morning, asking for his direct assistance.

In response to the broader homelessness crisis, Newsom has, among other actions, allowed state-owned travel trailers to be used as temporary homeless housing and offered state property to local governments for use as shelters and other solutions.

The protesters said their actions were aligned with the governor’s call to turn public property into homeless housing. But they maintained that Newsom and other elected officials needed to do more and work faster to get people off the streets and into stable housing.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

“There’s so many vacant homes while there’s people on the streets,” Escudero said. “He should be able to empathize with that and figure out how to reach an agreement with us.”

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