The City of Oakland, California, is one of many in the United States currently experiencing drastic income inequality, gentrification, and displacement of low-income residents. The city’s police force has been embroiled in a long list of scandals over the past two years, including the murders of unarmed black residents, a nearly $1 million settlement over police sexually abusing a young woman in 2017, and several police chiefs resigning over sex and race scandals.
Current Mayor Libby Schaaf, first elected in 2014, has presided over a tumultuous administration, though she has gained nationwide attention for branding herself as a voice in the Trump Resistance in opposing ICE raids on immigrants in Oakland. But her administration’s inability to hold a corrupt police force accountable or mitigate the worsening issues of homelessness, skyrocketing rents, inequality, and racial injustices have inspired a people-focused challenge from the left in her bid for re-election this year. On May 1, activist Cat Brooks, co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project and the executive director of the Justice Teams Network, announced her bid for mayor. Brooks told me in an interview:
“I’ve been doing grassroots community work in Oakland for over a decade. Over the last four years under the current administration, we’ve seen an all out attack on black people, brown people, poor people’s ability to survive let alone thrive in the city of Oakland. I can say easily my team and I have spent 50 percent of our time fighting back policies from this administration, being upset with this administration, protesting this administration, and so we had a conversation on what it would look like if we spent the next six months organizing the people around a people’s campaign and a people’s agenda for Oakland.”
She explained Libby Schaaf’s administration has functioned as a top-down government, focused on pleasing developers, development, and the wealthy, powerful interests in Oakland rather than long-term Oakland residents. “Its very reliant on policing as a solution to every social problem we have and the people whose lives are most impacted have a small voice in city hall,” she said.
In contrast, Brooks is currently developing her platform in partnership with Oakland community members and focusing efforts to mobilize the most marginalized people in Oakland to vote. “Our government would be one that’s in partnership with the people rather than one that tells them what’s best for them,” added Brooks.
She explained her organizing efforts are seeking to make the Oakland city government less reliant on law enforcement, including divesting from police and repurposing those funds into mental health services, education, and job training. Brooks also wants to meaningfully address Oakland’s homeless issues that have worsened under the current administration. Oakland’s homeless population is conservatively estimated at just under 3,000 people, a population that has increased by 25 percent over the past two years. A United Nations Expert inspected homeless encampments in Oakland earlier this year, and called out the cruelty with which the homeless are treated in the area.
“Gone would be the days of sending law enforcement to violently clear encampments,” declared Brooks who wants to transform how the homeless are treated in Oakland and work with institutions like churches to develop safe places for the homeless. “Gone would be days of not directing city resources to keeping those encampments clean and providing unhoused people with the things that anybody needs to have to have dignity, like portable showers and bathrooms.”
A significant contributor to Oakland’s surge in homelessness is the city’s skyrocketing rent prices. 40,000 new residents have relocated to Oakland since 2007, a boom attributed to the surge in Silicon Valley jobs. As a result, rent has increased at some of the highest rates in the U.S. The average one bedroom apartment in Oakland rents for over $2,300, and renters have no protection from landlords spiking rents without notice due to the 1995 California state law, Costa-Hawkins Act, which prohibits rent control on all buildings constructed after 1995.
Brooks and other Oakland activists have fought to rally support to repeal the Costa Hawkins Act as well as establish public land trusts to make housing permanently affordable. She cited funds from the $600 million measure KK passed in 2016 that can be used toward these efforts.
“There is no limit to how high landlords can raise the rent,” explained Brooks. “You can find yourself in a situation where you’re paying $1,200 a month, and the next thing you know you’re paying $4,000 a month and if you can’t pay it, you’re evicted.”
Brooks is one of several candidates to formally announce campaigns challenging incumbent Mayor Libby Schaaf, though three out of the seven candidates ran in 2014, all receiving less than one percent of the vote, and none have the extensive organizing credentials that Brooks does.