Critical Resistance, a radical prison abolitionist organization, is building offices and gathering space for allied groups in the Temescal district of Oakland. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)
On the corner of 44th Street and Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, amid the upstart cafes and yoga studios of the Temescal district, a longtime baby shop is becoming a center for prison abolition.
Where months ago the building’s blue facade advertised toys and car seats, now murals and slogans promote a world without incarceration. An image of a white dove ascends from brown hands, and a woman blows the word “Libertad” from a conch shell. Window banners mark local campaigns against police conferences and gang injunctions, and lettering above the 7,000-square-foot corner storefront’s entrance announces the new occupants’ intentions: “Building People Power.”
This will be the new national offices of Critical Resistance. The prison abolitionist group, cofounded 20 years ago by the activist and scholar Angela Davis, recently acquired the $3.3 million real estate through a young supporter who’s vowed to “radically redistribute” her inherited wealth, and is building offices and gathering space to share with allied groups. It’s an improbable fate for commercial property in an area synonymous with the city’s influx of young professionals.
And the unlikely deal required even more surprisingly interlocked interests: The Cabellos, who ran Baby World for decades, sold the building to Critical Resistance after rejecting offers from developers and corporate retailers (including one they blame for helping drive them out of business). They wanted to mitigate gentrification in North Oakland, and were endeared to the nonprofit’s politics by their harrowing experience of the United States-backed coup in their native Chile.
“I’d just seen Black Panther,” recalled Dania Cabello, the business owners’ 36-year-old daughter, of helping solicit Critical Resistance, where her brother once interned, to buy the family property. “So I was like, ‘How do we bring a real-life Wakanda Institute to Oakland?”
Abolition, Not Reform
The acquisition means stability for Critical Resistance, which faces steep rent increases in its downtown Oakland offices, and a more conspicuous public presence at a time when its once-fringe ideas are going mainstream. “Look at the headlines—you have people proudly calling themselves abolitionists, the popularization of ‘abolish ICE,’” said communications director Mohamed Shehk. “It shows chipping away at state violence is an achievable reality.”
Critical Resistance has several full-time employees and chapters in Los Angeles, New York City, Portland and Oakland. Part of its strategy is to dismantle the infrastructure of the prison-industrial complex, and then try to redirect public resources away from policing, surveillance and incarceration. Locally, for example, it participated in a successful coalition-based campaign against Urban Shield, a law-enforcement exposition criticized for promoting police militarization with emergency preparedness funds.
Building on the momentum of the recent San Francisco youth jail closure, Critical Resistance is working with Supervisor Matt Haney to shutter the county jail on Bryant Street. There’s broad political support for closing the seismically unsafe facility; Critical Resistance wants to go further and see that it isn’t replaced. “The idea is to reduce the incarcerated population, implement bail reform and divert people into services that make a new jail unnecessary,” Shehk said.
“Oakland Power Projects,” an ongoing campaign, shows another side of Critical Resistance’s work: community-based alternatives to policing. For one project, organizers canvassed Oaklanders and then developed literature about addressing health emergencies without calling the cops. Tahirah Rasheed, an Oakland native recently hired as building project manager, said the Temescal center will make these resources more accessible. “It will be a hub for racial justice and social justice organizing—especially pushing back against gentrification,” she said.
At a time when criminal-justice reform has widespread support, even from conservatives such as the Koch Brothers, Critical Resistance is leery of its ideas being co-opted or diluted, and often assails progressive-seeming ideas that entrench incarceration. In 2016, for example, the organization opposed a California proposition to repeal capital punishment and resentence death row prisoners to life without parole, arguing it enshrined “the other death sentence.”
Lately, the group has similarly challenged liberal outrage at privately-run prisons: Ruth Wilson Gilmore, the theorist and Critical Resistance cofounder, recently stressed her critique of the reformist referendum on private prisons in a New York Times Magazine profile, saying they play only a small, parasitic role in mass incarceration. “We don’t believe the system is broken, so we don’t want it fixed,” Critical Resistance organizer Rehana Lerandeau explained to KQED. “We want it abolished.”
Philanthropy as Redistribution
Rachel Gelman grew up in what she called a wealthy, owning-class family in Washington, D.C., struggling to reconcile her sharpening social-justice convictions with her privilege. Her family’s fortune, she said, derives largely from investments that benefit shareholders and executives at the expense of workers. “So, I was confused about my role in the movement,” she said.
Gelman, 29, is program director at Jewish Youth for Community Action, an activist and leadership training program in Piedmont. She moved to Oakland six years ago and discovered Resource Generation, a nonprofit that encourages wealthy young people to back leftist and progressive causes. Members of her family are philanthropists, and she considers their giving well-meaning and inspiring. But old-world charity, she said, can be “top down” or prescriptive, and it almost always entrenches status. Gelman doesn’t want her name on a theater.
Resource Generation, by contrast, recasts philanthropy as redistribution, stressing donations as a way to diffuse instead of bolster one's own power. Now Gelman thinks of giving as a way to help upend the forces of capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy that underlie her inheritance. “I believe ending this economic system that creates such drastic wealth inequality is necessary for all peoples’ humanity and dignity, including my own and that of my family,” she said.
Gelman was supporting Critical Resistance when the organization approached her about the Temescal building. She knew Critical Resistance was struggling with rising rents, and saw an opportunity to offer the group stability while removing property from the speculative market with her $3.3 million purchase. The company she formed to hold the building, which Critical Resistance is considering placing in a land trust, is named for an Arundhati Roy quotation: Another World Possible.
Critical Resistance shifted Gelman’s view of incarceration. She had gone from from being disgusted at its profiteers to embracing the idea that “any system that cages people is fundamentally inhumane,” she said. The multimillion-dollar donation to an organization that in 2017 had $373,000 in revenue reflects her optimism about the prospect of abolition, and she agreed to be interviewed in order to send a message to people with backgrounds similar to hers: “Invest in a world that benefits everybody.”
Aldo and Cristina Cabello listed 4400 Telegraph Ave. for sale in 2017, as business at Baby World declined. Dania, their daughter, pointed to online competition and also to displacement: The family-run business, founded more than 30 years prior, found the intergenerational continuity of its customer base severed. So it was “heartbreaking,” she said, to field offers from “condo developers and mega-corporations—the antithesis of the community we want to serve.”
Selling to Critical Resistance, though, appealed to the Cabellos’ abiding quest for justice. They came to Oakland as political refugees from Chile in 1973 after Augusto Pinochet, with United States government support, seized power in a military coup. A hit squad known as the Caravan of Death had executed Aldo’s brother Winston, and they feared for their lives. “My father was actually taken in on a couple occasions and released alive,” Dania said. “That was rare.”
Living in North Oakland with Dania’s two elder sisters, the Cabellos started selling refurbished electronics and baby accessories at the Coliseum Flea Market. “My memory is bleaching used toys in the backyard,” Dania said. The hustle led to small storefronts and, in the 1990s, the property on Telegraph Avenue. All the while, Aldo and other exiled family members researched the role of Armando Fernandez Larios, an officer in the Caravan of Death, in Winston’s slaying.
The effort culminated in a 1999 civil lawsuit against Larios, who was then living in Florida as part of a plea agreement with federal prosecutors regarding other assassinations. Four years later, a jury found him liable for torture, crimes against humanity and extrajudicial killing, and awarded the Cabellos $4 million in damages. (Dania called the figure "symbolic," saying they don't expect to ever receive the money.) According to the Center for Justice and Accountability, it was the first time a Pinochet operative was tried in the United States for human rights violations.
The United States’ hand in Pinochet’s coup, particularly training Larios through the School of the Americas, instilled in the Cabellos a sensitivity to abuses of power that easily dovetails with prison abolitionism. Dania’s brother interned with Critical Resistance, and her activism ties enabled the acquisition. She hopes it inspires more wealthy people to support collective ownership, and beamed that Critical Resistance commissioned muralist-activists Leslie “Dime” Lopez and Dominic “Treat U Nice” Villeda to “spread messages of strength and freedom” from the building.
Still, it’s “bittersweet,” Dania noted, because her parents felt financially forced to close the business and sell the building. She noted her generation’s habit of entering a store to “taste it, smell it, bounce on it,” and then going home to buy it online.
“But we’re all thrilled and proud to be affiliated with Critical Resistance,” she said. “What they do is in line with what my family did for 30 years.”
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