Walter Riley, 76, hadn’t left the house in more than two months. But it was a special day.
His grandson, Akil Riley, 19, had organized a demonstration to protest police violence against black and brown people, part of the nationwide movement following the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota.
Thousands of people gathered in front of Oakland Technical High School, with crowds spilling out into the street and extending for several city blocks.
“I hadn’t seen numbers like that since the Civil Rights Movement,” said the elder Riley, an Oakland attorney and activist who had organized similar demonstrations in the South a half a century ago. “I was impressed that so many young black people came out for this. It was a moving and powerful moment for me.”
For Riley Sr., the march was a continuation of decades fighting for racial equality. When former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee against the back of Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, Riley Sr. said it was a knee on the necks of all struggling people.
“But it also symbolizes a knee on the back of all of us in this country who are trying to build a better society,” he said.
Akil Riley echoed his grandfather's sentiment, saying that police brutality is a symptom of persistent racial inequality. And the cure will not come from reforming police departments, but from reversing racist policies that have shortchanged black and brown families and neighborhoods for generations.
In America, where many view the longstanding symbol of success and security as a single-family home with a white picket fence, black and brown families have been disproportionately shut out.
The homeownership gap between black families and white ones are at record highs, according to a study from the Urban Institute. That’s in part because black and brown communities were hit especially hard during the Great Recession. But the roots go back much farther, as those same communities have faced decades of discriminatory housing policies and lending practices that have favored white borrowers.
“If America really cared about a solution,” Akil Riley said, “they would do things like give people adequate housing and get everybody a job.”
“All of this lack of access is exponentially magnified for black folks,” said Carroll Fife, director of the Oakland chapter of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, or ACCE. “And [George Floyd] is just another one of those flash moments that shows us that we are not valued.”
Fife said the same structural inequities that lead to police oppression are also the root causes of the housing crisis.
“It's the root cause of why our schools are underfunded. It's rampant white supremacy, racism and patriarchy. That is the root of the tree that we see all of these appendages from,” she said. “So all of the inequity that we experience is from the same tree.”
In November, Fife helped two homeless mothers take over a vacant home in West Oakland, to protest investor speculation that has contributed to the Bay Area's sky high home prices. The occupation sparked national interest, because it highlighted the housing affordability crisis hitting cities across the country, and because it worked. The moms are now in negotiation with Wedgewood, the owner of the house, to purchase the home through a community land trust, which will hold the house as permanently affordable.
Like the demonstrations this week, there has been a growing number of direct actions to reclaim affordable housing. On May 1, two homeless women, with the help of Reclaim SF, occupied a house in the Castro District for three hours. Their goal was to bring attention to the number of vacant homes in San Francisco, while the city’s homeless population was struggling to get indoors during the pandemic.
Later in May, Stefani Echeverría-Fenn, an advocate for people experiencing homelessness in West Oakland, chained herself to a motel window for more than 16 hours to demand the city place more of its homeless residents into hotel rooms.
The willingness to take action and risk arrest demonstrates a disillusionment with existing avenues for change. It also represents a loss of faith in the mythology of the American dream — that hard work and education will lead to a comfortable life.
“That calculation does not hold anymore,” said Noni Session, the director and co-founder of the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative, an organization that is working to challenge traditional ideas of capitalism. “There’s an awakening. And part of it is, that when folks are awakened, they will choose many different new realities. And what is that? That is what is being contested right now.”
Her organization is working to put homeownership into the hands of those who have historically been disenfranchised. The model uses community land trusts and housing cooperatives to create collective ownership and maintain spaces as permanently affordable.
It’s one way people are demanding change and reimagining the same institutions that have failed communities of color.
“The new normal has to be different,” said Walter Riley. “When we come out of this COVID crisis, I think lots of people are saying it can't be the same old normal.”
Stay in touch. Sign up for our daily newsletter.