12.12.13 - A personal account of direct defense of people's homes on the Albany Bulb on December 10th. This action comes shortly after Bulb defenders built rock barricades to halt police from entering the Bulb (see previous FireWorks feature), a squatter community and autonomous space known for its art and sculptures made out of the former landfill. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, residents and supporters organized a 'Festival of Resistance' at the Bulb which included workshops, film showings on land struggles and battles against gentrification, and art and history tours. The City of Albany has recently attempted to push Bulb residents into a 'transitional shelter,' which is made up of gender segregated jail-like bunk beds. Few have taken the city's offer and many remain committed to staying in their homes of many years.
It’s ten to nine in the morning as we walk onto the neck of the Albany Bulb. The freezing cold air is so crisp that the distant city of San Francisco stands out with perfect clarity, our location granting us a stunning simultaneous view of San Francisco, Oakland, the Bay Bridge, and the Golden Gate. Stepping into a puddle, it crackles as a layer of ice fractures into spiderweb patterns from the sole of my boot. We’re on our way to meet with a resident to help him organize a collection of bike parts and frames such that he can determine which ones he wants to keep and which to send with us to be chopped and welded into various contraptions.
The exceptionally cold morning has slightly delayed our friend in waking, so we wander toward the horseshoe pit to say hello to other residents. Everyone seems to be hiding from the freeze in their homes and we see no sign of life as we walk toward the end of the bulb. Out of nowhere, a disembodied voice amplified by a bullhorn sends adrenaline racing through my body: “Attention Albany Bulb residents. This is the Albany Police Department. Restrain your animals and come out of your residences.”
I look around for riot cops and check the sky for helicopters. Seeing neither but hearing the crunch of tires on gravel, I walk toward the path wondering if this is it. If this is when the forces of the State come to crush what is perhaps the single largest autonomous zone in the Bay Area, home to dozens of people and a source of hope and inspiration to me personally ever since I first visited several years ago. I am surprised when I round the corner to find two dump trucks bearing the City of Albany logo, several workers in yellow vests, and a backhoe—yet no phalanx of armed troops. “Hi there, how’s it going, we’re just here to clean up a couple abandoned camps.” A fast-talking, slightly nervous and overly friendly worker smiles at me as he attempts to prevent a confrontation. I see two cop cars beyond the dump trucks, but that seems to be the extent of their visible force. As we follow them, they discuss the camps they are planning to clear and tell us that the residents of these camps have given them permission to tear down their structures and dispose of any items left in the camps.
Following them past the dumpsters to the end-of-the-road turnaround, they consult a map to determine which camps they are supposedly cleared to destroy. The two Albany cops walk up to the first camp, which is encircled by a picket fence and a gate painted with a reminder to keep it closed so the cats don’t get out. “This is the Albany Police, is anyone home? Do you have any animals?” A voice drifts out from the tent; “Just cats.” A woman comes out and speaks with the officers, who inform her that they’ve arrived to destroy her home and that she has fifteen minutes to get her belongings out. Apparently she has found temporary housing, but has not yet been given assistance in moving her belongings off the Bulb. The cops and city workers head back to the other camp, which they claim is already abandoned, with the intention of demolishing it and then returning to destroy this woman’s home. The supposedly empty camp has a sign in the door reading “This camp is not abandoned. –Kris S.” Disregarding this, the police walk in and call to the city workers to follow them upon determining that no one is inside. The house is built into a tree on the side of a hill and is almost invisible until you stand in the entrance, from which you can see a set of stairs leading to the main platform, a storage area to the right of the entrance, and various belongings tucked away under tarps within the ground-scraping canopy of the tree. “There’s nothing of value here” a worker calls out. At this point it began to become clear that these workers had successfully repressed any signs of compassion or understanding for the lives of Bulb residents, as it was clear that there were belongings in this dwelling that had value to its residents. The police push me back as I attempt to get a better video of the camp, informing me that I have to give them space to do their work. As is typical of these situations, the cops and city workers repeat the ‘just doing our job’ mantra each time we challenge the legitimacy of their actions.
As the workers and police confer on how best to tear down this tree structure, a barefoot man walks up the path behind them. “I’m moving up into the tree-house so I can tear my camp down,” he tells the cops. A brief back and forth between the resident and one of the police officers ensues: “Well, they’re going to tear this camp down.” “That’s my stuff in there; I left a sign stating that the camp is not abandoned.” In typical underling fashion, the officer dodges responsibility: “The lieutenant is arriving, talk with him.”
A tense conversation between Kris, the Bulb resident, and the Albany Police lieutenant ensues. Kris maintains that the previous residents of the camp gave him permission to be there and that he has spent the last several days moving his belongings into the camp. The lieutenant insists that the camp is going to be demolished, stating “You have the opportunity to gather your belongings. That’s where we stand.” Kris stands barring entrance to the dwelling as the police demand his full name and date of birth. I stand at a distance filming until Kris calls out, “You can come in, you don’t have to stand where they tell you.”
I have never met Kris before, yet the simple fact that I am filming and questioning the legitimacy of the police has created some degree of trust between us. Entering the house, Kris gives us a tour and explains his experience of the escalating harassment of the Albany PD against Bulb residents. The previous night he had been stopped and ticketed for a supposed lack of lights on his bicycle and the officer had warned him not to violate curfew at the Bulb—despite them being a mile from the Bulb entrance. The house itself is a platform built up into a tree, with a domed roof made from a parachute which lets in light while keeping tree debris and water out. One wall has a built-in bookshelf and carpets cover the wooden floor. A “house-keys not handcuffs” sticker is prominently placed on the wall near the front entrance.
The police walk toward the entrance, so we go down to ensure they can’t come in. The lieutenant again tells Kris that the camp will be demolished and to get his stuff out. Kris insists that the previous residents of the camp gave him permission to be there and demands to see the paperwork the lieutenant claims releases the city to destroy the camp. The lieutenant finally agrees to show paperwork and heads to his unmarked car; Kris goes to put on shoes and warmer clothes.
Unfortunately Kris does not return. In his absence and above our protests, the city employees bring the dump-trucks and begin loading them up with the contents of the camp. They attack the tree with chainsaws, cutting a gaping hole into the canopy as they tear apart and remove the tree-house platform. Indiscriminately throwing personal effects, a bathroom bucket, and remnants of the demolished house into the trucks, they take the destroyed remnants of the camp to the large dumpsters up the road. As I film, a comrade sends texts and calls others: an alert to come help slow or halt the process. As I stand watching the workers casually destroy this home, I wonder how they can possibly perform this task without a crushing sense of guilt at taking away the best shelter available to someone who has nowhere else to go. Many Bulb residents have pets or other factors which make them ineligible for the extremely limited housing resources offered by the city as the ‘cover our ass from lawsuits’ portion of the plan to sterilize and yuppify the Bulb. Most find the prospect of leaving the homes they have built and occupied for years in favor of three-month ‘transitional housing’ unattractive. The injustice of kicking people out of their space, alongside the love we share for the art and community enabled by the autonomous nature of the bulb, has caused a network of activists to coalesce in defense of the bulb and in solidarity with its residents.
Within two hours of our initial call-out, approximately thirty people have arrived. As soon as we numbered more than five, the decision was made to block the dump truck from continuing to haul items from the camp. Standing in a circle in front of the truck, the workers at last showed a shred of humanity in their decision not to simply run us over (an act that I would not have put past them considering their disregard for the basic right to shelter). To my surprise, the two police officers kept their distance and did not attempt to make us move. In typical anarchist fashion, we took the opportunity to hold a spontaneous meeting and discuss our plan. Consensus is reached almost immediately on the point of preventing any more camps from being destroyed, regardless of any police claims of release from the residents. Especially in the coldest part of the year, we agree that it is absurd to allow shelter which could be utilized to be destroyed.
More Bulb defenders arrive, including the legal team. A news van drives up and parks next to the police. As our numbers grow and the dumptruck is turned off, a couple of us take a walk toward the entrance to see if more police or city workers are arriving. We find a Waste Management truck coming up the road, bringing yet another dumpster for the use of City workers. To our dismay, after dropping off the empty container the truck positions itself to haul away the full dumpster containing the rubble of Kris’s dwelling and his personal belongings. I approach the driver of the truck and politely inform him of the situation, stating that I can’t let him take the dumpster until Kris has had a chance to retrieve his belongings. He walks off to consult with the City workers, and returns with the typical mantra: “I have to take this to the dump. I’m just doing my job, you would do the same in my position.” After we respond strongly that we would most certainly not do the same, he informs us that he will run us over if we attempt to block his truck. Rallying a few people, we climb up into the dumpster in the hopes that it will prevent him from hauling it up onto the truck. Others work to open the back end so that trash will fall out if it is hauled away. Once it is opened and people are stationed on top of it, the worker gives in and tells us he will call his boss to declare an unsafe work environment. Although we later heard city workers planning to pick it up the next day, a small victory was won in that people were given a chance to retrieve their effects.
Other Bulb defenders inform us that negotiations regarding the second camp that was slated for destruction have resulted in the resident will be left alone to pack up her belongings and move them, which was her initial request that morning that the police had declined. We head down the low road and have another assembly.
After the meeting, the dump trucks returned yet again: A line formed along the entrance to the low road to block them from entering. A couple cops pull up and take a video but do not approach us; clearly they had not planned on encountering resistance and the two cops who did respond were unprepared to deal with our human blockade.
While Monday was far from a victory, seeing that a home was destroyed, the bonds of solidarity formed through the events and discussions which have taken place in the past months were called upon and a meaningful response occurred. The fact that within an hour of the call out well over two dozen people were present and acting directly in opposition to the continued dismantling of the residences shows that the City’s plan to destroy and sterilize the Bulb is being met with determined, ongoing resistance that will only grow as connections are strengthened and actions carried out.