The Uhuru House and the Battle for Community Control of Housing in the 1980s: Traces of the Oakland Commune

Rent control has a long history in the United States. Implemented by various municipalities during WWI and the federal government during WWII, it was initially a means of addressing wartime “housing emergencies” and neither a source of great controversy nor strongly linked to social protest.  This changed after the tumult of the 1960s, when a new configuration of “the personal” and “the political” emerged that made our homes into sites of contestation in novel ways. Many began to see rent control not only as a tool for regulating a particular financial transaction but also as a means for asserting community—however loosely defined—against capitalism. In California, this impulse was evident in rent control movements in Santa Monica, Berkeley, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, and—last but not least—Oakland.

Oakland’s best known tenants’ movement culminated in 2002, when housing activists persuaded voters to approve the “Just Cause” ordinance (Measure EE). Though it did not provide rent control, it gave renters crucial protections against arbitrary (“no cause”) evictions. Fights over this statute took place in the shadow of San Francisco’s dot.com boom and, as such, provided a window into Oakland’s unique response to the seismic shifts in regional real estate that it had occasioned.

Oakland was also the location of a remarkable and largely forgotten campaign for rent control in the 1980s, when activists associated with the Uhuru House put two measures on the ballot that would have revolutionized the city’s approach to housing if they had been approved: Measure 0 (1984) and Measure H (1986), two virtually identical initiatives whose purpose was to create a form of socialized housing under the control of decentralized, autonomous “Community Control Housing Boards” that were to be spread throughout the city. Although Oaklanders rejected both by a large margin, they helped define a pivotal moment in the city’s history. They facilitated the emergence of what Adolph Reed has called the “Black urban regime” by prompting established Black leaders to clarify their attitude toward the radical Black movements that had helped put them in power and, secondly, they foregrounded the rich, decentralist alternatives to liberalism that had begun to appear with increasing frequency.

Oakland and Lionel Wilson

The Uhuru House in 2012. The faces on the building’s facade are (from left to right): Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, and Omali Yeshitela.

The Uhuru House was (and is) headquarters for a constellation of projects led by Omali Yeshitela, a Pan-African, revolutionary socialist who moved from St. Petersburg, Florida to Oakland in 1981. Positioning itself as a liberator of people of African descent worldwide, his group runs an evolving and elaborate network of organizations and businesses. There is the African People’s Socialist Party (its political wing), the African People’s Solidarity Committee (the Party’s White support group), as well as numerous companies that presumably finance the political endeavors (Uhuru FurnitureUhuru Foods, among others). Like many socialist sects born of the 1960s, the group has a propensity for grandiose rhetoric, which, given its negligible influence on current affairs, suggests an exaggerated sense of self-importance and also that it inhabits a highly idealized political space. Its distance from prevailing political discourse in Oakland was especially conspicuous when it lauded Lovelle Mixon as a hero because he murdered four policemen after a traffic stop in 2008.

Oakland was in the midst of crucial changes when Yeshitela first arrived on the scene. Although the Black Panther Party had disintegrated some years earlier, depriving the city of a powerful voice for Black radicalism, Oaklanders had elected Lionel Wilson in 1977, its first Black (and Democratic) mayor. Many had hoped that his victory would lead to the abolition of the de facto apartheid that had reigned in the city for so many decades, but the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, and the cumulative impact of years disinvestment, stripped the city of the tax revenues necessary to fund significant social reconstruction. Just when Blacks had won a modicum of political power, changes in the economic context seemed to render that power illusory.

A still from TV commercial in which Wilson encouraged “economic development.” Click the image to watch the video.

Wilson was a pro-growth liberal who believed that social welfare and capitalism were integrally and reciprocally related. Under the guidance of compassionate, progressive leaders, businesses would produce tax revenues that would support social programs that would help integrate the disenfranchised who would, in turn, aid the further accumulation of capital. Wilson mounted an aggressive affirmative action campaign in municipal hiring, strove to make the local government more responsive to its “minority” residents, and worked to stimulate economic activity in the city, particularly by developing downtown. He secured the completion of a new hotel and convention hall in the City Center and courted businesses in myriad other, unsuccessful ways (including an ill-fated and infamous attempt to use public funds to draw the Raiders football team back to the city after their move to Los Angeles). He pursued his program without significant opposition from the left—indemnified, to some extent, by the vigorous Black Panther support he had received during his first election campaign and the fact that he had put Elaine Brown, the Panther’s Chairperson, on his “transitional team” after he won office.(1)

Although Yeshitela and the Uhuru House cast themselves as heirs to the Panthers, and often suggest that Huey Newton transferred his influence and importance to them before he died, its militants assumed a completely oppositional stance toward Wilson and rejected his leadership in the most bitter terms.(2) They characterized Wilson and liberal Black politicians like him as “neo-colonial black petty bourgeoisie” who were “facilitating the deepest imperialist oppressive exploitation of our people.”(3). In their view, such politicians only masked and intensified the domination of Black people while feigning to serve their interests. They believed that Black people needed to fight them resolutely and, in collaboration with those of African origin globally, carry out an international socialist revolution that would provide genuine self-determination.

Measures O and H: The Community Control of Housing Law

Pro O propaganda

The Uhuru House’s rent control measures were part of their broader revolutionary strategy that called for the “creation of a dual power in the U.S.”(4) This required “the transformation of every oppressed community within the domestic African colony into revolutionary soviets for political independence, African liberation, and socialism.”(5) In other words, they hoped to make American Black communities into bases of a revolutionary war against the United States government and the imperialist system as a whole. Yeshitela believed that their initiatives would facilitate this by implementing a revolutionary nationalist program of “land reform”(6) that would enable “the African community to take legal control over the foreign-owned [i.e., White] profit-making property . . . through community control housing boards.”(7) Their motives were fundamentally political—the point was not so much to aid tenants as to assail a social order that produces homeless, dispossession, and inequality.(8)

Measure O and Measure H, both known as the “Community Control Housing Law,” began with the same paragraph. “The purpose of this law is to give renters in the city of Oakland power to control their housing situation. Its intent is to be a step in ensuring the fundamental human rights guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, specifically the right to housing and self-determination of a people. The intent of this law is to ensure fair and reasonable rents, discourage speculation by selfish economic interests, ensure repairs and improvements, stop unjust evictions and put power in the hands of the people.”(9) It is apparent that the initiatives had a vast scope: they would make housing in Oakland a right, not a commodity for exchange on the market, and restructure the city’s political economy around mandates of international law and ideals of self-determination and popular power.

Housing districts in Measure H

In their details, Measure O and H resembled other pro-renter legislation to the degree that they prohibited landlords from evicting tenants to raise rents, but in other ways they carved out entirely new territory. Their political starting point was the division of the city into specific housing districts (twelve in Measure O and nine in Measure H), which a corresponding number of “Community Control Housing Boards” would govern (see associated graphic). Made up of tenants and homeowners, and with one presiding “Chief Justice,” the Boards would have sweeping power over housing matters. They would be authorized to seize abandoned buildings as well as occupied buildings that offended the “morals” of the community, to compel landlords to disclose financial records, and to use confiscated properties to shelter the homeless. Rents could not exceed 25% of residents’ average income in a particular district. The measures would also supersede any existing housing regulations in Oakland and commit the city to ratifying Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which implied an additional series of rights not guaranteed by the American Constitution).(10)

The Uhuru House submitted more than 17,000 signatures to qualify Measure O for the ballot and, after it was voted down, 30,228 to get a nearly identical amendment on the ballot two years later (Measure H). Their propaganda for the initiatives did not dwell on their nationalist arguments, but rather on the apparent link between city subsidies for businesses and ordinary homeowner and tenant suffering. One pro-O brochure said:

Today Oakland is being given away to the big corporations. We, the tenants and homeowners, are paying the price for this giveaway and are being pushed out. Today there are 150 evictions in Oakland every week, and a record number of foreclosures on homeowners. Today the city government is giving away $150 million in our money to the big corporations for downtown luxury development and the big landlord groups are making windfall profits. Today many families are forced to pay 60% of their income for rent and land speculators are pricing housing out of our reach.(11)

Their measures would correct these gross injustices, their literature proclaimed. They ran campaigns for both O and H on a shoe-string: The Oakland Tribune reported that pro-H forces raised $4000 for their efforts in 1986 and presumably pro-O activists had raised a similar sum two years earlier.(12)

The Uhuru House measures spoke to a rising anger at tenants’ fate in the city. Whereas  Berkeley had established rent control in 1978, and San Francisco had done so in 1979,  Oakland renters were largely at the mercy of the market.(13) Lionel Wilson founded a “Rent Arbitration Board” in 1980, which was supposed to mediate differences between landlords and tenants, but it was widely seen as his attempt to preempt a more rigorous rent control law that appeared on the ballot (and was narrowly defeated) shortly after he implemented the Board. It was barely operational in its initial years and sharply biased toward landlords’ interests throughout, furthering renter frustration. Housing activists tried again to pass rent control legislation in 1982, but failed, thanks in part to Wilson’s vehement opposition.

Oakland’s political establishment voiced outrage when Uhuru House activists managed to put O and then H on the ballot and, in both instances, initiated a costly, vitriolic campaign against them.(14) They argued that the measures were unworkable, unconstitutional, and, if enacted, that the new Housing Boards would amount to a bloated, unaccountable, and expensive expansion to local government. They also warned that middle-class homeowners could lose their homes and that the initiatives would sabotage the local economy by discouraging landlords and paralyzing the housing industry generally. But  fiscal and technical objections occupied a less prominent place in their statements than their expressions of indignation at the fact that Uhuru House had had the audacity to mobilize citizens against Oakland’s housing market in such radical terms. When Omali Yeshitela told The Tribune that, “We don’t respect the profit motive when it hurts people’s lives,” he impugned the basic premises of Wilson’s pro-growth, capitalist program.(15) Local elites appeared infuriated by this, and repeatedly described each of the Uhuru House efforts as “a scheme,” “insane,” and “an insult,” among other pejoratives designed to dispute their legitimacy as political discourse.

Oaklanders rejected O and H emphatically. They opposed O by four to one (25,576 for, 103,808 against) and Measure H by a slightly larger percentage (13,181 for, 51,624 against). No one conducted exit polls after the votes, so we can only speculate about the reasons for their defeat, but sources indicate that the broader housing rights’ community did not back the initiatives (even though they generally avoided speaking out against them) and felt that the Uhuru House was “not a group to be trusted.”(16) There is also reason to suppose that the group’s anti-colonial rhetoric, which the Panthers had employed to great effect in the 1960s and early 1970s, had lost some of its resonance as Oakland’s racial boundaries eased and Wilson labored to make the city more responsive to its Black and Brown populations. That fewer people voted for the measures than signed the petitions granting them ballot access might suggest that they had faired poorly in the debate that they prompted, but it is actually remarkable that the numbers remained as consistent as they had, given that Oaklanders often signed petitions for ballot initiatives that they did not endorse simply because they valued the dialogue that they would provoke.(17) Though defeated at the ballot box, there is no doubt that these initiatives had at least some support.

But the battle had been polarizing. Yeshitela later indicated that it had been particularly taxing for his party, which may explain why the Uhuru House never again utilized ballot measures as a form of social protest. (18) As for Oakland, there would be no attempt to introduce new tenant protections until the turn of the millennium.

The Legacy

It is tempting to define these measures as late echoes of the extremes of the 1960s, but there is more to say than that. For one, they helped cement Oakland’s variant of what Adolph Reed has called the “Black urban regime”—a pro-growth, elite-driven, Black-led municipal regime understood as a fulfillment of Black popular movements.(19) For it to emerge, as Reed has explained with regard to Atlanta, regime leaders had to orient previously oppositional groups and activists to safe, non-threatening, pro-system ends—they had to co-opt the former rebels. Wilson’s enlistment of Elaine Brown and other Black Panthers is an example of this, and there are others. But they also had to break decisively with the old revolutionary currents, making it plain that the latter would have no purchase on the new administration’s policies, notwithstanding everything that these currents had done to lay the foundation for the regime’s ascension. This happened over and over in the Black-led and Black-dominated administrations that took office in American cities in the mid-1980s (including thirteen cities with populations of more than 100,000). One dramatic instance occurred in 1985 when Philadelphia’s first Black mayor, Wilson Goode, instructed police to bomb the MOVE building, home of a radically communalist Black liberation group of the same name, killing eleven and reducing sixty-five homes to ruins. A far less violent example took place when David Dinkins, New York City’s first Black mayor, publicly broke the boycott of two Korean-owned groceries that been organized by radical Black nationalists and framed as a battle for Black community control.(20) Measures O and H facilitated a similar rupture in Oakland by giving Wilson a platform upon which to assert that his administration would entertain no radical social critique. Indeed, his signature and likeness figured prominently in propaganda against the initiatives and his pronouncements opposing them sent an important message to the city as a whole. In one typical statement, he said: ”Measure H would be disastrous for the people of Oakland. We have worked hard to find reasonable solutions to our community’s problems. As reasonable people, we have not always agreed—but we have made progress. Measure H would destroy that progress and replace rational dialogue with new government controls.”(21) Conspicuous here is the total absence of any mention or racial or economic justice and Wilson’s use of the vapid, contextless signifier, “reasonable people.” Clearly he would be no ally of those who sought to challenge capital and White supremacy.

However, the measures were also an affirmative articulation of a decentralist, communalist political trend that had begun to make itself felt in Oakland in the 1970s and that would become much more pronounced in later years. Though the Uhuru House framed its efforts in the state-centered vocabulary of Marxism-Leninism, their initiatives broke with that tradition in key ways. Instead of laying the foundation for a new state (or for community “access” to the state), they sought to reconstruct power at the municipal, neighborhood level. We see this in the fact that they placed housing decisions in the hands of autonomous, neighborhood-based housing boards, without any centralized authority in City Hall or elsewhere. Clearly, the Uhuru House did not regard the federal or even municipal government as the institutional framework in which an oppressed nationality could liberate itself and exercise self-determination.(22) This would occur at the grassroots level, a setting in which people share manifold practical and affective ties. In this sense, their politics had more in common with the decentralist neighborhood radicalism of the Paris Commune than the state-centered strategy of a Che Guevara or Patrice Lumumba.  Furthermore, Uhuru House nationalism was highly pluralistic: instead of arguing that people of African descent should govern the city exclusively, its measures divided Oakland in a way that would have given Blacks control over housing in Black neighborhoods, Asians control over housing in Asian areas, Latinos control over housing in the Latino parts of East Oakland, and Whites control over White sectors.(23) Wilson and other critics of the Uhuru House decried this as “deliberate racial gerrymandering,” which, of course, was a particularly polemical and inflammatory way to characterize their attempt to give their multicultural vision geographic articulation.

These ballot measures deepened Oakland’s vital but largely submerged tradition of radical decentralism. Their most obvious progenitors were the Black Panthers, who also scaled their engagement to the municipal and neighborhood level (as opposed to the state level). Huey Newton elaborated their communitarian views most fully in his work on “intercommunalism,” which became official Panther doctrine during the Party’s later years. That both the Uhuru House and the Panthers advocated a form of anti-statist, “community control” points to a growing awareness of the state’s limitations as an instrument of social freedom in addition to the spread of a highly democratic ethos among radicals worldwide. Such alternatives recently reemerged under the Occupy Oakland banner, with its call for an “Oakland Commune” and its decentralized, participatory approach to organization.

Conclusion:

There have been struggles over land in Oakland since the conquistadores drove the Olhone from the shores of the Bay at least. The movements of the 1960s gave these battles a different hue by transforming what we mean by “home” as well as how our homes fit into the larger social order. This gave rent control a new significance and, for some, turned it into a way of acting on expansive ideals of justice, solidarity, democracy, and self-determination. This was the case with the Uhuru’s two ballot initiatives, which were among the most radical—if not the most radical—of the many rent control measures debated in California and the United States at the time. Although their goals may have been too ideological and too remote from the lived experiences of ordinary residents to provide a foundation for a reconstruction of the city, they are indicative of an important moment in its history and underscore the dynamism of an alternative vision of politics that runs deep in Oakland’s streets. While the Uhuru House raised its demands with an excess of hyperbole and hubris, their vision of Oakland as a base for a new politics of decentralization, international solidarity, and self-determination retains its profundity and will live on in our political culture. This is not only because it invites the imagination to consider fascinating utopian possibilities, but also, and most importantly, because it is one possible formulation that we must consider when reflecting upon this particular city and its place in the world. It lives with us and will remain with us as long as historical circumstances nourish it and as long as it has lessons to teach.

~ Chuck Morse

NOTES:

1. Black Panther Party Chairperson Elaine Brown stated that they used “every Panther . . . to drag black registrants to the polls.” Quoted in Robert O. Self, American Babylon: Race and Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 313–314.

2. For instance, the following proclamation appears frequently in Uhuru House propaganda: “Huey Newton made his last public presentation here, passing the torch from the Black Panther Party to the Uhuru Movement.” “Uhuru House Reunion will celebrate 40 years of the African People’s Socialist Party,” UhuruNews, May 28, 2012. Accessed: June 5, 2012

3. Omali Yeshitela, This Time Till It’s Won . . . Power in our Hands (Oakland, CA: Marcus Garvey Club, 1988), 38, 53.

4. Omali Yeshitela, The Struggle for Bread, Peace, and Black Power: Political Report to the First Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party (Oakland, CA: Burning Spear Publications, 1981), 48.

5. Ibid.

6. Yeshitela, This Time Till It’s Won, 44.

7. Ibid.

8.  Yeshitela explained their thinking when talking about the Uhuru House’s “Bobby Hutton Mobile Health Clinic.” Although the City had shut it down, that was not a huge defeat in itself, given that their goal was not primarily to provide services. “Our task is political, not medical,” he said. Yeshitela, This Time Till It’s Won, 45.

9. Measure O: Community Control of Housing Law.

10. Article 25 reads: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family including food, clothing, and housing and medical care and that there are social services and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

11. “Vote Yes on O.” Flyer. n/d. n/s.

12. Carol Brydolf, “Rent Measure Brings out Extremes.”  The Tribune. Wednesday, May 21, 1986.

13. For an informed discussion of rent control legislation in the region at the time, see Jeanne Zastrera, “A Study Comparing Rent Control in Oakland, California with Three Other Bay Are Communities  (master’s thesis, UC Berkeley, 1984).

14. The Tribune reported that “No on H” forces had raised $120,000. Brydolf, “Rent Measure Brings out Extremes.”

15. Ibid.

16. James Vann. Telephone interview with author conducted on May 31, 2012. Also, Brydolf, “Rent Measure Brings out Extremes.”

17. James Vann, interview with author.

18. Yeshitela touches on the internal strife in This Time Till it’s Won. Describing activist frustration with the amount of work demanded of them by the Uhuru House, he states that “the political bureau had to resume direct control of the Community Control of Housing Law campaign,” implying that many of group’s volunteers dropped out and that core leaders had to shoulder most of the work toward the end. Omali Yeshitela, This Time Till It’s Won, 64–64.

19. Adolph Reed, Stirrings In The Jug: Black Politics In The Post-Segregation Era(University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 79–115.

20.  Jim Sleeper, The Closet of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York(New York, NY: WW Norton, 1990), 208. Also, ”Dinkins Tries to Break Black Boycott of Korean Stores,” Los Angeles Times, September 22, 1990. Accessed: June 6, 2012.

21. Vote NO on Measure H (Pamphlet)

22. For an insightful account of the varied meanings attributed to “self-determination” by movements borne of the 1960s, see Alyosha Goldstein, Poverty in Common: the Politics of Community Action (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 23.

23. The Uhuru House was by no means unique in its combination of nationalism and pluralism. For a discussion of this issue, see: William L. Van Deburg, New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965–1975 (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 1993), 25.

 

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