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Boat Squatters Face Eviction: Gentrification Spills into the Water
In September of 2013, thirty boat squatters floating at the Jack London Aquatic Park were served with eviction notices. They had thirty days to clear out or else their boats would be impounded and scrapped. An ad-hoc committee of the EPA, state police, and OPD formed a campaign to clean up the waterfront. Instead of dealing with the severe pollution of diesel emissions at the port or raising sunken ships, they targeted the boat community. The city of Oakland had decided that the small boat community was too unsavory for the upcoming condo developments to look at from their 18th story windows. The city evicted these squatters from the Jack London Aquatic Park, which is right along the Oak St edge of the 5th Avenue Development Project. Fireworks sat down with one of the evicted boat squatters who told us about boat squatting, the eviction process and its connections to rapid gentrification in Oakland.
FW: How does one boat squat?
J: One learns to boat squat by randomly running into a person who happened to be boat squatting who was kind enough to let me stay on his boat for about 6 months until I got my own boat. So basically we would just go from dock to public dock to public dock, or guest docks and city marinas. We’d stay there for a week or two then move to the next dock, going back and forth, developing relationships with the people there.
FW: Where were you squatting when they served you an eviction notice?
J: They served me when I was at Jack London Aquatic Center. We’d made friends with one of the guys who lived there. Nobody is supposed to live there but he works for the city. Anyways he was allowed to be there and nobody messed with him and he like helped out with the docks and stuff over there and projects so it’s kind of his job there and we made friends with him and he gave us the heads up that there was going to be this meeting and that most likely everyone was going to get kicked out at a certain time, a time frame he didn’t know.
FW: What kind of meeting was it?
J: So the EPA was there, OPD was there, sheriffs were there, state police where there. To my understanding it was this adhoc committee that came together under the guise of “oh, we’re going to clean up the Oakland waterfront all of these sunken ships that are environmental hazards.” They were awarded money for cleaning up the waterfront and getting rid of pollution, but the majority of the money was going to was kicking people out of their homes and taking peoples boats and basically paying for the storage of our boats. After they take them, we were told that after 30 days they would hold our boats for thirty days and if we didn’t claim them that we had a new space to keep our boats that they would recycle them, crush them for parts. I don’t know if they ever raised a single boat or eliminated a single hazard. I know they just go around and ruin people’s lives.
FW: How many people were kicked out from that squat?
J: There were three of us that were on the actual dock and were forced to leave, but a total of thirty boats spread out along the estuary. Some that were anchored out, some that just dropped anchor – but not like you just stopped your car in the middle of the street. It was an area that wasn’t high trafficked or impeding any boat’s flow or endangering anyone, and the majority of the people were anchor outs to my knowledge. There were maybe 5 or 6 boats that were at a dock, illegally at a public dock.
FW: What happened after they served you?
J: There was a phone number on the eviction notice to the lawyer or whoever was in charge of the whole operation and conveniently after he gave everyone their notices we called his office and they said, “Oh actually he’s on vacation so you can leave a message and when he comes back he’ll call you. So it was like “Here’s this notice, fuck you guys, I’m on vacation.”
FW: So what would have happened if they came after thirty days and you were still there on your boat?
J: He didn’t think that on day 30 they would come and take people’s boats because they didn’t have the resources I guess or the storage to just keep 30 boats for 30 days so he told me that but he couldn’t promise me anything.
FW: How can you fight boat squat evictions?
J: People who live on their boat say that Oakland has given them the most trouble and has the most uppity boat community. I don’t think there’s really a big precedent for fighting boat squats because I feel like it’s sort of now a new thing with gentrification of the land and now it’s going to the water. They’re trying to clean up the waterways and build all these condos. It could happen more frequently that I’m not aware of, but all the people I was living with who got the notices, this was their first time dealing with anything like this. So we’re kind of in the dark about the process to go through.
FW: What would cleaning up the water mean to you?
J: Cleaning up the water would mean destroying the oil companies and the need for oil. Just looking at the gulf spill and all of these oil companies polluting the water and contaminating our life source in plastic just pollution. I think that there’s way better ways to clean up the water than getting rid of thirty people who live peacefully on their boats and actually care about the environment as opposed to corporations who profit off the environment.
FW: What do you think the evictions are really about?
J: The evictions are really about portraying this image of upscaleness and poshness to developers, anybody who builds condos or shopping malls; “oh look this area is waiting to be inhabited.” It’s a money maker. Say you invite somebody to come look at a plot of land and you have all these basically homeless people living on their boats that you’re trying to turn into a fucking luxury hotel. It’s about looks, it’s about image. They don’t want people to know that there is homelessness, they don’t want people to know that it’s spread out from the streets to the water; but people have to live wherever they can live. Because of the water here people are learning they don’t have to sleep on the streets, they can find a boat. The first guy I lived with, he rescued his boat. It’s just about getting money in their pockets even if people get displaced by it.