The Community Housing Activist Voted Onto Oakland’s City Council
Community organizer Carroll Fife is preparing to enter city hall in Oakland. She joins part of a wave of left-wing insurgents unseating neoliberal officials across the country, and she’ll be working to build municipal power from the bottom up.
- Interview by
- Justin Tombolesi
Carroll Fife is a community organizer based in Oakland, California. She recently came to prominence for her role in helping to organize the Moms 4 Housing movement at the end of 2019, before going on to win a city council seat this past November. She won in the council district of West Oakland, the historic center of the Black Panthers that had, in more recent years, been controlled by a neoliberal representative. She still holds her position as the director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), and is looking to take her grassroots movement-building experience to city hall to achieve real material change for the working class.
Fife ran on a platform of the right to housing, defunding the police to fund public services, and implementing the Black New Deal — a local variant on the Green New Deal that takes anti-racism as a key focus. As she prepares to enter city hall, Fife sat down with Jacobin to discuss her background in organizing, the fight to build municipal power, and what it would look like to decommodify human essentials like housing.
It seems like housing was always a central focus of your organizing. Why was that?
In Oakland, I’ve always been housing insecure and have faced a series of slumlords and illegal evictions, which means I’ve learned a lot about the housing system. I got into organizing simply by being a tenant who didn’t have any resources and was trying to defend my family’s shelter — and I got pretty good at it.
That led me to be pretty sympathetic toward people going through the same issues. It happens to all of us, and that’s what I represented when I ran for office. I was someone who had gone through what so many have, but was lucky enough to be able to stay in the city whereas so many others end up displaced.
As someone who has organized on the ground in Oakland for decades, why did you decide to run for office now?
I think it’s a luxury for everyone who lives in this society to believe that they’re not part of the system. Under capitalism, we are children participating in our own oppression. And the degree to which we resist is what makes us who we are. I’m engaged now in a more official way in order to extract from the system benefits for the people who are not engaged in governmental processes, but whose lives are impacted by those processes.
My goal is to extract whatever value we can in order to redirect some type of benefit to the people who need it most. Right now, our government systems are structured to benefit the landed gentry and people with wealth. Sometimes we get crumbs from that, but I want to see how we can reroute more concessions for the people.
Political power is seen by many people as a bad thing. But working inside city hall is not a siloed strategy; we have a multifaceted approach to building power that includes organizing in the streets, gaining electoral concessions, and self-determination. I think that’s what’s necessary. One tool isn’t going to build the whole house. You need several tools, and that’s our approach to organizing: you do everything you can where you are, and that’s why there’s room for many different approaches to the struggle — and that’s important to remember.
The district you now represent has historical significance as the center of the Black Panther Party’s organizing. How does that tradition influence you today?
It’s humbling because even though we are fighting against a very well-resourced and experienced state, it’s not as directly lethal as it was back then. It was really a matter of life and death for Black Panthers standing up to the state. They broke the mold, and I’m just humbled to be walking down the same streets, and I’ll hopefully make some folks proud by the work that I’m doing.
I got an email from Joan Tarika Lewis — the first female member of the Black Panther Party, who has lived in Oakland for generations — congratulating me and letting me know she was proud of me. That meant a lot, and I still have relationships with a lot of the party members, especially the women. And I’m humbled by that and want to make them proud.
Would you say that the 1973 races of Elaine Brown and Bobby Seale for Oakland city government were important examples for you?
I believe, as they did, that political power gained through the electoral process is the manifestation of your ability to organize the people. And they did that right as the party was declining, not at the height of its power and influence. They weren’t able to win the seats, but after they did succeed in helping get the first black mayor, Lionel Wilson, elected, so I think it is significant that we were able to be successful on the same turf where they organized.
Elaine Brown was supportive of the Moms 4 Housing occupation and said that it was a good thing to do for West Oakland. I think because [1970s activists] did it back in the day, they saw the historical continuity with the Moms and their work as they also built a people’s movement.
That’s a good transition to talk about your experiences of helping to organize Moms 4 Housing and how that influenced your shift in political strategy.
It’s funny because when I was organizing the Moms 4 Housing action, elections were nowhere in my mind — I was never thinking about running. The type of power I want to build is the kind that doesn’t require people knowing who you are.
Running for office and being in front can be antithetical to building real power, so I don’t connect those two things. Moms 4 Housing was a very public act intended to draw attention to the affordability crisis, and the role that commodification and speculation plays in our housing market — which I think is evil and had to be directly challenged.
Because of the attention our Moms 4 Housing work had generated, there was nothing to lose in running for city hall. And when others on the Left don’t run, it does leave a vacuum. Because even though there was an African American woman sitting in the seat, she was so deeply connected to our neoliberal city administration, and developers and other interests oppositional to working-class people, black people, and poor people, that we needed to find an alternative on the city council. So I decided to run, after a great deal of deliberation.
What does housing as a human right look like in practice in Oakland?
It means honoring the fact that humans need shelter to live and thrive, and that the market shouldn’t determine whether people have access to that or not. It means that in the absence of market regulations, the government steps in to protect residents and constituents. That doesn’t happen now, as our government supports landowners, and real estate capital is completely unregulated, which basically means everything goes. So housing as a human right means a government obligation to ensure housing for people. And that is what I intend to do!
How do the recent uprisings against police violence connect to the program you are trying to implement in office?
I’m trying to implement sweeping reforms to actually protect people. That means protecting their physical bodies as well as their ability to earn income. I think the recent uprisings show that none of us is truly safe. The intensity of these uprisings not only addresses the blatant ways that black people in this country are targeted and lynched — but also the failed safety net that people are experiencing as a result of COVID-19, like lack of access to employment, health care, and public education. All these things coalescing at the same time just shows how much we are not safe here —some people more than others just because of the color of their skin — but none of us are truly safe when everything is so tied to markets. We are all commodities. The recent uprisings have been an eye-opener and have allowed the whole world to see things for what they are.
What would you say is the potential of municipal power in advancing the interests of the working class?
Municipal power is so critical — I’m seeing that now more than ever. The hard work is on the ground where you live. On a local level, you can actually have a direct relationship with elected officials. There’s a strong sense of self-determination on the Left here in Oakland, so with municipal power you can do things like a local public bank; you can have strong renter protections; and you can organize broadly, which then has implications at the state level. We can have regional alliances with other local bodies, like city councils in Richmond, San Francisco, and Berkeley. Municipal power is important for left organizing, as we can effectively build on a small level to test our ideas and really build out significant resistance movements.
So do you see an alliance with organizations like the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) developing?
Actually, we have been coordinating with the RPA since 2014 and started a similar body here in Oakland, and that’s where I first got involved in electoral organizing. We will be able to build the RPA model more broadly, especially with my election win in District 3. We have to be ready for the counterattack by the neoliberal establishment, as we just removed an important corporate player in the city council.
So what happens in Oakland has national implications for the Left?
I believe so. We definitely have influence throughout the state of California, and now, because of the foreclosures and the eviction cliff, folks from all over the country are reaching out to us to figure out what to do.
You were a Bernie Sanders delegate. Did that inspire you to run?
It gave me a bit of courage knowing there would be a base to pull from to support my campaign. It was not as linear as: “Bernie ran so I should run.” It was more about who my supporters would be.
Bernie supporters are organized, and they get that housing is a human right, that everyone deserves healthcare, and that we need to protect the environment. Basically, progressive values that are missing when we have seated democrats working directly with the big banks, developers, and Big Pharma. The movement Bernie led is already something bigger!
You have spoken a lot about creating a Black New Deal as sort of a variant on the Green New Deal? Can we build that locally?
It’s happening now. And I gave that name (Black New Deal) to a set of policies that about forty organizations put together, led by Community Ready Corps (CRC) and the Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP). When we were first coming together to talk about a grassroots response to COVID-19 for the black community, we just had this laundry list of demands by all these organizations, and I was like, “Why don’t we just demand a New Deal?” Because when Franklin Roosevelt did it, he sold out black people for the support of segregationists and a white supremacist base that was putting pressure on him to not expand these benefits to black people. White people got to build the middle class, especially those most hit by the depression who came from the Dust Bowl–areas of Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, and some actually came directly to Oakland. So that has had generational impact, especially around the area of housing.
If we want to make up for wealth inequality, then we need those New Deal programs and benefits to actually benefit everyone, especially black folks. I want to see those programs being implemented locally, where we have some type of Civilian Conservation Corps or Works Progress Administration, or those programs that really improved people’s lives. People were actually relocated from the Great Plains with cash payments to build and create lives in other places. But not everyone was given that option.
If we have these types of New Deal jobs programs, we can implement them locally, here in Oakland, to build a green economy and rethink how we engage with these systems.
As cities begin to run budget deficits due to COVID, we are starting to see more calls for cutting public services. How do you plan to fight the conventional austerity policies implemented in these situations that harm the most marginalized?
I plan on facilitating the movement energy on the ground. Like Bernie says: “It’s not me, but us.” We will need a massive pressure campaign from the outside to get anything done. That’s also true for these austerity measures being pushed from our neoliberal administration. We could cut from the police department that continues to overspend in our city. But the people need to be saying and demanding this through movement power from the outside. That is what makes change: it’s the people. And having sympathetic electeds is also important.
I’m going to be doing that work from the inside. But without that external power, we aren’t going to get anywhere. These typical austerity measures like we saw in Greece and Spain and other nations don’t have to happen. No austerity! We don’t have to do that!
Another way to put this is to ask, who’s going to pay for the crisis?
The police are going to pay!
Throughout the country, more and more money is being poured into local elections by major corporations. Amazon’s attempt to unseat Kshama Sawant from the Seattle City Council in 2018 is one example. What do the recent attempts by Lyft and Uber to influence the Oakland election mean for the future of local elections?
These types of corporations are going to be more blatant about buying elections. What’s also a complex dynamic is that we live in a consumer economy, where approximately 70 percent is consumer spending. So if we collectively decide to move our money, we could end Lyft and Uber today. That would make it clear that we are not for sale and our public positions are not for sale. I think a municipal Uber or unionized rideshare program would be amazing for Oakland, and we could show them instantly that we are kicking them out of here, we are kicking out speculators.
We’ve seen Lyft and Uber give hundreds of thousands of dollars in depressed neighborhoods to buy influence and make sure they don’t have to pay any taxes on their ride-sharing service. When we can create an alternative to their exploitative model, they will no longer have the same influence. The power is with us, but we are programmed to not see that power.
So municipalizing ride-sharing will allow the city to create an alternative to Uber?
And if the city doesn’t do it, then an independent, worker co-op ride service! I’d be open to either!
During your campaign you spoke a lot about creating an alternative economy and expanding co-ops. Are these the bases for creating an alternative to capitalism?
I think so. Capitalism has proven to be a failure, especially for marginalized groups who don’t have access or get a head start. Worker co-ops are a way to cut out an exploitative element of the economy, and make sure that we as workers don’t have to exploit ourselves. I think it’s necessary because the workplace is where you really come into contact with the capitalist pressures that control your life. If we can control our working conditions, where we work, and how we work (and that means control of the means of production as well as our output), then we’re one step closer to building and maintaining power in our communities. It’s critical!