We set out for months to put on a 2020 African-American centered event for Black History Month at the Coalition on Homelessness. Being my first time planning such a big event made me extremely nervous, but I was relieved to have the help of our peer organizer Tracey Mixon, who led the event with me. This was our first event planning, so yes we were nervous!
We were glad to join hands with Hospitality House as well. Since moving offices from 468 Turk to 280 Turk, sharing a space with our longtime ally Hospitality House in the struggle (the Director of which helped to actually form the Coalition on Homelessness). It feels like we’re coming full circle, back with the people who helped to create the Coalition, in community collaboration to bring attention to the disparate impacts of homelessness on our Black community.
On 2/20/20, we held our event and were very pleased to see such a big turnout. We first congregated at the Coalition and held an open mic where we held space for African American members of the community to speak about Black San Francisco, family histories of the Fillmore, and stories of displacement, gentrification, and eviction which led to the sharp decline in the Black population here. While we make up less than 5% of the general population in San Francisco, Black folks make up 37% of the homeless population here. People shared speeches from African-American leaders, some recited poetry of their own, and one of our very own unhoused Coalition activists sang a Sam Cooke song (”A Change Is Gonna Come”) for us — all while sharing a meal of traditional soul food cooked by Coalition members as well as donated jambalaya from Brenda’s. We enjoyed listening to each other’s stories, songs, and poems while eating together and nourishing our bodies and spirit before our march to City Hall.
The plan was to simply march to City Hall with our newly created “Black History: More than a Month, but a Movement” banner, and chant through as we march through the farmer’s market to the steps of City Hall. However, a few unexpected events happened, which we took as opportunities to counter dominant narratives of stereotypical Black images. For example, we only walked a block out of the Coalition to the corner of Golden Gate and Leavenworth when we saw a young Black man being harassed by SFPD. Blue and red lights flashed as four officers idly watched as one “boy in blue” slammed a brother against the cop car. Collectively, we decided to pause our march and stand at that corner until the police were gone. We chanted, “When human rights are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!” We kept our eyes on the police interaction and while we were unable to stay with the Black man as he was taken off, we were able to prevent any further wrongdoings at the scene by being present and taking up space.
Our march continued. We chanted loudly and with power as we marched through the farmer’s market and turned heads. People chanted with us, smiled, and told us to “keep up the good fight,” even though we had barely just begun! As we approached City Hall’s golden dome, we were greeted by yet again, more racist iconography, this time in the form of Ellen Lee Zhou, who had a canvas poster of her infamous billboard depicting an African-American woman in a red dress with her feet propped up on her desk, surrounded by money, smoking a cigar, daydreaming about slavery. Zhou, a republican candidate for Mayor stands by this imagery, which is supposed to be current Mayor London Breed.
Although we disagree on many of Breed’s policy, there is no excuse for racist or sexist imagery in our political sphere. We took this as another opportunity to counter the racist imagery and chanted steadily, “Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter,” taking over the crowd, turning heads, and disrupting the racism of Zhou and her campaign. This finally brought us into City Hall where we lobbied the offices of six different elected officials: Mayor London Breed, the supervisors who are on the Budget Committee: (Sandra Fewer, Shamann Walton, Rafael Mandelman, Hillary Ronen, and Norman Yee). Also present was Dean Preston, supervisor of District 5, where First Friendship is located.
We packed each office with dozens of unhoused activists, Coalition members, folks from Chinatown Community Development Center, and others who rallied around the following demands:
- Full-service replacement family shelter for First Friendship. The money has been allocated, yet for three years we have been waiting while families continue to sleep on mats on the floor with no showers, no storage, and very limited hours of operation.
- Deep and flexible housing subsidies for families to exit homelessness. Deep, meaning comparable to the cost of living in San Francisco, and flexible, meaning tailored to the family’s unique circumstances which include domestic violence, health issues, and ability status of the family.
- A formal apology from the City of San Francisco for the urban renewal of historically Black places like the Fillmore and Bayview which led to the massive displacement of African Americans from homes into homelessness, and from San Francisco to elsewhere.
Some people who joined us were first timers lobbying. Miquesha Willis, one of our new Coalition members, spoke about being homeless with her two-year-old son, despite a $30 per hour construction job. It was her first day with us, yet she spoke directly to people in power at City Hall with a coalition of support surrounding her. Miquesha’s voice was so powerful, she was pulled aside numerous times by journalists who wanted to elevate her voice and story. This weekend, Miquesha was quoted in the international news source, The Guardian.
We had a unified message and demands which were crafted in collaboration through our open Housing Justice meetings (which take place every Tuesday at noon at the Coalition!). We flexed our people power through the streets, disrupting police harassment and racist antebellum-age iconography, to bring attention to the racism that Black and Brown people face everyday in this country. The racism which infected our City, uprooting years of cultural legacy through gentrification, urban renewal, and re-development. We will keep fighting, keep rewriting history while making our own until there is a day when my Black skin will not render me second-class citizenship.