Nine Tenths of the Law
Chloe Watlington used to wake up to the sound of a ladder clinking against the side of her squat. The unorthodox alarm meant that contractors from the advertising firm Clear Channel Outdoor were updating the rooftop billboard at the intersection of MacArthur Boulevard and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. And it happened often enough between 2011 and 2014 that Watlington and her fellow squatters had a routine: once the workers left, they fetched their own ladder in order to embellish the billboard with pithy radical slogans. They also started invoicing Clear Channel. “You know, for using our property,” Watlington said.
Today, the billboard is gone, and the building is empty. The exterior of the two-story structure is a patchwork quilt of wooden boards, tannish-pink paint, and char from the fire that marked the end of the lively and litigious occupation in 2014. But a picture of one of the squatters’ billboard dispatches — “Housing For All,” rendered with spray paint in bulging bubble letters — recently appeared on the front of an unlikely document: Resources for Community Development’s application for $3.2 million from the City of Oakland to support the construction of a thirty-two-unit rental development.
It is only the latest vision of affordability and community to be projected on the corner lot near MacArthur BART Station. For decades, it was owned by a hardscrabble Louisiana transplant who ran an electronics repair shop on the bottom floor, a bastion of relative stability amid the neighborhood’s descent into poverty. Speculative investors arrived on the cusp of the foreclosure crisis, and squatters arrived — with the verve of the Occupy movement — while gentrification was dramatically transforming West Oakland. The building’s story is a lot like the neighborhood’s story: a longtime Black-owned small business shuttered, prompting a feud between anarchists and real-estate investors while a dizzying series of property transactions enriched a few speculators at taxpayers’ expense.
Susan Rodgers met Felton Theriot, who owned the property until his death in 2005, at a jazz night one Sunday in September 1991 at Sweet Jimmie’s (now the New Parish), a raucous hip-hop haunt just off San Pablo Avenue. He was forty years her senior, and “the most interesting guy I’d ever met,” she said. Rodgers, who grew up in the South Bay, remembered his outfit: Levi’s, a camel hair hat, and shoes by Ferragamo. “I looked at his ankles and expected to see dress socks, but he was wearing tube socks,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘Tube socks and Ferragamos — that’s my guy.’” Theriot soon took Rodgers to the Monterey Jazz Festival. They attended together for two more decades.
Theriot graduated from Southern University in Baton Rouge and served as an army sergeant in World War II before moving with his first wife from the South to the East Bay, part of a westward migration of Black Americans. In the 1960s, he worked at the DMV. His wife worked at UC Berkeley. “It’s weird to say, but he killed her,” said Rodgers. According to court records, Theriot shot his wife to death amid an acrimonious divorce, and served five years in prison. Afterwards, he became an electrician, instructed at Laney College, and, in the 1970s, bought property in West Oakland. The lot contained an old Victorian and a two-story building that squatters later dubbed “RCA” because of the rusty old sign for his corner business: Terry’s Sound House, which opened in 1986.
Rodgers remembers Theriot, whose family largely followed him to the East Bay, as deeply engaged with civic life. His sister was a local high school principal. He loved entertainment and flare; friends called him “dough boy.” His tenants above the shop, and in the adjacent Victorian, paid modest rent; at least one family lived there for decades, with generations fanning into different units. “And all up and down there on MLK was Black-owned and thriving,” Rodgers said. But disinvestment hollowed the area, and Theriot’s buildings deteriorated; nearing the end of his life, he listed the property for sale. “He left me his address book, with all the important contacts highlighted,” Rodgers said.
SS Don’t Let the Banks Punk You Out, a glorified raft with a plastic canopy nicknamed “Aquapy,” floated in Lake Merritt for less than a week before being dismantled by the Oakland Police Department in December 2011. It was intended as a preamble to the West Coast port shutdown orchestrated through a nascent Occupy Oakland, a particularly strident iteration of the social movement then drawing attention throughout the country. The vessel was built from salvaged materials in the driveway between two squats in West Oakland: RCA and Hot Mess House, sometimes collectively known as The Compound.
Hot Mess, once Theriot’s Victorian rental property, started in 2010. RCA launched in 2011. Watlington, who’d followed a friend’s band to Oakland in 2007, recalled the overgrown grass surrounding the derelict building striking her as a “beautiful, verdant meadow.” She contrasted the “experienced squatters” who founded Hot Mess to the “post-college activists” who settled in RCA. Occupy Oakland was also colored by the latter camp, radicals weaned on protests against University of California tuition hikes in 2009. “Occupy and RCA had this reciprocal siphoning of energy,” Watlington said. “There was an idea to make RCA a cultural annex for Occupy during the rainy winter.”
The Compound, which had an open-door policy, housed ten to thirty people at any given time. Some residents were longtime locals; one collected cans from the squatters before moving in, while another lived nearby until his house was foreclosed. A detached garage served as a “free store.” A tree house appeared in the backyard redwood. Watlington said they weren’t seeking “adverse possession,” the legal doctrine some squatters use to seize property, because of the delinquent taxes. But they turned on the utilities and remedied a sewage leak. When a car plowed through the fence, they rebuilt it. When they expected (wrongly) to be ousted by county sheriffs, they rallied fifty supporters in a half hour.
Peter Consos bought the property from Rodgers in 2006 for about $900,000. The local real estate investor, who owns dozens of properties in Oakland, resold it within a year for $1.2 million to a newly formed limited-liability company called Grove Park, created by John Robertson of local housing developer AF Evans. Grove Park financed the development of a nineteen-unit condo building with $741,000 from US Bank and $800,000 in city funds intended for rehabilitating neglected property. But shortly after Consos’ lucrative flip, the housing market imploded.
Between 2007 and 2011, according to a UC Berkeley study, one in fourteen mortgages were foreclosed in Oakland, the vast majority concentrated in the flatlands. AF Evans, which secured Grove Park’s loan from US Bank, filed for bankruptcy in 2009, its executives lamenting the “total collapse of the condo market” in news reports from the time. Development plans dashed, the Grove Park property entered foreclosure. In January 2012, it was slated for auction on the steps of the Alameda County Superior Courthouse.
“We did this failed but really exciting action to disrupt the auction,” recalled Sarah Watlington, who followed her cousin Chloe to RCA. “Noisemakers, dance routines, banners — it was madness for hours.”
The demonstration, Watlington said, forced the auction to proceed inside the courthouse, where the property went to a Texas holding company called Acquired Capital for $90,000. Presumably repelled by the prospect of evicting dozens of entrenched squatters, Acquired Capital sold the property within six months for $265,000 to Rockridge Properties, a company partly controlled by the same person who’d sold it for $1.2 million six years’ prior — Peter Consos.
One month after Rockridge reacquired the property, lawyers representing the company served the squatters with a forcible detainer, a legal maneuver that generally precedes eviction. “At the end of the day we weren’t going to win,” said Watlington, who’s now a furniture-maker in Fort Bragg. “But we could make the whole process really slow and arduous. I’d describe [our] legal strategy as total fuckery.”
Lawyers for Rockridge Properties battled a handful of squatters, all of them representing themselves, in a tangled series of legal proceedings for the next three years. The process eventually turned into a bit of a sideshow: Rockridge lawyers kept dropping by the squat to take pictures, so the squatters scrawled “EAT MY SHORTS” on the billboard. After one favorable ruling, they waited on bikes in the courthouse parking lot for Rockridge’s lawyers to arrive. “So they had to walk through our bikes while we just rode in circles, laughing maniacally,” Watlington said.
Watlington grew accustomed to imploring judges for stays of execution when they were on the verge of being evicted. “We could do anything, say anything, file things incorrectly,” she said. “It wasn’t like we were going to get disbarred.” And then in March 2013 the court actually dealt the squatters a win, effectively ruling that Rockridge filed the wrong lawsuit; at issue was title, not occupancy. (Watlington suggested that the squatters, some gender-nonconforming, benefited from a sympathetic transgender judge.) A July 2013 post on the squat’s blog promised a “future info shop and communal apothecary at the RCA TV repair shop.”
But everyone interviewed for this story described the occupation’s twilight in terms of conflict. Some squatters disliked the publicity, preferring discretion. (Three former squatters declined to speak on record.) With people cycling in and out, responsibilities fell disproportionately on a few residents, sowing resentment. Mental health issues, often enmeshed with substance abuse, challenged the insular self-governance. (A local zine from the time described its latter-era character as a “drug den.”) And there was mounting critique of the squatters’ role in gentrification.
Some gestures of solidarity with the neighborhood fell flat, such as a 2013 mural commemorating victims of police violence. A since-deleted blog post (viewed via the Wayback Machine) by a neighbor, who regularly published criticism of local anarchists, called the mural a “moralistic guilt trip,” meant to dissuade local taggers from painting on the building. Soon thereafter, according to the blog, someone stapled a note to the squat’s façade: “GO TO YOUR OWN NEIGHBORHOOD WHERE YOUR PARENTS LIVE AND TAG,” adding, “PROPS TO REAL GRAFF WRITERS.”
In 2014, a judge ruled that Rockridge Properties “holds title free and clear to any adverse legal claim” — a decisive blow to the squatters’ madcap campaign at the courthouse.
Two months later, in July, a fire broke out at RCA. A local punk fanzine from the time alludes to it being intentional, and the WordPress blog that often criticized the squat, “Anarcranks,” suggests that the then-current billboard message, “MOTION TO BBQ,” was a threat (and not just some irreverent legalese). An eviction was slated for the next day, but Watlington said that was just coincidental. “My understanding is that someone was living downstairs who had beef with someone else from the neighborhood,” she recalled. “I was told they kicked down the door and shoved a shopping cart full of burning trash inside.”
Both RCA and Hot Mess were vacant thereafter.
Susan Rodgers and I spoke in January in a taqueria near Safeway, where she’s worked for decades, in the Montclair neighborhood of Oakland. The fifty-six-year-old said that she and Theriot used to discuss making the West Oakland property a parking lot, considering its proximity to BART. After selling it, she’d drive by and wonder why it wasn’t developed; Consos stopped returning her calls. She appreciates the block’s decline in crime, but the neighborhood figures she remembers are gone. Last year, she sold a 25th Avenue building that she also inherited from Theriot and moved to Stockton. She hopes to transfer to a closer store, but for now she commutes. “Moving away wasn’t hard, but it was somber,” she explained. “I’m the last one in my family left in California.”
Later we met at the corner of MacArthur Blvd. and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. She wondered what happened to Burley’s Detail, a carwash and barbecue joint across the street, and was amused to see the squatters’ tree house behind the Victorian. She wished she could take home the “RCA” sign, adorned with the classic terrier-and-gramophone logo, which once advertised Terry’s Sound House. Of the plan, posted on the side of the building, for Resources for Community Development’s apartment development, she seemed ambivalent, and invoked a couple of Theriot’s old maxims. “He’d say mistakes are opportunities to begin again, and a fool and his money will soon part,” she said.
Resources for Community Development paid Rockridge Properties $3.2 million for the land. The Berkeley-based affordable housing nonprofit envisions thirty-two units on the site, “primarily serving family households ranging from 30-50% [area median income], as well as special needs households,” according to a letter requesting funding from the City of Oakland. Demolition of the extant structures, along with five trees, could begin early next year. In the interim, officials have proposed the empty lot alongside the property, once the squatters’ garden, for a sanctioned homeless encampment, dubbed “Safe Haven.”