Journalists, unhoused residents, seek restraining order against OPD and city

Zack Haber
6 min readApr 27, 2023

Journalists and unhoused residents at Wood Street say that OPD and the city are violating their first amendment rights by limiting media access to cover an eviction. A city public information officer says the city is accommodating media while trying to secure the site. The dispute is being taken to court.

Unhoused Wood Street resident Jose Gonzalez (left) talks with SF Public Press reporter Yesica Prado (right) on Tuesday, April 25 near 1707 Wood Street in West Oakland. Photo by Zack Haber.

Two journalists and two unhoused Oakland residents filed a motion in US District Court of Northern California on Tuesday that claims the city of Oakland and its police department have been violating their first amendment rights by restricting the press’s ability to document an ongoing encampment eviction at 1707 Wood Street, a tract of city owned land in West Oakland.

Starting April 18, city workers began erecting fences around the area being evicted, and police officers began restricting access. The motion requests a temporary restraining order that would require the city and OPD to “use the least restrictive means to the first amendment” during the eviction and “allow access for journalists” and legal observers to witness and document it. District Judge William Orrick agreed to hold a hearing on the motion on Friday at 3 pm.

In an email, a public information officer for the city stated that the city fenced off the area in order to “safely and securely complete the work,” as “crews are operating heavy equipment, including bulldozers and dump trucks.” She also noted that the site contains “metal scraps, flammable materials, trash, debris, uneven surfaces, and contaminated soil.”

The 1707 Wood Street tract is the last remaining section of the Wood Street encampment, which once was Oakland’s largest homeless encampment with an estimated 200–300 residents, according to the city. The city began closing a portion of the Wood Street encampment last July, while CalTrans evicted residents from most of the remaining sections starting last September. In a press release, the city stated that it is closing the 1707 Wood Street section of encampment to enable the construction of a 170 unit affordable housing complex.

The 1707 Wood Street tract had, as of Monday, about 15 remaining residents, while about 50 residents had left the site since the eviction began on April 10. It has been the site of the Wood Street Commons, a community that residents, sheltering in tents, vehicles, and self made structures, have established after years of living together. Since April 10, city workers have towed or bulldozed the majority of these structures, or residents have moved them.

On Monday morning, Wood Street Commons members attempted to host a press conference on a public street at the site to share information about their experiences during the eviction. In declarations supporting the temporary restraining order, Wood Street Commons members Jessica Blalock and Lydia Blumberg, who are also plaintiffs in the motion, both stated that police officers blocked reporters they invited from KPFA, The Oaklandside, and Street Spirit from attending the conference.

“As a result of the Oakland Police Department cordoning off the camp,” Blalock wrote in her declaration, “I cannot speak with the media, and my ability to speak with the public is being restrained.”

Reporters Yesica Prado, of SF Public Press, and Lisa Gray-Garcia, who writes for several publications including POOR Magazine and 48 Hills, are also plaintiffs in the motion. They both stated in written declarations that police prevented them from attending the conference.

When asked why the city had blocked off journalists for the press conference, a city public information officer stated that “The press event planned by the residents was held within the work zone in the early morning before city escort staff had arrived. The city was not made aware of this event in advance.”

In total, eight reporters claimed, either in interviews or in court declarations, that they have been completely prevented from entering the 1707 Wood Street site since the fences were erected, or have had limited ability to enter it.

A city public information officer told this reporter that, currently, “public information officers are escorting members of the media, including independent journalists, into the work zone to observe and document activities.”

In an interview, Prado said that it’s been difficult for her to enter the site. She was able to enter on Tuesday, but had to wait at the fence for over two hours to be cleared by the city. When she was let in, she was only able to be there for an hour and said she was followed around by a public information officer.

“I would like to cover this right,” Prado said. “I shouldn’t have to fight [the public information officer] or be rushed.”

Prado has spent much of her time at Wood Street these days outside of the fence and witnessing from afar, which she said gives her an incomplete picture of what’s going on with the eviction.

Yesica Prado (left) and Jose Gonzalez (right) stand by the fence surrounding 1707 Wood Streets. OPD Officers eat pizza in the background. Photo by Zack Haber on April 25.

“From the fence we’re not able to document anything or hear what is being said,” Prado said.

Prado has conducted several interviews on the opposite side of the fence from unhoused residents, as residents have faced difficulties reentering the encampment after they leave.

In an email, an Oakland public information officer told this reporter that reporters “are free to speak with residents and document any and all activities,” but that they “are instructed to wear a reflective safety vest and stay near the media escort, and out of the way of working crews.”

On Wednesday, Caron Creighton, a reporter who has been covering Wood Street and making a film about the encampment, wrote on twitter while reporting from the site that the city was limiting the amount of time some reporters could access the site.

“I’m hearing that the city of Oakland public information officer is once again present and offering to escort media inside the lot at Wood Street,” Creighton wrote, “but today it’s only for 15 minutes.”

In declarations filed in court supporting the motion against the city and OPD; advocates, researchers, and residents report that police have blocked and/or delayed others, besides journalists and residents, from entering the site. Some have stated that they witnessed or experienced officers putting their hands on people at the gate.

Volunteer homeless advocate Talya Husbands-Hankin wrote that she saw OPD officers deny access to a group of clergy who were attempting to support residents, and that she had personally been blocked from entering while attempting to “deliver food and supplies.”

“It seems like they are trying to limit the amount of supporters who are not cops or workers so they will not have witnesses,” Husbands-Hankin said in an interview.

Jeffrey Schonberg, a medical anthropologist researching the Wood Street Commons, stated in a declaration that he witnessed legal observers with the National Lawyers Guild being denied entrance to the site. Rebecca Salsburg-Frank, an advocate for the residents of Wood Street, stated that she was denied entry while attempting “to help a disabled resident carry her things who was just released from the hospital.” She also wrote that an OPD officer “aggressively pushed” her near the fence.

An activist, Christopher Taaffe, stated that officers have been “rough in handling safety at the gate.”

“They have put their hands on people to remove them instead of speaking to them,” Taaffe wrote in his declaration.

This reporter reviewed a video showing OPD Officer Trevor Dagenhart pulling an activist by the arm who was leaning on a gate used to fence off the encampment on April 25. OPD’s media team was sent the video, Taaffe’s accusation, and questions about the incident. The team responded by email, stating only that the department “documented this use of force incident.”

The eviction is currently scheduled to continue until May 6. Prado hopes that Judge Orrick will lift restrictions and allow her and other journalists to freely access the site so that she they can document it.

“As journalists we also have to stand up for our rights,” she said. “And we should do that more often.”

Note: A slightly different version of this story is scheduled to be published by The Post News Group.