In my first job out of college, I learned who needs to be present to evict someone in the state of Oregon: a representative of the property owner, a sheriff’s deputy, and a locksmith. I worked for a non-profit community development organization in inner Northeast Portland which had grown out of a local neighborhood association. The group wanted to fight blight in their neighborhood as well as preserve the diversity of the community, particularly in terms of race, culture, and social class, as they were starting to see the potential threat of gentrification. So, part of their strategy was to acquire, renovate, and manage housing at rents that would be affordable for people with low incomes.
About the time I started working there, the organization purchased a building at Northeast 20th and Alberta Streets that had four one-bedroom units. When we bought the building, one of the units was occupied by a woman who had been a problem for the neighbors. She had a long police record for using and dealing illegal drugs in her apartment. The neighbors complained that there were visitors and noise at all hours, and based on the noise and activity, they suspected that drug dealing was not the only illegal activity going on there. She had several family members living with her in the one-bedroom unit, which was a violation of the lease. And she hadn’t paid her rent in several months. So, as the new property owners, and as an organization whose mission was to improve the neighborhood for the sake of everyone in the community, it fell to us to evict her.
The eviction was scheduled for a Friday afternoon. That particular Friday afternoon, everyone in the office was going to busy. The director, who was my boss and had been through this process before, was not available because she had another meeting. The woman in charge of acquiring and renovating properties did not work on Fridays; neither did the woman who ran our program for women who had graduated from addiction recovery programs. The bookkeeper wasn’t even available. So I agreed to be the representative of the property owners at the eviction.
The notices for the eviction went out according to the law. They had to be delivered in every possible way well in advance of the date to give the tenant a chance to either resolve the issues which were leading to eviction or move out. Usually, such notices made the situation easy: when the necessary parties showed up, the apartment was empty. Then, the sheriff posted their notice, the locksmith changed the lock, and the representative of the property owner handed out the checks and collected the new keys. But that was not the case that day. Instead, the woman who was being evicted was still there along with a couple of her friends and several of their children. She was running around yelling at people as she and the others were frantically tossing clothes, furniture, toys, household items, and other contents of the apartment off of her second-floor balcony into the front yard. It was quite the sight; it looked like Oliver Twist was going to poke his shy little head around the corner at any moment. I pulled up and waited in my car for the others to arrive, already feeling a bit apprehensive about the whole situation.
And as the others arrived, though, I became more and more uncomfortable. The locksmith came up in a pickup, and I saw that he was a white man, like myself. Then the sheriff’s deputies arrived, two of them, and they were also both beefy, young, white men. And everyone else there, the woman being evicted as well as her friends and their children, was black. As our crew of four white men walked up the sidewalk, climbed the stairs, and did our work, my apprehension turned to a horrible, icky feeling.
On one hand, everything going on at the property at NE 20th and Alberta Streets that day was right. Not only were we following the law, we were doing so in the interest of the whole community. We were helping the neighborhood, with all the diversity of its residents, accomplish its vision for itself: a place that was safe and comfortable for all of the people who called that place home. The problem was not with what we were doing.
The problem was with the way we did it: four white men, who were agents of the people in power in the situation, invaded a space occupied by black women and children, who had no power in the situation. The scene evoked the long history of white oppression of blacks in the United States. The scene reified the stereotypes many people have of what it means to be white and what it means to be black in this country. The scene played out the fantasies of many people who, explicitly or implicitly, would be just as happy if “those people” were not in their community. The scene illustrated the truth that the systems under which we all live do not treat people equally, and the scene did not provide a vision for how things could be done differently. The scene was all wrong, even if everything we were doing was right.
I have been thinking about the scene of the eviction that day as I have watched the news in the past week. I am not an attorney, and I have not read all of the evidence presented to the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri. People I trust know more about the laws and the evidence than I do, and based on what they have said in the past few days, I am less and less convinced that the evidence was so inadequate that they could not at least have a trial for Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown (this is one of the better interviews on the topic I have seen). But even in the days after the prosecutor announced the grand jury’s decision, when I still wondered if it was possible that the grand jury was right, I got that same feeling that I had that day almost 20 years ago at the scene of the eviction. I don’t know if the grand jury was right, but nonetheless, there is plenty wrong with the whole scene.
What would have made the scene of the eviction better? I went back to my boss the following Monday and told her that, at the very least, we needed to work harder to make sure the people present at the eviction represented the local community. We did not have any control over which deputies the sheriff’s office would send to an eviction, but the scene would have been better if they represented the diversity of the community they were serving. We could do business with a locksmith who did not look like me. But mostly, my boss and I agreed, I did not need to be a part of any more evictions, not because I was unwilling to do work that was uncomfortable, but because, as a white man, I did not need to be in that scene, at least not by myself, because my presence did not support a vision for how things could be done better.