A video shows Vincent Ray Williams III being detained by CHP officers after a Caltrans worker falsely reported Williams had a firearm. Credit: Courtesy of Urban Park Cleanup

Two California Highway Patrol officers drew their guns and handcuffed a well-known homelessness advocate near the Wood Street encampment in West Oakland on Tuesday, in an incident partially captured in a video posted on social media. 

According to CHP, a California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) “supervisor” called the police on Vincent Ray Williams III, alleging that Williams threatened workers with a gun. 

In the video, which was filmed by a resident of the camp, Williams is shown walking slowly backwards with his hands raised in the air. Two officers stand behind him, pointing guns at him.

“They’re asking if I have a gun on me. I do not have a gun on me,” says Williams, who runs the organization Urban Park Cleanup, which tidies up around encampments and works to connect residents with resources. 

The video shows an officer putting handcuffs on Williams. Williams can be heard saying, “I’m a community advocate.” 

Officers confirmed that Williams was unarmed and let him go with a warning not to come back to the site while Caltrans was working there, said Officer David Arias, a CHP spokesperson. 

“A Caltrans supervisor called CHP to say that a man was threatening them with a gun, which ended up not being the case,” Arias said. CHP followed protocol for a “felony stop,” a common procedure conducted when there’s a suspected armed suspect, he said. 

“There was never an arrest made. They just detained him,” he said.

Williams said he’s still “processing” the incident, but said he feared for his life.

“I haven’t slept,” said Williams in a phone interview with The Oaklandside on Wednesday afternoon. “Every time I hear a siren or see the police, my stomach seizes up and I feel like I want to vomit.” 

The Oaklandside asked Caltrans multiple times today for confirmation that a department employee called the police on Williams. Spokesperson Rocquel Johnson referred us to CHP. When CHP confirmed that a Caltrans worker made the call, Johnson said she would reach out to the “construction team” for more information about what happened, but said she likely wouldn’t hear back until tomorrow. We will update this story if Caltrans provides further response. 

Portrait of Vincent-Ray Williams III, founder of Urban Park Cleanup
Vincent-Ray Williams III, founder of Urban Park Cleanup, led volunteers in tidying up this Martin Luther King Jr. Way encampment last winter. Credit: Amir Aziz

Caltrans owns part of the land where the massive Wood Street encampment sits, and there have long been tensions between the agency and the camp residents. Caltrans has conducted various clean-ups and camp closures at the site, citing fire hazards and other safety concerns. Activists have often assembled to protest the agency’s actions. Currently, Caltrans is on site to install fencing meant to prevent vehicle access and illegal dumping on the property, Johnson said.

Williams said he had stopped by the camp Monday and Tuesday, first to help with the aftermath of an RV fire, then to assist in rebuilding a portable shower that was reportedly stolen. He wrote an essay for The Oaklandside last year about how his own experience with houselessness in Oakland inspired him to launch Urban Park Cleanup. 

Williams and his friend Rachel—who lives in an RV at the camp and filmed the CHP encounter—were leaving the site Tuesday afternoon when, he said, they saw some workers who appeared to be Caltrans contractors leaving trash on the ground. Williams said he confronted workers, demanding that they clean up after themselves and respect the residents of the camp. Some of the interactions turned tense, and involved “expletives on both our ends,” he said.

Ultimately, Williams had an interaction with another worker, which he said started off tense but ended with friendly handshakes. After hearing about the work Williams does, the man asked for his business card, he said, telling Williams that his expertise could be used to help relocate people displaced by the Northern California wildfires.

“He walked off in one direction and me and Rachel headed back towards the train tracks,” said Williams. “We were back there for three to five minutes when CHP came roaring in. They jumped out of their car and trained their guns at me.”

Williams said he refused to follow their command that he get down on his knees, but raised his hands in the air and walked backwards, as they instructed. 

“I said, ‘I’m not getting on my knees for you—you can tell me what’s going on here,’” Williams said. He shouted phone numbers and credit card codes at Rachel, so she could contact and help his family if things went south.

Williams said he was let go after CHP officers determined he was unarmed. He said the officers gestured to the man who had taken Willams’ business card, telling him he was the person who reported that Williams waved a gun. 

“A white man called the police on a Black man, and told them I had a gun on me,” said Williams. “I keep having this vision of my partner and mom and sister sitting at a mortuary.”

The incident comes a few weeks after Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced she’d requested CHP patrols on city streets to conduct traffic enforcement. She said Gov. Gavin Newsom agreed to send officers to Oakland, a development applauded by the Oakland police union, who said officers are overworked and can’t tackle rising shootings and carjackings alone. Some community members have questioned whether the state police will be held to local standards around use of force and racial profiling. 

Newsom also recently directed $2.7 million to Caltrans, to “mitigate safety risks at encampments on state property, clean trash and debris, and to coordinate with state and local agencies to connect people living in these encampments to support services and housing,” Johnson said.

The CHP officers told Williams to stay away from Wood Street while work is occurring.

Williams, who was dropping Rachel off at the camp Wednesday when he spoke with The Oaklandside, said he doesn’t plan to comply.

“People don’t stop being unhoused, or needing shirts and blankets and linkages to services—people don’t stop needing things because something like this happened,” Williams said. “This is what I decided to do with my life, and fear can’t be the reason we stop.”

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.