Early in the morning on Valentine’s Day, a crew of city employees descended on West Oakland’s Fitzgerald Park, a small triangle of city-owned land wedged between Peralta, 34th, and Fitzgerald streets near the Emeryville border. They were there to close a homeless encampment that’s occupied the park for several years, most recently housing about a dozen people in tents tightly packed under the tall trees.

For months, people living in houses around Fitzgerald Park had called on the city to stop drug dealing and violence at the camp. In December, a camp resident died from overdosing. Two people were shot nearby in December and January, in what many believe were feuds linked to the camp. Dangerous conditions for unhoused and housed residents alike reached a boiling point.

Oakland staffers tasked with closing the encampment that morning included at least three members of the city administrator’s homelessness team, multiple police officers, trained responders with the city’s non-police crisis response team MACRO, and several firefighters. The plan was to offer the camp residents shelter in the nearby Mandela Community Cabin site, a cluster of sheds operated by the city since 2019. City staffers would ask the residents to pack up their belongings, check if they needed social services, and clear away any remaining fixtures of the encampment.

Fitzgerald Park isn’t big, and it quickly got crowded as civilian advocates with groups like Punks With Lunch and Love and Justice in the Streets also showed up, aiming to make sure nobody was made to move without a decent alternative on offer. “Our goal is to support people,” said Ale Del Pinal, a member of Punks With Lunch, “and follow the lead of what [residents] want.” 

It’s safe to say no one was ecstatic about the city’s plan to relocate Fitzgerald Park residents to the Mandela tiny-home site—a security guard was killed there last year, stoking concerns about violence, and residents complain about a lack of privacy at the site. But some who showed up that morning felt it was the best option at hand. 

Among them was Vincent Williams, a formerly homeless Oakland native who founded the Urban Compassion Project, a group that builds relationships with unhoused communities, helps connect them with services, and organizes camp clean-ups. 

Williams was familiar with the encampment at Fitzgerald Park, having gotten to know people living there through volunteer clean-ups in the neighborhood. He felt the camp needed to be closed to save lives. “I was there for the individuals who live there,” he said.

Also on site that morning was District 3 City Councilmember Carroll Fife. She told us that she showed up to do something the city had failed to do for seven years: close the camp, but in a humane way that led with shelter and services. “If we wouldn’t have been there, I don’t think the closure would have happened,” said Fife. She said city staffers and others didn’t feel comfortable doing their jobs that morning due to the presence of civilian advocates; she felt it was her job to help smooth things over.

Fife was accompanied by Tur-Ha Ak, a well-known community organizer who co-founded the Anti Police-Terror Project and Community Ready Corps, a organization whose mission is to “protect Black spaces and communities from racist intimidation, harassment, and violence, and to provide security and self-defense trainings.” He is also Fife’s longtime partner.

Not long after all of these parties assembled at Fitzgerald Park, tensions rose. Williams approached other advocates on the scene and accused them of trying to block the camp closure. He claimed they were “manipulating” camp residents by persuading them not to accept the offer of new housing at the Mandela Community Cabins—or telling them not to leave, period. He warned them that if the camp didn’t close, and someone else were to die there, blood would be on their hands. At one point, Williams approached Fife directly and accused her of preventing the closure and making false promises to residents.

According to Williams, Ak stepped between him and the councilmember, pushed Williams back and grabbed his neck, lifted him off the ground, “slammed” him into the pavement, and punched him. After Williams got up, he says, Ak grabbed him again, pushed him against a car, and “strangled” him. Williams told The Oaklandside it was an unprovoked assault intended to silence him and intimidate others opposed to the councilmember’s agenda.

Ak and Fife told The Oaklandside it was Williams who instigated violence. Fife said Williams issued severe verbal threats against her and other advocates on the scene and that Ak only tackled Williams after Williams yelled obscenities and moved rapidly toward Fife. “Everyone thought he was going to hit me,” she said.

Ak and Fife dispute William’s claim that they and others were trying to prevent the camp closure. Nonetheless, they say, Williams was deadly serious in his anger toward them. Ak recalls Williams telling some of the advocates, “If you tell another Black person to stay in the encampments, I’m going to shoot you in the face. If you tell someone else to stay here, I’m going to murder you.”

Williams told The Oaklandside he never said this, calling Ak’s assertion an “absolute lie.” “I’ve never threatened violence on anybody doing this kind of work,” he said.

“I was there for the individuals who live there.”

Vincent Williams

Williams gave a statement to police officers at the scene, accusing Ak of assault. An OPD spokesperson told The Oaklandside that Earl Anthony Harper—Ak’s legal name—was cited on suspicion of assault and battery and released at the scene without being arrested. The department declined to offer further comment because it’s still investigating.

The Oaklandside spoke to multiple eyewitnesses who observed the alleged assault and who were on one side or the other of the debate about the camp’s future. We also reviewed city and police records, videos, and other information to try to learn what happened.

Several eyewitnesses told us Ak used force against Williams, but they gave conflicting accounts about who was to blame. Several said they’re concerned the city now faces a potentially costly lawsuit due to Ak’s alleged battery of Williams. Other than Fife, all of the eyewitnesses we spoke to, including housed residents from the neighborhood and city staffers, asked not to be named in this story, citing fear of retaliation or a desire to avoid alienating people they might need to work with in the future.

The incident underscores how divided Oaklanders are over one of the city’s most pressing crises. Decisions about whether or not to close a specific homeless camp and what will be offered to residents in its place can have life-and-death consequences for people living there, and can severely impact quality of life for people housed nearby. 

The city’s missteps over the past decade have made things worse. Oakland’s official process for closing encampments can feel improvisatory or even haphazard, in this case asking unpaid volunteers to assist them in closing the camp. In theory, it’s someone’s job to ensure these events go smoothly: in 2019, the city created the new position of “homelessness administrator” to orchestrate the city’s homeless policies, including how camps are closed. But so far, no one has lasted in this position for more than a year.

Meanwhile, homeless people in Alameda County are dying at a rate more than four times greater than the general population and are at greater risk of virtually any cause of death. Camps are also frequent sites of dangerous fires. Passions on all sides of the issue are inflamed precisely because outcomes can lead to further suffering and violence affecting unhoused people and safety hazards within residential neighborhoods. 

The specifics of what happened at Fitzgerald Park matter, especially given that an elected city councilmember was on the scene and directly involved. Oakland police and others will continue to investigate what happened that morning. But in a broader sense, the incident highlights the increasingly confused question of how moments like this one—where opposing forces in Oakland’s housing crisis are brought face-to-face in highly pressurized public arenas—are best handled and who should call the shots. 

A ‘heated debate’ and fears of sabotage

Portrait of Vincent-Ray Williams III, founder of Urban Park Cleanup
Vincent Ray Williams III, the founder of Urban Compassion Project, alleges he was assaulted during the Fitzgerald Park camp closure. Credit: Amir Aziz

Before the Fitzgerald Park encampment, there was the “compassionate community” under I-580 at 35th and Magnolia streets. Spearheaded by then-D3 councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney in 2016, this city-sanctioned tent camp received sanitation resources and social services while the city worked to transition residents into housing instead of evicting them. But the program faced challenges of its own, and eventually, the city shut it down. 

Many of the displaced residents set up camp at Fitzgerald Park. Several lived there for years, and by the time of the closure, there were about 11 residents in the park. Last year, conditions reached a crisis point, with multiple violent incidents prompting the city to schedule the site for closure.

Many of the residents were unhappy with that decision. Charles McNeil, who lived at the park for several years, said it felt like they were being “forced out and penalized” for the actions of a couple of violent people and unfairly portrayed as dangerous. 

“We lived civilized over there,” he told The Oaklandside. “We were keeping it clean and mostly keeping it peaceful, looking out for each other.” 

At a community meeting at a nearby church in early February, city officials and staff, advocates, and neighbors discussed the circumstances at Fitzgerald Park and what was to come. Punks with Lunch members said encampment residents were initially not included in the meeting, so they invited them. 

Williams said he was tapped around this time by the city administration’s homelessness services team to assist with the closure and relocation of Fitzgerald Park residents into the Mandela Community Cabins. He agreed to take the work on for free; he’d already been volunteering at Fitzgerald Park for about three years, distributing supplies and cleaning up debris. 

The recent violence there “hit close to home,” Williams told us; he considered a resident who was fatally shot there this winter a “father figure.”

Williams himself was recovering from a shooting around the same time. While driving on the Bay Bridge in November, he was shot in the head by another driver in what appears to be a road-rage incident. He survived, but he’s spent the past few months trying to recover from a skull fracture.

As the planned three-day closure got underway on Monday, Feb. 13, Williams said he was at the site with city workers and contractors, talking to residents about shelter options.

“We started making headway, asking people, ‘What do you want?’” he recounted. “We were being patient and giving people the space to make their own decisions.” 

He said the process got momentarily derailed when someone who lives in the neighborhood seized a shopping cart with possessions belonging to encampment residents and handed it to city workers to trash. Williams said the owners of the cart were upset and refused to cooperate further with the city that day, a decision Williams supported, calling the cart theft “inhumane.” The closure was paused.

It started again on Tuesday, Feb. 14, but that’s “when shit hit the fan,” Williams said. When he arrived that morning, he said, advocates from various groups that support homeless residents, as well as someone from the Wood Street Commons unhoused community, were already there telling residents they shouldn’t accept the Community Cabin spots and trying to prevent the closure. Fife and Ak were there too. 

Williams assessed the situation and came to feel that the activists and the councilmember were promising Fitzgerald Park’s residents that they could hold out for a better situation by digging in where they were. “Carroll was selling people dreams,” he said.

Del Pinal, from Punks With Lunch, disputed that advocates were dissuading people from leaving.

“As if we want people living in these deplorable conditions,” Del Pinal said. “We don’t coerce people or tell anyone what to do. A lot of people were adamant and staunch about not going into the Mandela Community Cabins. A lot of people had been there and experienced violence and cycled back onto the streets. If they were going to be forced to move out of that space, they wanted something better.”

A recent audit confirmed that less than a third of all Community Cabin residents have ended up in permanent housing, and during some years, more than half became homeless again.

Punks With Lunch has been doing outreach and harm-reduction work at Fitzgerald Park for years. Volunteers with the group helped residents pack up their belongings for the closure before and after the Tuesday incident and never tried to block the closure, Del Pinal said.

Williams said he got into a “heated debate” with an advocate who Williams felt was slowing down the process of closing the camp. “I said, “Black people are dying in this encampment. If anyone else dies as a result [of the camp remaining open], we’re going to have a fucking problem.’” He then approached Fife and yelled at her too.

Ak got in between them, Williams said, grabbing Williams and punching him. “He slams me on the ground four times before somebody gets him off me,” Williams said. 

Williams denied that he had been physically threatening Fife. “If I had assaulted a government official, they would have put me in handcuffs,” he told us.

Shortly after the incident, Williams filmed an Instagram video of himself accusing Ak of attacking him. In the video, Ak approaches Williams and tells him he assaulted Fife. Visible in the background are about two dozen people, including OPD officers, other city staff, camp residents, and several advocates. Toward the end, OPD officers explain to Williams why they weren’t arresting Ak and taking him to jail: the alleged battery was determined to be a misdemeanor, a less-serious offense than a felony.

Later at home, Williams said he bent down and “a shooting [sensation] went through my spine. My whole body locked up.” He posted a video of himself in an ambulance on Instagram. 

“The main thing I feel is heartbreak,” Williams said the day after the incident. 

Amid a backdrop of violent threats, Fife and Ak feel their work on homelessness is being undermined

Oakland’s District 3 City Councilmember Carroll Fife said she’s been the target of violent threats and harassment. Credit: Amir Aziz

Before becoming a councilmember, Fife was a housing rights activist best known for her role in the Moms 4 Housing protest. Because the homelessness crisis is disproportionately concentrated in West Oakland, she’s spent a lot of time over the past several years working with housed and unhoused residents impacted by the issue.

She told The Oaklandside that her immediate goal at Fitzgerald Park that morning was to close the camp, which she also felt had become dangerous for sheltered and unsheltered residents. 

But she was adamant the camp be closed only if residents first received adequate services, including spaces in shelters. She felt that part of the reason the camp had persisted for so many years was that the people living there didn’t trust the city to help them. Fife said she contacted Mayor Sheng Thao in January and asked that rehousing the park residents and camp closure be prioritized.

“What I did with Fitzgerald Park was new and effective. It worked in record time,” said Fife. “For seven years, Fitzgerald Park was entrenched and had people living in squalid conditions that were making everyone fearful. I got it done with [Mayor] Sheng and lots of others in 18 days.”

Ak said he was also working to facilitate the closure of the camp in a way that respected the residents. Like Williams, he wasn’t being paid by the city, but he’d gotten phone calls from some of the unhoused advocates who were concerned about the city’s actions. He wanted to ensure everyone’s interests were looked after.

“I spent a whole day and rest of the night into the morning of the 14th brokering relationships with the advocates. I brought them to a position the city couldn’t previously get them to so that they were ready to clear the encampment,” he said.

Ak said he was able to convince most of the advocates who’d been involved with Fitzgerald Park that they should focus their energy on improving services provided by the nonprofits that run shelters rather than blocking closures of hazardous camps. “The camps are dangerous. You’re not helping the people you’re trying to help,” he told them.

At this point, Ak said, Williams arrived. Although their stated goals were similar—to build trust with camp residents and advocates to humanely close the camp—Ak said Williams approached the advocates in a hostile manner. “He told them, ‘I will fuck y’all up if you tell any more Black people to stay in these camps. I will find you and shoot you in your face,’” said Ak. He said didn’t know Williams well and said he viewed these as serious threats. (Williams denied that he used this language, saying he only referenced a recent incident when someone at the camp was shot in the face.)

Ak said he tried to deescalate the situation. “I said, ‘He’s not going to do anything to you all. Let’s keep talking.’”

A few minutes later, Ak was standing near Fife and Assistant City Administrator LaTonda Simmons when Williams approached them. According to Ak, Williams was “irate” and blamed Fife for stalling the closure. “He kept moving forward, screaming obscenities at the top of his lungs. At that point, I intervened.”

“I’ve been threatened to my face. I deserve to be safe, especially against a grown man who’s going to run up in my face.”

Carroll Fife

Ak confirmed that he tackled Williams but said he didn’t punch or choke him. The police didn’t arrest him, he said, because there were no bruises on Williams’ body. One of the officers who spoke to Williams afterward also explained this was one reason they weren’t arresting Ak.

Simmons declined to comment for this story.

A brief video shared with the media appears to show Ak and Williams getting off the ground. Grainy and recorded from a distance by unknown persons, it’s unclear why the beginning of the incident, including Williams’ initial approach toward Fife, wasn’t also included in the video clip.

One witness to the incident who asked not to be named because they don’t want to alienate city staff and Fife, their councilmember, said they didn’t think Williams was dangerous. “He did not threaten her,” said the neighbor. “He didn’t say, ‘I’m going to get you and do this and that.’ But after it all went down, he said, ‘I’ll make it my business to see that you don’t get reelected.’”

Fife said she felt physically threatened: “I think Tur-Ha reacted instinctively against someone who was charging toward me.”

Fife and other women of color in prominent leadership positions in Oakland have recently sounded the alarm about threats and harassment they’re experiencing, and Ak and Fife told The Oaklandside these threats were one of the reasons they were concerned about Williams’ statements and movements.

“I’ve been threatened to my face,” said Fife. “I deserve to be safe, especially against a grown man who’s going to run up in my face.”

Both also said Williams’ claim of being assaulted has become a convenient cudgel for other activists who have been harassing Fife and Thao, calling for both to be recalled in response to their progressive agendas regarding housing and public safety.

“What they don’t want is for me to seem effective in the district,” said Fife. “This is a political attack and a very skilled one.”

A long history of tensions around homeless camp closures

Fitzgerald Park 1
Fitzgerald Park after closure of a homeless camp that had occupied the space for years. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

The city closes encampments frequently. There are two scheduled over just the first three days of March. Often these take place quietly and as planned. But the cast of characters that assembled at Fitzgerald Park, and the visible tensions around that closure, are common features at large and high-profile sites. 

Williams, Fife, and Ak have been at the center of confrontations around homeless camps and housing-related protests before. Fife led the 2019 Moms 4 Housing protests that resulted in standoffs with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. Ak worked as security for that protest movement. Williams was detained at gunpoint by CHP officers two years ago while he was volunteering at the Wood Street camp. 

In this case, in addition to the encampment residents and the city workers closing the site, present at the scene were police, firefighters, MACRO officers, advocates from at least five different organizations, including an activist working with the city and an unhoused activist from another encampment protesting the closure, neighbors, current and former city officials, a councilmember, and a student filming a documentary.

Many unhoused residents and advocates say they don’t trust the city to conduct closures with care and ensure people have somewhere safe to land. Homeless people have told The Oaklandside about multiple cases in previous years when workers and police rousted residents in the early hours of the morning, destroying their homes and dumping or losing their belongings, and offering them only a night or two at a shelter in exchange. 

Last year, Oakland settled a lawsuit over this sort of approach to closures, paying a homeless group $250,000 and agreeing to changes in how much notice the city provides and how it stores belongings. Other new federal and local laws have forced the city to offer more substantial shelter or housing. And this month, a federal judge temporarily blocked Oakland from closing part of the city’s largest homeless camp because the city lacked shelter spaces for residents who would be displaced.

To try to better coordinate how it addresses camps, the city established the homelessness administrator position to oversee work at encampments. The position is meant to coordinate the disparate departments that clean, provide outreach to, and close encampments while working on the ground with unhoused residents and informing legislation—but it’s currently filled by an interim chief. And a 2020 “Encampment Management Policy” designed to provide clearer expectations around how and when the city closes camps has generated significant controversy.

All these changes have done little to build trust between the various groups concerned about encampments and haven’t quelled protests at closures.

Some observers of the Fitzgerald Park incident said the messy process during the operation created a scenario where showdowns and safety hazards were likely. One neighbor criticized the presence of an elected official and advocates negotiating over shelter options in real-time. One of those advocates, Williams, was brought in by the city administration but in an unofficial capacity. Another, Ak, was helping out a councilmember on a volunteer basis, too. 

“It was a shitshow that did not have to happen,” said the District 3 resident who saw the incident. “It never should have happened because none of us should have been at that work site,” referring to the encampment. “The activists, myself, [and] others shouldn’t have been allowed on the work site.”

Meanwhile, the City Council has been considering new policies intended to prevent these kinds of violent confrontations. One proposal aims to create “safe work zones” barring anyone but city staff from being present during camp closures. It’s been tabled due to concerns that it criminalizes homeless people and could lead to abuses by the city.

One week after the incident, Fitzgerald Park is empty and entirely fenced off. This past Tuesday, seven days after the incident, an old mattress lay against a tree, and “no parking” notices from the previous week were still up, but there were no other signs that people were recently living there.

A city spokesperson said nine residents ultimately accepted the offers to move into a Mandela Community Cabin, one went to live with family members, and one declined the offer and moved somewhere else. 

But the tensions that boiled over on Valentine’s Day remain—and may only heighten as the homelessness crisis continues and a new city administration tries to break logjams that vexed the previous mayor and City Council. 

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.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.