A woman in a maroon suit and white blouse stand in front of a mural featuring a woman riding on roller skates. In the background is a sign advertising 7-11.
District 3 Councilmember Carroll Fife in Oakland, Calif., on July 6, 2023. Credit: Florence Middleton.

Carroll Fife joined the City Council over two years ago but told us in a recent interview that this is the first year she feels like an official councilmember. 

Before running for office, Fife–a longtime progressive organizer and housing advocate–clashed frequently with former Mayor Libby Schaaf, Sheriff Greg Ahern, and other political leaders. When she was sworn in as a councilmember in 2021, she found herself working alongside the very same people she’d protested against, an awkward dynamic that made it hard for Fife to effectively represent District 3, which includes West Oakland, the port, parts of downtown, the Jack London District, Mosswood, Westlake, and Adams Point.  

Now, under the administration of a fellow progressive, Mayor Sheng Thao, Fife feels she can pursue her vision as a legislator. The councilmember recently sat down with The Oaklandside to discuss her approach to homelessness, housing, public safety, and building a better relationship between the city and Alameda County. She also shared her experiences coping with harassment and threats, and her thoughts about staying in office. 

This Q&A is part of a series of interviews The Oaklandside is doing with each councilmember. The interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Where did the council and the mayor diverge on the budget? And what is the biggest thing you think was missing from this budget? 

I hate to say divergence. We’re just looking at the same crisis with a different set of eyes. 

It’s different than it was in the previous administration where we knew we had to fight for everything. We knew that the mayor had favorites. I felt 100 pounds lighter with this process. There was no hiding. There was full transparency. 

What we heard from the community was the one-time funds that we invested in the Department of Violence Prevention were a real blow. And so was the lack of arts funding

It’s tough because I don’t believe the government should fund nonprofits. It’s a neoliberal tactic that causes a lot of strain, and in Oakland, it’s been used to support councilmembers’ future political campaigns by funding organizations they like instead of funding who’s actually doing work with real outcomes. I know organizations that have received city grants but have done absolutely nothing with them. 

We need strong governments versus strong external organizations because with the latter we don’t have the level of oversight necessary to ensure we’re delivering results. 

How did this budget process compare to the last cycle under Mayor Libby Schaaf? What feels different about Mayor Sheng Thao’s leadership?

It’s pretty common knowledge that the previous mayor did not like me. I found out from staff and directors in different departments that there was an understanding they were not to work with me. I feel like with this new council and new mayor, I’m just now becoming an elected official. 

I don’t know what that’s going to mean for the future, but right now I’m seeing things get done that haven’t been done for the last two years. I’m seeing work done in the district that I haven’t seen before. 

Earlier this year you publicly shared some of the violent, racist attacks that have been made against you. Have you continued to receive threats? Do you think Oakland is doing a good job safeguarding its elected officials?

Oakland is not doing nearly enough to protect its elected officials. I know recently with the Council President someone was focused on coming to her house. And not like “We’re going to do a protest in front of your house,” but like, “We should get guns and come to your house.” 

The security protocols at City Hall are far too lax. There were people looking for me after landlords came to protest the eviction moratorium. The day after the meeting, a group got through a back door at City Hall and got into the council offices [an area normally restricted to the public unless a person has an appointment and is allowed in]. They freaked my staff out because they were like, “We’re looking for Councilmember Fife.” And my staff were like, “How did you get in here?” Because they didn’t come in the front door.

I’ve never felt safe in this system. I’ve never felt completely safe in my body. Being a councilmember, with my goal of transforming the system so it’s safe for everyone, has put a target on my back. In order to make things better for everybody I just have to deal with it. 

The Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland program, MACRO, has been underway for just over one year. There are still a few months left in the pilot, which diverts some low-urgency 911 calls to civilian responders. We’ve heard from some advocates who are concerned that MACRO isn’t reaching enough people and that its managers aren’t transparent with the public. What’s your assessment of the program to date? 

The MACRO staff give 110% of their energy to the work, as does the program’s lead, Elliott Jones.

There’s a lot left to be desired with MACRO, but it’s been a year. If people took the perspective they have with OPD and used it on MACRO and the Department of Violence Prevention (DVP), these programs would be given more leeway. I want MACRO and the DVP to have the ability to fail like OPD.

People should continue to scrutinize everything we do, but understand there’s going to be growing pains as these programs get their legs under them. We’re going to get there. But those questions–why don’t we have more of this? Should we have less of this?–those are good things to ask. I get emails and phone calls about MACRO not being able to go into people’s homes. I’ve been told there needs to be more community input. We need that kind of civic engagement.

When we talked to you last year, you said the nature of working on the City Council made it more difficult for you to connect with community activists. Are you finding that dynamic easier to navigate?

No, it’s intensifying. The more people find out about what I’m attempting to do or what I’m doing, the more my schedule fills up. My schedule fills up like a month in advance. I get so many invitations, and I have to turn down many. I’m trying to figure out how to balance the people who want me to be a part of what they’re doing.

Businesses, organizations, families, individuals–I want to show them I care and I’m interested in what they’re doing. That means site tours, visits, and time in the field. But that takes me away from policy. It also cuts into my time for office hours. But it’s a good problem to have.

A couple of months ago Oakland closed the Wood Street homelessness camp, the city’s largest. The majority of residents accepted some form of shelter offered by the city, but it’s unclear when many of these folks will find permanent housing. Did Oakland take the best approach with Wood Street? More generally, which homelessness strategies are working, and what’s not? 

Staff in our homelessness division say it is more expensive but more beneficial in the long term to find permanent housing solutions versus temporary interventions. But do we just leave people on the streets until we have permanent long-term solutions? Because right now they don’t exist. 

My task is to create those spaces that staff say actually work. We have programs like the St. Vincent De Paul shelter that people are not utilizing. They have empty beds on a regular basis because unsheltered folks say it’s not sufficient. You can’t force an individual to go into a shelter.

I’m working with the county on taking the vacant lots and spaces in Oakland and using them to house people permanently. There’s a bunch of abandoned homes on MacArthur Boulevard that have been vacant since we did our housing and homelessness march right before we took over the house on Magnolia in 2019. Why are those allowed to stay vacant? Those are the kinds of buildings I want to rehab and create permanently affordable homes for unsheltered folks. Then you could have live-in health care and on-site supportive services that people would take advantage of. There are thousands of properties like vacant buildings and tax-defaulted properties that we could utilize.

I’ve been in conversation with Alameda County since the day I stepped into office on how to rehabilitate those homes. utilizing some of the funds we honestly just waste, converting spaces into homeless housing, first-time homebuyer housing, and workforce housing, and making them available to the populations who desperately need them. It’s cheaper than building from the ground up.

It’s the first time in at least 10 years that we’ve had that kind of relationship with Alameda County. A lot has changed recently that people just don’t see. But I’m confident that the results will be seen sooner than later.

Why is Oakland’s relationship with the county improving?

The county’s leadership understands we have a legislative body that is working together toward the same goals. It was very clear there was antagonism between the mayors and the legislative body in the city of Oakland for years. And the county is super non-confrontational. They don’t do a lot of media, they don’t get a lot of attention. They have a lot of money. But they’re like, “We’re not getting into Oakland’s drama.” They saw us as dysfunctional. None of them have said that to me. But that’s what I’ve heard over the years. And now they see us turning a corner. 

There’s been outreach on behalf of the Mayor’s office and Council President’s office to say “Hey, we’re all in this together.” Oakland is the seat of Alameda County and shoulders the majority of the issues that the county faces. So it’s really important that we have a relationship that benefits all of us. 

We’ve seen an uptick in gun violence and other violent crimes in Oakland. In response, some residents have called for stronger police presence, while others want more investment in non-police solutions. This isn’t a new conflict, but it seems like this tension is getting worse.

It’s more polarized now because there are people who are intentionally whipping up fear. I’m not saying people should not be scared. But when your goal is to make people afraid, it’s easy to do in challenging times.

People are like, “All these thugs are running the town, it’s lawless.” But we’re giving no hope to young people who are growing up in communities that are already under-resourced. And we wonder why they don’t care about anybody else.

I watched clips from Councilmember Dan Kalb’s town hall. People were saying things like, “Cut off people’s hands if they steal” and “Oakland is a shithole city.” It sounded like a lot of Trumpian rhetoric. 

These people are mad that they’re living in conditions that Black and brown folks have been living in for generations. They’re mad because they’re feeling the impacts of what under-resourced communities resort to when they don’t have any other options. 

I’m not condoning it. We need consequences for individuals who have become so antisocial they’re willing to harm other people. I’m a mother, and my goal is to teach my kids to engage in a certain way so they can live fruitful lives, don’t hurt people, take care of themselves, be responsible, and be respectful. 

Recently a group of kids were speaking at a City Council meeting about the Department of Violence Prevention. They were saying, “I’m formerly incarcerated, this org saved my life, don’t cut our budget, don’t cut our wings.” Can you imagine what those kids would be doing if they weren’t taken in by these organizations? 

Crime, poverty, and lack of resources are policy choices. We are choosing to not support certain neighborhoods. We’re at that tipping point. And it’s not just with the economy, it’s with the environment, work employment. 

If we only hire police, if we only lock people up, folks are going to get out and engage in the exact same thing. We’re going to bankrupt ourselves if we cut every program, freeze every position, and only invest in the police. We’re going to have a city with deferred maintenance of buildings and parks and no Fairyland and no arts. You’ll have a huge paramilitary organization but nothing else. 

It looks like the Oakland Athletics are probably leaving the city. What should we do with Howard Terminal? What about the Coliseum?

We should work with the African American Sports and Entertainment Group (AASEG) to continue to develop their project at the Coliseum. I wish the A’s leadership was better in terms of being a partner with AASEG because they really care about the community. Ray Bobbitt, the co-founder of the AASEG, was born and raised here. He’s deeply connected to people who live in East Oakland and wants that area to thrive. 

I would like to see John Fisher and the management team for the Oakland A’s work in partnership with organizations that are deeply connected to Oakland. I would like to see those areas built out and potentially utilized for soccer and other sports like the WNBA. Maybe even sanctioned sideshows.

I know the mayor is working diligently to figure out what can be done at the Howard Terminal as well as the Coliseum. I have my perspectives, especially for District 3, but either way, I think we know she’s going to fight and not going to play games.

Most rational people understand the A’s have been playing games with Oakland for a long time now. I’ve been trying to say that for years. They care about their bottom line first, not the fans, not the baseball franchise. They cared about building an $11 billion development at Howard Terminal with a little sidepiece of a stadium. My question the whole time was how will we pay for it? They never answered that. And some people thought I was trying to block it. No, I’m trying to get an understanding of how much Oakland is going to be on the hook for, and for how long. 

I was the whipping post for that for a while. But I feel totally vindicated. 

When we interviewed you last April, you were contemplating whether you might be more effective as an organizer or activist outside of City Hall. And you said you were on the fence about running for reelection. Where do you stand now?

Local politics is the most challenging place because you are always surrounded by people with problems who expect you to solve them immediately, but it is also the most exhilarating, rewarding, saddening, depressing, energizing, and fulfilling place to be. 

I have a lot of unfinished business to handle here in District 3 and the City of Oakland. I plan on passing legislation around social housing. I plan on fulfilling the Black New Deal so we can look at how public policy decisions have impacted people’s lives. I plan on greening West Oakland to address the environmental harms that have impacted people for generations and made breathing next to impossible. I also want to address some of the high-injury network areas where transportation fatalities are far too common. 

There’s so much I need to do here, and I will be damned if I let folks who have threatened my life and denigrated the district run me out of office. It’s a fight now so I’m not going anywhere.

Eli Wolfe reports on City Hall for The Oaklandside. He was previously a senior reporter for San José Spotlight, where he had a beat covering Santa Clara County’s government and transportation. He also worked as an investigative reporter for the Pasadena-based newsroom FairWarning, where he covered labor, consumer protection and transportation issues. He started his journalism career as a freelancer based out of Berkeley. Eli’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, NBCNews.com, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. Eli graduated from UC Santa Cruz and grew up in San Francisco.