Community Organization Co-Founder Talks About Life in San Jose During Pandemic

William Armaline
Apr 27, 2020 - 4:34
 San Jose During Pandemic

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Over 26 million people filed for unemployment in the U.S. over the last five weeks, more than wiping clean the entire “jobs recovery” since 2008.  This could mean real unemployment rates reaching 23% by the Department of Labor’s next report (compared to 24.9% at the height of the Great Depression in 1933).  Adding insult to injury, the current economic crisis is connected to a global health pandemic that leaves the most socially and economically precarious as the most vulnerable: the elders, the poor, the unhoused, populations of color, isolated populations, and the incarcerated.

Even before the pandemic or epic job losses, San Jose and the broader Silicon Valley had become the most expensive place to live in the U.S.— largely due to a severe housing crisis and prices for goods and services 27% higher than the national average.  The median home price in San Jose is over $1M, rent averages $2,500 for a one bedroom apartment, and there is a massive, growing homeless population of over 6,100 residents.

How is it possible for working people to survive an overlapping economic crisis and pandemic (also noting that San Jose [Santa Clara County] was the initial hotspot for COVID-19) in the most expensive city of the country?

There’s perhaps no one better to ask than Silicon Valley DeBug co-founder and MacArthur Fellow Raj Jayadev, who since 2001 helped to build what now is one of the most effective community organizations in California.

William Armaline: For readers who are not familiar with San Jose or Silicon Valley DeBug, how would you describe the communities you represent?

Ray Jayadev: The communities that we represent are communities of color primarily in Santa Clara County: working class communities, immigrant communities, and communities that have been impacted and targeted by the criminal court system—those affected by over-policing, people that have been targeted by the carceral system, people formerly incarcerated, and their families and communities. 

We’re multi-generational, because as you’d imagine the people that make up those communities are all ages. Some are literally kids, some are elders — grandmothers and grandfathers. That way we span the different generations.

There’s [also] an outer orbit.  One of the ways our work is exercised is through Participatory Defense—which is an organizing model for families and communities whose loved ones are facing incarceration.  That started out as a local organizing model in San Jose but now is partnering with organizations of a similar makeup across the country (approximately 34 different cities).  So we also consider the communities part of that national network of participatory defense hubs as part of our community.

W.A: What is DeBug’s theory or strategy of change?

R.J: We believe in the transformational capacities of impacted communities to determine their own fates — to push back and bend, and abolish the institutions that have oppressed them.  At a very baseline level, we believe change and the power of change resides in collective action. So all of those communities that we describe as part of who we are — that’s actually who’s theorizing, strategizing, road-mapping, and enacting and implementing the plans for us to get the type of liberation we’re looking for.

W.A: It seems your model is in contrast to most non-profit organizations where outside experts come in and manage the representation of particular communities or stake holders, is this accurate?

R.J: We used to describe ourselves as an “anti-organization,” in the sense that most organizations are about individuals leaving their own “baggage” or ambitions at the door for the good of the collective.  Our organizing philosophy is opposite to that, where we say, “you come in with everything that you are and everything that you want to be.  You determine where you want to go and we’ll circle around you and support you, and you lead us.”  Some people think of us as a criminal justice reform organization, an economic justice organization, or an immigrant rights

[organization]

, but it’s basically folks that are coming in and determining what will make themselves and their communities whole and thriving, and then leveraging the power of the total group to get there.

W.A: Could you say a little more about the Participatory Defense Program as an example?

R.J: Participatory Defense is really a reflection of our principles and our values…It’s an organizing model for families who otherwise would feel really alone and isolated in trying to fight for the freedom of a loved one as they fight prosecutors, judges, historical racism, and all of that [state] apparatus.  The criminal court process is supposed to isolate people by design, and that’s what allows the system to grind people down.  We take a collective approach to finding peoples’ pathway to freedom by collectively pushing back. Families collectively support each other in navigating the court system and then see how they can come together to impact the case of a loved one. 

This looks like weekly meetings of families whose loved ones are facing charges. It could be young people in the juvenile system, adults in the jail system, post-convictions in prisons, ICE detention — but we take basic organizing principles — one, that we’re stronger together than we are alone and second, knowing that together we can find a way forward even if we don’t immediately know the “answer.”  Each week these families come together to strategize on how to essentially free their loved ones — how to beat back a prosecutorial theory or sentence imposed by a judge and how to be present and enact that change.  While that organizing model is an expression of DeBug’s philosophy, it’s something very extinctive in other communities across the country.  This is why when we started sharing the approach with other communities it felt really second nature to them.  

W.A: Even before the pandemic, San Jose was suffering a massive housing crisis manifested in persistent homelessness and some of the highest housing prices in the county.  How are working people fairing now under the added pressures of an overlapping health and economic crisis?

R.J: When you’re already in the costliest place to live in the country, you were already in crisis before COVID pronounced it even more so. People who were already on edge have been pushed over the edge. How people were making rent before was always a question. How people were hanging on to a San Jose they were being pushed out of, where if you wanted to survive you can no longer live in the community that you made, built, and can identify with was a question. That’s even harder now with the pandemic.

You could live in San Jose — the heart of Silicon Valley — and understand that people were barely making rent as is, because everyone in San Jose has been forced or know someone that has been forced to ask, “do I have to move?”  But with the pandemic there is all of this messaging about how the political class has really “showed its leadership” and people are really “helping each other out.” 

I feel like every day there’s a new message from the mayor to congratulate some new tech firm for saving people.  It’s a seismic difference — completely contrary to what we see in our lived experience.  Those tech firms aren’t coming to the rescue of anyone. If anything, they’ve created the environment that forced people to the edge to begin with. So, we see them not as saviors, but really as those who have instigated the crisis and even sped up the crisis in peoples’ lives.

W.A: This is also an incredibly dangerous time for anyone being held in jails, prisons, and detention centers.  What are you hearing from jail populations in the South Bay? 

R.J: Our SCC jails have already been crime scenes where in the lead up of COVID, things had grown so bad in terms of unlawful confinement and health conditions that people inside had to go on a hunger strike.  One of the reasons they were able to have an organized hunger strike is because people are held so long pre-trial in SCC jails.  Some people are held for six to seven years before being convicted of a crime.  There was the murder of a young man — Michael Tyree — who was literally beaten to death by correctional officers who were actually convicted of murder. It resulted in litigation, where our jails are currently under a federal consent decree because of poor treatment of people under their care.  That is the environment of the jails before COVID.  How responsible would those administrators be, given their history, in the face of a pandemic that leaves those who are congregated the most vulnerable?

As you can imagine, it’s been a horror show.  The jails are as bad here as everywhere else in the county — they’re death traps.  The concern for me is that the efforts the courts are making to release people in the face of COVID has a feeling — and it’s the same feeling that most of the “reform” movements to decarcerate — to only release people with lower level offenses.  There’s a ton of self-congratulatory language about how they’ve gotten the jail population down, which is true, but they hit a ceiling based on charges.  People who have more serious charges are still left in jail during this pandemic, as if they are unworthy of living because of an allegation.  They are then, regardless of the specific charge, facing a potential death sentence.

And so, we still get calls from people that are in jails locally where they say, “the county has an order that says we have to be six feet apart, but our bunks are two feet away and we can’t move ‘em.” They’re talking about 60 people plus sharing eight bars of soap. They’re talking about, even independent of COVID, a stoppage of programming that increases isolation, and things like commissary is suspended — so people can’t even get basic caloric intake to survive.  Folks that are diabetic are calling in…and if you’re diabetic you can’t have a 12-hour lack of food. People are starving, they don’t get visits, and they don’t have a sense as to what’s going on. It’s really a crisis and the thing that’s been really disappointing to me have been the elected officials who have the ability to step in and do something have essentially turned a blind eye.  The stakes couldn’t be higher—it’s life or death.

When the jails were forced by health officials to decrease the population (approximately 20%), that meant that in one week we had about 600 releases.  While we certainly want more people out, I went to the re-entry center to see what support the County would have for people getting out of jail.  Coming out of jail is hard enough, they’re coming out of jail in the costliest place to live in the country, and coming out in a Covid moment being told that the only way to survive is if you’re self-sufficient and you can self-isolate.

W.A: Assuming you have a place to do that.

R.J: [Nods] Yes. And so the reentry center closed at a time when they were needed most.  A county apparatus that has millions of dollars attached to it, at a time when they’re most needed, when they could be most helpful in directing people to housing and social services shut their doors.  It got to the point that DeBug community members were going to the store and creating care packages with toilet paper and hygiene products.  We asked the jail to at least let us know when people would be released so we could deliver the packages, and they refused.  It came down to us waiting at the jail for hours to hand them out.  It’s been a glaring example of the failure of political leaders to show up and to be responsive to the reentry needs of people coming out of jail.  And it’s circular—if folks are homeless and coming back to a vulnerable environment where they could get and spread Covid—I don’t think it’s any surprise that the second person to test positive in the jail was houseless.

W.A: What suggestions would you make to readers looking to address some of these problems in their own communities?

R.J: I think the thing to do is to honor and respect the long-term organizing struggle that exists in every city, and sometimes without any public fanfare.  Rather than creating something new without being rooted, I would find out what those struggles are and see how you can ‘get in where you fit in’ with the organizations and movements that exist. 

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