Archive for category: Housing
It started last June with squatting. Quietly and without fanfare, Philadelphia activists affiliated with OccupyPHL and the Black Renter’s Cooperative broke into long-vacant public housing buildings and supported houseless families moving in. Then came the massive, barricaded protest encampment on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a tree-lined oasis in the middle of the Pennsylvania city surrounded by some of Philadelphia’s most expensive housing.
“They totally could have used the cops to disperse the encampment,” activist Wiley Cunningham of Philadelphia Housing Action remarked. “But politically, it would have looked bad for them.”
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who is white, was wary of the optics of clearing a mostly-Black encampment in the midst of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. When activists blocked construction of an expensive high-rise complex with their second protest encampment next to the Housing Authority headquarters, city officials decided it was in their best interest to negotiate.
With COVID eviction moratoriums rapidly reaching their end, around 40 million people in the U.S. will soon face eviction and houselessness. On January 18, more than 160 organizations sent a letter to Joe Biden and Rochelle Walensky, the incoming director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), calling on them to take stronger and immediate executive action to protect tens of millions of people from eviction and displacement.
On his first day, Biden issued an executive order to extend the moratorium for evictions until at least March 31. Forbes notes, “The executive order also calls on federal housing agencies to extend the foreclosure and eviction moratorium for federally backed mortgages at least through March, and allow forbearance applications to continue for federally-backed mortgages.”
The Biden administration also intends to allocate a total of $30 billion for rent and utility bill relief as part of his American Rescue Plan. The plan, which also includes $5 billion in assistance for those at risk of homelessness, must be approved by Congress.
However, some activists are skeptical. The Right to the City Alliance called Biden’s executive order “deeply concerning for renters and housing advocates nationwide” in a statement, noting that “it is confusing and distressing that President Joe Biden would choose to extend this same moratorium for only a couple months without first strengthening it, removing loopholes, creating enforcement mechanisms, and ensuring that it lasts for the duration of the pandemic with a buffer period after.” While $35 billion in rental and utility relief is a step in the right direction, these funds are woefully insufficient to end the crisis.
Across the nation, activists are already deploying a variety of tactics to keep tenants in their homes and to find homes for those without. Sometimes, as in Washington, D.C., this looks like tenant organizations and legal education. Other times, eviction defense involves facing off against the police.
Always, the goal is the same: get people into homes and keep them there.
The U.S.’s out-of-control COVID epidemic continues to wreak economic havoc alongside skyrocketing death tolls. In September, the CDC issued a moratorium on evictions to slow spread of the disease. Many states followed suit, but most of these protections will soon expire. Currently, this federal moratorium expires on March 31, leaving many tenants and homeowners wondering whether they will have a place to lay their head through the rest of 2021.
While the eviction ban was extended, as things stand, tenants will owe the entirety of their back-payments the moment the moratorium expires. Those who could not afford to pay their rent or mortgage during this crisis are unlikely to be able to afford months’ worth of payments on April 1, or any other time. Studies indicate that people of color and single mothers will be disproportionately impacted by this pending crisis.
This crisis of incoming evictions is being met by a growing collection of organizers who are taking to eviction defense as a community-based solution to what could become a catastrophe unseen since the 2010 foreclosure crisis. In Western New York, in the Rust Belt city of Rochester, a coalition effort is bringing together a number of organizations to work on multiple levels to stop evictions. The Rochester Housing Justice Alliance (RHJA) is a collection of a number of activist groups, tenant unions and nonprofits that are organizing eviction defense for people whose legal challenges have failed or whose landlords are ignoring the laws. During COVID, they have taken up the challenge of in-person actions, starting by staging protests at homes where they knew evictions were being issued and working up to a round-the-clock eviction watch where they use a sophisticated phone tree system to call out activists for support.
“The biggest problem is, as it has ever been, the disorganization of working people — tenants in this instance. Because the landlords have us atomized, relatively few choose to fight back, or even consider the option,” says Crescenzo Scipione, who works with Metro Justice, a member of RHJA. “The more tenants unionize, the more neighborhoods band together against evictions, the fewer people in our communities will die from combinations of poverty, displacement and COVID-19. Join a tenant union or anti-eviction organization. If there ain’t one, build one.”
Activists in Washington, D.C., are concentrating more on tenant organization than immediate direct action, according to organizer Greg Afinogenov. Afinogenov is part of Stomp Out Slumlords, an organization that concentrates on building tenants’ associations in apartment buildings. Not only do these associations bring renters together to defend their rights, they coordinate for actions with a larger, city-wide focus.
Tenants’ unions are one reason that, unlike other cities with supposed eviction protections, D.C. has not had a single eviction since the moratorium went into place.
Washington, D.C., enacted an eviction moratorium at the beginning of the COVID crisis, now extended through June. Tenants’ unions are one reason that, unlike other cities with supposed eviction protections, D.C. has not had a single eviction since the moratorium went into place. “I think the existence of this sort of movement is one of the main reasons eviction moratoriums survived,” Afinogenov tells Truthout. “Because it’s been challenged repeatedly by various political voices on the city council who are very much not friendly to it.”
Because their efforts to prevent evictions have been so successful, D.C. activists have turned their attention to rent debt cancellation. A Halloween direct action at Mayor Muriel Bowser’s house contributed to Bowser’s subsequent decision to forgive $10 million of rent debt. “This is not a huge amount in actual terms of need,” Afinogenov says. “But it does show that this kind of direct action actually works.”
Building a Network
Stomp Out Landlords is a part of the Autonomous Tenants Union Network (ATUN), which is an organization that began coordinating different tenant unions in 2018, free from large NGO funding and accountabilities. In 2020, ATUN formalized the network to support unions confronting evictions during the pandemic. The Tenant and Neighborhood Councils (TANC) is a member of that network and based in the San Francisco Bay area, one of the epicenters of climbing urban rental costs and eviction rates. TANC works on multiple fronts to confront evictions, from running activist campaigns to an eviction defense team that attempts to hold back evictions. “We will work to unite their neighbors to defend them and to fight the landlord, the sheriffs and the city. We will blockade their home and prevent these groups from entering,” says Nick Jackson, an organizer with TANC. The council has created a Cancel Rent Agreement which is asking the East Bay Rental Housing Association, a landlord organization, to have members forgive rental debt as an alternative to the current “debt repayment forms” the association is using that TANC says are misleading and predatory. While many eviction moratoriums may have halted evictions during the pandemic, as debt piles up for many out-of-work tenants, the evictions are only delayed.
“One day I hope to see the tenant movement strong enough to expropriate empty housing and put those on the street into safe living environments. We’ve seen examples of this around the country, and it is inevitable as long as the commodification of housing continues to … condemn people to die in the streets,” says Jackson.
Portland Tenants United (PTU) (also a member of ATUN) formed in 2015 to confront the dramatic rise in evictions as Portland, Oregon, gentrified many of its working-class and BIPOC neighborhoods. Over the past five years, the PTU has undertaken dozens of eviction protests, mass actions against displacement, and been responsible for pushing moderate tenant legislation and getting renter-friendly candidates elected. Now, the group is moving in the direction of eviction defense as it coordinates a type of “rapid response” system that has been implemented by other network members.
“I think for the people who participate in [direct action eviction defense], it’s very empowering because you’re working together, often with people you don’t know. Something that’s very physical and literal,” says Lauren Everett, who works with the PTU. “So, it doesn’t have that abstract feeling of like, we’re sending letters or like we’re trying to get this thing passed. It’s like we are literally preventing this landlord from doing something illegal and walking locked out of their home.”
The PTU began this eviction defense work staging a multiday eviction watch in support of a couple who were being evicted by a landlord they lived with, where members of the community came together and stayed several days in front of the house to ensure that the landlord did not try to remove the family and change the locks.
The LA Tenants Union, also part of ATUN, faces a unique challenge: coordinating efforts across a large and traffic-clogged city with a wide variety of tenant issues. Initially, the group concentrated mostly on organizing tenants into autonomous local organizations capable of catering to their tenants’ specific needs. With COVID, however, everything changed. As evictions increased, union membership grew from 300 to 3,000.
Los Angeles activists spent much of last summer fighting illegal evictions. Although the law prevents anyone except a sheriff with a writ of possession from carrying out an eviction, many landlords began to change locks and evict without due process. Legally, tenants are allowed to break the lock and move back in when this happens, but many of them do not know this and are too afraid of violence from their landlord or the police to exercise their rights. “Even though it’s an entirely civil matter, [the police] will side with the landlord,” explained Colin Stevens, an activist with the LA Tenants Union. In response, the union mobilized to get people on scene and resist the police until the issue went far enough up the chain of command that someone realized the illegality of the eviction and called off the cops. After a summer of resistance, the police have begun to realize they cannot actually assist with illegal evictions with impunity.
Philadelphia’s combination of tactics — from squatting to protest encampments — paid big dividends. By the end of October, the city agreed to establish a land trust with over 60 housing units in exchange for disbanding the encampments. The city also committed to amnesty for squatters, a commissioned study on the effects of public land transfers in poor and historically Black neighborhoods, and a cessation of evictions without a court order.
“A lot of it was just timing,” Cunningham says. Philadelphia’s white mayor was wary of sending the police to violently disband a majority-Black encampment during the summer of Black Lives Matter, which helped the encampments last long enough to bring the city to the negotiating table.
Activists also controlled the narrative. When the mainstream media tried demonizing the movement with tales of overdoses and violence within the encampments, activists like Cunningham were able to contextualize it. “Yeah, that happens every day,” he would respond. “That’s what we’re talking about. It wouldn’t happen if they had housing.”
Eventually, the neighborhood association for the luxury dwellings surrounding Benjamin Franklin Parkway came around with an op-ed that, along with calls for the dismantling of the encampment, demanded permanent housing for its inhabitants.
ATUN looks poised to be a foundation of coordinating local work nationally, taking those experiences and pulling out lessons that can apply to other cities.
“We exist to support tenant unions in growing, and more and more people becoming members of tenant unions, and more people organizing their buildings,” says Afinogenov, and that longer-term coordination can shift the balance of power. As they help to support the building of tenant unions on a ground-up model, the power of tactics like rent strikes begin to escalate and can confront the looming rental crisis. With a lot of uncertainty in 2021, this wide scale coordination of direct action and willingness to organize tenants at the site of their housing can be a solution to halting another housing collapse.
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Philadelphia is facing a housing crisis with little help from the Democratic city council, mayor, or governor. In the city, 5,700 people are currently unhoused. Almost a thousand sleep on the streets on a given night. But more than that, this year has already seen 4,400 evictions filed in Philly courts. Another 2,000 renters are facing the very real threat of eviction and becoming part of the unhoused. This multifaceted crisis of housing is taking place as the numbers of those infected with Covid-19 are skyrocketing in the city (reaching 100,000 cases and 2,500 deaths), as winter descends, and in the wake of a major snowstorm that just hit the city.
The Democratic City Council refused to advance a bill that would protect Philly renters. Instead, it’s falling over itself to cater to landlords. That bill was opposed by the Philadelphia Apartment Association (PAA), an organization to champion the cause of landlords demanding their money from renters and lobbying for much stricter rules about which evictions can be delayed as a result of the pandemic. Collecting rent matters more than protecting the lives of renters.
What’s more, the city right now is in the process of evicting the unhoused from the “Covid hotels” — emergency housing that was set up to protect the unhoused from infection and death. That housing option expired December 15th. Rather than extend it, the city government mandated that people be moved, such as into crowded shelters with little or no protections against infection. These “relocations” use police vans, and the unhoused are often given no information about where they’re being taken.
Meanwhile, the city has made absolutely certain to maintain the massive $727 million budget for a police force that attacks and murders Black Philadelphians with impunity. The police budget far outstrips next year’s $669 million budget for the Department of Public Health. In fact, Democrats sat and watched while Hahnemann, one of the city’s major hospitals that provided care for poorer Philadelphians, shut its doors permanently because it wasn’t profitable enough — during one of the deadliest health crises in city history.
The situation in Philly and beyond is poised to get much worse. The new stimulus bill that the Democrats and Republicans are wrangling over provides no new funds for local governments. The national moratorium on evictions — which has slowed the eviction crisis so far — ends on January 1.
Nevertheless, Philly has been home to a powerful and growing housing movement.
This summer, in the midst of a massive citywide uprising against the police, unhoused activists and their allies took over a section of grassy field just off of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in center city Philadelphia. The encampment became known as Camp JTD, after James Talib Dean — one of its founders who died during the first week of the occupation. The movement quickly spread to the north and west, where organizers created another encampment — Camp Teddy — in a vacant lot outside the multimillion-dollar headquarters of the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA).
The coalition spearheading the occupations — Philadelphia Housing Action, which includes #OccupyPHA, Workers Revolutionary Collective, and the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative — leveled a series of demands at the Democratic mayor and government. These included defunding and disbanding the Philly police, transferring the Philadelphia Housing Authority and the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority to popular control, and declaring the encampments no-cop zones (such as the CHAZ in Seattle).
The city’s Democratic government fought to shut down the struggle for housing in the name of its “concern” for the health and safety of the occupiers — despite the fact that it has done little during a years-long housing crisis that has left nearly 6,000 people unhoused on any given night, and despite its repeated attacks and evictions on encampments of the unhoused for years. This pretend concern for safety is even more ridiculous given that the Philadelphia Housing Authority just finished its lavish $45 million headquarters.
In fact, the PHA works as a tool for gentrification, selling off thousands of its city-owned properties for next to nothing. All the while, more than a thousand empty houses sit idle. As Jennifer Bennetch, a founder of #OccupyPHA, puts it: “They are operating more like a private developer selling properties and trying to build commercial real estate. They want to do everything but their job, which is to house people.”
Again and again, the city tried to evict the camps, massing legions of cops several times to do so — only to be driven back time and again. The city’s goal was obvious: to clear away a “blot” on the fashionable and rapidly gentrifying Art Museum area, and sweep away attacks on the Democratic City’s support for gentrification and police violence. But organizers’ calls for support brought hundreds of defenders at all hours, taking shifts to keep watch against a police raid for days in a row. Occupiers erected barricades as the encampments swelled at times to 300 residents across both locations and as they leveled a lawsuit at the city to stop the eviction.
But the city Democrats tried other means, too — calling in a non-profit “anti-homeless” group, the Homelessness Advocacy Project (or HAP), to broker a deal. Not long afterwards, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a leaked story about HAP’s disdain for the encampments, with one HAP employee blasting the struggle for housing as “irresponsible.” Organizers then refused to work with the non-profit shill for the city government.
But the struggle for housing stretched well beyond the encampments. Dozens of people — primarily unhoused mothers and their children — took over vacant houses, transforming them into livable homes and fighting off the city’s attempts to remove them. The takeover was the largest of its kind in the United States in recent memory.
Ultimately the city backed down — a sign not only of the power and organization of the encampments, but also of the Philly ruling elite’s fear of the power of class struggle in the city, after tens of thousands of people filled the streets and burned cop cars over the summer during the uprising against the police. In the face of the revolt, the mayor agreed to allow the squatters to remain in the 15 homes they had taken over, and to place 50 houses into a community land trust under community control. The city promised to expand its support for the unhoused in a number of other ways as well.
These victories, while important, still carry new dangers. The land trust is a key concession, but it could serve as a tool to co-opt or defang a powerful housing movement in the city, And that power will have to be maintained and grow to keep the city at its word and face the challenges ahead.
This movement for housing for the working class and oppressed has now extended into the fight to defend the unhoused against their eviction from the “Covid hotels.” Activists have been protesting the evictions of the unhoused for days, blocking the police vans and offering mutual aid in the form of food and other supplies — as the unhoused face the onset of winter that brought with it the recent snowstorm and freezing temperatures.
The struggle during the summer offers key lessons as the eviction crisis ramps up in Philly. First and foremost, the wins this summer show that the power to fight the landlords and city does not come from progressive elected officials. Many celebrated politicians, such as Kendra Brooks and Jamie Gauthier from the city council and Nikil Saval and Rick Krajewski from the state legislature, voiced support for the camps, with some of them visiting from time to time. And yet the power that drove the movement didn’t come from them. It started with and flowed from independent, active organizing of the working class and oppressed against the city’s Democratic government, and was given more force because it came on the heels of a massive summer uprising against the police led by Black youth, which showed the power of the working class and oppressed.
In fact, while Brooks and Gauthier were calling for a general negotiation and resolution with the city, it was the organizers who had the good sense to reject the “help” of the Democrat-aligned Homelessness Advocacy Project that was deeply hostile to their work and would have likely served to co-opt and badly weaken the movement.
But a more intense eviction crisis is looming, and has already been making itself felt in the thousands of evictions so far this year. In this situation, organized labor will be crucial to success. For example, Philadelphia’s public school teachers, represented by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), will likely be teaching many students who have been or will face the threat of eviction. The PFT’s left wing, the Caucus of Working Educators, is a natural ally in the housing fight and a toehold inside the union. More than that, the PFT will be renegotiating a contract in 2021. Once the old contract runs out, its “no strike” clause will be inoperative — which could make organizing for militant workplace actions a lower bar to reach.
Public transit workers of the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) will also be negotiating a new contract in 2021. Transport Workers Union 234 isn’t known for its radical actions, but we saw over the summer the crucial role that public transportation unions can play in the struggle of the working class and oppressed. Drivers in Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, New York, and elsewhere stood in solidarity with the uprising against the cops, refusing to transport arrested protesters on their buses. And so targeting agitation at bus drivers could be an important tactic.
Philly’s housing movement has shown itself to be a powerful force over the summer. Bigger challenges lie ahead, and with them a chance to increase the class struggle to meet them.
Rent strikes have spread across the country with the spread of the coronavirus. In the pandemic’s first months, 400 New York City families stopped paying rent in buildings with over 1,500 rental units. In May, rent strikes involving 200,000 tenants spread to Philadelphia and elsewhere. Washington, D.C., in September saw tenant unions spring up in strikes at the Tivoli Gardens Apartments and the Woodner, as well as Southern Towers in nearby Alexandria.
Rent strikes had a history as a resistance tactic before the pandemic hit. Cleveland tenants settled a rent strike in February, after 38 families forced concessions on the landlord of the 348-unit Vue Apartments in Beachwood. San Francisco had a famous rent strike that went on for three years at the Midtown Park Apartments, ending in 2017.
But with the pandemic, rent strikes have become a widespread response to brutal economic pressure. According to the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley, 16.5 million families who rent housing lost income when the crisis began. Its October report states, “Nearly 50 percent of households in California have lost employment income since March of 2020, and one in five households (20.7 percent) indicated that they have no or only slight confidence that they have the ability to pay their mortgage or rent next month.”
According to the National Multifamily Housing Council, 24.6 percent of apartment households were not paying rent as of December 6. But even before the pandemic, 16.8 percent had not paid their rent in a survey made a year earlier. A website set up by Bay Area tenant activists, Bay Area Rent Strike, notes that 78 percent of the people in the U.S. live paycheck to paycheck. The group urges people who can’t pay to act collectively — to “work together to prevent eviction and foreclosure.” It adds: “We must demand an immediate suspension of rent and mortgage payments for everyone. And if this demand is not met, we must refuse to pay our rents and our mortgages, together.”
Cancelling rents was the demand that spread across the country with the strikes. In April, Cea Weaver, organizer for New York’s Housing Justice for All, said cancelling rent “is the demand of the rent strike.” In Los Angeles, Larry Gross, director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, says the city is full of rent strikes pushing for rent and mortgage forgiveness. Voicing that demand, the LA Tenants Union grew from 400 to 2,000 members in 2020.
Yet, despite LA’s strong tenant protections against eviction, enacted at the beginning of the crisis with no end date, the housing battle continues. “People occupying the CalTrans housing were forcefully removed,” Gross charged in an email interview. “That was fashioned after the Oakland mothers’ effort.” In March, housing activists occupied homes purchased by CalTrans which the agency intended to demolish for a freeway, but then kept vacant for years. On November 26, Highway Patrol in riot gear took them out and arrested many.
Los Angeles activists were inspired by Moms 4 Housing, a collective of homeless and marginally housed mothers who occupied a vacant Oakland home in 2019 and forced the city to find financing for its purchase, igniting a wave of housing activism. Carroll Fife, a Moms 4 Housing member, was elected to the Oakland City Council in large part as a consequence. On December 5, she spoke to a rally organized by several tenants’ unions, just prior to a caravan to the buildings where rent strikes are taking place.
Carroll Fife speaks to the Oakland rally.David BaconCarroll Fife speaks to the Oakland rally.David Bacon
With the pandemic, rent strikes have become a widespread response to brutal economic pressure.
“People said cancelling rents was ridiculously radical and not popular,” Fife declared, as the daughter of another activist squirmed and danced beside her. “But District 3 is ground zero for displacement, and people here think otherwise. We think a different reality is possible. The current paradigm in this country is not only not working — it is killing us.”
The caravan then set out. First a bicycle hauling a huge speaker, emblazoned with the slogan “Cancel Rent Debt” left a Lake Merritt parking lot, heading into the densely populated downtown apartment district. Following it came other bicycles, with slogans taped to their frames. Skateboarders and roller skaters snaked among them. And finally came the cars, with placards fixed to their windows and doors.
A caravan of bicycles and cars leaves Lake Merritt, as the lead bicycle pulls a banner with the action’s demand: Cancel the Rent.David BaconA huge speaker with the action’s demand is pulled with the march, playing music and speeches from participants on a connected bluetooth link.David BaconBicycling tenants call for cancelling the rent.David BaconThe caravan arrives in front of a building where tenants are on a rent strike.David Bacon
The caravan, organized by the JDW Tenants Union, Alice Tenant Union, the People’s Tenants Union, Onday Tenants Council and Veritas Tenants Association, held impromptu rallies in front of several buildings where organized tenants have stopped paying rent.
The banner produced by the caravan organizers taped to a car door.David Bacon
A statement was read from one group, the SMC Tenants Council, at a building owned by the Sullivan Management Company. “We have been forced to advocate for our rights and our housing against a corporate landlord that is backed by hedge funds and billionaires,” it charged. “Our corporate landlord has ample resources to forgive rent to its tenants for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis but chooses instead to squeeze its tenants, who have lost jobs and federal assistance.”
Councilwoman Fife is the director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), which helps organize and support rent strikes throughout the state. “The ‘shelter in place’ orders will end,” ACCE warns. “The crisis for low-income and working families will not. Even before the crisis, most of us were living paycheck to paycheck. With the loss of income, there is no way for most Californians to pay back rent or back mortgage payments that went unpaid during the crisis. Basic common sense dictates that because we won’t be getting back pay, we have no way to pay back housing payments.”
Cancelling the rent, ACCE says, is the only solution.
A driver holds up his fist in a car with his demands taped to the windows.David BaconSkateboarders and a Segway rider in the caravan.David BaconA roller-skating tenant calls for ending capitalism.David BaconTwo bicycle participants with the caravan banners.David BaconMo Green, a member of the ACCE People’s Tenants Union, calls for canceling rents.David BaconAn activist urges tenants to join the tenants union.David Bacon
Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair
Portland, Oregon has been in the headlines again over the last few days, and this trend will continue. The reasons for the headlines will vary depending on who you ask. If you ask the far right they will say something about Antifa terrorists having violent confrontations with the police because they hate law and order. The mainstream media’s headlines will also tend to lead with the so-called violent clashes, but then they may inform us that the reasons for the confrontation have to do with folks trying to prevent the eviction of a Black and indigenous family that has lived in the Red House at 4406 North Mississippi for multiple generations.
Either way, the stories you’ll hear will focus on violence. If you look into it a little, you’ll realize that what the stories are really focusing on are destruction of property — particularly the windows of police cars smashed by well-aimed rocks — and the number of times over the past few months of the eviction defense encampment on the front yard of the Red House that the police have been called because of “disturbances.” 81 times, according to police records, the police emphasize in the report they issued after they entered the house and arrested occupants in a pre-dawn raid on December 8th.
I can only imagine what some of those disturbances might have been caused by. The house is just at the end of the commercial section of Mississippi Avenue, where what remains of one of Portland’s two historically Black neighborhoods stands, with its uncomfortable mix of wine-sipping gentrifiers living alongside a perennially struggling and shrinking Black working class, along with increasing numbers of people living in tents that line the highway which cuts through the neighborhood — the highway that was originally routed through that neighborhood in order to destroy it, as was done to so many other Black neighborhoods across the US when the highways were being built.
Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair
Last time I visited the Red House a few weeks ago, I was only hanging around for a matter of minutes before a man I recognized as a fascist drove slowly past, staring at us from behind his bushy beard, a bizarre new fashion among the fash here in the northwest lately, and in other parts of the world as well. Indeed, if you follow people on Twitter who are involved with the struggle at the Red House, you will see frequent mentionings of the latest spotting of a known fascist, whether Proud Boy or Patriot Prayer, along with the latest prediction of when the riot cops will next come to create chaos.
While the broken squad car windows, the conflicted neighborhood, the poverty, the homelessness, and the frequently-visiting fascist trolls are all very real, there is so much more going on at the Red House at this moment than these alarming reports would seem to imply. Primarily, what’s going on there is pure beauty, in the form of the most profound expression of human solidarity you’re likely to see anywhere.
Reading the descriptions from the police and in certain corners of the media, one would expect an unwelcome reception, if you were to visit the neighborhood they’re describing. In fact, as of last night, the police were officially warning people to avoid the neighborhood altogether, implying that it was, in fact, an anarchist jurisdiction, and therefore a terrifying thing. Mayor-select Tear Gas Ted Wheeler says Portland shall not have an “autonomous zone” like Seattle did for a while.
Mayor Ted really can’t stand it when the rightwingers in Washington, DC and the corporate landlords who own downtown call him a wimp for not cracking enough heads, even though his cops have been cracking more heads over the past few months than possibly any other police force in the United States. So his instinct, naturally, is to crack some more heads, in the service of his friends, the corporate overlords, the business lobby, the Owners of the City. (The real “stakeholders,” as the governor likes to call them — not the ones who hold the stakes that they drive into the ground to keep their tents from blowing away.)
I’m reminded, as I hear of these official pronouncements and fear-mongering, of my visit to the biggest city in the West Bank, Nablus, years ago. An Israeli soldier took me aside, separating me from my Palestinian friends, to privately make sure I was traveling of my own free will, and had not been kidnapped. Once determining that I was not a captive, the soldier’s next tack was to try to reason with me. There are very dangerous people in there, he informed me. They have bombs, he said. I politely thanked him for the information, not wanting to create problems for anyone, in our collective efforts to cross this checkpoint. But I wanted to ask him if he had ever tried leaving the machine gun at home and traveling in civilian clothes. His reception in Palestinian towns would be very different.
Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair
As I entered what has arguably now become a sort of gated community in reverse, I was welcomed everywhere I went, whether with words of greeting or just the sorts of eye contact that says more than enough. Not to extend the previous analogy with Palestine too much here, but the feeling is a bit similar, in the sense that when you’re an American in Nablus, people there tend to assume you probably are the kind of American who does not support Israeli atrocities against Palestinians. Going anywhere near the Red House as of yesterday, you are suddenly transformed from a “visitor” to a “participant” as soon as you pass through the makeshift gates, into the liberated space that is now the neighborhood surrounding 4406 North Mississippi Avenue in Portland, Oregon. Because you know once you pass these checkpoints and enter the anarchist jurisdiction, you are now as much of a potential target for a police attack as anyone else who is willfully disregarding orders to avoid the neighborhood.
From the time people began to maintain a constant presence in front of the house as part of an effort to prevent the forced eviction of the Kinney family within it, until a few days ago, it was the house and its yard that was being protected. Then, at 5 am on December 8th — the favorite time of day for these sorts of police attacks — the riot cops moved in, arresting a number of people, including a member of the Kinney family. Much was made in the police report about multiple firearms being seized in the course of these arrests, of course with no context provided — that armed fascists are regularly coming by to threaten people, and that the police make sure never to be present when that happens. For example. Or that the ownership of firearms is very commonplace in this country, especially lately, across the political spectrum, and is about as surprising as finding a baseball bat or a guitar.
The raid on the Red House on the morning of December 8th will, I believe, go down as an historic miscalculation on the part of Ted Wheeler’s corporate-friendly Democratic Party administration — with its recently-approved, massive police budget — that runs this city in the service of the landlord-stakeholders. What they have done with this raid is they have massively escalated the conflict, and I sincerely hope, and suspect, that they will soon regret this move. What they have done now, I believe, is they have taken two movements that were already intimately related, and fused them. If it was not already completely obvious, now it’s impossible not to see it, the police have made sure of this — if you are in favor of Black lives, you are also against evicting families onto the streets. And the converse is true as well.
Since the police raid, what was limited to one house is now a neighborhood-wide conflict. The neighborhood is already very gentrified, and the displeasure among some of the yuppies around Mississippi Avenue that black-clad youth had set up checkpoints on multiple intersections was occasionally being made clear, but only through the aggressive use of car horns, never by people actually getting out of their cars to engage with anyone on a human level, whether out of fear or embarrassment on the part of the horn-happy wine bar set.
After the raid, the police employed a fencing company to erect a tall fence to surround the Red House with. They apparently were operating under the premise that a tall fence would take care of the problem. In actuality, the fence they erected turned out to be very useful, but not for the reasons the authorities apparently believed it would be. What transpired in the hours after they erected the fence, as is easy to observe directly, is the fence was dismantled and reengaged, deployed as part of some suddenly very solid barricade constructions at every intersection surrounding the Red House. The barricades were set up in such a way that people who lived in other houses in the neighborhood could still access their houses, and mostly also their parking spaces, but they now had to take a much more circuitous route to get onto a main road. Each barricade has a little entryway that a human — but not a vehicle — can pass through, once the nice, thoroughly masked young person in black who greets you ascertains that you’re probably not a cop or a fascist.
During my time hanging around the neighborhood there last night, many people were engaged in many forms of industrious activity. If you haven’t spent much time among autonomously-organized youth — whether current youth or the same crowd that existed when I was young, in the 1980’s in New York City — you might not realize that when you enter such patches of liberated territory, whether it’s a mostly outdoor phenomenon like this, or a building takeover, you are entering a hive of activity, reminiscent of a beehive, with everyone engaged in doing their thing, whether they are responsible for cooking, collecting trash, building barricades, constructing tire spikes, collecting wood for the campfires, collecting rocks, or whatever other useful endeavors. Last night was full of that beehive vibe, with most people fulfilling one role or another, whether self-appointed, or appointed through an affinity group or larger network involved with specific aspects of organizing the things that need to happen when large numbers of people are being somewhere for a while. Folks need to eat, sleep, and shit, while also seeking to defend the Red House.
While many people were engaged in meetings or carrying out various tasks, the scouts looking for the next inevitable visit from the riot cops, and others involved with guarding the perimeter always have time to talk. Now, nothing that I’m about to say should come as a surprise to anyone who has spent much time on the ground at protests in Portland over the past eight months or so, but the crowd last night consisted of a very interracial, multigendered and otherwise very intersectional group of mostly young people. Mostly wearing black — which, incidentally, is not just a political statement, if it even is one, but is a matter of practicality for a variety of reasons.
Are there, as I’m sure some readers will be quick to point out, armed sentries? Yes, there are armed sentries. Very nice, armed sentries. The kind we need more of, unfortunately.
And what are people talking about in there among the campfires? I pass by one meeting, noting that most of the participants are people of color. I recognize the man who is speaking to the group of a dozen or so people. He spoke at the last rally I sang at, in fact. As I walk past the discussion, he’s talking about how to be inclusive of people who want to be involved, while still finding effective ways to exclude truly disruptive elements. I then came upon another couple of folks, who greeted me for the sole reason that I had stopped walking momentarily while in their general area, and we then spontaneously began having a conversation about the history of eviction defense actions across the US in the 1930’s, during the Great Depression.
Back in the 1930’s, all of us radical history buffs hanging around the Red House collectively noted, when the cops came to evict people, they often succeeded, but only temporarily. After evicting a household, the people would gather together — often in their thousands — to move the family back in, and un-evict them. That, we all noted, was exactly what was going on at 4406 North Mississippi Avenue.
I believe this struggle, around this particular house, will be won. I believe it will also set the stage for the much broader struggle to come, in the months after Oregon’s eviction moratorium expires. But the future is very much unwritten, and there are many more players involved with this deadly game, aside from the barricade-building youth, unfortunately.
So don’t just scroll on to the next article. Put your phone down, and come meet me at the Red House.
The post To the Barricades: The Red House and the Future of Eviction Defense appeared first on CounterPunch.org.
On Tuesday morning, Portland community members successfully repealed heavily armed and militarized Multnomah County Sheriffs backed by Portland police officers, who were attempting to evict the Afro-Indigenous Kinney family, who has lived in the “Red House on Mississippi” in the North Portland neighborhood for 65 years. Since September, people have been protesting the eviction of… Read Full Article
With their savings running out, many Americans are being forced to use credit cards to pay for bills they can’t afford — even their rent. Housing experts and economists say this is a blinking-red warning light that without more relief from Congress, the economy is headed for even more serious trouble.
There’s been as much as a 70% percent increase from last year in people paying rent on a credit card, according to an analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.
“If you’re putting your rent payments on to a credit card, that shows you’re really at risk of eviction,” says Shamus Roller, executive director of the nonprofit National Housing Law Project.
The post More People In The US Are Paying Rent On Credit Cards appeared first on PopularResistance.Org.