The radicalisciousness of housing

That article I’m supposed to be writing right now? This is sort of part of it, so enjoy the preview.

Today I was invited to a party to celebrate the victory in a court case over a building that I started organizing just before I left SAJE, and it’s sent me remembering the crazed stress and anger of the days when the owner ripped the outside off of the building while the tenants were still inside it. Lead, asbestos, he didn’t care. The city came out when we called and put a stop work order on the building. The owner ignored it. So the city came out when we called and put another stop work order. And the owner ignored that too, and he did it over the weekend when the city rests and relaxes, so he was able to do quite a lot of ignoring in the form of strewing asbestos and lead paint all over the sidewalks. So the city came out again when we called and put a third stop work order. The owner kept on stripping the siding off the building until you could see the sun shining through the walls while sitting on your toilet,

You could feel the strong winds through the window from which all glass had been removed while showering.  Someone from the state environmental agency came and put a fourth stop work order on the building because children from the school across the street had to walk past the building and over the asbestos on the sidewalk, but they took the extra step of wrapping the building in yellow danger! do-not-cross ribbon. The tenants had to duck under it to get home…at least the adults did, their kids were just fine of course. The yellow tape didn’t last so long…

But none of these agencies could physically stop the owner from working if he decided to ignore them (as he did), and punitive measures? A possible lawsuit months down the line long after the tenants had been forced to leave. Then the city inspectors came and ruled that the bathrooms were unsafe as the owner had also started to remove some of the foundational supports from the first floor, they used more caution tape (red this time, for extra danger) to prevent the tenants from using the toilets. We didn’t know whether to cry, or buy shotguns and keep everyone the hell away from the place.

And this reminds me of another story.

In California, tenant organizers have the right under civil code to visit any tenant who invites them into their apartment. In the Morrison Hotel, the tenants brave enough to invite us in had their electricity turned off, were physically threatened, were faced with eviction, and were thereafter prevented from having any visitors at all. After the first two, there were no more volunteers. And all to no avail as we were not allowed in, but were physically kept outside by first the managers and their pit bull, then by armed security guards hired especially for us. While the fire-arms and attack dog flattered our organizing super-powers, they were also quite annoyingly effective. The managers also called the police. The police surprisingly enough, did not really seem to care about civil code. They told us (and I quote) they were there to protect property rights, and so if we tried to enter we would be arrested for trespassing. And as we fought to enforce our civil right to get in the building, the owners steadily and illegally emptied 70 apartments through a combination of threats, illegal evictions, harassment and bribery. They boarded up the empty rooms, many of them filled to overflowing with trash (and rats), and for the remaining 30 families who lived in the building and fought for their homes for another year and a half. It looked like this:

What these two stories have in common is the way that they expose the ugly reality that property rights take precedence over everything else in the US. Buy me a drink and I will tell you many more, or perhaps you can buy me one not to, especially the one about the building that collapsed in Echo Park, killing one of the tenants. Law and law enforcement exist to protect the owner’s right to do anything he chooses to his building.

And so what better place for radical struggle? In these stories lie not only grave injustice, but also what we would call a teachable moment, a place where people can break down for themselves the powerful American mythology of private property. What happened in these two buildings (among so many others), exposes the essence of capitalism and its human cost, and demands an alternative vision for our society.

Without grasping this moment, critically analyzing it, adding theory, folding it into a greater movement, these stories are nothing more than stories, a struggle with a beginning and an end that makes little difference in the world as it currently exists or the hearts and minds of those who fought.

So theory, I had my theories of course, but I have to say I was never particularly rigorous about them and I still feel a level of pragmatism is key…Still, I’ve decided to take the task in hand, and I’ve mapped out radical thought and thinkers on my walls before doing it on paper. I have read many of them (but isolatedly over the years), heard of many of others, and I discovered many that I did not know…but I wanted to see how they all fit together and where my community and our stories fit within that. And maybe even create a tool for people to see their past and ideas for a future and learn from it.

This is what it looks like right now, it feels massive when you’re looking at it though my room is tiny so the photo’s not the best. It’s still only a skeleton, and I’ve made sure you can’t really read it because I’m not quite ready for the onslought of criticism over my simplifications of theory and events that will probably be entirely justified.

In blue are thinkers, in red major theories, in orange organizations based on theories. And seems like Marx and Engels nailed most of the essentials of capitalism and its discontents. And the “communalist anarchists” nailed the vision of a society where local communities define their own needs and govern themselves through direct democracy, and federate together to take care of those needs that each cannot provide on their own. And even after (or better said because of) years of organizing I believe like they did, that building such collective organization and direct democracy in the now is the way to a successful revolution and a new world, though I know that’s where the radical world divides and sets to work killing each other. Ah, the glory days when Marx and Bakunin were still talking. And of course, there has been much important work done since to expand theory and understanding to take into account race and gender, imperialism, globalization, the environment etc. And exciting things have happened as people have adapted theory to their own countries and culture and put it into practice to build large-scale movement. Still. Seems like we had a lot of the answers 150 years ago. That’s when I get rather sad. And then I look at Latin America and get a bit more optimistic. And then I remember kids able to look through the walls of their building and having their blood drawn to test for lead poisoning, and I am so filled with rage I don’t really care about the odds. I’ll just fight. We need something better than a world where people pay rent for a building falling down around them so that their landlord can make more money. And organizers and tenants need to be able to understand what exactly they are working against, they need to look up and see what exactly they are working for.

Luckily, the theory wall is full of humor as well, though I believe that precious few of the bastards were able to laugh at themselves, that’s really why I’m here I suppose…But who knew (apart from Hugo Chavez) that Bolivar’s full name was:

Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar Palacios y Blanco?

And that Augusto Sandino was a member of the Magnetic-Spiritualist School of the Universal Commune founded in Buenos Aires by some Basque guy, and it blended anarchism with zoroastrianism, kabbalah and spiritism? And google Bogdanov and Fourier, they will make you smile.

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