Monday, November 24, 2014

Struggles over Home, Community, Migration and Displacement

Rally and march for Akai Gurley in East New York.Photo by  Stan Williams

Last week, we had a reading and discussion at our college.  The billing for the event, begged the question:

Do you feel insecure with your living situation? Rents always on the rise while wages stagnate? Getting priced out of your neighborhood? Want some ideas on how you might strike back and who against?  Join us for a book reading and discussion on the politics gentrification, race, freedom and organizing.   

As we wait for the verdict in Ferguson, the topic of Ida Bell Wells-Barnett could not be more important. As she explained.


The way to right wrong is to turn the light of truth upon them.

City Tech’s own Dr Marta Effinger-Crichlow, of the African American Studies Department, was on hand to read from her new work Staging Migrations toward an American West From Ida B. Wells to Rhodessa Jones.
James Tracy, left, Marta Effinger-Crichlowspeakingright.


 She began her talk by reading Wells’ words about Thomas Moss’ lynching at the hands of a mob. “There s nothing we can do about the lynching now, as we are out numbered and without arms.”   Out armed in the fight against oppression and racial violence, a witness to the murder heard Moss beg for his life for the sake of his wife and unborn baby.  “Tell my people to go west, there is no freedom here”  crying out to his attackers in his final moments. “Moss’s words first appeared in the Memphis Commercial on March 10 1892…” writes  Effinger-Crichlow. “Upon learning of the murders, Wells, who later became the impetus of the anti lynching crusade, continued to parallel Moss’s final words with her own report of lynching.  One might imagine Wells, a petite yet energetic woman, calling out to all who would listen, ‘Go West people.  There is no justice for us here.”
For wells, the phrase, tell my people to go west functioned as more then a geographical call to go west.   The slogan challenged all who had gone west, as well as those who stayed in Memphis; it  challenged everyone to fight the lynchmob.  A Black writer who was able to mobilize and navigate  through the country’s public spaces, Wells was of a first generation of African Americans who could instigate such  migrations. She showed a black women could move out west, away from what had been home – “raising the consciousness of a people and incited them to act.”   Countless others heeded her call, followed her gesture of staged mobility, calling for a generation to move.  Dong so, they demonstrated the possibility of finding somewhere, living somewhere better, somewhere free-er in the here and now.    
Once there, many got involved organizing, striving to make that place home.  My small readings from Community Projects as Social Activism, fromDirect Action to Direct Services followed this theme.  Built of interviews and stories collected over twenty year period of organizing, writing, and collecting stores, some of the narratives here can be traced back to my second in graduate school Chicago, when I  working at the Chicago Area Project, an anti delinquency group started by Clifford Shaw, a Chicago sociologist who had worked closely with Saul Alinski.  There I followed Shaw’s calling, interviewing many of the organizers who had worked with him starting the 1930’s.  One of the first interviews for my oral history was with Billy Brown, a short then 86-year-old African-American women with short - curly brown hair and animated eyes.  She explained what she had learned about neighborhood life from Clifford Shaw.

I think Dr. Shaw felt that this was yours.  This was my plot where I belong so I want to make it the nicest part of my life and the nicest part of my entity to live here.  It was just like a castle, like a castle that belonged to you.  And he felt that each person.  Just wherever you went that was your home.  If you were a part of it, you lived there. Its small neighborhoods, that's what it was, small neighborhoods.  And he felt that you could organize wherever you went, you could organize.  And this organization could be your castle (quoted in Shepard, 1997A).

Brown was not the only member of CAP to reflect on the group’s neighborhood emphasis.
A love for community was intricately connected with this story.  Havng heeded the calling to go West, many built magnificent communities. 

That Spring of 1997, I interviewed the Woodlawn Organization’s founder, Bishop Arthur Brazier, at the time the Pentecostal pastor of the Apostolic Church of God in the Woodlawn.  Over a nearly half century of service, he built a congregation of some twenty thousand people, who headed his calls to stay in the neighborhood.  Before his death in 2010 at the age of 89, Brazier was considered one of the most influential organizers in the US.  "I feel proud and happy that we didn't just sit around and wring our hands about these problems," Brazier told the Chicago Tribune in 2008. "We were able to see beyond the four walls of the church and we did something," (Ramirez, 2010).  Throughout our interview, we talked about his approach to organizing, engaging those in his community to gain power, identifying an issue, and staying on mission to fight for the poor. “Improve, Don't Move” would become a neighborhood slogan from South Chicago to the South Bronx.

“The idea of being involved with work in the Woodlawn had its genesis in my concern about how I as a Christian Pastor could become involved in the civil rights movement,” Brazier explained.  “I came into Woodlawn as the pastor of this church, the Apostolic Church of God, in 1960, just at the beginning of the 1960’s when the Civil Rights Movement was at its height, beginning to take off.”  

Throughout the 1960’s, Brazier marched with King, supporting the Civil Rights Movement, organizing around the core needs of those in his neighborhood.  “There were serious problems here in the Woodlawn Community,” noted Brazier. “First and foremost was the effort by the University of Chicago to expand into Woodlawn. And there was some great concern that the University would take over probably half if not more of the community.  Many of the people who lived in the Woodlawn at that time had been victims of urban renewal in other communities.  Many of these were home owners who had purchased homes in the neighborhood and they feared that they were going to have to move again.  And this community, using the arm of the Woodlawn Organization, which had just been formed at that time, successfully resisted that effort by the university to come beyond 61st street.”

As a student of organizing, for Brazier the story of the TWO is a narrative about organizing around specific issues.  “There were three other major issues that caused my concern—slum landlords, who were milking their buildings, not paying any taxes, not putting any money back into the communities, and taking all the rent while people got substandard accommodations.  Secondly, there were some unscrupulous merchants that we felt needed to be dealt with.  And thirdly, and I think the most important was the school bus segregation. At that time the Board of Education said schools were not segregated, but anyone living in Chicago knew de facto segregation was the way of life.  Black schools were on the double and triple shift.  Classes were being held in assembly halls, things of that nature, while at the same time there were unutilized schools in white neighborhoods.  We believe that rather than have Black children on the double shift, they should be allowed to transfer to schools where there were empty classrooms.  This was seriously opposed.  The superintendent, at the time, put in portable classrooms in playgrounds where Black schools were located.  We dubbed those portable classrooms, Willis Wagons, and used the as symbols to oppose school segregation.”

Following the transgressive lessons of social justice gospel (Goss, 1993), Brazier framed his theology and organizing in terms of speaking out for the poor.  “From a religious point of view, a lot of people ask me the question why was I, a preacher, involved in these things?  My view was that there were people that were suffering because of injustice.  And I thought that the parable that Jesus gave in relationship to the Good Samaritan was a clear indication that the church ought to be involved in alleviating human suffering.  With this message in mind, Brazier got involved in community activity.

Brazier worked with Saul Alinski.  “Woodlawn got the power and now they were using it and now they were making deals,” noted Alinski (quoted in Hercules and Orenstein, 1999).  “I worked very closely with Alinski, for years,” noted Brazier.  “I didn’t see the people who we were opposing as enemies.  I saw us opposing certain objectives to certain kinds of systems that I thought needed to be changed.  I think that Saul Alinski and the Industrial Areas Foundation did a very, very excellent job of community organizing.  I don’t think that you go out and look for enemies.  I think what you do is you identify a series of injustices.  I never did look at the University of Chicago as enemy.  I looked upon something that they were doing as something that was not beneficial to this community.  And I didn’t look upon slum landlords as enemies. I looked upon slum landlords as an injustice that had to be dealt with.  As a Christian I do not want to identify anybody as an enemy.”  So, instead of identifying a target as subhuman, Brazier took a different approach. “I don’t think it’s fair and it’s not something that I want to get involved in.  That creates a lot of animosity in your thinking.”

People organize around issues, noted Brazier.  “It’s my view that organizing does not happen by snapping your fingers.  People do not organize just for the sake of organizing. Unions do not organize just for the sake of organizing.  You organize for a reason.  The reason is you are trying to deal with some injustices that are happening.  And you want to deal with that.  You deal with that better if you organized as a group rather than trying to deal with it on an individual basis.” Brazier worked for years at creating a space and a power base which could help his community contend with the ravages of displacement.


 James Tracy has long argued that urban activists should frame their battles against high rents, for housing and stability around the concept of displacement.
James Tracy speakingMarta Effinger-Crichlow right

  “Don’t call it gentrification,” he advises.   A housing activist, and co founder of the San Francisco community land trust as well as a poet, Tracy  author of several books including Hillbilly Nationalists, Race Rebels, Black Power, and The Civil Disobedience Handbook: A Brief History and Practical Advice for the Politically DisenchantedWhen I was arrested on the way to work during the Republican Natonal Convernton in 2004, the police went through my work bag.  Asking me about anarchists they were worried about, I told them I had no idea what they were talking about. And then they found Tracy’s book civil disobedience handbook dedicated to me.  That kindov blew my cover.  I love James for that.  He always blows my cover.  Tracy read from his well reviewed homage to the right to shelter, the right to a home Dispatches against Displacement.

Organizing to slow the process of gentrification has take place over a process of decades for Tracy. He saw it when he worked as a delivery man driving the streets of San Francisco, noting landlords in San Francisco were making donations of the left over belongings of former tenants, who had been displaced. Even then, Tracy saw a storm brewing.  “Throughout my life, I’ve seen moments like this through the battles for home and public space,” writes Tracy. “They are always fleeting, as are the tenuous alliances that bloom and wilt again.   Neoliberalism has literally stolen the city from those who most contribute to its vibrancy.  While things will never be (and maybe never should) be the same, resistance – not only capital – shapes urbanism.” (p. 18).  Tracy drew a picture of his life as a housing activists and the struggles he’s fought for over affordable housing, the right to a home and public space, connecting his activism with generations of others, dovetailing between struggles for global justice and Occupy.  “There has always been a dance between  electoral politics and direct action,” notes Tracy.  “Direct action was  central in the fights for the right to expand suffrage  to women and later  Blacks.  The Women and Family Rights and Dignity and the squatters of Homes not Jails embody a spirit of past social movements, such as the Unemployed Workers’ of the 1930’s, which is rooted in the everyday  needs of community members.  They build direct democracy with crowbars as their ballots and vacant  housing as ther ballot boxes.  Nine years later, activists  energized  by the Occupy movement turned to exactly  this style of organizing, confronting evictions and joblessness on the neighborhood level,” (p. 34-5).  Dong so, members of Occupy built on this ethos of tenants who banded together to protect each other from eviction and foreclosure. As Tracy explains: Housing activism tends to do best against the backdrop of larger social and movements. In the 1930s, there were large mass-based movements that elevated the needs of working-class people. Movements influence each other both tactically and morally. The formation of the trade union movement, the campaign to free the Scottsboro Men, built a sense of boldness and political consciousness that could easily be translated into a neighborhood context.”

In “Toward on Alternative Urbanism”, the last chapter, Tracy sums up the lessons of his work.
“If the goal of an anti-displacement movement is to stop displacement, then San Francisco’s movement has failed by any stretch of the imagination.  San Francisco today is an exclusive city;  what remains of working-class and artistic life the is on the ropes. Thankfully the knockout cannot be called in this round.” The work of organizers has kept battle going, allowing some of the soul of the city to “remain intact.” (p.95).

“The very notion of a commons, of resources provided outside of the market, is tied to society's perception of race, class, and gender.  Specifically, commons (and reforms) are created at the intersection of the aspirations of social movements to expand popular power and desires of elites to contain popular protests…. [T]o defend public housing means simultaneously fighting for the human right to housing, while refusing to embrace politics that flatten out the historical  bigotries and exclusions,” (p. 96). Here, Tracy explains housing battles, particularly struggles over public housing, involve efforts to cope with social controls.  “Federal housing policy has been used to control and contain Black Americans, often to accelerate profit accumulation of urban development regimes.  At times, this is meticulously planned; at others it is a product of opportunism.  In either situation, the conditions that Black people live in are generally a good indicator of what is in store for the general population.  In reality, what happened to public  housing residents  - particularly Black residents – was the canary in the housing crisis coalmine.”  Affluent or desirable families were offered housing opportunities “if they cashed in on Section 8 vouchers, risking future housing  assistance.” Many were later  “sold risky loan products, such as adjustable rate and interest only mortgages.”  Many were in the suburbs.  By 2008, many “fell victim to foreclosure as housing payments skyrocketed.  Yet again, corporate – and government – housing policies colluded to displace Black people, and to provide a template by which other communities were displaced.” (p.96). Sadly, from here many find themselves without homes or in the fastest growing public housing in the us, the jail system.

The first discussions in the q and a session for our event addressed this question about home, from Chapter four Staging Migrations, I want to go home.”  What does going home mean?  Rhodessa Jones asked those at her performances and workshops to think about how to be free, even women in jail, think about the process of being home, of finding a home.  She gets women to think about what lead women to this place, to think about the shame of poverty, drug abuse, of sexual abuse?  How do you find home?  Do you expect someone to find it for you?  How do you find ways to construct a home for yourself?  Thinking about home, how do you create a home? 


Part of the process involves rethinking situations, rethinking what cites can look like and how we can all benefit from them.  Lead with housing explained James Tracy. We lead with a vision that housings a human right and it should be affordable.  I’m fairly pessimistic are capitalism’s capacity to fix things. Re regulate things and that would take care of a lot. Tracy noted that Picture the Homeless has helped document that there are countless vacant bulldog which could be repaired and occupied.   We need a green new deal to fix these bulldogs. None of that is  outside the possible.


David Smith, of City Tech asked: how do we take control of the narrative to make a change?  How can the narrative, the story be changed.  It took decades to make it happen.  Occupy changed the narrative.   We live in the great narratives of our culture. Gentrification is the wrong narrative.  How can you tell that you are changing the narrative? Ida B Wells -  there's a narrative.  Go there because there is no justice here, she declared.  We live in the great stories of our culture.  So a group of people moved West to start homesteading. Gong home is homesteading.  Theres a story.  The new American West is homesteading. But she also suggested staying home and organzing so those in power can no longer ignore the  power of Black Americans. Looking toward the west, understand the injustices, she advised.   There are many. She was a model.

James Tracy left, Shepard middle, Marta Effinger-Crichlow, and other students from the college.


Later on that night, a few of us went out for drinks.  We talked about the grievances of the past keep coming up, as does the pain.  Ferguson strikes a nerve, a raw wound. Walter Benjamin  reminds us that  every current generation must re engage and complete the unfinished business, the incomplete tasks of the past.  The danger of failing to do so is very real, Stanley Aronowitz reminds us in How Class Works.  “Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably,” explains Benjamin.


Yet, the pain of watching lives and struggles disappear uncompleted tears at us.  The pain of the past, of those lost struggles is all too present in our current lives and circumstances as people fight for a place to call home, where they can find community, after migrating, fighting displacement and pushing forward through history, ever alive that night. 


We went home around 11:30.


Across Brooklyn, a man, Akai Gurley, was walking down the stairs of his apt complex.

At 11:15pm, Officer Peter Liang fatally shot Akai Gurley, an unarmed Black man who was leaving his girlfriend's apartment in the Pink Houses in East New York. The cop said he was nervous, so he drew his weapon and shot the first person he saw. The NYPD says it was an "accidental discharge." There is nothing accidental about it. This is the deadly consequence of the ever so increasing militarization of the police, from New York City, to Ferguson, and beyond. 

We condemn the DeBlasio administration for supporting this militarization by appointing Commissioner Bratton. We condemn City Council for requesting more of these militarized police to patrol NYCHA housing, leading to an unending slew of abuse and harassment by the hands of the police. We condemn Bill Bratton for administering the repressive policing practices which have resulted in the murders of Eric Garner and Akai Gurley. 

Tomorrow, in the spirit of Ramarley Graham, Shantel Davis, Kimani Gray, Eric Garner, Mike Brown & countless other victims of the police in NYC and beyond, the Black Autonomy Federation-North East Branch, our allies in the Fire Bratton Coalition, and members within the community will march from the Pink Houses to P.S.A. 2 (560 Sutter Avenue). In the weeks that follow, we will organize disruptions and direct actions that halt business as usual. In the months that follow, we will use the memory of our fallen and channel it into developing our own organizations for self defense & community mediation. 

Our Demands: 

1. Arrest & Indict Peter Liang, the murderer of Akai Gurley
2. Arrest & Indict Daniel Pantaleo, the murderer of Eric Garner
3. Fire Commissioner Bratton 



Rally and march for Akai Gurley in East New York.Photo by  Stan Williams
Rally at Union Square after the verdict

Organized by Public Space Party and Bike Bloc NYC in support of Union Square rally.
#FTP #PSP #BikeBlocNYC #ferguson #mikebrown #ericgarner

NOTE: DAY is still TBD

What: Bike Bloc for Justice for Michael Brown and Eric Garner

When: TBD, expected to be mid-November.

Where: Tompkins Square Park NYC

Time: 6 PM, we will ride together to rally at Union Square

Grand juries are hearing evidence in the police murders of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY. On the day that each of these grand juries announces their decision, whatever those decisions are, we will take to the streets that evening all across the country.

Bring Your Bike!

RIP Eric Garner

RIP Michael Brown

RIP Kimani Gray

RIP Shantal Davis

RIP Ramarley Graham

RIP Amadou Diallo

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