On the evening of June 7, 2009, the Second Encuentro for Dignity and Against Displacement brought 38 organizations and scores of people—tenants, organizers, families with children, all gathered in the basement of an East 116th Street community center—to converse with each other, with international movements, and with presenters from East Harlem, West Harlem, Chinatown, and Sunset Park.
East Harlem marks a fitting backdrop for this gathering. Its struggles mirror those of low-income and immigrant communities all across New York City, facing skyrocketing rents they cannot afford, landlords who will not maintain their buildings, and companies that have not hesitated to harass, overcharge, evict, and target tenants for replacement with those at a higher income bracket.
This Second Encuentro (encounter) was hosted by the Movement for Justice in El Barrio (MJB), an organization based in the immigrant communities of East Harlem. It is also internationally allied with the Other Campaign of Mexico’s Zapatista movement and, like the Zapatistas, a movement "from below and to the left." (MJB also organized the First Encuentro held here in October 2007.)
"We are humble people. The majority of us are mothers who are fighting for a better future for our children," explained Ana Laura Merino of MJB at the opening of the encuentro. "MJB awakens the desire to struggle in our community," added Sonia Guzman in the closing speech.
"The tenants who live in the buildings, who organize, are the ones who make decisions in their own struggle," said Oscar Dominguez. "We all together decide to see what is the path that we’re going to take as an organization and to develop a struggle against the enemy, which is capitalism and the bad governments. We practice autonomy and democracy. We go to the streets to consult the community."
Speaking of each of these struggles were members of not only MJB, but also:
- CAAAV (Organizing Asian Communities) which is fighting the gentrification of Chinatown
- Harlem Tenants Council and the Coalition to Preserve Community, which is resisting the expansion of Columbia University and the rezoning of 125th Street
- Sunset Park Alliance of Neighbors, building power in south Brooklyn
- Thomas Jefferson Tenants Association, taking on police violence in public housing
- A troupe from Make the Road New York, the low-income community organization from Bushwick, Brooklyn, which expressed its own community’s struggles in bits of theater pitting prowling loan sharks and cigar-chomping landlords against the good people of New York, who ultimately overpowered the powerful to the sound of maracas, guitars, and accordions
"This truly is neoliberalism at its worst," said Nellie Hester Bailey, director of the Harlem Tenants Council. "We are its victims." She should know. Her husband was murdered by a brutal landlord 20 years ago this month. "What we are fighting," she declared, "is the ruling class. This is the epicenter of international finance capital. What we are talking about is whether poor people can live on expensive real estate. As rich people come into the city, Bloomberg is pushing us out of the city."
The presentations from Bailey and other speakers were periodically punctuated by chants of "Harlem’s Not For Sale! Harlem’s Not For Sale! ¡Harlem No Se Vende! ¡Harlem No Se Vende!"
Tom Demot, of the Coalition to Preserve Community, has been working to that end for 30 years. "I like to talk about enemies," he told the crowd. "Our enemies don’t want to hear the word, they want us all to be friends as they screw us." In addition to developers, Demot called out the elected officials at City Hall, most of whom have supported the rezoning and gentrification of Harlem, along with the local development corporations, the land use laws, and "the elitist class system in the United States."
Other organizers pointed out the alignment of the city’s policies and the landlords’ interests. "The city is working with the landlords in kicking people out of their homes," said Bin Liang of CAAAV, who’s been organizing in Chinatown for years. "Tenants are essentially being punished for landlords’ failure to do what they’re supposed to," she said, citing city evictions of families from tenements with only two hours’ notice. "One of the root causes is profit-driven incentives for landlords to do this."
Pearl Barkley, of the Thomas Jefferson Houses Tenants Association and Mothers Against Abusive Policing, suggested another way that the city implemented policies of "planned shrinkage" of "troubled neighborhoods": aggressive policing of people who live in public housing. "We see the practices of NYPD," said Barkley, "in concert with NYCHA [NYC Housing Authority], as a way of eliminating all low-income people who live in NYCHA. It’s a very insidious thing. People cannot walk out of their building or empty the garbage without police asking them for ID. That’s the plan for eventually getting us out. Through criminalization of its tenants."
Javier Genao, an organizer with the Sunset Park Alliance of Neighbors, offered a warning to those assembled: "We know that there’s a history of divide-and-conquer. This is something we’ve seen in the past that the city has done and developers have done, because they don’t want us to unite and struggle against our same enemy." Yet there are Latino and Asian neighbors organizing together, he reported, on issues from tenants’ rights to toxic developments.
"The new villain on the block," Bailey went on to say, is what she calls "predatory equity investment"—the influx of private equity firms that once aimed to evict 20 to 30 percent of the tenants in their properties and quietly convert thousands of rent-regulated apartments into luxury units meant for a different kind of city.
On some blocks, the financial crisis has put such hostile takeovers on hold. The payday never dawned for Dawnay Day, the London-based investment bank that once sought to build a U.S. real estate empire starting with East Harlem. The finance group overleveraged its assets and ran into global resistance from an MJB-led International Campaign in Defense of El Barrio.
"Something strange happened on the way to the bank," Bailey explained. "You know what? They’re all in foreclosure. All of those projects, including the East 125th Street project, are on hold. Columbia University is in major trouble. It is inconceivable that the university can pursue its original plans for a $6 billion expansion…. The chickens have come home to roost for these developers."
The speeches were accompanied by documentaries and dispatches from other fronts, including New Orleans, where footage showed the demolition of public housing and the cleansing of half the city’s poor; and Atenco, Mexico, where the People’s Front in Defense of the Land was brutally repressed by security forces in 2006. The crowd also watched footage of the recent MJB takeover of the Mexican Consulate to demand freedom for political prisoners.
Each of the presenters went on to share a piece of their dream for their neighborhood and their world, just as they had shared a piece of their struggle.
- "Our dream," said Liang, "is for every tenant to live peacefully, whether they have money or not, and not to be harassed."
- "That housing is not a privilege," said Bailey. "That housing is a basic human right. It doesn’t matter if you have a job, if you’re old, if you’re infirm, it is your right. That has to become a reality."
- "We dream of a world," said Guzman, "in which we can exercise our rights to justice…where we can advance together hand in hand…where the powerful stop trying to manipulate the humble at their economic convenience… where our children can have a shining future."
- "For our children to stop being killed. That’s very real for my community," said Barkley. "We dream of the day when we are related to as full human beings, and not a cash crop to provide…for the police and prison-industrial complex."
- "We dream of a victory," said Genao. "We dream of having community control of our communities…. We dream of the day when people don’t respect the authority of police officers or of elected officials, but that people respect the authority of what people decide together as a community. Those are the dreams that carry us through this very difficult struggle."
Meanwhile, younger participants flitted back and forth next door ahead of the anticipated game of Gentrification Piñata/Neoliberal Piñata that was to be the final event of the evening. The piñata, a mean, greedy-looking thing, hung by a single thread from the ceiling of the East Harlem community center. The children of El Barrio prepared to take it down once and for all.
Michael Gould-Wartofsky is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Nation, Jewish Currents, Monthly Review, and Poets Against the War. He took the photographs for this article.