For Movement for Justice in El Barrio, the struggle for justice means fighting for the liberation of women, lesbians, people of color, gays and the transgender community. We all share a common enemy and its called neoliberalism. Neoliberalism wishes to divide us and keep us from combining our forces. We will defeat this by continuing to unite our entire community until we achieve true liberation for all. - Victor Caletre, Movement for Justice in El BarrioMovement for Justice in El Barrio (MJB), an East Harlem-based organization composed primarily of Mexican immigrants, has been fighting gentrification in Manhattan’s “last frontier” for nearly three years now. Now 300 members strong, MJB has already made its mark on El Barrio and has begun stepping out beyond its borders to broaden the struggle. On the eve of their crucial participation at the first ever United States Social Forum, it’s time to catch up with MJB.
“Best Power-to-the-People Movement”
Their biggest victory to date, this past winter MJB members forced Steve Kessner, a multi-millionaire who owned 47 buildings in El Barrio, to sell and move out of the neighborhood. “Kessner wanted to displace immigrant families from our homes, but we instead kicked Kessner out of El Barrio,” explains member Ana Laura Merino. “We learned that if we’re united and fight together, we can win.”
The victory boosted members’ confidence and earned them the superlative of “Best Power-to-the-People Movement in NYC,” in the “2006 Best Of NYC” issue of The Village Voice. It points as well, of course, to the larger struggle that MJB continues to confront. “Since we began as an organization, our struggle has been a fight against neoliberalism,” member Oscar Dominguez explains. “Our targets: [the City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development], the multi-national corporations, and landlords are all capitalists. We forced one powerful capitalist out named Steven Kessner. He was replaced by another capitalist, a multi-national corporation from London named Dawnay, Day Group. These are our targets. The struggle is the same. Our campaigns are against all of these. The form in which these capitalists try to gain their money is a crime against humanity.”
Beyond Gentrification, Beyond El Barrio
Through a process known as “La Consulta del Barrio,” over 800 immigrant residents of East Harlem actively participated in selecting what issue MJB will take on now in addition to its struggle against gentrification. Still in the research and consultation phase of developing a campaign around this new issue, MJB is not yet ready to announce what this struggle will be. Another factor no doubt slowing down the announcement has been this year’s struggle against anti-immigrant legislation.
In response to this legislation, MJB conducted two town hall meetings to consult and vote on El Barrio’s position on the four federal immigration bills proposed this year. Rejecting all four, members and other El Barrio residents were appalled to discover that their City Council representative, Melissa Mark-Viverito, had drafted a council-wide resolution asking the federal government to consider approving one in particular, the Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act. The conclusion of the town hall meetings, which MJB announced in an open letter to Council Member Mark-Viverito, was that the STRIVE Act would greatly increase the militarization of the border and perpetuate the country’s “huge underclass of immigrants with tenuous legal standing at constant risk of deportation.” Drawing a page from the Zapatistas’ playbook, MJB described for the Council Member the model of direct democracy they are developing with La Consulta del Barrio, and challenged her to “mandar obedeciendo” (“to lead by obeying”).
While sadly she appears to not be listening, as a recent radio “debate” between her and MJB has made clear, there are many others who are. “It has really taken us by surprise,” admits Merino, “to know how many organizations in NYC, throughout the US, in Mexico, and even in Spain have reached out to us, wish to learn how we fight in NYC, and have offered us their support.”
MJB’s Juan Haro traveled in April to Barcelona to participate in an international gathering of organizations pursuing creative responses to urban conflict. With delegates in attendance from Argentina, Bosnia, England, Japan, and Venezuela, in addition to Spain’s of course, Haro presented the Consulta del Barrio process—its town hall meetings, community dialogues, extensive street outreach, door knocking, house meetings, and community-wide votes—as a methodology of struggle and an organizing model that fosters democratic participation throughout the community. “When other organizations contact us and want to know how we do things,” Dominguez notes, “we realize we’ve gained the trust of other people. We’ve also learned that we can fight in El Barrio and we can win.”
The Other Campaign on the Other Side
In November of last year, MJB members traveled nearly 2,000 miles to the El Paso/Ciudad Juárez border to meet with adherents to the Other Campaign, a national non-electoral, anti-capitalist movement to liberate Mexico “from below and to the left.” They participated in a dramatic border takeover and, using newly affordable media tools, presented the voices and faces of over a dozen of their members who could not make the journey, in a video created for the gathering entitled “Our Message to the Zapatistas.” “We are committed to fighting as part of the Other Campaign,” Merino insists, “until together we liberate our Mexico that we love.”
Zapatista spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos, in attendance at the border gathering, responded earlier this year with a video communication in turn, “Message from the Zapatistas.” Directed specifically to MJB, to all Mexican immigrants and the Other Campaign in New York, as well as to people of color, women, gays, lesbians, transgender, and indigenous people living here in the city, Marcos’ words are a powerful echo of MJB’s original message of sharing and solidarity. Inspired by this dialogue, members have begun now to bring their work to audiences throughout the city, actively connecting their local organizing, and the work of the Other Campaign, to all of our various struggles.
In this spirit, MJB is bringing the story to the national stage now as well, at the US Social Forum, under the banner of “Organizing Across Borders For Humanity and Against Neoliberalism: NYC Immigrants in the Zapatista Initiated ‘Other Campaign’.” Featuring four videos, including the aforementioned “Messages,” the session is ideal for people looking to learn more about the Zapatistas’ Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle and the Other Campaign. As the only workshop at the USSF pertaining directly to the Other Campaign, it could be a gathering point for Sixth Declaration adherents from across the country to meet and dialogue face-to-face.
July 18: Against Repression
With no intention of being co-opted by the Mexican government, the Zapatistas and the Other Campaign have been preparing for State repression since its founding meetings in Chiapas in 2005. Two years later, and with their predictions ringing sadly true, Other Campaign adherents from all over Mexico gathered a week-and-a-half ago in Mexico City to create a National Forum Against Repression.
MJB is working to complement the Forum’s organizing by mobilizing members of the Other Campaign living in the US, as well as Sixth Declaration adherents around the world, in echoing their national initiatives. Originally calling for a June 26 International Day of Action Against Repression and for the Liberation of All Political Prisoners in Mexico, MJB consulted with the many groups who responded to the call and they collectively decided to instead organize an international component of the July 18 “National, Regional, and Local” Day of Action proposed by the Zapatistas’ Sixth Commission to the Forum. The language of MJB’s original call, however, still applies:
From where we are, North of the Rio Bravo, we are filled with pain and rage to hear about the repression being exerted by the Mexican government on the Other Campaign. The repression began more than a year ago with the terrible events in San Salvador Atenco. As the strength of the Other Campaign grew, the repression spread to Oaxaca, Yucatan, Chiapas, San Luis Potosi and to all different parts of the country. The repression has included police brutality, torture, arbitrary detentions, the murder of two youth, and the rape of detained women. In the past few months the repression has intensified. Recently, soldiers from the federal army harassed Zapatista Delegates from the Sixth Commission, the Compañero David Vanegas was beaten and illegally jailed in Oaxaca, three members of the People’s Front for the Defense of the Land, from Atenco, were illegally sentenced to 67 years in prison, and these are not the only cases. This repression fills us with anger. That is why we propose that we unite the strength of the many struggles that make up the Other Campaign to oppose this repression and demand freedom for all political prisoners in Mexico.In less than three years, MJB has built an effective struggle in East Harlem, given a face to the Other Campaign here in New York City, and built connections to people throughout the world struggling likewise “for humanity and against neoliberalism.” In the words of Merino, “Our community is awake now. We now know that the answer to our problems is to fight and we will win.”
Movement for Justice in El Barrio can be contacted at (212) 561-0555 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks to Trip McCrossin for editing and proofreading