Thursday, October 25, 2007

Zapatismo in Spanish Harlem

Zapatismo in Spanish Harlem

The Movement for Justice in El Barrio, Inspired by the Zapatista Other Campaign, Brings New Yorkers Together to Fight Gentrification
By RJ Maccani
Originally appears at The Narco News Bulletin
en español aqui
Find their reportback on the encuentro here

An echo that turns itself into many voices, into a network of voices that, before the deafness of the Power, opts to speak to itself, knowing itself to be one and many, acknowledging itself to be equal in its desire to listen and be listened to, recognizing itself as different in the tonalities and levels of voices forming it. A network of voices that resist the war that the Power wages on them.
- excerpt from the Zapatistas' Second Declaration of La Realidad
Over thirteen years since their famed uprising in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas, the Zapatistas’ words continue to reverberate throughout the world. Last Sunday, October 21, they echoed from East Harlem and throughout New York City at the first ever “NYC Encuentro for Humanity and Against Gentrification.”

Billed by hosts Movement for Justice in El Barrio (MJB) as “…a way of sharing developed by the Zapatistas as another form of doing politics: from below and to the left,” at least 15 different organizations working against gentrification from throughout the city in addition to observers from groups based in Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania came to MJB’s East Harlem seeking to create “…a place where we can all speak, we will all listen, and we can all learn.”

The result was a multi-lingual and multi-media evening of sharing hope and resistance in the struggle against gentrification. A key element of the encuentro was a fish-bowl style innovation on the typical panel presentation wherein five of the participating organizations rotated in responding to various themes while the other hundred or so in attendance listened. Similar in style to gatherings of the Other Campaign, MJB laid out the four stage flow of the discussion passing from “Who we are” to “Conditions we face and root causes” to “Our forms of struggle” and concluding with “Sharing our dreams.”

Many Struggles (and Some Common Enemies)

“We are fighting the landlords and a government who have no heart,” began Bin Liang, an elder member of CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, which has been organizing "across diverse, low-wage, and poor Asian communities in New York City for over 20 years." With translation from CAAAV’s Chinatown Justice Project organizer, Helena Wong, Liang went on to describe how landlords will leave them without heat or hot water during the winter in apartments where ceilings collapse. In one case, a hole was left in the ceiling such that “the people living in the fourth floor apartment could watch us using the bathroom in our third floor apartment.”

Desiree, Jay, and X from FIERCE!, a community organization for Queer youth of color in New York City, followed with a look at their continued struggle over Pier 45, commonly known as the Christopher Street Pier, on the coast of Manhattan’s Far West Village. A decades-long common gathering point for queer youth of color from throughout the city and beyond, the Hudson River Piers have increasingly become sites of police harassment for FIERCE!’s members as “revitilization plans” are pursued by the city and private developers.

The next two participating groups were The Union of New York Tenants (UNYTE), a city-wide tenants empowerment group, and the SRO Law Project, which provides free legal services and organizing assistance to some of the most vulnerable tenants in the city. “SRO” refers to the single room occupancy buildings that house tenants who usually earn less than $10,000 a year, paying over half of that in rent and sharing a bathroom and kitchen with other residents. Matt Wade, an organizer with the SRO Law Project, reported that over four-fifths, or 100,000 units, of SRO housing in the city has been lost in the last decade to real estate developers who have been aided by the city’s politicians.

Indeed, every participant in the dialogue spoke to the problem of collusion between the city’s politicians and capitalist developers. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) was a common site of struggle. Concluding each go around with a different member, MJB’s Oscar Dominguez spoke to the way that “HPD plays favorites with the rich landlords, the city allows them to come into El Barrio to establish luxury restaurants and stores while kicking out the street vendors and community-run stores.”

Strategic Convergence

As the dialogue continued, the places where struggles overlapped and could complement each other began to come into view. Rob Hollander, an organizer with UNYTE who lives on the Lower East Side, signaled that luxury hotel development on the Bowery, one of Manhattan’s last true north/south running streets, will spell doom for the immigrant communities of his neighborhood as well as for those of Little Italy and Chinatown: “Immigrants are being pushed out by people with money and it is changing the color of our neighborhoods. It is changing what is beautiful about New York.” CAAAV’s Bin Liang followed up on this to point out that her landlord had a hand in gentrifying Harlem before moving on to Chinatown.

After announcing many of their recent victories in the struggle over Pier 45, FIERCE! named Pier 40 as another site of struggle now that a $700 million development plan dubbed “Vegas on the Hudson” is underway. The Hudson River Park Trust is currently in the process of reviewing proposals to create what will likely be a massive, Vegas-style complex, not only erasing some of the last open space in the city but also radically altering much of the surrounding neighborhood. As with the development at Pier 45 and wherever gentrification takes place, the FIERCE! youth are anticipating greater harassment of queer youth of color as police seek to appease the area’s increasingly wealthy clientele. In a move that could benefit those in struggle throughout the city, FIERCE! announced their participation in the launch of a city-wide Cop Watch movement as part of the People's Justice Coalition.

From tenant associations and rent strikes to press conferences and lawsuits, the groups struggling against gentrification in New York City not only share common enemies, but also a wide range of common tactics. One aspect that stood out was MJB’s approach, similar to that of the rest of their compañeros in the Other Campaign, to democracy and politicians: “We represent ourselves,” remarked MJB member Victor Caletre, “each of the 23 buildings we work in has its own tenant association that decides what they will do and how they will choose to struggle. And the rest of the organization supports their decision…It’s not only an organization that is struggling, but a community, and that community has the right to decide.” With this in mind, MJB recently carried out a Consulta del Barrio in which they consulted residents in East Harlem in order “to hear from people about where we should direct our next struggle.”

MJB has undertaken this community consultation while at the same time deligitimizing their City Council Representative, Melissa Mark-Viverito. Caletre announced at the Encuentro that not only did Mark-Viverito give herself a raise (increasing her salary to $112,000 a year while representing a neighborhood where nearly 40% of its residents live below the poverty line), but she has also attempted to buy him off. Apparently two young men visited him at his apartment recently to offer him a position with the city, under the condition that he stop working with MJB!

A First Step

Through employing many different forms of presentation, and patient translation, the Encuentro succeeded in working across barriers of language (Spanish, English, and Chinese), culture, and age. The fish-bowl style dialogue portion of the Encuentro concluded with a rousing gentrification-themed play and series of group songs led by Brooklyn-based members of Make the Road New York. This was followed by two videos, one from CAAAV depicting a moment in their victorious campaign against a landlord on Delancey Street and one by MJB from their first “Mega-March” to confront East Harlem’s three worst landlords, as well as HPD and, of course, Councilmember Mark-Viverito.

The presentations concluded just as they had opened, with a video of the Zapatistas. The gathering opened with footage of EZLN Major Ana Laura speaking at the First Intercontinental Gathering for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism and it closed with the Zapatistas retaking their land from the Mexican military. The entire event closed with a horde of kids taking their turns hitting the neoliberal gentrification piñata.

The NYC Encuentro for Dignity and Against Gentrification was a new first step in bringing together struggles against gentrification. As MJB’s Oscar Dominguez pointed out, “It is not just the landlords that we are against, but the interests behind the landlords. Our common enemy is neoliberalism.” Helena Wong, of CAAAV, shared this sentiment, remarking, “The connections are close. The money driving gentrification in the USA is coming from all over the world.” It is no surprise then that the Encuentro received support from the Right to the City Alliance, composed of groups struggling against gentrification all over the U.S., and the International Alliance of Inhabitants, a world-wide network seeking to make connections across borders for adequate housing and livable cities.

MJB is already following up on the gathering. They held an evaluation meeting with their membership on Tuesday and will soon be seeking feedback from all attending organizations. If the early reports are any sign, there will be much enthusiasm for future collaboration. Checking in with members of CAAAV after the Encuentro, Liang remarked to me, “I’m really happy that we were able to come together and are all enthusiastic about fighting capitalism.”

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