Tag Archives: Housing Justice

Punching Peter to Pay Paul: How to Avoid Shooting Yourself in the Foot When Building Movements

During the 2014 mid-term elections, Oregon became the third state to finally legalize marijuana for recreational use. Following behind Colorado and its neighbor Washington, Oregon’s bill will now treat marijuana into a similar way as alcohol with standard restrictions for age and driving. This is a major victory in a lot of sectors, no matter how you look at it. It will lower incarceration rates, especially in communities of color, while stripping one of the most common excuses to racially profile. In Oregon, it is going to significantly lower the rates of youth arrested for drug possession, which can stop them from getting federal loans for school(this in combination with Oregon’s public school funding makes college a much more realistic possibilities for low income students). What may temper this is that marijuana has actually been legal for “medical” use for years now, operating “members only” clubs all around the cities of the state.

Medical Marijuana had been one of the most targeted political issues of the past decade, and the one in which the Marijuana legalization camp had thrown the most energy towards. By focusing on arguments related to Marijuana’s various possible health claims, this has been a strategic choice on the road to full de-criminalization. The problem is that the rhetoric and organizing strategy chosen ends at Marijuana, and will go nowhere else. Medical Marijuana, while obviously helpful for many conditions, does not really match the conventional wisdom for “medicine.” This is fine, but what the Marijuana legalization advocates have argued time and time again is that it actually does fit within this framework. For years and years they have continually argued that Marijuana works like regular medicine, and it is not nearly as bad as “all of those other drugs.” This means that for people looking to decriminalize all substances, shift the conversation about the purpose of intoxication, and change the way that the culture relates to medicine, the campaigns have set them back immeasurably. The reality is that Marijuana should be available for people not because of supposed health benefits, but because intoxication is a regular and consistent part of life and all societies. The arguments being made never went after the foundational issues that create a cultural fear of drugs, and have instead kept the drug-law enforcement apparatus completely in tact. The Drug War, radicalized implementation of drug laws, and the criminalization of people who choose to alter consciousness, all are still there. In many ways, these values have even been reinforced by the Marijuana legalization campaigns. This may be fine for people whose endgame is just the decriminalization of Marijuana specifically, but for those of us who want to move beyond this one issue into a more nuanced and revolutionary perspective on drug issues, it left us cold. To top this up, the Marijuana lobby in Oregon has reverted to the same set of tactics when it came to their legislative strategy, including union busting low-wage canvassers in the Campaign for the Restoration and Regulation of Hemp who helped to get the bill on the ballot. This is not a good precedent for those who claim that legalized Marijuana in the state are going to create a surge of “good jobs.”

This tactical issue is one that comes up in movement building constantly, where by an immediate goal can often be gained by making choices that could harm long-term progress. During a campaign I was working on many years ago, we were working towards the city putting a moratorium on foreclosure-based evictions. This would essentially mean having the mayor’s office order the police department to stand down for evictions, and refuse to enforce the Marshall’s office’s orders. In one group discussion we were working on some of the rhetoric we would use to make arguments for this. One of the primary ones is the effect that empty houses can have on a block, or a whole community. They often become areas for criminal activity and drug sales. They bring down property values. They are an obscene eyesore. As we were jotting these down someone quietly held and objection. Suggesting the issues about crime and drug use both have a racialized component and a drug-fear trigger. The point being is that by referring to these issues, we continue to stigmatize drug users as well as the houseless folks that often use these vacant homes. When people complain about the “criminal element” in the neighborhood brought on by vacant houses, this is often what they mean. When it comes to property values, we again reinforce the values of middle-class property owners as a substantial reason.

The issue that was actually at hand was that there are too many vacant homes that get destroyed, become unusable, and there are growing numbers of houseless people that can make good use of them. It is absolutely true that there can be gang and drug issues around vacant houses, and the communities that are concerned about these issues are not just doing so out of racial tension, but we need to be aware of avoiding “dog whistle” language when we are working on these campaigns. This specific reform is not our end goal, instead we want a world where housing is seen as a basic right and even the most basic human needs are guaranteed by the collective society. This means both a structural and a value change, and therefore we need to keep those ideas present as we build towards large reforms.

This can create a difficult set of issues where by people over critique and deconstruct all rhetoric, which creates a culture of inaction. Instead, an option is to simply be open and honest about what the endgame really is about these movements and what the values are that drive them. In the case of housing, this really is fundamentally an issue about capitalism. While we do not want to alienate the more liberal elements of the movement, it is fine to bring that perspective as a valid point in the myriad of views that make up the pro-housing movement. Likewise, it is important to continue to point out the ways in which the foreclosure crisis did not break evenly across all groups. People of color faired much worse across all other demographics, while; in general, this was not a crisis that was shared equally across all socio-economic strata. What this means is that we are going to bring a structural analysis to issues of crime and drug use, and make sure that these ideas are implicit during decision making. Instead of going after the “seedy element” that empty houses attract, we should really look at just the reality that happens to communities when only half of the homes are actually occupied by people. At the same time, we should keep central the reasons for getting involved. We did not enter into the housing justice movements because of how bad empty houses affect property values or that they create locations for drug sale. We got involved because we find this fundamental contradiction, that there are empty homes while there are people without homes, intolerable. These different arguments make up the total tapestry of the argument for a more equitable housing, but the unequal access to housing has to be at the center.

What we decided to do is just temper the language a bit so that we did not target houseless people or drug users as individuals. Instead of just focusing on the financial aspects of “property value,” we looked instead at how the empty homes actually do drive other houses on the block into foreclosure. This is conjuring the image of the housing as a place to live rather than a piece of equity. We also noted that since working people often only hold any wealth in their home and their pension, it is an incredible attack on working people’s lives when banks force houses on their block into foreclosure and then lower the value of the only piece of wealth they have (their home). In terms of the drug use in the community, we simply note that while this may become an issue among empty houses, it is less that drugs and houseless people are the issues but instead that these empty houses are never used for community building purposes. We added that empty houses often get so destroyed that they can never be rehabilitated and used for the community.

It should be noted that none of the above arguments above are inherently problematic, but instead should just be considered when thinking about the long-term vision. A lot of this can then be mitigated, to a degree, when we have a generally idea of what total victory would look like far past this individual campaign or series of campaigns. This does not mean that we should immediately jump just to radical and systemic rhetoric entirely, that would be a large mistake, but it is good to lay a foundation for the radical critique early on. This is true in terms of the foreclosure crisis more broadly, where by many people have focused their organizing messaging around foreclosure fraud and criminality. As has been mentioned before, this has been a powerful tool to mobilize Middle America against the banks, but it fails at being able to see the fundamental issue around foreclosure is class and social inequality. While we should use the issue of bank manipulation as an icebreaker and flash point, we need to make sure to draw some of the critiques back to their fundamental core.

Many of these choices are somewhat commonsensical in that we should avoid reactionary rhetoric that demonizes the opposition with bigoted characterizations, but we need to also continue to think of the structural inequalities that, down the line, create the inconsistency we are fighting for in the short term. Forcing the city to stand down on evictions was common sense to most people on the terms that were presented to them, but we need to use that bit of public leverage to drive deeper. It is only when we can link the immediate with the revolutionary that we can effectively use reforms as a stepping stone rather than the end of the path.

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Eyes on the Prize: Solidarity from the Streets of Portland

As we are coming up to the year anniversary of the Black Lives Matter movement, we are revisiting a few stories of solidarity actions from the earlier days of the movement.  This is a reposting of a look at the Mike Brown Solidarity Action that happened in Portland, Oregon, which discusses the case, the organized response, and what took place there.

Along with cities from around the country, Portland erupted on November 25th in one of the largest demonstrations and actions it has seen in years.  The Portland Solidarity Network came on as an official sponsor of the event that was planned in solidarity with the Mike Brown actions happening both in Ferguson and in cities across the country.

After the fatal shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri this last August, Officer Darren Wilson was cleared by a grand jury on November 24th.  The jury was directed to determine whether or not there was probable cause to level formal charges against Wilson, which could range from first-degree murder down to involuntary manslaughter.  The jury determined that no charges were to be filed, in a decision that many were saying was coerced by a mishandling by the District Attorney’s office.

In Portland, the Albina Ministerial Alliance and the Urban League put the solidarity action together.  In front of the Justice Center, they called together over two thousand people to a rally that targeted the racist police violence that has become commonplace both in our city, and the U.S. broadly.  The people present overwhelmed the area, taking Third Street over as well as the park on the other side.  Speakers ranged from local organizations and churches, each putting out a call to create a movement that has the force to confront the kind of mammoth power of institutional racism and white supremacy.  After an emotional round of Eyes on the Prize was sung, a speaker from the AMA came up and boiled the issues down to their essence.

“The blood of Michael Brown cries out for justice today.  Across this nation, and across the world.  Once again, the African American community, communities of color, mental health communities, the poor, the marginalized, citizens who love justice and democracy, those who have been crushed by the decision of the grand jury not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown.  Once again we rise at the criminal justice system of America, and law enforcement is tainted with racial bias when it comes to rendering justice and fairness for black people.  For communities of color.  For the disenfranchised and the marginalized.  We know from our own experience here in the city of Portland, that the brokenness of the criminal justice system and law enforcement.  We know from Kendra James.  We know from James Chasse.  We know from Aaron Campbell.  We know from Keaton Otis, that there is no justice and fairness when it comes to white police officers killing black and brown and poor people and mentally ill people.”

“What must we do about it?  We must not go back to our old routines, and just talk about it.  No, no, a thousand times!  We must fight to change this broken, unjust and unfair system.  We must use these times of injustice to build a movement!”

Speakers came forward from the NAACP, the All-African All-People’s Revolutionary Party, various churches, Jefferson High School, and many others to draw together the issues of police violence and racism to the various struggles in the city.  A student from Portland State University’s Black Student Union spoke powerfully and bluntly.

“Do not go quietly into that dark night!  This happens a thousand times in America.  But we have an opportunity to rise up and use our collective voices to tell America, ‘Enough is Enough!’  … American, how much more do you want us to bear?  We bore the injustices of slavery.  We bore the injustices of the lies of emancipation.  We bore injustices of segregation.  We bore indignities of Jim Crow.  We bore the annihilation of our communities.  We bore the brunt of mass incarceration.  We bore the debt of your housing market.  We bore the magnitude of under and unemployment.  We bore the assassination of our leaders, and now our children.  How much more America?  What is the cost of justice and freedom?  What is the mortgage on the lives of black and brown folks?  How many more payments before you reduce the principle balance on our freedom? “

When will black lives matter?

Speakers from the Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines and the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party drew the killing right back to capitalism, imperialism, and the need for revolutionary change and international solidarity.  A call here was really to get involved in ongoing organizing efforts, from challenging police violence to related movements such as housing struggles and labor.

A march was then led, through downtown with a population that over swelled even the roads.  The memetic chant “Hands up!  Don’t shoot!” was common, with people focusing directly on the targeting of young people of color that has marked the city in recent years.  There was a sense of group solidarity as major unions, non-profits like Basic Rights Oregon and the NAACP, and more radical organizations like the Black Rose Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation and the International Socialist Organization stood together with a complementary vision.   As the march wound back to the Justice Center, the AMA led a final talk about Michael Brown’s family and led a chorus of old spiritual activist songs and a candlelight vigil.

At this point a large contingent began to form that did not want to end the action at that point, many calling for direct action at the Justice Center openly.  From a third to half of the crowd broke away at this point and led an unpermitted march that again took the streets over and head towards the Morrison Bridge.  Here protesters began to push against the forming police force in an effort to take the bridge, with police beginning to shove through the crowd and drive motorcycles into the crowd.

The march moved back down the street and took over the Burnside Bridge, making it across the river and blocking the intersection on the other side.  Moving through the Water District, the next spot was to openly block Interstate 5 from a park, the same way that organizers have done so in Oakland and Los Angeles.  It was at this point that the police force took another turn and began attacking protesters with the riot-prepared troops and cavalry.  As hundred of protesters attempted to stage a sit-in on the freeway and/or occupy the park, the police began swinging batons and letting pepper spray loose.  Participants of color had to be treated by street medics for pepper spray directly into their eyes, which is an irony that must have been lost on the Portland Police Department.  A former member of the Portland Solidarity Network, and close ally, was seriously injured by police batons, and had to be cared for by a street medic before being rushed to the emergency room.

A move was made to take the next bridge and head back into downtown, though police were beginning to pick off large portions of protesters by blocking them onto portions of the bridge and going for mass arrests.  Luckily, many people were saved from being taken into custody as unarrests in the chaos of the freeway action were roundly successful.  From here protesters made it in the direction of PGE Park, where a now fully militarized police force began using crowd control measures.  Though there were seven arrests reported, the numbers could have been much higher without a conscious move by the people on the ground to keep the crowd together and to watch out for the treatment of fellow protesters.  Things ramped up even more aggressively as the police riot van had its windows smashed in and there were reports of protestor injuries increasing rapidly.  The rest of the crowd eventually made it to Waterfront Park, where final speeches were made and a commitment given to keep this fight going into the long-term.

An action like this shows both the passion and desire that is necessary for mass movements, and the ability to think in a more radical context to directly confront the kind of racial animosity that has tarnished our local and national institutions.  Though we are incredibly happy to see the actions play out as they have, we also want to see this turn into long-term organizing that will be able to continue to target this systemic inequality.  The kind of racism that was implicit and led to both the shooting of Mike Brown by Darren Wilson, and the several police murders in the Portland area, is just as prevalent in people’s workplaces and housing situations.  Redlining, Section 8 and rental discrimination, unequal foreclosure rates, and inaccess to public housing all mark institutionalized housing oppression against people of color in our communities.  We are committing to work with tenants across the city to use community solidarity to force concessions and change in people’s neighborhoods and housing complexes.  These racial issues are not just at play in loud points of cruel violence, but also the subtle evictions that we see in apartment complexes across all cities and the kind of gentrification that turns previously communities of color into trendy shopping centers for upper-class whites.  Let’s take the anger and determination that we saw on November 25th and continue to challenge these institutions, and hopefully we can use this as an opportunity to spotlight the racism that is central to the unequal access to housing in this city and country.

Originally published at Portland Solidarity Network.

Don’t Shoot PDX: Confronting Racist Police Violence

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We come to mark it on our calendar every year. It comes as the annual chance to bring issues together, meet and greet and have an action that is often more about getting re-energized than about getting something done. This has gotten many May Day actions locally criticized for taking a huge amount of time, energy, and money, yet not resulting in movements that are any stronger. However, the last two years have really started to buck this trend, with last year really drawing issues of immigration together with the high profile fight between the ILWU and United Grain. This year Portland joined with cities around the country in identifying an overarching theme that effectively dominated the messaging: Black Lives Matter.

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As groups gathered in the South Park Blocks there was a clear trend moving in that direction. $15Now had a large presence, which is drawing on the strength that they have had in the Northwest in recent months. The recent April 15th Fight for $15 action drew hundreds in Portland as $15Now, Jobs With Justice, SEIU and AAUP worked together to target the wage gap for workers in fast food, care working, and adjunct teaching. This messaging was continued, though Black Lives Matter was notably added to many signs and banners. They, along with Portland Jobs With Justice, made the largest labor showing, which is not unusual for a march that tends towards the more radical side of labor inclusion. Along the way there were many from Unite HERE Local 8, SEIU 49 and 503, AFSCME, Laborers’ and the Teamsters, though ILWU was notably absent. This is surprising after the announcement of ILWU’s May Day action in solidarity with Baltimore, as well as their huge contingent last year. The Carpenters and Painters unions, respectively, all brought notable contingents, as well as groups like the Portland Industrial Workers of the World, Portland Solidarity Network, and the VOZ Workers’ Rights Education Project.

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The day began with a pre-march starting at Portland State University called by groups like the Student Organizing Committee, made up of students from multiple Portland area colleges, and Don’t Shoot PDX, marching in solidarity with Baltimore. Several hundred challenged the campus and took the streets in a large un-permitted march, galvanizing energy that they led back down to the May Day central meeting space. From here on the messaging continued towards targeting racist police violence, and it integrated that message into areas that this type of analysis is often absent. A large banner read “Labor Against Racist Police Murder” drew a strong line about where many in the local labor community stand, where the police union often tries to draw divisions in the AFL-CIO over this issue.

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The participation demographics also shifted further away from the sea of homogenous white faces that have often colored other actions. Folks of color, as well as organizations like the All African Peoples Revolutionary Party, shifted the conversation in a way that really indicts the institutional racism that is getting highlighted in these high-profile police killings. Throughout the march, which made many stops, detours, and splits, folks of color took the lead in showing direction and targeting purveyors of institutional violence.

“How many people must die in this system before we realize it was not built for us?” said Adrienne Cabouet, challenging the liberal notion that the institution of policing simply needs to be reformed.

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After the march took off, taking well over a thousand people to the streets, the first stop was to swarm the Justice Center, as speakers called out the trend, both nationally and regionally, to scapegoat communities of color and to act with violent fervor with complete impunity. The march then headed straight down to Burnside, the major road dividing Downtown Portland, and hit a right to take the bridge. This was when police made their first confrontation, lining up to block protesters. It was in moments like this that we have seen a clear change in the character of protests, where organizers and participants are much more willing to challenge the violence of the police. Instead of backing down, their voices were loud with chants and speak-outs that showed a real energy that stood against the officers. Quickly storm troopers in tactical gear showed up, and police began pepper spraying the crowd, clearly agitated that some people were peacefully using strong language. Instead of running, the crowd blocked the tear gas and sat down in defiance, proving that they controlled the situation and the streets.

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At this point the march split in two and one headed down the Naito Parkway, then up to Pioneer Courthouse Square. Here, street theater and chants targeted the racial aspects of Wells Fargo’s involvement in the private prison system. The downtown Wells Fargo branch shut down as protesters did a mock “slave auction,” and a banner was displayed reading “Felon is the New Name for N*****.” After a convergence in the square where speakers discussed the personal ways that police violence has brought fear into their families, the march re-engaged the streets in an unpermitted action. It was here the police openly used flash-grenades and pepper gas, hitting several protesters that had to be carried out. The police demanded the streets cleared, which had almost no response. Burnside Bridge remained a target, getting shut down as protesters continued to push.

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What we saw for the 2015 May Day is a notable shift towards militancy, really brought about by the escalations in state violence. While all of these issues are clearly related, as economic inequality and racism are scourges of social hierarchy, the blood that is soaking our streets brings us to a place of urgency. This was felt in spades around every movement represented there. Cultural and ethnic groups were standing alongside the various community organizations. Groups like the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, Movimiento Estudianti Chicano de Astlan, as well as a coalition project made up of groups like the AARP and BLMPDX declaring “Solidarity Against State Violence and U.S. Imperialism.” This is a strong turn where by the idea of organizing has pushed out of its usual circles and into those that have often stayed on the periphery. Now it is necessary.   Now it has to happen.

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Another notable addition was the increase in the presence of housing groups. Beyond the Portland Solidarity Network discussing its tenant support campaigns, there were representative organizations from the Right to the City Coalition and the Western Regional Advocacy Project. Right to the City is looking towards focusing on progressive candidates for local office in 2016 and WRAP has been focused on the Homeless Bill of Rights, but both show a trend returning housing justice to the forefront of organizing circles. Much of this may be coming from the beginning Renter’s Assemblies, which have been having a huge recent success in Portland and around the country. It also is likely coming from Socialist Alternative’s push to follow $15Now with a focus on rent control, which is the pattern they showed in Seattle. Either way, this return to the targeting of housing issues is critically important as Portland’s livability rapidly declines with rising rents, and a new housing crisis could be close on the horizon. PDXSol was specifically discussing a project on the outer eastside of Portland, where they have been working with tenants who have been pushed out of the center of the city by rising rents and gentrification.

Black Lives Matter is a movement that is changing the shape of organizing. This kind of mobilization towards inclusivity and against the institutional racist violence that is ever present is an incredible development. As Freddie Gray’s killers have been indicted, let’s hope this only mobilizes folks to take on the police in further escalations. It is through the collective action of the people that we can transform systems, and create a community that can use systems of transformative justice rather than state violence to drive safety. What we are also seeing is that movements are again using annual mobilizations like May Day to push existing social movements, which is the perfect way to utilize a mass grouping that already exists. In 2014 ILWU drew a breakaway to confront United Grain, but this year it was more than a dozen groups who were all converging on a single theme: end racist violence. In this way it was several parallel and converging movements not just tapping into the existing thrust of May Day, but completely taking it over. And in this situation, that is the best thing that could have happened.

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