Gimme shelter: The housing crisis
April 19, 2012
available from Alternative Radio
You can listen to Max Rameau speak for himself here.
Max Rameau is a community organizer. He is Executive Director of Movement Catalyst. He helped establish Take Back the Land, which organizes resistance to foreclosures and assists families to stay in their homes. He works on a broad range of issues impacting the poor, such as housing, immigrant rights, economic justice, and Cop Watch.
David Barsamian’s introduction:
Anatole France, Nobel Prize winner, wrote
The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.
During the on going Great Recession, millions have lost their homes. Many of those who have ended up homeless, are living, if you can call it that, in the streets. You can see them from Santa Monica to Madison Avenue to Vancouver in Canada. In Boulder, where I live, every morning, they emerge from behind bushes and from under bridges. It is shameful, given the level of wealth, that so many are without shelter. The U.S. spends billions maintaining military bases all over the world and has 11 aircraft carrier battle groups roaming the seven seas, but at home people don’t have a roof over their heads.
It is important to do this kind of work now, when we are in the midst of a historic crisis here in the United States and the society. Not just an economic crisis, but in a real way a crisis of conscience. People are not just taking this lying down, but we are starting to stand up and starting to respond to the crisis in a way that shares values and shares visions about what we think the society can be and what we think the society should be, but ultimately where the society will be.
I want to talk to you a little bit about what this historic moment is, what we think that it is at Take Back the Land, what kind of movement we are trying to build here, and why it’s important to build a movement in this particular time in history. Of course, it’s always important to join organizations and to build movements. But we are in a unique historical moment, and during this time we think that this message of building organizations and building movements is even more important than it is under normal circumstances.
The reason, of course, it’s so important is because of the context of the economic crisis in which we find ourselves. Right now we are facing an economic crisis where millions of people in the United States are suffering incredibly as a result of the actions and misdeeds of a very small number of people who became fabulously wealthy, even more wealthy as a result of their misdeeds and really as a direct result of the suffering of many millions of people. So the housing crisis right now that we’re experiencing in this country is bad, and it’s impacting a growing number of people across sectors—across class, across race, and across gender.
To be clear, because of structural inequities, including racism and patriarchy, those who are most disproportionately impacted by the housing crisis are low-income black women. Every study has demonstrated that that is the most disproportionately impacted group in this country as it relates to the housing crisis.
Nonetheless, everyone is getting impacted by the housing crisis, and certainly large numbers of people who normally are immune to these kinds of ups and downs in the market. So we’re having this huge crisis, people are suffering as a result of this crisis.
In response to the crisis, people are looking at it and reacting to it in different extremes.
- On one side we have people who are opening their arms to those who are suffering, who are volunteering more, who are donating more money, who are joining organizations, who are taking over lands and occupying them and doing all kinds of other things. That’s the extreme on one side.
- The extreme on the other side are the people who watch the suffering and see the suffering and react to that suffering or respond to that suffering by saying that the government should stop giving checks to people and should stop giving handouts to people and should stop helping people who are suffering in the midst of this economic crisis.
Either way, in both extreme responses, people are reacting to the crisis and to the impacts of the crisis, and they’re changing their ideas about what the different institutions in the society are as a result of the crisis. So in both extreme responses to the crisis, people are compelled to rethink their relationship to social institutions. We’re rethinking what our relationship is to social institutions.
The truth is, when you could go out and get a $200,000 mortgage to pay for a house that was worth only $100,000 because everyone thought that in 6 months you could turn around and sell it for $300,000, nobody was complaining about banks and the finance system and interest rates, etc.
That’s because when a Ponzi scheme is on its way up, nobody is complaining about it, as long as it’s paying out. The only time people start complaining about a Ponzi scheme is when it’s on its way down and you’ve lost money in it.
But if we are really against injustice, then we have to be against injustice even when that injustice is working to our personal individual benefit, not just when it turns against us. So for better or for worse, now that what was called the housing boom has turned into a housing bust, people are questioning the system that created the housing boom in the first place as well as created the bust.
So this new willingness to rethink ideas about institutions in the society presents the social justice movement with a unique and historic opportunity. That unique and historic opportunity is to explain how we would reshape the society, how we would re-envision, reimagine, and rebuild the society.
That means that if this crisis is as bad as it appears—and I think that it is—and if people are suffering the way they are, then that means that the people who are suffering are going to rethink the institutions in their lives and they’re going to be willing to make changes to those institutions in a way that they were not willing to make changes before we got hit by this crisis. The idea that you have a crisis and as a result of the crisis people are shifting their ideas, their conceptions of social institutions, speaks directly to theories of social transformation: How does social transformation actually happen, what leads to it, and how can you predict where it’s going and what areas it’s going to impact?
There are in every society, and even in small groups and organizations and families, contradictions and there are conflicts. Sometimes those contradictions and conflicts rise to the level of a crisis. And when those contradictions and conflicts rise to the level of a crisis, in response to that crisis ideas emerge about how to resolve the crisis, how to solve the crisis, or how to deal with the crisis. Those ideas or the people behind them, the social forces behind them, then fight it out in what we call a social clash in order to advance their particular position. As a result of this fighting out, whatever existed before is overturned and something new takes its place, for good or for bad. Sometimes it’s for better, sometimes it’s for worse, but either way that is the process.
For example, you might have in a society costs which go up so quickly and so high that millions of people in that society are not able to afford health care and the society determines that there is a real health care crisis. As a result of the health care crisis, different ideas then emerge about how to solve it:
- Some people say the way you solve the health care crisis is you prevent patients from suing doctors.
- Other people say the way you solve the crisis is that you have the government put out an insurance policy, which then competes with the other insurance policies.
- And others say the way to solve the crisis is by ensuring that every single person–regardless of their age, regardless of their income, regardless of their current health situation–have full and total access to health care by mere virtue of the fact that they’re human beings and that universal health care is the only way to solve the crisis.
These different ideas emerge. There are social forces behind each one. They fight it out in a social clash. As a result, the existing way of running health care in the society is overturned, and a new one replaces it. It could be a new one for good, it could be a new one for bad, it could be a new one that ends up being a wash in many ways, but either way, it’s a new one.
So the process, then, involves a crisis. As a result of the crisis, you have different ideas on how to solve it, and then you have social clash where these ideas fight it out. And then at the end of the social clash, something is destroyed and something new replaces that institution. It’s a new society or a new segment or portion of the society.
Social clashes are nothing new. They happen all the time, and they happen at different levels and in different sizes. And they happen locally, they happen nationally, they happen internationally.
But sometimes social clashes rise to the level of major social clashes. To date, the U.S. has experienced three major social clashes, each of which has significantly transformed the way this country works.
- The first social clash we commonly call the Civil War. There was a really crisis in that you had two economic systems competing for dominance in this country. One was slavery and the other was industrial capitalism. Of course, no country can have two economic systems operating at the same time, in the same place, so there was a social clash–in fact, the ultimate social clash, a civil war–about which way this economy, the economy in the U.S., would run and what would be the fundamental movement of the economy. As a direct result, you had the end of slavery (at least, the legal end of slavery), and you had the emergence of industrial capitalism. It completely changed the society forever. There’s no denying that. For good or for bad, for not enough, it completely changed the society.
- The second major social clash was what we commonly call the Great Depression. The crisis was a complete and total economic meltdown. And as a result of the economic meltdown, different ideas emerged about how to solve the economic crisis. Are we going to allow the market to resolve it? Are we going to have greater government intervention? Are we going to build some kind of social safety net to protect people from these kinds of economic downturns and also put limits on the way businesses can do whatever it is they do? As a result of an extremely well organized labor movement with very clear objectives, the latter part won out, and a social safety net was built almost from scratch in this country, and all kinds of limitations were put on corporations. Not enough of a social safety net, not enough limitations, but this society was fundamentally changed forever as a direct result of the crisis and the social clash coming out of the Great Depression.
- The third major social clash is commonly called the civil rights movement. First of all, there were many components to that, but just to focus in on one, there was an emerging black middle class that was beginning to develop some economic clout but couldn’t use it in any real significant way. We had people who had enough money to go out to nice restaurants and eat but weren’t allowed in because of Jim Crow laws, and they were no longer willing to tolerate that kind of behavior. So they organized and shut down parts of society and formed a real crisis in the society. There were ideas that emerged about how to resolve that. Was there going to be segregation of the races? Was there going to be complete separation, or was there going to be the end of legal segregation? As a direct result, there was the end of legal segregation in the U.S. and a complete transformation, which I think most people could not have possibly anticipated, certainly not in the 1950s.
Each of these three social clashes occurred as a result of crisis and overturned the way things work in this country and reshaped the country forever—for good, for bad, for indifferent, reshaped the country forever.
As a direct result of the ongoing economic crisis, we believe that the U.S. is on the cusp of entering its fourth major social clash. Because the economic crisis is deeply rooted in the housing and foreclosure crisis, we believe that the social clash is going to be fundamentally rooted in the housing industry and that at the end of this period we will see significant changes in how land relationships work and how housing in this country works. So therefore, because the crisis is firmly rooted in the housing sector, we think the part of the society that’s going to be overturned, transformed, and replaced is going to be firmly rooted in the housing sector.
At this time banks are reporting megaprofits, record profits in many instances. The executives of those banks are getting record bonuses at the end of the year, and all of those bonuses are being paid by our tax money. At the same time that this is happening, millions of people are losing their homes. And the ability for banks to kick those people out of their homes in a perverse way is being financed by the people who are getting foreclosed on and evicted. They’re paying the banks; they’re providing the banks with the money that the banks need to foreclose on and evict those families. So entire communities are suffering the consequences now of this housing crisis and this foreclosure crisis.
As a direct result, people are questioning the value of an economic system that can cause so much damage and so much pain to so many people while providing so much wealth, so much fabulous wealth, to such a small number of people and corporations. More specifically, people are wondering aloud, in ways that they did not before. Should people be kicked out of their homes even when the banks that are kicking them out have been compensated for that home through the federal bailout that we paid for?
What is the responsibility that we have towards our other fellow human beings to house them when they don’t have housing and to take care of them when they don’t have jobs or other support services? More importantly, what is a home? What is a community? What is our relationship to that community and what is the relationship of things like banks and other corporations to that community and to our homes? Who should control the land and the housing in our community?
These questions and the motivating factors behind these questions I think are forming the cornerstone of one of the pillars or posts that is going to emerge and turn into the fighting points for this coming social clash, where people will question the existing way of operating land relationships and argue that they should function in an entirely different way and we should move the society in that direction. This, again, is an unprecedented opportunity for the social justice movement to develop, articulate, and meaningfully struggle for transformation in the way society relates to land and land relationships in general and housing in particular. This presents for us a unique opportunity, which we haven’t had in many, many decades in this country.
In his seminal work, Wretched of the Earth, the great African writer Frantz Fanon said,
Every generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission and then either fulfill that mission or betray it.
As a direct result of the economic crisis and the housing crisis and this response that we are seeing now to that crisis, the mission of the social justice movement–the mission, indeed, of this generation–is becoming increasingly clear. We can in our lifetimes elevate housing to the level of a human right.
The mission of this generation, the mission of this social justice movement, is to elevate housing to the level of a human right and secure community control over land. We can accomplish that. And given what the crisis is and what the opportunity is, we have nothing less than that on our plate today. That’s what we have to address.
The opportunity, however, to go from a system where whoever has the most money can buy up all the housing and the people who don’t have any money don’t have access and have to hide in bushes and sleep there in hopes that the police do not find them and arrest them–the opportunity that we have to shift from that system to a system where housing is a human right–is here, but is by no means guaranteed. That is to say, there are very powerful people who don’t want to see it changed from the market system to the housing-as-a-human-right system because they benefit significantly from the existing way of doing things.
So in order for us to move in the direction of elevating housing to the level of a human right and securing community control of the land, we need to have clarity about what it is that we’re trying to do and how we are trying to do it so that we don’t make tactical errors during the social clash. If we’re not clear about where we’re going or how it is we want to go there, we’re going to continually make tactical mistakes as a movement, and we’re not going to get to the destination. Those who benefit from the existing system are going to find ways of ensuring that we don’t get to the destination where we want to end up at.
Confusion here is the enemy of progress. So we must develop clarity about the nature of this time in history, this particular social clash, and the potential that we have to transform society at this time. The lack of clarity about the core issues involved here will destroy this opportunity, will undermine this opportunity, and could actually force us to go backward rather than go forward.
At the end of the social clash, of course, we have a significantly different society, but the significantly different society doesn’t guarantee that it’s going to be significantly different in a better way. I think we’re heading to a T in the road, and we can take either a hard turn, where we go from the way things are now to housing as a human right, or we will go in the exact opposite direction to complete and total corporate control over our lives.
We don’t think about it this way now because we’re still in the midst of the crisis, but think about this 20 or 30 years out. The number of foreclosures and evictions that are happening, the number of banks that are taking over, there are a few, relatively small number, five banks, that are taking on the vast majority of foreclosures. It’s not difficult to imagine in 20 years that the U.S. has only five landlords and people are renting from one of the five landlords, and these five landlords are corporate barons. So just because we have this opportunity doesn’t mean that we’re going to get there. We could just as easily be either lulled to sleep and the opportunity goes in the other direction, or we could be tricked into having the opportunity go in the other direction.
The key to clarity here, I think, is to properly distinguish between a root issue and a surface issue—a root issue, or the cause of something, and the surface issue, or the manifestation or symptom of something. The failure to distinguish between the root issue and the surface issue is going to cause us great problems. It will cause you to go left when you think you’re going right, and it will cause you to go down when you think you’re going up, and it will cause you to run in circles, and because you will be running extremely quickly, you’re thinking you’re going somewhere but you’re actually not going anywhere at all.
So, to be perfectly clear, the foreclosures that we’re having during this crisis are a manifestation or symptom of the problem. It is not the actual problem. Gentrification, that has impacted low-income communities of color, closing of public housing units and all kinds of other things that have devastated communities of color and low-income communities are surface issues, not root issues. By surface issues we mean the manifestation of things we can touch and see and actually deal with. If we don’t deal with the root issue and we only deal with the surface issues, we’re going to put ourselves in a cycle where we are forced to repeat the battles in other generations to come, maybe not even in generations, maybe in just a few more years.
We have to deal with the root issue, not just with the surface issue. We saw this clearly in the 1950s and 1960s in this country. In the 1950s and 1960s, the larger white communities in many states–including, by the way, in Oregon and many local communities–was able to go to the black community and say to them,
You are only allowed to live in this area. You have to stay in between this street and that street. And you can’t go out of there at night. You can’t live in other neighborhoods. This is where you have to stay. You can’t go anywhere else.
That was called segregation, or Jim Crow laws.
Recently, in the early 2000s, as the housing boom was taking off and housing prices were going up, the larger white community was then able to go to these black communities and say,
The land that you’re sitting on right now, the one that we forced you into, is now valuable. It’s waterfront property. We want to build a stadium there, we want to build a performing arts center there. You have to get out of there, so that we can take your house, demolish it, and build condos or build a stadium or whatever it is we want to build.
That was called gentrification, or the forcible removal of low-income people in order to make room for higher-income people.
Objectively there’s no difference between someone saying to you “You have to stay over here” and someone saying to you “You can’t stay over there, you have to get out of there.” In either instance you have no real control over where you live, work, sleep, worship, etc. Either way, someone else is in control of your life and in control of the circumstances around your life. That’s because the real issue in the 1950s and the 1960s was not segregation, and the real issue in the early 2000s during the housing boom was not gentrification. Those were just surface issues or manifestations of the real issue. The real issue was land and the lack of control that we have over land. The real question was who has actual control over this land.
The failure to distinguish properly between the root issue and the surface issue of segregation led to tactical errors during the civil rights movement and ultimately doomed us to repeat today some of the same fights that we had to fight back then in the 1950s and 1960s. There were some people who actually thought that if you just changed a group of laws, the Jim Crow laws, which said that black people weren’t allowed to go here, black people weren’t allowed to eat over there, that that would somehow make the air cleaner and the water fresher and make everyone’s life better. They thought that would actually solve the problem. But the Jim Crow laws were not the problem, they were the manifestation of the problem. The problem is: You had a group of people who were saying,
We think we are better than you, and we’re human and you’re not human.
The way they made that real or the way that they made that tangible was by making these laws. You couldn’t, then, end the way they were feeling or the way they were acting just by ending the laws which they enacted in order to codify the way they were feeling or the way they were acting.
At some point we have to deal with the real issue. And that’s the fact that white supremacy existed and dominated the society. It continues to exist and dominate today. So not recognizing properly the difference between ending segregation and ending racism was a huge problem in the same way that not properly understanding the difference between ending segregation and changing land relationships was also a huge problem.
Let us be equally clear about the problem that we face today. The root issue we face today is not what interest rate you’re paying or what your principal is and whether or not you’re going to get your principal reduced, and it’s not about the number of foreclosures. All of those who are manifestations or the symptoms of the problem. The problem that we have today is faulty land relationships that are based entirely on who has the most money rather than who is a human being and what is the collective benefit or the proper collective use of this piece of land. If we don’t properly understand the difference between one and the other, we are going to make tactical mistakes in this time, and we are going to blow a huge opportunity to advance the human agenda, the right of human beings to have housing and community control over land.
To be perfectly clear, we want to stop foreclosures, we want to build more public housing. But we can’t build a movement just to stop foreclosures, and we can’t build a movement just to build more public housing. We have to build a movement to elevate housing to the level of a human right and secure community control over land.
The transformation of the society and the transformation, really, of land relationships is going to manifest itself in community control over land, and those communities will then figure out how to implement the human right to housing. As it relates to the clash, the building of this movement that we need to engage in right now in order to position ourselves to fight the social clash—because, you know, on the other side they’re building their own movement so that they can resist the fight to elevate housing to the level of being a human right and resist the efforts to secure community control over land—is going to require from us fundamental shifts in how we view certain phenomena in this society, particularly phenomena such as development.
Some people believe that development is fundamentally about tall buildings, beautifully designed buildings with curves, it’s about high-speed Internet, it’s about sleek roads, it’s about medical equipment or whatever the particular thing is. We, however, contend that development is not fundamentally about buildings or fundamentally about high-speed Internet or fundamentally about some of these other comforts that we have here in this country, but that development is fundamentally about human beings. Not about things but about human beings. If we can develop things to serve human beings, that’s one thing; but if we’re just building things, that’s not really accomplishing too much.
This society is completely and totally unmatched in terms of the building of technology, the development of technology, and the development of things like buildings and a lot of the trappings that we see. But at the same time that the society is building up these incredible structures and making these incredible technological and medical advancements, this society right here has more human beings in prison than any other society, any other country in the world, including China, with many times this country’s population. China is condemned worldwide as a human rights violator, but this country has more people in prison than China has or that any other country in the world has.
If development is fundamentally about things, then this society will go down as the greatest society in the history of humankind, because no other society has been able to create things and develop things the way this one has. If, however, development is fundamentally about human beings, the development of human beings rather than the development of things, the society will go down as one of the greatest failures in the history of humankind.
The richest country in the history of the planet is cutting education right now, it’s cutting people off of public assistance right now, and is turning people away from hospitals right now who are sick and can’t get treatment. If development is about things, this will be greatest society in the history of the world. If development is judged to be about people, however, this will be judged to be one of the worst societies in the history of the world.
In the same way that we have to adjust the way we think about development in order to engage in this social clash, at the core of what the social clash is or what the social clash will be about, I think, is the concept of the idea of what ultimately the fundamental purpose of housing is in the society. Most people think that the fundamental purpose of housing in the society should be to provide a home for human beings. That’s what most people think. But in this society, as with many others, the fundamental purpose of housing is not to provide a home for human beings but to serve as a profit center for banks, for corporations, for speculators, even for individual homeowners. This society is going to have to work out for itself what the real purpose of housing is, what the real purpose of four walls and a roof is, whether it’s to be a profit center or whether it is to house human beings in a decent way that they can afford.
The fundamental purpose of housing as well as the purpose of development–but the fundamental purpose of housing in particular–is at the core of the coming social clash. In a real way it’s about two existing rights, or at least two perceived rights. On the one hand, you have the human right to housing, and on the other hand you have the right of corporations to make a profit. The two rights seem to be increasingly mutually exclusive. If human beings get the right to housing, then corporations are not going to make the profits they want to make. If corporations get to make the profits they want to make, then there are going to be millions of human beings who don’t have access to housing.
The fact that there is a conflict here in rights, or two competing rights, is not new, it’s not unique to the U.S., it’s not even unique to countries. All the time we have people who suffer and have to work out how to resolve competing rights. One person has the right to free speech. Another person has the right to peace and quiet. How is that worked out in a society? How is that worked out in a community? This generation, I think, is going to be largely judged by how we resolve this particular clashing of rights, or clashing of perceived rights.
We assert at Take Back the Land that the right of human beings to housing supersedes the right of corporations to make a profit. And if we have to choose between the right of a human being to have housing and the right of corporations to make a profit, we must fall on the side of the human right to housing over and above the right of corporations to make a profit, even at the expense of the right of corporations to make a profit. In a real way, Take Back the Land as an organization and as a movement was organized around making this idea that human beings have the right to housing, and corporations do not have a right to profit real in practice, not just real in theory.
On October 23, 2006, in the midst of a crushing wave of gentrification to low-income communities in Miami, Florida, we at Take Back the Land, a small group, seized control of a vacant land in the Liberty City section of Miami, and we built an urban shantytown there called the Umoja Village shantytown, and we housed about 150 people in all. This is in 2006. We called this liberating land. On that piece of land, in a real way, we built a new society, where the people who lived there got to make the rules about their community, and they got to decide who moved in, who had to move out, what time the kitchen was open, and all those other different considerations. The Umoja Village shantytown 6 months later, in April 2007, fell to a fire that we can only call suspicious.
Several months later, we recognized that the forces that compelled us to seize land in the first place and to build the Umoja Village shantytown in the first place remained at work in our communities. But we also noticed something interesting, which was that the houses which were increasing significantly in value in our communities were now starting to show up vacant. We had vacant homes dotting our communities. So starting in October of 2007, we began the process of identifying vacant government-owned and foreclosed homes. We would break into them and we would move homeless people into peopleless homes. We called this liberating housing, or, again, liberating land.
In 2008 we began the process of not just doing this kind of work in Miami, which we had been doing at that point for over a year but building what we called a translocal network, not a national organization with a central body but a network of organizations that were engaged in similar types of work. We now have affiliated organizations all across the U.S.
Moving families into vacant homes made tangible the human right to housing by two inherent acts.
- First, we directly challenged those laws, those immoral laws, which allowed human beings to live on the street while banks were allowed to warehouse vacant buildings so that they could profit on them later by manipulating the supply and demand of housing.
- The second is that we affirmatively were implementing our own public policy by moving people into structures that were otherwise serving no public good whatsoever.
We liberated homes, and we defended families from eviction by engaging in eviction blockades. But we didn’t invent either one of the strategies or either one of the tactics. Take Back the Land was modeled after other land reform movements around the world, particularly the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign in South Africa, Abahlali baseMjondolo in South Africa, and the MST in Brazil.
The Take Back the Land movement is organized under four core principles.
- The first is that housing is a fundamental human right.
- The second is that local communities must control their own land.
- The third is that any movement must be led by those who are impacted the most, must be led by impacted communities. For us that meant low-income black women.
- And fourth, because of the particular political economy of this day and age, we couldn’t accomplish these objectives by lobbying or by meeting with elected officials. We had to engage instead in what we call positive action campaigns. Most people call them direct action or civil disobedience campaigns. We have another distinction that we make. We talk about them in terms of positive action or direct action campaigns.
So in order to enforce this assertion that housing is a human right and to realize the human right to housing, we must build a movement that will fundamentally transform this society in the coming social clash. In terms of leadership by impacted communities, movements must be led by those who are most severely impacted by the crisis, which sparks those movements to life in the first place. The housing crisis most impacts low-income communities. But inside of those low-income communities, it mostly impacts communities of color. A lot of poor people are impacted by the crisis. Poor people of color are impacted more than whites. Inside of those communities of color, it impacts black communities more than it does other communities of color. And inside of black communities this crisis impacted women more than it’s impacted men.
Therefore, the movement, if we are to be true to the movement, must be led by the most impacted, which is low-income black women. That means not only must low-income black women be at the leadership—that doesn’t just mean in physical appearance, being out in front of the cameras—but the solutions that we derive to the housing crisis must be based on the solutions which are most meaningful and most impactful to that group of people, not the solutions which are least meaningful to that group of people.
In terms of the positive action campaigns, on February 1, 1960, there were four North Carolina A&T College students out of Greensboro, North Carolina, who went into a Woolworth’s five and dime and sat down and they refused to leave until they were served. They were not served. Instead, they were arrested because they were violating Jim Crow segregation laws. But that didn’t stop there. It inspired many others to come immediately after them and sit in at the same place, and then ultimately sit in at lunch counters all across the South.
On the fiftieth anniversary of the sit-ins, Take Back the Land found itself greatly inspired and wanting to learn from the model and to reproduce the model except apply it in modern days. So 50 years later, Take Back the Land called for the May 2010 month of action to liberate land, to liberate housing, and to engage in eviction defenses. We had actions which took place all across the United States at that time, all across the country. But we weren’t sitting in for a burger. We weren’t engaged in sit-ins so that we could get a burger or were we weren’t engaged in sit-ins so that we could sit on the bus. Instead, we were engaged in live-ins, where we lived in for the human right to housing.
In the 1950s and 1960s, laws that were unjust were changed because people recognized those laws as immoral, recognized those laws as unjust, and they intentionally broke those laws as a means of righting a wrong. That is known as civil disobedience, where you intentionally break an immoral law. We believe that housing is a fundamental human right. Human beings cannot live without housing.
And what makes this particular crisis so bizarre and so pernicious, really, and strange is that there is not a shortage of housing, there is actually a surplus of housing.
I went to a commission meeting in Miami, and it was straight out of The Twilight Zone. They had a morning session, where they talked about the growing number of homeless in Miami-Dade County. They talked about the number of homeless individuals who were coming out and the explosion of homeless families.
How are we going to deal with this? Our shelters are not made to handle this. How are we going to solve this problem? We don’t know how to solve the problem.
They assigned it to a committee. We talked about that, broke for lunch, came back from lunch afterward. Next item on the agenda:
We have a crisis because we have all these empty houses in the county. What are we going to do with these empty houses? Are we going to board them up or what?
No one at any point said,
Hey, we have a bunch of people who need a place to stay, and we have a bunch of places that need people to stay in them. Why don’t we just match them up together?
It didn’t occur to anyone.
So what’s really bizarre about this crisis is that generally when you have a housing crisis, it takes place in one of two ways.
- You can have a certain number of houses in a community, and for whatever reason there are more people entering that community than the houses that are available, so you have more people than houses. You have a shortage of housing.
- In other instances you have the housing crisis because the opposite happens. An area like, for example, Detroit has huge industries. Those industries either shut down or significantly reduce, and people flee the area. There’s a crisis where you have all these empty homes and you don’t have enough people, there’s not enough of a population to fill all the empty homes.
Those are two different kinds of housing crisis.
This crisis is the worst, though, because you have a dual crisis of too many people without any places to live and too many houses that are just sitting there vacant.
It is morally indefensible to have empty houses on one side of the street and people being forced to live in bushes on the other side of the street. It is morally indefensible. So more than breaking the immoral laws, like we did in the 1950s and 1960s, where we said we have the right to sit here, we have the right to be served here—more than breaking immoral laws, by taking people who don’t have anywhere to live and moving them into a home where they have somewhere to live, somewhere secure to be—we are actually implementing moral laws. If civil disobedience is breaking these immoral laws, positive action we think of not as civil disobedience but as moral obedience. We are engaged in campaigns, therefore, of moral obedience. Positive action campaigns are those in which we implement moral laws ourselves because we recognize that the government or other people in power are not willing to do that.
If we have obligations toward one another and we have a social contract that is built up among people, among societies, among human beings that says we have some things in common and we have to move some things in common—all of us need to educate our children so we’re going to pool our money together, and we’re going to build schools and hire teachers—if we have an obligation to each other, that obligation is fulfilled through a social contract, where we say we’re going to create government as a way of dealing with some of these things that we can’t all deal with on a one-to-one basis but we can deal with collectively. That is a way of fulfilling our obligations under the social contract that we have towards one another.
But if the government part or the mechanism that we created to fulfill the social contract breaks down, we still have that obligation toward one another. We don’t lose the obligation because the mechanism that we created to deal with that obligation breaks down. We still have that obligation. If the mechanism breaks down, that doesn’t alleviate us of the obligation; it just means that we are now responsible for fulfilling that obligation in an entirely different way. We are doing that by implementing moral laws ourselves rather than just allowing the immoral laws to dominate.
Again, we’ve been doing this since 2006, and we now have a national network. We noticed something was a little bit different in the air at the very end of 2010 and throughout 2011. While we were just about the only organization in the U.S. that was doing this from 2007 all the way through the end of 2010, as 2010 faded out and 2011 came in, more and more organizations contacted us about doing the same thing and more and more organizations did it on their own without contacting us, which was a huge, huge shift that we saw.
I remember clearly, I got two emails I ignored and then I got a call, “Did you hear something happened in New York? They’re doing some kind of land takeover.” I said, “I know. They’re doing takeovers everywhere. I’m busy, I’m working on something.” And the same thing the next day. Finally we saw those iconic images of the police penning in those four women and then pepper-spraying them. And we said, “Wait a minute. Something is happening here, something is going on here.” Occupy changed forever the trajectory of what we’re doing or the way we even thought about what we’re doing.
Occupy Wall Street started on September 17, 2011, and has inspired people around the U.S. and all around the world. Occupy is doing some amazing things. We love what Occupy is doing. What we’re doing at Take Back the Land is slightly different from what Occupy is doing, but in a really good way. We think that we are in the process now of building a singular movement which will go largely toward the direction that we’ve laid out today, but we’re building that singular movement with two separate tracks: an Occupy track and a liberate track. We think the two tracks are good, we think the two tracks are important, we think it’s important to understand the distinctions and important also to not fall into some common mistakes that we could potentially make.
Just to give some characteristics—these are overly broad, these are certainly not true everywhere and there is some crossing of course, these are not pure lines—but to give some overly broad characteristics:
- Occupy is mainly white. The core issue is the economic system, the economic injustice inherent in the system. And the way that that manifests itself is that Occupy has been taking over space, public space, space that is controlled by corporations, that kind of space.
- Liberate, on the other hand, what Take Back the Land has been doing, has been mainly people of color rather than mainly whites. Our core issue is land rather than the economic system, although obviously the two dovetail together very nicely. And we’ve been engaged in liberating our own spaces, liberating individual homes that people are living in rather than public spaces that people are not living in but want access to the commons.
We recognize these as two separate tracks. There are tendencies, in thinking about these tracks, that we should avoid, we must resist.
The first tendency is to think that the two tracks are two separate movements and that we must keep those two separate movements apart—You do your thing and we’ll do our thing. That is a common thing. Here’s what the white people are doing, here’s what the black people are doing. Let’s keep them apart. That is a tendency. It is a mistake.
The second tendency is to think that the two tracks should, instead of remaining as two tracks, merge into one singular track because we’re all doing the same thing and doing it the same way. It is also a mistake to think of it that way, and we must resist that temptation as well.
The two tracks are different but they’re not contradictory, they’re complementary. And we can advance this movement by creating one singular movement, but one singular movement with two tracks.
Really quickly I want to cover a couple of other things: Land liberation and eviction offense. As a result of the objective conditions at this time and the explosion of Occupy, while, again, we were one of the very few organizations doing this work at one time, now there are organizations all over the U.S. doing it, including a large number of Occupy groups. This is exciting. But as we talk about it with clarity, we must move in the proper direction by understanding the time that we’re in and where we’re ultimately going with this objective.
The predominant model right now is to wage these eviction defenses for homeowners, and then once we win the eviction defense, to demand principal reduction. That the mortgage that the homeowner had, the principal will be reduced on the mortgage in order to be at market value or whatever. While we support the idea of principal reduction as a means, we do not support the idea of principal reduction as an end for the movement, as an objective for the movement. Principal reduction is necessary in order to build this movement. It’s necessary in order to achieve the kind of justice that we want, but it is insufficient, it is not enough to achieve the kind of justice that we want.
First of all, principal reduction helps only homeowners, it doesn’t help renters. It helps only homeowners who have jobs, because if you are a homeowner and even if your principal is reduced by half, that just means you have half as much of a mortgage that you can’t pay as you did before you got the principal reduction. It disproportionately helps higher-income people, because higher-income people are more likely to have mortgages than lower-income people. And it disproportionately helps whites. The majority of whites own their own homes, live in homes that they own. The majority of people of color do not live in homes that they own.
The most important thing is that principal reduction as an objective, not as a step but as an objective, fails to fundamentally transform the land relationship. It doesn’t add one more house to the housing stock, it doesn’t make any house affordable except for the individual family that benefits, and it doesn’t change the faulty parts of the system that created this Ponzi scheme in the first place.
So we must step up in two ways.
- The first way is to frame the issue as housing as a human right and community control over land, not frame the issue merely as an issue of principal reduction, the levels of principal or interest rates or whatever. It manifests itself in two ways.
- First, when we win a home, we can’t just demand that the bank reduces the principal on the home. We have to demand that the bank hands the home over to a democratically controlled community land trust, not to the individual homeowner but to a democratically controlled community land trust. This is important on many levels. First of all, if the community gets together and they fight for the land and they fight for the housing, then the community must have some benefit in the land and in the housing. The benefit we want is we want the land and the housing to be permanently affordable. The only way it’s going to be permanently affordable is if we remove at least a portion of it from the market. If we build a movement that just gives individuals homes, either reduced-principal homes or gives the homes outright and then those individuals turn around the very next day and they sell it to the highest bidder, then we’ve not only failed to change the system, we’ve actually reinforced it and we’re probably going speed up the time in which the Ponzi scheme rolls back up and then cracks back up.
- The second thing is that the community land trust will be a way in which communities can have real control over the land in our communities and our homes. We still have to get the family taken care of, but instead of saying that the family should get principal reduction, the house should be handed over to the community land trust.
- The other thing about handing it over to the community land trust is that, of course, you say, “We have to pay the banks for the house.” I just want to be perfectly clear: The banks have been paid for those homes through the bailout money. They’ve already been paid for those foreclosed homes. And this is a very strange situation, where the banks have been paid for the homes, but then after they’ve been paid for them, they get to keep the homes and resell them again later. If you went into a convenience store and you wanted a bottle of water and you went to the convenience store clerk and you gave them a dollar, you would expect them to give you the water. You would say to them, “Look, you can either take the dollar and give me the water or I’ll keep the dollar and you keep the water. I’m not going to give you the dollar and you keep the water and you get to sell it to the next person.” That’s exactly what happened here. We paid the banks for the houses, and then the bank gets to keep the house and they get to sell it again to the next person. We have already paid for these homes, and we don’t intend on paying for them again.
So the first track of demands has to be around the individual family and that the individual family gets to stay through the community land trust, not through them getting it individually. But then the second track must be that we make demands not just around the individual family but around policies. What were the laws that existed that made it possible for this family to get foreclosed on and evicted in the first place? We want those laws changed as well.
As we win these hard-fought victories, we can’t just win them for the individual families. We know how difficult it is to wage some of these campaigns. We cannot possibly wage 1,000 campaigns. And then even if we win all 1,000 of them, we only help 1,000 people. If we’re going to engage in these campaigns, we have to end foreclosures and evictions forever, not just for the individual families with whom we engage in this. So we have to change those laws.
The next thing you’re going to start seeing are not just the eviction defenses of these individual homes but entire eviction-free zones, where entire sections of cities are going to be declared eviction-free zones and no eviction is going to allowed to happen uncontested in those areas.
Now organizations, and rightfully so, are celebrating when they win principal reduction for families. We think that after this people will be unsatisfied when an organization comes to them and says, “Congratulations. We just got you a $150,000 mortgage,” when we can instead say we got this community control over land and whatever you are paying for your mortgage on the top is going to match as a percentage of your income, not just be whatever amount the bank can squeeze out of you. So democratically controlled community land trust is where we think this is going in the future. So we’re building now, Take Back the Land is and several other organizations are, a movement to elevate housing to the legal of a human right and to secure community control over land.
To be clear, social movements happen and social movements are the only way that we have seen significant advancements in our rights—in this country or in any other country. No people have ever walked and accidentally tripped into liberation. No oppressors have ever accidentally passed a law freeing the people that they are oppressing. The end of oppression only happens through organized struggle. It happens through organized struggle because people who believe in the same things join the same organization and that organization fights for the vision of the world they want to see.
If you say you are against injustice, then you have to join an organization that is fighting against injustice and fighting for the type of justice and the type of world that you want to see. If you say you are against injustice and you’re not in an organization that’s fighting against injustice, then you are not really for the end of the injustice. You must be part of an organization, because that is the only way that’s been proved to advance the idea of justice and to end injustice. You have to join an organization in order to advance the idea of justice.
Just to be clear, too, we all have an obligation to advance the human cause, to make life better for human beings. In fact, that’s the fundamental purpose of life, is to improve human life on Earth. We all have an obligation toward that. But the way we each fulfill that obligation could be different. There’s a group, organizations out there that are fighting for justice by engaging in eviction defenses and land liberation and getting arrested for it, that is the work we are engaged in. If you choose not to participate in that way, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that, there’s nothing less than that, there’s nothing untoward about that. But just because you choose not to engage in the movement in the same way that Take Back the Land engages in the movement, that doesn’t alleviate your obligation to also participate in the movement. You still have an obligation to be engaged in the movement and to fight for the kind of world that you want to see.
If you are not joining Take Back the Land, then you have to join the Occupy movement. If the Occupy movement is not your thing, then you have to join an organization in your community that’s fighting for the type of world that you want to see. If there is no organization in your community that’s fighting for the type of world that you want to see, then you have an obligation to create that organization yourself and get other people to join it so that you can engage in the fight to see the world that you want to see. We’re building a movement to elevate housing to the level of a human right and secure community control over land. You must be part of that movement as we move forward in history.
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