Battle for the Block


 

In East Harlem, they have organized building by building to reclaim El Barrio from those who would “develop” them out of it. In Chinatown they’ve rolled out a rent strike to win the repairs needed for tenants suffering from landlord neglect on Delancey Street. In the West Village, they’ve mobilized LGBT young people of color to stand up for their right to gather on the Christopher Street Pier. On the Lower East Side, they’ve built a tenants’ union to defend “what is most beautiful about New York, the city that welcomed everyone…[that’s now] welcoming only money.” 

These are some of the activists at the front lines of a city-wide battle for the block. On Sunday, October 21, they came together in East Harlem to “share words of struggle, support, and solidarity” at the first ever NYC Encuentro for Dignity and Against Gentrification. 

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The Encuentro was convened by the Movement for Justice in El Barrio (MJB), an immigrant community- based organization, internationally allied with the Zapatistas’ “Other Campaign.” Since 2004, MJB has fought “for social justice and humanity” and against the displacement of their people from their neighborhoods. They are writing a new chapter in a long history of resistance in El Barrio, the home of low-income immigrant families (the average annual income of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. is $10,000). 

Community members from a block away and activists from as far as Providence and Philadelphia filled the basement of a community center on 116th Street. They sat around the speakers who were accompanied by a Zapatista puppet and a green gentrification piñata representing neo-liberalism. Colorful banners hung from the walls, one of them depicting an eagle ripping up chains of gentrification from city blocks, proclaiming “dignified housing, justice, freedom” in Spanish. 

Grassroots organizers took turns talking about “who we are, conditions we face, our forms of struggle, and our dreams.” The speaking was punctuated by frequent bursts of applause and chants of “¡Si se puede!” (“Yes we can!”).

Organizers Bin Liang and Helena Wong of CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities and its Chinatown Justice Project, with more than 20 years of community defense under their collective belt (and now part of a new national alliance called Right to the City), commented: “We are fighting against landlords who have no heart and also a government that has no heart…. The connections are very close between the oppression we face at home and what the U.S. is doing all over the world.”  

Desiree, X, and Jay of FIERCE! (Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment), who were struggling for youth space and services as the city laid out its plans for a “Vegas on the Hudson” playground for the rich, spoke about how “our community isn’t being listened to because we’re young, because we’re gay, and because we’re of color.” 

Rob Hollander of UNYTE (Union of New York Tenants) had been organizing to keep luxury developers from rezoning and bulldozing the community around the Bowery. “The city that I remember was a city of immigrants…. The city as I know it is disappearing. Immigrants are being pushed out by people with money and the money is changing the color of the neighborhoods.” 

Matt Wade of the West Side SRO Law Project, a group that supplies free legal and housing aid to those who can only afford single room occupancy (SRO), said after the Encuentro that he had found “so many folks who are busy working on ways to build their communities, to stop this real estate machine from devouring our local histories and community investments, and to fashion dreams for our future.” 

The members and organizers of MJB, who hosted and facilitated the Encuentro, spoke of their struggles and common dreams. Oscar Dominguez described how MJB had won victories in 23 buildings, using everything from building committees (which made their own decisions) to lawsuits against landlords to direct action. “Together,” declared Juan Haro, an MJB organizer, “we fight back against the actions of landlords and multinational corporations…. We know that…we do not stand alone in our resistance. We know that there are humble and simple people like ourselves in many parts of the city fighting back to keep their homes and save their communities.” 

MJB has long been part of the local-global justice movement through its alliance with the Zapatistas and now they’re taking on the UK-based investment bank Dawnay Day (which recently bought up piece of Harlem costing millions).  

Like the Zapatistas, MJB refuses to bow to politicians and the system they serve. This fall, member Victor Caletre was approached by two people from the office of East Harlem Councilperson Melissa Mark- Viverito, who offered him $350 a week to quit MJB and start working with their office. Caletre refused, telling the Encuentro: “I have dignity and my dignity doesn’t have a price.” 

MJB member Sonia Lopez told the gathering how “we dream of a world in which many worlds fit. We dream of a world in which there is equality, in which we can raise our children…. We all share the same earth, breathe the same air. We are together, we can do it.” (“¡Si se puede!”) 

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Michael Gould-Wartofsky is a member of SDS and a freelance writer.