If one of the first steps in organizing is talking to people, what is the next step? As I discussed in an earlier commentary, “Class War and Door Knocking during Blizzards” (see below for link), it turns out that winter is a good time to canvas. If you are going in to organize tenants in a dilapidated apartment building during a snow storm, you’re more likely to find people at home.
Now it is spring. The snow has melted. And what has become of our door knocking? Well, it has evolved into meetings. It sounds inconsequential at first. How can a meeting be any kind of match for the horrible conditions that families face in this apartment building? But you’d be surprised what can happen at a meeting. When you gather people together, you start to break down isolation. You have a chance to listen to each other. And, most importantly if your aim is long-term systemic change, you have the chance to move beyond sharing information about rights and legal protections, and you start to shift people’s world view. Let’s take each one of these in turn.
Break Down Isolation
Just the very minimum act of holding a meeting for tenants to discuss the terrible conditions they face in their building is a revolutionary act. It’s sad to say so, but it’s true. We have all been trained to think the conditions we face are immutable. We can’t change them. We can devise ways to rationalize them and tolerate them and distract ourselves from them, and we can hold out the hope that we’ll soon be able to move out or move on or move up, but that’s akin to playing the lottery. Occasionally someone wins the coveted prize. Most don’t.
Holding a meeting about tenants’ conditions implies that there’s something you can do about tenants’ conditions – something more than plead with the landlord or call inspectional services. This is a scary prospect for tenants who have been suffering with leaks in their ceilings, black mold, mal-functioning plumbing, sewage backing up into bathtubs, soaked hallway carpeting, used syringes in the hallways, and overflowing dumpsters out back. It’s scary because the meeting is going to help them switch from “pleading” mode to “power” mode. If there is some little shred of relief they may have gotten from pleading mode, it feels like that may now be at risk. A few weeks ago, you got the landlord to agree to fix that leak, and here you are joining a group that plans to be a bit more confrontational and do a lot more than demand to fix a leak. What will happen to that repair that you so desperately needed and thought perhaps you might have wrangled? Is it smart to possibly sacrifice that for a much less secure but much greater gain?
By joining together with others to confront the landlord, you are taking a different stance. You are united in how he affects you and so you are figuring out how to unite in your fight against him. This makes you more powerful and less alone. You are more willing to take the risk of pissing off your landlord and further delaying the fix of the leak because you see that, together, you could make much more progress than you can one by one. The meeting itself is a qualitative shift in building relations. Tenants see themselves as having common interests. They experience the transformation of realizing they are not alone.
Another thing that happens in a meeting is tenants all get a chance to listen to each other, and in doing so they find their voice. It’s a relief to talk with others about what you’ve been going through and to find out that others have been suffering in similar ways. When people listen, it’s easier to get in touch with your anger and indignation, which are more powerful feelings than victimization. Organizers learn by listening. We find out what people are experiencing and we support them to keep talking, keep thinking out loud, keep finding the words to tell their stories. One woman we spoke with started out scared to open her door to talk to canvassers. With encouragement, she eventually came to a meeting, another frightening prospect given fears of retaliation. At the meeting, she tearfully told her story and experienced support from others. Now she is a leader in the building, doing the door-knocking herself, hosting meetings in her apartment, and helping to gather signatures on open letters to the landlord.
Share Information and Analysis – Moving beyond “Rights”
Breaking down isolation, gaining your voice, and learning that you have power in numbers is just the beginning. Tenants learn that, thanks to the hard work of previous generations of organizers, they have certain rights and protections. For example, they have a right to organize a tenants’ union. It’s illegal for the landlord to retaliate. It’s illegal for the landlord to allow these conditions to exist in the building. They have a right to a clean, safe building.
But organizing around rights and legalities is not enough. It is important, of course. People deserve these rights and protections. But ultimately we don’t want to just keep adding rights and protections to a system that is inherently designed to victimize many while enriching a few. We want to get rid of that system all together. If a beast attacks you, you might do some things in the short term to make the beast’s claws a little less sharp. Your efforts will be worth something; it will hurt less when he swipes at you and at the people you love. But in the long run, won’t you want to step up your game? Won’t you want a strategy to de-claw the beast, to disable him, and then just kill him off once and for all?
At the housing justice organization where I volunteer, City Life/Vida Urbana, we take it a step beyond ensuring that tenants’ rights are not being violated. We provide an analysis that throws the whole system into question. One way we do this is we model “They say/We say” dialogues (“they” being the corporate landlord (and the interests he represents), and “we” being the organizers).
They say: I’m not going to meet with you tenants as a group. I have separate leases with each of you. I’m only going to negotiate with you one by one.
We say: We refuse to negotiate with you one by one. We refuse to pay rent increases (though we will keep paying the old rent); and we won’t move out. You can try evicting us all one by one, but then we will see you in court, and we will let the judge know about the conditions we have been living under. You must negotiate with us as an association or not at all.
They say: But I need to raise the rent. My expenses are very high. I just bought this building (or just refinanced) for x million dollars, and I need to generate revenue to pay off the mortgage.
We say: Sorry, but it’s not our fault you borrow money in order to finance your investments and increase your profits. Don’t expect us to pay for your speculation in the marketplace. We refuse to do that. We accept small rent increases that reflect the higher cost of utilities, for example. Asking tenants to underwrite your business ventures is just wrong. We live here. To you, it’s a gamble you took in the marketplace. To us, it is home.
They say: But the economy needs investors like us. We keep the marketplace humming. We put more housing stock into the marketplace.
We say: No, investors like you cause forced displacement of people like us. Your speculation in the marketplace drives up prices and leaves people homeless. When you do reinvest your wealth, it largely goes toward new housing that meets the needs of the most wealthy. Or your investments go into the financial sector which creates wealth that never trickles down to regular people except when it avalanches down on us in the form of an economic crisis.
Bringing people together in a meeting, then, is more revolutionary than first meets the eye. By connecting people, you break down their isolation, and capitalism hates it when that happens. The profit-driven economy depends on us thinking we’re all on our own; we can only fight back as individuals, carving out tiny little gains for our private selves or maybe our children. The meeting is a forum for listening, and being listened to is one way people access their voice, figure out their story, and discover commonalities with others. Finally, the meeting is a place where people can learn their rights, gain new tools for analysis, and transform their worldview.
We did the door-knocking in the winter and now we’re holding meetings in the spring because we care about what is happening in our community. We want to ease the pain that corporate landlords are causing in the short term, and we want to dismantle the whole mess (aka the profit-driven, competitive, isolation-based, and oppression-inspiring economic system) in the long term.
A meeting may not seem like much, but there’s a lot we can accomplish. We can meet our neighbors, we can listen and be heard, and we can gain the traction we need to carve out gains that help us de-claw, disable, and eventually kill the beast.
Read “Door-Knocking During Blizzards” here http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/The-Class-War-and-Door-Knocking-During-Blizzards-20150224-0030.html.