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Housing and Rights to the City


This is chapter nine of the book RPS/2044: An Oral History of the next American Revolution. RPS/2044 has its own book page, with front matter, reviews, essays, interviews, testimonials and place for user interaction with the interviewees. It is available via Amazon. In its nixth chapter Cynthia Parks and Andrej Goldman discuss 
building RPS chapters.

Bill Hampton, Cynthia Parks, and Harriet Lennon discuss transportation, housing, and rights to the city.

Bill Hampton, one thing that emerged early in RPS was attention to urban transportation. How did that occur, and what were its early features?

Even before RPS, I visited various European countries where the use of bicycles dwarfed that in the U.S. The benefits were exercise, clean air, a more social experience, cost effectiveness, and even reduced time of transit due to the inner city crowding that so delayed fueled vehicles. The obvious question was, why was bike transport almost completely absent in the U.S.? The answer was that fossil traffic was immensely profitable and therefore hard to jettison even after becoming disastrous for society.

When we asked whether long run health provided sufficient reason to accept some short run disruption, peoples’ reasons to resist declined until all that remained was that less cars would hurt some who didn’t deserve losses. This didn’t mean rich elites becoming less rich, which was just another virtue of bike campaigns. It meant auto workers and some travelers.

An interesting aspect was the interface with the “rights to the city” consciousness that had arisen long before in the developing world. “Rights to the city” advocated cities and regions designed for citizens to enjoy. It was not only about bikers, and clean air, but also food and housing, migration, education, a healthy environment, public space, non discrimination, and venues for popular political participation. “Rights to the city” became RPS program applied to urban areas, while RPS program became “rights to the city” applied universally.

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Cynthia Parks, can you tell us what drew you to RPS?

My family lost its home when I was ten years old. Many people we knew lost their’s too. I was young, but I saw families of four, five, and more living in one or two room ramshackle apartments or two or more families living together in a space too small for any one family. I saw families living in cars, as my family did for two years. I saw families plunged into anger, despair, alcohol, and opioid addiction. I saw incredible tension and violence. I had rats for roommates. But as I got older I met folks who devoted themselves to preventing evictions or to helping those who were evicted find new homes.

The contrast between housing activists who sought just results and real estate developers, bankers, and police who callously carried out evictions and arrests, decided my life. Within a short time of joining with housing activists my understanding broadened even while my passion remained housing.

I learned that the movers putting families onto the street weren’t the core problem. Nor were the bankers foreclosing on mortgages, or the cops, legislators, or real estate developers. They were each part of the problem, of course. And while some showed remorse, most acclimated themselves to their roles making it hard to empathize with them. But the core problem was a system of requirements that pushed people into these behaviors. That system was our enemy. I was already revolutionary because I not only despised that system, I also felt that despite all the deprivation and depravity, we could do better.

As a result, when I first met various RPS organizers, it was a perfect fit. I didn’t have to change my agenda. I only had to welcome their support others and lend my support to them. I realized I was more prepared to contribute to RPS than many of the people already in it. Housing organizing required listening, hearing, and empathizing. It involved consciousness raising, skills development, and confidence building. It needed informed, tireless solidarity from everyone involved. Housing organizing required collectively conceiving and sharing creative solutions. You had to pay close attention to the means at hand and attainable ends. You had to be patient with people but impatient with institutions. Housing organizing involved a type of activism RPS needed. And what we housing organizers needed back from RPS was a large organization’s support. We were a round peg fitting a round hole.

Could tell us about your difficulties first becoming radical?

The difficulties were more cultural than ideological. My up bringing made the ideas of the left familiar and welcome. The style of the left was a different matter.

Activists I first encountered still had the manners, words, and style of people who I had always despised. They had lots of education, and it showed. They were comfortable and confident, and it showed. Their habits included expecting people who looked, dressed, and talked like me to defer to them, almost as second nature. They didn’t revel in their class position. They might get defensive about it, but they also tried to be welcoming.

The hard part of my becoming radical was deciding how to hang out with this crowd but keep my working class identity and connection. Luckily for my prospects, some of the folks I was relating to were already aware of these issues and trying to not just welcome workers but to hear and learn from workers’ ways of interrelating and living.

My ties to self proclaimed Redneck lefties who used gun culture to reach into rural communities with anti-racist and anti-capitalist commitments horrified some radicals I met, though others realized this work was so far beyond what we were achieving in those locales that we needed to listen and learn. Redneck organizers showed how to move beyond passively enduring class oppression without becoming academicized. Wealthier organizers being willing to reject monopolizing confidence and influence helped. Before long I realized that our stylistic differences were rooted in worker/coordinator conditions and commitments.

Cynthia, you worked with Bill Hampton on transportation issues, right?

Yes, the campaign for “bicycles not cars” sought ecological benefit, safety, and improved urban social relations. What was interesting was not so much the argument for this transition as the process by which support grew. Those against had to ignore – or concede – that bike transit was more economical for those doing it, faster when mass transit also exists, and clearly better for the ecology. But they argued that cars exist and we don’t want to be told we can’t use them or that we are doing something evil by using them.

At the beginning, bike proponents kept hammering their own logic attributing car advocates’ feelings to ignorance or selfishness. In reply, car advocates characterized the bikers as deviants interfering with a working system in pursuit of something that would never happen.

Progress came when bikers started to respond to what car owners were actually saying. Bikers’ then less belligerently said more bikes is an option that you might actually benefit from, and that your kids and grandkids will certainly benefit from. Why not give it a limited chance to see if it has merit? And with that non-confrontational and experimental orientation, bike lanes began to spread. And then some roads were made car free for a day or two a week.

Bike dealerships spread and bikers wondered how to make production and distribution less commercial. Things got radical when bikers took on auto manufacturers seeking more electric vehicles and for bikes to be made available on a sharing, free basis to inner city users.

Conflicts grew for a time, but once bikers became open to real discussion and saw their task as addressing critics’ views rather than somehow “beating” them, progress accelerated. From small groups advocating bikes in cities and larger groups using them but not fighting for their spread, more and more people got involved. Once bikers took on auto companies seeking auto workers’ well being, popular support overcame defending old options.

Sometimes a contest is zero sum. One side wins and the other side loses. In a contest between those who don’t own productive property and those who do, getting rid of ownership of resources and factories means one side wins and the other side loses. In contrast, a great many other oppositions are not zero sum, even though, at first, everyone may think they are. For bikes versus cars, if a well-conceived bike and mass-transit inner-city transportation pattern replaces a car-centered pattern, car folks don’t lose due to costs, pollution, or even slower or less convenient transport. Make careful changes to respectfully explore implications and nearly everyone gains.

Didn’t some on the car side retain their hostility and opposition, even as the evidence of benefits mounted?

Yes, but they were not fighting against the bike project itself, but against a slippery slope to systemic social change. It was a recurrent dynamic. Movements wanted involved populations to assess innovations on their own merits rather than to reject them due to fearing overall systemic change. Those who were trying to ward off broader social change sought to fight every battle on grounds that giving in was a slippery slope toward altering society’s overall character.

Once movements for change understood this sub text, they realized their ability to effectively dissipate fear of RPS program writ large was critical to winning its separate components. The great bike crusades were part of that. And our opponents were partly correct. When cities allowed only bikes and mass transit in downtown areas, the number of bikers wearing RPS hats was undeniable.

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Harriet, born in 2000, you have been a grassroots organizer and a trainer for other organizers. You started your activism in local communities fighting evictions and, at the same time, developing consciousness of larger scale demands and campaigns. You became active with food organizing and delivery. You were always a protector, advocate, and empower-er of the defenseless. You got involved in housing issues a bit later than Cynthia, and with a different focus, right?

Yes, I was in school. I was thinking about social change but not yet seeking it and I began to wonder about housing. First, what could improve the living situation in large apartment complexes? Everyone was fragmented. There were few shared agendas. Landlords dominated. There had to be options worth pursuing.

Second, I wondered whether some broad national policy could increase affordable housing.

What followed?

I started meeting with friends to discuss ideas. We visited housing activists and tenants’ rights groups and encountered many people already in or about to join RPS, so my friends and I joined too.

So joining wasn’t a major life decision to angst over?

Not remotely. We were sitting around talking, and we noted that people we liked were in RPS. and so we joined. RPS’s short term benefits attracted us.

And then?

Our talks hatched two plans that were later adopted as part of RPS housing program. The first was a massive expansion of organizing in apartment complexes. We helped renters see themselves as a collective force able to control their circumstances. We would visit an apartment complex, make friends, and hear about issues and problems. Then we would make tentative suggestions and help implement modest gains. For example, sometimes elderly tenants would be on a high floor they had difficulty getting to and we would arrange an apartment swap with younger tenants from a more accessible floor. Such self-organized events displayed sympathy and a desire for overall fairness.

How did you get folks to do it?

We reached out to student tenants in places where one or more were already in RPS. Before long we approached families. We offered a bit of modesty, a bit of social engagement, and a lot of listening.

Gains that residents could themselves enact, such as making aesthetic changes in corridors, were excellent because they quickly revealed potential. Once we had some trust and excitement built up, we helped people set up tenants’ food co-ops to reduce costs and time spent shopping. With the same logic, we helped set up collective approaches for handling day care and laundry. Folks with kids who worked double shifts couldn’t be active, so freeing people’s time became crucial. We started holding parties and hosting group events. In time, there arose the idea that maybe tenants didn’t have to each individually own things that they would only rarely use but that were important to have available when the need arose. Perhaps people could share. It was like setting up a lending library – but not just for books. Such projects saved time and money, and built trust. New friendships brightened lives and foreshadowed greater gains.

Did you do this type work?

Yes, I was a tenant and organized in my complex, but the work didn’t come easily for me. I wasn’t a person who enters a room and immediately relates to everyone. I was shy, quiet, and not well-suited to talking with folks. Like most women I feared knocking on doors, having a man answer, and going in to talk. But I knew how much it might matter, so occasionally I did it though typically we went door to door in teams, especially for first encounters.

Once we had more trust among residents, dealing collectively with reducing drugs and sexual and spouse abuse became another focus. The idea that people could publicly talk about such horrible personal violations and collectively take steps to reduce them was at first inconceivable. Yet it didn’t take long for our solutions to simpler issues to mature into giving attention to more complex ones.

As collectivism and mutual aid developed, we sought ways to adjudicate disputes, allocate resources, and win lower rents and timely repairs. We realized our apartment complex was a small society amidst others, quite like a neighborhood amidst other neighborhoods, or even a country amidst other countries.

Didn’t you also get involved in broader national campaigns?

Yes, we wondered how we could build high-quality, affordable housing in non-exploitative ways featuring exemplary distribution. Who would do the work? Why would they do it? With what financing? Who would get the product?

As our group discussed these questions we thought about enlisting participation from people who had great unmet needs and under-utilized capacities. Instead of learning how to kill with blind discipline in the military, and instead of learning how to gain more advanced criminal skills to use after release from prison into a society that stigmatized their reentry, why couldn’t soldiers and inmates learn useful skills, cooperate at work, and make their own decisions while generating a much-needed product? We began RPS’s campaign to transform military bases and prisons to soldiers and inmates constructing low-income, high-quality housing, including giving soldiers and inmates, once they left the military or prison, first claim on houses they had helped build, with other recipients being young people, homeless people, and others in need.

Organizing began partly in communities, partly in the military and prisons. RPS members reached out to prison and military families, to people working with those constituencies, and to neighborhoods around bases and prisons. I remember hearing how setting up coffee shops around military bases was a tactic used during the Vietnam war to talk with soldiers about resisting. I also remember working with prisoners’ groups, and visiting inside prisons to talk about our conversion campaign. The interactions were incredibly moving as we met and talked with young and often poor soldiers being used as war fodder, on the one hand, and with diverse people being punished sometimes for real crimes but often for trying to survive, on the other hand. They warmed not just to getting a home on release, but also to playing a powerful positive social role.

It was tumultuous, as we all knew it would be, but it had so many benefits we didn’t gain a good grasp of their full scope until later.

The last major campaign focused on motels and hotels, didn’t it?

We realized the number of empty rooms in hotels and motels, on average, at any moment, was roughly the same as the number of homeless people nationally, about 8 million. We decided to build a campaign around the idea that we should have housing for all before anyone could occupy dwellings that were not their own. This started by saying that all buildings that provided temporary housing for travelers should allot 20% of their rooms to permanent residents at a low income rental rate. There were lots of details, but the idea was clear enough. Luxury had to come after necessity. Of course later everything about hotels, motels, and income for housing would change as RPS progressed and more housing was built, but short of that, the partial opening of various private motels and hotels to low income residency bettered the circumstances of deserving constituencies and elevated values and practices that prepared people for winning further advances.

Finally, all these housing approaches benefitted the people doing the activity, benefitted the recipients of the products, benefitted society writ large, and strengthened various constituencies with skills, dispositions, and interconnections suited to winning still more gains.

Can you remember some pivotal moment or moments during the emergence of RPS that greatly affected you?

Here is one from my time tenant organizing. I called on an elderly couple, the Posners, to ask if they would be interested in very carefully swapping apartments with someone from the first floor so they would no longer have to walk up three flights. They looked at me after getting me some tea and cookies and the gentleman was clearly moved. The woman explained that for two years climbing the stairs had been devastating for her husband, which meant he very rarely went out, and also quite difficult for her. He had worked assembly and his legs were bad. She was, in her own words, long-lived lungs on long-lived legs.

So we talked and they told me about themselves and vice versa and it was striking to hear that they were surprised that it had never even occurred to them to see if anyone would make the switch for them and more so, that no one had ever spontaneously offered.
I took from it not just making new friends and the pleasure of having helped them, but a deep understanding of the incredible extent to which society twists us all so far from human sympathy and respect that we take callous isolation for granted. We don’t question it. We don’t even admit it. We quietly endure while waltzing by it. I realized that to have strong activism we had to overcome the near universal assumption of inevitable isolation and that even switching rooms could spur important consciousness raising.

Going another step back, born in 2000, when did you become radical? What caused it?

I was 19, in community college and had heard various progressive formulations, particularly about racism and global warming, but much else too. I was sympathetic, I guess you might say, but more into music, films, boys, and social media. One night I was talking with a new friend who turned out to be very radical. She was telling me about the then recent Wall Street march and arguing for doing more, including on our campus. After about an hour of describing her aims and expectations, she said, “please don’t take this wrong, but I wonder why you come at every issue assuming indignity is permanent? Why don’t you entertain the possibility of anything else? Why does all your thinking go into navigating current circumstances, and none into seeking change, even as you seem to pretty much accept that things are horrible”?

Her question didn’t have any impact in the moment, but later I began thinking about it. Did I rule out change and take for granted horrible existing relations like I defended scientific theories against lunatic heresy? I almost settled on that being the answer, but my friend pointed out that no scientist would assume cancer was incurable at the outset of considering what to do about it, though a beneficiary of exorbitant fees for cancer treatment might. No engineer would assume a bridge couldn’t span the Hudson River at the outset of trying to connect cities on either side, though someone wanting to maintain separation might. Hearing a proposed cancer cure, or a proposed bridge design, unless you had some axe to grind getting in the way of reason, you might carefully question the proposal, but you would want your doubts to be wrong. You would not hope to be right. Well, this ate at me. What was my axe to grind? Of course, radical views still had to win me over, but a big obstacle had disappeared and before long I was RPS bound.

All this made me see that everyone takes for granted that young people more easily become radical than older people. But why is that? I heard commentators point to the pressures of earning income, having family, toeing the line, but while that explained why young radicals often lose their views as they age, albeit never realizing just how profound a critique of society’s roles that was, for me it didn’t convincingly explain why a young person was more likely than an older person, all else equal, to become radical in the first place. What was it about being older that made one less open to becoming radical?

I decided my experience showed that young or old, to become radical requires at least implicitly recognizing that earlier you had been wrong. The older you are, the more of your life you have to admit was mistaken. If I was thirty when the conversation that began my radicalization occurred, I doubt it would have been enough. I would have been too defensive and this gave me great respect for radical longevity, and even more so for becoming radical later in life.

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