Organizing from Below in NYC, US & Globally Challenging Displacement from Above
A member of Movement for Justice in El Barrio speaks during the fifith NYC Encuentro for Humanity and Against Displacement held on Jan. 31.
On January 31st, a global gathering took place in New York City that brought together representatives from over 90 organizations to share their community struggles against displacement and their dreams for another world. Movement for Justice in El Barrio, a women of color-led community organization in East Harlem, convened the NYC Encuentro for Humanity and Against Displacement. This, the fifth Encuentro the group has organized, was the first broad citywide gathering to shine a spotlight on Mayor De Blasio’s rezoning plan, calling it a “luxury housing plan” and highlighting the massive amounts of luxury housing that will be built in what are now low-income communities of color.
Movement invited “those who are struggling for housing, for freedom, for justice, for love, for a voice, for a space to exist, for the preservation of our communities, for peace, for their community, for dignity, for humanity.” They stated in the invitation to the Encuentro, “Power seeks to divide and marginalize us as people of color, as women, as transgender, lesbian and gay, as youth, as the elderly, as workers, as the homeless, as immigrants, as tenants. We must resist division. We must seek to come together…to build something new and beautiful.”
This year’s Encuentro featured round table discussions among groups fighting against Mayor De Blasio’s “rezoning imposed from above.” During the first “Conversation from Below,” Nellie Bailey of the Harlem Tenants Council and David Tieu of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side, both member groups of the new Citywide Alliance Against Displacement, shared about the devastation that development and rezoning from above have caused their communities. The Mayor, whose biggest financial backers are real estate industry players, has come under the criticism that real estate interests are driving this construction of luxury housing in what are now low-income communities of color throughout NYC.
Diana Vega of Movement for Justice in El Barrio next introduced the premiere of the new film “The East Harlem Community Fight Against the Mayor’s Rezoning Plan,” which ended in resounding applause, shouts and whistles from the audience. The film documents the East Harlem residents’ opposition to a rezoning plan where 100% of units will be inaccessible to the low-income residents of El Barrio: 75% will be market rate, luxury apartments, and the other 25% will be completely inaccessible to low-income residents of El Barrio. This position is the result of the East Harlem community’s extensive Consulta – organized by Movement for Justice in El Barrio – a community driven democratic consultation about the Mayor’s rezoning plan which took place for nearly a year and where community members analyzed the plan and developed both their position – unanimous opposition to the Mayor’s entire upzoning plan by the thousands who participated – and a proposal of their own, their 10 Point Plan to Preserve Rent Stabilized Housing.
The film also shows East Harlem residents participating in Community Board meetings, opposing both the plan and “lip service paid to ‘affordable housing.’” Movement member Vega explained, "The Community Board and others are using ‘affordable housing’ as a smokescreen calling for 50% ‘affordable’ (mixed income) housing, but in reality 80% of all units they promote will be unaffordable to East Harlem low-income residents." She continued, "elected officials and their supporters have been using this same lie of ‘50% affordable’ to impose a similar plan on our low-income community of color and are wrongfully claiming that it’s what El Barrio residents want. We are not fooled." Following the film, Movement member Maria Mercado led the crowd of hundreds in a rousing chant of “No Nos Moverán! We Will Not Be Moved!”
The Encuentro, inspired by Zapatista “Encuentros”, then connected the respective local struggles shared to the struggles of communities fighting against displacement throughout the US and the world both in urban and rural contexts. The focus on worldwide struggles against displacement initiated with the screening of a video collage about global neoliberal displacement which was followed by a video message from California-based Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), made up of homeless and extremely low income people fighting against the criminalization of poverty & the human rights violations of the homeless community of Los Angeles with a message of solidarity to those in New York also fighting policies of criminalization and displacement. Springfield No One Leaves! participated via video message to share the struggles that their low-income and people of color community is waging against gentrification, displacement and foreclosures in Massachusetts. A short video documenting Zapatista community members – women, children and whole families – peacefully retaking their ancestral lands was screened to a riveted audience. Others who could not be physically present “defied borders”, sharing their struggles and their solidarity via live-feed including Brazil’s Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (Landless Workers’ Movement) and Montreal’s POPIR, a grassroots tenants group organizing for the right to housing in Canada.
An inspiring video message from the community of San Sebastian Bachajon (SSB), a community of indigenous peoples in Chiapas, Mexico was screened, including video of Juan Vasquez Guzman, leader of his community’s struggle to protect their ancestral lands, who was later killed for his work defending his community from displacement. This video was followed by a moving and somber moment of silence in memory of this fallen fighter for justice and a special video message from SSB to salute the Fifth Encuentro for Humanity and Against Displacement and its participants in their struggles against displacement and for their fallen comrade.
Ilda Mercado, a youth member of Movement, helped defy borders by reading a letter from the General Confederation of Workers (CGT), a national organization in Spain that fights for workers rights. Ilda read the expressive words of Angel Bosqued of the CGT describing displacement and gentrification in Spain. He explained why the CGT struggles, in words that resonated at the Encuentro in El Barrio: “We fight for the right to work for those who do not have work or the work conditions for those who are being exploited; equality between men and women; the right to sexual liberty, abortion, and against discrimination based on skin color or place of origin.”
Teresa Tapia of Movement for Justice in El Barrio stated after the Encuentro, “We believe that it’s important to give priority to voices and experiences that are typically marginalized in society and social movement settings. For this reason, women, LGBTQNCI people, people of color, indigenous peoples, poor people, and other marginalized groups take center stage at our Encuentros.” This commitment by Movement was clearly demonstrated throughout the Encuentro including in the section of the program entitled “Women, Trans, Gender Non-Conforming, Intersex Communities & LGBTQ Youth of Color Fight Against Gentrification.” During this section, the women of color-led Movement for Justice in El Barrio shared two videos, first “El Barrio Women Fighting for Freedom and Against Displacement,” produced as the organization’s entry in the first ever, all-digital worldwide Women’s Freedom Conference. Second, they screened a music video produced by Movement featuring women leading struggles for justice around the world, from Japan to Greece to Egypt to South Africa to Occupy Wall St. and beyond.
A statement followed from FIERCE, the NYC membership organization of LGBTQ youth of color: “FIERCE and Queer, Trans, and Gender Nonconforming Youth of Color in the streets of New York and across the land and circling the globe rise up with you in the noble work of creatively resisting false borders, dehumanization, separation of families, labor exploitation, gentrification of our communities, and the displacement of any human life!”
Sasha Alexander of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a speaker at the Encuentro, applauded Movement for Justice in El Barrio for hosting the event, “bridging communities impacted by housing displacement and rezoning to include the experiences and injustices trans, gender non conforming, and intersex (TGNCI) people face.” Sasha continued, “Many TGNCI people have been forced out of homes and neighborhoods into shelters and/or criminalized and put into jails – gentrification is economic, racial and gender violence, liberation is a collective process. " Many participants at the Encuentro echoed Sasha’s message that liberation is a collective process and that the Encuentro model is an important tool for movement and network building.
A unique aspect of Movement for Justice in El Barrio’s Encuentros is the invitation for all to participate by speaking out at Open Forums – there were three – built in to the convergence. Highlights of the open forums included speak outs from representatives from groups organizing in Staten Island, the South Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. Queens resident Adriana Escandon of ICE-FREE NYC forcefully stated the importance of this gathering: “We ask Movement for Justice in El Barrio to bring us together so that we can do other Encuentros. There are groups here that I haven’t even heard of and we need to be together.” Also during the open forum, there was powerful participation about the global movement to find the 43 disappeared students from Ayotzinapa, Mexico by Antonio Tizapa, the father of Jorge Antonio Tizapa Legideño, one of the disappeared.
The Chinatown Tenants Union of CAAAV-Organizing Asian Communities, which has been fighting against displacement and gentrification for more than 10 years, sent a written statement read during the Open Forums: “We admire Movimiento’s work in building true grassroots leadership and fighting for justice not only in our backyard in New York City, but also international justice because all our struggles are connected.” They reflected on the organizations’ relationship saying, “we continue to be inspired by the women leaders of Movimiento and in particular, their outspoken children who spoke up eloquently in both languages (English/Spanish) about the need to unite and fight against bad landlords and a government that facilitates displacement of our low-income immigrant communities.”
The second “Conversation from Below,” entitled, “In Defense of Bodegas, Street Vendors and Mom-and-Pop Shops” brought together groups fighting to defend the “dignified livelihood” of street vendors and the very existence of small businesses threatened by the Mayor’s rezoning plans. Queens Neighborhoods United (QNU), a grassroots organization based in Queens, emphasized the need to protect the fabric and culture of their community as represented by street vendors who will be pushed out when large amounts of luxury housing are built bringing an influx of higher income tenants demanding higher priced amenities. This “secondary displacement” was also decried by Steve Null of the Small Business Congress and Kirsten Theodos of Take Back NYC. Theodos and Null made clear that what’s needed to protect the rights of mom and pop businesses is legislation that has been stuck in the City Council for 30 years without passage, including the current City Council, despite the fact that it is considered by many to be “progressive”. She and Null both called for the passage of the Small Business Jobs Survival Act to protect small business owners against “greedy landlords.” Mattos of QNU later highlighted the need “to create real change … for all working class and poor communities of color. Coming out of the Encuentro, QNU considers Movement for Justice in El Barrio a sister in the rumble towards justice and human rights.”
The final open forum of the Encuentro was dedicated to further collaborations beyond the Encuentro. Participants proposed ways to continue to build a network of resistance, announced their actions, invited others to participate and stated the need to continue the vital discussion begun in the space and build on the foundation provided by Movement for Justice in El Barrio at this historic gathering.
Ruth Eisenberg of the Coalition to Preserve Community, later commented “the Encuentro made clear the global scope of displacement of all kinds (residential, commercial, agricultural) and the power of grass-roots organizing in sharing information and strategies and building coalitions.” That over 90 groups shared strategies, ideas and struggles at this Fifth NYC Encuentro for Humanity and Against Displacement is a testament to the power of grass-roots organizing. Members of Movement, joined by the audience, closed the evening’s activities with their rallying cry: El Barrio is not for sale! It is to be loved and defended!
Sarah Rosenberg is an educator who lives and works in Westchester.