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The Battle for the Block and Another World: A Dispatch fom the Encuentro

Michael Gould-Wartofsky
Date Published: 
November 06, 2007

New York - 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. And 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 frontlines of a citywide battle for the block, and last Sunday, October 21, they came together in the heart of East Harlem to “share words of struggle, support and solidarity” at the first ever NYC Encuentro for Dignity and Against Gentrification.

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 from the ground up “for social justice and for humanity” and against the displacement of their people from their neighborhood. They are writing a new chapter in a long history of resistance in El Barrio, historic home of low-income immigrant families (the average annual income of Mexican immigrants here 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 in concentric circles around the speakers up front, who were accompanied by a Zapatista puppet and a green gentrification monster/soon-to-be-”neoliberal piñata.” Colorful banners hung from the walls, one of them depicting an eagle ripping up chains of gentrification from city blocks, boldly proclaiming “Dignified Housing, Justice, Freedom” in Spanish.

One by one, grassroots organizers took turns sharing their words on “who we are,” “conditions we face,” “our forms of struggle” and “our dreams,” while the crowd listened intently, in English and in simultaneous translation to/from Spanish and Mandarin. The speaking was punctuated by frequent bursts of applause and chants of “¡Si se puede!” (“Yes we can!”).

Here were Bin Liang and Helena Wong of CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities and its Chinatown Justice Project, with more than twenty years of community defense under their collective belt (and now part of a new national alliance called Right to the City): “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.”

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

Here was Rob Hollander of UNYTE (Union of New York Tenants), organizing to keep luxury developers and hotel tycoons 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.”

Here was 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), who after the Encuentro said 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.”

And here, of course, in their own community, were the members and organizers of Movement for Justice in El Barrio, who had hosted and facilitated the Encuentro, and now spoke of their own hard struggles and common dreams. Oscar Dominguez described how MJB has won in each of the 23 buildings their members have organized, using everything from committees within the buildings (which make their own decisions) to lawsuits against landlords in the courts to direct actions in the streets.

“Together, we make our dignity resistance,” declared Juan Haro, MJB organizer, in a statement, “and we fight back against the actions of landlords and multinational corporations…We fight back locally and across borders.” Their struggle overflows the borders of neighborhoods: “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.”

That struggle also goes beyond the borders of one country, as Oscar explained. MJB has long been part of the local-global justice movement through its alliance with the Zapatistas, and now they’re taking on UK-based investment bank Dawnay Day (which recently bought up a £225 million piece of Harlem): “Our enemy behind gentrification is neoliberalism, and it makes victims out of all of us who are different… And what’s happening to us here is happening all over the world to many people.”

In the face of these powerful foes, activists from Make the Road New York proceeded to put on a series of funny skits, rousing songs and chants which brought the crowd to its feet (“What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now! And how? Struggling, creating, popular power!”). The program also featured film footage from CAAAV’s Chinatown campaign, from MJB’s “mega-march” this August, and from the Zapatistas’ reclamation of their land from a Mexican army base.

Like the Zapatistas, MJB refuses to bow to politicians and the system they serve. Just this month, member Victor Caletre was accosted by two men from the office of East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, who offered him $350 a week to stop working with MJB and start working with their office. Victor adamantly refused, as he told the Encuentro: “I have dignity, and my dignity doesn’t have a price.”

MJB member Sonia Lopez, sharing this vision of dignity, told the crowd 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 dream of living without oppression, without manipulation, without racism…We all share the same earth, breathe the same air. We are together, we can do it!” (cue to crowd: “¡Si se puede!”)

At the evening’s close, a procession of children from families active in MJB lined up to smash the piñata of gentrification and neoliberalism, as it dangled tauntingly from a basketball hoop. One after the other, a blindfold tied around their eyes, they struck, and they struck, and they struck again, with all the might in their small arms, until the ghastly green monster burst apart at the seams and the sweet candy rained into their hands.

This article was originally published on the NYC Independent Media Center newswire