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“WE’RE NOT LEA-VING! WE’RE NOT LEA-VING!” With a three-word chant, hundreds of members of the Right to the City Alliance (RTTC) – residents of ten cities in seven states plus one federal colony – gathered outside the Miami Intercontinental Hotel. There, they declared their intentions both to the torrential rain soaking downtown and the gentrification wreaking havoc in urban areas. They had gathered in Miami, site of the US Conference of Mayors’ annual meeting, to hold a People’s Summit to put forward a vision for cities responsive to the urban majority – working class families, immigrants, people of color – as well as this March on the Mayors.
Propelled by the beats of the Crescent City’s To Be Continued Brass Band, alliance members from around the country carried signs demanding immigrant justice and an end to police harassment, and cardboard coffins stenciled with the names of their home cities in a New Orleans-style jazz funeral. With the sidewalks flooding and lightning overhead, hundreds cheered for Ursula Price of Safe Streets, Strong Communities, who yelled “I ain’t going to drown on that levee!”
RTTC is a national alliance of over 30 grassroots organizations, legal service providers, academics, and policy groups seeking alternatives to gentrification and urban displacement of poor and working class communities of color. Convened in January 2007 by Tenants and Workers United (Alexandria, Virginia), Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (LA) and the Miami Workers’ Center, the alliance gained visibility with a series of workshops at the US Social Forum, with turnout there by several hundred grassroots members.
Since then, alliance members have convened several work groups to share organizing knowledge and resources, conduct peer-to-peer exchanges, mobilize support for just reconstruction in New Orleans, and explore a national campaign to expand federal investment in public and subsidized housing, among other projects. The March on the Mayors was the group’s first national mobilization.
The mayors’ conference trumpets the fact that 85 percent of people in the US live in cities, but the policies of the association’s mayors often aren’t reflective of the urban majority. In Miami alone, Mayor Manny Diaz, the new president of the mayors’ club, is notorious for protecting the interests of luxury condo developers and ignoring the families being forced on the streets during the housing crisis. The mayor has also favored giving away public land for a new stadium project, even as no low-income housing has been built in recent years, and public housing units sit vacant in neighborhoods hit hard by foreclosures.
High schools are receiving unprecedented investments – in police officers and surveillance equipment. Other cities experience much of the same. In the District of Columbia, the mayor meets with developers at the luxury box they gave him at the new, taxpayer-funded baseball stadium, while residents of the Shaw neighborhood, which has lost most of its rental units in the last two decades, cling to his empty promise to fund the first new low-income housing there in 20 years.
In this case, the mayors themselves – insulated from their constituents in an exclusive club – are the elite special interest. City officials paying $1,650 a ticket to attend the conference earned the right to socialize at the trendy Vizcaya Museum – a historic site listed as “threatened” by neighboring high-rise condo development. Playing up Miami’s cultural diversity, a Colombian flower cart was featured at the Vizcaya party, produced by an upscale design firm.
Uptown at the People’s Summit, members of South Florida Jobs with Justice spoke with RTTC members about their campaign to support Colombian flower workers and force leading flower exporter Dole to respect human rights and the environment, just one of many such surreal contradictions observed throughout the weekend. Faced with indifference by their elected municipal representatives, RTTC members focused on building collective strategy to strengthen local work and prepare for future national mobilizations.
At the People’s Summit, convened the first night of the gathering to generate declarations for an urban platform, organizers shared victory stories and strengthened their analysis in plenary sessions the days following the march. Throughout the weekend, alliance members submitted challenges to set ambitious goals for building power locally to nurture a national movement. Miami Workers’ Center executive director Gihan Perrera issued six propositions for movement building, urging members to evaluate their progress.
The first – base-building – centers the development of new leaders and grassroots membership. The second focuses on connecting with anti-gentrification, pro-human rights allies for the struggle for the right to the city. Perrera highlighted a campaign of New York’s queer youth organizers, FIERCE, who work in coalition with “soccer mom” allies to support the establishment of a drop-in center for queer youth of color in the West Village.
As membership grows and influence expands through issue campaigns led by member organizations and allies, Perrera sees the need to use grassroots power to influence elections and guide official policy. Along with exercising political voice, he also issued a challenge to control economic institutions that often shape urban neighborhoods. And rather than simply influencing policy, he said, organizations representing the urban majority should be running democratic institutions, deeply entrenched in local governance. “Are we really ready to govern? To go from pushing on the outside, to running our own businesses?” he asked the crowd. The last proposition: building and sustaining a national movement.
New Orleans solidarity continues to be a significant priority for the alliance. Last year, members of the group’s New Orleans solidarity work group made trips to the city to support organizing on the ground, and even participated in a takeover of the housing authority to demand reopening of all public housing developments, and a nationwide expansion of funds for subsidized housing. Many held protests in December to try and force HUD to block demolitions.
In Miami, members affirmed their commitment to a national day of action on August 29, commemorating the third anniversary of Katrina with demonstrations in each region. Also in Miami, La’Kedra Robertson of the Katrina Information Network made it inside the mayor’s conference to ask local delegates not to do business with companies profiting from the reconstruction. Already, Erie, Pennsylvania, Milwaukee, and Atlantic City have passed resolutions preventing those businesses from obtaining city contracts.
It wasn’t all strategy and struggle, though. The day after the march, the Miami coordinating committee of Power U, Miami Workers’ Center and Vecinos Unidos [United Neighbors] held a party to celebrate the mobilization, having successfully stolen the limelight from the mayors’ club in the local press. The Power U Band brought hits like Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City,” and local DJs fueled the “Dance, Dance Revolution” into early the next day. The chants echoed on the dance floor, out into the steamy Miami night. “WHOSE CITY? OUR CITY!”
Andrew Willis Garcés is an organizer in Washington, DC.