Frank Morales is a priest and activist involved in housing justice in NYC since the 1970s. Frank has more recently been organizing with GOLES, a grassroots organization that empowers low and moderate income LES/Loisaida residents, specifically POC through direct services, public education, and community organizing. Frank shared with BED about coming into the movement in the 70s, squatting as the embodiment of the struggle for housing as a human right and some guides on scouting, entering and rebuilding an abandoned space to homestead.
BED: What was going on in New York in the late 70s- early 90s economically and politically that began gentrifying and displacing folks who had been longtime residents of neighborhoods like the Lower East Side? What were the effects of this?
Frank Morales: The late 70s was the peak of state counterinsurgency efforts that occurred throughout the decade rooted in elite driven machinations to destroy the “insurgency” that was taking place in cities across america. In summer of 1967 alone, over 100 uprisings in cities across the country. By ‘68 feds had convened police and military heavy “kerner commission” that determined the best way to blunt the revolutionary movements in the cities was to displace masses of people, (“spatial deconcentration”) particularly people of color from communities mobilized by the likes of the Black Panthers, Brown Berets, Young Lords, Women and Peace movements, etc. Long story short, between 1970-1980 Harlem lost a third of its population. All across the country cities or more specifically, “ghettos” of the poor were decimated through a state sponsored “ecology of destruction” ie red-lining, fire alarm elimination (slower response time to fires), arson for profit, proliferation of drugs and guns into poor communities, police/FBI repression and so on. Result: massive physical destruction of whole communities, mass vacancies and empty sealed up buildings concurrent (as expected) the emerging (1980) boom in homelessness, unprecedented numbers of houseless people (again, mostly people of color) and the creation of the “shelter system” run by FEMA i.e. low intensity detention of the poor (coupled of course with the boom in prisons). Here in NYC agencies like HPD (Housing, Preservation and Development – ha, oxymoron) were set up in 79/80 to corral and take control of all the properties that had been under attack (an attack on small owners) which resulted in HPD along with NYCHA being the largest landlords in NYC overseeing (warehousing – cinder blocking up) hundreds of thousands of units. So in places like Harlem, LES, S Bronx, Bed Study etc etc hundreds of vacant buildings stood locked up (sealed up with cinder blocks, wood and metal) while thousands of the displaced were being swept up into the congregate shelters where the incidence of AIDS and TB was twice as prevalent as it was on the streets! Gentrification, or the consolidation of these decimated neighborhoods by incoming “gentry” higher class people, was accomplished once (by mid-80s) when the “tipping point” of investment was achieved, which is the moment that predatory capital in real estate moves from disinvestment (squeezing the life out of a community) to re-investment and gentrifying that same community – only now with the former residents displaced (politically disorganized) and forced into control environment i.e. shelters and prisons. In other words, homelessness is/was an act of state repression; an effort (counterinsurgency) to blunt and destroy the revolutionary aspirations of the people.
BED: How did the first squatting community you were a part of come together and how did you build solidarity with the neighborhood?
FM: I began squatting in the South Bronx in the late 70s in the environment I just described. Physically decimated neighborhoods (empty sealed up buildings), rampant drugs and people being forced into shelters. The most intelligent response was to engage in a strategy of community self defense and occupy the vacant buildings. So with neighbors (and remnants of the Young Lords and Panthers) we squatted two buildings on 139th Street and Saint Ann’s Avenue. Mostly Puerto Rican and some Black folk we cleaned out (the buildings were destroyed, stripped of copper, former shooting galleries etc) and renovated these buildings and made homes for people using the skills and resources that were tight there in the community. One time two suits from HPD showed up to tell us that we were illegally occupying “city owned property” … they were literally run off the block. Building solidarity is about being real and showing up. Everyone knows if you’re down and you’re willing to work. The beautiful thing about squatting is that it’s as real as it gets and working together creates real cones between people.
BED: How does building networks for community self defense tie into squatting?
FM: Squatting is synonymous with community self defense. As I laid out, from the literal survival tied to getting off the streets and out of the shelters to the more generalized survival of a community in the cross hairs of gentrifying capitalist machinery, it’s all about self defense, of one self, one’s family and community.
BED: What are some examples of blockades, campaigns to pressure landlords, neighbors supporting each other, that stand out from over the years?
FM: Well, as you can imagine, in our case as squatters we had no legal standing in these buildings. Nonetheless, like our comrades throughout the world, we believed that squatting makes the human right to a home real, and that those who work the buildings own the buildings. We were totally outside of the law. No agency support, no outside funding or recognition. Hell, even most of the organized housing movement shunned us! Hence, we were subject to what the police call “self-help evictions” (ha) at which time they would show up (a hundred or so riot cops) and physically try and evict us. We developed a means of blocking entrance into our homes with interior barricades, sealed up the ground floor windows, massed as many of our supporters out front as we could (via the Eviction Watch lists that we organized – lists of contacts of folks who would come out not only from the other 20 or so squat buildings but from the neighborhood). Also, we organized direct action sit in and so forth down on Maiden Lane and Gold Street where HPD had its offices. Remember, in our case we had one “landlord” and that was HPD or “the city.” I have vivid memories of many of these battles for they were often, especially in the early years of our movement (85-90) on the LES culminating in the “TSP riot” (88) at which time they tried to evict us from our park. Basic lesson is that with sufficient numbers of folks mobilized; people who believe in the legitimacy and necessity of the fight against rampant speculation (greed) we can win. The cops will eventually tire of the popular resistance and doing the bidding of the real estate industry (and bad PR) and with the correct and intelligent messaging to the public at large we can win these battles. I once saw a few dozen cops and a few nazi skin head types running up Avenue B with hundreds of neighborhood people chasing them, literally, with hundreds of bottles flying … shouting “gentrification stops here.”
BED: Have you and LES Eviction Defense dealt with illegal lockouts? What were the most important tactical skills for reentry that you found?
FM: No, we haven’t had any of those situations in recent days as of yet. My feeling on lockouts and the like (again, coming from squatter politics) is that to the extent that you build power in numbers on the street then it’s possible to simply go back into a space whether it be an apartment or storefront etc. Back in the days when landlords were (maybe still) “warehousing” apartments (i.e. keeping them empty in otherwise tenanted buildings, maybe trying to force others out etc) our advice to those comrades (who were not squatters but who we would support) was to fill up all the empty apartments in order to resist the gentrifying of the neighborhood. And on the matter of needed repairs, those that the landlord refuses to do cause he wants to force people out (especially the elderly) well, same thing, organize the skills and make the repairs, and yes, have folks write them off of their rents etc but the important point is that we have to break peoples dependency on the landlords and the landlord system and one way to do that is to create the consciousness of occupying the homes they live in, that the “rent” they are paying be viewed as equity that they are eventually gonna take over that place. Also, short of this more grandiose vision: If folks make the needed repairs (i.e. roof leak that is affecting many tenant and the landlord does shit) as soon as the repair is done (written off the rents etc) the landlord surmises that he’d better make those repairs next time insofar as the tenants are getting uppity and in the frame of mind to manage the building themselves and maybe take the irresponsible SOB to court and try n take the building through a “7A proceeding” … (not sure if you can still do that).
BED: I recently read a bit about the 13th St squat evictions in ‘95 and their confrontation with 200 cops + a tank! The neighbors really showed up to try to keep people in their homes in a powerful way. Were you around the LES during that time, or in ‘88 during the Tompkins Park riot? What was your experience of these events?
FM: Yes, was at both and again, with force of numbers and a belief in the righteousness of our cause we can win these battles — sometimes we lose in the short run, but in the end we win due to perseverance and the invincibility derived from the truth of what we are doing – fighting for justice and human solidarity and a home which is everyone’s human right. Each fight grows our numbers. And with a commitment to non-violent resistance that is rooted less in moral concerns and more so in purely tactical and long term considerations, and with clear messaging on how our fight is everyone’s fight, we win.
BED: When did you begin to organize and encourage others to homestead with projects like Organizing for Occupation and what did that work look like?
FM: O4O was an attempt to organize a public pro-squatting apparatus that folks (especially those who didn’t need to squat) could join. In other words, we need to organize those people in our neighborhoods who are not under duress in regards to their home but who want to put their shoulder to the wheel, and to join the fight cause they see that in the long term with gentrification etc that could be targeted too; or maybe they just want to support stuff cause they are motivated by the struggle for justice etc. So O4O was structured in such a way that people could join in what is essentially a clandestine tactic, of occupying a vacant home lets say in Bed Stuy, effectuated via a public organization made up of those who support squatting for a home; who could work in one of many separate but coordinated areas: media, construction, religious support, research, etc. It worked pretty well, combining the clandestine with the public, we housed a handful of people secretly throughout the city; coalesced a women-led construction crew that did the renovation work (one house a former crack house). Eventually though, given its exceedingly public nature (we met every Sunday evening at the Catholic Worker on 3rd Street – usually a hundred or so) we became the target of creepy cop infiltration and Cointelpro-like divisive slander etc. We could see right through it though, but eventually this kind of open format was untenable. But worth trying again …
BED: Do you see encouraging people to reclaim spaces through squatting being a part of this?
FM: Yes, I always encourage people to make squatting a central part of their housing work in that it is the most direct way to impact upon the unjust housing for profit system while meeting the immediate needs of folks for a place to live. We need to think both offensively (squatting) and defensively – anti-eviction work. Plus, I believe that the likelihood of success in squatting today to be even greater than it was for us back in the 80’s (we’re still in 11 of our original squats) in that rather than a single “owner” you now have these disparate banks and holding companies as owners/managers and I believe that they are easier targets, “paper tigers.” Problem has been that the organized housing movement and the not for profit industry breaks out in a cold sweat when the matter of squatting is raised. Too bad.
BED: What are the basics you would suggest someone interested in starting a squat consider?
FM: Well, too much to go into here but I would suggest they contact me and I can send them a zine on the matter …. first thing is to identify some viable site to squat, research it, gather your group of trusted comrades who both need and desire to squat and go from there … always remembering that loose lips sink ships …