originally published in the Brooklyn Rail
Brooklyn Eviction Defense formally condemns the ending of New York State’s eviction moratorium. As an organization of tenants dedicated to fighting and stopping displacement by any means necessary, we unwaveringly oppose the resumption of legal evictions. That said, this condemnation comes with important nuances.
First, “eviction” is a narrow term—many of our neighbors here in Brooklyn have been dispossessed during the moratorium by both extralegal means and through subtler violences. Through rent increases (43% of tenants below the poverty line in New York actually saw their rents increase during the moratorium’s time), refused maintenance, abject negligence, harassment, physical abuse, threats of deportation, massive capital backlogs and crumbling buildings, tenants are and have been under relentless attack.
The recent fire that has so-far killed 19 people in the Twin Parks apartments in the Bronx embodies this attack in ways tragic and horrific. We stand in solidarity with the tenants and, moreover, recognize the landlord—Rick Groper—as a murderer. That Groper was on newly elected New York mayor Eric Adams’s transition team (dealing with housing, no less!) is neither an aberration nor a surprise, only a gruesome feature of this system. One that requires more redress than shame or any sort of consequence for Groper himself could provide: if he is removed—from the political arena or even from owning property—nothing would fundamentally change. Another neoliberal ghoul with an “entrepreneurial spirit” would take his place. We understand the importance of striking back, of holding accountable the slumlords whose hands drip with tenant blood, and we call for justice and accountability. We understand and share the rage that Groper—and all the Gropers out there—produce. These struggles are always personal, as these are our homes and communities at stake. But we do not get lost in the personal. We do not allow demonizable landlords—who even a liberal will decry—to occupy our strategic focuses; doing so allows the liberalization of what is fundamentally a class conflict. Liberalism reduces historical forces to phenomena of personality and self.
And so we organize around a unified class orientation, we build community. We build tenant associations and neighborhood councils: autonomous eviction defense cadres and, perhaps soon enough, a city-wide council of tenants (because what’s old is always soon to be new again). We do so because, as will be repeated throughout this manifesto, it is through mass organization that the system that produces a Groper—or a Seth Miller or a Pinnacle Group—will be overthrown. And it is through mass, disciplined, working-class organization that a new system, socialism, will be built—one in which worker-tenants, the producers and caretakers of society, manage what they produce and maintain—that will preclude the existence of landlords. We say this while still saying fuck Rick Groper and every slumlord out there.
What this all goes to say, is that tenants are still under attack and that the eviction moratorium has only ever been a nervous, fumbling attempt by the state to assuage a rightfully agitated—yet powerful and world-historical—class: tenants.
The moratorium and its succession of last-minute extensions have never been sufficient. We understand that evictions—particularly legal evictions as carried out by for-hire marshals—are but one of innumerable forms of dispossession that target the working class to facilitate the accumulation of capital and the hoarding of property by landlords and finance. Other forms include but are not limited to deportation, incarceration, gentrification, rent, policing, medical apartheid—all aspects of the twinned projects of settler colonialism and racialized capitalism. Dispossession though, as we know, can occur without displacement—as tenants we are perpetually dispossessed of the quality of life we deserve.
What’s more, evictions—primarily illegal, but also certainly legal—have been occurring throughout the pandemic. We know this, as we have been on the ground fighting them. And we know that the police, who are ostensibly there to protect tenants’ rights, have often during this pandemic been accomplices to landlord brutality and attempts at displacement.
Our organization was founded at the Defense of 1214 Dean Street during the summer of 2020. It came out of spontaneous action, organized on-the-fly by Equality 4 Flatbush and the Crown Heights Tenant Union (CHTU). What happened was that the building’s owner—Gennaro Brooks-Church—showed up at 1214 Dean with his luggage and his children and informed the young, working-class tenants of color that he was moving back in and that they would have to get out. This came after a streak of harassment and threats from the landlord to the tenants, who (in the midst of a pandemic) just wanted a safe home. The landlord was well-known in the Brooklyn gentrifier/vegan/eco-sustainability/white-people-yoga community; he and his ex-wife owned a small empire of cafés, yoga studios, and a green architecture firm. Given the sort of propertied, entitled white rage he flashed upon showing up, Giardino made an easy antagonist, particularly during a summer moment when Fire, fire to the gentrifier! was a chant you regularly heard in the streets.
But, more important than the perfect synthesis of liberal contradictions that was this loser landlord was what unfolded at 1214 Dean Street, in the midst of an uprising, that summer day and the summer night that followed, and how it all has informed our organization. An organizer with the Crown Heights Tenant Union had been in touch with one of the tenants before the eviction attempt; that connection made the emergency call that the tenant made that day easier. Within minutes a few CHTU members, living not far off, were there; within an hour, dozens, and then within a couple of hours about a hundred fellow tenants had established an encampment of sorts. It was the middle of the sweltering summer; clusters of demonstrators from different organizations across Brooklyn and neighbors from up and down the block and around the neighborhood swelled, mingled, interspersed, chit-chatted about rent-hikes and Black liberation. Tents were erected, tables of food appeared. A speakout emerged; cops, on the landlord’s call, arrived and were pushed back; a sense of celebration seeped through the air. Folks were drinking and smoking—it was an eviction defense and also a block party and also one of the endless, daily street actions during the early summer of 2020.
Amid this midsummer revelry, a black SUV pulled up. No one took particular notice. Out hopped three large men dressed all in black. Before anyone could notice, they had stormed up the front steps, had tossed to the side two demonstrators who had stood in their way. A third demonstrator, alerted, attempted a confrontation and was similarly dropped. The three men entered 1214 Dean, before damn near anyone knew what happened. The eviction defense—spontaneous and reveling—had shown a glaring vulnerability. The crowd realized what had happened; chants began; after a few minutes the large men exited the building and—as the muscle so often hired by landlords—appeared to not know exactly what was going on or who we were. They drove off; the crowd assumed a tentatively celebratory energy, having thwarted (somewhat) another attempt at dispossession, at hurting our neighbors. But also there existed an air of We don’t know what the fuck we are doing. It was from this situation that a handful of tenant organizers at the defense resurrected an idea that had been whispered and discussed since the very onset of the pandemic: that we needed a strong organization dedicated to responding, on one hand, to the rash of illegal evictions the moratorium was producing and on the other, to the avalanche of future legal evictions that were stockpiling in its midst.
But we did learn from Dean Street (as older tenant organizers might’ve learned at the eviction defense of Ms. Mary Lee Ward’s home in 2011; as we’ve learned from the legacy of Communist eviction defenses during the Great Depression)—perhaps not a theoretical development—that an eviction is always stoppable, that dispossession necessitates confrontation, and that tenants are always more numerous, and thus (always possibly) more powerful, than the landlords who exploit us.
But it was also lessons of particular and strategic nature that we learned. For one, that spontaneous actions of resistance are not sustainable. The eviction defense that occurred at 1214 Dean Street came within the context of the George Floyd Uprisings. The encampment itself—it became an affair of a few nights—was made possible by the organization and community infrastructure forged by the Crown Heights Tenant Union and Equality 4 Flatbush, two organizations with deep, longstanding and reciprocal relationships with communities in Brooklyn. But the numerousness and fervor of the encampment, the spectacle of it all (and spectacle is an important tool in eviction defense) was produced in no small part by the eruptive politics of Summer 2020. That these were integral to the action’s success—the success that the eviction was stopped, and the tenants kept safe (though most did move out within the next few months); that the landlord was shamed, his companies boycotted; that widespread attention was paid; that eviction defense in Brooklyn in 2020 (and beyond) was understood to be a feasible and necessary project—has produced questions for us as an organization: how do we replicate that momentum, but more so those networks that allowed for the semi-spontaneous mass congregation and the sort of communal responsibility—the understanding that our neighbors’ fates are our fates—that was expressed through the overnight camp out?
How we attend to these questions can be broken down in a few ways. For one, pragmatically, we’ve built out and are constantly reworking our infrastructures of emergency outreach. Through various platforms—Signal, Instagram, WhatsApp, Slack, Twitter; phone trees—we can mobilize dozens and even hundreds of tenants to show up somewhere and be prepared for a certain degree of risk in order to protect a tenant and confront agents of dispossession. But the tenant at 1214 Dean just happened to have been in touch with a CHTU organizer because of the previous history of harassment and otherwise quotidian tenant issues (of which we each have our particular blend). This speaks to a more fundamental approach to the question above: that forging community relationships—fostering community bonds in a politicized way—is a prerequisite to any practice of eviction defense. Importantly, those relationships are not static or inherent; they are processes and relations that can and do develop, and can be and are tended to, intentionally. As an organization, this means supporting and organizing tenant associations across Brooklyn. This means working with tenants all over Brooklyn, in all manner of circumstances: always as fellow tenants and never as holders of any specialized knowledge or skills—though we have, in this work, accumulated certain skills and know-how, ours is a project of de-specialization. This also means building community and coalition with other organizations that are fighting dispossession: as forms of dispossession always compound. And this also means organizing our own buildings. For there is no solidarity more important, and more revolutionary than that with those living above, below, and beside us.
But building community also means, further, constantly making attempts at building community and not really knowing always how we’re doing, because, as will be delved into below, actually existing community is not something that can be contrived or reduced to data or deliverables; it cannot be plotted out and executed. Sometimes the relationships that might facilitate an eviction defense lurk subterraneously, are founded in unexpected moments, are fostered through the intangible and quotidian nature of neighborhood life.
Photo: Cereah Peck
During the winter of 2020, as it stretched into 2021, there was a rash of illegal eviction attempts in Brooklyn: with the various moratoriums in place, landlords, we found, got antsy. We do not have statistics or even informed estimates, but we do have the empirical evidence of having fought numerous illegal eviction attempts during these cold months. In Bushwick, we confronted a landlord with intentions to sell his two-unit property, hoping to take advantage of the gentrification valorization—the building, when we did this defense, was listed at $2.1 million. The only obstacle for this landlord was the two tenants—two unemployed service industry workers—who had nowhere else to go and, moreover, no interest in moving. BED first got in contact with a tenant there after the landlord and his assistant (goon) had accosted the tenant and threatened a forcible eviction. The tenant had called us, unsure of his rights and fearing for his home; we discussed his legal rights but also the material realities at hand, particularly the threat of an illegal eviction. We discussed an immediate stoopwatch, but the tenant was confident the landlord wouldn’t be back until the next weekend (landlords, like other predators, have their habits). But the next night the tenant called to inform us that the landlord and the large goon were back, this time banging on doors and windows, threatening violence and forcible entry. Within about ten minutes, organizers from BED were at the scene. We put ourselves in between the tenants’ home and the landlord and his goon. We both deescalated the situation and ensured the landlord understood that we would not leave and would not let them in. We then set up a stoopwatch for the next four days: in shifts of three hours, overnight included, we had at minimum four and, typically five to ten tenants posted both as security and in solidarity.
Was this a success? In some ways, sure; we staved off an eviction. We as a community stopped an attempted dispossession. We expressed and showcased the power of organized tenants. We, as an organization, learned important practical lessons about how to build out a sustainable grassroots emergency network. A couple of months later, the tenants both moved out. During the eviction defense we had, with these tenants, determined the goals for the defense to be to create a cushion of a few months for the tenants to relocate safely. Fundamental to our organization’s operating philosophy is a constant centering and supporting of tenant agency. What we do in any situation is contingent on what a tenant wants, needs and is comfortable doing. But that displacement had still occurred—it is deeply stressful to live amidst the auspices of a harassing and violent landlord; the displacement had, in fact, been conceded to as the defense began—must be part of how we understand the work we’re doing.
Eviction defense often refers to a particular conflict within a greater trend of dispossession; our intervention is often, but not always, at that particular moment of particular conflict, but we understand the structural and processual forces in play. We understand that we as an organization, and we as a community, cannot at the present moment reverse the tides of capital accumulation and dispossession. We understand that our efforts are, for now, aberrations within a system, not an alternative system itself.
We strive to build the structures and relationships, the organization and people power, that will, for one thing, be the cause of capital’s demise and, for another, be the blossoming fruits emerging from capital’s remains.
The moratorium does not exist in a political vacuum. It came (arrived?) during a moment when evictions have been politically contested by the tenant movement. This recent history has specific consequences for how we understand the moratorium and its looming conclusion. In the past 7 years, evictions have started to decrease. In 2016, there were 36,343 evictions executed by marshals in New York City. Right to counsel legislation was passed in 2017 after years of grassroot pressure, promising legal counsel to low-income tenants facing eviction. Importantly, this initiative began only in select ZIP codes and slowly expanded. The number of legal evictions in New York dipped in 2018 to 19,970 and to nearly 17,000 in 2019. In March 2020, with the onset of COVID-19, right to counsel was de facto expanded by the mayor to the whole city. In 2020, marshal-executed eviction dropped to 2,507 (nearly all before the pandemic began); marshals have so far executed 245 evictions in 2021.
Of course, declining evictions are good for tenants in general, but the trend has also been good for the tenant movement. With security of tenure, more organizing is possible, but this cannot just mean any sort of organizing. Rather, this must be autonomous and politicized tenant organizing. Ideally, this would be tenant organizing integrated with and into a strong socialist political party. A party of the sort and this sort of politicized tenant organizing would be dialectically symbiotic: as our buildings could organize with the direction, resources, and discipline of a strong party; our networks of solidarity and support would proliferate. And the party would in turn grow stronger from the mass organizing of buildings and neighborhoods and the integration and mobilization of militant tenants. It would, further, and this is a point we want to emphasize, be a project of socialist social reproduction: the horizons of socialism—worker ownership and autonomy, land reform, the liberation of use value, decolonization—would exist more tangibly, as they need to, in our everyday functions and interactions.
That said, we don’t have that party right now. As such, we understand our historical and political limitations. Revolutions are not made by small groups with particular fervor or particular analysis; revolutions, rather, are world-historical events, put in motion by historical conditions and forces beyond our scope, in which small groups with fervor and sharp analysis can play certain roles. Our organizational autonomy—that we are not a feeder system for non-profits or the Democratic Party; that we are not beholden to boards or quotas—allows us to do the work we do but does not make us revolutionary.
Still, our principled analyses and the interventions into the tenant movement that they necessitate, are firm and grounded. In particular, we cannot allow the conjuncture we are in—revolutionary or not—to be dominated by non-profit organizations whose ameliorative and reformist goals only reify the structures and relations that cause the problems they ostensibly oppose. This can be seen, for one, in the manner in which formerly radical tenant organizations have professionalized and, in their reformist approach, have actually become landlords and subsequently now do what landlords do—exploit and evict.
We, do though, join our fellow tenants from the Crown Heights Tenant Union, the Democratic Socialists of America, and the Housing Justice for All coalition in calling for the abolition of winter evictions and the enactment of Good Cause legislation, which would prohibit no-fault evictions and expand the right to a reasonable renewal lease (thus limiting rent increases) to all buildings. These are necessary-yet-insufficient measures that protect tenants and expand our legal capacity to organize. Good Cause would provide a floor of stability on which we could, as tenants, theoretically, organize toward actual revolutionary change.
That said, we strongly rebuke the non-profits in New York who have used the expiration of the eviction moratorium to push for Good Cause without also organizing towards an extension to the moratorium. Good Cause—again, a good thing we do support—does not actually attend to the crisis that is the nearly-quarter million eviction cases currently on the docket in New York City. Such a gesture by the non-profits is all too typical, as their contradicting allegiances—to tenants and to their funders (e.g. capital)—causes them, at critical junctures, to value “policy wins” often over tenant wellbeing and always over actual revolutionary change.
Moving into this analysis, it is important to first make a distinction amongst different types of non-profits in the housing and tenant worlds. Some, as noted, have become landlords themselves. It is clear that these organizations play no role in fighting for a radically different world, free from the tyranny of private property. What, however, of the non-profits that aren’t landlords; those that are so-called progressive and seemingly radical?
We have to acknowledge that some such organizations are engaged in meaningful work, and that, at times, we collaborate on projects or are engaged in similar types of work. We work in coalitions and host actions collectively. It is important for us as an organization to interact with non-profits—whose goals sometimes overlap and whose politics often contradict ours—with principled intention. It’s easy to say that we reject all non-profits, that we are emphatically not part of the non-profit industrial complex (which we are emphatically not). But we understand the resources non-profits employ and the roles they play in attending to the myriad needs of tenants and the tenant movement. This comes with, of course, the caveat that we, as an autonomous organization, often lack requisite resources and capacity: there is so much more work to be done; we all have jobs, or had jobs, many have multiple jobs in addition to this work.
So-called progressive non-profits—who are beholden to capital as we mentioned before—and autonomous organizations in the tenant movement (like CHTU) both help organize tenant associations, develop leaders, pressure politicians, and fight for legislation that shifts the balance of power in favor of tenants and away from landlords (take the tenant movement’s June 2019 tenant victory, for example). There are, however, crucial differences that distinguish the role and potential of non-profits, on the one hand, and radical autonomous organizations, on the other.
First, as noted above, there is essential work that non-profits simply will not engage in. The tenant movement was unable to pressure Governor Hochul to extend the eviction moratorium (in part, again, because most non-profits opted to focus instead on the fight for Good Cause). Accordingly, an unthinkable 200,000 + New York City tenants are facing eviction. Amongst these 200,000+ are some of the most vulnerable among us—migrants, working-class folks, those who are under- or unemployed, etc. And, as we know, a disproportionate number of these people are Black and brown working-class tenants. If the tenant movement is worth anything, it must stand in solidarity with these people by fighting back against these evictions, on the ground and with force, every single day, to ensure that they are able to stay in their homes.
At the current moment, the non-profits have deemed the fight for Good Cause as the primary means of preventing mass evictions. While Good Cause is undoubtedly important, it is also insufficient as it relates to the pending eviction crisis. Preventing evictions and keeping people in their homes will require us to engage in the tactics only autonomous organizations can engage in: physical eviction blockades, extended stoop watches, confrontations with landlords, cops, and all associated goons; lock-breaking and changing, guerrilla home repairs, immediate fundraising for tenant needs given directly to the tenant, and more)—and the non-profits are simply not built or allowed to engage in this necessary work because of the financial imperatives and legal strictures of their non-profit status. This is why non-profits can never be revolutionary—they are inherently, by design, counter-revolutionary.
Unlike autonomous organizations, non-profits rely on funding for their existence (from the city, the state, donors, foundations, etc.). This funding comes with a variety of conditions and deliverables that must be met. While non-profits have different sources of funding with varying conditions, this reality fundamentally informs and limits the type of work that non-profits can and/or will engage in.
To quote Tiffany Lethbo King and Euware Osayande from their article “The Filth on Philanthropy,”
The white Left’s investment in reforming the giving practices of foundations and wealthy individuals through progressive philanthropy directly opposes the work of oppressed communities of color seeking to advance movements for global reparations and the just redistribution of wealth and resources. Within this reformist framework, white people and white institutions continue to control the wealth gained through the exploitation of people of color. Further, as the status quo is maintained within a white supremacist framework, the white Left continues to benefit from their white privilege and relative proximity to the wealth of the white Right (who are the white Left’s rich relatives, lovers, good friends, associates, or fellow white-privileged person on the street). When the white Left accepts donations of white capital on behalf of oppressed people of color, they act as brokers between the capital and the oppressed people of color who were exploited to create it.
This is to say that the acts of ostensible benevolence and limited instances of “good work” that these non-profits are never without benefit to the benefactors of the racial capitalist regime and the capital itself. There does not exist a non-profit within a vacuum devoid of the logics and laws of capital. Their donors, who are not tenants, who do not want a reconfiguration of the property relations and an abolition of private property, launder their blood-soaked money through non-profits, and they receive philanthropic awards and board seats on these non-profits for doing so. We must acknowledge that all NPIC institutions and actors are complicit in the violence of capital. These non-profits, with their powerful mission statements and deliverables, maintain the legacy of exploitation and drain the revolutionary energy and potential of the many bright-eyed radicals who get sucked into their vortex.
Funding for non-profits, for example, is often tied to some of the following criteria: Did you have X amount of meetings this quarter? How many people attended those meetings? How have you continued to work with ‘X’ legal organization to reach the established goals? How many actions did you partake in? How many tenants did you get to come to X action? How many of your tenants are testifying at the good cause hearing? There is a relationship that develops that is, at best, contradicting and, at worst, parasitic. On one hand, this is institutional encouragement of tenants to engage in struggle and contest toward material improvements. On the other, this is non-profits extracting political and social capital—and thus ensuring their own organizational survival—from the very tenants they intend to empower. How individual organizers negotiate these contradictions is an important discussion for another time.
Of course, TA meetings, actions, and even at times working with legal service providers are also things that autonomous organizations engage in as well. Importantly, however, our existence (is not funding like non-profits) does not depend on meeting these deliverables; we are, therefore, much more malleable and less confined to a certain type of work. Our work is guided by our—the people’s—will and discipline; no ulterior imperatives or incentives. This allows us to a) identify what the most pressing/urgent issues facing our communities are and b) avoid restrictions imposed by conditional funding or the unscrupulous legal system, and use this autonomy and relative nimbleness to address the most urgent and pressing issues
The most urgent, pressing, and necessary work is often work that cannot be nicely packaged into a deliverable for funders; it’s rarely quantifiable and often beyond the scope of the conditions of the funding. A concrete example of this is the urgency presented by an illegal lockout that occurs at, say, two in the morning when a tenant perhaps gets home from a long shift and finds his apartment door with a new, unfamiliar lock on it. A non-profit might let the tenant know (an assurance) that what the landlord did was illegal—so often we hear non-profits and also city officials tout legal prescriptions as material realities: the landlord can’t do that it’s illegal, they say. Call the police, they say. BED will show up at 2am, groggy, and will get the tenant back into his rightful home (if, of course, that is the course of action the tenant wants and needs).
The second point worth briefly examining as it relates to the differences between non-profits and autonomous organizations relates to the scope and scale of the tasks before us. While strong and inspiring in important ways, the current tenant movement simply isn’t large or strong enough to radically transform housing in this city (and the abolition of private property). It is only with and through strong, connected, vibrant communities and networks that we will be able to build such a powerful movement.
While non-profits work with communities, and, to varying extents, are part of those communities, there are (often) limits to what these relationships can become or look like. Because of the issues described above regarding funding, donors, and deliverables, it is not uncommon for relationships between communities and non-profits to be transactional or clientelist. The non-profit—even those that focus on organizing and are engaged in meaningful organizing work—can easily become more of a service for community members, rather than something that is more organically embedded into the fabric of the community. Most simply: a non-profit organizer checks into work in the morning and, at the end of the day, goes home; some, if not most, organizers work against the split and genuinely invest themselves in the work. But there is a fundamental split—and a discrepancy in stakes—between that organizer’s material interests and those of the tenants they work with; this is true no matter the intentions or politics of the organizer in question.
Strong communities are a precondition for both a radical tenant movement and a movement for socialism. Only communities are able and will be able to deal with the scope of this current crisis, as well as with the scope of issues tenants face on a day-to-day basis. Only communities can integrate the politicization of a socialist movement into our daily lives: in short, only through communities can we overcome the atomization characteristic of actually existing neoliberal capitalism. We have to support communities and their networks where they already exist, and work to develop and create new networks and build new community where it has been weakened by gentrification, displacement, and the partnership of state and private for-profit violence (always following the lead and direction of long term community members). As noted above, working hand in hand with the community, and working to strengthen and expand community, is not central to the work of non-profits; actual community is tended to in indirect and often subterranean ways. You don’t always know when or how community will be fostered; it comes truly in the messy and fleshy, the quotidian and thick, moments of life. This is why, again, organizing the buildings in which we live is so central to our mission. When your apartment lobby floods, you truly begin to realize that your fate is your neighbor’s fate is their neighbor’s fate.
Non-profits exist to fill a gap left behind by a violent, neglectful state. While this role serves a purpose, they are a junior partner of the state machinery—a contractor picking up the slack so the masses don’t rise up and revolt against total destitution and privation—and the role they play is fundamentally different from autonomous organizations that are not part of the state and whose aim is to construct a radical alternative to that state. We have the tools to construct an alternative to the state because we are not bound by its logic, its conditions, its money, and its politicians.
The last notable difference between non-profits and autonomous organizations, and one which relates to the points above as well, is how each group relates to elected officials and the Democratic Party. Many non-profits receive funding from the city, and therefore must maintain positive and often subordinate relationships with electeds. What happens, though, if or when a project comes into direct conflict with that of these electeds? When they have different goals for the tenant movement and visions for the city?
Many non-profits actively work with Democrats as junior-partners and convince tenants to support the Democratic candidates and party. We know that this lesser-evilism has only led and will continue to lead to increasingly worse conditions. What has the Democrats’ strength in New York City politics done for the tenant movement during the previous decades? Are we not in the position we’re in because of Democrats, rather than in spite of their efforts?
Autonomous organizations are able to resist, or reject, the electoral trap, because our existence is not dependent upon their approval and funding, and because we recognize that our project and the world for which we are fighting—free from private property—is ultimately a different project than theirs. Our independence from the Democratic Party and its elected officials allows us to continue to fight for a radically different world without risking coaptation.
Though, of course, the absence of a strong independent working class party provides us with certain obstacles and limitations. Autonomous organizations like BED expend far too much energy—in ways that severely limit our capacity and potential—merely struggling to survive. We understand that without larger, autonomous networks coordinating and supporting local working class organization, they/we are left to fend on their own in the face of antagonists truly global and borderless. Our autonomy, though, is not simply a purgative wait for the emergence of such a working class party. Rather, we understand that through our work, we can better provide the conditions for the emergence of such a party.
We say this not with idealistic notions of a mass working-class party that will never really exist, rather our analysis is grounded in the history of communist tenant organizing that once flourished (and will soon again flourish) in New York City. The history is too robust to recount here, and has been done healthily elsewhere (Ronald Lawson’s remarkable history of tenant organizing in New York City more than suffices). But one aspect we are interested in is the 1930s working relationship between the powerful City-Wide Tenant Council, a direct-membership organization of tenant associations across the city, and the also powerful Communist Party. Heinz Norden, elected as the first chairman of the City-Wide Tenant Council (CWTC), though not a Party member, took cues and inspiration from the Party: in fact, he “was willing,” as Mark Naisen writes, “to defer to [Party] judgment on matters of national and international policy so long as it did not compromise his sense of professionalism or interfere with his day-to-day activities.” Moreover, Norden and the nascent CWTC took advantage of the Communist Party’s infrastructure, organizational capacity and influence on (and relationships with) labor unions. In other words, Norden directed the CWTC to operate with recognition of (but never in subservience to) a wider class struggle.
It’s imperative to understand how the Communist Party’s deterioration, and particularly the Red Scare and rampant well-funded anti-communism, undid the political acumen of CWTC specifically and the tenant movement more broadly. As the party’s influence waned, and as anti-communism reached a fever-pitch fervor, CWTC and subsequent tenant movements distanced themselves from both lowercase communism and capital-C party Communism. This was done perhaps in self-preservation, but ultimately in a manner unprincipled and shortsighted; the CWTC survived into the ’50s and ’60s on its strong professionalism, but this devolved quickly, without the direction and orientation of a communist party, into transactional, professionalized and specialized service work.
Unleashing the backlog of evictions that currently sit on housing court dockets—there are currently 223,883 eviction cases pending in New York City—is an unequivocal act of state violence. Even if we were not still mired in a global pandemic that is killing millions with no conclusion in sight, even if that pandemic was not surging locally yet again, and even if we were not in the winter months when evictions are particularly devastating—even given all of this, the restarting of evictions would be a gruesome act of state violence, as all evictions are violent.
This is in no small part because the city’s conditions—its decrepit infrastructure, the policing of public transportation, the city’s wanton war on the poor and houseless, the ten-year waitlist for NYCHA, the state of shelters, just to start—ensure that evictions are never one-off acts of violence but always an acceleration of or an entry into enduring marginalization. Given how evictions target different demographics—as the looming eviction crisis will be disproportionately Black, brown, and made up of women—resuming legal evictions is genocidal class warfare.
Even apart from its primary function of explicit legal dispossession, housing court in New York City is not a site of justice. Housing court is, both historically and contemporarily, a unifunctional “eviction machine.” The court rarely levies judgements against landlords for lack of repairs or harassment, even when a landlord illegally locks out a tenant or turns off the heat. When the court does rule in favor of tenants, the subsequent judgements are toothless; the fines appended are regularly ignored by landlords; when they are paid, most fines do not see their way to tenants. In fact, given our experience supporting (and as) tenants in housing court, we are well aware of the way in which the tenants in any particular case—the people whose homes and way of life are actively threatened—are made silent observers to the legal processes. What’s more, because tenants are often convinced that court will be a source of justice, organizing momentum is consumed by the pursuit of this elusive legal redress. We often warn tenants against pursuing legal redress, but we do understand it as one (thoroughly flawed, often dehumanizing) tool that we can employ as tenants.
There are a few reasons why the deck is stacked against tenants in court here in New York City. First, most judges are either landlords or former landlord attorneys, and often both. Second, the systems of power ensure that only landlord-friendly attorneys become judges. Even when people who used to work for non-profit legal service organizations become judges, they become assholes over time; we say this from years of experience. This is in large part because “tenant-friendly judges” fear that, if they appear too supportive of tenants, they will not be reappointed. Housing Court judges are not elected. Instead, the Chief Administrative Judge decides who gets to become a judge. Who nominates the chief administrative judge? At the moment, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, who was nominated by Cuomo, and is, objectively speaking, a corrupt piece of shit; she has hidden potential conflicts of interest, and had far too many inappropriate ties to Cuomo; while many struggled to get tests and care in the summer of 2020, received private COVID testing at her home in Southampton, administered by the National Guard.
This shadowy process ensures not only that judges are ideologically anti-tenant, but also that they stay like that. Within the legal housing world (a miserable world) it’s well known that in order to stay a judge, you must not be tenant-friendly. Essentially, the landlord attorney association lobbies heavily to ensure that judges remain landlord-friendly, and there is rarely an organized effort from tenant attorneys to fight back against this when the time comes for a judge’s reappointment. All this creates an environment where judges do not give a shit about tenants. This is why it is only through a political overhaul via mass working-class organization that municipal courts can be expected to provide anything resembling reasoned judgement, not to mention justice.
Bourgeois politicians will always facilitate, in endlessly creative ways, the accumulation of capital. No legislation from the state as currently configured will stop the cycles of dispossession endemic to the capitalist mode of production. The state will only continue to facilitate and execute this dispossession in new manners, under new guises, and more frequently through politicians who look like us, sound like us, act like us, and claim to be from our class.
We understand that the state is not a monolith, is neither all-knowing nor all-capable. The state is a site of contest, and we therefore engage strategically with the state and with politicians. But we understand the macro-historical processes as well: the state, to paraphrase Lenin, is a bludgeon one class uses to subdue another. We know that the state is in the employ of the bourgeoisie: of capitalists, financiers, landlords, Democrats and Republicans—the Venn-diagram of all which forms nearly a perfect circle.
Our struggle—both to end evictions and to build the tenant movement—is but a part of the wider class struggle. As Engels wrote over a century ago, “The housing shortage from which the workers and part of the petty bourgeois suffer in our modern big cities is one of the innumerable smaller, secondary evils which result from the present-day capitalist mode of production.” Systematically ending evictions is a meaningless project without ending capitalism and reconfiguring social relations — especially those which govern how and where we live.
These social relations are not mere abstractions, and our call for reconfigured social relations is not idealistic or utopian. One way of understanding this is considering what property is. As an organization of tenants fighting dispossession, one with a political analysis of racial capitalism and settler colonialism, an understanding of property and its concomitants holds primacy in all of our work. We understand property not as an object or an array of objects, but as a social relation founded in exclusion (This is mine, thus not yours) and domination (So I can do with it what I want). We understand also the core contradiction of commoditization here: that the project of living in our homes (our homes as use-value) is constantly in conflict with the treatment of our homes as objects and means of wealth creation (our homes as exchange-value). This contradiction produces the state of our housing and the precarity with which we occupy our homes.
Indigenous thinker Leanne Simpson guides us in writing that “the opposite of dispossession is not possession, it is deep, reciprocal consensual attachment” (from her As We Have Always Done). As such, we can say openly that our political horizon does include dispossessing landlords and that we do intend on expropriation, but this does not mean that we seek ownership or even control of land, home, or neighborhood. We seek—through mass organization and socialism—stewardship and reciprocity. We seek democratic control over not just the halls of government and in the operations of the state, but also our buildings and neighborhoods, over how our labor is expended and how our communities function.
Hence, we do not beg politicians and the state to treat us with dignity. Rather, by organizing collectively—in our workplaces, in our buildings and neighborhoods—we strive to invert this relation. Because of our—the working class’—organization, politicians and the state they uphold will have to come to us, will need our support, and will be subject to our—the people’s—will and discipline.
Tenant organization is just one subset of broader working-class organization. A robust and powerful organized working class includes strong rank-and-file labor unions, a disciplined mass party, neighborhood councils, tenant associations, city-wide tenant unions, alternative infrastructures of justice and accountability, mutual aid and crisis-care, militant organized neighborhood defenses, autonomous and principled communist media and education programs, medical facilities and social recreation, social housing and socialized municipal transportation. These are, varyingly, aspirational and commonplace. But each is integral, and alone none determining, to the ecosystem of an organized working class.
How might this all function? A group of tenants in a crumbling building owned by a negligent slumlord decide to form a tenant association. With resources and support from a neighborhood council or perhaps the nationwide party’s local branch, they organize effectively and bring their landlord to the negotiating table; possibly local party officers or politicians take part in the bringing of, or of the actual, negotiations. A demand, among others, is made that all work on the building be done by union workers. The beautiful union work done is featured in communist publications; the members of the tenant association, with support from the party, flier their neighborhood, seeding more tenant associations that see the first buildings flourish and recognize the power they have. These tenants become party members and the ecosystem reinforces itself.
This is not a model of top-down bureaucratic socialism that ultimately suppresses the people’s will and liberation; nor is it spontaneous general-strike socialism that overlooks the discipline and program necessary to achieve power. Rather, this is pragmatic revolutionary socialism that understands the source of power (and the ultimate subjects of revolution) to be the working class and understands also the necessity of principled direction and navigation in a revolutionary project.
Resolution of the contradictions we have noted and the misery they produce will come not through legislation or the acquiescence of sympathetic politicians, but only through a revolutionary mass working-class organization as outlined here. Our choice now is—as it will remain until it is too late, exclusively and unquestionably—between socialism and barbarism. We choose the former, with organization and a revolutionary spirit.
The sky is falling and many will not look up to confront this reality. The truth is that the sky is falling, and we have stopped extinction before. The truth is: tenants hold up the sky.