Resistance Between Neighbors: Reflections and Ideas from the 2014 Howard Zinn Bookfair

Photo from http://howardzinnbookfair.com/2014/11/26/pictures-from-the-howard-zinn-book-fair-2014/

Report back from the 2014 Howard Zinn Bookfair, with a special look at the housing movements present and release of Housing Not Handcuffs.

In the name of the late anarchist historian Howard Zinn, organizers in the bay area put together one of the most engaging conferences in years to bring together writers and organizers. The 2014 Howard Zinn Bookfair, held on November 10th in San Francisco’s Mission district, was directed at really grounding the written work on activist praxis and theory in the lived experience and projects of organizers who are on the streets. In terms of housing organizing, this created an exceptional space since the bay area has been a site of some of the most extreme examples of gentrification from Silicon Valley, and organizing that can trace its roots back several decades.

In this vein, one of the most impactful talks was given in conjunction with the release of the new book House Keys Not Handcuffs. The book itself is a fundraising project to continue the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), which focused directly on houseless organizing with a focus on houseless folks as the center of directing the movement. They discussed the general lack of sheltered resources in the city until the mid-80s after an incredible amount of on the ground organizing that pushed local government and institutions. Paul Boden, who was also a founder of the Coalition on Homelessness, brought together the unique nature of houselessness in the bay and the failure of liberal service-models to make the kind of radical changes that are necessary.

“By ’83 there were shelters opening all over the country. The concept of this being a societal issue, there’s something seriously wrong in our society that suddenly all of these people are finding themselves without housing. Something in seriously happening here. That got transferred to ‘the government is paying you to fix these people to fit back into society.’ And that transformation created an industry. And that industry became subservient to the people that were funding it, not to the people that were being served. … You could see the transformation. Diane Feinstein’s “Blue Ribbon taskforce” suddenly only wanting the providers there because ‘they had to talk about things having to do with money.’ And having to do with a contract. And the separation between service providers versus homeless people, which were now clients, and community organizations that were now service provider organizations, and “experts” on addressing this “issue” of homelessness, which was addressed through life-skills training of homeless people. Or “training” of homeless people. Or “control” of homeless people.

“One of the first things we did at the coalition and at WRAP and in our first report, which was called “Without Housing,” was to track these massive federal housing cuts that took place from ’79 to ’82. The equivalent of $50 billion a year was reduced in affordable housing funding. By ’83 we were opening shelters. There’s a direct cause and effect. You can’t deny it. If you look at, well what happened before we started opening our shelters what you see is massive cuts to affordable housing programs while the homeowner interest deduction programs went from $40 billion to $144 billion, that affordable housing programs went from $84 billion to $34 billion. So you can see that the cost of what created this situation in the first place, and the effect that it has is 1.2 million children go to fucking school every day, sit in a classroom like this, and don’t have a home to go to at the end of the school day. 1.2 million kids. Every day. And the federal response? Well, let’s change how we count who’s homeless, so we have less homeless people in our public school system. So now half of those kids are called “poorly housed.” Because they’re doubled up, tripled up, living in an SRO (Standing Room Only), or can’t document their homeless status. So we didn’t address it by refunding affordable housing programs. We addressed it by redefining whom we count as actually being homeless. And then we wonder why the shit that we’re doing isn’t working.”

He went on to talk about the specific way that homelessness, rather than being dealt with by developing social programs to alleviate pressure, instead deeply lay down criminality as a way to segregate and contain houseless populations.

“One of the key responses from local government been, ‘well, we’ve got no affordable housing funding, the residential treatment programs are wiped out, our jobs have been NAFTA’d out of existence or we’re finding machinery that can replace people, and so we don’t have the same job market we used to have, but the one thing we do got is we got plenty of fucking cops. And we can always build more jails. We build more prisons than we do schools. Far and away more prisons than we do schools. And so we can make it illegal to sit. Think about that. Sitting is a criminal act. Stand still? They call it loitering. Lay down, go to sleep, be in a park at night, panhandling, eat, serve food, all of these are now criminal activities. All of these are now criminal offenses. Who do you think gets criminalized under these offenses? … The smart part is as long as it is only imposed against “them” then most people won’t even know about it. Because we have so demonized and dehumanized young people of color, day laborers. The families that are homeless, its because “their parents are dysfunctional.’ Its because “their parents are fucked up.” Their parents aren’t the ones who cut the affordable housing funding or did Hope Six and demolished the public housing units. It wasn’t the parents that did that. It was the federal government that did that. It was the state governments that wiped out residential treatment; it wasn’t the mentally ill people that wiped out residential treatment. It wasn’t indigent people that are drug addicted that need help, they didn’t make those cuts. The government did. But yet it’s them that is identified as the problem.”

“In order to criminalize the existence of somebody you have to demonize them first… It’s exactly what they did with Jim Crow laws. It’s exactly what they did with Sundown Towns. It’s exactly what happened with Anti-Oakie laws. You pass laws that you know goddamn well everybody’s gonna break. Everybody’s gonna sit down at some point. Everybody’s gonna stand still at some point…. And then if I decide I wanna get rid of you I have all the tools I need in my tool kit in order to make your life so freaking miserable, that if I just keep hassling you and keep pushing you and keep pressuring you, you’re either going to do something real stupid and end up in prison or you’re gonna get the hell out. And you’re gonna go somewhere else. One other option is you’re gonna organize and you’re gonna fight back and you’re gonna do a homeless bill of rights campaign and you’re gonna write your own legislation. And you’re gonna organize in four states with three hundred organizations working together to fight back against this shit."

One of WRAP’s projects, as he mentioned, is the Homeless Bill of Rights campaign in both California and Oregon that would seek to see specific rights as superseding local laws that are clearly directed towards houseless people with special attention. This bill of rights includes:

1. Right to move freely, rest, sleep, & pray and be protected in public spaces without discrimination.
2. Right to occupy a legally parked vehicle.
3. Right to serve food and eat in public.
4. Right to legal counsel if being prosecuted.
5. Right to 24-hour access to “hygiene facilities.”
6. Require judges to consider necessity defense when hearing homeless related cases.

The WRAP coalition includes organizations up and down the west coast, including the Los Angeles Community Action Network, Right to Survive, the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee, and Sisters of the Road, among many others. There are now calling on other organizations to endorse the points of the homeless bill of rights, ask other partnering organizations to do this as well, participate in any of the regional planning meetings for the coalition, prioritize it on social media and digital communication, attend delegation, share the stories of impacted residents, and focus in our community through ongoing organizing and public awareness actions. Through their outreach and research they have reported that they surveyed “1,276 people in five states and twelve cities. The results that homeless people had been harassed at a rate of 81% for sleeping, 78% for sitting or just lying down, and 66% for just hanging out in the same spot. This indicates such a universalized trend that a homeless bill of rights, like the one listed, could be a clear rupture in the state’s plan to deal with homelessness through criminalization.

The theme of housing continued in a tribute panel to the late Ted Gullicken, a long-time tenant activist and organizer from the San Francisco Tenants Union. Folks from the Tenants Union and Eviction Free San Francisco told stories about Ted and what we can learn from his experience dealing with housing displacement and reclamation in our communities. James Tracy, who wrote the recent Dispatches Against Displacement about housing and anti-gentrification work in San Francisco, led a discussion with several people who have been fighting displacement in the bay area. This marked an interesting intersection of housing with other areas of common anti-capitalism as San Francisco’s recent history of housing activism has mixed results. Karl Beitel, who wrote the book Local Protest, Global Movements: Capital, Community and State in San Francisco was joined with other activists to discuss the state of San Francisco specifically in the context of saving cities as places for working people.

I, along with William Armaline and editor Deric Shannon, brought these issues back to the crisis of austerity and global capitalism when talking about our book The End of the World As We Know It? Crisis, Resistance and Austerity. I discussed the rise of housing movements in response to the financial collapse of 2008-10, but also how we can disconnect these movements from the brief period of financial flux and put it back into the continuing shocks of capitalism more broadly. William Armaline linked these issues back to public higher education and discussed how we can center movements in the classroom.

Deric Shannon really focused on how this period of depression and austerity reflect capitalism in a broader sense, and how we can try to link together ideas and movements to take on the more fundamental causes. Through this he discussed the degradation of previously thought of “left” ideas during this period of crisis, especially where the left has been absorbed into the organs of the state.

“Socialism, the word is losing any of its anti-capitalist flavor… I used to live in Spain, the Socialist Party there is anything but socialist. They are a fucking capitalist party. You can see very, very similar things taking place in places where socialist parties are elected into office, and they become recuperated into this capitalist state. They become a part of this capitalist status quo. In the case of Western Europe, they’re behind the police brutality, and behind the austerity measures, and behind the neo-liberal policies that these ostensibly “socialist” politicians are supposed to be critiquing. “

The broadness was one of the strengths of this year’s book fair, as was a focus on authors in general. The “book” aspect of the book fair took a large amount of precedence, and it drew together intersecting topics that are relevant to radical organizing whether dealing with new immigration issues, housing and houseless projects, or the various revolutionary art movements. The intersection of art and street action took a special place with the inclusion of Situationist Ken Knabb, who was discussing his newest collection, Bureau of Public Secrets.

Among the various talks there were a number of standouts, including the first presentation around Dawn Marie Paley’s Drug War Capitalism. An international perspective on the drug war came as a centerpiece of this discussion, with a highlight of the experiences in Columbia, Mexico, and Central America broadly took precedent over the domestic issues around community targets, which has had a longer history of discussion on the left. Here, Paley made special effort to tie together the localized experiences of those in the Global South around the Drug War, and how it can tie together with other related movements.

“I argue that I think that drug war has two mechanisms, two primary mechanisms to which it maintains social control. One, its through the prison industrial complex and criminalization of drug users. And that’s the sort of drug war that people experience here in the United States. And I actually think there’s very healthy discussion and debate recently around that system. And interestingly with stuff like, I was reading that in New York that supposedly they won’t put people in jail anymore for possession of minor amounts of Marijuana. And people like Michelle Alexander with The New Jim Crow, there are very comprehensive arguments about how the drug war is incarcerating particularly young men of color in this country.”

“But the other model of the drug war is the model that is lived in Mexico, Central America, and Columbia, and that a model of social control through terror. Through these acts of massacres, mass graves, burning casinos, firebombs, car bombs, dead bodies hanging off bridges. All of these images being reproduced in the media, over and over again. And what terror does is it creates a kind of fear that paralyzes people from simple organizing. It atomizes people.”

The large presence of housing groups spoke to the current consciousness of the stay of the bay area, which has seen rents rise so quickly and so profoundly that it is quickly becoming an uninhabitable city. These groups have made new attempts to branch out, connect with housing movements around the country, and re-evaluate the state of movements to target housing inequality and houselessness. San Francisco exists in a paradox that, while building on a long contemporary radical history, has seen accessibility to the city almost completely removed from the communities that are at the heart of these movements. As James Tracey outlines in Dispatches on Displacement, cities should not just be abandoned, as they have often been places where people have been free to create community and pursue a life of their choosing. This is an important aspect of the city-culture that is under attack in major metro areas across the country as gentrification makes it impossible to have these people open spaces for things like social struggles and transgressive art circles. Anti-gentrification has often rightly noted the association with working class displacement and the influx of artistic, and often white, youths in increasing rents and forcing through urban renewal and development. This does not mean that these people are specifically “to blame,” but instead we need to keep the movements focused directly on the developers and movers of capital specifically. As he said in a recent talk around the release of his book,” Hipsters are not the ones that issued your eviction.” Instead, we should make cities continue to be places where people to migrate to to be a part of creative and radical circles, while also continuing to be the home for generations of working people who have made it the heart of their geographic family.

The promise here is that we can create coordinated movements that take on issues of international capitalism and austerity in particular sectors while remaining connected. While many speakers talked about very specific movements, from body positivity to immigration, there was a certain feeling that all were necessary and connected. This may be a signal of a new alignment amongst radical movements, one that did not seem possible for many years as the traditional left was seen as no longer viable. Instead, the period of crisis that we are living in reminded the movements of the systemic sources of each and that they had a common enemy. As housing organizers, its important to find a direct connection to movements addressing healthcare, immigration, labor, etc., and find very tactile ways that we can prop each movement up. We can only see a fully comprehensive anti-capitalist movement if all sectors that capitalism touches are addressed, a common connection is seen between them.

Posted By

Eviction Free Zone
Jan 7 2015 23:41

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  • We didn’t address [homelessness] by refunding affordable housing programs. We addressed it by redefining whom we count as actually being homeless. And then we wonder why the shit that we’re doing isn’t working.

    Paul Boden

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Comments

Gregory A. Butler
Jan 8 2015 07:10

Is "houseless" the new euphemism for homeless people?

Eviction Free Zone
Jan 8 2015 19:48

I have heard that used a lot recently. The idea is that many homeless folks actually have a "home" that they have made for themselves in things like homeless encampments, and so we don't want to minimize those locations. But I also don't think it is super universal.