Holding on in East Harlem and Points West, North and South


by Black Agenda Report executive editor Glen Ford

“Neoliberalism is the root cause of rampaging gentrification and displacement, from New York to New Orleans to Atenco, Mexico.” Keen observers of political-economy would agree with this assessment from Zapatista-inspired community activists in Spanish Harlem, who recently organized an “encuentro” with similar minded Black and Asian activists. All concluded that the issue is bigger than Harlem: “This displacement is created by the greed, ambition and violence of a global empire of money that seeks to take total control of all the land, labor and life on earth.”

Holding on in East Harlem and Points West, North and South

by BAR executive editor Glen Ford

“The money that is creating displacement all across the country is due to neoliberalism.”

“We Shall Not Be Moved” and “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” read the placards – in Spanish. Activists packed a classroom on East 116th Street in Harlem - “Zapatista East Harlem,” the organizers called it – to find common ground in the battle against the global scourge of neoliberalism, the root cause of rampaging gentrification and displacement “from New York to New Orleans to Atenco, Mexico.”

“The money that is creating displacement all across the country is due to neoliberalism,” declared Asian American activist Bin Liang in the opening film presentation for the Second NYC Encuentro for Dignity and Against Displacement, held June 7 by the Movement for Justice in El Barrio (MJB). MJB's politics is proudly Zapatista, inspired by the indigenous rebellion centered in Chiapas, Mexico, that caught the world's attention in 1994. Only in recent decades have Mexicans been present in large numbers in New York City, where Puerto Ricans and, later, Dominicans have long dominated the Latino landscape. The encuentro (meaning “meeting” or “encounter”) is part of the Zapatista's “Other” campaign to unite those who are commonly oppressed by capital – the “Others” - in a movement from “below and to the left.”

The MJB has been locked in battle with the Dawnay-Day Group, a gentrifier-from-hell (actually, London) that has attempted to force tenants from scores of Harlem buildings to make way for the upper-income crowd. “Now that we found ourselves fighting with a multinational corporation, we decided we had to make our own struggle international,” said Movement member Oscar Dominguez. But leadership comes from the people on the block. “The tenants who live in those buildings are making the decisions on their own struggle. We need to ask the community, which way we should go.”
“The developers and landlords have overleveraged themselves.”

The odds against tenants narrowed with the economic meltdown, precipitated by collapse of the same investment banks that have funded gentrification in New York, nationally and worldwide. “Something strange happened on the way to the bank,” said Nellie Bailey, executive director of the Harlem Tenants Council. “The developers and landlords are absorbed in their own problems because they have overleveraged themselves.”

In many cases, the speculators have gone bust, victims of a crisis of their own making. “All these projects are on hold,” said Bailey. “This is a time for us to begin our own analysis of the struggle.”
Even with developers flat on their backs, their billionaire champion in City Hall is determined to maintain the pace of gentrification. Michael Bloomberg's wealth “has tripled since he became mayor of this city,” Bailey told the crowd on 116th Street. “He wants to add one million new residents to the city. I suggest to you that this growth is at the exclusion of the working class of New York City.”

Money attracts stooges and flunkies like manure draws flies. Harlem's elected officials and their self-aggrandizing organizations are largely beholden to the same developers - and mayor - that are driving their constituents into exile. Said Tom DeMott, of the Coalition to Preserve Community: “Local development corporations are our enemies...we have to remember them at all times.”

The rich and their servants in government have found myriad methods of pushing out the poor. Pearl Barkley, of the Thomas Jefferson Houses Tenant Association, also represents Mothers Against Abusive Policing. “Our main mission,” she said, “is to fight against police abuse of our youth, which is being used to make them ineligible for housing.” Persons with criminal records can be barred from public housing. Police seek to “criminalize the youth, so in the future you are not eligible for low income housing, and for jobs.”

“Mayor Bloomberg is determined to maintain the pace of gentrification.”

The Zapatista-inspired activists of the Movement for Justice in El Barrio speak much the same language as their fellow New Yorkers (and Chicagoans and Atlantans). In the MJB's “International Declaration in Defense of El Barrio,” issued shortly before this month's gathering, the group said:

“This displacement is created by the greed, ambition and violence of a global empire of money that seeks to take total control of all the land, labor and life on earth. Here in El Barrio (East Harlem, New York City), landlords, multi-national corporations and local, state and federal politicians and institutions want to force upon us their culture of money, they want to displace poor families and rent their apartments to rich people, white people with money. They want to change the look of our neighborhoods, with the excuse of 'developing the community.' They want to remove from the street the street vendors, who earn an honorable and dignified living, the families that have their own small businesses and small restaurants, small clothing stores, and the small bodegas on the corners in our neighborhood. They want to displace us to bring in their luxury restaurants their expensive and large clothing stores, their supermarket chains. They want to change our neighborhood. They want to change our culture. They want to change that which makes us Latino, African-American, Asian and Indigenous. They want to change everything that makes us El Barrio.”

For the last event of the evening, young barrio children took turns, blindfolded, swinging sticks at a pinata hanging from the ceiling. The round paper object of their aggression was labeled “Neoliberalism.” Good training for the future.