photo by Michael Gould-Wartofski.

photo by Michael Gould-Wartofski.

On December 4, 2011, Movement for Justice in El Barrio, a grassroots, immigrant-led organization that fights against gentrification and displacement in East Harlem—fights for social justice—hosted the “New York Encuentro for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism.” It was a gathering of about 350 people, of people from all over New York City and different states, young, old, men, women, and children. Many people from Occupy Wall Street were dispersed among community organizers, students, and all the other interested, curious, and passionate people attending. Women were greeted at the door with red roses, and children offered a place to play while their parents and guardians could take part in the event. From the beginning, it was a welcoming and inclusive event—which is the essence of an Encuentro. An Encuentro is a very particular type of gathering, and best explained in Movement’s own words:

“An Encuentro is a space for people to come together; it is a gathering. An Encuentro is not a meeting, a panel or a conference, it is a way of sharing developed by the Zapatistas as another form of doing politics: from below and to the left. It is a place where we can all speak, we will all listen, and we can all learn. It is a place where we can share the many different struggles that make us one.”

The Encuentro featured a full program of a variety of events in different styles, starting with the topic “our common enemy.” Activists and organizers from community and worker solidarity groups had a chance to define, in their words, what we are fighting against, followed by an open floor for anyone from the gathering to come up and share their perspective. This open dialogue allowed us to understand the different ways that the “problem” is defined and experienced, by organizations and individuals—and although everyone had their own particular way of understanding it, there was an underlying and consistent commonality in them all: the inhuman system of capitalism and politics that oppresses and exploits people and communities in an infinite number of ways. Near the end of the Encuentro, the floor was opened again for us to share our common hopes and dreams. Again, it was very inspiring to see how different but also similar these hopes are, and it grounded and supported the optimism that is necessarily central to any social movement that asserts "another world is possible."

Movement also presented a series of videos, which helped to create a more global perspective of this common struggle. Some explained their own activist work in East Harlem, another told the story of Abahlali baseMjondolo (the Shack Dwellers Movement) also fighting displacement in Durban, South Africa, and others showed the struggle of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico. There were even personal video messages and letters from individual activists that could not be physically present. They ended with a fantastic video showing scenes from the Festival of Dignified Rage hosted by the Zapatista in December 2008, and proposed, as a next step, that those present organize a similar event here in New York City. Everyone was very enthusiastic and inspired by the proposal, and hopefully it can be realized soon. The Encuentro ended with an atmosphere of celebration, as everyone was invited to a delicious dinner and children had a chance to break a special “neoliberal piñata,” representing Mayor Bloomberg.

As a group that has been struggling well before the recent explosion of activism that has swept the city over the past few months, there is much to learn from Movement for Justice in El Barrio’s experiences and knowledge. In the rush and excitement generated by Occupy Wall Street, it is easy to forget that none of this is new; people have been fighting against capitalism and for justice all over the world and all throughout history, and in particular, the horizontal and inclusive mode of self-organization that Occupy Wall Street has been practicing has roots in this global legacy of struggle “from below and to the left.”

The momentum of time and history create beautiful moments like this when suddenly, we all converge and a new social movement takes hold; and as we celebrate the spontaneity of such a convergence, at the same time we should be celebrating and learning from those movements from before or from elsewhere that inspired and shaped the present. Only then can we be sure that our movement is actively and vigorously inclusive, and that it embodies true solidarity.
Speaking for myself for a moment, but I’m sure many others would agree, I was very grateful for the opportunity to participate in this Encuentro, as an open and heartwarming space to reflect, listen, and share with others, and I hope for another gathering like this again soon.