Category Archives: Environment & Justice

Urban island futures: Aves In the Fiction of Buckell

I enjoyed Tobias Buckell’s Hurricane Fever. I’m coming to terms with the fact that in these pandemic days of ever growing workload, it’s fine that really I can only read fiction.

This is a solid thriller. I loved the glimpses of history of a part of the world I know too little about and the snarkiness about US dominance and white supremacy. Above all, though, I enjoyed its setting in the world almost certainly extisting in our very near future brought into being by global warming. The porous rock on which Miami is built having permitted its permament flooding — you can read something like Extreme Cities by Ashley Dawson for more about this certain future. The hurricanes coming faster and stronger, the swallowing of islands, the flooding of cities. All of those impacts easier to chart, the shifts in geopolitics more difficult to predict.

I quite loved the book’s description of a possible urban future lashed to the rock of La Isla de Aves. This is what the island looks like now:

Isla De Aves photo by Veronidae (CC License) https://thedominican.net/2016/08/claim-to-bird-island.html

There is a nice description of stumbling across the empty sandbar and the startling military installation while sailing in the St Kitts & Nevis Observer, along with some of its history. There is another web page titled: ‘Isla Avis: Don’t Run Into this Island!’ What I loved from Buckell was this imagining of a future city here in such an improbable place, born of a bid for independance from Venezuela, the uniting of the Caribbean and the development of a free trade zone.

A horizontal blotch of a city on stilts, surrounded by more sturdy platforms rising out of the sea on rusted, rotund legs. Some of them oil platforms, moved to create more open space where the sand no longer existed. But later, the floating piers and homes systems had been added to Aves that were commonly found in more and more coastal cities throughout the world.

No one on Aves ever planned to try and keep the roaring seas back. It was a futile gesture. Instead they used the tp of the island peeking up from its submarine mountain range as a base to bolt everything to.

Even the sand around Aves’s pylons was a fiction. The (155) original Aves Island had long since been swallowed by rising seas. The sand had been imported to continue the fiction that Aves Island was still a thing. A physical spit of something that people could continue to threaten a war over, countersue about in courts, and generally get upset about or use.

Twenty thousand people lived out here, naked to the ocean’s power, clinging on stilts to what lay beneath. (156)

Well imagined. Even without such a future, it is rather a fascinating place — a source of guano to the US, Danes hunting eggs, its geographies and very definitions fought over by Venezuela and Dominica, potentially involving the mobilization of pregnant women to bear Venezuelan citizens solidifying this claim to Venezuelan soil. Definitely a thesis in that. This is such a twist on how this past might shape an all-too-near future.

Buckell, Tobias (2014) Hurricane Fever. Del Rey.

Hurricane Fever by Tobias S. Buckell

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Jamaica Kincaid: Breadfruit, Gardens, Empire

My Garden

The picture above is from Jennifer Jewell’s The Earth in Her Hands. In this great green garden she created and in that T-shirt, Jamaica Kincaid is fierce. A quote from her interview there: ‘Plants contain the world. The garden, better than any college education, gave the world to me‘.

I loved this book, even if (maybe because) it isn’t very easy. I loved the spiked outline of Jamaica Kincaid in all its fullness of garden colour and glory: the obsessive gardening, the plants, the meditations on winter and colour and travel and China and self and other people and foxes and history and Vermont and Antigua and mothers and children and … you know, this stuff of everyday thought and life.

It is not full of things to be quoted really. It is to be enjoyed in the round this book, the full chiaroscuro of character that only appears when you reach that last page, close that cover. But there were two things I wanted to share. The first because I have noticed only in the past few months (pre-lockdown) the strange appearance of breadfruit everywhere in Manchester and Bristol. The new vegetarian alternative, from replacing my favourite pizza at Zizzi’s to numerous other restaurants offering strange versions of it. I know it is not at all new elsewhere, but how did it happen like this all at once here? There is something going on, but what?

Kincaid gives it new meaning.

This food, the breadfruit, has been the cause of more disagreement between parents and their children than anything I can think of. No West Indian that I know has ever liked it. It was sent to the West Indies by Joseph Banks, the English naturalist and world traveler, and the founder of Kew Gardens, which was then a clearinghouse for all the plants stolen from the various parts of the world these people had been (the climbing rose R. banksiae from China was named for his wife). He sent tea to India, he sent the West Indies the breadfruit; it was meant to be a cheap food for feeding slaves. It was in the cargo that Captain Bligh was carrying to the West Indies on the Bounty when his crew so correctly mutinied. (Perhaps Antiguan children sense intuitively the part this food has played in the history of injustice and so they will not eat it.) It grows readily, it bears fruit abundantly, it is impervious to drought, a serious impediment to the growing of things anywhere. In a place like Antigua the breadfruit is not a food, it is a weapon. (100-101)

And obsessed with history as I am, I loved this, and she repeats that larger paragraph at the end of this chapter on history, underlines it.

What to call the thing that happened to me and all who look like me?

Should I call it history?

If so, what should history mean to someone like me?

Should it be an idea, should it be an open wound with each breath I take in and expel healing and opening the wound again and again, over and over, and is this the healing and opening a moment that begins in 1492 and has yet to come to an end? Is it a collection of facts, all true and precise details, and if so, when I come across these true and precise details, what should I do, how should I feel, where should I place myself?

Why should I be obsessed with all these questions?

My history begins like this: In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered the New World (114).

I suppose more than anything this makes me ache even more for my own space, my own garden. I know that old excitement of plant catalogs. This is an old ache exacerbated in lockdown, staring at the wild grass outside I must cut. A small yard not mine, without tools to prune the wild suckers and plant growing things (and plant for whom? though I know I should leave this place better than I found it as I hope to leave all places, yet a punishing terrible job leaves no time to cultivate or improve anything in a sustained way and I never ever expected to be here so long, that alone makes me want to curl up and give in), the damp in the walls, the furnishings and appliances that belong to a landlord and are cheap and breaking down, this bed that hurts my back so I can’t exercise much anymore, the stove that will not bake properly at gas mark 4, these uncomfortable couches, kitchen chairs you can’t sit on for too long, the glass table. Sometimes I feel like I am shriveling up.

I do, I really do, know that it could be worse.

Kincaid, Jamaica (1999) My Garden (book): London: Vintage.

The desert as postmodern metaphor

Think of how the desert gets turned into metaphor in postmodern rhetoric where it functions as the place of origins, endings and hard truths: the place at the end of the world where all meanings and values blow away; the place without landmarks that can never be mapped; the place where nothing grows and nobody stays put. Radically different desert cultural traditions, precise indigenous knowledges about particular wilderness ecologies get subsumed beneath the definite article — the desert as globalized prediction of what, it’s being implied, is really waiting for us out there in the future (275).

Hebdige, Dick (1993) ‘Training some thoughts on the future’ p 270-279 in Bird et al (eds) mapping the futures: local cultures, global change. London and New York: Routledge.

From the Ground Up: The Environmental Justice Movement

I love From the Ground Up, Luke Cole and Sheila Foster provide such a great introduction to environmental racism and the spirit and struggle of the environmental justice movement in From the Ground Up. I wish I had read it while I was organising, but it rings so true from the first page. Look at this preface.

Preface: We Speak for Ourselves.

Stories are one way we transmit our history, share our successes, and learn from our losses. Stories are also an important part of the movement for environmental justice, which has as one of its central tenets the idea “We speak for ourselves.” This book tells the stories of ordinary men and women thrust into extraordinary roles as community leaders, grassroots experts, and national policymakers. (1)

They open with the battle in Kettlement City against a toxic waste dump, the finding of the Cerrell Report done for the California Waster Management board in 1984, which

suggested to companies and localities that were seeking to site garbage incinerators that the communities that would offer the least resistance to such incinerators were rural communities, poor communities, communities whose residents had low education levels, communities that were highly catholic, communities with fewer than 25,000 residents, and communities whose residents were employed in resource-extractive jobs like mining, timber, or agriculture. (3)

Can what we’re up against be clearer than that?

Introduction

So to start with the basics.

Environmental hazards are inequitably distributed in the United States, with poor people and people of color bearing a greater share of pollution than richer people and white people. This intuitive idea…has been borne out by dozens of studies completed over the past two decades. The disparate impact documented in studies has given birth to the term “environmental racism.” (10)

So how do we approach this as communities, as allies, as academics? They talk about their approach as internal and external — from the point of view of communities themselves and from the ground up — and the external view looking at the political economy of environmental degradation. They describe the need for both perspectives.

The internal perspective, they argue, is that of grassroots accounts, which tell a crucial narrative that — and they have a great quote from Iris Young here, pulled from Democracy and Difference —reveals the particular experiences of those in social locations, experiences that cannot be shared by those situated differently but that they must understand in order to do justice to others.” (12) Thus

This book contains stories, collective insights, legal understandings, and a political economy that ‘examines the relationship among economic, political/legal, and social forces as they influence environmental decision-making processes and environmental outcomes. (11)

I love too the broader vision of social and environmental change that this kind of engaged scholarship can support and help develop.

This broader analysis, in turn, forces us to go beyond framing the problem as merely a distributive one–certain communities get an unfair environmental burden–and to reconceptualize grassroots activism as more than an attempt to disrupt the decisions of private corporations and state agencies. Instead grassroots struggles are a crucial arena in which to restructure social relations through systems of localized environmental decision making. (13)

This is what transformative politics looks like, right? Where the Environmental Justice Movement

is not the “elevated environmental consciousness” of its members but the ways that it transforms the possibilities for fundamental social and environmental change through redefinition, reinvention, and construction of innovative political and cultural discourses and practices. … This transformation takes place on a number of levels–the individual, the group, the community–and ultimately influences institutions, government, and social structure. (14)

This has to start with the individual and the community, but it cannot end there…it has to grow, engage, have a sense of a broader coalitional politics.

The other thing?

Words have power.

Just that. What a movement is called, the words it uses, are important. They use environmental justice

because it both expresses our aspiration and encompasses the political economy of environmental decision making. That is, environmental justice requires democratic decision making, community empowerment, and the incorporation of social structure. (16)

They also broadens definition of environment to be ‘where we live, where we work, where we play, and where we learn.’ Environmentalism is linked to material environment and community through long decades of struggle. It also encompasses both home and community. (16) It is fought on multiple fronts, both fighting toxic land uses as well as working to improve lives through clean jobs, sustainable economy, affordable housing, achieving social and racial justice.

A History of the Environmental Justice Movement

This movement is firmly rooted in past justice movements. There is no single date or event that launched it, but a collection of key points. 1982 struggle of African American community against toxic dump in Warren County, NC. The drowning death of an 8-year-old in a garbage dump in Houston, 1967. MLK’s work in Memphis supporting striking garbage workers, 1968. UFW’s fight against pesticides through the 1960s. Native American struggles since European’s arrived.

They describe it as a river with many tributaries — the Civil Rights Movement, Anti-Toxics Movement. Academic work identifying its structural, systemic nature. Native American struggles. The Labor Movement. And to a small extent, traditional environmentalism. All coming together at the 1991 First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. Those amazing resolutions they put forward that are so powerful still today (see them along with a brilliant article by Dana Alston here).

Cole and Foster describe three characteristics uniting the many tributaries, key for those who believe movement and social change must be driven by those experiencing oppression:

Motives: ‘Environmental justice activists usually have an immediate and material stake in solving the environmental problems they confront’ are being made sick, dying, have a personal stake (33)

Background: ‘largely, though not entirely, poor or working-class people. Many are people of color…’ (33)

Perspective: have a social justice orientation, seeing environmental degradation as just one of many way their communities are under attack…seek remedies that are more fundamental…view the need for broader, structural reforms… (33)

The Political Economy of Environmental Racism (Chester residents Concerned for Quality of Life) — a case study on what can go right and wrong. I used to tutor kids in Chester, working class white kid parachuted into a neighbourhood via an elite College program, earning some extra money driving the van back and forth. Wish I’d been a little more woke back then. I still think about those kids sometimes.

Anyway, there are some lessons here about the dangers of relying entirely on legal action — now that is so so familiar. But Chester is also used to look ‘Beyond the Distributive Paradigm’. It helps open up the unequal distribution of toxic waste and industry shaped by structural factors — deindustrialization, white flight, segregation. Incinerators become an opening point for exploring these processes and patterns, and recognizing that despite the clear intersections of race and class, the US reality is that race is better correlated to exposure to environmental dangers. Only by ignoring the structural causes can these injustices be blamed on simple market dynamics and choice, or on lifestyle. But of course, that happens all the time.

There is also a need to examine the definition of racism — this has been steadily narrowed over the years through the courts, constructed as simply “race discrimination” or intentional, purposeful conduct. Under such a limited view, environmental racism requires a bad actor making very conscious decisions. Instead, Cole and Foster argue that

Understanding environmental racism thus requires a conceptual framework that (1) retains a structural view of economic and social forces as they influence discriminatory outcomes, (2) isolates the dynamics within environmental decision-making processes that further contribute to such outcomes, and (3) normatively evaluates social forces and environmental decision-making processes which contribute to disparities in environmental hazard distribution. (65)

And of course, you can trace so much of this back to segregation, deeply, historically embedded into America’s geographies. There’s a nice quote from Richard Ford: “race-neutral policy could be expected to entrench segregation and socio-economic stratification in a society with a history of racism.” (67)

The stories of specific campaigns are so powerful, opening a number of windows into the nature of struggle over time. Buttonwillow is a rural town in California, which is host to CA’s three toxic waste dumps. They give a powerful quote from Lupe Martinez, who had been working with residents on loan from UFW — but I think this is the fear of all organizers:

My fear, when it came down that I had mixed feelings of whether I was going to leave or not, was that it was going to die. That’s the organizer’s nightmare. That everything that you did might not be there at all. Maybe what you did was not what you thought you had done. And so when I left, when I was about to leave, I felt that “what if I didn’t do it right? What if all of a sudden I’m gone and it’s dead , and nothing is going to happen? So, everything that I did was for nothing then.’ (87)

Over time much has been won, but…there has been no clear victory here. Cole and Foster write

On another level, however, the struggle has been a failure: not only is the dump expansion moving forward, but many Padres members have been demoralized by the seven-year struggle. “I feel like I’m throwing rocks at the moon,” sighs Paco Beltran, “and catching them on my head.” (102)

This seems familiar, I have never been so poetic about it though. Despite the losses, there has been a rise in political consciousness, this is also familiar:

The activism of community groups like the Padres in Buttonwillow often begins as a reaction to the impact of increasing numbers of polluting facilities on the community residents’ health and quality of life. However, their activism quickly becomes as struggle over the legitimacy of decision-making processes, the exclusion from and the marginalization of disaffected residents during those processes, and the structural forces that constrain individuals in these communities from fully participating in decisions that fundamentally affect their lives. (103)

I love these stories — and I suppose I often feel more is to be learned where things falter and fail. This one highlights how important the relationship between individual organizer and community members is to these struggles — it’s curious that the whole point of organizing is not to be central to struggle, and yet I think it takes a certain kind of person to create a process where consciousness is raised, people do learn and grow collectively. That may be a different kind of person in different circumstances depending on the mix of personalities. Alinksy writes a lot about this, and it’s a conundrum I turn over in my head — the role of the individual in collective action. It’s why I think spaces like Highlander are so important, and it is happiness to see Highlander appear here, hosting workshops and providing space for discussion and reflection and growth in support of the process of struggle.

Processes of Struggle

It’s all about this:

the grassroots organizations created in the midst of struggles for environmental justice are crucial in creating an ongoing role for community participation in all decisions that fundamentally affect the participants’ lives. When local groups are able to link their victories in the environmental realm to broader political and economic struggles, the potential exists to redefine existing power relations, to unsettle cultural assumptions about race and class, and to create new political possibilities for historically marginalized communities… (105)

This comes through taking power, through redefining power relations. It means that communities must always speak for themselves, ‘that those who must bear the brunt of a decision should have an equal and influential role in making the decision’. (106)

This is not your liberal pluralism though. ‘Pluralism, in practice, tends to exclude those lacking the material prerequisites to equal participation.‘ (109) Instead we see a beginning look at the creation of a deliberative process, where ‘citizens thus create the common good through discourse, as opposed to discovering it through prexisting preferences.’ (113) I quite like this way of thinking of these conflictual and deliberative public conversations, not as public school debates but as collective endeavours to grow and learn and reach a decision. This is–or could be–the essence of what Freire describes in his work on pedagogy, much different than the European body of work around discourse gets to (though perhaps Nancy Fraser and Iris Young bring it closest).

There are challenges here too of course. This is hard. But they are trying to move towards a transformative politics. The ways in which moving from bystander to participant in struggle is transformative, but also at the community level ‘a collective emergence of solidarity, action and rebelliousness that builds on itself in an organic manner’ (156). They draw on Gaventa’s study of power and silences and struggle in Appalachia, which I love so much. They also gave this idea of institutional transformation developing through the EJ movement:

the important power building that is occurring between the Environmental Justice Movement and other social justice activism, what we call “movement fusion”: the coming together of two (or more) different social movements in a way that expands the base of support for both movements by developing a common agenda. (164)

This fusion continues, and EJ principles and learning are so clearly foundational for so much of what is coming out of the Right to the City Alliance, the Movement for Black Lives…there is so much brilliance in the US at this level.

[Cole, Luke W. and Foster, Sheila R. (2001) From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement. New York and London: New York University Press.]

from Matsutake mushrooms to entanglements, patches and methodologies

I found Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World such an extraordinary book. I love particularly how it stretches to understand and theorise complexity in a way closely tied to justice struggles, that includes but is hardly limited to political economy and ecology.

It opens with this idea of entanglement, and its challenges to more traditional theorising around capitalism, nature, knowledge. I love her language, her style and the way it in turn allows such an intense grappling-with-things-as-they-are. She talks about enabling entanglements, all that this allows us to think through:

Ever since the enlightenment, western philosophers have shown us a Nature that is grand and universal but also passive and mechanical. Nature was a backdrop and resource for the moral intentionality of Man, which could tame and master Nature. It was left to fabulists, including non-Western and non-civilizational storytellers, to remind us of the lively activities of all beings, human and not human. Several things have happened to undermine this division of labor. First, all that taming and mastering has made such a mess that it is unclear whether life on earth can continue. Second, interspecies entanglements that once seemed the stuff of fables are now materials for serious discussion among biologists and ecologists, who show how life requires the interplay of many kinds of beings. Humans cannot survive by stomping on all the others. Third, women and men from around the world have clamored to be included in the status once given to Man. Our riotous presence undermines the moral intentionality of Man’s Christian masculinity, which separated Man from Nature. The time has come for new ways of telling true stories beyond civilizational first principles.

There is no question of what the stakes are — this wonderful idea of riotous presence. She continues

Without Man and Nature, all creatures can come back to life, and men and women can express themselves without the strictures of a parochially imagined rationality. (vii)

She continues:

My book then offers “third nature,” that is, what manages to live despite capitalism. To even notice third nature, we must evade assumptions that the future is that singular direction ahead…Yet progress stories have blinded us. To know the world without them, this books sketches open-ended assemblages of entangled ways of life, as these coalesce in coordination across many kinds of temporal rhythms. (viii)

This ‘crippling assumption’ of linear progress is critiqued again and again, as is the reduction of theory:

While I refuse to reduce either economy or ecology to the other, there is one connection between economy and environment that seems important to introduce up front: the history of the human concentration of wealth through making both humans and nonhumans into re-sources for investment. This history has inspired investors to imbue both people and things with alienation, that is, the ability to stand alone, as if the entanglements of living did not matter.’ Through alienation, people and things become mobile assets; they can be removed from their life worlds in distance-defying transport to be exchanged with other assets from other life worlds, elsewhere.’ This is quite different from merely using others as part of a life world—for example, in eating and being eaten. In that case, multispecies living spaces remain in place. Alienation obviates living-space entanglement. The dream of alienation inspires landscape modification in which only one stand-alone asset matters; everything else becomes weeds or waste. Here, attending to living-space entanglements seems inefficient, and perhaps archaic. When its singular asset can no longer be produced, a place can be abandoned. The timber has been cut: the oil has run out; the plantation soil no longer supports crops. The search for assets resumes elsewhere. Thus, simplification for alienation produces ruins, spaces of abandonment for asset production. Global landscapes today are strewn with this kind of ruin. Still, these places can be lively despite announcements of their death; abandoned asset fields sometimes yield new multispecies and multicultural life. In a global state of precarity, we don’t have choices other than looking for life in this ruin. (5-6)

Again this is creating theory able to think in new ways about an all-pervasive precarity, all-pervasive spaces of abandonment and ruin (at the same as possible spaces of life and hope), and the entanglements that are part of this in complex ways. On precarity:

Precarity is the condition of being vulnerable to others. Unpredictable encounters transform us; we are not in control, even of ourselves. Unable to rely on a stable structure of community, we are thrown into shifting assemblages, which remake us as well as our others. We can’t rely on the status quo; everything is in flux, including our ability to survive. Thinking through precarity changes social analysis. A precarious world is a world without teleology. Indeterminacy, the unplanned nature of time, is frightening, but thinking through precarity makes it evident that indeterminacy also makes life possible. (20)

On assemblage, which she draws on a great deal and I confess I’ve never much cared for… but I love the idea stretched to be wielded in this way, these lifeways.

The concept of assemblage is helpful. Ecologists turned to assemblages to get around the sometimes fixed and bounded connotations of ecological “community.” The question of how the varied species in a species assemblage influence each other—if at all—is never settled: some thwart (or eat) each other; others work together to make life possible: still others just happen to find themselves in the same place. Assemblages are open-ended gatherings. They allow us to ask about communal effects without assuming them. They show us potential histories in the making. For my purposes, however, I need something other than organisms as the elements that gather. I need to see lifeways—and non-living ways of being as well—coming together. Nonhuman ways of being, like human ones, shift historically. For living things, species identities are a place to begin, but they are not enough: ways of being are emergent effects of encounters. Thinking about humans makes this clear. Foraging for mushrooms is a way of life—but not a common characteristic of all humans. The issue is the same for other species. Pines find mushrooms to help them use human-made open spaces. Assemblages don’t just gather lifeways; they make them. Thinking through assemblage urges us to ask: How do gatherings sometimes become “happenings,” that is, greater than the sum of their parts? If history without progress is indeterminate and multidirectional, might assemblages show us its possibilities?

Patterns of unintentional coordination develop in assemblages. To notice such patterns means watching the interplay of temporal rhythms and scales in the divergent lifeways that gather. Surprisingly, this turns out to be a method that might revitalize political economy as well as environmental studies. Assemblages drag political economy inside them, and not just for humans. Plantation crops have lives different from those of their free-living siblings; cart horses and hunter steeds share species but not lifeways. Assemblages cannot hide from capital and the state; they are sites for watching how political economy works. If capitalism has no teleology, we need to see what comes together—not just by prefabrication, but also by juxtaposition. (23)

I love how for her this fits into the landscape — a term with immense baggage in the world of geography, but still very useful I think. It moves into questions of methodology, where I also find so much to think about here, draw into my own work.

Telling stories of landscape requires getting to know the inhabitants of the landscape, human and not human. This is not easy, and it makes sense to me to use all the learning practices I can think of, including our combined forms of mindfulness, myths and tales, livelihood practices, archives, scientific reports, and experiments. But this hodgepodge creates suspicions—particularly, indeed, with the allies I hailed in reaching out to anthropologists of alternative world makings. For many cultural anthropologists, science is best regarded as a straw man against which to explore alternatives, such as indigenous practices.12 To mix scientific and vernacular forms of evidence invites accusations of bowing down to science. Yet this assumes a monolithic science that digests all practices into a single agenda. Instead, I offer stories built through layered and disparate practices of knowing and being. If the components clash with each other, this only enlarges what such stories can do. (159)

The concept of salvage, something I also find really useful:

‘taking advantage of value produced without capitalist control…”Salvage accumulation” is the process through which lead firms amass capital without controlling the conditions under which commodities are produced. Salvage is not an ornament on ordinary capitalist processes; it is a feature of how capitalism works. (63)

On supply chains, commodities, what a mushroom can teach us about the contemporary nature of capitalism, the idea of translation:

A supply chain is a particular kind of commodity chain: one in which lead firms direct commodity traffic.’ Throughout this part, I explore the supply chain linking matsutake pickers in the forests of Oregon with those who eat the mushrooms in Japan. The chain is surprising and full of cultural variety. The factory work through which we know capitalism is mainly missing. But the chain illuminates something important about capitalism today: Amassing wealth is possible without rationalizing labor and raw materials. Instead, it requires acts of translation across varied social and political spaces, which, borrowing from ecologists’ usage, I call “patches.” Translation, in Shiho Satsuka’s sense, is the drawing of one world-making project into another.2 While the term draws attention to language, it can also refer to other forms of partial attunement. Translations across sites of difference are capitalism: they make it possible for investors to accumulate wealth. (62)

and this:

Global supply chains ended expectations of progress because they allowed lead corporations to let go of their commitment to controlling labor. Standardizing labor required education and regularized jobs, thus connecting profits and progress. In supply chains, in contrast, goods gathered from many arrangements can lead to profits for the lead firm: commitments to jobs, education, and well-being are no longer even rhetorically necessary. Supply chains require a particular kind of salvage accumulation, involving translation across patches. The modern history of U.S.-Japanese relations is a counterpoint of call-and-response that spread this practice around the world. (110)

She continues with what helped out allow the global shift to outsourcing but following the commodity chain of the matsutake — this is a long quote but traces this way of unraveling how things work, fit together, of seeing absences as well as presences, of bringing together multiple ways of understanding how a thing works and how assemblage might be a useful concept along more traditional concepts used in looking at capitalism like alienation:

…I let the thread of the story unroll quite far from matsutake. Yet at each step I need the chain’s reminders to resist the lull of current erasures. This is not just a story, then, but also a method: big histories are always best told through insistent, if humble, details.

In collecting goods and people from around the world, capitalism itself has the characteristics of an assemblage. However, it seems to me that capitalism also has characteristics of a machine, a contraption limited to the sum of its parts. This machine is not a total institution, which we spend our lives inside; instead, it translates across living arrangements. turning worlds into assets. But not just any translation can be accepted into capitalism. The gathering it sponsors is not open-ended. An army of technicians and managers stand by to remove offending parts—and they have the power of courts and guns. This does not mean that the machine has a static form. As I argued in tracing the history of Japanese-U.S. trade relations, new forms of capitalist translation come into being all the time. Indeterminate encounters matter in shaping capitalism. Yet it is not a wild profusion. Some commitments are sustained, through force.

Two have been particularly important for my thinking in this book. First, alienation is that form of disentanglement that allows the making of capitalist assets. Capitalist commodities are removed from their life-worlds to serve as counters in the making of further investments. Infinite needs are one result; there is no limit on how many assets investors want. Thus, too, alienation makes possible accumulation—the amassing of investment capital, and this is the second of my concerns. Accumulation is important because it converts ownership into power. Those with capital can overturn communities and ecologies. Meanwhile, because capitalism is a system of commensuration, capitalist value forms flourish even across great circuits of difference. Money becomes investment capital, which can produce more money. Capitalism is a translation machine for producing capital from all kinds of livelihoods, human and not human. (133)

Gives examples of children reclaiming precious and dangerous metals from cell phones as another example of salvage — not anything thought of as capitalist labour, yet important to more traditional forms of labour such as the making of new phones.

However, there is something peculiar and frightening in this dedication salvage, as if everyone were taking advantage of the end of the world to gather up riches before the last bits are destroyed. (274)

These different forms of exploitation alongside each other makes theorising and organising for a better world difficult, but it is the task before us. Salvage is perhaps a term that can help get us where we need to go:

The challenges are enormous. Salvage accumulation reveals a world of difference, where oppositional politics does not fall easily into utopian plans for solidarity. Every livelihood patch has its own history and dynamics, and there is no automatic urge to argue together, across the viewpoints emerging from varied patches, about the outrages of accumulation and power. Since no patch is “representative,” no group’s struggles, taken alone, will overturn capitalism. Yet this is not the end of politics. Assemblages, in their diversity, show us what later I call the `latent commons,” that is, entanglements that might be mobilized in common cause. Because collaboration is always with us, we can maneuver within its possibilities. We will need a politics with the strength of diverse and shifting coalitions—and not just for humans. The business of progress depended on conquering an infinitely rich nature through alienation and scalability. If nature has turned finite, and even fragile, no wonder entrepreneurs have rushed to get what they can before the goods run out, while conservationists desperately contrive to save scraps. The next part of this book offers an alternative politics of more-than-human entanglements. (134-35)

And so we return to methods, to storytelling, to knowing place:

Telling stories of landscape requires getting to know the inhabitants of the landscape, human and not human. This is not easy, and it makes sense to me to use all the learning practices I can think of, including our combined forms of mindfulness, myths and tales, livelihood practices, archives, scientific reports, and experiments. But this hodgepodge creates suspicions—particularly, indeed, with the allies I hailed in reaching out to anthropologists of alternative world makings. For many cultural anthropologists, science is best regarded as a straw man against which to explore alternatives, such as indigenous practices.12 To mix scientific and vernacular forms of evidence invites accusations of bowing down to science. Yet this assumes a monolithic science that digests all practices into a single agenda. Instead, I offer stories built through layered and disparate practices of knowing and being. If the components clash with each other, this only enlarges what such stories can do. (159)

History is central to this, but what is it exactly? What does it need to be?

“History” is both a human storytelling practice and that set of remainders from the past that we turn into stories. Conventionally, historians look only at human remainders, such as archives and diaries, but there is no reason not to spread our attention to the tracks and traces of nonhumans, as these contribute to our common landscapes. Such tracks and traces speak to cross-species entanglements in contingency and con-juncture, the components of “historical” time. To participate in such entanglement, one does not have to make history in just one way.’ Whether or not other organisms “tell stories,” they contribute to the overlapping tracks and traces that we grasp as history.2 History, then, is the record of many trajectories of world making, human and not human. (168)

Just two other tidbits to end:

Privatization is never complete; it needs shared spaces to create any value. That is the secret of property’s continuing theft–but also its vulnerability. (271)

I just need to sit and think about that. And this, which perhaps is the real challenge this book seeks to address, the need for these new ways of thinking, studying, understanding:

Progress gave us the “progressive” political causes with which I grew up. I hardly know how to think about justice without progress. The problem is that progress stopped making sense. (25)

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt (2015) The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Rackham’s History of the countryside

I’ve been wanting to read Oliver Rackham‘s History of the Countryside since my smallholding adventures. Now comes springtime, my upcoming birthday, finally a day to breathe after possibly the most punishing period of my working life…

I miss my blog so much.

Reading Rackham I am filled with such a glorious and enormous weight of knowledge, centuries of human activity intertwined with these myriad ecologies of soil, water, rock, flora, fauna. The ability (still untested of course) to better read a thousand years or more in the landscape. This is mostly just a collection of delightful facts which are rather better interwoven in the book. But this is much shorter.

First, this delightful thought.

Insights may also come at random from travels made, or documents read, for some quite different purpose. I went to Texas to discuss Cretan archaeology, and what I saw made me revise my views on hedges.

Another — the argument for history’s continuity over brutal violent change, the roller coaster of civilization and darkness we were once taught:

Many recent excavations reveal a gradual changeover with little apparent effect on the landscape; sometimes, as at Rivenhall (Essex), it is not easy to tell at what point the Roman Britons turned into Anglo-Saxons. The ecological evidence strongly favours continuity. When the curtain is raised by Anglo-Saxon documents, much of what we now regard as the ‘classic’ English landscape was already there, had already acquired its regional differences, and as far as we can tell was not new. It increasingly seems likely that, at least since the Iron Age, every inch of the British Isles has either belonged to somebody or has been expressly set aside for communal use. Not just main roads but wide areas of fields and lanes are Roman (or earlier) antiquities, and survived the Dark Ages almost intact. (xiv)

He divides the lowland English & Welsh landscape into Ancient Countryside and Planned Countryside, with various uplands (where I live now) — I find this transforms how I see countryside and England itself. So it’s not just a string of delightful facts after all.

Modern Differences

Ancient Countryside

Hamlets & small towns

Ancient isolated farms

Hedges mainly mixed, not straight

Roads many, not straight, often sunken

Many public footpaths

Woods many, often small

Pollard trees, if present, away from habitation


Many antiquities of all periods

Historic Differences

Open field either absent or of modest extent and abolished before c 1700

Most hedges ancient

Many though often small woods

Much heathland

Non-woodland trees oak, ash, alder, birch

Many ponds

Planned Countryside

Villages

18th & 19th C isolated farms

Hedges mainly hawthorne, straight

Roads few, straight, on surface


Few footpaths

Woods absent or few & large

Pollard trees (except riverside willows) absent or only in villages

Antiquities few, usually prehistoric


Strong tradition of open-field beginning early and last into Enclosure Act period

Most hedges modern

Woods absent or few & large

Heaths rare; little bracken or broom

Non-woodland thorns and elders

Few ponds

I quite love these, simple, quite obvious ways of reading the landscape and of course they explain so much. The ridge and furrow I loved — not as old as I thought, went tearing through ancient landscapes and over burrows and standing stones…maybe I don’t love them quite as much. I can’t decide.

He challenges accepted views of deforestation with two quotations, one from John Evelyn talking about the ways that the new voracious Glass and Iron-works have destroyed the woods and another from Defoe about the inexhaustible woods all around. He writes

Unfortunately many historians confine themselves to the written word or, worse still, to the literary world; they are reluctant to put on their boots and see what the land itself, and the things that grow on it, have to say. (6)

It turns out that most of the iron- and glass-works managed for hundreds of years on coppiced woods and that in truth, there was no great loss of woods at this time. The woods that were lost were lost primarily to agriculture. This is a constant theme, that it is all well and good to write histories of what people thought about the landscape, but ‘let us not confuse this with the history of what people did with the landscape, still less with the history of the landscape itself or of what the landscape did with people‘. (23)

He describes the Anglo-Saxon charters, the perambulations used to delineate the boundaries — they are amazing. He gives this example:

First up from the Thames along the merfleot [=boundary creek]; to the pollard stump; so to Bulung fen; from the fen along the old ditch to Cowford; from Cowford up along teobern [the river Tyburn] to the wide army-road; from the army-road to the old post-built St Andrew’s church; so into London fen; along the fen south to the Thames to mid-stream; along the upstream by land & shore back to the merfleot. (from the year 959)

The wide-army road is High Holborn, the fen around Fleet Street. These details give me such happiness, seeing old lines of water and earth beneath the city I know so well.

He talks of the rural maps of the 1860s and 70s, ‘which attempt to record every hedgerow tree and the details of every building…the zenith of rural mapmaking in Britain and perhaps in the world‘ (19). Notes the various traditions of preserving the boundaries, like Great Gransden where they dug a hole in a certain spot and held the Vicar’s head in it. There is so much to love about England.

There is also a real sense of how much has been lost by the rise of mass agriculture of the 1950s and 60s — he writes of four kinds of loss.

There is the loss of beauty, especially that exquisite beauty of the small and complex and unexpected, of frog-orchids or sundews or dragonflies. The loss of freedom [of highways, movement across the landscape]…The loss of historic vegetation and wildlife…the loss of meaning. The landscape is a record of our roots and the growth of civilization. Each individual historic wood, heath, etc. is uniquely different from every other, and each has something to tell us. (26)

All due to big agriculture, ‘the makers of chemicals, fertilizers and machinery‘. I sometimes worry about the touches of nostalgia to be found here, but he’s not wrong about this. He’s also quite entertainingly curmudgeonly. Like his footnote complaint about the historical accuracy of producers of historical films: ‘they do not allow Charles I to fly in a plane, but they do let him ride among Corsican pine plantations or Frisian cattle!‘ (31)

There is a list of extinct animals — the aurochs, sad they are gone, and wolves. Even sadder. But this is fascinating:

In Anglo-Saxon times, unpersons (!) and men on the run were declares wulvesheafod (wolves-head) and if caught ended on a wolves-head tree. (34)

Werewolves!

Then there is this partial list of what Henry III had for his Christmas dinner — him wot finished off the last of the wild swine in England (his demands for immense amounts of all kinds of things we no longer eat recur throughout the book, though at times contrasted with similar if not such extensive demands of lesser gentry)–200 wild swine from Dean and 100 from Pickering–he ordered the last remaining wild swine, found in the forest of Dean, killed for a friend (what a friend!) in 1260.

The polecat was also known as the foulmart. Amazing. Except that it is not actually a cat, though it is cute and endangered.

There is also the remarkable information about rabbits, but I might do a separate post about them. I had no idea rabbits were so interesting.

Another fabulous footnote (though you know I disagree utterly):

The horse-chesnut, Aesculus hippocastanum, is quite unrelated (and poisonous) introduced in the sixteenth-century from Albania. It is still unmistakenly exotic and has not become wild. It is a sad example of a once glamorous species, associated with oriental romance and spectacle, being deprived of its meaning through being made the universal tree of bus-stations. (54)

God I know so much about woodland now. Also forests, which often had no trees at all, only deer. I know about coppicing, pollarding and all things brilliant about managing woods as a renewable resource. This chart, ah this chart:

The first evidence (he says in the world but I am not holding my breath) for woodsmanship — those amazing early Neolithic causeways across the Somerset levels, oak structures with underwood poles of ash, lime, elm, oak and alder. The causeways…my heart beats faster, wooden walkways across the fens now buried but how I wish I could have seen them.

Some lovely stuff about the local vernacular of building, the differing fashions not always dependent on local materials — thus Cambridge built primarily in wood (apart from the colleges) despite the presence of easily worked stone. He writes

‘The only generality is that, where a region has not much timber building, it will be urban…Timber was an architectural medium: a ‘wealth of exposed beams’ looked picturesque and expressed prestige; it was not necessary to hold up the structure’. (86)

And was of course plastered over again as fashion changed. He continues:

Most medieval buildings are made from large numbers of small oaks; ever timber, large or small, is made from the smallest tree that will serve the purpose. The carpenter chose trees of the sizes required and squared them up, usually leaving the corners rounded (‘waney’). Oaks, then as now, were crooked and carpenters made ingenious use of the irregular shapes into which they grow. This was from choice: carpenters could saw big oaks lengthwise into several beams when they had to….(86)

Again we return to errors of economic historians, who describe woods destroyed for fuel, particularly for the iron industry between 1550 and 1700. But it didn’t happen, they never touched timber trees only underwood, and drew this from their own woods managed over long periods of time. He even describes the ways that merchant ships were built of timber, but HM Navy preferred to scrounge from the wood-pastures. He writes ‘H.M.S. Victory, built 1759-65, is ingeniously put together from great numbers of the smallest, and therefore cheapest, practicable oaks (91).

The myth evolves from the big shift in rural society and economics — when wood became understood as primarily timber and not as energy. This shift, partly due to the rise of cheap coal, is is when the sustainable management and harvesting of woodlands shifted to purely timber production. And oh the damage that that has caused.

I hadn’t realised that most older woods will have earthworks along their boundaries, built to keep animals out and protect tender young shoots and leaves. These remain, though sometimes they have been overtaken by secondary wood expanding outwards and across the boundary. Things to look for I never knew to look for. And a splendid note: ‘(no Forest was complete without a resident hermit).’ (147)

We come to older ways of parceling out and working the land. Reaves…I had never heard of reaves, yet my love of Dartmoor is great.

Reaves tell a story of country planning on a gigantic scale: of an organization able to parcel out tens of square miles as it pleased, and which set its rules of geometry above the practicalities of dealing with gorges and bogs…(156)

They seem to have been in full use from the Bronze Age — and similar systems have been found elsewhere, including Nottinghamshire and Berkshire. Splendid.

This chart that shows how lynchets are created, some of them from the neolithic:

So after all the open fields, and the effect they had on the landscape aren’t quite as exciting as I once thought. Still, they do reflect a degree of collectivization of land and organisation of labour, which makes them really interesting. Rackham describes 7 cardinal features:

  • Divided into a multitude of strips, with each farmer’s strips distributed regularly or randomly throughout the field
  • These strips aggregated into furlongs and those into fields. All farmers grew the same crop in each furlong, each 3rd field left fallow
  • Animals of all farmers released to graze the stubble and the fallow field
  • farmers shared in labour of cultivating each others strips
  • Hedges few, and no enclosed circuits
  • Strips ploughed to form ridge-and-furrow
  • Regular meetings held to decide cultivation practices, fine dissidents

There is so much there to love.

Along with this diagram of how ridge and furrow are made:

Interestingly enough there’s no clear date for when it started. Some believed the Anglo-Saxons brought it with them, but there is apparently no evidence in Germany that it was in existence there earlier than in England. Some date it to after the Norman conquest. The largest concentration of them is at Uffington Scarp, and Rackham argues that attention to the Anglo-Saxon charters shows convincing evidence that the open-field systems existed at the time — and therefore this distinction between planned and ancient countryside already existed — through their descriptions though there is no specific reference to open-fields. He also notes that similar systems can be found in Scandinavian, Welsh and Gaelic cultures in the UK and French, Germanic, Slavonic and Greek cultures in Europe.

He writes ‘Open-field, with its rapid spread, has all the marks of a Dark Age invention.’ (178) I don’t know why, but wondering just how that happened gives me chills.

We go on to hedges. I love them. There is some evidence of the Roman management of hedges of hawthorne and occasionally they were given names in the Anglo-Saxon records (ealden hegestowe – old hedge-place). Lovely.

Not so lovely, the great enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries required so many plants it became a big business and initiated the founding of several nurseries. They mostly used hawthorne and only hawthorne for speed and cheapness, unlike earlier hedges planted with various trees and shrubs.

I love, of course, the knowledge that hedges can be dated fairly well by identifying the number of species of plant present there — from among a certain list of plants. Some have been identified as 1000 years old, with up to ten of these present. He gives a number of exceptions as well, so you always want your hedge to match clues from the surrounding countryside.

A wonderful chapter about individual trees, in farmyards, villages, woods. Trees with names. The splendid black poplar which I shall seek out. The long life of stag headed trees.

Another chapter on Elms — there are more elms than we have name for as they primarily reproduce through suckers but occasionally something new altogether is produced through seed. He writes:

Without the restraining influence of sex on evolutionary change, elms (like dandelions and brambles) have produced a multitude of different forms. The taxonomist, devising Latin names, cannot keep up with this process). (232)

I quite love that.

Highways — and not modern car-filled horrible highways, but the ways that people cross the land. He contrasts England with Greece and writes

The much more stable road system of Britain is partly the consequence of our climate and multitude of rivers, which require paths and roads to be structures and not mere routes; it also reflects English and Welsh, rather than Scottish or continental, attitudes to rights of way. The idea that ownership of land includes rights to keep the public off it and to be rude to well-behaved trespassers is partly due to the general increase in landowners rights in the last 200 years; but traces of this idea can be found in documents from earlier periods and in the landscape itself. (248)

Again, a fascinating mention of the wooden trackways across the Somerset levels, but not enough. A bit about Roman roads — like they weren’t all completely straight, just the ones the army was building. Though they are mostly straight, to be fair. I love the idea of traveling old roads.

A little about purprestures — or people building into roads. A little about the trenches of Roman roads and the trenches and open spaces built along medieval roads to stop the predations of highwaymen. All of these histories can be seen now in varying forms — primarily the alignment of current roads, fields and parish boundaries. The formation of heath, with its stripes and polygons, and of moors and grasslands.

The fact that moles were once called moldywarpes.

There is more documentation of villagers coming together to undertake the work of irrigating meadows — not as at home to water them primarily, but to carry fertilizer in the form of calcium leached from the springs. Curious. A whole section on ponds, dells and pits. I was losing steam a bit at this point, but when I next encounter such a thing I shall remember. Or know where to look. Like marshes, fens and the sea.

There is so much more of course, a splendid book.

Benjamin Zephaniah’s City Psalms

I loved this collection, loved it. Here are small snippets of just two passages that spoke to me this morning from longer poems, and a bit of Benjamin Zephaniah himself in full flow, because these are meant to be spoken, right? This is a battle cry for language as it is spoken, as it comes to us, as we live it and scream it. For poems that take a stand, speak to life, to reality, to global warming and bombings and arms dealing and police brutality and capitalism and politricks and punks fighting nazi skinheads. For being cold in this cold cold place. I didn’t include the amazing poem ‘The SUN’, I might be saving that for when I am really angry at some point in the future.

Me green poem

Everybody talking bout protecting the planet
As if we just cum on it
It hard fe understan it.
Everybody talking bout de green revolution
Protecting de children an fighting pollution
But check — capitalism and greed as caused us to need
Clear air to breathe, Yes
When yu get hot under de collar
Yu suddenly discover dat yu going green all over,
Fe years
Yu have been fighting wars an destroying de scene
An now dat yu dying
Yu start turn Green

Money (rant)

Food is what we need, food is necessary,
Mek me grow my food
An dem can eat dem money
***
Money made me gu out an rob
Den it made me gu looking fe a job
Money made de Nurse an de Doctor immigrate
Money buys friends yu luv to hate
Money made Slavery seem alright
Money brought de Bible and de Bible shone de light,
Victory to de penniless at grass roots sources
Who have fe deal wid Market Forces,
Dat paper giant called Market Forces



Canteros: Providing Environmental Justice in more ways than one

I enjoyed Gary Nabhan’s Food From the Radical Center greatly, it is full of stories of the different ways in which communities have come together to preserve and restore habitats and species. It is a bringing together of many old and a few new ways to better live on and eat from the land. In all of this it is inspirational.

My favourite story.

Valer Clark brought in canteros from Guanajuato to build tens of thousands of check damns or trincheras in the West Turkey Creek watershed along the border — over 40,000 of them. Amazing. Over a relatively short period of time they captured 630 tons of moisture-holding soil and created a vibrant riparian habitat bursting with wildlife, including coatimundis which are my favourites. But that still isn’t quite the best part. Nabhan writes:

The only true gripe I’ve ever heard about the restoration work was not from her neighbors but from the US border Patrol. Its administrators pouted for a while about how much water Valer’s crew had brought back into the streams crossing the US-Mexico border. The steady flows were making it harder for their trucks to ford certain watercourses without getting stuck in the mud. The Border Patrol apparently liked it better when they could navigate dry, barren riverbeds that had not been restored! (51)

You can see why it might be my favourite story.

Nabhan, Gary Paul (2018) Food From the Radical Center: Healing Our Land and Communities. Washington D.C.: Island Press.

Driven From Below: A look at tenant organizing and the new gentrification

I had a crazy day today. So much work to get through before taking a break. I am so deeply grateful for a life where I can take breaks. Deep excitement about teaching housing, but a bit nervous too. A bureaucratic meeting in which Foucauldian theories of governance became real with an extraordinary intensity. A meeting with the mayor in which it turns out we are all thinking different things about this research. Much needed pints with some of the more awesome academics I know to talk about radical housing and radical research. A long day.

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, after finding it in looking for something else but it came to mind again this evening. I wrote it almost ten years ago and hadn’t read it since then to be honest, and I know it’s not available anymore from Perspectives Journal, who I wrote it for (which explains some of the references). Back before I was an academic. A year after I had left LA, quit organising. I was still thinking about it. For all I’ve learned and written since then I’m still not sure I know more really than I knew then, though I phrase many things differently. Leonardo Vilchis is still my hero, still smarter than me.

In other news, isn’t Killing Eve the best thing you’ve seen on television in ages (I know I’m a little behind on this)? Much as I love Jodie Whitaker…

Driven From Below: A look at tenant organizing and the new gentrification

Introduction:

In August of 2002, two different families came to Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) because the manager of the Morrison Hotel had stopped accepting their rent. As tenant organizers, we had found this to be a common tactic to evade the laws of rent control and illegally force people from their homes. Typically the managers would not accept rent for a couple of months, then tell tenants that they had to leave. If the tenants did not leave they would be evicted in court for non-payment of rent, their only defense a claim that the managers had refused their rent. The managers themselves would contradict this while under oath, if it ever actually went before the judge. Such a tactic generally came into play when an owner was trying to empty a building, either to sell for higher profit, or to rehabilitate it and then rent the apartments at four or five times the original rent.

The Morrison Hotel is a 117-unit building situated only a few blocks from the Los Angeles Convention Center, in the midst of a flurry of new construction and luxury lofts. Famous as the cover of The Doors’ album titled The Morrison Hotel, over the years it had become a residential hotel. Essentially it had become housing of last resort, single rooms, with over half of them sharing public restrooms and showers. The managers sat in a small glass-fronted room facing the doors so that they could monitor everyone who came in or out. Knowing that many managers are unhappy about the presence of tenant organizers in their buildings, we went in on a Sunday morning while they were in church. Upon entering, fleas and insects attacked us, roaches were everywhere, and the smell of sewage was overpowering. Mold covered bathroom walls, paint peeled from the ceilings, plaster cracked, fire doors sat broken, panes of glass were missing from windows and balcony doors. The entire building seemed to be full, with a slight majority of the tenants being families with small children. We met one family of five whose two children had suffered from severe lead poisoning and permanent brain damage due to the flaking paint. While Los Angeles County had ordered the owners to rehabilitate that individual unit, only a few years later it was once again in very poor condition. The owners were not ordered to rehabilitate the rest of the building, nor inform other families of the lead hazards. Apart from families, the other tenants were single individuals or couples on general relief or disability. For all of them, the Morrison Hotel was the housing of last resort before the streets.

Within three months, more than 70 of these units would be empty. Not one of them was vacated under the legal requirements of rent control. Some families were evicted in the courts after the managers had withheld all mail informing them of the eviction process against them. The sheriff informed them of their eviction orders when he knocked on their doors. Tenants testified to physical assault, sexual assault, constant insults, and the intimidation of both themselves and their children. Several tenants told of being threatened with the manager’s dog, a pit bull. Threats alone were enough for many to just walk away, others were paid sums ranging from $25 to $4,000 to vacate.

While several tenants who had been threatened verbally were brave enough to come forward to file police reports, the police told them that “until it became physical” they would do nothing. At the same time, the police were being used to keep us—tenant organizers—out of the building.

All of these tactics were set into motion when the owners put the Morrison Hotel up for sale for $8,000,000 and drew up initial plans to convert it into a boutique hotel. They had bought the building for $1,000,000 eight years before, and after years of collecting rent while investing the absolute minimum to keep the building standing, they were looking to gain a substantial profit. The legal system that had failed to ensure the building’s maintenance was used to keep community workers out of the building, and thereby facilitate the owners’ attempt to circumvent California housing law by emptying the building by any means necessary.

This story exposes two things: the first is the changing dynamic of property development and profit in city communities, and the second is the ugly reality that under our legal framework, property rights take precedence over all else in the United States.

And so what better place for radical struggle? In this story, and others like it, lies not only grave injustice, but also what we would call a teachable moment, a place where people can break down for themselves the powerful American mythology of both development and the private property that is so foundational to our current system. What happened in this building (among so many others), exposes the essence of capitalism and its human cost, and demands an alternative vision for our society. Without grasping this
moment, critically analyzing it in light of theory, folding it into a greater movement and building on it, this story is nothing more than a story, and represents a struggle with a beginning and an end that makes little difference in the world as it currently exists, or in the hearts and minds of those who fought. This is the importance of theory for the people.

The importance of these stories for theorists is that they represent the harsh reality as lived by America’s poor and working class. It is the reality in which any radical movement needs to ground itself, and a field of battle where those who suffer the most from capitalism can drive the effort towards changing it. Voline wrote:

The key idea of anarchism is simple: no party, or political or ideological group, even if it sincerely desires to do so, will ever succeed in emancipating the working masses by placing itself above or outside them in order to “govern” or “guide” them. True emancipation can only be brought about by the direct action…of those concerned, the workers themselves, through their own class organizations…and not under the banner of any political party or ideological body. Their emancipation must be based on concrete action and “self-administration,” aided but not controlled by revolutionaries working from within the masses and not from above them…i

The question has always been how can this be achieved? The masses will never organize themselves around abstractions while they have to remove cockroaches from their children’s ears, or try to channel the water from a leaking roof away from their beds. They will organize around their key issues: security in their home and community, justice in their workplace, healthcare, a decent education and a future for their kids. It is the role of the radical organizer to ensure that these struggles open up an understanding of the structural realities that have made them necessary. It is also their role to ensure that each struggle builds community and horizontal organizations that will continue working together after the immediate struggle is resolved, to bring theory and practice together, and to tie local struggle into a greater movement for change.

Several things are required to build such a movement. The first is a deeper understanding of the forces operating in our local communities, the tides of disinvestment and investment that have caused such devastation, and how this fits into the larger framework of capitalism, globalization and neoliberalism. And we need to share lessons learned through practice, to build stronger horizontal organization and greater consciousness of struggle and change. This article will briefly look at the forces behind the new gentrification and how these can be challenged in practice. It will do so through brief case studies of the organizing work of two community-based non-profits in Los Angeles, SAJE, where I worked as an organizer from 2001 to 2007, and Union de Vecinos, through the words of Leonardo Vilchis, a cofounder and organizer. Both organizations are working to organize, to educate, and to build a greater movement for structural change.

SAJE

SAJE (Strategic Actions for a Just Economy) was founded in 1996 to improve economic conditions and opportunities for low-income families in Los Angeles. Initially, SAJE worked with various worker-owned and run cooperatives, and also organized campaigns around banking rights, working to ensure that welfare recipients could open bank accounts rather than being forced to pick up their checks at the local check-cashing outlet. SAJE is also the convener of the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice, which won the largest Community Benefits Agreement of its time against Phillip Anschutz and AEG when they attempted to expand the Staples Center and is now working on issues regarding the University of Southern California’s responsibilities to the surrounding community through what is called the UNIDAD (United Neighbors In
Defense Against Displacement) campaign.

Although winning the Community Benefits Agreement with AEG, there were clear limits to the victory, as the construction of LA Live would lead inevitably to the wholesale displacement of the residents who were supposed to benefit from the agreement. So, SAJE committed itself to working in the Figueroa Corridor, an area consisting of 40 blocks of Figueroa Street that stretch from the Staples Center and downtown Los Angeles on the North, to the University of Southern California on the South. Surrounding this commercial strip and comprising a 12-square-mile area are neighborhoods that house 200,000 people whose median income is 49% of the City’s median. A majority are people of color, among them Latinos, Blacks and recent immigrants. Eighty-six percent are tenants.

Through door-knocking and tenant organizing work, SAJE worked with tenants to fight illegal evictions, harassment, and displacement. It built tenant organizations in both individual buildings and larger community areas, and challenged the city’s redevelopment plans for downtown and South Central.

Union de Vecinos

Union de Vecinos was founded in 1996. It emerged out of a decade of work organizing with the Catholic Church in the tradition of Liberation Theology, and was started as a purely volunteer organization in an effort to save the Pico Aliso housing projects in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles from demolition. Over the past thirteen years, it has grown beyond its initial base in the projects to become a larger network of communities in different parts of Los Angeles County. They work mostly in Boyle Heights, but Union de Vecinos communities can also be found in Hollywood, North Hollywood, South L.A. and Maywood. It is a network that consists at any given time of between 25 and 30 different communities. Leonardo Vilchis defines a community as a small neighborhood, a group of people in a small enough area where it is possible for everyone to know each other. The communities that Union works with organize around the specific needs around their neighborhood. Within these communities, people develop their own programs to improve their neighborhoods and tackle specific issues. All of them come together periodically to organize broader campaigns around the key issues arising from their neighborhood work that affect everyone. Union has also worked to form building committees to address tenant rights issues, the protection of rent control, and the improvement of housing quality.ii

Since 1992, Boyle Heights has lost approximately 2,000 affordable housing units to publicly funded projects, which does not count the displacement caused by private owners and development. There were 1,500 units lost with the destruction of public housing, another 150 units with the construction of a new metro line, and 60 units lost for the building of a new police station.iii

Organizing Methodology:

Who Drives Change

The principal point of departure for both Union and SAJE is that for real and lasting change to be effective, it must be driven by those most affected by injustice. For Union this comes explicitly from the tradition of Liberation Theology and its preferential option for the poor, while for SAJE it is an explicitly theoretical position. For Leonardo Vilchis, this is also a very practical choice:

 … you could do a whole campaign on improving housing in Los Angeles where no tenants would be involved, and where you would raise your voice about the injustices within housing. You could put the data on the table and say this is why this is unfair. You could have all these middle-class people, educated people, college students (in the context of the United States, white people) to organize, and it would be a just cause, it would be the right thing, but I don’t think that that is the point of departure. The point of departure are the tenants themselves and the poor … the analysis, the description of the problem and the solution would be completely different from what this other group of people would make.iv

To build organization in the community you have to start where the people are, and any structures of cooperation have to be based in resolving community problems in ways that community involved actually have faith in. The struggle for bare survival is intense, and it is both a matter of respect and practicality to acknowledge that people will not get involved in anything that does not have an immediate impact on their lives.

It seems a simple enough proposition, and yet the hardest to actually practice for various reasons. The first lies in actually believing that it is possible when everything in a capitalist society tells you it is not. Even among those paying lip service to such an idea, it is difficult for many to put aside the preference and privilege assigned to education and professionalism, and far too often, race and language. And after years of working in the political arena when an organizer can often accomplish something through a few phone calls to City Hall, regular analysis is required to identify when to simply move forward on goals as defined by the community, and when to build capacity by stepping back and allowing people to take it to the city themselves. A clear and collective understanding needs to be built about how those who are educated and who hold professional qualifications should be of service in achieving the solutions as defined by the community, to the problems that the community itself has identified as the most important.

In practice there is a great complexity in this seemingly simple commitment. The poor and working class are constantly under attack on a multitude of fronts ranging from obscure changes in legislation that will have far-reaching negative impacts, to the criminalization of daily activities and the emptying of entire buildings and neighborhoods. It is a world of constant emergency where doing anything but immediately reacting is hard. And there is always the balance between doing anything possible to quickly stop something terrible, and building capacity through longer processes that often move more slowly and involve more risk than an orchestrated campaign following traditional organizing models. It is all too easy to get caught up in a struggle moving at a pace, and being fought at a level of technicality, that results in the poor being simply mobilized in support of an idea or strategy. But it is only through struggle and reflection upon struggle that people and the society they create are transformed.

It is also difficult because too often the poor are not organized. Horizontal structures of direct democracy have to be built in a community to direct the work for change, and this is a long, difficult, often heart-breaking process of many years. This is why we have much to learn from traditional community organizing, despite its self-imposed limits when it comes to real and lasting political change. Groups practicing direct democracy are necessary not only to have collective voice and power, but also to create a space where people can challenge themselves to think critically, to learn and to grow. These are often the only safe places where gender, race, nationality, and class can all be broken down, and the very nature of capitalism understood and rejected. Traditional community organizing has taught us that this doesn’t happen automatically,
and that building power for an oppressed group does not necessarily mean that they are incapable of then becoming oppressive to others.v This makes a guiding ideology and a methodology for making this happen all the more important. The power of such organization to stand up for itself is a beautiful thing when it exerts itself.

Union de Vecinos was founded exactly in a place where people were being silenced, and where the most poor were being pushed away from the decision-making process. There were a lot of people who said that they knew what the problem was with public housing. They were mostly politicians, mostly urban designers, planners, and bureaucrats. And they said the solution for public housing was a) to have more mixed income housing and b) to demolish the projects. And in that process a whole sector of the population was silenced and pushed aside from speaking. If you had asked the people in the projects the solution to public housing, they would’ve come up with a completely different list of answers. They told us yes, we want people to fix our homes. Yes, we want to have nicer services. But we want to stay here. Because, over the years the people who lived in the projects had built a community. Now the bureaucracy wasn’t functioning, the whole system was broken, but the way they solved it was by demolishing it and pushing people out of there. Our community had a different kind of solution. And so Union de Vecinos was started by bringing those people together who were being silenced and ignored by everybody else.

So the idea was to stop the demolition of the projects, to develop a system of relocation that would identify the real people who wanted to move out, and to talk about the preservation of public housing. And we did it totally in the margins, we didn’t have work anymore because the organization I worked for didn’t want us to continue organizing the community. We had to go find other jobs, and the tenants themselves had to do all of the work because we couldn’t be organizing, we could only provide technical support. So it became a strong volunteer organization where everyone was doing the work. We were getting together in the parking lots, in the yards, in people’s living rooms. But as the organization grew, we didn’t have a place to stay, we didn’t have a place to put our papers away, so a group of residents in the projects started saving some money and at some point they called for renting a place, and then we found a place in the community that we started renting. And for me that is very important, because they were the ones who were building the organization, they were the ones who were taking control of this process. We were providing all of the technical support that we could, but we didn’t want to be the ones pushing this, we wanted to know that it was coming from them. So they rented this place, and that is when Union de Vecinos got started. vi

Methodology:

Popular education is also foundational in the methodology of both organizations, closely intertwined as it is with the idea of being driven from below. Based on Paolo Freire’s work and writings, in essence it is a way of collectively building knowledge. It is a teaching methodology that rejects the idea of a student as a vessel to be filled with knowledge, but rather sees a process of learning as an interaction between student and teacher, growing out of the student’s lived experience. It is a collective process of learning, as well as a fundamentally political process of asking why the world is the way that it is, and how we can act together to transform it. Popular education as the basis for a method of organizing that builds critical consciousness and leads to concrete change is exemplified in this quote from Leonardo:

… I think the role of organizer, and I would slash it with organizer /popular educator/facilitator/animator is to bring people together to reflect on their reality, to define their reality, and then based on their own experience and their own condition, to seek for ways to change it in an organized way that deals with the social, economic, political, ideological, race and gender dimensions within the world. To get there the point of departure is the practice of being able to describe your world. …vii

What the popular educator brings to the conversation is the ability to move the description of the world to a critical analysis by asking questions, to move a conversation to an act of transformation. It does not mean remaining trapped in the initial world of students, circling, in the words of Freire, “like moths around a light bulb.”viii Their experience is only the starting point.

In this way, people “learn to learn,”ix they learn to deconstruct their environment and layers of oppression, and find themselves as creative and critical individuals able to act upon and change the world. It is for organizers to identify the teachable moments as they arise in the work, to leverage the daily struggles into a greater consciousness of the world and the underlying forces that have created it.

 … As organizers and popular educators, anything that the community talks about we see as a point of departure to do a social, political and economic analysis of the world. Anything can do it, a stoplight in an alley can take you to the issues of safety in the community and the need for light illumination and gangs and problems in the community and the social problems that come with gangs and you can follow that thread. Or you can talk about the budgetary reasons why they don’t want to put those lights and how the budget is allocated and where the priorities are and why they choose to put more police instead of more lights on the street and you can have a conversation on that. Or it can take you to going to the local neighborhood watch and asking the chief of police to sign a letter asking for new lights and finding out that the chief of police doesn’t care about putting lights on the street but only about putting people in jail so it leads you to understand the relation of power within the city, within the community, and the police and so on and so forth. So we use that a lot, we use these little moments, these situations, as tools to analyze the whole. … ”x

Leonardo’s description of identifying and using the teachable moment illustrates the key to popular education as a constant practice. Below is a more formal illustration of the methodology for collectivizing experience and continually building on that experience.xi

It provides a classic example of popular education theory in practice, an invaluable way of both adding theory to lived experience in a way that prioritizes one but values both, and of reflecting on past experience to build more effective campaigns in the future in a continually expanding spiral of experience, theory, and action.

The Challenges of Organizing: Organizing building by building:

The combination of traditional community organizing and popular education means that both Union and SAJE work on the issues that people themselves identify, though SAJE has chosen a more explicit focus on housing, development and displacement. The nature of the work requires that much of the organizing has to be done at a building level, side by side with tenants facing harassment, intimidation, and eviction. Working at this level to solve immediate problems gets people involved and offers a great starting point for connecting the issues of daily life to community wide problems, thereby creating a framework for and analysis and understanding of the world. It also carries many limitations however, that somehow have to be overcome for it to build towards a larger movement.
SAJE’s campaign in the Morrison Hotel showed this clearly. After getting in on the Sunday we set a date for the first building meeting at the St. Francis Center, a local service organization with whom we had built a strong partnership. We attempted to get into the Hotel again, but were physically kept out, first by the managers and their pit bull, then by armed security guards hired especially to keep us out. The police continued to take the side of the managers and the guards. The tenants brave enough to invite us in were physically threatened and faced with eviction, had their electricity turned off, and were thereafter prevented from having any visitors at all. In this climate of fear and intimidation, we worked to form a tenant union in the building. Not too many people attended the first meeting, and we essentially introduced ourselves, gave a broad picture of our experience with what was happening in the community, and allowed everyone to speak about the problems they were experiencing. People agreed to bring more of their neighbors to the next meeting, and we continued our attempts to get into the building.

The meetings began growing as people realized that they either had to fight or leave their homes. At the second meeting we began our analysis by putting a piece of paper on the wall and drawing a little cartoon building in the middle. And then we began to draw out who had power over the building. It started with the owners of course, and that is where most people’s initial analysis ended. We didn’t know a lot about the owners at that point, except that everyone had heard they owned a lot of buildings. So we asked the question, who has power over the owners?

And then we began an analysis of the city, drawing out the different structures of the Housing Department and the City Attorney’s Office. Over these we added the city council, made up of 15 elected representatives, the Mayor, and the City Attorney (another elected position in L.A.). We also looked at the County Health Department, and the County Board of Supervisors. We drew in the different state and city laws that protected tenants. And we looked at the city’s accountability to its residents, and the tenant’s own leverage over the owners.

We returned to this drawing to deepen collective analysis of the role and effectiveness of the city as we filed complaints on violations of rent control and habitability regulations. We also carried out participatory research on who exactly the owners were, what else they owned, what their business practices were. We found out that they owned or had owned at least 50 other properties through a complicated network of limited liability companies controlled primarily through the owner’s business, Phoenix Mortgage Corporation. We created a map of their business to be able to both analyze how they worked and who they were. This moved us into a discussion of the practice of rent collection in slum buildings while paying as little as possible in maintenance as one of the ways that these owners made their profit, and the extreme cost of those business practices to tenants. We talked about how the city not only failed to stop this, but often facilitated it, and why. We talked about the changes in the neighborhood and how those had changed the owners’ business practices. We discovered the discrimination in the owner’s business model shown by the differences in how they maintained their apartment buildings in Beverly Hills and their slum buildings concentrated in our own neighborhoods around downtown.

We were also able to see who exactly we were going up against, and the results of earlier attempts, which was important for strategy. As in many slum buildings, the two brothers who were actually responsible for the building’s conditions had distanced themselves from ownership on paper and legal liability as much as possible. The building was officially owned by the Hope Pico Limited Liability Company, which was registered in the state of Illinois and formed in turn by Phoenix Mortgage Company and two money investors. The Danpour brothers were the principals of Phoenix Mortgage, and in investigating them we found that Henry Danpour had two previous convictions for improperly maintaining his buildings. They both owned buildings, either jointly or passed back and forth, that had been identified by various city programs as violating basic habitability requirements. We were able to show that they had been sued multiple times by the tenants in their different buildings, and that several local tenant rights organizations had organized against them. By uncovering these facts together we were able to work with tenants towards a deeper understanding of the structures of oppression. The Morrison Hotel was also perhaps the best example we had of the ineffectiveness of city and county government when it came to enforcing their own codes against private owners. This was further tested by our own collective experience in navigating the city process.

We did similar analyses in each of the buildings that we organized. And every analysis led to deeper discussions of race and class, economics and gentrification. But building work was always intensive, and limited the number of people we could reach. The greatest struggle was always balancing the need to build towards a community-wide response to the problems, while also dealing with a constant level of emergency in the midst of a struggle. The Morrison Hotel was a campaign of extraordinary intensity and required a huge time investment to build trust among tenants, and between tenants and our organization. It was challenging to bring together a population made up of monolingual Spanish speaking families, African American veterans, and a handful of single people of various races, many of whom were rather eccentric, regular drinkers or users of varying levels of drugs, and some mentally ill. All meetings were carried out with simultaneous translation and it took some time to break down the barriers of language and race. Many of the elderly men really did not like small children, and in spite of on-site childcare, there were enough interruptions that it became a point of tension early on. The most effective thing in bridging these tensions was simply regular meetings and discussions, working together towards a common goal and building trust through knowledge of each other. These meetings would immediately address the many personal issues that arose, and, where possible, address them collectively.

Looking back, I know that we seriously under-estimated the investment of time that would be required of us, two years of weekly meetings with tenants, sometimes daily emergency visits to the building, regular one-on-ones, and constant negotiation with the lawyers and city officials who also became involved in the struggle. The symbolic victory was huge when the owner was convicted on 21 criminal counts by a city that had not taken a landlord to trial for decades. And we transformed how the city itself prosecuted problem owners. They began doing the same research that we had done: this resulted in their prosecution of both corporations and the individuals behind those corporations and considering the entire extent of an owner’s holdings when taking them to trial. The city has also begun working in partnership with community organizations.
And yet when looking at the scale of tenant participation, and our ultimate goal of building movement, there is definitely an argument that the Morrison Hotel campaign was a tactical mistake in building a larger base of tenants working together in a long-term way as part of a larger struggle around the causes of displacement in the community. We knew this possibility when we made the difficult decision to jump into a campaign there; we felt in the final analysis that it was too important of a symbol to allow it to fall without any struggle at all. Of all the tenants in the Morrison Hotel, only one leader has remained really active in the struggles of other tenants, though several have remained in touch and supportive of SAJE, donating either money or coming to occasional events. This is an all-too-common issue with many organizers, how to keep people involved in the struggle after their own immediate and pressing issues have been solved.

Overcoming Limitations, Building Structures for Participation:

At SAJE we had always identified this as an issue, and to ensure that our efforts were never limited in scale to a single building, our strategy had been to create a tenant clinic and something we called a Displacement Free Zone. We wanted the clinic to be a place to collectivize tenant experiences, to provide a foundation of knowledge about basic tenant rights and how these fit into a political and economic landscape, and work to build a sense of individual evictions as a community issue. Union de Vecinos has used similar clinics towards the same goal.

… At the clinic when people come together and start sharing their story one after another there is an awareness that we are not alone. There’s an awareness that this is not something that just happened to us because we didn’t pray enough or because we didn’t work hard enough or because they’re racist, there’s also an awareness that this happens because we are not organizing. … xii

Looking back to evaluate our success in these clinics, I believe the area we pulled tenants from was too small. As a result we never had a critical mass together in one place at one time to run a full workshop as we had planned, instead we usually ended up doing more work one-on-one with families, either as they trickled into the clinic, or when they came into the office with emergency situations requiring an immediate response. We were able to achieve some level of education and politicization, but not the strong collective sense of the problem that we hoped for.

We were more effective in building the Displacement Free Zone. As building blocks of the DFZ, we built tenant unions in various buildings, at one point we had eight tenant unions working on campaigns around improving conditions, preventing evictions, and stopping the harassment of tenants by landlords. The buildings themselves had regular meetings where tenants came together to discuss their issues and collectively make decisions on their own campaigns and strategies.

Volunteers from each of the buildings also came to DFZ meetings, which became a space to coordinate support for each other amongst the different buildings and begin to confront the wave of evictions and displacement changing the face of the neighborhood. We carried out an information and education campaign through door-knocking in the neighborhood to let other residents know their rights and where they could find help. This initial committee was gradually expanded to three committees in three different neighborhoods where we were doing building organizing. Although most of the tenants from the different buildings did not really continue in their support of other tenants after the particular campaign in their building had finished, they remained in contact with us and we had a core of people from each of the buildings who remained active in the struggle to improve the conditions in the community for everyone.

This system of working in multiple buildings at once worked reasonably well while the buildings we were involved in did not require a huge investment of our own time. The Morrison Hotel, however, put a huge strain on us, and maintaining active committees while simultaneously supporting campaigns in other buildings proved to be incredibly difficult. I don’t believe we adequately took into account the amount of time needed for tenants with no previous experience in political or community activities to have the confidence and the capacity to run regular meetings and activities on their own. And, of course, I believe we could have done better in giving them the tools required, and in using every meeting as an opportunity for people to develop those skills. It felt at all times as though we were incredibly stretched, and while we had a lot of idealism, our own practical skills were continually developing as none of us had come to the work with much experience either. We definitely learned that certain key skills such as meeting facilitation were incredibly difficult to build in everyone.

Union de Vecinos has been more successful in creating a large base of members that are working actively, many of them with minimal support from the organizers. This only underlines the importance of successful organizers sharing their experience and knowledge. Over two decades of working in the neighborhood, Union de Vecinos’ organizers have created a broad feeling of community that is not always necessarily active, but can come together when necessary. As Leonardo puts it:

 … Overall we have between 25 and 30 committees. It fluctuates because in the community, you know, people aren’t as involved if nothing is happening. Sometimes if an alley was the core of the problem in that community and you take care of that and there are no gang members and there are no buildings with problems, then people … well, they’re still your friends, they’re still part of your larger community even though they feel they no longer need to meet as a committee for a while. Just like with your friends, you don’t always see each other all the time. So those communities disappear and then others emerge in the process … xiii

They also grow in an organic way, through the members themselves talking to their neighbors. And over time there are now a number of committees able to maintain themselves on their own, though Union de Vecinos stays in regular contact with all of them.

…The way they (the committees) develop is that our members talk to other members, they learn about the issues and invite us to some meetings. Now sometimes it happens that they hold their own meetings and invite us to come and talk to them, and then they continue their meetings and we don’t see them for three months and then they invite us again. Our goal as organizers, our goal as staff to this organization, is to be in touch with the people in every committee, and to keep an ongoing relationship with every committee… ”xiv

It is this loose structure of keeping involved those wanting to be active, creating a space that allows committees and people involved to come and go, to take time off if burned out and easily pick up again, and building skill and capacity in individuals that has allowed such a small staff to build an impressive network of grassroots organization.

The committees also vary tremendously in size depending on the community and the people involved, but they have been successful as long as a core group of people are committed to the long-term and big-picture struggle. At SAJE it certainly took us a while to learn how to start building movement while also winning battles. Again, as Leonardo puts clearly:

 … The smallest committee is six people, but going back to the traditional organizing model, we do pay attention to the balance of power. We want to have an impact, we want to have influence in the community. So if it is six people who just want to meet with us and talk to us about their problems but they’re not involved in anything in the community, and don’t want to be involved we really don’t work too much with them. But if it is six people who are involved and who are able to move the community we work with them. … ”xv

When we first started doing the tenant organizing at SAJE, we more than once invested a lot of time in helping individual families who weren’t at all interested in giving back to the greater community. By doing this we made a great difference in individual lives, but it did not contribute to building something larger. In the face of desperate need, it is often difficult to limit your own involvement. It is only through commitment to the bigger picture that this becomes possible.

Building Scale:

The biggest keys in building the numbers and level of organization needed to have an impact on the larger problems facing a local community seem to come down to a few key principles. The first is to organize around what the people in the affected neighborhood want to organize around, typically things that are immediately relevant and meaningful in their lives and capable of providing concrete victories. The second is to target your efforts to those who share a similar commitment to you, and will help you organize something greater than a single victory. The third is to create fluid yet stable horizontal structures that allow people to be involved over a long-term period, and can be reanimated if the community becomes inactive for a time. And the last is simply to make a long-term commitment to a community and to individual development; what Union de Vecinos has created was built by key organizers’ working in the same community over a span of twenty years.

Yet even so, many of the problems that organizers face have roots far distant from the local level. Local action can be capable of only so much when facing the regional, national and global economic realities that define life in the inner city. One of the most vital areas of study is how to build cohesive and useful coalitions of organizations on every scale, from the city to the region to the state to the nation to the globe.

For organizations and groups committed to being driven by those they are organizing, this presents a particularly difficult problem. There is a risk that pressure could be brought to bear from the top down and coalition work turn into a simple mobilization of local residents. To prevent this from happening while still facilitating useful work, safeguards and a strict decision-making process must be set in place. At the same time, the process must be as streamlined as possible to reduce the additional burden of work on already overburdened organizers or it will simply not be possible. The process and the work must always be immediately relevant, reinforcing the need for theory and big-picture strategies. And best practices for integrating high-level campaigns with those working on the ground need to be investigated, developed, and shared. Both SAJE and Union de Vecinos are members of various coalitions on a city-wide level, and for the past two years have been part of a new and promising national coalition of organizations and theorists called Right To The City. This is certainly an area where much more needs to be written, and their efforts to build national organization amongst organizations that are committed to radical community organizing needs to be evaluated and shared.

Conclusion:

The eternal organizing problem is the unending succession of emergencies, of actions, of things that must be done. There is never enough time to do everything that requires doing, and making the effort to lift your head to look where you are going often seems impossible. This problem is compounded when you have to sort through the huge amount of theory and political thought that is not grounded in practice, and does not serve community building in immediately meaningful ways. This is no reflection on the usefulness of theory in understanding the world, simply that for those immersed in grassroots work, it is hard to find time and space to reflect on the abstract.

There is also very little written on the practice of radical community organizing, and the difficulties in creating sustainable and long-term horizontal community organization. There is even less on how to use every meeting and every campaign, however small, to constantly build towards a scale of involvement and power that can
have a real impact.

This essay is a beginning attempt to start thinking through what I have learned over years of work, and is only a very small contribution towards how we can more concretely respond to overwhelming challenges while remaining true to the belief that real change must come from the masses. How we can undermine the dominant ideas of private property, and propose alternatives. How we can create sustainable communities of critical analysis and action that operate through direct democracy. It has possibly raised more questions than provided answers and the ultimate question is whether such work could ever be enough. I don’t know that it is a question that can be answered, but it should be raised by anyone committed to these ideals as way to measure our own efforts and the usefulness of our theory. To organize certainly requires a great faith in the knowledge and abilities of the poor and working class, but also a recognition of the organizer’s place in a long line of people working for social justice both leading up to this time, and taking over after we are gone. I want to end with Leonardo’s answer to the question of what he thought was the most important advice he could give to other organizers:

“ …We have to understand that we are not operating on the time of the here and now. We are operating at the time of history, so these things take a lot of time. We need to think in terms of generations. A lot of times I think that the leaders that we are working with right now, the adults in the community, are not the main beneficiaries of this process. It is the kids who grow up in an environment where their parents are organized, where their parents come to these barbecues that Union de Vecinos is organizing, and who come to these actions. These kids grow up in a completely different world than they would have if they hadn’t been part of this movement, and that’s what I’m kind of hoping for in terms of the work of Union de Vecinos. Our results are not the stuff that we did 10 years ago, it’s the stuff that will happen in 20 years, and for that you have to have a different kind of patience.

You need to think in terms of making history, that you’re part of a historical process, of a social process. Social processes don’t get developed overnight. You’re talking about changing culture, changing values, changing society, changing the way everything is organized. And that is also why we are different in terms of a community organization. In most community organizations you only work in terms of the specific, the achievable, and the measurable. If it is not specific, if it is not achievable, if it is not measurable you don’t do it. We do here. We do it because it may not be specific, but it may be meaningful. And if it is meaningful it appeals to your consciousness, and if it appeals to your consciousness it changes how you look at the world, and if it changes how you look at the world it changes how you act on that world … there are signs of hope everywhere, we need to pay attention to them, we need to build on them, we need to become stronger every time we are part of them. But still, it is going to take time. … ”xvi

Works Cited

Arnold, Rick et al, Educating for Change. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1991.

Fisher, Robert. Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.

Freire, Paolo. Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Continuum, 1995.

Guerin, Daniel. Anarchism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970.

Truax, Eileen. “Proposicion B en Boyle Heights,” La Opinion, Oct 11, 2008.

Notes

i Volin, cited in Daniel Guerin, Anarchism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970), 37.
ii Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
iii Eileen Truax “Proposicion B en Boyle Heights,” La Opinion, Oct 11, 2008.
iv Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
v Fisher, 65.
vi Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
vii Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
viii Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Hope (New York: Continuum, 1995), p. 70.
ix Freire, 81.
x Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xi Rick Arnold et al, Educating for Change (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1991), p. 38.
xii Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xiii Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xiv Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xv Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xvi Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.

Driven From Below: A look at tenant organizing and the new gentrification
Perspectives Journal, 2009

Gilding the Ghetto: Poverty and Poverty Programmes in the 60s and 70s

I’m not the only one who thinks this is extraordinary, but it is still something that maybe not everyone reads and it really is worth spending some time with Gilding the Ghetto, published in 1977. It’s a strange moment to be reading it really, after so many years of austerity, facing many of the same issues with the same roots, but in vastly different contexts. Still, both periods were framed in terms of crisis.

Towards the end of 1976 among the endless reminders of Britain’s economic predicament another theme was brought to public attention: the urban crisis.

This is how it opens – but they are quick to note that this urban crisis was not new — crisis was never new. Forty years later that shit is still not new.

Anyway, In the late 60s and early 70s a number of projects were started — and I found them fascinating so explore them in potentially boring detail here. For the most part they were attempted, they were awesome, but then they were finished and buried, and this cycle is so familiar.

Yet today there is an official silence about these programmes of the late 1960s and early seventies. A striking silence.

This report goes back to the early stage. Written by a group of workers from the National Community Development Project it tries to make sense of the spate of government ‘poverty initiatives’ beginning in 1968 of which CDP was a part. It is written from inside but, we hope, for an outside world. It comes from our own experience as some of the state’s ‘poverty’ workers, and from the doubts that experience raised in our minds about what our employers were really intending.

This sounds so familiar:

The Home Office, with James Callaghan as Home Secretary, embarked on CDP in 1969. The idea was to collaborate with local authorities in setting up local projects, each with a five- year lifespan as ‘a neighbourhood-based experiment aimed at finding new ways of meeting the needs of people living in areas of high social deprivation’. There were to be twelve projects … Their brief rested on three important assumptions. Firstly, that it was the ‘deprived’ themselves who were the cause of ‘urban deprivation’. Secondly, the problem could best be solved by overcoming these people’s apathy and promoting self-help. Thirdly, locally-based research into the problems would serve to bring about changes in local and central government policy.

Makes me really angry of course. Also unsurprising:

A few months’ field-work in areas suffering long-term economic decline and high unemployment was enough to provoke the first teams of CDP workers to question the Home Office’s original assumptions. There might certainly be in these areas a higher proportion of the sick and the elderly for whom a better co-ordination of services would undoubtedly be helpful, but the vast majority were ordinary working-class men and women who, through forces outside their control, happened to be living in areas where bad housing conditions, redundancies, lay-offs, and low wages were commonplace.

So they started organizing the people they were working with, using their research to pressure local authorities and councillors and investigating the structural issues at play – and that’s when they were shut down and buried really. In 1973 a central CDP Information and Intelligence Unit was set up and published a series of (probably embarrassing to the government) reports: The Poverty of the Improvement Programme, Whatever Happened to Council Housing? Profits against Houses and the Costs of Industrial Change. In 1974 central government asked for a review of the programme, with a goal of controlling, curtailing and closing down. (5)

Only six weeks after publishing the highly critical report on the government’s public spending cuts, Cutting the Welfare State (Who Profits), the Home Secretary ordered the closure of the unit.

This pamphlet was written in 1977, when a few projects were still running out their time, but finding it hard to coordinate work or collectively make sense of the findings.

This report is part of that attempt. Though it is not an account of our experience – that is to be found in the various local and inter-project reports — it tries to locate and explain that experience in the context of the series of government moves of which CDP was one….Still we hope that our analysis will help to clarify for others as it has for us, the role of government in relation to both the demands of the economy and pressures from the working class, and the part that such programmes we describe here as the ‘Poverty Programme’ play in maintaining the status quo. (6)

Part 1: The Poverty Programme

The men behind all of this top down malarky, well the men still look the same. Glasses are different of course.

A handful of home secretaries: top left, James Callaghan; right,
Robert Carr; bottom left, Roy Jenkins; right, Merlyn Rees. The
Home Office led the field in urban deprivation but it was a series
of official reports that triggered off the activity.

The Welfare state was under pressure, government unsure what to do, this all sounds familiar too. It was an experiment— the word comes up again and again — conducted with very limited resources in many separate laboratories. The central state drew in the local authorities, disregarding their traditional departmental boundaries. ‘Citizen involvement’ and ‘participation’ were recurring themes. Most important, all the schemes took as their testing grounds, small, working-class districts of Britain’s big cities and older industrial towns. These were the ‘areas of special need’ which had first come to the centre of official concern; soon they were being called ‘pockets of deprivation’. (9) In describing the programming that emerged in response, James Callaghan, Home Secretary said it was:

to provide for the care of our citizens who live in the poorest or most overcrowded parts of our cities and towns. It is intended to arrest, in so far as it is possible by financial means, and reverse the downward spiral which afflicts so many of these areas. There is a deadly quagmire of need and apathy. Hansard, 2.12.68 (10)

Quagmire. Right. Still, I’m only just beginning to realise what a big deal it has been, the centralisation of funds and control over programmes, so this is important

Responsibility for Urban Aid was located in the Community Relations Department of the Home Office, the department also responsible for the Community Relations Commission. The money made available for Urban Aid was not an extra government grant, but money already existing in the Rate Support Grant which was taken out of the general allocation and put into the Special Grant category. This allowed the government to have for the first time some direct control over what was going on ‘at the grass roots’. Local authorities could apply for grants from this Special Grant for specific projects which could be financed for up to five years on a 75/25% basis (10)

It still seems to have been quite decentralised, and going into quality programmes:

As the local authorities grasped the new idea and sent back descriptions of the areas they regarded as being ‘of special social need’ the kinds of projects supported through the Urban Aid Programme widened in scope. From the nursery schools, day nurseries and children’s homes, family advice centres and language classes for immigrants of the earlier phases, it had extended its embrace to many more informal kinds of organisation by the later phases. The Home Office actively encouraged local authorities to support autonomous forms of organisation that were already active in their areas. Women’s Aid centres, holiday play schemes, housing and neighbourhood advice centres, family planning projects were all included in later phases of the Urban Aid Programme. (11)

But of course there was never enough funding

there have been around five times more applications made than those granted. In 1971 for instance the London Borough of Lambeth submitted applications for projects to cost £103,500 – only £13,650 of this was approved (11)

In 1969 the Home Office set up its version of ‘action research’:  This included an array of programmes: Urban Aid (a neighbourhood-based experiment aimed at finding new ways of meeting the needs of people living in areas of high social deprivation; by bringing together the work of all the social services under the leadership of a special project team and also by tapping resources of self help and mutual help which may exist among the people in the neighbourhoods. Home Office Press Release 16.7.69 (12)); the Educational Priority Area (EPA) action-research project; Neighbourhood Schemes intensively targeting money into small deprived areas to complement the other programming; and the National Community Development Project. In the words of civil servant Derek Morell who pushed this through:

The whole project is aimed against fragmentation … The starting point of the project is that ours is a fragmented, disintegrating society. But the project aims at evolutionary changes, not revolution. Depersonalisation is another problem. The technical juggernaut is taking over and we are no longer the masters. The most difficult step will be how to discover how to perform the crucial task of raising the people of Hillfields from a fatalistic dependence on ‘the council’ to self-sufficiency and independence –Minutes, 14.7.69

That all sounds familiar too. And as if it were a race, the Department of the Environment announced in quick succession its own ‘total approach’ scheme: the Six Towns Studies.

In our approach to the environment, we have endeavoured in the first two years under the new DoE to make a switch of resources to bad areas .. . I believe that the next most important step for any department is to bring about a total approach to the urban problem. In the past the attitude has been a series of fragmented decisions not properly co-ordinated and not bringing about the improvement of urban areas which is necessary. –Peter Walker, then Secretary of State for the Environment, in the Budget Debate 1972, quoted in Community Action No.8. (13)

The Department of Health and Social Security (Sir Keith Joseph Minister), then set up a working party to explore ‘whether the cycle of transmitted deprivation would be a fruitful area of research’…investigating how ‘deprivation’ is passed on through the family. (13) Ah, how I love to hate that old chestnut. 1973 brought Quality of Life Studies, courtesy of the Department of the Environment, looking at improving access to leisure activities. They were a bit worried about how to coordinate it all by then, so created the Urban Deprivation Unit (UDU), and the Comprehensive Community Programmes. These were all partnerships between local and national government, but the European Economic Community (EEC) was also involved, and sponsored its own ‘Poverty Programme’ focused on the ‘chronically poor’. The research proliferated.

2. The (non) eradication of poverty

The aims of the EEC programme sound familiar: ‘to develop clearer perceptions of a complex problem and pioneer new techniques for tackling it‘.

The results? Mixed. The effort – beggars belief really.

The inner city areas of Liverpool are the delight of every deprivation theorist. They have been treated with each of the government’s urban deprivation programmes in turn, sometimes with several at a time. An EPA in 1969, a CDP in 1970, a Neighbourhood Scheme in 1971, an Inner Area Study in 1973 which then sponsored an Area Management experiment have all been tried there, and up to 1974 £1,707,213 had been spent on a stunning total of 146 different Urban Aid projects.

And yet:

In 1968 when the poverty initiatives came to town, 25,000 people were registered as out of work on Merseyside. Four years later their numbers had more than doubled with 52,000 people unemployed. Today, 85,600 men and women, 11.3% of Merseyside’s population, are out of work. Even these telling city-wide figures cover up the real story of the inner-city areas. There the predicament of would-be workers is even worse with up to 20% unemployed and up to 30% among younger people. (19)

It’s all structural, innit. No one wants to tackle that though.

Both the CDP and the Inner Area Study agreed that immediate action was needed to tackle inner-Liverpool’s housing crisis. But though the message of their reports became more insistent, the actual housing output declined. (20)

It all boils down to this, always and everywhere seems like:

The poverty initiatives then have clearly not made any great inroads on inner-Liverpool’s real material problems. All they have done is to restate, usually in academic terms, what the people who live there have known for a long time.

Let’s just repeat that, because we are still doing it.

All they have done is to restate, usually in academic terms, what the people who live there have known for a long time.

Right, to continue:

If you live on Merseyside you have a better than average chance of being made redundant, being on the dole for a long time, living in slum conditions, being evicted, and forced to wait over six months for hospital treatment. Your children are more likely to die in infancy, or when, after getting no nursery schooling, they finally get to school, of being in larger classes in worse buildings, only to emerge finally onto the dole. Over 10,000 people leave Liverpool each year as a way of avoiding these problems. Those who are left can debate them in the neighbourhood councils and area management experiments left behind by the ‘poverty projects’. But, as they well know, talk is not going to make any impact on the worsening situation that faces them. (20)

12.5%  households were still without hot water in 1966, though that had dropped to 6.5% by 1971 (21). Homelessness figures, though, were rising:

Homelessness has doubled since 1970. On an average day in that year there were 12,874 people applying for temporary accommodation throughout Britain: by 1975 this had increased to 25,120 people a day. Meanwhile there are one million households still on local authority housing waiting lists throughout England while in London alone the total number on the housing waiting list increased from 152,000 in 1965 to 233,000 in 1974. (21)

So what change was achieved?

The problems of ‘deprivation’ then would seem to be as acute as ever for those who live them, and the prospects are bleak. Neither the poverty initiatives, nor the government’s more general policies towards the poor could be said to have had much impact on the problems facing the people who live in the older urban areas. But the programmes have always been small compared to the size of these. Not so much geared to solving the problems, they set out to provide the basis on which policy at both central and local government levels could be improved. Did the EPAs, Inner Area Studies, CDPs and the rest at least succeed in this respect? When it came to it neither Tory nor Labour governments seem to have taken much notice of the major policy recommendations emerging from the programmes although several years have now passed since their first reports were available. (22)

For housing specifically:

In housing too the pattern is much the same. One of the major recommendations of all three Inner Area Studies was the need for more spending on house improvement, with changes in policy to allow poorer owner-occupiers to take up improvement grants and more powers to enable local authorities to ensure that rented property was improved. The local authorities got their greater powers in 1974, as part of the Housing Action Areas scheme, but powers alone are useless without money, and they have now been denied the resources to carry out these proposals at all as government spending on improvement grants has gradually been cut back from £195.2m in 19734 to £85.8m in 1975-6. (23)

1976 brought in a renewed period of cuts — more money going to the ‘urban problem’, but not as much as was being cut in other spending in face of national economic crisis.  So – it’s structural inequality. A great quote from the quote from the Liverpool Inner Area Study:

A number of issues emerge from this description of inner area characteristics and the work carried out by Inner Area Studies. The chief one is the poverty and neglect of the area and its people in every sense. To a great extent this poverty is a reflection of inequalities in society as a whole. Clearly the scale and character of the problem is too great for policies concerned solely and specifically with inner areas to be effective. Any fundamental change must come through policies concerned with the distribution of wealth and the allocation of resources. IAS/L1/6 Third Study Review, Nov. 1974. (24)

Next post — the larger political economy of the 1960s, and just why all this spending on certain kinds of solutions could never provide the right answers. I can’t believe we’re still having that conversation, but the CDP did it masterfully.