It was an amazing night with over 100 students in attendance and 100 people watching through livestream. See Frank Morales’ great speech below.
How has an idea of the right to the city influenced me? My practice? Well,let me say that personally, it’s a very near and dear notion to me, the right to the city!
I’m a NYC kid. And for those of you who are NYC kids, that means
something! I grew up here! Born and raised on the Lower East Side, Jacob Riis public housing projects on 12th and D, decades later, in the late 70s, I did some squatting in the South Bronx with the people there – abeautiful experience – then I decided to move back downtown (I was living on 139th and Saint Ann’s at the time) to move back down to the
neighborhood, now called the East Village, and I recall the feeling that I had then, that I had a right to be there … that these were my streets … In my memories I saw myself running around those streets …
And so, with scores and scores of empty vacant buildings all around,
brutal consequences of the war against the uppity poor, me and a diverse bunch of others, displaced homeless people, artists and real live revolutionaries from all around, we all worked together and seized about thirty of the vacant buildings and went about shaping our immediate environment. We didn’t ask for permission, we just went about fulfilling our hearts desire and meeting our need for a place to live that we could afford. Now, unlike ACORN, whose strategy was to occupy and force a showdown, which was a good strategy – don’t get me wrong, but unlike them, we made no demands. We weren’t doing anything in behalf of anyone else. It was simply, we got these, go away! As a result, we had no deal with the bosses from 1985 through 2002, a occupied a couple of dozen buildings, collectively organized and defended them, buildings which were strictly and objectively off limits to the logic of market exchange and market valuations. That’s right … outside of society!
We cleaned them out, defended them against the cops, lived in them. Let me tell you, the transcendent feeling of being free from the twisted grip of so-called property rights, particularly in terms of where you live, well, that is a beautiful, liberating almost inexpressible feeling that I highly
recommend! Clearly outside the law, deemed criminals by three mayors, held in contempt by local government groupies, benevolent developers;
shortsighted narrow minded hypocrites, they called us misguided, and sent the cops up against us many times. “Who gave you the right?” they
bellowed. And besides, “you can’t renovate them buildings,” etc etc … the sad bleatings of the unbelievers!
Anyway, un-lead by any not for profits, politicians or parties we remain today still in eleven of those buildings, weathering still, like so many
of you in this city, the storm of greed and capitalist surplus misallocations, which in my neighborhood equaled an onslaught of thrusting
yuppie Armageddon Disneyland of despair like no other, translated into spectacular gentrification and a nearly surreal disparity of wealth. It seems to me that any discussion of rights begins with a clear-headed look into what we mean by rights. I contend that whether tethered to a religious or to a natural law foundation, they, rights, are at the end of the day nothing but abstractions. Empowering and inspiring visions of what could be, yes – they hover in the ether of wishful thinking – “if only our true potential as a people was fully realized.” But alas, that is not our reality is it? And yet despite that, we still insist that human rights, despite their unreality, trump the right to speculate and they trump the tragic present, indeed, deflate that present, which is stuck in the purgatorial “this is the best that we can hope for.”
The point is that rights are abstractions, and they remain abstractions until they are made real, actualized, incarnated in the here and now by
and for and with the right’s true beneficiaries, you and me, our friends and our neighbors, especially the poor and the working people. But we have
to believe in that right, stick together and step around and through the boss’s bad laws.
You know, back in the old days; Greece about 500 BC, before there were cops, everyone defended each other, came to the aid of one another. For
example, if you had a wolf at the door (literally), or were the intended target for theft, or were physically threatened or about to be assaulted,
you could, you would, call out to your neighbors and at the point of penalty they would come to your aid. That’s right! Ten drachmas if you
failed to heed the call of Mr and Ms Stavros who was being evicted from their home, 25 if you failed to defend the runaway slave! That’s right.
The notion of the “hue and cry” derives from here, Record of these fines are delineated in recovered history, in plays and song. The point: People
defended each other.
Now, the right not to be violated, which is the most basic right, requires for its realization confronting the violently enforced deprivations,
exploitations and degradations that accompany city living for poor and working class people. In this regard, we see that state violence is
multiplied and operationalized in its police and militarist urban operations agendas in behalf of elite “urban planners.”
Confronting and deconstructing this militarism at home, regarding home and neighborhoods, requires first identifying the tell-tale signs of its
havoc. Easy enough: The rampant racial profiling, the prison slave camps, the displacement apparatus, FEMA emergency management of the NYC homeless industrial complex, the non-lethal suppression of dissent and the techno-repression of demonstrations and the jailing of subversive truths,
all machinations of the political police in the police state in the militarized city, a condition with which we must come to grips: a cold
urban military aspect beyond metaphor.
My practice, in regards to the housing question as mentioned, has sought to realize the right to a home by way of direct action squatting; seizing
the vacant buildings as a means of seizing the time that’s real and building communities of resistance; leaving behind capitalist chronologies
of bad and bored survival, confident in the fact, paraphrasing Frederick Douglass, that the machine will grant no rights that we don’t take!
The squatter’s movement is I believe the locus of a truly alternative and revolutionary politics. Hatching social and organizing centers, while
meeting the survival needs of masses of poor, these methodologies, subversive and dangerous to tyranny, are spread across in varying
character across the vast so called developed and underdeveloped world’s cities, aspects of a global vanguard of politics and poverty, necessity
and desire which is growing, and it is poison to the system. Why? Because capitalist modes rely on disempowering the people in their totality of rights by way of controlling their homes and their right to one. Keeping us off balance, dis-empowered, fearful, the attack on the home is an
attack on our ability to organize, hence the whole question of destabilization of tenure and homelessness need be seen as a counterinsurgency against the people meant to deprive masses of the ability fostered in stability to fashion a revolutionary outlook and demands, revolutionary space for organizing. In other words, paraphrasing Douglass again, give a slave a stable home and you are creating a dangerous situation.
To the extent therefore that we are able to catalyze a militant squatter movement for a right to a home, the right to land in the city, encompassing all those suffering under the onerous usery of the banks, we can create a combative and self-assured movement that embodies the notion
that squatters rights are human rights and are an integral aspect of the right to the city, the right to rebuild and reshape the city, with our own
hands, with our hearts on our sleeves and with a determination to free the land by any and all means necessary!
Finally, we ask: Why fight for our rights? Because they are out to kill us, to kill our spirits! And in the case of the poor, their bodies aswell! Why fight? Because they are wrong, square, behind the times, violent and racist, sexist and homophobic, erosphobic, phobic phobic. Suffering
the paranoia of the thief, they don’t know how scared they really are!
So let us continue to fight because this city has a spirit derived from the righteous blood and sweat of a rebellious history that needs to be
nurtured, respected and adored. And that is the spirit of all the high-minded and enlightened souls, women and men revolutionaries, known
and the unsung who made their lives count to make justice real, to make love among neighbors real, who knew that their human rights, though still unrealized, were real to them. So, they went about speaking fearlessly and
joyfully making the word of rights flesh in the world. They live still in these streets, and their visions, their hopes and most importantly their
courage and combativeness, like the Furies, haunt the covetous, the cruel and the uncaring.
In closing, I would like to suggest that as I see it there are two roads, legal and otherwise, to achieve our ends. Committed to non-violence we are
cognizant that the state, which incubates the injustice in the capitalist city, paying dividends to the greed machine at the top of the lop-sided
world, is defined by violence. Hence, employing the utmost creativity, I believe a fruitful course would be for the organizing for occupation of
the vacant housing all throughout this city, concretizing our right to rebuild this housing, our right to live in this housing, our right not to
be further victimized by the predatory, oppositional housing for profit system, and we must do so by seizing the vacant spaces! Therefore, it is
time to call for a squatter uprising as a legitimate, moral and intelligent response to the crisis!
In addition to that, we must build the political, professional and mass support for the reinstatement and re-institutionalization of an urban
homesteading program in this city, which myself and associates at the New School, Miguel and Gabriela Rendon have recently initiated, in order to
create a legal, permitted means for the accessing of vacant spaces through sweat equity in the interests of poor and working class people, it’s “the
ballot and the bullet,” and not only for a home, as important and righteous and necessary as that is, as an end in itself; but as a means and a base of resistance, within whole communities of resistance, who understand that the counterinsurgency and pre-emptive de-stabilization of
the masses at the grassroots by way of homelessness and tenure insecurity can only be undone when the entire machinery of capitalist social
organization is sent packing by an insurgency of revolutionary proportions that facilitates the flowering of the right to the city which can benefit
all the common people, a common sense revolution with folks at play in the heavenly city of our dreams, the imagined commons to come.