Decolonization and Gentrification: Confronting the Gentrifier in All of Us

“Where will I go?” asked Elaine Turner, 78, after receiving an eviction notice from her home of over 25 years. Elaine made this tragic statement to her neighbors in North Beach, San Francisco, and then became very ill and passed away.

Community organizer Theresa Flandrich whispered Elaine’s story through tears at a protest on July 18 against the eviction of another elder, Silvio, a grandfather and lifelong North Beach elder. She also spoke of her pending eviction from her own home. The protest was organized by Senior and Disability Action, the Anti-Displacement Coalition and other groups, which are planning to hold another similar rally on August 12.

The small crowd that gathered to fight yet another San Francisco eviction for profit represented a broad section of communities. Elders and young people of color, middle-class white people, disabled revolutionaries, families with children and tourists, we were all filled with different states of anger and rage for the people causing these evictions. Yet behind our shouts, chants and demands was a tacit understanding of the inevitability of it all.

But is mass eviction, displacement and gentrification inevitable? And should it be?Elaine, Silvio and Theresa represent just one building on a street in North Beach that suffered the loss of over 25 units in a one-year period, all because of the violence of displacement. A few months ago we lost First Nations elder Ron Likkers, 69, shortly after he was evicted and had to move from his life-long community. A building of three units in the Mission District of San Francisco joined hundreds more last week fighting to stay in a city that is pushing them out. The disruption and loss of schools, friends, networks of support and community has caused children’s grades to plummet and left families homeless.

Everyone knows that the removal, displacement and evictions of elders and families and disabled people is wrong. This is true even for many of the people who could be held responsible for this high-speed and violent gentrification, which has been made possible due to their willingness to pay exorbitant rents, thus tempting landlords todisplace life-long tenants in order to charge such exorbitant rents. And yet as the number of evictions rises to over 4,000 homes in San Francisco alone, with numbers in LA, Oakland and in the South Bay skyrocketing everyday, US society sits by, and watches what many revolutionaries at POOR Magazine and other organizations have proven is a form of elder and child abuse.

We protest, and we support legislation like the rent control 2.0 proposed by Jane Kim, who represents San Francisco’s District 6 on the city’s Board of Supervisors, or the moratorium on wealthy developments proposed by David Campos, who represents District 9 on the Board of Supervisors. Both of these pieces of legislation are being placed on November’s ballot, while large corporate mayors like San Francisco’s Ed Lee and Oakland’s Libbry Schaaf make deals with huge housing developers like Lennar and Forest City to build huge multi-million dollar housing developments. The recently proposed 5M project throws donations at local schools and promises a few nonprofits some help but has no intention of housing the people it displaces now or in the future.

The people who are seen as the perpetrators, the gentrifiers or the cop-callers are just following the ancient lessons of settler colonization that they have been taught. Ownership and acquisition of money and things is the ideal of success – and the removal of anything in the way of this definition of success is either not talked about or not even considered. Consequently, displacement, gentrification and ultimately the violent protection of these acquisitions are the logical progression of capitalist success. So can we who partake in capitalism ourselves really stand in judgment of these “gentrifiers”?

Collectively and consistently, the majority of people in the US (and beyond, as we export US notions of success) are taught that embedded in “success” is the acquisition of money and things. To get those things we are also taught to leave our families and community of origin and go to cities and states and countries where we “can have a better life” – i.e. acquire things, money and property.

The revolutionaries and activists who are fighting the police attacks and displacement of poor communities of color have themselves for the most part been taught the same goals, that happiness, success and peace will be achieved once they have raised enough money or resources to buy their own small piece of mama earth.

Anger is rising toward the 20- and 30-year-olds who flood into our cities of origin, renting studios for $4,000 a month, buying million-dollar condos and renting Airbnbs for $400 a week. But in truth, how many degrees of separation are these demonized renters from the conscious, well-paid, well-educated non-profit employees who are fighting gentrification? The reality is that the other-ized gentrifyers aren’t really that different from the activists fighting them.

At what point does the process of true decolonization need to enter the conversation? At what point do we re-examine the basic idea that to be successful we must leave our families and settle far from our communities of origin?

This eviction crisis is expanding locally and globally in countries like Honduras, Brazil and London – and decolonized thinking will be our only way to live on this increasingly shrinking planet together.

Without even necessarily thinking very much about it, good and even conscious parents teach children the colonial lie of independence. To leave our parents and grandparents is a measure of success. To get out of the house is to be successful. To achieve a high-paid job and acquire property (a piece of mama earth) is to be successful.

If we want to stop the high-speed gentrification, maybe we should do it ourselves. Maybe we should do what I teach students at PeopleSkool at POOR Magazine: to de-gentrify you must go back home. To decriminalize, you must set up systems of accountability and community care-giving. To stop displacement, you must stop seeking out places that are “fun,” “trendy,” exciting or convenient, but rather stay in your cities and towns of origin, embracing the comfortable rooms that your parents have or had for you. Stop ghettoizing your elders and hiring people to take care of your children and grandparents – do it yourselves.

These aren’t utopic hippie ideas, these are ideas for the survival of poor and working class peoples. The concept of “no police calls or engagement at all, ever” was one of the lived visions of the Black Panthers and something we painstakenly practice at POOR Magazine. Poor people’s true liberation is being lived in real time in the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, in the Shackdwellers union in South Africa and in what us poor and evicted people started with Homefulness in Deep East Huchuin Ohlone land (Deep East Oakland). These visions aren’t easy. They aren’t caused by a grant or a protest, but rather by a life-long commitment to live differently, even as poor people, and to never engage with the people that kill us, incarcerate us and evict us. There is no more room for all of us to keep operating on the same model. We must all decolonize to survive.