Permutations of disaster are bearing down with such velocity on working-class people in the United States, it’s not easy to keep abreast — of the harms, but also of the welcome initiatives.
Jump-started by Cooperation Jackson co-founder and co-director Kali Akuno, a People’s Strike was announced on April 1 to inspire working-class people to think deeply about their futures and come to a shared commitment that concessions from power must be demanded, are worth struggling for and that steps must be taken to prepare materially for that struggle.
From now until further notice, on the first day of every month, the People’s Strike will birth a program of coordinated actions from coast to coast.
Actions planned across the country for Monday, June 1, will be themed around their housing justice demand, reducible to three main pillars:
- Housing is a Human Right
- Decommodify Housing Now
- Open all available housing stock to those who need it now.
The People’s Strike provides the infrastructure and a shared home to kindred organizers who also wish to focus on preparation for the coordination and execution of a global general strike.
The People’s Strike has already been endorsed by Black Socialists in America, Red Bloom, Black Alliance for Peace, Black Workers for Justice, The Red Nation, Moms 4 Housing/Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, Pan-African Community Action, New Orleans Workers Group, National Lawyers Guild, Palestinian Youth Movement, Danby Road Cooperative, Harlem Solidarity and Defense, Take Back the Bronx, First Strike and the Center for Critical Thought.
California Organizes to Assert Housing Is a Human Right
“In Oakland, as everywhere, housing is a foundation to all of the fights,” said Carroll Fife, who directs the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE). “It’s the place you can recharge, it’s the place you can feel safe, it’s the place you can wash your hands.”
ACCE has been providing critical support for the Moms 4 Housing struggle that challenges the real estate speculators that push housing prices out of the reach of working-class people. Four Oakland moms and their kids moved in and fixed up an abandoned house in November 2019, asserting their right to be sheltered and to have their children sheltered too. They were ultimately evicted, but not before garnering international attention and support for their struggle, which is ongoing and growing.
“The unsheltered and those who are barely holding onto their shelter feel they have very little to lose,” Fife told Truthout, “and they’re willing to do more to resist.” The number of renters pledging to strike in the Bay Area was over 22,000 on May 1, and Fife expects a spike for June 1.
She cautions that financiers learned the wrong lessons from the crisis they precipitated in 2007 and 2008, from which they were bailed out, and are financializing rent just like they securitized mortgages.
“We’re always at risk, always in jeopardy, under that system,” Fife says, predicting that this scheme “will lead to even more devastation than a decade ago.”
She’s deeply concerned about the working class, post-COVID. “The system that held us in the margins pre-COVID is regrouping to make our lives even worse,” Fife says. “If we do not seize this moment right now, then the world we thought we knew will never be the same, and it will not be for our benefit, it will not be for our best good. The only way out of this is to organize.”
Rachel Jackson signed on as organizer of the People’s Strike in the Bay Area because it’s a chance to join with political kin in a network of affiliation that has strong principles, clear demands, an orientation that’s not sectarian and which allows for a diversity of tactics.
General strike is one of those seductive ideas that circulates every so often but has not been widely regarded as feasible in America. But now Jackson thinks the conditions on the ground, which she describes as “overlaying crises” — 40,000,000 newly unemployed people, the coming end of the eviction moratoria, continuing community spread of infection — are shifting that attitude, and appetite for more comprehensive unified action is growing.
“All an eviction moratorium means is that you can stay in your place for four or five months without paying rent, if you qualified, and when it ends, you’re going to get evicted anyway, owing $20,000 to $30,000,” she told Truthout.
Jackson says Bay Area landlords are already starting to include lists of shelters and housing search resources when they send out their rent notices. “Their position is, ‘Let’s be honest, you’re leaving,’” she said.
For June 1, the Bay Area People’s Strike is experimenting with actions, all of which are 100-percent masked and that strictly maintain physical distancing. Jackson has a public health background, and like all People’s Strike actions, these will emphasize model community-minded practices to try to help get mask use up to 70 percent in the community at large (it’s currently between 50-60 percent).
“It’s an education and outreach caravan where we really take the rally into the community,” she explained. “We’ll have a sound truck, we’ll make a couple of stops, go through the neighborhood, rolling slow.”
They’ll be simultaneously live streaming from the caravan and conducting a Zoom call, and will set up communication between the two technologies. Recordings of many of the actions planned nationwide will be blasted back out to the People’s Strike international broadcast on The People’s Strike YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages and on Pacifica.
Jackson’s sense of tragedy and feelings of rage and sadness are tempered by the growth she’s witnessing in the People’s Strike movement. Looking forward to the July 1 actions, she expects they’ll be even more intense with the advent of hurricane season, and the almost inevitable passing of more anticipated victims of the lower, longer curve of the virus — likely agricultural workers, unhoused people and prisoners.
“It’s [Hurricane] Katrina writ large,” she said. “We know nobody’s coming.”
Rent Strikes Are Organized in New York
Jamie Tyberg is the development director for New York Communities for Change (NYCC) and has been organizing People’s Strike actions in the northeast. Tyberg says rent strikes have been established in New York City, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Long Island under NYCC’s Cancel Rent campaign.
“It was obviously a risk because the situation is so unprecedented and no one knew what the response would be,” Tyberg told Truthout. “But a lot of the folks in our base are immigrants who’ve been impacted by war and economic sanctions, and they’re ready to take on a more militant tactic. Eventually, nonprofits will have to follow the base or become an obstacle to the base.”
NYCC’s strike pledge has almost 18,000 signatories, and will be extended throughout 2020. The group is working to expand who goes on strike to include small landlords with one or two buildings in the hopes they’ll express solidarity with their tenants.
Robert Cuffy, a court worker in New York City, does not organize directly for the People’s Strike because of the Taylor Law, a 1935 law prohibiting public sector employee strikes. But he’s organizing under the banner of the New York City Fight for our Lives Coalition, which is accommodating activists who must remain Taylor Law-compliant or risk losing their livelihoods.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has put urgency into the conversation,” Cuffy told Truthout. “In New York City, over 16,000 people have died, mostly working-class people, disproportionately Black people and in neighborhoods of the Bronx and Queens in areas of concentrated poverty.”
Adding insult to their grief, he points to civil rights violations occurring almost exclusively in Black neighborhoods where 45 of the 50 summonses for social distancing violations were issued to Black people, with at least one arrest involving brutality.
“Austerity is being pushed down the throats of New York City’s working class; they’re trying to resolve the financial aspects of this crisis by balancing budgets on the backs of working people,” Cuffy said. Some activists are urging union leaders to push back against the proposed $16 billion in cuts to every other department but the New York City Police Department.
Some People’s Strike actions are being planned on the down low to avoid attracting a heavy police presence. All of their actions, including protests, involve physical distancing for safety, and at one particular protest on Monday they’ll be distributing 40 red masks to participants who’ve been asked to wear red.
“I can’t tell you more,” he said. “But there’s a lot going on under wraps.”
The Housing Crisis Is Actually a Crisis of Democracy
Meanwhile, in Mississippi, Cooperation Jackson has been adding properties to its Community Land Trust as a bulwark against four different development plans that target its neighborhood for usurpation: a proposed Medical Corridor, the Downtown-One Lake Redevelopment initiative, a sports and entertainment complex and the Capitol Complex Bill or Downtown Annexation Bill. In Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi, Akuno writes: “Each initiative is at a different stage of development, but all have committed financial streams and widespread support amongst local and state elites.”
He also writes:
The political calculation of the reactionary forces pushing for displacement and seeking to profit from gentrification is that in order to break the bloc of radical political forces in Jackson, they have to reduce the Black population considerably. Based on deductions from the last two municipal elections,they have to get the Black numbers below 60% of the overall population. …This is why we are trying to hold the Fortification Line, as we need to ensure that the city retains at least 70% population of its present Black working class population in order to sustain the radical political orientation of the city.
Decommodification of the land is the starting point in Akuno’s thinking about housing justice issues — access, affordability and security.
“For us, that’s the first step to really instituting a broad decolonization program here in the United States,” Akuno told Truthout. “It means changing our relationship with the land, the Earth and each other. You can’t ‘own’ something that generates you in actual fact. We can use it, but not possess it — that’s the deep principle, which in turn requires a deeper commitment to democracy.”
He says there’s no “housing crisis” in the U.S. – there’s more than enough shelter to go around, especially if you include hotels, motels, resorts, storage spaces and empty office buildings.
“What we have is a deep political crisis, a democracy crisis concerning control of the land and built infrastructure, which is not constructed to meet human needs or with consideration of other species. But if our species is to survive, it needs to get with the program,” Akuno said. “Life will go on with us or without us. We’re going to have to construct the society in which we live that is not just about accumulating until there’s nothing left to absorb, or take, or use, or exploit.”