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Participatory Democracy Drives Anti-Gentrification Movement in New York’s El Barrio

In New York City’s East Harlem, also known as El Barrio, a movement led by immigrant women is resisting economic displacement.

Members of Movement for Justice in El Barrio at a press conference denouncing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's "luxury housing" rezoning plan. (Photo courtesy of Janice Aredondo)

Eleven years ago, in an area known as El Barrio in East Harlem, New York, community residents of 15 immigrant families, all of them women of color, came together to seek dignified housing in their community. They were struggling against gentrification and displacement, and the abuses of a private landlord who was trying to force them out of their homes in order to attract wealthier tenants and transform the neighborhood they lived in and loved. These women had no previous organizing experience, but they listened to and supported each other, and in December 2004, they formed Movement for Justice in El Barrio (Movement).

Astonishingly, Movement now has 954 members in 95 building committees. Eighty percent of the members are women, and it is the women who are the driving force behind the organization. The membership consists of low-income tenants who are immigrants and people of color; many are also Indigenous. Forced by poverty to leave their beloved native countries, they have built a strong community in El Barrio, and are determined not to allow themselves to be displaced again. They understand clearly that their fight is against the neoliberal system represented by the abusive landlords, property speculators, multinational corporations, politicians and government institutions that seek to displace them from their much-loved community.

“We believe that those who suffer injustice firsthand must design and lead their own struggles for justice.”

“We all share a common enemy and it is called neoliberalism,” said Oscar Dominguez, a member of Movement for Justice in El Barrio, at the first Encuentro for Humanity and Against Displacement. “Neoliberalism wishes to divide us and keep us from combining our forces. We will defeat this by continuing to unite our entire community until we achieve true liberation for all.”

The organization is built around the principles of autonomy, self-determination and participatory democracy. This means that it is based on a horizontal form of organizing and has no leaders.

“We believe that those who suffer injustice firsthand must design and lead their own struggles for justice,” said Diana Vega, a Movement member.

The aim is to create spaces where people can come together as a community to share their problems. In this way, they can agree on the solutions, and it is the community itself that has the power. Not being dependent on anyone to tell them what to do, they believe, creates a strong base that can never be destroyed.

The basis of Movement’s organizing is consulting the community. Members go door-to-door, building-by-building, block-by-block, getting to know each other, and constructing relationships. Committees are formed in each building, and once the whole building is organized, they become members. Each building agrees on its own actions and means of struggle. Movement is also deeply committed to fighting all forms of oppression and to respecting each other’s differences. Above all, this means listening to one another.

The group operates on many levels. As well as door knocking, it has town hall meetings, community dialogues, street outreach, house meetings and community-wide votes. It organizes protests, marches and direct actions. It makes clever use of the media, gives interviews and charlas (talks) and organizes community-wide gatherings. It uses tactics such as court actions and public denunciations. Following the community consultations, it campaigns on specific issues.

These issues are spelled out in the invitation that Movement for Justice in El Barrio sent out for its fifth Encuentro for Humanity and Against Displacement:

Together, we make our dignity resistance and we fight back against the actions of capitalist landlords and multinational corporations who seek to displace poor families from our neighborhood. We fight back locally and across borders. We fight back against local politicians who refuse to govern by obeying the will of the people. We fight back against the government institutions which enforce a global economic, social and political system that seeks to destroy humanity.

The organization faces many challenges. Most of its members speak no English. They have little access to the internet. Very few of them have computers. They are forced to work 10- to 14-hour days, six to seven days a week, as well as having all the responsibilities of family life. This means that it is not easy for them to also attend four or five hour meetings to make decisions, and it is difficult for everyone to come together at the same time. Because everyone must be consulted, and all decisions made collectively, it can take a long time to come to an agreement. But in spite of all these difficulties, the commitment and achievements of the members have been remarkable.

In line with its principles, Movement accepts no government funding, and has no involvement with politicians or political parties. Members know it is essential to create bridges with other ignored, forgotten and marginalized communities, including women, migrants, lesbians, people of color and the transgender community, and to build relationships with members of organizations that also fight against multiple forms of oppression.

Building a Community of Solidarity and a Culture of Resistance

Eleven years ago, those who are now members of Movement did not even know each other. They had no fellowship with the other inhabitants of their building. Now, they resist, organize and celebrate victories together — they have built community, friendship, love, confidence and solidarity and have transformed their lives.

During the last 11 years, Movement has won victories against brutal landlords and multinational corporations that have tried to displace them and destroy their community. They have challenged city institutions. They have created and continue to build a culture of resistance and a community of solidarity. They have formed strong bonds with their sisters in struggle in many corners of the world, and their inspirational struggle continues.

Members of Movement celebrated the 11th anniversary of their women-led community struggle this year on March 8, International Women’s Day. During the event, they screened this short film to commemorate their struggle against displacement:

Many of the members of this remarkable organization believe that their greatest achievement has been to build a culture of resistance, which has led to a sense of identity and self-worth, being part of something that gives them purpose and meaning. A new generation of children is growing up in an amazing environment of organizing, marching and of collective decision-making, which makes a lasting impact on their lives, and shines through in their vibrant community spirit. The strength of the community that Movement has created is reflected in the astonishing fact that not one of its members has been displaced over the last 11 years. It is no wonder that the Village Voice chose Movement as the “Best Power to the People Movement in New York City.”

Learning From and Sharing Dignified Struggles

When Movement was founded in December 2004, its members began to look for other dignified struggles from which to learn. When they read the Zapatista Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, released in June 2005, members found in it “a mirror of ourselves,” Dominguez told Truthout. Since that time, they have developed their own form of urban Zapatismo, and continue to look to their Zapatista compañeras and compañeros as inspiration in their daily struggle for justice and collective liberation, while offering their solidarity in return. As always with the women at the forefront, Movement members have incorporated tools and ways of organizing learned from the Zapatistas into their own local struggle.

Current Struggles and Achievements

In September 2015, the women of Movement for Justice in El Barrio joined people who are fighting for justice all over the world, and gave testimony before the International Tribunal of Conscience of Peoples in Movement, which was held in New York City. The women spoke about the struggle of migrant women against the dispossession that leads to forced migration in the first place, and then about the vicious displacement from housing, which takes place in order to rezone cities between the rich and the poor.

This was followed in October by Movement being the only organization to be chosen to participate in the groundbreaking first worldwide online Women’s Freedom Conference, where women from five continents presented their struggles through the unique voices and experiences of women of color who have little or no representation, and who have been deprived of their rights not only by patriarchy, but also through racism and other forms of oppression. Movement’s presentation was the film El Barrio Women Fighting for Freedom and Against Displacement.

On January 31, 2016, the fifth New York City Encuentro for Humanity and Against Displacement took place, organized by Movement. It was “a gathering in which humble and simple people directly affected and fighting against gentrification were given the space to dialogue amongst each other without intermediaries and with respect for their common struggle.” A testament to the power of grassroots organizing, the Encuentro focused on struggles against displacement in New York and globally, and representatives of over 90 organizations shared their struggles and their dreams.

The official invitation to the event offered these words about its purpose:

We are struggling for housing, for education, for health, for freedom, for justice, for love, for a voice, for a space to exist, for peace, for respect, for ourselves, for our community, for dignity … for humanity. Here we stand in resistance in our corner of the world. Together we will build a world where many worlds fit. Un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos.

The Encuentro highlighted one of the main struggles undertaken by the women of Movement over the last year and a half — the struggle against the destructive rezoning plan that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is attempting to impose from above. If enacted, this plan will cause widespread displacement of long-term, low-income community members from their beloved El Barrio. Premiered at the Encuentro was the new film The East Harlem Community Fight Against the Mayor’s Rezoning Plan.

The film documents the East Harlem residents’ opposition to a rezoning plan where 100 percent of units will be inaccessible to the low-income residents of El Barrio. Seventy-five percent will be market-rate, luxury apartments, and the other 25 percent will still have rents that make them completely inaccessible to low-income residents of El Barrio, due to residents not meeting the minimum income threshold required to rent them. This opposition is the result of the East Harlem community’s extensive consulta del Barrio, a community-driven democratic consultation, organized by Movement, about the mayor’s rezoning plan, which took place for nearly a year. Through this consulta, community members analyzed the plan and developed both their position — unanimous opposition to the mayor’s entire upzoning plan by the thousands who participated — and a proposal of their own: A 10-point plan for the de Blasio administration to preserve rent-stabilized housing. The women leaders of Movement for Justice in El Barrio will keep on fighting until their plan is implemented for the benefit of all of the humble people of New York City.

They have expressed this commitment in their vision statement:

We fight so that:

The oceans and mountains will belong to those who live in and take care of them.

The rivers and deserts will belong to those who live in and take care of them.

The valleys and ravines will belong to those who live in and take care of them.

Homes and cities will belong to those who live in and take care of them.

No one will own more land than they can cultivate.

No one will own more homes than they can live in.

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