Coming from a whirlwind of contradictions and a family history of communists, capitalists and college professors, Seth Tobocman is an artist who lets suffering speak. Akin to works by artists such as Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward, Tobocman’s work War in the Neighborhood, first released in 1999, gives the reader a first-hand experience of the squatter movement in the Lower East Side of New York in the 1980s. Tobocman’s 300-plus-page epic takes readers into the world of police violence, informants, the struggle of experiencing homelessness, resistance, autonomous organizing and the power of direct action. War in the Neighborhood was recently re-released by Ad Astra Comix; Tobocman took some time to talk to Truthout about gentrification, organizing and mutual aid.
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Chris Steele: Can you talk about the tensions of gentrification when you first went into the Lower East Side and how you found solidarity with the community?
Seth Tobocman: When I got to New York City in 1976, that was what they called the bicentennial of the United States and that was at the beginning of the financial crisis of New York City. I was in college; then I dropped out of college, left the dorm, lived in Greenwich Village, found I couldn’t afford it…. I just slept in Washington Square Park for a couple nights and got robbed, and eventually found this very inexpensive apartment on the Lower East Side through a friend who was moving out of it that cost $150 a month. What I discovered really quickly was that the people in the neighborhood actually put a lot of energy into trying to make it livable. They had community gardens, they had community organizations and they did a lot to try to make the neighborhood livable.
I was part of a rent strike in my building, which got us into rent stabilization…. I remember we were having a meeting with the tenants’ association in the hallway, and my roommate walked through the meeting and walked into the room, and when I came back into the apartment, he said, “What are you doing out there in the hallway with all those old people?” I said, “What do you mean? That’s the tenants’ association, we’re trying to keep from being evicted,” and he said, “You mean you want to stay here? I don’t want to stay here. I’m going to be a successful artist and I’m going to live in a penthouse like Picasso.” So those are just the illusions that people had.
In War in the Neighborhood, you portray community solidarity and struggle. Can you talk about the current condition of gentrification in the Lower East Side and New York?
The Lower East Side has been absorbed into New York City, and New York City has, to a large extent, been absorbed into the United States. There is not a Lower East Side to speak of in the sense that one existed when I moved here. It felt like it was almost an autonomous community, or a country in its own right, or a world in its own right that was really different than the rest of society, and that’s not the case now. It’s a really hard environment right now financially. It’s really expensive to live around here now, unless you have some special deal, and if you have that special deal, it’s probably because you fought for it for years like people who managed to get a squat legalized or people who have rent-stabilized apartments that are 10 or 15 years old then, therefore, they pay rent that is much lower than the person who just moved in.
There used to be a lot of abandoned buildings and a lot of empty property in New York, and that’s what made squatting possible. Whereas increasingly every imaginable bit of space has been used up and developed, so that makes the type of resistance we had in the ’80s and ’90s very difficult. But what I do see is that people have gotten organized around protecting rent stabilization. This is the first time in the entire history of rent stabilization that we haven’t had an increase in the legal rent for rent-stabilized tenants, because we have a mayor who was essentially elected by the tenants because today most New Yorkers are afraid of their landlord. I think millennials have shown that they have a lot of weight in electoral politics, and they ought to be in there trying to get some type of rent protection so they’re not forced out of the city. That’s what I would advocate — there needs to be some type of rent protection for new tenants, not just for people who had an apartment for 20 or 30 years.
What are the intersections you saw with the loss of housing you describe in War in the Neighborhood and your work for your book Disaster and Resistance and the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy?
One of the things that you saw with both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy was that when a disaster like that hits an urban area, the people who are going to be most badly affected are the people who don’t have financial resources. In Katrina, the people who were caught in the flood were people who didn’t have cars to drive out, so it was almost entirely a low-income Black population that was caught in the flood. You have a lot of discrimination as to what gets rebuilt and how, and you had a real struggle develop around the right of poor people to come back into their neighborhood. In New Orleans, they used the pretty minor damage from Hurricane Katrina to public housing as an excuse to tear down public housing and to displace a large number of poor people out of the city and to disperse them to other places. It was a very ugly battle and we lost it.
Why is the re-release of War in the Neighborhood so relevant and important to these current times? Can you give a history of the book?
War in the Neighborhood is a book I produced after five or six years of being involved in the Lower East Side squatters movement. We broke into abandoned buildings and made them into housing for people, and we had a lot of abandoned buildings in the Lower East Side and in the Bronx, to some extent. In the 1980s and going into the ’90s, there were a lot of abandoned buildings and they were owned by the city. People broke in, started converting those to housing, and then wound up having to fight with the city about the attempts of the city to evict people from those buildings. That was about the right to a home and about the right of communities to organize themselves. It also involved a conflict with liberal organizations that were connected to city government and connected to nonprofits who envisioned some more legalized way of developing those properties as mixed-use housing, usually something like 50/50 or even 80/20 — 20 percent low income, 80 percent market rate, various tax abatements, various kickbacks to developers and politicians. That was their way of “helping” the poor or the moderate income, or whatever category that was being used — the squatters were also in the way of that. They were in conflict with a lot of different forces in the city. It was an experiment with direct democracy and direct action and with people self-organizing.
I think that it’s relevant today in that we are still talking a lot about self-organization, whether it’s in the various Occupy camps or in communities organizing against fossil fuel infrastructure or in Black Lives Matter — this is what we’re talking about. We’re talking about people coming together taking action and being, to some extent, self-governing and how that works. The same questions come up again and again: How do we make decisions? Who makes those decisions? How democratic should we be? How do we resist the police and at the same time not start acting like police and landlords ourselves? When I sat down to write War in the Neighborhood, it was after a decade of being involved in that activity and feeling like I had some experiences that I could share with future generations of activists.
Regarding resistance and protest, we’re living in an age of online petitions, your story shows the Tompkins Square Park police riot of 1988 and it shows the value of direct action. Can you elaborate on how those tactics benefited the squatting movement?
I think it’s really important to see how this works. People seized about 30 buildings, and of those 30, at the end of the process, about 13 of them were legalized and are now owned by the people who live in them. The rest were evicted or burned down or demolished — no question about it. On the other hand, the 13 buildings are housing about 500 people. The process by which that happened involved a real diversity of tactics. It involved people who would go to court; it involved people who would do nonviolent civil disobedience; it involved some violent self-defense against police; it involved people whose primary focus was construction work on the buildings and who did not engage in any type of politics at all, at least nothing that would be superficially understood as politics; and it involved people who just lived there. So it involved a lot of different people doing whatever that person felt was their best contribution to the community.
My sense is, that is what works — there could be a whole lot of resistance and it could come in many different forms from many different people. Sometimes it was organized, sometimes it was spontaneous, but there was a lot of it, and so even though there were a lot of situations where it would seem like we lost — like they evicted the building, they dispersed the people, people got their heads beat in — what we also were doing is establishing that any time the city evicted a building, they had an expense involved in that. They expended money, they expended political capital; they looked bad in front of people because they had to send all these cops out, they went through a long process and at a certain point, they said, “OK, we’re going to cut a deal with people,” and they did, they cut the deal very quietly. There was about three years where no one was allowed to say this was going on, and then around 2000, it became official and public that they were legalizing the squats in the Lower East Side, and that’s what victory looks like — that there will be a concession and they’ll try to put the best stakes on that concession they can. I think that that’s really what gets results. It can be very frustrating trying to do a type of overt, aboveground politics where you say, “We want to elect someone who will do the right thing” or “We want to put a revolutionary party in charge that will do the right thing” and that’s very hard to do.
Another way to go about it is to create continuous pressure over specific things you want or don’t want, and to make it very hard to do the things you don’t want done and make it easier for things you do want done, and to kind of condition the state the way you would train a dog. I think that’s what people discovered through this action — that they were able to get certain results. Not so much by trying to infiltrate the political system, but by trying to condition the political system by giving it rewards and punishments for the proper behavior, and I think that was an effective tactic, though certainly not the only approach. I’m very impressed with the Bernie Sanders movement. I never expected them to get as far as they did, but I’m not surprised they didn’t manage to make Bernie president. I never thought that they would be able to do that, and you don’t have to wait to get somebody in the White House to get the things you need done; you can get things done by direct pressure, and in fact, very often that’s the only way you can get things done anyway.
I would like to talk about community solidarity and resistance in relation to Black Lives Matter and the past killings of Eleanor Bumpurs and Michael Stewart.
Michael Stewart was a Black kid, a young person who was aspiring to be an artist, and he was killed by the police. He was strangled to death [in 1983] by 11 transit cops and there was a lot of outrage in our community, and I definitely felt like the only real difference between me and Michael Stewart was that he was Black and that’s the reason that happened to him. I remember that Stewart’s girlfriend tried to organize all of us to go up to Harlem to this congressional hearing on police brutality that was taking place. [The other white people I came with and I] were certainly the only white people in the room, and of course, security took the signs away from us immediately, so we were pinned into this balcony that had a wire mesh separating us from the people who were holding this hearing.
At this hearing, one person after another got up and described basically what was casual police brutality through the course of their everyday lives. Not just police murders, but just daily having to deal with police roughing them up or threatening them or always being in their lives in a certain way, and I became conscious that whereas for us this was a strange event — this was a onetime thing, this kid Michael Stewart gets killed — for Black people, this was an everyday event. This was the fabric of their lives — that police were constantly a threat and constantly a danger, so I became aware at that point that this was really a problem. In the first half of the 1980s, I started working with anti-police brutality groups … shutting down the subways and shutting down various transit lines through mass civil disobedience to protest the killing of young Black people and older Black people, such as Eleanor Bumpurs.
This is an ongoing problem. The list of people is very long and gets longer every week. The American police force just can’t seem to stop killing Black people, and this has been consistent for 30 years. I think that something that’s changed is first the availability of video in the ’90s; it became more and more possible for people to videotape their own lives because it became less expensive, and oddly, people believe a videotape when they don’t believe an eyewitness. Black people were saying for years that this happened to them and white people were not believing it. When [other white people and I] went up to Harlem or down to Brooklyn to be part of the anti-police brutality demonstrations in the ’80s and ’90s, a lot of our white friends thought that we were doing something very strange, that we were motivated by some kind of white guilt. As people have been able to document this stuff with video of various types, it’s become clear to people that there is a real problem here and it’s consistent, so I don’t think people dismiss those allegations in the same way they used to.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been edited for length and clarity.