(Versions of this article have appeared in Change-Links April issue and “Turning the Tide: Journal of Anti-Racist Action, Research & Education,” April-June 2011, v24n2)
Are you facing foreclosure or eviction? Are the police trying to sweep you off the street or drive you out of public housing? Are you struggling to put food on the table for your family? YOU ARE NOT ALONE!
More than 20% of Angelenos are not able to eat nutritious meals every day. Hundreds of thousands of homeowners face foreclosure. LA is carrying out a national strategy to privatize public housing and drive poor families of color to the outskirts of the region. Police treat poor and homeless people like criminals. Meanwhile schools and transportation are used to anchor real estate deals to gentrify neighborhoods. Public funds subsidize sports multi-millionaires. Taxpayers are forced to bail out the banks that have caused the housing crisis and economic crash.
It’s time to stop blaming ourselves or looking for scapegoats. It’s time to get together, figure out the roots of these problems, and begin to take collective direct action to solve our problems once and for all.
People are fighting back, across southern California and the US and around the world. People are struggling for food and water sovereignty, to defend the human right to housing and to take back the land! On April 8-10, an important conference on the housing and hunger crisis in Los Angeles will be held at the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research and the Angelus Plaza auditorium downtown. It will bring together people victimized by the banks and the government in the current crisis, including homeowners facing foreclosure, tenants facing eviction or slum conditions, public housing residents facing privatization and displacement, and homeless people confronted by police sweeps and hate crimes. We will be addressing issues of hunger as well. As the food banks are being overwhelmed by families in need, the issue of food and water sovereignty must be a high priority.
At the conference, we will attempt to build practical unity for a collective fight-back around all these issues, while addressing some key questions. Why did the current economic crisis develop and spread out of the real estate sector in the U.S.? How did the collapse of housing prices and home sales, and the resulting credit crunch, lead to unyielding double digit unemployment? Why is the system willing to spend millions on a parking lot for real estate magnate Eli Broad’s museum, but unwilling to maintain and provide decent public housing? Why are the prisons and jails, as Mumia Abu-Jamal has said, the largest public housing projects in the US?
What theoretical and strategic understandings can guide us in fighting back against the bailout of the banks even as they continue to foreclose on tens of thousands? How can we link together the separate struggles being waged by homeowners with those of tenants, public housing residents, and the homeless? How is it that land, so central to the economy and to life itself, is so often overlooked in economic and political analysis?
The system wants us to blame ourselves or to scapegoat others for these problems. But it is not the fault of the individual mortgage holder coerced by redlining into an adjustable rate sub-prime mortgage on an over-valued property. The impoverished residents of public housing or sub-standard slums are not to blame. The system wants to stigmatize unhoused people and those living in vehicles, or get us to point the finger at migrants. But the formerly incarcerated people looking for transitional housing should feel no shame, nor the unemployed and underemployed hunting desperately for jobs that aren’t there. The fault is neither in our stars nor in ourselves – it is the system that’s guilty.
Land — the earth and water and all the creatures they support — have always been the source of US wealth and the keystone of the US Empire. In the blood-soaked soil of southern CA in particular, “real estate” has been the linch-pin of capitalist wealth accumulation. When I wait for the train outside KPFK at the Metro Red Line Universal Studios station, the history of land theft is festooned on the platform, recounting the inglorious adventures of Indian killer Kit Carson and land-locked ‘privateer’ John Fremont in the conquest of Los Angeles and California. When the city dug to build a cultural center in La Plaza downtown, they unearthed the bones of the indigenous people who were here first.
The collapse of the housing bubble and the resulting credit crisis and bail-out of Wall Street revealed the truth of the importance of land to capital and capitalism — the open secret that the mortgage market is larger than the stock market. This underscores the fact that land and labor are the basis of all wealth. Debt, especially mortgage debt, far exceeds equity. Even without the drop-off in housing prices after their absurd and unsustainable run up, interest payments on mortgages are always much greater than the value of the homes that guarantee them.
The effort by the banks to disguise this reality by “securitizing” toxic loans – pretending to turn bad debt into a kind of asset or equity – only magnified the problem. The popping of the bubble exposed a deeper reality – that land, housing and how we organize and finance them are as central to the nature of this system as labor. Real wealth is not in money or even gold, but in the land, its resources and the labor of its inhabitants. That’s why to really deal with the current crisis in housing, or foreclosures, evictions and gentrification, we will need to take on the system and transform it.
Capitalism began with the transformation of land, and of nature itself, into “capital” through the private expropriation of the commons. By privatizing land and turning housing into a commodity, a proletariat was created that had to sell its labor power to survive. The extension of this system from Europe around the globe through settler colonialism is at the base of the subsequent “globalization” of capital. Empire is a house of cards based on the illegitimate conquest and theft of the land. Solidarity and unity in solving the problems of unemployment, layoffs, foreclosures or evictions, must begin with support for self-determination and sovereignty.
Title to land is not suddenly problematic only because the banks sliced and diced mortgages to sell them off in “credit default swaps.” There is a fundamental challenge to the Empire’s title to the land raised by the Hawaiians, the Maya, the Mohawk, the peoples of Africa, the Aboriginal Australians and all other indigenous peoples. It undermines the very concepts of private ownership of land and of Empire-state national boundaries. It exposes the theft and fraud on which the edifice of mortgage debt, credit default swaps and derivatives rested and ultimately collapsed. It helps explain why high home-ownership rates in the US, subsidized by tax policy, have helped to suppress working class struggle and unity.
The ability of the Empire to loot the resources and labor of people in Africa, Asia and Latin America, including the social wealth accumulated in the old Soviet bloc and in China under “communism,” resulted in levels of capital accumulation unparalleled in human history. Bust follows capitalist ‘boom’ — vast, steep and protracted economic contraction. It should not surprise us that just as in Eastern Europe, both the accumulation and the contraction have entailed the elimination of the life savings and social security of hundreds of millions of people. The imposition of austerity through attacks on the social safety net, public education and social services and pensions, is now spreading and deepening into an attack on organized labor. In Eastern Europe, privatization of social wealth resulted in a near-genocidal reduction in life expectancy. The pension system was looted by new, and newly rich, private entrepreneurs. We can expect the same here unless we unite and fight back.
The state carried out the expropriation of the lands and conquest of the peoples on which the production system is based. It has enforced the on-going social relationships that allow for the extraction of private wealth from economic growth. How long will the power of the state enforce the continuing extraction and accumulation of wealth from economic contraction (which may involve fascist or totalitarian methods of rule as it did during the Great Depression)? The answer depends on our ability to unite our separate but inter-related struggles and to recognize that winning requires a fundamental transformation of the economy, and our relationship to each other and to the land.
It sometimes seems as if different aspects of our movement are like the blind men and the elephant — is an elephant like a rope, a tree trunk, a hose? If we unite our perspectives, we see it’s like all of those but something more. Not to mention using our nose, because an elephant sure doesn’t smell like a rope, hose or tree trunk! Through a process of struggle we can begin to synthesize our perceptions about the true, stinking nature of this system! The Los Angeles Housing and Hunger Crisis Conference is an effort to advance that necessary process. The super-rich, the banks and the politicians have always used divide-and-conquer techniques to keep us from seeing that all their wealth comes from the people they exploit, and all their power comes from the people they oppress. By uniting, we can exert our power. The conference aims to bring together at a grassroots level people facing all the manifestations of this crisis, and to build unity in practice based on solidarity and mutual aid.
We will combine practical workshops about how to avoid foreclosure or eviction, defend tenants’ rights, stop homeless sweeps and protect public housing and parks, with direct action strategies for growing and sharing healthy food, and rebuilding the commons. We will discuss using foreclosed housing and shuttered buildings to provide shelter fit for human habitation while we also seek to confront those corporate forces and politicians who have been gorging themselves at the expense of the common public good.
Come learn about indigenous rights, tenant and homeowner organizing, urban gardening and farmers’ markets, urban environmental justice, and how to “fight city hall” and win! Meet Rob Robinson of the “Take Back the Land” Movement in New York, Miami and DC, and Corinne Fairbanks of the American Indian Movement (Santa Barbara chapter). Come share your own organizing efforts and struggles, share perspectives and help shape on-going strategies to shift the balance of power in favor of popular sovereignty, self-determination and solidarity. We can only solve these problems by building a strong movement that can transform the economic and political system that produces them!
The LA Housing and Hunger Crisis Conference will take place over three days. On Friday, April 8, from 7-10:00 PM at the Southern California Library, 6120 S. Vermont, LA there will be an opening program on the Culture of Resistance with music, art, teatro and spoken word. On Saturday, April 9, from 10 AM – 4:00 PM, the conference will shift to the Angelus Plaza Auditorium, at 255 S. Hill St. for the keynote speakers and plenary, skills share, know your rights and educational workshops, and a free lunch. On Sunday, April 10, at 12 noon it will tentatively return to SCL, 6120 S. Vermont Ave., L.A., for strategy and alliance-building workshops, and end up at the March for Zapata rally at Lincoln Park/Parque de Mexico in East L.A.
The conference is sponsored by a coalition that includes GrassrootsKPFK, South Central Farmers, ARA, Coffee Party, Food Not Bombs, Workers Solidarity Alliance, Echo Park Community Leadership Council, Union de Vecinos, Black Riders and Brown Riders Liberation Party, Watercorps, Maggie Phair Institute, Puerto Rican Alliance, Venice Justice Committee, LA CAN and the MLK Coalition for Jobs, Justice and Peace. For more info, call 310-495-0299, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.