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Movement for Justice in El Barrio

R J Maccani
Date Published: 
March 02, 2008

"Zapatismo is not a new political ideology or a rehash of old ideologies. Zapatismo is nothing, it doesn't exist. It only serves as a bridge, to cross from one side to the other. So everyone fits within zapatismo, everyone who wants to cross from one side to the other. Everyone has his or her own side and other side. There are no universal recipes, lines, strategies, tactics, laws, rules or slogans. There is only a desire: to build a better world, that is, a new world."
-- The Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous General Command of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (CCRI-CG of the EZLN)

Movement for Justice in El Barrio (MJB), an East Harlem-based organization of immigrants and low-income people of color, has been fighting gentrification in Manhattan’s “last frontier” for over three years now. Being majority Mexican and sharing an affinity for the zapatistas’ way of organizing, MJB decided less than a year after forming to join the Other Campaign as an essential component of their work for self-determination.

Inspired by the zapatistas’ Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, the Other Campaign is a transnational, anti-capitalist movement for all Mexicans to liberate Mexico “from below and to the left.” Non-Mexican members of MJB support this initiative and are attentively watching the development of the Zezta Internazional, the global movement inspired by the zapatistas’ Sixth Declaration. MJB describes its work as “urban zapatismo in the heart of New York City.” What does this mean when the indigenous leadership of the EZLN describes zapatismo as “nothing…only…a bridge”? What is it that MJB are crossing over with this bridge called ‘zapatismo’?

Defeating Neoliberal Gentrification

Just a year ago, members of MJB were celebrating their victory against the multi-millionaire Steve Kessner, the worst slumlord in El Barrio. Or at least he was the worst. MJB forced Kessner to sell his entire East Harlem portfolio of 47 buildings just months after boasting to the Village Voice, “I'm not selling... No one is forcing me out of the neighborhood I helped build. This particular problem with this group [MJB] has been my only headache. Listen, I like this neighborhood. I have four sons in the business and we're going to grow. I'm going to finish my job."

Reflecting on this considerable victory, MJB member Oscar Dominguez described the broader horizon of the group’s work:
“Since we began as an organization, our struggle has been a fight against neoliberalism. Our targets: HPD [the City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development], the multi-national corporations, and landlords are all capitalists. We forced one powerful capitalist out named Steven Kessner. He was replaced by another capitalist, a multi-national corporation from London named Dawnay, Day Group. These are our targets. The struggle is the same. Our campaigns are against all of these. The form in which these capitalists try to gain their money is a crime against humanity.”

MJB is now launching their International Campaign in Defense of El Barrio, an initiative of ‘David vs. Goliath’ proportions that will have them challenging the capitalist gentrifiers of El Barrio wherever on Earth they may be found. MJB will tour to build participation in the campaign, and is scheduled to appear in Southern California and Texas in March and the UK and Spain in April, with other support committees already forming in Chicago, Rhode Island, and Philadelphia.

The UK tour, which already has stops scheduled in London, Bristol, Reading, Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, Brighton, Leeds and Stirling, builds crucial support on the ground to fight Dawnay, Day Group at its home. This means that MJB will once again be going after the biggest capitalist on the block. Following their purchase of Kessner’s 47 buildings in East Harlem for the whopping sum of 250 million pounds, Dawnay, Day Group, which either owns or manages $10 billion in assets, informed The London Times that East Harlem is the “last area of the whole of Manhattan being gentrified” and that they in intend to take advantage of lax tenant protection laws in NYC to raise rents tenfold.

MJB is attempting to use that bridge called zapatismo to cross over from failed and compromised struggles against gentrification to successful ones that actually address its root cause: neoliberal capitalism. This explicit anti-capitalism is a key component of MJB’s urban zapatismo. There is another key component however, which has likely been the primary catalyst for the upsurge of interest in and support for MJB’s work over the past two years.

Self-Determination, Autonomy, Participatory Democracy

Much of MJB’s day-to-day work looks like that of many other community-based, social justice organizations around the country; they employ a variety of non-violent tactics (protests, direct actions, media tours, court actions, protests) against specific targets (landlords, mortgage lenders, city institutions) to achieve winnable demands (stopping a rent increase, getting the heat turned on in the winter, cancellation of unjust fees). The two key features that define MJB’s urban zapatismo are their explicit anti-capitalism and their commitment to honoring and developing self-determination, autonomy and participatory democracy within and outside of their organization and community. This means, for example, that unlike some other prominent housing rights groups in NYC, MJB accepts no government funding, and tactical decisions are not imposed from above, but made by those who must implement them.

“We represent ourselves,” announced MJB member Victor Caletre during their recent NYC Encuentro for Dignity and Against Gentrification. “Each of the 23 [now 26] buildings we work in has its own tenant association that decides what they will do and how they will choose to struggle,” Caletre continued, “And the rest of the organization supports their decision… It’s not only an organization that is struggling, but a community, and that community has the right to decide.” With this in mind, MJB recently carried out a Consulta del Barrio in which it consulted residents in East Harlem in order “to hear from people about where we should direct our next struggle.”

East Harlem is home to more than 100,000 people, half of whom are Latino. Spanish is the most spoken language after English, and is followed by Chinese and other Asian languages, Arabic, and several African languages. Recognizing the many worlds that exist within East Harlem, and echoing a sentiment that the zapatistas share when asked why they do not seek state power in Mexico, MJB member Oscar Dominguez inaugurated the Consulta del Barrio’s first town hall meeting by saying, “We are but one organization. How can we make decisions for El Barrio? We’ve learned that we can fight together and that the people themselves can fight without having to be under one leader.”

This framework for movement building, rooted in the active practice of self-determination by each participant and each organization involved, requires intentional cultivation. The Consulta del Barrio process—its town hall meetings, community dialogues, extensive street outreach, door knocking, house meetings, and community-wide votes—is a methodology of struggle and an organizing model that fosters this type of democratic participation throughout the community. Mexico’s Other Campaign, with its sector-based preparatory meetings and national listening tours, directly inspired MJB’s Consulta. “The Other Campaign has given us the magic touch to find another way,” remarked Caletre.

Over 1,500 community members participated in the Consulta del Barrio, and MJB is currently processing the results in order to launch a campaign later this year around the new issue that the community has selected. With the Consulta del Barrio, MJB is bringing more residents into the work and, by branching out beyond the struggle against gentrification, moving closer to its broader mission of “fighting against neoliberalism and discrimination in all of its forms… racism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism…” Through this innovation, which helps to realize an actually existing and evolving urban zapatismo, MJB has attracted a great deal of interest and support outside of East Harlem.

A Model & Resource for the Movement

Last year, MJB’s Juan Haro was invited to Barcelona for the KRAX conference, an international gathering of organizations pursuing creative responses to urban conflict. Haro shared the Consulta del Barrio process with eleven organizations from eleven different countries, including Argentina, Bosnia, England, Japan, and Venezuela. MJB was also invited to present at a wide range of U.S.-based universities and community organizations throughout the year. Of particular note was their extensive work with local chapters of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and at one of their regional action camps. “It has really taken us by surprise,” MJB member Ana Laura Merino reflected, “to know how many organizations in NYC, throughout the US, in Mexico, and even in Spain have reached out to us, wish to learn how we fight in NYC, and have offered us their support.”

MJB spent time in 2007 not only to share their work with others, but also to collectively learn the lessons of other struggles. In particular, they had the opportunity to learn about the Young Lords, the racial injustice surrounding the case of the Jena 6, and the struggle of the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO).

MJB is the only organization being invited back to Barcelona’s KRAX conference this year, to share the methodology of the Consulta with eleven new organizations from eleven different countries. This time, MJB will also be using the experience to share the zapatistas’ Sixth Declaration and build their International Campaign in Defense of El Barrio.

Encuentro and Invitation

Through an initial NYC Encuentro for Dignity and Against Gentrification this past October, MJB has begun to build horizontal relationships with other people struggling against gentrification. A multi-cultural and multi-media evening including discussions, plays, sing-alongs, movie clips, and even a neoliberal gentrification piñata for kids, the Encuentro attracted representatives from 27 groups, some coming to East Harlem from as far as Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and New Jersey. A follow-up to the Encuentro is planned for this year to bring anti-gentrification groups together with international adherents to the zapatistas’ Sixth Declaration.

MJB will soon also be releasing their foundational declaration for the International Campaign in Defense of El Barrio, with a call for endorsements from around the world. From their embattled apartments in East Harlem, MJB members are inviting you to traverse a bridge with them – a bridge to defeat neoliberalism and build participatory democracy on the block and around the world. Will you accept their invitation?

Movement for Justice in El Barrio can be contacted directly at El Barrio

RJ Maccani lives in Brooklyn where he organizes with Regeneración Childcare NYC and publishes the blog