El Barrio Is Everywhere

By Richard Vallejo

On Feb. 28, more than 200 people, representing over 40 organizations, gathered in the basement of a community center on E. 116 St. in East Harlem. From throughout East Harlem, across New York City, and as far away as Los Angeles and Puerto Rico, they came together to share and unite their struggles against a common enemy: neoliberal global capitalism and its displacement of the poor, the invisible. The message was clear: “Our land, our homes are not for sale.” The event was called the Third NYC Encuentro for Dignity and Against Displacement, hosted by Movement for Justice in El Barrio.

Movement for Justice in El Barrio (MJB) is an organization of tenants, predominantly working-class, recent immigrants from Mexico, fighting against gentrification in East Harlem (also known as El Barrio). MJB is also part of the Zapatista Other Campaign.

Since 2004, MJB has been organizing in El Barrio with the belief that “homes and cities [should] belong to those who live in and take care of them; no one [should] own more land than they can cultivate; no one [should] own more homes than they can live in,” according to the MJB mission statement. With a combination of protests, marches, legal cases, community organizing and international movement building, the group has resisted landlord negligence and harassment, as well as sell-out politicians and powerful developers. Recently, MJB celebrated a victory in their International Campaign in Defense of El Barrio with the foreclosure of London-based Dawnay Day Group’s mortgage on 47 buildings in the neighborhood, and a landmark legal victory concerning false charges from landlords.

The NYC encuentros are inspired by similar encuentros in Zapatista rebel territory and are an effort to bring together communities affected by gentrification, displacement, re-zoning and economic development across the city. An encuentro is “a space for people to come together…It is a place where we can share the many different struggles that make us one.” This year’s encuentro has continued this process of sharing and uniting the struggles of those in New York and across the world.

South Africa

This year’s participants learned about the struggle in South Africa in two short videos that documented the Shack Dwellers Movement and the violent, state-sponsored evictions of shack settlements. The videos reinforced the idea that there is a “new Apartheid system operating in South Africa...between the rich and the poor” but that the Movement has “taken initiative to reorganize the people” outside of political parties, to improve living conditions for the poor and build a more equal and democratic society from below. And though it was the middle of the night in South Africa, members of Abahlali baseMjondolo – the largest shack dwellers organization – traveled three hours for a stable Internet connection and video call.

“Most of the things that are happening in South Africa are not being exposed,” said one member of Abahlali, referring to violence against the poor as well as State attempts to break apart the movement through violence, destruction of homes, and political arrests. The movement is currently supporting its five political prisoners who have been held since they, along with six others released on bail, were arrested during an attack on the Kennedy Road settlement near Durban in late September. Just as the call was wrapping up, new reports were coming in of another community under attack by police using live bullets. The call ended with groups reinforcing solidarity, committing to support each other, and calling for picketing at South African embassies.

New York City

Following a video presentation of the work of Movement for Justice in El Barrio and the previous year’s encuentro, representatives from anti-gentrification groups across New York City spoke about their respective forms of struggle and how they envision uniting struggles. “We have to define a progressive, radical and socialist agenda for our people,” said Nellie Bailey of the Harlem Tenants Council. The Democratic Party city councilors have repeatedly sold out low-income communities in favor of big developers and financial interests, and, she added, “Michael Bloomberg has made it very clear that he wants a whiter New York City and he wants a richer New York City.”

Tom Demot, representing the Harlem-based Coalition to Preserve Community, voiced the need to expose how liberals justify real-estate land grabs. Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University and one of the nine members of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, is one such liberal. From such a position of prestige, Bollinger has been able to use Columbia’s PR machine to downplay community opposition to the University’s expansion and to control the media’s perspective of the plan. “They’re able to speak from positions of high moral, liberal principle. They’re not supposed to be challenged for the scum that they are. These are people who are basically the enactors of racist policies, of class warfare in cities,” Demot said. Despite Bollinger and Columbia’s efforts, the New York Court of Appeals ruled in December against the use of eminent domain for the expansion.

A number of other buildings have been put up for sale, taken to court, and foreclosed on in the aftermath of the recession. Rezoning and other development projects such as the 125 St. “River to River” project, however, threatens the Harlem community as systemic infrastructure serves the interests of the rich and powerful. The New York City Housing Court, for example, is nothing more than a “revolving collection agency for landlords," according to Bailey.

A few miles downtown, Chinatown has been pinned as the “last frontier” of development in Manhattan. Developers are seeking to attract young professionals to replace low-income tenants from some of the largest remaining rent-stabilized housing in the city. Residents in Chinatown have been facing evictions – sometimes with only a few hours notice – as harassment of youth and small entrepreneurs and street vendors has increased. As a result, the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV) has developed youth leadership in the neighborhood to build community strength and resistance to high-end development projects.

Across the river in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park, neighbors have been waging their own battle against re-zoning and luxury condo development for the past three years. “What does development mean? Who leaves and who comes in?” asked Javier Salamanca, member of Sunset Park Alliance of Neighbors. He suggested that these projects would raise rents and change the face of the neighborhood.

Groups ended the panel session with a common analysis that power resides in communities working together and that politicians serve only the interests of capital. “We don’t have money. What we have is people,” Salamanca said.

Atenco, Mexico

In San Salvador, Atenco, Mexico, members of the People’s Front in Defense of the Land (FPDT in its Spanish initials) joined the encuentro in a second video call to share their struggles with those assembled in New York. Following a video of MJB’s occupation of the Mexican Consulate in solidarity with the movement in Atenco, the members of FPDT gave an update on their struggle in Mexico.

In 2002, the FDPT celebrated a major victory against the development of an international airport that would have displaced people from their land. On May 3, 2006, the FDPT mobilized in defense of flower vendors who were attacked while setting up their stalls in the market of Texcoco. The following day, the police attacked again, resulting in over 200 imprisoned, many tortured, 26 women raped and two youth murdered. Twelve political prisoners are still being held by the State with sentences ranging from 35 to 112 years.

The group has maintained a strong support of its political prisoners as part of their struggle to protect their land. Members have organized tours through other states in Mexico and demonstrations outside the facilities where members are imprisoned, as well as built international solidarity with groups such as MJB. Soon, the FDPT members announced, the Mexican Supreme Court will come to a decision on the imprisonment of the 12 political prisoners. Either the court will decide to release the political prisoners or it will keep FDPT members behind bars to allow for a second attempt at building the airport in Atenco, they said.


Of course the capitalist development of land is not limited only to when times are good. “Haiti is not so much in the media as it was, but the tragedy continues,” said Dahod Andre, a Haitian community activist and radio host from Flatbush. Recently returned from Haiti, he reported on conditions since the earthquake: More than a million have lost their homes, resources are not getting to those in need, and powerful people like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton – who were responsible for destruction in Atenco – are now in important positions in Haiti relief and rebuilding.

“We cannot think that these enemies of our people, in this situation, will do the right thing,” Andre said.

Anyone familiar with the idea of disaster capitalism knows that natural disasters are often used as an opportunity for capitalist development and the permanent displacement of poor communities. It can be seen in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, and it is already being seen in Haiti as private developers discuss business opportunities and decide how to rebuild the nation. “It’s important that the rebuilding of Haiti be done by Haitians. Haiti is a rebel country. The Haitian people will not accept this,” he said, referring to outside, private development efforts.

Weaving the Tapestry

In each struggle, the real enemy is the imperialist nature of global capital and the belief that the rich and powerful have the right to develop other people’s lands for their own profit. In the process, authorities use economic and physical force to remove the poor and exploited from valuable development properties. Each resistance group has recognized this and has called to support each other and bridge their struggles across race, class, gender and nationality lines. In doing so, they resist the politicians’ and developers’ attempts to use divide-and-conquer tactics. They recognize that in all of our unique struggles, our voices join to declare one resounding “No!” to neoliberal capitalism. As Nellie Bailey said, “In numbers, there is strength.”

As most participants lined up for a home-cooked meal provided by members of MJB, youth from the struggle in El Barrio lined up to take their turn smashing neoliberalism, in piñata form. Participants talked as they waited in line and ate their food, sharing struggles, inspiration and solidarity with one another. Though everyone would leave that night and return to their respective struggles, they could do so with a profound sense that they are not alone. As rebels, they found each other, and in the words of the Zapatistas, together they will continue “walking as it is now necessary to walk, that is to say, struggling.”

Table of Contents