“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.”
Ten years ago, in East Harlem, New York, an area known as El Barrio, members of fifteen Mexican immigrant families, all of them women, came together to see how they could achieve dignified housing in their community. They were struggling against gentrification and displacement; their landlord was trying to force them out of their homes in order to attract wealthier tenants and transform the neighbourhood they lived in. These were people without previous experience of organising, and they knew that they had much to learn, but they listened to and supported each other and in December 2004 they formed Movement for Justice in El Barrio (Movement).
Movement is made up of low-income tenants, the great majority of them immigrants. Many are also indigenous. Forced by poverty to leave their beloved Mexico, they have built a strong community in El Barrio, and are determined not to allow themselves to be displaced again. They understand that their fight is against the neoliberal system represented by the abusive landlords, property speculators, multinational corporations, corrupt politicians and government institutions that seek to displace them from their much-loved community.
“We believe those who suffer injustice first-hand must design and lead their own struggles for justice.”
The organisation is built around the principles of autonomy, self-determination, and participatory democracy. This means that it is based on a horizontal form of organising and has no leaders. The aim is to create spaces where people can come together as a community to share their problems. In this way they can agree 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 which can never be destroyed.
The basis of Movement’s organising is consulting the community. Members go door to door, building by building, block by block, getting to know each other, constructing relationships. Committees are formed in each building, and once the whole building is organised, they become members. Each building agrees its own actions and means of struggle. Movement is also deeply committed to fighting all forms of discrimination 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 organises protests, marches and direct action. It makes clever use of the media, gives interviews, talks, organises gatherings. It uses tactics such as court actions and public denunciations. Following community consultations it campaigns on specific issues.
“We all share a common enemy and it is called neoliberalism. 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 organisation faces many challenges. Most of its members speak no English and have had few opportunities for education. They have little access to media and information; very few of them have computers. They are forced to work ten to fourteen 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 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, gays and the transgender community, and to build relationships with members of these organizations, who also fight against multiple forms of oppression.
“Together, we make our dignity resistance and we fight back against the actions of capitalist landlords and multinational corporations who are displacing 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.”
Human beings were born to live in community; we cannot survive without each other. A society and culture that promotes individualism, everyone for themselves, also promotes loneliness, isolation and despair. Ten years ago those who are now members of Movement did not even know each other, 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 transformed their lives.
Many of the members of this remarkable organisation believe that their greatest achievement over the last ten years has been to build a culture of resistance. This has led to a sense of identity and self-worth, being part of something which gives purpose and meaning to their lives. A new generation of children are 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 Movement has created is reflected in the astonishing fact that not one of its members has been displaced over the last ten years. In fact, so far, they have won every battle with which they have been confronted. It is no wonder that Village Voice chose Movement as the “Best Power to the People Movement in New York City.”
Learning from other struggles
“We have found ways to make our voices heard and to let our voices echo with the voices of other marginalized people resisting across the world.”
When Movement was founded in December 2004, its members had no previous experience of organising, and began to look for other dignified struggles to learn from. When they read the Zapatista Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, released in June 2005, members found in it “a mirror of ourselves.” Since that time they have developed their own form of urban Zapatismo, and continue to look to their Zapatista compañeras and compañeros as an inspiration in their daily struggle for justice and collective liberation.
As always with the women at the forefront, Movement has applied tools and ways of organising learned from the Zapatistas in their own local struggle. The “Consultas del Barrio” are fundamental to their work, neighborhood consultations which enable all the local residents to identify the issues which most concern them. This builds and strengthens community at the local level, helps bring more people into the struggle, and ensures that all Movement’s campaigns are driven by the whole community in El Barrio.
Encuentros are a well-known Zapatista tradition which Movement has made their own, in New York and in Mexico, as a way to link our struggles and to build networks of solidarity. They say: “An Encuentro is a space for people to come together; it is a gathering. An Encuentro is not a meeting, a panel or a conference, it is a way of sharing developed by the Zapatistas as another form of doing politics: from below and to the left. It is a place where we can all speak, we will all listen, and we can all learn. It is a place where we can share the many different struggles that make us one.”
The next ten years
As they celebrate their tenth anniversary, Movement now has 900 members, 80% of them women, in 85 building committees, and its dignified resistance continues to grow. The members have won numerous victories against brutal landlords and multinational corporations who try to take away their homes and destroy their community; they have held politicians and city institutions to account; they have constructed “a culture of resistance and a community of solidarity”; they have formed strong bonds with groups in many other countries; and their word has gone around the world. As the Zapatistas say, the struggle continues.
“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.”
Link to the video Movement for Justice in El Barrio: A Decade of Dignified Struggle: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CmNnpDc_lo0&list=UUS_C6V0ZUlP-LVbbLOYmHYQ&channel=UCS_C6V0ZUlP-LVbbLOYmHYQ
For more information on Movement for Justice in El Barrio: http://www.americas.org/archives/12475
Article originally published in Spanish in Desinformémonos: http://desinformemonos.org/2014/12/luchando-para-construir-otro-mundo-10-anos-de-organizacion-horizontal-en-el-barrio-nueva-york/