From the Governors Office to City Hall: Organizing in NYC

UFAD members helped form the Radical Assembly at the New York City Hall Occupation. The Radical Assembly took aim at the politicians
rather than begging them for favors.

The United Front Against Displacement has been working to bring people together to build the struggle against displacement in New York City. Our chapter was formed at the protest encampment at City Hall Park this past summer. The homeless folks, activists, and other people dealing with the threat of eviction at City Hall Park showed the potential to unite various struggles, including homeless and tenant issues and the struggle against police brutality. It also showed the need for greater political discussion, organization and creative approach to struggle.

In the spring of 2020, during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, a few of us helped found a group which organized weekly protests in front of NYC City Hall against ICE detention centers. This was a part of a larger coalition effort against these detention centers. This was one of just a few protests happening in the city during the pandemic’s peak when protests were officially banned. We were able to further these protests beyond consistently showing up at New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office and chanting a few epithets, by increasing speak outs, including our own analysis which targeted not just the state government but the local government as well, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in particular.

In New York, the mayor and the governor are engaged in a never-ending tug of war over power, but the range of political disagreements is relatively small. They mostly try to one-up the other through repressing the people, in any way they think can somehow bolster their progressive credentials or their standing within the Democratic party. De Blasio usually loses these battles, but not for lack of trying. During our weekly ICE protests at the governor’s office, it was the mayor who had officially “banned protests”, and who trained riot police on us to break up our protests almost as soon as we assembled. Though this was months before NYPD cracked down on the George Floyd protests, it was a preview of what was to come. As our weekly ICE protest expanded, we incorporated members of a local anti-war coalition, and protested at the mayor’s office as well. By calling out De Blasio and Cuomo, and connecting the issue of ICE detention with U.S.-sponsored foreign wars, we hoped to show how local, state, and national politicians are all part of the same rotten system.  

During the George Floyd protests we made several attempts to build radical coalitions through working with people at mass protests. In the process we struggled to incorporate actions that exposed the complicity of the Democrats in police brutality, as well as the relationship of the struggle against racism in the U.S. to the fight to end U.S. wars and imperialism abroad. It was difficult to sustain these efforts given the rapid mobilization during the period, in which people would find their energies quickly directed to “the main event.” In rallies and the City Hall occupation that followed, individuals would sometimes argue for limiting messaging, and supporting a narrow idea of who could speak at events. Despite these setbacks, alongside members from the anti-ICE coalition, we helped organize an occupation outside City Hall in New York City. During the several-week occupation, we helped bring together a large general assembly, where demands, were elaborated and discussed. Whereas a prominent non-profit active at the occupation sought to limit the scope of the occupation to lobbying the city council to vote for a one-billion dollar budget reduction of the NYPD, a “Radical Assembly” we formed took aim at the larger political system, calling out local, state, and federal politicians. 

The Radical Assembly proceeded to host community meetings, discussion, studies, as well as neighborhood outreach in various parts of New York. In September, we held an event on New York’s Lower East Side where we discussed the legacy of the 1989 Tompkins’ Square Park Police Riot, and united with filmmakers, community gardeners and others.

Shelter & struggle

In August, we began organizing against an effort to remove homeless residents from neighborhood hotels on the Upper West Side, where they had been put up as an emergency COVID provision. Through this work, we learned of corrupt practices in the hotel shelters. During the last six months, the city has offered lucrative deals to hotel companies to house homeless people, which have functioned as a sort of bailout for them since tourism dried up. These hotels are charging the city full-rates, hundreds of dollars per-night per person, while treating homeless residents like inmates in a jail. Homeless residents are not allowed to take food in from the outside and are subjected to aggressive policing by private security which has also targeted working people on the streets. Guards have prowled the Upper West Side, stalking hotel residents and keeping them in line. These are just a few examples of the oppressive conditions homeless people find themselves under.

The belongings of family shelter residents in the Harmonia Hotel in midtown lined the street in huge piles after they were told they had to leave within 24 hours to make room for other homeless people. We joined their protest and Mayor De Blasio was forced to let them stay.

After a group of Upper West Side residents threatened to sue the city to remove homeless residents from the neighborhood, the city capitulated, and set in a motion a nonsensical chain of evictions: residents of The Harmonia, a family shelter in Midtown, were to be kicked out to make room for homeless residents from the Lucerne, on the Upper West Side. On September 1, UFAD organized a protest with homeless residents of the Lucerne, and then joined residents of the Harmonia, who had organized a protest of their own. Due to folks’ refusal to move, evictions were delayed for several months. But these were only temporary wins, and as of this publication, the city is now once again devising a plan to remove residents from the Lucerne.  

As part of this anti-displacement effort, we hosted several protests and community meetings, and united with some people in the neighborhood who were being harassed for sitting in traffic islands. A bunch of these people had been living on the Upper West Side for years, long before the shelters arrived. But opponents of neighborhood shelters seized on some particularly colorful characters (including members of our community meetings) to paint an image of chaos on the Upper West Side, which they blamed on the shelters. Unscrupulous reporters from the New York Post boosted this fantasy, publishing a series of invasive photos of our friends on the front page. In turn, the hotel shelters, fearful for their contracts, began taking their own photographs, so as to prove their residents weren’t hanging out in public.

In uniting with local residents, including people in the street medians as well as homeless residents of the hotels, we learned that many people—even Upper West Side apartment dwellers—were intimidated by or opposed to aggressive tactics of security staff and the police. In our community meetings, we decided to start a petition against the harassment of people in parks and street medians. 

We also worked together with an advocacy group which formed to counteract the movement to remove homeless people from the Upper West Side. However, this group really felt the key thing was to preserve shelter contracts between hotels and the non-profits. Homeless residents were infuriated at the conditions of the hotels run by these large non-profits, one of which, Help USA at the Belleclaire Hotel, was controlled by the sister of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. As mentioned, the non-profits treated the homeless like criminals: using security staff to stalk them when they went about their daily affairs, and searching them to prevent them from taking outside food into the hotels. A few of those who stood up in defense of homeless people in this struggle were actually working with the corrupt social service agencies to broker contracts with the hotels, as opposed to demanding a longer-term solution that would best serve the interests of homeless people. 

Our discussion with shelter residents and other people showed that temporary hotel shelters, like the one in the Lucerne, are basically a win for a few beneficiaries of large contracts: landlords and intermediary non-profits. During one of our initial meetings, a homeless resident said, “There is a ton of money in homelessness, everyone’s making money off of us but us”. This has been especially true during the pandemic, as new stop-gap measures created windfalls for the right businesses.

Going forward

In political struggles since the start of COVID, non-profits and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) have played a prominent role. Many of us in the housing struggle here have been dealing with how to relate to these groups, especially given that they are often able to dominate media coverage of political actions. We have learned to see a few common patterns behind these various groups. One of the patterns shown by various groups is a focus on “turf”: non-profits are often quite insistent on being the center of the show, in choosing who can speak at events, and in only being comfortable with a relatively narrow political message—one that generally advocates for reforms that are already part of the Democratic Party’s existing political platform. The problem is, we’re in a situation in which the system has been giving less and less to the people every year. The people have a world to win and we cannot settle for mere handouts or accept getting chased from one street corner to the other.  Representatives of the NGOs acknowledge some parts of this reality, but our experience has been that they generally focus on messaging which gets “an in” into the system—such as more funding for shelters, which is often the shelter their friends in power are running!

It’s critical to fight back against the displacement of shelter residents, especially the city’s reckless policy of shoving people around in the midst of a pandemic. At the same time, we must organize for real systemic change, and real solutions for the people being abused daily in shelters and on the streets. To accomplish this, we must be clear about the fact that luxury hotels, homeless non-profits and “service providers”—and the politicians who wade into the fray—have a vested interest in the shelter system, and against change. Some of these entities fought alongside us to protest evictions from the Harmonia and the Lucerne. But they pursue very different goals so as to keep people how and where they are. To really solve these problems, we must fight eviction and displacement while demanding solutions that would end the corrupt swindling and abuse of the people, and terminate shady shelters and other housing scams used to carry out the exploitation and eventual displacement of poor, homeless, and working people all over the city.

Since December, we have been working to unite with tenants in public housing buildings in Harlem, an area in which gentrification is rampant. Even during the pandemic, the city is rushing forward with one of the key national housing scams founded during the Obama-era, privatizing public housing under the RAD program, despite evidence from all over the city (all over the country) that this will lead to an increase in evictions. For example, the first completed RAD scheme in New York, Ocean Bay Houses in Far Rockaway, resulted the eviction of 80 families. 

Mayor De Blasio, who initially opposed this plan, has caved in to pressure from developers and now pushes RAD as the only hope for public housing. RAD privatization schemes in NYC (as elsewhere) are thinly disguised collaborations between banks, developers, and non-profits. By privatizing public housing, developers can displace tenants and cash in big by raising rents, and in the long run they can replace working class homes with luxury housing. But people can fight back! If folks come together, we can stop RAD in its tracks, or at least make sure the people have some say in what happens. Unfortunately RAD is just the tip of the iceberg, as working people all over the city are threatened with displacement all the time. But by coming together to discuss what’s going on and how to struggle against it, the bigger picture becomes a bit clearer. 

After several weeks of talking with folks and door knocking, we had a community meeting to discuss the situation in the projects and ways we can unite to fight against oppression, gentrification, and displacement. We’ll be having a second one soon. This is just the beginning! We look forward to updating readers on developments of this struggle soon.

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