by Basav Sen
This year, the Friday after Thanksgiving this year was not only the busiest shopping day of the year (when the wasteful consumerism of our "effluent society" is most evident), but also the date for an exuberant display of a very different spirit. In Atlanta, San Francisco, here in Boston, and other places, thousands of people, who are routinely denied their basic right to a home in American cities and negatively stereotyped and dehumanized in the media and popular consciousness, showed that they are angry, articulate, and in defiance of the myths about them -- eager to fight for change. A pernicious myth about the homeless is that they deserve to be where they are because they are lazy and lack the will to change. This is a perspective which vests all power -- social, political, and moral -- in disembodied individuals without a social context. But humans do not descend from outer space carried by storks in baskets; and myths which perpetuate pre-Stone Age views, about how there are only individuals and no such thing as society, can best be placed right next to tales about storks and babies. Our present society and its political and economic structure is formed of certain institutions, and the notions of private property rights and the attendant right to speculative investment in real estate is one of them. In this political system, people do not have a right to shelter; but they have a right to own unlimited tracts of land, leave them unused for years, "develop" them to make multimillion dollar hotels and golf courses by paving over sensitive wetlands, and drive out low income tenants. All this is possible of course only if they are able, or in the strange doublespeak of neoliberal economics, "willing" to pay for it. Many homeless are the victims of a system in which persons can be randomly laid off (or to use the corporate euphemism for it, "re-engineered"), become unemployment statistics, and get pitifully low unemployment benefits which far from make up for the loss of income. And in a world of "re-engineering" everywhere, they find it hard to get stable new jobs. Many people just do not have a supportive network of friends and relatives who are able to help them through rough times. In addition, their low-income rental housing is often sold to some "developer." (It is interesting that such an affirmative word with connotations of improvement is used for something so destructive.) This new owner may "gentrify" the property by raising rent to increase profits, driving out the low income tenants. Because their numbers are growing and decent low-rent housing is disappearing, the newly homeless find it nearly impossible to get affordable housing, and remain homeless. Devastatingly, their status as homeless persons make it even harder for them to get jobs after this, because of the stereotype of the "irresponsible drunk street person." No one is willing to give a job to someone without an address and telephone number. So the vicious cycle of homelessness and poverty continues. "Individual responsibility"? That's bullshit. The present political economy makes a large homeless population inevitable. But to legitimate itself, the present system needs to bury this truth and scapegoat the victims; hence the stereotypes about the homeless and the myth about individual responsibility. This has led to an increasingly ugly mood among the privileged nationwide. City after city has passed "beautification", "anti-panhandling", "anti-camping", and "public safety" ordinances to legalize police brutality against the homeless -- as if driving them from one place to another is somehow going to make the problem disappear. These ballot initiatives are financially backed by real estate developers who want to turn downtown areas into shopping malls where affluent, white suburbanites can indulge in their consumerist fantasies. And the suburbanites turn out in large numbers to vote for them. In addition to covering up the truths about our society, the real power in promoting the rhetoric of "personal responsibility" is that it is also profoundly disempowering, and can mislead the victims themselves into thinking they are somehow to blame for their own plight. This pathological mindset isolates them from each other so that they cannot organize. Such indoctrination will fail if education and the promise of a better society can drive people to action. In this spirit, the homeless and their supporters have organized to form Homes Not Jails, a non-hierarchical action group that fights for housing rights. The group believes that housing is a basic human right, and has chapters in many American cities. They have occupied abandoned housing projects in New York City and public parks in San Francisco, to protest gentrification and government inaction. These protests have been met with police brutality and, not surprisingly, stunning silence from the mainstream media. On the day after Thanksgiving this year, HNJ chapters in many cities organized protests to draw attention to the violence of homelessness on a day when many Americans who buy the notion of the "American dream" participate in the "American dream" of buying. Here in Boston, Homes Not Jails and their supporters met at the intersection of Newbury Street and Massachusetts Avenue and marched to an abandoned building which had earlier been occupied by Homes Not Jails members in a symbolic protest. We gathered outside the Hynes Convention Center subway station around noon, holding beautiful masks and signs saying "Homes Not Jails" and "Housing For All." We had a mobile public address system, and folk singer David Rovics entertained us with songs of protest. The police tried to harass us by saying that we needed permission to use an amplified sound system in public, so David switched to playing without amplification. Then a City of Boston work crew appeared on the scene and tried to drown us out with their repair operation (I'm not sure what they were repairing), but our spirit was undampened. A group of high school students passing by joined us to swell our number to about 50. After waiting about 15 minutes for the crowd to gather, we were eager to march. Chanting all the way, accompanied by a lively drum beat, we marched down Newbury Street, around the block, back onto Massachusetts Avenue, and then finally to the occupied building. The chants were very militant, as was the mood of the crowd, and included "Housing cutbacks by the hour, we say no, fight the power," "Stop the welfare to the rich, and build more homes," and "Money for welfare, not for warfare." We also passed out handbills to passers-by along the way; some of them were supportive if they could not join the march, and a few even joined! Then we reached the building. The protesters inside had entered by jumping in through an open window at the back to open the back door from inside, and had been waiting for us to arrive without making themselves visible. Once we were there, they unfurled banners from inside saying "Housing is a Human Right" and "Homes not Jails, Housing for People not Profit." In a flurry of speed and preparedness that characterized the entire action, they quickly taped the banners up securely. After this, we heard short speeches from the protesters inside. We heard some amazing facts. The number of homeless in greater Boston is 6,000 by official estimates, so even if that is a 50% underestimate (as it is quite likely to be), the number is 12,000. And the number of vacant housing units is 22,900. So there are twice as many vacant homes as there are persons out in the cold, in a society that prides itself as the home of freedom. Many of the housing units were acquired by real estate speculators in the greedy boom of the '80s, using loans from banks. Then the investments turned out to be bad, the developers defaulted on the loans and the banks obtained the property. Taxpayers paid for the bad loans made by the banks in the infamous S&L bailout. (In our "free" market, profits are private but losses are public.) And these housing units have been vacant ever since. The speakers did an excellent job of explaining the underlying causes of this outrage -- the institutional and societal recognition of "rights" to speculative investment in real estate but not of the right of humans to shelter. They also drew connections between the war on the homeless and other homophobic, racist, and sexist attacks on marginalized and powerless people. These events were followed by more songs of protest, and Food not Bombs distributed a delicious free lunch to all participants. The police showed up, but not in strength, and surprisingly enough were not too aggressive. Perhaps because they were very few in number and taken completely by surprise, and perhaps because they saw the cameras of community TV crews, the police gave the protesters outside one hour to disperse, or get arrested. But we had a lawyer with us (yet another sign of how well prepared we were), and he advised us that while standing on the sidewalk without permission is an illegal picket, walking around is not. So we announced that publicly and started moving in a circle. Seeing that we had a lawyer with us and knew the laws, the police were further scared into inaction -- they could not bend the rules to harass us! After a couple of hours (during which I nearly froze to death, being a tropical animal!), the protesters occupying the building emerged, since this was a symbolic protest. But they emphasized this was only the beginning of an expanding movement. We hung out afterwards to drink and to talk, emphasizing the spirit of community among those of us who resist. Together we had created an alternative space outside of the alienating patriarchal capitalist culture. The struggle can be fun, too. Keep your eyes and ears open for the next Homes Not Jails action! For further information, please contact: Jen Jones
, Theo Emery , or leave a message with the Thistle (253-0399) if you do not have access to email.