Portland Radicle: Home is Where Our Hearts Are

Portland Radicle. Sept 12:

Together We Are Unevictable

When we engage in revolutionary work, we’re acting from a deep place of caring: caring for ourselves, for our fellow humans, for the planet—sometimes all of these, sometimes just one.  At times, we forget to care for ourselves and at others we are only motivated by the pain we carry.  Whatever the mix, the righteous anger that fuels so much of our work would not exist unless something we cared about was threatened.  The desire to confront our oppressors and the desire to protect ourselves and that which we love are interwoven.
On the morning of May 1st, 2012, organized community members and allies marched together to move a local woman, Alicia Jackson, back into her NE Portland home after she had been evicted in the Fall of 2011. In doing so, they sent a clear message that people are willing to take great risks to care for those in their communities by claiming power and liberating spaces. The action was intentionally built on the idea that militancy and care for members of our community are deeply intertwined. The social movements of Fall 2011 created an opening, an aperture or even a psychic shift, that made May Day a ripe moment for communities to organize, rise up, and defend themselves.

The morning of May 1st, 2012 was chilly but blessedly free of the late spring rains that are so typical in Portland, Oregon.  In the brisk air, a crowd of several hundred gathered for a rally and march at Woodlawn Park, drawn in by the thorough community organizing and tantalizing street art that had appeared all over town for weeks.  The wide expanse of grass was dotted with signs and banners reading “Our World is Here” and “Take Back the Land.” A few blocks away, flying squads, similar to affinity groups, were donning protective gear and readying reinforced banners in preparation for potential police aggression that might interfere with the day’s events. Known for using ‘sturdy banners’ to move crowds forward despite police lines, these flying squads gained their reputation for skillful, disciplined maneuvering during large actions such as the anti-police brutality march in Nov 2011 and the “Shut Down the Corporations” march on Feb 29, 2012. These squadrons were developed explicitly as a vital and necessary component of a successful space reclamation, acknowledging that deep care for the impacted community meant intentional preparation for confrontation.  While the home liberation was intended to be a militant action, it was also organized to be a welcoming space for the community. As such, the flying squads, the first people one would see approaching the action, specifically did not “bloc up”, meaning no masks, no goggles, faces showing with the hope that an exposed smile would go along way towards building a welcoming action.

This action was organized by three groups, primarily: the Portland Liberation Organizing Council (PLOC), We Are Oregon, and the Black Working Group of NE Portland. PLOC formed in early 2012 as a network of radical groups in Portland.  We Are Oregon is a labor-union-funded-and-staffed community organizing and direct action group.  The Black Working Group (BWG) was formed in the Fall of 2011 by and for the black community as a resource defense group, with a focus on housing and the foreclosure crisis.

Months of preparation and coalition organizing led up to this day of action that took place in Woodlawn, a NE Portland neighborhood currently undergoing a rapid process of gentrification.

Lobo Negro, an anti-gentrification activist with the Blazing Arrow Organization (a group that formed after the May Day action) explains, “Northeast is often called ‘the soul of Portland’ because of its historically black neighborhoods, but gentrification, the replacement of locals by wealthier residents through bank investment and uncontrolled development, has changed that. In response, a growing number of people in NE are waging a public fight to keep their homes, rather than be relocated by the banks.”

Alicia Jackson is a black veteran and longtime resident of the neighborhood who was intimidated into self-evicting from her house by Wells Fargo in the fall of 2011.  The bank sold her mortgage to a developer who wasted no time in throwing up a new condo unit on Jackson’s property, exhibiting classic methods used by business and housing owners to drive up property values, push working poor families out of their communities, and advance gentrification. The focus of the May Day action became supporting Jackson in reclaiming her home by demonstrating the strength and resolve of the people of Portland to take back land and other resources from the unaccountable economic system, specifically the banking and mortgage industries.

Inspired by brief speeches offered by the day’s hosts, Alice Paul of PLOC and Ahjamu Umi of the BWG, the crowd in Woodlawn Park surged onto Dekum St., banners and signs held high.  A diverse collection of neighborhood locals, supporters, organizers, union members, families, and students, they took the street with confidence and enthusiasm shouting out chants, talking, and laughing.  Barring a half-hearted and unsuccessful effort made to keep the march on the sidewalks of the neighborhood, the police primarily trailed behind the crowd.  As the march approached its destination, the flying squadrons emerged from a rally point to lead a diversionary march through a circuitous route that rejoined the mass of the march in front of Alicia’s house.  When the march stopped in front of the destination home, the squads took positions at both ends of the block, creating a police-free zone.

Inside this protected block, all eyes were on Jackson as she walked up onto her porch and declared, “This isn’t just about me; this is for all of us!”

Friends, a local minister, and other homeowners undergoing foreclosure joined her on the porch and made brief statements of support. Amid wild cheers of enthusiasm, Jackson cut the broad yellow ribbon that had been strung across the door, and displayed the key that someone had handed her.

The crowd collectively held its breath as Jackson tried the lock, jiggling, shaking, and coaxing the key to no avail. Finally, the key was tried in the side door and it unlocked immediately, ushering Alicia inside amidst the crowd’s raucous chant of  ”Welcome Home! Welcome Home!”  The beaming grin on Jackson’s face as she stood in her doorway suggested a deep well of emotion inside this quiet woman.

As the success of entering set in, the gathered folks sprung into action as PLOC’s Logistics Team arrived with trucks full of Alicia’s furniture and gardening materials.  Music rang out as people jumped into cleaning the house and weeding the yard.  Farmers helped create vegetable beds in the backyard formerly dominated by brambles and debris, and long tables of food were set up to serve everyone lunch.  Someone announced from the porch that the realtor had taken the house off the market that very afternoon, and the mood became joyous and playful.  A huge bag of nerf balls was produced and a friendly game of dodgeball ensued; members of flying squadrons took breaks from their positions to throw the balls back and forth with children.  Crowd members enthusiastically sawed the arms off of the “For Sale” sign in the front yard and people from different class, race and cultural backgrounds engaged in a traditional May Pole dance, strangers and comrades singing, dancing and interweaving in a physical metaphor of intercultural cooperation.

It was a successful day in a number of ways:

  • It is a rare occurrence to take those in power by surprise, to knock off their guard. This clear positive action was one of those instances where the police, the mayor, and the mainstream media all seemed tongue-tied by the actions of the people. This home liberation was the first of its kind in Oregon, a new direction for the movement, and a new attitude in the streets. This was an actual reclamation of resources, not merely a symbolic action.
  • The flying squadron units present that day had earned a reputation for effectively defending popular mobilizations against police action, and organizers had been vocal about the claimed right to defend this particular action.
  • This was an actual community-led event, not an activist spectacle.  The PLOC Community Organizing team—lead by the Black Working Group of NE Portland and non-profit We Are Oregon—had been canvassing the neighborhood and meeting with community leaders for months in the lead up to the action, which lead to many visible displays of support (such as “Don’t Move Out” lawn signs) in the neighborhood.
  • The action successfully created a choice for the mayor: either to support this homeowner by restraining the police force, or to attack Alicia Jackson in the name of banks and developers.
  • The event was strategically timed to maximize impact.  May Day in Portland is a historically exciting celebration of communities asserting themselves in the face of dominating systems of oppression.  In its months-long outreach and invitation to the action, PLOC highlighted this legacy and the day’s role in the ‘Spring Offensive’ being rolled out by the national Take Back the Land Movement and revitalized energy from Occupy Portland. Additionally, Portland hosted five other events around town, some of which incurred a very high police presence.  PLOC predicted accurately that police resources would be spread thin and not directed at Jackson’s re-entry.

Three months later, Alicia is still in her home, and the community continues to support her through round-the-clock house-sitting and rapid-response maintenance. Others see this example and have begun to resist eviction. On July 27th, 2012, Annette Steele, a 79-year-old grandmother and her family announced that they will not move out of their home, despite being served a formal eviction notice by the Sheriff; they will stay and fight for their home along side their neighbors.

On August 5th, the community again rallied on Alicia Jackson’s block to celebrate the 3 months of the successful liberation of her home, and to collectively liberate the empty duplex built on her land for use as a community center. Community members planned to use the reclaimed duplex, which is currently the subject of a legal dispute, as a base of organizing for people of color in the neighborhood against gentrification and police violence.

“Housing must be defended to end violence in working-class communities. Stable housing creates an environment for community self-reliance and healthy relationships. Without secure housing, families are displaced and communities are fragmented,” said Negro, one of the organizers of the duplex liberation, in a press statement. “Gentrification breaks the tie between generations and forces communities to depend more heavily on outsiders such as the police to solve conflicts. Defending homes and stopping eviction protects the community’s safety.”

The night of the community center liberation, the police forced their way into the building, arresting one person, and effectively shutting down the center for the time being. The community center police reaction demonstrates once again that the police respond to the will of banks, financiers, and developers, rather than in support of the community. When the police arrived and forced their way into the duplex, a network of community support was activated and within the hour approximately 100 people came out to offer defense, witness, and assistance to the people living in those homes showing that together we are unevictable. Actions against foreclosure and for collective control of land and resources continue in Portland with momentum and pressure mounting each day.

Ultimately, home defense results from the recognition that the economic and legal systems are used to take advantage of and manipulate working people for the gain of banks and financial institutions. This recognition, that there is no justice in the system, builds belief and power in the principle that the only thing we can count on to meet our needs are our communities, neighbors, natural and created families. Alicia, Annette, and all the other faces of this struggle make it clear that any one of us survives only with the care, compassion, and commitment of our community.

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