Monday, September 28, 2020

The Next Steps in Eviction Defense

 

A few thoughts on intentions, tactics, and building eviction defense networks.

Here in Portland, there are signs that the movement for Black lives and the movement for actually affordable housing are increasingly intersecting in all kinds of ways. Among the networks engaged in popular education and resistance organizing efforts around housing issues, you’ll find groups normally focused on the massive problems of killer cops and institutional racism, such as Don’t Shoot PDX. Outside of the home of a family facing foreclosure in North Portland on Mississippi, you’ll find people who have long been involved with the daily protests that have been going on in Portland since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th.

No one who has been deeply involved with these struggles is surprised by the interweaving of these struggles, since they are obviously inseparable from each other. To state what is abundantly clear to anyone involved with either one, if Black lives matter, then the working class matters, and affordable housing matters. In pre-pandemic Portland, a market-rate two-bedroom apartment was not affordable by an average Black family in the US, and that is even more true now. If Black lives mattered in Portland, this city would not have been ethnically cleansed of most of its Black population through the uncontrolled rise in the cost of housing over the past twenty years. This could have, and would have, been prevented, in any city where Black lives really mattered to those in power at City Hall, in Salem, and in Washington, DC. Local police can stop enforcing evictions. State houses can pass rent control legislation, and control how much landlords are able to charge for rent, like they do in most of the civilized world. The federal government could spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year on building green, subsidized housing everywhere, instead of on the military.

Of course, that’s not the world we’re in — far from it. In the real world, the federal government long ago gave up on the idea of building anything other than missile silos. In the real world, 48 out of 50 states have banned municipalities from instituting rent control policies — including the neoliberal, Democratic-run state of tree farms, forest fires and overpriced cities called Oregon. In the real world, most of our city councils are more concerned with appeasing those who Governor Brown likes to call “the stakeholders,” by which is meant the owners of the city, not those who rent from them. Not the working class, and certainly not the rapidly-dispersing Black population of Portland. Most definitely not the burgeoning ranks of those living in cars and tents that line our city’s thoroughfares and can be found alongside so many bike paths and park boundaries.

But here we are, on this precipice, where the possibilities are so epic, in so many directions. With a nationwide moratorium on evictions mostly preventing the eviction tsunami that the business press was alerting us about with great alarm for months prior to the CDC’s edict going into effect, the can has been kicked down the road until the beginning of 2021. In Portland, a bit longer, since rent that’s past due due to the impact of the pandemic doesn’t have to be repaid immediately, but over the course of six months. (So the can gets kicked down the road a bit further.)

The CDC may be worried for epidemiological reasons, but the rest of society is concerned about a potential eviction tsunami for other reasons. For those facing eviction, the worries are fairly obvious. For the powers-that-be, they may be OK with the societal wreckage imposed by what passes for normality, that is, evicting one in ten renters every year in order to maintain the extremely rent-burdened status quo of the post-2008 economic order, but they know they need to seriously worry when the business press is singing in harmony about the kind of chaos and misery that would ensue if the landlords tried to evict 40 million people at the same time.

Clearly, when on such a precipice, things have to change. NPR reported this morning that the US overall is an estimated 21 billion dollars behind on rent at the moment. In Portland the rent arrears are estimated to be well over a hundred million dollars. But change doesn’t just happen — change is made by people, and social movements that, in combination with the dire economic, political, epidemiological and ecological circumstances, force political leaders to follow us. That’s how it works, in the real world, historically and currently, and the examples abound, though there are powerful interests at work always trying to hide this reality from us, and keep us in their fabricated capitalist matrix of renter/gig worker peonage.

One of the ways the kinds of changes that need to happen in this broken society can begin to happen in terms of addressing the impossible inequities from the bottom to the top of the whole mess is to embrace the idea of eviction abolition. By itself it may be a very crude tool, but it’s a simple, straightforward beginning to a process of reconciliation with an unknown destination, that would surely have to involve lots of government involvement in negotiating solutions with landlords of indigent tenants, government involvement with housing people directly, and of course with heavily controlling things like rent, mortgages, and much, much more — as they do in functional societies where the state actually shows an interest in the welfare of the people.

The way we force the hand of the state to stop enforcing evictions, and ultimately to ban the practice, is through solidarity with each other. There are far, far more of us renters than there are of corporate landlords. When the crisis is such that the friends and relatives of the police and certainly of the soldiers in the military are all also facing things like eviction and chronic unemployment, the state will not want to rely on brutality alone to try to solve this problem. People are already spontaneously coming to support each other in some neighborhoods where evictions have taken place in recent months, in different parts of the country — notably two of the most rent-burdened parts, New York and California.

And what does that solidarity look like, in practice?

One thing anyone quickly discovers who is doing anything remotely related to mutual aid or organizing tenants in some way is there is a lot of suffering out there. A lot of people in precarious situations who need help. There are frequent, sudden emergencies that arise, where calls are made for support, sometimes without anyone knowing important details about the situation that might be relevant in terms of whether it’s even a good idea for outside people to get involved or not. One in six people in the US are said to be food insecure right now, there’s so much hunger, and also, although landlords can’t evict tenants for their inability to pay rent during the pandemic, tenants can and are being evicted for other reasons.

While it is impossible and unwise to try to predict the future, especially now, with so many different forces at play, with major developments often happening on a daily basis both locally and nationally, I wanted to lay out the basic strategy and tactic (both singular) that Portland Emergency Eviction Response is oriented around.

We’re looking forward — not in a happy way, but just in terms of direction of sight — to the time things come to a head, when the eviction moratorium is lifted. When that actually might happen is anybody’s guess. Whatever the outcome of the November election, if the pandemic worsens significantly through the winter as expected and the economy continues to tank, the eviction moratorium will likely be extended, and some form of assistance for renters and/or landlords will also have to be instituted, if not the kind of housing policies and rent control policies that could start to truly address the problem.

But whenever that moratorium is eventually lifted and the free market is allowed to once again reign supreme, when the evictions begin to happen en masse, this, in effect, is our moment, the basic reason for our existence as a network. Which is not to say that all kinds of other mutual aid and solidarity and other organizing isn’t crucial — but PEER is a small network with limited means at this point, with only one strategy, and one tactic.

The goal is the abolition of forced eviction as an option for landlords and police forces. The implementation of the goal is to form a large and militant rapid response team that can respond quickly to attempted evictions as they are occurring, and at that point either stop them from happening, or move the tenant back in to the property after the police leave the scene.

Specifically, or at least ideally, the process we’re talking about goes something like this:

Tenants facing potential eviction because they’re pretty sure they’ll be unable to pay the back rent due when the eviction moratorium is over are faced with various decisions. They may have family they can move in with — a majority of young adults now live with their parents in the US, for the first time since the 1930’s. A tenant will often prefer to move into a vehicle or do any number of other things other than attempt to stay in their home after receiving an eviction notice. Forgive the harshness of this sentence, but these are not the tenants that are tactically of interest to PEER. We are looking to work with tenants who want to challenge their eviction notice by attempting to stay in their homes. We realize the stakes are high, and you do, too. People may decide to try to stay in their homes because they have no other options they want to consider, or because they want to challenge the whole system of forced eviction, or both.

We want to be in touch with such tenants in advance. We want to know something about you, your landlord, why you’re facing eviction. Not to be judgmental, but to be strategic. If you’re a gun owner, this is something we’d like to know in advance, too. Not because we’re opposed to gun ownership, but because this could become relevant information for us all to know in the course of a tense confrontation with the police. Once we understand the situation we’re getting into and determine that our participation makes good sense, the tenant with the eviction notice keeps in close touch with us, and lets us know when the police come to their home. At that point, we notify the network, and people drop what they’re doing and head to your place, hopefully to chase the police off, keep people housed, and ultimately to continue to engage in this tactic on a daily basis, until the authorities re-think their approach.

If you think a few dozen people reliably showing up every time the police show up to try to evict someone couldn’t possibly work, think again. It has worked in many parts of the world, including in the US, at many different recent and historical junctures. When the police always need to call in backup every time they have to do something, this in itself changes the equation. When a few dozen people are showing up, the authorities will then be concerned that many more people will start arriving more spontaneously.

In order for this kind of direct action to work, it obviously requires a lot of participants. Our efforts have been focused on getting the word out about eviction defense in local Portland neighborhoods through postering, online communication of various kinds, and word of mouth, with a particular focus on networking with the youth and others who are already out there doing mutual aid and protesting against police brutality and institutional racism. We are also closely in touch with other eviction defense networks that are being built along similar lines, as part of bigger projects such as Portland Tenants United and the Portland chapter of the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America). When there are attempted evictions taking place that any of these networks are responding to, PEER will be activating our network as well.

PTU, DSA and other groups are regularly holding online and in-person discussions and trainings of various sorts. There are many people wondering about how things might go, when we try to prevent an eviction. It’s good to understand how these confrontations have gone before, what the laws are, and so on. But how things actually play out in the real world is always unpredictable. We may know what the laws are, but how they may or may not be enforced is another matter. Whether or not the police will obey them is another matter. Whether the cops are under orders to carry out an eviction, or not to pulverize a journalist, this doesn’t mean they will carry out the eviction, nor does it mean they will refrain from beating the journalist. There are many other forces at play here than the letter of the law.

The discussions and trainings are also handy because they give people a chance to consider different outcomes. For example, if most people are standing in front of the entrance of the apartment with banners and signs, but some people are open-carrying guns, standing on the sidewalk, as they are legally allowed to do in Oregon, how does this change the dynamic? In the end, we can’t answer the many very legitimate questions that will arise in these discussions. When there are multiple sides to an equation with different interests that are potentially all very committed to their positions, outcomes are impossible to predict. But it’s unlikely that we’ll win unless we are at least as committed to the abolition of eviction as the corporate investors are committed to their stock portfolios giving them a good return.

PEER will eventually also be organizing discussions and trainings, but for the time being, everyone is encouraged to participate in such discussions that Don’t Shoot PDX, PTU, DSA and others are facilitating — and everyone is especially encouraged to sign up to receive notifications from PEER (scroll down to the bottom of this screen) and be ready to show up when a notification arrives. And encourage your friends to do the same.



Saturday, September 19, 2020

Diary of a Smoke Refugee

As Arun Gupta tweeted the other day, “Pardon the catastrophic global warming, we now return you to your regularly scheduled state violence.”
It's been quite a week here in Oregon. I know there are plenty of other horrors happening in the world. The invisible ones are the worst. Like tens of millions of children in the US going to bed hungry every night in recent weeks, or the tap water in Flint and Gaza continuing to be undrinkable, or the many people every night in Yemen and India dying alone at home of disease, knowing it's pointless to go to a hospital that has no medicine and no equipment. The visible horrors are more dramatic, more newsworthy, and also deadly for some, devastating for many – Sudan and Alabama underwater. Siberia, California, and Oregon on fire. 

The fires here in Oregon have further exposed the deep divisions in this society, as have all the other previous or ongoing catastrophes, from the 2008 financial crisis to the current global pandemic. They have also further exposed a government that, at every level – federal, state, county, and municipal – is deeply entwined with both corruption and incompetence. To be clear, I say this not to disparage the heroic efforts of firefighters and others in the course of this ongoing tragedy. As with the one thousand medical workers who have lost their lives in the course of their efforts to respond to the Covid-19 crisis in the US, the firefighters and others on the ground doing all kinds of mutual aid also suffer the consequences of corruption and incompetence higher up, for which they are by no means responsible.

Putting the broader current reality into some bit of context:

Huge swaths of the western US are made up of land that is controlled by the federal government, either by the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. The job of the Forest Service is to make the forests available for corporations to profit from logging it all, and then they use federal tax money afterwards to deal with the resultant erosion, mudslides, mercury poisoning, and destructive fires that result. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) makes federal land available for corporations to drill for oil and mine for coal, uranium and other things.

While old-growth forests also burn, the forests aren't destroyed by them – on the contrary, they need fire to prosper. But over a century of reckless logging practices throughout the region and beyond has resulted in a patchwork of tree farms, which are very vulnerable to being completely destroyed by fire.

The land that's not controlled by federal agencies is controlled by more local authorities, and of course much of it is privately owned. Real estate investment, speculation, and development are a huge part of the country's economy, along with property management. In the same way that the main job of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management is to facilitate the exploitation of the land and forests by private corporations, the main job of local government authorities, it seems, is to facilitate real estate transactions.

After decades of government dis-investment in housing and the ongoing deregulation of the housing market, coupled with successful corporate-led campaigns to ban the practice of rent control in 48 out of 50 states, including Oregon, housing has become increasingly unaffordable in cities across the country, very much including all the major urban hubs of the west coast. The unaffordability of housing has resulted in people moving ever further from the urban centers, into areas that were undeveloped, as they say, until recently. First Portlanders unable to stay in their city were moving to Gresham and Oregon City. Then they were moving further out, to Molalla and Estacada, once the idea of the commute taking over an hour became a concept people were ready to swallow, if it meant the possibility of being able to afford decent housing.

Putting the past two weeks into the context of more recent events:

Since the videotaped murder of George Floyd by clearly sadistic police in Minneapolis on May 25th, Portland has been one of many cities across the US and the world where people have been protesting in one form or another, usually in multiple parts of the city at the same time, every day, against police brutality and racism, and increasingly around related issues that disproportionately impact the poor and people of color, such as access in this society to things like housing, health care, and, increasingly, food.

The protest movement here in Portland involves people from all walks of life, of all ages, from all the various racialized groups, genders, etc. The protests have been continuously met with massive police brutality. As time goes on, people are becoming more and more organized, with different networks becoming well established, taking on crucial responsibilities such as providing protesters with food, water, and medical care. Other groups take on the responsibility of making sure there's a clear barrier around the gatherings, to make it harder for people to drive into the ranks of those assembled with motor vehicles. Others try to provide some semblance of security, keeping a lookout for suspicious characters laden with assault rifles and American flags, such as the member of Patriot Prayer who was killed in the course of the extremely tense atmosphere of the violent Trump Cruise that came to Portland on August 29th, during which time the police largely absented themselves, and allowed uncontrolled combat between fascists and antifascists to take place in the streets of the city. Michael Reinoehl was involved with doing security at the protests, and had been for a long time. Five days later, unmarked police vehicles pulled up at the apartment where Michael was staying, outside of Lacey, Washington, and executed him right there, in a hail of bullets. 


Oh and of course then there's also the pandemic, the various societal impacts of which probably need no introduction by now.

On the first weekend of September, a week after the deadly, 600-vehicle Trump Cruise, another Trump Cruise was planned. Hundreds of pickup trucks with over-sized US flags on the back of them, making them look a lot like those pickup trucks that get rigged up as mobile rocket launchers by groups in Afghanistan or Libya, were back in the Portland suburb of Clackamas, a county named after the Indian nation whose unceded land we are occupying now. So soon after they invaded Portland, so soon after the execution of Michael Reinoehl, this time they went from Clackamas to the state capital of Salem, bypassing the regional center of resistance that Portland has become.

By September 7th, the extreme wind event teamed up with the years of so-called drought, downed power lines, a multitude of dry lightning strikes, a century of terrible forestry practices, and decades of the cancerous suburban expansion caused by the exponential rise in the cost of housing over that time, all came together to cause the massive fires already ravaging California to do the same in Oregon. I was in Cathedral Park, where one of the last events related to Black Lives Matter was taking place, before all protest activities basically took a solid week off to focus on the apocalypse. 

Mic Crenshaw and other great local hip-hop artists were performing, after the speeches were over. Several hundred were gathered beneath the very high bridge that is above the park, and the sky was completely shrouded in smoke from the fires that had begun burning around much of the state. Several people were talking from the stage about threats from fascists that people had been getting, folks threatening to come to the park and be violent. The decision was made to end the event early, but it continued, with a sort of “stay at your own risk” caveat. Some people left, but most stayed until all the performers on the sound truck were done.

I think there was one other, very scarcely-attended protest after that, before priorities really shifted. As large parts of Oregon were under evacuation orders, those being evacuated needed all kinds of assistance. The groups who had been providing food, water, medical care, and other things, generally began mobilizing to do what they could to help out with the broader effort that various elements of the government, churches, the Red Cross, and so on, were involved with, in terms of providing for basic needs.

The Trump Cruise elements of society were surely involved with fighting fires and feeding people, I'm just assuming, but some of them were and are also involved with setting up illegal roadblocks in various parts of the state, looking for people they consider suspicious, which seems to include anyone wearing black, and people of color with big cameras, such as OPB photojournalist, Sergio Olmos. One road block mentioned in the news was in Corbett, east of Portland, where I have recorded most of the albums I've put out since I moved to Portland 13 years ago, at Big Red Studio, which was even closer to being evacuated during the Eagle Creek conflagration of 2017.

As fires were increasingly burning in the less populated areas of Clackamas, threatening the biggest towns in the county, leveling some of the smaller ones, and threatening the main urban center of the state, Portland, just to the north of Clackamas County, local officials here in Multnomah County and in the city of Portland were very active on Twitter, and presumably in other media, encouraging us all to download an app called Everbridge, so we would make sure to get emergency notifications related to the spreading and uncontrolled fires, and possible evacuation plans.

Dwelling on this point for a moment: when a child is abducted and is being transported in a car, or when Portland was under a curfew because of what they call riots, my wife, my teenage daughter, and I all receive text notifications on our phones about these things. They come in with a loud noise, and then you have to look at the message before you can do anything else with the phone.

Given that the state seems to obviously have the capacity to send push notifications to residents of the state with phones, why do we now need to download this app? Who knows. But what can quickly be ascertained by anyone with half a brain are the following: on the Google Play store, the app has been downloaded 500,000 times or more, which is also an indication that it has been downloaded by fewer than a million people. Reviewers give the app a 2.3 star rating, with widespread complaints that it just doesn't work. Since County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury was encouraging everyone to download the app, I did so, as did my wife, Reiko. She has an iPhone, I have an Android. We're both proficient at this sort of technology, and neither of us could make the app work. Neither of us have ever received a notification from this app since we downloaded it and registered ourselves with it to the best of our abilities. Neither of us have received any other notifications on our phones regarding the ongoing fires through any other means, either.

In Jackson County, in southern Oregon, where the cities of Medford and Ashland are, and where the suburb of Phoenix used to exist, incredibly, the existing emergency alert system that interrupts local radio and TV programs to tell us what's going on, was never used. Also never used were the emergency text notification system that has been used before in the state of Oregon, as I mentioned previously. The only notification system they were using was this app, Everbridge, which we were all supposed to have downloaded by now. But as you can see on the app store, even if close to a million people may have downloaded the app, that's only a fourth of this state's population. And the app doesn't work, as anyone who tried to use it might have discovered long before this catastrophe.

My friend Jason Houk was one of thousands of people in Oregon whose homes were completely destroyed in the fires. His home was in Jackson County.

By the weekend of September 11th, the air quality in cities up and down the west coast were the worst in the world. All of us who have for months now been getting a crash course in epidemiology have lately been learning about the existence of something called the Air Quality Index. As the business press has had to discover new adjectives to describe the catastrophically dire state of the economy, so the meteorologists have had to start inventing new categories of bad weather. For the first time, that weekend the local air was no longer being described as “hazardous.” It had now graduated to a new term: “smoke.” It was no longer being called a type of air, it was a new gaseous substance with a different name altogether.

I looked upon my wife and teenage daughter with a combination of admiration and horror as both of them expressed a lack of interest in getting out of the city for a while. Fires were raging in the county just to the south, the air was virtually unbreathable, all activities that any of us had been involved with had been canceled for the time being, such as my protests, such as the toddler's preschool, the teenager's rock gym, my wife's tennis sessions. But out of a sense of solidarity with the majority of the population of the city that was unable to get away from the smoke because they were too busy trying to keep their jobs or couldn't afford a hotel room, they didn't want to leave.

Admiration aside, I had different priorities. When two of my aunts teamed up to offer to pay for us to get a hotel room anywhere where the air quality was significantly better than Portland, until things improved, I insisted we leave town. Which worked with my wife and our youngest children, but not with the teenager, who insisted on staying in Portland with her other mother, sealing the doors and windows, and staying inside.

The four of us bailed last Sunday and headed to Astoria. I had studied Air Quality Index maps and fire maps, which all confirmed what I already suspected. In Oregon, the main fires were in the massive valley that goes up and down the state, on the other side of the mountain range that is beside the coast. The climate has always been much drier to the east of that mountain range, and then to the east of the next range, it's desert. This is the case in all the three western states. This thin strip along the edge of the continent is kept moist and foggy by big weather patterns that tend not to change much, even in recent decades. The mountain range keeps the fog on the west side of it, and the hotter it gets east of the range, the more that keeps the fog from spilling over, thus trapping it along the coast. The northwest tip of the state of Oregon, the city of Astoria, has weather very reminiscent of the west coast of Ireland, for the same sorts of reasons having to do with what happens when trade winds meet land masses.

If you watched the weather reports, you would have thought the air was terrible throughout the western US. If you looked more closely, you'd see there were exceptions. My aunts, and others, were encouraging us to fly to the east coast – to the northeast, specifically, where I grew up, which thus far is well insulated from fires, if not from floods. Good that we didn't consider that option, out of a combination of fear of flying during an out-of-control pandemic and various other considerations, because the airport soon closed to most flights anyway, due to the smoke.

We drove on the sparsely-populated streets, past the countless tents and the increasingly gray faces of the people still living in them, to the highway that leads north and west, and ends where the continent ends, in Astoria. As we got to the other side of the last of the mountains, the grass and all the other vegetation got greener, and soon we were at the ocean, enshrouded in fog which smelled only slightly of campfire. A slightly smoky fog, rather than just billowing, orange-tinged ash, passing as air.

The real refugees are those whose homes were destroyed. We were just temporary refugees, and very privileged ones. We had a sponsor paying for a hotel room. But this is also the case with refugees from Syria or Honduras or anywhere else. The ones with the means to escape are the lucky ones. The ones who can escape, in a private car, to a hotel room, are luckier still.

To compound the sense of guilt I was already feeling, as we settled into our hotel room, I heard from other folks who had already escaped to Astoria or some other town on the north coast, but who were heading back into the smoke because they could no longer afford the extortionist rates the hotels were charging. During our five days in Astoria, other folks joined us who hadn't been planning to leave Portland, but who just couldn't stay in the smoke any longer.

As has been the case for a very long time, I'm glued to news coverage in various forms. Hanging out with small children, as I'm usually doing in recent years, this takes the form of listening to radio and podcasts through an ear bud in one ear, while I'm at the playgrounds and such. The governor has been holding daily press conferences, which I've been listening to.

I'm sure they have a decent air filtration system at the capital, but I had an immediate sense of respect for the woman, if only for the fact that I think she was addressing us from Salem, which at the time had some of the most toxic air of any city on Earth. When we left Portland, the AQI was over 500.

The most notable thing about the governor's press conferences was the fear of public speaking that you can hear in her voice and in the voices of every member of her staff. You can hear when the governor tries to sound like she's emoting, and puts this breathy quality in her voice that we're supposed to understand as empathy. Maybe she feels empathy, I'm not saying she's a sociopath, necessarily, but the empathy fails to come through. At least she was audible, which was not the case with any of her staff members, speaking on Zoom or something, from their various locations. At the first conference there was nobody playing the role of host, so there were lots of awkward transitions, until the governor realized midstream that she better play that role herself, if no one else was going to do it. Which was good, because she was the only one who seemed to be using equipment at her office that allowed her broadcast to be audible through OPB's feed. With a good headset on, listening on my phone to OPB, I could just barely hear the other speakers, such as the guy managing the overall fire response, who seems to have moved to Oregon quite recently from somewhere in Maine. What really shocked me was that day after day, the audio quality of these press conferences never improved.

The continually poor production values of their little fireside chats were compounded by much of the stuff they were saying, when you could figure out what it was. Apparently the Oregon Employment Department is starting a new Disaster Unemployment program, in addition to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, PUA. But after six months, tens of thousands of people in Oregon who qualify for PUA have yet to receive a dime from the Employment Department, which is running on 1980's technology and has suffered from a Covid outbreak within the ranks of the staff, as well as having offices closed due to the fires. And now we're supposed to believe any of us will receive timely assistance from them now? The governor made no mention of this reality, preferring her fantasy version, where she's at the helm of a functional state. 


Listening on many national news reports to the governor of California's press conferences, while also making efforts to coordinate a response to the ongoing emergency, he has blown much of his hot air in the form of partisan political diatribes aimed at President Trump and the Republican Party.  Candidate Biden has done the same, inferring that if we want to avoid more such fiery calamities, we'd better not vote for the "climate arsonist" Trump, which Biden is apparently not, despite a long political career pointing to his culpability in our current ecological collapse.  Governor Gavin Newsom wants to blame climate change on the catastrophic situation, and federal policies around climate change, and thus deflect the lion's share of responsibility for this mess, which lies at the doorstep of the capitalist system, and the real estate investment and unregulated real estate development that underpins it, from which he and most of his colleagues in government throughout the west coast profit from personally and politically.

If the exurbs such as Molalla and Paradise are the most vulnerable areas in this brave new climate, let's be very clear that the biggest victims of these fires are the people who couldn't afford to live in the places that get most of the firefighting resources, the places where most of the residents commute to to work, the bigger cities.  And any efforts to mitigate this situation with better forest management will suffer the same fate as efforts to solve the housing crisis through little band-aid solutions they come up with for that -- they will fail, certainly as long as the underlying problem of unregulated capitalism that drives the ever-expanding exurbs to keep expanding as they are doing.

Roaming the streets of Astoria, on the boardwalk and in the outdoor seating areas of the cafes on the piers, we observed, met or overheard conversations of many different people. It's a town with two centuries of history as an international hub of fishing, canning, and trade, there at the mouth of the gigantic Columbia River, which leads to the sprawling ports of Portland, through which much of the world's trade has long passed on a daily basis. The canning and fishing is nothing like it was once, but there's a big Coast Guard presence in town, along with some functioning industry, lots of fishing boats and other sorts of boats, and it reeks of history, with many of the buildings that played a prominent role in the labor wars of the early twentieth century still standing as they were, such as the Finnish social center, and the American Legion hall, with the river still filled with functioning, though soggy-looking, wooden pilings, with large buildings atop them, with cars and trucks and cafes and canneries and little ad hoc museums.

With this backdrop, the sidewalks and grassy knolls are filled with a wide variety of people. Some of them are to be found there in Astoria year round – like the middle-aged women frequenting the cafes in the morning, talking about goings-on at the arts center, and the many people living near the trolley shelters, drinking cans of beer, and the gothic-looking teenagers who clearly have no appreciation for the fact that they live in paradise, and wish their parents would move back to Portland, where there are protests and night life.

Then there are the visitors. Some of them are actual tourists, which Astoria would normally have more of this time of year, but for the pandemic. But most of the visitors were playing the role of tourist because they were smoked out of their towns. Many families crammed into pickup trucks with several dogs and too many suitcases. Along with them, guys who looked like they hadn't left the pot farm in years, but were being put up there by the Red Cross, and had no idea what “a card for incidentals” meant, when asked for one by the hotel clerk. I felt like a snob for even noticing that interaction, but when you are a frequent traveler, it becomes easy to spot folks who have never stayed in a two-star hotel before, or who have never been through an airport security line.

Other visitors were clad entirely in black, like I generally am. In large urban centers throughout the world, this is a very common way to dress. Outside of those centers it's less common. Less common still are people clad entirely in black, who also have visible tattoos, piercings, and white, punk rock or political slogans on their clothing. There were many people who fit this description around town, more than on previous visits to Astoria, and I got the impression that many of them were smoke refugees like us. I also got the impression that all the American flags around this Coast Guard town was making them uncomfortable. I wondered if anyone had yelled at them, as had happened to me in recent weeks, when postering in certain Portland neighborhoods east of the 205. I was pushing a stroller around Astoria, insulated from those types of interactions by the small children. The only comment I heard was a suburban-looking woman commenting to her friend that all the articles of clothing I was wearing were the same shade of black. They were clearly entertained by this, which made me smile.

Having returned to Portland, with the AQI at a much more reasonable level, back to the usual rating in the high double digits, the mayor's ban on CS gas has proven to be the farce that it obviously was, since he didn't ban the use of chemical weapons by the police, but only this particular one. As the air became breathable again and the fires were becoming contained, the protests resumed. Adding fuel to the fires of the ongoing social unrest in this country, news of ICE's apparent forced hysterectomy ring inspired renewed efforts at abolishing that particularly onerous agency, along with the police in general. Copious clouds of tear gas and other forms of wanton police brutality have characterized the past two nights on the streets of Portland. As Arun Gupta tweeted the other day, “Pardon the catastrophic global warming, we now return you to your regularly scheduled state violence.”



Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Eviction Abolition: The Time Is Now

Portland Emergency Eviction Response flier

 

It's the beginning of the month. Do you know your neighbors?

I have several questions for you. Can you imagine a society where the prospect of a forced eviction is considered completely barbaric, and is virtually or entirely unheard of in practice? Can you imagine the United States becoming one of those societies? And have you joined a local community group that is considering these questions where you live?

I'm a founding member of a new network I and others are working on expanding here in Portland, called Portland Emergency Eviction Response, which is basically a rapid response team to go participate in eviction defense actions, activated by text message, in the tradition of the telephone trees of the twentieth century, or the tin horns of the nineteenth century.

I'd like to give you my answers to the questions I posed above.

Can I imagine a society where the class war is not carried out in such vicious ways, with millions of renters across the country getting evicted every year, with the disruption, dislocation, destruction and chaos that ensues in community after community, year in and year out?

Yes, that's easy. Many countries in the world already don't allow this feudal practice. I travel in them and perform in them regularly, and have done so for most of my adult life. There are many ways landlords can seek restitution aside from the forced eviction of tenants.

Can I imagine the US becoming one of those societies, where eviction doesn't happen?

Although it is currently a more unequal place than it has been since the Age of the Robber Barons, this fact is not only a curse for so many struggling in poverty, but it's also an opportunity. As bad as the housing crisis was for both homeowners and renters before the pandemic hit, it is exponentially worse now, particularly since the federal government has been unable to take any meaningful action since the end of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance -- although the new move by the Centers for Disease Control to ban evictions for anyone making less than $99,000 until the end of the year at least kicks the can down the road until then, when the past rent will suddenly come due for tens of millions of people who will have avoided eviction until then.  The patchwork of state and local eviction suspensions is now, finally, largely supplanted by a nationwide ban.  But one which, like almost all the other temporary eviction bans, does nothing to address the underlying problems that existed prior to the pandemic, or the divisions that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.  So unless further, major action is taken, everything now comes crashing down at the beginning of 2021, instead of this month.

With the situation being as bad as it is, a lot of people are realizing that the capitalist system and the ever-increasing cost of housing that has been the situation for a long time now, but much more so since the last financial crisis, is untenable. People are no longer going along with the program. Landlords seeking to evict tenants, from New York to California, have faced spontaneous and angry gatherings of their neighbors, that have caused them to back off and go away. This is how it starts.

Even a criminally unequal society still requires a certain degree of the consent of the governed in order to function. Police brutality alone won't work – not when the people being evicted increasingly include members of the extended families of cops across the country, just as they increasingly includes so many other segments of society, with Black and brown people being disproportionately impacted everywhere. People are spontaneously reacting against this madness when they're confronted by it. Increasingly, clearly, the consent of the governed is being withdrawn.

This is why the time is now. This is why people who have been involved with every other political movement that has ever existed in my lifetime are back out in the streets today. All those folks involved with the global justice movement, Occupy Wall Street, the climate justice movement, and so on, also believe that Black lives matter, and that now is the time to fight back against institutional racism, and all the other institutions that perpetuate it, such as the police, and also the venture capitalists and their facilitators in the state legislatures across the country that allow for the kind of ethnic cleansing that has taken place in cities like Portland, where more than half of the Black population here has been priced out of the city since I moved into it.

I have seen the same thing happen in every city I have lived in in this country, and I'm not the only one who is sick and tired of it. Being sick and tired is becoming widespread. There are only so many times one can experience this pattern before you've had enough – moving into a diverse neighborhood, only to see it get whiter and whiter, until only the most recent newcomers with six-figure incomes can afford to live in it anymore, and the vast majority of Black and brown residents, along with the vast majority of professional artists and so many others, are once again forced out. The ranks of those who are fed up with this shit is growing fast.

Which brings me to my third question – have you joined a neighborhood network of some kind?

Spontaneous outpourings by neighbors are essential, but we can't depend on that alone to end something like the phenomenon of forced eviction. Forced eviction was banned in Chicago during the last Great Depression in no small part because people organized eviction defense squads. Somewhat more recently in New York City, many squats and other buildings were saved through similar kinds of mobilizing – even during the very authoritarian Giuliani administration in that city. In the UK, eviction defense actions in Glasgow were essential to fueling a successful rent strike and ultimately a nationwide rent freeze, a century ago.

History is full of such examples. Although for the bigger ones you sometimes have to go back a ways to find them, this is because of the confluence of circumstances people were facing at those times – which bear so much similarity to today. Sudden economic crashes on top of an already terribly divided, stratified society, met by incompetent political leadership.

Changing the world always seems impossible at first, I hear. The obstacles always seem insurmountable at the outset. Getting started is the hardest part. But once one eviction has been prevented, and then another, momentum can build very quickly.

Those of us who are working on the initiative we're calling Portland Emergency Eviction Response are looking at this basic approach: if you are facing eviction in the city of Portland and for whatever reason(s) you have decided you want to try to stay in your home and resist this eviction order, contact us, so we can be in touch well before the cops actually show up. When the police do eventually show up, which they tend to do on their own time, you tell us, and we activate the text mob. But first, if you're in Portland, you need to sign up, to this or another such initiative. If you do, you'll meet some of the best people you've ever met, while you're defending someone's home together.

Go to artistsforrentcontrol.org and scroll down to the bottom of the screen to sign up. Another world is possible, and another Portland is possible.

A Tale of Two Narratives

Was it a peaceful gathering, a riot, or an insurrection?  That depends on who we're talking about, and who's talking about them. Eve...