Saturday, December 26, 2020

And The Landlords Said "Fuck You"

In response to the state of Oregon's latest extension of the partial ban on evictions, the landlord lobby here is suing for 100% of back rent.

I know it is often hard to see, but significant elements of the folks in power at various levels of government are keenly aware that we're in a crisis, and they want to avoid a total meltdown of the social order.  They often like to act blase and in control of the situation, they like to pretend that we all believe we live in a society governed by law, where we all play by certain rules that are more or less sacred.  But really they know they rule over a house of cards that sits on top of a powder keg, and there's a fire burning nearby, which they need to keep from reaching the powder keg, and any notions of the rule of law are relatively worthless when millions of people are suddenly unable to house themselves or put food on the table.

The more progressive elements among the kleptocracy that passes itself off as government in this country is aware that what would be truly needed for long-term social cohesion, and long-term successful governance, would involve a reversal of the ongoing stratification of society under monopoly capitalism that has been taking place for several decades, which could begin with radical policies like government regulation of the cost of housing.  But at every level of government, government is bought and sold by the corporate landlords at public auctions which we call elections, and so even the legislators and governors intelligent enough to see the crisis that is in front of them are unable to do what they know needs to be done -- in the longer term, instituting effective rent control policies, and in the shorter term, doing things like canceling all rent and deferring all mortgage payments for the duration of the pandemic.

So, hamstrung, knowing what they need to do, but also knowing who they actually work for, they can only delay the looming tsunami of evictions -- "tsunami" now being the preferred term in the business press to describe the meteorological category of eviction crisis that is looming.  They can only kick the can down the road, in the hope that by sometime along the line in 2021, those that govern might come up with a plan to continue doing so.

In the meantime, here in Oregon, days after Multnomah County extended the ban on most evictions to July 2nd, and hours after the state of Oregon extended the statewide ban in a similar but more watered-down fashion, the landlords filed suit (that is, several big property-owners and their corporate lobbying arm, Multi Family Northwest).  The gist of their suit?  If the partial eviction ban is to continue, then we want the state to cover 100% of unpaid rent.  

Which is especially galling, given that the lawsuit comes in response to efforts on the part of the state legislature that actually do go a long way in coming up with a real solution to the mounting unpaid rent crisis.  But having to ask for state aid that would only cover 80% of the rent they say they are owed was altogether too much of a burden and too much of a compromise -- any compromise evidently being too much of one -- and so they are suing for every last cent, global pandemic be damned.

The logic of this lawsuit, and of the activities of the landlord lobby with regards to shaping the law, is well worth some analysis.  Looking at the basic elements of their lawsuits and lobbying efforts through the years, the emphasis is clear.  The real message is don't regulate us, we'll just make as much money as we can, and if there are any problems as a result, we all know that's why half of our local tax money goes to the police department.  

The public message is don't institute rent control, because that will just make the housing crisis worse, and we all want everybody to be housed, don't we?  As the housing crisis has worsened year by year, with real rent control long ago abolished in state after state because of the efforts of the landlord lobby, this argument becomes harder and harder to hold up, but that doesn't stop them from making it, ad nauseum.

In any case, whether the landlord lobby believes its own propaganda about the free market solving the housing crisis or not, they don't want regulation, that's bad.  They want to be able to charge whatever they want to be able to charge, and then they will make the argument that by doing so, this is, in the end, best for everyone.  Of course, being able to charge whatever they want necessitates them also being allowed to forcibly evict tenants at will, and to threaten to do so far more often.  This practice, in turn, requires having a massive budget for law enforcement, which is paid for by everyone, mainly the working class.

So to put this analysis of a lawsuit momentarily in Marxian economics speak that I learned during my one year of college, the landlord lobby believes in socializing their expenses, sharing this burden among those least able to do so, while maintaining laws and social norms in such a way that they may privatize all of their profits.  

But in times of crisis, when a global pandemic forces society to largely shut down, and actions such as a temporary ban on evictions are taken in order to preserve what's left of the public welfare, the landlord lobby has made it very clear that they don't believe they should share any of the burden involved.  The state should bear all responsibility, just as it should bear responsibility for sending in the riot cops when an eviction doesn't go as planned.

That is, in times of crisis, expenses should continue to be socialized, while 100% of profits should continue to be funneled upwards, into the coffers of the investment firms that are already swimming in cash.  That's very clearly the position of the landlord lobby.

Things change by the week, and there's no telling yet whether state or federal authorities may come up with a bailout that will actually prevent the tsunami, once the various state and federal partial eviction bans are lifted.  According to the most recent report on Marketplace, the nation is now an estimated $70 billion behind on rent.  While the state of Oregon's new emergency budget seems intent on being more than window dressing, the scale of the crisis is quickly outgrowing it, and whether or when the Congress might step up is unknown.

The art of making predictions is a very difficult one, but there is one prediction I can make confidently:

If the partial eviction ban is lifted without a real solution to the billions of back rent owed, we can look forward to many, many more struggles such as the one that has been unfolding at Portland's Red House.  

Who will win this class war is uncertain.  But as to whether the landlord lobby is waging one or not, there is no doubt.  The only real question is at what point will the working class of this country stop blaming ourselves for our inability to make ends meet, and start truly fighting back?

Friday, December 18, 2020

Rent: Why We Say Don't Pay


As 2020 draws to a close, an open letter to Portland with particular regards to the renters, and the peculiar beauty of the notion of a rent strike during an eviction moratorium.

Dear Portland,

And dear anyone else, particularly in other localities that have passed similar laws to the eviction moratorium that was just renewed by the Multnomah County Board of Supervisors this week -- which is now extended until July 2nd.

I want to talk to you about the rent strike, specifically.  What rent strike, you may wonder?  Well, it's a good question, really.  Because for us here in Portland/Multnomah County, it's been a very hypothetical rent strike, since around these parts the ban on evictions, evictions filings, and late fees went into effect soon after the first pandemic lockdown took hold.  At the last minute, just before it's about to expire, as renters across the region are beginning to really panic and become total insomniacs, the moratorium on evictions is renewed -- much to the chagrin of the landlord lobby, as represented by their various lobbying groups, such as Multi Family Northwest.

History tells us that we can transform a morbidly unequal society through the means of a broad and well-organized rent strike, first of all.  And my strong sense is that we need to use the momentum provided by both the fissures in society exposed by the pandemic, and by the efforts of governing bodies led by forward-thinking, socially-conscious individuals, such as the Multnomah County Board of Supervisors, not be lulled to sleep by it.

The more that I have been involved with the tenants rights struggle in various forms, the more I have come to realize that as much as the billionaire class and the corporate landlord lobby are a huge enemy to try to take on, our biggest obstacle is within our own American minds.  Or perhaps more our hearts.

By my observation, a whole lot of us have drunk a whole lot of different flavors of Kool-Aid at this point.  This isn't accidental.  

Inherent in the idea of a democratic society, a society run by democracy, that is, by a representative, or at least theoretically representative government, is that that government can pass laws that a majority of the population might more or less agree on.  These new laws and Constitutional amendments and such can be about lots of different things.  They have in the past involved doing stuff like giving away huge amounts of stolen land, as well as selling huge amounts of land.  Laws have also regulated how this stolen land can be sold or rented.  These laws have been passed nationally and locally, throughout the history of this country.  

Despite these plain facts, there are a whole lot of people around here who believe that the ownership of property is sacred, somehow sacrosanct, inviolate, and cannot be regulated by law, because doing so would be Stalinist or something.  Whether Stalinist, Jeffersonian, or whatever else, the idea that we can't pass laws to regulate costs of anything, be it property, bread, electricity, or whatever else, is ridiculous.  Of course we can.  And we have, and we do, throughout the history of this country, as well as all over the world -- in both democratic and in authoritarian societies.  Wherever there are governments that govern.

If this mental block is overcome, and we can agree that regulation is not inherently fascistic or communistic or some other Unamerican phenomenon that needs to be violently opposed, the next thing is we don't like regulation because although we are probably being screwed by the capitalist system ourselves at this very moment, we still hope someday to become homeowners and even landlords.  And once that glorious time finally arrives somehow or other, we won't want to be subject to pesky red tape.

If empathy for society outweighs our desire to become successful capitalists, the next mental road block we encounter is the biggest:

Most of us know someone who is struggling to pay their mortgage.  Many of us know someone who is struggling to pay their mortgage specifically because their tenant has not been paying their full rent, or perhaps any rent.

Being human, and an empathetic sort of human at that, I also empathize with anyone who is struggling, wherever they may fall in this complex web of landlord-tenant relations.  Because owning a duplex and renting half of it, or owning an extra house, are some of the few capitalist endeavors available to many people, this sort of thing is commonplace, and it is easy to sympathize with anyone involved.

For so many of us, however, in the Class C apartment complexes that you will see all around you in every city in the country if you are looking for them, we're not in this type of situation.  

For us, our landlords are generally large corporations, often some of the largest corporations on Earth, such as Blackrock, which two of the president-elect's cabinet nominees just got through working for, or here in Portland, the Randall Group, a more regional version of Blackrock.  For us, these investment companies and their management arms have been doubling and tripling and quadrupling the rent over the past twenty years -- and especially over the past ten years -- to the point where, long before the pandemic, life was financially untenable for so many millions of people, from the west coast to the east.

And to complicate things further, the way these massive companies colluded to lock in high rents in major markets around the country also allowed the small-time landlords to cash in, through the seemingly innocent mechanism of charging something around -- maybe even somewhat lower than -- the "market rate."  For a very long time, it was a good time to be a landlord, whether a big one or a small one.  Many people lived entirely off of the earnings of their tenants and called that their job, a form of "self-employment," rather than a business, and certainly not capitalism, which is unattractive and old-fashioned sounding for the modern member of the petite bourgeoisie, who also doesn't use that word anymore either.

In any case, even if we can agree that there may be differences between small-time landlords and big landlord corporations, and even if we can agree further that withholding rent from big corporations in order to try to get them to see reason and lower what they're charging or otherwise negotiate with us tenants is OK, we encounter the next obstacle, which goes something like this:

"But I can afford to pay the rent, unlike some of my friends and neighbors, so maybe I should pay the rent, to make it easier on the landlord corporation to keep paying for their expenses until this is all sorted out."

To which I would offer this reply:

If your landlord is a corporation, stop humanizing it.  It doesn't care about anything.  This is about mathematics, and morality, but it's not about human beings.  If they told you they need your rent in order to pay their low-wage grounds maintenance and repair staff, they're lying.  They can borrow that money.  They probably already have.  

Do you think the people that run the corporations that are not paying their commercial rents in the malls across the country that are closing during the pandemic are feeling bad about stiffing the banks what they owe them?  No.  This is just how business is done.  Do you think their corporate lawyers are moved by letters from the venture capitalists appealing to them to keep their low-wage mall employees employed, for the sake of society?  Do you think they write such letters to the lawyers?  No, they do that with us tenants because they think we are stupid.

And they think we'll be scared of the part in their notes after they appeal to us to think of the poor maintenance workers, when they mention eventual eviction.  Of course, the threat of eviction is what allows them to raise the rent as much as they want, whenever they want, and is what causes us to comply, every time, no matter how egregious, or move.

But not now.  And the sooner the landlord corporations face actual financial hardship, the sooner they might negotiate with us.  This is how strikes work, when they work.

Another mental road block:

"But the county supervisors are being so supportive with these eviction bans, so those of us who can afford to pay rent should do it, to show that we're not taking advantage of the fact that evictions are temporarily banned due to the pandemic."

First of all, there are many reasons to ban evictions, and there is no reason why landlords should have the option of forced eviction at gunpoint, this is not a God-given right, or even a Constitutional one.  One reason to temporarily ban evictions is for the reasons the CDC did it, because they cause people to spread the pandemic, get sick, and die.  

One more reason to ban evictions, and foreclosures, at a time when one out of three households in the United States are either behind on rent or behind on their mortgages, is to maintain domestic tranquility.  Any sensible politician is afraid of the potential consequences to trying to evict a third of their population at the same time, regardless of how much money they may take from the landlord lobby.  They realize that the ban on evictions, while bad for the capitalists in the short term, is saving them from themselves in the longer term.

Of course still another reason to ban evictions is because you genuinely care about struggling renters and struggling mortgage holders, or because you believe that the housing market as it is is totally insane, and something needed to be done.

If you are acting for such progressive reasons, what you, as a progressive politician, actually need, is backup -- not people napping their way through the moratorium, but organizing through it.  It is specifically because so many people are not paying rent -- whether because they can't, because they are prioritizing other expenses, or because they are on rent strike -- that the moratoriums keep getting extended.  It is quite likely only by continuing the nonpayment collectively, en masse, that the politicians and landlord corporations will be forced to do things like negotiate, lower rents, cancel rents during the pandemic, accept potential future government bailouts that may involve compromising on profits, or pass effective rent control legislation, like we have had in the past.

We say don't pay, whether you can pay or not, because that's how solidarity works.  So join us.  If you are with us -- if you believe that the further victimization of the poorest among us by not coming up with a real solution to the housing crisis is unacceptable, withhold your rent money, and put it in savings every month instead.  

This is what the companies are doing that are not paying their commercial rents during this ongoing crisis.  Why should we behave differently?  Are we renters and mortgage-holding families less important than JC Penney or the Cheesecake Factory?  

The strategy -- all emotional considerations aside -- is very matter-of-fact:  withhold the rent and wait until you can negotiate with the banks or other landlord corporations in court, or wait until the federal or state government funds some kind of bailout.  As the corporate board of the Cheesecake Factory is well aware, if you pay the rent during this period, you won't get that money back later.  Withhold it, and you very well might.  We residential renters can employ exactly the same strategy.  During a period when there is a ban on evictions, we can do this on the same sorts of terms as the corporations can.  

There are other ways landlords can use the law to get money from tenants who are withholding it, whether these tenants are commercial or residential.  But sending in armed police to throw your shit out onto the sidewalk is not one of the available options.  And for most of us who have been withholding our rent during the moratorium, we will have six months from the time the moratorium ends to pay up, before facing any such eventuality.

To those of you who will not join us, for whatever reasons, as good and justifiable as they may be, remember this fact: 

By paying the rent, the impact you're having, like it or not, is to undermine the efforts of those who won't pay, and to undermine the dreams of those who can't.  By paying the rent even when there are minimal consequences for withholding it, you are hastening the return of normality.  And normality was a crisis, prior to the pandemic.  

Also, by paying the rent, you're guaranteeing that you won't be part of any settlement that may arise in the course of 2021, to avert an eviction tsunami and its tremendously destabilizing impact.

Through solidarity, however, we can change the rules, we can lead, and we can make the leaders follow.  History is full of not only failed efforts, but many successful ones -- rent strikes and other kinds of strikes -- that have changed societies for the better.  Very much including here in the belly of the capitalist beast itself.  Believing this fact is the biggest hurdle of all.

Sincerely,
David Rovics, renter


David Rovics is a songwriter, podcaster, and part of Portland Emergency Eviction Response. Go to artistsforrentcontrol.org to sign up to receive text notifications, so you can be part of this effort. Another Portland is possible.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Privileged People Complaining About Privileged People


How NPR Divides and Conquers

What is the result when a media outlet does a new story every day about the history of racism in the US, without ever mentioning the history of the multiracial radical labor movement whose white and BIPOC organizers were lynched for fighting for equality and freedom?

I listen to NPR a lot.  I'm not going to go into all the reasons I do this, but there are many, and they are contradictory.  Generally it's a combination of a desire to know what's going on from a news source that has actual reporters on the ground, and wanting to know how the liberal elite is spinning everything.  Depending on the stories they're covering, my nickname for the news outlet changes -- Nationalist Petroleum Radio, Nationalist Pentagon Radio, Nationalist Privilege Radio.  The nice young, intersectional crowd of reporters working for NPR did not necessarily sign up to be part of the liberal elite, nor do they know they are part of any elite, nor are they necessarily even being paid very well, even!  But that's the role they unwittingly play, along with most of their guests.

Wow, you may be wondering, how can you unwittingly be part of a liberal elite, when you're not even necessarily rich, white, or any of those traditional liberal elite things?  Simple:  you do it by ignoring the elephant in the living room.  

It's an easy elephant to ignore, for a variety of reasons.  Your editors know it's there -- they've been around the block, they know what they're doing and who they're working for.  Everybody else generally ignores it, either because they don't see it there with any clarity, or they're not really given a chance to mention it within their story's allotted sixty seconds, or because at every turn, growing up in the US or elsewhere, they have been told it's not about the elephant, it's about something else.  The favorite standbys for a long time now?  Race, gender, and sexuality.

I'm not now going to name any names, because this isn't about specific hosts or guests.  Nor do I want to pick an argument with an author who was being interviewed recently whose book I have not read.  I understand how little time they have, and how little can be said within the confines of such an interview.  And it's not about the interview or the individual, but the overall message communicated by both the format, which issues are often addressed and which aren't, and the preponderance of privileged people who tend to be involved with mainstream media.

The word "privilege" gets thrown around a lot without being defined, so I just thought I'd join in.  But no, let me define it a little bit more here.  Privileged people -- who are unaware of their privilege, which is part of the deal with privilege generally -- don't tend to see people who aren't privileged.  The non-privileged majority are invisible, unless they are normative, in which case they are visible.  That is, Black men are supposed to be hanging around on the street corner wearing a hoodie, hands in their bulging pockets, looking like they're up to something illegal.  So when we see a Black man acting like that, we might manage not to block out that image.  When we see white guys engaging in exactly the same behavior, we're more likely either not to see the same behaviors the same way, or, even more likely, we just don't see the person at all.

This is because white poverty is institutionally invisible.  Here in Portland, it just doesn't fit any of the usual narratives.  Oregon was founded as a white homeland, with Portland as its capital city.  The land was given away to white settlers, almost exclusively barring people of color from owning land.  Exclusion laws were on the books for decades afterwards, with both formal and informal forms of institutional racism rife to this day.  That's all very true, and some aspect of this racist history is now mentioned daily on NPR, as it should be.  

Portland was for a long time also one of the main bases of operation for a radical labor union that was explicitly anti-racist and anti-sexist and actively welcomed women and people of color.  The union still exists, and it's called the Industrial Workers of the World.  You will never hear this union or this union's radical and transformational local history discussed on NPR.  You will not hear about the lynchings of the white union organizers.  But you will hear about the lynchings of the Black ones now, occasionally.  One lynching fits the racial narrative, the other doesn't, and is best ignored, as with labor history generally.  Is this absence of labor history on NPR -- and PBS -- intentional?  You can ask Elsa Rassbach, one of the few directors who managed to address labor history on PBS, before giving up on further efforts and moving to Berlin.  Yes, it's very intentional.

Given the history of exclusion and extreme racism, why, even after the Vanport flood destroyed the biggest Black community in Portland, even with a vicious police force targeting people of color from before Oregon became a state right up to the present moment, even with all kinds of formal and informal forms of discrimination, did Portland's Black population continue to grow throughout the latter half of the twentieth century?

The answer is pretty simple.  There were jobs here, to some extent.  That's why Portland developed a Black neighborhood in the first place.  That's why most cities did.  Not just a Black population, but a population, period.  This is mainly why people move to cities, whether they suck to live in or not.

And far more importantly, for the purposes of the point I'm making here, why has Portland lost more than half of its Black population between 2000 and 2010 -- and many more since then?  Has Portland become a more racist place now than it was in the 1980's?  If you talk to any person of color who lived in Portland in the 1980's, I doubt you will find one who will say that it was a great place to live back then.

So, what happened?  What explains this flight of the Black population?

I'm hoping you already know the answer, but if you don't, you can be forgiven, I suppose, if your main source of news is NPR.

It's called capitalism.

Portland has lost most of its Black population for the same reason that it has, invisibly, lost most of its working class population generally, that being mostly its white working class population:  because there is no real rent control, we are all subject to the whims of the real estate marketplace and the oligarchs investing their Russian and Norwegian and Texas oil money into the profitable US property and rental markets.

I have seen the Class C apartment complex I have lived in here in Portland since 2007 completely transform, from a place that housed mainly white, Asian and Latinx families, to a place that mainly houses young white people, living together in apartments where each resident is an income-earner, paying their rent, the only way many people can afford to live in cities like Portland anymore, with the multi-generational families forced out.

To the privileged NPR guests lecturing their listeners about unconscious bias and rarely-defined forms of privilege day in and day out, these young people with their parents' Priuses and their Black Lives Matter bumper stickers are the white people.  The rest are invisible.  The fact that most of the tent-dwellers on the sidewalks are white men is an inconvenient reality best ignored, or referred to in passing as "white poverty" or the "white poor," as if this group of people is a tiny, insignificant little segment of the population that we can basically sweep under the rug.

White people make up a bit more than half of this country's population and are the biggest group of people living in poverty as well.  These kids in their Priuses are not representative either of the population as a whole, or of the white population.  The average Black family can't afford to live in a two-bedroom apartment in Portland.  While the average white family is in a better position to afford the rent in this city, most of them would opt to leave the city and go somewhere where their money goes a lot further in terms of a spacious place to live, if they have any options.  And whether white or Black, that's what they are doing.  As they leave, the liberal elite increasingly populates the city, turning it into a playground for the rich, like San Francisco, Seattle and New York have largely become.  Which are the white people they are generally referring to when they talk about the displacement of Black Portlanders (or San Franciscans, or Oaklanders, or New Yorkers, etc.) on NPR.

And yes, those rich people are mostly white.  But to say that these people spending $500,000 on a house in north Portland, displacing the Black families that lived there, and putting Black Lives Matter signs on their lawns represent the white population of the country is like saying that the Cosby family represents the Black population.

What is making them leave is the fact that they can't afford to live here.  What is making them not be able to afford to live here certainly has nothing to do with the invisible white working class families who are also fleeing the city they grew up in in droves, who aren't even worth mentioning on NPR, almost ever.  Even the privileged people coming in from New York and San Francisco to buy up houses in Portland, even this set isn't necessarily responsible for causing the chaos and devastation of all of this massive displacement of the white and Black working class of this city.  Because even these yuppie house-flippers didn't necessarily create this system.  They don't even necessarily believe in it.  They're just playing along with the way the system works, with what makes money, doing what we're all supposed to do in this society, and being "successful."

Of course, on the upper end of privilege, with the corporations who do the lion's share of the house-flipping and profit the most from the housing crisis, it's another matter entirely.  These corporations and their lobbying arms actually created this crisis, that being the housing crisis, and more broadly, the crisis that unregulated capitalism represents, on so many different levels, from the cost of housing to the minimum wage to workplace safety to environmental destruction.  

They created this crisis because they run the country.  The "they" I'm talking about are the capitalist elite.  The system they are running is called capitalism, specifically a corrupt and unregulated (or wrongly-regulated) form of capitalism.  This is why Portland is getting whiter.  This is why gentrification is happening.  This is why the working class white and Black populations and the artists and so many other people left or are leaving this city.  The corporate landlord lobby.  The capitalist elite.  That's the elephant we need to address here.  

And we will be, regardless of whether NPR ever does this in any serious or systematic way.  Capitalism itself is making sure of that, by giving us no other options.  But the sooner we can stop over-emphasizing the importance of microaggressions and unconscious bias and stop talking so much about the racial and gender diversity of Biden's cabinet full of privileged corporate stooges, and talk about the fact that they are a bunch of privileged corporate stooges, the better.  If Black lives really matter, that is, and it's not all just about appearances.  And by the same token, the sooner we stop pretending that the average white person is this country, or even in Portland, is possibly represented by the privileged elite that can afford to spend $500,000 on a house, the better.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

To The Barricades: The Red House and the Future of Eviction Defense

Portland, Oregon has been in the headlines again over the last few days, and this trend will continue.  The reasons for the headlines will vary depending on who you ask.  If you ask the far right they will say something about Antifa terrorists having violent confrontations with the police because they hate law and order.  The mainstream media's headlines will also tend to lead with the so-called violent clashes, but then they may inform us that the reasons for the confrontation have to do with folks trying to prevent the eviction of a Black and indigenous family that has lived in the Red House at 4406 North Mississippi for multiple generations.

Either way, the stories you'll hear will focus on violence.  If you look into it a little, you'll realize that what the stories are really focusing on are destruction of property -- particularly the windows of police cars smashed by well-aimed rocks -- and the number of times over the past few months of the eviction defense encampment on the front yard of the Red House that the police have been called because of "disturbances."  81 times, according to police records, the police emphasize in the report they issued after they entered the house and arrested occupants in a pre-dawn raid on December 8th.

I can only imagine what some of those disturbances might have been caused by.  The house is just at the end of the commercial section of Mississippi Avenue, where what remains of one of Portland's two historically Black neighborhoods stands, with its uncomfortable mix of wine-sipping gentrifiers living alongside a perennially struggling and shrinking Black working class, along with increasing numbers of people living in tents that line the highway which cuts through the neighborhood -- the highway that was originally routed through that neighborhood in order to destroy it, as was done to so many other Black neighborhoods across the US when the highways were being built.

Last time I visited the Red House a few weeks ago, I was only hanging around for a matter of minutes before a man I recognized as a fascist drove slowly past, staring at us from behind his bushy beard, a bizarre new fashion among the fash here in the northwest lately, and in other parts of the world as well.  Indeed, if you follow people on Twitter who are involved with the struggle at the Red House, you will see frequent mentionings of the latest spotting of a known fascist, whether Proud Boy or Patriot Prayer, along with the latest prediction of when the riot cops will next come to create chaos.

While the broken squad car windows, the conflicted neighborhood, the poverty, the homelessness, and the frequently-visiting fascist trolls are all very real, there is so much more going on at the Red House at this moment than these alarming reports would seem to imply.  Primarily, what's going on there is pure beauty, in the form of the most profound expression of human solidarity you're likely to see anywhere.

Reading the descriptions from the police and in certain corners of the media, one would expect an unwelcome reception, if you were to visit the neighborhood they're describing.  In fact, as of last night, the police were officially warning people to avoid the neighborhood altogether, implying that it was, in fact, an anarchist jurisdiction, and therefore a terrifying thing.  Mayor-select Tear Gas Ted Wheeler says Portland shall not have an "autonomous zone" like Seattle did for a while.

Mayor Ted really can't stand it when the rightwingers in Washington, DC and the corporate landlords who own downtown call him a wimp for not cracking enough heads, even though his cops have been cracking more heads over the past few months than possibly any other police force in the United States.  So his instinct, naturally, is to crack some more heads, in the service of his friends, the corporate overlords, the business lobby, the Owners of the City.  (The real "stakeholders," as the governor likes to call them -- not the ones who hold the stakes that they drive into the ground to keep their tents from blowing away.)

I'm reminded, as I hear of these official pronouncements and fear-mongering, of my visit to the biggest city in the West Bank, Nablus, years ago.  An Israeli soldier took me aside, separating me from my Palestinian friends, to privately make sure I was traveling of my own free will, and had not been kidnapped.  Once determining that I was not a captive, the soldier's next tack was to try to reason with me.  There are very dangerous people in there, he informed me.  They have bombs, he said.  I politely thanked him for the information, not wanting to create problems for anyone, in our collective efforts to cross this checkpoint.  But I wanted to ask him if he had ever tried leaving the machine gun at home and traveling in civilian clothes.  His reception in Palestinian towns would be very different.

As I entered what has arguably now become a sort of gated community in reverse, I was welcomed everywhere I went, whether with words of greeting or just the sorts of eye contact that says more than enough.  Not to extend the previous analogy with Palestine too much here, but the feeling is a bit similar, in the sense that when you're an American in Nablus, people there tend to assume you probably are the kind of American who does not support Israeli atrocities against Palestinians.  Going anywhere near the Red House as of yesterday, you are suddenly transformed from a "visitor" to a "participant" as soon as you pass through the makeshift gates, into the liberated space that is now the neighborhood surrounding 4406 North Mississippi Avenue in Portland, Oregon.  Because you know once you pass these checkpoints and enter the anarchist jurisdiction, you are now as much of a potential target for a police attack as anyone else who is willfully disregarding orders to avoid the neighborhood.

From the time people began to maintain a constant presence in front of the house as part of an effort to prevent the forced eviction of the Kinney family within it, until a few days ago, it was the house and its yard that was being protected.  Then, at 5 am on December 8th -- the favorite time of day for these sorts of police attacks -- the riot cops moved in, arresting a number of people, including a member of the Kinney family.  Much was made in the police report about multiple firearms being seized in the course of these arrests, of course with no context provided -- that armed fascists are regularly coming by to threaten people, and that the police make sure never to be present when that happens.  For example.  Or that the ownership of firearms is very commonplace in this country, especially lately, across the political spectrum, and is about as surprising as finding a baseball bat or a guitar.

The raid on the Red House on the morning of December 8th will, I believe, go down as an historic miscalculation on the part of Ted Wheeler's corporate-friendly Democratic Party administration -- with its recently-approved, massive police budget -- that runs this city in the service of the landlord-stakeholders.  What they have done with this raid is they have massively escalated the conflict, and I sincerely hope, and suspect, that they will soon regret this move.  What they have done now, I believe, is they have taken two movements that were already intimately related, and fused them.  If it was not already completely obvious, now it's impossible not to see it, the police have made sure of this -- if you are in favor of Black lives, you are also against evicting families onto the streets.  And the converse is true as well.

Since the police raid, what was limited to one house is now a neighborhood-wide conflict.  The neighborhood is already very gentrified, and the displeasure among some of the yuppies around Mississippi Avenue that black-clad youth had set up checkpoints on multiple intersections was occasionally being made clear, but only through the aggressive use of car horns, never by people actually getting out of their cars to engage with anyone on a human level, whether out of fear or embarrassment on the part of the horn-happy wine bar set.

After the raid, the police employed a fencing company to erect a tall fence to surround the Red House with.  They apparently were operating under the premise that a tall fence would take care of the problem.  In actuality, the fence they erected turned out to be very useful, but not for the reasons the authorities apparently believed it would be.  What transpired in the hours after they erected the fence, as is easy to observe directly, is the fence was dismantled and reengaged, deployed as part of some suddenly very solid barricade constructions at every intersection surrounding the Red House.  The barricades were set up in such a way that people who lived in other houses in the neighborhood could still access their houses, and mostly also their parking spaces, but they now had to take a much more circuitous route to get onto a main road.  Each barricade has a little entryway that a human -- but not a vehicle -- can pass through, once the nice, thoroughly masked young person in black who greets you ascertains that you're probably not a cop or a fascist.

During my time hanging around the neighborhood there last night, many people were engaged in many forms of industrious activity.  If you haven't spent much time among autonomously-organized youth -- whether current youth or the same crowd that existed when I was young, in the 1980's in New York City -- you might not realize that when you enter such patches of liberated territory, whether it's a mostly outdoor phenomenon like this, or a building takeover, you are entering a hive of activity, reminiscent of a beehive, with everyone engaged in doing their thing, whether they are responsible for cooking, collecting trash, building barricades, constructing tire spikes, collecting wood for the campfires, collecting rocks, or whatever other useful endeavors.  Last night was full of that beehive vibe, with most people fulfilling one role or another, whether self-appointed, or appointed through an affinity group or larger network involved with specific aspects of organizing the things that need to happen when large numbers of people are being somewhere for a while.  Folks need to eat, sleep, and shit, while also seeking to defend the Red House.

While many people were engaged in meetings or carrying out various tasks, the scouts looking for the next inevitable visit from the riot cops, and others involved with guarding the perimeter always have time to talk.  Now, nothing that I'm about to say should come as a surprise to anyone who has spent much time on the ground at protests in Portland over the past eight months or so, but the crowd last night consisted of a very interracial, multigendered and otherwise very intersectional group of mostly young people.  Mostly wearing black -- which, incidentally, is not just a political statement, if it even is one, but is a matter of practicality for a variety of reasons.

Are there, as I'm sure some readers will be quick to point out, armed sentries?  Yes, there are armed sentries.  Very nice, armed sentries.  The kind we need more of, unfortunately.

And what are people talking about in there among the campfires?  I pass by one meeting, noting that most of the participants are people of color.  I recognize the man who is speaking to the group of a dozen or so people.  He spoke at the last rally I sang at, in fact.  As I walk past the discussion, he's talking about how to be inclusive of people who want to be involved, while still finding effective ways to exclude truly disruptive elements.  I then came upon another couple of folks, who greeted me for the sole reason that I had stopped walking momentarily while in their general area, and we then spontaneously began having a conversation about the history of eviction defense actions across the US in the 1930's, during the Great Depression.  

Back in the 1930's, all of us radical history buffs hanging around the Red House collectively noted, when the cops came to evict people, they often succeeded, but only temporarily.  After evicting a household, the people would gather together -- often in their thousands -- to move the family back in, and un-evict them.  That, we all noted, was exactly what was going on at 4406 North Mississippi Avenue.

I believe this struggle, around this particular house, will be won.  I believe it will also set the stage for the much broader struggle to come, in the months after Oregon's eviction moratorium expires.  But the future is very much unwritten, and there are many more players involved with this deadly game, aside from the barricade-building youth, unfortunately.  

So don't just scroll on to the next article.  Put your phone down, and come meet me at the Red House.


David Rovics is a songwriter, podcaster, and part of Portland Emergency Eviction Response.  Go to artistsforrentcontrol.org to sign up to receive text notifications, so you can be part of this effort.  Another Portland is possible.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Studying the Analytics and the Playlists

On the first of every month, Spotify sends artists a summary of the previous month's activity among their listeners.  This month's email from Spotify inspired a bit of geeking out on my part.

OK, we're going to get seriously self-absorbed and geeky here at the same time here, be forewarned.

If you, like me and most people on the planet these days, have a Gmail account as well as a Facebook account, at some point in your day, or perhaps far too often during many days, you may find yourself taking note of messages and notifications about comments to your posts and such.  In seeing such notifications, you'll inevitably discover which posts are the ones that are drawing commentary, and which are being ignored or going unseen.  If you're into thinking about this sort of thing, or maybe even if you're not, you may wonder whether it was due to an algorithm that a post got seen more or less, or due to genuine interest or disinterest from your friends and acquaintances online, or due to some other factor, that a post drew interest or not.

I'm just setting the stage here by starting with a phenomenon that most of us users of email and social media are now familiar with.

For any active musician who has been making an effort, for better or for worse, to distribute their music on the platforms people generally use these days, whether they were or are touring performers, or just recording artists, you can add to those daily email and social media notifications the daily flow of YouTube commentary, as well as the monthly summaries from Spotify.

Although Google eventually gave up their efforts at Google Plus social media, for musicians and other active content creators, YouTube is another social media platform that we are generally interacting with people on, maybe as much as on Facebook or anywhere else.  YouTube, along with Facebook and Twitter, is where people see your videos.

For music, and increasingly for podcasts, the platform is Spotify.  Whereas with videos on YouTube, Facebook or Twitter, people can comment, on Spotify things are much more opaque.  There are no comments, little real opportunity to interact with your listeners -- with your audience, that is, because increasingly, they're all on Spotify, as it has become the path of least resistance, or the superhighway, or whatever metaphor you want to use.  But what you do get from Spotify is a monthly summary of what's been going on in your Spotify world.  How many unique listeners you had last month, what songs they listened to most, and if you actually explore on your Spotify account, you can find out lots more, like what countries they're all in.  On YouTube, still more vast "analytics" data is available -- the stated ages and genders of my listeners is easily available, too.

When a band has a hit, it is often the case that this song will remain their most popular song on any of the music streaming platforms as well.  If they don't produce another hit, their audience might stay significant, but it will age, and you can see that all laid bare online in various places if you're into that sort of thing.

If you've never had a hit, or anything remotely resembling one, never even been played on commercial radio to speak of, answering the questions about who these people are and where they come from becomes more complex.  Why did certain songs become the most listened to?  I'd be interested in anyone's feedback on that, but my own analysis of my own material tells me that it's not so much about the quality of the writing of a particular song, or the quality of the recording, though good writing and good recordings don't hurt.  Certainly, algorithms will tend to keep a song high in the list, once it gets high in the list to begin with, so there's that significant factor.

Leaning on the self-absorption a bit here, I have written well over 500 songs that I'd consider good songs at this point.  Most of them have been recorded decently in a studio in one form or another.  Most of them are overtly political, but there are a lot of possible songs with different sorts of themes and emotions to choose from.

Having thus laid out the many caveats and otherwise attempted to set the stage, when I get these monthly emails from Spotify, as I did this morning, today being the first of another month, what do I learn?  What does this tell me?

Whoever these 10,000 unique monthly listeners are -- and I imagine they are largely the same people that constitute my average 11,000 unique monthly viewers on YouTube -- what is easy to see from the stats is they are 95% male, overwhelmingly aged between 18-34, primarily distributed between the , US, Canada, Australia, northern Europe, and Mexico, despite the fact that I have never done a tour in Mexico.  Over the years, my audience seems to be getting more male, and younger.

And how do these 10,000 young people from around the globe look at the world?  What is very clear, over the course of many years, is this:  they are an inclusive, ecumenical bunch of people.  They despise sectarianism, and they love international solidarity.  They're as interested in history as they are in current events.  They sided with the pirates and against the British Crown during the Golden Age of Piracy.  They were abolitionists against slavery, and they were on the side of Mexico in the Mexican-American War.  They were on the side of the Republic in the Spanish Civil War, and especially, against the fascists.  They're grateful for the Soviet Union's role in liberating Europe from fascism.  They want the Brits out of Ireland.  They support the struggle in Rojava.

All this is abundantly clear from which songs they keep listening to the most, as well as from the next several dozen top songs, month after month, year after year.  Although the older songs have a natural, algorithmically-enforced staying power in "charts" such as these, new ones will quickly rise up, when they capture the imaginations of the people out there, which pretty much only happens if a song becomes another of a certain elusive type of song about international solidarity that really speaks to people, which most recently happened in 2017 ("Rojava"), and before that in 2014 ("They All Sang the Internationale").

It's all reinforced by the fact that it's largely the same group of songs that is consistently on top among my songs on YouTube as well as Spotify, despite the fact that what these platforms offer is very different.  What people find on Spotify are far more studio recordings, really high-quality audio.  On YouTube what they'll find much more of are live performances, sometimes well-recorded, but still just solo acoustic renditions, unlike the full band recordings some of the songs feature on Spotify, sometimes with well-known accompaniment provided by folks such as Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello.  None of this seems to have an impact on what gets to the top of my own little charts.  It is different versions of "St Patrick Battalion" or "They All Sang the Internationale" that rises to the top on the different platforms -- one live and one studio -- but the same song, either way, that people were apparently looking for.

The political orientation reflected in the song choices are reflected most directly in the comments on the videos people find on YouTube.  There are many videos hosted on other people's YouTube channels, and the comments on those do not end up in my inbox.  Nor are the views reflected on my channel's views, so my perspective here would be more realistic if it reflected an even more out-sized importance of international solidarity, for it is those same songs that people most often record in one form or another, by filming me at concerts when I sing a certain song, or by making cool music videos that YouTube unfortunately takes down sooner or later for copyright violation.

But among the comments I do see, the pattern is consistent with which songs are most popular.  The songs I've just posted will get comments, of course, along with recent interviews and rants.  But beyond that, the daily fare tends to involve at least one new comment from someone in Mexico, in English, Spanish, or both, praising the Irish, and affirming Mexico's eternal connection to Ireland.  Often a similar comment from Ireland or the Irish diaspora, in English, Irish, or so combination thereof.  There is an active, ongoing discussion that never ends, in the comments section of a couple of videos of "I'm A Better Anarchist Than You," about sectarianism.  The discussion is always fueled anew by someone who comments on the song, who doesn't quite grasp its ironic intent, or does, and is offended anyway.  Then the anti-sectarian majority piles on once again, usually with good humor.

On most days, there is a new comment to be found as well from people who don't think like the majority of my listeners at all.  Each new day includes one of the following:  either someone will comment on a video of "Send Them Back" who understands the irony but is pretending not to, or who thinks it's genuinely a pro-fascism song, and they will say something supportive of genocide.  Or on either "Song for Michael Reinoehl" or "Time To Act (Song for Willem van Spronsen)" someone will say that others like Michael and Willem, such as the author of the song, should meet the same fates they did.  I've deleted hundreds of such comments and banned scores of fascists, but such comments are still almost as common as seeing "long live Ireland" pop up in there.  These songs don't get viewed all that much, but the far right likes to leave threatening and/or hateful words regularly.

For the first few years of YouTube, I didn't realize that comments existed.  For many more years, I don't know if I realized I had any influence over what happened in that comments section.  Later I thought it best to just leave it alone and see what people said, before eventually being convinced that it was better to block the fascists, they don't need a forum in the corners of the web that I can control.  But they keep finding me and certain songs, at a predictable trickle.

So there are my readings of the stats and the comments, for anyone out there who may or may not have ever wondered, who are those people who listen to that guy?  (Now, if there actually is anyone out there who was wondering just that, I'd love to know that I didn't just explore this rabbit hole all for my own entertainment, because I'm still not sure.)

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...