Winning the War to House Our People
In February 2018, US District Judge David O. Carter triggered a political crisis in Orange County, California. He ordered local officials to stop sweeping 700 homeless people from their encampments along the Santa Ana River, unless they were first able to provide them with housing or alternative shelter. He was responding to a lawsuit, demanding enforcement of their constitutional rights, brought by seven homeless individuals, the Orange County Catholic Worker and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Once the County patched together a temporary program of motel rooms and armory shelters, the sweep was allowed to take place, but County plans have since unraveled. Real estate interests and landlords organized up to a thousand anti-homeless protesters to pack Board of Supervisors meetings to block homeless housing anywhere in their communities. The judge set a July deadline for the County to either locate a site for the homeless to stay, or he would order a halt to all enforcement of anti-camping ordinances anywhere in the County. Similar dramas are confronting officials in Los Angeles, Florida, New York, Washington, DC, and all across the country. The intensification of the economic crisis is driving a huge increase in evictions, displacement, and homelessness.
Homelessness and Automation
Homelessness is ultimately the product of the accelerating automation of the US and the entire global economy. Automation is displacing workers in industry and other economic sectors, and is driving down the wages of those still working. Workers have less money for rent, if they have any at all. In the past, when American companies still needed industrial workers, they were willing to pay taxes to maintain them during hard times, but not anymore. Today, corporations fight tooth and nail for huge tax breaks, like the ones recently passed by Congress and the President, while funding for affordable housing for the unemployed and low-income workers is being eliminated step by step.
The declining rate of profitability in industry has led to a dramatic flow of capital into speculative investments, including real estate, especially in the “winner take all” cities, where the technology, finance, and cultural sectors are concentrated. Rents have exploded and are unleashing waves of displacement and homelessness. These impacts have also extended to relatively low-cost “rust belt” cities, where a combination of foreclosures, water bills, and unemployment have increased homelessness.
Part of the Fascist Offensive
The sweeps in Orange County are only one example of the massive government campaign in cities all across the country to isolate, criminalize and attack homeless people in an attempt to make them disappear. The private property economic system we live in has literally no use for people it cannot exploit and make money from. The danger of this situation cannot be overstated.
The assault on the rights of the homeless is seamlessly integrated into the overall fascist offensive that is reorganizing the State in its current form to eliminate all rights except those of private property. We have already seen it happening in the criminal justice system, where rights to appeal have been curtailed, and mass incarceration has skyrocketed.
One of the most dramatic examples of the fascist onslaught is the brazen mobilization to deny due process and constitutional rights for immigrants, by dramatically expanding the use of so-called “expedited release,” to deport immigrants with no hearing at all. This has been accompanied by the notorious separation of children from their families.
The homeless themselves and their fellow workers from all walks of life have fiercely resisted the anti-homeless campaign. They have put elected officials everywhere on notice: they have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and they are not going anywhere. As long as fascism can wrap itself in the American flag, it can consolidate its grip. But it stumbles when it violates and disrespects the very document it claims to honor. The American people will rise to defend what they understand to be their rights.
A relentless battle for the rights of the homeless has led to political standoffs similar to that in Orange County all across the country. In New York City, lawsuits led to the 1981 so-called “Callahan Decree,” that forces the city to house 95% of its homeless people every night in a vast network of shelters and hotel rooms. In Florida, the 1992 US District Court Pottinger decision found that Miami’s sweeps of the homeless violated the fourth, fifth, eighth, and fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution. In Los Angeles, the 2007 Jones Settlement has blocked the city from clearing sidewalk encampments.
The homeless are politically well-situated to resist. Because their equal economic situation brings together all ethnicities, they are not as easily isolated and set upon as those who are targeted solely on the basis of color. However, city officials have resorted to elaborate public relations campaigns and massive cover-ups to continue their illegal sweeps, acts of violence, and confiscations of personal property.
As a result, dispersal and assaults on the homeless have been coupled with liberal responses, including building more shelters, as a ruling class political tactic to divert attention from the heightened attacks. Los Angeles is using a $21 million allocation for shelters as an excuse for increasing encampment “clean- ups.” The much publicized $1.2 billion public-private “homeless initiative” in Los Angeles is a vehicle to give public money to private developers. Anti-homeless campaigns are supplemented with get-rich-quick-schemes, that will only aggravate the displacement that causes homelessness in the first place.
As a result of the intensifying crisis, virtually all of these court orders and settlements are under attack. In May, the City of Miami went back to court to file a motion to terminate the Pottinger Consent Decree. And another recent bill (SB 1045) in the California legislature is attempting to incarcerate “chronically homeless” people through a state conservatorship process.
The Role of Revolutionaries
Homeless people are forced to confront the system whether they want to or not. They face police sweeps, harassment, violence, and detention on a daily basis. However, the war cannot be won from a purely defensive stance. To move forward, we have to understand the cause of the attacks. A private property system that has no use for its discarded workers is literally trying to destroy them.
It does not have to be this way. The system that physically attacks people in the street, is the same system that is denying them a home in the first place. Private property has no morality and no conscience, except the almighty dollar where corporate profit is the only guiding principle. The private property system will not and cannot last forever. Any system that cannot feed, house and clothe its people can and will be overturned.
In order to win, revolutionaries have to point out that the system is organized by a tiny capitalist class, and that the housing movement is part of a much larger working class. The battle is bigger than just around homelessness or even housing. It is a struggle to take political power from the corporations and turn it over to the working class. It is a battle for a cooperative system where all human needs are met and all wealth is distributed based on need, not private profit.
The idea that America cannot house its people is patently absurd. The fact that anyone today would even suggest such a notion, is proof that our economic system is broken and needs to be replaced. The public housing programs that housed millions of Americans for decades were started in the 1930s, at a time when our national Gross Domestic Product was less than 5% of what it is now.
The forms of struggle in the housing movement include tent cities, building takeovers, encampment battles, and fights around cooperative housing, public housing and rent control. The homeless themselves are leading tent community-based groups such as Denver Out Loud, LA’s Skid Row organizations, and “First They Came for the Homeless,” in the San Francisco Bay Area. These communities are bases of operations for the homeless movement and training grounds for homeless leadership, fighting for housing and the basic necessities of life. Leadership is emerging from the ranks of the homeless, where many, until recently, had some measure of economic security and relatively stable positions in society.
These communities, cooperatives, and struggles are the places where the political ideas and the vision of a cooperative society can be learned. The role of revolutionaries is to introduce those political ideas and that vision. These communities will ultimately survive when they band together to overturn the private property system altogether and replace it with a cooperative society, based on meeting human needs. The first step is to educate the fighters around the need to hold government accountable for housing its people.
September/October 2018 Vol28.Ed5
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011