On April 8, the Wall Street Journal reported nearly one-third of all apartment renters failed to make April rent. Most predict we’re entering a period like the Great Depression. 26 million Americans have filed for unemployment, with more expected as strategic sectors of U.S. capitalism like oil production face collapse. One president of a Federal Reserve Bank, whose job is to restore confidence in U.S. capitalism, predicts 30% quarterly unemployment, meaning an additional one-sixth of Americans would fall into poverty.
Working people face unprecedented, life or death challenges while billionaires like Jeff Bezos are making additional billions off the crisis. To fight back we will need to organize, and to organize effectively we will need to learn the lessons of past struggles of working class people who faced similar obstacles. During the last Great Depression, revolutionaries and radicals played an instrumental role in fighting to keep people in their homes, to organize the unemployed, and led massive strikes that won historic gains for the working class.
In more recent memory, Socialist Alternative played a leading role in organizing inspiring examples of resistance following the 2008 financial crisis. Occupy Homes MN, an anti-eviction movement focused in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota was one of the most powerful. At that time, working-class people were initially stunned. But in 2011, people started fighting back. Highlighting the instinctual internationalism of working-class people, American workers in Wisconsin took inspiration from Tunisian and Egyptian workers fighting against an imperialist-backed dictatorship. A few months later, Occupy Wall Street spread rapidly to cities across the country, inspired by the Indignatos occupations in Greece and Spain.
It was a major step forward for working-class people. Occupy reframed society in class terms, the 99% versus the wealthiest 1%, rejected the leadership of corporate-backed corrupt politicians in both parties, and emphasized mass, democratic struggle as the key to winning. In Minneapolis, with the help of Socialist Alternative, Occupy was taken to the next level by linking up with actual working-class struggles, leading to a vibrant movement against foreclosures and evictions that survived for two years, winning important victories.
Lesson #1 – Don’t move. They can’t evict us all.
At the height of the Occupy Homes MN campaign, over a dozen working-class homeowners publicly committed to resisting their evictions with mass community support. They announced this in a video which included other important demands related to the foreclosure crisis at that time.
Their demands included a moratorium on all foreclosures, a ban on local law enforcement from carrying out evictions, a bailout for underwater homeowners, and putting vacant bank-owned homes into public ownership to be used for immediate housing.
The leverage that came from refusing to move was so effective, that many of these residents won what were considered impossible victories. Publicly pledging not to move transformed the foreclosure crisis from a largely personal (and often shameful) decision to leave one’s home into a empowering political act of collective solidarity.
At the same time, it presented a dangerous threat to Wall Street banks who relied on bullying families to quietly move, and a political crisis for politicians who gave lip-service to working-class families, but failed to take any meaningful action. Furthermore, when someone publicly refused to move, they immediately found community support from others, including those in the same circumstances.
As long as individual renters are at home worried about how they will make rent, corporate landlords have the upper hand. Many renters have probably read some articles or talked to some co-workers and know on some level that they are not alone. In most buildings there are few people in this situation on every floor.
The first step is organizing these people together so that they can find some collective strength, and then linking this up to other issues that affect neighbors in their building. Some may want necessary repairs in the building. We need to make the case that the way to win these is by organizing alongside those who can’t pay.
Lesson #2 – Mass direct action gets the goods
Many of the Occupy Homes MN victories were only won after hard fought confrontations. Wall Street didn’t simply accept defeat. They turned to their political allies, often Democrats, at the county and city level to mobilize the forces of the state to carry out evictions. In one example, a family was evicted from their home in military style raids three times in a week.
The moment an eviction began, Occupy Homes utilized direct action tactics to delay the eviction process, and a text-alert went out to a broader layer of community supporters to mobilize to the house. We also utilized social media to organize call in campaigns on the elected officials responsible for sending the sheriffs or police to carry out the evictions, and contacted local news to document the event. This put immediate pressure on politicians who presided over the law enforcement agencies that carried out the eviction.
As the sheriffs and police tried to secure the property, Occupy Homes MN would organize mass, nonviolent civil disobedience to challenge the eviction. For example, in one such mobilization we linked arms and marched directly towards the police carrying out the eviction. I participated in this action as a middle school teacher, and the person to my left in the maroon Minnesota Gophers hat was also a teacher at the time.
In most cases, forceful evictions and taxpayer funded 24/7 security of Wall Street owned vacant homes was politically toxic, and we simply took down the boards and moved people back in. Due to a small legal loophole in Minnesota, sheriffs only had to change the locks and secure a property to count as an eviction. After that, City Hall’s police department had to try to carry out de-facto evictions because of trespassing laws.
In today’s crisis, landlords are already preparing to evict renters who can’t pay. Some are using manipulative gas-lighting tactics to try to force renters to pay. Others have adopted terrifying, vigilante style physical intimidation to force renters out.
There are numerous reports of landlords still trying to evict people during the lockdown, a slap in the face for health care and essential workers keeping us safe, or illegally searching their tenants’ social security numbers to intimidate them into paying.
All indications are that landlords are preparing for mass evictions at the earliest possible date, and if we don’t organize, many working-class people who did nothing wrong will conclude they must move out when faced with the combined power of their landlords and the state. We have to resist!
Lesson #3 – Mass involvement of the wider working class is crucial
All of this was possible because Occupy Homes MN actively engaged the wider working-class community in the planning and participation of these protests through canvassing and transparent, democratic mass meetings. In some cases we even invited politicians to try to explain themselves at the meetings, though we made sure the working-class homeowners ran the show.
Engaging the wider community was essential because politicians routinely tried to paint the protests as “outside Occupy agitators” in attempts to split the wider working class away from the movement, and because these anti-eviction actions challenged the law. Mass action and mass involvement of the working class was the best defense, even in the courts.
This time around over three million people have signed a petition to go on a rent strike if they do not win protections to keep them in their homes. National polls show an astonishing 55% support for policies to cancel rent payments. We know we have widespread support. Wall Street investors and corporate landlords can also read these polls, and will rely on backroom lobbying to stop any meaningful change. They can accept politicians making bold promises as long as they get paid in the end.
A mass, coordinated movement of renters and working-class homeowners, which includes mass online planning meetings in every state, city, and apartment building, will be essential. Such a structure can also lay the basis for expanding renter power to address other issues renters face with their landlord, while also fighting for broader transformations of the housing market, like taxing the billionaire class to build permanently affordable, democratically controlled, socially owned housing.
Lesson #4 – Don’t trust Democratic Party politicians
Democratic Party politicians in city halls across the country presided over the foreclosure crisis, and did nothing while working-class people in cities like Detroit were devastated by Wall Street banks. Even in “wealthier” cities like Minneapolis, some neighborhoods, especially neighborhoods with a majority working-class people of color, experienced 50% foreclosure rates.
While their sheriffs and their cops evicted working-class people, Democratic Party politicians in City Halls did little except point to unviable or unhelpful pieces of legislation at other levels of government, and blame working-class people for not voting or for voting for Republicans.
Little is being done to protect renters. Rep Ilhan Omar and The Squad introduced federal legislation about cancelling rent, but they propose doing this by subsidizing landlords who opt into the program. Many cities already have programs like this to incentivize affordable housing, and landlords opt out to make more money or leave the “affordable” units vacant. Omar’s bill is endorsed by a massive list of housing non-profits whose budgets rely on collecting rent, and who have cynically abandoned the perspective of a mass movement led by working-class renters long ago.
Nevertheless, Ilhan Omar’s bill attempts to point towards a comprehensive solution, compared to other Democrats like Mayor Bill De Blasio. While he has exchanged heated soundbytes with Trump, he added to the narrative that working-class people are fundamentally responsible to make up the difference in this crisis by suggesting they should use security deposits. De Blasio went further saying “I don’t agree with a rent strike because there’s too many folks who are trying to keep their buildings going.” Ask any renter who pays rent and has a slumlord about that logic!
Many Democratic Party mayors like De Blasio will adopt similar talking points, trying to hide behind the concerns of smaller landlords to hide the crimes of massive corporate landlord firms. In many ways a homeowner renting a room or the second floor of a duplex have way more in common with their tenants than with these giant corporate landlords.
For example, the top 10 corporate landlords rent out 640,000 units and make billions off their tenants. These people should be paying for this situation, not the laid off restaurant workers or the construction workers at home. These giant corporate landlords, the big banks and billionaire investors have made billions off us and should pay to fix the crisis.
Big developers, real estate investors, and landlords have disproportionate influence in the back rooms of City Halls across the country, and their main allies are Democratic Party politicians. Many of these politicians talk a lot about “affordable housing” when they need to win votes from working class renters and homeowners, who are a supermajority of voters in these cities.
During the Occupy Homes MN campaign, Socialist Alternative MN ran Ty Moore for City Council, whose campaign was linked to the anti-eviction work to such an extent that Sheriffs carried out a military-style eviction on one working class homeowner who publicly supported Socialist Alternative’s campaign on Election Day!
Kshama Sawant in Seattle is an example of the type of elected officials working people need in a crisis like this. She won her election as an independent socialist who refuses donations from corporations, real-estate investors, and landlords. She’s accountable to the movement, and she’s been able to accomplish more for working people with one seat on Seattle City Council than most Democratic Party politicians have accomplished with complete majorities in City Halls across the country.
This is why corporations like Amazon and the Democratic Party teamed up to try to defeat her last year. She won, and now she stands out as a bright star in these dark days by unapologetically supporting striking renters, and fighting to tax corporations like Amazon to fund relief.
Lesson #5 – Socialists fight for a fundamentally different society
Occupy Homes MN was a wider coalition that included many different political understandings, which could only be united on the basis of mobilizing the wider working class into action. Within this, Socialist Alternative argued successfully that a house by house strategy would not be sufficient, and that the movement needed to explicitly adopt immediate political demands like a moratorium on all foreclosures, a ban on using police and sheriffs to carry out evictions to create a de facto moratorium, and the need for a massive bailout of working-class homeowners who were underwater with their mortgages. More fundamentally, Socialist Alternative argued that the massive resources of the Wall Street banks should be brought under democratic public ownership in order to guarantee housing as a human right.
Occupy Homes MN also worked with other organizations, non-profits, and legal resources that had more technical experience with the foreclosure process. These organizations made the anti-eviction campaigns stronger when they supported the collective organizing and movement building which was the essential force keeping people in their homes. If they adopted a dismissive approach towards the potential of mass organizing, in practice demanding the movement bend to them and their past experience, they played an utterly unhelpful role. This was even true of some organizations that had radical roots and traditions, but after operating for years or decades in periods where mass movements were rare, they adopted a cynical and dismissive approach to the potential victories that could have been won through mass organizing and a mass refusal to leave their homes.
Tens of millions of people can’t pay rent, and three million people have signed up to consciously go on rent strike, though many don’t know how. Genuine socialists do not ignore the real challenges of this moment, but instead outline concrete, practical next steps to overcome these obstacles. Working people have tremendous power when organized and fighting for their collective interests – and the strike is the most powerful tool. Of course we need to be sober that in any strike, the key to victory is how well organized we are across the state, in every city, in every neighborhood, and in every building. We need to be honest with working-class people that in this moment of economic crisis, with congress passing bipartisan bailouts to Wall Street and corporations, a strike may be the most viable tool to keep our neighbors in their homes.
Longterm mass unemployment, homelessness, and a lack of decent health care offer a different type of public health crisis for working-class people than the immediate challenges faced during the Coronavirus lockdown. Slumlords, price-gouging corporate landlords, profit driven billionaire real-estate investors, and do-nothing corrupt politicians on both sides of the aisle are part of the DNA of capitalism. Mass working-class collective action is the best defense we have. It’s the most viable way to keep people in their homes. It’s the most viable starting point to win a socialist society based around mutual solidarity and human needs, not corporate greed.