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Rage One (blog)

lunes, febrero 25, 2008

Movement for Justice in El Barrio: Urban Zapatismo in NYC (RJ Maccani)


Urban Zapatismo in NYC

Movement for Justice in El Barrio
Urban Zapatismo in NYC
By RJ Maccani
for the April/May 2008 issue of Left Turn Magazine

Zapatismo is not a new political ideology or a rehash
of old ideologies. Zapatismo is nothing, it doesn't
exist. It only serves as a bridge, to cross from one
side to the other. So everyone fits within zapatismo,
everyone who wants to cross from one side to the
other. Everyone has his or her own side and other
side. There are no universal recipes, lines,
strategies, tactics, laws, rules or slogans. There is
only a desire: to build a better world, that is, a new
- The Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous General
Command of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation
(CCRI-CG of the EZLN)

Movement for Justice in El Barrio (MJB), an East
Harlem-based organization of immigrants and low-income
people of color, has been fighting gentrification in
Manhattan’s “last frontier” for over three years now.
Being majority Mexican and sharing an affinity for the
zapatistas’ way of organizing, MJB decided less than a
year after forming to join the Other Campaign as an
essential component of their work for
self-determination. Inspired by the zapatistas’ Sixth
Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, the Other Campaign
is a transnational, anti-capitalist movement for all
Mexicans to liberate Mexico “from below and to the
left.” Non-Mexican members of MJB support this
initiative and are attentively watching the
development of the Zezta Internazional, the global
movement inspired by the zapatistas’ Sixth
Declaration. MJB describes its work as “urban
zapatismo in the heart of New York City.” What does
this mean when the indigenous leadership of the EZLN
describes zapatismo as “nothing…only…a bridge”? What
is it that MJB are crossing over with this bridge
called ‘zapatismo’?

Defeating Neoliberal Gentrification

Just a year ago, members of MJB were celebrating their
victory against the multi-millionaire Steve Kessner,
the worst slumlord in El Barrio. Or at least he was
the worst. MJB forced Kessner to sell his entire East
Harlem portfolio of 47 buildings just months after
boasting to the Village Voice, “I'm not selling... No
one is forcing me out of the neighborhood I helped
build. This particular problem with this group [MJB]
has been my only headache. Listen, I like this
neighborhood. I have four sons in the business and
we're going to grow. I'm going to finish my job."

Reflecting on this considerable victory, MJB member
Oscar Dominguez described the broader horizon of the
group’s work:
Since we began as an organization, our struggle has
been a fight against neoliberalism. Our targets: HPD
[the City’s Department of Housing Preservation and
Development], the multi-national corporations, and
landlords are all capitalists. We forced one powerful
capitalist out named Steven Kessner. He was replaced
by another capitalist, a multi-national corporation
from London named Dawnay, Day Group. These are our
targets. The struggle is the same. Our campaigns are
against all of these. The form in which these
capitalists try to gain their money is a crime against

MJB is now launching their International Campaign in
Defense of El Barrio, an initiative of ‘David vs.
Goliath’ proportions that will have them challenging
the capitalist gentrifiers of El Barrio wherever on
Earth they may be found. MJB will tour to build
participation in the campaign, and is scheduled to
appear in Southern California and Texas in March and
the UK and Spain in April, with other support
committees already forming in Chicago, Rhode Island,
and Philadelphia.

The UK tour, which already has stops scheduled in
London, Bristol, Reading, Birmingham, Manchester,
Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, Brighton, Leeds,
Stirling, and Aberdeen, Scotland builds crucial
support on the ground to fight Dawnay, Day Group at
its home. This means that MJB will once again be going
after the biggest capitalist on the block. Following
their purchase of Kessner’s 47 buildings in East
Harlem for the whopping sum of 250 million pounds,
Dawnay, Day Group, which either owns or manages $10
billion in assets, informed The London Times that East
Harlem is the “last area of the whole of Manhattan
being gentrified” and that they in intend to take
advantage of lax tenant protection laws in NYC to
raise rents tenfold.

MJB is attempting to use that bridge called zapatismo
to cross over from failed and compromised struggles
against gentrification to successful ones that
actually address its root cause: neoliberal
capitalism. This explicit anti-capitalism is a key
component of MJB’s urban zapatismo. There is another
key component however, which has likely been the
primary catalyst for the upsurge of interest in and
support for MJB’s work over the past two years.

Self-Determination, Autonomy, Participatory Democracy

Much of MJB’s day-to-day work looks like that of many
other community-based, social justice organizations
around the country; they employ a variety of
non-violent tactics (protests, direct actions, media
tours, court actions, protests) against specific
targets (landlords, mortgage lenders, city
institutions) to achieve winnable demands (stopping a
rent increase, getting the heat turned on in the
winter, cancellation of unjust fees). The two key
features that define MJB’s urban zapatismo are their
explicit anti-capitalism and their commitment to
honoring and developing self-determination, autonomy
and participatory democracy within and outside of
their organization and community. This means, for
example, that unlike some other prominent housing
rights groups in NYC, MJB accepts no government
funding, and tactical decisions are not imposed from
above, but made by those who must implement them.

“We represent ourselves,” announced MJB member Victor
Caletre during their recent NYC Encuentro for Dignity
and Against Gentrification. “Each of the 23 [now 26]
buildings we work in has its own tenant association
that decides what they will do and how they will
choose to struggle,” Caletre continued, “And the rest
of the organization supports their decision… It’s not
only an organization that is struggling, but a
community, and that community has the right to
decide.” With this in mind, MJB recently carried out a
Consulta del Barrio in which it consulted residents in
East Harlem in order “to hear from people about where
we should direct our next struggle.”

East Harlem is home to more than 100,000 people, half
of whom are Latino. Spanish is the most spoken
language after English, and is followed by Chinese and
other Asian languages, Arabic, and several African
languages. Recognizing the many worlds that exist
within East Harlem, and echoing a sentiment that the
zapatistas share when asked why they do not seek state
power in Mexico, MJB member Oscar Dominguez
inaugurated the Consulta del Barrio’s first town hall
meeting by saying, “We are but one organization. How
can we make decisions for El Barrio? We’ve learned
that we can fight together and that the people
themselves can fight without having to be under one

This framework for movement building, rooted in the
active practice of self-determination by each
participant and each organization involved, requires
intentional cultivation. The Consulta del Barrio
process—its town hall meetings, community dialogues,
extensive street outreach, door knocking, house
meetings, and community-wide votes—is a methodology of
struggle and an organizing model that fosters this
type of democratic participation throughout the
community. Mexico’s Other Campaign, with its
sector-based preparatory meetings and national
listening tours, directly inspired MJB’s Consulta.
“The Other Campaign has given us the magic touch to
find another way,” remarked Caletre.

Over 1,500 community members participated in the
Consulta del Barrio, and MJB is currently processing
the results in order to launch a campaign later this
year around the new issue that the community has
selected. With the Consulta del Barrio, MJB is
bringing more residents into the work and, by
branching out beyond the struggle against
gentrification, moving closer to its broader mission
of “fighting against neoliberalism and discrimination
in all of its forms… racism, homophobia, xenophobia,
sexism…” Through this innovation, which helps to
realize an actually existing and evolving urban
zapatismo, MJB has attracted a great deal of interest
and support outside of East Harlem.

A Model and Resource for the Movement

Last year, MJB’s Juan Haro was invited to Barcelona
for the KRAX conference, an international gathering of
organizations pursuing creative responses to urban
conflict. Haro shared the Consulta del Barrio process
with eleven organizations from eleven different
countries, including Argentina, Bosnia, England,
Japan, and Venezuela. MJB was also invited to present
at a wide range of US-based universities and community
organizations throughout the year. Of particular note
was their extensive work with local chapters of
Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and at one of
their regional action camps. “It has really taken us
by surprise,” MJB member Ana Laura Merino reflected,
“to know how many organizations in NYC, throughout the
US, in Mexico, and even in Spain have reached out to
us, wish to learn how we fight in NYC, and have
offered us their support.”

MJB spent time in 2007 not only to share their work
with others, but also to collectively learn the
lessons of other struggles. In particular, they had
the opportunity to learn about the Young Lords, the
racial injustice surrounding the case of the Jena 6,
and the struggle of the Asamblea Popular de los
Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO).

MJB is the only organization being invited back to
Barcelona’s KRAX conference this year, to share the
methodology of the Consulta with eleven new
organizations from eleven different countries. This
time, MJB will also be using the experience to share
the zapatistas’ Sixth Declaration and build their
International Campaign in Defense of El Barrio.

Encuentro and Invitation

Through an initial NYC Encuentro for Dignity and
Against Gentrification this past October, MJB has
begun to build horizontal relationships with other
people struggling against gentrification. A
multi-cultural and multi-media evening including
discussions, plays, sing-alongs, movie clips, and even
a neoliberal gentrification piñata for kids, the
Encuentro attracted representatives from 27 groups,
some coming to East Harlem from as far as Rhode
Island, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and New Jersey. A
follow-up to the Encuentro is planned for this year to
bring anti-gentrification groups together with
international adherents to the zapatistas’ Sixth

MJB will soon also be releasing their foundational
declaration for the International Campaign in Defense
of El Barrio, with a call for endorsements from around
the world. From their embattled apartments in East
Harlem, MJB members are inviting you to traverse a
bridge with them – a bridge to defeat neoliberalism
and build participatory democracy on the block and
around the world. Will you accept their invitation?

Movement for Justice in El Barrio can be contacted
directly at

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