NEW YORK – Over 120 people and 40 organizations participated in the Third Encounter for Dignity and Against Gentrification hosted by the Movement for Justice in el Barrio this past Sunday in East Harlem, New York. The meeting, referred to by the Spanish term encuentro, brought together activists from places as far as California, Puerto Rico, and Maryland.
“The objective of this third encuentro was to connect our struggle. Our struggle doesn’t have boundaries,” said Filiberto Hernandez, a member of the Movement for Justice in el Barrio.
During the five-hour-long encuentro, members of different organizations spoke about the ongoing struggles in their communities. Members of the South African Shack Dwellers or Abahlali Movement were present via video conference and discussed displacement in Africa caused by the South African government’s initiative to clear out the country’s slums by 2014.
Other speakers included Tom Demott who spoke on behalf of the Coalition to Preserve our Community. He discussed successful community efforts to curtail the multibillion dollar expansion plan of Columbia University. Such expansion would result in the displacement of over 5,000 tenants, according to Nellie Hester Bailey of the Harlem Tenants Council.
A New York appeals court voted in a three-to-two decision to not allow the state to use eminent domain to help Columbia obtain the land in Upper Manhattan. However Columbia plans to appeal the decision.
Bailey emphasized the importance of showing support for social causes, critical thinking, and offering financial support when possible. A representative from Sunset Park Alliance of Neighbors emphasized the need to think about how to prepare residents to use venues available to them to speak out.
“We don’t have money, what we have is people,” he said.
The practice of the encuentro was inspired by the contemporary Zapatista Army of National Liberation movement in Mexico and this grassroots model is based on bringing together social activists dedicated to fighting similar struggles. The Movement described their encuentros as a way to “get to know and recognize one another in our struggles for a world where many worlds fit and against neoliberal exclusion,” according to an article published in the Movement’s newspaper.
The Movement for Justice in el Barrio was formed in 2004 in response to gentrification in East Harlem and, more specifically, the use of illegal tactics commonly employed by landlords to pressure their tenants to vacate housing. “There are city laws that don’t allow tenants to be evicted over night so the landlords use tactics that put the health of the tenants at risk,” said Oscar Dominguez, a member of the Movement for Justice in el Barrio, during an interview with Radio Zapatista.
The Movement for Justice in el Barrio fights against these illegal tactics by mobilizing tenants, organizing protests, filing legal suits, or working with the bank that owns the building’s mortgage, according to Dominguez.
The two dominant themes that arose during the encuentro were collaboration across borders in the battle against gentrification and the question of where the struggle should go next.
“We shared our struggles, our experiences. What people were asking was what are we going to do? How can we support each other? This question wasn’t there before,” said Dominguez.
Photo by Cesar Toscano.