Never particularly attentive to the lives of ordinary people — or developments outside the major hubs of government, capital, and entertainment — the American news media becomes especially myopic and trivial during the presidential election season, which seems to grow longer and more encompassing every four years.
In an effort to better understand some of the stories being left behind by the horse race, we asked writers and activists from across the United States for brief reports on political developments and campaigns, both electoral and otherwise, that have been significant in their respective regions over the past year. Below are responses from Jim Vrabel in Boston, Madison Van Oort in Iowa, Kali Akuno in Mississippi, Darwin BondGraham in the San Francisco Bay Area, Marisela B. Gomez in Baltimore, and Charles Tonderai Mudede in Seattle.
While these six reports represent too small and arbitrary a sample to allow for any broad conclusions, it is striking that struggles over housing and land use are at the center of nearly every one of them.
A protest in Baltimore opposing public financing for Port Covington. via Popular Resistance.
Jim Vrabel: Housing and Income Inquality in Boston
“Everybody complains about the weather,” the old saying used to be (before global warming) “but nobody does anything about it.” Nowadays, everybody complains about housing prices and income inequality. In Boston and Massachusetts, some people are doing something about it.
In November, Boston voters will be asked to approve a 1% Community Preservation Tax, a surcharge on property tax bills that would generate some $20 million annually. Under state law, this new revenue must be used for preservation, open space, or affordable housing. Suburban communities that have already adopted it tend to steer it toward the first two categories. But in Boston — which has the third highest housing costs and third highest income inequality gap among big U.S. cities — the pressure is on to use it for the last one.
The campaign is being supported by a broad coalition of groups led by the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance and the Massachusetts Council of Community Development Corporations. A similar effort was defeated in 2001 due to the tepid and last-minute support of then-mayor Tom Menino and strong opposition by the Boston business community. This time around — with the growing concerns over housing affordability and the income gap — current mayor Mary Walsh has come out early and strongly for it and the city’s business community is sitting out the fight (some members are backing it), so there is a good chance that the measure will pass.
Sky-high housing prices and income inequality are combining to accelerate gentrification in Boston, which has prompted another campaign. This one is called the Right to Remain and it is being waged by a coalition of local community and social justice groups. Its goal is make sure that low- and moderate-income residents are not priced out of the city and one of its strategies is to call for establishing “neighborhood stabilization zones” to slow gentrification in up-till-now affordable areas like Chinatown, Dorchester, East Boston and Roxbury.
American cities are where everyone wants to be right now. Some of us remember when things were different. We remember when cities were being abandoned in the 1960s, when cities were promised investment from the so-called “peace dividend” that never materialized after the Vietnam War ended in the 1970s, and when gentrification began in the 1980s. Some of us also know that, throughout history, American cities have been seen as ladders of opportunity for the poor and working class to climb. These two campaigns in Boston are attempts to make sure that all of the rungs remain in that ladder.
A third campaign is being across Massachusetts. It calls for adoption of a so-called “Millionaires’ Tax” of 4% on the income of any resident that exceeds $1 million a year. Sponsored by Raise Up Massachusetts, a coalition of community and faith-based groups and public and private-sector unions, it would generate an additional $2 billion annually. The new revenue would be applied directly to either housing or wealth redistribution, since it is earmarked for transportation and education. But it would give Massachusetts — which, despite its reputation as a liberal bastion, has resisted all attempts to change its flat-rate income tax for a more graduated and progressive one — a chance to take step in that direction.
Jim Vrabel is the author of When In Boston: A Time Line & Almanac (Northeastern University Press), A People’s History of the New Boston (University of Massachusetts Press), and Homage to Henry: A Dramatization of John Berryman’s The Dream Songs.
Madison Van Oort: NODAPL in Iowa
Bill Gephard, president of the Iowa State Building and Trades warned back in August that “North Dakota lawlessness threatens to spill into Iowa.” Over the past few months, Gephard’s fears of “unwieldy individuals” and “aggressive protesters” appearing in Iowa has in many ways come true. With only a fraction of the Dakota Access Pipeline completed in Iowa, construction planned across 18 counties remains significantly vulnerable to disturbance. While most independent media coverage has rightfully focused on the brave water protectors in North Dakota, a number of events in Iowa are worth highlighting.
Most dramatically, someone set fire to equipment at three different Iowa construction sites, causing an estimated $2,000,000 in damage. While no suspects have been identified, authorities say they believe a pipeline protester is to blame.
And in Southeast Iowa, a group calling itself Mississippi Stand set up a small but militant camp near the pipeline’s crossing of the Mississippi River. For over two months, the group engaged in an array of direct actions, including regularly locking themselves to vital Dakota Access equipment and halting construction for hours at a time.
Although numerous organizations across the state have been rallying against the pipeline since Dakota Access announced its plans in 2014, many such efforts have focused almost exclusively on fighting eminent domain abuse, rarely mentioning native resistance in North Dakota or reflecting on how ‘protecting private property’ might itself reinforce settler colonialism.
In contrast, Mississippi Stand expressed explicit solidarity with Standing Rock and indigenous battles against Big Oil. The group openly criticized Dakota Access for misleading residents of one of Iowa’s poorest areas with the false promise of local jobs — a deception confirmed by mainstream Iowa media — connecting (while not equating) histories of displacement and environmental racism with current realities of many local Iowans.
The encampment started when 35-year-old Jessica Reznicek, a Catholic Worker from Des Moines, blocked the entrance to the Lee County construction site with tires and created a “one-woman occupation.” After she was released from jail, Reznicek returned to the site where several supporters soon joined her.
Cameron Kennedy, a Mississippi Stand member who faces up to two years in jail for locking himself to a Dakota Access transport truck in October, explained that the group strategically shifted the location of its occupation: “We’ve managed to occupy the sludge dump where DAPL has been dumping toxic sludge into the ground water. Right now, we know for a fact they need this dump site in order to keep boring under the Mississippi River. So we’ve managed to strike one of their critical nodes of infrastructure... What we need more than anything right now is people to help us defend this site.”
Over past week, the group confronted escalating aggression from local police and private security, with unfortunately little increased support on the ground. The group announced on its Facebook page on October 27th that construction under the Mississippi has been completed; and while the camp has effectively disbanded, the group is currently raising funds to winterize their trailer and travel to North Dakota to support resistance near the Missouri River.
Madison Van Oort is a PhD student at the University of Minnesota.
Kali Akuno: Cooperation Jackson and the Struggle for Community Production, Economic Democracy and a Just Transition in Mississippi
A struggle to define the future of the U.S. project is taking place in Mississippi. It is an asymmetrical struggle granted, but a defining struggle nonetheless. The struggle centers on whether the settler-colonial order of white supremacy will prevail in the form of a neo-confederacy that aims to roll back all of the social gains of the 20th century through the repression of Black, Indigenous, Latin@ and immigrant communities in the effort to revive 16th century relations of production, or whether a new democratic social order will prevail on the basis of self-determination for Black and Indigenous communities and working class emancipation in the form of common ownership over the means of production, particularly the Star Trek like 4th generation industrial technologies that are making mass production sustainable and accessible. This contest is primarily between the forces of progress on the left, driven by the Black working class, and the forces of reaction on the right, driven largely by white petit bourgeois forces.
Mississippi is the heart of the neo-confederacy. It is presently dominated by the Tea Party, which is in possession of the Governor's office and holds a supermajority in the state’s legislature. With possession of two of the state's three branches of government they are working overtime to legislate us back to the 16th century. If these forces have their way, Mississippi might become the first state in the union that ONLY functions to protect private contracts, as the aim of the neo-Confederates is to eliminate the public sector of the economy and social regulation almost entirely. This means no public schools, no public parks or recreation, no environmental standards or regulation, and no worker protections or rights monitoring. And that’s not all. In their ideal world everything will be privately owned, and owned by the white ruling elite and their allies, who have dominated this settler colonial project since its founding.
Of course, these forces are not without opposition. Throughout the state, progressive forces are fighting at every turn to preserve the gains of the 20th century — like the right to vote, the right to education, labor protections and environmental standards. Many of these fights have been able to keep the worse of the neo-Confederate proposals at bay for the last three years, but not without a cost. Fighting to preserve the status quo when you don’t own and control the means of production, including the media, is ultimately not sustainable. There must be a vision, and an organizing strategy and program to accompany it, to move progressive forces from defensive to offensive positions. This is where forces like Cooperation Jackson come decisively into the mix.
Cooperation Jackson is an instrument of the Jackson-Kush Plan, which is a counter-hegemonic strategy to transform the state of Mississippi. Cooperation Jackson is an emerging network of cooperative enterprises and supporting social solidarity institutions based in Jackson, MS. Our aim is to transform Jackson’s economy and social order by building a vibrant local social and solidarity economy anchored by worker and community owned enterprises that are grounded in sustainable and self-sufficient practices of production, distribution, consumption and recycling/reuse.
Since our emergence in 2014, Cooperation Jackson has employed a “build and fight” strategy. We work to build a base, to develop the productive forces within Mississippi, and to build a solidarity economy to advance the cause of economic democracy. We fight against capitalism, settler-colonialism and white supremacy in all their manifestations and for political power and self-determination. But, the area where we have been the most critical to the overall progressive movement in Mississippi has been in the development and promotion of a radical, but all inclusive vision of a just transition from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy based on community production. We are currently working to turn this vision into a reality by electing a slate of radical candidates for Mayor and city council in Jackson’s 2017 elections to institute major portions of our just transition plan, and to raise enough funds (hopefully with the help of readers like you and progressive forces through the US and the world) to build our first Center for Community Production in January 2017, which will be a Fab Lab (digital fabrication laboratory), maker space, coding and programming hub, and eventually a Fab Academy that will enable us to transform Jackson into a “Fab City”.
If we succeed in these endeavors, we will strike some critical blows against the neo-Confederate project. With the Center for Community Production we will shift relations of production by acquiring basic elements of the means of production. And with the implementation of the just transition plan, we will weaken the hold of the petro-chemical industry in our state. So, a critical struggle is being waged in Mississippi, one that demonstrates that progressive forces can make critical interventions with sound vision, strategy, and organizing.
Kali Akuno is an organizer, educator, and writer for human rights and social justice. He is the co-director of Cooperation Jackson, which is an emerging network of worker cooperatives and supporting institutions. Cooperation Jackson is fighting to create economic democracy by creating a vibrant solidarity economy in Jackson, MS that will help transform Mississippi and the South. He served as the Director of Special Projects and External Funding in the Mayoral Administration of the late Chokwe Lumumba of Jackson, MS. His focus was supporting cooperative development, sustainability, human rights and international relations.
Darwin BondGraham: Gentrification and Renters' Struggles in the Bay Area
Obscenely high rents, rising evictions, and the displacement of working and middle-class tenants has been the news story of the San Francisco Bay Area for about five years now. The latest development is the political awakening of renters across the region. They are organizing to protect themselves against a confluence of long-term economic trends, including stagnating incomes and rising property values. And they're battling landlords in an effort to rewrite state-and-local laws that currently treat housing as laxly-regulated commodity to be squeezed for maximum profit, not as a human right to be secured for the common good.
The result is that five Bay Area cities have new rent control and eviction protection measures on the ballot this year. And amendments are proposed to existing rent control and eviction protection laws in Oakland, and Berkeley.
Beyond this, renters unions are emerging in a numerous other Northern California cities. They've already forced debates on housing and inequality in unlikely suburban locales like Concord. In Santa Rosa — a city that since the 1960s has been politically dominated by homeowners and developers — tenant activists managed this year to pass a new rent control law.
Of course this fight is happening everywhere, but the Bay Area’s singular role in the new global economy has made its housing crisis seem more extreme here. Being the epicenter of the tech industry, the Bay has both prospered and perversely suffered from a six-year economic expansion that has sucked in hundreds of billions in investment capital to finance startups and Fortune 500 companies, many of which, ironically, are trying to design robots and apps that will further drive down wages for many, or entirely replace jobs with new forms of automation. The growth of the tech sector has attracted tens of thousands of highly paid new residents who are putting unprecedented pressure on housing prices. Combined with the region’s limited undeveloped land and inability to rapidly add new housing, and a historic construction deficit, the Bay’s tech-driven boom has fueled a demand-driven crisis in which rents rise while average wages stagnate.
But it's not all impersonal economic forces from without that are to blame for the housing emergency. The crisis is also driven by the purposeful strategies of Wall Street-backed rental housing aggregators, greedy get-rich-quick investors, and opportunistic developers. The region's stressed and limited housing stock is ripe for exploitation by those with ample capital and no scruples.
Geographer Richard Walker’s examination of the role inequality, speculation, financial bloat, and tax havens play in undermining housing affordability in the Bay Area is a useful, big-picture explainer that shows how all this combines. Walker sets the table for more granular stories about the suffering renters endure at the hands of market logic.
I’ve yet to see anyone put a price tag on how much landlords are extracting in increased profits from Bay Area renters due to the housing crisis, but I think it’s fair to estimate that it’s in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually across the region. That’s hundreds of millions in workers’ wages being extracted by landlords simply because California's state housing laws and regulations, and most local housing laws, allow property owners to monopolize socially created value in land, and capture this value by increasing rents at whatever pace they choose.
And of course the economic damages to renters are only a financial measure of a problem that is multidimensional. The Bay Area’s housing crisis is simultaneously a public health crisis.
Prior to 2016, the last California city that successfully enacted rent control was Hollywood, back in 1985. (Richmond passed a rent control law in 2015, but landlords spent heavily to gather voter signatures and have it repealed.) Thus the sudden explosion of new renter activism to demand rent control is, if not surprising, definitely a historical break. So far this movement has been overshadowed by other political stories of national and statewide importance, but it's worth paying closer attention to.
One center of the new renters' movement is the island town of Alameda, just across the Bay from San Francisco and next to Oakland. There, a scrappy tenants coalition has managed, in little more than a year, and on the efforts of volunteers, to place a strong rent control and eviction protection measure on the November ballot. Historically a sleepy ex-Navy town split between homeowners and renters, Alameda has become ground zero in the Bay Area’s housing war.
Local landlords have raised approximately one hundred thousand dollars to campaign against Alameda’s rent control measure. Similar landlord committees have been assembled in other cities to fight local rent control measures. And California’s major landlord lobbying group, the powerful California Apartment Association, has raised millions to fight rent control in Alameda, as well as in Richmond, Burlingame, San Mateo, and Mountain View. The group appears to be focusing its resources on preventing the spread of new rent control laws. Some have reported on the real estate industry money being spent to stop rent control in California — estimated in mid-October to be at least ten times whatever renters groups have been able to muster for their campaigns. It'll be interesting to tally the total investment landlords are making to maintain their control over rental prices when all is said and done.
In Berkeley, a city that has had rent control since 1980, the limits of de-commodifying housing and land are being pushed the furthest with a proposal to substantially increase an existing municipal business tax on residential landlords. The justification for the tax harkens back to Henry George, the San Francisco newspaperman, socialist, and author of Poverty and Progress. During the Bay Area real estate boom of the 1870s, George perceived that the owners of land were prospering from unearned increases in prices due to no effort of their own. These unearned rents, he held, should be taxed one-hundred percent, because they are the creation of society and the state, not the landlord.
No city in California has ever enacted such a land tax, but Berkeley's proposal is justified in part as a means of reclaiming a portion of socially produced value, and spending it on affordable housing projects in order to benefit society as a whole. Whether the new renter activism in other California cities moves toward more radical proposals like this is unclear. But the Bay Area's housing crisis will continue to push tenants to organize, and the concept of housing is likely to undergo change as renters demand rights to stable and affordable homes against the desires of landlords to maximally control property and generate profits.
Darwin BondGraham is a sociologist and a staff writer for the East Bay Express.
Marisela B. Gomez: Rebuilding “two” Baltimores: segregated and subsidized
While the rhetoric and action of the presidential race has been taking up the imagination of the nation, other dramas have been unfolding across the US. In Baltimore, for example, we had a proposal for development of an enclave for white professionals —Port Covington — by billionaire Kevin Plank, owner of Under Armour. Not only did he propose 14,000 new housing units priced for those with incomes of at least $100,000, he requested and was granted one of the largest tax increment financing deals in the US, $660 million dollars. This amounts to more than 10% of the proposed $5.5 billion dollar cost of the project. Citizens, activists, civil rights organizations, and coalitions rallied and demanded that the city council reconsider such large government support for another neoliberal public-private development project with no evidence of equitable benefit to the local population (50% guaranteed local hiring, 30% affordable housing, etc). In supporting this and other racially and economically segregated projects, the city council again affirmed that public dollars will continue to support the growth of the wealthy. And Baltimore’s mayor-strong government affirmed that, as with previous redevelopment projects (Johns Hopkins Bioscience Park, Harbor Point), public dollars would continue to subsidize private development instead of public good. Organizing from below, more than 150 people signed up to testify at the hearing before the subcommittee, the majority to demand better benefits for the public; activists provided alternative proposals for equitable public subsidy. But they were matched and surpassed by those organizing from above — Sagamore Development, Kevin Plank’s corporation — with robocalls, advertisements, and divisive tactics. It’s still unclear how such large subsidies were granted to Mr. Plank in light of the law requiring that such funds be reserved for development that could not occur “but for” the subsidies. In the end, independent analyses suggested that the public subsidies will do no more than assure Mr. Plank a greater profit margin and lower risk.
Baltimore’s history of public subsidy of private redevelopment is not new, dating back to 1950s urban renewal. And while each development project has promised benefit to the public, no one has ever evaluated of whether the public has seen benefits equitable to those taken by private developers. What has occurred is a growing gap between the rich and the poor in Baltimore, and continued disinvestment in black and low income communities. This is evident in the number of abandoned houses, the underfunding of public schools and recreation centers, mass incarceration and violence wreaked on black bodies, the drug trade, and high unemployment rates in low income and black and brown communities. Immediately following the death of Freddie Gray and the uprising demanding justice in April 2015, every politician spoke up about the need to reinvest in our abandoned communities. Even Congressman Elijah Cummings spoke about the “two” Baltimores, the haves and have-nots. Just one year later, Baltimore continues with business as usual by neglecting public investment and subsidizing private developers like Kevin Plank seeking segregated and unequal communities. Critique of the outcome of this type of economic and community development continue to point to the current “two” Baltimores. Still, Baltimore continues acting for inequity and unsustainability while speaking a rhetoric of equality and sustainability. It’s Trumpism and Clintonism on a local scale.
Marisela B. Gomez is a community activist, public health professional, physician-scientist, and the author of Race, Class, Power, and Organizing in East Baltimore: Rebuilding Abandoned Communities in America.
Charles Tonderai Mudede: Seattle Now
Three big things happening in Seattle at this moment. One is the housing crisis. The city is constructing apartments almost exclusively for the highest paid tech workers. Affordable housing is becoming as real as the amazing powers of a superhero. Black Americans and black Africans have relocated in large numbers to the suburbs of Seattle. The number of white Americans in the city proper is increasing, as well as the number of people who call the streets their home. As if that weren’t enough, Chinese capital is entering the real estate market in search of yield and safe investments. If you read In Defence of Housing: The Politics of Crisis by David Madden and Peter Marcuse, you get a clear picture of what is going on with housing in Seattle.
The next big thing is transportation. There is a proposal (ST3) to dramatically expand light rail service in the region. The section of the line that has been completed (between Angle Lake Station, which is near the airport south of Seattle, and University of Washington Station which is in the lower part of North Seattle) has experienced a success that completely caught the city by surprise. Boardings exploded. Trains are often packed. People clearly wanted to get out of their cars and move. But there has been great resistance to ST3 because it would end car dependency for many in Seattle. And those who do not need cars do not usually buy them. The car industry wants more roads, not more rails.
But here is the problem: because Seattle is too expensive for the poor and the working poor and the lower middle class, they will not enjoy the advantages of this Seattle-centric system. Homes and apartments near the line are becoming expensive, and speculators are already waiting to make cash at stations that open in the future. This will condemn the poor to cars, and the rich will enjoy the health and time advantages of the light rail system. Voters can’t say no to the expansion but it is not without its class serious problems.
Lastly, our socialist council member Kshama Sawant, who is doing great work on a variety of important issues, is at odds with many of the progressives in the Democratic party by supporting Jill Stein. She did support Bernie Sanders, but when he lost, she refused out of principle to endorse the clear neoliberal Hillary Clinton. This position is understandable, but it will certainly strain and possibly break her politically important alliance with progressive Democrats. This is bad news because Seattle actually needs more socialist candidates running for office, and this will not happen without the alliance that got Kshama Sawant elected. This situation is truly perplexing. Sawant is by no means wrong, but her support of Stein has no future. Those on the radical left need to commit more thought to difficulties of this nature.
Charles Tonderai Mudede is a Zimbabwean-born cultural critic, urbanist, filmmaker, and writer. Mudede collaborated with the director Robinson Devor on two films, Police Beat and Zoo, both of which premiered at Sundance — Zoo was screened at Cannes. Mudede, who is an editor for The Stranger, has contributed to the New York Times, LA Weekly, Village Voice, Black Souls Journal, e-flux, C Theory, Cinema Scope, Keyframe, Filmmaker and is on the editorial board for the Arcade Journal and Black Scholar. His fiction has appeared in Seattle Review. Mudede has lived in Seattle since 1989.