New York City: An interview with Rob Robinson from Picture the Homeless and Take Back the Land Movement

Published in “Brisbane From Below” n°1 (Brisbane, 2011).

Could you tell us a bit about yourself and how you became involved with Picture the Homeless?

No problem. I became involved with Picture the Homeless after spending 10 months in a NYC shelter. I was advocating within that shelter for better maintenance conditions, adherence to rules and better food. The director advised me to take my work to a higher level and I joined something called the New York City Coalition for the Continuum of Care (NYCCCoC). This group makes up 33% of the vote on how some 60-80 million USD are spent on homeless services. Picture the Homeless had access to the email list of (NYCCCoC) and I started to receive emails about the work they were doing. I showed up at a housing meeting in November 2006, liked what I heard and became a member.

I became homeless in July 2001 after transferring from a job in New York City(NYC) which I worked for 13 years. I was given the opportunity to transfer from NYC to Miami Florida to become a project manager overseeing the installation of computer software. I moved from NYC to Miami in March 2001 and by July 2001, four months later I was laid off. I was told “there is no money in the budget for your position”. I tried to give Miami a chance and after two years found myself with no job, an empty bank account and no income. I was homeless in Miami for two years before returning to NYC.

Could you tell us a bit about Picture the Homeless and the Take Back the Land Movement?

Squat on public land, to build housing for our own community. No government permission or money. We are liberating the land for our people.

Picture the Homeless is an organization founded on the principle that in order to end homelessness, people who are homeless must become an organized, effective force for systemic change. We have a track record of developing leadership among homeless people to impact policies and systems that affect their lives and our efforts have created space for homeless people, and their agenda, within the broader movement.

We were founded by two homeless men in the Fall of 1999. The catalyst for our founding was an urgent need to respond to the Giuliani administration’s policy of criminalizing homeless people, broadly supported by the media. The co-founders of Picture the Homeless (PTH) began reaching out to allies for support, a place to meet and to figure out strategies to create an organization of homeless people that could carry out this work. In January 2000, PTH held its first organizing meeting. Picture the Homeless has since worked to develop an organization directed and run by homeless people by building an infrastructure that keeps organizational decision-making in the hands of homeless people.

I am a member of the Land & Housing Action Group/Steering Committee of Take Back the Land. I consider Max Rameau of Take Back the Land in Miami to be a friend, mentor and confidant. He has taught me so much. In September 2009, several of us met in Atlanta Georgia and formed the Take Back the Land National Movement…

The Take Back the Land Movement is directly challenging those laws which allow banks to reap record profits while millions of families face eviction and homelessness. Challenging unjust laws requires a protracted direct action campaign of civil disobedience designed to prioritize people over profits in a tangible way.

Local campaigns and actions are not directed by a centralized committee, but entirely driven by Local Action Groups (LAG), who operate autonomously and operate large scale in a federated manner. This body is known as the Land and Housing Action Group (L&HAG). In cooperation with the US Human Rights Network the L&HAG facilitates communication among the LAGs and provides them with campaign and technical support. This decentralized network model focuses power, flexibility and decision making in the hands of local impacted communities and individuals.

Take back the land models itself off the MST Landless Peasants Movement in Brazil, and the Abahlali baseMjondolo land movement in Africa. Take Back the Land is a comprehensive campaign initiative, which includes a direct action campaign and the grassroots initiative to build alternative institutions, such as land trusts, co-operatives, and other collective ownership and management vehicles to exercise direct community control over land and housing.

News of Picture the Homeless reached us through the New York tent city action. What did this involve and what did you get out of it?

The tent city action was done for several reasons. To highlight the large amount of vacant land a property being held by landlords merely, for speculation. On a daily basis 38,000 people sleep in NYC homeless shelters. That piece of land was vacant for over 20 years. It was also owned by JP Morgan Chase which received government funding to prevent it from failing.
Our question is, our tax money is used to prevent a bank from failing but those same banks are foreclosing on Americans an evicting them from homes? This is a contradiction we wanted to highlight. It is also why I am so passionate about Take Back the Land. The only social change that has happened in America has happened as a result of direct action or civil disobedience. That is the foundation of Take Back the Land.

Could you tell us about other campaigns Picture the Homeless has engaged in and what’s planned for the future?

We have a campaign led by homeless leaders who refuse to stay in shelters – our position is that if you lose your housing and choose to live in public spaces, your constitutional and human rights should not be abused by the police! We fight to end selective enforcement of Quality of Life regulations — “Whose Quality of Life” is improved by moving homeless people from public spaces? We fight the lack of legal representation for homeless people, pressured to plead guilty instead of exercising their right to trial, and forced to return to court over and over if they choose to not plead guilty. We are also working to ensure that homeless New Yorkers’ right to vote is protected, including in city jails.

The Civil Rights Committee is currently engaged in a campaign against Disorderly Conduct. The police use “Disorderly Conduct” to arrest or ticket homeless people – a key tool in the criminalization, profiling, and harassment of the homeless.  We believe that the NYPD should be required to specify one’s alleged violation rather than charge behind the vagueness of ‘Disorderly Conduct’.  We demand that ‘Dis Con’ be clearly recognized in practice as a non-arrestable offense.

We are currently gathering surveys and testimonies from homeless New Yorkers to build this campaign, and possibly file a lawsuit against the NYPD. This campaign also engages in Know Your Rights and CopWatch workshops. Our goal is to equip homeless New Yorkers with tools that they need to defend themselves and their community from harmful and unjust police abuses.

We have…
– Just won a major victory against the NYPD in federal court resulting in a the issuance of a groundbreaking policy directive against selective enforcement of the law by Homeless Outreach Unit and Transit Police and created the first legal clinic for homeless people to address Quality of Life tickets and police harassment in partnership with NYC Police Watch
– Forced the NYC Department of Corrections to allow interfaith services for homeless and poor New Yorkers buried in Potters Field 6 times per year – which had previously been off limits for friends and extended families of New Yorkers buried in mass graves
– Won the support of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Coalition for the Homeless and Union Theological Seminary to develop a legal defense clinic for homeless people being ticketed for Quality of Life offenses
– Begun collaboration with the Urban Justice Center to analyze data from over 200 in depth surveys conducted by civil rights committee members of homeless New Yorkers experience with policing entities. We anticipate that a major civil rights report will be released in late 2005 or early 2006
– Expanded our civic participation and homeless voting rights project, hiring 7 leaders who have collectively designed and are delivering workshops in shelters and soup kitchens
– Held an action in support of the free speech rights of panhandlers around Yankee Stadium resulting in (at least) a decrease in harassment by police from the local precinct
– Will begin later this month working with the newly formed city wide anti police brutality collective that includes groups working in the LGBT and racial justice communities
– Provided Know Your Rights Trainings at Queers for Economic Justice

We also a have a Campaign called Potter’s Field where NYC buried nameless homeless people in mass graves. It happens on an island run by the Corrections Department. Friends and people who cared were never allowed to visit until Picture the Homeless pressured the city to open up the island.

About Abhalali base Mjondolo:

Abahlali baseMjondolo, the name is isiZulu for ‘people that stay in shacks’, is a South African social movement of poor, mainly African people centred around the city of Durban. The ovement formed after shack dwellers at Kennedy Road blocked a major road for four hours and held it against the police in protest at the sale of a piece of land that had long been promised to the community for housing. The movement now has tens of thousands of members in over 40 settlements.The movement has around 10,000 paid-up members and more than 30,000 active supporters in over 40 affiliated settlements. They have recently formed a national alliance (The Poor People’s Alliance) with Anti-Eviction Campaign in Cape Town, Landless People’s Movement in Johannesburg and the Rural and Farm Dwellers Network. The movement is remarkable for its thoughtful and ethical approach to an egalitarian, directly-democratic evolving politics.

“We have learnt from our experience that when you want to achieve what you want, when you want to achieve what is legitimate by peaceful negotiations, by humbleness, by respecting those in authority your plea becomes criminal. You will be deceived for more than ten years, you will be fooled and undermined. This is why we have resorted to the streets. When we stand there in our thousands we are taken seriously. “

Abahlali meetings are usually attended by around 30-40 elected representatives from settlement development committees as well as local settlement residents. Decisions are made by consensus if possible, and by vote if not. Large decisions are referred back to local settlement committees for further discussion, and representative also report back on the meeting to their local community. AbM selects office holders at branch, settlement and movement level through open elections at annual assemblies. Office holders are recallable, rotated, and mandated to act on specific issues at open weekly meetings. Office holders are not elected to make decisions but to ensure democratic process on matters relating to the issues. Ethically, it is part of the prefigurative politics that allow a hermeneutic circle between means and ends. This is the reason for ideological fluidity. As the situation changes over time, ideas, goals and tactics will need to be re-evaluated in order to remain relevant and effective.

Abahlali is an intellectually, and ethically, serious project. Meetings are thoughtful, democratic and consensus based. All night ‘camps’ are held every quarter for members to plan, think and strengthen their solidarity. Mass meetings are characterised by a presentation of the situation and issues from key figures in the community development committee and the movement and then debate from the floor.

Abahlali are resolute in their refusal to allow themselves to be co-opted by the government or anyone else. The movement rejects party politics, politicians and NGOs that ‘want to use the poor as ladders’. Everybody thinks. We are poor, not stupid. Planning must not just be a technical talk that excludes the people. Democracy is not just about voting. Democratic planning is the way forward.

Libertarian-communism (from an Abahlali communiqué)

We are for a living communism. We are for a communism that emerges from the struggles of ordinary people and which is shaped and owned by ordinary people. We are for a communism built from the ground up. We are for a communism in which land and wealth are shared and managed democratically. Any party or groupuscle or NGO that declares from above that it is the vanguard of the people’s struggles and that the people must therefore accept their authority is the enemy of the people’s struggles. Leadership is earned and is never permanent. It can never be declared from above. It only lasts for as long as communities of struggle decide to invest their hope in particular structures. Often there are many legitimate and democratic structures involved in the same broad movement of struggle at the same time. This is why we always insist that the autonomy of all democratic poor people’s organisations must be respected and welcomed.

About the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST):

Since 1997 hundreds of thousands of landless peasants have banded together and occupied over 200 stretches of unused land in Brazil under the banner of the MST ‘Landless Workers Movement’. In addition, 140,000 families have been resettled on land following direct action over the past 10 years. During the early 2000s, in addition to occupying derelict farms, Latifundo – vast landowning owned by absentee landlords and public buildings, the movement has also invaded and despoiled functioning properties owned by large corporations whose activities it considers to be at variance with the principle of environmental sustainability and the social function of property.

“If you are poor, it is because someone is exploiting you. Brazil is a very rich country, and there should be a place in it for everyone…If you vote, you change nothing. We could have Jesus Christ as resident, and he’d still have to do all the deals that politicians do. He would still not be in control. Unless the people can start to do things for themselves, and unless we can change our way of seeing things, nothing will change in Brazil or anywhere.”

Early 2010 Take Back the Land delegates went to Africa with the following objectives:

Build an International Movement
We seek to realize housing as a basic necessity for every person on this planet.
As such, we seek to establish formal relationships with organizations fighting for these gains, thereby building an international movement for community control over land and housing.

Campaign Modeling.
The WCAEC and AbM have executed mass campaigns to stop bulldozers and
evictions. We in the US have much to learn from our sisters and brothers
across the globe.

Network Modeling.
South Africans have built a national anti-eviction and land movement. Take Back the Land strives to learn from their model and replicate their successes.

The Take Back the Land campaign is rooted in the following principles:
– Housing as a Human Right.
– Land and adequate housing should not be commodities to enrich the elite but instead, like air, should be protected as a common good.
– Local Community Control over Housing.
– Leadership by Impacted Communities, particularly low-income Black women.
– Direct Action…

The Take Back the Land Movement and the live-in campaigns, however, encompass more than merely disobeying immoral laws: it is fundamentally about empowering communities to take control of their land and implementing the moral imperative of housing human beings. More than simple civil disobedience, the live-in campaign is, in fact, a movement of moral obedience.

For example On October 23, 2006, members of Take Back The Land reclaimed publicly owned land in the Liberty City section of Miami, creating the community town of Umoja Village. With the defence and help of the community, supporters built temporary housing units for 53 displaced residents.


Foreclosure Related Evictions:
In the context of the millions of families across the country homeless and under-housed, continued foreclosure and demolition related evictions, of owners or renters in houses, apartments or public housing, is counter productive. We must put an end to foreclosure related evictions through campaigns of community and home defenses.

Foreclosed Homes:
After a vicious cycle of gentrification, which escalated housing prices and forced the removal of entire historical communities in the name of development, the foreclosure crisis has reached epidemic proportions. Perfectly good homes sit vacant, for years on end, the property of banks that already have been paid for them by the federal bailout. These homes must be filled with families in need of housing.

Vacant Buildings:
As the homeless sleep in the streets, cars and parks, vacant buildings, owned by banks and local governments, dot the urban skyline and shock the moral conscience. These structures must be put to use for the benefit of people in need of housing.

Vacant Land:
During the housing “boom,” local governments made publicly owned land available to politically connected developers at fire sale prices. Now that boom times are over, vacant land must now be returned to use for public housing and other public goods.

Public Housing:
Even as the housing crisis intensifies, municipalities across the country are shedding public housing units through demolition, deliberate vacancy and privatization. In this time of great need, we cannot afford to loose one inch low-income housing. Public housing must be put to its intended use and controlled by residents and local communities.

Right to Return:
Whether through gentrification, public housing demolition or the combination of natural disasters and government actions, those forced to leave their long-time communities must have the right to return.

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