For ten years the local people of El Barrio have been organizing horizontally to create non-authoritarian spaces of urban resistance and solidarity.
We fight so that:
The oceans and mountains will belong to those who live in and take care of them;
The rivers and deserts will belong to those who live in and take care of them;
The valleys and ravines will belong to those who live in and take care of them;
Homes and cities will belong to those who live in and take care of them;
No one will own more land than they can cultivate;
No one will own more homes than they can live in.
Ten years ago, in an area of East Harlem known as El Barrio, women from fifteen Mexican immigrant families came together to see how they could achieve decent housing in their community. They were fighting against gentrification and displacement, as their landlord was trying to force them out of their homes to attract wealthier tenants and transform their neighborhood. Since they had no previous organising experience, they knew there was much to learn. They listened to and supported each other, and in December 2004 they founded Movement for Justice in El Barrio (Movement).
Movement is made up of low-income tenants, the majority of whom are immigrants. Many are also indigenous. Forced by poverty to leave their beloved Mexico, they built a strong community in El Barrio, and were determined not to allow themselves to be displaced yet again. They understood that their struggle was against a neoliberal system made up of abusive landlords, property speculators, multinational corporations, corrupt politicians and government institutions seeking to push them away from their much-loved community.
Autonomy and self-determination
We believe that those who suffer injustice first-hand must design and lead their own struggles for justice.
Movement is built around the principles of autonomy, self-determination, and participatory democracy, and it is based on horizontal, leaderless forms of organization. Their goal is to create spaces where people can come together as a community to share their problems. In this way they can collectively come up with solutions, and it is the community itself that has the power. Movement believes that not being dependent on anyone to tell them what to do creates a strong foundation that can never be destroyed.
Consulting the community is the basis of Movement’s organizing activity. Its members go door to door, building by building and block by block, getting to know people and forging strong relationships. Committees are formed in each building, and once a whole building is organized, they become members. Each building agrees on its own actions and forms of struggle. Movement is also deeply committed to fighting all forms of discrimination and respecting differences. Above all, this means listening to one another.
The group operates on many levels. In addition to door-knocking, it holds town hall meetings, community dialogues, street outreach, house meetings, and community-wide votes. It organises protests, marches and direct action. It makes clever use of the media, gives interviews and talks, and organizes gatherings. It uses tactics such as court actions and public condemnation, and once community consultations have been carried out, it campaigns on specific issues.
Movement for Justice in El Barrio: A Decade of Dignified Struggle
We all share a common enemy and it is called neoliberalism. Neoliberalism wishes to divide us and keep us from joining forces. We will defeat this by continuing to unite our entire community, until we achieve true liberation for all.
The organization faces many challenges. Most of its members speak no English and have had few opportunities for education. They have little access to media and information; very few of them have computers. In addition to all of the responsibilities that come with family life, they are forced to work ten- to fourteen-hour days, six or seven days a week. This makes it difficult for them to also attend four- or five-hour meetings to make decisions, and it is difficult for everyone to come together at the same time. Because everyone must be consulted, and all decisions are made collectively, it can take a long time to reach an agreement. Yet in spite of all these difficulties, the commitment and achievements of its members have been remarkable.
In keeping with its principles, Movement accepts no government funding and has no involvement with politicians or political parties. Its members know that it is essential to build bridges with other ignored, forgotten and marginalized communities including women, migrants, people of colour, and the LGBT community, and to build relationships with members of these organizations, who are also fighting against multiple forms of oppression.
Together, we resist with dignity and fight back against the actions of capitalist landlords and multinational corporations who are displacing poor families from our neighborhood. We fight back locally and across borders. We fight back against local politicians who refuse to obey the will of the people. We fight back against the government institutions that enforce a global economic, social and political system that seeks to destroy humanity.
Human beings were born to live in community — we cannot survive without each other. A society and culture that promotes individualism, everyone for themselves, also promotes loneliness, isolation and despair. Ten years ago, Movement’s current members did not even know each other, and they had no fellowship with the other inhabitants of their building. Now they resist, organize and celebrate victories together. They have built a community of friendship, love, trust and solidarity, and transformed their lives.
Many of the members of this remarkable organization believe that their greatest achievement over the last ten years has been to build a culture of resistance. This has led to a sense of identity and self-worth, of being a part of something that gives purpose and meaning to their lives. A new generation of children are growing up in an amazing environment of organizing, marching and of collective decision-making, and it makes a lasting impact on their lives, shining through in their vibrant community spirit.
The strength of the community Movement has created is reflected in the astonishing fact that not one of its members has been displaced over the last ten years. In fact, so far, they have won every battle with which they have been confronted. It is no wonder that Village Voice chose Movement as the “Best Power to the People Movement in New York City.”
Learning from other struggles
We have found ways to make our voices heard and to let our voices echo with the voices of other marginalized people resisting across the world.
When Movement was founded in December 2004, its members had no previous organizing experience. They began to look for other dignified struggles to learn from. When they read the Zapatista’s Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, released in June 2005, members saw a mirror of themselves reflected in it. Since then, they have developed their own form of urban Zapatismo, and continue to look to their Zapatista compañeras and compañeros for inspiration in their daily struggle for justice and collective liberation.
With the women, as always, at the forefront, Movement has applied tools and ways of organizing they learned from the Zapatistas in their own local struggle. The Consultas de Barrio are fundamental to their work. These are neighborhood consultations that enable all local residents to identify the issues which most concern them. These consultations build and strengthen the community at the local level, helping them bring more people into the struggle, and ensure that all of their campaigns are driven by the entire El Barrio community.
Encuentros are a well-known Zapatista tradition that Movement has made its own in both New York and in Mexico. They serve as a way to link struggles and to build networks of solidarity. They say:
An Encuentro is a space for people to come together; it is a gathering. An Encuentro is not a meeting, a panel or a conference. It is a way of sharing developed by the Zapatistas as another form of doing politics: from below and to the left. It is a place where we can all speak, listen and learn. It is a place where we can share the many different struggles that make us one.
The next ten years
As they celebrate their tenth anniversary, Movement now has 900 members, 80% of whom are women, spread out over 85 building committees. Its dignified resistance continues to grow. Movement and its members have won numerous victories against the brutal landlords and multinational corporations who try to take away their homes and destroy their community. They have held politicians and city institutions to account and constructed a culture of resistance and a community of solidarity. They have formed strong bonds with groups in many countries, and their word has been heard around the world. As the Zapatistas say, the struggle continues.
We are struggling for housing, for education, for health, for freedom, for justice, for love, for a voice, for a space to exist, for peace, for respect, for ourselves, for our community, for dignity…for humanity. We stand in resistance, here, in our corner of the world. Together we will build a world where many worlds fit — un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos.
Jessica Davies is an activist and member of the UK Zapatista Solidarity Network. This article was originally published on Dorset Chiapas Solidarity.