The system based on a combination of police brutality, mass imprisonment, and evictions at gunpoint may be collapsing, but if it’s going to fall in the direction we want it to fall in, we need to push it that way. And if we want to make that happen, we have to organize to stop the impending wave of evictions before it starts.
This society is at a crossroads, in so many ways. In recent weeks, a multiracial uprising in the streets of the US and other countries is demanding not more ineffective police reforms, but a total transformation of the concept of policing. The ideas are not new, but the degree to which the notion of defunding the police has suddenly become commonplace is new.
The powers-that-be and the corporate media are very actively trying to frame the questions as narrowly as possible, at every opportunity, sticking as much as they can to rehashing useless reforms and talking about bad apples, better bias training, and so on. They will avoid the elephant in the living room as much as possible, and do everything they can to make sure there’s a sufficiently complex set of mirrors surrounding the elephant so that we don’t see it.
The reason they must avoid the elephant at all costs is because the horrifically unequal and unsustainable system of capitalism, this corrupt plutocracy that we live in, can only be held together through constant deception, and the threat of armed force and imprisonment. Deception whenever possible, armed force and imprisonment whenever necessary. When and to what degree the different strategies of control are employed depends on various factors, such as race and class.
Portland, Oregon, my home town for the past thirteen years, is the most rent-burdened city in the United States. This was the case well before the pandemic. Depending on the year, Portland also has the highest number of police killings of Black people in the US, per capita. If these statistics might be related, I have no studies to cite, but there they are, anyway, these facts that stand starkly side by side.
Here’s another statistic: in the United States we have a census every ten years. A lot happens from one year to the next, let alone every ten years, but nevertheless, what is known for sure is that between the census in 2000 and the census in 2010, the city of Portland lost half of its Black population. Since 2010 it has lost more.
There is no statistic to neatly measure the gains or losses for many other demographics, but this number can easily be assumed to be more or less representative in terms of the many artists and other lower-paid workers who have been forced to leave the city. The process of gentrification — the process of investment companies buying up massive numbers of buildings throughout the US (and other countries) and then proceeding to maximize their profits by charging as much rent as the market will bear, while they create the market through price-fixing and buying most of the legislators in every state capital — is extremely disruptive, in every possible sense. What this does to communities and to the lives of people within them cannot be overstated. It can be called many things, but it is most certainly a vicious form of class war, and it is most certainly a form of urban ethnic cleansing.
This level of social disruption, this ethnic cleansing, this class war relies on many things in order to keep happening. It relies on the consent of the governed to no small degree — it relies on most people believing they deserve their miserable fates, that it is their fault they can’t afford the rent or the mortgage, that if they just worked harder or got more education, they could achieve like those billionaires have done. That’s the deception part of the equation.
But when circumstances start to become impossible, the deception gets harder to maintain. And everyone knows, whether they believe the deception or not, that behind it lies the threat of force — of being beaten, shot, and/or imprisoned. So, the movement to defund the police needs to be understood as the very radical idea that it is, since it would mean not just the prospect of Black people not having to worry about being shot by uniformed, paid employees of their town or city just for existing, but also the prospect of the investment banks that own much of the rental property in those towns and cities no longer having the option of sending the men with guns in to enforce the laws that they got their legislators to pass. No more evictions at gunpoint.
What would happen, in a rent-burdened city largely owned by investment banks, when the landlords no longer have the threat of violence to fall back onto? And what would happen if that police force is not defunded, and if the suspension on evictions currently in place in Portland is lifted, and if the landlords can start filing for evictions all over the city? There are many unemployed people in this city (like this author) who have been rejected by the Employment Department, or whose unemployment money will soon run out. There are many people in this city who were just barely managing to come up with rent before the pandemic, who were spending 70% of their earnings on the landlord every month. There are many people whose credit cards were already maxed out before the pandemic hit, and many others whose credit cards are now at their limits — and they’ve been spending their money on nothing but food and rent.
Once the ban on evictions is lifted, we can expect the waves of evictions to begin. They won’t happen all at once, however. People who lost significant income due to the pandemic may be able to put the process off by six months or more. The future is unwritten, and things are changing rapidly. Lots can happen between now and the time that the city declares the crisis is over.
But for me and others of us artists that remain in the city of Portland, affiliated in the loose-knit network called Artists for Rent Control, it is clear that the time to prepare for the evictions is now, while they are still banned. We say they should remain banned. Without the threat of forced eviction — that is, without the threat of the police — tenant-landlord relations in society become very, very different. But as long as the threat exists — or will soon exist once again — we need to be able to respond to it directly.
Doing so will require the participation of a certain cross-section of people in the city of Portland who really believe that another Portland is possible. Who believe we can stand up to the corporations who would seek to enforce their ability to make obscene profits through their investments in the human need — and human right — to housing. Who believe we can confidently condemn the system that has produced such deadly inequities — who can ask the question of the bankers that run this country: what gave you the right to be our landlords? How did it happen that we taxpayers bailed you out only a decade ago, and now you’ve somehow managed to buy the buildings we live in, and double the rent? What kind of dystopia have we woken up in? What sector of the matrix is this, anyway?
Artists for Rent Control does not make any claims to knowing the whole way forward here, but we know one thing: popular education, community-building, and direct action are effective and important tactics. The popular education part is helping people to understand that another world is possible. This is the role of art in any social movement, along with the community-building that tends to take place anytime a public event involving music or other forms of artistic expression takes place. The direct action part that our little group is initiating is what we are calling Portland Emergency Eviction Response (PEER).
The concept is well-worn and simple, in its essence. You enter your phone number and sign up for text notifications. When we get confirmation that an eviction is taking place, you’ll receive a text telling you where it’s happening. You then drop whatever you’re doing, and head immediately to the address provided. What happens next depends on the situation, and is impossible to predict with certainty, but the fact is that it is often the case that just a few dozen people showing up to an attempted eviction will cause the cops to give up and leave.
A successful movement to lower the rents, to impose rent control, to pressure government entities to get involved by buying buildings from recalcitrant landlords in order to turn them into housing collectives, must inevitably involve many people, many tactics, many approaches, just like anything else. But this form of direct action has generally been an important element of any successful struggle between landlords and tenants.
What we need, and what the time may be ripe for, is a return to the kinds of tactics employed by the Anti-Rent movement in New York’s Hudson Valley in the 1840’s, to take one example. The most important of the tactics was this one: whenever the landlord sent in the police or some other armed group to try to seize the property of tenant farmer family, or evict them from their farm, the farmers would blow a tin horn, which would reverberate through the rolling hills of the region. Within an hour or so, hundreds of other tenant farmers would show up — generally on horseback, wearing disguises, and armed.
For nine years of what became known as the Rent Strike Wars, the tenant farmers of the Van Rennsalaer estate did not pay the rent, and did not get evicted. Though there were many standoffs between masked rent strikers and police, for nine years, not a shot was actually fired in either direction. For nine years, every time, the police retreated. I’m simplifying the story a bit, but in the end, the landlord was forced to sell his estate to the tenant farmers, and many progressive laws were enacted. Our effort here is to revive the tin horns, in the form of text messages, but otherwise our hope and our belief is that by employing similar tactics, we may get similar results. Our belief is that whatever might be coming next in the struggle for fairness, justice and equality in this unfair, unjust and unequal society, eviction abolition will be a first step in the right direction.
The City of Portland, Oregon, and Multnomah County, are doing the best job in the country at kicking the can down the road. Now is the time to push for a real solution to the housing crisis, here and across the USA.
Since the pandemic hit, I have joined the ranks of the unemployed, like so many others have. Dozens of gigs planned in nine countries on three continents canceled. I’m doing better than many of my fellow musicians, because I have been moving more towards the modern, crowdfunded patronage model of artistic existence for years now, in the wake of the collapse of the music industry, which has never come close to recovering from the transition from physical merch to “free.” I was expecting to suddenly start losing my supporters on Patreon one by one, as my supporters also were losing their own jobs, but so far that hasn’t happened. Listening to interview after interview with other artists from around Portland on local radio, though, it’s very hard times. As anyone knows by now if they listen to NPR, many performing artists have to do other things to pay the rent, which usually involves service sector work of some kind, which of course disappeared along with their gigs, when the cafes, bars, restaurants, convention centers, schools, libraries and theaters all closed, and festivals were, of course, canceled.
For the first time in my 53 years as a US citizen, I qualified for unemployment insurance. For any of you better-off foreigners who aren’t familiar with the dog-eat-dog barbarity that underlies the principles on which most US states run their unemployment insurance programs: if you didn’t pay into the program with a traditional kind of job involving payroll and payroll taxes, you don’t qualify to benefit from it if you find yourself jobless. So this leaves out increasing numbers of the workforce, what we now call “gig economy” workers, such as, obviously, touring musicians, but also so-called “contract workers” such as Uber drivers and all kinds of other people who appear to be working for a large corporation but are actually “self-employed,” through some kind of capitalist magician’s sleight of hand. Maybe even an invisible hand, now suddenly very visible, slick with the sticky blood of its multitude of victims.
But, just in time to prevent who knows what from happening (I was definitely smelling smoke), the Congress acted, and expanded unemployment to include something closer to the actual number of unemployed workers — not counting the estimated 11 million undocumented, or the unpaid homemakers, and so many others, but still much better than it had been before they passed the PUA (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance). I applied for it, soon after it became possible for people like me to do so. I received a confirmation from a bot that my application was received, and that’s all I’ve heard from the government since early April, aside from the one check signed by Donald Trump himself, that did arrive, now a long time ago.
What we’re clearly seeing in terms of the overall national response to the situation here in the US exposes the dire flaws within both the anemic public health sector and within the capitalist economy, which, in the US, is a kind of house of cards constructed on top of a ponzi scheme called the real estate market. In other countries, it seems, with highly functional governments, and economies that aren’t mainly based on speculation on and investment in the real estate market, it’s possible to temporarily freeze the economy — defer mortgages, cancel rents, maintain industries and jobs with government support so they’re all still there when the crisis is over, etc. But in the US, it seems even the idea of deferring mortgages and canceling rent during the crisis would cause the ponzi scheme to collapse, this whole industry which is based on a constant stream of profits that far, far exceed any actual rise in wages or spending power of the average person. Here in Portland, rents typically go up close to 10% each year, which has resulted in the ethnic cleansing of this city, which lost more than half of its African-American population between the last two censuses, and also lost most of its artists, and so many others. The city is unrecognizable, compared to twenty years ago — like so many other cities in the US, but worse. Portland is the most expensive city to live in in the entire United States, when you consider the cost of housing relative to the income of the average resident.
Although we aren’t seeing any systematic deferment of mortgages or canceling of rents in the US, what we are seeing are lots of temporary bans on evictions. It’s a confusing, patchwork affair, that will probably see waves of evictions happening in some places long before other places, depending on the initiatives of city, county and state governments. Here in Portland, where the housing crisis was a crisis before the pandemic crisis — possibly the worst-hit city in the United States in terms of homeless residents, people living in cars or extremely overcrowded apartments — there has also been the clearest temporary ban on evictions of anywhere in the country.
What this means, to be clear, is the city of Portland — and Multnomah County, which includes Portland and some Portland suburbs — has done the best job of kicking the can down the road. The ordinance passed almost definitely applies to anyone who used to make a living as an artist of any kind, along with lots of others. If your income was dramatically impacted by the pandemic and associated lockdown, you can defer your rent payments until six months after the county has determined that the crisis is over. At that point, you may owe your landlord tens of thousands of dollars, all of a sudden, and thus, the main waves of evictions will happen then, rather than this summer, where it will happen in many other places.
There is a lot of chatter on social media. I say this not to denigrate the chatterers, but to denigrate the platforms on which they are chattering. Not that we can avoid these platforms, but Facebook and YouTube feed on conflict and feed us conflict. So whatever chatter is going on on such platforms is best either ignored, or understood in that context.
There’s also some real organizing going on, with tenants unions in Los Angeles, New York and elsewhere really talking to their neighbors and systematically withholding rent in order to get real demands met. Nothing on that scale is happening yet here in the most heavily rent-burdened city in the country, and at least one of the main efforts on social media taking place currently seems to be led by someone motivated primarily by a personal grudge against one of the most effective rent control advocates in the city — perfect for Facebook, where this sad excuse for organizing seems mainly to be taking place, where such grudges can be exploited by Zuckerberg’s favorite conflict algorithms.
But real rent strike organizing here in Portland is very desperately called for right now. And I don’t say this just because I’m an anarchist who is generally in favor of rent strikes, although I am most definitely guilty of both charges. A rent strike is called for in Portland not only because many people are currently unable to pay their rents, although that itself would be plenty of reason for one. A rent strike is called for now in particular specifically because we have the best chance of winning such a struggle right now, because we have one of the most progressive local city and county governments in the country right now.
If this seems contradictory, it shouldn’t. The most widespread labor organizing in the United States over the past two centuries of the labor movement did not just take place during a period of extreme inequality and exploitation of workers. Inequality and exploitation was absolutely massive across the US throughout the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Radical labor unionism was at its peak with the Industrial Workers of the World in the early twentieth century. Yet the lion’s share of unions that were successfully organized were organized when there was not only massive inequality, during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, but also during a period when there was a sympathetic government that had been elected to power — the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For all Roosevelt’s many flaws, his administration included a whole lot of bona fide socialists, from top to bottom. When workers went on strike after 1932 things were not easy, by any means, but they did not face the same kind of opposition from federal authorities that they faced on so many key moments in the history of the labor movement prior to 1932, and success after success in labor organizing is what followed.
Now here we are again, in a new depression, and with fairly sympathetic city and county governments here and elsewhere, depending on where. If we want to stop the wave of evictions that will come, we must now start organizing against them. We have to stop the evictions before they start. Some of the biggest and most successful unions during the 1930’s were both formal and informal in nature, both organized by familiar structures with presidents and treasurers and such, and also organized through the widespread idea that this world did not belong exclusively to those who could afford it. Ideas that were spread on the street, through means of guerrilla theater, songs, posters, newspapers, and through a myriad of other platforms, became commonplace. Chief among them: that humans have rights. Rights not only to free speech and assembly — which millions of people were exercising daily — but rights never mentioned in the much-vaunted foundational document of the nation: the right to sufficient food, and the right to housing.
When police and landlords attempted to evict tenants during the Depression, oftentimes gatherings of organized unemployed people would prevent the evictions from taking place at all. Other times, the eviction would happen, but then an unemployed locksmith would come and change the lock, and other unemployed workers would carry the tenant’s belongings back into their apartment, thus un-evicting them. There were many successful rent strikes during this period, as well as at other times and places in history. They resulted in buildings being bought by occupants, or given to occupants with government intervention or government loans (as just happened last week in Minneapolis), or by rents being lowered drastically, or by new rent control laws of all kinds being passed, giving tenants rights they never had before.
Artists for Rent Control is, admittedly, a small and disparate handful of anarchist or socialist musicians, graphic artists and other folks based here in Portland, Oregon and around the world. We believe that while there is a dire need for door-to-door neighborhood organizing, there is an equally dire need for popular education. Rent strike organizing will not become widespread just because people are desperate. These material circumstances need to be joined by the understanding that another world is possible. That things don’t have to be like this. That there are other, real, functional and functioning alternatives to be found in many other countries, right now today, that work much, much better than our collapsing house of cards ponzi scheme economy, administered by a kleptocratic government controlled by real estate industry lobbyists who have systematically engineered the whole ponzi scheme to be a ponzi scheme in the first place. One of the many things the developer lobby has accomplished over the course of the past forty years or so has been to completely eliminate, or at least totally eviscerate, rent control laws in all fifty states.
People need to know about this. People need to know that there are alternatives to this cutthroat, profit-over-people economic model that has recently been dramatically exposed as a completely failed model, in terms of sustaining human life, the most vulnerable of which we are losing daily, in vastly disproportionate numbers, to the ravages of the housing market that has been exposed by this pandemic, with those dying the most being the ones living in the shittiest housing in the most neglected, decaying, rat-infested, overcrowded apartment blocks of New York and Detroit, along with all those living without running water or electricity in places like the Navajo reservation, or the farmworkers of the Yakima Valley, currently on strike. Or again, in Detroit.
People need to know that most wealth is inherited. That the landlord class has created this situation of inequality through a legalized system of bribery called lobbying. That they make their record profits not by doing anything useful, but by sitting on money and property that has been passed down in wealthy families from the US and other countries for generations. That they raise the rents according to a formula they come up with, as wages rise, to make sure there’s that “sweet spot” between evictions and those who are just barely able to pay, so they can maximize their profits as they maximize our misery. This is systemic, it is intentional, it is feudalistic, and it is so very wrong.
And it doesn’t have to be this way. Another world is possible — hether your landlord is a big corporation like mine is, owning hundreds of properties up and down the coast, or a so-called “mom-and-pop” landlord (a rich peasant, to use a Chinese analogy) who has taken advantage of the pro-landlord housing market to live off of your labor through charging you a “market rate” rent, despite the fact that their mortgage may have been paid off decades ago. Society can and must be restructured. This will inevitably involve a lot of government intervention, which government will do to save itself and to save capitalism, just like with FDR. But that won’t happen until we make it happen, through rent strikes and general strikes, among other vital tactics.
And that won’t happen until people believe that this kind of change is right. In the US in particular, this presents what I would call our biggest obstacle. A far bigger obstacle than the circumstances of the pandemic presents, and a far bigger obstacle than that of actually organizing people to work together. The biggest obstacle is our minds — our American minds, which have been force-fed so-called “free market” values from birth.
So, this is a call to arms. My personal weapon of choice is a staple gun. We can all do our best to spread ideas — through music, art, photography, videos, essays, etc. — on the internet. But physical space is the space we’re talking about having control over — housing. And we have to be in those physical spaces, too. This is why we have been plastering many neighborhoods of Portland with informational (and rhyming) posters, questioning the failed values of capitalism, encouraging people to think about how society could be done differently, and encouraging people here in Multnomah County not to pay the rent, which is the first step in this inevitably jagged and tumultuous transformational process that must be undertaken if our species is to ultimately survive in any recognizable form.
While we have very limited resources in every possible sense as a network, Artists for Rent Control has two main aims, and your participation, in whatever form possible, is wanted. One, we aim to keep our messages visible on the telephone poles of Portland. You can print out posters and put them up yourself, ask for a shipment of them from us, or donate for printing press costs. The other main aim of the network, in the tradition of similar networks of unemployed workers in the past, will be to react quickly to any attempted evictions going on in the area, once they start happening. To that aim, we’ll soon have our website set up so that anyone with a phone can sign up to receive a push notification when there is an eviction attempt taking place, so that they can drop everything and rush to wherever this is happening, and hopefully prevent the eviction from occurring. For this to be effective, we’ll need thousands of Portlanders to sign up. For that to happen, we’ll need thousands of Portlanders who believe that another Portland, and another world, is possible. And we’ll need to convince them of this fact.
I have personally been roving the streets of Portland for weeks now, spending hours most days putting up posters, close to a thousand altogether so far. This itself has been a fascinating experience. The lockdown of society has been serious around here, and very few members of the public are generally in the streets, but the reactions I have gotten from people as I’ve been putting up posters have been overwhelmingly positive. Many, many people are unaware that there is a suspension on evictions. Their landlords, in most cases, have not told them anything. If they opened a piece of mail they may have received from a neighborhood association about it, then maybe they know. Or if they listen to NPR on a daily basis, they may have been listening on the right day, so they heard about the ordinance. But it’s not getting a whole lot of press, for some reason. So by putting up these posters, we’re providing a basic and needed public service.
Other reactions have been less positive, and generally comes in the form of posters being quietly taken down — never when I’m looking, and, as far as I can tell, almost always in the dark of night. If you look up the laws in Portland on this kind of postering activity, you’ll find it’s illegal, but very mildly so. It’s not considered a real crime, but more on the level of a nuisance. People who are bothered by things on telephone poles in their neighborhood have the option of complaining to the city authorities, which say on their website that they will send someone to take down the offending items within 72 hours. Whether it is city workers or employees of a property management company, posters that are nearby really shitty-looking apartment complexes full of oppressed-looking renters get taken down fast. Posters put up in almost any other neighborhood, even on very busy streets, have often been staying up for weeks. For the record, the cardstock that Minuteman Press uses will still look good after several serious downpours, and the ink won’t start running for at least a month.
What is especially notable to me is the postering I was doing for progressive city council candidates, also during the lockdown, resulted in those posters getting ripped down in every neighborhood I put them up in, presumably by passersby who either don’t like progressive politicians, or, I suspect, by people who just don’t like any politicians, and are annoyed by the claims any politician might make about doing anything useful, since many people just assume they’re lying in order to get votes. An assumption that I’m convinced does not apply to, say, City Councilor Chloe Eudaly, but certainly does apply to most politicians, so it’s an understandable and even perhaps laudable reaction to such a poster, generally.
Not so with the informational posters we’ve been putting up that feature the phrase “don’t pay the rent” in the center. Whether people are paying the rent or not, very few people seem to be bothered by the idea of not doing so. That, all by itself, is a good sign.
I get a lot of raised fists and shouts of encouragement from renters of all ages and in all neighborhoods, wherever I put up these posters — as well as, of course, people who are minding their own business and moping down the sidewalk without stopping to read them. But the one negative reaction I got from someone who actually stopped to say something to me other than “yeah” or “right on,” was a middle-aged woman who was out walking her dog, who read the central line of the poem (not bothering to read any of the rest) and repeated it in horror.
“Don’t pay the rent?” she asked. “Why not?”
I gave her the one-sentence version of my speech.
“Many people can’t pay the rent right now, and so while there is a suspension in evictions, if the rest of us also don’t pay the rent, we may have a window of opportunity now to force the government to do what many governments have already done in European countries — defer mortgages and cancel rents for the duration of the crisis.”
“I own a duplex down the street, and I don’t know what I’d do if my renters stopped paying the rent. Deferring my mortgage wouldn’t really help me. I don’t have a mortgage.”
In other words, she makes a living mostly or entirely by exploiting the fact that she owns a duplex, which she may or may not have inherited, but which is entirely paid off. Without needing to charge so much rent, she makes enough money from renting one house to make a living herself. She is a professional rich peasant.
I didn’t respond directly to her situation, not wanting to make any inaccurate assumptions, and not wanting to appear unsympathetic. I started talking about my own landlord, to put the situation into a context that is especially relevant for most renters these days on the west coast.
“My landlord is a corporation that owns hundreds of buildings. They’ve been raising the rent so much every year that my rent is now more than twice what it was when we moved in in 2007.”
Her response then was so telling, and summed up the problem — and the solution — fairly neatly.
“That’s just how it goes,” she said.
No, rich peasant. No, “mom-and-pop.” No, corporate investor. No, house-flipper. No, real estate developer, banker, financier, corrupt politician, and everyone else — no. It’s not “just how it goes.” It’s not how it goes in civilized countries, and it doesn’t need to be how it goes in this one. Real rent control is possible, and we can do it here, too. It starts with a rent strike. It ends with victory. Join us.