Chicago Housing Fight:
Letter from the Front
Revolutionary Worker #1038, January 16, 2000
The following letter is from a comrade in Chicago.
When defenders of 5266 S. State marched out of that building in the Robert Taylor Homes housing project on December 18, they brought with them vital lessons for the people--lessons learned through weeks of determined struggle. For 33 days--in defiance of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) deadline to evacuate the building-- tenants, squatters and defenders of public housing kept the 16-story highrise open and functioning. In order to keep the fight going some of the most basic problems of life had to be solved--food, shelter and safety.
On November 15, the CHA swore they would empty the building, but at 5266 State a whistle patrol went into action. Sheriffs, police and the "relocation people" (CHA people whose job is to get people to move) had to be stopped from forcing out the tenants. The patrols were very effective the first day. The enthusiasm of the youth had people on alert every time a cop car drove past on nearby State Street. The day came and went, and the people still held the building!
One of the first problems people had to settle, then, was how to deal with the police coming to the building in the future. Through a lively discussion, it was decided that no distinction could be made between police coming to harass the young men of the street organization and police coming to harass anyone else. Everyone in the building was in this together! In the course of the next month, people had to solve all problems with their own authority--there was no way the police could be invited to the building.
In Chicago there are 15,000 people homeless on the streets every night. And tens of thousands more are, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, "one paycheck away from becoming homeless." People in the building began bringing in homeless people who were their friends to occupy the many apartments the CHA had left vacant--and vulnerable to the elements, scavengers and saboteurs. One resident commented, "Really, all the abandoned buildings should be fixed up, and the homeless can come in. Close the shelters and bring the homeless in."
These homeless squatters became some of the most dependable fighters for 5266 and public housing in general. Without them it would not have been possible to carry out much of the daily activity that kept the building safe and made it possible for the leased residents to hold out in the face of CHA's denial of services.
Squatters were given the more dignified title of "Sitters"--because they were house sitting. Sitters were vital members of board-up and security teams. Sitters joined outreach teams going door-to-door and taking news of the struggle out to others struggling for justice--like the Workship Coalition which fights for equality in hiring in Chicago's construction industry. Outreach teams went to a Night of Poetry for the Homeless, Act Your Rage organized by the R&R Youth Network, and an International Human Rights Day Vigil organized by the League of Filipino Students.
In addition to the Sitters, activists, especially revolutionary activists from the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade (RCYB), started staying over at the building so that, day or night, work continued and the building was protected. Often organizers from the Coalition to Protect Public Housing would come by during the day and staff the social room--which had turned into a headquarters for the struggle. The RCYB youth would come in and take the night shift. And organizing didn't stop when the sun went down--there was work to do in the surrounding buildings to keep support for the struggle in 5266 strong. Often there were mass meetings held in the evening to discuss the struggle for the buildings--one meeting brought together residents from four different CHA highrises.
The People's Way
Activists, Sitters and residents kept busy by the needs of the struggle all had to eat. The social room--an office by day--began to change as night came on. The smells of large pots of beans, pans of baking fish, or what have you, would mark the end of the day shift and the beginning of the evening. Different groups and individuals, including residents and Sitters, donated food. And coffee was available around the clock as people had to "walk the building down" late at night.
"Walking the building down" meant starting on the 16th floor and checking all the doors and windows in the vacant apartments to be sure they were still secure. The poverty of Chicago's south side in and around Robert Taylor is so intense that scavengers sneak into CHA buildings to take aluminum frames from around the windows of the vacant apartments to sell for scrap. This practice seems to be something that the city encourages. Scavenging windows leaves apartments open to the weather--allowing nature to make public housing un- inhabitable. While police threaten activists with arrest for trespassing, some scavengers pull up to vacant buildings with pick-up trucks in broad daylight.
On several occasions, scavengers were caught in the act and escorted from 5266 by security teams. It was explained to them that their scavenging was hurting the struggle of the people. Then the board-up teams had to follow behind to take care of the damage done. And for the poorest of the poor--CHA residents and Sitters-- what to do with the aluminum scrap (that the scavengers who got caught left behind) was a real question. In the end it was agreed that no one would leave the building with aluminum window parts--a high standard taken to best serve the struggle.
There were four rules for people moving in: #1: Don't do drugs in the building. #2: No loud music. #3: Keep the common areas clean (areas like the hall in front of your door and the room where the garbage chute is). #4: Participate in the struggle.
"Looking Down the Tunnel and Seeing a Little Bit of Light"
People found joy in participating.
A Sitter who moved into the building with her nine grandkids commented, "What's happening here is fascinating. I felt like coming down here [to the social room] and joining in. I've spread out for the first time in my life. I ain't been in a bed by myself in I don't know how long. And by me having my grandkids, it's nice having adults to talk to now. This fight, it makes sense to me. People think that if you're poor, you're shit, but there are some very intelligent poor. The initiative to fight comes from looking down the tunnel and seeing a little bit of light."
All day and all night the social room was very social--with TV and newspaper reporters, activists, well-wishers, residents and Sitters coming in and out. Card games went on as people took breaks from board-up, security, plumbing work or outreach. Political discussions and videos seemed to be always going on--the focus of attention for small or large groups.
Exactly because everyone was in such close quarters and the enemy could come at any time, all aspects of life had to be taken up. One young man pointed out, "It's stressful, but we are sticking together. I hate to see people misused. Time will tell what the outcome of this fight will be. One thing I know: the longer we fight, the better it'll be. The most difficult thing is getting enough rest." In this stress, an important fighter getting drunk and losing political consciousness in the middle of the social room could become a real issue. There were dozens of families in the building, and drugs and alcohol were common problems for people who used to have little to look forward to.
People began to discuss whether AA meetings or something like that could be set up in the building for those who needed it. One woman commented "Everybody is capable of change. Everybody's not the same: what I like, someone else might not like, but everybody's capable of change. They have to want to change--need something good to look forward to. Poor people are getting pushed around. We're trying to help people, bring 'em together, help 'em help themselves."
As the City got more desperate to clear residents out of the building the police began to raid in the early morning hours. The first time they kicked in a number of doors on sealed apartments, leaving those apartments open to the elements and to scavengers and saboteurs. People came out of their apartments to watch the police and the damage in that raid was limited. Still, the police made their intention clear when they told legally leased residents, "This building is closed and we can arrest anyone staying here."
After other early morning police raids, vacant apartments began to flood and the building defenders discovered that the police were plugging up bathtubs and turning on the water so that, hours after they had left, water would begin to seep down on the occupied apartments below.
There was a constant "fight for the troops." CHA "relocation workers" kept a steady pressure on leased residents with promises, lies and threats. One young woman commented, "They told me to `just think about myself.' That's bullshit, this is about a lot more than me. I have friends and family that live here."
Teams followed the relocation workers to make sure that they didn't threaten residents and that residents were strengthened in their determination. A grid representing the building was put up on the chalkboard in the social room to keep track of how many residents and Sitters were in the building--and what apartments needed repairs. CHA stopped sending the relocation people to the building and started calling residents to the management office where they could tell their lies and make their threats in private.
One of the most effective threats that CHA's relocation workers used to force people out of the building "voluntarily" was telling people that the building wouldn't make it through the winter. "Pipes are going to start busting any day." This was not just a warning about conditions--it was a gangster threat that the CHA and the police would make the building unlivable. Shortly after these threats, "someone" got past security and a sink was ripped out on the tenth floor. This flooded a number of occupied apartments, the building's Library, and a food pantry that was feeding 130 families a week. It was determined that this act was conscious sabotage, because when regular scavengers pull out a sink they turn the water off where the pipes come out of the wall so they don't get wet.
Support grew all the way up to the very end, but the people were not prepared to win this round. All but five leased residents were driven out of the building by the threat of losing their rights to public housing.
When the building was finally surrendered, the leased residents refused to move until the City of Chicago agreed to find places for the 20 households of Sitters--a total of 46 people--who had been part of the struggle.
One woman who had been a resident in the building for 30 years summed up this round of the ongoing fight at Robert Taylor Homes, "What's been good is the press reports and people in general knowing that what's happening to poor people is wrong. It's good having organizations and groups backing us. What's been bad is how CHA have kept scaring people out. It hurts to sit and watch it happen. We must believe in the struggle."
Most residents of 5266 have been moved into two nearby CHA buildings. One house Sitter with two children pointed out, "We got two more buildings to fight for. It's over for this building, so we go on to the next."
A 19-year-old man told the RW: "I want the readers of this newspaper to continue to struggle no matter how hard it may seem. Don't give up on your dedication and your dreams.
"They are destroying not only a building but a lifetime of memories. I would ask Phil Jackson [head of the CHA]: `How would you feel having a sabotager in your house busting windows and pipes just to get you out of your home? Are you satisfied you have succeeded in making families on top of families homeless?'
"What's the point of tearing down low income housing to build something else? How long is it going to be that Phil Jackson and Mayor Daley get to do their dirty deeds to the people--'til it is our turn to give it back to them with no remorse?"
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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