Right to the City Builds Alliance, Confronts Mayors

By Jacqueline Leavitt

When the U.S. Conference of Mayors arrived in Providence, Rhode Island, this June, it faced an unexpected list of issues and demands from a national organization, the U.S. Right to the City (RTTC) Alliance. RTTC, which promotes a new form of organizing that combines local and national actions around a common framework and commitment to a democratic model of practice, engaged and challenged the mayors to set their priorities straight and use federal stimulus funds to benefit the poor and vulnerable in our society.

On the evening of June 12, 2009, groups from California, Florida, Louisiana, Boston, New York City and Providence met at the DARE (Direct Action for Rights and Equality) office in Providence. RTTC was preparing to issue a set of concerns and demands about funds that U.S. mayors were expecting to get from the federal government, funds which seemed to be aimed at protecting large Wall Street firms and banks.

The City of Providence had been waiting for five years to showcase its planning achievements—its downtown waterfront promenade and condo conversions, as well as its preserved buildings stock. And the conference was hailed as an opportunity for an “unprecedented level of engagement” between the mayors and the new administration, including high-level senior advisers, cabinet members and Vice President Joseph Biden. The mayors were hopeful for the opportunity to have frank exchanges concerning the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) that passed on February 19, 2009. Mayors in impoverished cities have found themselves scrambling for funds simply to make up for existing deficits and move “shovel-ready” projects to implementation. But there is confusion about exactly how the funds will be spent. Leftists have hailed this as an historic opening for activists to offer alternative visions about an inclusive society whose values privilege human needs instead of palliatives for the market.

The RTTC demands asked the mayors to support a tracking method to show whether investments for vulnerable persons are being distributed fairly and to ensure that people have “legitimate participation in decision-making on the allocation of funds, with concrete mechanisms and processes for holding elected and appointed officials accountable to answering the needs of their own communities.” RTTC was not the only group to seize the moment. The local firefighters were engaged in picketing that led top advisers and cabinet members to withdraw from the conference because the administration, as a matter of policy, does not cross picket lines. Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) was representing the city’s Head Start workers, picketing because new bosses had issued layoff notices and would not recognize the union. The picketing groups shared the same space in downtown Providence.

Marching in the Rain

A year ago, protesters at the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Miami, Florida, marched despite a torrential downpour. In Providence, rain again failed to dampen the exuberance of activists as the hosts offered food and a convivial atmosphere where people hugged old friends and greeted new ones. In one corner, members from DARE and the other Providence RTTC group, One Neighborhood Association (ONA), stuck transparent cellophane over signs made with magic markers in order to ensure that passersby, despite the rain, could read messages about jobs, justice, a green environment and the slogan “Whose City, Our City.” Tubas oompahed and drums beat as we marched down Broad Street, four abreast, to Kennedy Plaza. Fittingly, the rally took place at the monument commemorating two artillery battalions of the Civil War, one battalion of which had many “colored” veterans. This seemed particularly appropriate given the RTTC call for mayors to honor the rhetoric of the economic stimulus “to put a down payment on addressing long-neglected challenges so our country can thrive in the twenty-first century.” Speakers included the head of the firefighters union and a representative from the Head Start workers.

The day after the march, a teach-in about “Our City, Obama and the Economic Stimulus” featured videos by Rebel Diaz that incorporated hip-hop and graphics to drive home a message about the trillion dollar bailout. Gilda Haas from Los Angeles presented a video, Meltdown, the cooperative work of people who had earlier been part of a group called Just Economics and who pioneered popular education methods to understand the economy. This preceded morning workshops, one of which continued the theme about the economic crisis and a second on “Criminal Justice/Prisons.”

In the afternoon, attendees divided into groups for workshops on the topics of tenant organizing, immigration and environmental justice, or to attend a youth summit. The workshops combined analysis, organizing strategies and visions for the future. Steve Meacham, an organizer with City Life/Vida Urbana in Boston, facilitated the Recovery Act workshop and deftly drew responses from the audience to questions about what the other side says about foreclosures compared to the realities that organizers face. He gave examples of strategies his organization uses that include keeping the property occupied, calling for a federal moratorium and blockading evictions. We left the room thinking about the use of the “sword and the shield,” or “la espada y el escudo,” a metaphor City Life uses at its organizing meetings with tenants facing foreclosure. In the metaphor, the shield represents protections from a legal defense and the sword represents the use of public protests to reframe the debate.

This combination of strategies also helps us to think of RTTC as a way to link multiple local strategies and organizing more broadly across the nation. National events such as the march on the mayors interweave strands that create a strong foundation for increasing power. The national organization allocates resources to the host city, which in turn takes responsibility for developing an agenda, recruiting panelists for workshops and finding accommodations for member groups. The host city, in turn, is strengthened for its ongoing actions that continue after the rest of us return home. For example, a week later in Providence, the City Council rejected the mayor’s proposal to use federal stimulus money to rehabilitate vacant property. Some council members questioned the city’s methods and costs, while others responded to DARE’s call to prevent foreclosures and get at the root causes of the crisis.

RTTC also seamlessly integrates social and cultural events into meetings. In Providence the Welfare Poets, a collective of activists, educators and artists that reaches out to youth, performed their infectious music integrating hip hop and Latin jazz. Young people were visible in the Providence rally and workshops, and passed out flyers for the event throughout the day.

1968 and the Right to the City

Though the Right to the City Alliance is relatively new in the U.S., the idea has been around for a long time. The phrase Right to the City resonates from events in Paris, France, in 1968, when students and workers coalesced around demands about education and work, questioning the values of the entire French society. At that time, workers waged the largest general strike in French history. The legacy of the phrase goes back to Henri Lefebvre’s 1968 book, Le droit à la ville (Right to the City). Since then, academics throughout the world have expanded on Lefebvre’s ideas in their writings and lectures.

The power of the RTTC approach is in its focus on the everyday actions of people with whom organizers work. The RTTC sees neighborhood and citywide politics and policies as important while recognizing that these alone are not enough to attack the structural underpinnings of inequality and justice. Although small wins do not generally lead to passage of federal legislation that affects hundreds of millions of people, individual organizers in RTTC work from the perspective of transformative politics, that is transforming people and the relations between them. RTTC offers a dynamic way to link everyday struggles to broader issues and to dialogue within communities.

Despite the view of some that community-based organizing is too engaged in small actions, I think that this misreads what is going on at the grassroots level. These actions may be less noticeable than those tied to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but they are no less significant. Indeed, it was the work of women in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1950s that laid the groundwork for Rosa Parks to refuse to move to the back of the bus. RTTC may be a similar precursor to a broad social movement, though this remains to be seen. At the moment it is both a unifying framework for a network of people and organizations that are creating multiple ways to work together for social change. There has never been a better time than now for grassroots activists to move forward at all levels.

Founding of the Right to the City Alliance

In early 2007, organizers from around the country converged on a downtown Los Angeles building in Little Tokyo. It was a unique opportunity for peer-to-peer exchange and, if the group decided in favor, to avoid what some call “the local trap.” The local trap is a metaphor for organizing around what may seem like small issues to theoreticians or opponents—street paving, a stop sign, police harassment or a housing code violation, all restricted to a small area, such as a single building, block or neighborhood. RTTC offers a potential for upscaling and supporting local organizing where issues of survival and respect are immediate, thereby expanding the base.

The Los Angeles meeting was organized by Gilda Haas, then executive director of the Los Angeles-based Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE); Jon Liss, executive director of Tenants and Workers United in the Washington D.C. metro area; and Gihan Perera, executive director of the Miami Workers Center. The call was to discuss a set of principles loosely based on universal human rights and including issues such as immigration, housing, land, the economy and justice. A volunteer steering committee composed of representatives from each region formed, and working committees initially arose on public housing and civic engagement. Many of the organizers were already working on these issues and looking for ways to scale up to a national level. Other working committees formed around tenant organizing and environmental justice.

A year after its founding, RTTC hired two staff people, financed mostly from foundation grants. While resource allies include academics and groups such as the Advancement Project of the NAACP and the New York City Urban Justice Center, they do not have a vote at meetings.

In 2009, RTTC began its own organizational development process and hired consultants to conduct an organizational assessment. Although differences exist about what the mission and vision are, there is agreement on some aspects, such as fighting against gentrification and displacement, increasing community capacity, changing power relations and developing national campaigns and a national agenda. Questions remain as the organization evolves. Will the alliance be a vehicle for movement-building? What are the criteria for joining with other alliances and coalitions? How do new member-based organizations join at the regional and national levels?

The total effect is that something extraordinary happened—first in Los Angeles, then in Oakland, Miami, Washington, D.C. and Providence. RTTC provides space to come together—for youth new to activism, people in their twenties and thirties who grew up experiencing discrimination or seeing their parents and grandparents treated unjustly and others who were activists during high school and college days. It brings together organizers who are accountable to their base, residents who have roots in their communities and older people who are still engaged some forty years after their initial baptism in 1960s activism.

The richness of RTTC lies in its participants—of different races and ethnicities, some recent immigrants, some with first-hand experience of globalization and its impacts on access to jobs and education. Some organizers and members bring to the mix knowledge about international movements, especially from Latin America. While there are differences in organizing strategies and theory, RTTC offers a unifying framework around which to collaborate. Unlike the 1960s, when the slogan was “Don’t Trust Anyone over 30!” and the New Left was far more insular, the RTTC has a chant that I believe captures its essence: “What is Democracy? We are Democracy!” At RTTC gatherings, when you look around, it’s hard not to feel that democracy is in the group’s DNA. But there is more.

Since 2007, the organization has held two business meetings where organizers and members from the base communities are able to educate each other, share tactics and strategies, informally and formally express opinions about organizational priorities and learn about complex issues like the current financial crisis through popular education. The active role of the RTTC Alliance at the U.S. Conference of Mayors shows that there is a powerful potential to turn networking into action and use national events to build the alliance. In the process, the RTTC is also producing a grounded theory for social change.

Jacqueline Leavitt teaches urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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