HARLEM, NEW YORK CITY, August 19 — Several weeks ago, the Record Shack, a legendary 35-year-old music store on 125th St in Harlem, was suddenly evicted. The owner was not even allowed inside to get his personal possessions; his goods were brought to a Yonkers storage facility that’s asking $12,000 for their return. The landlord is a local church, The United House of Prayer, that has been selling off its ample property to the highest bidders, including banks and chain stores, that are invading the rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood. Last weekend, as on many past Sundays, local activists rallied outside the shuttered music store, demanding its re-opening and condemning the landlord church.
Harlem, home to many poor and working-class African-Americans and a major cultural center, has already been cut in half. That is, housing affordable at the average Harlem worker’s $20,000 wage and to small black-owned businesses are being displaced by luxury condos and upscale stores. What are being labeled “subsidized units” in the new buildings are pegged at incomes of $40,000-$60,000. Going, going, gone are affordable apartments and small businesses.
Resistance to gentrification has been constant, from students and residents uniting to oppose Columbia University’s takeover of West Harlem, to a militant Movimiento por Justicia in East Harlem, to several groups in Central Harlem. There have been demonstrations large and small and several actions, uniting all the groups. Unfortunately, severe weaknesses pervade the struggle.
All the groups suffer from a major focus on politicians. They rightly denounce the sellouts like ex-mayor Dinkins and Rep. Charles Rangel, and Harlem’s traitorous City Council representatives, but then hope to elect new politicians who say they will fight in the people’s interest. No few individuals can turn around the basic fact that the government’s role is — first and foremost — to protect the flow of profits, and also to control uprisings by the governed. But this obsession with elections means that debating the merits of individuals, or listening to politicians’ speeches occupy many meetings.
Much activity is focused on a few people attending meetings of political bodies and hoping to influence their outcome. Although protesting at politicians’ offices or events can be good focal points for mass actions, the major effort must be to build mass activity and expose the role of politics in a capitalist society. We need more mass actions such as gathering to stop evictions, or we could occupy renovation projects.
Nationalism is the other major stumbling block to building a mass campaign. At the August 3rd Record Shack demonstration, some people wanted to boycott other businesses owned by the Church, not a bad tactic, but on the basis that they were run by Jews or Koreans; they chanted “Buy Black.” This slogan ignores the fact that the evil landlord is himself black, as are many other Harlem oppressors.
It was possible to have a discussion with a few demonstrators about how racism is used to super-oppress and divide people, but nationalism serves to maintain those divisions and hide the underlying class divisions. When we all mass in large numbers with militant actions, then we’ll really see which side people are on and allow us all — workers and students of all backgrounds — to fight together.
Some anti-gentrification movement fighters do see that capitalism, based on endless greed for profits, and built on racism, is the problem. By distributing CHALLENGE and having continuing discussions, we must try to win them to join the Party for the long struggle ahead and not become defeated by our current inability to turn around gentrification.