Can the Chicago Anti-Eviction campaign work?

9 01 2010

Jan. 8 2010 – 1:43 pm – Megan Cottrell – TrueSlant

Lenise's door, boarded up, and marked with a "No Tresspassing" Sign. Lenise Forrest was evicted from her home in the Cabrini Rowhouses on Tuesday for non-payment of rent. Lenise’s door, boarded up, and marked with a “No Tresspassing” Sign. Lenise Forrest was evicted from her home in the Cabrini Rowhouses on Tuesday for non-payment of rent, 10 months after she was laid off.

Right now, a dedicated group of volunteers and organizers are working to stop the poor from being thrown out in the cold.

The Chicago Anti-Eviction campaign started with Lenise Forrest, a Cabrini-Green woman who’s been unemployed for some time and was evicted Tuesday because she can’t pay her rent.

The Anti-Eviction campaign wants to keep Lenise and the hundreds like her in their homes.

Their slogan: Where’s our bailout?

The banks got bailed out. The big companies got bailed out. They made mistakes, fell on hard times, and got another chance. But not Lenise Forrest. Not the poor of Chicago.

It’s gutsy, for sure. But can their campaign work?

It’s based on the amazing work of activists in South Africa – the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign which was started after the end of apartheid in 1994. Even though apartheid was ended, black people were never given back the land and resources which their colonizers stole from them. And so even though people were “free,” they were enslaved by their economic condition, especially when the country’s resources, like water, were being privatized.

So they struck back. They made human chains to stop evictions or moved people back in when they had been put out. They broke water meters and instead created direct lines for water to move from the supply to people’s houses.

The idea is that basic human needs – shelter, water, health care – cannot be privatized. They are human resources – public resources.

That idea really got me thinking. I mean, what if our air started to get so polluted, so nasty, that some jolly fellow out in a pristine location started bottling air. You could buy your own personal air supply, if you had the cash, or get sicker and sicker on polluted air. Eventually, the air might be so polluted you couldn’t breathe it at all, and it’s either pay up or die out.

That would be outrageous, right? You can’t sell air. Everyone has the right to breathe.

And yet water, shelter, food – these are basic things everyone must have to live. But we allow someone to own these resources and sell them to others. You don’t have the money? You don’t get them.

IMG_2860That’s the basic principle behind evictions like Lenise’s. She ran out of money. She can’t pay her rent. So she’s out. It’s as simple as that. Whether it’s a basic human resource like shelter or a luxury item only the rich can afford, if you don’t have the money, you don’t get any.

The idea of charging for basic human needs seems wrong on some deep level, at least to me. Yet, it’s the system our economy is based on. Capitalism is all about private property. If you own something, you can sell it, and if we all make something to sell, we free ourselves up to make technological advances and innovations, instead of everyone just their own cow for eternity.

Capitalism is America. At one time, to be anti-capitalist was a crime, and although we’re not as strict these days, the word “socialist” is still mostly used as an insult.

We have these two huge ideas – a property based economy and a human rights plea for help – butting heads in a very practical circumstance.

Tuesday night, the Anti-Eviction Campaign volunteers tried to put Lenise back in her apartment, they told me. But the district police commander arrived, telling them it would be a felony charge if they tried to do so. When I arrived, police were watching the front and back door, making sure no one tried to go inside.

As one of the advocates put it, isn’t it a strange day in America when the police come to defend the rights of an empty building, rather than a family put out in the cold?

Who will win this fight?

Will a group of plucky, determined advocates break our capitalist system and convince Chicago that basic human needs cannot be privatized?

Or will our capitalist notions continue to plow forward, with the idea that individual property rights are an inherent part of individual liberty?

It’s not just an intellectual battle. It’s a practical one, and it looks like this: Will Lenise Forrest get her home in the Cabrini rowhouses back, or will she be forced to find a new one?

We shall see.

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