Movement for Justice in El Barrio: Ten Years of Struggle for Another Possible World

“Ten years of grassroots community resistance to gentrification and displacement in El Barrio, New York.

Ten years of building a social justice organization based on self-determination, participatory democracy and autonomy.

Ten years of majority-women organizing for dignity and justice.

Ten years of breaking down borders and supporting movements from New York City to South Africa and beyond.

Ten years of fighting sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of oppression.

Ten years of struggle for an “other” possible world!”

With these words the members of Movement for Justice in El Barrio (Movement) told the story of their first decade, in the video made to show at their tenth anniversary celebrations in February 2015. For this important occasion, the members came together to have dinner, to watch videos made by, for, and about them, and to read the letters they have received from organisations and individuals in different countries who have been inspired by the different levels of their struggle. An overview of some of these contributions reveals the depth, the intense commitment and the unique nature of this remarkable organization.

A local struggle

Movement is mainly composed of Mexicans migrants, mostly women, many of them indigenous, who have been forced to leave their beloved native land and are now faced by ruthless transnational corporations trying to force them from their homes and community in El Barrio, East Harlem. Movement has grown, from fifteen families who came together and formed the organization ten years ago, to 900 members, 80% of them women, in 85 building committees, each committee organizing itself and making its own decisions. In resisting neoliberal displacement they have fought and won battles against a variety of landlords and not one member has lost their home. Meanwhile they have forged a strong supportive community, built a culture of resistance, given hope to many others and re-defined the meaning of worldwide solidarity, following the example of their sisters and brothers, the Zapatistas in Mexico.

The majority of the time and efforts of Movement are focused on their local resistance. Eddie Torres, Co-Founder of Casa del Pueblo Housing Cooperative in Los Angeles, shares his insights:

“To me Movement for Justice in El Barrio embodies an organization truly committed to the empowerment of the immigrant, poor and oppressed communities of East Harlem, NY, through the work of autonomous political organizing. They have rejected the old habit of charity service work that is commonly practiced by most other community organizations.  They very well know that to be fully liberated one must be emancipated from the very system that oppresses you.  Few grass root organizations, if any, dare to be led by the same community members they seek to revolutionize. Forward!”

From New York, RJ Maccani, a transformative justice organizer from the Challenging Male Supremacy Project, comments:

“That Movement has not only survived their first 10 years but substantially grown their base and won a series of notable victories, all while maintaining an autonomous and combative orientation towards local government and the landlords, is a powerful affirmation of that most basic tenet of Zapatismo: Don't sell out, don't give up, don't give in.”

Wai Yee Poon, Chinatown Tenants Union Organizer for CAAAV – Organizing Asian Communities, adds:

“Movement for Justice in El Barrio is a great organization that is dedicated to its community. They work hard to fight back against racist gentrification in El Barrio. Simultaneously, they do this housing work with a focus on women's empowerment and most of their leaders are women who are directly affected by the issues they are fighting. In other words, they are truly a grassroots organization. We've had an exchange last year and our members are very inspired by their leadership and community organizing. We hope to continue working together and fight against housing inequality in NYC.”

Groups from different parts of the world have visited El Barrio, and learned of Movement’s struggle. Rafael Litvin Villas Boas, a coordinator of Brazil's Landless Workers' Movement, or Movimiento Sem Terra (MST), one of the largest social movements in the world, who visited Movement in East Harlem, says:

“Compas of MJB, I am very impressed with the form of creative, horizontal, participatory democracy that you are developing here …Each area, each building, is a space of social and political organizing, from which we can learn by your example of popular education for all.”

And another visitor, Mazwi Nzimande, of the Shack Dwellers Movement, also known as Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM,) which is the largest organization of the poor to emerge in post-apartheid South Africa, and which struggles for land and housing, says:

"We are all in the struggle as poor people. If I was in the Americas, I would definitely be one of you, Movement for Justice in El Barrio. I would be part of your organization."

From Greece, the researcher Christy Petropoulou writes: “Movement for Justice in El Barrio is a ray of sun in the darkness of unbridled capitalism. It gives hope to the people involved in urban social movements against the process of ‘gentrification’ and for the right to the city.”

Commenting from Britain, the UK Zapatista Solidarity Network writes:

“We send you our sincere congratulations on the completion of ten years of dignified struggle in favor of those from below, the marginalized, neglected and forgotten of the earth, those suffering multiple forms of discrimination and oppression. The heart of your struggle has been with the organised migrants, mainly women, tenants of El Barrio, struggling against gentrification and displacement to achieve dignified housing for themselves, their families and neighbours. In doing so, you have forged a strong and supportive community and built a culture of resistance, and not one tenant has been displaced.

“We have been profoundly inspired by your dedication and commitment, by your creativity and imagination, and by your love and solidarity….We have admired your dignity, your politics of listening and learning, your sense of service and obligation to others, and your persistence and dedication. Movement for Justice in El Barrio is a reference point throughout the world….”

From Mexico, the homeland of most of the organisation’s members, Coordinadora Valle de Chalko recognize the difficulties Movement has overcome:

“We greet the sisters and brothers of Movement for Justice in El Barrio, who with ingenuity, solidarity and a big heart have enabled rebellion and resistance to flower amid the destructive machinery of capitalism. The compas have proved that to be born and live in El Barrio does not have to be a curse, they have shown that with dignity, loyalty, courage and love it is possible to construct from below through community organization. From the Other Ghetto we send them all our good vibes and let them know that we will continue to learn from them from a distance.”

An urban struggle

Many of the letters refer to the possible difficulties of organizing and resisting in an urban environment. As Gustavo Esteva, activist and thinker from the University of the Earth, comments from rural Oaxaca:

“I am very aware that you are there, struggling daily to survive in the Big Apple, in a hostile society, radically different from ours. I am aware that you not only manage to stay there, despite the crisis and all the difficulties of the day, but you continue to care for your families and your communities, supporting them in every way you can. It is so wonderful that at the same time you have decided to struggle, also daily, not only to face the challenges there collectively and to try to regenerate and strengthen the social fabric and community spaces, but also to participate actively and jointly in the struggles we are waging here.”

Victor Hugo López Rodríguez, Director of the highly respected Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center (Frayba,) writes:

“You, as men and women who have lived in community, in the neighborhoods, are an example of how urban space can be transformed into a space of resistance and dignity. Your history in New York reflects the possibility of organization against dispossession even in one of the nerve centers of capitalism.”

The great Uruguayan writer and analyst, Raul Zibechi, writes: “The experience of you all … who have created a movement in the area where you live in East Harlem, is a lesson in dignity and autonomy for all of those from below in the cities of the world. It is very difficult to organize in the big city, because it is one of the strongest links in the system. The cities are the center of fierce land speculation, which seeks to take over our homes, our small businesses, the music and art which our children and neighbors produce, the bodies and dreams of our young people, to convert all into merchandise. For all this, the fact that you have spent ten years organized and resisting in a big city…is an example that needs to be recognized.

“In these ten years you have shown that life can rise up in any place, in any corner, even in places and times where no one would expect it, in those gaps where no one ever imagined a green leaf could be born.”

A women’s struggle

Frayba acknowledges: “We confirm our recognition of you as a movement driven by dignified women, men and children, the essential mainstay of your protest actions. In particular we welcome the active participation of the women, and that your words have been linked to those of other struggles which are emphasizing the crucial participation of women in the processes of building alternative ways of life.

The renowned Mexican feminist researcher and writer on gender and women’s issues, Sylvia Marcos writes:

“Movimiento por Justicia del Barrio is an organization led and based mainly on women's participation. They are mostly immigrant women from the geopolitical South that work hard not only for social justice issues of the immigrant and poor but also for their rights as women. By this important women's collaboration, the Movimiento makes a statement on women's rights and through their participation women's voices become audible.”

Reflecting on Movement and the Zapatistas together, Gustavo Zamora Jiménez, Coordonnateur of the Cercle des Premières Nations de l’UQAM, based in Montreal, Canada, who works with the Iriquois peoples who maintain a matriarchal society, comments:

"One of the most important things about these movements is the recognition of the importance of women to the community….. People have forgotten in recent times the importance and respect that all peoples offered to the woman, and Movement for Justice in El Barrio and the Zapatista Movement remind us… We are all children of a mother and Movement for Justice in El Barrio and the Zapatista Movement remind us of this too.”

María Aguirre, while giving the toast during the celebration, said:

"During these 10 years of struggle, we as women in Movement have been extremely important because we are women in struggle who remain united and continue to fight in the forefront of our struggle, constructing and defending our community as the neighbors who we are.

“During this year of celebration of our tenth anniversary it is important to emphasise and celebrate the 10 years of struggle that we have carried out as the women in struggle of Movement. We have always had and we continue to have the will and the energy to continue to follow this path that we have taken towards the other world that we all want."

An International struggle

Movement are perhaps best-known for their role in international solidarity organizing, especially in Chiapas, Mexico. Victor Hugo Lopez of Frayba recognizes this:

“We would also like to thank you for the solidarity that you have woven with other people and organizations in different corners of the planet; we at Frayba can testify to the fellowship that you have forged accompanying the indigenous peoples of Chiapas…..We believe that your contribution has been crucial in encouraging other organizations, groups and individuals to join in these campaigns of global solidarity.”

From New York, Mexican author Malu Huacuja del Toro writes: "For a decade a flame has continued to burn in East Harlem, New York, for the Zapatista dream of a world where many worlds fit. The poorest Mexicans in New York, the humblest and the most vulnerable are those who have most courageously preserved the history and dignity of our country. Also, in the heart of the economic empire, they have successfully confronted the voracity of the predatory urban construction industry. In this they are in fellowship with the people of Atenco and the Zapatista communities. Congratulations to the pro-Zapatista compas for these first ten years of collective struggle. I wish them many more years."

Sylvia Marcos says in her letter: “We are celebrating that you have now completed 10 years of interrupted work. You have supported the struggles for a better world not only among yourselves in New York and elsewhere in the United States, but also joining the struggles of the Zapatistas and the indigenous in south-eastern Mexico and throughout the country. You have also been in solidarity with other struggles for justice as they are expressed and lived by communities from "below". Your support has revitalized those who struggle, ordinary people, in these particularly painful environments with their great challenges to withstand the onslaught of the devastating greed of capitalism in its terminal phase.”

Message of hope

The message that comes from all these people, inspired by Movement, is one of the hope of solidarity, that together, if we have enough determination, we can win.

Gustavo Esteva: “I am aware of the immense upheaval that shook the United States, from below, as you are aware of that which shakes us. That in itself is a source of hope. Let us know ourselves aware and united. Thus, we can move forward in the sequence that the Zapatistas teach us: from pain we pass to dignified rage and then to rebellion and freedom.”

Sylvia Marcos: “The unity and support repeatedly expressed by yourselves, your participation in meetings with your compañeros in struggle, and your unconditional support have been essential to keeping the flame alight and to giving a real possibility and an affirmation that we are already building this other world, while we remain interlinked and intertwined to give us strength and to show that together those of us from below cannot be overcome, we cannot be bought, we cannot be seduced. We know how to find ways of rebellion and resistance to walk together towards making a world where many worlds fit.”

Raul Zibechi concludes: “Compas from Movement for Justice in El Barrio: we admire your decision to go forward in spite of all the difficulties, in spite of harassment from the state and the market, in spite of the indifference of many who are also oppressed but have not yet seen the light of hope that comes from resistance, from collective dignity. We send a big affectionate hug from the south of the South. We from below only have each other.”

The Peruvian writer, political thinker and activist Hugo Blanco writes of the new world we need to build in order to save humanity:

“Another kind of society in which great capital does not rule, but society as a whole, horizontally, and where society as a whole is interested in the general wellbeing of all.” He says, “A magnificent example of this building a new world is given by Movement for Justice in El Barrio. It is probably not perfect and it may have many shortcomings, but it is an example that should be followed not only by the poor in the United States, but by the poor everywhere. A big embrace of admiration for Movement on its tenth anniversary.”

And Gustavo Esteva finishes his letter: “So, full of emotion, I think of you; over these ten very difficult years, you have not stopped struggling, that is to say, living, and you are for all of us an inspiration and hope. Many, many embraces to all the compañeras and compañeros.”

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