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To Occupy Activists Planning to Occupy Abandoned Buildings/Vacant Lots, AMy Laura

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To Occupy Activists Planning to Occupy Abandoned Buildings/Vacant Lots, AMy Laura

To Occupy Activists With Race/Class Privilege Planning to Occupy Abandoned Buildings/Vacant Lots in Residential Neighborhoods

by Amy Laura Cahn

As many of you know, I just launched a project called the Garden Justice Legal Initiative (GJLI) at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCoP — http://www.pilcop.org/). ; Through GJLI, I provide legal representation to community gardeners and urban farmers.  For so many reasons, I support folks using vacant and abandoned lots for gardening, generally, and community and entrepreneurial food production, definitely.

I’ll give you two reasons.  The first, we need more sources for fresh healthy food in disinvested neighborhoods – particularly low income communities of color in which supermarkets and other fresh food sources are absent or prohibitively expensive.  Those food sources and the land that produces them should be controlled by the people who live in the neighborhood — who bring their own cultural traditions to deciding what they grow and eat and who get to make sure that resources invested into the land stays in their community.  Food and land sovereignty.

The second, as I say at least once a day, Philadelphia has 40,000 vacant and abandoned lots — 25% of which are owned by the City.  In other words, this is our commons.  Residents should have a say on how it gets used — whether they identify that need as housing, commercial development, a playground, or a garden or farm.  For at least forty years, Philadelphia residents have been choosing to reclaim vacant land by growing food.  Some of our most vibrant community gardens date back that far.  Some gardens have been able to get title to the land, but many still do not own the land they have shepherded while the City or tax delinquent owners turned their backs.

The City has recently entered a new stage of conversations about how to “solve the vacant land problem.”  Some sort of urban agriculture policy will emerge from this or parallel processes.  But, as those dialogues move forward, no one has offered a coherent answer to the question of how we preserve these anchor community institutions that residents have cultivated on vacant land.

And, in the midst of this climate, there is Occupy.  Last night, once again, I was introduced to someone who said, “what we really want to do is go into neighborhoods and occupy vacant lots and grow food.  You know, food justice.”

I know I’ve posted this before, but it is time to revisit this question — of the Occupy movement shifting gears from centralized public urban space to occupying abandoned buildings and vacant lots often located in neighborhoods where activists do not currently live or have ties.

I thought it might be a good thing to develop guidelines for Occupy activists planning to go occupy abandoned buildings and vacant lots in neighborhoods.  I started to take a stab at this, but I would like to hear your thoughts.  In particular, I know others are more engaged in anti-homelessness advocacy and anti-foreclosure work than I or are more involved and invested in the Occupy movement, here or elsewhere.  Chime in.

This is not meant to be naysaying.  I love the momentum and energy of Occupy; its focus on class, economic justice, and redistribution; and its struggle to develop process amidst decentralized leadership structures.  But, when folks call me — as Garden Justice Legal — to say “tell us what we need to know, if we’re going to start growing food on vacant lots”  — my heart stops a little and I think, a conversation with me is NOT the place to start.

Caveat: if you read this list, you will see that I am not advocating that activists take over buildings or land.  This is a response to a train that I already see as running and would advise to slow down for more deliberation and setting of intention — in particular, it is a response to requests for advice that have come to me.  This is very explicitly NOT an endorsement of illegal activity.

So, here’s my start of a list of guidelines for Occupy activists seeking to occupy abandoned buildings or vacant lots in residential neighborhoods — whether you’ve lived there for ten years or one or found the abandoned lot on google maps.  Things to think about:

1) Ask yourself and your group why you want to take over abandoned buildings and vacant lots. If it is simply to perpetuate the momentum of the Occupy movement, stop there and reassess. Ask the following:  Do you want to do Occupy or do you want to do anti-homelessness or food justice work?  If you want to do the latter, there is existing work into which you can tap.  If you want to do Occupy and think that occupying abandoned buildings or vacant lots is the way to go, know that you will intersect with decades-old community institutions doing this work.  If you still think that occupying abandoned buildings and vacant lots adds something meaningful to these movements and that your work will keep the Occupy focus on class, economic justice, and redistribution, keep reading.

2) If at all possible, think about starting to organize where you live, with your friends, neighbors, local businesses, and political officials.  If nothing else, you’ll meet your neighbors, local business owners, and political officials.

3) Find out what communities (plural) live in the immediate neighborhood and surrounding area where you are thinking of occupying.  Read community and city newspaper articles to find out what’s going on there.  Are vacant land, abandonment, foreclosures, and food security core community issues?  Are there other key issues that could use your support?

4) Find out what languages are spoken in the neighborhood and see what language skills exist amongst your crew.  If folks in the neighborhood are predominantly non-English speaking, think about whether you have folks within your group that have the language skills to be point people to do outreach and build relationships.  Or think about working where you know you can have the kind of communication you need to develop trust.

5) Find out what grassroots organizations have a presence and/or leadership in that neighborhood.  Ask them what they are working on.  Ask them if they have time to come talk to your meeting or if you can sit in at a community meeting they are organizing on issues relevant to the community.  Can the energy of Occupy be directed towards supporting current organizing campaigns?  Does the strategy of taking over spaces and creating an “occupying” presence translate to residential neighborhoods?  The answer to this question will probably be different case-by-case, but should be informed by the community.

6) Meet and talk to neighbors. Plural.  Meaning many neighbors (see above re language skills).  Listen.

Most importantly, have a conversation and get to know people and let them get to know you.

Learn about the history of the neighborhood.  Talk about your work.  Have their heard about Occupy?  What do they think?  How do they think an Occupy presence in their neighborhood would be received?

7) Ask organizers, community leadership, neighbors, and local businesses, what the affect direct action, and the potential associated media attention and increased police presence, would have on their lives or, in the case of community organizations, current campaigns. Maybe it will be helpful, but find out the answers from more than one source.  Pay attention to all the answers, not just the ones that are consistent with your chosen strategy.

8. Think about how white and class privilege plays out in your work.  For example, does the neighborhood in which you want to work have residents who are undocumented or are subject to racial profiling by police?  What does it mean to engage in direct action and risk arrest in a neighborhood where people are targeted by police every day?  How are the risks you take different from (or similar to) those faced by your neighbors?  For another example, what does it mean that you are able to choose to work in a neighborhood that is not your own?  Ask why you have chosen that particular neighborhood and that community and how you could bring that work home to your own neighborhood and community.

9) Others have articulated this better and at more length than I, but think about this: There is nothing radical about white people entering into and occupying spaces in communities of color and immigrant communities.  That is the status quo.  What that will likely look like in Philadelphia neighborhoods adjacent to University City, Northern Liberties, Fishtown, and similarly gentrified or gentrifying areas is that you are the precursor to development pressure and displacement.

If you’re really going to do this:

If you are looking to bring attention to the problems caused by Abandoned or Empty Buildings — others will likely have more to say, but here are few thoughts:

Again, this is not an endorsement of a strategy, just my thoughts:

Is there someone living in that abandoned building now?  Was the building the subject of a mortgage foreclosure or sheriff’s sale?  Was there someone recently displaced from that home?  Think about how you would feel if someone occupied your home.  Is there someone else that is facing displacement that wants your support?  Or could you bring attention to buildings being warehoused by larger developers or realty companies?  In other words, do your research.

Here’s a good example of occupying a home foreclosure from my hometown of Worcester, MA: http://www.worcestermag.com/city-desk/top-news/Occupy-group-fi-nds-solidarity-with-anti-foreclosure-movement-134338998.html

And nationally, December 6 brings a National Day of Action to Occupy Our Homes, for which activists appear to be drawing on a number of strategies to call attention to the housing and mortgage crisis and, at least in some cases, asking if they can be of support: See http://video.msnbc.msn.com/the-rachel-maddow-show/45531691#null

If you are looking to engage in Food Production on Vacant Lots

1) Find out the history of the abandoned lot.

For some info in Philadelphia:

http://phillyaddress.com/ – Allows you to search properties by owner name.

http://opa.phila.gov/ – Allows you to search by address or block.

2) Is there someone growing food there now?  On a nearby lot?  Think about how your group could support an existing garden by pitching in on the current project, sharing resources and information, or just by offering to be in solidarity.

3) Know that people have been reclaiming food on vacant lots for decades.  If you live in Philadelphia, read the the Philadelphia Harvest Report to learn some of the history.  (http://sites.google.com/site/harvestreportsite/).

4) Know that gardeners have been struggling to obtain land tenure for land on which they have been growing food for decades — through agreement with owners, lease, purchase, adverse possession, and through advocacy with the City and Councilpeople — with varying success.  Does Occupy support those efforts?  Ask the question of the folks doing this work.

5) Know that in Philadelphia many people — representing multiple interests — are advocating for an accountable, transparent, coherent vacant land policy that meets many needs.  Will your occupation of a  vacant lot bring positive media attention to this issue or result in a setback or retrenchment?

6) Think about why and for whom you are growing food.  Talk to other gardeners and farmers about what they grow and for whom and how it is distributed.  Talk to community organizations and neighbors if they want to be involved, if they might want to take or purchase produce, and what they might want.

7) Think, as well, about what food sovereignty means — in whose control should the means of food production lie?  Can you find ways to directly support community control of food and land.

8. Also, think about the fact that the growing season is largely over.  Take the winter to build trust and ties and learn about what exists around your lot and beyond.

That’s what I got.  To y’all, folks I respect, I would love to hear your thoughts, critique, additions, or subtractions.

with love and hope,

Amy Laura

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