Institute Graduate Student Researchers Interview Urban Color-Lines Activists
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
By Teo Wickland, UCLA Luskin doctoral student
Ashraf Cassiem cuts a trim and sprightly figure. His round, piercing eyes and wide, sparsely-toothed smile evince his gregarious and passionate nature. He shares a table with me in a dusty temporary office on UCLA’s campus, on the day of the launch of the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy. Ashraf relates his stories, ideas, hopes and theories of power and justice. He shares histories of race and class—the nonwhite and the poor, two groups which occasionally intermingle and blur.
His story begins in 1966. Ashraf was born under Apartheid in Cape Town, South Africa. His father had grown up in pre-Apartheid District 6—a mixed neighborhood of Jews, Arabs, Chinese, blacks, and others. But such mixing was not tolerated under Apartheid. In 1950, Ashraf says, “the forced removals started; District 6 was removed completely: there’s nothing in District 6”. As a child, Ashraf grew up in an enforcedly, homogenously “colored” (lighter-skinned black) neighborhood. He recognized and responded to the state violence represented by the production of this homogeneity. In primary school, he threw stones at police: “We grew up in that space where we were challenging power, challenging white supremacy.” But stone-throwing was risky:
“In South Africa, under Apartheid, if you even stand with a stone, you get arrested. You don’t go to trial, you don’t have a trial, you’d be 60 days without trial, 90 days without trial. Sometimes it didn’t even go to trial. It was all Section 23, Section 29—anti-terrorist laws.”
One day in 1977, Ashraf came upon a peaceful protest. “All of a sudden the police just started to shoot.” The trauma of witnessing a senseless bloodbath added to his preexisting indignation, and he joined the anti-Apartheid movement at age 11. In the 1980s, he joined the Congress of South African Students (COSAS), a resistance organization connected to the then-underground ANC. Ashraf and his COSAS compatriots followed orders broadcast by the ANC over clandestine pirate radio stations like Spear of the Nation, or distributed via militaristic pamphlets. Their mantra to COSAS was: “Roar, young lions”. When the Apartheid regime banned COSAS, Ashraf and his fellows founded CAOS—Congress of Austerville Organized Students, which pursued the same ends as COSAS.
After finishing secondary school, Ashraf’s dream of pursuing medicine was blocked by quota limits: “only white people could study medicine”. His graduation then meant unemployment. He moved back to his mother’s home and took temporary, informal jobs as he could find them. On October 17, 2000, Ashraf was headed from his mother’s home to one of these casual gigs when he saw a person standing on the street crying. The man was being evicted, and felt helpless. “I said, ‘Put your hand in my pocket; I’m speaking for you now.’” When government agents arrived to empty the victim’s house, “we stepped in and we stopped them. And then when they [brought] something out, we put it back in. So it was an up-and-down, up-and-down kind of thing. So they called the police and … the sheriff of the court.” Meanwhile, other members of the community gathered, some of whom also helped to resist the eviction. “The police came and gave us five minutes to disperse and leave the house. And then we refused, and they just started to like, shoot it up.” Ashraf explains: “I was brutally assaulted. The police kicked my teeth.” Police dogs bit his legs. That wasn’t the end of it. “My mother got a heart attack on that day. She saw what was happening, she saw it out the window, all the police, so she came, and she saw it was me, and she tried to grab me—and then they assaulted her together with me, like 19 police.” By coincidence, a freelance journalist was making a personal visit next door. He captured video and photographs of the scene—which were immediately sold to newspapers and widely publicized that same evening. The police arrested Ashraf and five others, to which the community responded by occupying the police station where they were held. They were “sitting on the floor, sitting in the offices, making sure nobody can work, from the entrance, right up to the cells”. The police “were forced to release us”. But “I was beaten up, so I couldn’t walk. I was in pain. … I was brutalized. I was unconscious like four times. And awake again, and unconscious again.”
After their release, Ashraf and the others “went back to our community and we put 17 families back in their homes, that were evicted that day. Immediately. We were limping, can’t eat.” They offered taxi fare to the security agents guarding the vacated houses and told them to leave. Those who refused were intimidated out by members of local street gangs. All the security agents were removed, and all 17 families who were evicted that day were back in their homes that night, despite the activists’ dire physical state. This sacrificial struggle was successful: “They’re still in their houses. Other than two families that moved due to problems in the family—not because they were evicted—they still live in those same houses today.”
Ashraf and his fellow activists soon realized that many others had been evicted previously, without their knowledge, and that more evictions were likely to follow. They began to collect rent invoices to determine who might be at risk of eviction. “We collected invoices and we didn’t know what to do with it. We just wanted to touch people, go, collect the paper, show we were going to do something.” It turned out “the whole community was in trouble”: “of the papers, 92% of people were fitting the description [of who] might be evicted”. During this time, news of the group’s efforts spread among other communities. Initial interest had been piqued by the news reports of the October 17 eviction resistance, centering on the photographs taken by the freelance journalist who was coincidentally present. Activists from other communities began contacting Ashraf’s group. In February 2001, the group launched the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign (AEC).
Over the years, the AEC engaged in numerous interventions to fight evictions. The group taught community members how to physically defend their spaces against eviction actions. The AEC travelled to the World Social Forum in Brazil in 2003, sharing their militarist anti-eviction philosophy and strategy with groups from around the world. The AEC further formed a legal committee, the Campaign for Recognition of a Fundamental Right to a Home. This committee uses the principle of layman’s representation to represent community members in a court of law. The committee has won numerous cases halting evictions, and continues to litigate today.
Throughout its time, the AEC has always fiercely guarded its independence, Ashraf says, in order to remain true to its goals and its values as a radical, community-based anti-eviction organization. “We don’t work with NGOs…. We don’t go to them for help and we don’t offer them help. NGOs, intellectuals, academics—we don’t work with that shit. We say they’re the Trojan horses of neoliberalism.” Some other organizations have taken a different tack—notably, those controlled by Jared Sacks, a wealthy, educated white activist whose money Ashraf says “influences this space” and is “killing our organization”. Sacks’ groups have worked with NGOs and intellectuals, to their peril. Ashraf maintains that the AEC’s independence facilitates its work:
“We win because we don’t know. When there’s a white man with you, you’re supposed to [know]. And then they treat you differently. You understand? For example, I’m getting evicted, you say, ‘Why?’ The sheriff has to explain it to you. But when the white man is there, he says, ‘You can’t evict because according to Section this or that…’, [then the sheriff will think,] ‘Oh, so you know this shit? You understand this shit. You’re making like you don’t know what’s happening.’ If the white man’s there, he’s going to explain it away because he wants to be seen to be knowing everything. And he throws his money around.”
Some groups have tried, unsuccessfully, to donate money to the AEC. “I gave it back to them, because … we didn’t want money. We wanted struggle.”
Ashraf likewise sees a risk in working with an organization like the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy: “Today, we were all workshopped. So, that’s dangerous. That’s very dangerous, to be workshopped. Because once you [academics] understand the problem, it becomes acceptable to you. And then you don’t act. You explain it away, after the workshop. And then you look for money to pay your debt, and then you’re not going to act. You understand?”
Ashraf frames the struggle for housing in Cape Town as part of a broader quest for pan-African justice. “If South Africa is not free, Africa will never be free.” But he believes freedom is possible, and the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy may have the capacity to help.
“I have that hope [for African freedom]. I am the living proof that I have that hope. That’s why I’m bringing this shit here. The problem is that—how? How? So, this is where this space [the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy] comes in. The resources for this space, the knowledge in this space, the possibilities of this space—that is what is inspiring, because this space [academia] is usually anti-‘us’.”
“Our people—poor people—they will be influenced in this space. They will change their minds in this space. But in the communities, they will express themselves, you see? … There must be a way that this space is used not in this space. … This space can make a lot of things happen. So, what I’m saying is that, I don’t want my children to come study in your school. I want them to learn where they are, you know? They must learn where they are, and then that knowledge that is created in that space then gets shared into this [space—the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy]. You understand? So that you can be workshopped, from that perspective—not the other way around where you get to create the knowledge and then workshop us. We can, you know, it’s a turn-around, a revolution.”
This may be confusing. But part of Ashraf’s point it is that it is not necessary—indeed, it may be detrimental—to understand the logic of the AEC as a radical movement. Rather, it is necessary to understand and to amplify the movement’s imperative to struggle for justice.
An Interview with Willie ‘JR’ Fleming of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign
By Carolyn Vera, UCLA Luskin graduate student
Willie ‘JR’ Fleming has an energy that captivates the room. At the inaugural launch of the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, JR and comrades came to share their stories of victory, struggle, and possibility. They recounted their efforts against what JR phrases as “urban economic banishment,” the displacement of poor black and brown people from their neighborhoods of residence. To JR, the pushing out of poor people from the city is a global phenomenon of ethnic cleansing.
On February 5th, JR Fleming and I sat down to talk about activism, displacement, and keeping your hood yours. Out of this discussion, JR Fleming provided advice for local Los Angeles activists who seek to put a halt to the urban banishment of people of color in the city. Through this tool kit, community members can formulate their own strategies to resist gentrification in their communities.
Six Tips for the Los Angeles Anti-Gentrification Activist
1. Do Not Adopt the Oppressor’s Words:
As organizers, we must not adopts the oppressor’s logics. When leading campaigns, it is important for us to speak in a language of victory, not one of victimization. For example, when battling against an eviction, we should state the goals of the banks, developers, or the city as attempts to hurt our communities, not as pending displacement. Use words that are legible to the community, and can be adapted by different movements.
2. Nothing About Us Without Us is For Us:
Any plan by the city, local government, or developers that is made without community at the table is not for you. Any plan that you don’t play a part in building, visioning, or co-creating is not for the community. Create your own plan. The people must have a plan, and be the bearers of its actions.
3. Don’t Got The Resources? Use your assets.
As grassroots organizers, we won’t always have the access or the capacity to conduct projects and research to push our work forward. JR recommends that we collaborate with universities, and community-based organizations to advance our work. These coalitions allow community members to do the work on the ground while having the research that backs our activism.
4. Look Out For the Tools of Displacement:
When you see an increase in policing, a surge of activity by creditors, and sudden investment in your neighborhood, beware that urban banishment is on the horizon. Pay attention to local initiatives around developments in the area. It is quite often that these new developments are not for us. If you see a sudden boom in luxury housing, start organizing.
5. Be Solution-based:
We are a people born of struggle. When trying to dismantle the systems of white supremacy, colonialism, racism, and anti-blackness that pervade this world, we must recognize the little victories. When organizing, create tangible and measurable goals. It is important to be able to map our progress.
6. Their Goods Are in Our Hoods:
Create policies that hit the banks, developers, and the city where it hurts. Initiate campaigns that target the pockets of predators attempting to steal the homes of low-income communities. One of the ways that the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign has been so successful is through organizing against banks that prey on community. When the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign got word of an eviction, they gather people to occupy the home, and block it. This has been successful because it targets the economic vitality or banks, even if at a minimal scale.
There are no rules for radicals on fighting urban economic displacement. As organizers, JR reminds us that we must be the forks, spoons, and knives for the people to eat. The people at the bottom can see things that those with power at the top cannot see. We have a better view.
As we claim witness to a moment in history where people of color globally face economic and urban banishment, the battle over home is principal. These tips can guide local and global activists as they fight for a right to remain.
By Rachel Wells, UCLA Luskin doctoral student
I had the opportunity to interview Patricia Hill, a lifelong activist and an advisor for the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign (CAEC), while she was in Los Angeles for the Urban Color Line conference. A former public school teacher and Chicago police officer, Pat Hill was threatened with foreclosure when her bank incorrectly raised her monthly payments. She worked with the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign on a human blockade of her house to successfully prevent the foreclosure and has served as an advisor for the campaign since then. Through our conversation, I was able to learn more about her story and her insights on organizing.
Pat described her work with CAEC as a continuation of previous work and as inspired by people who organized before her. She said she was part of a generation “about 10-15 years behind the real activists, the Angela Davis, the Amiri Barakas and the John Carlos, and so we were the beneficiaries of a lot of the work that they did for our era.” She was connected to organizing as a 17-year old track and field competitor in the 1968 Olympic trials through listening to older athletes talking about social justice issues related to the Olympics. She then continued organizing as a student in Northern Illinois University, advocating for classes in Black studies and Black history, and her activism has continued throughout her life. Sharing her perspective as an activist and from working and dealing with challenges within institutions, she discussed her philosophy of organizing, thoughts on democracy, inequality, and higher education, and strategies for social movements.
Drawing from a Historical Frame: Pat Hill’s Story and Organizing Trajectory
On how her previous work has led to her organizing today:
“What we (the Chicago Anti-Eviction campaign) are doing today falls in line with those philosophies of self-determination (from the Black Power movement), of understanding who you are and being who you are first…
The Anti-Eviction campaign falls right into that. But also, when I was a teacher in the Public School system in the 70s, I was part of our Black caucus and the Black Chicago Teachers union. From there, being a police officer, I was the head of the African American Police League, an organization that represented Black police officers and supported the Black community. So it’s consistent.”
Organizing with the Enemy in Mind: Challenging White Supremacy
Pat Hill described a key to their work as identifying the culprit, and she identified the culprit as white supremacy, specifically while male supremacy.
On how anti-eviction work is challenging white supremacy
“We are challenging white supremacy in the sense that we are just not following illegitimate doctrines. You give legitimacy to illegitimacy by participating in it, so we refuse to participate in those things that we consider to be illegitimate. That’s s something you have to arrive at. Because we’ve been taught to conform. . Just because it’s law doesn’t make it legitimate.”
Inequality and Democracy- Living with the “Appearance of democracy”
When discussing how to challenge white supremacy, she described an appearance of democracy that is “couched under democracy but it’s really not democracy in the true sense of democracy.”
Higher education as an example of the appearance of democracy
“It’s such a clever way, what we call in the hood, the underlay for the overplay. It means that an outcome is expected, but you don’t want to be honest with me and tell me. You have to shroud it around something that appeals to me. An example in terms of getting a college education: everybody needs to have a degree because if you don’t have a degree, you can’t get a good job. Well it’s going to cost you. How am I going to pay for that, so we’ll give you loans. That’s democratic because everybody has access, that’s what they tell you… it’s disguised because everybody feels that if you pull yourself up by your bootstraps. You can make it in this world because the playing field is actually level. Now is that really true?”
On what this appearance of democracy means for people of color
“If you have a person of color, a person specifically of African descent, who is aspiring: As long as there isn’t too many of you, there really isn’t a problem. But when it starts to be too many of you and what is too many? It appears as though you pose a threat. And don’t be a black male trying to do that because that seems to be the ultimate threat to white male supremacy… So we’ll let it be so there’s never too many of you and we still control that. We put these artificial barriers up, background, can’t pass the standardized test, incarceration record, didn’t go to the right school, didn’t grow up in the right neighborhood.”
Challenging White Supremacy within Institutions?
Many students within Public Affairs will work with institutions, so drawing from her experience as a police officer, she discussed whether you can challenge white supremacy within institutions.
On the limits of what an individual can do within a institution
“Institutions are systems, individuals cannot defeat systems. Systems have to fight systems, otherwise it’s like Goliath and David. That’s a myth that I’m going to go in the system and change it. No the system is going to change you. However, you can be cognizant of how that system works. I went into the police department with a totally different perspective of what policing should be. I knew what the status quo perspective was. I anticipated that I was going to have problems, so I prepared before I went into the policing system with a collective. I said, ‘look I’m going to be challenged on this end, I’m going to need you to have my back.’ And I was correct, they attempted to fire me 3 times.”
Advice for people who are working in institutions
“You have to be realistic that your ability to change is going to be very limited. So you have to go in knowing who you are. I tell young people joining the police department, ‘you must have an identity when you go into that. Because if you don’t, it’s going to give you an identity and you end being a part of the problem’… It’s something that you have to be cognizant of all the time. And you are going to be challenged.”
Where do we go moving forward?
On what is next for the movement
“I always believe that if I’m going to be involved with social activism, let me look at the models that have worked. Because I don’t believe in reinventing, you don’t have to. There is nothing new under the sun. What you have to do is research where are the effective (models) and where does that fit with what I am going through now. This is what people need to do, comparative research…
I would like to see the (anti-eviction) campaign still going on. I’m not naïve enough to think that we won’t need an anti-eviction campaign in 30 years. This is a hard nut to crack in this country and this could go on indefinitely.”
By Kenton Card, UCLA Luskin doctoral student
Below are excerpts from a conversation with Pete White, the founder and executive director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN). Kenton Card conducted the interview at LA CAN in Skid Row.
Would you mind reflecting on the roots of your community organizing?
When I was growing up, I don’t remember such deep racialized poverty. I don’t remember so many black folks being houseless. … That does not exist actually. I remember folks having opportunities. … I remember young African American men and women walking around the neighborhood and had tool belts. They were building something. … I can remember those public jobs. … And what those memories provide me is a time that there is a very different community. … It’s those sets of values, of that community, that are situated in my gut and that keep me fighting.
I had the fortune of growing up here and remembering when there was more and then looking at all of these policies and understanding, as Dr. Clyde Woods said, understanding the process of asset stripping: robbing folks of all potentials so you could legally (immorally but legally) take away any opportunities that they have to move forward.
I’m coming up at the tail end of and starting to understand some things of the black power movement, deindustrialization, the rise of alternative economies, oftentimes-violent economies. Then fast-forward … the drug war is going down. Full-scale militarization, deindustrialization is in full swing. There is now a pivot on the street tribes. … It was straight up black against white segregation, poor against rich going on, but fast forward a few years and there’s nothing in the neighborhood. And it became part of violent economies, quite honestly. Violent economies that will always emerge and always exist if nothing else exist. I grew up in that.
The very first organizing that I’ve done was actually peace treaty work. I was heavily involved with trying to erect a peace treaty between Bloods and Crips in Los Angeles. … What I knew was that there was a duty to bring peace into our community and to turn our lens in a different direction. … That is what grounded me. That was the thing that helped me start listening differently.
What kind of strategies does LA CAN deploy?
L.A. Community Action Network works across a number of strategies. We have a legal strategy: impact litigation is one of them. … Community-based organizing is the core; the base is building power and developing leaders.
LA CAN has worked with universities in the past. What do you think of decolonizing the university?
I think the way, quite frankly, when we talk about decolonizing the university, it starts with sharing the resources. When you think about the billions of dollars that USC has, the ways in which it has been buying up property for twenty plus years to help the gentrification process. No. That’s not sharing resources. I think when we talk about decolonization; it is changing cultures, practices, and traditions.
We understand as a community that we’re owners of truth, and we’re owners of knowledge. … We understand that our stories and experiences are data. … We stopped allowing researchers from random other places from coming into our communities. … No. You’re not going to do research on us. And we’re not going to allow you to. Now if you want to talk about research that we believe would benefit us, we can talk about that. If you want to talk about us co-developing research questions. … But the idea that you’re going to come and put us continuously under a microscope and walk away with a document that is going to sit on a shelf for 50 years. And with a set of recommendations that are never going to be moved upon because the community doesn’t own them. We’re not involved in that process.
We’ve worked in partnerships with individuals like Gary Blasi, UCLA Law Professor Emeritus, to hold up their work as valuable and credible. When we go and advocate for particular policies often times we’re in there with our partners. … We’re co-producing stuff: white papers and whatever, … which we would call organizing research. … When you produce a coalition: that’s community folks, academic folks, that’s religious folks, that’s all of us together—getting some measure of material change that can be felt in the neighborhood is actually more feasible. … It helps expedite the process. Ultimately, it’s power. What type of power do we have?
Could you discuss LA CAN’s successful residential hotel housing campaign?
We fought a five-year campaign at LA CAN. It was our very first, premiere major voyage into anti-gentrification. We understood first that it is war. And I say very clearly that it is war because you’re sitting in downtown Los Angeles in Skid Row that was developed because of a policy of containment. Where does that come from? That comes from WW2. What were they trying to stop? They were trying to stop communism and the spread of socialism. … So we rolled out a lawsuit.
Developing organization, advocacy, and policy are the three strategies that we used to develop a 5-year campaign that allowed us to maintain 18,000 units of residential hotel housing in the City of Los Angeles. Residential Hotel Housing has been the housing of last resort across this country for decades. I knew that we had to hold onto those properties. The policy didn’t say that a developer couldn’t come in and do a boutique hotel, loft or condo. But that they would have to build replacement housing, unit-for-unit, upfront in the same community. When you tare down buildings, it ain’t just tearing down buildings. You’re tearing away lives. … We won that campaign, this residential housing ordinance. And we won it because we understood: if they removed you from the land then you were never coming back.
Why have you begun to mobilize the term banishment instead of displacement?
Displacement is when the public housing is uprooted and people are moved downtown. … Banishment is when there is no place for you to go. Places for you to go are jails or death. That’s banishment. When you look at the affordable housing rates. When you look at affordability on the lowest ends and you see it’s not existent. When you look at the bulldozers that are coming in. When you look at the pressures on public housing. You quickly realize that there is nowhere else for you to be. And then you understand that it’s no mystery why there are 13,000 people a month in the county of Los Angeles that are finding themselves on the streets. … If you’re houseless in a tent, we’re trying to move you up. But if you’re barely holding on to some affordable housing, and you loose that today, chances are that you’re going to be out in the streets. There is nowhere for you to live. … That’s why we are looking at our work as being anti-banishment.
What is your first experience of Skid Row?
Skid Row has always been this 50-square block where real community exists. And it’s on display. It’s the place where neighbors are sharing, bartering, looking out for one another, will speak. People say hello in Skid Row. … It’s important to know that in Skid Row there are more people housed than homeless, living in residential hotels, 8,500 units. There’s another 3,000 shelter, bed, transitional housing situations. That’s like 11,000. And currently there’s about 2,000 people living on the street.
I first came to Skid Row looking for someone. I pulled out my Thomas Guide and saw 5th and Crocker. And on the corner there is the Berlin Wall. And on that wall are murals that have always been there of Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, all of these folks. Right under the wall is just poverty. And when you look above the wall you look at the skyline. So you look at all these multinational corporations, you look at all the banks. You look to your right and you see city hall and the federal building. And in the shadows you is Skid Row. I didn’t find him, but I think that was the moment that I started finding myself.