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"Right to the City: Social Movement and Theory,"

by Jacqueline Leavitt, Tony Roshan Samara & Marnie Brady September/October 2009 issue of Poverty & Race

The City as a Central Frame

The city as a contested place is not a new concept, but in 2007 grassroots organizers in the United States chose to make it the central frame in the struggle for social justice and human rights. They formed the U.S. Right to the City (RTTC) Alliance as a means of taking their cities back from the coalitions of affluence that had formed during the 1980s, and reframing the central scale of social struggle from the global to the urban. RTTC is one of the first mass formations to emerge from the previous era of sustained anti-globalization struggle stretching from the end of the Cold War through the election of George Bush, the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the war on Iraq. The issues, analysis and resistance that marked the anti-globalization movements are still vital, but it is also clear we are transitioning to a period when the city is also becoming a primary terrain of social conflict.

At the January 2007 founding meeting of RTTC in Los Angeles, California, organizers from around the country adopted a set of core principles and agreed that just as the backward nature of urban development policies are the result of capital operating at multiple scales simultaneously, so too must the RTTC movement be local, regional, national and transnational. RTTC organizations articulated a need to integrate with ongoing struggles taking place across the cities of the United States and beyond. This was not organizing as usual.

The RTTC developed out of dialogue and organizing among three organizations: the Miami Workers Center, Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (Los Angeles) and Tenants and Workers United (Alexandria, VA). Today, the RTTC Alliance is composed of over 40 core and allied members, across seven states, nine major cities and eight metro regions: Boston, Providence, DC metro, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York, and San Francisco/Oakland. Since 2007, the RTTC Alliance has developed a national governance structure, regional networks and thematic working groups that collaborate with allied researchers, lawyers, academics, movement strategists and funders. In its own words, Right to the City “is a national alliance of membership-based organizations and allies organizing to build a united response to gentrification and displacement in our cities. Our goal is to build a national urban movement for housing, education, health, racial justice and democracy. We are building our power through strengthening local organizing; cross-regional collaboration; developing a national platform; and supporting community reclamation in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.”

In its first two years, the volunteer Steering Committee hired two staff people and organizational development consultants. A representative from each region is on the Steering Committee, and there is staggered replacement of its members. Annual national meetings take place, where members from organizations participate in workshops, subcommittees have face-to-face meetings, networking is done formally and informally, and organizational objectives are debated – e.g., a campaign in which all members agree to participate. Other national events, in Miami and Providence, were both planned to take advantage of the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in these cities and for Right to the City to issue its own demands. Critically, these meetings help regional and local groups press their campaigns as well. An elaborate communication system is still under development that will take greater advantage of telecommuting via webinars and conference calls. Establishing a new organization that is committed to modeling democratic practices, as is RTTC, will take some time, and the organization is bound to make some mistakes. Developing a horizontal exchange of ideas that is analogous to peer-to-peer dialogues and refining principles that cover a broad scope will also take time.

The view that community-based organizing is frequently engaged in small actions misreads what is happening at the local level. Grassroots groups have in fact demonstrated a capacity to scale up their struggles. For example, immigrant organizing among day laborers in multiple urban areas across the country was the catalyst for forming a National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON). The various struggles RTTC organizations are engaged in, individually and collectively, may at present be less noticeable than the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, but their significance should not be underestimated. Indeed, it is important to recall that the work of women in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1950s laid the groundwork for Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery and signaled the visibility of an emerging mass movement. Furthermore, across the globe, some of the most vibrant social movements to emerge in recent years are community-based movements that situate their local struggles in national and global contexts. Immigrant communities with global roots are organizing across borders, such as in Los Angeles and New York where the GABRIELA Network organizes for the human rights of Filipino women workers in their cities and the Philippines.

Our goal here is to briefly introduce the RTTC Alliance by discussing some of the campaigns in which members are engaged. From this, we attempt to draw out some of the key principles and issues that unite these organizations, inform efforts to develop national expressions, and link these groups to others across the country and globe. Right to the City as a concept has captured the imagination of many involved with urban social struggles, but it remains an underdeveloped social movement ideology. Our data are drawn from interviews with RTTC members, participant observation, and review of movement documents and campaigns.

Why the City?

The New Urban Politics

The city has rapidly become a central battleground in the new global configurations of power and wealth. This shift is linked to increased urbanization and the relative emptying of the countryside, as economic migrants stream into the cities in search of work. Cities have also grown to such an extent that in many cases urban birthrates are themselves a cause of the planet’s urban expansion. Furthermore, as urban scholars have documented, major cities have become regional and global command and control centers for transnational finance capital. The emergence of the city as a central site of social struggle is linked closely to the unprecedented growth of urban populations alongside an equally dramatic increase in urban inequality and poverty.

The implications of this shift for poor people of color concentrated in cities have become all too clear: Whereas once they were segregated and ignored in abandoned downtowns while whites fled to the suburbs, now low-income residents are expected to disperse as cities are reconfigured by global capital, national real estate markets, local political elites and the consumer classes. Their presence in the urban core in any capacity other than as cheap labor is unwelcome, a blight on the landscape of the new environment as cities compete for status as world cities by attracting entertainment, sports and the “creative class.” To understand the intense conflicts breaking out in cities around the world, we need to pay close attention to the contradiction between valuable land and “surplus” people, and the logic that generates it.

But just as the new urban economy produces new forms of oppression, it is also producing new theories and practices of resistance. RTTC organizers see Right to the City as an ideological framework to help urban residents make sense of the varied challenges thrown their way on a daily basis and, at the same time, as a theory through which individuals and communities can formulate and articulate their collective interests and wage struggles for their collective liberation. For many organizations, the concept of Right to the City reveals the limitations of small-scale struggles, places the focus on the colonization of entire communities, and highlights the national and international dimensions of local challenges.

The City as Battleground: RTTC Campaigns

What unites these various organizations, each formed in response to local events at different times, is a sense of urgency in defending urban neighborhoods from encroaching developers; gentrifiers; apathetic, negligent or antagonistic officials; and deeper national and global forces attempting to radically redraw the urban social, economic and cultural topography. Our goal here is not to provide a systematic analysis of campaigns nor to identify all of the current campaigns by all members, but to introduce some that are representative of the struggles with which RTTC members are engaged.

• City Life/Vida Urbana, based in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, was founded in 1973 to fight disinvestment and over time expanded tenant organizing to other parts of Boston. They pioneered the idea of an Eviction Free Zone and a Community Controlled Housing Zone to forestall evictions, make visible existing ownership patterns and identify where power was situated. As gentrification in Jamaica Plain expanded, City Life/Vida Urbana collaborated with the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation and mounted a highly visible campaign to have landlords pledge publicly to maintain affordable rents. Since 2007, they have been mounting eviction blockades, invoking the principle of the right to stay just as the foreclosure crisis hit and began to depopulate many communities. This successful campaign has prevented 12 evictions out of 15 blockades as of this writing; even the 3 evictions that were carried out helped to spur a broader movement against the banks and financial institutions behind the crisis in Boston.

• Other Right to the City organizations were founded in response to more recent neoliberal policies that saw the public sector support investment-driven real estate development, first by ignoring their own planning departments, which identified ways to sustain existing housing, and second by moving ahead on “glamorous” projects such as entertainment complexes that demolished buildings and displaced tenants. In 1996, two organizations formed in Boyle Heights, across the Los Angeles River from downtown. One formed initially to fight against the HOPE VI public housing redevelopment program when the Housing Authority slipped eviction notices under the doors of tenants who wanted to stay where they were. A second became a community developer of affordable housing and subsequently added an organizing division to challenge gentrification. Both groups—Union de Vecinos and East Los Angeles Community Corporation—belong to the L.A. Right to the City region. Union de Vecinos continues to mount actions to take back the streets and alleyways, forcing the city to pay attention to safety and survival issues of existing residents even as a new mass transit line led to demolishing existing dwellings.

• In Koreatown, west of downtown Los Angeles, overseas investment had turned commercial areas into a hot market, and this was followed by the construction of luxury condominiums and mixed-use development. Although the financial crisis has led to a slowdown, the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA) continues to fight to protect the mainly immigrant tenant population from being displaced and losing jobs. Over the past six months, the tenant leaders from these organizations have been waging a joint campaign to preserve affordable housing, using participatory action research and training tenant leaders who have been surveying their neighbors in order to document deteriorating conditions. Women and men from the Latino, Korean and South Asian communities have been exchanging ideas and are moving towards issuing their own housing report, as distinguished from the Mayor’s, which they feel will underserve poor people.

• New York City’s Right to the City regional formation emerged in 2007 from an existing coalition of anti-gentrification community-based organizing groups. The chapter’s membership-based groups are working on individual and interconnected campaigns, and each shares a strong focus on the leadership development of their respective and collective membership base. For example, Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment (FIERCE), an LGBTQ youth of color member-group, is organizing for the right to public space by opposing the privatization of NYC’s waterfront and campaigning for a youth-led community center on Pier 40 in the West Village. FIERCE has played a key role in organizing youth-led forums to promote and support youth leadership in RTTC at both the local NYC and national levels.

• Picture the Homeless is also one of RTTC-NYC’s nearly 20 base-building groups. It was founded in 1999 by homeless people, in the midst of New York City’s war on poor and working-class people of color. Seeking justice and respect, the organization is led by the homeless and is intent on stopping the criminalization of homeless people. They organized a series of direct actions in 2009, including the occupation of a vacant building and the orchestration of a tent city on a vacant land parcel in East Harlem. The land is owned by JP Morgan Chase, a firm that received billions of dollars in public TARP funding. The organization’s “housing, not warehousing” campaign calls for the conversion of vacant buildings to affordable housing for homeless and low-income NYC residents.

• This year, RTTC-NYC issued a platform directed at upcoming city-wide elections. Through a participatory and unifying process involving member organizations and allies, the local Alliance identified six issue areas and related demands: Federal Stimulus Funds; Community Decision-Making Power; Low-Income Housing; Environmental Justice & Public Health; Jobs & Workforce Development; and Public Space. The document not only articulates key policy opportunities, it also lays out an historical and political analysis questioning the commodification of basic human needs such as housing. The platform also grounds policy concerns within a set of principles for each issue area and maps out public space accessibility, stimulus funding sources, environmental health indicators, and poverty statistics for the city. In addition to promoting the platform, the regional chapter has taken on a united city-wide campaign to convert empty or stalled luxury condominium developments to affordable housing for the low-income and homeless population. This summer, RTTC-NYC demonstrated its growing membership capacity in coordinating the groundwork for the campaign launch. Members and leaders created a detailed mass census of condominium development projects by conducting neighborhood-by-neighborhood walk-throughs in several boroughs.

What is Right to the City?

What theory of Right to the City emerges from looking at the actual struggles and campaigns being waged by RTTC organizations, and the analyses they are developing? At the 2007 RTTC founding conference, people acknowledged that there was no consensus on a definition of RTTC, either in social movements or academic circles, and that beginning to formulate one was one of the primary tasks of the conference. We should first stress that today Right to the City remains very much a work in progress, as a movement and a theory. Within and beyond the RTTC, individuals and organizations are involved with the difficult political work of generating a theory that is both rooted in day-to-day struggles and realities of people, and capable of creating opportunities for radical, long-lasting social change. While the debate will continue, looking at RTTC campaigns allows us to begin to identify some emergent principles. Right to the City at its most elementary concerns the relationship between people and place. It is from here, arguably, that all other rights derive and, in turn, ground them. Drawing from Henri Lefebvre’s original 1968 work, Le Droit a La Ville (Right to the City). Right to the City is a political feature of the urban inhabitant, a new form of political belonging that is not rooted in national citizenship; inhabitance implies residence, it implies this relationship and draws its political power from it. These issues have surfaced recently in immigrant struggles to get the vote in local and municipal elections, and there is a history of undocumented immigrants gaining voting rights in school elections.

Anti-eviction blockades; the right to return to New Orleans; resistance to gentrification; confronting police harassment of homeless men, women and youth; and ICE harassment of immigrant communities—these struggles are all grounded in the right of communities and individuals to be and to remain where they are (or were), to be there free of violence and fear, and free to determine the destinies of the places they call home. As the emphasis on affordable housing and gentrification suggests, the organizations in RTTC are all confronting sustained, well-funded and often violent efforts to break the relationship of their members to place.

From this central principle, we can see in the actions and analyses of RTTC members and the Alliance as a whole a sub-set of rights that give a more defined form to the Rights to the City. These are neither written in stone, nor do they necessarily apply to all communities in all places, but they do allow us to move the process of defining the Right to the City forward as grounded in actual struggle. Engagement with an ever-widening circle of social movements committed to deep transformation will only strengthen the frame.
Within this:

1) Right to Participate
Within the context of a right to stay, perhaps the most important right is the right to participate in all levels of decision-making and planning regarding the community. As University of Washington-Seattle scholar Mark Purcell points out, for Lefebvre inhabitance can serve as a proxy for citizenship rooted in the national state. More recently, scholars across many disciplines have begun to study changing notions of citizenship being generated by transnational migrations, a re-scaling of politics and the work of social movements and activists. While national citizenship remains the central frame for membership in a formal political community and rights claims, this dominance is being challenged by developments on the ground. Chicago, San Francisco and Takoma Park (MD) already allow non-citizen voting for school boards. As a result, we have an opportunity to redraw existing political maps and create new forms of citizenship through social struggle. This opportunity is central to Right to the City, as movement and theory. In this frame, democratic rights, rather than being based on formal political membership in a national community, are based on physical presence in the city, participating in its economic, social and political life. This is of obvious value for RTTC organizations from immigrant communities, but the value extends far beyond these communities as well. The guiding principle in this new citizenship is to legitimate and institutionalize the participation of marginalized individuals, groups and communities from all levels of the political process.

2) Right to Security
Insecurity marks the lives of many people living in urban areas across the world. Being present in a place and having a right to participate are only meaningful if people are secure. Unlike the militarized understanding of security that reigned during the Cold War and gained new life post-September 11, 2001, security in the context of Right to the City is both broader and deeper, mirroring at the local level the global movement for human security. Human security refers to the full spectrum of security, addressing issues ranging from sexual assault and lack of food, to armed conflict and environmental destruction. At the level of the city, human security issues are apparent in the terror sowed by ICE raids and racial profiling by police, to electricity cutoffs and evictions driven by poverty, and the commodification of basic human needs. Human security also extends to housing. Rachel G. Bratt, Michael E. Stone and Chester Hartman, in their book A Right to Housing: Foundation of a New Social Agenda, respond to the question of why a right to housing is needed by referring to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union address, where FDR suggested a second Bill of Rights that would offer security for jobs, health care, a good education and a right to a home. The right to security, though its content will have to be determined by communities themselves, asserts that in principle people have the right to demand urban policies and practices that support, rather than undermine, the security of people.

3) Right to Resist
Faced with the real threat of community breakdown and displacement, whether by gentrification, foreclosure, systematic discrimination by immigration or criminal justice authorities, malign neglect, or any of the other myriad ways in which communities are broken, Right to the City means a right to resist. Resistance here means more than permitted marches and other over-regulated forms of “free speech.” Instead, the principle of a right to resist draws inspiration from ideals, such as those articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen; from the living memories of resistance by colonized and oppressed peoples around the world; and from liberation struggles being waged today. It is a right that can be claimed by people marginalized from formal political processes, or for whom these processes have proven to be ineffective or, at times, weapons of the powerful. It is a right that questions the fundamental legality and morality of existing institutions and practices, and therefore takes as its primary goal their reform or abolition.


It is impossible to disentangle the discussion of rights from that of democracy, and perhaps Right to the City is best understood as one of this generation’s attempts to breathe new life into government by the people. as the struggle for radical democracy. This formulation allows us to connect the movement to its historical ancestry and to acknowledge its contemporary urgency. At the same time, the movement and theory must be grounded in the lives of real people and the concrete conditions of urban communities. Categories such citizen and worker, while still relevant, are insufficient to contain and represent the multi-faceted struggles of urban inhabitants who are women, documented and undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ, people of color, and who may exist at the peripheries or even outside of the formal economy. New struggles for democracy, inside the city and beyond, will need to create political subjects and agendas that transcend these categories, but without losing sight of the particularities that shape their lives.

Central to RTTC campaigns and analyses is the idea that the struggle for democracy today requires a return to the concept of rights. Along with academic, policy and other movement allies, RTTC is engaged in the process of revitalizing the rights struggle and re-raising unsettled questions in the context of new political challenges. Questions of inclusion, for example, are far from new, yet the attack on immigrant communities forces us to acknowledge we still lack powerful rights movements and institutions that can adequately protect them. Similarly, market-driven displacement, criminalization and unresponsive elected officials reveal the inability of even citizenship to safeguard peoples’ civil rights. Finally, existing rights, those guaranteed to citizens and for which many documented and undocumented immigrants strive, fail to even address basic issues of human security, including housing, medical care and employment. In all these instances, communities are once again coming up against the limits of the individualistic and formal political rights that mark the liberal democracies.

RTTC and other movements like it across the globe have their work cut out for them. In addition to day-to-day demands, they face a vast sea of challenges as they seek to create, articulate and implement new and powerful conceptions of rights and inclusion that connect the everyday to long-term struggle. But there are encouraging signs of momentum. In addition to ongoing regional and national work within the Alliance, RTTC recently co-convened the Inter-Alliance Dialogue, a process of discussion and joint activity between National Jobs with Justice, National Day Laborer Organizing Network, National Domestic Workers Alliance, the Right to the City Alliance, and Grassroots Global Justice. Beyond the U.S. border, the 2010 World Urban Forum V, to be held this coming March in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, has taken as its theme Right to the City. This is certainly encouraging. While much remains to be done, we must also acknowledge that much has been accomplished.

Jacqueline Leavitt is Professor of Urban Planning at the Univ. of California, Los Angeles.
Tony Roshan Samara is Assistant Professor of Sociology at George Mason Univ.
Marnie Brady is a PhD student in Sociology at the Graduate Center, City Univ. of New York.

The authors each work with the Right to the City Alliance as resources allies.

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