Squat the Condos!!!
Actions from the Occupy movement at the beginning of this year, 2012, initiated the call to reclaim a number of abandoned, foreclosed, and unused buildings in their respective cities. Events like these have taken the movement to yet another level of vital engagement over the continual negotiation of space in urban environments. Two particular events, which occurred on the same date, Saturday, January 28, 2012, show the extent to which the Occupy movement has gone towards calling for solutions to America's current housing crisis. The larger of these demonstrations took place in Oakland, and received a fair amount of media attention. The event, dubbed, “Occupy Oakland: Move-In Day,” made news for both its proposal -- the attempt to occupy an abandoned downtown building and convert it into a headquarters of the city's Occupy movement, and its result -- a massive clamp down from the Oakland police department, arresting over four hundred of the 2,000 Occupiers who came out that night.
The effort to take over a large city building was a audacious move on the part of Occupy Oakland. A tactic which hadn't yet been attempted by any Occupy movement, nation-wide. Not surprisingly, the OPD's reaction was extremely heavy-handed, and at some point during the night the plan to seize the building on that night fell apart. 400 of the 2,000 protestors were arrested, leaving the building unattained by Occupy Oakland.
The smaller of the two actions of January 28th took place in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. When a group of roughly thirty Occupiers converged upon a vacant “Luxury” condo located on 208 North 8th street, according to New York Daily News, in the late night hours. The collection of Occupiers sought to throw a party in one of the many completed, yet totally vacant buildings. The night was billed as a “Challenge to property relations party” on the group's Facebook page. The challenge may very well have been to the oppressive nature these “Luxury” condos have brought to Williamsburg since being constructed. Not to mention that large numbers of these buildings remain empty for months at a time, while many people in and around the area struggle to keep up with rising rent prices. Not long into the festivities, the NYPD showed up and quickly dispersed the Occupiers after arresting a handful of them.
The January 28th, Williamsburg, Brooklyn gathering specifically piqued my interest, because in early 2011, I released an album called, “Squat the Condos,” and here now, are a group of people who were seeking to do just that. Well, to a degree at least.
I am an emcee within the culture of Hip-Hop. For the last number of years, I have polished my skills on the mic, rocked stages, and moved crowds with the power of the word. In 2007, I began writing the lyrics to a number of instrumentals my friend and producer, UFAM had given me. These beats possessed a sense of urgency and aggravation that I identified with. After listening to them for a few days I began to feel the currents of New York City residing inside them. A city that will find a way to get under your skin, in your blood, and in your face throughout the course of a day. Here in this small strip of earth, exist two polarities on the spectrum human society. There is the “progress” and there is the poverty.
This polarity creates a generalized tension throughout the atmosphere of the city. This tension circulates in the air like radio waves, under the sidewalk into the sewer system like that evil ectoplasm from Ghostbusters 2; out of people's mouths with exasperated emphasis, and weigh's on the mind throughout quiet moments to oneself. It's easy to forget that others around you are feeling this pressure. The narrowing of one's field of awareness is a result of relentless stress. People become forgetful of others daily burden, which further compounds the original tension, leading to whole new dimension uneasiness. I wrote most lyrics to UFAM beats while running around the city during work, moving within this field of tension.
Hustling through the heart of the city on an average work day, I felt the immense agitation and near delirium so many other New Yorkers can feel while simply seeking to fulfill some of life's necessities. I was surrounded by people in a very similar situation as I was. Working just to pay rent. This is an underlying force that drives many New Yorkers through the city streets everyday. And it makes sense, in 2007, it was recorded that ¼ of New Yorkers, that's 500,000 families, paid more than half their income in Rent. This is a stressful thing to carry around with you every day. This feeling of living paycheck to paycheck. The situation has become even more intense since the 2008 housing crash. As I moved through the city in differing states of consciousness, I was able to “see” the stress in the air like swamp gas. I also felt the strange silence around this fact as well. Many are united in that worry about paying rent, however there weren't people speaking about it openly in public spaces.
Though I was pretty much broke at the time, being a musician, I was able to travel throughout the U.S. performing. Nothing that would blow you away, just small clubs and bars, sometimes to less than ten people in the place. But I got to tour nonetheless. I lived in Bushwick, Brooklyn for a portion of that year, and later moved down to Atlanta, GA for three months. On tour I was able to spend time in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, moving through for a few days at a clip. I caught snap shots of these places, seeing some beautiful sights. During that period of 2007, I also caught the gestation and later growth of the “Luxury Condo” phenomenon.
I watched the early cresting of the “Luxury” condo wave increase it's turbulent energy as I toured. It started with the huge banners promising “Luxury” in the condo coming soon. On the next tour, the banner would be gone, and a whole block would posses large glass living quarters claiming “Luxury.” Most of these buildings looked so much a like, I wondered if there was not some well timed conference call between city mayors, real estate developers, and local urban planners in each city, that I missed. I found it strange that so many forms of identical development occurred at the same time, and all with no apparent news reportage. At least, I couldn't find any.
As far as the album went, by mid 2007, I had a couple of the songs finished, but still no title. One of the completed tracks was called “Nights Like This.” I wrote for it a friend, Josh Crouch, aka LEFTIST, after he was hit, run over, and killed by the driver of an 18-wheel truck on the West Side Hwy, in September, 2006. The death of LEFTIST deeply affected his family and friends. For weeks, I helped his best friend, Morgan a/k/a C.O.N.C.E.P.T. And Josh's father, James, canvass the streets of the west village, where LEFT was last seen alive, looking for witnesses to come forward with any information about the vehicular homicide.
Josh's father hired a private investigator, and Morgan went out nightly with fliers. The NYPD was never able to find the person responsible for Josh's death. His transition intensified a morbid speculation I held about how many murder cases go cold in this city. When a case goes cold involving the lose of a human life, it can further pollute the bitter taste in one's mouth. I filtered Josh's death through a number of metaphysical belief systems. I thought about all the spirits of those crushed under the wheels of a city which rests on the invincible graves of those unjustly taken. The city could be seen as some form of vampire, sucking at the light and life of all of us struggling within it's grips. “Nights Like This,” was then my reaction to this city of suck. The response would be to stand up, knuckle up and scream, “the city can't tread on me.” After listening to the recorded version of this song for the first time, I knew the direction of this work would not be a party record. The album needed to go all in, working with heavy psychic material that many rather not deal with when given the choice. I reflected, then, upon how many people need to face the ugly everyday in order just to survive. With that thought, the phrase, “SQUAT THE CONDOS!” became the title of the album.
It seemed like a pretty cool idea, storming the “luxury condos” like the Lower East Side squatters of the 1980s. Reclaiming the physical space from greedy corporate developers in order to turn it into a zone of fun human interactions. Images of transforming parts of old “luxury” condos into squatter run vertical farms, with solar panels collecting enough energy to power the whole building! I also had more grounded visions of seeing families who live and work in the area where the condo was, occupying these spaces and not forced to leave because they can no longer afford the rent.
To me, these “luxury” condos were symbolic representations of a new form of gentrification. A style of gentrification that moved into cities with the grace of a diamond studded wrecking ball. A writer friend of mine commented on the economic apartheid taking place in front of our eyes, and that phrase echoed in my mind in increasingly louder volumes everyday. Economic apartheid. Economic Apartheid! ECONOMIC APARTHIED!!! I saw very little about these structures that seemed cool or even “luxurious.” I am not saying that I'm averse to enjoying the finer things in life. Nor do I suggest to possess the ultimate barometer of cool, but when identical buildings are claiming luxury constantly, you start growing suspicious of the word. The amenities offered in all seemed to strike a chord of banal similarity. Is this really the only look and feel of “luxury?” Has even the concept luxury become a complete commodity in this stage of capitalism? Where the economy is fueled more by consumption than production, and millions of people walk the streets of cities like New York everyday, we are pushed since birth with the desire to consume more. It is this environment that incubates this “luxury” virus in the first place. Developers can't just sell some ordinary condos, these new structures need to be “luxury.” Everything needs to be luxury. And the more people lack a living wage, decent housing quarters, and a sense of community, the more they will fantasize about living the dream in a “luxury” condo.
These are just a few thoughts that swam in my mind as I worked out the lyrics for the album. The final product was a nine track composition of resistance music. For some songs, I tapped into the energy found whilst taking part in a political demonstration. I weaved in refrains that I'd like to hear in protest marches. On one hook, for my song “Calling Down the Earth,” I included a Gaelic language title of an old Irish rebel song.(Oro, Se do Bheathe Bhaile). This phrase, in song, dates back to the 1700s. It was remixed, if you will, by the Irish poet and revolutionary, Padraig Pearse, and was often sung by the IRA during the 1916 Easter Uprising. I first got hip to this song through the NYC band Black 47, who created a dub break down with these lyrics on the song “Fire of Freedom.”
One reviewer has called the album “Apocalypse Hip-Hop.” If I am to take the view that “apocalypse” refers to an uncovering or revealing, then I'm happy with the reviewer's description. The vibe of the music is hard and jarring, like scaffolding falling from shoddily built “luxury” condos, to reveal the stories the humans grinding to hold on to their humanity. However, there is also present on the album, the motivation towards the feeling of freedom. There are a couple songs on the album which present the sound of levity. Which allows a contrast to be felt between that levity with the gravity current situation. So, a song like “Nammo Tasso” would sonically clash with the first track, “Agit-Prop.” The thesis and antithesis of sound would produces cool sonic synthesis, captured by the song “Ayahuasca Metropolis.” My hope with the album was to present a dire situation, but to do so in a way that would inspire the listener to get up and do something about it. I did not want to make a record that wallowed in the ills of which it spoke. There is so much to do, and it felt to me, we had very little time to do it. We needed to move, quickly.
Then the 2008 market crash hit. The housing market went into a tail spin. A number of the lending institutions whom were complicit in the crash in the first place, were bailed out with $800 Billion, while millions of Americans had their homes foreclosed upon. In this environment the push to the “Squat the Condos!” meme became urgent. I knew that there were probably others seeking to spread a similar message, and one of my new aims was connect with as many of these people as possible. Up until that point, my mission was mostly a one man movement, however I was joined by Thee Semiotic Alchemyst, on many late night “bombing” sessions. Thousands of “Squat the Condos” stickers went up all over the country, with intense concentration in Williamsburg, BK. A place with an extreme amount of “Luxury” condos, as compared to any other place I'd been to in America. “Squat the Condos” was also stenciled on a number of “Luxury” condos in that area as well. This specific tactic led to being arrested by the NYPD during the guerrilla video shoot for my video “Luxury Condos.”
The sub-prime mortgage lending fiasco being a contributing factor to the 2008 housing market crash became a meditation involving the debt-based money system we find ourselves in today. Financial institutions profited from selling debt in packaged and repackaged forms, and the march of deregulation rolled back of acts like Glass-Steagall. Passed in 1933, Glass-Steagall was a federal response to the banking speculations which brought on the Great Depression. This law mandated a separation be held between commercial banking and investment banking. In 1999, the Glass-Steagall Act was repealed. This deregulation drastically altered the face of credit and mortgage lending. Huge mergers between financial institutions began immediately after, leading eventually to the credit and housing crashes in 2008. (* 4)
Since the crash, millions of Americans have had their homes foreclosed upon, Countless numbers of Americans have consequently become homeless. In New York City on Halloween night, 2011, the amount of homeless people sleeping in a shelter was the highest ever on record for NYC.(*5) Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the 12th richest man in America, with a net worth of $22 billion, is currently the first Mayor since modern homelessness began who has no housing assistance program in place to help families move on from shelters to more permanent housing.(*6)
In April, 2011 a number of events occurred around ”Squat the Condos!” First, an activist/artist decided to hold a seminar called 'Squat the Condos,' facilitated by the Trade School. I was, at first, a bit shocked that another artist was utilizing the exact phraseology as I did with my album, but I chose to believe that this is how good ideas manifest and circulate. Inspiration begets inspiration, and important messages grow organically. I do not know if this artist had any knowledge of what I was doing with 'Squat the Condos' before he called this seminar, but I knew I needed to check it out. Thee Semiotic Alchemyst and I attended the event, held in an old school house in the SOHO district of Manhattan, and there, we met a number of passionate, concerned, intelligent people who wanted to take direct action around the housing situation in NYC. I would not be surprised if a number of the people at this seminar have also been involved in OWS. In the class, we reviewed a number of different aspects to developing a squatted building. From choosing a place, to establishing rights, and finally creating community, the assembled group spoke about the possibility for squatting a “luxury” condo. Squatting was viewed as a form of direct action within the context of this three hour experience.
The second 'Squat the Condos' happening of April 2011, involved the financially successful street artist turned political propagandist, Shepard Fairey. Fairey had some of his works showing at a Chelsea art gallery, during this opening night premiere. Thee Semiotic Alchemyst and myself arrived looking for the man who launched his career with a simple “Andre the Giant has a posse” sticker. The scene of the gallery that night was over packed with snobbery. I registered disappointment and irritation at the ostentatious vibe of this place with Thee Semiotic Alchemyst. She, being a survivor of the Arts higher learning system, agreed about this social setting we now found ourselves in. However, these scenes exist, and who am I to stop anyone else from acting like an asshole? There was another thing about this Chelsea gallery show which caused a deeper philosophical affront. Many of these pieces in this gallery could have been re-interpretations of very famous artists, and these derivative pieces were being sold for $5,000. The painting that seemed to put me over the edge looked like an exact replica of Andy Warhol's quadrant works. My love of earth works art and street art was re-affirmed in that moment. In my mind, much of street art is more substantial than many of the pieces that get filtered through the gallery world. Thee Semiotic Alchemyst and myself quickly conferred and came to the conclusion that we would be responsible for bringing some lively art to this scene.
While one of Fairey's street art pieces hung for sale, I walked over to it, and placed a “Squat the Condos” sticker on the bottom right corner, next to the words “Propaganda Engineering.” So elegantly placed was this adhesive that even the gallery's curator could not tell the difference between Fairey's frequently used motifs and this sticker. This curator told me that the piece with this new add-on would probably be sold for anywhere between $20,000 and $40,000. I do not know how much it was sold for because it cost $150 to get into the gallery during auction night. However, I smile at the thought that this Shepard Fairey work with a limited edition “Squat the Condos” sticker may be hanging on the wall of “luxury” condo somewhere in New York City.
Finally, that April I became acquainted with an organization called, “Picture the Homeless.” PTH is housing organization that draws attention to homelessness in New York City. Their methods utilize participatory research, a research tool developed by radical educator Paulo Freire, in order to empower communities and lessen the reliance on an external “expert” authority. Participatory research directly involves the people affected by whatever may be happening in their communities. I was inspired by Picture Homelessness' program and so I reached out to them. I got in touch with Lynn Lewis, told her I was an MC who wished to do some work with them. As the stars align in interesting and synchronized ways at times, it so happened that PTH was holding a fundraiser in April. I ended up performing at this fundraiser, which was held in a small bar in the Lower East Side.
From the multitude of the community based organizations I researched, PTH interested me the most. PTH was out in the streets and working on the ground at a number of different demonstrations. I then learned that the organization's staff were nearly all New Yorkers dealing with being homeless. Homelessness is a complex subject, which rarely gets a full and thorough discussion in the media. Maybe it is because most people who currently have a roof over their heads often times feel like they are only two paychecks away from losing that shelter. Maybe it is the lack of information about the phenomenon of homelessness, and how it is exactly that real people become homeless. For whatever reason, talking about homelessness makes people nervous. So I found it deeply refreshing that an organization exists in NYC that can tell you about homelessness from both the theoretical analysis and a direct, in your face, subjective experience.
For the purposes of this story of “Squat the Condos,” the climax lies in California. In August 2011, I fly out to LA to open up for political Hip-Hop legends, Dead Prez. Following the concerts, Thee Semiotic Alchemyst and myself decided to stick around the “left coast” for a while. In September, Occupy Wall Street exploded in NYC with force of an earthquake, and it's seismic waves rolled west. The release of the massive energy building beneath the surface for so many Americans since the 2008 crash had finally shifted the tectonic plates of the economic playing field. The inspiration was contagious, the anger justified.
Thee Semiotic Alchemyst and myself got involved. We briefly attended the very first San Francisco gathering, where I could count to number of protestors on two hands. A few days later, on September 29, there was a huge demonstration downtown, which we attended and took part. Organizations, coalitions, and individuals assembled at strategic points like Voltron. Attention was directed at the banking institutions whose business practices were found suspect before and after the crash. We marched outside of the Bank of America building, who, that day, had instituted a new five dollar atm usage charge policy on its customers. A handful of activists took the demonstration the bank's lobby and staged a sit-in for a long while.
Later on in the day, we all marched south towards the water. We arrived at the harbor square known as Justin Herman Plaza. When the protest had ended, I noticed a group of five or six people setting up tents in the far corner of the plaza. This became the city's Occupy encampment. We watched it grow section by section over the next number of weeks, until the whole plaza became a tent city of gritty, vigilant, direct action. There were many things said about Occupy encampments, but what stood out the most was the level of on-the-ground organization present. For instance, SF's Occupy provided food, shelter, medical treatment, and literature for the Occupiers. A number of the Occupiers we met in SF were homeless. So instead of being kicked around by the cops and told to move from where they were sleeping or else they'd be fined or arrested, many homeless people could now sleep soundly. For a short time at least.
Over the next month and a half, Thee Semiotic Alchemyst and I became involved with five other Occupies across California. Besides, SF, we went to the Oakland, Berkeley, L.A., San Diego, and Lancaster Occupies. We cycled through Oakland, SF, and LA every few days, while attending Lancaster, San Diego, and Berkeley once. Each space provided new insights into this giant, world-wide movement, motivating millions to stand together and demand change. In conversation with those involved in their respective Occupies, a number of different issues were frequently raised. The Occupiers made a point to make noise about economic justice, housing rights, campaign finance reform, tuition hikes in state universities, and drawing attention to specific local corporations up to no good. Besides all those platforms, I witnessed spontaneous gatherings of human beings, establishing autonomous zones in order to vocalize their visions of a better world.
Then in November the raids came. Mayor Bloomberg called for the NYPD to pillage Liberty Plaza, aka Zuccotti Park. Shortly after, other national mayors followed suit. Thee Semiotic Alchemyst and I arrived at SF encampment to go to sleep late one night when the SFPD began mobilizing a raid. We helped move the medical supplies and some sickly Occupiers to a safe zone. We helped a young girl who was just brutally maneuvered by a police officer in full body armor, because she was trying to get her kitten in her arms to leave. Apparently, she didn't do this quick enough for the cop's liking and he assaulted her. I stood on the front line watching the SFPD stand menacingly against a line of Occupiers who were debating whether or not to retaliate if the police charged. For some reason, the SFPD did not raid that night. The tension finally broke when the police mysteriously retreated, and someone's portable PA system began blasting out dubstep, hip-hop, and techno songs, as the Occupiers began to dance. Only a day or two later, however, the SFPD moved in full force on the Occupiers at Justin Herman Plaza.
We were at Occupy Oakland the evening of the OPD early morning raid. Hundreds of people still congregated in the encampment, a stone's throw away from Oakland's city hall. Oakland's Occupy movement felt the most tense of the many we attended. The knowledge was evident that Oakland Occupy carried with it long struggles of the past. Things go down in Oaktown. As for the Occupy movement, it was here, in Oscar Grant Plaza, that the OPD shot, at point blank range, Iraqi war veteran, Scott Olsen, in the face with a tear gas canister. That night, there was a strong buzz in the air, and people were ready for whatever was to come next. The talk around the plaza was that there was to be a solidarity march over to the Occupy Berkeley, held at UC Berkeley. Occupiers there had just dealt with a massive police assault because they were peacefully protesting tuition hikes.
We were at the Occupy LA encampment on the night that the LAPD raided. Thee Semiotic Alchemyst, myself, and two friends arrived on the scene in downtown LA, moments after the LAPD began their mobilizations. I saw the most police I had ever seen file through the streets like an army, gearing up for a massive invasion. The police forced those protestors not in the epicenter of the Occupy gathering further and further away through the use of coercive persuasion. I counted six helicopters swarming above downtown like giant metallic mosquitoes. Cops were armored in full riot gear, equipped with shotguns ready to “peacefully” disperse this Occupy. Thee Semiotic Alchemyst and I were separated from our two friends in the fracas. We spent a couple of hours seeking to get closer to the Occupy on foot as hordes of police swarmed in block after block forcing everyone back. Finally, we found our friends, got in the car and drove around the city hall, where Occupy was standing off with the police. I blasted John Lennon's “Power to the People,” as we drove past a line of robo-cop looking police officers. I mused aloud to the them that once their pensions were in trouble, they may find themselves on the other side of the line. Needless to say, they did not respond.
That short span of time hold too many intense memories to condense for this essay, but throughout those seven weeks, and since, I have felt artistically vindicated. I share the belief of Marshall McLuhan, that the artist must act as an early warning system for those around them. “Squat the Condos!” was a one man manifesto. Occupy became a world wide coalition calling for social justice. On one level, I feel that my call was answered. On a deeper level, I feel that many of our collective calls were finally answered...by us.
Historically, the fight for social justice is long and hard. It wouldn't be called “the struggle,” otherwise. That said, the sheer velocity in which the Occupy went global is staggering to fathom. Occupy was not the beginning of “the struggle,” by any stretch. However, it presented a container for the coalescing of many struggles. This appears to be its most important virtue.
With the advent of Occupy Our Homes, housing is now on the agenda for Occupy. Occupy Our Homes fight the slew of home foreclosures perpetrated by the large banking institutions responsible for the current foreclosure crisis. These activists seem to have much in common with those who attempted the massive “move-in” day in Oakland, and those thirty some odd Brooklyn residents who wanted to throw the party in the vacant “luxury” condo.
There is an immediate cry to radically reorient the social mechanisms in how we are to relate to each other through physical space happening in America. People are waking up to spells that were cast over the last number of years, spells which were crafted in legalese and repeated slowly in hopes you were not paying attention. Occupy has unleashed the warrior spirit of everyday people. This spirit destroys what is no longer necessary, fights what is oppressive, and builds what is now needed. Today, people need a place to call a home. And the new outgrowth of Occupy, Occupy Our Homes, further solidifies my belief that someday soon, people will “Squat the Condos!”
1. Peter Marcuse, “Empty Buildings, Crowded Shelters” talk sponsored by PTH at Columbia University. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eIWim4f2a1A
”Bombing” refers to spray painting or placing stickers up in many different places in a city or suburban environment
* The Glass-Steagall Act, “Agenda for a New Economy,” by David Korten. “The Crisis of Neoliberalism,” by Gerard Dumenil and Dominique Levy
According to a report issued by The Coalition for the Homeless, 41,204 people were in a shelter that night, 17,000 of them were children. This is only the number of people who slept in a shelter, there are many more homeless who did not. http://www.coalitionforthehomeless.org/
Bloomberg's worth, http://www.forbes.com/profile/michael-bloomberg/
Bloomberg's homeless policy found on this site, http://www.coalitionforthehomeless.org/