By Eric Sheptock
Forty people from across the country met in New York City on January
28-29, to organize a nationwide takeover of vacant properties during
the month of May. The meeting was organized by Take Back the Land, an
organization successful in acquiring vacant property for homeless
people and also preventing evictions in Miami, FL. Other organizers
included people from Picture the Homeless of New York City, the
National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI) and the National
Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP).
We began our meeting discussing the work from our respective locales.
The conversation quickly turned into an exchange of philosophies and
paradigms, including a discussion on styles and approaches — radical
vs. diplomatic. There was a diverse mix of people in the room. We
decided all ideas, styles and approaches were pertinent, each one
having its proper time, place and usage. Our differences didn’t divide
us. They made us stronger.
Ongoing actions of this coalition are intended to antagonize, aggravate
and speak truth to the powers that be, while agitating the masses and
calling them to action. Take Back the Land, based in Miami has lent its
name to this national effort. However, they do no local organizing
outside of Miami. Local organizers in other cities need to organize
themselves to know local laws, politics and problems and to plan
The approaches we discussed can be categorized in 3 ways: legal,
illegal and political.
Legal: Organizations like NLCHP and NESRI continue to draft
legislation, whose aim is to make housing a human right. Other legal
efforts include making people aware of their legal rights to receive or
remain in housing, legal defense services for those arrested during
housing takeovers and providing legal observers during takeover
Illegal (only by definition of private property law): We discussed the
basics of vacant property takeovers: how to find vacant properties,
surveying the property, gaining entry, having people occupy large
numbers of vacant apartments, condos and houses and drawing media
attention to a select number of takeover properties.
Throughout the meeting people emphasized that, “No positive change has
ever been brought about without people willing to take risks.” However,
those who choose to break unjust laws should bear in mind that in spite
of the apparent morality of their actions, they can still go to jail
for them. Total unity of commitment and action is a necessity.
Political: It is the illegal actions — not diplomacy — that draw media
attention. This helps shine a national spotlight on these kinds of
noble efforts to usher in the desired systemic changes. Television
images of people being arrested for seeking to meet their basic human
needs garners the moral and political support of others for the cause.
Such support can eventually translate into large numbers of concerned
citizens joining the effort, which is the short-term goal of our
struggle to increase the number of people who are politically conscious
and willing to take a stand.
Finally, no direct political action is complete without a “general
line” — a rallying war cry. For Take Back the Land, it is that housing
should be treated as a necessity — guaranteed to everyone — not a
commodity that goes to the highest bidder. In lieu of recent
housing market woes, this is a cause that all except those who profit
from the commodification of housing can appreciate. This article is a
call to action for all people of conscience to join this fight. There
is something for everyone to do. What will you do?