by Anders Corr

C H A P T E R 4

Tell It to the Judge

Direct Action and the Law

The costs of running for office are enormous for average people in terms of time and money, and the impediments to change built into the legislative process make it very hard to sustain a pressure-group coalition or legislative social movement that does not have a great amount of money and patience. But if average people have very little power through voting or lobbying, at least when things are quiet, they do have power when they disrupt the system .... Liberals, labor, and minorities, despite their great numbers, never win much against the conservative coalition unless there is a fear of disruption and violence loose in the land due to the actions of strikers, civil rights demonstrators, angry rioters in northern ghettos, or students demonstrating against wars .... I am asserting that social disruption, whether violent or nonviolent, is an essential factor in any successful challenge to the power structure in the United States.

William Domhoff, The Power Elite and the States1

Disruption makes change where normal channels fail. Professor William Domhoff's observation applies not only to the United States, but to land and housing movements in most parts of the world. Renters, landless, and homeless persons face overwhelming odds in making change solely through legal channels, so they embrace unconventional tactics such as squatting, rent strikes, land occupations, demonstrations, and riots. This chapter addresses the difficulties tenants and the landless face trying to make change through legal channels, whether because of strong real estate lobbying during the legislative process or because of undue influence of landowners on police and judges. Finally, this chapter looks at successful and unsuccessful legal strategies as they relate to direct action.

Litigation and electoral movements have successfully created and enforced rent controls and land reforms. These legal rewards of struggle and organizing endure far longer than most social movements. They have the long-lasting and far-reaching effects that inspire activist movements in the first place. But landowner and property interests can pressure government either into reversing land reform or rent control or into allowing only showpiece reforms with little substance. In partnership with corporations, industrialists, and other property holders, landowners use their wealth to contribute to candidates who maximize the power of property. This financial skewing of democracy protects absentee land ownership from laws that might favor tenants, small agriculturists, redistribution of land rights, or protection of the environment.

"In Britain," wrote the editor of the New Internationalist's land issue in 1986, "where about 1,700 individuals own one-third of the country, you only have to look down the list of landholdings of Oxford-educated Members of Parliament to see the persistent connection between land and power."2 On a local level, too, landowners skew politics in their favor. "City councils have typically been dominated by owners and investors," according to Stella Capek and John Gilderbloom, "while tenants have been viewed as transients and noncitizens in their own communities." Capek and Gilderbloom found that homeowners voted twice as often as renters.3

Tenants may hesitate to vote because they feel the political system ignores them in deference to the large campaign donations regularly contributed by landowners and real estate interests. Three percent of South Bronx landowners own 90% of the housing. "Not surprisingly," notes Rick Van Savage, a New York City squatter, "they also finance over 80% of the political campaign budgets."4 More explicitly, real estate associations in most states donate money to defeat rent control referenda in any city that dares put one on the ballot.

In the Third World, too, landowners control much of local government, especially where agriculture puts a premium on control of land. According to Inderjit Singh, "In rural South Asia, as in other developing areas, disparities in land holdings produce disparities in incomes, and control of land usually coincides with control of local institutions."5 Where local governments lack adequate police power, or where landowners lack control of this power, landowners sometimes create parallel institutions of government outside the regular rule of law. Landowners in much of Latin America hire their own paramilitary forces, such as the Guardias Blancas (White Guards) and Mano Blanco (White Hand); landowners use these gangs to evict rent defaulters and squatters and to terrorize dissident movements. A landowner forced Rigoberta Menchu and others in her indigenous community in Guatemala to vote for his favored candidate. "He warned us that anyone who didn't mark the paper would be thrown out of work at the end of the month. Anyone who was thrown out would not be paid."6

From the viewpoint of squatters and tenants, the bond between landowner and government can be so seamless as to blur the distinction between the two. In a discussion on her indigenous community's resistance to eviction and its attempts to appeal to the Guatemalan agrarian reform authorities, Menchu explained, "We didn't realize then that going to the government authorities was the same as going to the landowners. They are the same."7

The undue influence that landowners exert over the legislative process makes it difficult to make major economic changes, such as rent control or land reform, through legal channels. Though the occasional virtuous landowner voluntarily grants her or his holdings to land trusts or organizations, such as Vinoba Bhave's Bodhgaya movement in India during the 1950s, most landowners simply try to amass more earning potential with more acreage and more rental units.

Even when tenant or landless movements do achieve rent control or land reform, landowner political power decreases the gains. In Bangladesh, alluvial deposition constantly creates new land with rich soil called khas. By law, the government must lease khas land to the landless. More commonly, however, large landowners illegally obtain leases through government connections by using names of non-existent people or of dependents presented as being landless. Once the government agency grants the land, landowners protect themselves from landless movements by hiring private thugs and bribing local officials.8

When land does get redistributed to the landless by land reform, it almost never gets distributed evenly among the population. Women benefit much less frequently than men from land reform, yet women have less land on average. In the 1980s, women amounted to only 3% of land reform beneficiaries in Honduras, 4.8% in the Dominican Republic, 5% in Peru, and 11.2% in Colombia.9 Although reforms have made the distribution of land and housing more equal, they remain woefully inadequate, and land reform enacted in one decade is frequently repealed in the next.

Direct Action Grows from Frustrated Legal Change

When legal channels of change appear closed, the dissatisfied seek other means. In the 1980s, an out-of-state development company claimed ownership of a ranch in Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico, which had been owned for 23 years by the Flores family. Rather than go to court, the Flores family constructed boobytraps, bunkers, and roadblocks. "We took an armed position," said supporter Pedro Arechuleta of the occupation, "because we knew the court system in the U.S. would never give justice to our people."' At the end of the conflict in 1990, the company ceded 200 acres to the Flores family.

Not surprisingly, participants in land and housing movements widely acknowledge that direct action works when legal means fail. In 1974, public housing tenants went on a rent strike in Barking, England. Most strikers possessed little confidence in electoral channels: 77% felt their opinions were not taken into account in the way the country was run, and over 70% thought their opinions were not taken into account in the running of their own housing project. In response to the question, "In your opinion, what are the most effective ways by which people like yourself can influence the government?" 49% chose collective action, such as strikes and demonstrations, and solidarity as the most effective means; 1 % even subscribed to revolutionary means and violence."

These figures came from a modern liberal democracy. The perceived inaccessibility of legal means, both electoral and through litigation, affects land and housing struggles in the Third World to an even greater degree. "The government is not listening, and for that reason various forms of resistance have been and continue to be practiced," stated Elda Broilo, a Brazilian Catholic nun and organizer of land occupations. "This inconveniences the government, but from our point of view, it is through these forms of resistance that the movement is going forward."'z

The more often legal attempts fail and the longer they take to grind through a hostile legal system, the greater is the pressure to try other means. Increasing frustration and desperation combine to drive the tenant or landless peasant to more vigorous tactics. A land occupation can provide fields to plant this season; squatting means a house to live in tonight. A 1993 Long Beach, California, flier on squatting by Homes Not Jails said, "After years of protesting, trying to get houses through the Stewart McKinney Act and other legal means, we have very little `affordable' housing available .... Taking housing is necessary today because we cannot wait any longer to address this issue head on." To many, waiting for long legal processes could even mean death by starvation or exposure. Squatting may offer the only realistic alternative.

The Union de Campesinos de Queretaro seized land in San Martin, Mexico, on February 22, 1977. Even after police and armed men beat and arrested 100 campesinos on the second day of their occupation, the peasants still spoke of direct action as their only viable option.

During the past few years, there have been many groups applying for land in the State of Queretaro under the laws of the Mexican Government. We wandered about much in the agrarian office, and received deceit and reprimands from functionaries. Hunger in the stomach followed. Because of this situation, we sat down with members of five other groups that had applied for land and organized the UCEQ [Union of Queretaro Campesinos]. We have continued in struggle, and on March 21st of last year [1976] captured the agrarian delegation [representatives of the agrarian reform department]. However, though we now have still more people, they still do not pay attention to us, and they continue deceiving us. Because of this we have decided, in general assembly, to take the land. We can no longer endure our hunger and our anger.13

Racism often exacerbates the inaccessibility of legal channels to tenants and the landless. The predominantly African American tenants of East Park Manor in the City of Muskegon Heights, Michigan, "pulled" a rent strike in 1967 and 1968. They had attempted unsuccessfully to redress housing grievances through the manager beforehand. According to activist George Neagu, who took an active part in the strike,

Efforts to remedy the problems through the project director, who was white, not only were fruitless but led to a feeling on the part of the tenants that he was unconcerned about them. Efforts to involve the councilmen were unsuccessful. Letters to the mayor were unanswered. The tenants clearly perceived that they were faced with institutional indifference.14

It is often a combination of factors that leads groups to choose direct action. Llanquitray, a leader of Mapuche Indian land occupations during the popular presidency of Salvador Allende Gossens in Chile from 1970 to 1973, told researcher Ximena Bunster why she supports land occupations. Included in her reasoning is the lack of time and money for litigation, a legislative and judicial bias towards the rich, and a refusal by the courts to recognize traditional forms of land tenure unique to the Mapuche.

So, what does the Mapuche do? If he makes a juridical claim for a piece of land usurped by a rich man twenty or thirty years ago, it can take fifteen, twenty, or thirty years to reclaim it through the Court. He can sell everything he owns and be out on the streets, and he will never win his claim. Why? Because a poor person cannot put himself before a rich one. Impossible! ... He realizes that the laws which exist are useless to him: they protect the powerful, because they were made by them to protect themselves .... The old ones can explain how the land was taken from the Mapuche and subdivided. But the declarations of the elders are not accepted by the authorities. So, what does the Mapuche do? He resorts to violence. It is necessary to resort to violence!15

To discourage direct action, some governments foster false hope or pretend to yield legal or political victory. When people think they may get land in the future through legal means, government reasoning goes, they are less likely to break the law today. In the 1970s, the Puerto Rican government owned huge quantities of land. For those who requested a plot, the government started a waiting list. "The governor's people said we would have to enroll on a waiting list. But some of our people had been waiting eighteen years already," said spokesperson Miguel Gonzalez. "We told them we needed our land now."16

In the fall of 1980, Gonzalez and 350 families occupied a 65-acre parcel that they named Villa Sin Miedo (Village Without Fear). The movement grew, and by 1981, hundreds of occupations housed 18,000 Puerto Rican families. Gonzalez felt no surprise at a court ruling that ordered the eviction of the squatters. "We knew all the time the court would rule against us. Because we understand the laws are made to protect the rich people and not the poor people."

The similar thoughts mentioned earlier by Llanquitray, the Mapuche leader, suggest that the more access one has to government power, the less reason one has to risk direct action. Conversely, the less access one has to government decision-making, the more compelling direct action becomes. Different ethnicities and genders, with varying levels of access to government power, therefore often have different attitudes toward direct action.

Ronald Lawson and Stephen E. Barton's essay "Sex Roles in Social Movements: A Case Study of the Tenant Movement in New York City" drew on surveys conducted in the mid-1970s and historical research." The authors found that women disproportionately chose direct action for making changes rather than legal action. Men more often chose legal action. This preference explained why women led direct action at the grassroots level but men captured leadership in the larger tenant organizations. In the 1904 New York City strike, as well as the larger strike of 1907-08, women (who lacked the vote nationally) started rent strikes as building leaders, spreading the strike from building to building. After the number and breadth of rent strikes grew, however, Socialist men began broader neighborhood organizations in which they dominated. The neighborhood organizations spent much less time on direct action, preferring legal activities, such as lobbying.

Between 1963 and 1964, women also led the primary activist organizations during strikes. A survey of 238 tenant organizations by Lawson and Barton indicated that women were the majority of core activists at every level of organization (building, neighborhood, and city-wide federation) between 1976 and 1977. But women held the majority of leadership positions only in buildings, not in neighborhood or city-wide federations, most of which had strong ties to maledominated organizations such as labor unions, churches, and political parties.

Women only attained leadership positions on the neighborhood level when they fought institutional gender barriers. In 1904, the president of a New York neighborhood organization vetoed a proposal that Bertha Liebson, the most prominent of the rent strike organizers, take a position as treasurer of a neighborhood organization. He said women lack the necessary qualifications to hold such a post. More recently, according to Lawson and Barton, New York City court bureaucracies and city housing agencies have refused to deal with organizers and movement personnel, who tend to be poor women and are generally not professionals. Instead, these city institutions have demanded the professional packaging of lawyers or architects, who are more frequently male and middle-class. Poor women may have taken a more confrontational attitude toward their adversaries in negotiations, while the professional men generally exhibited a more polished and subservient manner.

Lawson and Barton found that, in addition to playing a greater role in organizations that developed interactive ties with formal organizations such as legislatures, banks, courts, and government bureaucracies, men exhibited a much greater tendency to vault from their tenant organizing into political or administrative careers, jeopardizing their loyalty to movement interests.

In their leadership of building organizations, whose primary role and source of power is direct action, women exhibited a greater willingness to aid the struggles of other buildings than men exhibited. "Relatively few tenants active in their own building organizations are drawn into efforts to help other buildings, but those doing so are much more apt to be women than men."'$

When women did organize more broadly on a neighborhood level, according to Lawson and Barton, they eschewed bureaucratic lobbying in favor of mass tenant mobilization more often than their male counterparts. Lawson and Barton described the Metropolitan Council on Housing, led for over 18 years by Jane Benedict:

Met Council uses lobbying trips to the state capital as a tool to educate its members concerning the futility of expecting changes to be given when they must be forced by direct action. It also emphasizes that tenants must rely on the strength provided by organization and unity rather than the expertise of lawyers and other professionals. Indeed, though a federation, over the last eight years it has rejected the usual political role of federations and has instead poured most of its resources into organizing rent strikes in buildings. Thus by rejecting professionals and refusing to enter the established political arena, Met Council has avoided the main avenues of male domination within the tenant movement.19

Women's emphasis on direct action in New York City tenant struggles parallels testimony from activists in other parts of the world. Though exceptions exist, male leaders tend to surrender during land and housing campaigns and make concessions with authorities earlier than women. In the Sanrizuka struggle against airport expansion by Japanese farmers, women took more militant positions than men took, and engaged in direct action more readily. "Members of the Women's Corps would jeer at their husbands and goad them to action," wrote researchers David Apter and Nagaya Sawa.20 The movement held Oki Yone, a very old woman who had lived at Sanrizuka for decades, in highest esteem for her courageous acts. The police carried her away on a stretcher after her resistance to the demolition of her cottage. Apter and Sawa asserted:

In the original Hantai Domei, women were among the most militant .... The women who visited from the Kita-Fuji movement taught the Sanrizuka women their techniques of violent protest, such as chaining themselves to bulldozers or trees, and standing well in front of the men in confrontations with the police so that they took the first blows."

In addition to gender, race affects the level of participant militancy. During the New York City rent strike of 1963-64, African American organizers conflicted with organizations led by whites. "Me two major rent strike powers [African American] Jesse Gray's Community Council on Housing and the [predominantly white and pre-Benedict] Metropolitan Council on Housing (MCH) - were at cultural and tactical odds. "12 Gray refused a request by MCH to assume leadership of a proposed city-wide rent strike coordinating committee because he viewed them as a white, middle-class organization and did not want his ten years of hard work in the Black ghettos (with their rising spirit of race consciousness and nationalism) diluted by MCH's polite and reformist tactics. In general, campaigns composed of more impoverished or disadvantaged individuals will wage more militant campaigns, in a continuum from land occupations by destitute and malnourished peasants in the Third World to rent strikes by lowermiddle-class tenants in wealthy, Northern nations.

Morality and Power

Faced with intimidating legal hurdles, activists of all stripes have successfully utilized not only direct action, but a discourse on rights and morality. Chapter three details some of these arguments in favor of squatting. The appeal to ethics strengthens the resolve of activists, wins new recruits from the community, and has even changed the hearts of landowners or government officials who proceed to yield voluntary concessions. In June 1996, at Habitat II, the Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements in Istanbul, many Third World and European nations prioritized inclusion of the right to shelter into UN documents. The United States, as has become customary at such conferences, included itself among the few nations that voted against the measure.

The right to land and housing and other forms of moral argument help gain public approval for squatters. Law-abiding citizens see that higher forms of ethical reasoning can countermand local or national laws that violate basic human rights. Chants extolling the right to housing or references to UN documents that mandate the provision of decent housing for all citizens help embolden otherwise lawabiding persons to risk arrest for rights to land and housing.

Relying on the philosophical justification of one's cause alone, however, fails to provide all the resources needed for success. To increase the chances of gaining concessions, movements also emphasize the importance of power. "Power is the key ingredient," activists in the East Orange Tenants Association and the New Jersey Tenants Organization wrote in 1976. "How much a tenant union will achieve through negotiation does not depend on `justice,' `fairness,' `equities,' or `truth,' but on power, economic intimidation, and exposure."" Ben Cirlin, a school bus driver and organizer of the 60,000-person Co-op City rent strike in the Bronx (1975-76), similarly locates tenant power in raw economic strength. "Money is the name of the game - it's the only thing the financiers and the politicians understand."z4 Withhold the money and, though you risk getting thrown out on your ear, you at least have their ear. One tenant group likened landlords to a wild animal that rent strikers must dominate.

Your landlord does not want to do what you want. In fact, the idea that you have the gall to try to tell him what to do will drive the landlord mad. The landlord is like a bucking bronco, mean and fierce and raring to take you apart. Tenants have to ride landlords out until you've got them tamed.25

A street theater company in a Mexico City squatter settlement pits "Superbarrio" in free wrestling against greedy landlord Catalino Creel 26 The metaphor of Superbarrio communicates the importance of tenant power and encourages those who feel powerless in the presence of landowners and police. Showing that tenants can win through tactics of power helps participants understand this nonmoral dynamic that underlies success. "We depend on ourselves, and on those who share our broad interests, for the power to express and advance those interests," wrote the Cambridge Tenants Organizing Committee (CTOC) in 1972. "We believe that tenants can have power as tenants through our numbers and through the economic weight of our rents. Our job is to make that power real by organizing it."27

The CTOC offers an understanding of power conducive to direct action. Landlords are weak, but tenant power is unorganized. To win a struggle requires the reorganization of this power to benefit the tenants themselves, not the landlord. Nonviolence strategist Gene Sharp explains:

Nonviolent sanctions are based upon the following perception of power: the ruler's power has sources; these can be located; they depend upon the cooperation of people and institutions; this cooperation can be restricted or cut off, with the result that the ruler's power is weakened. If the resisters' noncooperation can be maintained in face of repression, the ruler's power may be disintegrated. Hence any given institution, policy, or regime can be controlled, limited, or destroyed by the application of nonviolent sanctions. This is, in highly simplified terms, the theory of power upon which nonviolent struggle is based.28

Sharp's theory of nonviolent power differs substantially from the standard understanding of power, which sees some people (the landlords) as having power and some people (the tenants) as powerless. When we point out that tenants already have power (via their rents) and that the question is how best to use this power for tenant advantage, then the possibilities of collective organization spring immediately to mind.

Stephen Barton co-chaired the 945-946 Tenants Union, an organization of squatters and tenants that saved two buildings in New York City from abandonment in 1975. He wrote that tenant organizing "involves delegitimizing the established authorities, creating new cooperative social relationships among the tenants, and hopefully creating a basis for a new legitimate authority, the tenants' association.' 29

Power also comes from the actual location where tenants or squatters wage a struggle. By ending a lobbying campaign (probably in a business district or government building intimidating to some activists) and instead organizing direct action, activists move a struggle to their own neighborhood. Deemphasizing lobbying tactics shifts geographical space from benefiting the adversary to benefiting the activists. Officials must leave their sphere of power, where they are surrounded by grand architecture, judges in robes, landlords behind big desks, and other symbols meant to infuse "regular people" with fear. Direct action takes full advantage of the home court: nearby supporters, easy supply lines, and a strong defensive instinct. The media comes to the community, where neighbors and homes give context and a sympathetic backdrop to the struggle. In a movement against resort development to save a Canadian island neighborhood from destruction, Linda Rosenbaum rejected as ineffectual delegations to the park superintendent "on his turf, around his desk, at his convenience." The superintendent met demands when forced to meet with a room-full of islanders on "our turf, in our time, in our office."30 When tenants and the landless can force government officials to come to the contested neighborhood, activists win a small tactical victory, if nothing else. To achieve success, direct action campaigns have had to use all the tools at their disposal, including tactics that rely on morality and those that rely on power. To use morality without power, that is, to hold only legal demonstrations or make speeches, is likely to reach a few people and might even gain some concessions from those adversaries willing to listen. But to use power without morality, by, say, occupying land without developing a justification, will yield gains threatened by popular indignation. Successful movements combine moral arguments with the power of numbers, militancy, and even courtroom and legislative strategies.

Dual Use of Law and Direct Action

Authorities exclude land and housing activists from effective use of the law in official legal channels to some extent, but activists can extend the use of law beyond the courtroom and appeal to public opinion. To buttress their legitimacy, indigenous nations use treaty rights, rent strikers cite building codes, and squatters appeal to land reform laws. Broadcasting government failure to follow its own laws strengthens the legitimacy of direct action in the eyes of the public.

Brazilian organizer Elda Broilo says, "The Constitution says land reform must take place, and the movement has taken advantage of this law on paper to demand that land reform be enforced in actuality." 3' Broilo's use of the Brazilian Constitution as a platform from which to argue is powerful rhetorically and has garnered much Brazilian support for her movement. Constitutional arguments also pave the way for litigation.

In a study of the Pit River Nation land occupations in the 1970s, M. Annette Jaimes describes this dual technique of direct action and litigation "not in terms of civil disobedience in the sense that it is conventionally understood, but as a means of employing the American juridical tradition in its own terms (e.g., illegality ultimately rationalized by law)." 32 Ward Churchill maintains that American Indian Movement occupations on the Pine Ridge Reservation had a

positive bearing on the evolution of litigation in the [Black Hills land claim], and helped bring vital public attention to and understanding of the issues. In this sense, the legal and extralegal battles fought by Lakotas for Paha Sapa have been perhaps inadvertently - mutually reinforcing. These two efforts may have finally created the context in which a genuine solution can finally be achieved.33

The Colombian peasant leagues in 1929 devised an ingenious use of the law. Initially, the leagues occupied and used violence to defend a mountainous area of over 500 square kilometers as an independent communist republic. But once on the land, they used legal strategies to maintain their position for over 20 years. According to nonviolence strategist Gene Sharp, "In 1933, the peasants took advantage of a Colombian law which made the landlord financially obligated to his tenants for improvements they made on his land. With and without permission, tenants planted coffee trees, making repossession by the landlord impossible without payment to the tenants." Eventually the Colombian Congress passed an agrarian reform law that compensated the landowners and sold the land to the peasants on long-term credit for favorable prices.34

When the military and police fail to follow law, in cases where they refuse to obey positive court rulings, or when the court falsely defends the landowner, direct action becomes a mechanism for popular enforcement. In 1985, Samata Samaj Kalyan Samity, a social welfare society in Bangladesh, filed charges against 18 landlords who had illegally occupied khas land. While landlords attempted to bribe members of Samata and exclude them from relief wheat distribution, "Food for Work" programs, and bank loans, a court finally awarded the society 21 hectares of land. But the landlord hired more than 100 armed men to flaunt the court order. The Samata ultimately had to transcend regular police procedure to create their own extra-legal enforcement apparatus. Taking the land required a march of 3,000 persons carrying clubs, spades, and scythes to scare the landlord's small army into flight.

This success spread the movement to more than 100 villages involving 20,000 members, but landlords and government officials began a new legal offensive. The courts trumped up charges of theft, rape, looting, and arson against over 200 Samata workers and supporters, many of whom the police held in jail for long periods of time. In January 1986, another landlord's private army (aided by police) burnt and ransacked several houses in the area, beat and arrested children and adults, and forced 3,000 landless persons to hide in the nearby jungle." While the peasants' legal defense freed them from most of the baseless charges, won them legally recognized land rights, and mobilized thousands of people, the Samata members faced a landlord with extensive influence among local police and a willingness to hire armed thugs. The initial legal campaign failed to actually gain the land. Samata only gained possession with the additional strategy of direct action, and even then the landlord inflicted retaliation and scattered the Samata forces.

Like the government-mandated distribution of khas land, countries with land reform distribute very little land very inefficiently. In Latin America, most governments have failed to achieve an enduring redistribution that affects anything over 20% of agricultural land (Mexico, Cuba, Peru, and Nicaragua are exceptions).36 With lax enforcement of land reform, land occupations play an important role in keeping society in accordance with its own laws. Where land reform does not yet exist, land occupations motivate the public to pass necessary legislation. Land occupation campaigns in colonial Zimbabwe, colonial East Africa, Chile in the late 1960s, Mexico and Honduras in the '70s, and Nicaragua in the early ' 80s all precipitated the adoption or enforcement of land reform.

As a result of Honduran peasant demonstrations in the early '70s, leftist General Oswaldo Lopez Arellano issued an emergency land reform measure in 1972. When a paramilitary organization of top landowners quashed the temporary reform, Arellano issued a much stronger reform in 1975. Peasants ensured that Arellano could honor his promise by organizing about 100 occupations in May, involving 10,000 Honduran peasants. These occupations provided the leftist regime with enough power to overcome its more conservative leaders and earmark 32,000 hectares for distribution.

A common theme in Latin American history is the ouster of pro-land reform governments by landowners allied with international interests. By early 1977, all the progressive military leaders in Honduras had retreated from politics in response to threats by opponents of land reform." Undeterred, Honduran voters elected a civilian government in 1982 that allowed land reform to resurface. But the revitalized reform provided for less than 1% of the estimated 150,000 families seeking land .3$ After waiting years in vain, peasants undertook a nationally coordinated effort to increase land distribution in 1984. Members of three national campesino unions occupied more than 50 properties, 350 families in the north occupied a municipal hall, and over 300 peasants occupied a regional office of the National Agrarian Reform Institute (INA).31

The idea caught on, as most successful occupations do, and the next year 30,000 peasants took 30,000 hectares of land in yet another nationally coordinated string of occupations. Regarding these, National Peasant Union Secretary General Marcial Caballero told In These Times, "we are convinced that the little that has been done about agrarian reform in Honduras has come about because of sacrifices by the peasants and pressure from their organizations."" Indeed, the Progressive reported in April 1989 that land occupations initially claimed 93% of the land redistributed to campesinos by INA since 1962. The director of INA even admitted this privately in 1984. "The lands that are given are almost always given to peasants who carry out invasions."" Land occupations with an ultimate sanction by land reform continued throughout the ' 80s in Honduras 42 In 1992, an International Monetary Fund plan overturned the land reform law, but 50,000 landless families remained successfully "seated" on their occupied land 43

Honduras in the 1980s exemplifies how direct action nudges recalcitrant bureaucracy to follow an already existing law. The same principle applied in New York City during the 50,000-person rent strike from 1963 to 1964. Instead of land reform, direct action encouraged lower rents and the enforcement of building codes. At the time, New York City rent control law required landlords to apply to the City Rent and Rehabilitation Administration (CRRA) for rent increases on rent-controlled buildings. Buildings that participated in the strike enjoyed a lower incidence of rental increase by the CRRA on average, when the CRRA did not reduce rents drastically to promote repairs by landowners. Half the buildings in a study by Michael Lipsky won rent reductions of over 50% during the strike." exception of Brooklyn's Congress of Racial Equality, none of the other rent strike organizations did much better." From December 30, 1963, until March 22, 1965, only 182 tenants in 68 buildings successfully paid rent to the court instead of the landlord.54 On seven court days in March, tenants received favorable rulings in only three cases, while the judge ordered eviction in 31. This pattern recurred in 100 cases handled by the Mobilization for Youth, in which tenants won only three cases for every 14 orders of eviction.15 Lipsky's examination of 20 strike buildings found that tenants in seven paid rent to the court and received repairs (though two buildings first deteriorated to such an extent that the city took ownership) and in two buildings paid rent to the court but never received repairs, while landlords won eviction notices in most of the other 11 buildings .56 Even when judges actually granted a Section 755, they only required landlords to correct violations recorded on Buildings Department forms. If landlords fixed a certain percentage (and in only the most perfunctory manner), they received the withheld rents. Once the landlord received rents held by the court, he had no reason to make further repairs. If tenants vacated the premises during the strike or paid late, even if the landlord made no repairs, the landlord received the entire amount held by the courts.17 Given anti-tenant laws, Naison attributes the 1963-64 rent strike failure to organizers' concentration on lengthy and unrewarding legal procedures. Court action imposed a "nonmilitant psychology" on leaders, according to Naison, and subtly steered them from strike expansion and mass direct action. Naison notes that such an expansion similarly occurred during the depression, when 4,000 New Yorkers resisted the eviction of an Olinville Avenue building on strike in 1933. The 1963-64 strike organizations "were pushed into the safe and legitimate style of organizing, which would not put themselves, or the tenants, in danger," argued Naison. "They did not know enough about housing work, or perhaps about American society in general, to realize that major economic changes could not be effected by the courts."5$ Though they lost power in the courts, rent strikes on the massive scale of New York City during the winter of 1963-64 carried enough public support that they impacted state-wide legislation. Initially, this legislation seemed to be one of the major rewards to the movement in the wake of courtroom failure. The state legislature made three laws regarding rent strikes in the 1965 session. It amended the law under which tenants paid rents to the court instead of the landlord so that this money could immediately be used to hire contractors for repairs, it made rent strikes easier by allowing tenants to take the legal initiative before the landlord, and it produced a list of building violations sufficiently serious to make rent strikes legal.59 However, these laws proved fatally cumbersome when rent strikers actually tried to use them. Well-intentioned legislators might have initiated the laws in response to pressing social needs, but legislators funded by real estate interests riddled them with loopholes and revisions. Once laws went into effect, tenant organizations discovered them to be time-consuming and expensive. Strikers had to serve more documents than under Section 755, and a "new law" strike cost a minimum of $500 at standard legal rates. "For the unorganized, unsubsidized poor who compose the vast majority of the slums' inhabitants," wrote Naison, "the new law did nothing, illustrating once again the depths of the chasm separating the poor from the democratic process. Governments have recognized the ways in which protracted legal cases can devastate a social movement, and they sometimes consciously encourage movements to sink funds and energy into litigation. In the early 1970s the Puerto Rican government provided free legal services to squatters in their fight for land title and against evictions that the government itself ordered. "The increasing intervention of Legal Services transformed the social struggle into a battle fought by lawyers," wrote researcher Liliana Cotto, and "had a demobilizing effect."61 Communities formerly united against eviction became individualized by the legal process, which subsumed other organizational tasks and non-institutional popular struggle. The challenge facing rent strikes today, according to Lawson, is to avoid becoming institutionalized by legalization and uninventiveness. Whereas large rent strikes previously threatened social stability in that they challenged established structures of law, now the legal process has normalized them into landlord-tenant relations, resolved in court like any other small-claims dispute. Jurisprudence codifies a rebellion by offering minor concessions, such as a smaller risk of eviction, while at the same time bringing rebellion under control. Lawson expressed what seems to approach a consensus of social movement researchers: "As strategies become less unruly, they are also less successful.'s2 Refusal to Litigate When litigation bankrupts a campaign, activists often change their strategy. Having learned from the 1963-64 strike, the next wave of New York City tenant action, which started in 1971, adopted a strategy of decentralization and avoidance of the courts. Activists organized rent strikes in thousands of buildings and formed a tenant association in virtually every neighborhood.13 In reaction to the failure of litigation by Section 755, according to Lawson, New York City tenant groups began in 1973 to promote the "rolling rent strike," which denied rent money not only to the landlords, but also to the courts. 94 N O TRESPASSING Strikers strove to postpone court appearances, to negotiate directly with their landlords, and, if ordered to place rents in escrow, to pay them instead to the landlord and withhold the next month's rent. The rolling rent strike proved successful, especially in housing affected by landlord abandonment and neighborhood decay. While conventional rent strikes failed to gain needed services and repairs, tenants began direct and illegal spending of accumulated rolling strike funds on building improvement. Lawson observes that this led to the "incorporation of tenant control and even plans for tenant ownership in several programmes."64 The rolling rent strike followed New York law and avoided fruitless legal battles. Another tactic was to allow the landlord to win court battles, but to resist enforcement. Predominantly African American tenants of East Park Manor in the city of Muskegon Heights, Michigan, went on rent strike in late January 1967. The strike had a strong base of support: an enthusiastic meeting that included two-thirds of the tenants decided unanimously to strike. One hundred and fiftyfive tenants -over 70% of all tenants in the housing project - placed their rent money in escrow. When a judge ordered them evicted, tenants held a mass meeting and unanimously decided to risk arrest rather than appeal the decision and lose time and energy to litigation. On the eve of a threatened 89-family eviction following a total of six months on strike and extensive negotiations, the mayor (who before the strike neglected even to answer letters) granted the tenant organization's primary demands.65 In an essay written by the National Tenants Organization for other tenant groups, the East Park Manor strike is featured as worthy of emulation. "The decision not to fight the eviction cases but to use political confrontation instead was probably the main factor in the tenant union victory."66 Squatters have also refused to litigate for tactical reasons. In an atmosphere of mass land occupations in Mexico during the mid-'70s, 600 Mexican peasants in the Farm Workers Association of Self-Defense (AIAC), armed with machetes and shotguns, occupied more than 1,800 hectares on October 7, 1978. An Excelsior correspondent reported, "for more than 40 years the farmworkers have been applying with the proper agrarian authorities in reference to the return of land that belongs to them, but nothing has been resolved," so, instead of continuing their fruitless legal overtures, the farmworkers decided "to take the land over by force." Leaders of the AIAC refused to litigate or dialogue with representatives of the state government or agrarian reform authorities. Rather, they occupied two additional small properties, causing sentiment in favor of occupations to grow. Fearful that the landless peasants would increase the rate of occupation, a group of landowners from the region promised to donate 25% of the occupied land." The offer came within three days of the initial occupation, a very quick victory. Direct action produces better results than ordinary legal means because it tends to seek redistribution not only of the immediate land or housing at issue but TELL I T T O THE JUDGE of wealth, industry, and investments more generally. Because governments, corporations, and others who depend on political and economic stability fear widespread unrest, they make concessions to stop the unrestrained growth of campaigns for radical redistribution of any type. As already noted, squatter organizations in Puerto Rico from the late '60s to the mid-'70s eschewed conventional methods of political participation, at least when divorced from taking and defending land by occupation and community organization. Rather than legalistic petitions, applications, meetings, and committees, they preferred to augment their occupations with pickets, vigils, caravans, and mass mobilizations. "These popular sectors acknowledged that mass actions were the most effective form of political pressure outside electoral periods," Cotto wrote. "The threatening potential of these mass demonstrations lay in their strength for carrying out direct action, thus alarming the regime and frightening possible investors. Even when revolutionary or Social-Democratic governments take power, tenants and the landless have organized direct action as the best way to get results. Reformminded government officials may have progressive ideas about land and housing law, but they often need direct action outside of legislative channels to gain an audience within a government administration for progressive policy proposals. Rather than a silver platter, revolutionary or leftist governments provide windows of opportunity for successful struggle. When the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende took power in Chile, the government failed to provide housing for all the poor and even evicted some of the squatter settlements. The poorest only got housing when the frequency and extent of land occupations multiplied rapidly: occupations increased tenfold in less than three years. In 1971 alone, squatters occupied 560 parcels of land in Chile. By May 1972, according to the Ministry of Housing, 15% of Santiago's population, or about 83,000 households, lived in settlements that had originated by occupation. 61 From Chile to England, tenants and the landless choose direct action because of its history of success. Propertied interests since the ancient Romans have crafted much of the law, which government officials administer to favor landowners. These landowners continue to have an undue influence over governmental processes, making change difficult by electoral or legislative means. Popular campaigns have used existing laws to buttress their direct action, and direct action has helped enforce neglected land reform or rent control. However, activists have found it prudent to avoid legal battles except in the rare instances when it does not overly deplete their energy and resources. In most cases, a focus on direct action tactics have provided better results. So that government power does not appear compromised, most governments will create or enforce land reform to legalize land occupations and distribute housing plots to legalize urban squatter settlements; likewise landlords rewrite rental contracts to legalize rental deficits caused by rent strikes. Authorities legalize existing conditions to preserve the law, which direct action has the power to change. To take part in this creation of law, activists lobby the government. Direct action, though by definition a violation of law, usually attempts to reconfigure that law in accordance with the needs of activists. Legalizing the de facto success of a movement ensures that success for the future.


Introduction | Homes Not Jails | Battling the Banana Baron | Philosophy to Squat By | Tell It to the Judge | Violence and Cycles of Reform | Tactics and Mobilization | Conclusion




Chapter 4: Tell It to the Judge