The Long Haul and the Short Haul

No Trespassing: Squatting, Rent Strikes and Land Struggles Worldwide by Anders Corr. South End Press, Cambridge, MA 1999. 256 pp.
In 1972, I was placed as a VISTA Volunteer in Newark, New Jersey. My host organization was the Newark Tenants Union. When I arrived, public housing residents in several high rise complexes were in the third year of a rent strike. I remember visiting tenants in their apartments and hearing stories about uninhabitable conditions. They were organized, angry, and articulate. A year later the strike was settled. The Newark Housing Authority was ordered to improve living conditions in the buildings. Residents who had deposited their rent into a court-ordered escrow account received an 80 percent abatement. A number of other strikers, who ignored the courts and held their own rent, kept all their money. The housing authority never went after them.

I revisited Newark in 1999. Many of the public housing projects were now vacant lots. Several of the high rise projects were blown up. Some of the tenants were relocated to new townhouse units. Others moved, willingly or unwillingly.

In reading Anders Corr’s No Trespassing, I reflected on my organizing days. When Newark’s public housing rent strike was mentioned, I thought about the strike’s results, and wondered, did we win? That question flashed repeatedly as I read the book.

Justifying Direct Action

At its best, the book provides diverse examples of direct action over the last 40 years by disenfranchised populations fighting for land, housing, or better living conditions. Using case studies such as a land struggle in Honduras, squatting activities in California, and rent strikes in New York and South Africa, Corr, himself a supporter and participant in direct action, argues that these struggles are appropriate and justified, rectifying systematic injustices.

Corr first cites John Locke, the founding theorist of modern capitalism and others who rely on the “labor theory of property” and the common law principle of first possession to justify the inequitable distribution of land ownership. Corr notes that this leads to the belief that squatting is ethically wrong. He argues instead that most ownership claims are based on illegitimate transfer or violence and therefore the property rights of most current large landowners are not defensible.

While it is important to justify the actions of squatters and other land struggles with a theoretical underpinning, what does this theory give us in our day-to-day lives as housing advocates? Unfortunately, it is unlikely that most legal systems will suddenly acknowledge this argument, support squatting and stop the violence and repression. It is not in their self-interest.

Day-to-Day Needs

For most of the active participants in these kinds of direct action, their goal is land to live on, a place to live, or having repairs made to their apartment or building – self-preservation issues. People looking to improve their lives are not necessarily looking to build a movement or a revolution. As one of the leaders of the Co-op City rent strike said, countering critics who felt the settlement ending the strike was a sell-out, “The victory of a reformist struggle is in fact a victory. All we are hoping to do now is to develop a program of reform to guarantee, on a longer-range basis, an accommodation with the system.”

That comment hit home for me. Most of the Tacamiche peasants squatting in Honduras and taking on Chaquita Brands International just wanted their own land to live on. Squatters covertly occupying housing in San Francisco through Homes Not Jails wanted a warm place to live and a safe place to sleep. In Newark, public housing residents wanted better housing conditions. I came to understand after reading No Trespassing that some of my expectations as an organizer differed from many of the tenants I organized in the 1970s. A victory to most of these tenants was getting repairs done, having their rent reduced, or having a little more control over the management of their housing. For me, and probably some of the tenants, a victory would have included those quality of life issues but also a citywide tenant movement, rent control, and landlords and tenants with equal power.

Of course, not all squatters or rent strikers have just an immediate goal. Within these struggles there are usually several people who also seek a larger goal and are willing to work for major social change. The differing expectations between those wanting the struggle to continue and grow and those seeking to settle down show the differences between solving a problem and building a movement for social change.

Putting it in Context

No Trespassing, while prompting thought on such core questions of activism, provides a detailed history of direct action and social movements for the equitable distribution of land and housing throughout the world, from landless peasants in third world countries to youth and punk squatters to working-class people on rent strikes in urban areas. In his concluding chapters Corr makes a case for building broad coalitions from labor unions, intellectuals, religious groups, youth, and nonviolent activists, and issues a call for more direct action. For readers who need their social change work reinvigorated or newcomers wanting to place their work in a historical context, this is definitely a book to read.

By the end of the book, I had answered my original question. For most of the Newark tenants, the public housing rent strike concluded with a victorious settlement. But for me, as for Corr, it was then and is now, still a work in progress.

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