All posts by David Rovics

The Next Steps in Eviction Defense

A few thoughts on intentions, tactics, and building eviction defense networks.

Here in Portland, there are signs that the movement for Black lives and the movement for actually affordable housing are increasingly intersecting in all kinds of ways. Among the networks engaged in popular education and resistance organizing efforts around housing issues, you’ll find groups normally focused on the massive problems of killer cops and institutional racism, such as Don’t Shoot PDX. Outside of the home of a family facing foreclosure in North Portland on Mississippi, you’ll find people who have long been involved with the daily protests that have been going on in Portland since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th.

No one who has been deeply involved with these struggles is surprised by the interweaving of these struggles, since they are obviously inseparable from each other. To state what is abundantly clear to anyone involved with either one, if Black lives matter, then the working class matters, and affordable housing matters. In pre-pandemic Portland, a market-rate two-bedroom apartment was not affordable by an average Black family in the US, and that is even more true now. If Black lives mattered in Portland, this city would not have been ethnically cleansed of most of its Black population through the uncontrolled rise in the cost of housing over the past twenty years. This could have, and would have, been prevented, in any city where Black lives really mattered to those in power at City Hall, in Salem, and in Washington, DC. Local police can stop enforcing evictions. State houses can pass rent control legislation, and control how much landlords are able to charge for rent, like they do in most of the civilized world. The federal government could spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year on building green, subsidized housing everywhere, instead of on the military.

Of course, that’s not the world we’re in — far from it. In the real world, the federal government long ago gave up on the idea of building anything other than missile silos. In the real world, 48 out of 50 states have banned municipalities from instituting rent control policies — including the neoliberal, Democratic-run state of tree farms, forest fires and overpriced cities called Oregon. In the real world, most of our city councils are more concerned with appeasing those who Governor Brown likes to call “the stakeholders,” by which is meant the owners of the city, not those who rent from them. Not the working class, and certainly not the rapidly-dispersing Black population of Portland. Most definitely not the burgeoning ranks of those living in cars and tents that line our city’s thoroughfares and can be found alongside so many bike paths and park boundaries.

But here we are, on this precipice, where the possibilities are so epic, in so many directions. With a nationwide moratorium on evictions mostly preventing the eviction tsunami that the business press was alerting us about with great alarm for months prior to the CDC’s edict going into effect, the can has been kicked down the road until the beginning of 2021. In Portland, a bit longer, since rent that’s past due due to the impact of the pandemic doesn’t have to be repaid immediately, but over the course of six months. (So the can gets kicked down the road a bit further.)

The CDC may be worried for epidemiological reasons, but the rest of society is concerned about a potential eviction tsunami for other reasons. For those facing eviction, the worries are fairly obvious. For the powers-that-be, they may be OK with the societal wreckage imposed by what passes for normality, that is, evicting one in ten renters every year in order to maintain the extremely rent-burdened status quo of the post-2008 economic order, but they know they need to seriously worry when the business press is singing in harmony about the kind of chaos and misery that would ensue if the landlords tried to evict 40 million people at the same time.

Clearly, when on such a precipice, things have to change. NPR reported this morning that the US overall is an estimated 21 billion dollars behind on rent at the moment. In Portland the rent arrears are estimated to be well over a hundred million dollars. But change doesn’t just happen — change is made by people, and social movements that, in combination with the dire economic, political, epidemiological and ecological circumstances, force political leaders to follow us. That’s how it works, in the real world, historically and currently, and the examples abound, though there are powerful interests at work always trying to hide this reality from us, and keep us in their fabricated capitalist matrix of renter/gig worker peonage.

One of the ways the kinds of changes that need to happen in this broken society can begin to happen in terms of addressing the impossible inequities from the bottom to the top of the whole mess is to embrace the idea of eviction abolition. By itself it may be a very crude tool, but it’s a simple, straightforward beginning to a process of reconciliation with an unknown destination, that would surely have to involve lots of government involvement in negotiating solutions with landlords of indigent tenants, government involvement with housing people directly, and, of course, with heavily controlling things like rent, mortgages, and much, much more — as they do in functional societies where the state actually shows an interest in the welfare of the people.

The way we force the hand of the state to stop enforcing evictions, and ultimately to ban the practice, is through solidarity with each other. There are far, far more of us renters than there are of corporate landlords. When the crisis is such that the friends and relatives of the police and certainly of the soldiers in the military are all also facing things like eviction and chronic unemployment, the state will not want to rely on brutality alone to try to solve this problem. People are already spontaneously coming to support each other in some neighborhoods where evictions have taken place in recent months, in different parts of the country — notably two of the most rent-burdened parts, New York and California.

And what does that solidarity look like, in practice?

One thing anyone quickly discovers who is doing anything remotely related to mutual aid or organizing tenants in some way is there is a lot of suffering out there. A lot of people in precarious situations who need help. There are frequent, sudden emergencies that arise, where calls are made for support, sometimes without anyone knowing important details about the situation that might be relevant in terms of whether it’s even a good idea for outside people to get involved or not. One in six people in the US are said to be food insecure right now, there’s so much hunger, and also, although landlords can’t evict tenants for their inability to pay rent during the pandemic, tenants can and are being evicted for other reasons.

While it is impossible and unwise to try to predict the future, especially now, with so many different forces at play, with major developments often happening on a daily basis both locally and nationally, I wanted to lay out the basic strategy and tactic (both singular) that Portland Emergency Eviction Response is oriented around.

We’re looking forward — not in a happy way, but just in terms of direction of sight — to the time things come to a head, when the eviction moratorium is lifted. When that actually might happen is anybody’s guess. Whatever the outcome of the November election, if the pandemic worsens significantly through the winter as expected and the economy continues to tank, the eviction moratorium will likely be extended, and some form of assistance for renters and/or landlords will also have to be instituted, if not the kind of housing policies and rent control policies that could start to truly address the problem.

But whenever that moratorium is eventually lifted and the free market is allowed to once again reign supreme, when the evictions begin to happen en masse, this, in effect, is our moment, the basic reason for our existence as a network. Which is not to say that all kinds of other mutual aid and solidarity and other organizing isn’t crucial — but PEER is a small network with limited means at this point, with only one strategy, and one tactic.

The goal is the abolition of forced eviction as an option for landlords and police forces. The implementation of the goal is to form a large and militant rapid response team that can respond quickly to attempted evictions as they are occurring, and at that point either stop them from happening, or move the tenant back in to the property after the police leave the scene.

Specifically, or at least ideally, the process we’re talking about goes something like this:

Tenants facing potential eviction because they’re pretty sure they’ll be unable to pay the back rent due when the eviction moratorium is over are faced with various decisions. They may have family they can move in with — a majority of young adults now live with their parents in the US, for the first time since the 1930’s. A tenant will often prefer to move into a vehicle or do any number of other things other than attempt to stay in their home after receiving an eviction notice. Forgive the harshness of this sentence, but these are not the tenants that are tactically of interest to PEER. We are looking to work with tenants who want to challenge their eviction notice by attempting to stay in their homes. We realize the stakes are high, and you do, too. People may decide to try to stay in their homes because they have no other options they want to consider, or because they want to challenge the whole system of forced eviction, or both.

We want to be in touch with such tenants in advance. We want to know something about you, your landlord, why you’re facing eviction. Not to be judgmental, but to be strategic. If you’re a gun owner, this is something we’d like to know in advance, too. Not because we’re opposed to gun ownership, but because this could become relevant information for us all to know in the course of a tense confrontation with the police. Once we understand the situation we’re getting into and determine that our participation makes good sense, the tenant with the eviction notice keeps in close touch with us, and lets us know when the police come to their home. At that point, we notify the network, and people drop what they’re doing and head to your place, hopefully to chase the police off, keep people housed, and ultimately to continue to engage in this tactic on a daily basis, until the authorities re-think their approach.

If you think a few dozen people reliably showing up every time the police show up to try to evict someone couldn’t possibly work, think again. It has worked in many parts of the world, including in the US, at many different recent and historical junctures. When the police always need to call in backup every time they have to do something, this in itself changes the equation. When a few dozen people are showing up, the authorities will then be concerned that many more people will start arriving more spontaneously.

In order for this kind of direct action to work, it obviously requires a lot of participants. Our efforts have been focused on getting the word out about eviction defense in local Portland neighborhoods through postering, online communication of various kinds, and word of mouth, with a particular focus on networking with the youth and others who are already out there doing mutual aid and protesting against police brutality and institutional racism. We are also closely in touch with other eviction defense networks that are being built along similar lines, as part of bigger projects such as Portland Tenants United and the Portland chapter of the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America). When there are attempted evictions taking place that any of these networks are responding to, PEER will be activating our network as well.

PTU, DSA and other groups are regularly holding online and in-person discussions and trainings of various sorts. There are many people wondering about how things might go, when we try to prevent an eviction. It’s good to understand how these confrontations have gone before, what the laws are, and so on. But how things actually play out in the real world is always unpredictable. We may know what the laws are, but how they may or may not be enforced is another matter. Whether or not the police will obey them is another matter. Whether the cops are under orders to carry out an eviction, or not to pulverize a journalist, this doesn’t mean they will carry out the eviction, nor does it mean they will refrain from beating the journalist. There are many other forces at play here than the letter of the law.

The discussions and trainings are also handy because they give people a chance to consider different outcomes. For example, if most people are standing in front of the entrance of the apartment with banners and signs, but some people are open-carrying guns, standing on the sidewalk, as they are legally allowed to do in Oregon, how does this change the dynamic? In the end, we can’t answer the many very legitimate questions that will arise in these discussions. When there are multiple sides to an equation with different interests that are potentially all very committed to their positions, outcomes are impossible to predict. But it’s unlikely that we’ll win unless we are at least as committed to the abolition of eviction as the corporate investors are committed to their stock portfolios giving them a good return.

PEER will eventually also be organizing discussions and trainings, but for the time being, everyone is encouraged to participate in such discussions that Don’t Shoot PDX, PTU, DSA and others are facilitating — and everyone is especially encouraged to sign up to receive notifications from PEER (scroll down to the bottom of this screen) and be ready to show up when a notification arrives. And encourage your friends to do the same.

The post The Next Steps in Eviction Defense first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Diary of a Smoke Refugee

As Arun Gupta tweeted the other day, “Pardon the catastrophic global warming, we now return you to your regularly scheduled state violence.”

It’s been quite a week here in Oregon. I know there are plenty of other horrors happening in the world. The invisible ones are the worst. Like tens of millions of children in the US going to bed hungry every night in recent weeks, or the tap water in Flint and Gaza continuing to be undrinkable, or the many people every night in Yemen and India dying alone at home of disease, knowing it’s pointless to go to a hospital that has no medicine and no equipment. The visible horrors are more dramatic, more newsworthy, and also deadly for some, devastating for many – Sudan and Alabama underwater. Siberia, California, and Oregon on fire.

The fires here in Oregon have further exposed the deep divisions in this society, as have all the other previous or ongoing catastrophes, from the 2008 financial crisis to the current global pandemic. They have also further exposed a government that, at every level – federal, state, county, and municipal – is deeply entwined with both corruption and incompetence. To be clear, I say this not to disparage the heroic efforts of firefighters and others in the course of this ongoing tragedy. As with the one thousand medical workers who have lost their lives in the course of their efforts to respond to the Covid-19 crisis in the US, the firefighters and others on the ground doing all kinds of mutual aid also suffer the consequences of corruption and incompetence higher up, for which they are by no means responsible.

Putting the broader current reality into some bit of context:

Huge swaths of the western US are made up of land that is controlled by the federal government, either by the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. The job of the Forest Service is to make the forests available for corporations to profit from logging it all, and then they use federal tax money afterwards to deal with the resultant erosion, mudslides, mercury poisoning, and destructive fires that result. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) makes federal land available for corporations to drill for oil and mine for coal, uranium and other things.

While old-growth forests also burn, the forests aren’t destroyed by them – on the contrary, they need fire to prosper. But over a century of reckless logging practices throughout the region and beyond has resulted in a patchwork of tree farms, which are very vulnerable to being completely destroyed by fire.

The land that’s not controlled by federal agencies is controlled by more local authorities, and, of course, much of it is privately owned. Real estate investment, speculation, and development are a huge part of the country’s economy, along with property management. In the same way that the main job of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management is to facilitate the exploitation of the land and forests by private corporations, the main job of local government authorities, it seems, is to facilitate real estate transactions.

After decades of government dis-investment in housing and the ongoing deregulation of the housing market, coupled with successful corporate-led campaigns to ban the practice of rent control in 48 out of 50 states, including Oregon, housing has become increasingly unaffordable in cities across the country, very much including all the major urban hubs of the west coast. The unaffordability of housing has resulted in people moving ever further from the urban centers, into areas that were undeveloped, as they say, until recently. First Portlanders unable to stay in their city were moving to Gresham and Oregon City. Then they were moving further out, to Molalla and Estacada, once the idea of the commute taking over an hour became a concept people were ready to swallow, if it meant the possibility of being able to afford decent housing.

Putting the past two weeks into the context of more recent events:

Since the videotaped murder of George Floyd by clearly sadistic police in Minneapolis on May 25th, Portland has been one of many cities across the US and the world where people have been protesting in one form or another, usually in multiple parts of the city at the same time, every day, against police brutality and racism, and increasingly around related issues that disproportionately impact the poor and people of color, such as access in this society to things like housing, health care, and, increasingly, food.

The protest movement here in Portland involves people from all walks of life, of all ages, from all the various racialized groups, genders, etc. The protests have been continuously met with massive police brutality. As time goes on, people are becoming more and more organized, with different networks becoming well established, taking on crucial responsibilities such as providing protesters with food, water, and medical care. Other groups take on the responsibility of making sure there’s a clear barrier around the gatherings, to make it harder for people to drive into the ranks of those assembled with motor vehicles. Others try to provide some semblance of security, keeping a lookout for suspicious characters laden with assault rifles and American flags, such as the member of Patriot Prayer who was killed in the course of the extremely tense atmosphere of the violent Trump Cruise that came to Portland on August 29th, during which time the police largely absented themselves, and allowed uncontrolled combat between fascists and antifascists to take place in the streets of the city. Michael Reinoehl was involved with doing security at the protests, and had been for a long time. Five days later, unmarked police vehicles pulled up at the apartment where Michael was staying, outside of Lacey, Washington, and executed him right there, in a hail of bullets.

Oh and, of course, then there’s also the pandemic, the various societal impacts of which probably need no introduction by now.

On the first weekend of September, a week after the deadly, 600-vehicle Trump Cruise, another Trump Cruise was planned. Hundreds of pickup trucks with over-sized US flags on the back of them, making them look a lot like those pickup trucks that get rigged up as mobile rocket launchers by groups in Afghanistan or Libya, were back in the Portland suburb of Clackamas, a county named after the Indian nation whose unceded land we are occupying now. So soon after they invaded Portland, so soon after the execution of Michael Reinoehl, this time they went from Clackamas to the state capital of Salem, bypassing the regional center of resistance that Portland has become.

By September 7th, the extreme wind event teamed up with the years of so-called drought, downed power lines, a multitude of dry lightning strikes, a century of terrible forestry practices, and decades of the cancerous suburban expansion caused by the exponential rise in the cost of housing over that time, all came together to cause the massive fires already ravaging California to do the same in Oregon. I was in Cathedral Park, where one of the last events related to Black Lives Matter was taking place, before all protest activities basically took a solid week off to focus on the apocalypse.

Mic Crenshaw and other great local hip-hop artists were performing, after the speeches were over. Several hundred were gathered beneath the very high bridge that is above the park, and the sky was completely shrouded in smoke from the fires that had begun burning around much of the state. Several people were talking from the stage about threats from fascists that people had been getting, folks threatening to come to the park and be violent. The decision was made to end the event early, but it continued, with a sort of “stay at your own risk” caveat. Some people left, but most stayed until all the performers on the sound truck were done.

I think there was one other, very scarcely-attended protest after that, before priorities really shifted. As large parts of Oregon were under evacuation orders, those being evacuated needed all kinds of assistance. The groups who had been providing food, water, medical care, and other things, generally began mobilizing to do what they could to help out with the broader effort that various elements of the government, churches, the Red Cross, and so on, were involved with, in terms of providing for basic needs.

The Trump Cruise elements of society were surely involved with fighting fires and feeding people, I’m just assuming, but some of them were and are also involved with setting up illegal roadblocks in various parts of the state, looking for people they consider suspicious, which seems to include anyone wearing black, and people of color with big cameras, such as OPB photojournalist, Sergio Olmos. One road block mentioned in the news was in Corbett, east of Portland, where I have recorded most of the albums I’ve put out since I moved to Portland 13 years ago, at Big Red Studio, which was even closer to being evacuated during the Eagle Creek conflagration of 2017.

As fires were increasingly burning in the less populated areas of Clackamas, threatening the biggest towns in the county, leveling some of the smaller ones, and threatening the main urban center of the state, Portland, just to the north of Clackamas County, local officials here in Multnomah County and in the city of Portland were very active on Twitter, and presumably in other media, encouraging us all to download an app called Everbridge, so we would make sure to get emergency notifications related to the spreading and uncontrolled fires, and possible evacuation plans.

Dwelling on this point for a moment: when a child is abducted and is being transported in a car, or when Portland was under a curfew because of what they call riots, my wife, my teenage daughter, and I all receive text notifications on our phones about these things. They come in with a loud noise, and then you have to look at the message before you can do anything else with the phone.

Given that the state seems to obviously have the capacity to send push notifications to residents of the state with phones, why do we now need to download this app? Who knows. But what can quickly be ascertained by anyone with half a brain are the following: on the Google Play store, the app has been downloaded 500,000 times or more, which is also an indication that it has been downloaded by fewer than a million people. Reviewers give the app a 2.3 star rating, with widespread complaints that it just doesn’t work. Since County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury was encouraging everyone to download the app, I did so, as did my wife, Reiko. She has an iPhone, I have an Android. We’re both proficient at this sort of technology, and neither of us could make the app work. Neither of us have ever received a notification from this app since we downloaded it and registered ourselves with it to the best of our abilities. Neither of us have received any other notifications on our phones regarding the ongoing fires through any other means, either.

In Jackson County, in southern Oregon, where the cities of Medford and Ashland are, and where the suburb of Phoenix used to exist, incredibly, the existing emergency alert system that interrupts local radio and TV programs to tell us what’s going on, was never used. Also never used were the emergency text notification system that has been used before in the state of Oregon, as I mentioned previously. The only notification system they were using was this app, Everbridge, which we were all supposed to have downloaded by now. But as you can see on the app store, even if close to a million people may have downloaded the app, that’s only a fourth of this state’s population. And the app doesn’t work, as anyone who tried to use it might have discovered long before this catastrophe.

My friend Jason Houk was one of thousands of people in Oregon whose homes were completely destroyed in the fires. His home was in Jackson County.

By the weekend of September 11th, the air quality in cities up and down the west coast was the worst in the world. All of us who have for months now been getting a crash course in epidemiology have lately been learning about the existence of something called the Air Quality Index. As the business press has had to discover new adjectives to describe the catastrophically dire state of the economy, so the meteorologists have had to start inventing new categories of bad weather. For the first time, that weekend the local air was no longer being described as “hazardous.” It had now graduated to a new term: “smoke.” It was no longer being called a type of air, it was a new gaseous substance with a different name altogether.

I looked upon my wife and teenage daughter with a combination of admiration and horror as both of them expressed a lack of interest in getting out of the city for a while. Fires were raging in the county just to the south, the air was virtually unbreathable, all activities that any of us had been involved with had been canceled for the time being, such as my protests, such as the toddler’s preschool, the teenager’s rock gym, my wife’s tennis sessions. But out of a sense of solidarity with the majority of the population of the city that was unable to get away from the smoke because they were too busy trying to keep their jobs or couldn’t afford a hotel room, they didn’t want to leave.

Admiration aside, I had different priorities. When two of my aunts teamed up to offer to pay for us to get a hotel room anywhere where the air quality was significantly better than Portland, until things improved, I insisted we leave town. Which worked with my wife and our youngest children, but not with the teenager, who insisted on staying in Portland with her other mother, sealing the doors and windows, and staying inside.

The four of us bailed last Sunday and headed to Astoria. I had studied Air Quality Index maps and fire maps, which all confirmed what I already suspected. In Oregon, the main fires were in the massive valley that goes up and down the state, on the other side of the mountain range that is beside the coast. The climate has always been much drier to the east of that mountain range, and then to the east of the next range, it’s desert. This is the case in all the three western states. This thin strip along the edge of the continent is kept moist and foggy by big weather patterns that tend not to change much, even in recent decades. The mountain range keeps the fog on the west side of it, and the hotter it gets east of the range, the more that keeps the fog from spilling over, thus trapping it along the coast. The northwest tip of the state of Oregon, the city of Astoria, has weather very reminiscent of the west coast of Ireland, for the same sorts of reasons having to do with what happens when trade winds meet land masses.

If you watched the weather reports, you would have thought the air was terrible throughout the western US. If you looked more closely, you’d see there were exceptions. My aunts, and others, were encouraging us to fly to the east coast – to the northeast, specifically, where I grew up, which thus far is well insulated from fires, if not from floods. Good that we didn’t consider that option, out of a combination of fear of flying during an out-of-control pandemic and various other considerations, because the airport soon closed to most flights anyway, due to the smoke.

We drove on the sparsely-populated streets, past the countless tents and the increasingly gray faces of the people still living in them, to the highway that leads north and west, and ends where the continent ends, in Astoria. As we got to the other side of the last of the mountains, the grass and all the other vegetation got greener, and soon we were at the ocean, enshrouded in fog which smelled only slightly of campfire. A slightly smoky fog, rather than just billowing, orange-tinged ash, passing as air.

The real refugees are those whose homes were destroyed. We were just temporary refugees, and very privileged ones. We had a sponsor paying for a hotel room. But this is also the case with refugees from Syria or Honduras or anywhere else. The ones with the means to escape are the lucky ones. The ones who can escape, in a private car, to a hotel room, are luckier still.

To compound the sense of guilt I was already feeling, as we settled into our hotel room, I heard from other folks who had already escaped to Astoria or some other town on the north coast, but who were heading back into the smoke because they could no longer afford the extortionist rates the hotels were charging. During our five days in Astoria, other folks joined us who hadn’t been planning to leave Portland, but who just couldn’t stay in the smoke any longer.

As has been the case for a very long time, I’m glued to news coverage in various forms. Hanging out with small children, as I’m usually doing in recent years, this takes the form of listening to radio and podcasts through an ear bud in one ear, while I’m at the playgrounds and such. The governor has been holding daily press conferences, which I’ve been listening to.

I’m sure they have a decent air filtration system at the capital, but I had an immediate sense of respect for the woman, if only for the fact that I think she was addressing us from Salem, which at the time had some of the most toxic air of any city on Earth. When we left Portland, the AQI was over 500.

The most notable thing about the governor’s press conferences was the fear of public speaking that you can hear in her voice and in the voices of every member of her staff. You can hear when the governor tries to sound like she’s emoting, and puts this breathy quality in her voice that we’re supposed to understand as empathy. Maybe she feels empathy, I’m not saying she’s a sociopath, necessarily, but the empathy fails to come through. At least she was audible, which was not the case with any of her staff members, speaking on Zoom or something, from their various locations. At the first conference there was nobody playing the role of host, so there were lots of awkward transitions, until the governor realized midstream that she better play that role herself, if no one else was going to do it. Which was good, because she was the only one who seemed to be using equipment at her office that allowed her broadcast to be audible through OPB’s feed. With a good headset on, listening on my phone to OPB, I could just barely hear the other speakers, such as the guy managing the overall fire response, who seems to have moved to Oregon quite recently from somewhere in Maine. What really shocked me was that day after day, the audio quality of these press conferences never improved.

The continually poor production values of their little fireside chats were compounded by much of the stuff they were saying, when you could figure out what it was. Apparently the Oregon Employment Department is starting a new Disaster Unemployment program, in addition to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, PUA. But after six months, tens of thousands of people in Oregon who qualify for PUA have yet to receive a dime from the Employment Department, which is running on 1980’s technology and has suffered from a Covid outbreak within the ranks of the staff, as well as having offices closed due to the fires. And now we’re supposed to believe any of us will receive timely assistance from them now? The governor made no mention of this reality, preferring her fantasy version, where she’s at the helm of a functional state.

Listening on many national news reports to the governor of California’s press conferences, while also making efforts to coordinate a response to the ongoing emergency, he has blown much of his hot air in the form of partisan political diatribes aimed at President Trump and the Republican Party.  Candidate Biden has done the same, inferring that if we want to avoid more such fiery calamities, we’d better not vote for the “climate arsonist” Trump, which Biden is apparently not, despite a long political career pointing to his culpability in our current ecological collapse.  Governor Gavin Newsom wants to blame climate change on the catastrophic situation, and federal policies around climate change, and thus deflect the lion’s share of responsibility for this mess, which lies at the doorstep of the capitalist system, and the real estate investment and unregulated real estate development that underpins it, from which he and most of his colleagues in government throughout the west coast profit from personally and politically.

If the exurbs such as Molalla and Paradise are the most vulnerable areas in this brave new climate, let’s be very clear that the biggest victims of these fires are the people who couldn’t afford to live in the places that get most of the firefighting resources, the places where most of the residents commute to to work, the bigger cities.  And any efforts to mitigate this situation with better forest management will suffer the same fate as efforts to solve the housing crisis through little band-aid solutions they come up with for that — they will fail, certainly as long as the underlying problem of unregulated capitalism that drives the ever-expanding exurbs to keep expanding as they are doing.

Roaming the streets of Astoria, on the boardwalk and in the outdoor seating areas of the cafes on the piers, we observed, met or overheard conversations of many different people. It’s a town with two centuries of history as an international hub of fishing, canning, and trade, there at the mouth of the gigantic Columbia River, which leads to the sprawling ports of Portland, through which much of the world’s trade has long passed on a daily basis. The canning and fishing is nothing like it was once, but there’s a big Coast Guard presence in town, along with some functioning industry, lots of fishing boats and other sorts of boats, and it reeks of history, with many of the buildings that played a prominent role in the labor wars of the early twentieth century still standing as they were, such as the Finnish social center, and the American Legion hall, with the river still filled with functioning, though soggy-looking, wooden pilings, with large buildings atop them, with cars and trucks and cafes and canneries and little ad hoc museums.

With this backdrop, the sidewalks and grassy knolls are filled with a wide variety of people. Some of them are to be found there in Astoria year round – like the middle-aged women frequenting the cafes in the morning, talking about goings-on at the arts center, and the many people living near the trolley shelters, drinking cans of beer, and the gothic-looking teenagers who clearly have no appreciation for the fact that they live in paradise, and wish their parents would move back to Portland, where there are protests and night life.

Then there are the visitors. Some of them are actual tourists, which Astoria would normally have more of this time of year, but for the pandemic. But most of the visitors were playing the role of tourist because they were smoked out of their towns. Many families crammed into pickup trucks with several dogs and too many suitcases. Along with them, guys who looked like they hadn’t left the pot farm in years, but were being put up there by the Red Cross, and had no idea what “a card for incidentals” meant, when asked for one by the hotel clerk. I felt like a snob for even noticing that interaction, but when you are a frequent traveler, it becomes easy to spot folks who have never stayed in a two-star hotel before, or who have never been through an airport security line.

Other visitors were clad entirely in black, like I generally am. In large urban centers throughout the world, this is a very common way to dress. Outside of those centers it’s less common. Less common still are people clad entirely in black, who also have visible tattoos, piercings, and white, punk rock or political slogans on their clothing. There were many people who fit this description around town, more than on previous visits to Astoria, and I got the impression that many of them were smoke refugees like us. I also got the impression that all the American flags around this Coast Guard town was making them uncomfortable. I wondered if anyone had yelled at them, as had happened to me in recent weeks, when postering in certain Portland neighborhoods east of the 205. I was pushing a stroller around Astoria, insulated from those types of interactions by the small children. The only comment I heard was a suburban-looking woman commenting to her friend that all the articles of clothing I was wearing were the same shade of black. They were clearly entertained by this, which made me smile.

Having returned to Portland, with the AQI at a much more reasonable level, back to the usual rating in the high double digits, the mayor’s ban on CS gas has proven to be the farce that it obviously was, since he didn’t ban the use of chemical weapons by the police, but only this particular one. As the air became breathable again and the fires were becoming contained, the protests resumed. Adding fuel to the fires of the ongoing social unrest in this country, news of ICE’s apparent forced hysterectomy ring inspired renewed efforts at abolishing that particularly onerous agency, along with the police in general. Copious clouds of tear gas and other forms of wanton police brutality have characterized the past two nights on the streets of Portland. As Arun Gupta tweeted the other day, “Pardon the catastrophic global warming, we now return you to your regularly scheduled state violence.”

The post Diary of a Smoke Refugee first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Eviction Abolition: The Time Is Now

It’s the beginning of the month. Do you know your neighbors?

I have several questions for you. Can you imagine a society where the prospect of a forced eviction is considered completely barbaric, and is virtually or entirely unheard of in practice? Can you imagine the United States becoming one of those societies? And have you joined a local community group that is considering these questions where you live?

I’m a founding member of a new network I and others are working on expanding here in Portland, called Portland Emergency Eviction Response, which is basically a rapid response team to go participate in eviction defense actions, activated by text message, in the tradition of the telephone trees of the twentieth century, or the tin horns of the nineteenth century.

I’d like to give you my answers to the questions I posed above.

Can I imagine a society where the class war is not carried out in such vicious ways, with millions of renters across the country getting evicted every year, with the disruption, dislocation, destruction and chaos that ensues in community after community, year in and year out?

Yes, that’s easy. Many countries in the world already don’t allow this feudal practice. I travel in them and perform in them regularly, and have done so for most of my adult life. There are many ways landlords can seek restitution aside from the forced eviction of tenants.

Can I imagine the US becoming one of those societies, where eviction doesn’t happen?

Although it is currently a more unequal place than it has been since the Age of the Robber Barons, this fact is not only a curse for so many struggling in poverty, but it’s also an opportunity. As bad as the housing crisis was for both homeowners and renters before the pandemic hit, it is exponentially worse now, particularly since the federal government has been unable to take any meaningful action since the end of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance — although the new move by the Centers for Disease Control to ban evictions for anyone making less than $99,000 until the end of the year at least kicks the can down the road until then, when the past rent will suddenly come due for tens of millions of people who will have avoided eviction until then.  The patchwork of state and local eviction suspensions is now, finally, largely supplanted by a nationwide ban.  But one which, like almost all the other temporary eviction bans, does nothing to address the underlying problems that existed prior to the pandemic, or the divisions that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.  So unless further, major action is taken, everything now comes crashing down at the beginning of 2021, instead of this month.

With the situation being as bad as it is, a lot of people are realizing that the capitalist system and the ever-increasing cost of housing that has been the situation for a long time now, but much more so since the last financial crisis, is untenable. People are no longer going along with the program. Landlords seeking to evict tenants, from New York to California, have faced spontaneous and angry gatherings of their neighbors, that have caused them to back off and go away. This is how it starts.

Even a criminally unequal society still requires a certain degree of the consent of the governed in order to function. Police brutality alone won’t work – not when the people being evicted increasingly include members of the extended families of cops across the country, just as they increasingly include so many other segments of society, with Black and brown people being disproportionately impacted everywhere. People are spontaneously reacting against this madness when they’re confronted by it. Increasingly, clearly, the consent of the governed is being withdrawn.

This is why the time is now. This is why people who have been involved with every other political movement that has ever existed in my lifetime are back out in the streets today. All those folks involved with the global justice movement, Occupy Wall Street, the climate justice movement, and so on, also believe that Black lives matter, and that now is the time to fight back against institutional racism, and all the other institutions that perpetuate it, such as the police, and also the venture capitalists and their facilitators in the state legislatures across the country that allow for the kind of ethnic cleansing that has taken place in cities like Portland, where more than half of the Black population here has been priced out of the city since I moved into it.

I have seen the same thing happen in every city I have lived in in this country, and I’m not the only one who is sick and tired of it. Being sick and tired is becoming widespread. There are only so many times one can experience this pattern before you’ve had enough – moving into a diverse neighborhood, only to see it get whiter and whiter, until only the most recent newcomers with six-figure incomes can afford to live in it anymore, and the vast majority of Black and brown residents, along with the vast majority of professional artists and so many others, are once again forced out. The ranks of those who are fed up with this shit is growing fast.

Which brings me to my third question – have you joined a neighborhood network of some kind?

Spontaneous outpourings by neighbors are essential, but we can’t depend on that alone to end something like the phenomenon of forced eviction. Forced eviction was banned in Chicago during the last Great Depression in no small part because people organized eviction defense squads. Somewhat more recently in New York City, many squats and other buildings were saved through similar kinds of mobilizing – even during the very authoritarian Giuliani administration in that city. In the UK, eviction defense actions in Glasgow were essential to fueling a successful rent strike and ultimately a nationwide rent freeze, a century ago.

History is full of such examples. Although for the bigger ones you sometimes have to go back a ways to find them, this is because of the confluence of circumstances people were facing at those times – which bear so much similarity to today. Sudden economic crashes on top of an already terribly divided, stratified society, met by incompetent political leadership.

Changing the world always seems impossible at first, I hear. The obstacles always seem insurmountable at the outset. Getting started is the hardest part. But once one eviction has been prevented, and then another, momentum can build very quickly.

Those of us who are working on the initiative we’re calling Portland Emergency Eviction Response are looking at this basic approach: if you are facing eviction in the city of Portland and for whatever reason(s) you have decided you want to try to stay in your home and resist this eviction order, contact us, so we can be in touch well before the cops actually show up. When the police do eventually show up, which they tend to do on their own time, you tell us, and we activate the text mob. But first, if you’re in Portland, you need to sign up, to this or another such initiative. If you do, you’ll meet some of the best people you’ve ever met, while you’re defending someone’s home together.

Go to artistsforrentcontrol.org and scroll down to the bottom of the screen to sign up. Another world is possible, and another Portland is possible.

The post Eviction Abolition: The Time Is Now first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Escalation in Portland

If there is a point at which we realize we are taking our lives in our hands by just going downtown and marching in the streets, this might be it.

Last night a man was shot to death near the Justice Center in downtown Portland, where protests have been taking place every night for over three months. Details are still coming in, but it appears the deceased was a heavily-armed member of the far right. Another member of the far right was just arrested this morning in the working class Portland suburb of Milwaukie. He was arrested for having fired into a crowd the day before with live ammunition, apparently, in a separate incident from the killing at the Justice Center.

For those of you who might just be tuning in here, I’ll try to set the stage.

Prior to Trump, prior to the pandemic, Portland was a city experiencing multiple crises, as with many other cities across the country, but perhaps more so. Between the last two censuses Portland lost more than half of its Black population due to gentrification, a phenomenon known to many as ethnic cleansing. During that time, Portland also achieved #1 status in the nation in terms of the numbers of Black people killed by the police, per capita. Portland also achieved the status as the most rent-burdened city in the country, as determined by the cost of rent relative to the average income of renters in the city. For many comfortable homeowners living in the hills of west of downtown and shopping in the malls of Beaverton, the reality that they were living in a city that was experiencing multiple acute crises may have passed them by. We live in a very divided city, in so many ways. Just take a day-long walk down Burnside Boulevard from the hills west of downtown to the desolate trailers in outer southeast, and you’ll get the picture of the class structure of this society.

Prior to Trump, prior to the pandemic, groups like Don’t Shoot PDX and a multiplicity of other networks focused on police brutality, institutional racism, gentrification and the unaffordability of housing for most Black and working class people were active on the streets, online, and in electoral politics. While the state government is dominated by the interests of big landlords, like the Democratic Party everywhere, in local government on the city and county levels, increasing numbers of solidly progressive people have been getting in, in the city council as well as among elected officials in the judicial branch, such as the District Attorney who just dropped the charges of so many protesters who have been arrested over the past months.

Long prior to Trump, Portland was a hotbed of conflict between fascists and antifascists, between militant believers in white supremacy and militant antiracists. As with cities like Minneapolis, there is a lot of history to this conflict. The streets of Portland, as with the streets of Minneapolis and other cities, were contested ground. Oregon was founded as a white homeland, and Portland was a national home to organized racism for a long time, until relatively recently, and the supporters of these groups have not all moved to Idaho.

The combination of Trump’s election and the social forces he continually strives to unleash, the pandemic, the growing numbers of blatantly racist police murders across the country, the economic crash, the apparent withdrawal of any more real help from the federal government, and the complete incompetence and/or captured-by-the-landlords nature of the state authorities in Oregon and elsewhere, have altogether created a massive powder keg. Add to that a tremendous increase in gun sales over the past several months across the country, very much including Oregon. Add to that wannabe vigilantes speaking at the Republican National Convention, and real vigilantes in Wisconsin being praised by the president, with the blood still fresh on the streets of Kenosha.

OK, stage-setting over.

It’s always been mythology that in the USA the First Amendment gives people the right to peacefully protest. It’s always been mythology that when people commit acts of civil disobedience, such as marching or sitting down in the street, that they will generally be gingerly carried off with one cop taking each limb, carrying the arrested to an awaiting vehicle, and carefully placing them inside it. It’s always been mythology that when there are two opposing groups of protesters, the police are there to act as a neutral party to keep them from hurting each other. Under certain circumstances, peaceful protests go off without a hitch, police escort marchers in the streets, and they keep protesters from killing each other, but there’s nothing predictable about any of these things going that way. In fact, most often, they don’t go like that at all, in Portland, or in most US cities.

And yes, most US cities are Democrat-run, as Trump is so fond of pointing out. There are reasons for that. Unfortunately, these Democrats, like their Republican counterparts, are largely also wealthy landowners, such as Mayor Ted Wheeler, and/or politicians paid off by corporations, incapable of doing anything more than mouthing progressive slogans while they screw the entire working class over and over again with their actual actions. And what is especially telling is that in these progressive hotbeds, the police forces are full of unaccountable human rights abusers and members of the far right, and most of each city’s budgets goes to them every year. And despite the fact that these police departments are constantly losing lawsuits brought against them by the citizens they kill and maim, their killer cops not only almost never go to prison, but they almost all keep their six-figure jobs as our armed protectors.

While it is mythology that there’s anything like a set of rules to adhere to for proper protesting etiquette, to avoid getting attacked by police or fascists, for example, or to get positive media coverage, or any media coverage at all, it is true that there are general tendencies in a given country at a given historical moment in terms of how things will go the vast majority of the time. And to the extent that it was generally the case that you didn’t used to have to worry about people shooting at each other with live ammunition at protest rallies in front of a federal courthouse in the center of a city in this country a few years ago, this expectation is increasingly not valid.

Whoever shot the heavily-armed member of the far right downtown last night, the context was that other members of the far right were spraying crowds with gunfire, a massacre of protesters had just been committed in Wisconsin by a member of the far right, and hundreds of beefy white people with big flags throughout downtown Portland were involved with vehicular assaults on pedestrians and other vehicles, and lots of people were spraying each other with bear mace, hitting, and kicking each other.

Although no one has been killed by a politically-motivated left-winger or anarchist in the United States in decades to my knowledge, while members of the far right kill us regularly at this point, if it indeed is the case that this man was killed in the course of a conflict with a counter-protester, this really shouldn’t come as any surprise. Many people we might broadly define as antifascists embrace armed self-defense and do shooting practice regularly, from Anti-Racist Action to the John Brown Gun Club, and new groups like that seem to be forming daily, along with neighborhood associations forming for people to defend one another from the coming waves of evictions.

Knowing that the police are either unwilling or unable to effectively police events such as the Trump Cruise and ensuing urban combat that we saw last night, given that going downtown to protest, whether you’re protesting in a way that the authorities deem to be “peaceful” or “violent,” you are risking your life by being there.

Of course, you’re also risking your life every time you cross a busy street, or ride your bicycle down one. And when you’re in a crowd of enthusiastic, community-minded protesters from all walks of life, of all ages, catching up with each other, playing music, shouting at the mayor, and taking over the streets, it’s easy to feel invincible. At least for me it is. It’s easy to rationalize away fear, and perhaps for some of us more than others, easy to feel like these bad things can’t possibly happen to me. But if they happen more and more often, people start to change their orientation.

Standing on the precipice we’re all standing on right now here in the USA, my mind delivers me historical parallels, as a sort of desperate measure, trying to make sense of it all. I’m not sure how relevant any of them are, but any of them might be. There are too many different factors that go into creating the future.

But at least in retrospect, some things seem clear. Retrospect is good like that. The massacres at Kent State and Jackson State, along with so many more killings by the authorities of Black radicals especially, in no small part gave rise to networks such as the short-lived Black Liberation Army and the Weathermen. Developments like these tend to reinforce the maxim that violence is made inevitable through the suppression of more peaceful means.

Similarly, in Northern Ireland there was a civil rights movement, that sought equality for the oppressed Catholic minority in the Occupied Six Counties. The movement was consciously modeled after the civil rights movement in the US. Like its counterpart in the US, it was met with tremendous violence, which ultimately took the forms of racist pogroms in 1969, the burning of hundreds of homes by anti-Catholic mobs, a massive propaganda campaign of fake news brought on by the authorities, vilifying the largely Catholic movement, and ultimately a massacre of movement organizers by British troops. All of these events of 1969 and 1970 ultimately led people to conclude that peaceful marches were not working if they would just end in massacres. And this understanding gave rise to the armed resistance movement that followed, which in turn gave rise to a conflict that took the lives of thousands of people over the following quarter century.

There are those examples of fires being fueled by the authorities. Then there are other examples, when governments with intelligent leaders who know they’re in a race against time act decisively. A somewhat random example that comes to mind is how at the end of the Second World War, after years of a terrible occupation that involved a famine and many thousands of deportations and executions, with many more shipped off to work as forced laborers, after the Netherlands was liberated by Allied forces from Canada, the US, Poland and elsewhere, but also in no small part including by Dutch resistance forces as well, the first thing the government did when it came back from exile was collect all the guns that were now all over the country. They were desperately concerned that after all these years of Nazi occupation, there could be terrible conflict in society between those who resisted in some form, and those who collaborated to one degree or another. If there were to be such conflicts, they wanted to make sure that they did not involve firearms.

My orientation is admittedly Eurocentric. I’ve spent most of my adult life somewhere between North America and Europe, and much less of it anywhere else in the world. One of the guests I interviewed for one of my livestream shows/podcasts recently, an Argentinian anarchist and professor at the University of Massachusetts, Graciela Monteagudo, says the fascist comparisons aren’t so relevant, that the divisions in US society and the incompetent, corrupt state ostensibly at the helm of it are much more like a typical kleptocratic banana republic than a well-oiled fascist fighting machine.

Either way, if there is a point at which we realize we are taking our lives in our hands by just going downtown and marching in the streets, this might be it. What comes next, I don’t know that anybody knows – I sure don’t. I only know a little, mostly selective tidbits about what has happened before. The time and place we’re in now is not like those other times and places, however. It’s new, and in so many ways, as they never tire of pointing out in the news, unprecedented.

Pandemic Panhandling

One story of surviving as an artist in the USA, from the collapse of the music industry to the housing crisis to the pandemic.

Occasionally, for one reason or another, I feel inspired to write an essay about my personal finances, mainly because, for me, it’s an interesting perspective, the really up-close and nitty gritty one. But also these days, the plight of artists is often in the news, along with the plights of many other people, and I have been regularly getting messages from people who are concerned about my welfare in these times, and wondering how I’m doing. Sometimes they assume that because I’m doing a lot of writing and organizing around rent strikes and eviction defense, I must soon be facing eviction myself.

If you happen to be one of those people wondering about such things, but you’re not interested in the lengthy explanation, the short answer is up til this point, me and my family are doing OK, with no imminent prospect for having to either sell or move into our car. We’re able to pay for rent and food despite the lack of work, and although there has been very little in the way of government assistance we’ve been able to access otherwise, we do have free health care for the most part, here in Oregon, if you’re poor enough to qualify, which we are.

For the more involved explanation, I’ll start with a brief recounting of the situation for me and many other artists prior to the pandemic.

For those of us old enough to have been working as touring musicians in the 1990’s, the music industry overall was about five times as big in 1997 as it was in 2017, when it finally stopped collapsing. From the major labels to the folks playing in the local pub, the whole industry has shrunk radically. Unevenly, at different times for different types of artists and to different degrees, but across the board. The main reason for this phenomenon has been the rise of the internet, and then particularly the unregulated corporate internet, and the rapid decline of the phenomenon of music fans purchasing CDs from artists at concerts, which is where the vast majority of such sales used to take place, among independent artists.

For me and many other indy artists I’ve talked to, 2013 was the year the floor totally dropped out of merch sales. It’s not a coincidence that this was also the year Spotify launched the free version of their music streaming platform. Spotify perfected a sort of corpse-feeding version of a new music industry, very much like what Uber did to the taxi business – in both cases, operating on an industry-destroying, investment-sustained business model whereby they function at a loss until they take over the world in the process, with lots of political corruption and government connivance, from Sweden to the United States.

As this process was taking place, the cost of housing kept rising in most parts of the US, the UK, Ireland, Australia and so many other countries I’m personally very familiar with. The rise in the cost of housing has also been associated with the same sorts of predatory corporate consolidation and bribery of legislative bodies, a la Spotify and Uber, incidentally. Real estate prices have also affected the music venues, which have been rapidly disappearing, charging instead of paying, and/or relocating into smaller spaces. A concomitant phenomenon has been the disappearance of the once-lucrative college circuit.

The shrinking of the music industry has been reflected in other statistics aside the 80% reduction in sales overall. Between the 2000 census and the 2010 census, 41% fewer people claim to be professional musicians in the US. (And that’s well before Spotify’s free tier.) During that same period, between those two censuses, the city of Portland, Oregon also lost about half of its Black population, which is an interesting correlation. Basically, people who were living close to the wire before the turn of the century became unable to live here ten years later. You can be sure the same sort of pattern took place in many other cities at more or less the same time. As I sit here now in this two-bedroom apartment, it was recently announced in the business press that the average Black family in the US cannot afford to live in a market-rate two-bedroom apartment.

With this multiplicity of obstacles – to recap, half your income that used to be represented by merch sales disappearing, eventually be be replaced by minimal amounts of streaming income, while your housing costs double and your ability to make money from touring decreases due to the same housing crisis and its impact on small businesses – it’s not surprising that so many artists, probably by now a solid majority of them, had to stop being professional artists, find another job or two, and turn their art into a hobby, when they have a chance to get to it.

A tiny percentage of artists who have produced multiple hits might be in a position to live off of royalties from radio airplay and Spotify. Those who essentially couldn’t live off of 20% of their former incomes had to find other ways to make ends meet, as the living they were making in the 90’s wasn’t all that great, either. The main options were finding other jobs that they could do in between tours, to tour a lot more to try to make up for other losses, to turn to different forms of patronage – crowdfunding or grants or some combination thereof – or to throw in the towel.

I was personally sometimes able to crowdfund successfully enough to pay for recording projects, despite the loss of any income from selling the results in any form. I was never able to make up for the loss of income from merch sales collapsing, however, so rather than trying to tour more or get another job, I turned towards patronage in 2013, on the advice of a wonderful accountant here in Portland. I didn’t realize it at the time, but retrospectively, it’s not a coincidence that I started crowdfunding patronage, at first only through my own website, later also on Patreon and Bandcamp, in the same year that Spotify kicked off it’s free tier.

As it happens, my pursuit of the patronage model just reached the point at the beginning of this year where, between the three aforementioned platforms plus streaming royalties, it adds up to rent plus food — just before the arrival of Covid-19.

What has become abundantly clear since the pandemic hit is the fact that the level of success I’ve achieved with crowdsourced patronage – paying for rent and food — puts me in a crowd of not more than 2% of formerly professional musicians out there. Everybody else had to tour, usually a lot, whether they wanted to tour that much or not, as I always also needed to do, much as I generally enjoyed it and look forward to someday doing more of it. And most of those artists also needed to work additional jobs aside from touring. Those who thought they had some kind of security because they had multiple sources of income – namely, income from touring, and income from working a service sector job of some kind – have discovered they didn’t have job security in a pandemic after all. We hear every day from NPR and many other news sources about all the artists, service sector workers, and so many others who have been surviving from the extra federal pandemic $600 a week on top of what would otherwise be usually an insultingly tiny pittance from the state employment department, how tiny depending on the state – and that’s if you qualify as a gig economy worker for such a privilege, which in Oregon, you did not. For those lucky enough to get through to the Employment Department and receive this federal money, it ran out at the end of July, and millions of people, be they artists, service sector workers, or a multitude of other professions who are out of work, talk about being on the edge of a financial cliff currently. For a staggering number of unemployed gig economy workers – still tens of thousands in the state of Oregon alone – money from the Employment Department has never come, after five months, and when we call, the line is literally always busy. (I wrote a song about it – “Ballad of the Oregon Employment Department.”)

As with so many other things, there is suddenly a much more widespread and much more talked-about awareness of how badly Spotify pays artists, how high the rent is, how much it costs in the US just to have internet access, and so on. Much more talked about is the fact that most artists aren’t making a living at their art. I guess for a lot of people, including so many artists, it was just assumed that, of course, you were working a day job in a cafe in order to afford to do gigs in the evenings. But now it’s been broadcast on Marketplace and elsewhere, it’s official, they almost all have other jobs of some kind, and most of them have lost all of them.

With all this press came a flurry of donations to me and many other artists.  I don’t know about everyone else, but for me they were significant.  They went a long way to make up for the loss of income from several canceled tours.  We did better than covering basic expenses, we even paid off half of our credit card debt.  The donations slowed down after the first couple months, and I imagine other artists also had this experience.  Which means they, and I, returned to what was the status quo after the pandemic hit, but prior to the flurry of donations.

In our apartment, we stopped paying the rent to our usurious corporate investor slumlord, The Randall Group, last April, because there is a suspension on evictions here, and out of solidarity with all those folks, such as the 98% of artists, by my estimation, who are currently unable to make ends meet unless they’ve got an inheritance, or a different job that didn’t disappear when the pandemic hit. We take our rent money and put it into a savings account every month, on the assumption that we may eventually have to pay all or part of it, in order to avoid getting evicted.

People regularly tell me I’m very productive, with all the interviews I’m doing and songs and other things I’m writing during these past five months, since I canceled the tours I had planned in nine different countries. If that’s true, it’s only because I’m part of a tiny little privileged group of artists who is both willing to beg, and good enough at doing it online after years of trying, to eke out a living at it.

I’m hesitant to even admit to this accomplishment, lest it vanish. Perhaps somehow once the stock market finally crashes, my number of patrons will, too? But for the moment, despite the precariousness of my profession for so many others – a profession so precarious that few people readily even conceptualize it as such – I sit here with my little, now unschooled family in this apartment, and I feel like I’m standing on a nice green hill, watching the valley below burning. Which a valley is literally doing, not far to the east of here, just to illustrate the point.

Tear Gas Ted has a Tantrum

If the Portland Police decide they need to start killing protesters, the mayor has just justified it in advance.

The liberal landed gentry dripping with multi-generational wealth and entitlement, as represented by Tear Gas Ted Wheeler, has made a pronouncement: the good folks trying to burn down the police station there in outer east Portland the other night were guilty of “attempted murder,” as twenty defenseless, though heavily-armed, police officers inside cowered and shivered and called their mothers to say their last words before meeting their terrible fates. I made the last part up, but he did say the attempted murder part, and there were twenty heavily-armed cops inside the building at the time of this latest attempt to take the building. He also referred to the police inside the building as “trapped,” although they could easily have rolled up their garage door and exited, guns blazing, at any moment. Maybe their riot gear would have gotten a little burnt, but they would have made it out OK from the looks of it. Unlike Tear Gas Ted, last month was not the first time in my life I’ve ever been to a protest that got messy, so I have some familiarity with these things.

I’ve long been a very cowardly anarchist, preferring to play music at protests and write articles about them, rather than throwing projectiles and setting fires. I have too many friends who have been killed, badly wounded, or sentenced to years or decades in prison because of carrying out actions like these, to want to participate in them myself. I make no illusions about it – I stay back from those situations because I don’t want to face the consequences myself.

But, having said that, some of the folks in Portland throwing those projectiles and setting those fires listen to my music and follow me on Twitter, and they already know how much I appreciate their efforts and admire them in general. As the shrill noises coming from foolish people like our mayor grow louder here and across the country, distinguishing between so-called “violent” and so-called “nonviolent” protesters, with the latest line of alleged reasoning being that any white people participating in efforts to destroy or take over a police station must be provocateurs, and if they’re not provocateurs then they must be trying to usurp center stage away from a Black-led movement, let me be one more voice to point out the following, whether or not the media takes notice: none of this discourse is new, and no one needs anyone’s permission to burn down a police station.

A little recapitulation of recent and less recent history seems very much in order here, for context. Much has been said in alternative and corporate media in recent months about the racist history of policing in the United States, about the history of slave patrols, and about white mobs who committed massive and terrible massacres, killing hundreds of Black people and burning down thousands of buildings in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and so many other similar horrors. Much has been said about many other such atrocities committed by racist white mobs, as well as the even more tremendous atrocity of institutional racism, in all the many forms this has taken since and before the Civil War. It would be impossible to overstate how important it is that these things are being talked about, particularly if all this talk might actually lead to fundamental changes.

But the history of policing in the United States is not just about racism. This fact is being innocently ignored by people who don’t know much about history, or have just learned about slavery, but have never heard of the labor movement – or it’s being deliberately obfuscated by people who do know about history, and are intentionally using that knowledge to do exactly what the social construct of race was designed to do in the first place: to divide us from one another, and to set up a caste system through which we can then see ourselves as superior or inferior to other members of our society, to pit us against each other through impossibly unfair contests, with one side forced through unspeakable, daily brutality to work for free, with everyone else forced to compete with them or starve trying.

The standing armies of police forces in Boston, Lowell, Lawrence, New York, Paterson, Chicago, Milwaukee, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and so many other cities across the United States were not primarily there to police the Black population specifically. They were there primarily to serve the interests of landlords and industrialists – to serve the capitalist class. To keep the enfranchised enfranchised, and to keep the disenfranchised disenfranchised. This process involved committing acts of violence against a vast array of members of the working class on a daily basis, for centuries. Certain types of people have always been especially targeted for beatings, torture, exile, death, trumped-up criminal charges, trials with kangaroo courts, and filling the ranks of these people have been anyone who has dared to speak up for the interests of the suffering working class of this country, of this state, and of this city.

Oregon was founded as a white homeland, with exclusion laws both on the books and actively enforced. The state did not have a significant Black population until the labor shortage during World War 2. But Oregon most definitely was a class society, with the Timber Barons and real estate speculators on one end, and those hapless people living short and brutal lives in the timber camps or working in the mills on the toxic Willamette River on the other. And were there police? You bet. What were they doing? They were attacking anyone trying to organize any kind of serious resistance against the savagely unequal and exploitative status quo.

The police beat people with truncheons in Portland for speaking on the sidewalk. They savagely assaulted people for marching on the streets. They did their best, on a city level and ultimately, with the formation of the national police force known as the FBI in the early twentieth century, on a national level, to destroy the radical labor movement. This was their first and primary enemy. They lynched union organizers, hanging them under bridges. They fired into crowds of protesters, killing many, in repeated cases across the country. The paramilitary, anti-union and virulently racist American Legion burned down union halls in Portland and across this country.

And did everyone among the working class in Portland and other cities in the US take all this lying down? No, some did not. They fought back. The Industrial Workers of the World organized campaigns of resistance. Not just organizing workplaces, publishing newspapers and carrying out free speech campaigns, but they organized riot squads. These brave fighters for this proudly, self-consciously intersectional union movement physically attacked boat loads of scab workers on the Willamette, and drove them out of the city. They physically attacked the railroad bulls who had been constantly beating and intimidating organizers who traveled by hopping freight trains, in order to get the bulls to back off.

A lot has changed over the intervening century since those times, of course. The country now is more unequal than it has been since that period, but the labor movement is anemic, and doesn’t have any riot squads anymore. After destroying the radical labor movement with a concerted campaign of terror, arson, mass arrests and deportations a hundred years ago, the FBI moved on to destroy other radical social movements, and they’re still at it today. They love it when members of current social movements or remnants of past social movements, in some cases, argue with each other, and the argument over violence vs. nonviolence, and which forms of oppression social movements should focus on most, and how to have a truly ecumenical social movement, how to make real change – all this is very important, and none of it is new.

In the past few months an uprising began, in Trump’s extremely failed state, in the midst of an out-of-control pandemic, sparked by a classically horrible, racist police murder in Minneapolis.

There have been other horrible, racist police murders captured on film in recent years. ICE has been kidnapping children and never returning them to their parents. A year ago there was a racist massacre committed by a white supremacist in El Paso, with 23 dead. There are, unfortunately, any number of horrendous events that could have set off this uprising, including several other vicious, racist police murders that were committed in the days preceding George Floyd’s murder. It may be that the murder was particularly spectacular in its brutality, but leaving Michael Brown, Jr’s body in the hot sun for hours after he was killed in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 is offensively gruesome to a possibly similar extent, and then there are those cages they’re putting the children into in Texas.

As supremely horrible as the constant killing of Black people by police is, this reality was not the only relevant context in which to put the uprising that began at the end of May. It also began with mass unemployment and mass uncertainty about the future, where 1 in 4 children in the country are going to bed hungry, with tens of millions of people dependent on unemployment checks that often never arrive or have just been cut off, with tens of millions of renters facing the specter of their own eviction and the evictions of many of their neighbors. The society was in multiple states of crisis before the pandemic hit – crises which, as always, have class and race intimately intertwined. If most of those people in Portland facing eviction might be white, it’s only because most of the Black population was already forced to leave the city because of the forces of gentrification represented by people like the mayor, and represented by the last mayor of Portland, not to mention the governor, and the liberal gentrifier-in-chief in the White House prior to the billionaire, during whose tenure our rents in Portland doubled.

The Portland police are, statistically, with the statistics sliced in many ways, one of the most racist, murderous police forces in the United States. But it is also the police force that is presiding over the rapid gentrification of the city, that sweeps the encampments of the evicted, the armed representatives of the corporations and banks increasingly taking over the city, who are always protecting the opposing side in any demonstration anyone has ever been to. They are a violent gang bent on repression in the name of plutocracy. And many people know this – it’s kind of obvious.

So when people accused of being “outside agitators,” but who were somehow simultaneously present in every city in the country at the same time, spent several days smashing up downtown Portland, they were not committing acts of violence. They were destroying corporate property, and property of the forces of state violence. Property of the very corporations, and their armed defenders, who are actively causing such misery, imprisoning us on ridiculous charges, killing us, or “just” making us move back in with our parents or go get a second or a third job, and ruining any hopes that so many of us in this society might have once had for a decent future.

Oh, but you say there was an independent store damaged, too? Advice to the capitalists: if you want people to know you’re an independent business, don’t buy a fancy building in the most expensive part of downtown and call it One World Trade Center. People might mistake you for an evil capitalist, who knows why. In any case, this destruction of corporate property and police stations is what got people’s attention in the first place, along with taking over highways and bridges – not the people standing in parks with signs, making speeches.

And now, with the voices of the wealthy, liberal elite and some of their allies denouncing what they call “violence” and “attempted murder” on the part of the young people intent on liberating this city of its occupying army that they call the Portland Police Bureau: while I don’t speak for the folks who were at the police station in question the other night, the murderers are your police force. This is well documented. The attempted murderers include the yahoo who drove a truck into protesters just, what, two nights ago? The attempted murders are every eviction your thugs carry out and every tent encampment they destroy in the interests of your real estate speculator friends. Any system that does those things is a violent, brutal, murderous system that is desperately crying out to be destroyed. If you don’t want your police stations to be burned down, one thing you can do is heed the will of so many of your constituents and abandon them. Hand in your badges and your guns to the Youth Liberation Front or Black Lives Matter, whichever you want. I’m sure no one will need your help figuring out what to do with the building, either — whether it becomes a squat, a garden, or just an artistic pile of burnt-out rubble – which would, in any case, like the broken windows, plywood and spray paint adorning most of downtown, be very good for the property values around here, which are way, way, way too high.

What’s Going on in Portland?

My best effort to describe the current precipice we’re on in 2,000 words.

I have been a resident of Portland, Oregon since 2007. So I have been hearing from more people than usual lately, all asking the same question: what’s going on in Portland?

Portland Federal Court House Protest

I find myself struggling to give any kind of an answer to this question. As with any substantive answer to a question, so much depends on how broad an effort we want to make in putting it into a sensible context, in terms of both time and space. So I thought I’d make a little stab at that, for what it’s worth. But to answer the two really simple questions that are, I think, what most people are looking for: is Portland under martial law? I’d say more like a little test run at this point. And is there are a revolution going on there? No, at least not yet, but time speeds up at such historical junctures, so you never know what’s around the corner.

The US is more stratified economically than ever since the Age of the Robber Barons, and that’s well before the pandemic. We have 4% of the world’s population but something like a quarter of the world’s prisoners, most of them people of color, even though the country overall has a white majority. We’re experiencing an out-of-control pandemic with health care systems collapsing under the strain from New York to Louisiana, which is also overwhelmingly impacting people of color. As this is all happening, a veto-proof super-majority made up of both ruling parties has just passed an even bigger military budget than the record military budget of last year, nearly as big as the rest of the world’s military budgets put together. They could agree on that, but whether they can agree on a strategy to prevent the 28 million evictions all the business press is predicting will be coming in the next two or three months is an open question. And most of the country’s cities are too busy spending close to half of a typical budget on their police force, while increasing numbers of their populations move into their cars and tents.

Putting Portland into some relevant, pre-pandemic context: it’s the biggest city in a state with a long history of institutional racism, that was founded as a white homeland. It didn’t develop much of a Black community until the labor shortage during World War 2, around the time so many of the cheap, wooden, now extremely over-priced apartment complexes around town were built. The city of Portland has lost most of its Black population since 2000, according to census data. A recent headline announced that the average Black family in the US could not afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment in the city of Portland at the market rate, like the one I write from now. Portland is the most rent-burdened city in the US and has a deeply, institutionally racist police department, that has actual bona fide Nazis in it, and this police department has in some years held the national record for killing the most Black people per capita of all police departments in the country. Lining every major road you will find hundreds of people living in tents, their misery in plain view to passersby. Somewhat less visible are the many car-dwellers also lining every major road in the city.

Portland, like Minneapolis, being a majority-white metropolis with a long history of white supremacist organizing, also has a strong history of antifascist resistance as well, which has frequently taken the form of physical confrontations on the streets, in which the police generally act in support of the white supremacists, while attempting to maintain a fig leaf of neutrality to satisfy the press and the liberals.

Despite the dire situation in terms of basic human rights in the United States, with the food banks busier than ever, tens of millions unemployed, the press talking about 1 in 4 children suffering food insecurity, decreasing lifespans, etc., you won’t generally find widespread opposition to this situation expressed in the streets of cities across the country. Lots of people killing themselves and killing each other, and getting involved with political campaigns, but when it comes to large-scale street protest or campaigns of civil disobedience in the US over the past several decades, they have been focused mainly on things other than what we might call “bread and butter” issues. In the most rent-burdened city in the country, you will rarely find a tenants rights protest with more than a few dozen people at it. The ethnic cleansing of the city – losing more than half of the city’s Black population – elicits barely a peep in terms of protests at City Hall or in the state capital. Equality of condition, otherwise known as human rights, is of no consequence, it seems. But, true to the ideals we grow up with in the textbooks, clear-cut examples that someone has been discriminated against in the process of attempting to pursue their basic human rights may give rise to fairly large-scale civil disobedience — for example, when someone is killed just for being Black and on their way home from work, or bombed just for being Iraqi while hiding in a bomb shelter, or killed just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, like for going to a suburban high school or elementary school when a mass murderer decides to pay a visit. Blatant racial discrimination, blatant imperialism of the sort that involves the military, or other forms of “senseless killing,” gets response.

People or entire countries that are perceived to have been given a “fair chance” but who failed to make a go of it elicit less sympathy. If you’ve been priced out of San Francisco and you had to move to Portland, that’s just how things work. If you were involved with the drug trade or burglarizing a suburban home when you were killed, you shouldn’t have gotten involved with crime in the first place. If you were actively resisting the occupying army rather than hiding in a bomb shelter, you’ll find much less solidarity from the progressives of the west.

Some exceptions to the theme in recent decades in terms of large-scale civil disobedience have included the uprising in Indian country in 2016, the Black Lives Matter movement, Occupy Wall Street, and the global justice movement (known by some as the anti-globalization movement) of the late 1990’s – though the main emphasis of that movement was about global trade being fair for everyone, especially in the Global South, with the quality of life of the struggling working class in the north often seeming like an afterthought.

In my more hopeful moments, I think that what sometimes appears to be getting off the ground now is a movement that is – under the pressure of all the fissures exposed by the pandemic and the government’s inadequate response to it, both in terms of the public health emergency and the economic crisis it presents — really trying to come face to face with the basic inability of our long-standing capitalist system to ever be the framework within which we might solve any of these basic problems – police brutality, institutional racism, war, society-wide health care, or pretty much anything else good. The “bad apples” theory of reality is officially out the window, the structural problems too big to wrap up in a flag. This was particularly true in first several weeks following the murder of George Floyd, and then once again, at least here in Portland, since Oregon Public Broadcasting officially broke the story that it’s not just local cops tear-gassing everyone, but also federal agents, and they’re randomly abducting people from the sidewalks in the middle of the night as well.

When I look around me over the past two months, especially on a good day, what I see is all the energy and all the numbers that we ever had on the streets under the banners of Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, protests against ICE’s child abductions, and the youth climate and anti-massacre movements of recent years, put together. And probably most of the people who actually participated in those movements, from the looks of the crowds, with a particular emphasis on Black Lives Matter. And lots of these people, along with much of the press and many mainstream politicians, are openly questioning the bad apple theory, and looking at racism the way Black Lives Matter does, as a deeply institutional, fundamental, foundational question in the US. This then leads sensible people to ask the same questions others have been asking for so long – if Black lives matter, then what about affordable housing, given that the lack of it affects Black people so disproportionately. If Black lives matter, then what about the minimum wage, which so many Black workers are perpetually stuck at. What about state funding of education for state schools, rather than funding them with local taxes, thus ensuring apartheid in education? So many questions are being asked more loudly than they have been in a very long time.

Of course, as all of this is happening, so is Trump and his march to fascism, with all his popular support and all the specially-appointed, acting heads of his departments, accountable to no one but him, such as the the Homeland Security guy in charge of the surge of federal agents across the country occurring now. And as impressive as it is to see many thousands of Portlanders pouring out into the streets day after day lately, when I think of the sorts of mass movements that have managed to topple dictators, even relatively unpopular dictators, they have involved sustained crowds of hundreds of thousands or millions of people in the streets, not for a day or a few days, but for months. And even then, victory is far from guaranteed. But these were the kinds of crowds that led to Ben Ali fleeing Tunisia and Mubarak fleeing Egypt. This is the kind of crowd that saw the overturning of the coup attempt in Venezuela in 2002.

This sort of movement may be right around the corner, I’m not making any predictions. The last time this country has seen any kind of sustained movement on that kind of scale, with that kind of militancy, was in the 1930’s. We’ll know it’s here when there are so many people marching in Portland that we shut down all the bridges and all the highways at the same time, not just one or two – and we do that day after day, and the same thing is happening in all the other major cities across the country. When the police are quitting their jobs, some of them are joining us, and their departments are being disbanded anyway. When armies of citizens are taking control of the fancy hotels, filling them with people in need of housing, and staffing them with people who can provide for their needs and help them recover from the trauma of the lives they had to live under capitalism.

What a more likely future could involve is the outpouring of opposition to the presence of federal agents that is coming from more liberal quarters waters down the more radical voices that had been coming to the fore, and this whole thing somehow gets turned into another tool for use by both the Democratic and Republican party elites. As righteous and altogether good is the idea of kicking the police out of the police stations and taking them over, as was done for a time in Minneapolis and Seattle, the ongoing street battles night after night to that aim in the center of Portland are causing massive, long-lasting trauma to a whole lot of people, and can easily play into Trump’s fascist takeover agenda, amplified by Fox and Friends. On the other hand, actually having the kind of movement that might cause the emptying out of the police stations to occur could also put a big damper on the fascist takeover plans, as well, if it were to succeed and spread.

It’s a precipice, the stakes are very high, and as exhilarating as the current moment is, I’m not feeling especially optimistic. But you don’t win if you don’t try.

What’s Going on in Portland?

My best effort to describe the current precipice we’re on in 2,000 words.

I have been a resident of Portland, Oregon since 2007. So I have been hearing from more people than usual lately, all asking the same question: what’s going on in Portland?

Portland Federal Court House Protest

I find myself struggling to give any kind of an answer to this question. As with any substantive answer to a question, so much depends on how broad an effort we want to make in putting it into a sensible context, in terms of both time and space. So I thought I’d make a little stab at that, for what it’s worth. But to answer the two really simple questions that are, I think, what most people are looking for: is Portland under martial law? I’d say more like a little test run at this point. And is there are a revolution going on there? No, at least not yet, but time speeds up at such historical junctures, so you never know what’s around the corner.

The US is more stratified economically than ever since the Age of the Robber Barons, and that’s well before the pandemic. We have 4% of the world’s population but something like a quarter of the world’s prisoners, most of them people of color, even though the country overall has a white majority. We’re experiencing an out-of-control pandemic with health care systems collapsing under the strain from New York to Louisiana, which is also overwhelmingly impacting people of color. As this is all happening, a veto-proof super-majority made up of both ruling parties has just passed an even bigger military budget than the record military budget of last year, nearly as big as the rest of the world’s military budgets put together. They could agree on that, but whether they can agree on a strategy to prevent the 28 million evictions all the business press is predicting will be coming in the next two or three months is an open question. And most of the country’s cities are too busy spending close to half of a typical budget on their police force, while increasing numbers of their populations move into their cars and tents.

Putting Portland into some relevant, pre-pandemic context: it’s the biggest city in a state with a long history of institutional racism, that was founded as a white homeland. It didn’t develop much of a Black community until the labor shortage during World War 2, around the time so many of the cheap, wooden, now extremely over-priced apartment complexes around town were built. The city of Portland has lost most of its Black population since 2000, according to census data. A recent headline announced that the average Black family in the US could not afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment in the city of Portland at the market rate, like the one I write from now. Portland is the most rent-burdened city in the US and has a deeply, institutionally racist police department, that has actual bona fide Nazis in it, and this police department has in some years held the national record for killing the most Black people per capita of all police departments in the country. Lining every major road you will find hundreds of people living in tents, their misery in plain view to passersby. Somewhat less visible are the many car-dwellers also lining every major road in the city.

Portland, like Minneapolis, being a majority-white metropolis with a long history of white supremacist organizing, also has a strong history of antifascist resistance as well, which has frequently taken the form of physical confrontations on the streets, in which the police generally act in support of the white supremacists, while attempting to maintain a fig leaf of neutrality to satisfy the press and the liberals.

Despite the dire situation in terms of basic human rights in the United States, with the food banks busier than ever, tens of millions unemployed, the press talking about 1 in 4 children suffering food insecurity, decreasing lifespans, etc., you won’t generally find widespread opposition to this situation expressed in the streets of cities across the country. Lots of people killing themselves and killing each other, and getting involved with political campaigns, but when it comes to large-scale street protest or campaigns of civil disobedience in the US over the past several decades, they have been focused mainly on things other than what we might call “bread and butter” issues. In the most rent-burdened city in the country, you will rarely find a tenants rights protest with more than a few dozen people at it. The ethnic cleansing of the city – losing more than half of the city’s Black population – elicits barely a peep in terms of protests at City Hall or in the state capital. Equality of condition, otherwise known as human rights, is of no consequence, it seems. But, true to the ideals we grow up with in the textbooks, clear-cut examples that someone has been discriminated against in the process of attempting to pursue their basic human rights may give rise to fairly large-scale civil disobedience — for example, when someone is killed just for being Black and on their way home from work, or bombed just for being Iraqi while hiding in a bomb shelter, or killed just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, like for going to a suburban high school or elementary school when a mass murderer decides to pay a visit. Blatant racial discrimination, blatant imperialism of the sort that involves the military, or other forms of “senseless killing,” gets response.

People or entire countries that are perceived to have been given a “fair chance” but who failed to make a go of it elicit less sympathy. If you’ve been priced out of San Francisco and you had to move to Portland, that’s just how things work. If you were involved with the drug trade or burglarizing a suburban home when you were killed, you shouldn’t have gotten involved with crime in the first place. If you were actively resisting the occupying army rather than hiding in a bomb shelter, you’ll find much less solidarity from the progressives of the west.

Some exceptions to the theme in recent decades in terms of large-scale civil disobedience have included the uprising in Indian country in 2016, the Black Lives Matter movement, Occupy Wall Street, and the global justice movement (known by some as the anti-globalization movement) of the late 1990’s – though the main emphasis of that movement was about global trade being fair for everyone, especially in the Global South, with the quality of life of the struggling working class in the north often seeming like an afterthought.

In my more hopeful moments, I think that what sometimes appears to be getting off the ground now is a movement that is – under the pressure of all the fissures exposed by the pandemic and the government’s inadequate response to it, both in terms of the public health emergency and the economic crisis it presents — really trying to come face to face with the basic inability of our long-standing capitalist system to ever be the framework within which we might solve any of these basic problems – police brutality, institutional racism, war, society-wide health care, or pretty much anything else good. The “bad apples” theory of reality is officially out the window, the structural problems too big to wrap up in a flag. This was particularly true in first several weeks following the murder of George Floyd, and then once again, at least here in Portland, since Oregon Public Broadcasting officially broke the story that it’s not just local cops tear-gassing everyone, but also federal agents, and they’re randomly abducting people from the sidewalks in the middle of the night as well.

When I look around me over the past two months, especially on a good day, what I see is all the energy and all the numbers that we ever had on the streets under the banners of Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, protests against ICE’s child abductions, and the youth climate and anti-massacre movements of recent years, put together. And probably most of the people who actually participated in those movements, from the looks of the crowds, with a particular emphasis on Black Lives Matter. And lots of these people, along with much of the press and many mainstream politicians, are openly questioning the bad apple theory, and looking at racism the way Black Lives Matter does, as a deeply institutional, fundamental, foundational question in the US. This then leads sensible people to ask the same questions others have been asking for so long – if Black lives matter, then what about affordable housing, given that the lack of it affects Black people so disproportionately. If Black lives matter, then what about the minimum wage, which so many Black workers are perpetually stuck at. What about state funding of education for state schools, rather than funding them with local taxes, thus ensuring apartheid in education? So many questions are being asked more loudly than they have been in a very long time.

Of course, as all of this is happening, so is Trump and his march to fascism, with all his popular support and all the specially-appointed, acting heads of his departments, accountable to no one but him, such as the the Homeland Security guy in charge of the surge of federal agents across the country occurring now. And as impressive as it is to see many thousands of Portlanders pouring out into the streets day after day lately, when I think of the sorts of mass movements that have managed to topple dictators, even relatively unpopular dictators, they have involved sustained crowds of hundreds of thousands or millions of people in the streets, not for a day or a few days, but for months. And even then, victory is far from guaranteed. But these were the kinds of crowds that led to Ben Ali fleeing Tunisia and Mubarak fleeing Egypt. This is the kind of crowd that saw the overturning of the coup attempt in Venezuela in 2002.

This sort of movement may be right around the corner, I’m not making any predictions. The last time this country has seen any kind of sustained movement on that kind of scale, with that kind of militancy, was in the 1930’s. We’ll know it’s here when there are so many people marching in Portland that we shut down all the bridges and all the highways at the same time, not just one or two – and we do that day after day, and the same thing is happening in all the other major cities across the country. When the police are quitting their jobs, some of them are joining us, and their departments are being disbanded anyway. When armies of citizens are taking control of the fancy hotels, filling them with people in need of housing, and staffing them with people who can provide for their needs and help them recover from the trauma of the lives they had to live under capitalism.

What a more likely future could involve is the outpouring of opposition to the presence of federal agents that is coming from more liberal quarters waters down the more radical voices that had been coming to the fore, and this whole thing somehow gets turned into another tool for use by both the Democratic and Republican party elites. As righteous and altogether good is the idea of kicking the police out of the police stations and taking them over, as was done for a time in Minneapolis and Seattle, the ongoing street battles night after night to that aim in the center of Portland are causing massive, long-lasting trauma to a whole lot of people, and can easily play into Trump’s fascist takeover agenda, amplified by Fox and Friends. On the other hand, actually having the kind of movement that might cause the emptying out of the police stations to occur could also put a big damper on the fascist takeover plans, as well, if it were to succeed and spread.

It’s a precipice, the stakes are very high, and as exhilarating as the current moment is, I’m not feeling especially optimistic. But you don’t win if you don’t try.

Open Letter To My Landlord #5

Our landlord doesn’t read my letters, as far as we know, but it feels like it’s only fair to write a letter each month, if we’re not going to be paying the rent.

Well, hello again. This is the fifth full month in the pandemic, and the fifth month of the suspension on evictions here in Oregon, the fifth month that we’re not paying our rent, and the fifth month that I’m writing you a letter, instead of giving you another check.

I say I’m writing “you,” and “you” is a convenient word in the English language, since it can be either singular or plural. I might be writing to an individual, or to a corporate board, or even to thousands of investors, and I can still address this entity as “you.”

As it is, I have no idea who you are. Which seems odd, doesn’t it? Maybe even odder is the fact that I’m addressing you as if you might be reading this letter. What we both know is that you’re not. If anyone is reading this letter, other than people who read my blog, it is some employee in the property management company that does all your dirty work for you, so you can sleep at night. You know, like raising the rent on a family like mine almost 250% over the course of a decade. You wouldn’t want to do that to anyone you actually knew, so it’s best to remain totally anonymous, right?

Anyway, putting aside the question of the profoundly unethical behavior you have exhibited towards your tenants through such rent-gouging practices over the past decade or so, let’s center our attention on the current historical moment, shall we? You’re not reading this, so I’ll just take that as an enthusiastic “yes, let’s.”

Before the pandemic hit, Portland, Oregon was the most rent-burdened city in the United States. You were already actively creating this situation through the political lobbying groups you fund, who long ago bought our legislature, and by so many other means. You were already actively cleansing the city of its Black population, and of its artists, service sector workers, and everyone else who can no longer afford to live in this increasingly expensive metropolis. We were all leaving the city, month by month, over the course of many years now, as you know, if you’re paying any attention at all.

But now, with the sudden loss of jobs for so many of us, with those of us who managed to get past the busy signals and actually get any money from the state now having those benefits cut off (I’ve personally never managed to get any in the first place), with the pandemic spreading across the country in a form that the scientists are calling “out of control,” as we’re looking at an estimated 28 millions evictions in the US between now and the end of September, according to the business press, I wonder what your game plan is?

Because so far as I can tell, your game plan is to just keep going like you’ve been doing since I moved in to this apartment in April, 2007. Oh and as you probably don’t know, I paid the rent on time every month from then until March, 2020. You kept raising the rent every year, sending a letter through your property management company, thanking us for our tenancy and letting us know, incredibly, that the rent is going up and if we don’t like it we can move out whenever we like (I’m paraphrasing), and never once giving us even the beginnings of an explanation for why the rent has had to double and more over such a short period of time. And then, weeks into the pandemic, on March 25th, you announced yet another rent increase.

OK, so maybe it takes more than a few weeks for a big, important landlord like you to realize something is happening in the world and half of your tenants have just become unemployed, so we can’t expect you to move your big corporate ship so nimbly. But now it’s been almost half a year, and still not a single word from you. Not even anything like, “hey, I exist, I’m your landlord, I feel your pain, and hey, you don’t have to pay rent for the month of April.” A lot of other landlords, big and small, wrote their tenants notes like that, across the country – but not you.

But the obvious reality is, at least if you read the business press, as I’ll bet you do (whether “you” is singular or plural, in this case), things are not going to be going back to any kind of pre-pandemic “normal” anytime soon. And “normal” was untenable in the first place, as the business press was telling us last year, too. I mean, there are only so many tech millionaires from San Francisco and New York City you can hope to replace the rest of us with, as you systematically drive us out of this city. You’ll eventually run out of them, and then what? And what about your tenants like me, who were already long ago priced out of New York City, San Francisco, Boston and Seattle, too? Do you think we’ll all just leave quietly, again? Where should we move next, any suggestions? Where’s the next town you plan to re-shape in the image of Silicon Valley?

No, the old normal wasn’t working, and the new normal is Great Depression Chapter 2. I’m sure you know this, because, like I mentioned before, it’s not just your struggling artist tenants who read the business press – you do, too. You make big investments in real estate, not because you are interested in housing people, but because it’s an extremely profitable thing to invest in. Now, maybe less so. So then the question is, are you going to make the kinds of adjustments in your profit-uber-alles business model in time to save your precious capitalist system? Or are you going to just zombie on, making as much money as possible, until the riots get bigger? And then, you got insurance, so who cares if the riots get bigger, right? But eventually society becomes ungovernable if you let it go like that. That’s why the governor, despite the fact that she rules on your behalf, for the most part, saw fit to suspend evictions for the time being. As a representative of your class, she’s scared of your renters, even if you’re too busy looking at your stock portfolio to pay attention to the real world, struggling to breathe, under the pressure of your unfettered capitalist knee.

If you have children that you care about, if you are indeed human, or even if you as a collective board of corporate investors are, somewhere in the equation, human, and have children, or maybe just nieces and nephews that you care about, maybe you want to consider the future? What kind of world, and what kind of assets, will they be inheriting from you? Will they require armed guards when they walk down the sidewalks of this city? Will they have to put a tall gate around their homes to keep out the impoverished masses like the rich have to do in Mexico or Kenya? Will there be any money left in the public coffers to increase the police budget enough to defend your assets from the people who use your assets, otherwise known as us renters, living in what we sometimes, foolishly, in our more deluded moments, refer to as “our homes”? Is it maybe not time to shift direction here, to realize your business model and the economic system you and your corporate lobbyists have brought into existence is totally unsustainable?

Out of the goodness of my heart, and because me and my children would really prefer not to take you up on your invitation to spend the rest of our lives fighting the class war with the likes of you and your heirs, I’ll give you some advice: stop.

Write your renters a letter, tell us who you are. Explain to us what your expenses are, lay it out, and be completely transparent. Did you apply for any of those trillions of dollars of forgivable loans that the government has just issued to corporations just like yours? Tell us about that. Then charge us rent that is equal to your expenses, plus a little extra. Let that formula determine “the market rate,” rather than your current formulation of the market rate as “whatever the market will bear.” Behind that door lies the end of society. Behind that door lies fascism, for no democracy can survive such ponzi scheme, kleptocratic corruption and still have a population that believes it’s ruling on behalf of the citizens, rather than just the citizen-capitalists like you and your heirs. Is that the future you want?

Well, I just thought I’d give a little communication another shot. My mother always said it was good to talk it out, but it’s hard when the communication is only one-way. Is this how you conduct your other relationships? Anyway, I’d say this letter is easily worth $1,175 for a two-bedroom for the month of August. I’ll write an even more eloquent letter for September, I promise. It’ll be worth even more. Not that you’ll read it, either, whoever you are.

Sincerely,
David Rovics
Francis Park Apartments
Portland, Oregon

Stop the Evictions Before They Start

The system based on a combination of police brutality, mass imprisonment, and evictions at gunpoint may be collapsing, but if it’s going to fall in the direction we want it to fall in, we need to push it that way.  And if we want to make that happen, we have to organize to stop the impending wave of evictions before it starts.

*****

This society is at a crossroads in so many ways.  In recent weeks, a multiracial uprising in the streets of the US and other countries is demanding not more ineffective police reforms, but a total transformation of the concept of policing.  The ideas are not new, but the degree to which the notion of defunding the police has suddenly become commonplace is new.

The powers-that-be and the corporate media are very actively trying to frame the questions as narrowly as possible, at every opportunity, sticking as much as they can to rehashing useless reforms and talking about bad apples, better bias training, and so on.  They will avoid the elephant in the living room as much as possible, and do everything they can to make sure there’s a sufficiently complex set of mirrors surrounding the elephant so that we don’t see it.

The reason they must avoid the elephant at all costs is because the horrifically unequal and unsustainable system of capitalism, this corrupt plutocracy that we live in, can only be held together through constant deception, and the threat of armed force and imprisonment.  Deception whenever possible, armed force and imprisonment whenever necessary.  When and to what degree the different strategies of control are employed depends on various factors, such as race and class.

Portland, Oregon, my home town for the past thirteen years, is the most rent-burdened city in the United States.  This was the case well before the pandemic.  Depending on the year, Portland also has the highest number of police killings of Black people in the US, per capita.  If these statistics might be related, I have no studies to cite, but there they are, anyway, these facts that stand starkly side by side.

Here’s another statistic:  in the United States we have a census every ten years.  A lot happens from one year to the next, let alone every ten years, but nevertheless, what is known for sure is that between the census in 2000 and the census in 2010, the city of Portland lost half of its Black population.  Since 2010 it has lost more.

There is no statistic to neatly measure the gains or losses for many other demographics, but this number can easily be assumed to be more or less representative in terms of the many artists and other lower-paid workers who have been forced to leave the city.  The process of gentrification — the process of investment companies buying up massive numbers of buildings throughout the US (and other countries) and then proceeding to maximize their profits by charging as much rent as the market will bear, while they create the market through price-fixing and buying most of the legislators in every state capital — is extremely disruptive, in every possible sense.  What this does to communities and to the lives of people within them cannot be overstated.  It can be called many things, but it is most certainly a vicious form of class war, and it is most certainly a form of urban ethnic cleansing.

This level of social disruption, this ethnic cleansing, this class war relies on many things in order to keep happening.  It relies on the consent of the governed to no small degree — it relies on most people believing they deserve their miserable fates, that it is their fault they can’t afford the rent or the mortgage, that if they just worked harder or got more education, they could achieve like those billionaires have done.  That’s the deception part of the equation.

But when circumstances start to become impossible, the deception gets harder to maintain.  And everyone knows, whether they believe the deception or not, that behind it lies the threat of force — of being beaten, shot, and/or imprisoned.  So, the movement to defund the police needs to be understood as the very radical idea that it is, since it would mean not just the prospect of Black people not having to worry about being shot by uniformed, paid employees of their town or city just for existing, but also the prospect of the investment banks that own much of the rental property in those towns and cities no longer having the option of sending the men with guns in to enforce the laws that they got their legislators to pass.  No more evictions at gunpoint.

What would happen, in a rent-burdened city largely owned by investment banks, when the landlords no longer have the threat of violence to fall back onto?  And what would happen if that police force is not defunded, and if the suspension on evictions currently in place in Portland is lifted, and if the landlords can start filing for evictions all over the city?  There are many unemployed people in this city (like this author) who have been rejected by the Employment Department, or whose unemployment money will soon run out.  There are many people in this city who were just barely managing to come up with rent before the pandemic, who were spending 70% of their earnings on the landlord every month.  There are many people whose credit cards were already maxed out before the pandemic hit, and many others whose credit cards are now at their limits — and they’ve been spending their money on nothing but food and rent.

Once the ban on evictions is lifted, we can expect the waves of evictions to begin.  They won’t happen all at once, however.  People who lost significant income due to the pandemic may be able to put the process off by six months or more.  The future is unwritten, and things are changing rapidly.  Lots can happen between now and the time that the city declares the crisis is over.

But for me and others of us artists that remain in the city of Portland, affiliated in the loose-knit network called Artists for Rent Control, it is clear that the time to prepare for the evictions is now, while they are still banned.  We say they should remain banned.  Without the threat of forced eviction — that is, without the threat of the police — tenant-landlord relations in society become very, very different.  But as long as the threat exists — or will soon exist once again — we need to be able to respond to it directly.

Doing so will require the participation of a certain cross-section of people in the city of Portland who really believe that another Portland is possible.  Who believe we can stand up to the corporations who would seek to enforce their ability to make obscene profits through their investments in the human need — and human right — to housing.  Who believe we can confidently condemn the system that has produced such deadly inequities — who can ask the question of the bankers that run this country:  what gave you the right to be our landlords?  How did it happen that we taxpayers bailed you out only a decade ago, and now you’ve somehow managed to buy the buildings we live in, and double the rent?  What kind of dystopia have we woken up in?  What sector of the matrix is this, anyway?

Artists for Rent Control does not make any claims to knowing the whole way forward here, but we know one thing:  popular education, community-building, and direct action are effective and important tactics.  The popular education part is helping people to understand that another world is possible.  This is the role of art in any social movement, along with the community-building that tends to take place anytime a public event involving music or other forms of artistic expression takes place.  The direct action part that our little group is initiating is what we are calling Portland Emergency Eviction Response (PEER).

The concept is well-worn and simple, in its essence.  You enter your phone number and sign up for text notifications.  When we get confirmation that an eviction is taking place, you’ll receive a text telling you where it’s happening.  You then drop whatever you’re doing, and head immediately to the address provided.  What happens next depends on the situation, and is impossible to predict with certainty, but the fact is that it is often the case that just a few dozen people showing up to an attempted eviction will cause the cops to give up and leave.

A successful movement to lower the rents, to impose rent control, to pressure government entities to get involved by buying buildings from recalcitrant landlords in order to turn them into housing collectives, must inevitably involve many people, many tactics, many approaches, just like anything else.  But this form of direct action has generally been an important element of any successful struggle between landlords and tenants.

What we need, and what the time may be ripe for, is a return to the kinds of tactics employed by the Anti-Rent movement in New York’s Hudson Valley in the 1840’s, to take one example.  The most important of the tactics was this one:  whenever the landlord sent in the police or some other armed group to try to seize the property of tenant farmer family, or evict them from their farm, the farmers would blow a tin horn, which would reverberate through the rolling hills of the region.  Within an hour or so, hundreds of other tenant farmers would show up — generally on horseback, wearing disguises, and armed.

For nine years of what became known as the Rent Strike Wars, the tenant farmers of the Van Rennsalaer estate did not pay the rent, and did not get evicted.  Though there were many standoffs between masked rent strikers and police, for nine years, not a shot was actually fired in either direction.  For nine years, every time, the police retreated.  I’m simplifying the story a bit, but in the end, the landlord was forced to sell his estate to the tenant farmers, and many progressive laws were enacted.  Our effort here is to revive the tin horns, in the form of text messages, but otherwise our hope and our belief is that by employing similar tactics, we may get similar results.  Our belief is that whatever might be coming next in the struggle for fairness, justice and equality in this unfair, unjust and unequal society, eviction abolition will be a first step in the right direction.