In the 1930s, there was an incredibly powerful anti-eviction movement, one branch of which was focused on the cities, another of which was focused on rural areas. There was an organization in the Midwest called the Farm Holiday Association, which organized to prevent farms from being foreclosed by banks, and that basically involved people with rifles standing there and refusing to allow the house to be taken. There was also an organization in Alabama called the Alabama Sharecroppers Union, which resisted seizures of land, animals, and tools from African-American sharecroppers and tenant farmers who had mortgaged their properties. And there is a great book about that called All God’s Dangers, which is something that people might want to read. But I want to mainly talk about the urban anti-eviction movement, which was on a scale that is difficult to imagine.
The Communist Party organized eviction resistance in the cities. Let me describe what eviction resistance involved. When the marshals came to put the furniture in the street, Communists in neighborhoods would organize people to put the furniture back and then, when the marshals came back, stand in front of the building and refuse to let the marshals take the furniture out again. The marshals could not normally stand the force, at which point the police had to come in, and would have to make a decision as to whether they wanted to enforce the eviction.
If you have 300 people against three or four police officers–well, what happened in Chicago was that one group of police officers shot and killed three black Communists involved in this movement. And then fifty thousand people marched through the city in a memorial parade–and after that it became incredibly difficult to evict anybody in Chicago.
But the biggest anti-eviction movement was right here in New York City, especially in the Bronx.
Here we have to talk a little bit about the Communist Party, which was the organization that coordinated these protests. This eviction resistance was not the first coordinated action that the Communist Party took in the face of the Depression. The first strategy were hunger marches. On March 6, 1930, there were marches in fifty cities around the country of Communists demanding worker wage raises; marches on city halls that in some cases involved thirty or forty thousand people; marches on charities like the Salvation Army. In the fall of 1930, the Communist Party, which had these Unemployed Councils, decided, “We need to something that concretely helps people.” Because the system was bankrupt, at that point, in terms of being able to provide aid. The political leadership was not willing to take those steps at that time. So the Communist Party began telling its units around the country: Put the furniture back; organize the neighborhood to defend their neighbors. And the place that this took off the most was in the Bronx.
You began to have 100, or 400, and as many as four thousand people massing to prevent the police from taking the furniture.
Then you began to have rent strikes that the Communists organized to force landlords to lower rents so that people could afford to stay in their apartments.
By 1932, these rent strikes had spread throughout the Bronx so much that landlords were terrified they would no longer be able to run private housing in a profitable manner, because they couldn’t pay their mortgages.
Now, the reason you could get four thousand people was that the Communists didn’t come out of nowhere. The Communist Party in the Bronx was a real community organization: they ran social clubs; they ran sports leagues; they were organized in unions. So the Communist was not just somebody coming from nowhere; the Communist was your neighbor, helping you. And so when the Communist said, “We’re going to all be out in the street if we don’t do something,” people listened. It got to the point where there weren’t enough police to keep moving back the furniture.
And what you created was something of a system-wide crisis. How can you run private housing profitably if you have people not only refusing to pay rent, but then–remember it cost money to bring in marshals. And if every time you bring in the marshals, the furniture gets put back, you’re kind of trapped.
So what you had in the Bronx was the landlords, the district attorney, and the police trying to create a coordinated strategy to stop this rent strike movement. They started to get ready to use injunctions. The injunctions were designed to give long jail sentences to the activists. This was all coming to a head in the fall of 1932.
The Communist Party and the other activists were now in a quandary, because they were facing massive arrests that would put people in jail for long periods of time.
But then the Roosevelt Administration came in and passed the Federal Emergency Relief Act, which gave over 2 billion dollars to the states for direct relief payments. At this point the Communists switched their strategy, from putting the furniture back to going to the relief bureaus to demand that families get relief payments.
Given that change in government policy, they were able to stop evictions by becoming a negotiating team for tenants on the verge of eviction. In any case, by 1933 evictions had substantially stopped in many cities.
When I think about what’s going on today, and what I just heard [from other panelists], the opportunity is there again, with the Occupy movements. People in the community don’t like to see their neighbors evicted. But you have to do it [this activism] as a member of the community.
Your willingness to put your bodies on the line makes a difference.
The other thing is, when you’re talking about communities of color—when [an earlier panelist was] talking about people saying, “Where were you?”—I thought of something else from when I was doing my research. Some of you may know about the Scottsboro Case, when nine young black men were accused of rape in ridiculous circumstances and sentenced to death—the Communist Party was able to bring 5,000 mostly white people marching through Harlem saying “Free the Scottsboro Boys.” And what that said to people in this community was: We are no longer alone.
Now there is a chance for an alliance between newly radicalized people, and people who have been fighting these battles for a long time.
I’m going to end by talking a little about who the Communists were, because it’s relevant to what we have today.
When the Depression began, about 70 percent of the members of the Communist Party were first-generation immigrants. Most of them were non-English speaking radicals who had been radicalized in their country of origin; also people who had been members of the IWW, the International Workers of the World; and the Socialist Party.
But when the Depression started, a whole group of American-born people in these communities, who thought they were going to go to college, who thought they were going to become lawyers and doctors and teachers, were driven back into the working class. And those people became part of the Communist Party cadre. Young, newly radicalized people from the high schools and colleges. And what you had was a movement that changed this country, that put grass roots activism of the unemployed on the agenda, and also began to build the unions.
I see us on the cusp of a similar situation.