Occupy Sunset Park: Tenants Stage Rent Strike

For the past two years, residents of the heavily immigrant neighborhood of Sunset Park in Brooklyn have refused to pay rent on their apartments in three buildings where the same landlord has refused to ensure safe living conditions. This

For the past two years, residents of the heavily immigrant neighborhood of Sunset Park in Brooklyn have refused to pay rent on their apartments in three buildings where the same landlord has refused to ensure safe living conditions. This summer, members of Occupy Sunset Park got word of the rent strike when they saw banners that residents hung on the outside of their buildings. They contacted the residents and have since tried to assist them as they resolve many of the concerns themselves. There is now talk of the tenants taking ownership of their buildings by forming a tenants’ association or an affordable housing corporation. Amy Goodman of DemocracyNow! is joined by Sara Lopez, a longtime resident and organizer in Sunset Park, Brooklyn; Dennis Flores, an organizer with Occupy Sunset Park; and Laura Gottesdiener, a freelance journalist who has been covering the Occupy Our Homes movement and author of the forthcoming book, "A Dream Foreclosed: The Great Eviction and the Fight to Live in America."

Full transcript follows below the fold.

AMY GOODMAN: Tonight, Democracy Now! co-host Juan González will be speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. at 6:30. And we are continuing our Silenced Majority community and college tour around the country. We came back here for this first anniversary of Occupy but then are flying to Michigan. Tuesday at noon, I’ll be speaking at the Wealthy Theatre in Grand Rapids, Michigan for a benefit for the Grand Rapids Community Media Center. Tuesday night at 6:00 p.m., I’ll be at Columbia College in Chicago, Illinois, and on Wednesday we’ll be broadcasting from Chicago. On Thursday, I’ll be in Madison, Wisconsin, speaking at the Barrymore Theatre at 7:00 p.m. for a benefit for the community radio station WORT. And on Friday at noon, I’ll be in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation; Friday night at 7:00 at Hayward, Wisconsin, a benefit for the Ojibwe station WOJB in Flat Creek Inn & Suites; on Saturday, at the Wesley United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, 6:00 p.m.; on Sunday at the Brooklyn Book Festival at 4:00 p.m. You can visit our website, tour.democracynow.org, for more information on this 100-city tour, as we travel around the country up to the election and beyond.

But we’re continuing our coverage of the Occupy Wall Street right now, one year after it began, with a look at how the movement has reverberated here in one New York City community. For the past two years, residents of the heavily immigrant neighborhood of Sunset Park in Brooklyn have refused to pay rent on their apartments in three buildings where the same landlord has refused to ensure safe living conditions.

In the first year, they had little success getting help from local politicians with their complaints about faulty electrical wiring, repeated rodent infestations and a 10-foot-high garbage pile in the basement.

This summer, members of Occupy Sunset Park got word of the rent strike when they saw banners that residents hung on the outside of their buildings. They contacted the residents, have since tried to assist them as they resolve many of the concerns themselves. Now there’s even talk of the tenants taking ownership of their buildings by forming a tenants’ associations or an affordable housing corporation.

Well, for more about this case study of how Occupy Wall Street has spread into communities and taken root, we’re joined by three guests. Sara Lopez is with us, longtime resident of Sunset Park, Brooklyn. She’s been organizing with tenants in the building where she lives to improve the living conditions there, with help from Occupy Sunset Park. Dennis Flores is with us, an organizer with Occupy Sunset Park. And Laura Gottesdiener is a freelance journalist who’s been covering the Occupy Our Homes movement both in Sunset Park and beyond, from Chicago to Minneapolis, to Chattanooga, Tennessee, author of the forthcoming book, A Dream Foreclosed: The Great Eviction and the Fight to Live in America.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! We’re going to begin with Dennis Flores. Talk about a year ago and what Occupy meant to you, and then where you took it.

DENNIS FLORES: So, back in—a couple of weeks after September 17th of last year, in Sunset Park, a small group of us got together and said, you know, this movement needs to be brought to our community. Our issues that we’ve been dealing with, whether it’s gentrification, low-income housing, police brutality, stop and frisk, we needed that to be part of this conversation of the Occupy movement. And, you know, through Trinity Lutheran Church and Pastor Samuel Cruz, you know, we said let’s open this up and open the space up and have our first general assembly, which was October 7th of last year. And just from day one, we had maybe a handful of organizers who showed up at the first GA, but there were more—like triple the police. There was—

AMY GOODMAN: And this was downtown Manhattan.

DENNIS FLORES: This is in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, in Trinity Lutheran Church, our first general assembly. And there was over like 15 cops and maybe five, six, you know, organizers who came to the first GA. And while we started—you know, our GA started opening up, we started having this discussion, cops broke into the church and started like counting how many people were there, like really afraid of what we were going to start doing there. And that kind of like spring-boarded and got a lot of people upset, got the pastor upset, and it just allowed us to really take charge.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you go from Zuccotti to Sunset Park?

DENNIS FLORES: Well, I’m born and raised in Sunset Park, and me, amongst others, felt like, you know, there are things that we’re dealing with in our neighborhood that has to be a part of this conversation of Wall Street.

AMY GOODMAN: Describe your neighborhood.

DENNIS FLORES: Sunset Park is mostly a Latino immigrant—a Latino, Chinese immigrant community, working-class people. And there’s a lot of like police abuse, stop and frisk. It’s a place where, you know, people of color are repressed, and, you know, we’re under attack. And it just needed to—this 99 percent needed to include people of color, people who are really at the forefront of this struggle.

AMY GOODMAN: Sara Lopez, what did it mean to you to have Occupy activists like Dennis come back home and work with you? What were you doing in your buildings?

SARA LOPEZ: Well, I organized tenant association, because we have this landlord, when we had no heat, no hot water, and the building is in foreclosure. And we—and you know that housing is a human right, so we’re fighting for that. We’re going to continue fighting for that, because we just have to live a better condition. When Occupy Sunset Park knocked on our building, because we knocked on so many elected people to help us, and we didn’t get the help, what we expect from them—when they knocked on our door to answer what we need, they really helped us.

AMY GOODMAN: And your buildings are in foreclosure?

SARA LOPEZ: Yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And you have garbage in the basement.

SARA LOPEZ: And we have a pile of garbage in the basement. We suffer with the electrician, garbage all over the building. We have an infestation of garbage in the building.

AMY GOODMAN: And this has been going on for years.

SARA LOPEZ: For years, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Laura Gottesdiener, can you put this in a national context?

LAURA GOTTESDIENER: Yeah. I think what we’re seeing more and more is people understanding that Wall Street is actually affecting them in their homes and in their communities. And so it’s the intersection of people who are starting to really understand the systemic analysis that Wall Street is effectively everywhere, that it’s everywhere from, you know, Sara Lopez’s building to, you know, rural farms in Minneapolis, to public housing units in Chattanooga, Tennessee. And people are saying, "We understand that this is connected. And so, we actually really need to, number one, you know, go into these communities and organize." And, number two, the people who are living in those communities are saying, "We need to take a more radical approach to solving our problems, because nothing that we’ve been doing has been helping."

So, it’s—what’s been making me really excited one year going into, you know, the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street is seeing more and more people actually embrace direct action as a solution for the problems that they face. So, whether it’s saying, you know, "I’m not just going to ask my landlord to do something about this, because I recognize he’s in foreclosure and he’s a slumlord," it’s saying, "I’m not going to pay my rent, you know, and I’m going to organize a work day." You know, they had a work day at the apartment—at the buildings about two weeks ago. They cleaned up so much. And we’re now, you know, organizing a work day to clean out actually the garbage in the basement. This is something the city is not doing. This is something the landlord is not doing.

And I’m seeing that in Detroit, where I’m seeing 65-year-old grandmothers, you know, refuse to leave their home and lie down in the offices of their mortgage companies, saying, "I’m not leaving this home." I’m seeing that in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where people are saying, "We’re not leaving this public housing unit." You know, and we’re seeing that especially in Chicago and especially because of the teachers’ strike in Chicago. I think that’s one of these hotbeds of direct action. We’re seeing incredible work by the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign and other sort of homeless communities saying, "We don’t recognize the bank’s ownership of these abandoned—or these vacant houses. Bank of America can’t just slap a sign on half of the, you know, like the houses in our neighborhood and say, 'You can't go in,’" when more and more people are being displaced by this capitalist system. So they’re actually going in, rehabbing these houses that are destroying their neighborhoods and taking them over, creating not just, you know, a place to live, because housing is a human right, but also reappropriating something that shouldn’t be owned by the banks right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Sara, did you know you were part of a larger movement, as you were organizing a rent strike in your building?

SARA LOPEZ: Yes. Well, organizing a rent strike in the building, it was not easy to have to knock everybody’s door. And we went and knocked on, like I said before, other people’s door, but when Sunset Park came in, I feel more stronger, because I know I have them to push us, to help us to do a lot of things. So this Occupy, I’m glad they’re still around.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Dennis Flores, what it means to you to come back to your community, to take the tactics of Occupy and bring them back to Sunset Park?

DENNIS FLORES: It allowed us to connect with other organizers who normally we wouldn’t have been working with. So, you know, it was like now we have all these resources on the table that we were able to tap into and get support outside of our community, you know, to bring about this—make some noise there.

AMY GOODMAN: And for people who are writing obits about Occupy Wall Street and the whole Occupy movement, what do you say?

DENNIS FLORES: I say that, you know, this—what’s taking place in these local general assemblies throughout the country is really the work that has started, and it’s like the future of the Occupy movement. You know, there’s other groups like Take Back the Bronx and—who have been doing a lot of work around police brutality, and it’s people from the community that have taken up this fight. And, you know, that’s what we want to support, continue to see grow.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us, Dennis Flores and Laura Gottesdiener, Sara Lopez. Laura’s book that will soon be published is called A Dream Foreclosed: The Great Eviction and the Fight to Live in America.

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About Diane Sweet

Diane Sweet's picture
Senior Editor, Lives in a gerrymandered district in Michigan.

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