Displacing People, Denying Rights, and Destroying Dissent: Criminalization of Human Rights Defenders on the Right to Housing

The United States is infamous for its refusal to recognize most economic and social rights.  This is particularly shocking in a time of economic deprivation, massive displacement involving up to 10,000 foreclosures each and every day, and a skyrocketing homelessness population despite the ever present wealth concentrated at the top.  Moreover, as chants of “we are the 99 percent” echo in over 1500 cities and towns in the United States, those who come from and/or have championed the interests of the bottom 20 percent continue to face massively disproportionate threats of criminal penalties.  The risk of criminal penalties may arise out of nothing more than a demand for basic and decent housing – one fundamental right – through the exercise of free expression, another fundamental right; with the latter often considered a cherished American value.   


Punitive policies have long been used in the United States to restrict communities’ access to housing.  For example, since 1995, in public housing (which is owned and managed by government), the arrest of one family member opens the door to the possibility of an entire family losing their subsidized housing – a vital homeless prevention resource in the current market and economy.  It is irrelevant under current so-called “one strike” policy whether the arrest is followed by prosecution or the charges are dropped.  It is even irrelevant when a judge or jury finds the person arrested was not guilty as charged.  A family, with or without knowledge of the arrest, may still be deprived of their home and of the peace and security that a stable home affords.  These policies do not apply to homeowners that receive often much higher government subsidies through the tax code for mortgage interest payments.


These criminalization policies are troubling enough on their own in terms of their impact on access to housing, but, moreover, localities across the United States have begun turning these weapons against vocal human rights defenders in poor communities.  Specifically, localities have been increasingly targeting housing rights activists by deploying local law enforcement to make apparent strategic and groundless arrests that, through for instance the constant threat of punitive housing policy, serve to stifle dissent directed towards the displacing forces experienced across the country.         


This trend came to our organization’s attention when a fiery activist in New Orleans, who also happened to be elderly and partially disabled, was accused of “assault” while engaging in non-violent protest against the demolition of public housing in her city.  Ms. Sharon Jasper’s own home had already been demolished, but she continued to rely on a rental subsidy she must use in an ever more expensive housing market.  Her family was displaced by Hurricane Katrina, but was unable to reunite due, not to the storm, but to government policy.  Immediately after the worst natural disaster ever experienced by the city of New Orleans, the city with the support of the federal government accelerated plans to demolish and re-develop its longstanding public housing complexes for higher income communities.  This was despite the complexes’ livability post-Katrina.


Separated from her children, missing her community, and longing for her old home, Ms. Jasper nonetheless continued to fight for the rights of the rest of her community as she had done all her life.  The video evidence from the protest shows the range of participants – several of them middle class allies from outside the community – all engaging in the same peaceful sit-in.  Yet, the only one arrested and threatened with the loss of her housing subsidy, which without doubt meant abject homelessness for her, was Ms. Jasper, the most outspoken public housing activist the city had ever known. 


When we decided that Ms. Jasper’s case was sufficiently outrageous to develop an urgent appeal to the United Nations Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders and shared that effort with our community partners, the response was not shock, but rather “why aren’t you helping us with this problem too then?”  It turned out that all of our community partners have suffered similar experiences despite being in completely different parts of the country. 


For example, in Chicago, Mr. Earl Walker, also an elderly and disabled public housing resident, was forced from his wheelchair by eight armed police officers after an unrelated caregiver was apprehended for drug possession outside his building.  With an unblemished record leading up to the incident with the police, Mr. Walker had been refusing – in non-violent protest – the local housing authority’s order to leave his home in Cabrini-Green under their “Plan for Transformation” which displaced all the residents allowing only a small fraction to return.  Using the “one strike” policy that was also used to threaten Ms. Jasper in New Orleans, Mr. Walker was forcibly evicted from his home. 


In Los Angeles, we found perhaps the most chronic persecution in the case of community activist Mr. Steve Richardson.  In the past 16 months alone, Mr. Richardson has been booked, processed, and jailed four times for the same act of non-violent protest related to housing policies in “the homeless capital of the United States.”.  Mr. Richardson is an organizer with the L.A. Community Action Network (LA CAN) in Skid Row, where you find a community of 15,000 homeless and extremely low-income residents, the latter all living in subsidized or rent stabilized housing.  The city’s response to the housing crisis has been to spend 6 million dollars a year for extra police officers to control the residents.  The city spends only 5.7 million dollars for emergency and permanent housing services in the remaining 464 square miles of the city. 


Mr. Richardson was first arrested in May 2010 when he joined 300 residents chanting in a City Council meeting where representatives voted against a rent freeze. He was one of three arrests made that day, and, although the charges were initially dropped for all three arrestees, they were re-filed against Mr. Richardson only when, as a member of LA CAN, he continued to speak out publicly about the implications of the arrests made that day.  Since then, local authorities have continued to find unusual reasons to arrest Mr. Richardson – such as playing a radio outdoors – and threaten him with criminal prosecution. 


Mr. Richardson’s case is particularly troubling because of the persistent pattern of arrests for acts of non-violent protest.  He has risen to be a prominent defender of his community after a history of homelessness and incarceration.  Like many African-American men, a community facing severely disproportionate incarceration rates, he was incarcerated for non-violent offenses only.  Yet, he faces California’s draconian “three strikes” law, whereby if he is convicted three times for any felony offense, he faces life imprisonment.  Thus, his continued dissent carries with it the potential of severe consequences, including the permanent deprivation of his liberty and freedom. 


As a human rights leader in his community, known by face and name by community members and city officials alike, the criminalization of Mr. Richardson for acts of non-violent protest sends a clear message to others considering putting up resistance to the relentless displacement being experienced nationwide.  It is a message the human rights community should not tolerate anywhere; not New Orleans, not Chicago, not Los Angeles.  In fact, it is a message that needs to be fiercely challenged in all corners of the country and the world.