As a member of the Take Back the Land Leadership committee I try to lead by example. I have always believed that we build true power by working together. It was this message I tried to send last October, when 82 year-old Mary Ward stood to be evicted from her Bed-Stuy Brooklyn residence of over 40 years. I challenged the New York City social justice movement to stand up and mobilize the community to stand behind Ms. Ward, to challenge the 1% and send a message that you will no longer rip apart our communities while we stand by and do nothing. We will stand side by side and fight back. The community stood up 300 strong the morning of the eviction and today Ms. Ward remains in her home.
Such is the message coming out of Sunset Park, Brooklyn these days as Occupy Sunset Park, community activists and community based organizations and their members have joined forces with the tenants of three buildings on 46th Street to stand up to a landlord named Orazio Petito. Petito has neglected the three buildings for several years, accumulating thousands of dollars in fines from New York City’s Department of Buildings and earning a spot on Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio’s worst landlord list.
I got involved when I received an email from Michael Premo, a member of Organizing for Occupation (o4o), Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and a strong proponent of the human right to housing. I attended the Occupy Sunset Park general assembly on Saturday July 7th and met tenants Sarah Lopez and Francisca Ixitilco. They impressed me from the first time I met them and they continue to impress me with tenacity and determination.
The courage and leadership that has arisen within the tenants in these buildings is incredible. On Thursday July 5th, Sara Lopez and others occupied New York State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz’ office and demanded to speak with him immediately. When told Ortiz was not available, Ms. Lopez made it clear to his staff they would continue to occupy the office until they spoke to the assemblyman. The police were called and Ms. Lopez told the police she was not looking for a confrontation but was willing to get arrested to make her point. Eventually the police convinced the staff to contact Mr. Ortiz in Albany and he agreed to meet with the tenants the following Monday. While the meeting with Ortiz yielded many promises and very little action, the tenants continue to fight. Additionally, Sarah Gonzalez, the City Council Member responsible for Sunset Park, is nowhere to be found.
When the Department of Buildings (DOB), Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) or other city agencies come to investigate, Super Israel Espinosa refuses to allow access and many confrontations have ensued. One such confrontation ended with Francisca being hospitalized after Espinosa pushed her when she attempted to give building inspectors access to the basement in her building. The Super knocked her to the ground, causing serious internal injuries. Dennis Flores, a long time community activist not only in Sunset Park but throughout New York City’s five boroughs, came to Francisca’s defense and got into a scrap with Espinosa and both were arrested. Dennis was released and has continued to receive support from the community and allies from around the city. Dennis’ work doing and teaching Cop Watch is well-known. The police have begun targeting him because of his Cop Watch work, yet he continues to courageously organize with the tenants.
There are daily vigils in front of the building at 6:00pm, and community and allies continue to support the rent strikers.
I have made it clear to the tenants, especially Sarah and Francisca, that the Take Back the Land Movement (TBTL-M) will continue to support their efforts and bring in allies and resources. The TBTL-M has reached out to legal organizations and grassroots community organizations. Likewise, long-time activist and Episcopal Priest Frank Morales, who is no stranger to struggle, came out to show support and offered to connect the tenants and occupiers to his portfolio of allies and resources. Other allies are offering to provide the tenants with organizing trainings and support designing and printing flyers and holding fundraisers to help pay for Dennis Flores’ legal representation.
The tenants continue to step up as leaders. They are meeting the challenge of including the undocumented tenants in the strike. A court hearing will take place August 3rd, and the tenants should find out if the building will go into receivership. Receivership or not the message is clear: the rent strike goes on until the tenants are provided with a decent, clean, comfortable place to live because housing is a human right.
Take Back the Land Leadership Committee