The Occupy movement continues in some cities and college campuses around the U.S. with many of the most vibrant Occupy groups taking up the fight against foreclosures and evictions. Helping to stop foreclosures and evictions is a positive, organic outgrowth of Occupy’s exposure of economic inequality. Also, by originally using the tactic of occupying public spaces in cities around the U.S., Occupiers immediately encountered thousands of homeless people, making the housing crisis impossible to ignore.
Focusing just on the U.S., the richest, most powerful capitalist country in the world, it’s clear that housing problems and crises have persisted throughout the history of capitalism and continue to this day. For example, the Great Depression in the 1930’s resulted in a terrible, massive housing crisis. Homeless encampments started appearing quickly after the 1929 stock market crash. These homeless camps were called Hoovervilles, after the despised President, Herbert Hoover. Hoovervilles occupied dumps and abandoned areas around cities, towns and railroads. By 1932 at least 12 million people were out of work in the U.S. and about 25% of families had no income. Sharp declines in wages, incomes and jobs resulted in a high number of unemployed and a huge increase in foreclosed farms, houses and evictions from apartments (in 1930 there were more than 200,000 evictions in New York City alone).
Widespread, sustained resistance to the wave of foreclosures and evictions first emerged where radical, left-wing groups had enough strength and influence to lead and organize mass movements. These left-wing groups had already fought on issues related to the growing economic and social inequality of the “roaring twenties”; including fighting for the right to organize unions and labor solidarity against violent repression by corporations and state and federal governments.
As the recession hit in 1929, some left wing groups initiated campaigns for jobs, for direct payments to the unemployed, for free food in a time of growing hunger, etc… . The most influential left wing group to emerge in these struggles was the Communist Party (CP). In many cities and rural areas, Communist Party organizers had sunk roots in working class communities through labor struggles, anti-racist organizing and many different types of community organizing.
The CP only had around 7,000 members in 1929, at the start of the Great Depression. Communist Party activists soon filled a political vacuum left by right wing AFL leaders and the decline of the Socialist Party. Many CP members threw themselves into fights such as organizing mass hunger marches in fifty cities around the U.S. in 1930 to demand wage increases for workers. The CP also organized Unemployed Workers Councils which brought unemployed workers together, often under the leadership of CP activists, to pressure city, county, state and federal governments for immediate payments to the unemployed. The Unemployed Workers Councils gained strength through direct actions such as occupying or “sitting in” at relief (welfare) offices and mass demonstrations for unemployment insurance in many cities including Washington D.C. . These efforts pressured the Roosevelt administration to start federal unemployment insurance in 1935.
Through the leadership of communists and lessons gained fighting corporate bosses and politicians; leaders and many activists in the Unemployed Workers Councils saw capitalism as the common root of problems facing working people. So, CP activists didn’t confine their political work to actions for the unemployed. The Communist Party, as it grew in the early 30’s, led its own members and the Unemployment Workers Councils into related struggles such as strike support, union organizing and union solidarity. They also joined and initiated anti-racist struggles including campaigns against the wide-spread lynching of African Americans in the South.
The CP led many tenants’ rights and anti-eviction campaigns in urban areas in the early 1930’s. In the Unemployed Workers Councils, CP leaders used direct actions, rent strikes and mass picketing to try and stop evictions. Rent strikes were a tactic of entire buildings of tenants refusing to pay rent until the landlords agreed to lower rents and stop evictions. Mass pickets were used to pressure landlords, support rent strikes and also to physically defy the act of eviction. Activist networks were built and called into action when sheriffs, cops or landlord thugs beat people out of their apartments and tossed people, furniture and belongings onto the sidewalks. As the rent strikes and anti-eviction campaigns gained strength, particularly in New York City and Chicago, it was possible to get hundreds or even thousands of people to mass pickets at the site of evictions to stop police or hired agents from hauling away furniture. By sheer force of numbers, activists moved many evicted families along with their furniture and belongings back into the apartments they were just evicted from.
Similar struggles emerged in rural areas to fight against farm foreclosures. Falling incomes and prices for farm produce resulted in millions of farmers unable to pay back bank loans they regularly depended on. Communist Party members emerged as leaders in many battles to save farms and to link urban anti-eviction struggles with rural anti-foreclosure movements. One of the more famous leaders of the rural wing of anti-foreclosure movements was a Communist Party organizer named Ella Reeve Bloor, “Mother” Bloor was based for a time in Nebraska and there helped build the “Madison County Plan” organization into a force of 30,000 farmers by 1934. Activists like Mother Bloor continued to recruit to the Communist Party as well and many labor, anti-racist and anti-poverty struggles in rural areas were bolstered by the growth of the CP.
In Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin, the Farmers Holiday Association developed as a force of radical defense of farms threatened by foreclosure. Militant tactics were used to stop sheriffs and bank agents from carrying out land auctions on foreclosed farms. If the auctions couldn’t be stopped before they started, a tactic emerged called a penny auction. Organized farm families would make sure the only bids offered were from their own, hand-picked bidders and the bids would only be a penny for land or livestock or equipment. Then, when the auctioneer finally gave up trying to get higher bids; the auction would end and the farmer threatened with foreclosure would get back his land, etc… literally for pennies.
Demands for a moratorium on foreclosures became a popular tactic in the mass housing rights movements of the 30’s. More than 25 states were forced to enact moratoriums against foreclosures. For example, the Michigan Moratorium Act allowed a five year delay in any foreclosure attempts as well as judges being given the power to set lower mortgage payments.
Urban and rural anti-eviction/foreclosure movements would not have coalesced as much nor been as successful without left wing groups, especially the Communist Party, playing a leading role. The infusion of radical analysis and militant tactics used by some Left wing groups were absolutely needed, including a willingness to break laws if necessary.
A lot of progressive social legislation passed by states and the federal government in the 30’s was a direct effort to save capitalism from a growing left wing movement populated more and more by average working people and farmers. However, increasing state repression and the Stalinization of the Communist Party in the U.S. and around the world, resulted in reformism capturing what could have developed into even deeper attacks on capitalism and the possible emergence of a new political party for working people n the U.S. . Despite these opportunities being lost by the CP, the legacy of radical analysis and tactics of the 1930’s is useful to re-discover by movements like Occupy and others which will emerge to expose and challenge evictions, foreclosures and capitalism itself.
An “Occupy Onward Conference” held in New York City last December included professor Mark Naison of Fordham University talking about the powerful anti-eviction movements in New York City and other parts of the country. Naison’s remarks, published in the “Occupy! Gazette, #4, included: “…when the Depression [of the 1930’s] started, a whole group of American-born people… who thought they were going to college… to become lawyers, 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.”