First Published: Progressive Labor Vol. 5, No. 3, March-April 1966
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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I have lived on the Lower East Side for the past 30 years, but only in the last 3 years have I begun to know my neighbors. That is the life-span of Integrated Workers Club of Progressive Labor, at 763 East 6th Street, Manhattan. During these one thousand and one days and nights, I have spent more man hours climbing stairs, picketing landlords, and selling papers than during the other 27 years. Still my community work has been inconsistent–marked by life’s usual irregularities–births, deaths, marriages, prison terms, vacations, illnesses, and common colds – as well as the ups and downs in the lives of my fellow PL members. Was it worthwhile in energy expended personally and politically? What are the lessons to be learned? What does neighborhood work mean for PLP? Where do we go from here?
These 15 square blocks of ancient slums and bedraggled stores, interspersed with modest churches and shabby schools, contain about 100,000 people–every nationality, religion and occupation in the world–but very few bankers!
Elderly Italians, Germans, Irish and Jews are found in the better-kept tenements and in the low-cost housing projects along the river; some are storekeepers, many are on social security. They are the backwash of early immigration waves that once settled this area, sent their children to college or into politics, and moved on.
Russian, Ukrainian and Polish working people form a pocket in the middle of the neighborhood, with many funeral parlors, parochial schools and social centers, aimed at keeping the younger generation with them. The streets are alive with Slavic sounds; one could be in Moscow, Kiev or Warsaw. Most are employed, skilled workers or small shopkeepers, reactionary, religious and anti-socialist; they find jobs for their young people through the unions and fraternal orders.
The main black population lives in low-cost housing projects along the East River; they too are a stable strata of workers with families. But theirs are the worst-paid, least-secure jobs, so there is little to pass on to the younger ones. They are mostly church-goers and registered Democrats; economic competition and old hostilities separate them from the white and Puerto Rican population.
In the most littered side streets and run-down tenements are the most recent settlers, the Puerto Rican people. Large families share three and four small rooms with innumerable rats and roaches, struggling with leaking pipes, falling ceilings, and no heat or hot water. Jobless, welfare-ridden, preyed upon by every form of racketeering and racism, they move frequently from slum to slum.
Sprinkled throughout the area, but not integrated with it, are the latest immigrants–beatniks and radical students, black and white young people from all over the country, escaping respectability, looking for low rents and/or thrills; many slowly becoming proletarianized.
Fifty per cent of the youth and thirty per cent of the adults in this East Side community are out of work; most of them did not finish high school; many have never worked, others stopped looking for jobs long ago. The average income is below $3,500 a year, the average rent $75 a month, the average apartment crumbling. Taverns, dope haunts, numbers rackets, and Pentecostal churches abound; people need relief from the deep squeeze capitalism has caught them in.
Integrated workers began in the summer of ’62 as a social club of Puerto Rican and North American young people to fight against job discrimination. That November they voted to join the new Progressive Labor Movement, in which their three founders were active. A review of picket signs stacked in the dingy storefront chronicles the club’s life:
Demand jobs at union wages.
Mobilization For Youth is unfair.
Mayor Wagner, we’ll tell you the problems of the community!
Give clothing or money to help the Kentucky miners, on strike for 6 months.
For Puerto Rican independence.
U.S. Get Out of Panama!
Stop war in Cuba, defend the revolution.
Harry is a slumlord, don’t pay your rent.
No rent without repairs.
East Side Rent Strike.
Madame Nhu, Go Home.
End the War in Vietnam.
Vote for Bill Epton.
Sign for Jose Fuentes.
Puerto Ricans, register to vote.
Solidarity with our brothers in Harlem.
Yankees, Get Out of Santo Domingo!
There have also been discussions, forums, film showings, and impromptu debates held in the club, and many, many street meetings held outside. There have been a children’s recreation center and nursery school, classes in English and Spanish, successful dances and beach parties. From time to time there have been study groups on everything from Engels’ On The Housing Question to the Second Havana Declaration in Spanish. Many neighborhood people, particularly Puerto Ricans, have been involved in club activities; during the first two years, intermittently young Spanish and English-speaking members played ball together on Saturdays, went bowling, visited each other’s houses and helped with each others’ problems. The club flared into sudden prominence when an Italian gangster-landlord who maintained an all-white apartment building across the street, almost killed a Puerto Rican restaurant worker. Our picket lines against Maccarrone, the would-be murderer protected by police, drew hundreds of workers from the area, with over a thousand sympathizers crowding East 3rd Street. They were dissatisfied, as we were, with Mobilization for Youth and other reformist groups who tried to tone down community anger by circulating a polite petition. Some people tried to burn his building, but were drawn into our mass picket lines demanding that Maccarrone be driven from the neighborhood, that discrimination in housing be ended, and that criminal landlords be prosecuted. As community support reached a peak, with even favorable publicity in The New York Times, some arrests of militants took place and the FBI visited the block, warning against reds. Those who had been crowding our club every night playing dominoes and beginning to organize for self-defense, fell away. Still we did not follow up consistently with education or other forms of struggle; we did not provide another milder organizational form for those who were not ready to join Progressive Labor. The aroused neighborhood people, still unprepared for socialist commitment, remained our friends, but inactive. The excitement died down; today the hated Maccarrone does business as usual with white North Americans only, in his renovated building across the street.
That summer of 1964 and winter of 1965 two similar upsurges took place, first, in solidarity with the Harlem rebellion, and then, in protest against the murder of two young Puerto Rican boys by an Eastern European delicatessen-owner in the neighborhood. Our street meetings and picket lines were attended by hundreds of people, they were close to us in militant struggle against the police and their gangster allies, but we still did not hold them in any consistent organization.
Increasingly over the past two years our neighborhood activities focused on housing and tenant problems, since these are shared by everyone – they are capitalism’s most glaring abuse in every slum community. They involve struggle with a tangible enemy, the landlord, who can be confronted directly, defied, pressured, threatened, and organized against A neighborhood center can seize hold of these issues as it cannot always in the fight for jobs–there is no immediate boss from whom the unemployed can demand jobs, they must fight City Hall from the beginning and that is often hard. But the landlord must be fought first, then the various agencies and the entire municipal power structure which backs him up. Most tenants are ready to defend their elementary rights for a decent place to live. After much canvassing of slum buildings, leaflet distribution to announce our “Housing Clinic” and a year of regular weekly work filling out forms on complaints to an indifferent and neglectful Rent Commission, we found many tenants who had worked with us were ready for a higher level of struggle. We called the first real tenants meeting in November 1963 and 25 of them came, representing about 12 buildings. About five agreed to organize rent strikes, and soon they spread to a few more. In the two years since we have helped to start and to lead about 24 rent strikes, mostly successful in winning some concessions.
It is interesting to note that tenants were not immediately ready to stop paying their rent because they had complaints; only after going through the tedious business of filling out forms and waiting months for the landlord and Rent Commission to respond were they educated–along with us– to take stronger action. The fear of eviction persists in all of us who need our homes, but the club was able to prevent all evictions that were called to our attention in connection with any of these struggles –and these facts reassure people. How did we prevent them? Usually without going to court. By pressuring the landlord about the violations in his building, by mass delegations, picket lines (particularly effective if the landlord has an office or residence in the same community, or can be reached easily by a mass of tenants), leaflets, posters, and sit-ins. Big concessions in the form of housing laws partially legalizing rent strikes were won by the wave of rent strikes in Harlem, the East Side and elsewhere during that winter of 1963-64. Of course the laws are highly ambiguous and confusing, often helping landlords more than tenants, but they can be used to justify direct action which makes agitating easier. Of course, all concessions, as Lenin said, are both a help and a hindrance to further struggle–so we found that it was very hard to organize rent strikes the following winter as both landlords and City were busy making things look better. This winter it is easier, as the new laws have popularized the rent strike idea, the tenement buildings have fallen into miserable disrepair again, and the tenants are ripe for organization.
We know now that we must move more slowly than we expected to move before, that people need to go through many of the preliminary reformist steps before they are ready for the revolutionary ones, that militancy against the landlord does not mean readiness to join Progressive Labor. We learned this the hard way.
There was the building on Avenue B where three-fourths of the tenants joined to protest a rent increase and to picket the landlord’s dry goods shop when he refused to obey a Rent Commission order to refund the overcharges. He quickly responded to our picket-line in the snowy streets with signs telling all his customers that he was a slumlord. He called us in to the shop and allowed me to type out the terms whereby he would refund over a thousand dollars to the tenants. And he paid! After our victory the little Russian lady on the first floor, who had picketed too, invited us all in for coffee. She took me aside to show me her small treasure box of family mementoes–here were pictures of her nephews and grand-nephews in the Red Army, her great-niece graduating from Moscow University and, way at the bottom, cherished during the fifty years she had lived in the United States, her greatest treasure–a picture of Czar Nickolayavich as a boy! But even the militant young Puerto Rican tenants, who had no Czar to remember, were still not ready to join PL; we invited them after that victory to a meeting at the club, where we explained in Spanish what the organization was all about – although most of them knew already – and invited them to join. They were politely interested, but only one of them ever came back, and although a firm friend, she is still not a member.
There were the three buildings on 10th Street, where we worked with the tenants from December to June; conditions were intolerable –no heat, no hot water, broken windows, falling ceilings, leaking pipes, crumbling walls, bad wiring, rats, roaches–the works. We notified all the City departments, sent in all the forms, organized rent strikes, and picketed the landlords. In one building token repairs were made, in another, rent was reduced to a dollar a month and our tenants’ committee attempted to collect money, buy coal, repair the furnace, and heat the building through the winter. For a while it went to our heads –the tenants and us together–we had expropriated the expropriator–this was a taste of socialism! But after weary weeks of trying to clean up the rot and wreckage left by the landlord’s years of neglect while he had pocketed the rents, of trying to get small payments towards buying coal from all the tenants, and feeling like unwelcome rent collectors, we realized there could be no little island of socialism in the raging capitalist ocean; we couldn’t function as a tenant cooperative.
While we were working closely with the tenants, one of them joined Progressive Labor and called a meeting in her apartment. Twelve people came–mostly Puerto Rican and black, with one Spanish-speaking PL member to lead the meeting and two others from our club. It was great–an eloquent discussion about capitalism and socialism, with the neighborhood people contributing more fiery feelings and facts from their experience than anyone else. They voted to form a 10th Street branch of Progressive Labor and look for separate headquarters and meet again in two weeks. But two weeks later no one came; one by one they found excuses for not participating. They would still join with us on a picket line when a friend on Avenue C was threatened with eviction; his landlord had a liquor store in the next block and quickly came to terms with our public pressure.
It is useful to learn how effective such direct action can be and how it enhances the people’s self-confidence–how much better than endless visits to offices and courtrooms, relying on lawyers, playing footsie with judges and bureaucrats who double as slum lords for their extra profits. Still, people are often not ready for picket lines until they have gone through the slower, legalistic methods and discovered their inadequacy–recently a militant tenant leader in a rent-struck building preferred going to court with the Mobilization for Youth lawyer when he received a dispossess, because “they can’t evict me when the building has so many violations.” Thus the very concession which previous rent strikes had won–the ruling on violations–made the system’s legalistic maneuvers more acceptable.
In a rent strike or similar action, people get to know their enemy more clearly and learn new ways of fighting him Usually working-class tenants understand from their own lives that the landlords, bosses and cops all work together against the poor. But by organizing, sticking together, defying the landlord or even the law, they can win some gains. They many, however, lose, in addition to possible reprisals (jail, eviction or lack of cooperation from other, legalistic agencies.) Either of these outcomes may affect people in either of two ways: If they win, they may feel that their problems are solved, temporarily at least, and stop struggling, or they may realize their own strength and be ready to organize further. If they lose, they may get scared or discouraged from taking on the powerful state apparatus, and stop struggling. On the other hand, they may become angrier at the landlords, bosses, and government, wanting to fight more effectively against them regardless of the consequences. (This is possibly the stage of the civil rights movement today.) At any point they can still be lead away by red scares or seemingly militant reformists who offer an easier way out, although it usually turns out to be a better way in (to further enslavement).
In any case, it takes time, constantly new experiences on different levels of struggle, and consistent contact with Marxist ideas before understanding and commitment emerge. We cannot expect people to join PL after one rent strike or picket line at City Hall. We must provide intermediary forms of action and organization around issues–tenants, welfare, jobs, children’s needs, and third-party political campaigns. We must be with them at every point in this process, struggling for our interests which are the same as theirs; they must know and trust us, never feeling that we are outsiders who may be using them. The only way to do this is never to be outsiders who are using the people, but to merge ourselves with them, as friends and co-workers in the intermediary forms of organization, bringing along our Marxist lanterns to light the way.
United front actions in the neighborhood began around the tenant movement; we took part in a broad East Side Rent Strike Committee during the tenants’ upsurge in January 1964. We represented then some 8 to 10 organized buildings, so red-baiting to keep us out of the united front was unsuccessful. However we became impatient with the reformist leadership’s tactics and long drawn-out ineffective meetings (even worse than our own!) so that we stopped coming consistently and concentrated on our own buildings. Thus the leadership had its own way and was able to deflect the general tenant militancy (which had reached a high point in the community) towards sending a delegation to Albany, 150 miles away, instead of acting directly against East Side slumlords. We hope to have learned more patience for the next time!
In the Summer of 1965 we initiated and launched the Independent Political Movement around Jose Fuentes, as candidate for the State Assembly from the smallest and most poverty-stricken electoral area on the Lower East Side. At first there was little support from any other groups in the community for this young black Puerto Rican candidate who campaigned on a strongly-worded program for sweeping reforms in housing, employment, education, peace and control of the police. Most of the leg work collecting 3,500 signatures which put him on the ballot was done by our PL forces, but gradually other people from the neighborhood came around to work and to offer help. Many street meetings were held with enthusiastic response especially from Puerto Rican citizens, the majority of whom were denied their vote because of literacy tests in English. Although at the last minute registration to vote was permitted on the basis of Spanish literacy, only a small percentage of the community registered in time and many votes were lost. At best Fuentes achieved limited united front support from other organizations, but still, in November, he received 1,000 votes, five per cent of the total cast for Assemblyman. We believe that a small dent was made in the community to demonstrate the people’s power apart from the two capitalist parties; we hope to build on this in future elections. Although the organization around Fuentes collapsed soon after the elections, we are now starting a broad tenants’ organization based on all the people with whom we have worked over these past three years.
It is easier to describe these past three years than to analyze our work. We are still not a vanguard in the community, as we somehow expected to be, but there are objective, as well as subjective reasons. There is poverty and misery in our East Side slums, but there is also great economic dependence on the government handouts, some survival by petty racketeering, and many illusions about “opening a store and becoming my own boss.” These years and these streets have been seized by fast-multiplying social agencies (of which Mobilization for Youth, now working with the “Anti-Poverty” offices is most pervasive) aiming to strangle the peoples’ militancy with legalistic and reformist maneuvers. The government money-pots are busy giving one family in ten a taste of honey to paralyze the others with false hopes. All these conditions exist in other communities too, but the Lower East Side has less homogeneity of nationality and culture. There is still conflict and division between black North Americans and Puerto Ricans, sometimes smouldering, sometimes breaking into violence. Our club membership, largely white and North American, is handicapped in working with both groups. Recently a young Puerto Rican worker who took part in the Maccarrone struggle, was arrested, acquitted, and then moved away, stopped in to see us. He was warmer then ever before as he shook my hand: “I belong to PL now,” he said, “We have our own club now–all Spanish-speaking, uptown, in East Harlem.” Still, we have warm, personal relations with almost 100 residents in the neighborhood, mostly Spanish-speaking, who know and respect our political position, read Challenge when we bring it to them, but keep their distance. We have recruited no active, stable PL members from among them, although some have gone in and out of the organization and some may return. Many others come to us for help when they are in trouble with the landlord or the police, but they drop us as quickly as we drop them when the problem is solved. This lack of continuity is surely one of our weaknesses; it is also part of the rhythm of the community.
If there were a change in the objective conditions–a general cut in the Welfare payments or a rise in rents or a new wave of police brutality–we might find ourselves however poorly prepared, leading a mass movement But there are subjective factors also–while the peoples’ mood is increasingly militant (as reflected by the recent anti-Poverty meetings), it is confused and mis-directed. They are beginning, just beginning, to see the war in Vietnam as less than a blessing, since so many black and Puerto Rican youth are being drafted and killed. But they are disunited, frightened, and enervated by the dragging poverty and narrowing perspectives of their lives. They are also drugged by television, religion and other more obvious forms of dope, as well as led astray by the social agency big shots who promise them little bits of “pie in the sky” here on earth. Still, their grievances are strong, their disillusion growing–a spark might set off an uprising.
If we are to be a vanguard when that time comes, we must become more completely part of the community; we must live and work first in our own buildings, on our own blocks, fighting our own landlords, meeting with our neighbors in the laundromats, groceries and social clubs of the community. We must be users with them of the clinics, welfare stations, playgrounds and employment offices, as well as the taverns, dives and dance halls. We must give up slumming or the missionary approach that made one young student exclaim, “I don’t want to organize my own building–everyone in it is too much like me!” We must also learn and speak the language of the community in order to find and develop more indigenous conscious forces; we must provide the intermediary steps for them to develop self-confidence, take leadership and move towards Marxism How does this militant black, white or Puerto Rican worker take that giant step or the many small steps from participating in a rent strike to organizing for a revolution? If each of us looks first at himself, at how he became a Marxist-Leninist, we will see what a long painful process it is, and we will be able to help others more. Consciousness develops from material conditions, influenced by social relations deriving from them and acted upon by all the other forms of ideology prevalent Theory comes from practice, evolves in thinking through all the discoveries made in daily life, working out concepts and connections–then is tested, confirmed, and enriched through practice again. If we cannot fit into the community, if we are not ready to live the life of the people, we had best get into other work and stop kidding ourselves. This is the sober lesson which my thousand and one nights on the Lower East Side have taught me.