Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

The New Voice

Learning from the I-Hotel Struggle

Published: The New Voice, Vol. VI, No. 9, December 26, 1977.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The battle to defend the tenants of the International Hotel in San Francisco from eviction was a glorious struggle. It cannot be erased, despite the brutal eviction of the tenants. It is rich in experience to be analyzed for future struggles.

For nine years the attention of many workers in San Francisco, the Bay Area and later the nation was centered on the International Hotel. The hotel, housing mainly retired Asian-American workers, is located on the edge of San Francisco’s expanding financial district. The I-Hotel owners, the Hong Kong based Four Seas Corporation, wished to evict the tenants, raze the hotel, and use the property to make a greater profit as a high-rise office building or parking garage. For nine years, through a series of court battles, demonstrations and picket lines, the tenants and their supporters resisted all attempts at eviction. Finally on the night of August 4, despite the turnout of thousands of supporters who formed a human barricade in front of the hotel, big business, the courts and police TAC squads won and the tenants were forcibly removed.

During their nine-year struggle the I-Hotel tenants had the sympathy of large numbers of workers, yet they were still evicted.

Why did this happen? One of the primary reasons was the splitting and wrecking tactics of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). For a long time the RCP had persisted in having its own front group, the Workers’ Committee to Defend the I-Hotel, set up in opposition to the Support Committee. They held separate demonstrations and rallies and pushed different demands. This all came to a head the night of the eviction.

The RCP had put its people in the front ranks of the human barricade set up to defend the hotel. When the TAC squad and mounted police prepared to charge, the RCP’ers peeled off and the charge came across ground they had occupied. They added sabotage to the crime of desertion by adopting the same color armbands as the Support Committee’s security force. When they deserted, this enabled them to lead a number of supporters a block away to set up a picket line that marched in circles.

After helping the police attack on the hotel, the RCP showed its sectarian colors again on Saturday, August 6. The Workers’ Committee had called for a demonstration in front of the hotel at 9:00 a.m. When they found out that the Support Committee had scheduled a demonstration for 3:00 p.m., the Workers’ Committee moved theirs up to 2:00 p.m. Thus when people started showing up that afternoon, they found an RCP sound system set up, RCP banners flying, and an RCP demonstration in full swing. The prevailing mood among the I-Hotel supporters had been in favor of retaking the hotel from the police that day. But this was destroyed when the RCP traitors became the brunt of the crowd’s anger. As the RCP became more isolated they tried to start fights, with the other demonstrators. Support Committee security had to stand six deep to keep the two factions separated. All this in the face of the police occupying the hotel who would have loved a chance to finish any fight the RCP started. As a result of their desertion and sabotage, the RCP has isolated itself from many workers and leftists in the Bay Area.

Even after the RCP isolated itself and left the struggle for the I-Hotel, the political problems were not over. With RCP gone, the I Wor Kuen and their supporters were the dominant political force on the I-Hotel Support Committee. Urged on by the IWK, the Support Committee continued to make errors, among which were a reliance on legalistic tactics, a sectarian approach, and a lack of democracy within the organization. All these problems had been evident from the beginning, but after the eviction and loss of the hotel the emphasis on legalism grew all out of proportion.

After the eviction on August 4 and the sectarian fiasco of the RCP on August 6, there were still many supporters willing to fight. There was talk of retaking the building, of trying physically to block demolition and reconstruction. There were calls for more militant demonstrations. Some people wanted to spread the struggle to other buildings in other neighborhoods facing eviction. At that point even if we had fought it is unlikely we could have saved the hotel, but we could have expanded the struggle throughout the city. We did not get the chance.

IWK and their friends began relying on Proposition U. This was a proposition put on the ballot in San Francisco asking the voters whether they supported the city’s buying the hotel for public housing. As the Support Committee knew but avoided mentioning, even had the proposition passed, it was only a statement of opinion and in no way binding on the city. In spite of all their talk about the need for militant action, the Support Committee launched an all-out campaign for Proposition U. They devoted nearly all their energy to plastering the city with “Yes on U” leaflets and posters. Meanwhile more and more supporters became disgusted and left the committee. In the November 8 election Proposition U was defeated by a 2 to 1 margin. The struggle for the International Hotel had moved from a climax to a low ebb.

Why did we oppose the tactic of dropping all other struggle for this election campaign? Elections in capitalist society are a fraud. This was no exception. The city and the businessman make the rules from the start. In this case they managed to pull the I-Hotel leadership into a purely legalistic struggle which would not have made any real difference even if it had won. The energy and militancy of the majority of supporters was dissipated. This struggle for the I-Hotel serves as a classic example of how the capitalist state functions. When they have to, as on eviction night, the capitalists will send in their police to use force against the workers. When they can, they prefer to use fraud, fooling the working class leaders into legalistic forms of struggle, where they have control from the beginning.

Another problem with the I-Hotel struggle was a sectarian approach based on liberal racism (the view that white workers have no class interest in fighting racism and national minority oppression). The I-Hotel struggle was a struggle against national minority oppression, in this case, of Chinese and Filipinos in Chinatown. It was also a struggle for decent housing for the working class, and for dignity and even the right to live for retired workers. But the Support Committee, largely due to IWK’s influence, talked mainly about the “destruction and dispersal of third world communities” and concentrated their leafletting in the Chinatown area. The I-Hotel struggle captured the attention and support of thousands of Bay Area workers, but IWK failed to link the attack on minority housing with the worsening housing conditions facing all workers. It was not until they were leafletting for Proposition U that they ever actively went into any of the white working class neighborhoods. This narrow approach kept them from expanding the struggle to support working people with housing problems all over town, regardless of skin color, language, etc.

The last major problem with the I-Hotel struggle was the lack of democracy in the Support Committee. By democracy we mean open debate and decision-making. If anyone had a question or criticism of the general line of the committee, it would be ignored or put aside as a question to be discussed outside the general meetings. As for decision-making, as one person put it, “I attend the general meetings, I attend the meetings of the coordinating committee, and I attend the meetings of my own subcommittee, but somehow I’m never at the meeting where the decisions are made.” For any mass organization to function effectively, there must be room for a wide range of political outlooks and ideas as long as there is unity on the particular struggle. The decision-making must be done in the open, within the general body of the organization.

The major reason for the eviction, though, was the rule of the capitalist state. Workers cannot depend on city governments or the courts to fight the businessmen for us. Governments and courts are tools of these same businessmen. Workers cannot rely on elections to win our battles for us. Elections are just part of the capitalist fraud. We can win reforms only by relying on ourselves, by fighting for them. Even then, sometimes we will lose because the businessmen also control the police and army, another part of the state, and will use them against us when necessary. We will never win reforms without a fight, and we will never win for good until we finally smash their government, courts and police and build a state of our own.