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Eviction Defense in Detroit Shows the Power of Self-Organization

The recently viral videos of a physical eviction defense effort in Detroit not only shows the violent nature of evictions and the state, but the importance of developing institutions of self-organization in order to challenge the growing threat of evictions facing the working class and oppressed.

Tristan Taylor

April 8, 2023
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Clarence Tabb Jr., Detroit News

An eviction defense in Detroit received national exposure on social media and news outlets like The Young Turks, Yahoo News!, Business Insider, The Root, as well as pop culture websites like The Shade Room. Several organizations on the Left came out to defend Taura Brown, a Black woman battling kidney disease and cancer, from a retaliatory and forceful eviction from her home.  The non-profit – Cass Community Social Services (CCSS) – sought to evict Taura because she spoke out against the way she was misled and mistreated by the organization. The roughly 30 people who participated in the eviction defense were racially integrated and inter-generational. They represented Detroit Eviction Defense (DED), The Detroit Club of the Communist Party USA, Detroit Will Breathe (DWB), Detroit Tenants Association (DTA), the Washtenaw County General Defense Committee, and independent activists. 

The standoff between court bailiffs and activists lasted more than 4 hours, as reported by a Bridge Detroit article on the eviction defense.  

Self Organization Establishes Continuity of Struggle 

Many of the activists and organizations participating in the home defense were participants of the 2020 BLM movement in Detroit. In fact, DWB, which was formed during the height of the 2020 protests, utilized the influence and resources they garnered during 2020 to aid Taura’s struggle against eviction. Since its founding, DWB has organized on a class independent basis that rejects endorsing or campaigning for any bourgeois party, be it Democrat or Republican. This is how DWB has been able to resist co-option by the Democrats and their stooges in NGOs and labor bureaucracies, and instead harness the power of the movement to decide for itself its demands and actions, expanding the movement in Detroit beyond the single issue of police brutality to connect with various struggles against systemic racism. 

The organization that spearheaded the eviction defense, Detroit Eviction Defense (DED), was created during Occupy and has also been able to sustain itself in important struggles around housing in Detroit over the years on a class independent basis. DED not only rejects the idea that you can rely on the courts and the law to resolve the housing crisis, the organization points out the ways these institutions enforce the interests of banks and landlords. Only grassroots organizing of people facing eviction, their neighbors, co-workers, friends and family, and their supporters can stop evictions and resolve the housing crisis.

The approach of the various organizations towards the eviction defense of Taura Brown was one of class independence; all understood that neither political party was going to save us or make the fight we knew was needed to stop this eviction. This fact was made more concrete by the failure of liberal and even progressive politicians to take up Taura Brown’s struggle. Equally important and impactful was the fact that practically all of the organizations and activists, Taura Brown included, participated in the mass mobilizations against police brutality and the demand to defund and abolish the police.    

A Militant Defense By Forces With Social Weight

Although relatively small in number, in part because the eviction was carried out at the beginning of the work day, the home defenders were able to use their bodies to give militant resistance to the bailiffs, who used physical violence, slamming people onto the ground, and grabbing people by their necks. The home defenders forced the bailiffs to retreat twice and eventually call in reinforcements.  

Part of the power of our presence was the political authority of the BLM movement and its exposure of police brutality and misconduct. In Detroit, that was expressed in popular opposition to the violence of the police against protesters in 2020, which has created a dynamic where police violence against the movement has political consequences and backlash for the police.  The 2020 protests in Detroit also created boldness within the movement to directly face the police, with one of the chants of the movement being “We Don’t Back Down to Bullies With Badges”. The police were present at the eviction defense to ensure that the balance of power were in favor of the bailiffs, but did not seek to arrest any of the home defenders or take a physical role in helping carry out the eviction.  

Our presence also helped draw media attention to Taura Brown’s eviction, and helped the movement continue to expose the true nature of the police as enforcers of exploitation and oppression in the service of the capitalists. 

Ultimately, after regrouping and bringing in reinforcements, the bailiffs were able to force their way into the home and remove Taura’s belongings out of the home. However, home defenders were able to make sure Taura’s medical equipment and valuable belongings were secured and in her possession. They also gave strong, militant resistance to eviction that can set the type of standard that we will need as poor and working class people who continue to face unjust evictions and an increasingly severe housing crisis. 

Key Takeaways of the Struggle 

While this experience is powerful and holds many lessons, it comes with important limitations that have to be reckoned with. It should be clear from Tuesday’s eviction defense how much effort and resources the state has in enforcing the interests of the landlords and the capitalists. To deal with that will require more than just 100 more activists, a fact that does not dismiss or minimizes the importance of having 100 more activists in the struggle for housing in Detroit. It should, therefore, be understood that a main limitation of Tuesday’s mobilization is the general absence of a mass movement in the streets fighting against evictions and for housing to be a basic human right. The absence of a mass movement is not because people are not concerned or themselves impacted by the growing housing crisis. Rather, it is the result of the absence of a political alternative that could consistently challenge the authority of the capitalists, their state apparatus, and their political parties.   

Without class independent self organization, that is, organization that is democratically controlled by the movement itself, the working-class and oppressed lack the space needed to create their own demands and the need to fight for those demands using the methods of the working-class, like strikes, walkouts, and mass, militant street mobilizations. Without self-organization, the working class and oppressed also lack a way of rebuking the co-optive efforts of the Democratic Party who, alongside the bureaucratic leaders of the NGOs and unions, bring the movement back into the fold of reformism. They convince the movement to demobilize and abandon their radical aspirations in favor of “practical” results that never actually address the needs of the working class and oppressed.  

The Biden administration was able to co-opt the BLM movement with the assistance of some of the Left who saw the Democratic Party – and not the working-class and oppressed —  as the only way to beat Trumpism and the threat of fascism. The Biden regime then proceeded to act on their campaign promise of “nothing fundamentally changing” and even relied on repressive measures to put sectors of the working-class and oppressed back in line for daring to struggle, like Biden did with the railroad workers.

Next Steps 

This is why the revolutionary Left must play an active political role in promoting the need for organizations that are democratically controlled by the movement itself and are explicitly and consistently class independent.  These organizations must reject the limits of reformism which, among other things, believe that only politicians and capitalists have power. They must fight to win their demands using the methods of the working class. These organizations must also seek to regroup the best elements of the BLM movement and other important struggles. A specific orientation towards the incipient labor movement highlighting the strategic power of the working class will be essential if we are to effectively fight not only evictions, but more broadly to make the revolutionary transformation that is ultimately necessary to make demands like housing as a human right real.   

We know that the housing crisis in Detroit and across the country are going to get worse, and that more eviction defenses will be needed.  This is why we must utilize the experience and exposure of the eviction defense in Detroit to prepare for the struggles to come, bringing more sectors into the struggle, all the while expanding it to include other struggles of importance for the working class and oppressed. Our preparation cannot simply be a tactical one, but must be a political one that aims to create a common program of the working class and oppressed that can help the movement sustain itself against the burnout and disorientation that comes from lacking an overall strategic plan that is national in scope and practice.

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