The giant sign fluttering in the wind read “Espinal, Don’t Gentrify E NY!” Rachel Rivera, a resident of Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood, held up one end of the sign; Lorna Blake, also of East New York, held the other. They were marching on April 13 to the district office of New York City Councilman Rafael Espinal with other members of New York Communities for Change (NYCC) as well as Make the Road New York and several building-trades unions. Their mission: to press Espinal into voting against a rezoning plan that they feared would accelerate gentrification. As if to underscore this point, white hipsters occasionally stopped to snap iPhone photos of the protest.
Rivera wore a bright-orange NYCC T-shirt under a parka and over sweats—she’d dressed comfortably, she said, for the main part of the action. Once at Espinal’s office, she and several others—NYCC executive director Jonathan Westin; Bertha Lewis, founder of the Black Institute; and seven NYCC comrades—sat down and refused to move. “They say, ‘Go away!’ We say, ‘No way!’” the crowd chanted as police swept in and handcuffed the protesters. Espinal was nowhere to be seen.
That was on Wednesday. On Thursday, fresh from jail, Westin and NYCC members were in the streets again, this time as part of a nationwide day of action in the Fight for $15, the movement that NYCC had launched with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in 2012. And on that very same day came the announcement that, after a push from the NYCC-backed group the Hedge Clippers, New York City’s largest public-pension fund had voted to pull its money out of hedge funds. It was a particularly busy week for the community-based organization, one that served to highlight its evolving strategy for tackling the many ways that inequality is created and perpetuated, in New York City and across the country.
“We have a goal of trying to target a trillion dollars in capital,” Westin explained regarding the Hedge Clippers strategy. “Whether it’s real-estate capital, hedge-fund capital, JPMorgan Chase capital, or McDonald’s capital—we’re going after a trillion dollars in wealth from the 1 percent, from the richest white men on earth, and actually putting that money back into our communities.”
The Hedge Clippers, the Fight for $15, and the fight for affordable housing are the linchpins of NYCC’s strategy, three ways to answer the question of how to redistribute wealth and power back to working-class people of color. They’re examples of how one group is looking beyond the small, incremental campaigns typical of organizing in low-income communities of color, and aiming instead to actually challenge the structures of power in the city.
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NYCC first appeared in 2010, but its origin extends back decades. It rose from the ashes of the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now, which, at its peak, comprised a network of community groups under a national umbrella organization. ACORN had its roots in the welfare-rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s, and it fought for affordable housing, challenged predatory subprime lenders, and registered low-income people to vote. The organization was destroyed after right-wing “sting” artist James O’Keefe publicized deceptively edited videos purporting to show some ACORN members advising a “pimp” on the best way to conduct his criminal activities. Lawsuits vindicated the association, but too late; ACORN collapsed in 2010 after its funding evaporated. But around the country, former ACORN members have launched new groups, many of which have risen to prominence through their work alongside Occupy and the Black Lives Matter movement.