By Paulina Gonzalez
Reporting from the Grassroots
December 19, 2011When Time Magazine, in its Jan. 2, 2012 issue, named “The Protester” as Person of the Year, its cover showed a Shepard Fairey drawing of a white woman from the Occupy movement with a bandana over her face. “It’s remarkable how much the protest vanguards share,” wrote Kurt Andersen in the publication’s cover story. “Everywhere they are disproportionately young, middle class and educated.”
While studies of Occupy Wall Street do indeed show protesters to be overwhelmingly young, white and middle-class, it can hardly be said that all of its protesters fit this demographic. More importantly, neither do many of the leaders of, and participants in, our country’s other economic-justice struggles – movements that were built, often painfully, over many years, with little or no mass-media recognition.
Time’s oversimplification diminishes the complexities and diversity of movement-building. The cover story and its powerful imagery imply that to win a social movement, one need only tie on a bandana and hoist a sign. Thus the news weekly renders invisible the struggles for freedom, democracy, and economic equality it has always ignored.
Last Thursday, I spent the morning with a group of protesters – the kind that Time would like to airbrush from the pages of history.
“I’ve buried entire neighborhoods,” Pastor Brian Ecklund told a crowd of activists holding picket signs on the Menlo home’s front lawn. By “burial,” he meant the removal of whole communities in the area surrounding USC. These neighborhoods and the families who lived in them are the victims of mass displacement caused by the growth and expansion of the University.
House by house, block by block, the residents of these neighborhoods are being pushed out. Rental signs have cropped up on apartment buildings, with lettering often in USC’s cardinal and gold. Community residents know that the colors mean the buildings will be rented to students only.
Some signs are more bold. One apartment building rental sign is reminiscent of those that hung in the segregated South not too long ago; it reads, “We rent exclusively to students and faculty.” Tenants tell us that as soon as these signs go up on the buildings they call home, they know it won’t be long before they are forced to leave.
How are residents pushed out? Landlords refuse to make vital repairs. They let buildings deteriorate, hoping tenants leave rather than risk the health consequences associated with slum conditions. This is the case with the Menlo 4. They tell of the mold that has seeped into the walls as a result of decrepit plumbing. They show us holes in their walls big enough to let rats crawl into their rooms. Nine weeks ago, as the winter cold started to set in, their electricity, water and gas were shut off. The Menlo 4 wear coats in their homes to stave off the unbearable cold. Noted Willie Hill to the crowd during the protest, “I have a cold I haven’t been able to get rid of.”
As USC students – who occasionally peek out at the gathering from behind their window curtains – pack their bags to head home for the holidays, Willie takes his picket sign and rejoins the demonstration. He smiles proudly, holding his head high, and adds his voice to a chant that echoes all the way down the tree-shaded street: “Justice for the Menlo 4!”
The Menlo 4 walk the picket line with determination and resilience as they face the struggle ahead. Like hundreds of other community residents organizing in South Central neighborhoods for the past 15 years, they’ve had a long, difficult struggle – and they know victory is hardly guaranteed.
Spurred on by their commitment, they take up their picket signs, and in the weeks and months to come will attend countless community meetings to plan and implement their organizing strategy.
The Menlo 4 and the other community residents involved in this struggle against mass displacement, meet monthly to discuss their strategy, they visit their neighbors to recruit them to the struggle, they plan house meetings, attend weeks of People’s Planning School to learn advocacy tools, they table outside the local grocery stores and churches, and a coalition of organizational allies meet weekly to plan a broader political strategy. It’s hard work, but this fight offers the only possible path to the dignity, respect, and security they deserve.
Willie, Captoria, Clifford, and Donald don’t wear bandanas over their faces. They are far from middle-class and have never strolled the Groves of Academe. They don’t fit the hip demographic of Time’s Person of the Year. But we all have a great deal to learn from the Menlo 4. Their struggle reminds us that movements are diverse and complex, and that it takes a lot more than bandanas and protests to win.
And just as they make a stand to stay in their homes, it’s up to us to make sure they aren’t evicted from the story of the American protester.