Cincinnati Rallies for Justice in Palestine

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Last Sunday, 300 activists came out to protest the continued Israeli assault on Gaza, the second such protest in 2 weeks. It was one of hundreds of similar actions across the world over the last month, including demonstrations in the tens and hundreds of thousands from New York to London to Cape Town. Chants of “Free Free Palestine” and “Hey Israel, what do you say–how many kids did you kill today” filled downtown as protesters stood on the corner of Fountain Square. Many in the crowd were Palestinians themselves, unable to return to their homeland, drawing attention to the ongoing occupation of Palestine and the horrible conditions that refugees face today.

The protests come after weeks of brutal military action in the Gaza strip following the kidnapping and murder of 3 Israeli teens earlier in the summer. The Israeli state responded in its usual way: collective punishment of the Palestinian people, launching a massive campaign that included constant bombing, a military incursion and the destruction of hundreds of buildings, including hospitals, schools, mosques and the only power plant in the strip. It ultimately took the lives of over 1800 palestinians, most of them civilians, including many children and rendered 40% of the already crowded Gaza strip uninhabitable. As this article is written, a cease fire has more or less ended the violence and “peace” now occupies the ruins.

Throughout the conflict, Israel claimed it was protecting its citizens, who were forced to take cover from an apparently constant barrage of rockets fired from the Gaza strip by Hamas militants. Even so, the rockets killed relatively few, and the vast majority of the losses on the Israeli side were Israeli Defense Force soldiers killed by gunfire, including many killed by friendly fire. Moreover, the rockets fired by the Qassam Brigades are extremely weak, and are reflective of the comparatively low military prowess of the Palestinian people (who have no official army) compared with the IDF, which receives billions in aid from the United States each year. When Israeli troops finally moved into Gaza, under the auspices of finding and destroying tunnels into Israel, the civilian bloodshed was taken to a new level.

I want to encourage not a wholesale endorsement of Hamas, but an understanding of what led it to use the tactics it does and how it fits into the resistance in general. Hamas traces its roots back to the first intifada, a somewhat spontaneous uprising against Israeli occupation that lasted from 1987 to the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993. The organization began as the military wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine, a group that had previously engaged in a program of mutual aid and public services, filling the gaps left behind in the stymied Palestinian infrastructure. Hamas did not initiate the fighting, but came to represent the uncompromising wing of the uprising, rejecting the Oslo Accords, which were brokered by Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres, then the most prominent leaders in the conflict.

Today we can see the results of the Accords, which remain the most significant peace documents signed by the two factions and can understand the frustration of the Palestinian people. The accords were relatively weak documents–their most significant act was to establish the Palestinian Authority to represent the palestinians in the occupied territories–left out were demands that have been central to the Palestinian cause since the Nakba Tragedy in 1948 which established the Israeli state: the right of return for expelled Palestinians (a right guaranteed to all people by the UN charter), the end of settlement expansion in the West Bank and the end of military occupation of Gaza. Since then, settlements have only expanded, more palestinians have been driven from their homes, and the “separation walls”–apartheid walls–have continued to grow.

Opposition to the accords was stated most eloquently by Palestinian American scholar Edward Said, who, at the beginning of the second intifada in 2000, wrote, “What [have the accords] achieved and why, if indeed it was a peace process, has the miserable condition of the Palestinians and the loss of life become so much worse than before the Oslo Accords were signed in September 1993? And what does it mean to speak of peace if Israeli troops and settlements are still present in such large numbers?”

The end second intifada in 2005 led to even poorer conditions for the palestinians, particularly in Gaza. When Gazans were finally able to elect a government, and democratically chose Hamas, Israel responded with military force and, with US and Egyptian support, imposed a blockade on resources entering the area, severely rationing food, water, medical care, and other basic necessities all in the name of defending against terrorism. The conditions were desperate and to be an ally of the Gazan citizenship is to understand that such desperate conditions lead to responses by the Palestinian people, including Hamas, which, taken without this context seem like random acts of aggression.

But as Sarah Ali, a writer and teaching assistant at the Islamic University of Gaza, which was destroyed in the recent bombing campaign, wrote “Rockets help us keep the little dignity we have, and they show Israel that bombing civilians has consequences… For instance, the 2012 attack on Gaza stopped, and we got some concessions…because Israel asked Egypt to negotiate with Hamas to stop the rockets.” To have a kneejerk reaction against such a crucial a form of opposition from an occupied people is to deny them of their right to resist.

From afar, our best hope to support the Palestinian people and end the Israeli occupation is to promote BDS-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. The call for BDS came in 2005 from a group of Palestinians in 2005 urging the international community to follow in the footsteps of the global movement which helped to end South African apartheid. It is a simple plan: Boycott any products coming out of Israel, divest from Israeli companies and companies that do business in Israel; and Impose sanctions that limit the amount of international support (money and resources) Israel receives. And we’ll continue to protest as part of the the growing Palestinian solidarity movement that has brought millions out onto the streets worldwide.

On Sunday, September 17th, a statewide protest aiming to draw out thousands will be held in Columbus. For more information, visit the “OHIO Peace rally march to state house, for Justice in Palestine!” facebook page.

Race and Violence

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A response to one of the final questions in a history class I took over the summer term.

Race remains a major point of conflict in Cincinnati. While blacks make up just less than half of Cincinnati’s population (no race constitutes an outright majority), there are clear racial imbalances in education, employment, criminal justice and housing. The last major outburst in response to the inadequacies were the 2001 riots following the killing of 19 year old Timothy Thomas by a city police officer after a traffic stop (and the mishandling of the situation by the mayor, city council, and police department).

This rocky history is most prominently marked by a de jure and de facto segregation and extends back 200 years to the founding of Ohio. The Ohio constitution of 1803 did not extend the franchise to Blacks, and the black laws of 1807 levied a $500 bond on any black wishing to live in the state. In Cincinnati in particular, blacks faced limited availability of jobs and poor housing conditions, often relegated to backbreaking occupations like those in the steamboat trade and living in neighborhoods like Bucktown where pigs blood literally streamed past in the Deer Creek, turning the air putid. Being a border town, Cincinnati saw many former slaves either pass through once freed (or during their escape) or settle here permanently. Whites did not respond well to a growing black population in the 1820’s and in the summer of 1829, a prolonged white riot led to half of the black population (then around 2000) leaving the city, some forming the Wilberforce colony in Canada. Additional anti-black and anti-abolitionist riots occurred in 1836 and 1841.

Segregation would remain a pronounced problem up through the 20th century, especially as blacks migrated north from the south after the civil war, and in different waves in the 1900’s, especially during World War II. At that time, the largest population of blacks in Cincinnati lived in poor, overcrowded conditions in the West End. But there was little support for better housing conditions for the poor in this time period, as poverty was seen as endemic to these populations, particularly blacks and the sizeable white appalachian diaspora. The redevelopment of large sections of the West End in the 1950’s and 60’s saw the removal of some 50,000 people from the neighborhood, with many moving to Avondale and Over-the-Rhine, which remain population and cultural centers of black Cincinnati. Meanwhile, white flight during the period left the city with fewer and fewer resources to support itself.

There is something to this border mentality, urban pioneerism, led primarily by rich and young whites, today treats the city as a frontier to be reconquered. And the basin is the border between these two Cincinnati’s. This is illustrated most prominently by the finding that the nation’s most income disparate census tract in 2010 was in the apparently up and coming Over-the-Rhine, where two-thirds of households lived on less than $10,000 a year, that tract has only become more gentrified. This Spring, at Taste of Cincinnati, the most prominent news stories were about patrons being mugged near the event. And in July at Lumenocity in Washington park, described poetically as the city coming together as one, there was a shooting in the West End a few blocks southwest of the event. While some may point to the popularity of the two festivals as indicators of the city’s renaissance, the crime is a reminder of the places where social progress has stagnated. It is crime, particularly crime that may affect white people, that makes the news, not the daily violence of poverty, housing insecurity and joblessness that are the norm in the West End and other black enclaves–and have been for nearly two centuries.

Many Little Kenyon-Barrs

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This is part of a new series exploring the question: “How Does Gentrification Work?”

Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority’s (CMHA) 2014 annual plan calls for the demolition of 1455 units of public housing across Hamilton county. This would disperse the population, probably in excess of 5000 people, throughout the county. CMHA controlled properties stand at 99% occupancy, and the federal funds identified to build new housing are already disbursed, so the residents will likely be given Housing Choice (Section 8) Vouchers and be pushed back into the private housing market. The extent of the plan is striking, with large developments like Stanley Rowe and Winton Terrace set to be vacated and razed along with nearly the entire neighborhood of Millvale, each project accounting for 200 to 500 units of the total amount. There are two primary questions to be explored: Why is the housing being demolished? And where does this fit in with the pattern of displacement at the city-wide level?

To understand housing policy in Cincinnati, one must first understand the city’s geography. Like any modern city in the United States, Cincinnati is heavily segregated. Though neighborhoods like Avondale and Over-the-Rhine (OTR) serve as the de-facto centers of the black population, the city has no main dividing line between black and white halves–in a city that loves to talk about imagined differences between the East and West Side, no given cardinal direction can be identified as the black-side of town. Cincinnati’s black population, about 45% of the total, lives in several pockets strewn throughout the city. Many neighborhoods are upwards of 90% black–Avondale, Bond Hill, Madisonville, Millvale, Villages at Roll Hill (Fay Apartments), The West End and Winton Hills and others. These neighborhood are also among the most impoverished. City wide blacks face very high rates of poverty–46% of blacks compared with 22% of whites are in poverty. Additionally, blacks face high levels of police discrimination and an unfathomable unemployment rate, relying on public services to a much larger degree than their white counterparts. Of the roughly 13,000 families on the waiting list for CMHA assistance, either for vouchers or for public housing, about 12,000 are black.

With its stark delineation of black and white neighborhoods, Cincinnati ranks as one of the top segregated cities in the country. The disparities in the racial makeup of neighborhoods and the way that poverty follows racial segregation, call into question whether residents who would be dispersed under the regime of de-concentration of poverty would be welcome in new communities.

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How does gentrification work?

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800px-All-Neighborhoods-Cincinnati

This is the first in an indefinite number of posts that explore explore individual themes or cases related to gentrification in Cincinnati. They will typically be shorter in length, and attempt to relate the specific back to the generalized theme to create a sense of the broader function of gentrification in our city. This initial post will situate the ideological boundaries of the rhetoric of neoliberal redevelopment and attempt to set up the scaffolding for my criticisms. Broadly, I will approach these questions from a marxist viewpoint, engaging two main points:

  1. The history of gentrified areas, and society in general, is the history of class antagonism (Marx, The Communist Manifesto, Ch 1). For cities, this means
  2. “A process of displacement and dispossession … lies at the core of the urban process under capitalism” (Harvey, Rebel Cities, Ch 1).

There are a number of implications to be made about the urban process of OTR since it’s founding. For one, the neighborhood’s historical status as having a German heritage heavily influences the course of redevelopment in the neighborhood. The centrality of the “space matters” viewpoint in the gentrification process typically means putting forward culturally significant buildings, like Music Hall or the underground breweries, to highlight the artistic and culinary legacy of the German music-makers and beirmeisters. However, the crude architectural focus constitutes a form of commodity fetishism. It disrupts the appreciation or acknowledgement of labor that went into those buildings in the first place, as well as the labor that historically and currently occurs there.

Work in gentrified space becomes a form of cultural expression, as opposed to an economic relation, and workers begin to be seen (and see themselves) as producers of culture rather more than producers of capital. The rockstar mixologists, historic preservationists, angel investors, artisan builders and neighborhood cheerleaders constitute the forefront of this conception of work as a form of cultural and not economic (re)production. And this cultural production affords workers who play along access to amenities which have been, or are becoming, scarce in the neighborhood: affordable apartments, access to transportation as well as reductions in other forms of rent. The point is to remake the notion work in the gentrified neighborhood, so that instead of workers, people are urbanists, urban pioneers and (especially) members of the creative class. The historical gaze, to the point of declaring spaces “historic districts,” obscures the historic antagonism inherent in capitalist production. Worker/boss, landlord/tenant.

Architectural fetishism also serves to sever ties with the actual communities who bear the brunt of the negative aspects of gentrification. In OTR and the surrounding area, low income tenants of old buildings are less important than the ghosts of the original, authentic inhabitants. To the property owner, they are less valuable, and to the cultural connoisseur, they are something to be ignored, pitied or demonized–many times all three are applied opportunistically. Recent examples of this are the case of the Metropole Hotel, Washington Park and Washington Park Elementary, the barricading of McMicken Street, the Drop Inn Center and the Rothenburg School. These are the most high profile cases, and some will be addressed individually (or already have been).

Architectural fetishism also serves to sever ties with the actual communities who bear the brunt of the negative aspects of gentrification.

Large publicly funded projects might stir up debate, but there are many individual cases of small to medium sized buildings with a smaller number of tenants whose removal goes unnoticed. I want to bring attention to these as well. These cases draw out the notion that there are two OTR’s and help to illustrate the issues that residents face when dealing with market-driven reforms in the neighborhood.

Take, for example 1501 Vine street, which currently houses Smitty’s clothing store and, until very recently, several units of affordable but unsubsidized housing. This building is one of dozens that have changed owners over the years as the redevelopment of Vine creeps northward, and the new owner opted to redevelop the apartments into either higher priced units or (more likely) condominiums, which at that location could sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. While quick action prevented the unlawful expedited eviction of these residents, as well as winning several concessions from the new owner, the general story–lower income residents being removed to make way for more profitable development–again occurred there. The rupturing of the neighborhood means these stories are rarely told and seldom heard. What the people who are removed become, even if they were to become homeless and live in the street right outside their old property, is spaceless and obsolete in the new social order.

This dynamic is beginning to reach very extreme levels that are explored in China Miéville’s novel The City and The City, which describes two cities occupying the same physical space, and the complicated rituals of denial of the others that residents of each city went through to avoid the real of the situation. But for OTR, this arrangement isn’t permanent. I have previously critiqued the notion of an economic diversity, concluding that capitalism’s inherent instability, caused by its need to grow and consume, makes a steady state of competing classes a fleeting goal. Even for new residents who work in the neighborhood and live in less expensive market-rate housing, the ability to live there is threatened by the changing class makeup caused by continued real estate development.

Capitalism requires land and growth; in reality the patchwork, crosshatch cities in Miéville’s book are just a stage in the actual homogenization of the neighborhood toward wealthier stratas, driving the others into spaces doomed to be lower class, underserved and forgotten about until they too are ripe for redevelopment. One doesn’t have to look far to see the creep–the move to demolish low-quality public housing on Linn street and disperse the residents and burgeoning underground art scene in the north-western section of the basin, known as the “Brighton” dsisctrict, are indicative of the spread of gentrification across Central Parkway into the West End.

While this process does take a cultural form, redevelopment is not about rekindling a lost german culture or even obliterating a black/appalachian one, it is about generating profits for property owners, both business owners and land owners. This is the central point: profits are the cause of neighborhood conflicts. Homogenization alone isn’t necessarily a bad thing except that it is trending in the wrong direction. The sensible reversal of gentrification should thus be a reversal of this trend, to move toward the stability of a single class–a working class neighborhood and city–that is actually free of class, free of class antagonism and free of conflict. Under this regime, profits would fall under democratic control, and would be able to be spent for human need, which there is a lot of in gentrified neighborhoods, instead being recycled back into the system for the pursuit of more profits.

I hope to explore individual issues related to gentrification in Cincinnati and draw out the class conflicts inherent in the system. I will take a broader outlook than just OTR and the basin, looking at the role of redevelopment in areas like Price Hill and Columbia Tuscalum. I will also look at issues like race and racism, the role of policing, and the interplay of other oppressions with class antagonism and the urban process. My hope is that presenting these pieces in shorter, more easily digested forms that will build on one another will allow for a more general grasp of neoliberalism in our city.