On Common Ground

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Recently a picture of Paris Hilton wearing a tank top with “Stop Being Poor” printed across the front went viral on the internet. There was a generally negative reaction, as is to be expected, though some questioned whether the intentions of Hilton, the hotel heiress famous for being famous, were as vile as it would seem. Regardless of the intention, the effect remains the same. Even if we are generous and grant Hilton the benefit of the doubt, and choose to believe the shirt was a joke, we still must deal with the fact that one of the richest people on the planet, thinks it is OK to wear a shirt that denigrates poor and working class people the world over. What is clear is that not only does Hilton not know what it’s like to be poor, she also has no poor friends or acquaintances that would give her perspective that would keep such displays in check. While only her background and upbringing can give an idea of the depth of the issue, from the picture alone it is clear that Hilton is no ally of the working class.

In our movement work we’re often faced with the question of who is on our side and, subtly different but possibly more important, who we want on our side. Questions arise like can we extend an olive branch to corporations and ceos? Can we convince groups like 3CDC or Western & Southern to change course? What would Gandhi do?

While the battle over the Anna Louise Inn was being waged, there was some talk of appealing to John Barrett’s moral sensibilities. Some thought that if we left the door open to cooperation that he, the CEO of Western & Southern Financial, would see this as an amicable way to end the fight. Some believed that even calling Barrett a “bully” was too much. At a large group meeting a minority expressed interest in finding “common ground” with Barrett. Many of these aspirations of cooperation were shattered when the Inn signed settled with Western & Southern and Barrett called it a “win-win,” a statement that showed how completely devoid of empathy, compassion and perspective Barrett truly was. Still, the idea remains: isn’t there some way to work with the likes of Barrett and his peers in the 1 percent?

The answer to this question must be rooted in an examination of power and where it is derived from. To work with Barrett is an implicit reification or acceptance of the idea that his power as a capitalist and hoarder of wealth outweighs the power of the women of the Inn, who, as tenants on the market, only have as much say as their dollars can afford. Relative to Barrett’s wealth, this is nothing. The choice that our movement needs to make is whether we buy into that neoliberal idea of the domination of the free market, or whether we conceive of things in a different light.

The question is also one that addresses the makeup of the movement we are fighting in. It can not be avoided that we are battling back the tide of gentrification in the city. More broadly, the policies that constitute econocide, as described by Alice Skirtz, illustrates the extent to which municipal leaders in government and business are willing to go to have their way. These people and the policies they implement are the ones we are opposed to, and we can not separate the policies from the people who champion them. Gandhi and his allies didn’t build a movement by cooperating with the colonial oppressors, but by organizing the people who were oppressed. The civil rights movement was not fought in board rooms with blacks and bigots sitting side by side, but by blacks demanding rights by coordinated mass actions.

This discussion also opens questions about what constitutes a democratic movement. What would it mean to have business interests involved? It means those interests would work to push their agendas which are based more on dollars than people. The agenda of profit is diametrically opposed to democracy. Because of this, there would be a constant undermining of the very essence of our movement, there would be a constant affront to democratic control. As soon as we threatened the interests of the capitalists in our coalitions, whether it be their profits or property that are under attack, they would split and denigrate what we are working for from the outside, while having intricate knowledge of how we work internally, a poisonous combination. Things that we are interested in fighting for–rent controls, tenant rights, democratic development–are all things that would cut into the profits of the developers and would challenge the core of liberal ideology: the right to private property.

These questions of “common ground” have very tangible impacts on the strategy and tactics of our movement. One of the most pressing issues that the homeless community faces in Over-the-Rhine currently is the looming possibility that the Drop Inn Center will cease to be located in its current location (or simply cease to be). Put aside that the Drop is in need of a renovation, put aside that the board is less democratic than it used to be–the question we must ask is how our movement can help the Drop and the members of the homeless community that uses it. We should look to the movement that created it. 40 years ago, an openly militant group of activists, created the drop and defended it not by cooperation with those that demonize the homeless, but going on the offensive both rhetorically and in action. Their legitimacy rested in not this or that individual who was involved, but on the power that rested in their sheer numbers and their conception of themselves as a class of people with common interests. A coalition of residents in and out of OTR, homeless folks, blacks and whites, people from the city and immigrants from Appalachia, came together to create the center and spawn the movement that we find ourselves as the successor to. We have a lot to learn from their fight and the strategies and tactics they employed. It is the kind of fight we must rekindle.

Our group has expressed an interest in the concept called the right to the city, an idea originally articulated by Henri Lefebvre, a french activist and sociologist. His writings challenged the world that he lived in and explored what a new, just, system might look like. Lefebvre stressed the need to defend public spaces from those that seek to take them away, and to not only challenge emerging neoliberal conceptions power, but to leverage the actual power we have as a diverse group with common interests, like those who fought for the Drop.

We should take this task seriously. We should conceive of ourselves as a serious movement that seeks to transform how the city works, not one that simply looks for a place for us in the existing order.

Calling for common ground assumes we are on equal footing with those we work with. As it stands now, we have much more in common with the women of the Inn than we do with John Barrett. Barrett lives in a tower, looking down on us all, the only way to get him on our level is to smash the tower.

To put it simply, we must choose between organizing with the likes of John Barrett or the women of the Anna Louise Inn.

We can not have both.