Graz and worlding sf

We were in Graz for the conference, more precisely my partner was keynoting and I was once more along for the ride. Almost all of the talks were brilliant, something I find all too rare. Where the wondrous cities of Lisbon and Covilhã had been the higlight of our earlier trip given the hopefully-soon-forgotten nature of the conference, here the city perhaps suffered just a bit.

Once the seat of the Austrian Habsburg branch, it too is a city of faded imperial memories. It is beautiful and ornate. Like Prague, it contains high buildings along a handful of wide streets, arcades leading back to courtyards–some still with their medieval cobbling–in what I find such a lovely style of urban architecture.

Herrenstrasse, Graz
arcade, Graz
medieval courtyard, Graz

It also has steep roofs and signs warning of falling snow. In the older sections clustered at the base of the hill it is all winding medieval streets (best preserved in Europe they claim, so very hard to photograph) — the city once appeared this way.

The castle was reduced to rubble by Napoleon however, and the city itself expanded far beyond those old walls.

My favourite view, descending from that very hill:

It now has wonderful trams, good buses, a wonderful art museum (more on that later) and we were lucky enough to be there for the Christmas lights and decorations.

But what I will remember most is late nights with friends (nextmornings not so good, but we managed). Our last night there wandering home in a group through still-not-empty streets at 4:30 am, something I haven’t done in ages, so happy to be surrounded by such amazing people. From photography to Scottish literary figures to apocalypse to hilarious stories to obscure punk bands, conversation was of the best and I cannot wait until we are all reconvened again, though we represented many countries and it will never be quite the same. Wouldn’t want it to be, but I hope for a few more such nights.

My favourite non-human things:

The doppelwendeltreppe, a rare double spiral staircase:

Where Kepler once lived.

The city is beautiful.

Driven From Below: A look at tenant organizing and the new gentrification

I had a crazy day today. So much work to get through before taking a break. I am so deeply grateful for a life where I can take breaks. Deep excitement about teaching housing, but a bit nervous too. A bureaucratic meeting in which Foucauldian theories of governance became real with an extraordinary intensity. A meeting with the mayor in which it turns out we are all thinking different things about this research. Much needed pints with some of the more awesome academics I know to talk about radical housing and radical research. A long day.

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, after finding it in looking for something else but it came to mind again this evening. I wrote it almost ten years ago and hadn’t read it since then to be honest, and I know it’s not available anymore from Perspectives Journal, who I wrote it for (which explains some of the references). Back before I was an academic. A year after I had left LA, quit organising. I was still thinking about it. For all I’ve learned and written since then I’m still not sure I know more really than I knew then, though I phrase many things differently. Leonardo Vilchis is still my hero, still smarter than me.

In other news, isn’t Killing Eve the best thing you’ve seen on television in ages (I know I’m a little behind on this)? Much as I love Jodie Whitaker…

Driven From Below: A look at tenant organizing and the new gentrification


In August of 2002, two different families came to Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) because the manager of the Morrison Hotel had stopped accepting their rent. As tenant organizers, we had found this to be a common tactic to evade the laws of rent control and illegally force people from their homes. Typically the managers would not accept rent for a couple of months, then tell tenants that they had to leave. If the tenants did not leave they would be evicted in court for non-payment of rent, their only defense a claim that the managers had refused their rent. The managers themselves would contradict this while under oath, if it ever actually went before the judge. Such a tactic generally came into play when an owner was trying to empty a building, either to sell for higher profit, or to rehabilitate it and then rent the apartments at four or five times the original rent.

The Morrison Hotel is a 117-unit building situated only a few blocks from the Los Angeles Convention Center, in the midst of a flurry of new construction and luxury lofts. Famous as the cover of The Doors’ album titled The Morrison Hotel, over the years it had become a residential hotel. Essentially it had become housing of last resort, single rooms, with over half of them sharing public restrooms and showers. The managers sat in a small glass-fronted room facing the doors so that they could monitor everyone who came in or out. Knowing that many managers are unhappy about the presence of tenant organizers in their buildings, we went in on a Sunday morning while they were in church. Upon entering, fleas and insects attacked us, roaches were everywhere, and the smell of sewage was overpowering. Mold covered bathroom walls, paint peeled from the ceilings, plaster cracked, fire doors sat broken, panes of glass were missing from windows and balcony doors. The entire building seemed to be full, with a slight majority of the tenants being families with small children. We met one family of five whose two children had suffered from severe lead poisoning and permanent brain damage due to the flaking paint. While Los Angeles County had ordered the owners to rehabilitate that individual unit, only a few years later it was once again in very poor condition. The owners were not ordered to rehabilitate the rest of the building, nor inform other families of the lead hazards. Apart from families, the other tenants were single individuals or couples on general relief or disability. For all of them, the Morrison Hotel was the housing of last resort before the streets.

Within three months, more than 70 of these units would be empty. Not one of them was vacated under the legal requirements of rent control. Some families were evicted in the courts after the managers had withheld all mail informing them of the eviction process against them. The sheriff informed them of their eviction orders when he knocked on their doors. Tenants testified to physical assault, sexual assault, constant insults, and the intimidation of both themselves and their children. Several tenants told of being threatened with the manager’s dog, a pit bull. Threats alone were enough for many to just walk away, others were paid sums ranging from $25 to $4,000 to vacate.

While several tenants who had been threatened verbally were brave enough to come forward to file police reports, the police told them that “until it became physical” they would do nothing. At the same time, the police were being used to keep us—tenant organizers—out of the building.

All of these tactics were set into motion when the owners put the Morrison Hotel up for sale for $8,000,000 and drew up initial plans to convert it into a boutique hotel. They had bought the building for $1,000,000 eight years before, and after years of collecting rent while investing the absolute minimum to keep the building standing, they were looking to gain a substantial profit. The legal system that had failed to ensure the building’s maintenance was used to keep community workers out of the building, and thereby facilitate the owners’ attempt to circumvent California housing law by emptying the building by any means necessary.

This story exposes two things: the first is the changing dynamic of property development and profit in city communities, and the second is the ugly reality that under our legal framework, property rights take precedence over all else in the United States.

And so what better place for radical struggle? In this story, and others like it, lies not only grave injustice, but also what we would call a teachable moment, a place where people can break down for themselves the powerful American mythology of both development and the private property that is so foundational to our current system. What happened in this building (among so many others), exposes the essence of capitalism and its human cost, and demands an alternative vision for our society. Without grasping this
moment, critically analyzing it in light of theory, folding it into a greater movement and building on it, this story is nothing more than a story, and represents a struggle with a beginning and an end that makes little difference in the world as it currently exists, or in the hearts and minds of those who fought. This is the importance of theory for the people.

The importance of these stories for theorists is that they represent the harsh reality as lived by America’s poor and working class. It is the reality in which any radical movement needs to ground itself, and a field of battle where those who suffer the most from capitalism can drive the effort towards changing it. Voline wrote:

The key idea of anarchism is simple: no party, or political or ideological group, even if it sincerely desires to do so, will ever succeed in emancipating the working masses by placing itself above or outside them in order to “govern” or “guide” them. True emancipation can only be brought about by the direct action…of those concerned, the workers themselves, through their own class organizations…and not under the banner of any political party or ideological body. Their emancipation must be based on concrete action and “self-administration,” aided but not controlled by revolutionaries working from within the masses and not from above them…i

The question has always been how can this be achieved? The masses will never organize themselves around abstractions while they have to remove cockroaches from their children’s ears, or try to channel the water from a leaking roof away from their beds. They will organize around their key issues: security in their home and community, justice in their workplace, healthcare, a decent education and a future for their kids. It is the role of the radical organizer to ensure that these struggles open up an understanding of the structural realities that have made them necessary. It is also their role to ensure that each struggle builds community and horizontal organizations that will continue working together after the immediate struggle is resolved, to bring theory and practice together, and to tie local struggle into a greater movement for change.

Several things are required to build such a movement. The first is a deeper understanding of the forces operating in our local communities, the tides of disinvestment and investment that have caused such devastation, and how this fits into the larger framework of capitalism, globalization and neoliberalism. And we need to share lessons learned through practice, to build stronger horizontal organization and greater consciousness of struggle and change. This article will briefly look at the forces behind the new gentrification and how these can be challenged in practice. It will do so through brief case studies of the organizing work of two community-based non-profits in Los Angeles, SAJE, where I worked as an organizer from 2001 to 2007, and Union de Vecinos, through the words of Leonardo Vilchis, a cofounder and organizer. Both organizations are working to organize, to educate, and to build a greater movement for structural change.


SAJE (Strategic Actions for a Just Economy) was founded in 1996 to improve economic conditions and opportunities for low-income families in Los Angeles. Initially, SAJE worked with various worker-owned and run cooperatives, and also organized campaigns around banking rights, working to ensure that welfare recipients could open bank accounts rather than being forced to pick up their checks at the local check-cashing outlet. SAJE is also the convener of the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice, which won the largest Community Benefits Agreement of its time against Phillip Anschutz and AEG when they attempted to expand the Staples Center and is now working on issues regarding the University of Southern California’s responsibilities to the surrounding community through what is called the UNIDAD (United Neighbors In
Defense Against Displacement) campaign.

Although winning the Community Benefits Agreement with AEG, there were clear limits to the victory, as the construction of LA Live would lead inevitably to the wholesale displacement of the residents who were supposed to benefit from the agreement. So, SAJE committed itself to working in the Figueroa Corridor, an area consisting of 40 blocks of Figueroa Street that stretch from the Staples Center and downtown Los Angeles on the North, to the University of Southern California on the South. Surrounding this commercial strip and comprising a 12-square-mile area are neighborhoods that house 200,000 people whose median income is 49% of the City’s median. A majority are people of color, among them Latinos, Blacks and recent immigrants. Eighty-six percent are tenants.

Through door-knocking and tenant organizing work, SAJE worked with tenants to fight illegal evictions, harassment, and displacement. It built tenant organizations in both individual buildings and larger community areas, and challenged the city’s redevelopment plans for downtown and South Central.

Union de Vecinos

Union de Vecinos was founded in 1996. It emerged out of a decade of work organizing with the Catholic Church in the tradition of Liberation Theology, and was started as a purely volunteer organization in an effort to save the Pico Aliso housing projects in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles from demolition. Over the past thirteen years, it has grown beyond its initial base in the projects to become a larger network of communities in different parts of Los Angeles County. They work mostly in Boyle Heights, but Union de Vecinos communities can also be found in Hollywood, North Hollywood, South L.A. and Maywood. It is a network that consists at any given time of between 25 and 30 different communities. Leonardo Vilchis defines a community as a small neighborhood, a group of people in a small enough area where it is possible for everyone to know each other. The communities that Union works with organize around the specific needs around their neighborhood. Within these communities, people develop their own programs to improve their neighborhoods and tackle specific issues. All of them come together periodically to organize broader campaigns around the key issues arising from their neighborhood work that affect everyone. Union has also worked to form building committees to address tenant rights issues, the protection of rent control, and the improvement of housing quality.ii

Since 1992, Boyle Heights has lost approximately 2,000 affordable housing units to publicly funded projects, which does not count the displacement caused by private owners and development. There were 1,500 units lost with the destruction of public housing, another 150 units with the construction of a new metro line, and 60 units lost for the building of a new police station.iii

Organizing Methodology:

Who Drives Change

The principal point of departure for both Union and SAJE is that for real and lasting change to be effective, it must be driven by those most affected by injustice. For Union this comes explicitly from the tradition of Liberation Theology and its preferential option for the poor, while for SAJE it is an explicitly theoretical position. For Leonardo Vilchis, this is also a very practical choice:

 … you could do a whole campaign on improving housing in Los Angeles where no tenants would be involved, and where you would raise your voice about the injustices within housing. You could put the data on the table and say this is why this is unfair. You could have all these middle-class people, educated people, college students (in the context of the United States, white people) to organize, and it would be a just cause, it would be the right thing, but I don’t think that that is the point of departure. The point of departure are the tenants themselves and the poor … the analysis, the description of the problem and the solution would be completely different from what this other group of people would make.iv

To build organization in the community you have to start where the people are, and any structures of cooperation have to be based in resolving community problems in ways that community involved actually have faith in. The struggle for bare survival is intense, and it is both a matter of respect and practicality to acknowledge that people will not get involved in anything that does not have an immediate impact on their lives.

It seems a simple enough proposition, and yet the hardest to actually practice for various reasons. The first lies in actually believing that it is possible when everything in a capitalist society tells you it is not. Even among those paying lip service to such an idea, it is difficult for many to put aside the preference and privilege assigned to education and professionalism, and far too often, race and language. And after years of working in the political arena when an organizer can often accomplish something through a few phone calls to City Hall, regular analysis is required to identify when to simply move forward on goals as defined by the community, and when to build capacity by stepping back and allowing people to take it to the city themselves. A clear and collective understanding needs to be built about how those who are educated and who hold professional qualifications should be of service in achieving the solutions as defined by the community, to the problems that the community itself has identified as the most important.

In practice there is a great complexity in this seemingly simple commitment. The poor and working class are constantly under attack on a multitude of fronts ranging from obscure changes in legislation that will have far-reaching negative impacts, to the criminalization of daily activities and the emptying of entire buildings and neighborhoods. It is a world of constant emergency where doing anything but immediately reacting is hard. And there is always the balance between doing anything possible to quickly stop something terrible, and building capacity through longer processes that often move more slowly and involve more risk than an orchestrated campaign following traditional organizing models. It is all too easy to get caught up in a struggle moving at a pace, and being fought at a level of technicality, that results in the poor being simply mobilized in support of an idea or strategy. But it is only through struggle and reflection upon struggle that people and the society they create are transformed.

It is also difficult because too often the poor are not organized. Horizontal structures of direct democracy have to be built in a community to direct the work for change, and this is a long, difficult, often heart-breaking process of many years. This is why we have much to learn from traditional community organizing, despite its self-imposed limits when it comes to real and lasting political change. Groups practicing direct democracy are necessary not only to have collective voice and power, but also to create a space where people can challenge themselves to think critically, to learn and to grow. These are often the only safe places where gender, race, nationality, and class can all be broken down, and the very nature of capitalism understood and rejected. Traditional community organizing has taught us that this doesn’t happen automatically,
and that building power for an oppressed group does not necessarily mean that they are incapable of then becoming oppressive to others.v This makes a guiding ideology and a methodology for making this happen all the more important. The power of such organization to stand up for itself is a beautiful thing when it exerts itself.

Union de Vecinos was founded exactly in a place where people were being silenced, and where the most poor were being pushed away from the decision-making process. There were a lot of people who said that they knew what the problem was with public housing. They were mostly politicians, mostly urban designers, planners, and bureaucrats. And they said the solution for public housing was a) to have more mixed income housing and b) to demolish the projects. And in that process a whole sector of the population was silenced and pushed aside from speaking. If you had asked the people in the projects the solution to public housing, they would’ve come up with a completely different list of answers. They told us yes, we want people to fix our homes. Yes, we want to have nicer services. But we want to stay here. Because, over the years the people who lived in the projects had built a community. Now the bureaucracy wasn’t functioning, the whole system was broken, but the way they solved it was by demolishing it and pushing people out of there. Our community had a different kind of solution. And so Union de Vecinos was started by bringing those people together who were being silenced and ignored by everybody else.

So the idea was to stop the demolition of the projects, to develop a system of relocation that would identify the real people who wanted to move out, and to talk about the preservation of public housing. And we did it totally in the margins, we didn’t have work anymore because the organization I worked for didn’t want us to continue organizing the community. We had to go find other jobs, and the tenants themselves had to do all of the work because we couldn’t be organizing, we could only provide technical support. So it became a strong volunteer organization where everyone was doing the work. We were getting together in the parking lots, in the yards, in people’s living rooms. But as the organization grew, we didn’t have a place to stay, we didn’t have a place to put our papers away, so a group of residents in the projects started saving some money and at some point they called for renting a place, and then we found a place in the community that we started renting. And for me that is very important, because they were the ones who were building the organization, they were the ones who were taking control of this process. We were providing all of the technical support that we could, but we didn’t want to be the ones pushing this, we wanted to know that it was coming from them. So they rented this place, and that is when Union de Vecinos got started. vi


Popular education is also foundational in the methodology of both organizations, closely intertwined as it is with the idea of being driven from below. Based on Paolo Freire’s work and writings, in essence it is a way of collectively building knowledge. It is a teaching methodology that rejects the idea of a student as a vessel to be filled with knowledge, but rather sees a process of learning as an interaction between student and teacher, growing out of the student’s lived experience. It is a collective process of learning, as well as a fundamentally political process of asking why the world is the way that it is, and how we can act together to transform it. Popular education as the basis for a method of organizing that builds critical consciousness and leads to concrete change is exemplified in this quote from Leonardo:

… I think the role of organizer, and I would slash it with organizer /popular educator/facilitator/animator is to bring people together to reflect on their reality, to define their reality, and then based on their own experience and their own condition, to seek for ways to change it in an organized way that deals with the social, economic, political, ideological, race and gender dimensions within the world. To get there the point of departure is the practice of being able to describe your world. …vii

What the popular educator brings to the conversation is the ability to move the description of the world to a critical analysis by asking questions, to move a conversation to an act of transformation. It does not mean remaining trapped in the initial world of students, circling, in the words of Freire, “like moths around a light bulb.”viii Their experience is only the starting point.

In this way, people “learn to learn,”ix they learn to deconstruct their environment and layers of oppression, and find themselves as creative and critical individuals able to act upon and change the world. It is for organizers to identify the teachable moments as they arise in the work, to leverage the daily struggles into a greater consciousness of the world and the underlying forces that have created it.

 … As organizers and popular educators, anything that the community talks about we see as a point of departure to do a social, political and economic analysis of the world. Anything can do it, a stoplight in an alley can take you to the issues of safety in the community and the need for light illumination and gangs and problems in the community and the social problems that come with gangs and you can follow that thread. Or you can talk about the budgetary reasons why they don’t want to put those lights and how the budget is allocated and where the priorities are and why they choose to put more police instead of more lights on the street and you can have a conversation on that. Or it can take you to going to the local neighborhood watch and asking the chief of police to sign a letter asking for new lights and finding out that the chief of police doesn’t care about putting lights on the street but only about putting people in jail so it leads you to understand the relation of power within the city, within the community, and the police and so on and so forth. So we use that a lot, we use these little moments, these situations, as tools to analyze the whole. … ”x

Leonardo’s description of identifying and using the teachable moment illustrates the key to popular education as a constant practice. Below is a more formal illustration of the methodology for collectivizing experience and continually building on that experience.xi

It provides a classic example of popular education theory in practice, an invaluable way of both adding theory to lived experience in a way that prioritizes one but values both, and of reflecting on past experience to build more effective campaigns in the future in a continually expanding spiral of experience, theory, and action.

The Challenges of Organizing: Organizing building by building:

The combination of traditional community organizing and popular education means that both Union and SAJE work on the issues that people themselves identify, though SAJE has chosen a more explicit focus on housing, development and displacement. The nature of the work requires that much of the organizing has to be done at a building level, side by side with tenants facing harassment, intimidation, and eviction. Working at this level to solve immediate problems gets people involved and offers a great starting point for connecting the issues of daily life to community wide problems, thereby creating a framework for and analysis and understanding of the world. It also carries many limitations however, that somehow have to be overcome for it to build towards a larger movement.
SAJE’s campaign in the Morrison Hotel showed this clearly. After getting in on the Sunday we set a date for the first building meeting at the St. Francis Center, a local service organization with whom we had built a strong partnership. We attempted to get into the Hotel again, but were physically kept out, first by the managers and their pit bull, then by armed security guards hired especially to keep us out. The police continued to take the side of the managers and the guards. The tenants brave enough to invite us in were physically threatened and faced with eviction, had their electricity turned off, and were thereafter prevented from having any visitors at all. In this climate of fear and intimidation, we worked to form a tenant union in the building. Not too many people attended the first meeting, and we essentially introduced ourselves, gave a broad picture of our experience with what was happening in the community, and allowed everyone to speak about the problems they were experiencing. People agreed to bring more of their neighbors to the next meeting, and we continued our attempts to get into the building.

The meetings began growing as people realized that they either had to fight or leave their homes. At the second meeting we began our analysis by putting a piece of paper on the wall and drawing a little cartoon building in the middle. And then we began to draw out who had power over the building. It started with the owners of course, and that is where most people’s initial analysis ended. We didn’t know a lot about the owners at that point, except that everyone had heard they owned a lot of buildings. So we asked the question, who has power over the owners?

And then we began an analysis of the city, drawing out the different structures of the Housing Department and the City Attorney’s Office. Over these we added the city council, made up of 15 elected representatives, the Mayor, and the City Attorney (another elected position in L.A.). We also looked at the County Health Department, and the County Board of Supervisors. We drew in the different state and city laws that protected tenants. And we looked at the city’s accountability to its residents, and the tenant’s own leverage over the owners.

We returned to this drawing to deepen collective analysis of the role and effectiveness of the city as we filed complaints on violations of rent control and habitability regulations. We also carried out participatory research on who exactly the owners were, what else they owned, what their business practices were. We found out that they owned or had owned at least 50 other properties through a complicated network of limited liability companies controlled primarily through the owner’s business, Phoenix Mortgage Corporation. We created a map of their business to be able to both analyze how they worked and who they were. This moved us into a discussion of the practice of rent collection in slum buildings while paying as little as possible in maintenance as one of the ways that these owners made their profit, and the extreme cost of those business practices to tenants. We talked about how the city not only failed to stop this, but often facilitated it, and why. We talked about the changes in the neighborhood and how those had changed the owners’ business practices. We discovered the discrimination in the owner’s business model shown by the differences in how they maintained their apartment buildings in Beverly Hills and their slum buildings concentrated in our own neighborhoods around downtown.

We were also able to see who exactly we were going up against, and the results of earlier attempts, which was important for strategy. As in many slum buildings, the two brothers who were actually responsible for the building’s conditions had distanced themselves from ownership on paper and legal liability as much as possible. The building was officially owned by the Hope Pico Limited Liability Company, which was registered in the state of Illinois and formed in turn by Phoenix Mortgage Company and two money investors. The Danpour brothers were the principals of Phoenix Mortgage, and in investigating them we found that Henry Danpour had two previous convictions for improperly maintaining his buildings. They both owned buildings, either jointly or passed back and forth, that had been identified by various city programs as violating basic habitability requirements. We were able to show that they had been sued multiple times by the tenants in their different buildings, and that several local tenant rights organizations had organized against them. By uncovering these facts together we were able to work with tenants towards a deeper understanding of the structures of oppression. The Morrison Hotel was also perhaps the best example we had of the ineffectiveness of city and county government when it came to enforcing their own codes against private owners. This was further tested by our own collective experience in navigating the city process.

We did similar analyses in each of the buildings that we organized. And every analysis led to deeper discussions of race and class, economics and gentrification. But building work was always intensive, and limited the number of people we could reach. The greatest struggle was always balancing the need to build towards a community-wide response to the problems, while also dealing with a constant level of emergency in the midst of a struggle. The Morrison Hotel was a campaign of extraordinary intensity and required a huge time investment to build trust among tenants, and between tenants and our organization. It was challenging to bring together a population made up of monolingual Spanish speaking families, African American veterans, and a handful of single people of various races, many of whom were rather eccentric, regular drinkers or users of varying levels of drugs, and some mentally ill. All meetings were carried out with simultaneous translation and it took some time to break down the barriers of language and race. Many of the elderly men really did not like small children, and in spite of on-site childcare, there were enough interruptions that it became a point of tension early on. The most effective thing in bridging these tensions was simply regular meetings and discussions, working together towards a common goal and building trust through knowledge of each other. These meetings would immediately address the many personal issues that arose, and, where possible, address them collectively.

Looking back, I know that we seriously under-estimated the investment of time that would be required of us, two years of weekly meetings with tenants, sometimes daily emergency visits to the building, regular one-on-ones, and constant negotiation with the lawyers and city officials who also became involved in the struggle. The symbolic victory was huge when the owner was convicted on 21 criminal counts by a city that had not taken a landlord to trial for decades. And we transformed how the city itself prosecuted problem owners. They began doing the same research that we had done: this resulted in their prosecution of both corporations and the individuals behind those corporations and considering the entire extent of an owner’s holdings when taking them to trial. The city has also begun working in partnership with community organizations.
And yet when looking at the scale of tenant participation, and our ultimate goal of building movement, there is definitely an argument that the Morrison Hotel campaign was a tactical mistake in building a larger base of tenants working together in a long-term way as part of a larger struggle around the causes of displacement in the community. We knew this possibility when we made the difficult decision to jump into a campaign there; we felt in the final analysis that it was too important of a symbol to allow it to fall without any struggle at all. Of all the tenants in the Morrison Hotel, only one leader has remained really active in the struggles of other tenants, though several have remained in touch and supportive of SAJE, donating either money or coming to occasional events. This is an all-too-common issue with many organizers, how to keep people involved in the struggle after their own immediate and pressing issues have been solved.

Overcoming Limitations, Building Structures for Participation:

At SAJE we had always identified this as an issue, and to ensure that our efforts were never limited in scale to a single building, our strategy had been to create a tenant clinic and something we called a Displacement Free Zone. We wanted the clinic to be a place to collectivize tenant experiences, to provide a foundation of knowledge about basic tenant rights and how these fit into a political and economic landscape, and work to build a sense of individual evictions as a community issue. Union de Vecinos has used similar clinics towards the same goal.

… At the clinic when people come together and start sharing their story one after another there is an awareness that we are not alone. There’s an awareness that this is not something that just happened to us because we didn’t pray enough or because we didn’t work hard enough or because they’re racist, there’s also an awareness that this happens because we are not organizing. … xii

Looking back to evaluate our success in these clinics, I believe the area we pulled tenants from was too small. As a result we never had a critical mass together in one place at one time to run a full workshop as we had planned, instead we usually ended up doing more work one-on-one with families, either as they trickled into the clinic, or when they came into the office with emergency situations requiring an immediate response. We were able to achieve some level of education and politicization, but not the strong collective sense of the problem that we hoped for.

We were more effective in building the Displacement Free Zone. As building blocks of the DFZ, we built tenant unions in various buildings, at one point we had eight tenant unions working on campaigns around improving conditions, preventing evictions, and stopping the harassment of tenants by landlords. The buildings themselves had regular meetings where tenants came together to discuss their issues and collectively make decisions on their own campaigns and strategies.

Volunteers from each of the buildings also came to DFZ meetings, which became a space to coordinate support for each other amongst the different buildings and begin to confront the wave of evictions and displacement changing the face of the neighborhood. We carried out an information and education campaign through door-knocking in the neighborhood to let other residents know their rights and where they could find help. This initial committee was gradually expanded to three committees in three different neighborhoods where we were doing building organizing. Although most of the tenants from the different buildings did not really continue in their support of other tenants after the particular campaign in their building had finished, they remained in contact with us and we had a core of people from each of the buildings who remained active in the struggle to improve the conditions in the community for everyone.

This system of working in multiple buildings at once worked reasonably well while the buildings we were involved in did not require a huge investment of our own time. The Morrison Hotel, however, put a huge strain on us, and maintaining active committees while simultaneously supporting campaigns in other buildings proved to be incredibly difficult. I don’t believe we adequately took into account the amount of time needed for tenants with no previous experience in political or community activities to have the confidence and the capacity to run regular meetings and activities on their own. And, of course, I believe we could have done better in giving them the tools required, and in using every meeting as an opportunity for people to develop those skills. It felt at all times as though we were incredibly stretched, and while we had a lot of idealism, our own practical skills were continually developing as none of us had come to the work with much experience either. We definitely learned that certain key skills such as meeting facilitation were incredibly difficult to build in everyone.

Union de Vecinos has been more successful in creating a large base of members that are working actively, many of them with minimal support from the organizers. This only underlines the importance of successful organizers sharing their experience and knowledge. Over two decades of working in the neighborhood, Union de Vecinos’ organizers have created a broad feeling of community that is not always necessarily active, but can come together when necessary. As Leonardo puts it:

 … Overall we have between 25 and 30 committees. It fluctuates because in the community, you know, people aren’t as involved if nothing is happening. Sometimes if an alley was the core of the problem in that community and you take care of that and there are no gang members and there are no buildings with problems, then people … well, they’re still your friends, they’re still part of your larger community even though they feel they no longer need to meet as a committee for a while. Just like with your friends, you don’t always see each other all the time. So those communities disappear and then others emerge in the process … xiii

They also grow in an organic way, through the members themselves talking to their neighbors. And over time there are now a number of committees able to maintain themselves on their own, though Union de Vecinos stays in regular contact with all of them.

…The way they (the committees) develop is that our members talk to other members, they learn about the issues and invite us to some meetings. Now sometimes it happens that they hold their own meetings and invite us to come and talk to them, and then they continue their meetings and we don’t see them for three months and then they invite us again. Our goal as organizers, our goal as staff to this organization, is to be in touch with the people in every committee, and to keep an ongoing relationship with every committee… ”xiv

It is this loose structure of keeping involved those wanting to be active, creating a space that allows committees and people involved to come and go, to take time off if burned out and easily pick up again, and building skill and capacity in individuals that has allowed such a small staff to build an impressive network of grassroots organization.

The committees also vary tremendously in size depending on the community and the people involved, but they have been successful as long as a core group of people are committed to the long-term and big-picture struggle. At SAJE it certainly took us a while to learn how to start building movement while also winning battles. Again, as Leonardo puts clearly:

 … The smallest committee is six people, but going back to the traditional organizing model, we do pay attention to the balance of power. We want to have an impact, we want to have influence in the community. So if it is six people who just want to meet with us and talk to us about their problems but they’re not involved in anything in the community, and don’t want to be involved we really don’t work too much with them. But if it is six people who are involved and who are able to move the community we work with them. … ”xv

When we first started doing the tenant organizing at SAJE, we more than once invested a lot of time in helping individual families who weren’t at all interested in giving back to the greater community. By doing this we made a great difference in individual lives, but it did not contribute to building something larger. In the face of desperate need, it is often difficult to limit your own involvement. It is only through commitment to the bigger picture that this becomes possible.

Building Scale:

The biggest keys in building the numbers and level of organization needed to have an impact on the larger problems facing a local community seem to come down to a few key principles. The first is to organize around what the people in the affected neighborhood want to organize around, typically things that are immediately relevant and meaningful in their lives and capable of providing concrete victories. The second is to target your efforts to those who share a similar commitment to you, and will help you organize something greater than a single victory. The third is to create fluid yet stable horizontal structures that allow people to be involved over a long-term period, and can be reanimated if the community becomes inactive for a time. And the last is simply to make a long-term commitment to a community and to individual development; what Union de Vecinos has created was built by key organizers’ working in the same community over a span of twenty years.

Yet even so, many of the problems that organizers face have roots far distant from the local level. Local action can be capable of only so much when facing the regional, national and global economic realities that define life in the inner city. One of the most vital areas of study is how to build cohesive and useful coalitions of organizations on every scale, from the city to the region to the state to the nation to the globe.

For organizations and groups committed to being driven by those they are organizing, this presents a particularly difficult problem. There is a risk that pressure could be brought to bear from the top down and coalition work turn into a simple mobilization of local residents. To prevent this from happening while still facilitating useful work, safeguards and a strict decision-making process must be set in place. At the same time, the process must be as streamlined as possible to reduce the additional burden of work on already overburdened organizers or it will simply not be possible. The process and the work must always be immediately relevant, reinforcing the need for theory and big-picture strategies. And best practices for integrating high-level campaigns with those working on the ground need to be investigated, developed, and shared. Both SAJE and Union de Vecinos are members of various coalitions on a city-wide level, and for the past two years have been part of a new and promising national coalition of organizations and theorists called Right To The City. This is certainly an area where much more needs to be written, and their efforts to build national organization amongst organizations that are committed to radical community organizing needs to be evaluated and shared.


The eternal organizing problem is the unending succession of emergencies, of actions, of things that must be done. There is never enough time to do everything that requires doing, and making the effort to lift your head to look where you are going often seems impossible. This problem is compounded when you have to sort through the huge amount of theory and political thought that is not grounded in practice, and does not serve community building in immediately meaningful ways. This is no reflection on the usefulness of theory in understanding the world, simply that for those immersed in grassroots work, it is hard to find time and space to reflect on the abstract.

There is also very little written on the practice of radical community organizing, and the difficulties in creating sustainable and long-term horizontal community organization. There is even less on how to use every meeting and every campaign, however small, to constantly build towards a scale of involvement and power that can
have a real impact.

This essay is a beginning attempt to start thinking through what I have learned over years of work, and is only a very small contribution towards how we can more concretely respond to overwhelming challenges while remaining true to the belief that real change must come from the masses. How we can undermine the dominant ideas of private property, and propose alternatives. How we can create sustainable communities of critical analysis and action that operate through direct democracy. It has possibly raised more questions than provided answers and the ultimate question is whether such work could ever be enough. I don’t know that it is a question that can be answered, but it should be raised by anyone committed to these ideals as way to measure our own efforts and the usefulness of our theory. To organize certainly requires a great faith in the knowledge and abilities of the poor and working class, but also a recognition of the organizer’s place in a long line of people working for social justice both leading up to this time, and taking over after we are gone. I want to end with Leonardo’s answer to the question of what he thought was the most important advice he could give to other organizers:

“ …We have to understand that we are not operating on the time of the here and now. We are operating at the time of history, so these things take a lot of time. We need to think in terms of generations. A lot of times I think that the leaders that we are working with right now, the adults in the community, are not the main beneficiaries of this process. It is the kids who grow up in an environment where their parents are organized, where their parents come to these barbecues that Union de Vecinos is organizing, and who come to these actions. These kids grow up in a completely different world than they would have if they hadn’t been part of this movement, and that’s what I’m kind of hoping for in terms of the work of Union de Vecinos. Our results are not the stuff that we did 10 years ago, it’s the stuff that will happen in 20 years, and for that you have to have a different kind of patience.

You need to think in terms of making history, that you’re part of a historical process, of a social process. Social processes don’t get developed overnight. You’re talking about changing culture, changing values, changing society, changing the way everything is organized. And that is also why we are different in terms of a community organization. In most community organizations you only work in terms of the specific, the achievable, and the measurable. If it is not specific, if it is not achievable, if it is not measurable you don’t do it. We do here. We do it because it may not be specific, but it may be meaningful. And if it is meaningful it appeals to your consciousness, and if it appeals to your consciousness it changes how you look at the world, and if it changes how you look at the world it changes how you act on that world … there are signs of hope everywhere, we need to pay attention to them, we need to build on them, we need to become stronger every time we are part of them. But still, it is going to take time. … ”xvi

Works Cited

Arnold, Rick et al, Educating for Change. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1991.

Fisher, Robert. Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.

Freire, Paolo. Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Continuum, 1995.

Guerin, Daniel. Anarchism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970.

Truax, Eileen. “Proposicion B en Boyle Heights,” La Opinion, Oct 11, 2008.


i Volin, cited in Daniel Guerin, Anarchism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970), 37.
ii Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
iii Eileen Truax “Proposicion B en Boyle Heights,” La Opinion, Oct 11, 2008.
iv Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
v Fisher, 65.
vi Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
vii Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
viii Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Hope (New York: Continuum, 1995), p. 70.
ix Freire, 81.
x Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xi Rick Arnold et al, Educating for Change (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1991), p. 38.
xii Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xiii Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xiv Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xv Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xvi Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.

Driven From Below: A look at tenant organizing and the new gentrification
Perspectives Journal, 2009

Lisbon’s Gar do oriente, effective public transport made beautiful

I was blown away by this station, this Gar do Oriente. It brings together the metro with inter-city trains with buses — that alone seems like something more than you can hope for from any station. Yet this station is also so beautiful, and I mean SO BEAUTIFUL. I could have wandered around that place for hours taking pictures, and wished to come back on a day of pure sunshine rather than pouring rain — I might have taken some pictures from the outside then. More of my low-light pictures might have come out. Or in the evening when light would spill very differently through glass panes and around towering concrete columns.

It has a fabulous open air bookshop.

This is essentially the most I could find about it:

Located in Lisbon’s Eastern zone, Oriente Station was designed as an intermodal station to support Expo’98 and was also intended as the city’s main transport interface, integrating metro, train, a road terminal and parking.

The station was designed by the distinguished Spanish architect and engineer, Santiago Calatrava, who is world renowned for his unique style that combines materials such as concrete, glass and steel, achieving visibility for structures that other architects hide.

CP – Comboios de Portugal (Gare do Oriente)

The Mountainous city: Portugal’s public elevators and funiculars victorian and modern

Both Lisbon and Covilhã are built on hills, and never before have I seen such an incredible infrastructure for navigating such terrain. Not that it is perfect mind, but for those with limited mobility it is quite wonderful, and that it should have been a decision to spend public moneys on such thing…brilliant. The most famous is this one, the elevador de Santa Justa from 1902, designed by Raoul Mesnier de Ponsard who was an apprentice under Gustav Eifel.


This is one victorian beauty connecting Bairro Alto to Baixa, that is therefore crammed with people and subject to long lines. We therefore did not use this elevator, but the other, secret elevator that you enter just below a bar with fake grass and lounge chairs, and that dumps you out into a shop selling beautiful purses and other goods made from cork.

We also found this funicular, although we were not able to take it, we had people to meet and cod to eat! I may actually never eat cod again.


Covilhã though, this was a whole new level of infrastructure — I mean, look at these two elevators leading to the most fantastic bridge. I’m not even sure which I loved more. Especially the ways that people greeted each other, held the elevators and etc etc. This is going down and across the valley.


Crossing the bridge and looking down and across old factories.


I loved them but first, look at these. They are beautiful going up. 


We did go down another day, you know we did. More factories later, but here is a view of the bridge from below.


There are funiculars here too. Not all of them in working order, and even one that zig-zagged up the great hill from the train station (we ordered it to come and waited and it did not and I tried to converse with a friendly passer-by because in Brazil I communicated all right but in Portugal they speak a language entirely without vowels and I understand nothing so I don’t know if it was broken or simply incredibly impossibly slow). This led from the University up to the town centre.


This isn’t even all of them. I am so impressed. I haven’t even blogged the Gar do Oriente yet.

On the dawn in Lisbon (Pessoa)

249 [18/5/1930]

This dawn is the first the world has seen. Never before has this pink light dwindling into yellow then hot white fallen in quite this way on the faces that the windowpaned eyes of the houses in the west turn to the silence that comes with the growing light. Never before have this hour, this light, my being existed. What comes tomorrow will be different, and what I see will be seen through different eyes, full of a new vision.

Tall mountains of the city! Great buildings, rooted in, raised up upon, steep slopes, an avalanche of houses heaped indiscriminately together, woven together by the light out of shadows and fire — you are today, you are me, because I see you, you are what [you will not be] tomorrow, and, leaning as if on a ship’s rail, I love you as ships passing one another must love, feeling an unaccountable nostalgia in their passing. (227)

Tiles of Lisbon

Lisbon is a beautiful city…

The Lusiads of Camões — Verse on the Conquering of Worlds

Luís Vaz de Camões was born in 1524 or 25, son of a ship’s captain who drowned off of Goa. He lived in Lisbon on the fringes of court writing poetry and plays, legend has it he fell in love with Catarine de Ataide (who married Vasco da Gama, the subject of the Lusiad just as she was the subject of Camões’s sonnets).

Pedro Americo, D. Catrine de Ataide, 1878

Portrait of navigator Vasco da Gama, viceroy of Portuguese parts captured in India, from the c.1565 compendium, Livro de Lisuarte de Abreu (Pierpont Morgan Library, M.525)

Exiled from the court, he joined the garrison in Ceuta (Morrocco) as a common solider, and it was there he lost his eye. He is always shown thus.

Between 1553-56 he sailed to India, took part in expeditions along the Malabar coast of India, in the Red Sea, along the African and Arabian coasts, visits Malacca and the Moluccas. In 1559 he was recalled to Goa, wrecked in the Mekong river where he lost everything but, legend tells us, the cantos of the Lusiads. He spent time in jail related to his post in Macau. Jailed again for debt. He kicks around until friends offer him passage back to Lisbon in 1570, and it is in 1572 the Lusiads are published. It is only then that ‘Camões [was] granted tiny royal pension for “the adequacy of the book he wrote on Indian matters (xxvi).”‘ It is not, I don’t think, what you might call a happy life.

Canto 1

Arms are my theme, and those matchless heroes
Who from Portugal’s far western shores
By oceans where none had ventured
Voyaged in Taprobana and beyond,
Enduring hazards and assaults
Such as drew on more than human prowess
Among far distant peoples, to proclaim
A New Age and win undying fame

Kings likewise of glorious memory
Who magnified Christ and Empire,
Bringing rain on the degenerate
Lands of Africa and Asia (1-2: 3);

As armas e os Barões assinalados
Que da Ocidental praia Lusitana
Por mares nunca de antes navegados
Passaram ainda além da Taprobana,
Em perigos e guerras esforçados
Mais do que prometia a força humana,
E entre gente remota edificaram
Novo Reino, que tanto sublimaram.

E também as memórias gloriosas
Daqueles Reis que foram dilatando
A Fé, o Império, e as terras viciosas
De África e de Ásia andaram devastando,

The whole of Os Lusiadas in Portuguese can be found here. It is written in a style heroic, celebrating the bravery and brutality of Vasco da Gama and his sailors. There is a strange invocation of Roman Gods and nymphs, an evocation of Empire that sits easier with the Portuguese project than Christianity — it seems obvious perhaps, yet I found it strange and fascinating both that the whole of it is couched in terms of Jupiter’s support of the Portuguese cause, Bacchus’s dissent and constant meddling.

Now you can watch them, risking all
In frail timbers on treacherous seas,
By routes never charted, and only
Emboldened by opposing winds;
Having explored so much of the earth
From the equator to the midnight sun.
They recharge their purpose and are drawn
To touch the very portals of the dawn

They were promised by eternal Fate
Whose high laws cannot be brokem
They should long hold sway in the seas…. (27-28:8)

«Agora vedes bem que, cometendo
O duvidoso mar num lenho leve,
Por vias nunca usadas, não temendo
de Áfrico e Noto a força, a mais s’atreve:
Que, havendo tanto já que as partes vendo
Onde o dia é comprido e onde breve,
Inclinam seu propósito e perfia
A ver os berços onde nasce o dia.

«Prometido lhe está do Fado eterno,
Cuja alta lei não pode ser quebrada,
Que tenham longos tempos o governo
Do mar que vê do Sol a roxa entrada.

Fate absolves them of everything and I love that they expect the hand of friendship wherever they go, despite their plan of conquest. This is at once a constant complaint of the lack of trust among strangers and a victorious poem of war against all unbelievers.

It is an eternal conundrum,
Unfathomable by human thought,
That those closest to God will never be
Lacking in some perfidious enemy! (71:17)
Ó segredos daquela Eternidade
A quem juízo algum não alcançou:
Que nunca falte um pérfido inimigo
Àqueles de quem foste tanto amigo!

Hilarious. Reminded me of Hugh Makesela singing ‘Vasco da Gama, he was no friend of mine‘ in Colonial Man. The other side to this whole poem, and the side to be on. But we continue.

Canto 2

In which they send prisoners out to reconnoiter — I’m not entirely sure of the wisdom of this, but I suppose they weren’t just going to run away? There seems to have been a choice among prisoners as well. Ah, the jolly life of the sea.

Even so, from among those prisoners
On board, sentenced for gross crimes
So their lives could be hazarded
In predicaments such as these,
He sent two of the cleverest, trained
To spy on the city and defences
Of the resourceful Muslims, and to greet
The famous Christian he so longed to meet. (7:26)
E de alguns que trazia, condenados
Por culpas e por feitos vergonhosos,
Por que pudessem ser aventurados
Em casos desta sorte duvidosos,
Manda dous mais sagazes, ensaiados,
Por que notem dos Mouros enganosos
A cidade e poder, e por que vejam
Os Cristãos, que só tanto ver desejam.

Venus worries for them, she intercedes with Jove, he lists the many victories they will have (there are many such stomach-turning lists).

Even the tough, formidable Turks
You will see consistently routed;
The independent kings of India
Will be subject to Portugal,
Bringing, when all falls under his command,
A better dispensation to that land (46:34)

‘You will see the famous Red Sea
Turning yellow from sheer fright; (49:34)

Os Turcos belacíssimos e duros
Deles sempre vereis desbaratados;
Os Reis da Índia, livres e seguros,
Vereis ao Rei potente sojugados,
E por eles, de tudo enfim senhores,
Serão dadas na terra leis milhores.

«E vereis o Mar Roxo, tão famoso,
Tornar-se-lhe amarelo, de enfiado;

They will take Ormuz, Diu

‘Goa, you will see, seized from the Muslims
And come in the fullness of time to be
Queen of the Orient, raised up
By the triumphs of her conquerors.
From that proud, noble eminence,
They will rule with an iron fist
Idol-worshiping Hindus, and everyone
Throughout that land with thoughts of rebellion (51:35)
«Goa vereis aos Mouros ser tomada,
A qual virá despois a ser senhora
De todo o Oriente, e sublimada
Cos triunfos da gente vencedora.
Ali, soberba, altiva e exalçada,
Ao Gentio que os Ídolos adora
Duro freio porá, e a toda a terra
Que cuidar de fazer aos vossos guerra.

They will take the fortress of Cannanore, Calicut, Cochin

‘As the very ocean boils with the fires
Ignited by your people, Battling
Taking both Hindu and Muslim captive,
Subduing the different nations

Until every sea-way is subservient (54:35)
«Como vereis o mar fervendo aceso
Cos incêndios dos vossos, pelejando,
Levando o Idololatra e o Mouro preso,
De nações diferentes triunfando;

Ser-lhe-á todo o Oceano obediente.

Canto 3

In which da Gama gives a brief history of Portugal, ‘noble Iberia, The head, as it were, of all Europe’ (17: 51) to a Muslim Sultan. That doesn’t stop him from insulting the moors often and deeply of course, though he mentions that among them were Amazons (44:56). That’s cool.

Canto 4

In which Manuel the king of Portugal has a dream…

‘I am the famous Ganges whose waters
Have their source in the earthly paradise;
This other is the Indus, which springs
In this mountain which you behold.
We shall cost you unremitting war,
But perservering, you will become
Peerless in victory, knowing no defeat,
Conquering as many peoples as you meet.’ (74:91)

The king summoned the lords to council
To tell of the figures of his dream;
The words spoken by the venerable saint
Were a great wonder to them all.
They resolved at once to equip
A fleet and an intrepid crew,
Commissioned to plough the remotest seas
To explore new regions, make discoveries. (76:92)

«Eu sou o ilustre Ganges, que na terra
Celeste tenho o berço verdadeiro;
Estoutro é o Indo, Rei que, nesta serra
Que vês, seu nascimento tem primeiro.
Custar-t’ -emos contudo dura guerra;
Mas, insistindo tu, por derradeiro,
Com não vistas vitórias, sem receio
A quantas gentes vês porás o freio.»

«Chama o Rei os senhores a conselho
E propõe-lhe as figuras da visão;
As palavras lhe diz do santo velho,
Que a todos foram grande admiração.
Determinam o náutico aparelho,
Pera que, com sublime coração,
Vá a gente que mandar cortando os mares
A buscar novos climas, novos ares.

They asked for it you see.

But then there is an odd counterpoint, an old man calling out to them as they depart from Belem

–‘O pride of power! O futile lust
For that vanity known as fame!
That hollow conceit which puffs itself up
And which popular cant calls honour!
What punishment, what poetic justice,
You exact on sou;s that pursue you!
To what deaths, what miseries you condemn
Your heroes! What pains you inflict on them!

‘You wreck all peace of soul and body,
You promote separation and adultery;
Subtley, manifestly, you consume
The wealth of kingdoms and empires!
They call distinction, they call honour
What deserves ridicule and contempt;
They talk of glory and eternal fame,
And men are driven frantic by a name!

‘To what new catastrophes do you plan
To drag this kingdom and tehse people?
What perils, what deaths have you in store
Under what magniloquent title?
What visions of kingdoms and gold-mines
Will you guide them to infallibly?
What fame do you promise them? What stories?
What conquests and processions? What glories? (95-97:96)
‘Already in this vainglorious business
Delusions are possessing you,
Already ferocity and brute force
Are labelled strength and valour,
The heresy “Long live Death!” is already
Current among you, when life should always
be cherished, As Christ in times gone by
Who gave us life was yet afraid to die. (99:96)
‘The devil take the man who first put
Dry wood on the waves with a sail! (102: 97)

– «Ó glória de mandar, ó vã cobiça
Desta vaidade a quem chamamos Fama!
Ó fraudulento gosto, que se atiça
Cũa aura popular, que honra se chama!
Que castigo tamanho e que justiça
Fazes no peito vão que muito te ama!
Que mortes, que perigos, que tormentas,
Que crueldades neles experimentas!

«Dura inquietação d’alma e da vida
Fonte de desemparos e adultérios,
Sagaz consumidora conhecida
De fazendas, de reinos e de impérios!
Chamam-te ilustre, chamam-te subida,
Sendo dina de infames vitupérios;
Chamam-te Fama e Glória soberana,
Nomes com quem se o povo néscio engana!

«A que novos desastres determinas
De levar estes Reinos e esta gente?
Que perigos, que mortes lhe destinas,
Debaixo dalgum nome preminente?
Que promessas de reinos e de minas
D’ ouro, que lhe farás tão facilmente?
Que famas lhe prometerás? Que histórias?
Que triunfos? Que palmas? Que vitórias?


«Já que nesta gostosa vaïdade
Tanto enlevas a leve fantasia,
Já que à bruta crueza e feridade
Puseste nome, esforço e valentia,
Já que prezas em tanta quantidade
O desprezo da vida, que devia
De ser sempre estimada, pois que já
Temeu tanto perdê-la Quem a dá:


«Oh, maldito o primeiro que, no mundo,
Nas ondas vela pôs em seco lenho!

And they just sail away as he speaks. But I wondered if that were not perhaps exactly what Camões himself thought, maybe that is the heart of this epic poem, this old man railing against violence and pride. Against the colonial project. There are echoes of this throughout.

Canto 5

He describes Madeira — known for its great forests. Soon to be cut down and forgotten. The Numidian desert of the Berber people, a land where ostriches digest iron in their stomachs! The Senegal river, Asinarus that they have rechristened Cape Verde. The Canary Islands, once called the Fortunate Isles. It is a map, this poem. They pass Jalof province, Mandingo…

Off the River Niger, we distinctly heard
Breakers pounding on beaches that are ours

There the mighty kingdom of the Congo
Has been brought by us to faith in Christ,
Where the Zaire flows, immense and brimming,
A river never seen by the ancients.
From this open sea I looked my last
At the constellations of the north.
For we had now crossed the burning line
Which marks division in the earth’s design (12-13:100)
O grande rio, onde batendo soa
O mar nas praias notas, que ali temos,

«Ali o mui grande reino está de Congo,
Por nós já convertido à fé de Cristo,
Por onde o Zaire passa, claro e longo,
Rio pelo antigos nunca visto.
Por este largo mar, enfim, me alongo
Do conhecido Pólo de Calisto,
Tendo o término ardente já passado
Onde o meio do Mundo é limitado.

This…oh man, there is so much in here isn’t there. The view of the other, the incomparable arrogance, the initimitable violence, the begginings of this trade in beads and baubles founded on a lack of respect for a culture that cares not for forks or gold.

I saw a stranger with a black skin
They had captured, making his sweet harvest
Of honey from the wild bees in the forest.

He looked thunderstruck, like a man
Never placed in such an extreme;
He could not understand us, nor we him
Who seemed wilder than Polyphemus.
I began by showing him pure gold
The supreme metal of civilisation,
Then fine silverware and hot condiment:
Nothing stirred in the brute the least excitement.

I arranged to show him simpler things:
Tiny beads of transparent crystal,
Some little jingling bells and rattles,
A red bonnet of a pleasing colour;
I saw at once from nods and gestures
That these had made him very happy.
I freed him and let him take his pillage,
Small as it was, to his nearby village.

The next day his fellows, all of them
Naked, and blacker than seemed possible,
Trooped down the rugged hillside paths
Hoping for what their friend had obtained.
They were so gentle and well-disposed (27-30:103)

Vejo um estranho vir, de pele preta,
Que tomaram per força, enquanto apanha
De mel os doces favos na montanha.

«Torvado vem na vista, como aquele
Que não se vira nunca em tal extremo;
Nem ele entende a nós, nem nós a ele,
Selvagem mais que o bruto Polifemo.
Começo-lhe a mostrar da rica pele
De Colcos o gentil metal supremo,
A prata fina, a quente especiaria:
A nada disto o bruto se movia.

«Mando mostrar-lhe peças mais somenos:
Contas de cristalino transparente,
Alguns soantes cascavéis pequenos,
Um barrete vermelho, cor contente;
Vi logo, por sinais e por acenos,
Que com isto se alegra grandemente.
Mando-o soltar com tudo e assi caminha
Pera a povoação, que perto tinha.

«Mas, logo ao outro dia, seus parceiros,
Todos nus e da cor da escura treva,
Decendo pelos ásperos outeiros,
As peças vêm buscar que estoutro leva.
Domésticos já tanto e companheiros

They continue on, still on. And then the Cape of Storms rises up embodied before them, grotesque, and again all the contradictions in this colonial project come rising to the surface with him.

‘Because you have descrated nature’s
Secrets and the mysteries of the deep
Where no human, however noble
Or immortal his worth, should trespass
Hear from me now what retribution
Fate presrcibes for your insolence,
Whether ocean-borne, or along the shores
You will subjegaute with your dreadful wars

‘No matter how many vessels attempt
The audacious passage you are plotting
My cape will be implacably hostile
With gales beyond any you have encountered (42-3:106)

«Pois vens ver os segredos escondidos
Da natureza e do húmido elemento,
A nenhum grande humano concedidos
De nobre ou de imortal merecimento,
Ouve os danos de mi que apercebidos
Estão a teu sobejo atrevimento,
Por todo o largo mar e pola terra
Que inda hás-de sojugar com dura guerra.

«Sabe que quantas naus esta viagem
Que tu fazes, fizerem, de atrevidas,
Inimiga terão esta paragem,
Com ventos e tormentas desmedidas;

The spirit describes the Portuguese need to atone for ‘his bloody crimes, the massacre | Of Kilwa, the leveling of Mombasa (45:107).

Unexpected. These are celebrated later on but only after this first mention, the cost of what they are doing, its criminal aspect. The more I look at the poem the more I am intrigued by this very slender thread of self-knowledge of crimes inflicted against man and earth.

Canto 6

Sail on and sail on. Past a succession of sultans who lie and cheat the Portuguese until they come to Mozambique, where finally the Sultan fulfills his promise to give them guides. There is a meeting of the gods under the sea, summoned by Triton. And I love this passage

The hairs of his beard and the hair
Falling from his head to his shoulders
Were all one mass of mud, and visibly
Had never been touched by a comb;
Each dangling dreadlock was a cluster
Of gleaming, blue-black mussels.
On his head by way of coronet, he wore
The biggest lonbster-shell you ever saw.

His body was naked, even his genitals
So as not to impede his swimming,
But tiny creatures of the sea
Crawled over him by the hundreds;

Os cabelos da barba e os que decem
Da cabeça nos ombros, todos eram
Uns limos prenhes d’ água, e bem parecem
Que nunca brando pêntem conheceram.
Nas pontas pendurados não falecem
Os negros mexilhões, que ali se geram.
Na cabeça, por gorra, tinha posta
Ũa mui grande casca de lagosta.

O corpo nu, e os membros genitais,
Por não ter ao nadar impedimento,
Mas porém de pequenos animais
Do mar todos cobertos, cento e cento:

They are becalmed, and the strangest tale told of Magrico, in which John of Gaunt who has been allied with King Joao summons twelve Portuguese knights to represent the ladies in a joust for their honour and the knights win of course…I suppose it is just to tie Portugal closer to their English allies, but so curious.

Canto 7 — A last listing of Portuguese possessions after an excoriation of the infighting between Christians — the Reformation I imagination, he is particularly upset at the Germans. Canto 8, the treachery of the Muslims. Chapter 9 finally they head home, with reflections on all they had won — lands mapped, men and spices pillaged and plundered.

He sailed by the south coast, reflecting
He had laboured in vain for a treaty
Of friendship with the Hindu king,
To guarantee peace and commerce;
But at least those lands stretching
To the dawn were now known to the world,
And at long last his men were homeward bound
With proofs on board of the India he had found.

For he had some Malabaris siezed
From those dispatched by the Samorin
When he returned the imprisoned factors;
He had hot peppers he had purchased;
There was mace from the Banda Islands;
Then nutmeg and black cloves, pride
Of the new-found Moluccas, and cinammon,
the wealth, the fame, the beauty of Ceylon. (13-14:179)

Parte-se costa abaxo, porque entende
Que em vão co Rei gentio trabalhava
Em querer dele paz, a qual pretende
Por firmar o comércio que tratava;
Mas como aquela terra, que se estende
Pela Aurora, sabida já deixava,
Com estas novas torna à pátria cara,
Certos sinais levando do que achara.

Leva alguns Malabares, que tomou
Per força, dos que o Samorim mandara
Quando os presos feitores lhe tornou;
Leva pimenta ardente, que comprara;
A seca flor de Banda não ficou;
A noz e o negro cravo, que faz clara
A nova ilha Maluco, co a canela
Com que Ceilão é rica, ilustre e bela.

And then Venus, who owns many of these islands, prepares one for these heroes. She fills it with nymphs who are theirs for the taking.

There she intended the sea nymphs
Should wait upon the mighty heroes
–All of them lovely beyond compare,
So with redoubled zeal, each would endeavour
To please her beloved mariner, whoever…(22: 181)

But make way, you steep, cerulean waves
For look, Venus brings the remedy,
In those white, billowing sails
Scudding swiftly over Neptune’s waters;
Now ardent loving can assuage
Female passion… (49: 186)

Ali quer que as aquáticas donzelas
Esperem os fortíssimos barões
(Todas as que têm título de belas,
Pera com mais vontade trabalharem
De contentar a quem se afeiçoarem.

Dai lugar, altas e cerúleas ondas,
Que, vedes, Vénus traz a medicina,
Mostrando as brancas velas e redondas,
Que vêm por cima da água Neptunina.
Pera que tu recíproco respondas,
Ardente Amor, à flama feminina,

the sailors land and go chasing their nymphs through the forest — Tethys takes da Gama to the mountain to show him ‘the still-unmapped continents’ and ‘seas unsailed’ and ‘There they passed the long day | In sweet games and continuous pleasure.’ It seems to me all one elaborate metaphor of rape that he explains thus:

For the ocean nymphs in all their beauty,
Tethys, and the magic painted island,
Are nothing more than those delghtful
Honours, which make our lives sublime.
Those glorious moments of pre-eminence (89:194)
Que as Ninfas do Oceano, tão fermosas,
Tétis e a Ilha angélica pintada,
Outra cousa não é que as deleitosas
Honras que a vida fazem sublimada.
Aquelas preminências gloriosas,

It makes me feel sick really, this treating as parable what these European sailors in reality took as divine right and with violence wherever they landed.

Canto 10

This canto contains the great summation of death and destruction the Portuguese will wreck upon the world from the lips of Venus. I’ve just pulled some of the highlights out, more feeling sick:

The goddess sang that from the Tagus,
Over the seas da Gama had opened,
Would come fleets to conquer all the coast
Where the Indian Ocean sighs;
Those Hindu Kings who did not bow
Their necks to the yoke would incite
The wrath of an implacable enemy,
Their choice to yield or, on an instant, die (10:199)

Pacheco will not only hold the fords,
But burn towns, houses, and temples;
Inflamed with anger, watching his cities
One by one laid low, that dog
Will force his men, reckless of life,
To attack both passages at once, (16:200)

Together, by the power of arms,
They will castigate fertile Kilwa,
Driving out its perfidious princeling
To impose a loyal and humane King

‘Mombasa too, furnished with such
Palaces and sumptuous houses,
Will be laid waste with iron and fire,
In payment for its former treachery

But it is Emir Hussein’s grappled fleet
Bears the brunt of the avenger’s anger,
As arms and legs swim in the bay
Without the bodies they belonged to;
Bolts of fire will make manifest
The passionate victors’ blind fury (36:204)

But what great light’“ do I see breaking,’
Sang the nymph and in a higher strain,
‘Where the seas of Malindi flow crimson
With the blood of Lamu, Oja, and Brava? (39:205)

‘That light, too, is from Persian Ormuz
From the fires and the gleaming arms
Of Albuquerque as he rebukes them
For scorning his light, honourable yoke. (40:205)

‘Not all that land’s mountains of salt
Can preserve from corruption the corpses
Littering the beaches, choking the seas
Of Gerum, Muscat, and Al Quraiyat,
Till, by the strength of his arm, they learn
To bow the neck as he compels
That grim realm to yield, without dispute,
Pearls from Bahrain as their annual tribute. (41:205)

Renowned, opulent Malacca!
For all your arrows tipped with poison,
The curved daggers you bear as arms,
Amorous Malays and valiant Javanese
All will be subject to the Portuguese (44:205)

Having cleared India of enemies
He will take up the viceroy’s sceptre

For all fear him and none complain,
Except Bhatkal, which brings on itself
The pains Beadala already suffered;
Corpses will strew the streets, and shells burst
As fire and thundering cannon do their worst.(66:210)

Cantava a bela Deusa que viriam
Do Tejo, pelo mar que o Gama abrira,
Armadas que as ribeiras venceriam
Por onde o Oceano Índico suspira;
E que os Gentios Reis que não dariam
A cerviz sua ao jugo, o ferro e ira
Provariam do braço duro e forte,
Até render-se a ele ou logo à morte.

Já não defenderá sòmente os passos,
Mas queimar-lhe-á lugares, templos, casas;
Aceso de ira, o Cão, não vendo lassos
Aqueles que as cidades fazem rasas,
Fará que os seus, de vida pouco escassos,
Cometam o Pacheco, que tem asas,

A Quíloa fértil, áspero castigo,
Fazendo nela Rei leal e humano,
Deitado fora o pérfido tirano.

«Também farão Mombaça, que se arreia
De casas sumptuosas e edifícios,
Co ferro e fogo seu queimada e feia,
Em pago dos passados malefícios.

«Mas a de Mir Hocém, que, abalroando,
A fúria esperará dos vingadores,
Verá braços e pernas ir nadando
Sem corpos, pelo mar, de seus senhores.
Raios de fogo irão representando,
No cego ardor, os bravos domadores.

«Mas oh, que luz tamanha que abrir sinto
(Dizia a Ninfa, e a voz alevantava)
Lá no mar de Melinde, em sangue tinto
Das cidades de Lamo, de Oja e Brava,

«Esta luz é do fogo e das luzentes
Armas com que Albuquerque irá amansando
De Ormuz os Párseos, por seu mal valentes,
Que refusam o jugo honroso e brando.

«Ali do sal os montes não defendem
De corrupção os corpos no combate,
Que mortos pela praia e mar se estendem
De Gerum, de Mazcate e Calaiate;
Até que à força só de braço aprendem
A abaxar a cerviz, onde se lhe ate
Obrigação de dar o reino inico
Das perlas de Barém tributo rico.

Opulenta Malaca nomeada.
As setas venenosas que fizeste,
Os crises com que já te vejo armada,
Malaios namorados, Jaus valentes,
Todos farás ao Luso obedientes.»

«Tendo assi limpa a Índia dos imigos,
Virá despois com ceptro a governá-la
Sem que ache resistência nem perigos,
Que todos tremem dele e nenhum fala.
Só quis provar os ásperos castigos
Baticalá, que vira já Beadala.
De sangue e corpos mortos ficou cheia
E de fogo e trovões desfeita e feia.

A reminder that in it all, it is the women who are always promised as plunder.

This was not the crime of incest
Nor the violent abuse of a virgin,
Still less of hidden adultery
For this was a slave, anyone’s woman. (47:206)

All these heroes, and others worthy
In different ways of fame and esteem,
Performing great feats in war
Will taste this island’s pleasures,
Their sharp keels cutting the waves
Under triumphant banners, to find
These lovely nymphs (73:211)

Não será a culpa abominoso incesto
Nem violento estupro em virgem pura,
Nem menos adultério desonesto,
Mas cũa escrava vil, lasciva e escura,

«Estes e outros Barões, por várias partes,
Dinos todos de fama e maravilha,
Fazendo-se na terra bravos Martes,
Virão lograr os gostos desta Ilha,
Varrendo triunfantes estandartes
Pelas ondas que corta a aguda quilha;
E acharão estas Ninfas …

And then she bids Portugal look West, not just East. Don’t, you say. Don’t. But of course they did. This is the monument in Belem that marks where all of these conquerors set out with their swords. Hardly surprising it was built under the dictator Salazar, and rises above a great cartographic rose given them by the apartheid state of South Africa.


Henry Fielding on his way to Lisbon (including the adventure of a kitten at sea)

I read Henry Fielding’s Journey to Lisbon on a whim before we ourselves traveled to Lisbon, and became ever more annoyed with this wealthy, incredibly crochety old man. I expected better from the author of Tom Jones, the founder of the Bow Street Runners. I yearned only to know of the city I have so looked forward to visiting, but this book is entirely and very tediously about getting there. Forget about that saying that it is not the destination but the journey.

Of travel writing, Fielding says

To make a traveler an agreeable companion to a man of sense, it is necessary, not only that he should have seen much, but that he should have overlooked much of what he hath seen.

I shall lay down only one general rule; which I believe to be of universal truth between relator and hearer, as it is between author and reader; this is, that the latter never forgive any observation of the former which doth not convey some knowledge that they are sensible they could not possibly have attained of themselves.

I suppose the difficulties of traveling as a privileged male in the early 1750s while suffering from gout, asthma and cirhosis of the liver would be entirely new knowledge to me, but surely given his expectations of readership, he has written his rule only to immediately break it.

But this story was most wonderful:

A most tragical incident fell out this day at sea. While the ship was under sail, but making as will appear no great way, a kitten, one of four of the feline inhabitants of the cabin, fell from the window into the water: an alarm was immediately given to the captain, who was then upon deck, and received it with utmost concern and many bitter oaths. He immediately gave orders to the steersman in favor of the poor thing, as he called it; the sails were instantly slackened, and all hands, as the phrase is, employed to recover the poor animal. I was, I own, extremely surprised at all this; less indeed at the captain’s extreme tenderness than at his conceiving any possibility of success; for if puss had had nine thousand instead of nine lives, I concluded they had been all lost. The boatswain, however, had more sanguine hopes, for, having stripped himself of his jacket, breeches, and shirt, he leaped boldly into the water, and to my great astonishment in a few minutes returned to the ship, bearing the motionless animal in his mouth. Nor was this, I observed, a matter of such great difficulty as it appeared to my ignorance, and possibly may seem to that of my fresh-water reader. The kitten was now exposed to air and sun on the deck, where its life, of which it retained no symptoms, was despaired of by all. The captain’s humanity, if I may so call it, did not so totally destroy his philosophy as to make him yield himself up to affliction on this melancholy occasion. Having felt his loss like a man, he resolved to show he could bear it like one; and, having declared he had rather have lost a cask of rum or brandy, betook himself to threshing at backgammon with the Portuguese friar, in which innocent amusement they had passed about two-thirds of their time. But as I have, perhaps, a little too wantonly endeavored to raise the tender passions of my readers in this narrative, I should think myself unpardonable if I concluded it without giving them the satisfaction of hearing that the kitten at last recovered, to the great joy of the good captain, but to the great disappointment of some of the sailors, who asserted that the drowning a cat was the very surest way of raising a favorable wind; a supposition of which, though we have heard several plausible accounts, we will not presume to assign the true original reason.

The other highlight of the voyage, of actual interest to me, was the story of the great shark, who tried to take a side of beef

together with a great iron crook on which it was hung, and by which he was dragged into the ship. I should scarce have mentioned the catching this shark, though so exactly conformable to the rules and practice of voyage-writing, had it not been for a strange circumstance that attended it. This was the recovery of the stolen beef out of the shark’s maw, where it lay unchewed and undigested, and whence, being conveyed into the pot, the flesh, and the thief that had stolen it, joined together in furnishing variety to the ship’s crew.

That is cool.

Fielding definitely includes quite a bit of old-rich-man ranting about the laziness of the poor, particularly sailors, and a bit of political economy. Rich coming from a man waited on hand and foot and continually describing the extreme lengths to which he demands those who serve him go to provide for his own comfort. He was winched in and out of boats, sent for numerous doctors and dentists from numerous towns as they travelled down the Thames, complained endlessly about the quality of food, bedding, service. Was constantly demanding the boat stop so he could buy some more provisions. He writes this:

I at first intended only to convey a hint to those who are alone capable of applying the remedy, though they are the last to whom the notice of those evils would occur, without some such monitor as myself, who am forced to travel about the world in the form of a passenger. I cannot but say I heartily wish our governors would attentively consider this method of fixing the price of labor, and by that means of compelling the poor to work, since the due execution of such powers will, I apprehend, be found the true and only means of making them useful, and of advancing trade from its present visibly declining state to the height to which Sir William Petty, in his Political Arithmetic, thinks it capable of being carried.

As if any decline in trade were the fault of the poor.

I find the early barriers to movement and travel quite interesting — Fielding obviously had no fear he wouldn’t be allowed in to Portugal, but he definitely had to jump some hoops, essentially a quarantine. He writes:

it is here a capital offense to assist any person in going on shore from a foreign vessel before it hath been examined, and every person in it viewed by the magistrates of health, as they are called,

And he gives a sense of the first view of it when approached from the sea.

Wednesday.— Lisbon, before which we now lay at anchor, is said to be built on the same number of hills with old Rome; but these do not all appear to the water; on the contrary, one sees from thence one vast high hill and rock, with buildings arising above one another, and that in so steep and almost perpendicular a manner, that they all seem to have but one foundation. As the houses, convents, churches, &c., are large, and all built with white stone, they look very beautiful at a distance; but as you approach nearer, and find them to want every kind of ornament, all idea of beauty vanishes at once. While I was surveying the prospect of this city, which bears so little resemblance to any other that I have ever seen…

It ends here, with his disgust for this beautiful city, unlike any he has seen before.

About seven in the evening I got into a chaise on shore, and was driven through the nastiest city in the world, though at the same time one of the most populous, to a kind of coffee-house, which is very pleasantly situated on the brow of a hill, about a mile from the city, and hath a very fine prospect of the river Tajo from Lisbon to the sea. Here we regaled ourselves with a good supper, for which we were as well charged as if the bill had been made on the Bath-road, between Newbury and London.

Born 1707, he died in 1754. He wasn’t, in fact, very old at all. When visiting the Pessoa museum we chanced across another English cemetery — much bigger than the one on Vis. It is a reminder built into cenotaphs and monuments of the close trading relationships between England and Portugal in previous ages of empire. We wandered in, as you do. The first thing to meet our eyes was a big sign pointing to Henry Fielding’s tomb, and I suddenly realised that he had died here…


It might have made this a bit more poignant in retrospect, but… no. Really I just love the story of the shark and the kitten. Another memento mori from the cemetary might be in order though.


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