On February 23, ONE DC members stood with Brookland Manor residents in their struggle against displacement at the hands of Mid-City Financial and the District of Columbia. We were joined, in force, by SURJ-DC, IWW DC, Metro DC DSA, the Black Workers Center Chorus, Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, Housing Advocacy Team, GW Young Progressives Demanding Action, Black Lives Matter DC, API Resistance, DC Jobs with Justice, Fair Budget Coalition, DC for Reasonable Development, Americans for Transit, Georgetown Solidarity Committee, Justice First, DC Right to Housing Initiative, MLOV, the Washington Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights & Urban Affairs, UFCW Local 400, and many more partners and supporters. Simply put, our presence was undeniable. Before we could even begin, security mandated we move a paltry distance from where we had set up to the red brick sidewalk behind us (even though much of our comrades were already occupying it). Separated by the empty space of the courtyard nothing was more clear: The power of the people terrifies the capitalist class.
|Pictured Brookland Manor residents Dorothy Davis & Serita El Amin|
Black Workers Center Chorus members Luci Murphy, Ma Krstn, and Eric Sheptock opened the rally by leading the group in song. Brookland Manor residents Yvonne Johnson, Dorothy Davis, Neeka Sullivan, Cheryl Brunson, Valarie Scott, and Serita El-Amin shared stories of their vibrant community. They were joined by spoken word poet Nkechi Feaster and activist-organizers Linda Leaks, Eugene Puryear, and Yasmina Mrabet. "Brookland Manor is a place where families become families," Cheryl Brunson explained, "It's our home." Ms. Dorothy Davis reminisced about raising her children in Brookland Manor and how she now has the joy of helping raise her grandchildren there as well. Transforming a space in which one merely dwells into a community that one lives takes decades of support and compassion; a labor of love that goes beyond the pull of self-interest. Ms. Cheryl Brunson humbly recounted how, during a tumultuous time in her life, it was her neighbors in Brookland Manor who served as a vital support system for her and her family.
In addition, residents provided a deft critique of the repressive measures taken by Mid-City Financial in the struggle for Brookland Manor. For those unaware, Mid-City Financial has fenced off the courtyard, blocking an essential element in maintaining their communal life. "We can't even stand outside and watch our kids," Neeka Sullivan explained. Similarly, Mid-City Financial has hired new security guards whose only purpose is to harass residents and produce an endless proliferation of infractions. These tactics, as well as the overall struggle, are dramatically affecting the quality of life of the residents of Brookland Manor. Painfully, Yvonne Johnson observed that in her 20 years there she hasn’t come across this level of depression. Children are weighed down by the possibility that one day they may no longer have a home to come back to.
Despite these realities the residents of Brookland Manor are undeterred. "We haven't seen a gathering like this in a long time," Linda Leaks shouted, passionate yet focused, "We are not going to move and we are going to win." Indeed, the line for those who showed up to support the Brookland Manor residents nearly wrapped around the building and we easily filled the overflow room.
|The line to enter the hearing stretched down the block|
Once inside, Mid-City Financial undertook what appeared to be a rather bizarre testimony. Over an hour long, they fixated on minute details concerning the types of shrubbery they wanted to plant and the hue and crispness of their brick selection. Mid-City Financial is just as comfortable prioritizing aesthetics over the concerns of their residents as they are putting their profits before the community. Here, we are reminded of Walter Benjamin's warning about the dangers inherent in introducing "aesthetics into political life" and the displacement it brings (See the epilogue in Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction). Yet, despite the absurd performance, the tactic was deliberate. The zoning commission proceeding only allows the cross examiner to question the Defendant based on the testimony given. Presumably, if the testimony is filled with vapid details and dead-ends the cross examiner will be barred from initiating a meaningful line of questioning.
"The essence of the police," writes Jacques Ranciere, "lies in a certain way of dividing up the sensible." That is, it is a power that determines what will be seen and heard while simultaneously determining what will be excluded from being seen and heard (See theses 7 & 8 in Ranciere's Ten Theses on Politics). During the cross-examination, Will Merrifield (attorney for the Brookland Manor/Brentwood Village Residents Association) insisted that Mid-City Financial clarify the difference in available multi-family units between the current Brookland Manor housing complex and Mid-City Financial's proposed redevelopment. The struggle for Brookland Manor is precisely over the question of displacement and, as Will made abundantly clear, Mid-City Financial's redevelopment plan logically can not house the same number of families currently living in Brookland Manor.
However, given the triviality of Mid-City Financial's testimony, zoning commission chair Anthony Hood attempted to censure Will's line of questioning as irrelevant. That is, Chair Hood classified Will's speech, which places the question of displacement front and center, as that which does not have the right to be heard. In other words, the Brookland Manor resident concerns about displacement is not relevant to the overall hearing process; their concern could only be heard in a certain context, i.e. the minutes to the November hearing. By attempting to exclude Will's line of questioning, the Zoning Commission Board was de facto impeding the Brookland Manor residents' ability to fully secure their right to return. Regardless, legal counsel Will Merrifield succeeded in forcing the Zoning Commission Board to yield to his line of questioning.
Towards the end of the night, the Brookland Manor residents were given an opportunity to testify and they did not mince words. Ms. Dorothy Davis cut to the heart of the dissymmetry between the two parties. “We don’t want to fight,” she implored, “We want to work with them but Mid-City Financial is putting profit over our families.” Indignant, another resident commented on Mid-City Financial’s frivolous testimony, “You can bring up all the bricks you want, but if you aren't bringing up lives, you're not bringing up community.”
We packed the hearing with so many people ready to testify in opposition to Mid-City Financial's plans, the Zoning Commission needed to schedule a second hearing date. ONE DC members and residents at Brookland Manor request your support at the next stage zoning commission hearing on Thursday, March 16. Momentum is on our side and now is the time to stand together and say No! to displacement. At the rally before the hearing, Linda Leaks emphasized that we need to “know their terms and use it against them and make them use your terms. You have to learn what your power is and speak the same language as they do in order to tell them to get out.” "A concept is a brick," writes social theorist Brian Massumi, "It can be used to build the courthouse of reason. Or it can be thrown through the window."
The Brookland Manor residents are not going anywhere, and they will continue to fight to preserve 535 units of affordable housing for working-class families of color in DC.
-Yasmina Mrabet, Housing Organizer