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With Rent Strikes and Video Cameras, Activists Step Up In Sunset Park

August 2, 2012 2:51 pm 1 Comment By  | Via , A+ / A-

We recently posted a translation from El Diario/La Prensa on Sunset Park resident and activist Dennis Flores, who monitors police activity with his camera.

Well, it turns out Flores has company in Sunset Park. In the diverse western Brooklyn neighborhood, residents have been standing up to what they see as injustice in their streets. Three Latinas’ grassroots efforts have launched a rent strike and made a community stand up for its rights and dignity, the Indypendent reports. (As we have noted, Flores was recently arrested at one of their tenant rallies after intervening in a scuffle between a protester and a maintenance worker.) Meanwhile, Occupy Sunset Park co-founder David Galarza, who has appeared on this site before, filmed a teen being thrown to the ground of a subway station by transit police officer, after the officer stopped and frisked the 19-year-old, reports Home Reporter News.

Fed up with poor living conditions, three women in Sunset Park launch not just a rent strike, but community awareness and activism among a heavily-immigrant neighborhood. (Photo via The Indypendent)

Sara Lopez, Francisca Ixtilico, and Sue Trelles have spent over a year knocking on the doors of the brownstones of 46th Street, organizing meetings, and holding a rent strike at 543, 553 and 557 46th Street. They’re low-income immigrant women who say they have endured power outages, lack of heating, rodents and bugs scurrying the walls and crumbling buildings.

Laura Gottesdiener for the Indypendent chronicles how these three local activists went from disgruntled tenants to community organizers whose efforts have landed on the nightly news.

Two years ago, Lopez brought her fellow tenants together in a packed hallway and began to plan for a rent strike. Landlord Orazio Petito responded by knocking on the doors of families who did not have residency papers, waving forged eviction notices and threatening to call immigration, the Indypendent reported. But that didn’t scare Ixtilico. She not only joined Lopez’s fight, she convinced other residents to stand up for their “right to live with dignity.”

She recognized Sara’s ideas from her Catholic organizing group in Mexico, which used strikes and direct action to win house repairs, stop evictions and pressure local government to fund sports fields and other public projects. She placed a small red sign in her window for all the world to see: “Rent Strike.” Other tenants soon followed suit.

The campaign’s bold words and actions have inspired community members not only to stand up for their rights as tenants, but also to reconsider social and political marginalization itself. About 80 percent of the neighborhood’s residents live below the poverty line, and the majority speak either Spanish or Mandarin as a first language. But in a society where immigrant women who speak little English are often bullied, intimidated or ignored, these women are loud, assertive and highly public about their right to live with dignity. And they are teaching others to push back as well.

With the help of the local Occupy chapter and other groups, Lopez, Ixtilico and Trelles have nurtured the movement that has blossomed from their grassroots efforts.

“I’ve lived here for 12 years, and I’ve never seen something take off like this,” said Priscilla Grim, who lives a few blocks away from the buildings and works with the social media team of OccupyWallSt.org. Grim and other neighbors from Occupy Sunset Park and writers from the Occupy-affiliated Spanish newspaper Indig-Nación joined the strikers three weeks ago, bringing new organizing tools and media attention while learning from the women’s low-tech, word-of-mouth campaign. Soon, the residents and Occupy Sunset Park began gathering for bilingual meetings, sharing resources and planning press conferences and marches and even carried out a brief occupation of assemblyman Felix Ortiz’s district office. Housing activists from Take Back the Land and the New York City squatters’ movement joined in, pushing the conversation toward transformative visions of community control of the buildings.

On another front of street activism in Sunset Park, Occupy Sunset Park co-founder David Galarza took a page out of Flores’s book when he happened upon a police incident on a subway platform on July 19. Galarza filmed a transit police officer following 19-year-old Sean Pagan, stopping and frisking him, then “thrusting him to the ground twice,” after words are exchanged between the two, reported Melisa Stumpf and Meaghan McGoldrick for Home Reporter News.

The video was unveiled at a press conference held by La Casita Comunal de Sunset Park. In it, the teen, 19-year-old Sean Pagan, is seen being followed by the Transit Police officer, then pushed up against the wall and frisked. It is unclear what dialogue passes between the two, but, at one point, the teen squirms and the officer is seen thrusting him to the ground twice.

Galarza’s video is below:

Officers charged Pagan with resisting arrest and theft of services after they said he jumped the turnstile, wrote NYPD spokesperson Paul Browne in an email to Home Reporter News. Browne noted the teen had nine prior arrests before this arrest, and had faced charges including “criminal mischief, intent to damage property; making graffiti, aggravated harassment by telephone, and criminal contempt.”

At a press conference, Pagan said the video has helped him tell his side of the story.

Pagan, who works at a factory making clothes, said he is, “Kind of mad about what happened. I was shocked.” He spent 24 hours in jail and called his mom, alerting her of his arrest.

“She did not believe me,” the teenager said. “If it wasn’t for the video, nobody would’ve seen it, and I would just be another kid [who this has occurred to].”

Pagan, who looked down as the video was playing during the press conference, said that “violence doesn’t solve anything.”

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