Review of "Take Back the Land: Land, Gentrification and the Umoja Village Shantytown"

Take Back the Land: Land, Gentrification and the Umoja Village Shantytown is a firsthand account by the primary organizer of the short-lived Umoja Village, Max Rameau. The opening chapters recount the general context of the Miami housing market for African Americans: the city was founded on and organized by racial principles, reinforced by economic inferiority and attempts at changing anything other than the symbolic order was met with police repression or co-optation of movement activists. The results of these policies encouraged local black entrepreneurs to leave or be subsumed by better capitalized competitors in other racial groupings and local black activists entering politics to act as the principals of local capitalist interests rather than that of the community which was locked into place as a result of their low wage, menial jobs with little to no opportunity at upward mobility. Such a socio-economic composition resulted in a slow downward spiral for Miami blacks as their political and purchasing power declined.

On a lower level of abstraction, the Hope VI program authored by the Miami-Dade Housing Agency (MDHA) offers a prime example of this. Funded by the federal government to the tune of 106 million dollars, the program was to address the paucity of affordable housing by providing increased quality and number of public and mixed-enterprise housing within the African American community of Miami. The actual results, however, were such that whites and Hispanics were steered to newer units closer to tourist areas or given rent vouchers while black families were placed in older housing and in unincorporated sections of Miami. As a result of these MDHA policies the city had to pay out in a legal settlement, however the pressure to adjust the housing was limited as people then had housing. The campaign for the Umoja village occurs in the aftermath of this settlement when the aforementioned housing projects that consisted of 850 housing units occupied by blacks were scheduled for demolition and replacement by a 462-unit project. If displacing this large number of occupants in order to halve the available housing wasn’t bad enough, more problems were to follow. Those ejected from their homes were offered first occupancy of the units to be built, which was made a meaningless offer as following the demolition they were never built due to the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners (MDBCC) restriction of MDHA funding due to “new priorities”.

The Miami Herald would later publish an expose on this situation in its House of Lies series, however the subsequent political backlash was marginal as the gentrification in question affected primarily an impoverished, politically disenfranchised community. To combat this specific problem and the general embrace by the MDHA of the gentrification process, Rameau and the activists he recruits begin to operationalize a plan to help the homeless occupy public land. Following the “Pottinger precendent”, any “life-sustaining activities” taken by homeless people was legal and police could not force them to halt or remove them from said location. Take Back the Land’s political action core was formed, outreach to local churches and NGO’s involved in similar “justice” campaigns made and after a location was chosen Rameau reached out to a group he refers to as “The Lake Worth Kids” to help him do the actual building of the shantytown.

Max had met this group of activists, actually organized around the name Lake Worth Global Justice, during the Anti-FTAA protests in Miami 2003. Amidst the flying canisters of tear gas, buzzing of rubber bullets and batons hitting the bones of protestors that has since come to be called the “Miami Model” approach to policing at international trade conventions, they’d exchanged contact information and, upon hearing his plans, agreed to assist. The account that follows relates to co-ordination of food, housing, news coverage, dissentions between the activists and the occupants over what came to be “self-rule” and other issues related to maintaining a shanty-town. Four major actionable areas are developed in consultation with the people living in the village: “deepening roots on the land; expand(ing) our political reach beyond the land; provide resident services; and promote resident development” (106).

Max moves back and forth from an on the ground description of what’s going on to reflections on the implications of it for questions of leadership, political agency and politics in general. While there are moments of drag, inevitable in any sort of close account of actions, the depiction of the various political actors and their attempts to contain, co-opt, or destroy the purpose of the village does make for generally compelling reading. While supportive of the need to bring attention to collusion between Miami developers with the City government and the corruption that ensues with such a relationship, I take issue with Rameau’s choice of land and housing.

Rameau states that his choice to Occupy the Land is practical and symbolic. The first rationale is that it provides housing for people that have been placed within a precarious economic situation exacerbated by aforementioned capitalist-government collusion and the second rationale is that it draws attention to the dehumanizing contradictions of capitalism undergirded by such a corporatist model of governance. That said, while land/housing is important, it is a single manifestation of Capital and once it is “taken,” the daily problems connected with their maintaining it quickly subsumes the greater struggle for the generalized improvement of conditions for the marginal black community. At moments Rameau seems to recognize this fact in his expressions of exasperation on the large amount of unexpected time and energy that must be directed towards maintaining the political core and the homeless groups cohesiveness rather than furthering their agenda. It’s also visible in his positive comments about, General Rashid, a member of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in American, (N’COBRA) who also binds the immanent need to help people marginalized and by gentrification politics but also extends it to reparations for the category of “Black people”.

Without digressing into a topic that requires more attention than what I am willing to give it here, ie. the impractical aspects of the federal government disbursing eight trillion dollars, or roughly 200,000 dollars for each black person currently alive in the United States; the variegated origin of “black people”, especially in South Florida, as well as the problematic construction of “white people” as an essentialist historical category considering the large scale of immigration that occurred following the emancipation of slaves, etc. I am sympathetic to the need for redistributionist/restorative measures to assist in the amelioration of the historical, institutional disenfranchisement of African Americans. However lacking a broader coalitional base and focusing solely on the “undeserving poor” without including the working poor, the large number of low-wage service sector blacks that have housing, greatly limits their options for political action. Thus while the symbolic aspect is indeed significant, the practical side is weak due to the small constituency involved in the political actions. Rather than a housing movement, it is instead a spectacle of housing.

To bolster my point, it’s worth citing a counterfactual to the confrontational, “adversarial” politics that Max Rameau advocated that would subsequently take form as the Occupy Wall Street movement to show how such a “movement” would exist. The group Lake Worth Global Justice (LWGJ), cited by Rameau as the core which helped him build the housing structures and co-created the culture of self-rule, has morphed from predominantly protest actions to gaining representation within their local government and expanding civic associations. Rather than simply creating a precarious spectacle, members of this group have been able to petition the Federal Government to assist low-income families without resorting to illegal squatting. Cara Jennings, mentioned in passing in Rameau’s account, was elected to Lake Worth City Commissioner in 2006, and was one of the sponsors for the formation of a Community Redevelopment Agency that subsequently applies for and obtained millions of dollars in federal funds [1]. With control over this money the members of LWGJ are able to monitor and direct spending to conserve and beautify traditional low-income housing areas and fund projects that benefit the whole community rather than just a cabal of developers. Additionally they have created programs of educational and legal outreach to marginalized Hispanic communities around the downtown core and further managed, through constant community involvement, to keep developers interests within the bounds of the community’s wishes through political agitation and referendum. The way Jennings and other in LWGJ have been able to do this is by following the rulebook of Civil Rights activists, ie. by making up for domestic deficiencies in funding and assistance due to economic marginalization by relying upon national entities, such as the Sierra Club, AFL-CIO, etc. for support. Her message, once able to be heard by voters with the assistance of these groups, thus was able to increase the pace of progressive change within the area. Issues of race and the different scale between Lake Worth and Miami are certainly factors of great importance, but so to is the non-essentially antagonistic relationship to the local and state government embodied by this approach.

These criticisms made, the book is still an insightful account of the short-lived movement whose operational presumptions have since been adopted by other political groups concerned with similar issues. Not only does it provide insight into the material realities of the abstracts of gentrification, corruption, co-optation, and others but it is also written in a clear, vernacular style.

[1] A particularly interesting aspect of the race was that Jenning’s “business-oriented” opponent printed and circulated through the mail flyers calling her a “radical anarchist” and his other opponent, former FAU professor, Andrew Procyk a Marxist.