DC Marches to Cancel the Rent

DC Marches to Cancel the Rent

In this post, SOS organizer Evan S. reflects on the successes and challenges of our October 31 march on Mayor Bowser’s house to demand rent cancellation.

With the COVID-19 pandemic progressing through its eighth month, tenants in DC face a continuing economic struggle while bracing for a massive and looming eviction crisis. Even with legal protections in place banning evictions during the District’s state of emergency plus 60 days, tenants are only offered the opportunity to pay back, through installments, whatever back rent they’ve accrued and those unable to pay receive no relief. Rather than stop evictions, these protections merely delay mass displacement and send a strong signal that the District government prioritizes the needs of landlords over residents. For true relief during the worst economic disaster in almost 100 years, greater action by the Mayor is necessary to prevent the destruction of communities, families, and individuals in DC. 

While serious tenant organizing has produced real material gains in some of the buildings Stomp Out Slumlords (SOS) has been organizing, those gains are limited in the depth of concessions extracted from landlords and only impact a few thousand tenants in a city of almost 700,000. For the scope of relief needed for so many people, tenants have to escalate the target of direct action to a body with the actual capability to cancel the rent and stay the greed of the city’s landlords. Of all the different agencies, offices, and politicians, the mayor is a high profile official with considerable power and influence in the District. Unsurprisingly, Muriel Bowser is also seen as largely responsible for the ineffectual government response to the pandemic by both tenants and organizers. After hearing the idea from tenants, SOS organizers decided that tenants would march on the Mayor’s house to demand cancellation of rent during an appropriately grim occasion: Halloween. 

Beyond making demands and presenting a show of power, this march served as a structure test for a tenant movement that is city-wide and seeking to win victories for all the city’s tenants. SOS had organized a rally in July with several hundred tenants, but this new march would involve driving and marching tenants across the city to well-off neighborhoods far away from where any working class people live. Logistically, this was a much greater challenge and necessitated a deeper role by tenants to continue developing tenant autonomy and planning effectively. Through intensive turnout, numerous video calls, and an art build social event, tenant leaders from buildings across the city worked together to create a large direct action with buy-in from hundreds of fellow tenants and drive turnout from their respective buildings. 

On the day of the march, events proceeded relatively smoothly. Tenants assembled at a rendezvous halfway to the Mayor’s, marched for an hour, and gave a series of animated speeches highlighting the struggles tenants face not only with regards to the poor conditions in which many live, but to the prolonged economic and financial pressures that leave tens of thousands of tenants in a precarious state of housing once the eviction moratorium expires. Roughly 200 tenants, organizers, and activists  came to the Mayor’s neighborhood and witnessed firsthand the dramatic difference between their small apartments and the Mayor’s wealthy and elite neighborhood. Compounding this stark class divide were the impatient and unsympathetic neighbors openly expressing their contempt for crowds of working class people in their isolated suburb and the detachment of police sent to protect the Mayor’s house from a peaceful march. 

Mayor Bowser never did show her face over the hour that protesters shared their stories in her street. However, the tenant movement made several significant gains through the march. First, tenants had an opportunity to meet leaders from across the city who were also organizing their buildings for the same improvements in conditions and rent relief. One of the most important driving forces in organizing is the sense of collective identity and strength that give people hope and support. Even in the best of times, people can feel isolated by struggle, which only increases individual burden and feelings of hopelessness. Much like when tenant leaders speak of their successes to nascent leaders when organizing, having tenants see others fighting their landlords gives them conviction and camaraderie, which in turn engenders optimism and energy. Organizing relies on individuals recognizing the potential of collective power, and large actions like the march demonstrate that potential through unity of purpose and shared class experiences. 

Additionally, the structure test of our capability in not only convincing, but arranging for tenants to participate was effective. Dozens of drivers from buildings and activist volunteers helped move tenants from locations all over the city to two different staging areas in time for the march, also saving room for water, snacks, banners, and costumes. We estimated  200 people from diverse buildings, which included English, Spanish, Amharic speakers from wards all over the city and tenants of poor, working, and middle classes. Much of the logistical success was due to the art build held at the initial staging area and the two digital meetings with leaders from numerous buildings. 

Lastly, the greatest takeaway was the expanded sense of unity gained by tenants and organizers alike having witnessed so many tenants take the time and effort to demonstrate against a common opponent for shared demands. It cannot be overstated how important it is to unite disparate organizing campaigns to give hope, find meaning, and build relationships between tenants that otherwise might never meet. As with recruiting, people sharing their stories and experiences with others created camaraderie that is essential to building bridges between tenants across the city.

Despite these successes, the march also revealed shortcomings in planning and structure that need to be overcome for achieving any necessary changes in city policy. Some of the issues were simple logistical shortcomings such as adequately arranging for drivers to return tenants home after the march and ensuring tighter timing of arrivals and assembly. Planning extra time for delays in assembly helped mitigate the 45-minute late start, but our overall turnout capability rests not only on driving out large numbers of tenants, but also on smoothly coordinated timing. Longer times assembling and delays in marching can easily tire out older or physically limited tenants and reduce turnout to future actions. An action including small children such as this only further exacerbates the risk of attrition. Building a movement that is inclusive of families with children and those less mobile will require more logistical control and foresight.

Looking more strategically at the march, turnout may have met our expectations but will need to be higher for escalating and maintaining the kind of pressure that pushes elected officials to enact radical policy. While there are plans for continued protests at the Mayor’s house and elsewhere, what will differentiate our actions from the numerous activist-driven protests taking place across DC will be the number of working class families of color in the crowd. DC officials have long been used to protests of young and mostly white activists that do not necessarily represent the large, black and brown working class of DC. Building working class power in a city that openly and deliberately seeks to cater to the professional-managerial class through gentrification threatens the existing political machine and creates pressures that most movements in DC have struggled to build. Having Salvadorian mothers, out-of-work Ethiopian taxi drivers, and Black tenants from across the Anacostia River marching to the far-flung neighborhoods in which DC’s elites reside is a demonstration of resolve that is hard to ignore. While the presence of activist groups such as MDC DSA and the Sunrise Movement were very welcome additions, the tenant movement will need to mobilize greater numbers of working class people to continue countering the cynical narrative that it is led and fueled only by white tenants.  

It would be naive to assume, however, that simply increasing the number of participants in the tenant movement would be enough to change longstanding policy guarded by firmly entrenched real estate interests. What is needed now is the escalation to disruptive tactics that force politicians to action. SOS was built on the idea of clogging DC’s court system to stop the eviction machine, and disruptive tactics have continued to be a foundation for our organizing. While rent strikes can impact landlords’ bottom line, a viable strategy of disruption aimed at the political class needs to be crafted and realized. Elsewhere across the US, notable examples of eviction defense and court blocking have garnered significant attention not only from leftists but even the mainstream media. Actions like this march are a great first step towards policy gains but need dramatic escalation before they will bear fruit. Taking on the city’s landlords will always be a part of the tenant struggle, but more ambitious goals can be won by confronting those with even greater power. Despite the immense influence landlords wield in DC, only the political class has the power to implement rent cancellation or widespread rent relief.

In order for that to become feasible, a number of other obstacles must be overcome. So far our organizing has made progress in breaking down the barrier between organizers and tenants by bringing building leaders together in coordination meetings and action debriefs. Still, more progress needs to be made in erasing that distinction by including tenants and the tenant leaders we’ve identified in SOS’s structure, trainings, decision making, and ideological analysis. Shared ideological analysis in particular will be important for planning more militant actions and reconciling the more radical politics of SOS with the diverse political beliefs of tenants. Currently our immediate aims and strategy align but a viable tenant movement and productive long-term organizing require a vision of an anticapitalist alternative to the present system.  

With these successes and despite these shortcomings and remaining hurdles, seeking rent cancellation remains our objective but our means must expand greatly to achieve any significant rent relief. How this manifests exactly has yet to be determined but having held this march, we are confident that we are capable of seizing this dire and historical opportunity to alter the balance of power in favor of DC tenants and toward the kind of large-scale victories not seen in decades.