Notes on Nationwide Organizing Tour
I spoke that evening to an enthusiastic gathering of about 18 or 20 people. A co-speaker was Marco Grandino, a superbly articulate activist who has been organizing for a nationwide rent strike (or "rent boycott" as he prefers to call it) for several years. Marco proposed that rent strikers put the entire amount of their rent for the first few months of a strike into a fund for publicity, legal defense, etc. Such funds, if handled wisely, could be powerful tools in the struggle. However, I favor strikers keeping this money in their own pockets, although no doubt many would want to contribute something for publicity, flyers perhaps a local newsletter, etc. At any rate, such decisions would be up to local groups and individuals.
A member of a land trust organization videotaped the event. After the meeting a local woman, Julie Russell, told me she was moving to Tucson, Arizona soon and hoped to organize there for the international rent strike and squat planned for next May 1st, 1995. Several people volunteered to begin posting the 8 x 11 RENT IS THEFT flyers by which Homes for All hopes to raise people's awareness of the master-slave nature of the landlord system.
Next day I drove south though broiling heat toward Los Angeles. About 170 miles south, in Paso Robles, my 1974 VW bus, Recalcitrant, went on strike. I called a tow truck. 20 minutes later, the minute the tow truck arrived, Recalcitrant started up again, and ran like new. The friendly elderly Chicano who owned the tow truck refused to accept a penny for his trouble. Occasional encounters with such good people restores faith in humanity.
I arrived in L.A. about eight at night. My hosts were two wonderful high-spirited young "Wobblies" (members of the Industrial Workers of the World), Miguel Sanchez and Andrew Willett, who live in one of the huge former private homes on the west side of L.A. that have been converted into rooming houses and apartments, many of them allowed to deteriorate badly by the landlords. Next day Andrew and Miguel took me on a tour of Genesis I, a geodesic dome complex of several dozen units for the homeless near downtown L.A. Sponsored in part by several large corporations, the main motive may have been to improve their public image. While many homeless people no doubt regard the units as better than no home at all, there seemed to be some feeling of a police state atmosphere about them: our pleasant guide told us that residents were asked to turn in other tenants suspected of having drugs. The big question is: will the creation of such complexes result in both security and freedom for the people who reside in them? The only real solution is the ownership of a home by everyone.
After visiting a number of housing activists in L.A., where a number of squats are underway, I headed southeast into the intense head of the desert, posting RENT IS THEFT flyers and distributing literature along the way. Rough driving through horrendous storms and terrifying traffic -- I estimate that probably about 15% of the drivers deserve to have a car. I took a brief side trip to the small New Mexico mountain town of Silver City, where the late '40s movie Salt of the Earth was made, about a miners strike in which the women took over the picket lines of the jailed workers.
Just east of El Paso I picked up the first of eight hitchhikers I was to give a lift to, a gaunt man of around 50 who said he had not eaten in three days after having his wallet stolen in Sacramento, California. He was on his way home to Georgia. He gobbled down the can of pork and beans I gave him. At Van Horn, where I was headed southeast, I gave him $2, one of my blankets, and the address of a mission in San Antonio. The big truck stop cafe I went into to see if a shelter might be listed in the phone book for Van Horn (there was none) had a large sign on the door: NO HITCHHIKERS ALLOWED.
I headed southeast along the Rio Grande, through heat, thunderstorms, mesquite and sagebrush. After conferring with a number of housing activists in South Texas, I headed for Houston, where an old stevedore friend, Gilbert Mers (author of Working the Waterfront), had arrange for me to speak at the Westheimer Arts Center. About 40 to 50 people showed up. Two of them, to my delight, said that they too would undertake tours to organize the rent strike and squat for next May 1st. I was interviewed by Pacifica Radio and a local college newspaper.
On east through more heat and thunderstorms. In southern Louisiana, Recalcitrant went on strike again, but started up again after a 40 minute rest. I stopped at Oxford, Mississippi (now I can say I went to Oxford) to visit the home of William Faulkner. Recalcitrant staged an all-out rebellion in Athens, Tennessee. (I went to Athens to tell Diogenes his search was over, but all he seemed to be interested in was selling me an old lamp). I was stranded for three days in this small town of very friendly people, waiting for a new fuel pump to be installed.
On east through the beautiful Smoky Mountains to Asheville, North Carolina, where I visited the childhood home of another of my literary idols, Thomas Wolfe. Then north to Washington D.C., where I saw some of the worst housing conditions imaginable and hordes of desperate people. The White House seemed to be in good condition, though, which proves governments can build decent housing if they want to. A thoughtful motorcycle cop escorted me every moment I was near the White House, so apparently Recalcitrant's fame was spread. Looking through a childhood diary of George Washington at the Library of Congress, I was surprised to learn he had chopped down the cherry tree to build a shelter for the homeless!
My next speaking engagement was in Philadelphia, where I was invited to stay at a Catholic Worker house of hospitality. (Hi, Johanna, Bob and Mary Beth!) There are now around 150 of these houses where needy people are fed and often housed. This one also has a free medical clinic. After helping serve dinner to around 300 people I was sitting in the anteroom to the clinic, which I assumed to be closed for the day. "Would you like to be seen?" someone in street clothes asked. Thinking it perhaps a joke or in a daze from so much hard driving I said: "No, I'd rather be invisible" and everyone cracked up. I hadn't realized I was being offered a medical examination.
Next day I spoke to a small but enthusiastic group near Temple University that included the legendary Josie, instigator of the massive nationwide organizing drive at hundreds of Kinko's copy centers. Then Bob Simpson took me on a long tour of the city, where I saw hundreds of empty building. Squatters lived in may of them and there were many vegetable gardens in vacant lots. Bob told me many owners had disappeared and some of the squatters had been unmolested for years. How many homeless people would be put to work rehabilitating there empty buildings! And many dedicated people who hold out to the bitter end in next May's strike and are perhaps evicted could move into such buildings and fix them up.
On to New York. I slept in my car for a week outside the large Catholic Worker house on the lower East Side in terrible heat. I could have stayed inside but was told someone's van had been stolen a few days before. I talked to many wonderful people at the CW house and in nearby squatters groups who were sympathetic with the ideas of Homes for All. Some were very pessimistic. A dedicated activist named Felton told me 200 homeless had held a demonstration at City Hall two weeks before and 800 police had appeared! And not a word in the media.
Two days later I was the beneficiary of an incredible coincidence. Driving from Cape Cod to Boston I picked up a hitch-hiker sporting a tie and a briefcase. His name was Kevin Noonan, he works for a non-profit homeless shelter in western Massachusetts, and he was on his way to a high-level homeless conference in Boston. He insisted on giving me $10 for gas and invited me along. The main speaker was Andre Cuomo, son of the New York governor, who had recently been appointed an assistant secretary of HUD. We got to the large auditorium in the center of Boston early. I spread out my Homes for All literature on a table and some other early arrivals expressed much sympathetic interest. One delegate from Puerto Rico glanced at our one-page prospectus and halfway shouted: "That's what we need! Ownership of a home for every person on earth!"
Next I drove up the beautiful Main coast to Rockport, childhood home of my second favorite U.S. poet (next to Walt Whitman), Edna Millay. Then on north to Ottawa, the beautiful (except for the down and out) capital of Canada, where I addressed an enthusiastic crowd of three ("three's a crowd") and reminded them that it takes only one person in a place to begin organizing.
On to Toronto to stay at another CW house. Then back to the U.S. and Cleveland, where I stayed with the great Frank Cedervall, long-time head of the plasters union and the greatest public speaker I have ever heard, still a superbly articulate advocate for the poor and oppressed at the age of 90. I spoke at the local CW house which puts out its own newspaper, Inherit the Earth. An editor, Joe Lehner, said he would use an article on Homes for All in its next issue.
A few days later the celebrated artist and writer Carlos Cortez and I spoke to an enthusiastic multicultural and I spoke to an enthusiastic multicultural group in Chicago. An East Indian activist decided to return to India soon to spread the movement there, where Anna Mukhopodhyayis already organizing for next May's rent strike and squat.
One of the best meetings was in Milwaukee where I enjoyed the hospitality of another CW house, Harmonarchy, -- thanks to Sister Nan, Bosco, Brandon, et al, -- and spoke in a Catholic church. Sister Nan and others came up with the idea of posting our RENT IS THEFT flyers in place where landlords refuse to make necessary repairs and keep dwellings in livable conditions.
Off across the prairie to Waterloo, Iowa, where perhaps appropriately I face my first serious adversary ("You sound like you're advocating communism"), who finally agreed that everyone should at least be allotted a piece of the earth's land.
One of the largest groups I addressed was in the main library of Salt Lake City, where I was delighted to meet some friendly Mormons who endorsed the goals of Homes for All. And thanks to a wonderful Wobbly couple, Hazel and Tony Roehrig, for putting me up at their home and helping spread our message.
North to the fascinating old mining town of Butte, Montana, where I visited musician-folklorist Mark Ross (sometimes appears with Utah Phillips) who said he was adding the Homes for All anthem, "Home on the Street," to his repertoire.
In Tacoma, Washington I was told by Arthur Miller, publisher of the great newspaper, Bayou La Rose, that the housing situation had gotten so bad there that most landlords now demanded to see a photo I.D. so they could have a credit organization check out a prospective tenant. Tenants in should situations should also demand to see the owner's I.D. to try to ascertain whether he or she is a responsible person.
Exhausted, but inspired by meeting so many wonderful dedicated people, Recalcitrant and I returned to Oakland on August 11 to recharge our batteries and prepare for the struggle ahead.