From DC to Jerusalem: fighting displacement and colonization

Earlier this month, the Washington DC Palestine solidarity community welcomed Jerusalem activist Fayrouz Sharqawi, Advocacy Coordinator at the organization Grassroots Jerusalem. Sharqawi was on a two-week speaking tour including stops in Boston, New York, Chicago, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In DC, she held events with the Palestine Center, the Middle East Institute, and local advocacy group Organizing Neighborhood Equity ONE DC. The event with ONE DC put Sharqawi in conversation with Brookland Manor tenant leader Cheryl Brunson and community organizer Yasmina Mrabet. This momentous meeting of hearts and minds highlighted the parallel resistance of women fighting to protect their homes and communities in both occupied East Jerusalem and gentrified Washington DC.

Graphics displayed on the event page compared the numbers. One image showed the statistical decline of African American residents in DC: the once-majority Black city has lost nearly a third of its African American population over the past four decades, due to aggressive redevelopment and a corresponding influx of wealthier, predominantly-white new residents. A second graphic shows that over 200,000 Israeli settlers have moved into East Jerusalem since 1967, while tens of thousands of Palestinian locals have been stripped of their residency status or blocked from registering their children as residents.

Andrew Kadi, moderator for the event and an organizer with event sponsor DC for Palestine, explained why local Palestinian activists were so determined to connect Fayrouz Sharqawi with those confronting displacement here in Washington: “Anyone who thinks of Jerusalem–and what the U.S.-funded Israeli military and government are doing there – should also be conscious of policies that produce similar results here in DC,” he said over email. “Palestinians in Jerusalem, similar to long-time black and brown residents of DC, are struggling against racist policing, being stripped of housing, underfunded services, and mass incarceration, all of which results in displacement….We could stop funding Israel’s actions in Jerusalem and use that money to address some of these issues locally.”

Engineered population transfer

One of the first themes to emerge during the event was the similarity in city planning processes that engineer the displacement of unwanted populations. Sharqawi cited the Israeli government’s “Jerusalem 2020” master plan, which explicitly advocates for “demographic balance” between Jewish Israeli and non-Jewish Palestinian populations. In order to achieve this parity, Sharqawi explained, the Palestinian population would need to be forcibly reduced from 40 percent to 30 percent over the next three years.

The Israeli government promotes this outcome through a variety of policies. A practice similar to eminent domain is frequently used to evict Palestinian residents of Jerusalem from land where the Israeli government plans parks or museums. When Palestinian families apply for permits to build on their own land, or simply make additions or improvements to an existing home, 94 percent of the applications are met with rejection. Those who build without permission risk home demolition. They are charged for the cost of the demolition and often plunged into simultaneous homelessness and bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, here in DC, developers reassured city officials that “natural attrition” would leave 100 Brookland Manor units vacant prior to their proposed redevelopment scheme. It’s a mystery where they came up with this figure, considering that the population of the subsidized apartment complex has held steady for 50 years. One might argue that the complex is actually consistently over-capacity, as many current residents are on waits lists to obtain larger units.

Yasmina Mrabet. (Photo: ONE DC)

ONE DC community organizer Yasmina Mrabet explained that this predicted “attrition” is anything but natural: the developer, MidCity Financial, is running an calculated campaign to get rid of long-time residents. With the current tenants gone, they plan to reduce all the unit sizes–eliminating the larger apartments in favor of an increased number of one- and two-bedroom units. By increasing the total number of units, the developer can superficially market the project as an incredible affordable housing initiative when in fact they are dramatically decreasing the total low-income population on the property in order to free up space for more than 100 luxury units.

The result is not just displacement but also the callous separation of families and the deliberate destruction of a longtime community. Tenant leader Cheryl Brunson, a Brookland Manor resident of over 25 years, described the welcoming and kid-friendly culture of the complex and the neighborhood. The large garden apartments include units with four, five and even six bedrooms, accommodating extended families that thrive off living together. The property has a pool and a playground. Brunson shared stories of community members watching each other’s children, raising their grandkids, and sharing food and clothing with neighbors who have less. 

Since tenants started organizing, the developer’s tactics have become more and more aggressive. Today, the pool and the playground are fenced off and unused. Private security officers from a company contracted by the developer give residents infractions for sitting outside, playing ball, or simply leaning on the fence while waiting for a ride. The same minor “offenses” can get non-resident friends and family members placed on a list of people banned from the property, and then residents receive additional infractions for “illegally” hosting them. Accumulated infractions are used as a pretense to ruthlessly evict families.

Mrabet recounted that, when pressed to explain the economic reasons why MidCity Financial can’t simply replace all 535 units at their current size in order to retain all current residents, one developer gave the overtly racist and classist answer that, “it’s not just a question of economics, but a question of sociology.” Mrabet translated for the audience, “They don’t want the people who are already there, they don’t want to keep a working class black community–they want to bring in a wealthier, whiter clientele.” When tenants turned to their elected City Council member Kenyan McDuffie for help, he instead echoed the developer’s racist rhetoric, commenting that he does not support a one-for-one unit replacement “because people need to learn self-sufficiency.” Like in Israel, DC government rhetoric constantly blames poverty and unemployment on the oppressed instead of on those in power.

Violent policing practices

The matrix of spatial control and intimidation in both Jerusalem and DC is inseparable from what Kadi referred to as “criminalization of the body.” All three speakers described aggressive policing practices designed to break bodies and minds by traumatizing and provoking residents.

When Cheryl Brunson talked about young people being constantly harassed by both the police and private security for simply playing ball outside, Fayrouz Sharqawi commented that the Israeli police similarly beat up or detain young Palestinians for eating seeds or smoking in public. Likewise, Brunson’s tales of police arbitrarily applying sidewalk ordinances (such as by telling organizers they can’t speak with tenants outside the building) and aggressively detaining young men closely paralleled Sharqawi’s descriptions of Israeli police holding young people for hours at the station “without even trying to give a legal excuse.”

This kind of policing is as much a form of psychological warfare as it is physical violence, pointed out both Mrabet and Sharqawi. In DC, the police and the developers work hand in glove to demoralize people. For example, one day Brunson’s grandson was traumatically chased by the police in a case of mistaken identity. Not long afterwards MidCity falsely accused her of owing $5000 in unpaid rent and dragged her through a long process of proving her case. Another resident had the tragic experience of her son committing suicide in her apartment, and police came to the scene to investigate the scene. The next day she was issued an eviction notice by MidCity for having a gun on the property: the gun her son brought into her apartment to kill himself.

Like in Jerusalem, the compounding stress of the environment takes its toll on every aspect of the community; with so many battles to fight at every turn, people are more likely to give up or turn on each other. Mrabet described MidCity’s efforts to confuse people and pit them against each other: the developer will send out mailings to all the residents warning them not to get tricked by outside organizations (referring to ONE DC) and inviting them to meetings on the design of the future building. In this way, they purposefully cultivate the narrative that “good” residents will get a unit in the new building while the “bad” residents will not. Mrabet recounted the arduous work of getting skeptical and paranoid tenants involved in the fight for fair redevelopment.

Despite the parallel social stigmas, policing, and bureaucratic violence faced by Palestinians and DC residents, Sharqawi noted that there are some significant differences when it comes to available organizing and advocacy tactics. East Jerusalem Palestinians are cut off from the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority government by the apartheid wall, but they are not Israeli citizens either. Thus they have no political representation. What they do have is a uniquely precarious residential status within the Israeli legal framework, purposefully crafted so that the Israeli government can easily revoke residency rights. In this case Palestinians are not just physically displaced from their homes, but also permanently barred from residing in East Jerusalem. 

Mrabet described how their campaign brought unprecedented numbers of supporters to city zoning commission meetings. Sharqawi pointed out that, unlike Brookland Manor residents, Jerusalem Palestinians cannot take their case to City Council, or pack the house of a zoning meeting, or go after their council member. The total lack of political representation plus their stateless status means that Palestinians don’t have these civic avenues to strategically utilize. As a result, international solidarity is all the more urgent.

Grassroots solutions, international solidarity

As community organizations, both Grassroots Jerusalem and ONE DC are dedicated to asking people “what can I do for you?” They seek to empower and unite people as much as they work to redress the immediate symptoms of state and corporate violence. Both Sharqawi and Mrabet were clear to distinguish between NGO charity and true community organizing. Sharqawi described how Jerusalem residents get stuck relying on the emergency aid of the United Nations and NGOs because they have few political and legal avenues of their own in which to fight for permanent solutions. She pointed out the universal irony in the fact that the same neoliberal, corporatist system that drives displacement then puts up funding for the mainstream NGOs that claim to provide solutions.

Grassroots Jerusalem is thus seeking to “organize and coordinate all the efforts happening on the ground.” Sharqawi explained that some people think they can’t do anything about the political reality, but in fact “the people do have the power to battle these policies.” As an example during the presentation, she described the grassroots response to the new metal detectors and checkpoints installed at al-Aqsa mosque. Spontaneous civil disobedience brought out thousands of protestors who prayed together in the streets until Israel eventually backed off and removed the new checkpoints.

In order to build a sense of agency in place, one specific project Grassroots Jerusalem has focused on is mapping: residents old and young are invited to draw maps of their neighborhood, taking note of shops, trees, and other landmarks. Interns trained in GIS mapping translate the drawings into formal maps and post them to the organization’s website. This project captures essential documentation of Palestinian space while simultaneously giving people an opportunity to build community. Sharqawi said the overarching goal is to get people to envision their own Jerusalem future: what do they want to see ten years from now?

Sharqawi’s emphasis on “finding resources from the community, for the community” resonated with ONE DC’s own philosophy. As Mrabet explained, the organization focuses not just on housing but also on building grassroots power through labor. This led ONE DC to found the Black Workers Center, a worker-led space dedicated to promoting worker coops, time-banking, and workplace organizing skills. With a nod to the recent 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, Mrabet referenced the socialist vision of workers regaining power through democratic ownership of the means of production.

The event closed with speakers’ comments on how to support their movements. Sharqawi appealed to international solidarity: because Palestinians live under Israeli occupation, it is urgent that international pressure operates in tandem with their own organizing on the ground. She encouraged the audience to get involved with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, founded in 2005 by Palestinian civil society. Likewise, Mrabet called on supporters from around the world to link struggles by joining ONE DC as a member.

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