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Abolition and Tenant Power in Chinatown

September 18, 2023

In May, the police were called on a disabled Chinese immigrant living in Vancouver’s Chinatown. As the resident testified, the city-owned Chinatown Plaza management called the police on her and her elderly friends, who were exercising in the area. She was one of hundreds of community members at a Development Permit Board meeting at Vancouver City Hall voicing opposition to a planned condo development on 105 Keefer Street. Activists have long been decrying this project for its lack of social housing and complicity in the neighborhood’s gentrification. Over the past decade, Chinatowns across the United States and Canada have been facing an existential threat. As working-class immigrant enclaves valued by private developers for their diversity and “exoticism,” Chinatowns have become key sites that exemplify the logic of gentrification. Entrepreneurial investors enact neoliberal visions of “revitalized” Chinatowns by facilitating real estate speculation, which demands the forcible exclusion of working-class Chinatown residents through policing. Thus, the years-long struggle against the development at 105 Keefer links working-class Chinatown tenants’ campaign for housing decommodification to a fight against policing. The fight around 105 Keefer is one of many similar ongoing mass struggles across Chinatowns, from the campaign against the construction of a mega-jail in Manhattan’s Chinatown to the mass opposition to the proposed 76ers’ stadium in Philadelphia’s Chinatown.

But with the upsurge in anti-Asian violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, the question of how to best ensure community safety has occupied a central place in Asian diaspora politics—a discourse that has complicated Asian participation in anti-policing struggles. Asian Americans have pursued varying solutions, foregrounding key ideological differences within our community. The right, on the one hand, is seizing on this opportunity to articulate a mass politics of their own: the New York Times reported that Republicans are appealing to Asian-American voters, in fear of racist violence, with tough-on-crime messaging. Such politics are dangerous in that they do not actually guarantee safety and also preclude multiracial solidarity, pitting us against Black-led community demands against policing. Indeed, during the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, Chinese immigrant organizations held a mass rally in support of the New York police in Flushing’s Chinatown. On the other hand, the Asian-American left calls for strengthening the basic material conditions of working-class Asian Americans and developing their political power as a class to improve community safety—a goal that policing is intrinsically at odds with.1See the work of CAAAV, Asian American Feminist Collective, Red Canary Song, Asians 4 Abolition for examples of modeling abolitionist alternatives to safety among Asian-American communities. Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED), an all-volunteer organization building tenant power in Los Angeles’s Chinatown, highlights how private security maintained by landlord-led Chinatown Business Improvement District collaborates with police to weaken community power through harassment and displacement of low-income tenants. Our experiences as CCED organizers have shown us that the abolition of policing goes hand in hand with building tenant power against capitalism—a critical part of a long-term political platform to cultivate community safety.

However, some cast doubt on the viability and necessity of abolition as a political strategy for building class power among Asian Americans. Jay Caspian Kang identifies Asian-American leftists and progressives’ insistence on pushing back against “anti-Blackness or the carceral state” as “we grieve with our community” as mere virtue signaling. In his view, Asian-American cultural elites or activists seeking to safeguard long-standing relations with Black organizations engage in a “bizarre iteration of guilt” that “the working Asian poor and the elderly residents of San Francisco’s Chinatown, many of whom live in single-resident occupancy buildings not much different from the I-Hotel,” never face.2Jay Caspian Kang, The Loneliest Americans (New York: Random House, 2021). What Kang fails to acknowledge is that building solidarity between Black and Asian communities toward an abolitionist vision stems from a material need to account for conflicting ideas within working-class communities about policing. Lack of unity around abolition impedes mass politics against capitalism by further disempowering the Black and Brown communities most affected by policing, as well as low-income Asian tenants who are also directly harmed by police. Effectively addressing the specific issue of anti-Asian racism should not be counterposed to making broad demands for police abolition.

It is true that Chinatown is a site in which many in our community have not unpacked anti-Blackness and the violence of policing. Such existing prejudices emerge from a specific history. Claire Jean Kim explains that Asian Americans have long been recruited to reinforce white supremacy against Black communities. Kim contends that this triangulation grants certain material privileges to Asian Americans “to deflect Black demands for racial reform while civic ostracism ensures that Asian Americans will not actually ‘outwhite’ Whites.”3Claire Jean Kim, “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans,” Politics & Society 27, no. 1 (1999): 126. Our work as CCED tenant organizers teaches us that building power as a class demands organizing strategies that account for, not dismiss, how members of the proletariat class are differentiated through racial formation.

This recognition allows us to respond to another common critique of abolition: that abolitionism affords no coherent strategy to a broad working class that simply wants more accountable and safer modes of policing. But we should not throw out abolition just because of its current gap from Asian Americans’ immediate demands. The key is to organize around demands for police abolition that can mobilize people to fight for material reforms now while enabling them to also understand that the radical transformation of the capitalist system in its totality is needed. In doing so, we center Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s contention that abolition is simultaneously a process of “absence” (dismantling capitalism’s death-making institutions) and “presence” (building life-enabling structures in their place). Tenant organizing can make abolition concrete in this sense, through the practical work of creating local-level infrastructures for community safety that render policing obsolete. In fact, the struggle for housing justice is a key arena for abolitionist intervention. As Charmaine Chua describes, to “situate abolition and housing as complementary projects is to recognize that the terms of safe refuge for the many have been foreclosed as housing became transformed from a social wage into a commodity.”4Charmaine Chua, “Abolition Is a Constant Struggle: Five Lessons from Minneapolis,” Theory & Event 23, no. 4S (2020): 135. Abolitionist politics requires tenant organization, as the latter can counter the precaritizing effects of housing speculation in order to strengthen community safety without the police. Conversely, tenant organizing demands an abolitionist horizon, as we must abolish the police for tenants to freely determine their housing conditions—a key prerequisite for community safety.

Tenant organizing can make abolition concrete in this sense, through the practical work of creating local-level infrastructures for community safety that render policing obsolete.

However, especially with the rise of anti-Asian racism, specific strategies are needed to organize Asian diaspora tenants toward an abolitionist vision. Abolitionist tenant organizing strategy must build from community safety demands particular to different racialized communities to bolster our collective solidarity against capital’s myriad expressions. A revolutionary horizon for Asian diaspora communities must connect immediate struggles around community safety—from protections against evictions to anti-Asian racism—to a strategy of independent mass action that refuses the crystallization of movement gains within bourgeois and reformist solutions. We demonstrate this through our work with CCED around local-level tenant organization, which serves as the basis for a city-level fight for housing decommodification.

Practicing Abolition Through Tenant Self-Organization

Organizing with immigrant working-class Asians in Los Angeles’s Chinatown, many living in the single room occupancies that Kang describes, shows us that abolition can emerge from the practical activity of tenant self-organization. Around 2016, CCED, then a small, all-volunteer base of Chinatown tenants and activist allies, began organizing autonomous tenant unions among residents in single room occupancies and other low-income tenements around the neighborhood who were facing rent increases and evictions. These struggles led to the development of an organized mass base of Chinatown tenants. The All-Chinatown Tenants’ Union (ACTU) emerged as a monthly forum for tenant unions co-organized by CCED and other tenant leaders to discuss common issues in the community and build toward political programs and actions led by working-class Chinatown residents. To empower tenants’ self-activity, this space was organized independently from the influence of Chinatown neighborhood associations, electoral parties, and staff-directed community organizations.

ACTU was thus a natural space to work through questions of community safety at the height of anti-Asian violence, especially when the shootings at the Atlanta massage parlor occurred in 2021. It was also a site in which political differences in our community on this issue came to the fore. At the time, we were meeting on Zoom because of the pandemic. Virtual meetings actually enabled participation from more tenants in the community, creating different possibilities for configuring political discussion. Some tenants, including many Chinese immigrants, called for more policing—though not all. One of them, a rank-and-file homecare worker leader in her union, brought up the self-organized community patrols she heard about from her friends in Oakland’s Chinatown as an alternative model. In the English- and Spanish-speaking breakout room, Cambodian tenant Khinn Ung named her fears around anti-Asian violence—but also her experiences around police harassment, echoed by other Black and Latino tenants. “What do the police do for me?” Ung responded when asked why she did not report an incident of anti-Asian harassment that she experienced to the police. “I don’t think they do anything for me. The law is not on our side.”

As ACTU’s facilitators and translators at the time, we realized that ACTU could begin to model abolition democracy, which Andrew Dilts defines as “organizing people to confront concrete political problems as the work of politics…in the building of communities of safety, mutual accountability, and shared liberation.”5Andrew Dilts, “Crisis, Critique, and Abolition,” in A Time for Critique, ed. Didier Fassin and Bernard E. Harcourt (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), 247. Abolition democracy was first coined by W. E. B. Du Bois and subsequently theorized by contemporary Black abolitionists like Angela Davis. Furthermore, ACTU grounds abolition democracy in the everyday practice of tenant self-organization, enabling tenants to democratically plan for political alternatives to policing. Facilitating the sharing of tenants’ immediate concerns about safety enabled space for the practical activity of strategizing beyond policing. Bringing these varied experiences together in a larger discussion after the language-specific breakout groups enabled tenants to educate and listen to one another on policing and safety. The issue of anti-Asian violence functioned as the immediate background for the conversations. At the same time, tenants centered the long-term question of whether the police are the best solution for community safety. In the end, tenants of different politics and identities were discussing ways to keep one another safe without policing. Such conversations begin from the specificities of people’s identities and lived experiences, which are unevenly shaped by capital and other intersecting forces of oppression.

The practical experience of collectively generating political alternatives that render policing obsolete can help bridge existing divisions within working-class communities. Sometimes these divisions manifest within an ethnic community itself, but nonetheless in terms that cannot be fully disaggregated from a collective racialized experience—especially among those who do not take on traditional forms of waged labor. The workers targeted in Atlanta cannot be divorced from their racial and gendered identifications as Asian immigrant women employed in a massage parlor. Asian massage workers have long been attuned to police violence because of the uniquely vulnerable conditions of their workplace. Asian diaspora sex workers’ organizations like Red Canary Song and Butterfly thus call for the decriminalization of massage and other forms of body work often overwhelmingly dominated by Asian migrants, as well as sex work. The incident points to the need to respond within a framework that recognizes violence targeting the broad Asian community just as it exposes the political and material divisions long registered within this identity rubric. ACTU’s base is mainly composed of immigrant Asian tenants living on supplemental security income and informal labor. Some Asian tenants harbor prejudice toward other tenants with less “respectable” avenues of work, from trash collecting to massage and sex work, partly stemming from forms of respectability politics informed by their own particular cultural traditions and practices.

The shared cultural experience creates tensions among these Asian-American tenants, but also opportunities for particular modes of solidarity. Asian massage and sex workers and organizers embody a longstanding history of organizing against racialized, gendered, and class-based police violence. For this reason, they can be a vital link to connecting the Asian diaspora and abolitionist organizing in other communities. For another ACTU meeting, we invited organizer Elene Lam from the Toronto-based massage and sex workers’ collective Butterfly to speak with Cantonese-speaking tenants about how massage workers have faced police violence and protected themselves. Originally from Hong Kong, Lam spoke in Cantonese and accessibly drew on everyday practices of mutual aid and community care from her upbringing that tenants, largely from nearby parts of southern China, would recognize. She reminded them of the ineffectiveness of policing in their hometowns, and how many of them may remember how women would walk each other home together when there were reports of serial harassers left unchecked in the area. Her dialogue with Cantonese-speaking ACTU tenant leaders facilitated their participation in brainstorming alternatives to policing with other tenants in the subsequent meetings.

It is only through these strategies that we can build a robust positive program for community safety that is responsive to the particular lived experiences of local residents and workers, in contrast to the ineffective blanket “solutions” of criminalization and displacement promoted by capital.

ACTU thus functions as a space to bring together different working-class tenants, including those on the margins of formal employment, to raise and translate immediate needs into political discussions around how communities can be organized differently to account for safety. Enabling space for tenants to think of modes of self-organization beyond policing to protect one another can elevate political consciousness through strengthened practices of self-activity. These forms of practical activity, facilitated through ACTU, provide a stronger foundation to cohere political demands—mobilizing tenant self-organization against the different forms of ruling-class power in and beyond Chinatown.

From Tenant Organization to City Politics

Unionizing tenants enables new practices of autonomous politics. It facilitates collective discussion and transforms it into action, leading residents to directly mobilize against landlords, developers, and police. ACTU gathers tenant union leaders to respond to broader immediate needs in Chinatown, working through forms of community safety through mutual aid. These formations fuel broader campaigns that begin disrupting the social organization of ruling-class economic power at a local level. One such bureaucratic force in the LA Chinatown landscape is the Business Improvement District (BID), which is responsible for introducing amenities in a property-based district beyond the city’s budget and jurisdiction, and is a site in which the violence of displacement and policing merge. The LA Chinatown BID enforces the interests of gentrifying developers and property owners, as they fund its private semi-police security force that patrols Chinatown and regularly harasses residents, from unhoused community members to street hawkers. CCED has been organizing tenants and allies beyond its Chinatown mass base for a boycott of BID-hosted events, resulting in a large public-facing community teach-in last year, followed by a disruptive direct action against its annual Summer Nights event. Such campaigns continue to be spaces to congeal abolitionist consciousness among Asian diaspora communities within a broader mass space.

Building from abolitionist and anti-displacement work in ACTU, the anti-BID campaign further directs tenants’ focus against the broad alliance between developers, other predatory capitalists, and their private security. During the teach-in, an unhoused Vietnamese community member shared how he faces routine harassment by BID security guards. He lost his job and home after Ai Hoa—the last remaining grocery market in LA Chinatown—was sold to a developer in 2018. His narrative connected a few key threads that registered to Asian tenant elders there: the loss of a sustenance hub specifically beloved and shared by the working-class Asian diaspora in Chinatown also led to the dispossession of Asian workers. His story thus directly resonated with a longtime Chinese elder ACTU tenant leader at the teach-in, who spoke powerful words of solidarity “as a poor person” and militated against BID’s policing as we transitioned into preparations for our subsequent action of disrupting the BID event and flyering on the BID’s complicity in violent gentrification to a mass audience for over an hour.

This solidarity between Asian unhoused community members, massage workers, and working-class elder residents creates the foundation to coalesce the working-class Asian diaspora toward an abolitionist horizon. By agitating these groups around their shared lived experiences of racialized economic oppression, we expose their mutual interest in substituting the police with a more holistic approach to safety, grounded in diverse community needs. This convergence emerged not from a straightforward identification based on abstract class-based politics, but through intentional organizing strategies tailored to address the specific needs of different sectors of working-class communities. It is only through these strategies that we can build a robust positive program for community safety that is responsive to the particular lived experiences of local residents and workers, in contrast to the ineffective blanket “solutions” of criminalization and displacement promoted by capital. But these encounters must not pause there. They must be politically cohered into a broad strategy that unfolds on a greater scale against capital’s political power. The local-level demands discussed in ACTU must also be linked to larger political platforms and translated into strategic action that organizes mass political power on a scale beyond Chinatown.

The multiethnic Hillside Villa Tenants Association (HSVTA) is one example of a localized fight building into a city-wide struggle. A Chinatown-based autonomous tenants’ union represented in ACTU led by Latina tenants alongside other tenants of color, the HSVTA was founded in 2019 in response to 200 percent rent increases—de facto evictions—instituted by slumlord Tom Botz after the 124-unit complex’s thirty-year affordability covenant expired in 2018. After a ten-year affordability extension deal between then-City Council representative Gil Cedillo and Botz fell through, HSVTA members were galvanized to start demanding the City of Los Angeles expropriate Botz through eminent domain, fully removing Hillside Villa from the private market. Realizing that ownership by the bourgeois state would not guarantee permanent affordability, tenants envisioned transferring ownership to a community land trust controlled by Chinatown tenants after the government made its purchase. By seeking to invert eminent domain’s historic role in the dispossession of working-class Black and Brown communities, the HSVTA pursues an unprecedented organizing strategy to leverage eminent domain toward housing decommodification. When city officials unsurprisingly argued that the city did not realistically have enough funding to acquire the building, HSVTA members zeroed in on the city’s budget as a crucial site of contradiction: the city spends $57.7 million per week to maintain its murderous police force but could not commit $45 million to keep 124 working-class families in their homes.

Abolition democracy, as Angela Davis describes, requires “the creation of an array of social institutions” that would erase the need for structures of policing and incarceration.6Angela Y. Davis and Eduardo Mendieta, Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005), 97. HSVTA’s struggle to remove the private ownership of their homes lays the groundwork for social institutions based on collective needs, not profit and criminalization. By pressuring the city to redirect its police funds toward acquiring Hillside Villa from slumlord Botz, the tenants frame their local struggle within broader city-wide politics around resource distribution through the demand for expropriation. CCED and Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU) organizers supported tenants in formulating a strategy to lead the LA tenants’ movement in transforming resource distribution on a city-wide level so that working-class needs could be better met systemically. HSVTA members first brought their challenges to CCED’s ACTU space, providing fellow Chinatown tenants with political education grounded in their lived experiences of neglect by the city government. Through democratic discussion facilitated by CCED organizers, tenants raised the explicit demand of defunding the police to purchase Hillside Villa, transforming their immediate demands into a larger political platform that resonated across Chinatown tenants struggling with housing precarity. This abolitionist platform advocated for reinvestment of LAPD funds into city-wide decommodification of housing, with HSVTA’s publicly controlled eminent domain demand representing a critical inflection point.

Mass struggles are not linear and, in particular, electoral victories provide new traps and opportunities.

This platform became the basis of one of the largest rallies explicitly linking abolitionist demands to the struggle for housing decommodification in LA, organized by HSVTA members and CCED and LATU organizers and supported by other independent political organizations across the city. In April 2021, hundreds of representatives from organizations such as Buried Under the Blue, Echo Park Rise Up, K-Town for Black Lives, Stop LAPD Spying, various locals of the LATU, and additional allies, alongside the families of Hillside Villa, organized a Housing Not Cops march, from LA City Hall to the LAPD Central Police Station. Speakers and chanters amplified demands specific to each organization, such as Buried Under the Blue’s call for reparations for Indigenous communities displaced by eminent domain for the development of Dodger Stadium, as well as the greater coalitional demand to defund the LAPD and invest instead in social housing.

Though this single rally did not result in any immediate victory, mass organizations built by tenants and organizers powerfully articulated that abolitionism and housing justice were mutually dependent, laying the foundations for future victories and new terrains of struggle in LA. This dynamic formation’s strength lies in its ability to mobilize to win organizational and community-level reforms while continuing to build toward a critical mass that can pressure city-level systemic change with regard to policing and resource distribution. Since the Housing Not Cops rally, the HSVTA has continued to engage in a direct action-focused strategy that leverages the mass political power of this coalitional formation, eventually forcing an unprecedented concession from the city: a unanimous vote in support of allocating city funding to acquire Hillside Villa from Botz. This victory—a concrete commitment toward HSVTA’s ultimate vision of housing decommodification and working-class safety—was an important turn in the city’s budget priorities that could only have been achieved through the activation of the critical mass of working-class power that has been built in HSVTA’s four years of consistent organizing.

Such organizing, built on the mass action of multiethnic tenants, does sometimes coalesce into concrete victories—but continued mobilization is needed to defend and extend these gains. Mass struggles are not linear and, in particular, electoral victories provide new traps and opportunities. In fall 2022, as an extension of community safety discussions held during the height of anti-Asian violence that connected housing justice to abolition, CCED, ACTU, and the HSVTA all played a significant role in electing Eunisses Hernandez, LA’s first self-identified abolitionist councilmember. Some CCED members mobilized to support her campaign, as she was provided a fair forum to present her political program for discussion at ACTU and HSVTA meetings. These efforts directly influenced Hernandez’s victory, as she won the support of a majority of Asian voters in Chinatown and the adjacent neighborhood Lincoln Heights—members of CCED’s long-standing mass organizing base. By defeating LA Police Protective League- and developer-backed ten-year incumbent Gil Cedillo, Hernandez’s win helped coalesce a new “progressive bloc” within the city council. She joined incumbent progressive Nithya Raman and the newly elected Hugo Soto-Martinez—all three of whom were endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America. Importantly, this shows that the deep, long-term work of militant and independent mass organizing can pave the way toward abolitionist politics. Right-wingers and carceral liberals who opportunistically leverage grief and fear within Asian communities due to anti-Asian violence to promote a pro-police agenda can be defeated. But it is equally important that we emphasize that electoralism is not an end in itself. The most recent 2023 LA city budget increased the LAPD’s $3.2 billion budget, demonstrating a need to organize even more independent mass political power to dismantle the police and reinvest in social housing. This budget was even supported by Raman and Soto-Martinez. Such instances demonstrate the importance of building grassroots power independent of electoral power that can hold it accountable.

The contingency of electoral support of tenants’ independent demands underscores that the tenants’ continued militant self-organization and political program must be at the center of abolitionist struggle. While campaigning, Hernandez promised HSVTA that she would “fully support” their eminent domain fight. But since entering City Hall, Hernandez began qualifying her support: only if eminent domain is “necessary and feasible.” At the same time, during the recent 2023 LA city budget vote, Hernandez signaled a notable commitment to her abolitionist politics by casting the only dissenting vote (out of fifteen councilmembers) on the increase to the police budget. The tenants’ Housing Not Cops platform, manifested in their concrete and ongoing demand for the city to divest resources from the police and into resources for enacting eminent domain to decommodify housing, bridges these sites of struggle. But the limitations of City Hall’s bourgeois democracy dissuade elected officials, however “progressive,” from meaningfully synthesizing these demands. Doing so would fortify the political cohesion of the working class and decisively break with capitalist power. Instead, Hernandez and other members of the progressive bloc recently introduced a toothless social housing motion devoid of any concrete strategy toward housing decommodification. Meanwhile, the motion to purchase Hillside Villa that was voted through in May 2022—an existing tangible strategy toward social housing—atrophies without adequate follow-through by the councilmember. To this day, the city’s appraisal of the building’s value—the first step of the motion—still has not been conducted due to the city’s deference toward the landlord’s delay tactics.

The power of abolition ultimately comes from tenants directly participating in practices of community safety beyond policing, not from City Hall or the legislative process.

In contrast, HSVTA members and allies mobilized a series of militant actions to compel the elected officials to foreground their independent platform. In April, we staged a three-day occupation in front of LA mayor Karen Bass’s house, demanding that she follow through with her campaign promise to help the tenants advocate for eminent domain. The following month, the tenants turned out en masse to the city budget vote to reiterate their own platform. Yasser Nokoudy, an Egyptian-Indonesian HSVTA tenant leader, pushed back against the budget that Soto-Martinez called “the most progressive budget in the history of Los Angeles,” and made a clear demand to the city council during public comment: “Instead of hiring more cops, use the money to hire unarmed crisis responders and preserve affordable housing like Hillside Villa.” These experiences have affirmed that no matter who is in office, our focus as abolitionists and socialists must first and foremost be building mass political power that is both independent from the institutions of bourgeois democracy and strong enough in scale to force material wins that can transform into larger systemic change for the working class. In fact, a fundamentally critical orientation toward elected officials is needed to shift existing power relations between politicians and their constituents. The realization of proletarian power must exceed technocratic gatekeepers who limit working-class visions of what is “necessary and feasible.”

After the Rally

After the Housing Not Cops rally in 2021, a group of around two dozen Hillside Villa tenants who were present walked home together from the LAPD precinct and witnessed a threat to community safety. Not only did the police fail to prevent it, they were the ones who perpetrated the harm. A couple blocks away from Hillside Villa, tenants happened upon six police cars and a police officer putting their knee on a Black unhoused man’s neck. Tenants immediately began shouting “stop” at the officer and took out their phones to document the situation, eventually succeeding in forcing the officer to release their hold on the man. In this whirlwind of events, tenants also noticed that one of them, a Chinese-Vietnamese refugee, had become separated from the group and was being closely followed and verbally harassed by a BID patrol. Tenants directed their filming toward the patrol and surrounded him until they were able to bring him back to safety. By the time we and other organizers caught up to them, the tenants were already safely back home, processing together in the courtyard.

Defending Black, Asian, Latino, and other communities against different kinds of racialized violence need not be counterposed to one another. Community safety emerges from abolitionist politics grounded in solutions that speak to particular grievances of each community without pitting them against each other. This perspective requires understanding that threats to safety come from varied actors, including structural forces like the police and private security. HSVTA members show that these community-led alternatives to policing as a solution already exist. This encounter reminds us that the power of abolition ultimately comes from tenants directly participating in practices of community safety beyond policing, not from City Hall or the legislative process. Through bystander intervention, “copwatching,” and accountability toward one another, HSVTA members were able to keep an unhoused community member and one another safe.

These practices did not develop overnight. They emerge from what Ella Baker called “spadework”—the unseen day-to-day work of grassroots mass organizing to resist white supremacy.7Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. (University of North Carolina Press, 2003). Years of HSVTA and ACTU meetings have built tenants’ political consciousness and enabled them to practice the basic tenets of self-organization on their own terms. Direct actions against landlords and city officials and programmatic demands toward the city council connecting housing justice to public safety have been radicalizing opportunities for tenants in recognizing the limitations of the bourgeois state. From collectively demanding city-wide housing decommodification through defunding the LAPD at the Housing Not Cops rally to directly practicing community defense against police violence, HSVTA’s actions show that independent mass organization allows abolitionism to be practiced on various scales. Consistent in these different levels—the tenants’ association, the neighborhood, the city—is the basic principle of the political independence of the working class, which encourages tenants to go on their own terms beyond the limits of ready-made solutions. At each level, tenants develop the skills and drive needed to direct abolitionist demands to larger scales of social change. Tenants and organizers cultivate independent mass power by sowing the seeds planted during localized conversations and campaigns into a greater political strategy. Tenants’ proximal material concerns must be scaffolded with an analysis of the larger capitalist system that must be dismantled for these needs to be wholly and sustainably met. These rehearsals for confronting power empowered the HSVTA tenants with the strength and political horizon needed in that moment of struggle against the police and private security.

Of course, by no means does all of CCED’s mass base identify with abolitionist politics, and the reality of structural racism and years of depoliticization ensures that we must remain vigilant in our organizing at every step. During the post-rally debrief at Hillside Villa, the tenant shared with us that he felt targeted by BID security because of his Asian identity and was afraid to organize publicly further. Building on existing organizing infrastructures, from one-on-one conversations to tenant union meetings, fellow CCED members provided a space for him to process. Cantonese-speaking organizers close to him reminded him that he was not alone: his Chinese-Filipina neighbor also joined him to speak at the rally, and it was the strength of community power that warded off his harasser after the rally. He soon regained confidence, and during HSVTA’s occupation of the mayor’s mansion in May, volunteered to serve as security for his neighbors, defending the encampment in overnight shifts. Independent mass organizing is an arduous and non-linear process, but we know that abolitionist mass politics built from multiethnic solidarity is necessary for our collective liberation. It must begin with the particular demands and needs of different working-class communities. And so, our spadework continues.



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