Turn on the Heat: The Underground History of Occupation

In the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury, hun­dreds of thou­sands of African-Amer­i­cans migrated from the Deep South to Harlem. Racist white res­i­dents fled to the outer bor­oughs and the sub­urbs, and land­lords began to dou­ble and triple Harlem rents, cap­i­tal­iz­ing on the lim­ited geo­graphic options pre­sented to new black New York­ers. Fam­i­lies crammed into sin­gle rooms, but when the first of the month neared, they still had to search for sup­ple­men­tary sources of income to make their rent pay­ments. Inspired by the tra­di­tion of South­ern Sat­ur­day night fish fries and “break­downs,” Harlemites began to roll up their rugs, push the fur­ni­ture aside, and print tick­ets to pro­mote their “Par­lor Socials,” or “Too Ter­ri­ble Par­ties.” Hosts invited duel­ing pianists such as Fats Waller to turn on the heat with “cut­ting con­tests,” which sparked unre­strained danc­ing and rev­elry, the likes of which work­ing-class blacks could never access in exclu­sive neigh­bor­hood joints that denied admis­sion to black peo­ple, such as Harlem’s famed Cot­ton Club.  The party hosts charged admis­sion, typ­i­cally a quar­ter, and made extra rent money from the sale of bath­tub gin, corn whiskey, and soul food. The rent party scene served as an incu­ba­tor for sev­eral notable jazz pianists, and it began to play a vital eco­nomic and social role in the life of Harlem’s work­ing-class com­mu­nity.

Though some recent media accounts depict rent par­ties as a novel prac­tice of the alter­na­tive white twenty-some­things who gen­trify black com­mu­ni­ties, they began as a dynamic and autonomous response to exploita­tion, and war­rant care­ful study as a tra­di­tional prac­tice of occu­pa­tion. Although the con­cept was not widely addressed in main­stream U.S. media prior to the seiz­ing of Zuc­cotti Park and var­i­ous other pub­lic and pri­vate spaces in Amer­i­can cities, the act of occu­py­ing has a rich and com­plex his­tory. Crit­i­cal par­tic­i­pants have empha­sized that the United States is occu­pied land, and have called for the move­ment to use the word with acknowl­edge­ment of its destruc­tive his­tory for indige­nous pop­u­la­tions. Those with a global per­spec­tive have pointed to the occu­pa­tion of Tahrir Square, and sim­i­lar pop­u­lar move­ments through­out the world over the past many years. For those anchored in labor his­tory, the term brings to mind the tra­di­tion of worker occu­pa­tions of fac­to­ries – as a strike tech­nique used to pre­vent lock­outs, and in some cases, to “recover” the fac­to­ries under worker con­trol. Finally, those who have inhab­ited aban­doned build­ings, by choice or neces­sity, clearly draw links between their life’s work and the habi­ta­tion of major cities’ parks and plazas over the past sev­eral months.

But in spite of this atten­tion to occu­pa­tion, some vibrant and essen­tial forms of the prac­tice have been over­looked. It is these forms to which we should be look­ing as the win­ter months near and the move­ment begins to real­ize the need to diver­sify its tac­tics.

Through­out the sum­mer of 2011, Philadelphia’s mayor, Michael Nut­ter, Police Com­mis­sioner Charles Ram­sey, and the local media whipped up a frenzy, thread­ing together a diverse array of gath­er­ings of black teenagers in pre­dom­i­nantly white, afflu­ent areas of the city over the past three years under the umbrella of “flash mobs,” “teen mob attacks,” and even “riots.” A closer look at the eleven inci­dents iden­ti­fied as flash mob attacks and used as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the enact­ment of a racist cur­few law, which the Philadel­phia City Coun­cil recently extended across the city for the next two years, reveals that these events have lit­tle in com­mon other than the pres­ence of black youth trans­gress­ing the bound­aries of their neigh­bor­hoods to occupy the city’s white eco­nomic cen­ter.

Sev­eral of the inci­dents can be com­pletely dis­counted, accord­ing to the widely accepted def­i­n­i­tion of a flash mob, “a pub­lic gath­er­ing of com­plete strangers, orga­nized via the Inter­net or mobile phone, who per­form a point­less act and then dis­perse.” Six friends punch­ing a man in the head on the way home from sum­mer school hardly seems to con­sti­tute a mob of strangers engag­ing in a pre­med­i­tated, point­less act, and any­one who has spent a day in a dys­func­tional Philadel­phia pub­lic school or one of its equally deranged char­ter coun­ter­parts could eas­ily sym­pa­thize with the stu­dents’ sense of out­rage and mis­di­rected aggres­sion.

Even if we set aside inci­dents in which a small group of peo­ple attack an indi­vid­ual, the col­lec­tion of events iden­ti­fied as flash mobs is com­plex and ranges from exer­cises in auto-reduc­tion to what many Philly teens would just describe as “breakin’ it down.” The news and gos­sip site Gawker inves­ti­gated the con­spir­a­to­rial social media exchanges that led up to a March 20, 2011 flash mob on South Street in Philadel­phia and dis­cov­ered links to Team Nike, a neigh­bor­hood dance crew that pro­motes their week­end par­ties through pub­lic dance per­for­mances. But while Gawker snidely con­cludes that Philly flash mobs and party crews such as Team Nike “might be noth­ing more sin­is­ter and rev­o­lu­tion­ary than a few street per­for­mances that got out of hand,” the Occupy move­ment can learn a lot from young people’s libid­i­nal dis­rup­tions of the street.

While Philadelphia’s white elite spent their sum­mer cow­er­ing indoors, brac­ing them­selves for “rov­ing gangs” of black teenagers who might “ter­ror­ize” their neigh­bor­hoods, the rest of the city embraced the heat and the streets, host­ing out­door par­ties on every block. Like the flash mob, the block party has much to teach today’s occu­piers about tak­ing back col­o­nized spaces, and infus­ing them with a sense of joy­ful resis­tance. Black and Latino teenagers liv­ing in the Bronx in the early 1970s began orga­niz­ing par­ties, inspired by Jamaican yard dances and sound sys­tem cul­ture. They were look­ing for alter­na­tives to the gang cul­ture that had resulted in the deaths of their friends and broth­ers, and they were push­ing back against the crush­ing force of “urban renewal,” a state-spon­sored move­ment to destroy com­mu­ni­ties of peo­ple of color in major Amer­i­can cities. Young peo­ple orga­nized block par­ties to make money for school clothes, to push their sound sys­tems to the lim­its, and to demon­strate their ver­nac­u­lar dance exper­tise. They stacked up speak­ers in the parks and siphoned power from street lights, and they danced until day­break.

The youth­ful founders of hip-hop, who lit­er­ally rose from the ashes of their burnt, aban­doned com­mu­ni­ties, fol­lowed in the foot­steps of the Civil Rights activists who came a half gen­er­a­tion before them by danc­ing in the street; but at the same time, they cre­ated a new form of occu­pa­tion and defined new rela­tion­ships with each other and their city by break­ing away from the lim­ited polit­i­cal paths pre­sented. They cre­ated what hip-hop his­to­rian Jeff Chang describes as a cel­e­bra­tory “space of pos­si­bil­ity,” and the tra­di­tion lives on in many com­mu­ni­ties of color each sum­mer.

Party crews, groups of teens who have been loosely linked with flash mobs and described as “junior var­sity street gangs,” have appro­pri­ated rent par­ties and block par­ties and applied them to the tem­po­rary occu­pa­tion of vacant homes and com­mer­cial build­ings. Cov­er­age of party crew activ­i­ties has been cen­tered in Ari­zona and the Los Ange­les met­ro­pol­i­tan area, where swathes of vacant or fore­closed tract homes stand empty, invit­ing teenagers to claim the spaces as their own. The activ­i­ties of young party crews echo the West Coast rave scene of the 1990s. Although many elec­tronic music events are widely pro­moted and gen­er­ously funded today, this wide­spread accep­tance bloomed from a cul­ture in which ware­houses, malls, and large fields were secretly taken over, essen­tial party infra­struc­ture was put in place, and par­tic­i­pants fol­lowed a trail of bread­crumbs and map clues to var­i­ous loca­tions before reach­ing the actual event. Once there, ravers had the chance to rein­vent the spaces of every­day life, to encoun­ter new bod­ies and sounds, and cre­ate strange new forms of com­mu­nity. In the morn­ing, the occu­pa­tion would end, the space would return to its mun­dane state of dis­use, and the par­tic­i­pants would begin plan­ning their next inter­ven­tion.

Danc­ing, in its many forms and con­texts, from rent par­ties and block par­ties to raves and riots, often involves the active and inten­tional occu­pa­tion of spaces that are highly reg­u­lated and con­trolled, and not intended for pop­ping, lock­ing, or any sim­i­lar kind of social rela­tion. Young peo­ple from mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties have long politi­cized this every­day prac­tice sim­ply by insist­ing on doing it wherever they want, when­ever they want. As the frigid weather sets in, the Occupy move­ment must look beyond its own bor­ders and con­sult the annals of his­tory to develop a broader reper­toire of effec­tive tech­niques, and the ephemeral occu­pa­tion of city spaces by danc­ing col­lec­tiv­i­ties might be just what this move­ment needs to increase its momen­tum.

As the move­ment con­sults this his­tory, it must also rec­og­nize that there are com­mu­ni­ties who con­tinue to occupy urban Amer­i­can spaces out of neces­sity and resilience, and that their tac­ti­cal knowl­edge should put them in posi­tions of lead­er­ship. I work with 18 to 21-year-old youth who have dropped out or been pushed out of tra­di­tional pub­lic schools. One of my stu­dents, a 20-year-old inter­mit­tently home­less black mother who is work­ing towards obtain­ing her high school diploma and secur­ing a job as a home health care aide, issued a demand to me after pre­sent­ing her research on home­less­ness. “Y’all need to do some­thing about this,” she explained. “There are so many houses in North Philly with nobody in ‘em, and then there are so many home­less peo­ple with no houses. Y’all need to fix that.” But it’s clear that we’ll only be able to fix it by orga­niz­ing together.

“Turn on the heat.” The phrase refers to the heat gen­er­ated by bod­ies danc­ing in spaces that we have tem­porar­ily reclaimed, but it also refers to the con­crete con­cern of pay­ing for heat­ing as win­ter approaches. While the occu­piers at City Hall in Philadel­phia and around the North­east con­front cold weather this win­ter, many fam­i­lies strug­gle to stay warm every year because they can’t pay the heat­ing bill. The par­tic­i­pants of the con­tem­po­rary Occupy move­ment need peo­ple of color, poor peo­ple, and young peo­ple to lead us into new forms of strug­gle. In order to sus­tain and expand the move­ment, their issues must be at the fore­front; we have to under­stand that the cost of util­i­ties is a major polit­i­cal issue. But let’s not think of peo­ple from mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties as help­less vic­tims. Instead, let’s learn from their his­tory of resis­tance in every­day life.

Author of the article

is an educator who has worked with children and youth in schools, libraries, art organizations, and residential detention centers. She lives and works in Santa Cruz, CA.

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