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5 Lessons Learned From The Mariachis’ Victory Over BJ Turner

Organizing gets the goods.

The tenants and their supporters at 1815 E 2nd St.

After over a year of collective struggle, the tenants of 1815 E 2nd St. in Boyle Heights have finalized their negotiations with property owner BJ Turner and will remain in their homes!

13 of the 25 tenants in the building have signed a collective bargaining agreement, good for three-and-a-half years, that institutes an initial rent increase of 14%, limits future rent increases to 5% per year, forgives back-rent from the tenants participating in the rent strike, and provides repairs to the building.

This is a massive win for the tenants and will surely continue to galvanize the broader struggle against gentrification and displacement. We should allow ourselves a moment to celebrate and reflect.

Elizabeth Blaney, Executive Director of Union de Vecinos, a local organization that was crucial in helping the tenants in this fight, put it this way to me over email:

“This is a great victory for the Mariachis and for tenants in Boyle Heights. It shows that tenants united in organizing together with partners and allies can fight back against gentrification. It was the result of the the strong unity and determination of the tenants and mariachis in the building, the long history of organizing work of Union de Vecinos within Boyle Heights, the organized force of tenants from the LA Tenants Union, the support of allies fighting against gentrification such as the DSA and BHAAAD, and the out-of-the-box thinkers that we had for attorneys.”

Francisco Gonzales, one of the tenants facing eviction and leading the fight, said this to me at the celebration last night:

“I hope that what we did, what’s happened in this movement, serves as a model for other people in other buildings, so that they have hope even when they don’t have rent control. Now they know that if they organize, and they get together, and become part of a tenants’ union, they can fight for what is right and for their homes.”

Here are a couple lessons in particular that I think we should all learn from this.

1) Tenant organizing works

The tenants’ organizing in crisis is the number one reason for their victory. The seven tenants that received the enormous rent increases immediately organized themselves and reached out to Union de Vecinos and the Los Angeles Tenants Union (LATU). The rest of the tenants in the building then waged a rent strike in solidarity. They battled against this unjust situation collectively, and became extremely powerful in the process.

BJ Turner had just recently bought the property and was expecting this all to go smoothly. The tenants and their supporters refused to let that happen, forcing him to come to the neogitating table while the evictions were working their way through the courts.

2) Radical direct action works

Crucial to this struggle were the aggressive direct actions waged by the tenants and their supporters. They (and ultimately, we) literally brought the fight to BJ Turner’s westside mansion. He had been ignoring the tenants requests for collective negotiations, and had never even spoken to any of them face-to-face. So they organized a legal, peaceful, and disruptive protest in his neighborhood one weekday night. He knew it was coming because it was advertised on social media, and evacuated himself and his family, but they (we) marched and chanted around his neighborhood anyways.

Then, a couple weeks later, following the tenants’ lead and directly coordinating with them, I and several other DSA-LA comrades returned to BJ Turner’s house and spent the night outside in tents. We chanted and marched, bedded down for the night, and did it all over again in the morning. All of this was peaceful and legal, but disruptive as hell. The police that came in the morning spent about 30 minutes inside talking to him — he was pissed.

(I would also add that, considering that most of us in this DSA-LA group are white, this was a good way for us to leverage our white privilege — cops tend to treat us pretty nicely — in support of an effort being led by people of color.)

The next weekend the tenants and their supporters were back at BJ’s house, this time during the day. After this, he had clearly had enough, and entered into the negotiations that ultimately resulted in the present victory.

This point really cannot be overstated: taking the fight directly to his neighborhood, where he could not ignore the people he was profiting off of, was huge. The tenants recognized that it was important to make him personally feel the consequences of his actions. Here’s how we put this in our DSA-LA statement:

“If BJ Turner chooses to continue this process of kicking out low-income Latinx families for the sake of lining his pockets, then we will engage in peaceful and legal protest to disrupt his life. We will inform his neighbors that they are living next to a man willing to ruin lives for profit. Ultimately, we will make him famous as the face of gentrification in Los Angeles.”

3) The courts are valuable spaces to fight evictions

None of this would’ve worked without the superb legal strategy rom the tenants’ attorneys that dragged out the eviction process as long as possible. As radicals, we shouldn’t shun the use of the legal system, but instead look to use it to our advantage when we can. This inside-outside strategy is also used by the radical Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign in South Africa.

Unfortunately, most people fighting evictions don’t have attorneys. Los Angeles should follow the lead of New York City (and potentially San Francisco) and guarantee legal representation to every tenant facing eviction.

4) None of this would have happened with rent control

Rent control is f*cking sweet and everyone should have it. BJ Turner would not have been able to ask for an $800 rent increase, and these tenants would be spared the year-long trauma of not knowing if they could remain in their community. Let’s repeal Costa-Hawkins in November so we can expand it.

5) Capitalism really sucks

Focusing on this one instance of (unrealized) capitalist displacement shows just how bankrupt the whole system is. It allows one rich white dude to profit off of ruining the lives of a bunch of lower-income individuals and families he’s never met. There’s no meaningful democracy involved, no conceptions of right or wrong — just the total rule of the rich over the poor. We shouldn’t accept the idea that capitalism is “natural” in any way.