The signs were angry and blunt and ended in exclamation points. No Surrender to Speculation! one said. We Can't Buy a Piece of the Pie said another. Decent Housing is a Right, Not a Privilege Push Back Before You Get Pushed Out.
And the songs were sung like the blues: "We ain't gonna move, When we hold together, we make ourselves strong . . ."
It all happened at a District of Columbia tenants' convention held all day yesterday at the Friendship Community School in Southeast Washington. About 300 tenants and organizers gathered there.
The convention was held so persons could "join with those of us who have decided to fight to save our homes and neighborhoods," according to an announcement. Since January, more than 2,000 District of Columbia tenants have been issued eviction notices, the announcements said.
Participants attended morning and afernoon workshops where they received information on rent control, how to fight evictions, and court and legislative actions relating to tenants. At day's end, they met to discuss and vote on a platform, and agreed to demand that the city halt evictions for luxury rehabilitation and dislocation of tenants to aid real estate speculators.
The tenants are asking that funds be made available for tenant-controlled buildings and for a massive building program to provide jobs and low-cost housing for the "working class."
They heard one speaker urge the listeners to become "much more distute.' She said that many tenants attack council members who, she said, "don't represent money, with rare exceptions." Instead of criticizing council members, "We should be attacking the Board of Trade and the Federal City Council. Those are the big boys," she said.
The speaker, Lorne Cress, also said that in discussion about encouraing the middle class to return to Washington, "Middle and upper income sometimes are code words for whites and lower and moderate are sometimes code words for blacks." Some in the predominantly white audience booed, and one man yelled, "Baloney".
Cress responded, "We may be wrong, but we feel that way. We feel there is a design to push us out of the city . . . to put blacks in counties where they have relatively little political power and where it is difficult for them to organize."
At the workshop on tenant resistance, Mattie E. Andrews, who lives in public housing in Southeast Washington, told the crowd, "They're saying to poor black Southerners, go home.Everybody else is welcome in this city except poor black Southerners."
Marie Nahikian, a long-time housing activist in the city and a candidate this year for an at-large seat on the City Council, called yesterday's meeting "very positive."
"It's important for all these people to see each other and find out they are dealing with the same problems," Nahikian said.
Nahikian, noting that attendance at yesterday's convention was "overwhelmingly white," suggested that the next move to aid tenants who fear eviction is to shift the focus "to folks who are the most affected - few of these people (at the meeting yesterday) are going to lose their homes." Those who did not attend, she suggested, are "angry . . . and they don't see any reason to protect themselve." If the city addresses itself to their concerns, Nahikian said, "There's hope for them."
Convention sponsors included the City Wide Housing Coalition, University Legal Services, and the Metropolitan Washington Planning and Housing Association.