From Boston to the World- Resisting Forced Evictions and Displacement

By John Mwebe


For many in the developing world, the phenomenon of forced eviction and displacement requires little introduction because either you have lived through it or have been around those who have. The most intriguing for me, however, is displacement by development. Unlike war or natural calamities, development is supposed to make lives better but in many situations it ends up harming the same people it seeks to help.

Mel King (second from left) speaks with participants.

A visit to Tent City in Boston made me re-live these experiences for it highlighted the community struggles to save public housing in the face of a gentrification wave. A five-minute chat with Mel King, a man revered for his effort in this struggle, opened my eyes to the reality of urban displacement in the U.S.; commonly termed as gentrification. He noted that,

“What you know as gentrification is actually class cleansing for it is a deliberate effort by the authorities to push out the less privileged and create space for the rich. The struggle to stop such acts has existed over the years and it’s our duty to sustain it lest we lose all that we have achieved over the years.”

This was an articulate analysis of the effects of setting up a luxury apartment amongst the public apartments in the Tent City area creating spillover effects like increased rent that left the poor seeking alternative and cheaper accommodation elsewhere. Such experiences are at the center of research studies within academia alongside advocacy efforts by communities and civil society aimed at addressing the ongoing and increasing wave of forced evictions and displacements.

IAP’s Ryan Schlief presents on how international organizations can act as good allies. Image Credit: Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung

IAP’s Executive Director, Ryan Schlief, and I recently attended a two-day conference titled “Global Convergences — Strategies against Evictions and Displacements” organized by MIT’s Displacement, Research and Action Network and Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung — New York Office. The event brought together scholars, experts, housing and land rights activists from around the world to discuss strategies against displacement. Panels focused on how communities resist and cope with displacement and how we can support their struggles through means that respect human rights. At the conference, movements and advocacy efforts in the U.S., Brazil, India and Mexico were cited. This tied well with International Accountability Project’s community engagement efforts through the Global Advocacy Team which documents community experiences with development and solicits their recommendations of an all-inclusive development plan with the community at its center. This tallied too with the Early Warning System, a project run by IAP and CIEL, which analyzes and disseminates information about bank-funded projects that are likely to cause human rights violations.

Citing cases of displacement and similar patterns of occurrence in different parts of the world, expert groups proposed strategies against displacement that emphasised community engagement. Efforts to enhance communities’ understanding of their land rights remain central to informing them about the means to claim these rights when faced with displacement. This is backed by community initiatives to document experiences of evictions and the use of stories to strengthen advocacy campaigns. All of this underscores the need for effective leadership, one that the community believes in.

John Mwebe (left) speaks at a panel. Image Credit: Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung

Looking back at the experiences of Tent City through the leadership of Mel King and the Mass Alliance of HUD Tenants, my resolve to advocate for community led mobilization and action against injustices arising from development led displacements was renewed. With literature available on displacements, particularly from the displacement mapping initiative by MIT, communities have the opportunity to undertake informed advocacy against forced evictions and displacements by building and sustaining coalitions that address emerging rights violations and participate in deliberations on investments and development that are bound to affect them. It is through these resources and space that communities need to articulate and share their aspirations to guarantee meaningful engagement with their governments and investors in the development process.

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