(2012) Tras las huellas de las okupaciones en New York City (2): Legalizaciones en Loisaida [SP]

Sábado 3 de marzo de 2012, por Miguel Angel Martinez

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Martinez Lopez, M. A. (2012, March 3). Tras las huellas de las okupaciones en new york city (2): Legalizaciones en loisaida [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.miguelangelmartinez.net/...


Tras las huellas de las okupaciones en New York City (2): Legalizaciones en Loisaida

Como en muchas otras ciudades, en New York City también se han okupado edificios o pisos vacíos con fines residenciales. Sólo en ocasiones, cuando esas acciones se reivindican públicamente o su carácter ilegal es ampliamente conocido por el vecindario o las autoridades, se hacen visibles los casos más sobresalientes. No por casualidad, suelen coincidir con aquellos en los que se ha generado una organización colectiva y un apoyo mutuo del que carecen muchas de las okupaciones invisibles. La persistencia de las acciones de okupación por las mismas personas una vez que son desalojadas de un lugar y buscan rápidamente otro, podría añadirse a los rasgos anteriores. Aunque no es imprescindible, a todo ello se puede sumar una justificación ideológica que, con frecuencia, sirve para elaborar discursos públicos y proporcionarle una identidad más definida textualmente al movimiento de okupaciones que todo ese conjunto de acciones puede llegar a configurar. Estas circunstancias concurrieron en el Lower East Side (Loisaida, en su forma abreviada y latinizada) en particular durante el ciclo que se inicia a mediados de la década de 1980. Entre las particularidades de este movimiento de okupaciones se encuentran los casos de legalización que se produjeron de los que varios, aún en la actualidad (2012), se enfrentan a un futuro incierto.

Nuestros cicerones en la visita a los edificios originalmente okupados fueron, fundamentalmente, Matt, Bill y Frank Morales. El último no sólo aparece extraordinariamente retratado en el esclarecedor cómic de Seth Tobocman, War in the Neighbourhood, sino que además es uno de los promotores actuales de O4O (Organization For Occupations), una entidad que surgió en 2011, unos meses antes que el movimiento Occupy Wall Street (OWS) iniciado en septiembre del año pasado aunque finalmente ha habido poca relación mutua. Frank Morales no sólo es uno más de los residentes de los post-squats, como Matt y Bill, sino que también es un líder comunitario con mucho carisma en las comunidades negras y latinas, primero del Bronx (donde ya participó en varias okupaciones) y después de Loisaida. A ello se suma su trabajo como párroco, algo que difícilmente se infiere de su apariencia o de su discurso político (http://brooklynhistory.org/blog/tag...). Bill es uno de los animadores de la organización ecologista Time’s Up (que tiene un taller-tienda en Williamsburg y otro, por lo menos, en el sótano de ABC No Rio), cuyo principal logro son los talleres de bicicletas en los que, según nos expresó con orgullo, trabajan unas 100 personas voluntarias. En varias de las visitas y de los debates que tuvimos también nos acompañó Amy Starecheski, una antropóloga de CUNY (City University of New York) que está realizando su tesis doctoral sobre este ciclo de okupaciones y legalizaciones en el barrio, después de haber recogido historias orales en Christiania (Copenhague).

Para entender todo este proceso es conveniente remontarse a la situación crítica en la que se encontraba New York a finales de la década de 1980 y principios de 1990. A la llamada “crisis fiscal” de las arcas municipales, mermadas y atravesando grandes dificultades financieras, se sumaba una profunda crisis de la vivienda que afectaba a miles de desempleados y sin techo. La tasas de criminalidad y el tráfico de drogas ilegales eran notablemente elevados de modo tal que una de las políticas de mano dura adoptadas por el alcalde conservador Rudolf Giuliani fue bautizada como “zero tolerance” (tolerancia cero) reforzada después con la de “broken windows” (“ventanas rotas”, como un indicador mínimo de vandalismo que puede conllevar graves penas de prisión) y con un incremento abrasivo de la presencia y la violencia policiales. Entre las políticas urbanas acometidas por las sucesivas administraciones locales predominaban las destinadas a la privatización de los servicios públicos y del patrimonio construido aún en manos del ayuntamiento, además de la promoción de oportunidades para atraer capitales mediante la construcción de grandes operaciones urbanas denominadas “de regeneración” (sobre todo, en las zonas otrora industriales y portuarias), rascacielos y espacios segregados donde se ejerce un elevado control social (a estos efectos, junto al esclarecedor libro de Susan Fainstein, The City Builders, recomiendo el más reciente de Benjamin Shepard y Greg Smithsimon, The Beach Beneath the Streets).

El Lower East Side había quedado como uno de esas zonas residuales donde se acumulaba la vivienda social y la población más pobre de toda la península de Manhattan, aunque se halla localizado a escasa distancia de zonas residenciales (como Greenwich Village y Tribeca, al oeste) y de negocios (Wall Street, al suroeste) muy cotizadas. No es de extrañar, pues, que pronto se descubriese como un área apetecible para las clases medio-altas y, como apuntaba Hans Pruijt, ya a principios de la década de 1980 se podían apreciar operaciones “gentrificadoras” en un sentido muy genérico (strictu sensu, ese concepto alude a un proceso de expulsión de colectivos humildes de un barrio central y a su sustitución por clases sociales más solventes, aunque se suele extender de forma amplia para caracterizar la proliferación de negocios de restauración, galerías de arte, ocio y comercios que sirven a esas mismas clases altas). La imagen de aquella época que más repiten los ex-squatters con los que hablamos se resume en: filas de consumidores de heroína, gangs controlando con violencia distintas porciones del territorio, constantes incendios de edificios, numerosos solares con escombros y edificaciones ruinosas, policías en cada esquina, un continuado acoso policial y ataques a la población sin techo auto-organizada. Es decir, la imagen de un campo de batalla, bastante fiel a lo dramatizado en la novela gráfica de Tobocman. Por otra parte, los recuerdos de aquella época también se mezclan con el surgimiento de una comunidad contracultural que comenzó okupando solares para hacer huertos comunitarios, después muchos de aquellos edificios en ruinas que enseguida se pusieron a rehabilitar y que, casi sin solución de continuidad, tuvo que defender políticamente con manifestaciones, acampadas y protestas de diversa naturaleza y condición imaginativa. La nutrida presencia de artistas en dicha comunidad le proporcionaba el colorido y la creatividad que, probablemente, hizo más llevadera aquella difícil lucha. Destaca también, en comparación con otras ciudades, que estas okupaciones de edificios hayan estado siempre muy vinculadas con los huertos o jardines comunitarios autogestionados (“community gardens”), ampliando así las dimensiones de ecología urbana y de espacios públicos (aunque suelen tener candados de acceso) en las que se implica el movimiento.

A mediados de la década de 1990 el movimiento contaba con unos 25-30 edificios okupados en su haber y sus veteranos estiman que unas 3.000 personas estaban involucradas en el mismo. A los huertos se sumaban librerías, periódicos, emisoras de radio, fiestas y lugares de encuentro (o citas de trabajo colectivo como las “making stairs parties”), formando una densa de red de relaciones entre activistas y simpatizantes. La gran mayoría de aquellos edificios okupados (o lo que quedaba en pie de sus estructuras) eran propiedades municipales. En realidad, el objetivo de las autoridades municipales era deshacerse de ellas (junto a otros cientos más que poseían por entonces) vendiéndoselas a promotores inmobiliarios, por lo que la okupación organizada suponía una resistencia frontal a sus planes privatizadores. Entre estos no figuraba relanzar los programas de vivienda social subsidiada en esa zona sino, todo lo contrario, dispersar a las clases populares por barrios más alejados de la ciudad para evitar la conflictividad derivada de su organización y reivindicaciones. Los okupas no sólo integraban a inmigrantes, minorías, artistas, obreros/as y población sin hogar, sino que, además, se oponían explícitamente a la elitización (gentrificación) del barrio. Pero la situación era precaria por muy diversos motivos. No sólo el problema de las drogadicciones se alojaba en el seno de varios de los edificios okupados y los conflictos internos destruían todo proyecto de convivencia colectiva, sino que los desalojos policiales eran brutales y reiterados, a menudo sin ninguna garantía ni orden judicial. Por si todo ello fuera poco, muchos de aquellos edificios no tenían agua corriente, electricidad, calefacción, instalaciones sanitarias y, en casos como Umbrella House, ni siquiera techos ni suelos en mínimas condiciones de habitabilidad (o, durante años, sólo tuvieron un retrete y una ducha para 30 personas). En aquellas infraviviendas, sin embargo, se atrincheraron y, en no pocos casos, hicieron una causa vital de la lucha por una vivienda asequible en el centro urbano.

Después de muchos enfrentamientos con la policía y desalojos (la batalla de 13 St. es una de las mejor grabadas en la memoria colectiva), la situación llegó a un punto extremo cuando Giuliani lanzó un “ultimatum” en 1998. Apoyado por una imagen mediática que denigraba continuamente a los okupas, estaba dispuesto a asestar el golpe final a las okupaciones que aún resistían, más de dos decenas. Sin embargo, también la imagen del ayuntamiento salió dañada a raíz de los momentos más álgidos de confrontación con los okupas y, contra todo pronóstico, se abrió un proceso conciliador y negociador que concluyó con un sorprendente acuerdo en 2002. Según este acuerdo, 11 edificios okupados y unos 200 okupas podrían acceder a un estatuto legal y a la titularidad final del inmueble en caso de que los rehabilitasen completamente, siguiendo todas las regulaciones y exigencias al respecto. Dada las condiciones de partida de los edificios, este objetivo parecía muy alejado de las posibilidades económicas de los okupas pero las opciones disponibles en aquel momento ya no eran muchas. El ayuntamiento impuso una condición suplementaria: hasta que no se completase la rehabilitación, la propiedad de los edificios quedaría en manos de organizaciones sin ánimo de lucro (“houssing associations”) que actuarían como intermediarias y “caseras” efectivas, liberando así al ayuntamiento de toda responsabilidad de gestión durante el proceso. Una vez que se concluyesen las obras de rehabilitación o de reconstrucción, esas entidades transferirían la propiedad a cooperativas de vivienda que, en todo caso, sólo podrían vender las viviendas a la mitad del precio de mercado. Pero la amenaza latente era que si los okupas no llegaban a buen término, la propiedad pasaría a esas entidades intermediarias a las que el ayuntamiento les había repartido el pastel en función de sus afinidades clientelares. En todo caso, como relató uno de nuestros guía, a aquellas alturas “todo el mundo estaba cansado de luchar” y el proceso negociador se consideró como la única salida viable para obtener una vivienda propia.

El resultado de todo ello es bastante variable a fecha actual: 1 edificio renunció formalmente al acuerdo después de haberlo firmado; los residentes de otros 2 edificios se encuentran con una situación similar de parálisis al no ser capaces de conseguir el dinero (o el préstamo) suficiente para poder emprender la renovación (fundamentalmente, por la carencia de ingresos estables en la mayor parte de los casos); en 5 casos las obras han comenzado pero van lentas y todavía no han podido finalizar; finalmente, sólo 3 edificios han completado la rehabilitación, han constituido legalmente sus cooperativas de vivienda y, en consecuencia, han obtenido la condición de propietarios colectivos de los edificios que en su día fueron okupados. Sólo el primer caso se encuentra en una situación clara de peligro de desalojo, aunque es la organización “non-for-profit” la que debe tomar una decisión al respecto. En los 7 casos en los que no se ha accedido todavía a la propiedad, la insolvencia económica de los residentes está poniendo las cosas muy difíciles y se respira bastante incertidumbre acerca del futuro que les espera. Ahora, en general, son los bancos, con su control de las hipotecas (que deniegan o que presionan para su amortización puntual), quienes ejercen la mayor presión sobre los ex-okupas. Sólo en el edificio donde reside Frank Morales decidieron no solicitar ningún préstamo bancario y acometieron las obras con sus propios recursos y trabajo. En el edificio de Bill (Umbrella House), por su parte, decidieron sacrificar los espacios comunitarios del edificio que daban a la calle y alquilarlos como locales comerciales para poder sufragar la deuda bancaria con menos estrecheces (no obstante, siguen manteniendo una sala comunitaria en su planta baja y otros espacio común en su terraza). En realidad, la mayoría de los ex-okupas expresaban que habían hecho un enorme esfuerzo en su vida trabajando en los edificios y, en muchos casos, pagando un elevado precio por los préstamos que han tenido que solicitar. Es decir, argumentan que han pagado realmente por aquellos edificios que tomaron.

Como contraste entre los edificios visitados, podemos mencionar, por un lado, el See-Squat (o C-Squat), el único edificio residencial que se combina con un espacio para conciertos y donde se mantiene una estética bastante “punk” en la decoración. Según Jerry, uno de los más veteranos residentes, no ven ninguna manera de encontrar el dinero necesario para la renovación y afirma, con un gesto de implacable rebeldía, que están dispuestos a volver a las barricadas para defender su permanencia en el edificio. En uno de los locales exteriores del See-Squat, además, Bill y Laurie están habilitando el MoRUS (Museum Of the Reclaimed Urban Space: http://www.morusnyc.org/) donde pretenden reunir, entre otros, materiales representativos de la historia de la okupación y ofrecer visitas guiadas. Por otra parte, destaca el caso de la Bullet Space Gallery and Squat, donde han sorteado con satisfacción los retos de la rehabilitación a la vez que han generado un espacio artístico alternativo (para exposiciones y teatro) en sus plantas bajas y en el jardín trasero. Entre medias, por las calles del Loisaida, estos activistas resistentes nos muestran los distintos huertos comunitarios, algunos ya con el sello de reconocimiento municipal que los preserva de amenazas varias, que alimentan toda esta red de luchas sociales.

Como reflexiones finales apuntaré brevemente cuatro cuestiones: 1) a pesar de la desaparición del movimiento social que estuvo activo durante más de una década y de la pérdida de más de la mitad de los edificios okupados, quienes entraron en la vía de la legalización valoran como un éxito sus logros por acceder a una vivienda digna y asequible, sobre todo, dadas las circunstancias de hostilidad municipal-policial y de la precariedad de sus condiciones laborales y habitacionales, que han debido superar; 2) en la misma línea de impactos positivos del movimiento de okupaciones consideran que han dejado una huella importante en el barrio y en la ciudad en la medida en que su experiencia ha sido el referente de organizaciones posteriores (O4O y “Picture the Homeless”, por ejemplo, que siguen okupando para alojar a familias desahuciadas y critican el sistema de albergues temporales para la población transeúnte) y mantiene abiertas posibilidades de cultura alternativa y auto-organización políticas; 3) aunque el movimiento se ha centrado especialmente en la dimensión residencial, su cohesión y proyección sociales no se podrían entender sin los espacios comunitarios y contraculturales con los que ha constituido una red más amplia (huertos, ABC No Rio, See-Squat, Bullet Space, Living Theatre, etc.); 4) lejos de impulsar el proceso de elitización en el barrio, como a veces se les ha acusado sin mucho fundamento, los okupas han defendido políticamente espacios para viviendas y locales asequibles a las clases populares en el centro urbano, evitando su expulsión y oponiéndose, además, a muchas de las dinámicas sociales y urbanas que acompañan a la gentrificación.

Una visualización de las vidas de tres de estos ex-okupas (colombianos de origen, para más señas) que ha documentado con maestría Sebastián Gutiérrez, uno de los miembros de O4O, puede proporcionar, por último, una aproximación más vivencial a esta acumulación de resistencias y esfuerzos colectivos: http://vimeo.com/6155858  http://vimeo.com/19503285 http://vimeo.com/5745683

Documentos sobre la okupación en Loisaida:

“The squatters are setting precisely the type of example that no one in power — neither the politicians nor the bureaucrats, neither the landlords nor the real estate ‘developers,’ neither the community groups nor the local educations — want anyone else to follow. The squats are demonstrating — neither in words nor in speeches, but in acts — exactly how much is possible for small autonomous groups of people to accomplish outside of the dominant institutions, the most basic of which is landlordism.” Not Bored Magazine, 1996

…it takes more dedication and responsibility (and at times insanity) to live this way since you do have to learn how to do everything yourself, which can be difficult and time-consuming, especially when it is winter and you have no heat. It can also be a problem when you don’t get along with some of the people in your building — when you have to live with someone you don’t trust. And what if someone starts getting really violent? Or threatening the safety of the building? The politics of squatters evicting squatters can get incredibly messy… It’s not easy to maintain a positive group dynamic when you live under stress.

Everybody wants to live for ‘free,’ but not everyone is able to handle the responsibilities, stress and rough conditions that go along with it. A new squat can be really raw; no electricity, no plumbing, and sometimes no roof or stairs, etc. The amount of time and money required (some materials cannot be scavenged)can make squatting seem like a full-time job. And although we don’t pay ‘rent’ we do pay ‘house dues’ every month — an essential minimum to cover general maintenance and emergencies. For example, a couple of years ago we had to pay a contractor $3000 to dig up the street and fix a broken water main after being contacted by the Environmental Protection Agency (APA) and told that our water main was the cause of the whole street being constantly flooded…

Today, in 1999, the building is full of very dedicated people — five families and lots of kids, including Felix, who was actually born in the building over 3 years ago. Everyone is interested in trying to buy the building. After putting so much sweat and money and love into this place we don’t want to lose it. In 1999 our house will be 100 years old. We would like to establish it as a historical site. We feel that we are the owners/caretakers of this building, which was abandoned and left for dead by the city.” Fly, “Squatting on the Lower East Side.” [http://www.morusnyc.org/history/squ...]

““The Valentine’s Committee was very clear in its purpose. It was two things: An affirmative OFFENSE strategy: TAKE BUILDINGS. So we organized groups. People made pamphlets on how to open buildings up. And a bunch of squats opened up all over the place. And there was a DEFENSIVE strategy: ‘EVICTION WATCH.’ Once a month, all the buildings would get together and link up.This group would not constitute itself as an authority over any of your buildings, but would be a place where people could link up. Why go to an Eviction Watch meeting? Because if the cops come to your building, and you shout, and nobody even knows you because you don’t come to any collective meetings, nobody’s going to be able to defend you! And people generally liked to come to the meetings. They were festive occasions. You got to see people from the other buildings. If you needed a buzz-saw, you could find somebody with a buzz-saw. Those first couple of years, that defensive network functioned very effectively, such that we called people out to defend buildings at least a dozen times prior to 1988. In fact, the defense of the park [in August 1988] was due, in part, to the base that had been generated by three years of work [defending our buildings]. That’s why when people shouted ‘Curfew!’ there was immediately a crowd at the park.” Frank Morales, housing activist

[http://www.morusnyc.org/history/squ...]

“I started working up on the sixth floor replacing joists and doing masonry work. I could see all the way down to the first floor. I was eventually granted a space in the building to renovate as my own apartment. This space had no floor or ceiling, the windows were all just gaping holes in the wall and the walls themselves were bare brick in need of extensive repairs. I had to learn to do everything in order to build this place every step of the way. The highlights were: when I actually had a floor(!); the first window I put in was also exciting — all materials scavenged and the frame built out of police barricades (we used to joke about how we should call a demonstration when we needed to install windows cuz the barricades make such good frames). I learned all the nifty squatter construction techniques based on how to make do with what you can find. Framing out my walls, and running the BX cable (I learned how to do all my own wiring) was also exciting. Being involved in this whole process, learning the steps of building a habitable space, really makes you appreciate and respect your surroundings. You are not helpless and waiting for a landlord or super to fix something for you and you can suddenly see how much time and money is wasted making repairs that are actually simple; you can see how useless ‘landlords’ are and you can judge the quality of repair work done by professionals against your own (you would be surprised how sloppy many professionals are). The knowledge of how to build and maintain my own living space gave me a sense of calm in the midst of chaos. I figured even if the city threw us out and I lost everything I at least now had ‘the knowledge’ and I would be able to do it all again somewhere else.” Fly, “Squatting on the Lower East Side.”

[http://www.morusnyc.org/history/squ...]

“…people living in the squats feel that the empowering aspects of squatting have enriched them two-fold. Classes of usually exploited individuals (the poor and homeless, women, substance abusers, etc.) have discovered within the autonomous spaces of the squats a chance to reassert control over their own lives. And from such experiences of self-empowerment, these individuals have discovered the path of collective empowerment as well. People who would not have identified themselves as ‘leaders’ or ‘activists’ have, through squatting, found the common resolve to help lead the fight for popular control over the Lower East Side. Several anecdotes speak to its effects… Just as squatters create their own housing, so they can use these free spaces to provide services for themselves and the surrounding community without being beholden to the state.”

Andrew Van Kleunen, “The Squatters’ Voices: Is Anyone Listening?”

[http://www.morusnyc.org/history/squ...]

“From skelly to squats to SWAT: Radical father finds a home at St. Mark’s.

When police were trying to barge into St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery on Aug. 27 to arrest bicyclists from Critical Mass seeking refuge inside, one man stood in the entranceway blocking them. Father Frank Morales told the officers they couldn’t come in, that the church was a place of sanctuary. They respected his request — though that didn’t stop them from arresting scores of bike riders outside on Second Ave.

“The police were vamping on the bikers,” Morales said. “We were not going to stand by. When you stand by you become an abuser.”

It was Morales who was in large part responsible for allowing the historically liberal East Village church and its grounds to become “Protesters Central” during the Republican National Convention this summer. Others who helped coordinate the protesters’ use of the church were performance artist preacher Reverend Billy; his wife, Savitri Durkee; and Tom Torn, son of actor Rip.

Morales modestly said they simply allowed the young activists access to the space. “What was manifested there was an alternative vision of how we can organize ourselves,” he said. “They were feeding 500 meals a day. They were educating each other. They had a medical tent. We just had the keys and put out some ideas. But people came and made it. I thought it was a beautiful, beautiful thing.”

Morales was speaking at the church on Nov. 3, after a meeting of a small group of local anarchists, socialists, radicals and just plain neighbors. They had needed to talk and commiserate after Bush’s demoralizing victory and Morales — again — had opened the church for them.

A dignified and striking figure, dressed all in black, with a small silver goatee, Morales has been an associate pastor at the church about four years. His presence is helping transform it into even more of a center of activism than before. Although he’s well known in the neighborhood, for reasons he himself can’t explain, intrigue — and sometimes controversy — seem to attach themselves to him. “I know, there’s an air of mystery that surrounds me. I have no idea,” he said. “People like to project. Maybe they’re bored with their lives.”

So who is Frank Morales? For starters, he isn’t a newcomer to the neighborhood. In fact, he grew up in it.

His life story would make a good novel or movie. There are distinct chapters: gifted student makes good, child of the ’60s, rock singer, Kennedy/King assassination investigator, socially conscious priest, squatter organizer and, the latest, anti-police-state activist.

During an interview at Life Cafe at Avenue B and 10th St., just down the block from the squat — or technically former squat — he lives in, and not much farther from where he was raised, he filled in the picture.

Morales was born in 1949 and grew up in the Jacob Riis Houses at 12th St. and Avenue D. His father was Puerto Rican and worked as a porter at the Jewish Home and Hospital for the Aged on W. 106th St., becoming a union shop steward. His mother was from Peru; her father was an Italian in the merchant marine and her mother native Peruvian. He has two younger sisters.

The East Village of the ’50s and ’60s, “pre-drugs,” as Morales recalls it, was ethnically mixed, working class, all in all, an ideal place to grow up. Neighbors in his building were black, Jewish, Cherokee and Puerto Rican.

“I think the neighborhood was actually more diverse than it became,” he said. “There was some violence, but it was a pretty stable neighborhood from a psychological point of view.”

Morales was a member of a gang, the D Boys, but being a good speaker — “I wore glasses from third grade on, I was smart,” he noted — his main role was “information minister.”

“Speed was big in those days,” Morales recalled. He was fast. He used to sprint home from the Boys’ Club to avoid another gang that hung out by Tompkins Sq. “Right on that corner,” he said, over a bowl of soup, nodding across the street. Street games were also huge: stickball, ringolevio, skelly, manhunt.

“At my peak, I could hit a bottle cap from 10 ft. away,” Morales said of his skills in skelly, a sort of miniature bocce played on a 13-box grid.

A good student, he was perennial co-president of his P.S. 34 elementary school class.

Morales and some of his Riis Houses buddies were in the first Boys’ Club educational program and thanks to it he was able to attend private Cushing Academy in Massachusetts from grades 7 to 12.

“It was a bit of a culture shock because I grew up on Avenue D,” he said. “So I ran away a few times — once made it to the Port Authority. Charlie, this Polish guy from the Boys’ Club, came and got me.” But he eventually settled in, earning high honors in his second term, realizing he could hack it.

“You got this rep,” he recalled. “I was the first scholarship kid that they’d had at the school — quote, unquote ‘poor kid.’ I didn’t have to do much. They paid me some kind of respect.”

Shortly after Morales arrived at Cushing in 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It profoundly affected the young Lower East Sider — as did the subsequent killings of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Morales would later become part of a group called the Assassination Information Committee.

“I spent a couple of years in the 1970s on the assassination circuit,” he said. “They were all cover-ups.” (...)

Sixties music was new and exciting, and in high school and college Morales was in bands. In his first band, The Raves, he sang backup. They performed at Cafe Wha on MacDougal St., where Jimi Hendrix was playing in the Blue Flames, a soul band. They’d hang out in the club sometimes between shows.

“When they weren’t playing, he’d work on his own things — I remember ‘Wind Cries Mary,’ ” Morales said. “He was striking. No black person had an Afro at that point. And his clothing was so outlandish. He had layers of clothes — like a T-shirt with eyes and another T-shirt over it with cutouts for the eyes.”

Forerunners of the hippies were settling in the East Village. Morales recalls the “witches stores” that used to be on Szold Pl. near Riis Houses. And there was a “Digger house,” where acid flowed freely, on Avenue A and 10th St.

“They would dose people regularly,” he said. “They’d have a vat of Kool-Aid in front and gave out doses. They’d let people crash there. I crashed there a few times.” By the time he was in college, first at Hobart, then Cornell, the Aquarian Age was in full bloom.

“We really did believe oppression as we knew it was over,” he said, “like the Christians in the 1st century, packing their bags for heaven…. All this music was new. Peace was in.”

Then came Robert Kennedy’s assassination. “You talk about traumatic,” Morales said. “The World Trade Center was traumatic. But Robert Kennedy was going to be president. There were rumors that he was going to choose King for vice president. They took him out — and everybody knew…. They beheaded the counterculture — the ’60s didn’t collapse.”

While learning from a campus chaplain the steps needed to become a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, Morales got more interested in religion.

“It became clear that the New Testament is a revolutionary ideology,” Morales said. It’s an ideology that President Bush doesn’t understand, in his view. “It’s the prince of peace we’re talking about here — duh,” noted Morales. “It doesn’t make sense to fight wars in the name of the prince of peace.”

After hitchhiking back and forth to the Haight five or six times after college, Morales entered the General Seminary in Chelsea in 1973, emerging three years later an ordained Episcopal minister. The Episcopal church’s liberalness appealed to him. “I was raised Catholic, but it seemed a little stiff to me,” he explained. “You can’t get married, the celibacy thing — I was in rock bands.”

A new movement, Latin American liberation theology, was being born, and again Morales was right at the cusp and deeply influenced.“God is with the oppressed,” he said. “Marxism is all right, but it’s kind of boring, very European. Jesus’ stuff is much more inflammatory. It’s much deeper.”

In 1978, Morales went to the South Bronx — then synonymous with the term “bombed out” — to become an assistant pastor. “It was heavy,” he said. “I wanted to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, go to where poverty was.”

Morales led the construction of a park on some vacant lots and also the squatting of buildings around the park, at 139th St. and St. Ann’s Pl.

“I used to walk out of services with a crowbar and we’d open up abandoned buildings,” he recalled. “Winos and drug addicts would be knocking on my door at 7:30 in the morning saying, ‘Let’s go.’ They knocked this park out.”

In 1985, Morales returned to his old neighborhood, “primarily because I wanted to come home,” he said. He became a leader of the squatter movement in the East Village, which had 100 abandoned buildings. Funding had stopped for the Homesteader program, under which people could legally fix up derelict buildings, then apply for ownership. Homelessness was on the rise.

Summing up his feelings about squatting, Morales said, “The only way you can get housing is to seize it. The buildings are sitting empty. People need housing. It’s fun to do this — that’s a big part of it for me. It’s fun to sweep out the debris. You can make a daycare center or community kitchen.”

Thanks to Morales’ involvement, Bishop Paul Moore and Archdeacon Michael Kendall came down to stand with the squatters against police evictions. Evictions of the squats continued through the 1990s. In an historic deal, in 2002 the city allowed 11 city-owned abandoned East Village buildings — home to over 200 squatters — to be purchased for $1 each by the nonprofit Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. UHAB is helping the residents renovate the buildings and bring them up to code, after which they will become limited-equity affordable co-ops owned and run by the tenants.

Morales calls the agreement with UHAB a “firewall” to protect the squats, but is concerned there will be a “rude awakening” in about two years when the squatters are left holding the check for the buildings’ extensive — he feels excessive — UHAB-led renovations. He fears some tenants could be priced out by higher rents that will result. He’s been talking to UHAB about possible subsidies to insure all the squatters can remain. The squatters won’t evict each other, he stressed.

“We took 22 buildings. We have 11 now,” Morales said. “I’m cautiously optimistic. Obviously, I would have preferred to remain totally outside the system.” Morales noted that some squatters have mellowed as a result of raising families. He married and has children, but, fearing for his family members’ safety, didn’t want to discuss his personal life, saying threats — veiled and not-so veiled — have been made against him for his research on the military and police.

During the squatter struggles, Morales took a hiatus of sorts from the church. Now with what he calls the “normalization” and “decriminalization” of the squats, he’s found himself drawn back to his religious calling. (...)

Morales’s position at the church is unpaid. He supports himself through carpentry work, a skill he picked up as a squatter, which he does when not engaged in his other occupation — research and writing on the military and police. In an era of mass protests, Morales — like some sort of East Village leftist Zelig — is again right in the mix. Starting in the late 1990s and increasingly after 2001, he has become an expert on what he says is a new relatively unknown initiative by Washington to quell domestic dissent. The Pentagon even has a name for the 10-year-old program: O.O.T.W., or Operations Other Than War. In Morales’ view, the line separating the military from the police is being blurred, a direct violation of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which bars the military from acting as a police force. (...)

“My bias, and I’ll admit it, is I want to create a more favorable climate for dissent.” Speaking of protests, Morales is a big fan of the Critical Mass rides. “The city is continuing this vendetta against Critical Mass,” he said. “But Critical Mass — they’re feisty. They’ll triumph in the end…. I’d join them but I’m not much of a bike rider, because my vision’s not so good — I tend to lose concentration.” Although the danger to the squats has passed, one last battle looms — the former CHARAS/El Bohio building. Some, like the East Village Community Coalition and Councilmember Margarita Lopez, are hoping a miracle will occur and the Landmarks Preservation Commission will designate the old school a landmark, blocking Gregg Singer’s mega-dorm project. Morales — who lives across the street from the site — thinks a more aggressive approach may be called for. Singer has already applied for demolition permits to raze the back of the building for the new dorm.

“It’s going to be hard for me to stand there and watch them try to demo that place,” he said. “If it gets to the point that that’s going to happen, we have a responsibility to take a stand — and put our bodies on the line to keep that from happening.”

Morales says he’ll also continue take a stand spiritually for making the world a better, more equitable and peaceful place.

“My central value is making love real between neighbors,” he said. “People are dying because of this lack of love, it’s not abstract,” Morales said, citing last month’s John Hopkins report claiming 100,000 civilians had died in the Iraq War. “Half of those killed were women and children,” he said. “I mean, that’s an obscenity. Anyone who looks the other way on that is a far cry from any kind of moral person. “As long as I’m here, I’m going to put my shoulder to the wheel and work with people who are serious about making love between neighbors real and building a world of justice and equality. That to me is the coolest thing. That for me is the hip thing.”

Lincoln Anderson, The Villager, 2004 [http://www.thevillager.com/villager...]

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