Constructing Solidarities for a Humane Urbanism

Traveling Inspirations and Difficult Collaborations

In this module, you will learn about how sparks of inspiration travel across borders and how collaboration across different sectors sustains organizing. Take Back the Land, an exemplary case, is a national housing rights movement that organized in response to the foreclosure crisis. After the 2008 fiscal crisis, the U.S. government bailed out financial institutions by purchasing millions of foreclosed properties. While the banks were bailed out, ordinary people became homeless. Take Back the Land, inspired by Brazil’s MST and South Africa’s Abahlali, organized to move homeless people into people-less homes. Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) is a movement of landless workers in Brazil. MST leads land occupations and fights for agricultural cooperatives, schools, and health care for workers. Land and housing, under both MST and anti-eviction movements in South Africa, are seen as social goods rather than commodities in the housing market. 
Following this principle, Take Back the Land argued that because public money was spent to buy properties and bail out banks, those properties were now public housing. They engaged in civil disobedience and direct action to reach their goals to move people into foreclosed/vacant homes and defend against evictions. The shift towards reframing housing rights as human rights, and from securing affordable housing to creating community-controlled land trust is visible in their organizing. Collaboration is a space of tension in social movements. Who should anti-capitalist and anti-racist organizations collaborate with? Could they work with elected officials, police officers, bankers? Which civil society and non-governmental organizations can social movements trust and build relationships with? Is a just conversation possible between the oppressor and the oppressed? There are no simple answers. In the talk below, Rob Robinson, a long-time organizer with the movement, refers to how SWAT teams were mobilized against their anti-eviction organizing. In order to sustain their organizing, Take Back the Land works in collaboration with other sectors of society such as organizations of lawyers, yet they maintain an oppositional stance towards banks. They work with international allies and share resources among organizations in the network. The readings will give you a historical understanding of South African and Brazilian case studies of anti-eviction and land reform movements. They will also cover complexities of organizing in the U.S. At a deeper level, the practices of these social movements echo the possibilities of trans-local organizing that we covered in the last module and reveal the limitations of white liberalism. They also bring forward the gray areas of organizing in neoliberal cities where state/capital operates through inclusion and participation.

Reading Suggestions

Robinson, B. (2010). A Conversation on organizing models for social justice struggles in the city–CityLife/Vida Urbana, Picture the Homeless, Take Back the Land, United Workers. Uses of a Whirlwind: Movement, Movements and Contemporary Radical Currents in the United States, 79-84. Link:

Carter, M. (2010). The landless rural workers movement and democracy in Brazil. Latin American Research Review45(4), 186-217.

Miraftab, F., & Wills, S. (2005). Insurgency and spaces of active citizenship: The story of Western Cape anti-eviction campaign in South Africa. Journal of planning education and research25(2), 200-217.

Pithouse, R. (2006). The Promised Land and the University of Abahlali baseMjondolo. African sociological review10(1), 102-142.

Mdlalose, B. (2014). The Rise and Fall of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a South African Social Movement. Politikon41(3), 345-353.

Foscarinis, M. (2005). Advocating for the Human Right to Housing: Notes from the United States. NYU Rev. L. & Soc. Change30, 447.

Branford, S., & Rocha, J. (2002). Cutting the wire: the story of the landless movement in Brazil. Latin America Bureau.

Garmany, J. (2008). The spaces of social movements: The Movement of Landless Rural Workers from a socio-spatial perspective. Space and Polity , 12 (3), 311-328.

Wolford, W. (2010). This land is ours now: Social mobilization and the meanings of land in Brazil. Duke University Press.

Gibson, N. C. (2008). Upright and free: Fanon in South Africa, from Biko to the shackdwellers’ movement (Abahlali baseMjondolo). Social Identities14(6), 683-715.

Foscarinis, M. (2007). The Growth of a Movement for a Human Right to Housing in the United States. Harv. Hum. Rts. J.20, 35.

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