To be sure, advocates attending a political and economic justice rally expect to be inspired and moved to take action. But sometimes a speaker is so impassioned, jaws drop and insight tingles the brain. That’s what happened to many of the 200 people gathered on September 8 at the Yes on 21 “Celebrate Renters Rally” outside Los Angeles City Hall. The rally was wrapping up with advocates energized by a deeper understanding of the dire situation facing millions of California renters and why voters must approve Proposition 21.
Proposition 21 is the November ballot measure that puts limits on unfair, sky-high rent increases. It protects people against corporate landlord greed and keeps them in their homes. It’s supported by trusted civil leaders and organizations, such as U.S. Bernie Sanders, labor and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, Congressmembers Maxine Waters, Barbara Lee and Karen Bass and the California Democratic Party, among numerous others.
Suddenly, RJ Dawson — a member of the Black Unity organization occupying Grand Park in support of justice reform — was introduced as a last-minute ally by emcee Trinidad Ruiz of LA Tenants Union. “He heard about the event and came out,” said Ruiz. “He’s sort of on the verge of being unhoused and we need to hear those voices because those are the ones we’re really fighting for with this proposition to keep families in their homes.”
The 32-year old filmmaker was gripping, delivering an almost spiritual clarion call for people power to push Prop 21 and other justice movements.
Here’s an edited excerpt of Dawson’s “Celebrate Renters Rally” remarks. He started by thanking people for showing up since their protest numbers have dwindled.
“This is the level of democracy that matters — where we come to use our bodies to fight for what we want. So, I appreciate each and every one of you, because you realize that the people are the power. And right now, you’re standing ground and you’re holding power with us. And that it needs to be commended. I thank you for coming out. I just want everybody to recognize that because once we realized that we are the power, we can take control back from this government that’s turned against us.
“Someone said before that there’s been an increase in homelessness. Last year, they spent more than $600 million to end homelessness. Yet homelessness increased by 16% — which lets you know that that money is just going into somebody’s pocket. It’s not out here for us. They’re not spending that money on that. Somebody is padding their pockets and we have to say something about it because again, like you said — a lot more of us than we realize are on the verge of homelessness.
“I’m on the verge of homelessness. I, like other people out here, are on the verge of homelessness because — the reality of it is, no matter what, even during this coronavirus where we can’t work and scrounge together money like we used to — it doesn’t even matter because it’s like, they don’t care about us anymore.
“They really don’t care, as long as they can turn a profit. I go through this city and I see so many buildings being built, so many apartment complexes being built. Yet I see more tents on the street every day. Every day I go by these encampments are growing larger.
“Yet they keep spending money on this as if it’s helping. But what are they doing? How is that helping? And I bring this up because like that fight is your fight. We’re fighting the same fight. You’re fighting for it. If you’re fighting to keep families in their houses, then you’re also fighting to get these people housed because where were they?
“In about a month, I won’t be asking for them to cancel my rent. I’ll be asking you to house me. And a lot of us are in that same boat, whether you want to admit it or not — because no matter how good you think you are, no matter how, how much separation they give you, whether they have this idea in your head that like you’re separate from the houseless, the homeless, the reality is — those are your unhoused neighbors. Those are still people. Those are your family. And the more that they do allow you to overlook them is a reality of how they let you slip under. Cause as soon as the 300 people who are at risk of being evicted are evicted, then they’re no longer a problem because they’ve taught you how not to look at them — how to make them invisible. So, don’t let them let us slide into that….
“We need to realize that we’re all one community. We’re one people. Each and every one of you I view as my brother and sister. And that’s the thing that we forgot….
“We, the people, are the power. Once you realize that, once you empower one another, you look to the person next to you say, ‘I got your back.’ Then we’ll be all right. Once you go to the other neighborhood and say, ‘I’m going to treat this place like my place because I care about you — that’s the only time that we’re going to see change out here. We need to fight for each other and we need to fight. We need to hold ourselves accountable. We need to hold each other accountable because this is a war that’s being raised on us.
“People are dying out here. People are still dying out here, whether you allow yourself to see it or whether you go blind to it or whether someone hides it from you, people are dying from this. There are people in this neighborhood that I’ve gotten to know over the 70-plus days that we’ve been out here, Black Unity, they have died out here. Preventable deaths. Deaths preventable by just giving them housing. Deaths preventable by giving them the resources that they need.
“There are people who are living in houses now who don’t eat. I’ll tell you right now — I’ll admit it. There are times when I don’t buy groceries because I have pay the rent. How is that fair? How is that fair to anybody? It is not a world that we need to be living in.
“There needs to be empathy back in our governance. They need to care about the people. And as long as corporate interests are put above the people, you’ll never be taken care of. All you small business owners — your interests are not being taken care of because the government is more concerned about big corporations.
“These people are never going to be taken care of. Our neighborhoods are never going to get the resources that they need. Our education is never going to be reformed. They’re not going to defund the police because it’s not profitable for them. Then every time we sit here and we ask for them to give us our justice — we’re just wasting our time. When we’re ready to fight for this, when we’re ready to band together and use all of our powers to make sure that we’re all good — that’s where we can win this fight. Thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it.”
RJ Dawson of Black Unity speaks at a “Celebrate Renters Rally!” hosted by California’s Yes on 21 campaign on the grounds of Los Angeles City Hall on Tuesday, September 8, 2020 in Downtown Los Angeles. The socially distanced rally sought to educate and motivate voters—including many of California’s 17 million renters—about Proposition 21, a November ballot measure that would allow for the roll out of rent control in more cities and towns throughout the state. (Photo by AP for AHF)