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(en) Poland, Warsaw's Pensioners and Anarchists Unite Against Gentrification

Date Sun, 27 Apr 2014 20:07:47 +0300

On a brisk Thursday afternoon, a queue forms in front of a newly privatized four-story council estate in Warsaw's Praga district. ---- A century ago it could have been an impressive piece of art nouveau architecture, but — worn away by the years, like most of the buildings in Praga — it now stands as a bleak contrast to the city's shiny financial center. The people forming the queue live in the neighborhood, though with the nascent privatization of the area it's hard to tell how long they'll be able to stick around for. ---- The local Tenants' Defense Committee — who those in the queue are waiting to see — was set up to tackle up this problem, beginning its life as a small family affair. ---- "A multiplex cinema was erected in front of our window, where an old movie theater used to stand. The vibrations resulting from the use of heavy machinery began to topple the weak foundations of our house. The council was suspiciously slow to act, so we organized a protest," says Teresa Jasi?ska, who formed the committee several years ago, along with her husband Marek and their daughter. "Word of mouth spreads quickly around here, so as people heard about our success they started coming to us for advice."

The help they offered at first was primarily from a legal standpoint, but this changed radically after a series of unexplained fires hit the district's estate buildings in 2011.

Basements, attics and storage rooms caught fire in rapid succession; at one point there were as many as three fires in a single day.

The committee recruited a few more members and put together Patrol Okrzejówki, named after an early 20th century socialist who fought for Poland's independence.

Wearing fluorescent vests bearing the patrol's name, the residents took to the streets, arm-in-arm with members of the anarchist Polish Syndicalist Union and denizens of Warsaw's few remaining squats.

For months they have been voluntarily taking turns in nightly patrols, aiming to deter whoever was repeatedly setting fire to the local buildings.

"You won't burn every one of us!" was the brigade's rally call.

Nobody in Praga believes that the fires were an accident, so who are the alleged arsonists behind the attacks?

Every investigation into the fires has been closed due to lack of hard evidence, with the police stating that they probably were intentional arsons. Those queuing in front of the committee's provisional office point at the building's new owners, but refuse to give me their names.

The buildings were privately owned before the war, but were later nationalized by the Soviet-approved government in an effort to both crush the bourgeoisie and to streamline the reconstruction process.

Some of these previous owners — or their families — have tried to reclaim their property from the government, claiming it was unlawfully confiscated, but often get fed up with the drawn out legal process.

This, according to Marek Jasi?ski — spokesperson of the Defense Committee and founder of the Okrzejówki Brigades — is where the new breed of owners step in.

He claims that the same few companies have been buying out the former owners' and the fire victims' compensation claims. Then, armed with a host of lawyers (and — as sociologist and local whistle blower Jan ?piewak alleges — sometimes using falsified documents and bribes), they manage to break the council and end up owning more and more neglected homes.

Praga — with its pre-war buildings and soon-to-be finished Metro line, which connects it straight to Warsaw's business hub — is sure to attract big money. And big money is just what the private building owners want, not the meager rents paid by former council tenants.

What big money wants in return are renovated houses (or new ones, replacing the demolished structures), beautiful neighbors and a porter. Which, in the developers' eyes, means that most of the current tenants need to go.

"It's a mafia," says Witold, who just joined the queue at the committee's door. Of course, by "mafia" he doesn't mean Tommy guns and cement shoes, but that the landlords will allegedly use illegitimate techniques to evict their current tenants, exploiting their lack of knowledge around the few laws that have been put in place to protect them.

He comes straight from the courtroom, having won a case against his new private landlord. He asks not to disclose the details of his situation, as there are still legal battles to come.

"I ask the committee for legal advice. Consulting professional lawyers on my and my mother's income is a definite no go," he says, before reciting some 1960s Polish poetry.

Fear, he says, is the main tactic employed by the building owners while they try to get rid of their tenants.

"The people around here are mostly simple folk — not primitive, but simple. When they're sent an official-looking document they won't question its validity. They don't believe they have a right or possibility to not agree. Out of all the families in my building, I was the only one who decided to fight against the 300 percent rise of our rent. I ain't no anarchist — I just won't allow anybody to take advantage of me."

Witold believes that the more individualized societies are, the easier it is to exploit people.

"You're weaker if you feel you're alone," he says. "It's a popular trick. That's the reason why no big company ever asks for a class action. Atomization has killed the trade unions, now it's killing our neighborhood."

In turn, the Tenants' Defense Committee is trying to get people back together. Their events have managed to gather people from all social backgrounds and are a rare opportunity to see pensioners (a group generally perceived to be more of the Catholic-conservative outlook) shouting their discontent alongside anarchists, syndicalists, pacifists and every other breed of welfare supporter.

They demand fairer and more realistic rules on the distribution of social housing; a program that will ensure that municipal properties are not privatized and demolished to make space for office blocks and condos; and, finally, the construction of new council estates in lieu of subsidizing developers who build on cheap land on the city outskirts, fueling the gentrification of the center and putting a strain on public services.

To achieve what they've set out to do, they are now shifting from street activism to political work.

As well as lobbying the city council, they organize two open advice sessions at the committee's provisional headquarters every week, where everyone is welcome to come and ask for help. "It's not an easy job," says Bozena Jasinska, a law graduate.

She also claims that development companies have started to spy on them.

"We had several individuals claiming to be students wishing to take internships with us. Upon further investigation they turned out to be professional lawyers working for the real estate sector — a few of them even confessed to this," she says. "Apparently, what they really wanted was to infiltrate our organization and get to know the ways in which we operate. One can only guess why."

Three years ago, one of most prominent activists involved in the tenants' movement was found mutilated in a forest on the outskirts of Warsaw. Her name was Jolanta Brzeska and she was 64. Initially, suicide was considered a possibility.

"Surely, with her hands tied behind her back, face down in a bonfire, miles away from her own home she must have done that herself," says Jasi?ski, sarcastically. Since then, the possibility has been eliminated by the court, but the investigation itself was canceled earlier this year due to a lack of murder suspects.

The investigation was canceled in April 2013, and this year it was placed under court scrutiny.

Currently Jolanta Brzeska's daughter, Magdalena, is also in a legal battle with the new owners of her home. They accuse her of owing them more than 14,000 euros ($19,342.40) for living there illegally (after they allegedly destroyed her contract).

“The hope of ever finding the murderers might have been forever lost in the first days of the investigation,” wrote Gazeta Sto?eczna — the biggest local newspaper — on March 1, the anniversary of Brzeska’s death.

“Everything was happening too slowly or didn’t happen at all; it took the police a week to even identify the victim [...] and only after a few months, after the court experts have concluded that the murderers were affiliated with the building development sector, they decided to search the car that the owner of her house had been using on the date of the murder.”

Ever since, Jolanta Brzeska has become a symbol for the tenants' movements across Warsaw, her portraits adorning the walls of buildings throughout Praga.

With similar problems in all major Polish cities, the Tenants' Defense Committee has a fight on its hands, and the memory of their murdered friend is what keeps them going.

They are currently working hard to gain broader public support by staying on the right side of the law; they recently stopped taking part in eviction blockades, which involved clashes with the police and generated a lot of negative publicity, even if the evictees were grateful.

As Jan ?piewak points out, by now Praga can be considered a lost battle. Those still fighting for their rights are only a minority, with hundreds of families having been evicted already.

But the re-privatization problem will not cease — on a smaller scale it is present in every major Polish city as well as the other districts of Warsaw. In the city center, claim-buyers are now taking over communal spaces: parks, public squares and even schools.

"This may lead to another unlikely alliance, as it is no longer just council tenants and anarchists. Right now, it’s becoming a middle-class problem as well,” says ?piewak.

"For an average Pole, the idea that housing is a right rather than a commodity is still something that only the dirty squatters or crazy Amnesty International activists moan about," says Polish writer Ja? Kapela.

"Going into debt is the way of obtaining shelter that had supposedly been blessed by the God and the market alike. Our society still believes in such ghosts as God or the free market. The only fact that slightly shatters that faith is that 60 percent of Polish citizens have absolutely no chance of getting a mortgage loan."
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