Malik is an organizer from Silk City Socialists, an independent socialist organization in Paterson, New Jersey. Paterson is the second most densely populated city in the U.S., with a long history of both labor struggle and sharp racial oppression. We spoke with Malik about Silk City’s base buling projects and socialist organizing in the 21st century.
Red Compass: What is the history of Silk City Socialists? How did it start?
Malik: It was birthed around the spring of 2016, during which a lot was happening politically in this country. Our founding members were organizers for YDS (Young Democratic Socialists) at William Paterson University or supporters of the organization. Since we were all graduating or leaving the school, we wanted to keep organizing off of campus into local communities around the area. I would say around half of us had connections to Paterson (either used to lived there or currently reside there), so we chose to primarily organize there. Neither DSA nor any other left / socialist organization existed at the time, so we decided to create our own. And, obviously, implement a different strategy than what was being done at the time.
I talked to both Tim Horras from Philly Socialists and Will Emmons of Kentucky Workers’ League about starting a base-building socialist project like the ones they had in Philadelphia, PA and Lexington, KY. Sure enough, we all met inside the YDS office and jotted down the first blueprints of our organization.
We didn’t focus too much on having the right structure, the right tendency or becoming some legitimate organization with dues paying members or a Central Committee. We tried that earlier and it just didn’t work. People get so tied up with having a formalized structure and having everything set up already without doing any of the work. And it became such a hassle because people cared too much about their position or didn’t really do anything.
Red Compass: Explain the class conflicts in Patterson. Who are the major players?
Malik: Paterson is unique in that it’s been a major city for recent diaspora communities. The Silk Factory Strike back in 1913 involved Italians, Irish, Polish, etc. These communities would leave the city via white flight and move up in terms of social class. The city would soon be resettled by Arab, Black, Latino and, quite recently, Asian communities. And while the city is incredibly diverse, the political class has played the divide-and-conquer tactic for some time now. Instead of tying their struggles together and fighting for a multi-racial, multi-ethnic working class movement (joining Black working class community members against police brutality, Latinos against ICE raids and deportations, Arabs for solidarity with Palestine) they either turn on one another or leave it to self-anointed community ‘leaders’ (politicians but also activists, public advocates, etc.) to fix their problems.
Obviously, not all struggles are made the same. Tenants we usually work with are Black and Latino, while we may occasionally work with Arab and Asian community members around housing issues. We worked around a specific case of Syrian refugee families who resettled in Paterson only to be taken advantage of by a slumlord. The main slumlord developer is Charles Florio. He’s bought up the majority of buildings in the city and has a plan to redevelop them as luxury apartments. The buildings he has now are horrendous because he fails to do the basic repairs or maintenance. And, if you speak out against him, he retaliates and tries to quell dissent either though sending his lackeys to do the work or by him directly getting involved (the former mayor, Joey Torres, got indicted by the FBI since Florio sent a private investigator to dig up dirt against him after they had a falling out of sorts). All the politicians and inspectors are either bought off by this man or are too afraid to go up against him.
Still, you have many different small-time landlords and property developers who own buildings in Paterson. A lot of people tend to assume that tenants willingly choose to live this way (another classist and racist example of letting landlords off the hook). But a majority of tenants follow up with repairs, are writing letters to the Health Department, show up to court, talk to management to fix the problem, etc. The problem is that [the landlords] haven’t been held accountable by the community at-large. We’ve been able to change the narrative and organize against these slumlords who are usually surprised and scared to be confronted collectively by Paterson community members.
The police act as if they’re soldiers occupying a different country. They antagonize and beat up primarily Black and Brown community members. A whole scandal broke out recently where various officers got caught selling drugs out of their own cars. And incidents of police brutality are through the roof. Paterson is one of the worst cities to deal with police brutality.
Red Compass: Do you hope to see anti-police brutality/police abolitionist organizing arising out of building a base in the community? and/or how can base-building help hold police accountable and protect communities from police violence?
Malik: Black Lives Matter-Paterson was organizing heavily for exactly that. One of the prominent members was a victim of police brutality just this past year. And we allied with them to help the group in such projects like Civilian Review Boards and cop watch. However, it’s incredibly hard to hold Paterson Police accountable since they have no remorse for their own actions and act as if they’re untouchable. As of right now, there aren’t any current projects going on, however such resistance should be a common thing inside the community. All reactionary, violent forces inside Paterson (police, ICE, etc) should find it difficult to work inside the city to the point that they are driven out. Community members are better off without them.
I do see some sentiment, however, of people becoming fed up with the police officers’ tactics and violent suppression. Community members are beginning to see that they don’t really protect the neighborhood. If anything, the police terrorize the community while seeing the community members as violent or the ‘enemy’ (definitely due to race). The Paterson Uprising of 1964 dealt with the exact same issues of police brutality and a city that was stepping on the necks of Black community members. But we’re very much interested in organizing around it if the opportunity comes up from community members and our organization.
Red Compass: Silk City organized a Red Food Bank program, including in December 2016 amidst the Right’s post-election euphoria. What was the experience like, and would you recommend similar organizing projects to comrades in less populated areas?
Malik: I specifically remember people being open about their politics and having discussion on a consistent basis. A lot of people wanted to get involved in something locally but didn’t know how. Fortunately, SCS was a project we had started up for several months at that point. The Red Food Bank wasn’t our first call to action. Before then, we had organized some community clean-ups and tried to organize a couple of tenants but to no avail. Yet things weren’t really sticking. Once we put the call out that we were doing this mutual aid project ourselves, a lot of people we knew came to help.
For the most part, community members were more curious if anything. However, they wouldn’t turn a free meal down. It was spectacular. As we handed out food, water and baby food (a brilliant idea by our comrade Anna), we handed out flyers, got people to sign up on our list and had some political discussion on what they would like to see happen in their city. Lots of different issues came up: affordable housing, social centers, equitable public education, etc. But the most vital portion of it was that we were visible and clearly having a discussion with people that we could follow-up with at a later time to sort of get the ball rolling.
I would highly recommend a food drive to comrades living in less populated areas, if not a mutual aid program that is easy to start with (clothing drive, women’s hygiene products, etc). It can even be smaller, like giving out some snacks and water while tabling at a park or something to that effect. Just show community members that you’re out there and this is something to take seriously. For too long now, people assume we exist merely online or in the abstract. It’s time to change that.
Red Compass: Tenant organizing is one of Silk City’s main areas of focus, as it is for many across the left today who want to rebuild an organized class constituency in this country. What links do you see between organizing workers against landlords and the broader struggle to rebuild socialism as a mass force in North American politics?
Malik: Right now, America is going through a housing crisis, with rent in major cities skyrocketing and people getting priced out and displaced. We see the same thing happening in Paterson. Redevelopment has started and the new mayor, Andre Sayegh, is calling it the ‘New Paterson Renaissance’. We see developers taking full advantage of these policies, putting up luxury apartments and developing housing for the petit bourgeois being priced out of Hoboken and Jersey City. So it’s really gentrification but without a name or being called such explicitly. Thus, the stakes are incredibly high.
Red Compass: Could you elaborate a little more?
Malik: Since it’s such a large issue, I think it’s amazing that Socialists are in the forefront leading the struggle. It really speaks volumes as to what we can take on and how we can build a vibrant socialist movement in America. I mean, housing is such a personal and intimate issue. That Socialists are able to say “Its okay, let’s organize together and fight for a better standard of living for you and your family” is astounding. It brings you back to the Rent Strikes of the 1930’s where community members organized hundreds of people to stop evictions. And, if the landlord had anything to say about it, the community members would beat him upside his head and move the tenant back in. Obviously, we aren’t at that point, but I feel like we’re getting close to that point.
I definitely feel as though we are able to win larger struggles on housing that these apolitical/liberal groups won’t consider doing or don’t have the capacity to. Ballot referendums on rent control; “just cause” eviction passed through the city; social housing being developed; direct action campaigns of rent strikes. These are all things that we’re winning and hope to continue until we are able to own the land that we live on collectively. We see the larger picture and know that this won’t be solved through milquetoast reforms. We want the whole Earth and we are going to take it back from these capitalist parasites.
Red Compass: You were at the Marxist Center conference recently. What are your thoughts on the conference?
Malik: Really exciting. What members and other groups are executing across the country is just spectacular. New River Workers Power is doing organizing in Target as well as tenant organizing; Philly Socialists and Philly Tenants Union won just cause eviction for Philadelphia; Colorado Springs Socialists has a really developed structure with reading circles, a women’s caucus, and was able to organize the entire conference; Palm Beach Tenants Union is doing spectacular work fighting developers making tenants live in horrid conditions; and the list just goes on and on. Not only are these projects exciting, but they work.
Red Compass: What makes SCS and other “Marxist Center” groups different from other socialist groups in the U.S. like DSA, ISO, or PSL?
Malik: SCS and other MC groups focus on building the base one area/region at a time. We try as much as possible to not spread ourselves too thin, as we have no power nationally nor even statewide. We need to start from the bottom-up. Our model of organizing is also different from most of the US Left. We tend to avoid the conventional trappings of activist networking and showing up to symbolic demonstrations or rallies that don’t really do anything. Not to say that the initially mentioned groups are guilty of such, but we remain conscious of the fact and steer away from it.
Also, speaking primarily for SCS, but other MC groups as well, we’re tired of these theoretical debates that don’t do anything or work out what best praxis to apply. All of that is, quite frankly, garbage. Not to say that we eschew theory or aren’t developing political education (we are in SCS), but the US Left has moved in such a direction that doesn’t really do any sort of meaningful action. We’re tired of that and wish to move forward with projects and campaigns that mean something to working class people. Because you can have the best ideological tendency or best moral argument, but if you can’t put it into practice it doesn’t mean much to a majority of people.
Red Compass: Does SCS work with the DSA, either with individual members or chapters?
Malik: We’ve collaborated with DSA on different projects, like supporting each other’s tenant organizing projects in Paterson and Jersey City, and also mutual aid projects (DSA’s Brake Light Party and SCS’ Red Food Bank). A good amount of our members are dual members of both organizations. We remain anti-sectarian as possible and North NJ DSA has been really friendly and accomodating, while also respecting autonomy and the work we both have to do separately. However, if there are projects we can collaborate on (such as marching down to slumlord developer offices in Jersey City or in Paterson), we coordinate effectively.
Red Compass: How do you think “base-building” should relate to electoral politics?
Malik: Quite frankly, it shouldn’t. Base building complements building dual power and counter institutions so that you can challenge the state. A lot of people get it confused and suggest that you can build a base to run electoral campaigns and candidates but that just reeks of opportunism. However, base-building is a concept that can be taken by any other political ideology or party (and it has been). Yet Socialists should use it to recruit more people and build our numbers up so that we can successfully overthrow capitalism.
We’ve run into those kind of conversations before and have members who would disagree. But, for the most part, electoral politics are not something that we’re interested in. And while you may disagree and be a member of our organization, we’re not going to focus any of our energy towards canvassing for political candidates or running campaigns. Just utterly a waste of time and energy. Individual members can vote however they seem fit, though.
Red Compass: Were there any mistakes you made when you first started base-building? If so, how did you correct these mistakes? What are some other lessons you’ve learned through organizing with Silk City Socialists ?
Malik: Absolutely. We didn’t really commit to canvassing or reaching out to community members starting out. We kind of just jumped from one project to the next without really interacting with people. From community clean ups to food drives to finding tenants to finding other groups we could connect with. We had 1 tenant back early in 2016 that could’ve been fruitful. But we wasted their time a lot and didn’t really follow through with tasking them nor did they wish to do anything but get their situation fixed. It wasn’t until a year after that we realized you have to be consistent and constantly following up. Even if we win a victory with a tenant, our work is not over. You have to invite them along to do the canvassing, be involved in other campaigns/projects, talk about their victory, as well as training tenants to become potential leaders and to take on this fight with others.
Another thing was being too ambitious. We were waging battles against the most prominent developers inside Paterson without having a real strategy or even a backup plan for when tenants face retaliation for speaking out and organizing. There was one tenant, Knowledge, who was really down with the community organizing and taking down slumlords. He went homeless.
Red Compass: Where is Knowledge now? Is he still organizing? How do you try to prevent things like this from happening?
Malik: We were in contact for a couple of weeks after the incident. Florio Management had the audacity to offer him a job (low-paying job at that which the workers can’t afford to live in their own apartments) only to keep him waiting and not hire him. The tenant was able to find an apartment to stay in after we last spoke. We were in contact with a social worker and a local nonprofit organization that dealt with housing and food insecurity, but he never got back to us. Sadly, he stopped organizing.
For us, it definitely made an impact. We had to reassess two things: are the fights we pick attainable and can we provide protection to tenants if they become targeted? Fortunately, we’ve been able to bounce back relatively quickly after asking ourselves exactly that. We pick fights that we know we can win (small-time landlords and smaller property developers) while also waging long-term fights against prominent, larger property developers. We also make it a habit to have backup plans for tenants and to do our research before picking a battle. For example, looking online and viewing other properties, reading any current news stories, these and other tasks are important, if not vital. Even if we can’t demand from the landlord that the window be fixed or an appliance be maintained, we try to the best of our abilities to fix whatever we can. That way, the tenant will be offered a resource so as to keep organizing with us in the near future.
Red Compass: Is the working class community in Paterson receptive to socialism? Have you seen people’s opinions change as a result of working with SCS?
Malik: The opinion ranges from no preference at all to very receptive of socialist politics. A lot of leftists question whether or not they should be explicit with their politics. At Silk City Socialists, we’re always having that conversation with community members. Most people don’t particularly care unless you’re working alongside them to fight for a better world. In fact, if they see you putting in the work and helping other people, they naturally come around.
As a result, we were able to build deep personal relationships the more we were out here and the more consistent we were with our follow-up and canvassing efforts. For example, one of our tenants that we were out canvassing with was really receptive to socialism after he asked us what it was. We talked about grievances he had at his workplace, with the landlord, all the places where working-class people are exploited by capitalism. It was one of those discussions that came up naturally but you’re able to use it as a bridge to connect with other people.
Red Compass: What current campaigns are you working on? How are they going?
Malik: Most of our energy and resources for the past year has gone into tenant organizing, and it’s really paid off. We’ve met a lot of great people and community members who connect us to others who wish to join and fight back. For example, we just won a victory from a slumlord developer inside Paterson who was taking advantage of one of our tenants, Judy. She was going through so much: electrical fire broke out in her room due to faulty wiring, black mold which caused her son to be diagnosed with vertigo, fruit fly infestation, and constant leaking. So far, we’ve won 6-7 tenant victories within the past year or so, a quite successful feat.
We’ve been starting back up the Red Food Bank after a hiatus. We started back up last month and it was a great success. We have people who wish to focus on food insecurity, and a later project on organizing the homeless (shout out to our comrades Rubi and Matthew for getting this project back up and running). We usually hold conversations on what’s needed and how people power can be developed through that.
Another project being developed right now is our Prison Reform/Prison Abolition Campaign, whereby we provide resources to prisoners, such as helping them gain valid forms of ID and getting them inside community projects (gardening, food drives, tenant organizing, etc.). The main goal would be to organize prisoners to fight back against this racist, exploitative prison-industrial complex. A Women’s/Femme Caucus that is in the works by our member Naumy in providing Serve The People-type programs for women’s hygiene and health products as well as developing a core of women/femme community members that can develop them as potential leaders. Finally, we are branching out and trying to create student locals in colleges/universities around the area. Not only to funnel students into our community projects but to organize around issues such as racism on-campus, increased rates of tuition and inadequate student housing.
Article originally appeared in the Red Compass.