Housing, Street Sellers, Rif Protests, and Political Prisoners

Housing Committee Activist

Casablanca  We could almost say this was an “easy” day for the Organizers’ Forum, because we finished earlier than usual, but we packed it full.

We started talking at length to an organizer-activist about the organizing of a housing committee to protect against evictions and displacements of lower income families, many of whom had traditionally lived in the old city, called the medina. His was an interesting story, but one that is all too common around the world as city after city fails to confront gentrification and the soaring values of properties in their central business core, whether it be Vancouver, Mumbai, or New Orleans.

His story was couched in the language of conspiracy and drama, but it stripped down to a fairly usual, but sad tale with some twists. The state using eminent domain condemned land. It contracted with private companies to build housing for displaced families on the land and market the properties to them at prices running about $20,000 for the land and $7000 USD for the construction of the fairly small places. These properties were more than a dozen miles from the city center where families had lived, so they now were staying at a considerable distance from their livelihoods. The housing scheme was somewhat similar to Delhi except the distances are often twice as far away, taking hours of travel each way. We could say at least there was alternative housing, often not the case in the USA or what we are now seeing in the Canadian and United Kingdom housing markets.

The displacement was an interesting version of the demolition-eviction schemes around Vancouver, British Columbia now with a New York City rent control twist. In Casablanca the rents have been frozen for several generations since families were allowed to inherit not only the apartments, but the actual rent. There were only four ways a landlord could change the terms of this frozen rent ranging from personal or family occupancy to forced rehabilitation and dangerous habitation. Not surprisingly some landlords were selling out and sometimes speculators were coming in, and both were often allowing units to deteriorate to the level that they could then fix-and-flip. Our friends organizing in these conditions often mounted resistance to the evictions, but seemed to still be uncertain of a successful long term strategy in a difficult situation. We found much the same as he discussed their work in trying to organize street sellers. The state had organized market places, but these cost money, and there were pressures against the union which seem to make the work of volunteers difficult.

We had promised to observe and join an action at the prison where political prisoners were not being allowed visits from their families. We were warned continually about not talking to what seemed to be reporters because many were thought to be employed directly by the security forces. In fact as we left and waited for our cab we watched a security official taking pictures of our delegation at length.

Prison Protest

Security taking pictures

Interestingly, we talked to an activist-organizer from the Rif where there have been protests in the northern, Berber part of the country for months involving tens of thousands of people, the largest demonstrations since the Arab Spring and the 20th of February. The demonstrations began around corruption and governmental inattention. The organizer told us the real issue now was, if anything, more fundamental. The water was no longer safe to drink, so the organizing was increasingly grassroots and demanding potable water so that people could maintain the simple, basic right to life.

It’s a big world, but the more we listened, the more we knew it was still one world grasping for change.


Organizers from the Rif

Repression is Real for Political Activists in Morocco

Casablanca   Ok, sure, we’ve seen worse on other Organizer Forum visits to various countries around the world. Certainly, when part of our delegation was meeting with one of the presidential candidates in Cariro, Egypt, nine months after the beginning of events in Tahrir Square, and the state police busted in and tried to forbid the meeting, we couldn’t escape the government’s message. In Cameroon and Thailand, there were little doubts that freedom was restricted and government unresponsive. In Myanmar we could see the military’s power. Morocco though is presenting a different set of challenges equally disturbing.

Our local Moroccan organizers didn’t mention it immediately, but having long experience working in the country, they had noticed the two men who followed them when most of our delegation had lunch in the Medina, the old town of Casablanca, and then traveled to a meeting at the UMT’s union building. Paranoia? Perhaps, but we became increasingly convinced during their early morning briefing about potential risks involved in our planned afternoon visit to meet activists with the 20th of February movement at the home of the family of a political prisoner. As veteran community and labor organizers, we listened carefully, scoffed slightly, but took it all seriously, and then made sure we emptied our pockets and stripped down to the bare essentials before traveling in taxis and cars to what our guides called a “popular,” meaning lower income, neighborhood to meet with the activists.

The story we heard was both moving and chilling.

The 20th of February refers to the date that Moroccans joined the protests of the Arab Spring. The country was not really turned upside down along the lines of Egypt or Tunisia, but a movement for change had been triggered. Morocco is a constitutional monarchy, but in one meeting after another people emphasized that the power and wealth of the crown far exceeded the influence of the parliament. The movement had led to a new constitution and some devolution of powers, but we heard little satisfaction that the change had been sufficient. Furthermore, the repression was described as severe. Activists count 1500 political prisoners at this point and many are involved in supporting their families and organizing for their freedom.

We were in the home of Aldi Lbdahi. He is a 44-year old man with four sons and his mother living with him. On his own time he maintained a website that reported on local corruption. He was picked up by the police, sequestered from family and friends, and has now been sentenced for three years. The case was brought forward by a lawyer in the justice department and heard by the same department, acting essentially as judge and jury. The 20th of February veterans and his family insisted on his innocence, making it clear that his crime was threatening the powers that be with his persistent communications about corruption in the local government.

Telling us the story, they hoped that we could break what they called the “embargo” on communication. They had been unable get word of Aldi’s plight out to the public. They had alerted Amnesty International. They were hoping we could help, since we were an international delegation. I promised them this blog and radio report. We said we would contact our local embassies in our countries and ask them to investigate Aldi’s case. They were grateful and effusive in thanks.

All of us felt humbled and impotent, witnessing injustice and the weaknesses of our ability to right it, although with the knowledge that as hard as we often see our work, the risks and penalties pale in comparison.