By Andrea Pineda-Salgado
What happens when you get an eviction notice? According to Brooklyn Eviction Defense (BED), an autonomous organization of tenants working together to build collective power and fight dispossession, an eviction is not a ‘nail in a coffin.’ It’s only one flashpoint in the state-sanctioned process of eviction. BED has used many tactics to protect neighbors from eviction, including block councils, holding demonstrations and rallies, physically blocking eviction attempts and using stoop watchers. Holden Taylor, an organizer at BED, spoke with Epicenter’s Andrea Pineda-Salgado about what it means to be a stoop watcher.
The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Epicenter: What is a stoop watch and when does BED decide to organize one?
BED: Stoop watching is one type of an eviction defense tactic and it’s really simple. It’s just a bunch of neighbors of a tenant sitting outside or inside a home, but historically it’s sitting on a tenant’s stoop and protecting their living space. It could just be a couple of people sitting on a stoop for a couple of hours a day for a few days or it can be a couple of weeks straight of militant and highly organized community presence. We organize stoop watches when we — in conjunction with the tenants we are working with — agree that it will be an effective tool in an eviction defense campaign. It’s really important not to isolate any one anti-eviction tactic that we employ. Instead, we have to understand all of this as parts and moments in a process.
Epicenter: How can a tenant begin to assemble their neighbors and request a stoop watch?
BED: There’s several ways. They can do it autonomously; tenants and communities have held “stoop watches” by other names for as long as landlords, cops, capitalists and colonizers have existed. But specifically, if a tenant reaches out to us @brooklynevictiondefense on Instagram or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, we form a relationship and understand the parameters of the situation. Part of that includes tapping into the networks that a tenant already has.
Epicenter: Once a stoop watch is decided upon, what is the next step?
BED: If a stoop watch is democratically determined to be necessary, then we assess the conditions and terrain, helping us figure out where the ‘stoop’ in question is, how many people will volunteer and for what hours. We also consider levels of risk as well as community support and the million other variables that arise. We generally arrange stoop watches into hour-long shifts per volunteer but operate with some flexibility.
Epicenter: How is a stoop watch structured? How does BED make sure the stoop watchers are not undercover on behalf of the bank or landlord?
BED: We have community agreements as well as organizational Points of Unity that allow us to ensure principled behavior and have a reference point for critiquing and combating behavior that is out of line. Other than this, we have structures and roles, including a greeter and a point person, among others, to ensure that people know what’s going on. We have a pretty cohesive onboarding system. At BED, people go through rounds of orientation and political education. We know that any stoop watcher we are reaching out to through our network is principled and reliable and understanding of what is going on. Anyone else who shows up and is from the neighborhood, we have BED members who are ready to be able to talk to them about what is going on so that they are on the same page.
Epicenter: What is the main goal of a stoop watch?
BED: To confront and reject landlord violence and to build tenant power. It is to protect people’s homes and their safety and security in those homes. When a tenant gets an eviction notice, sometimes the landlord will show up themselves and harass the tenants, so we can stoop watch and be there when the landlord shows up. Oftentimes they’ll hire someone to do that work for them. We’ve encountered many times, hires on behalf of the landlord that will come to harass and then physically displace someone.
Epicenter: What can a stoop watcher do if the landlord or police get involved?
BED: Landlords are pretty much always involved in whatever makes a stoop watch necessary. The police exist — and in New York are given an $11 billion budget — to protect private property, so they too will often be involved. An individual stoop watcher shouldn’t do much, we always strive to preclude any sort of martyr-like burden being placed on the individual organizer or community member. Rather, we refer to politics and programs and follow the lead of the tenant. This has unfolded in many ways, but always the priority is protecting a tenant and their home and building tenant power.
Epicenter: What advice do you have for people who want to be stoop watchers?
BED: Rather than just being a stoop watcher, join an organization. It’s truly only through collective organization that we can confront the violences of the day.
Epicenter: What can tenants do while their home is being stoop watched? What happens if the home being stoop watched houses multiple families?
BED: Tenants can do anything they’d like! They are free to come in and out of the home to doctors appointments, work etc. However, stoop watching isn’t a service, it isn’t like the milkman coming by to drop off milk. Stoop watching is organized when a tenant is wanting and ready to fight back against any attempt of dispossession. When we’re working with tenants who live in a larger multi-family building normally stoop watches won’t be our first eviction defense tactic. Our first tactic in that instance would be to talk to the neighbors and start organizing the building, form a tenant association so that the stoop watch becomes redundant because all the neighbors are in communication and solidarity.
Epicenter: Is stoop watching just for rentals or can it be used for other reasons like homes going into foreclosure?
BED: Yes, one example is our stoop watch with a family at 964 Park Place in Brooklyn. That was a home that was stolen through deed theft which is not necessarily a renter’s home. We work with anyone who does not have control over their housing, so that does include certain insecure forms of ownership.
Epicenter: How has stoop-watching impacted a neighbor’s eviction journey? How does BED help a tenant after an eviction is stopped?
BED: We’ve helped tenants whose evictions were stopped many, many times. Again, stoop watching is only ever part of a larger campaign so it’s not reducible to ‘stoop watch equals success.’ It is also important to note that our stoop watches are only ever as effective and powerful as our broader organization, reach and influence allows. We don’t provide tenants with resources [such as legal advice or money] because we are not a nonprofit or a service organization. We maintain relationships and when an eviction is stopped we are happy to continue building relationships with the tenants we are working with.
Epicenter: What advice do you have for a tenant in need?
BED: Talk to your neighbors. Even if you’re not in need, but are facing any sort of pressing conditions, talk to your neighbors. Start there and call Brooklyn Eviction Defense soon after. You can also join BED, we have orientations every other Monday.