Occupy movement joins anti-gentrification struggle in Harlem

Queen Mother Dr. Blakely says: Occupy the boiler room!

As the winter sets in, Harlem icon Queen Mother Dr. Blakely is calling for an occupation of her building's boiler room until the heater is fixed.

While the New York Police Department has been making international headlines for its repressive response to Occupy Wall Street, the movement took another arrest on Nov. 1 in a Harlem basement. Activist Michael Booth was arrested for "criminal mischief" after helping long-time Harlem community leader Queen Mother Dr. Delois Blakely, a resident in the building, enter her own boiler room.

Real estate interests, in league with several building tenants, have impeded attempts to fix the heater with the goal of making the building unlivable, according to Dr. Blakely. While this is a common gentrification strategy, at 477 142nd St. it has drawn an uncommon response. It has now become the site of a potential struggle of the Occupy movement, which has already started to spread throughout the city with initial neighborhood-based meetings and General Assemblies in Harlem and Washington Heights.

A handful of Occupy activists showed up on day one, with more pledging to come throughout the week and occupy the boiler room if the heater is not immediately fixed. NYPD officers—visibly unhappy about the presence of outside support—pledged to call for the repairs themselves.

Queen Mother Dr. Blakely purchased the building for a few thousand dollars over 30 years ago, and has operated it ever since as a space for low-rent housing, serving especially poor families and those with disabilities. She told Liberation, "We want this to remain a legacy to the community, serving need not greed."

It is that same spirit that moved Queen Mother Dr. Blakely to participate in one of the first General Assemblies at Occupy Wall Street, and to return there on Oct. 31 to solicit help for the struggle in Harlem. The Occupy movement "must now come to the communities and hear the people's needs. We need a plan of action within the community." Linking the difficulties of sleeping outside at Liberty Plaza to the challenges of living in a cold apartment building, she continued, "we all deserve the right to heat and hot water."

"We cannot wait. This will soon become a life-and-death situation," Queen Mother Dr. Blakely told Liberation. Three days ago the city saw its first snow and freezing temperatures.

In addition to the immediate issue of heat for the building, activists are calling for the immediate release of Mr. Booth from the 30th Precinct, and for all charges against him to be dropped. The struggle at 477 142nd St. will undoubtedly continue, as there are larger attempts by powerful real estate groups to force the building into foreclosure. Whatever the outcome, the "Occupy the Boiler Room" struggle is an indicator of how the movement could potentially sink roots into the city's poorest and working-class communities.

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