We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.
We believe that if the white landlords will not give decent housing to our black community, then the housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make decent housing for its people.
Some argue that the Black Panther’s demand for decent, “low-income” or “affordable” housing is a demand for a handout, which stands in opposition to the foundations of this capitalist society. But I maintain that the U.S. constitution understands housing as an inalienable right. An inalienable right means that no man, or private or public institution—can take away one’s right to affordable housing. The United States, of course, didn’t put its money where its mouth is, as it was founded on stealing the housing and the land of the people who lived here. And, as the government gained land assets and sold them to private individuals and businesses—through a long succession of “homestead acts” that could also be understood as “handouts,” they enforced some people’s inalienable rights, but only by denying others (see Luong Dang’s paper, and Richard Rothstein).
Today, the frontier is gone, the land is settled (and getting over-crowded) and “private property” is passed down through inheritance; people are born into a reality in which this inalienable right is not respected. Meanwhile, the CEO of the multi-national conglomerate Nestle can boldly proclaim that water is not a right, but a privilege. Water and land serve as useful analogies here if seen in a broader historical perspective.
Before civilization developed the public water systems we now take for granted (until Nestle’s and other large corporations can use their muscle to ensure that it isn’t), people used to drink from, and wash in, streams and rivers. This is called primitive, and/or uncivilized and certainly had its disadvantages—especially as the population grew—and these disadvantages successfully convinced enough people to think public water systems and the civic convenience they afforded was a form of progress. Yet it also must be said that this that this convenience—this social amenity—which may have seemed like a luxury—also became a necessity because the same technology that made public water systems possible is also what caused some rivers and streams to be dirty and contaminated so you couldn’t drink in and wash in them anymore.
Thus, you could view “public water systems” as a hand out, as the CEO of Nestle’s does, but it was a necessary handout, a form of compensation for what was lost (or even a form of reparations for damages). Since the keepers of civilization (the government) had sanctioned the taking away of the inalienable right to natural water sources, the showers and faucets in houses in private houses, or in public places (like back when public bathhouses were much more common) were an attempt to restore that right. The same dynamic applies to land, though it’s a little harder for people to see that, since housing is a little more complicated and so many of us own no land.
Land, we’re told, can be owned privately (though you can’t take it with you when you die), and as long as we base our society on that assumption, housing will not be treated as an inalienable right. The Panthers knew this. 30 years earlier, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew this, and both set out to create mechanisms that would treat land, and housing, more as an inalienable right than unregulated capitalism permits. FDR’s New Deal, as a government program, was more successful than the Panthers in achieving this, at least for a while, but by the time the Panthers were formed in 1966, what was good about the New Deal had been largely eroded. And, today, in a protracted era of real estate investment, it’s even worse.
These ruminations may not be sufficient to counter those who still maintain that the Panthers modest demand for “decent housing, fit for the shelter of human beings” is a handout. It’s clear from their demand that the Panthers were willing to work to build their own housing, to be an effective caretaker of the land. They’re not asking to steal the house in which the white landlord lives, but rather to be able to own their house just as the white landlord is able to own his. They are looking for equality. The government aid they ask for is no more than the government aid the landlord received. They are looking for fairness, and an equal footing. The government—lest it be forgot—certainly has no problem giving handouts to real estate developers and large corporations like Nestle that are able to sell public water supplies even during a drought.