The Revolution Will Never Not Be Illegal

Aug 7, 2023

Originally on: by Katelyn Best

On why the Eugene rent strike is different from other rent strikes and why it matters

There’s something about a Pacific Northwest summer that makes you feel a little crazy, in a good way.

The Willamette Valley often has the highest pollen count in the world in the spring and summer. The air is thick with the stuff, to the point that when I was a kid, my eyes would sometimes get itchy on spring days, not because of allergies, but because of the physical grit secreted by the riot of trees and flowers and grasses all trying to reproduce at once. It is a fecund season, pregnant with possibility, ripe for daydreams.

It’s in that heady atmosphere that something exciting is happening in my hometown, the longtime anarchist hotbed of Eugene, Oregon: a rent strike! When I was visiting my folks there a couple weeks ago, I got to do some Reporting on what I think is a new and thrilling occurrence in our age of mass homelessness and housing insecurity.

The basic story: King has been renting a house on Almaden Street in West Eugene for six years. She says that early on, in 2018 or so, she asked the landlord, Sharon Prager, if she could buy the house

. “I was just like, ‘I’d like to live here, not in these conditions,’” says King. “‘I’d like to own this place so that we could do awesome stuff with it.’”

King’s vision was to buy her house and her neighbors’ houses, all part of a single property owned by Prager, and place them in a community land trust, or CLT. “There’s so much room here, and other people should be getting the benefit,” says King. “So I’m just thinking about it from the perspective of, what’s the ecology of this area, what are the needs? We should just build a space.”

The house is in a working-class neighborhood. You see plenty of folks living on the street, and on any given night, you might hear screaming or fighting—but Maitreya Ecovillage is also right next door. It’s an area ripe for reimagining.

After the CLT is established, other people could either buy in or live there as renters—but only under a system where when they moved out, they’d get back a proportionate share of whatever equity accrued during their tenancy due to rising property values.

According to King, Prager, who lives in San Mateo, California, said no. The property, she explained, was in a family trust, so it was impossible to sell (King still isn’t entirely clear whether she meant the trust couldn’t be broken up, or something else).

Prager owns King’s house, plus two other buildings on the same lot—a total of four units—as well as a duplex in South Eugene. She inherited at least the Almaden property from her parents, and as far as King knows, she has no children (I was unable to confirm this independently, but I also couldn’t find any evidence to the contrary). She has other income, in the form of a consulting firm she owns called eConcepts Communications. The company specializes in PR largely for extractive industries like mining, timber, and fossil fuels, and it appears she’s the only actual consultant.

King says that once a year since she first asked to buy the property, she’d make the same offer, but Prager wasn’t interested. “The first time, it was the family trust, and the second time, it was, ‘this is my retirement,’” says King. “And that really wasn’t a good answer for me, because a lump sum of money can also be can also be carried for a retirement.”

“The third time,” King continued, “she literally said, ‘Why are you calling me? You have a property manager.’”

So in March, King stopped paying rent.

This is where, in my opinion, the existing coverage I’ve seen of this story goes wrong. Far from being about a defenseless victim of a cruel landlord, this is the story of a woman who says she’s always seen herself as a revolutionary and is making a political statement about the way housing works under capitalism—and I haven’t seen anyone else clearly lay that out.

There are a lot of ancillary issues here, of the kind most people who have rented for any length of time will be familiar with: King says the heating didn’t sufficiently heat the whole house. She says the stove was a crappy model and would sometimes shock you. She says the fridge was also a crappy model and died repeatedly.

All that—plus the fact that King is a Black single mom of four kids, whose husband died by suicide in March 2022—is the focus of a story in Eugene Weeklywhich implies that maintenance issues were the main reason King stopped paying rent. A story in the leftist outlet It’s Going Down, meanwhile, doesn’t really explain anything, just gesturing vaguely at big ideas like landlords and police. Fascinatingly, I think it’s a story from KEZI that actually does the best job, simply saying that King stopped paying rent because she wants to buy the house and Prager won’t sell.

The messaging around most rent strikes and eviction defenses, at least what I’ve seen, generally hews toward calling out illegal or at least shitty behavior by landlords and property managers. If you’ve rented for any length of time, you’ve probably had a wide range of property managers, from the kind who don’t answer your maintenance requests and steal your security deposit to the ones who are decent folks doing their best under the system that exists.

From what I can tell after speaking to both King and property manager Charlie Hansen, this situation is a lot closer to the latter. Hansen says that her company, R&R, addressed all maintenance requests promptly and that the appliances “maybe weren’t top-of-the-line, but we don’t usually put top-of-the-line in

… They were name brands.”

She says she had an electrician check the heating and that it worked (for the record, King says the electrician simply checked that the heating turned on, not that it warmed the whole house up). She also said, and I confirmed this with King, that in the letter where King told her she wouldn’t be paying rent, she told Hansen that she was “a kind and decent person” who she wished no ill will. R&R aren’t cartoon villains; they’re a business that’s performing a function necessary for capitalism in its current form to exist. Hansen is a normal person doing her job.

When I was last looking for housing, a friend said something like, “you have to sort out the actual scumballs from the ones who are normal landlord scummy,” which I think sums up the whole point here quite neatly: the rental housing industry is indeed rife with bad actors, but the more important point is about the system itself. If everyone keeps being a normal person doing their job, this world is going to hell.

King has no legal argument here, and she doesn’t claim to. What she’s doing is something both much simpler and more revolutionary than any other modern rent strike I’m aware of

: she’s making a critique of the very institution of rental housing.

There are bad landlords and okay ones, but fundamentally, they all do the same thing. They make a profit simply by having property, while their tenants are forced to sell their labor for a wage which they must then fork over to the property-havers if they want to live indoors. And that whole arrangement kind of sucks!

What makes it suck even more—and again, this is all a little beside the point, but it does add insult upon insult to the basic injury inflicted by capitalism—is the fact that Prager is one person who owns multiple such properties and lives 500 miles away in one of the most expensive parts of the country. Far from her property ownership being a reward from the imaginary meritocracy, she inherited these houses. As far as we know, she has no children to pass them on to and she doesn’t seem to need the money, at least not in the sense that you or I typically mean “need.”

But again, legally, Prager is right and King is wrong. King knows that, and this is what she says about it: “The revolution will never not be illegal.”

What we need to name clearly is that this is a moral battle against capitalism, not a fight to force a landlord to obey the law. It’s about what it means that the entire legal system is set up to protect people who own things and extract profit from other people’s labor. King understands exactly what she’s doing, and what it will mean if—or, as she’d want me to say, when—she’s successful.

In early July, after four months of not payingKing got evicted, physically, by the Lane County Sheriff. The deputies showed up and knocked on the door. She didn’t answer.

“I had a window air conditioning unit, which—I’ll just say it—was against my lease,” she says. “And [the property managers] were right—it is less secure! Because the sheriffs just ripped it out of the window and stomped on my couch and came in.”

At that point, King and her four kids left when the deputies told them to. R&R called a locksmith and a fencing company, and the cops boarded up the windows using what King thinks were her screws. A small army of friends and neighbors were summoned to the property, where there was a tense standoff with the cops—the cops now on the property and the friends and neighbors on the street, trying to get back on it. It was a sweltering day, and one person who was there says they saw an officer shaking in his armor shell.

They were kind of aggressive,” says King. “But then we started to challenge how aggressive they were willing to be by just saying, ‘okay, we’re going to take a step forward. Are you going to beat us up?’ And we just did it. And they didn’t beat us up.”

After what one of King’s comrades says was “many hours” and King says was an hour and a half, one of the deputies got on a loudspeaker and told the crowd to disperse.

“The speech was like, ‘the eviction order has been served and is completed. Anybody left on this property after we after the eviction order has been served is potentially guilty of trespass,’” says King. Another person who was there remembers being sure they were about to get beaten up.

Instead, the cops just… left. King got back in her house. The friends and neighbors who’d come to her aid stayed, and they’ve been there since, manning a barricade in shifts, watching for the cops to come back, sharing meals, shooting the shit. It’s mostly quiet, uneventful work. When I was there, a small, bespectacled woman who looked to be in her 50s—and who is a regular there—was helping out. King’s youngest kid, who is six years old and told me without being asked that they use any pronouns except he/him, hangs around.

The thing about all systems of oppression, legal or not, is that they’re made and enforced by people. It’s one thing for the state to make a rule that says if a tenant doesn’t pay their rent, they have to leave, and another to actually make the tenant leave. Someone has to physically do that, and what King and her comrades are showing is that there’s a limit to how hard the agents of capitalism and the state are willing to fight to make it happen. With collective strength and determination, these things can be opposed.

“[Getting evicted] was always a possibility, but it was never the end,” says King. “They thought that was the end, but it wasn’t.”

One of the group’s current goals is to pressure R&R to drop Prager as a client—basically throwing a logistical wrench into the whole situation and, they hope, pushing Prager closer to selling. They’re always prepared for the sheriff to show up again, and cops drive by occasionally, but nothing suggests their return is imminent.

The other thing about a Eugene summer is that it’s perfect. The landscape is impossibly green and it’s almost always the perfect temperature (though that’s changing as the planet melts), neither too dry nor too humid. King describes her neighborhood as being full of gardens and “little Narnia spaces,” which certainly squares with my experience growing up in a different part of Eugene. It’s an idyllic place to grow up, and King wants that for her kid. Illegal or not, it’s not such an outrageous demand, I don’t think.

A sweet little community has grown up around the defense, of a kind that modern capitalism, with its mandate to squeeze ever more productivity out of its workers at any human cost, is not particularly conducive to. People play music, give workshops in self-defense and first aid, loan each other tools.

“When Eric was alive, we wanted to do this,” King says of her CLT vision. “That’s the American dream. That’s what everybody wants. They want to live in a community with their friends and loved ones.”

When I was at the house, at one point King’s youngest asked, through a mouthful of carne asada nachos, “how long do we have to keep doing this?”

“As long as it takes,” her mom answered.