“Encuentro Cinco is the beating heart of the Boston progressive community.”
As Occupy Boston activist Brian Kwoba spoke these words, several in the circle of grassroots organizers, immigrants’ rights advocates, and occupiers nodded in agreement. It was Sunday afternoon, and more than twenty activists had gathered on short notice in the very space Kwoba was describing. “E5,” as it is affectionately called, fills the fifth floor of 33 Harrison Avenue in Chinatown. It hosts offices, meetings, and events for more than a hundred progressive organizations in the greater Boston area.
“The organizing that goes on here,” Kwoba continued, “is under attack.”
Encuentro 5 must move out. On June 27 Suren Moodliar, a member of the encuentro 5 Collective and the Massachusetts Global Action board, posted an announcement stating that “Our landlord, the New England Joint Board of UNITE-HERE, has told us to move.” While the e5 leadership had anticipated such a transition, they seemed shocked by its suddenness. According to the landlords, e5 and its resident organizations had to be out by August 1, a little more than a month in the future. “The timetable they gave is too tight for us to (1) find a suitable location and (2) conduct our ongoing campaigns,” Suren’s announcement declared. “We need your help.”
Walking through encuentro 5, one is struck by the intricate arrangements that cover the space’s more than two thousand square feet. Book shelves — crowded with titles from Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky as well as lesser-known radicals — demarcate the open layout. Colorful banners from the 2004 Boston Social Forum hang from the ceiling, fliers from old progressive campaigns lie here and there, and a couple of protest puppets watch the action, looking bemused. In the course of a day, chairs are stacked and unstacked as different groups hold meetings. The bank of computers in the middle of the room is generally busy with use. In the warren of cubicles that are home to more than twenty resident organizations (like the Student Immigrant Movement and MASS CARE), an Occupy Boston activist or two are often found working, and extra copies of the Boston Occupier are stacked, awaiting distribution.
In other words, e5 is a whole ecology of progressive activism, changing and adapting since its establishment in 2006. It is a living archive of the organizing that has gone on there and that continues, including new efforts like the Du Bois Forum and the Color of Water Project. If the intricate network of ideals, affinities, and history materialized in e5 is dismantled with no place else to go, the loss for the communities of Boston would be immense.
Sunday’s meeting was a first step in deciding what sort of help activists and organizations could provide to e5 now that the space was under threat. At the end of the day, no definite strategy or plan of action had been set.
Suren Moodliar was in attendance, but he emphasized that he was there to provide information and to listen, not necessarily to plan resistance. The e5 Collective had already outlined how they thought supporters could best assist them. E5 is seeking testimonials about how the space has aided progressive movement building. They are also looking for financial support and more members to join their “transition team,” to help find a new home for e5 and to raise the funds that will make it sustainable.
At many points in Sunday’s meeting, the discussion had a combative tone. Several echoed Kwoba’s impression that the abrupt move-out date was a kind of “attack.” It was especially bitter coming from a labor union. The New England Joint Board of UNITE-HERE, who owns the building, represents approximately 8,000 workers in manufacturing, laundry, food service, and garment industries. The building has a long history with organized labor. In the 1940s, workers of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union pooled their resources to purchase what became their organizing headquarters, union hall, and the home to several union-owned businesses.
The Joint Board’s past relationship with e5 shows a measure of support for progressive organizing. They rented the space well below market rate, charging $10 per square foot, while comparable commercial real-estate rents for $25, and offices at $14 to $18.
A combination of three factors seems to have influenced the Joint Board’s decision to send e5 packing. They seek higher rent payments, amounting to roughly $10,000 more annually. They seem uneasy about e5’s recent insistence that the space be made wheelchair accessible, despite e5’s fundraising to cover the expense. And finally they have expressed concern about the “open-door policy” that has governed access to e5 and given it an increasingly “public” character in recent months. This final concern touches on Occupy Boston especially, given the higher foot-traffic and complaints that have occurred since the Occupy encampment was evicted from Dewey Square on December 10, 2011.
On Monday after the activists’ meeting, Moodliar had a chance to negotiate with the New England Joint Board on behalf of the e5 Collective. He emphasized to the landlords that e5 needed more time to plan for its relocation, at least until December. However, the union has thus far refused to extend the move-out deadline.
Boston’s annual Anti-imperialist Picnic, held each year on July 4, hosted the most recent discussion among activists about the best way to support e5. While opinions differed, the group ultimately decided to act in concert with the e5 Collective, focusing less on 33 Harrison Avenue and more on where they would be next. They have described their task as one of “making SPACE for social justice” and exploring “what new (unused) spaces we might be able to occupy and re-purpose as social justice organizing space.”
On July 18 at 7 pm the e5 Collective will host a community meeting to discuss the transition in greater detail. For more information, visit the Encuentro 5 website.