COVID-19: Colorado Rent Strike Groups Fight With Support, Noise

April 1 marks the first rent-due date since Governor Jared Polis issued a stay-at-home order, and with thousands of Coloradans already laid off or dismissed from their jobs as a result of COVID-19's brutal impact on the state's economy, the demands for a freeze on rent and mortgage collection are getting louder. While a high-profile petition makes these concepts central to its message, two other groups are taking different approaches.

One is focusing on creating a powerful collective to press for rent and mortgage relief. A second is using an innovative approach to protest during a period when people can't safely rally in public: At 6 p.m. tonight, supporters are asked to join in noisy, at-home demonstrations by shouting, banging pots and pans, honking car horns and using any other method that will get officials to hear about their plight.

Colorado Rent Strike and Eviction Defense is a Facebook group started just two weeks ago, yet its membership already exceeds 2,700. In describing its genesis, Estes Park's Desiree Kane declines to be identified as an organizer or spokesperson, even though she's been involved from the outset. She prefers the simple label "neighbor" — an indicator that the organization is all about creating a tight-knit community.

Right now, CRSED is trying to help fellow Coloradans one act of kindness at a time. "Now we have 2,000-plus people who can take action — who can say, 'I can drop off a bag of potatoes,' or 'We can get you a sleeping bag.' The community response is really quite beautiful, actually," she says.

"Our group used to be called Fort Collins Rent Strike and Eviction Defense," reveals Kane, a veteran activist who spent eight months on the scene of the Standing Rock protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline. "But we had such a large group of people from all over the state saying, 'Oh, my God, what do we do?' that we started organizing on a state level."

The movement began as a text message thread involving just six people, including Kane. "We were all freaking out about losing our jobs because we're all service workers," she says. "I'm a 1099 employee — I do contracts — and everybody was in the same position. There are 2.1 million poor people in Colorado, folks who are living paycheck to paycheck, like me. They're saying, 'What do I do about May when April is just starting?'"

CRSED has signed on to the rent-freeze petition, which is framed around these twelve points:
• freeze (completely waive/cancel, not defer) collection of all rent, mortgage, and utility (phone, power, water and internet) payments and automatically extend expired leases
• close all court filings for evictions and foreclosures
• immediately house houseless residents in unoccupied buildings, hotels, and other unused living spaces
• cease ICE arrests/deportations; release vulnerable populations, demilitarizing and decarcerating non-violent offenders and political prisoners from jails, prisons, and detention centers
• expand paid sick days and medical leave for all workers
• expand unemployment, food stamp, disability income and family support request filings
• eliminate all economic barriers to COVID-19 testing and treatment
• guarantee childcare and safe alternate housing for essential workers
• expand emergency production of and guaranteed access to PPE (personal protective equipment) for all essential workers
• create an economic relief fund specifically for undocumented residents excluded from federal stimulus
• learn about the specific needs of Indigenous people, Black and Brown people, LGBTQAI2S+ relatives, educators, freelancers, undocumented and documented immigrants, and low income workers, and work towards answering these needs as rapidly as possible.
Kane doesn't want the current situation to be used as an excuse to pit renters against landlords, who have their own bills to pay. That's why she favors a freeze on the collection of both rent and mortgages. "If you start unpacking who has the power and you look at who enforces eviction, it's the police, and the police are used by the courts, and the courts are used by the banks," she says. "That's why we need Governor Polis and our congressional representatives to fight back against the banks."

Polis has maintained that he doesn't have the power to simply mandate a suspension in rent and mortgage collection, but Kane doesn't buy that. "We've seen how fast Americans can change if we really want to," she points out. "This incrementalism stuff: We don't have time for that."

The situation is dire, but not without hope, she stresses: "This is a community teaching of mine: With massive amounts of darkness, an equal light is growing."

click to enlarge
A graphic touting a series of events that start tonight.
This evening's noisy protest is being promoted by the Party for Socialism and Liberation — Denver, shortened to Denver PSL, but the group's Ryan Hamby divulges via email that "it's not our own invention! We're inspired by the recent similar action in Brazil against Bolsonaro, as well as the PSL Geneva branch that has organized 'solidarity at 6' for a few weeks now. NYC PSL is also organizing similar demonstrations."

Specifically, Hamby explains, "we are trying to be creative in a time that is really different for a lot of activists. It's essential that we practice physical distancing, especially in a country with so little testing, but also solidarity and compassion for one another. We're used to being out in the streets, talking to people, having events, that kind of stuff. It's really useful to be in a party with so many creative people, and in a moment that is so receptive to us and our socialist program. People want to talk about socialism right now, as capitalism is showing that it can't handle a crisis like this."

He maintains that "businesses are price-gouging, the government is so slow to act, and the country would rather let us die from the virus than protect workers the way it needs to. They are real quick to bail out big businesses, like we saw already in 2008, but are real slow getting us ANY kind of help!"

Note that federal stimulus checks of up to $1,200 per person aren't expected to arrive for a few weeks — and that amount won't cover even one month's rent for plenty of Denver residents. "I, like many others, have lost my job in the last two weeks, and I will have to drain my savings to pay rent," Hamby notes. "Many people won't have money to pay rent AND pay for things like groceries or medicine. Whenever the $1,200 check from the government does come, is that supposed to just go directly to my landlord?"

Hence tonight's protest, when Denver PSL hopes that the Mile High City will echo with racket for five minutes — and Hamby and company want similar efforts to take place at 6 p.m. daily until officials here cancel and forgive all rent, mortgage and utility payments.

For more details, click on the Cancel the Rent! Facebook events page.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts