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You Planted a Seed: Legal Problems as Power Building Possibilities


Jamila Michener (@povertyscholar) is Associate Professor of Government and Co-Director of the Cornell Center for Health Equity.

This is part of our symposium on the legal representation of poor people.

In January 2020, I sat in a courtroom in Atlanta observing as people with various housing problems went before a judge. The case that stood out most that day involved a Black man in his late 30s whom I’ve since given the pseudonym Ray. Ray was being evicted by his landlord, a man I’ll call Mr. Young.

All parties agreed that Ray had been paying his rent. The rent was once partially covered by the housing choice voucher program (colloquially known as Section 8), and Ray had reliably paid the remaining portion. In fact, Ray paid extra as part of an off-the-books rent-to-own agreement. Ray hoped to one day buy the home he rented, and Mr. Young led him to believe that would be possible if he agreed to pay a sum over and above what HUD allowed. Nonetheless, by the time I observed them in court, Mr. Young wanted Ray out. The neighborhood where Ray’s rental home was located had begun to gentrify, demand was on the uptick, and Mr. Young saw a chance to maximize his profits. Claiming that Ray was on a month-to-month lease (a fact that Ray disputed but could not disprove), Mr. Young’s lawyer made the case that his client could evict at any time. It did not matter that Ray had paid his rent. It did not matter that Mr. Young had defrauded Ray with a false promise of selling him the home. Nor did it matter that Mr. Young had neglected home repairs, sent men to Ray’s residence to intimidate him, or put Ray’s family through enough prolonged stress that his daughter needed counseling.

All of those facts emerged in court. None affected the outcome. Mr. Young retained experienced legal counsel. Ray represented himself. Ray was passionate, organized and smart. But he did not know the law. He struggled to make his way through the formal courtroom proceedings. When all was said and done, the judge expressed sympathy for Ray but insisted that he had to vacate the home within 7 days. She firmly assured him that one week was “all the law allowed.”

When the trial ended, Ray’s landlord laughed with his lawyer about how annoying Ray had been. Ray held his head high and swiftly walked past Mr. Young. I followed him. When I caught up, I explained that I was a researcher seeking to learn more about his experiences. He seemed eager to commiserate with someone who had been in the room to witness what happened. We talked for an hour. I mostly listened. Ray told me too much to recount here. Most of it reflected his profound sense of injustice (“I didn’t have a chance for a fair trial today…They want you homeless, they want us on the street, they want us desolate”).

Ray now had seven days to move his wife and four children out of the home they had lived in for seven years. He was frazzled and frustrated. What stood out most, however, was that he was resolute and clear minded about the politics of what he was going through. He confidently told me that, “the judge represents the bankers” then almost immediately declared of her and her ilk: “y’all thought you’ll put me in the ground, ya’ll didn’t bury me you planted a seed.” Ray went on to talk through his plan for “fighting this”— a path he was intent on whether he lost his home or not. Among other things, he mentioned “going public” and getting the media involved to expose “what they do to us [Black people]” in housing.

Ray’s experiences with his landlord, the public housing authority, and the civil court system had been almost entirely negative. Yet, instead of being demobilized, he was activated. This is not what theories of political participation would lead us to expect.

Ray’s individual characteristics, contextual influences, experiences with policy, and seeming powerlessness in the face of authoritative legal institutions all belied the expectation of participation. He was a low-income Black man who lived in a neighborhood that was now gentrifying but had long been considered, “the hood.” He was embittered towards the housing authority for “kicking” him out of the housing choice voucher program. He had just walked away from an experience in housing court that left him feeling maligned in nearly every way. Yet, against all odds, his inclination was to look for ways to claim power in the face an otherwise unrelenting process.

Talking with Ray that day reinforced a lesson that I have since learned again and again: legal problems, though sometimes disempowering, can create opportunities for power building. Grassroots organizations and legal aid agencies can be especially crucial in cultivating such power by (in quite different ways) helping to transform legal problems into political problems. Ray himself had received advice from legal aid attorneys. Though they could not represent him in court, they sent him detailed notes to help with his defense. Those notes bolstered him in court, made him surer of the validity of his legal claims, and made him feel justified in his fight against the system.

In the course of doing qualitative research for a (co-authored with Mallory SoRelle) book project focused on civil legal inequality and democratic citizenship, I’ve seen that the more involved people become with legal aid and grassroots organizations (especially the latter), the more pointedly they are catalyzed to act.

Frank transformed his anger over years of neglect on the part of his landlord into political action only after being guided by a local tenant’s rights organization. Before encountering that group, Frank was upset but “did not know what the laws were for tenant organizing…what you could and could not do.” Afterwards, he was convinced that, “the only way we could get anything done is through association.” Sora’s entire life trajectory changed after legal aid defended her in the face of multiple evictions. Even though she experienced that the system as profoundly “racist” she was inspired enough by her legal aid attorneys that she decided to go back to school at 40 years old to obtain her undergraduate degree in legal studies and “help the people that [are] in my situation.”

Not everyone reacts to legal problems by engaging in the varied ways that Ray, Frank and Sora demonstrate. But among those that do, many have benefitted from a political education provided by community organizations and legal aid agencies.

Legal problems are not exogenous to the larger political economy, they flow from it. The number, nature, and outcomes of civil legal problems are a function of who has power, how laws are structured, and what relationships low income people have to the economy. So legal problems are fundamentally political. This is clear to many of the low-income people who are actually facing such problems. Even if the language of “law and political economy” is not at the tip of their tongues, they know full well that, “Politics and the economy cannot be separated” because they feel the weight of that reality in their daily lives. They feel it when they are three evictions deep, fighting a landlord that seems to have insurmountable advantage and navigating a workplace that does not accommodate schedules to attend court proceedings. They feel it when they recall childhood memories of eviction that they cannot reconcile with memories of their parents working punishing jobs to keep the family afloat. They feel it when they recall living for months and even years with no heat as landlords attempted to push them out of their rent-controlled apartments to maximize profits. For the people that recounted these experiences to me, the relation between law, politics and the economy is no abstraction.

Even more importantly is that many of the folks traversing such terrain have the capacity to be agents of change whose actions and choices alter the contours of the terrain. This is where my understanding and imagination have required the most correction. Even as a person with a working-class upbringing who has lived in low-income communities throughout my life, I still catch myself tacitly viewing folks on the economic and racial margins as victims of an economy not built for them and a government not inclined to represent them. While that narrative holds truth, it misses a lot. It overlooks the agency of those who find themselves facing legal problems and their ability to respond to and sometimes shape the power dynamics that affect their lives.

I take no Pollyannaish view of reality here. Political power is distributed vastly unequally. Still, a pragmatic view of imbalanced power relations does not preclude recognition of the possibilities of reconfiguring those relations. By centering on those possibilities, we can explore and investigate them. More crucially, we can nurture them alongside those whose lives speak to their urgency and potential.

Power relations are dynamically made and remade. Though they do not generally favor race-class subjugated communities, they can nonetheless be made to bend to the demands of those communities. This does not ordinarily happen. But it can. The prospect of legal problems as channels for power building is thus worth taking seriously and pursuing more vigorously.