Economic disobedience: what is it and how does it work?

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This story is published as part of Teen Vogue’s 2022 Economic Security Project Scholarship.

As the COVID-19 pandemic crippled the global economy in March 2020, a particular trend emerged in several cities: people started hanging white sheets from their windows.

With April’s rent coming due at the same time record unemployment figures, the white flags has become a symbol of protest for struggling tenants on the verge of a rent strike. The symbol spread online and eventually appeared in Chicago, Brooklyn and New Orleans, according to reports from CNN. The rent crisis has also led to a rise in tenant unions, with tenants becoming housing activists in Oakland and San Francisco successfully organizing months-long rent strikes that resulted in impressive victories.

Despite the threat of eviction and the potential economic and legal fallout, ordinary people, acting out of necessity, engaged in a collective act of defiance. It was one of the most visible recent examples of a type of organization with deep historical roots in the United States and around the world: economic disobedience.

So what is economic disobedience?

Civil disobedience refers to deliberately disobeying or breaking certain laws in an act of protest while economic disobedience refers to deliberately disobeying or breaking economic obligations in an act of protest. The tactic of banding together to withhold payment allows people to achieve economic victories it would be impossible to win alone.

The strategy is most often applied in relation to debt, whether it is rent or mortgage debt, medical debt or student debt. Proponents of economic disobedience often argue that individual debt can leave people mired in shame, but collectivized debt can actually be a source of power. If hundreds or even millions of people get together and refuse to pay debts they cannot afford, they can have leverage against big banks, powerful creditors, or business owners.

When organized tenants withhold rent

Rent strikes have a long history in the United States and around the world. One of the most iconic rent strikes began on December 26, 1907in New York, led by a 16-year-old Pauline Newman. Amid high unemployment and poverty rates, about 10,000 families in lower Manhattan have withheld rent for two weeks to protest rising rents. Historians credit the coordinated effort with the spark that later fueled the tenant activism that culminated in the rent control measures that are considered the norm in New York today.

New wave of major rent strikes took place in Harlem in the 1960s, black tenants protesting housing discrimination, poor living conditions, lack of maintenance and lack of access to affordable housing. Historic 1969 rent strike in Saint-Louis had similar race- and class-based beginnings, with black tenants protesting living conditions and lack of maintenance in the city’s public housing. Supported by the local Teamsters Union, the Black Arts Group, the Black Liberators, the Legal Aid Society of St. Louis and others, the tenants successfully retained more than $600,000 – that’s $4.5 million today – rent over nine months. Ultimately, the City of St. Louis agreed to tenant demands, including setting income-based rent for people who live in public housing.

Refuse to collect or pay for public transport

Another example of economic disobedience is a fare strike or refusal to pay for public transport. Interestingly, fare strikes can be exploited by passengers when they refuse to pay and workers and drivers who refuse to collect fares.

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