The three small tents that homeless residents have lovingly nicknamed “Anarchy Row” in the East Village are unassuming, to say the least. But their refuge from the rain and cold, shaded by scaffolding where pigeons roost and abutting a plywood wall smeared with Pyer Moss ads, has continually locked horns with the police since New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced his encampment sweep policy in late March. Their next clash was already scheduled: taped to the scaffolding, the paper splotched by the morning rain, was another “scheduled cleanup” notice for Wednesday, May 4th. This would be the camp’s fourth sweep in less than a month.
Mayor Adams is one of many mayors in the United States who has ramped up policing against public-facing homelessness—despite the fact that sweeps are, by and large, more expensive than simply housing people, and few camp residents camp residents are moving into shelters at his behest. Case in point: Anarchy Row. It took eight hours for the police to break through the wall of activists and media who stood in their way at the camp’s first showdown on April 6th. That day, I watched the police negotiate with encampment resident John Grima, known to his friends as Ramza, after the video game character from Final Fantasy Tactics. He wouldn’t budge. As the police threw everyone’s tents into the back of a garbage truck, they arrested Ramza because he refused to step out of his. On April 22nd, during a third sweep where he was arrested again, the police put him in the hospital.
Ramza speaks in a pondering cadence and wears taped-together eyeglasses and a red and white hat with “HARLEM” stitched on its front. Two days before the sweep on May 4th, we spoke about mutual aid, organizing in this “post-crisis, still-crisis,” as he calls it, and the New York shelter system.
[Ed. note: This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.]
Sam Russek: At the sweep on April 22nd, you were hospitalized—what happened?
Ramza: So we had decided to move to Eighth Street and Avenue B on the sidewalk next to the church. Our tents weren’t actually blocking the sidewalk, so we thought that we would at least get a few days respite camping on the church grounds. We were wrong. Out of nowhere, the police show up, and they’re just demanding that we take everything down. I asked a police officer if I could wait for my neighbor to come back so she could pack up her stuff, and he just wasn’t having it. He grabbed my tent and began to drag it. I grabbed another tentpole, you know, the opposite, and I just said don’t take my stuff. They ended up slamming me on my head, and I was dizzy for a long time after that. In the hospital, they shackled my ankles together and my hand to the bed. I was in the hospital shackled like that until they transferred me to the 9th Precinct that night.
SR: Anarchy Row has been targeted by police quite a bit. How many times have you been arrested?
R: Three times. [Ed. note: Since this interview was conducted, Ramza has been arrested twice: the fourth and fifth time within a month.] When I got out of jail last time, I found out that my homeless neighbor Kevin, who had been missing for a few days, had just had a heart attack. But you know, the problem is he would probably be facing even more stress in a shelter or safe haven, especially in a dormitory environment. They put you in these places designed like prison cells.
SR: What was your experience in the shelter system like?
R: I mean, it’s hard to express it in words. I ended up in a family shelter when I was like 17 years old. I know it around was this time because I was in a shelter when September 11th happened. My first night there, I saw a pretty young woman, maybe like 18 or 19 years old. She set her baby on the ground and collapsed screaming and crying in a nervous breakdown. She couldn’t take it anymore, that’s what it looked like. So that happened five feet away from me. And the security came and picked up her baby and picked her up by the arms and just carried her off. I felt bad because, you know, for one thing, they probably took the baby away, right? But regardless, what did it take for that young woman to be that far down? To break like that, you know, like there’s no hope.
At another shelter, I was in a room with 18 other people. One guy had no legs at the hip and he used to soil himself. There wasn’t a nurse on-site to help him. The staff didn’t help him, and the other homeless people really couldn’t be bothered for some reason. They purposely play people against each other and create a culture where it’s just like, “stick to yourself.” You know what I mean?
SR: So what do your days look like out here, compared to a shelter?
R: Well, stressing out most of the day, not wanting to leave too far in case the cops come and try to snatch my belongings while I’m gone. I really don’t want to do this anymore. I wish they would just stop.
SR: The way these sweeps work, having activists and media around you is a big part of being able to stay put, creating a barrier between you and the police. What are the challenges of organizing against the sweeps to keep that energy going?
R: Well, I wouldn’t say that it’s so much “organizing against” so much as it is me just living my everyday life. I mean, really, I didn’t mean to cause any of this. Honestly, that first day on April 6th, when all the police first came and they sent in SRG, which is like an anti-terrorism unit—I didn’t expect any of that. I don’t have anywhere to go or any means to get there. So you know, the police just like come in, and that’s what they do. And they do worse than that when there aren’t cameras and legal observers and stuff like that. Like the time they hit me on April 20th at like 7:30 in the morning.
The strategy right now for the camp is really just to live and survive. But as a movement, the strategy is to build up mutual aid. We’re trying to bring the community together to stand against the different crises facing us.
SR: The police are coming to talk to you—
[At this point in our interview, at around 5:10 p.m. on May 2nd, a police car parked on the curb across the street. Shortly thereafter, two officers walked into Anarchy Row. Two activists watching over the camp pulled out their phones and recorded them. The officers took pictures of the tents and left.]
R: It’s these sorts of instances that really make me feel like I’m living in an outdoor prison.
SR: Have you thought about moving to a different area?
R: Well, this is where I’m from. I know where everything is around me here. I know a lot of people in this neighborhood. If I’m gonna be homeless in New York City, I’m gonna be homeless here.
SR: What is mutual aid to you?
R: Mutual aid is basically learning how to open up to your neighbors and take care of each other horizontally. It’s basically taking care of one another and trying to protect one another. Mutual aid can be like charity. But the idea is that by helping this person, you’re helping your community, thus helping yourself.
I want to end homelessness. But the thing is, to end homelessness, you have to get rid of rent. Because they’re not compatible, you know. Otherwise, it’s just a sham by the state or landlords—to like postpone and perpetuate endlessly, keeping a problem that’s easily solved, unsolved. It’s like saying, “We’re gonna build, 10,000 housing units,” which they won’t—it’ll probably only be like 5,000, or the homeless population grows by an extra 10,000 by the time it’s finished.
Then you end evictions, because otherwise people become homeless. We need tenant organizing mixed in with the mutual aid lifestyle. We have to teach people to stop being scared of their neighbors and start figuring out how we can help each other and stand against state oppression. Imagine having so many people that you would have to arrest that they just can’t arrest everybody anymore.
SR: A journalist Talia Jane recently posted that another homeless encampment resident stood his ground during a sweep and cited you as an influence. He saw your story in the newspaper. Do you know that you’ve inspired other people?
R: I haven’t really thought about it because, for me, nothing’s changed. The movement can’t be about sensational figures. It’s got to be about community organizing. Mutual aid is our best bet. One of the most successful projects in American history is the Black Panthers’ Mutual Aid project—we’ve seen the sort of impact that these projects can make. ♦
Sam Russek is a writer from Houston, Texas, currently living in New York. You can find him on Twitter.