By: Rosalind Kichler
On the evening of Saturday February 13th, in below zero temperatures, at least 20 people gathered for a Vigil for the Victims of Eviction. The action was called by Lincoln Tenant/Housing Network (LTHN). At the vigil, LTHN demanded a total eviction moratorium with a grace period of at least six months for back rent.
For 30 minutes demonstrators banged on buckets, shook tambourines, and blasted air horns while shouting “no more evictions, no more deaths” and “shame on you” outside Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird’s home. Emergency powers granted during COVID enable the mayor to enact an eviction moratorium. The current emergency powers allow for her “to take all other such measures as are necessary to preserve the health, safety, and property of the citizens of this community.” Senator Morfeld has introduced a bill that would clarify one way she might use her emergency powers. However, LTHN believes she has to power to enact an eviction moratorium now, regardless of Morfeld’s bill. Lights were on in the mayor’s house, but she did not come outside or acknowledge the group. Attendees said they were unsurprised by the lack of response.
The vigil began in Maple Lodge Park. An unnamed speaker delivered a short speech to rally the crowd. The speech sharply criticized Mayor Gaylor Baird’s hypocrisy. “She claims over and over again that she feels deeply for those impacted by COVID. We watched her cry big fat crocodile tears during the weekly COVID press conference as her heart went out to overburdened healthcare workers and COVID victims. Tears are not enough, not when she has the power to stop evictions and halt the spread of COVID. If the mayor gives a damn, we call on her to show us with actions, not tears,” said the speaker.
Following the speech, the vigil moved down the block to the mayor’s house for the noise demonstration.
Two weeks ago, LTHN called for a phone zap on the mayor’s office to demand she enact a total eviction moratorium. During public comment at the city council meeting on February 8th, other Lincoln residents demanded the same. Mayor Gaylor Baird has yet to publicly respond to these calls.
The mayor’s neighbors were unaware evictions were still occurring despite the current pandemic and winter conditions. During the demonstration, some neighbors approached LTHN about the noise. Many were visibly perturbed and accused protesters of being “uncivil.” One neighbor screamed at LTHN to, “take it to the capitol.”
“It’s telling,” said one demonstrator. “The mayor’s neighbors couldn’t handle being uncomfortable for less than an hour. For them, a protest is uncivil, but civility is a mask for systemic economic violence. When people are forced out of their homes during frigid temperatures, it is safe to say civility has reached its limits.”
A recent study estimated that in the three months Nebraska allowed the moratorium to expire, between May 31st and September 3rd, an additional 134 people died from COVID. These COVID deaths represent only a fraction of those caused by eviction. The CDC eviction moratorium only prevents eviction for nonpayment of rent for COVID-related reasons. The study could not determine how many deaths were caused by evictions for other reasons. Outside of the three-month study period, no public data is available on how many Nebraskans contracted and died from COVID after being evicted. The number likely grew as the pandemic worsened during the fall and winter.
There have been 198 eviction cases in Lancaster County since January. Thirty-eight of these cases ended in evictions. Another 34 eviction cases are schedule for the week of February 15th.
Before concluding the demonstration, LTHN promised to continue making noise, literally and figuratively, until the mayor enacts a total eviction moratorium. As with so much else this year, there are conflicting reports about where the line lies in the power dynamic between the mayor and the governor, but as the executive in charge of this community, it is her responsibility to take a public position.
LTHN asked the reporter to include the following statement with this story: “We support the work that Tenant Assistance Project (TAP), Civic Nebraska, Renters Together and other part-time volunteer groups have done to educate, advocate for, and inform tenants, but LTHN has different aims. We must start considering the stakes and looking into the long-term regarding mutual-aid and care. When we are pushed to the margins, there must be a force capable of pushing back beyond the boundaries of ‘halls of power.’ The time to start building collective power that threatens dominant power is long overdue. This is a belief all of us hold dearly. The struggle against evictions is connected to the struggle against policing, white supremacy, gentrification, patriarchy, and class antagonism. This is a web of struggles that have to be connected and united by a collective strength capable of withstanding the ever-changing socio-political climate. We ask everyone to start organizing with your neighbors, friends, family, and pushing the political into so-called “civil” spaces. In the end, this is the only way we will be able to hold one another up and survive the disastrous times ahead.”
LTHN is a group of friends and neighbors brought together to support each other through the eviction crisis. The group formed in December. LTHN started gathering outside the courthouse on busy eviction days. The group provides hot coffee, snacks, and literature with the goal of offering solidarity and a chance to get connected with the network.