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How long do embers glow? From the International Hotel to Black Lives Matter

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NANCY WONG | CREATIVE COMMONS

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AUGUST 28, 2020

I begin my Zoom call with Jeanette Gandionco Lazam by asking her how she’s doing. She sighs deeply and tells me that as a lifelong activist in her septuagenarian years, she is tired. I tell her that she is the perfect age to run for president. She laughs politely.

I am interviewing Lazam because I think she can help me predict the trajectory of the Black Lives Matter movement in light of another struggle on American soil, one in which she was an active organizer — the battle to save San Francisco’s International Hotel. The I-Hotel was a residential building that primarily housed retired Pilipinx immigrant workers at the border of Chinatown and Manilatown. It was home to Lazam and her father.

I found myself thinking a lot about the I-Hotel when the litany of slain Black Americans — Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd — first heralded the return of the Black Lives Matter movement to the national consciousness and my Twitter feed. The two struggles were motivated by similar themes, including structural racism, grassroots organization and people of color demanding the radical privilege of being seen as people. What I want is for Lazam to reassure me that Black Lives Matter — that today’s progressive movement, more broadly — will triumph where the anti-eviction efforts could not.

Protests erupted at the intersection of Jackson and Kearny streets for nine years beginning in 1968 when residents received the first of several eviction notices. The immigrants were being removed as part of the city’s sweeping redevelopment plans. The elderly tenants took to the streets. Estella Habal, professor emeritus at San Jose State University, tells me that the anti-eviction protests expanded from a community struggle to a massive social movement that drew activists from seemingly unrelated corners of the city: Students from San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley picketed alongside them. They were joined by a pan-Asian coalition of Pilipinx, Chinese and Japanese folks. White activists and Black activists (including the Black Panthers) unified with middle-class and working-class activists. Labor unions, religious leaders, anti-imperialist organizations and LGBTQ+ liberation groups all lent their hands, according to Habal. And yet, this broad coalition of people was not enough. I ask Lazam why the efforts to save the International Hotel failed.

What I want is for Lazam to reassure me that Black Lives Matter — that today’s progressive movement, more broadly — will triumph where the anti-eviction efforts could not.

“We lost our leverage within local city government,” Lazam explains. She tells me that for a while, mayor George Moscone had backed the protesters, even going so far as to try to declare eminent domain to grant the hotel nonprofit status. But over time, city officials buckled under pressure. “We didn’t have leverage anymore, and they needed to kill this initiative of the International Hotel being converted to low-income housing because it was too threatening. It stood to put a real dent to the redevelopment plan of San Francisco overall, and the powers that be were not willing to let that happen.” Lazam tells me that she is convinced that, had the efforts to save the I-Hotel been successful, it would have inspired other communities facing removal to resist.

For the residents of the I-Hotel, the building — desperately in need of repairs, according to Lazam — represented more than just a place to live. Their very home was a bastion against the demolition of the thriving Manilatown. It was a community, like the barangay neighborhood clusters back in the Philippines. But like Manifest Destiny in miniature, city officials and what Lazam calls “the international bourgeoisie” came to clear away the urban blight.

“We were dispensable,” Habal tells me. “Our community was dispensable, like the way they redeveloped the Black community in San Francisco. They were dispensable, disposable.” The residents of the International Hotel were not the first people of color to be displaced during the Manhattanization of the city. Twelve thousand largely Black and Asian American residents had already been evicted from the Western Addition and Fillmore District. Four thousand more were removed from SoMa.

In the early morning of Aug. 4, 1977, Sheriff Richard Hongisto — who had earlier that year spent time in his own jail after refusing to evict the tenants — led his troops on horseback to force the elders from their home. The 300 officers, batons brandished, were met by a wall of more than 3,000 protesters, arms interlocked. There were 55 tenants to be evicted.

The defenders of the hotel and its tenants chanted, “We won’t move.” The human barricade was bruised into submission; locked doors and windows were hacked down with axes. The tenants surrendered, each elder escorted out by a protester.

Lazam describes the immediate aftermath of the violence. “There was no place to go,” she says. She tells me the tenants spent the first 24 hours after the removal in the Mission District “on mats, on mattresses, trying to sleep, trying to eat, trying to make sense of what just occurred.” Despite promises by the city to provide alternative housing, the tenants refused, criticizing the “dangerous and slumlike” conditions of the proposed relocation sites. Moreover, the tenants would have been separated from one another, their community torn apart.

When the dust settled, many of the tenants returned to the Philippines. Those who did not moved in with children and in-laws, scattered throughout the country. Manilatown did not survive the redevelopment of San Francisco, and, in 1979, two years after the evictions at the I-Hotel, it was demolished to make way for a parking lot that was never built.

What strikes me most about the story of the International Hotel is how broad and varied its supporters were, and how decisively the story ends — the protesters were moved, the tenants removed. It is stories such as this one that cause me to pause when I see the ascendancy of progressive politicians or racial justice protests. I wonder how Lazam sees the Black Lives Matter movement. “Are you hopeful?” I ask her.

“Yeah. I am very hopeful. This is the first time in my lifetime that I’ve seen an outpouring of so many younger people, much younger than me, joining the Black Lives movement.”

Habal gives a similar answer. “The Black Lives Matter movement is, to me, the hope for the future because it’s taking … the Civil Rights Movement and bringing it to the present. When I talk about the anti-eviction movement, historically, it’s a slice of time. I want that history to be relevant.”

It is jarring for me to hear two Pilipinx women express hope so readily. Here were two lifelong activists who had seen how the United States could pivot from the Civil Rights era to its war on drugs telling me that it is OK to believe that brighter days are coming.

Faced now with the opportunity to correct a different but related wrong, I can only hope that we remember that community struggle is never just a local struggle.

This week marks 15 years since the opening of the new International Hotel. Habal tells me that, on the intersection of Jackson and Kearny, mostly Chinese and Russian immigrants live in a low-income housing complex built on the site of the original hotel in the shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid. According to Lazam, the few original tenants of the I-Hotel who are still alive were given priority to live there, and some took the offer. She describes it as “something out of a dream.”

Faced now with the opportunity to correct a different but related wrong, I can only hope that we remember that community struggle is never just a local struggle. In June, Eli Frances Abad, a Pilipinx American, organized a Black Lives Matter demonstration that ended at the new International Hotel, compelling Pilipinx people to stand with Black lives today. The new hotel is a small consolation, and in many ways, it is too little too late for a generation of immigrants who sacrificed so much for their new country. I can only hope that this time around, those who hunger and thirst for racial justice are granted more than a participation trophy for their activism.     

Contact Edrick Sabalburo at [email protected].
LAST UPDATED

AUGUST 28, 2020


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