The Power of the People

Rosemary Rivera
Westside Organizer–Syracuse United Neighbors

During the Civil Rights era, Dr. Martin Luther King inspired people to come together and make sacrifices in the name of social change. The Birmingham bus boycott lasted for eighteen months. Can you imagine the huge effort and unity it took for people to come together and walk to their destinations for over a year! Well, injustice still exists today. So ask yourself, where is the unity? Where do people go in order to resolve everyday issues that affect the entire community? Syracuse United Neighbors (SUN), is a grassroots organization that believes in the power of the people.

For twenty-six years, SUN has been bringing people together to fight the problems in our neighborhoods–vacant houses, drug crime and bank discrimination. SUN members are active and empowered. SUN calls upon the power of the people to win battles against giants that would otherwise trample those in our neighborhoods.

SUN neighborhoods on the south and near-west sides are also thought to be the areas that need the most help and revitalization. Every month, members of SUN gather to raise issues that affect our community. The near-westside of Syracuse is one of the poorest areas in the country. It has become a haven for crime and drugs. It is constantly overlooked by the city when it comes to monetary help. Public and private officials with the power to change or influence a situation are invited and asked the tough questions. City and state employees are working to serve the community. However, many times the city and state need the guidance of the people they serve. More importantly, officials need to be held accountable for their actions. Too often promises are made and not kept. SUN members will not tolerate inaction or deceit. We demand that officials right any wrong they have created.

When our members are ignored, the person accountable can expect to feel SUN’s heat. SUN has been known to hold protests. This form of direct and public action serves to call attention to the issue and to reveal the power of the people. It is then that community residents come together to say, “We’re not going to let this go on.” For example, in June 2003 SUN marched on M&T bank due to the bank’s loan practices. Loans in SUN neighborhoods were close to nonexistent. Beating a bass drum and chanting “No more redlining!,” 30 determined citizens showed up at the expensive Manlius home of the M&T President to present their demands. The bank agreed to negotiate an historic lending agreement with SUN that will provide more loans to neighborhoods like the near-westside. This is what can happen when a neighborhood unites.

All victories do not require protests and chants, yet they still require direct action in the attendance of meetings and the commitment of the people. It took about two years for SUN to win a victory and bring about the city’s new business license for corner stores, called the Certificate of Use. The law went into effect on January 1, 2004. In SUN neighborhoods some corner stores harbor all sorts of criminal activity. Recognizing that some storeowners did nothing to stop the criminal activity outside their doors, SUN looked to Rochester and discovered that they have a system that enables the city to shut down a store if it becomes a nuisance. With residents appealing to the council members and the mayor, they were able to share the horror of living by corner stores gone bad and help bring about this new ordinance.

Another SUN victory came with the closing of Ariel’s Market at 625 Otisco Street. Due to neighborhood complaints, this store was caught selling approximately $500,000 worth of drugs every month. The federal government seized the store and due to federal forfeiture laws, the store may be turned over to a civic group. SUN residents got together and decided they would like to turn the store into a police substation. The idea was passed on to the Syracuse Police Department and now it seems that 625 Otisco St. will be turned from a drug shop to a cop shop.

SUN’s most recent victory is the creation of a program to help counsel homeowners in danger of losing their homes to bank foreclosure. In our neighborhoods, we lose a neighbor every three days! Families fall behind on their loans, don’t know where to turn, and another vacant house is created. SUN members did a study of court records and found that 308 families had lost their homes on the south and near-west sides since June 2001. After a year of meetings with Community Development and a December meeting with Mayor Driscoll, the city announced it will set aside $100,000 to create a foreclosure prevention counseling program, to be run by Home Headquarters. When Mayor Driscoll was confronted with these figures he could not turn away from the problem. He knew the residents were right in saying that something must be done. This victory, as all others, is a result of residents willing to fight for their neighborhood.

SUN continues to shed light on the issues in our communities. Yet we cannot do it alone. People must stand together and hold the torch that will carry them to a brighter future in their own backyards. Victories will be hard to come by if we don’t increase the participation in our neighborhoods and recruit some new blood. Some of our leaders are older and in poor health. They need some young folks to join them! SUN is also reaching out to the Latino community. Some of the issues identified by Latinos who have talked to SUN are problems with banks and a lack of translation services in public and private businesses and agencies.

Let those in power not forget that their power is minimal–the power of the people can move mountains. For further information about SUN or to attend a SUN meeting, please call Rosemary Rivera at the SUN office 476-7475

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