You Planted a Seed: Legal Problems as Power Building Possibilities

This is part of our symposium on the legal representation of poor people.

Jamila Michener–

In January 2020, I sat in a courtroom in Atlanta observing as people with various housing problems went before a judge. The case that stood out most that day involved a Black man in his late 30s whom I’ve since given the pseudonym Ray. Ray was being evicted by his landlord, a man I’ll call Mr. Young.

All parties agreed that Ray had been paying his rent. The rent was once partially covered by the housing choice voucher program (colloquially known as Section 8) and Ray had reliably paid the remaining portion. In fact, Ray paid extra as part of an off-the-books rent-to-own agreement. Ray hoped to one day buy the home he rented and Mr. Young led him to believe that would be possible if he agreed to pay a sum over and above what HUD allowed. Nonetheless, by the time I observed them in court, Mr. Young wanted Ray out. The neighborhood where Ray’s rental home was located had begun to gentrify, demand was on the uptick, and Mr. Young saw a chance to maximize his profits. Claiming that Ray was on a month-to-month lease (a fact that Ray disputed but could not disprove), Mr. Young’s lawyer made the case that his client could evict at any time. It did not matter that Ray had paid his rent. It did not matter that Mr. Young had defrauded Ray with a false promise of selling him the home. Nor did it matter that Mr. Young had neglected home repairs, sent men to Ray’s residence to intimidate him, or put Ray’s family through enough prolonged stress that his daughter needed counseling.

All of those facts emerged in court. None affected the outcome. Mr. Young retained experienced legal counsel. Ray represented himself. Ray was passionate, organized and smart. But he did not know the law. He struggled to make his way through the formal courtroom proceedings. When all was said and done, the judge expressed sympathy for Ray but insisted that he had to vacate the home within 7 days. She firmly assured him that one week was “all the law allowed.”

When the trial ended, Ray’s landlord laughed with his lawyer about how annoying Ray had been. Ray held his head high and swiftly walked past Mr. Young. I followed him. When I caught up, I explained that I was a researcher seeking to learn more about his experiences. He seemed eager to commiserate with someone who had been in the room to witness what happened. We talked for an hour. I mostly listened. Ray told me too much to recount here. Most of it reflected his profound sense of injustice (“I didn’t have a chance for a fair trial today…They want you homeless, they want us on the street, they want us desolate”).

Ray now had seven days to move his wife and four children out of the home they had lived in for seven years. He was frazzled and frustrated. What stood out most, however, was that he was resolute and clear minded about the politics of what he was going through. He confidently told me that, “the judge represents the bankers” then almost immediately declared of her and her ilk: “y’all thought you’ll put me in the ground, ya’ll didn’t bury me you planted a seed.” Ray went on to talk through his plan for “fighting this”— a path he was intent on whether he lost his home or not. Among other things, he mentioned “going public” and getting the media involved to expose “what they do to us [Black people]” in housing.

Ray’s experiences with his landlord, the public housing authority, and the civil court system had been almost entirely negative. Yet, instead of being demobilized, he was activated. This is not what theories of political participation would lead us to expect.

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