by DARIEN LAMEN
(ROCHESTER, NY) — As Clianda Florence Yarde sat handcuffed in the back of a Rochester police cruiser for over three hours Friday night, she listened to the calls for service coming in over the radio.
A suicidal person on a bridge. A stabbing on Clay Avenue.
“I’m hearing real things that need attention,” Florence Yarde says. “Meanwhile at my house, 30-plus cop cars. Riot gear.”
All that manpower to evict her, a single mother, along with her three children by order of a city court judge. She and her supporters were in disbelief.
During a press conference the following afternoon, Florence Yarde told supporters, “My grandfather, Minister Franklin Florence, came here in the 60s to eradicate these very things,” in reference to Florence's work organizing against systemic racism in housing, policing, and employment. “And in 2020 little still has changed.”
But in contrast to her grandfather, Florence Yarde hasn’t spent much time in the public spotlight. She says it hasn’t been easy to put herself out there.
“You don’t want to always let people know where you’re hurting, because you know there is so much more hurt that is worse around you,” she said tearfully.
“I am so thankful to this group of people who stood in the gap while I was working yesterday to make sure that my family was okay.”
“I could not fathom the level of force”
Members of the Rochester Housing Justice Alliance launched an eviction watch Friday morning outside Florence Yarde’s building at 57 Glasgow Street in Rochester's historically-Black Corn Hill neighborhood.
Within a few hours, marshals arrived with the landlord, John Trickey, to execute the eviction. But they were turned away by a group of activists who were prepared to engage in civil disobedience to block their entrance. The marshal posted a notice of eviction on the outside of the building and said they would return with an additional court order.
That order was issued by City Court Judge Michael Lopez the same afternoon. The court order commands law enforcement to not only arrest Florence Yarde and any others preventing the eviction for contempt of court, but also to hold them in the Monroe County jail until their arraignment.
As the sun went down Friday evening and temperatures dropped into the low 20s, dozens of supporters, neighbors, and elected officials began to gather in front of 57 Glasgow in a show of solidarity with Florence Yarde.
Around 6pm, some 30 Rochester police officers with riot gear, including the now ubiquitous pepper ball gun, arrived on the scene. Many of them had covered the embroidered names on their coats with duct tape. After half an hour of waiting, a group of officers moved in and began making arrests—beginning with the seemingly unsuspecting NYS Assemblymember Demond Meeks.
Meeks had just recently arrived at the eviction blockade and was beginning a Facebook livestream from the street. He was standing some 15 feet apart from the activists positioned at the building entrance when he was swarmed by officers, knocking his glasses off his face.
Florence Yarde was also among those arrested Friday. The sounds of her college-age daughter's panicked screams rang out as she watched her mother's arrest from a distance.
“The person who owns this property has the legal authority to take it back, ok?” RPD Lieutenant Jeff Lafave told a group of activists during a lull in the arrests.
“We have a job to do. And right now the job is, we have to act on the judge’s authority. It is what it is,” he added to jeers from the activists.
The RPD says they made 15 arrests Friday evening on charges of obstructing governmental administration. All those arrested were released the same night with appearance tickets for the first weeks of January.
“I could not fathom the level of force,” Assemblymember Meeks said Saturday of the outsized police response the previous night.
“And then for me to sit in the back of a police car—after just going in support of a family—for over three hours to find out that the judge issued a warrant in a manner such that no one should receive an appearance ticket. In other words, you shall be processed through the system.”
At a moment when 35% of people being held in the Monroe County Jail are COVID positive, the order mandating arrestees be jailed overnight struck many as both punitive and reckless.
Meeks credited public pressure with getting Judge Lopez, who is know locally as progressive, to verbally rescind that order and issue appearance tickets instead.
“Thank God for you all and those in this community that actually reached out and put pressure on the judge,” Meeks said.
Code violations and court cases
Friday’s eviction was the latest escalation in a dispute between Clianda Florence Yarde and her landlord John Trickey that began before the start of the pandemic.
Florence Yarde said Saturday that Trickey neglected problems in her building, including rats, and that she began withholding rent earlier this year. She says Trickey gave her a 30-day notice, and in February, she went to court to make a case in front of Judge Lopez that this was retaliation for speaking out about her living conditions.
But the court process was put on hold due to the pandemic. When it resumed, Florence Yarde says she felt pressure from the judge to resolve the dispute. On October 28th, she signed an agreement that gave her until November 30th to leave her apartment, in exchange for the landlord giving up his claim on unpaid rent.
Florence Yarde says she tried to find another apartment in a month’s time, despite the demands of packing, parenting, and remote teaching for the Buffalo Public School District.
It had been a difficult year, one that began with her being laid off by the Rochester City School District during the massive staff cuts last December, she says.
Eight months into the pandemic, she found there were not many affordable housing options that could accommodate her children, herself, and their dogs, especially in the increasingly gentrified Corn Hill neighborhood where studio apartments are listed for $1000 a month—this in a city where the per capita income is $23,000.
Florence Yarde says she submitted applications at buildings with out-of-town landlords but was denied—she believes due to the pending holdover eviction. And as November turned into December, she had a hard choice to make.
On Friday, December 18th, the first day the landlord was allowed to execute the eviction, Florence Yarde issued her first public statement. She was ready to take a stand—not only for herself and her family, but for other tenants facing eviction and displacement.
“We are also fighting against gentrification where private companies are flipping housing and charging almost $2,000 for rent," Yarde said. "If Rochester is going to continue in these practices, we are creating within the heart of the community the have’s and the have nots.”
“The ones with privilege and financial resources will continue to thrive, and those without will be forced to be nomadic in the same City where Fredrick Douglass and Minister Franklin Florence fought so conditions such as these would not continue to be a norm.”
From the front lines of Friday's eviction blockade, Florence Yarde's supporters denounced the hypocrisy of a system in which authorities were willing to use the violent power of the state to enforce an eviction against a Black family during a pandemic, but not to bring a well-to-do landlord into compliance with city housing codes.
According to the City of Rochester's property app, John Trickey’s building at 57 Glasgow Street currently has 8 outstanding code violations and has been without a certificate of occupancy since July. Citywide, his properties—some of which are registered under LLCs, including one called "Holy Lotus Inc"—have accumulated over 100 open code violations.
A sign of traumas to come
Many fear the eviction Rochester witnessed Friday is just one example of the mass displacement yet to come.
Local activists have been conducting eviction blockade trainings for months, in preparation for the end of state and federal COVID-19 moratoriums, when many expect a wave of evictions will take place.
As Florence Yarde’s case reveals, evictions are already well underway in Rochester. In fact, housing advocates say 100 eviction warrants have already been signed locally since October—35 in holdover cases, 65 in nonpayment cases.
At best, the COVID eviction moratoriums have helped certain tenants buy time.
New York State’s Tenant Safe Harbor Act, for example, provides tenants with a legal argument in court for postponing an eviction over nonpayment of rent—but only if the tenant can show they lost their job or lost income due a state-mandated COVID shutdown.
Housing advocates note that even a universal moratorium on all evictions and foreclosures would only postpone the crisis, unless back rent and mortgage payments were cancelled altogether.
This is just the first of several demands the Rochester Housing Justice Alliance has advanced in recent months, arguing that a return to a pre-pandemic “normal”—where Rochester averaged over 8000 legal evictions a year—is simply untenable.
Speakers who stood alongside Florence Yarde at Saturday's press conference listed deeply affordable housing, living wages, good cause eviction protection, meaningful enforcement of housing codes, as well as the decriminalization of poverty and divestment from militarized policing as necessary starting points for any transformative housing policy.
Florence Yarde says her experience “should awaken something in each of us. Because I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last.”
DARIEN LAMEN is news director/producer for Reclaiming the Narrative. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.