Demonstrators at a KC Tenants rally outside the Jackson County Courthouse in Kansas City, Mo., on July 30, 2020. Credit: Chase Castor/Bloomberg, via Getty Images
Judge Kyndra Stockdale opened her courtroom in Independence, Mo., on January 5, 2021, and tried to call the first eviction on her docket. Before she could read the defendant’s name, a voice erupted from the speakers that connected the remote eviction proceedings to those inside the courtroom.
The court clerk scrambled to boot the disrupter from the phone line, but as soon as they were gone, a new disrupter began using the same script. A deputy sheriff arrived to alert the clerk that a group of people had formed a human chain outside the building, blocking the court doors. Within 30 minutes, the judge closed her courtroom for the day; everyone’s evictions were delayed by at least a month.
Kenneth Gobble, a line cook whose eviction had been scheduled for that morning, exited the courtroom and grabbed a megaphone to address the crowd outside:
One phone disrupter called the judge’s clerk.
KC Tenants is the citywide tenant union in Kansas City, Mo. founded in February 2019 by Tiana Caldwell, Diane Charity, Brandy Granados, and Tara Raghuveer. At the time of our founding, Tiana lived in a hotel, homeless after a cancer diagnosis. Brandy’s landlord evicted her after she called the city because her heater exploded. Diane, a longtime community leader on Kansas City’s east side, was sick of seeing her neighbors mistreated and put out. Our founders made lists of people they knew who couldn’t afford the rent and invited them to a meeting in a local union hall.
Every Saturday we hold a tenant meeting, a vehicle for our strategy and a point of coherence for leaders across the union. Our meetings run for two hours, these days in a church basement. A dozen tenants meet two hours beforehand to finalize the agenda and divide facilitation assignments. The length and frequency of the meetings matter less than the outcomes: tenants leave feeling less alone, like their time was respected, like there is a plan, and with clarity on their role in it. Somewhere between 50 and 80 people join and they return week after week. Our meetings are effective and soulful; we play music, share stories, poke fun at one another, and sometimes engage in fiery debate. We evaluate everything, reserving space for tensions and outstanding questions to be spoken into the room before the meeting ends.
Each tenant meeting begins with a meditation on inevitability. We consider what can feel inevitable — rent increases, unfair leases, moldy bathrooms, luxury apartments replacing our childhood homes. Every week we say, “None of this is inevitable, not if we organize.” This section of the meeting is part pronouncement and part prayer; some weeks we believe it, and other weeks we hope for it to be true, reminding ourselves that another world is possible if we are willing to fight for it.
Just months after our first meeting, our leaders wrote and won a Tenants Bill of Rights. In 2020, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, we started a tenant hotline and a mutual aid fund. We organized tenant unions in buildings and across whole neighborhoods. We experimented with eviction defense tactics. By the end of 2021, we had won free legal representation for every tenant in eviction court. Last year, we organized to pass a $50 million bond for housing with rents between $550 and $750. Along the way, our tenant leaders have won air conditioning, ramps for their wheelchairs, payouts from their landlords, and seats on city boards. Our tenant union now includes more than 5,600 members.
Others organize around ideology; we organize around mutual interests. We have unionized trailer-park residents and yuppies, Trump voters and anarchists, Black tenants and white tenants, young people renting their first apartments, and seniors with decades of gripes with the landowning class. KC Tenants believes that the people closest to the problems are closest to the solutions. Our union, always under construction, is something none of us have experienced, but all of us deserve. Some say it’s magic. It’s not magic. It’s organizing.
This is the story of how, in the midst of a pandemic, an organized group of tenants created our own inevitability in Kansas City. Not through magic, but by taking extraordinary risks and by having one another's backs. It is the story of direct action as strategy, and the irrevocable transformation of a group of people once we have felt power in our bodies and souls, as part of a union.
Today’s housing market is a catastrophic failure, built through land theft and chattel slavery and shaped by the relentless prioritization of those who profit from our basic needs. Our homes are treated as commodities, and tenants’ lives are reduced to line items in our landlords’ budgets. The results should horrify us: in the world’s richest country, hundreds of thousands sleep on the streets, and for millions the rent is too damn high, forcing impossible choices between feeding ourselves and keeping a roof over our heads.
We must reject the premise that a person should lose their home because they can’t pay for it. Eviction is a tool invented and deployed by the state to protect private interests, namely capital, over public needs. Eviction courts aren’t venues for justice — they are arenas for state violence. In processing evictions, judges mostly side with landlords and, just like that, tenants lose their homes. Every eviction is an act of violence.
In 2020, we were told to stay home to keep ourselves and our neighbors healthy, but many tenants lived in unhealthy conditions, or they simply could not afford to pay the rent. As the stay-at-home orders took effect, KC Tenants called for and helped win a local eviction moratorium in March. Despite our best efforts, the courts allowed the moratorium to expire two months later.
When our courts reopened eviction hearings, they heard a majority of eviction cases remotely, using a conference call line or a teleconference platform for each judge’s courtroom. The courts provided no guidance on how tenants should participate if they didn’t have a phone or access to the internet, if they spoke a language other than English, or if they had a disability. Even in-person evictions can take just a few minutes; by phone, evictions went down in what felt like seconds.
By July 2020, we found ourselves at a crossroads. We’d continued to call for the eviction moratorium to be reinstated, trying every tactic we could dream up. KC Tenants held vigils and die-ins, made phone calls, and wrote emails. We distributed flyers in the condo building where the presiding judge of the 16th Circuit Court lived. We identified a member of his Bible study group, called, and asked that person to appeal to the judge’s morality. But by mid-summer, we had little to show for our work.
Our tenant meetings became tense. Covid-19 cases remained high, but our landlords filed evictions against us and our courts processed them. Some leaders lost faith in the idea that KC Tenants could achieve anything. Others grew tired of endless Zoom meetings. Still others became sick or were in a brutal survival mode, unemployed and hopeless. We were living some of the worst days of our lives.
In a meeting involving about 20 leaders one Wednesday night, we asked ourselves: What is our goal? A few tenants responded that the goal was to win an eviction moratorium. Was that still true? We checked our instinct to double down. In a moment of collective brilliance (there are so many in this story), we clarified that our goal wasn’t to win an eviction moratorium; our goal was to end evictions. A court-ordered moratorium might have been one way of getting there — the cleanest route, maybe — but by then it felt impossible to win.
It wasn’t the policy that we needed; it was the material outcome. It wasn’t the decision makers we needed; it was one another. We channeled the energy of one of our chants: “If we don’t get it, shut it down.” We believed we had no choice but to shut the eviction system down, to end evictions by any means necessary.
On July 30, 2020 we rallied outside of the downtown courthouse in our yellow shirts and with an extra-large painted banner. The rally provided cover while our leaders got in formation to disrupt both in-person and virtual courtrooms. The remote disrupters, about seven per courtroom, included elders, tenants who were immunocompromised and couldn’t attend the rally, and supporters from out of town we recruited on social media. We had trained the night before on Zoom, simulating the courtroom with an organizer playing the judge while the disrupters got familiar with the disruption script. When the courtrooms opened, they read from the script whenever the judges tried to call a case and shut down two of the court’s phone lines. The remote actions delayed dozens of evictions by several weeks.
As the remote disruptions began, six KC Tenants leaders, who had entered courtrooms as though they were tenants appearing for their hearings, stood up one by one and read from the same script, creating chaos. A lawyer had warned us that the in-person disrupters could be charged with contempt of court and held without bail. Those leaders made an informed choice to take action anyway, chanting in the courtrooms and then in the hallways and elevators as they were escorted out. Ultimately, the court deputies arrested Jenay Manley and Maya Neal, charging them with trespassing. The rest of us marched the four blocks from the courthouse to the jail, waiting outside for our comrades. When Jenay and Maya were released, we ate pizza in the twilight, the disrupters crouched against the brick wall, and the group sang “Lean on Me.”
The July 30 action was a success on one front: We delayed over 100 evictions. (Our leaders meticulously analyzed court records to calculate eviction case delays, which the 16th Circuit Court claims it does not track.) But it was a one-off, an experiment with a new set of tactics, disconnected from longer-term strategy. Meanwhile, Jackson County judges processed evictions through the courts twice a week. What we’d achieved felt ephemeral. A collective weariness set in. In a Zoom strategy meeting some days later, Ashley Johnson — a tenant whose landlord had recently removed appliances from her home, which forced her out — compelled the union to consider further action. Usually soft-spoken, Ashley took herself off mute, her voice ringing with urgency: “Some of you can afford to take a break. I don’t get to take a break from this life. I can’t have you all do that now.” Support erupted in the chat: “Ashley, we got your back.” The mess of this moment was that we knew we had to do something, but we didn’t have a clue what to do.
A month later, in September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a nationwide eviction moratorium. We began “lit drops” — every weekend, we hit up apartment complexes, leaving half-sheets that explained how tenants could seek the moratorium’s protection and join KC Tenants. But evictions continued as our local judges exploited the many loopholes in the national policy. With support from the ACLU, we filed a lawsuit against the presiding judge, but we knew we wouldn’t win justice through the very system perpetuating the violence.
We needed to escalate, and we considered our options. Some suggested eviction blockades, borrowing from a playbook used a decade ago to stop foreclosures. We tried one, with a tenant whose eviction was scheduled to be executed on a Monday morning. We used our bodies to block her doors as the deputies pulled up. They called the cops for reinforcement; two of our leaders were handcuffed, and we couldn’t stop the landlord from changing the locks. It was completely botched. The tenant lost her home. Our leaders were reeling. We felt we had failed. This failure forced uncomfortable reflection in our Saturday meeting: This experiment had been doomed from the start because we lacked a pre-existing relationship with the tenant, we had mismanaged her expectations of the action (and our own), and we didn’t have a plan for the scenario that played out. Sloppy. More than that, harmful.
Initially we thought we needed something new and different, but we emerged with clarity that escalation could mean returning to tactics that we knew worked. The point of experimentation wasn’t to continuously experiment. We had already discovered an effective way to end evictions. Instead of moving on, we needed to sharpen.
On October 15, just before eviction hearings began for the day, a group of us rushed the doors of the downtown courthouse and chained them shut. This time we had teams dialing into every eviction docket in the Jackson County courts, in the morning and in the afternoon. The disrupters read from the same script; we stopped 138 evictions that day. The remote disruptions stopped the evictions, while the action outside created direct confrontation with the violent institution. The video of the action went viral on social media, garnering some pearl-clutching critiques, but mostly appreciation: “More of this, everywhere.” “This is how you will get the ruling class to listen.”
Most important, we connected with tenants whose cases we had delayed. The action worked. People could stay in their homes, at least for a while longer. We pounded tables, punched our fists in the air. We felt a thousand feet tall. It was a revelation. We were on to something. We felt vindicated and powerful as we honed our tactics and finally saw the outlines of a real strategy.
In November, we came back for more. Escalation meant expansion: We sustained remote courtroom shutdowns over the course of a few weeks. These actions led the judge with one of the largest eviction dockets in the 16th Circuit Court to close down her eviction hearings for the remainder of the year, delaying hundreds of evictions. Our ranks ballooned with tenants who called our hotline or whom we met at the courts. They joined our disruption teams, taking part in the same actions that had changed their lives. The summer’s defeatism wore off and momentum took hold. We gained confidence in our ability to end evictions, at scale and over longer stretches of time.
Could we shut down the whole eviction system for a month? Someone posed this question in a midweek meeting. January would be cold as hell, and Covid cases were likely to spike again. We sketched a plan. Beyond the material goals, we aimed to grow our union and polarize the public against the profiteers and their enablers in the court system. We figured we would need a team of at least 60 tenants in coordinating roles — press liaison, remote disruption trainer, Covid safety lead — over the course of the month, not including the hundreds of people we would need to activate alongside our core team. Tenant leaders had questions and tensions, a few felt the plan was delusional or misdirected, but by mid-December, after deliberation in our weekly tenant meeting, the KC Tenants base approved the proposal. Over the holidays, the planning team recruited for the necessary roles, built spreadsheets to plan each action, scoured electronic court records, and alerted the media. Tenants who were able to do so took off from work, arranged childcare, and otherwise began orienting their lives around the month of action.
A snowstorm hit Kansas City on New Year’s Day 2021. KC Tenants had planned to rally on the steps of the Jackson County Courthouse. Our press advisory, sent before the storm, read, “KC Tenants stands firm: Every eviction is an act of violence. Evictions are a death sentence for our most vulnerable neighbors. KC Tenants is resolving to intervene in every single eviction in January. We will be in the streets, in the courtrooms, on the phones, online.”
The storm initiated the first of many pivots during Zero Eviction January. The streets were unsafe, so we called off the rally, deciding instead to launch on the first day the courts opened to hear evictions. A small group of us met at the downtown courthouse anyway, sharing anxieties about the month ahead. Would people get too scared to act? Would the courts respond with violence? The risks involved with our plan were terrifying, but after nine months of brutal displacement during a public health emergency, the potential stakes of our inaction felt too high to entertain. We threw snowballs at a statue of Andrew Jackson and left for the day. When we returned the next Thursday, we delayed some 219 evictions.
We planned for a daily virtual action throughout the month, as well as two in-person direct actions each week, coinciding with the days the courts heard evictions — on Tuesday at the Independence courthouse and on Thursday at the courthouse in downtown Kansas City — as well as phone disruptions for every single courtroom.
On Friday January 8, after our first two actions, a court deputy shot a tenant during an eviction. His family told the media that he had been experiencing a mental health crisis and arrived at his door with a BB gun.
In every instance of this violence — the bureaucratic and the brutal — we had made a commitment to show up and shut it down. By 2 pm that day, we made a plan to take action, our third of the week. Because of our month-long commitment, we had the infrastructure in place to spin it up within a few hours: someone to scout the location, people to offer remarks, four tenants on security to monitor the perimeter, a team to bring a banner and signs, our turnout crew, who called through our lists and blasted a simple flyer on social media.
Four hours later, a crowd of about 100 tenants gathered in the parking lot of El Torreon, an events venue in midtown Kansas City. We practiced chants, reviewed security protocol, wrote a lawyer’s number on our arms in Sharpie. Then we marched, stopping traffic in the streets, until we arrived at the presiding judge’s quiet neighborhood. Someone must have tipped him off — yellow caution tape surrounded his yard. The first of us to arrive ripped down the tape and directed everyone to fill in on the grass, facing the street. Jenay hung a banner off the porch. Charles Bishop and Diane addressed the crowd. A white woman who said she was a neighbor shouted at us, shoving her phone camera in our faces to film us. The police ordered us off the lawn, threatening arrests. We stayed put until our program was over, about 30 minutes, took to the streets again, debriefed back in the parking lot.
After our weekly tenant meeting, we released this statement:
The following Monday, after months of telling us it was impossible, the presiding judge ended evictions for two weeks, citing his concerns for the safety of the court’s employees. We claimed victory — hundreds of evictions scheduled for those two weeks would be pushed into February or even March. But we knew courts would reopen to hear other evictions by the last week of January.
It was time to bring the crisis to its creators. During those two weeks, instead of pausing our operation, we marched on each of the judges’ houses, reminding them that they had a choice, they could exercise discretion and end evictions, and reminding them that we weren’t going anywhere. A tenant named Dom spoke out at the house of the judge who was evicting him:
We found time to intervene in another step of the eviction process, too. A tenant named Anthony called us. Court filings indicate he was served but he said he never saw the summons. When he didn’t appear in court, a judge issued a default eviction judgment against him. The landlord changed the locks, with Anthony’s medication, phone charger, food, and other belongings stuck inside. We rallied with Anthony at the Office of Civil Process on January 12, at one point surrounding a deputy’s car, demanding answers. The deputy agreed to go with Anthony and retrieve his stuff the next day.
On January 25, the presiding judge allowed the short-term moratorium to expire again, but we were prepared. We were back in action for that last week of January, applying the same disruptive tactics inside and outside the courtrooms. Some courtrooms had figured out how to keep us in waiting rooms on Webex, but we found workarounds. Even when our disrupters were stuck, they mucked up the process enough to delay start times, which got cases rescheduled. We blitzed the waiting room chatbox with the KC Tenants hotline number so that tenants on the line could reach us.
By the end of the month, we had blocked over 900 evictions — more than 90 percent of the hearings attempted by the courts. We earned 48 local news stories. More than 465 people took roles throughout the month, joining us at the courthouses or dialing in as remote disrupters. Sixty-four KC Tenants leaders took on new roles during the month — leading teams, facilitating meetings and trainings, coding eviction data. We recruited at least 22 new leaders to our base — people like Kenneth and Anthony, whom we met at the courthouses and who had been directly impacted by our disruptions.
We have kept a rich account of Zero Eviction January. There are hundreds of pages of meeting agendas and notes from evaluations, photos and videos of each action, audio of tenants disrupting remote evictions, Tweets, Instagram posts. What the records fail to capture is what the month made possible.
The people who held roles and led trainings still organize among us today. Tenants whose evictions we delayed have become core to our union, their presence a reminder of what happens when we commit ourselves to action with material impact, and a mandate to continue doing so.
Our spirits transform when we exercise power, when we experience solidarity. That’s the revolutionary potential of Zero Eviction January and actions like it. Everything is different once people feel the power of collective action: when their heart pounds in the moments before it will go down, when they speak to people whose lives are changed by the actions they have taken, when they look around and realize it was us — neighbors and friends — who pulled it off. What once felt inevitable no longer feels that way. What is or is not inevitable becomes instead a question of whether we believe something else is possible. Whether we are willing to fight for it. Whether we can tolerate the discomfort of not knowing what to do, at least long enough to try something. Whether we’re willing to learn from failure. Whether we trust one another.
Dani Baltimore’s landlord tried to evict her four times between 2020 and 2021. Disruptions by KC Tenants delayed more than one of those evictions, keeping her housed during an extended period of unemployment. Remembering the disruptions, Dani shared:
Dani, a mom to four, has a job now and is on her way to a more stable housing situation. In December 2022, almost two years since KC Tenants disrupted her evictions, Dani logged onto our monthly orientation meeting. Soon, she will join the KC Tenants hotline team, referring other tenants to resources and inviting them into our citywide tenant union.
KC Tenants is a citywide tenant union in Kansas City, Mo., organizing to ensure that everyone in the city has a safe, accessible, and truly affordable home.