New York City’s unhoused population has ballooned to more than 80,000 over the last decade. While the expiration of a COVID-19 eviction moratorium earlier this year contributed significantly to that number, the city government has long allowed landlords, business owners, and former police officers to profit off of displacement as city marshals. Working with the NYC Department of Investigation (DOI), these public officers step in on behalf of property owners to enforce evictions, utility shut-offs, and foreclosures, among other court judgments, exacerbating the housing crisis despite an abundance of empty apartments.
Last week, an anonymous collective of New York tenants publicized the marshals’ role in perpetuating homelessness. The group, known as Tomato Season, took to the streets overnight on Thursday, September 15, wheat-pasting dynamic red posters across Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. Their print campaign, titled “SHAME,” calls attention to the 31 mayor-appointed marshals who feed into corruption and violence against Black and Brown New Yorkers. A PDF manifesto details the collective’s intent to abolish the marshal system as a first step toward ending evictions.
Tomato Season describes itself as “faceless, ever-changing groupings” of working-class tenants. Their colorful artworks portray red tomatoes with watchful eyes, representing the public’s growing awareness. The existence of the New York City Marshals Association, the collective contends, legally legitimizes the use of force against anyone not in control of their housing, making them the “fulcrum on which the whole machine teeters.” (The DOI has not responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.)
“Shame on the marshals!” Tomato Season wrote in the manifesto. “Shame on the landlords and developers! Shame on the financiers! And shame on the capitalist state! Evictions kill, while the profiteers of the eviction machine make a killing.”
A Tomato Season representative who asked to remain anonymous told Hyperallergic that the group is working to help ensure public safety and cultivate sustainable methods of care. The public artworks, they claim, are meant not only to combat disinformation but to inspire local communities to action.
“We believe that art is crucial in the war of position,” they said. “We must de-naturalize the capitalist propaganda that alienates us, and produce our own images. One desired end result is that capitalists don’t sleep at night. Another is that we, the working class, can collectively imagine new worlds.”
The manifesto goes on to condemn city and state officials for prioritizing billionaire donors and allowing marshals to enforce debt peonage for profit. The writers make examples of particular marshals who rake in millions working for cash-advance companies, such as retired police lieutenant Stephen Biegel, and fee collectors like father-and-son duo Martin and Gregg Bienstock. Several posters show the names and contacts of marshals in each borough alongside statistics dating back to the 2008 financial crisis.
Since January 2022, New York marshals have evicted more than 1,800 tenants, and that number is expected to continue rising. As several industries experience a labor shortage, it is important to remember that many jobs require an address to qualify for work. As such, Tomato Season plans to keep educating the public on the necessity of building tenant power.
“Materials created by Tomato Season belong to the people, and the people are encouraged to reprint, distribute, and deliberate them widely,” the collective wrote. “We can’t wait to see what you do with this information.”
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