Long before the housing crisis smashed into the country, Max Rameau founded an organization to aggressively find housing for the homeless.

How aggressive? In 2006, Rameau's Take Back the Land seized control of a long-vacant lot in Miami's ramshackle Liberty City and built the Umoja (Swahili for unity) Village shantytown to house more than 50 homeless people. In 2007, the village suspiciously caught fire, was bulldozed and has since been fenced off. But Rameau's group soldiers on, going into vacant, foreclosed homes and putting homeless people in them.

A 40-year-old community organizer, Rameau says the scarcity of affordable housing and abundance of empty homes prompted him to match "peopleless homes with homeless people." Potential inhabitants are screened for mental illness and drug addiction, and Rameau emphasizes that they earn "sweat equity" by maintaining, cleaning and repairing their dwellings. So far, he has helped about 50 people move into homes. And he says most of them save enough money to move out a few months later.

Rameau, whose initiative has sparked similar efforts across the country, will speak in Portland on Nov. 13 about housing, race and radical activism.

WW: What prompted you to create Take Back the Land in 2006?

Max Rameau: Gentrification deliberately being planned. We couldn't find solutions to these problems in the government because the government was largely responsible for creating these problems.

What's the line between civil disobedience and seriously breaking a law?

The lines that we draw would be devaluing a home. We would not go into a home and destroy it. Our primary concern is not what's legal or illegal. There was a time in this country when I wasn't allowed to go into certain neighborhoods. I don't know at what point I would say, "[Actions of] black people asking to be treated like everyone else cross the line and become criminal." I think the laws themselves were wrong because they did wrong things. And here I think it's the same thing.

On your group's website, it says the political component of the organization is led only by black people. Why?

The crisis of land and gentrification has disproportionately impacted black communities. It's also disproportionately impacted Latino and Native American communities. It makes sense then to have the communities who are most impacted by a crisis to lead the response to that crisis. Owning is important because self-determination is a valid organizing tool.

Do you favor reparations for black people, particularly land-based compensation?

I support the idea of reparations and land-based compensation. I think reparations is well established both domestically and internationally as a legal and moral tool to advance justice where injustice has been done and can't be undone. The poverty that exists in the black community can be traced in most instances way back to slavery, and then to the black codes and then to Jim Crow and all the way up to the present day.

How would you calculate how much different families are owed?

I don't think that reparations should—or needs to—happen on an individual level. There needs to be massive economic investment in black communities, investment in education, and efforts to build capacity. Reparations is also about making sure that those who did wrong do not wrongfully gain from things they did in the past.

But isn't part of the problem that white people don't see themselves as culpable?

One of the reasons this is the wealthiest country in the world was the many years it got free labor. If you're not responsible for that, that's great. But you can't not be responsible for the wrongdoing, but accept all the benefits from the wrongdoing.

Could placing homeless people in foreclosed houses work in Portland?

We have had two people from Portland who have contacted me since the last time I was there [spring 2009], saying that they have engaged in home takeovers. I don't know how widespread it will be there. I think it's something that people in Portland have to decide themselves. But obviously it would be exciting to see.


Rameau will speak at 6 pm Friday, Nov. 13, at Portland State University's Smith Memorial Union, Room 296/298, 1825 SW Broadway. Free.

FACT: Rameau, who was featured in Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story, lives in an 1,100-square-foot, two-bedroom house in Liberty City.