Struggles, New and Old, Emerge in Sandy’s Wake

Peter Rugh

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished at Wag­ing Non­vi­o­lence.

A month after Franken­storm Sandy struck, bat­tle lines are begin­ning to be drawn in the wreck­age along New York City’s shores. The brew­ing strug­gles are tak­ing shape amidst the pop­u­lar relief effort that sprung up imme­di­ate­ly after the storm, pit­ting orga­niz­ers and thou­sands of new­ly-rad­i­cal­ized activists against the effects of ongo­ing crises in health care, hous­ing and the envi­ron­ment. Along­side relief are the seeds of rebellion.

Vet­er­ans of the Occu­py move­ment, call­ing them­selves Occu­py Sandy Relief, have been coor­di­nat­ing the deliv­ery of basic neces­si­ties to those in need, fill­ing a void where estab­lish­ment first-respon­ders — from city agen­cies to the Fed­er­al Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency (FEMA) and the Red Cross — have fall­en short. Michael Pre­mo, who began orga­niz­ing with Occu­py Sandy since the day of the storm, attrib­ut­es the campaign’s abil­i­ty to spread far and wide across the city to activists’ com­mit­ment to devel­op­ing rela­tion­ships with orga­ni­za­tions already embed­ded in neigh­bor­hoods where they operate.

The focus from jump,” Pre­mo said, has been how to iden­ti­fy local lead­er­ship in col­lab­o­ra­tion com­mu­ni­ty struc­tures like church­es in order to build pow­er city­wide. Our lat­er­al orga­niz­ing struc­ture has allowed us to be nim­ble in a real­ly dynam­ic way, to spread out across the city and con­nect peo­ple.” By rapid­ly turn­ing new vol­un­teers into vol­un­teer orga­niz­ers, they’ve been able to grow quick­ly and inex­pen­sive­ly. But there are some things that the Occu­piers sim­ply aren’t equipped to provide.

Just a few blocks from where Pres­i­dent Obama’s heli­copter touched down in Stat­en Island last Thurs­day, an over­turned hot dog truck lay on its side at Robert Raimondi’s front door, rest­ing in sand from the beach that used to be three hun­dred yards away. Nobody’s touch­ing any­thing,” said Rai­mon­di, Insur­ance only cov­ers foun­da­tion. They tell you to go to FEMA. FEMA tells you to fill out a small busi­ness loan. So you get noth­ing. You get no help oth­er than volunteers.”

On Novem­ber 16, at a press con­fer­ence on the steps of City Hall orga­nized by Health­care for the 99% and oth­er groups, med­ical pro­fes­sion­als called for city, state and fed­er­al author­i­ties to step up relief efforts, rather than con­tin­u­ing to out­source it to the impro­vised efforts of the Occu­py move­ment. Psy­chi­a­trist San­dra Turn­er with the group Physi­cians for a Nation­al Health Pro­gram said, Occu­py Sandy has been out there from the very begin­ning giv­ing help. They’ve sent peo­ple out doing can­vass­ing and try­ing to see what the needs are of the peo­ple.” But, she made clear, this is no sub­sti­tute for devot­ing the pub­lic resources nec­es­sary for meet­ing affect­ed people’s needs.

The speak-out on the steps of City Hall rep­re­sents one of sev­er­al pres­sure cam­paigns that have begun sprout­ing up along­side relief efforts.

The debate in the Occu­py move­ment around demands,” once so heat­ed at the fall 2011 encamp­ment in Zuc­cot­ti Park, has fad­ed amidst so many imme­di­ate and con­crete demands that Occu­py Sandy now con­fronts dai­ly on the front lines of the relief effort. The Occu­py orga­niz­ers in orange flu­o­res­cent vests rush­ing around the relief hub in a church at 520 Clin­ton Ave. in Brook­lyn, or shov­el­ing out sand from base­ments in the Rock­aways, or going door-to-door and deliv­er­ing food to elder­ly res­i­dents on the upper floors of the city’s pub­lic hous­ing com­plex­es, are part of a matur­ing resis­tance move­ment that is grow­ing deep roots in com­mu­ni­ties across the city. In some cas­es, they are even work­ing close­ly with some of the same peo­ple who con­duct­ed raids on Occupy’s encamp­ment in the Finan­cial Dis­trict a year ago.

Occu­py activist Yoni Miller described a recent meet­ing he attend­ed in which a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of May­or Michael Bloomberg’s office and the New York Police Depart­ment were present, along with Nation­al Guards­men and an aide to City Coun­cil Speak­er Chris­tine Quinn. It was real­ly weird,” said Miller. They were suc­cumb­ing to meet­ing with Occu­piers, this group they despise so much.”

In the low-lying Brook­lyn neigh­bor­hood of Red Hook, Occu­py Sandy helped reestab­lish the Adobo Fam­i­ly Health Cen­ter, pro­vid­ing gen­er­a­tors and med­ical equip­ment to the only clin­ic in the area. Occu­piers then had to seek the city’s help to keep this med­ical life­line going. City offi­cials, Miller recalled, were harp­ing on the dif­fer­ent efforts that they were doing in the Rock­aways, med­ical-wise. But when we had very basic requests, like to have one per­son to super­vise 30 bed-bound patients, none of these pow­er play­ers were able to meet that need.”

A lack of basic health care for New York City res­i­dents exist­ed before the storm, and it is not the only cri­sis that Sandy has exac­er­bat­ed. On Novem­ber 4, May­or Bloomberg told reporters that 40,000 peo­ple have been left with­out shel­ter, near­ly dou­bling the city’s pre­vi­ous home­less pop­u­la­tion and com­pound­ing an exist­ing hous­ing short­age. We don’t have a lot of emp­ty hous­ing in this city,” he said, so it’s real­ly a prob­lem to find hous­ing when we need it.”

Kendall Jack­man, an orga­niz­er with Pic­ture the Home­less, wasn’t con­vinced. We know there’s vacant hous­ing in the city, because here it is,” Jack­man said, as she stood in front of a row of city-owned prop­er­ties on 129th St. in Harlem. Jack­man point­ed to the board­ed-up doors with her cane. They have all these build­ings that peo­ple could be liv­ing in,” she said, but instead they’re sell­ing them to folks who are cre­at­ing hous­ing that we can’t live in.”

A study recent­ly con­duct­ed by Pic­ture the Home­less and Hunter Col­lege revealed that there are enough vacant prop­er­ties in the five bor­oughs of New York City to house 71,707 peo­ple. What’s more, the study only cov­ers one third of the city; 39 dis­tricts remain to be sur­veyed. If vacant lots were to be fac­tored into the data, that would add poten­tial hous­ing for 199,981 more peo­ple. Pic­ture the Home­less is call­ing for the city to use the cur­rent cri­sis as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to address the lack of basic hous­ing that exist­ed before the storm.

So far, accord­ing to Narlena Lun­non, the Bloomberg admin­is­tra­tion has been putting a band-aid on a band-aid.” With three grand­chil­dren at her side, Lun­non, a res­i­dent of the city-owned devel­op­ment Red Hook Hous­es, addressed those who were crowd­ed into a class­room at Pub­lic School 27 in Red Hook on Novem­ber 14 — a meet­ing facil­i­tat­ed by Occu­py activists. The New York City Hous­ing Author­i­ty (NYCHA) had been large­ly absent through­out the ordeal, but recent­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the agency start­ed to appear in the neigh­bor­hood, post­ing rent slips to people’s doors. The peo­ple in the room were unit­ed and angry.

Those tem­po­rary gen­er­a­tors aren’t going to do noth­ing,” Lun­non said. The minute every­body plugs in the appli­ances they real­ly need, the lights are going to go right back out. Fire trucks are going by left and right. There are sparks every­where. I’m smelling gas all up and down the street. Nobody will tell us noth­ing. Oh, but you want your rent though!

After the applause died down, Lun­nun con­tin­ued. I’m tired of the free blan­kets. I’m tired of my grand­chil­dren going to bed cold. I’m tired of old peo­ple telling me they’re hurt­ing because they can’t get up the stairs.

If you can’t get no offi­cials down here,” Lun­nun told the Occu­py Sandy activists facil­i­tat­ing the meet­ing, I got to go to City Hall and keep screaming.”

It is in rooms like this that a push for a people’s recov­ery is begin­ning to emerge. At a fol­low-up meet­ing five days lat­er, Red Hook res­i­dents put out a call for November’s rent to be waved and began plans for a ral­ly to pres­sure NYCHA into meet­ing their demands. While the effort is being spear­head­ed large­ly by the Red Hook com­mu­ni­ty, those liv­ing in pub­lic hous­ing across the city who lost pow­er, heat and gas due to the storm are being encour­aged to participate.

That night, at a long table on the upper floor of Occu­py Sandy’s dis­tri­b­u­tion hub at 520 Clin­ton Ave., rep­re­sen­ta­tives of groups con­cerned with the envi­ron­ment, hous­ing, health care and oth­er issues sat togeth­er with peo­ple from sev­er­al unions and Occu­py Sandy. It was the first time that many in the room had met one anoth­er. The meet­ing focused both on imme­di­ate, on-the-ground needs and on lay­ing out the basis for a recov­ery in which work­ers are paid a pre­vail­ing wage and New York­ers’ essen­tial needs are met. The meet­ing was the first of its kind, but it will not be the last.

There has to be some form of account­abil­i­ty,” said Juan Car­los Ruiz, a com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er and pas­tor at St. Jaco­bi Church in Sun­set Park, Brook­lyn, which became Occu­py Sandy’s first dis­tri­b­u­tion cen­ter. He expressed con­cerns that FEMA and the Red Cross would be with­draw­ing from Coney Island and from oth­er regions hit by the storm in the near future. They have all this mon­ey and resources but haven’t been meet­ing basic needs. We got folks out there with­out heat, with­out gas.”

He raised oth­er con­cerns as well, con­cerns which will sure­ly be impact­ed by how the city responds to this cri­sis: What about renew­able sources of pow­er? We can put solar pan­els on these roofs. We have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to imple­ment real solu­tions with a long-term vision.”

Back in Stat­en Island, Robert Rai­mon­di would have agreed. Lets get some solar, lets get some wind, lets get some help!” he said.

At the storm-rav­aged YANA (You Are Nev­er Alone) work­er train­ing cen­ter in Queens, Occu­py Sandy has already begun imple­ment­ing the long-term vision Ruiz spoke about. A week after it ini­tial­ly opened to serve the Rock­away com­mu­ni­ty, flood­wa­ters from Sandy inun­dat­ed the center’s store­front struc­ture. YANA lat­er reopened its doors as a relief cen­ter. Now, activists have launched the Restore YANA Project” and are rebuild­ing it as an exam­ple of sus­tain­able design that could be uti­lized across New York and New Jersey’s regions in recov­ery. They’re treat­ing the build­ing for mold and lay­ing down cop­per pen­nies on the floor to trap heat. The lights are already back on, thanks to solar pow­er pro­vid­ed by Greenpeace.

Labor and envi­ron­men­tal his­to­ri­an Jere­my Brech­er sug­gests that the social self-defense” Occu­py Sandy is cur­rent­ly engaged in is forg­ing a con­nec­tion between a set of val­ues and polit­i­cal objec­tives and con­crete dai­ly life prob­lems that ordi­nary folks face.”

Brech­er tells a para­ble: A group of peo­ple are walk­ing along a stream when a drown­ing per­son floats their way. They pull him ashore and start deliv­er­ing arti­fi­cial res­pi­ra­tion when anoth­er body comes bob­bing by. Just as they are resus­ci­tat­ing that per­son, yet anoth­er body comes down­stream. All of a sud­den one guy takes off sprint­ing upstream. Hey where you going?” his friends call out after him, What if anoth­er body comes by?”

I’m going to see who’s push­ing these peo­ple in,” he replies.

While doing the hard work of resus­ci­tat­ing the city, Occu­py Sandy is also head­ing upstream toward City Hall and Wall Street, the forces it iden­ti­fies as hav­ing sub­merged the city in depri­va­tion to begin with. Rather than remain­ing splin­tered by the storm, com­mu­ni­ties are com­ing togeth­er to sup­port one anoth­er. These bonds forged through relief will be test­ed in the strug­gle for a revi­tal­ized city ahead.

Peter Rugh is a facil­i­ta­tor for Occu­py Wall Street Envi­ron­men­tal Sol­i­dar­i­ty and chairs the Action Com­mit­tee of Shut Down Indi­an Point Now! He has writ­ten for The Indypen­dent, Ter​ra​s​pheres​.com, Com­mon Dreams and Social­ist Work­er. Pete blogs at EartoEarth​.org.
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