A Month After Hurricane Sandy, the Opportunity for Building a Public Solidarity Movement Is Now
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Staff members of Navillus, Mayor Bloomberg’s favorite contractor, are out in the Rockaways “volunteering,” probably in an effort to be first in line when the reconstruction contracts are auctioned off. The fossil fuel companies, meanwhile, are hoping none of us will put two and two together and hold them rightfully responsible for the climate crisis; they are probably doing all the lobbying they can to make sure the city rebuilds in a way that is as dependent on fossil fuels as before.
By the time the bulldozers come to knock down the bungalows in the Rockaways, and the contractors come to build condos in their place, the decisions will have already been made. Maybe we’ll be strong enough to reverse them, but we’ve lost too many battles before to bet on that. In some cases, it’s true, those buildings should be knocked down; no one should have to live in prison-like project buildings, or in homes with walls so moldy they make you cough within minutes. The question is, what will be built in their place?
We should learn from our opponents, the disaster capitalists who are working furiously to profit from crises they’ve caused. It’s all in the timing, and there’s no time to waste; we have to go on the offensive.
Location, location, location
But it’s not just about when; it’s also where. We have to fight on our terms, but on their turf.
In 1962, the Congress of Racial Equality helped organize what was called “Operation Clean Sweep.” The rapidly growing population of the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, overwhelmingly working people of color, was experiencing extreme and unsanitary levels of garbage because of reduced garbage collection by the city government. Operation Clean Sweep was a community-wide effort to take the struggle from Bed-Stuy to the powers that be. In one of their more provocative actions — and read closely, because this might be a good one to replicate — community members loaded trucks with all the garbage that had been skipped over by the garbage collection trucks and dumped it on the steps of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall.
There are other relevant examples: Occupy Wall Street itself is a good one, since it was a movement for economic justice that planted its feet firmly in the scene of the crime: right on Wall Street, where the most powerful decision makers lurk in their high-rise offices. Consider also the demonstration held by Red Hook residents on November 27 at the headquarters of the New York City Housing Authority, kicking off a campaign with both short-term and long-term demands.
The folks in Red Hook get it, and so do a lot of other residents in these hard-hit communities: full court press. (I’m having a hard time resisting sports analogies for some reason.) Don’t fight a defensive battle at home; bring the action straight to the halls of power.
They say no man is an island; well, no community is an island either — even the ones technically surrounded by water. The work people in communities are doing now to recover and rebuild sustainably is incredible, but it’s only part of the picture. The powerful are still busy — still plotting and scheming in downtown Manhattan offices, preparing to strike.
As we struggle to meet basic needs, as we build power in communities, as we begin to recover the broken pieces of our city, we have to remember to confront the bulldozers on the way. We have to build our movement in places where power is felt — the Coney Island projects, the bungalows on Rockaway Beach, the blue-collar neighborhoods in Staten Island, and all the other neighborhoods ruined by Hurricane Sandy and so many other crises. But we also have to take the fight to where the power we oppose takes shape, where the decisions get made, where the powerful live and work, where the crisis began. We’ve got to go back to the real scene of the crime: to City Hall, to the fossil fuel companies and, yes, to Wall Street.