A Month After Hurricane Sandy, the Opportunity for Building a Public Solidarity Movement Is Now
Occupy Sandy volunteers hand out supplies at St. Jacobi's Church in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
Photo Credit: Tom Hintze
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They say the best defense is a good offense.
I Googled the hell out of this phrase but couldn’t find a definitive answer on where it comes from. It’s attributed to everyone from the football coach Vince Lombardi to Machiavelli, Mao, the boxer Jack Dempsey and probably every military strategist in history. Whatever the case may be, the point is a good one, and it’s one that Occupy Sandy — the movement’s ongoing disaster response effort — needs to learn as well.
It has been more than a month since Hurricane Sandy. Windows of opportunity that have opened will soon close again, and we need to seize the moment. Compared to just a week or two ago, there are now fewer volunteers, fewer people reading the mass emails from Occupy Sandy, fewer hubs in active service. And just like before, the vultures are still circling, hoping to use this period of crisis to replace flooded bungalows and moldy housing projects with the fancy condos and luxury hotels they’ve always wanted. Just like before, the underlying systems and crises — social, economic, political and environmental — still exist, and are still causing damage much deeper than any hurricane ever could on its own.
We’re usually inclined to fight power when it is being carried out, but that’s often too late to stop it. Similarly, we’re inclined to fight power where it is most felt — in our communities, in the poor neighborhoods and communities of color around the city, in the ghettos that separate the many from the few who profit from their exploitation. That, too, is a mistake, because the powerful make decisions far, far away from there.
Yes, the windows are closing, but there’s still a bit of time and a ton of potential to make the shift from relief to resistance. If we want to protect our communities and prepare ourselves for the many battles ahead, we have to go on the offensive. If we want to really have a say, really change the rules of the game, we have to take the fight from where power is felt to the heart of the beast where it originates — from Far Rockaway and Staten Island to Wall Street and City Hall.
It’s all in the timing
I suppose there is a sports metaphor in this lesson, too. But the way I really learned it was in the summer of 2011, when 13 members of Bloombergville — a two-week occupation in opposition to New York City budget cuts — were arrested in an act of civil disobedience delaying the City Council vote. The budget being voted on would strip funding for schools, universities, hospitals, homes for the elderly and a long list of other social services. We took a stand, made a scene and built some power for battles to come. (Some even say that Bloombergville laid some groundwork for Occupy Wall Street, which would come only a couple of months later.) But the budget passed with most of the cuts intact. By the time we were in that City Council lobby getting handcuffed and cleared out of the way, the back-room deals were over, the decisions were made, and the wheels were already in motion to fill the pockets of millionaires with tax breaks and profits made by privatizing our public schools. We weren’t yet strong enough to fight on our terms without reacting to their time-lines. Winning that battle would have required that we fight when those decisions were being made, not when they were being carried out.
The same is true when it comes to Hurricane Sandy; how the city will be rebuilt, where the resources will go, who will profit from them and how they will affect communities around the city — those decisions are being made as we speak. The city government is already thinking about how it is going to spend the enormous sums of money that will be poured into redevelopment in the near future. The Wall Street investors in unpublicized meetings are confident they will get a big piece of the pie. The disaster-capitalist developers are already out there doing everything they can to ensure that they’re the ones who get the contracts.