Power to the People

Occupy’s afterlife — a dispatch from New York’s dark zones.

(Jeremy Zilar / Flickr)

New York’s inequality is not a secret to anyone who walks its streets, let alone struggles to pay its rents. Our billionaire mayor seemed to be out to prove a point this week, acting like a petulant child when public opinion pushed him to cancel the New York City Marathon this weekend, while people still have no power, food, and in too many cases lost everything in floods or fires.

For those of us who’ve spent the last few years covering the struggles of everyday people against the financial and corporate giants who’ve consolidated wealth to unheard-of levels, this week has been an exercise in “Where the hell have you been?” After Hurricane Katrina, which I watched from hundreds of miles away, people declared over and over “It’s like a third world country.”

Those of us who’d lived in and loved that city didn’t need a storm to tell us what it was like.

The comparisons to Katrina have been everywhere, of course, but for me they hit home when, safe in my Crown Heights apartment that never even lost power, I saw friends and acquaintances who’d been involved with Occupy Wall Street tweeting their relief activities under the hashtag #OccupySandy. I couldn’t help but think, as I watched them tweet their setup of a hub in Red Hook, of Common Ground, of Malik Rahim, of New Orleans’ mutual aid after the storm, and how leftists and radicals (Rahim, a former Black Panther, learned about community care from the Panthers’ free food and tutoring programs) step quietly into the spaces that are left vacant by the wrecking crew that’s laid waste to social welfare programs and the churches and charities that Republicans keep telling us will step up to provide care.

Julieta Salgado, a Brooklyn College student and organizer, told me that it started with a text message from a handful of folks working with the Free University, Tuesday after the storm had passed. That group wound up at the Red Hook Initiative, and from there fanned out into the streets of wealthy, dry Carroll Gardens seeking donations. “We just walked from door to door and every single person responded, no one turned us down,” Salgado said. “People were thanking us for coming. I think we gave an entryway to some folks who didn’t know how to help.”

There’s a particular opportunity for mutual aid in the void in the aftermath of disaster, particularly in a neoliberal state whose safety net has been shredded, where the state simply isn’t there and people step up to take care of each other (not “themselves” as our libertarian friends would have it, and not the rich handing out charity as Mitt Romney wants you to believe, but communities in solidarity). The idea of mutual aid was at the foundation of Occupy as much as the much-debated horizontalism and the opposition to the banks.

Just after Thomas Frank declared Occupy dead, killed by its own fascination with process and language, I walked into St. Jacobi Church in Sunset Park Friday and saw so many familiar faces from Zuccotti, not sitting around debating how to talk about the revolution, but doing hard, necessary, practical work to feed and clothe and support swathes of the city reeling from the Superstorm. The obituaries of Occupy had never seemed so completely wrong; not on May Day or September 17th when the streets again rang with protest.

The church basement was filled with volunteers standing around tables, some preparing food, some sorting donations and putting together boxes, like the Kitchen and Comfort stations from the best days at the park. All would be fed. All would be clothed. Except instead of waiting for those in need to arrive, curious, at the park and make their way past the cardboard protest signs to the heart of the occupation, these volunteers now were loading cars filled with precious gasoline to drive to Coney Island, to the Rockaways, to anywhere that people weren’t being cared for.

“It’s amazing how organized we are, it’s amazing how much so many people involved with the social movement have learned about themselves, about each other, about all of how, how to put these values into practice,” Michael Premo, one of the Occupy organizers in Sunset Park, told me.

In Red Hook earlier I’d seen lines around the block for food, diapers, blankets, flashlights, water, as the Red Hook Initiative/Occupy Sandy effort had expanded to more buildings, separated its hot food distribution from the place to get supplies to take home. The public housing all around us was still powerless and cold, but there were so many volunteers that they didn’t know what to do with us all. Salgado showed back up the next day and saw two people whose doors she’d knocked on the night before, there to help.

For those of us who had power and Internet access, of course, the political emails kept coming, of course, because Sandy had the temerity to hit the East Coast right before a bloated hellstorm of an election. I tweeted about some of the ones that seemed in the poorest taste; who sends an email with the subject “close call” in the days after a hurricane if you’re not talking about the storm?

I got at least one apology when I pointed out that perhaps what Staten Island needs at the moment is not Democratic doorknockers, but volunteers to help clear the wreckage and feed and clothe people who have just lost everything, but what seemed entirely lost is the long tradition of service provision as political organizing.

Just ask the community groups who jumped into action for Sandy, the organizers who make their (meager) living providing services to people facing foreclosure, to immigrant workers fighting wage theft, to neighborhoods trying to keep out the corporate-backed charter schools. At 1pm I dropped off two bags of clothing at the New York Communities for Change offices in downtown Brooklyn, walking past gas cans filled last night in Connecticut by volunteers to make sure the cars kept going out to the Rockaways, to Long Island; at 11pm I said goodnight to an organizer going back to sleep in his office to start again tomorrow.

Because political organizing and mutual aid go hand in hand, or they should. Because the early labor movement wasn’t just about organizing on the job but organizing in your neighborhood. Because the folks still trying to build an anticapitalist movement in this country know that you can’t organize with shell-shocked people until their basic needs have been met.

Of course, Common Ground was infiltrated, because solidarity is suspect; you can bet that if these pesky Occupy activists keep feeding and supporting and organizing in communities, someone will be out to break that up too. But for now, Salgado said, “The joke is so on Bloomberg. The people he spent $60 million trying to destroy, we’re the first people on the ground.”

Rebecca Solnit wrote so eloquently of the communities that arise in disaster, and Occupy was a response to a disaster itself, a slow-moving financial hurricane that destroyed homes as surely as the storm. So it shouldn’t be surprising that after Sandy moved through, the first people to jump into action were the same ones who had made things run in the park. The movement may have suffered from the lack of focus after the encampments were taken, but Sandy provided that focus and immediate needs to be provided for.

“We scaled up in like 24 hours, it’s really a testament to, with one clear focused vision, how these specific set of values were able to really get organized,” Premo said. The old networks were moving within a couple of hours.

Goldman Sachs tweeted at me after I made a late-night whiskey-fueled joke about marching on the bank’s Lower Manhattan headquarters, illuminated through generator power while the surrounding buildings were dark. The PR flack responsible for the Twitter feed wanted to be sure I knew that Goldman had practiced its own form of mutual aid, opening up a charging station for neighborhood residents to plug in their phones and other devices.

Lovely. The absolute least that the mega-investment-bank could do, I’m certain, after taxpayers coughed up $10 billion in bailout funds and New York subsidized $25 million more in job creation credits and handed the bank $1.65 billion in low-interest, tax-exempt Liberty Bonds, saving them an estimated $250 million in interest and financing for staying in New York and building that fancy new generator-powered headquarters. Oh, and after taxpayer-funded police arrested many of the very same protesters who are at this moment practicing real mutual aid out in Brooklyn and in Chinatown to keep them from dirtying the bank’s reputation.

Looking at the photo that Laura Flanders tweeted of Goldman’s glow at the end of a dark street, I kept hearing Kanye West’s voice in my head, “No one man should have all that power.” Except, of course, no one bank should have all that power, and that’s figurative as well as literal. How many floors, Flanders asked at the Nation, did the bank really need to illuminate to prove its point to its neighbors? We don’t need you. We have our own generators, our own power, and enough money to wait out the storm’s aftermath.

Except, of course, that they do need us.

Far more than we need them. Out in Red Hook, in Sunset Park, as we left, cars were departing, volunteers were leaving and more coming to replace them, familiar faces running in with news of possible staging locations in other parts of the city. The rhythm was different than the park, the sense of urgency more acute, the reports pouring in of neighborhoods desperately in need of support. But the work was the same, if the motivation different. Meet people’s needs, help them solve their problems.

Blackouts provided just a temporary respite from the daily hustle of late-capitalist NYC, but in that space there was room for something else.

“The cops are still doing what we expected them to do, Bloomberg is still doing what we expected him to do, and we’re still doing what we expected us to do — but no one else did,” Salgado said.