Tag Archives: Far Rockaway

Today’s Headlines from New York City

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Details about the recently approved city budget at NYC.gov.

Mixed City Council reaction to poverty formula for grants. (Capital NY)

New York City budget funds Rockaways ferry service only through October (7online)

AP IMPACT: NYC Jails Neglected Suicide Precautions . (AP/ABC)

New York City Approves Municipal ID Cards for Undocumented Immigrants (Democracy Now!)

More Than Half of NYC Holocaust Survivors Living in Poverty Despite German Reparations. (Forward)

A Guide to New York’s New Medical Marijuana Law.(NYmag)

Brooklyn DA Discusses Efforts to Turn Tide in His Office (NY1)

Steven Wishnia examines New York's retirement crisis in a two part series for LaborPress.

1. Fear of a Cat-Food Diet: Facing New York’s Retirement Crisis

2. Avoiding a Cat-Food Diet: Ideas to Fix the Retirement Crisis

NYC is looking to hire an Assistant Deputy Commissioner, SNAP (HRA). (CityLimits)

Queens Museum announced the Jerome Foundation Fellowship for emerging NYC artists- three $20,000 grants + artist’s project at Queens Museum  

The New York Summer Food Service Program Starts Today! (BQ Brew)

Want to Reduce Crime? Try Paying People - (WNYC: The Takeaway)

 

Occupy Sandy: Building Community and Worker Power in Far Rockaway

fuerza center worker co op far rockaway queens ny occupy sandy

“When the workers get together and decide how to distribute the income in such an enterprise, would they give the CEO $25 million in stock bonuses while everybody else can barely get by?”

Abandoned by the city's elite, some residents in the Far Rockaway section of Queens are building a daring new alternative. Above: Community members in Far Rockaway gather for one of the early meetings about cooperatives. (Photo: WNV/Peter Rugh)

Abandoned by the city's elite, some residents in the Far Rockaway section of Queens are building a daring new alternative. Above: Community members in Far Rockaway gather for one of the early meetings about cooperatives. (Photo: WNV/Peter Rugh)

Three and a half months ago, the walls upstairs at the Church of the Prophecy in Far Rockaway, a low-income coastal neighborhood of New York City, were covered with maps of where help was most needed. The church was a hub for the Occupy Sandy relief effort after Hurricane Sandy. Now, nearly five months after the hurricane struck, the maps have been replaced by posters extolling the virtues of collective struggle and art made by neighborhood children enrolled in Occupy Sandy’s twice-weekly after-school program.

“The kids missed a month and a half of school,” explained Luis Casco, a member of the church’s congregation who pulled strings to help move Occupy into Far Rockaway. The after-school program was, in part, his brainchild. “We figured we’d start helping the kids and we could win over their parents. Then we could actually start bigger projects,” he said.

One of those bigger projects is a worker-run cooperative initiative, organized by Occupy Sandy and supported by the Working World, an organization that specializes in incubating collectively owned businesses.

The initiative is well suited to Far Rockaway because worker-run enterprises have a history of flourishing in environments of economic distress or political upheaval. In 2001, when Argentina defaulted on its international loans and the country’s ownership class fled, Argentines took over abandoned factories and established networks of producers and distributors. In Venezuela, worker-run cooperatives were at the heart of the vision for 21st-century socialism, and Hugo Chavez’s administration helped create tens of thousands of collectively owned businesses over the last 14 years. Most notably, Spanish workers in the Basque region created the Mondragon Corporation, the world’s largest federation of cooperatives, during the Franco dictatorship in the 1950s. Today more than 250 enterprises operate under the Mondragon banner, and the federation, which spans 77 countries and employs 83,000 workers, has been widely praised.

“Collective approach pays big dividends,” read a headline about Mondragon in The Financial Times last year, while the New York Times noted the “use of workers’ share capital and loans” has enabled the federation to remain stable through vacillations in global markets, including the ongoing financial crisis.

While Mondragon shows what is possible down the line, Far Rockaway residents are at the very beginning of the process. At one of the crowded early meetings of the cooperative initiative, children and adults buzzed about, fraternizing with disposable plates of food in their hands as extra folding chairs were arranged. Several parents whose children attended the after-school program arrived, bringing their friends and neighbors along. Most were Spanish-speaking immigrants who, having spent their lives working for someone else, were eager to learn more about cooperatives.

Many in Far Rockaway lost their jobs when Hurricane Sandy rendered commutes impossible for flooded local businesses. For those without U.S. work papers, finding new employment has been difficult.

“It’s really hard to find a new job when you don’t have papers,” Casco explained. “Their homes were destroyed, they don’t have the resources to go to welfare and FEMA ain’t helping them.”

Luis Casco, a resident of Far Rockaway, has been one of the main organizers of community initiatives post-Sandy. (Peter Rugh / WNV)

Luis Casco, a resident of Far Rockaway, has been one of the main organizers of community initiatives post-Sandy. (WNV/Peter Rugh)

Others, such as Olga Lezama, managed to keep their jobs after the storm, but the prospect of holding on to the profits of their labor has piqued their interest. Lezama currently works as an upholsterer for a high-end furniture company. By Lezama’s calculations, her boss makes approximately $500 every hour off the furniture that she and her co-workersupholster, while she earns roughly $100 a day.

“It hurts my feelings and my pockets,” she said. “My job and my efforts and my everything goes to them.”

By her side was her husband, Carlos Lezama, a carpenter who specialized in cabinets. The pair hope to work with others in the community to form a home-design cooperative, a service in high demand after the storm, which ruined the ground floors of most of the region’s low-lying bungalows.

“We go to stores and buy cheap furniture, cabinets and stuff, and we’re wasting our money,” Lezama said. “In two months, the cabinet is no good. So we have go buy it again. Our people deserve good stuff.” 

Workers controlling capital

Occupy Sandy has allocated $60,000 of the $900,000 it raised in the initial flood of generosity following the storm toward forming cooperatives, an initiative they hope to spread across storm-affected areas if it proves successful in Far Rockaway. The Working World, an organization that provides zero-debt micro-finance loans to new cooperatives, has offered to provide monetary support, but for now the organization is mostly lending advice and training. At one of the early meetings, Brandon Martin, The Working World’s founder, showed the crowd a slideshow of other projects the organization has helped launch. Images of a beekeepers’ cooperative in the countryside of Nicaragua and a shoe factory in Buenos Aires glowed on the wall behind Martin as he outlined the benefits of workers sharing resources and making decisions democratically.

“A cooperative is workers controlling capital, instead of capital controlling workers,” said Martin. “It’s about reorganizing the economy around who’s really in control.”

The Working World finances itself by collecting a small percentage of the profits that member collectives generate, money that the organization reinvests in establishing new enterprises. Martin explained that the idea originated in ancient Sumeria where the word for interest was the same as the word for calf.

“If the cow I lent you has babies,” explained Martin, “I loaned you my cow, so I can have some the babies. That would be the interest.”

But if the cow was sterile, the Sumerians didn’t collect interest. The same works for Working World’s loans today. The organization only collects once a cooperative generates a steady profit, a model that avoids forcing people into debt if their business fails.

Interest grows

The Sumerians, for their part, eventually altered their lending practices such that they collected interest regardless of the outcome. The legacy of that shift is still with us today; few in Far Rockaway can call their surroundings their own. Walk through the neighborhood in the middle of a business day and you’ll see iron grating pulled down over storefronts and plywood covering the windows of large shopping complexes. Those stores that are open often bear the insignias of chain outlets that carry money out of the neighborhood and into the coffers of large corporations. Worker-run cooperatives, in contrast, could offer a way for community members to sell the products of their labor without selling their labor itself — a shift that would keep capital within the community and cash in the pockets of workers.

A handmade sign advertises the cooperative workshops in the window of Church of the Prophecy. (Peter Rugh / WNV)

A handmade sign advertises the cooperative workshops in the window of Church of the Prophecy. (WNV/Peter Rugh)

At the following cooperative meeting a week later, the crowd had grown. People discussed plans for a scrap metal business and a cleaning-workers’ collective. One man pulled a citizens’ band radio out of his winter coat, explaining that drivers in the taxi cooperative he hoped to form could use it to communicate. He’d been doing research; nine other drivers were needed to secure an operating license from the city.

There is obvious enthusiasm in the neighborhood for worker-run enterprises. But are there limits to what these businesses can achieve while embedded in a broader economic framework of competition and exploitation? And does the focus on cooperatives represent a shift in direction for Occupy, one that veers away from a direct fight for systemic transformation?

“We can’t fight the city,” one Occupy Sandy organizer confided. “But we can build co-ops.”

Building an alternative

Richard Wolff, professor of economics at the New School and author of Democracy at Work, a study of cooperative businesses, argues that forming cooperatives can be the first step in enacting a sweeping social and economic shift. Wolff envisions a transformation, similar to the social shift from feudalism to capitalism, in which cooperatives replace corporations and goods are distributed through a democratically planned economy.

The cooperatives that Wolff talks about, and the ones that Occupy Sandy is aiming to establish, are more accurately known as worker self-directed enterprises: businesses that organize democratically collective ownership at the point of production.

“When the workers get together and decide how to distribute the income in such an enterprise, would they give the CEO $25 million in stock bonuses while everybody else can barely get by?” Wolff asks rhetorically.

He stresses the difference between the productive and distributive side of economies, explaining that worker-run cooperatives are the often-overlooked prerequisite for achieving an egalitarian distribution of wealth and resources. “There is the question of what exactly an alternative to capitalism is,” he explains. “I’ve stressed worker-self-directed enterprises as a different way of organizing production.” On the other hand are markets, which distribute the fruits of production. Wolff believes that the mistake of many 20th-century socialists was to imagine that the elimination of markets would create social egalitarianism, even though production had not yet been reorganized into a democratic model.

Given the pull between the productive and distributive side of economies, cooperatives must form networks to survive. Collaboration between networked enterprises allows these businesses to curb market pressures and, if the network manages to spread, to gain political power.

As Brandon Martin emphasizes, also, workers in new cooperatives must labor long hours to meet production quotas, just like with any other business, since their enterprise still has to compete for a market share. “Can one cooperative change that?” asks Martin. “No. But a cooperative economy might.”

Olga Lazema, however, isn’t thinking about the theoretical potential for cooperatives to challenge capitalism. She’s imagining the positive possibilities for her own neighborhood.

“A lot of people, their houses went like nothing,” she said, referring to Sandy’s destruction. “They have nothing. We could go there, build a small kitchen or whatever they need. Why not?”

--Peter Rugh--

This article was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

Hospital Closures in Brooklyn and Queens: The Sick Get Sold out

(Photo: Diego Lopez/CC/Flickr)
(Original Photo: Mark Coggins/CC)

Why are New York City's hospitals disappearing? Ari Paul explains in the March 15 issue of the BQ Brew. (Original Photo: Mark Coggins/CC)

There is a national trend of closing hospitals under the guise of saving taxpayers money. Brooklyn and Queens have been and continue to be negatively affected by the same trend, despite the fact that closing hospitals doesn’t actually save anyone money. The bed to patient ratios in Brooklyn and Queens are considerably lower than the state average of 3.1 per 1,000 patients, 2.3 and 1.7 respectively. Not only do patients and their families suffer, but so do the thousands of healthcare workers that have lost their jobs. There is no bail out in sight for the sick, uninsured and under-insured working class neighborhoods in the outer boroughs.

•Parkway Hospital – Opened 1963, closed 2008. Located in Forest Hills, Queens, it had 251 beds and employed approximately 600 people. Half of those employees were members of the healthcare union SEIU/1199.

•Mary Immaculate and St. John’s Queens Hospitals – St, John’s was founded in 1891 and served the Elmhurst, Queens area. Mary Immaculate, founded in 1902, was located in Jamaica, Queens. Both closed in 2009. The hospitals were run by Saint Vincent’s Catholic Medical Centers and were sold to Brooklyn Queens Health Centers of New York(BQHC) when Saint Vincent’s filed for bankruptcy in 2006. BQHC created a separate subsidiary, Caritas, that would own and operate the hospitals while maintaining their Catholic identity. Due to mismanagement, Caritas filed for bankruptcy and the hospitals were forced to close. They collectively had approximately 422 beds and treated an estimated 100,000 emergency room patients per year. 2,500 – 3,000 jobs were lost.

•Peninsula Hospital Center – Opened 1908, closed 2012 due to lack of funds and a lab that failed state health inspection. The closing of this hospital leaves only St. John’s Episcopal Hospital and a few urgent care centers on Far Rockaway. Peninsula Hospital had around 170 beds and served a community of over 100,000 residents, Approximately 1,000 jobs were lost.

•Victory Memorial Hospital – In operation in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn for 107 years, Victory Memorial closed its doors for good in 2008. It had 254 beds. Its closing has left 300,000 residents to use the already overburdened Lutheran Medical Center in Sunset Park or Maimonides Hospital in Borough Park. Over 900 jobs were lost.

•The Brooklyn Hospital Center, Caledonian Division – Caledonian, affectionately nicknamed Caly by the Flatbush, Brooklyn residents it served, was opened in 1910. In 1982, “Caly” merged with The Brooklyn Hospital and officially became The Brooklyn Hospital Center. It had 190 beds and an emergency department that was vital to the 20,000 residents who have inadequate or no insurance.

•St. Mary’s Brooklyn Hospital – Opened in 1882, closed in 2005. Located in the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn St. Mary’s saw an average of 36,000 emergency room patients a year, many with little or no insurance. It had over 240 beds. 930 jobs were lost.

--Ava M Capote--

(Photo: Diego Lopez/CC/Flickr)

Why are New York City's hospitals disappearing? Ari Paul unfolds the story behind NY's healthcare attrition in the March 15 issue of the BQ Brew. (Photo: Diego Lopez/CC/Flickr)

Three Months After Sandy: By The Numbers

It took hundreds of sanitation trucks to clear the debris strewn across New York City in the wake of Super Storm Sandy. (Photo: NYC Department of Transportation)

Three months after Superstorm Sandy, thousands of New Yorkers are still recovering. We took a look through some of the numbers and this is what we found.

Second Costliest Storm in U.S History: Sandy was surpassed only by Hurricane Katrina in total damage. Sandy unleashed over $65 billion dollars in weather destruction in less than five days.

Total number of homes affected by power outages: 8,100,000. Sandy damaged infrastructure to a point where some electrical grids simply shut down. People in at least 17 states were left without power in one way or another.

Historic size and numbers: Hurricane Sandy’s greatest size was 820 miles in diameter. measured just before Sandy unleashed on Atlantic City. The last storm to affect New York City specifically, Hurricane Irene, was half the size and nowhere near the power of Sandy.

Sandy also had the lowest barometric reading ever recorded - 940 millibars - for an Atlantic storm to make landfall north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Record-breaking waves pounded our coast, the tallest measuring 32.5 feet - the tallest ever recorded in our area.

13 Foot Downtown Deluge: The East River overflowed its banks, flooding large swaths of Lower Manhattan, with a 13.88 foot surge in Battery Park. Seven of the MTA’s underwater subway tunnels were flooded, creating extensive damage that took over a month to fully repair.

Political Windfall: The storm hit the U.S on the eve of the 2012 Presidential Election. Barack Obama’s stance and the overall effectiveness of the recovery (boosted by a sizable federal presence in the area) all helped his campaign.

The President’s approval rating jumped 7 points, according to right-leaning Rasmussen. It also boosted the approval rating of New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, by 21 points (from 56 to 77%) and helped not only Obama’s reelection but also boosted the Democratic presence in the states. Sandy also added a blip to Mayor Bloomberg’s fading reputation, boosting his approval rating to 50%, the highest it had been since 2010.

Crime and Desperation: Reports of robberies have risen dramatically in areas affected by Sandy. In the Rockaways, complaints of burglaries in the 100th Precinct, have increased 500 percent this year alone, from the same period in 2012. Complaints have increased by 250 percent in the 101st Precinct, which encompasses Far Rockaway and Edgemere.

Recovery Time: Lower Manhattan has seen the quickest recovery time, with most power restored in a week, yet about 300 buildings in Staten Island remain without electricity or heat. Ten public housing buildings in Red Hook, Coney Island and the Rockaways still have mobile boilers, run by generators. Residents say hot water availability goes from nonexistent for up to 3 days, to scalding hot and unbearable.

Occupy Wall Street’s Role: OWS, as Occupy Sandy, went above and beyond to fill in the gap between the displaced residents and their recovery needs. This proved to be pivotal, especially in the outer boroughs, where the response was slow at best and simply absent at its worst. OWS was responsible for sending 10,000 turkeys to families affected by the storm and coordinating shelter and other relief.
In the month following the storm, Occupy Sandy was responsible for cooking and distributing between 10 and 15 thousand meals each day; enlisting more than 7,000 volunteers; creating three major distribution hubs from which it dispatched both workers and supplies; and establishing dozens of recovery sites in New York and New Jersey. Occupy also raised more than $600,000 in cash for its efforts and received more than $700,000 worth of donated supplies.

“Bipartisanship,” Again: On part of Congress, it took nearly 70 days for them to pass the flood insurance section of the Hurricane Sandy Relief. Some people had to wait 70 days in uncertainty and (some cases) homelessness or displacement to get aid in rebuilding. That’s more than six times longer than it took Congress to pass the Katrina. After three months of delays Congress finally approved a $51 billion aid package for victims of Super Storm Sandy
.
More than three-quarters of GOP senators voted against the full package. A Republican amendment to the bill that would require spending cuts to offset the disaster relief funding passed the House but was rejected by the Senate.

Mold and the Rockaway Cough: In a report put out by Queens Congregations United for Action, as of December 5 only 174 homes (out of 38,000 homes and businesses on the Rockaway Peninsula) had received help through Rapid Repairs. Over 8,000 more were still waiting to be inspected. The Met Council, a social service agency, found that only one in five families is hiring professional mold cleaning services. Community leaders are urging the city to include mold removal in their Rapid Repairs program.

Changes to flood zones: 35,000 buildings and homes have been added to flood zones in parts of Queens and Staten Island, according to preliminary maps released by the FEMA on January 28, 2013. Preliminary flood zone maps are expected to be released for other parts of the city in February. Official maps won’t be released until this summer. Those who live in Zone A and have federally-backed mortgages will be required to get flood insurance once the formal maps are released. Other forms of insurance, such as homeowners, will likely go up as well.

--By Ava M Capote, Randal J. Rivera

It took hundreds of sanitation trucks to clear the debris strewn across New York City in the wake of Super Storm Sandy. (Photo: NYC Department of Transportation)

It took hundreds of sanitation trucks to clear the debris strewn across New York City in the wake of Super Storm Sandy. (Photo: NYC Department of Transportation)

 

NY Fast Food Workers Serve Up a Fight for Economic Justice

FOR WEB not loving it

The sidewalk in front of the Wendy’s on Brooklyn’s Fulton Mall was choked with people at noon on November 29th. The signs they held were mostly handmade, in English and Spanish, calling for higher wages, more respect on the job. A small group of them held a bright red banner, that read “STRIKE for higher pay for a stronger New York.”

(Illustration: Molly Crabapple)

Pamela Flood: “I work hard for my money, I work hard for my kids, and I think we all deserve better. I’ll take two and three jobs to take care of my kids, but while I’m doing that I’m also going to stand up for what I believe in, and what I believe in is that we should be making way more than $7.25, because if a doorman, a security guard, and a janitor can make $12 to $15 an hour, why can’t we?” (Illustration: Molly Crabapple)

A young woman led the rally, her bright red hair pulled back, her voice already ragged from chanting, from shouting her story. I was later told by an organizer she’d been out since 5 AM, showing up to support the first of the fast-food workers to walk out on that day’s strikes, and she’d be onstage at the end of the day, too, whipping up the crowd underneath the glittering lights of McDonald’s in Times Square.

Her name is Pamela Flood, and she works at the Burger King at 971 Flatbush Avenue. She was one of 200 or so workers at New York City’s fast-food restaurants that struck for a raise to $15 an hour and union recognition on that November day, kicking the simmering movement among the city’s lowest-wage workers up another level. She also works at a CVS and attends classes at night, holding down a 4.0 GPA as she studies to be a medical assistant, to better support her three children. Burger King pays her just $7.25 an hour.

Flood drew cheers that day on the picket line when she demanded $15 an hour so that she could take her kids on vacation like the high-paid executives can. “I work hard for my money, I work hard for my kids, and I think we all deserve better,” she told me. “I’ll take two and three jobs to take care of my kids, but while I’m doing that I’m also going to stand up for what I believe in, and what I believe in is that we should be making way more than $7.25, because if a doorman, a security guard, and a janitor can make $12 to $15 an hour, why can’t we?”

With her that day were workers from other fast food restaurants in Brooklyn, community members, other low-wage workers from around the city, supportive clergy, and organizers who’d helped pull together the seemingly-impossible feat of getting hundreds of workers at McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, KFC, Taco Bell, and Domino’s Pizza stores across multiple boroughs.

“This is a moral issue,” Kirsten John Foy, a minister and former aide to Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio, told me as the picket line danced behind us. “We can’t live in the wealthiest economy in the world, and treat our workers like they’re from the third world.” (continue reading...)

“The Mold” in the Forgotten Rockaways

the mold still prod messiah rhodes

Nearly three months after Sandy, many Far Rockaway residents are still fighting to rebuild after the massive damage caused by the superstorm. Among the biggest threats in its immediate wake was a pandemic explosion in mold, as water and humidity seeped into thousands of homes in the Queens Community.

The following video report produced by Messiah Rhodes outlines some of the disturbing findings from a January survey of 1,251 Far Rockaway residents by New York Communities for Change. As the findings showed, most of the community's residents have either had to pay to remove health-threatening mold conditions themselves or, insufficiently helped by any sort of government aid, they are simply living with the mold.

Some statistics from the video report:

  • More than four-fifths of residents with wet sheetrock from the storm either still had it 60 days after Sandy, or they paid for it to be removed out of pocket, without any relief aid,
  • Over two-thirds of residents either still had mold in their homes 60 days after sandy or they paid for it be removed themselves, out of pocket.
  • Almost one-fifth of Far Rockaway residents surveyed were still not back in their homes.

 

Hurricane Sandy Relief Turns to Protest

can't afford groceries

The stakes are high for people in the Rockaways. More than month and a half after Superstorm Sandy, winter is setting in and many of the ten thousand residents of this Queens neighborhood still lack heat or electricity. Many have no hot water. And there’s another festering crisis: mold. It’s lurching up Rockaway walls, crawling on ceilings, covering mattresses and baby strollers, and threatening to breed an epidemic. The smell of the green fuzz fills beachside homes that on October 30 were submerged in swelling tides. The administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg has launched a “Rapid Repair Program,” but Rockaway residents are growing increasingly frustrated with its glacial pace.

“In the Rockaways you already had a lack of healthcare,” said Jeremy Saunders with the community justice group Vocal-NY. “You already had half the population living below the poverty line. It’s a place where the city has pushed a lot of poor people living with AIDS. A lot of people who were formerly incarcerated. Its already where they have amassed a lot of marginalized people.”

Now, supported by Occupy Sandy volunteers, residents of the Rockaways are starting to fight back.

On Saturday, about 100 people displaced by the storm and those who remain living in cold, damp residences with nowhere else to go, met at a shopping mall on Mott Ave. and Beach 21st St. Coming together as a community, they hoped to draw media attention to the ongoing disaster and to hammer home their demand that the Rockaways and other Sandy-rattled neighborhoods be made safe for habitation by December 31. From Mott, the crowd headed through Far Rockaway’s battered streets, toward coastal homes in a neighborhood locals refer to as “the Bungalows.”

“It’s devastating out here,” said Linda Bowman, who has lived in Far Rockaway for 40-plus years. Despite the wreckage surrounding her, Bowman remains rooted in her community and is fighting for it to get the resources it needs. She said the city has to step up.

“All they’re doing is talking, talking, talking. They’re not doing anything. We need help. We needed help weeks ago. Now, I figure we should have a deadline on December 31. Everyone out here should have lights, heat and this mold removed. If not, we should march to City Hall,” she said. (Continued...)

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

Occupy Sandy, New Dorp hub. (Photo: John de Guzman/CC/Flickr)

Occupy Sandy, New Dorp hub. (Photo: John de Guzman/CC/Flickr)

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

This article was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

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