The best response to disaster: Go on the offensive

Sign at the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew on Clinton Ave. in Brooklyn (batmanwi.com/Jenna Pope)

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.

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.

Getting the power back on

If you want your power to be turned back on, sometimes you’ve got to take it back from the people who turned it off in the first place. They turned it off long before Hurricane Sandy, through decades of neoliberal policy, tax breaks for the wealthy, unemployment and debt crises, and the gutting of social services from public housing to hospitals and schools. They turned it off through racist policing and mass incarceration, through wars at home and abroad, through a whole host of systems that repress and exploit the many for the profit of the few.

A community meeting I witnessed at a generator-lit church in Far Rockaway seemed to know all about that. People were furious that their kids were developing the “Rockaway Cough” from living in moldy houses and breathing in the toxic waste that the city has been dumping in Riis Park. They were angry about the lack of emergency housing, well aware that their immediate needs could be met within 48 hours if city officials prioritized that over scurrying around taking pictures at relief sites to prove they were on the ground. People knew that the crisis began long before Sandy, that it was built-in for working people and communities of color, that there were systems in play that made it so. They were fired up, and when someone suggested that we have to get in the streets, to the mayor’s office, to Wall Street, to the Shell building, the energy in the room was electric.

I definitely wasn’t the only one sitting there imagining that it wouldn’t be long before we began to see the rotting walls of the bungalows in the Rockaways dumped in protest on the steps of City Hall, before the debris left behind by a neglectful city government was collected and dropped between the columns of the New York Stock Exchange. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one imagining that those who still need heat might find it by sitting in at the city government buildings that always seem to be a bit too warm on the inside but too cold when facing us. Those needing emergency housing might find it in the vacant properties the city has left languishing. And I know for sure, because it was said by angry moms and locals turned community organizers, that soon enough the thousands who want their power back will decide to take it from the places that always seem to have too much of it; the Goldman Sachs Tower that ran on generators through the night of the storm while half of New York was dark might be a good place to start.

People are organizing their blocks amid the rubble, building networks of solidarity, and developing the community power that will eventually be the basis for a real recovery. Volunteers and organizers are out there supporting that work, training to be allies, preparing to stand as part of a genuine climate justice movement. Community organizations that have always fought to get the power turned on are still in the trenches, weaving their struggles together. Community centers and churches all across the hard-hit areas of New York have become potential hubs for the resistance ahead. And most importantly, there are people like Luis, a young Rockaway resident who came to an Occupy Sandy hub for a pair of boots and ended up becoming a genuine leader in a front-line community. They are leading the charge to protect their communities by going on the offensive, taking the fight to the center of power itself. On December 15 there will be coordinated actions around the city that will take us one step further from relief to resistance.

When Hurricane Sandy hit, Occupy turned its swords into plowshares; it put on work gloves, joined communities in crisis to help meet immediate needs, and began to lay the groundwork for a genuine recovery. But let’s not forget that the bulldozers are still on their way. We’re going to have to learn to multitask – plowshares, yes, and swords too.

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