The best defense is a good offense.
It’s been almost two months since Hurricane Sandy. Windows of opportunity that have opened will soon close again, and we need to seize the moment. There are now fewer volunteers, fewer people reading the mass emails from Occupy Sandy, fewer hubs in active service. And 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.
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.
There’s still a bit of time and a ton of potential to make the shift from relief to resistance. If we want to really have a say and 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 the Coney Island projects, the bungalows on Rockaway Beach and the blue-collar neighborhoods in Staten Island to Wall Street and City Hall.
ALL IN THE TIMING
The city government is already thinking about how it is going to spend the enormous sums of federal 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 get the contracts.
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?
But it’s not just about when; it’s also about 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 levels of garbage because of reduced 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 of taking the fight to our opponents: Occupy Wall Street itself is a good one, since it was a movement for economic justice that planted its feet firmly at the scene of the crime: right on Wall Street, where powerful decision-makers lurk in their high-rise offices. Consider also the demonstration held by Red Hook residents on Nov. 27 at the headquarters of the New York City Housing Authority, kicking off a campaign with both short- and long-term demands.
From attending meetings of outraged storm victims, I think we could soon see the rotting walls of the bungalows in the Rockaways dumped in protest on the steps of City Hall and 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. And people who need 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 headquarters that ran on generators through the night of the storm while half of New York was dark might be a good place to start.
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 multi-task — plowshares, yes, and swords too.
Yotam Marom is active in Occupy Sandy, and his writing can be found atForLouderDays.net. A longer version of this article was originally published on Wagingnonviolence.org.