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Rebuilding in the Rockaways

Diego Ibanez Apr 30

Some say you can't create a crisis just as much as you can't predict the solution.

When my friends and I arrived on the corner of 113th St. and Rockaway Beach Blvd., less than 48 hours after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the peninsula of Queens, buildings were still on fire. A man told me that his whole house had just burned down and that his family had nowhere to go. I took a picture of him in front of his burned-down block and shared it with the network of activists I was working with. Food had begun to rot and water was running out — a sense of panic was in the air. That night, from within the flooded storefront we had occupied and transformed into a guerrilla distribution hub, we had our first community meeting.

When you feed people you get invited to their table, and once you're at their table, you get invited into their lives. Every night we turned off the generators that powered the lights, locked the doors and huddled in a circle. We passed around the flashlight as if it were a microphone. "Even though I've lost everything, I've never felt better in my life," said Mama Rose, the block's matriarch. Most nights we cried together, but at the end of each meeting we chanted, "You are not alone!"

At first we started with a simple kitchen, then a distribution hub and then a demand: a just recovery process — one that helped recover from all forms of crisis, water related or otherwise.

In the second week we realized that we needed a medical clinic. Using our network, we called for doctors, nurses and social workers. Volunteers flocked to our hubs and we needed more space. Across the street we saw a fur coat store — so fancy that you couldn't wear their products in San Francisco without risking red paint being splattered all over you in protest.

"You're crazy," the landlord told me. "You wanna do what?"

"We want to turn this store into a people's clinic," I said. "Think about it."

The next day he gave us the keys. It took us 14 hours to clean up the whole store, repair doors, install lights, shelves, curtains and beds, rig up the generators and sanitize everything. Soon doctors and nurses were filling prescriptions and treating patients inside the fur coat store. The role of private and public property was challenged.

A week later, the lights went on. Things were going to be okay after all. In some ways, that was the happiest day for everyone. But I sensed a disconnect as people detached from the community, plugged back into the system and switched on their TVs. The fairy tale of a post-capitalist community was over. It was time for us to restructure our organizing.

THE FORGOTTEN ZONE

We began moving farther and farther east along the peninsula until I arrived in Far Rockaway — the forgotten zone. With a young population and a high crime rate, Far Rockaway is no stranger to crisis. In a sense, it's been dealing with a continuous series of crises for the past half century, since Robert Moses dumped thousands of poor people displaced by urban renewal projects into public housing on this remote spit of land.

Recovery in Far Rockaway looked different. We found youth that dropped out of high school, many who didn't know how to read. Unemployment seemed to be on everyone's mind. Younger kids had missed weeks of school due to flooding or relocation and were saddled with thick make-up packets.

Using a small Pentecostal church as our base, we grew ties with the migrant Latino community and started an after-school program. The plan was to pull from outside volunteers, like the thousands on our lists, to tutor older teens. However, when the room filled with younger kids, the older teens who would otherwise be on the streets themselves became the mentors.

In addition to receiving help with their homework, kids ate dinner and participated in lessons put on by Occupy Sandy volunteers, which focused on topics such as climate change, democratic decision-making and art. At one point the kids sang Bob Dylan's song "George Jackson":

Prison guards, they cursed him

As they watched him from above

But they were frightened of his power

They were scared of his love

A young girl wanted to know why they were scared of his love.

"He was trapped in a cage for so many years," I explained. "But his mind was free with the love of knowledge. Some people don't want us to have that kind of freedom, that's why we gotta fight for it."

At supper, the kids held hands and gave thanks for one thing in their lives. Many gave thanks for the after-school program and then we raised our arms and yelled "Fuerza!"

ÔEVERYTHING'S POLITICAL'

In addition to youth education, we focused on building political power for the long-term recovery. "Everything's political," we said. "Even the storm." We established a political education program called Wildfire, comprised of community members who emerged as natural organizers throughout the early recovery struggle.

In some ways, it was one community encountering another. Occupy Sandy emerged from a network of Occupy Wall Street participants who had dispersed to work on a variety of projects. In going to the Rockaways we were reading outside of ourselves and into communities most affected by the capitalist system we had been protesting only a year before. Our role was not very different from the one played by the international community after the 1994 Zapatista insurrection in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas: thousands went there to bear witness, a network-style tactic the U.S. military dubbed a "netwar."

But in other ways, our role wasn't to bear witness at all. It was to expand the network itself, and help ignite a group that would begin solving other kinds of structural issues in their communities long after the storm receded. At a Wildfire retreat in upstate New York in early April, we mapped where this group fit into the larger picture, from Occupy Sandy to Occupy Wall Street to student uprisings and international anti-austerity movements.

Meanwhile, other community members were still trying to figure out how they were going to pay rent. With the storm came even more unemployment and suspicion of outsiders snatching up all the rebuilding jobs.

WORKER-RUN COOPERATIVES

In the upstairs of a small church, a packed room held the faces of the dispossessed. Black and English-speaking on one side, Brown and Spanish-speaking on the other.

"Why should you wait for jobs to come here, why don't you just create them?" Asked Brendan Martin, a cooperative expert and workshop leader from the Working World.

Creating community controlled, democratically run businesses is also part of the long-term recovery — not only from the storm but also from damage wrought by our capitalist system. Today, a half dozen groups are engaging in a 12-week program to develop these enterprises. People who don't even speak the same language are laughing, dreaming and working together, creating liberated spaces just as they did in the fur coat shop and across the affected regions during the first weeks after the storm.

We know how to solve problems to crises that we see. The challenge is to see the invisible crises, like ongoing foreclosure, mass incarceration, mounting debt, sweeping privatization, accelerating climate change and enduring poverty. These are crises that we have grown accustomed to, the ones that we have come to accept. What we are doing is important not only because six months after Hurricane Sandy hundreds of people are still displaced and thousands more are trying to figure out how to put their lives back together, but because millions of us are dealing with crises every day.

Diego Ibanez is an organizer with Occupy Sandy.