Mary and I had planned the trip to New York City months in advance, but we had not planned to go to a storm-devastated city in the throes of neoliberal social decay. The first signs of anything out of the ordinary were the billboards in Connecticut for insurance companies who are “just here to help”, and the signs warning people to carry gas in approved containers only. Central Manhattan seemed completely normal, as if nothing had happened. Central Brooklyn was much the same. But on the margins of the Capital of the World, the first signs of creeping social breakdown—the effort to clean up a privatized, impoverished society after a not-so-natural disaster—came into view, provided you knew where to look.
I don’t intend here to write a stunning new exposé on conditions that I only observed for a couple hours, and did relatively little to help. I do recommend that people follow the work of Occupy Sandy Relief, and read the coverage in socialistworker.org, most of it first-hand accounts written by socialist activists in New York. But I want to share my own experience, albeit limited, and reflect on some of the larger political lessons of this event.
First, the narrative. We brought what we thought we could donate: clothes, coats, baby things, diapers and wipes, blankets. As we approached St. Jacobi Church on 4th Avenue in Brooklyn, there seemed to be a traffic jam, and people running around in the street. It was actually the Occupy folks, directing traffic and occupying the parking lane and a bit more so that people with cars could drop off and pick up. We dropped off most of what we had, though they were no longer accepting clothing donations. As soon as our trunk was empty, it was filled up again with boxes of food items, bound for wherever we would take them.
I went to get directions to a drop-off location, and a dispatcher not much older than my students gave me a printed sheet with instructions for volunteers, a location in Staten Island, info for a contact person, and an extra passenger/volunteer to take along. That was Shan, a twenty-something grad student/professor type from Manhattan who had been volunteering with Occupy variously all week, though mostly at the distribution centers. He had not been out to the disaster areas yet, but he described to me some of the hidden side of the Occupy Sandy effort: the shifting needs of the effort, the struggle to keep the volunteers organized and fed, the piles of cardboard boxes that stacked up at the end of each day along with the general trash that accumulates around any large group of people, and the concern that the church eventually be left as it was found.
We hopped in the car and took off for the Verrazano-Narrows bridge, one of the few bridged to Staten Island that costs a mind-boggling $13 to cross. Given how well connected SI is with the rest of NYC, this amounts to a tax on those who don’t have the ability to cough up $2400 a month for rent in Brooklyn (or $3400 in Manhattan). As we approached the toll booth, Shan suggested we try to talk our way out of it. The toll collector eyed us suspiciously and asked for our FEMA documents. We handed him the paper from the Occupy dispatcher; he took down our license plate and sent us on our way. It reminded me of episodes I’ve read about from various revolutions or even the Minneapolis General Strike in 1934, where strike committees and revolutionary organizations made their own documents to legitimize peoples’ movements and activities. Mary is still convinced we’re going to get a ticket from the NYC Tunnel and Bridge Authority.
We got to the location on Father Capodanno Boulevard, a field next to an under-construction indoor athletic complex. We met Joe, one of the organizers of the relief effort at that location. Resembling a Tejano rancher complete with hat and boots, Joe told us that they had seen neither FEMA nor Red Cross. We are used to taking care of ourselves, Joe said, because we’re used to being ignored by the City. He told us how the electric company came through people’s houses, tore out damaged electrical meters, and then told the people they’d have to pay $500 to have a new meter installed. He complained about how he had too much clothing, and would have to get it distributed or put away before the next big rainfall on Tuesday. But what people really needed were cleaning supplies. And what he needed was…more cardboard boxes. While we were standing there, a whole congregation from a Seventh Day Adventist church in the Bronx came with van-loads of hot meals for anyone who needed them. Joe thanked them, but directed them to go out into the community and knock on doors, as he had no way of knowing where they were needed.
After dropping of our food donations with Joe, we took cleaning supplies and toiletries into the neighborhood surrounding Sand Lane. I don’t think we saw the worst of the devastation, not by a long shot. But what we saw was still quite shocking, and stunningly still disorganized for being two weeks after the storm. Along the Boulevard, which runs along the shore, condos and houses were devastated, with yellow “restricted access” signs posted on almost every one—they had been deemed structurally unsound. Cops wearing respiration masks directed traffic in areas that clearly had not seen their electricity restored. (They were the only government presence we saw.) Further inland were condos (without basements) that had green signs deeming them “safe”, though the inspections were external only—no telling what toxic substances or mold infestations might be on the inside.
We drove down one street where people needed bleach and brushes and gloves and masks—and all those products were snapped up quickly. But no one in the neighborhood needed the food we had, nor the toiletries—they just needed to clean out their flooded basements. They would not take what they didn’t need. They had their electricity, but not gas—no heat or hot water. And their street went up a hill—on that end of the street, life seemed completely normal.
We drove around a bit more and found the Worship and Praise Community Church, where we dropped off our extra supplies. But then they asked us to take blankets, and distribute them to their network of supply tables set up around the community. We found the tables, dropped off the blankets, and got a sense of the landscape in this small section of Staten Island, in the shadow of the bridge. In one particularly hard-hit area, cars that had been flooded still sat, with debris lodged in strange places, and big drops of condensation on the inside of the windows. I should mention that in these areas, the ground was strewn with debris—plaster, wooden splinters, mud, random litter, broken glass. But just a few blocks away, with a few feet of elevation above the water, everything seemed normal.
We had been told by Occupy folks to leave Staten Island by 4:45, so with the afternoon wearing on and no clear direction except “go find people who need help—good luck!”, we drove back to Brooklyn. On Atlantic Avenue, where life continued as it had been long before the storm, and with no noticeable side effects, we met our friend Donna for dinner. She’s an English professor at Kingsborough Community College, in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, which was particularly hard hit. She described how big parts of houses—entire decks and walls—had washed up on the stone jetties that separate KCC from the water. The wreckage was certainly from Breezy Point, a narrow strip of land even further out from Coney Island, where essentially everything was destroyed. KCC itself was being used as a triage and warming center, as it was one of the only places in the area with heat and electricity. She said her attendance during the first week back was down, but her students needed somewhere to go. She said they expect 40% of KCC students to withdraw for the semester. Many of them had lost everything. Donna didn’t think that there was a particular conspiracy afoot to kick tenants out of public housing, demolish the buildings, and build luxury condos in their place. Rather, it was simply that the people who were never a priority in normal times were still not a priority in emergencies. All a matter of course in the First City of Haves and Have-Nots.
I want to draw out a few lessons, because they’ve been on my mind. And they grow out of that sense that our society is headed toward greater cataclysms, unless popular movements from below can force a change in direction. The themes: Greed, Religion, Decay, Organization.
Greed: I hate the “humans are naturally greedy” argument. And that argument is so completely refuted by the conditions of disasters and relief efforts. How to explain that Occupy was overwhelmed with clothing donations? How to explain that the people in the disaster areas took only what they needed? We wanted to stand there and shout: “Hey People! We Got Stuff! Come indulge your Natural Human Greed!” But to no avail. The flip side of this, of course, is that the lights never went off at Goldman Sachs.
Religion: In our disorganized neoliberal society, the best organizations tend to be the churches. It was a church that donated space to Occupy Sandy Relief. It was a church—a community church, a new denomination I’ve seen more of lately—that was coordinating relief in the Sand Lane area of Staten Island. I think it’s even more striking when you factor in the question of race—the Seventh Day Adventists from the Bronx were all Black, and ready to help anyone who needed it. Religious ideas—and even organizations—can be a contradictory thing. At times, religious ideas can drive people to take action in ways that challenge the system, or that bring people face-to-face with the contradictions of the system. I’m no believer, but I despise those smarter-than-thou atheists who disdain religious people. Yes, religion and religious organizations have often been manipulated by the wealthy for reactionary purposes, from indoctrination of poor people against their own interests straight through to direct interference in politics. We do ourselves a big disservice if we associate or confuse religious folks, especially congregations of color, with the Christian Right. In places like New York City, the Iglesia Evangélica de Dios will have an important part to play in the Revolution.
Decay: Leon Trotsky wrote a century ago “combined and uneven development”, the notion that capitalism did not develop uniformly, but quite the opposite. Thus, Russia in the 1900s was a country with an 80% peasant population that was also home to the largest armaments factory in the world. Under the conditions of late neoliberal “free market” capitalism, this same dynamic manifests as “combined and uneven decay”. So while much of New York is just fine and back to business as usual, on the margins there are people who have lost much or everything, who are condemned to immediate and complete immiseration. You can drive through areas that look perfectly normal, and suddenly you’re surrounded by debris and condemned houses. And the city is doing little to nothing about it. If anything, the way that capitalism has developed in the last period has actually laid the basis for this catastrophe. Just look at the electrical question: while most of New York City gets its power from Consolidated Edison, Staten Island is powered by National Grid (which powers Rhode Island), while the Rockaways are still waiting for the lights to be turned back on by Long Island Power.
Organization: The folks at Occupy Sandy Relief have to be applauded for their efforts to provide relief. Say what you will about Occupy Wall Street, but had it not been for OWS, there would have been no model for Occupy Sandy. Each struggle, with its limitations and contradictions, is taking us down the path of greater organization of working people from below. That process has to extended, deepened, and politicized—starting with the demand that government, the city, and Mayor Billionaire himself take real action to relieve the suffering.
This is the next conundrum: Occupy Sandy is limited in numerous ways that expose, or should expose, just how delinquent our governmental institutions are in this situation. The supply effort is chaotic: people donate all types of things willy-nilly, the Occupy folks organize it and send out what’s needed, but then other things aren’t needed and pile up. And someone has to deal with the stuff that piles up. Meanwhile, new needs arise—and it takes some time to assess what those needs are. And there’s no central body that collects all the information, that assesses the needs quickly and responds as necessary. It takes an institution at the governmental level to do this type of work.
But those institutions have been neoliberalized to the point of complete ineffectiveness. What people in Sand Lane needed was not food or clothes, but cleaning supplies and electrical power provided not by crooks who tear out their meter and demand money they don’t have to put it back. Moreover, what they need is a clean-up effort of the whole area that removes the debris, that goes house by house to remove toxic materials and prevent mold infestation. What they need is human labor power, expended to satisfy human needs. Instead, they have FEMA and the Red Cross—if they show up.
Let’s assume they do show up; what do they do? Donna said that she knew people in Queens who were making requests to FEMA and getting money right away. Bravo! But then the money must be expended on human labor (which is expended for the profit of the boss), and it may or may not be sufficient. How do individuals pay for their neighborhood to be cleaned up? The corollary is: do FEMA and the Red Cross have armies of workers, waiting to be rapidly deployed? I highly doubt it—and in fact, there’s evidence that they recruit after the fact from populations that have been set up for the sake of easy exploitation under the guise of “volunteering”. Of course, if you want a reserve army of volunteer labor, there’s the National Guard—but under neoliberalism, they’ve been mobilized to Iraq and Afghanistan numerous times, trained to occupy foreign areas, “keep the peace” and “stop the looters”. They are completely unsuitable for actually helping people. In sum: this is a system that is incapable of actually providing aid on the governmental, societal level. When you consider the scale of environmental crises that await us in the era of global warming, this is an absolutely horrifying realization.
It begs the question of a different human society. Another world is possible, but more immediately, another world is immediately necessary for a growing portion of the world’s population at the bottom. Sandy may not have been Katrina; the destruction of New York may not be comparable to any number of catastrophes that have happened in the developing world. But the fact that people are left to rot in the richest city in the world is an indication of a rotten system. What is needed is an organized alternative, and Occupy is an important start. But the organization has to raise demands on those with the wealth, and fundamentally, the demand that they cease to be those with the wealth. This is a political question, and it requires political organization to answer it. Within the popular movements that are rising up, we need a political organization that understands the trajectory of decaying capitalism, that is connected to all sectors of the popular struggle and of the society at large, that can collectively map out an escape from the impending ecological and social collapse we face. We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old, but only if we have a plan and a political organization. The building of that organization is What To Do Now.