The Limits of Local

 

When Sandy’s waters finally receded, they left behind the devastation of lost lives and a mountain of debris. And they also exposed how a system of historic inequity perpetuates itself in real life, real time and real suffering. A network of people from all walks of life who identified as members of Occupy Wall Street came together quickly and organically to intervene.

Organizers set out to practice the anarchist principle of mutual aid on the ground. By bringing the best of Zuccotti Park to people that mostly had no interest in an anti-capitalist movement, and in some cases even associated themselves with the Tea Party, activists thought disaster aid would naturally become political. The slogan quickly became “solidarity not charity.”

In the urgency of the immediate aftermath of the storm, solidarity in practice meant providing hot food, warm blankets and clothing, and attempting to assist the newly homeless with places to stay and abstruse FEMA paperwork.

Fundraising websites went live, and within a few days Occupy Sandy had raised nearly a million dollars. The Occupy network quickly dispersed to three main areas: Red Hook in Brooklyn, the Rockaways in Queens and Midland Beach in Staten Island. Each area faced similar geographic challenges as shoreline communities, but each had distinct – yet equally rocky – economic terrain.

Of course, the storm before Sandy was the so-called Great Recession. Many in the hardest hit areas were already reeling from the new economic realities of long-term joblessness, declining property values and reduced consumer spending. But, for many in these communities these realities had nothing to do with a recession or storm – poverty and oppression were already written on their daily lives. Thus, for some the storm exposed precariousness, but for others the storm held the potential to expose the injustice of long term national policies that led to the unjust enrichment of some and the impoverishment of others.

In this context the line between solidarity and charity was immediately blurred. Since it was unclear what solidarity looked like before the storm, it was even less clear what it looked like after.

In Red Hook, a gentrifying area where a strip of burgeoning small businesses grew with New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) buildings in the background, activists immediately attempted to organize survivors living in the housing project. With nearly 2900 units, Red Hook Houses is the largest public housing complex in New York City. Occupiers wanted money to go to the residents who not only suffered losses in the storm, but who had already suffered the misfortune of being relegated to permanent poverty well before mother nature hit. Activists worked with community based organizations to help residents organize a protest demanding a two-month moratorium on rent.

But small business owners were also organized. They felt funds donated through Occupy Sandy were directed to them; from their perspective no one would have heard of Red Hook had they not taken the risk to start unique businesses there on shoestring budgets. They had already been hit hard by the recession and simply needed money to survive. This created a riff between the interests of the NYCHA residents, the small business owner coalition, and the Occupy Sandy activists who had placed themselves in the middle, hoping to disrupt the status quo and turn the disaster into something political. The conflict ended with Occupy Sandy organizers being pushed aside.

In the Rockaways FEMA quickly started work repairing the beachfront in the predominantly white area west of the 116th Street dividing line. While the residents of the NYCHA projects were left to suffer for weeks with no heat or water, federal resources were sent to Breezy Point, the site devastated by the fire that burned 130 houses to the ground. But, before the storm, Breezy Point was known as the whitest area in all of New York City, a gated community where residents once fought the city for ownership of a natural landfill extension and won. For Occupy Sandy the choice of where to bring the resources was obvious, but there were still questions around how the process could be truly democratic.

Midland Beach didn’t have projects. Yet, even as one of the most ethnically diverse areas of New York City, housing is distributed along ethnic divides that hold some as the real community members and others as outsiders. The area had the highest number of casualties of any of the devastated areas, largely because of the boy-who-cried-wolf effect of previous evacuation warnings.

Occupy Sandy SI opened the Free Store in a church. Survivors could make requests to be entered in a gift registry, and they could take whatever supplies they needed using the honor code. But eventually what people needed most was to rebuild or figure out how move on. And Occupy Sandy couldn’t provide the amount of dry wall, skilled labor or comforting needed. By mid-December corporations had gained access to the organizing hub to stage a celebrity give away of logo items. Two thousand coats and sneakers for kids is a lot at holiday time. But, was it mutual aid? Or was it charity? Who gets to decide? Where does compassion end and politics begin?

Although the struggles in each area had significant differences, in each area the issue for organizers quickly became how to build democracy from the ground up on a foundation of injustice and inequity. In each area Occupy Sandy activists struggled against local tensions and underlying schisms of class and race; they sorted through the bureaucratic power of FEMA and the Red Cross; they created their own media to challenge the mainstream – and they did all this while tending to the enormous needs of those impacted by the storm.

It became obvious that the solidarities that already existed in the impacted communities were difficult to break. Rather, the struggle for resources prevailed and the naturalized lines of race and class were rarely crossed. Solidarity didn’t mean a political movement; it just meant a political way of distributing resources. This struggle over solidarity was not only manifest in Sandy-impacted communities, but also manifested in the behind the scenes organizing as tensions over priorities and blind spots.

Today, there are relatively few Occupy Sandy organizers still working. But the roots of the problem are visible in the broad community-level disparities that Sandy exposed. If there is one lesson to learn it is that the local is limited. The long history of race-based housing policy that has led to class based economic opportunity – and the cultures of solidarity created in these material circumstances of everyday life – simply cannot be addressed by localized organizing alone.

The current politics has developed the communities we live in now; communities built on localized forms of solidarity split by race, ethnicity and class. Unless local organizing can build coalitions of those formerly divided, there’s not much hope of structural change. New solidarities happen when people find themselves in common in unexpected ways.

Bold demands could offer the possibility of building the kinds of solidarity that cross the old lines that limit our power and set us against one another in the struggle for resources. The most radical demand would be for a reparative restructuring of society that corrects the lines that are currently drawn and distributes resources in new ways – in other words a demand to fundamentally alter what is local.

 

Pam Brown is a PhD student in Sociology at The New School for Social Research, where she was a recipient of a University Fellowship.  She holds a Master of Arts in Media Studies from The New School, as well as a Master of Arts in Sociology from The New School for Social Research.  Pam’s research focuses on narrative, media and memory.  Her dissertation in progress analyzes conflict over the representation of slavery in different media within the discourse of American capitalist development.

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