Credit: NYStudentsRising.org
“To Nurture, and Let Die”: Race, Class and Relief Efforts Post-Sandy – and What You Can Do To Help!

In 2006, I was one of thousands of volunteers who traveled from across the United States to “help” rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I was fourteen and went down south from New York City with a group of students and teachers from my high school. We worked with an organization called the People’s Organizing Committee (POC). Similar to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (no doubt because of the influence of founder Curtis Muhammad who organized with SNCC in the 1960s), POC taught volunteers about the principles of consensus, bottom-up organizing and specifically, black leadership. As a white girl, that meant stepping back while my classmates of color took a more integral leadership role in the organizing with local residents. These were my first experiences with racial justice organizing, they were the most formative for me, probably because it was the first time that I saw people of my generation as agents of change, really fighting against injustice on the ground.

Upon my return to New York City, after being told by organizers of POC (not unlike what Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizers told the Students for Democratic Society after the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project) to go back to my community and organize against racism in my own city–my friends and I started to do just that. Today, I see the same kind of government negligence in the face of a natural disaster as I did in 2006. It is because of lack of adequate infrastructure and equitable planning, because of where poor, people of color are geographically relegated to around the city that we see the kinds of “hideous inequalities” bubbling to the surface. This is really a man-made disaster.

As many know, there are communities who still have little to no power and/or access to running water across New York city. We have been hearing significantly more from major media sources about the affects of Hurricane Sandy in New York City than we did about Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005–this may be due to the fact that New York is the financial and media capitol of the country. We have already heard about wealthy communities who have lost power and it seems that their plight is sort of at the center of the New York Times coverage–now it is time to really change the discourse.

“The lightning response to Hurricane Sandy is one of our movement’s most meaningful expressions yet. What first emerged in Zuccotti Park a year ago has now blossomed into direct community aid and empowerment in at least a dozen areas around NYC,” posted Conor Tomas Reed, an adjunct instructor at Baruch College and a student at the CUNY Graduate Center who was been heavily involved in the Red Hook Initiative and Occupy Sandy relief efforts. “Food, water, medicine, shelter, politics, vision, scale—recovery efforts have met basic needs and posed radical alternatives in a dialogue now reaching thousands of people daily.” In the midst of on the ground mobilization of communities in response to sustained Hurricane damage, we still haven’t heard from the New York Times or other major media sources about who are the disproportionately affected by the storm. If this hasn’t taught us anything, it is really that Sandy has uncovered yet another “Tale of Two Cities.”

This may seem obvious to some readers, but since the major media has been so neglectful, it seems to make sense to set the record straight. The majority of districts that are the most affected by Hurricane Sandy via power outages, no running water and lack of access to food are the same that are affected by broad, systemic patterns racial and economic injustice. Historically, most of the neighborhoods are the very same that experienced white flight during the mid-20th century while simultaneously being disenfranchised via redlining by banks and real estate agencies–a legacy that still greatly affects residents of these areas access to a long list of things other parts of the city take for granted: public parks and healthy, affordable food. Redlining succeeded in shutting off all opportunities for loans and other forms of economic investment in poor, minorities neighborhoods (in the instance of areas such as the South Bronx, Red Hook and East New York in Brooklyn).

The residents of these neighborhoods are the ones who still do not have power, who have not been featured in major news outlets cannot necessarily afford to take off from work, as stated in the Reuters article Hurricane Inequality: “Those with a car could flee. Those with wealth could move into a hotel. Those with steady jobs could decline to come into work. But the city’s cooks, doormen, maintenance men, taxi drivers and maids left their loved ones at home.”

For those working class folks who have been forced to take off work because they physically cannot leaves their homes or neighborhoods due to an utter lack of MTA service for days, they face even more challenges. [Working class people] “are losing money daily though rents are due today. And those who live here but work elsewhere can’t get there. It’s the end of the month and people can’t get their paychecks or if they are on government assistance and get their cards re-charged,” says one resident of Chelsea in lower Manhattan, “no one is taking cards and there are lots of poor people with no access to money – to cash. So, even if they are able to walk north to find stores open they can’t shop. it really is neoliberalism at it crudest – if you got [money], you can fend for yourself. if you don’t, f*** you – no one cares…” The city’s mass income inequality is indeed the root cause of disproportinate attention given to certain neighborhoods but still we find very few news outlets using basic critical thinking skills to understand why (save for this one by the Washington Post that was posted 7 hours ago).

Red Hook, Brooklyn, which as recent as yesterday was cited as an “up and coming New York City neighborhood” by TIME magazine, according to Census Data 2010, has experienced a drastic increase in wealthier, white residents moving into the neighborhood over the last ten years–proving the article in question totally insensitive to this microcosm of institutionalization racism, the neighborhood is still predominantly Black and Latino. According to Reed, who has been engaged in on the ground relief work and community organizing with the Red Hook Initiative for the last week, 50% of Red Hook residents are still is living without electricity. Many of the residents are elderly and people with disabilities who are trapped in their apartments in large housing projects because they are unable climb up and down the stairs. These anecdotes are just the tip of the iceberg of what New Yorkers are experiencing as nowhere below 39th street in Manhattan has power, waterfront communities like Far Rockaway and Coney Island are utterly devastated, parts of Queens have suffered horrific damage from fires, and the MTA has yet to announce when they are resuming full train service for the city’s residents (when they do announce service returning to usual schedule you can thank working class, mostly Black and Latino MTA workers for their hard work according to Colorlines.com’s newest post on Sandy). In the meantime, we’ve heard nothing about what city officials are doing to assist residents of Staten Island who are virtually stranded.

Communities of color and the poorest areas of the country are overwhelmingly more likely to be food deserts, meaning they have the low of access to grocery stores resulting in the highest rates of hunger, obesity and diabetes. So, why does the USDA food desert locator indicate that New York City isn’t host to any food deserts? These statistics are ubiquitous if you are asking the right questions: how does public transportation play a role? Do these grocery stores provide healthy, nutritious food? If so, is the food affordable for the community residents? Among many other forms of systemic marginalization, working class, communities of color especially like those in Central Brooklyn (ie. Jackson Heights, Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights, Flatbush) are the most heavily policed thanks to the NYPD’s Stop and Frisk policy that disproportionately targets people of color, and transgender people as alleged perpetrators of crime across the city.

Yesterday, according to social media users using “#Sandy”, Homeland Security personnel in military gear, bulletproof vests and holding long rifles pulled over three young black men in the middle of blacked-out Far Rockaway as they walked down the street for a glorified Stop and Frisk justified as crackdown on looting (an extremely racialized term). Meanwhile, the streets are full of people in desperate need for help, food, water, electricity, support and other resources.

“We must consider the Hurricane response with a wider lens – it’s time to create a city campaign with students, workers, and the unemployed to propel temporary aid into sustained action” says Reed as he poses a series of questions that are integral to our city moving forward in relief efforts, “What are our goals a month from now, a year? What is our plan for the next crisis? How can we make upcoming events and actions massive? How can we beat back the March 2013 MTA fare hikes? ‘Another world is possible’ is not just a slogan, but a task to immediately grasp.”

A final question to those looking to widen their perspective of the effects of Hurricane Sandy, while in swing states, conversations about voter suppression targeting communities of color, students, and the elderly–there is no one bringing attention to the ways that these compounded forms of marginalization will affect the popular vote for the Presidential and the local elections coming up in the next four days. While absentee ballot deadlines have been postponed, to be received and counted from 7 days after Election Day to 13 days after Election Day, it has been stated that pushing back the Presidential elections to accommodate the affected states would be deemed “unconstitutional”. The Associated Press published an interview with President Obama where they directly asked him about the possibility of changing the date of the election: “Congress could act within the next week to change the date, but that would be tough because lawmakers are on recess and back home in their districts campaigning for re-election”, said Obama. “Plus, it’s likely that would mean changing the date for the entire country, not just those affected by the storm. What’s more, Congress only selects the date for federal races, so changing the date would wreak havoc for state and local elections also scheduled for November”. The point is not necessarily who will win the election–though this does play a significant role–but who may not be able to vote this week because of all the physical hindrances to getting to the polls. Sound like voter suppression? What walks like duck and quacks like a duck…

There are many upcoming efforts that people can plug into in the coming weeks that will make a world of a difference in ensuring that our city does not follow in the trajectory of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (whose clean-up efforts and battles against systemic inequity are far from over).

The March of the Unemployed whose facebook event page highlights that “regardless of the results of the Presidential elections, New York City Unemployment rate holds steady at 10%, When you factor in discouraged job-seekers along with the underemployed, one in seven New Yorkers, or 1.4 million people, are out of work”. This march will be held at the Barclays Center in Downtown Brooklyn on November 7th at 5pm, the day after Election Day. This event can be used to continue to show that underemployed labor, the jobless and students who will soon join the ranks of the unemployed are in solidarity in times of crisis.

Students across New York City are engaged in discussions about what it would take to build a New York City wide Student Union and are holding an event on November 10th at 2pm at the Youth Activists-Youth Allies office space in Manhattan. Students of Chile were able to use the natural disaster of the Earthquake to mobilize thousands of students–New York City students have the same opportunity in the face of Sandy relief efforts.

Finally, November 14-21, the International Student Movement, an online network of students across the globe are holding a week of action calling for “a global education strike”. This platform may also make way for various forms of mobilization while drawing analytical ties from educational inequity in primary schools and higher education across the city to divestment from fossil fuels to climate change as the root cause of extreme weather conditions like Hurricane Sandy.

For those who still want to do more, Red Hook Initiative and other organizations are still doing the necessarily on the ground work in communities across New York City around Hurricane Sandy relief efforts that need volunteers and aid. For more information please visit: http://interoccupy.net/occupysandy/

This article was originally published on NYStudentsRising.org.