Our Thoughts on Race, Class, and Sandy

Volunteering is a seemingly simple action, but fraught with real political consequences.  How can the act of giving time or material goods not be implicated with issues of power, race, class, privilege?  It can’t. When Hurricane Sandy decimated New York City and surrounding areas, New Yorkers were confronted by what it means to be living in the same city as communities with very different racial and economic backgrounds.  Red Hook, for example, though it has experienced more and more gentrification throughout the past few years, is historically marginalized and cut off (physically by the highway) from the rest of the city.  As a result, the geography of Red Hook has perpetuated problems with access and wealth inequality.  It is communities like these which were hardest hit during the storm.

The New York Times published an article by Sarah Maslin Nir titled “Helping Hands Also Expose a New York Divide” which looks at Sandy volunteer efforts though a race/ class perspective.

 …White gentrifiers who may not have thought much about the brick public housing complexes scattered around trendy neighborhoods like Red Hook, Brooklyn, suddenly found themselves inside them, trudging up pitch black stairwells to inquire about the well-being of the mostly poor black and Hispanic residents.

While our office was closed during that first week after the storm (and for the next few weeks), I volunteered in China Town and Red Hook.  I was a white person going into communities which weren’t my own to help out (not unlike what I do for work).  I went out with Red Hook Initiative, who was paired with Occupy Sandy, to deliver food, water, and materials such as flashlights and batteries to NYCHA tenants.  Is this type of volunteerism an example of New Yorkers taking care of our community? Is it motivated by solidarity or paternalism? Guilt or curiosity? And how do these motivations play out in interactions between people?

Perhaps the most important question is how do volunteers make the impacted community feel?  In the case of Sandy, there are mixed feelings.  In the same NY Times article, Sarah Maslin Nir highlights one perspective from residents in the Rockaways:

Those coming to them for relief worry that their helpers are taking some voyeuristic interest in their plight, treating it as an exotic weekend outing, “like we’re in a zoo,” said one resident of a Rockaway project — echoing a complaint often heard in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina — as volunteers snapped iPhone photos of her as she waited in line for donated food and clothing.

One way to think about crisis response is through the notion of mutual aid, that we’re all in this together rather than simply giving through charity.  Mutual aid (free exchange of ideas, goods, services in a mutually beneficial manner) stems from a more radical, political thought which is anti-capitalist and understands issues on the ground as part of problems from the larger structures.  Since Occupy took root last September, the notion of mutual aid  has been prominent.  In “It’s Mutual Aid, Stupid” published on Huffington Post, Jeffery Lawrence writes:

The distinction between charity and mutual aid was often met with the usual sneers about the idealism of Occupy Wall Street. Yet the recent efforts of Occupy Sandy have demonstrated the practical and logistical value of mutual aid. While government agencies like FEMA have struggled to mobilize their bureaucratic machinery and large charitable organizations like the Red Cross have gotten stalled in attempts to funnel money, clothes, and food from donors to victims, Occupy Sandy has been successful in large part because it offers itself as a network of and for people and communities. The relief centers set up by Occupy Sandy have prioritized meetingpeople’s needs directly rather than telling them what to do and how to get help.

We want to see more mutual aid taking place on the ground as part of relief efforts, as well as in our communities!  As tenant organizers, we believe that the more organized a community is, the more power it has, and the more control people will have over the homes, neighborhoods, and cities in which they live. Mutual Aid and Occupy can be tools in making that happen.  Our neighborhoods must continue to build leadership, enhance communication, and stand strong in order to move beyond this crisis, while remaining empowered in the future.

For more information about how to plug into Occupy Sandy efforts, click here.

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2 thoughts on “Our Thoughts on Race, Class, and Sandy

  1. I’m not in NYC right now so I don’t know how things have been going down, but from what I remember about Occupy, I’m not sure I buy that Occupy Sandy is an example of mutual aid– key word in mutual aid being… mutual. The blog post described a pretty clear power differential about what communities were hit the worst, and what communities face the greatest need. It sounds like everyone is not in it together, and not working with each other to fill each other’s needs. That’s not to say that what Occupy Sandy has mobilized isn’t amazing, but I’m not sure I see what the difference between that and any sort of volunteer organizing is except in that it is a) actually responding to people’s needs, as Jeff Lawrence wrote, and b) was actually effective in garnering wide mobilization. mobilization The organizing structure of occupy enabled widespread involvement, but who’s involved and for who is still an issue, and was an issue throughout Occupy organizing. I think being honest about power differentials and then figuring out structures to counter them as much as possible (without being too self aware such as to close off structures to participation) is more effective than calling something “mutual aid”. But maybe that did happen — was Occupy Sandy more responsive to needs because people making decisions about who would volunteer where were actually those people in need, ie was the decision making structure accountable to those it was serving?

    Naomi Klein spoke at the 92Y this week also calling Occupy Sandy an example of mutual aid and also wrote an article for The Nation not quite describing it in those terms, but close. Klein wrote, “Could this crisis present a different kind of opportunity, one that disperses power into the hands of the many rather than consolidating it the hands of the few; one that radically expands the commons, rather than auctions it off in pieces? In short, could Sandy be the beginning of a People’s Shock?… a People’s Recovery (as many from the Occupy movement are already demanding) would call for new democratic processes, including neighborhood assemblies, to decide how hard-hit communities should be rebuilt. The overriding principle must be addressing the twin crises of inequality and climate change at the same time. For starters, that means reconstruction that doesn’t just create jobs but jobs that pay a living wage. It means not just more public transit, but energy efficient affordable housing along those transit lines. It also means not just more renewable power but democratic community control over those projects.” I don’t know if the volunteer work of Occupy Sandy quite hits the mark in garnering that kind of participation. Maybe we’ll see (or are already seeing..again, not on the ground) neighborhood assemblies revitalized in response to Occupy Sandy, and hopefully this time around they’ll be porous enough and approachable enough to cultivate the participation and leadership of those most affected.

    1. Then again, maybe it is happening.

      November 27—First Post-Sandy Housing Action:
      Citywide Call from NYCHA Residents

      Contact: RedHookPeoplesPress@gmail.com, # (347) 201-3356.

      Who: Convergence of city-wide New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) residents and allies.
      When: Tuesday, November 27, 9am-11am.
      Where: 250 Broadway, Manhattan, NYC.
      (R train to City Hall, 4,5,6, J, Z, to Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall)

      Immediate demand: Cancel 2 months’ rent for both November and December (speed up and extend NYCHA’s promised rent credit for January).

      From a list of Long-term demands: Hold moratorium on evictions. Increase and ensure sufficient federal disaster relief funding to NYCHA. Replace NYCHA board with a community-led board. Employ NYCHA residents for intensive building repairs instead of outsourcing jobs. Implement long-term alternative power and weather-prepared solutions. Enact general accountability and transparency to residents.

      Next step: pressure NYCHA board meeting on December 5, 10am, same location.

      3 weeks after Sandy shut down power, heat, and running water for hundreds of thousands of NYC residents, many in public housing still struggle to regain these basic services. After a fiery Red Hook NYCHA hearing–in which residents decried the board’s lack of swift response, concern, and accountability to their severe living conditions–a community assembly made the call for NYCHA residents to gather for a rally and press conference on November 27 to demand 2 months’ rent to be canceled. They invite all NYCHA residents across NYC, as well as allies of Sandy recovery, affordable housing, and community justice, to come together.

      “No services, no rent.”
      “How are we supposed to buy food and Christmas presents? We need a rent credit for now, not January 1st.”
      “When Obama won, I didn’t hear any jubilation–because the projects were dark.”
      “If you’re talking about rebuilding anywhere in Red Hook, you need to rebuild everywhere in Red Hook.”
      “We need a guarantee that we’re not going to suffer like this again.”
      -statements from Red Hook community at Nov 19 NYCHA hearing and later community assembly

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