Two weeks ago I was in my hometown of Hoboken, New Jersey, wading waist deep in a murky combination of floodwater, oil and sewage. More than a week later, after finally getting unstuck from New Jersey (even the deepest Jersey pride has its limits…), I found myself in a van full of Occupy Sandy activists delivering hot meals to housing-project high rises in Coney Island during a Nor’easter. We were taking cues from local leaders, and I was amazed at the way people were mobilizing by creating support structures and politicizing one another through practice. In the past few days I’ve helped facilitate trainings for hundreds of people who came to Occupy Sandy hubs as volunteers for relief work, and who left for the Rockaways or Staten Island well on their way to becoming community organizers or committed activists.
All along, I’ve been coming to terms with the fact that this is what climate change looks like; but it’s also what the beginning of a climate justice movement might look like.
Hurricane Sandy is a crisis in itself; it flooded homes, turned off power, kept people from work, made families cold — it even took lives and put families on the street. And of course it’s more complicated than just bad weather. This hurricane is one more expression of the erratic weather patterns that we can expect more and more as a result of global warming, which is the product of our society’s dependency on fossil fuels, driven by multinational fossil fuel companies. Hurricane Sandy is a reminder that the climate crisis sets off a whole set of other crises, based on social, economic and political systems that are already in place, and that those things land on top of crises already in play. Many of the communities hardest hit by the hurricane are the same ones hardest hit by foreclosure, debt, austerity and mass incarceration. The flood didn’t create those things, but it made them worse and washed away all the crap that made them hard to see.
At the same time, Hurricane Sandy has brought new networks to life and put thousands of people in the streets to rebuild communities with an explicitly political framing. It’s now widely agreed that, despite setbacks, Occupy Sandy’s organizing has put the official agencies to shame. Equity, solidarity and mass participation have been at the center of the effort from the get-go, driven forward by committed organizers with deep politics and foresight. All along the intention has been to see this as an organizing project rather than just a volunteer effort. Still, the question remains of whether those networks in motion now can rise to the occasion and begin to address the underlying crises.
Windows opening and closing
If we let things go the way they usually do, the coming weeks are likely to show a decline in community involvement in the relief effort. More and more people will gradually get their power turned on and go back to work if they still have jobs. Less attention will be paid to the crisis in general, fewer goods will be donated to Occupy Sandy hubs and other relief networks, and fewer volunteers will continue to go out to hard-hit communities to deliver those goods. Communities will do what they can with the rubble; most of the rest of us will go back to our business.
But volunteers and community organizers are not the only ones on the scene, not the only ones in motion. Already, an army of disaster-capitalist developers are plotting to use this opportunity to finally knock down the housing projects and replace them with the condos they’ve been drooling about for decades. We can begin to hear the whispers of businessmen and politicians who are always looking for ways to cut our budgets and privatize our schools, hospitals, homes for the elderly and every other public institution they can get their hands on. For them, the game has just begun, and they don’t take many days off. They will be out there, trying to beat us to the Rockaways, Staten Island, Redhook, Coney Island, Jersey City and other battered regions. If we don’t do something about it, they’re going to do a lot more damage to communities than Hurricane Sandy did. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Flexible networks like Occupy Sandy are incredible machines — more fluid than big organizations, more dynamic than government agencies. But they rely on having people or strong communities to network. Networks connect dots, but you still need the dots themselves to be ready. Crises and opportunities — like Hurricane Sandy or Occupy Wall Street last fall — put people in motion, but they only become part of a movement beyond those moments when participants are grounded in stable frameworks to keep them going.
We have to build infrastructure and create the institutional frameworks that can sustain a struggle over the long haul. Every movement needs them. The civil rights movement had SNCC and the Highlander School, among countless other organizations, schools, training institutes, churches and foundations. Even Occupy has had institutions all along, from the occupations themselves to the many groups that rose to the occasion to support it; part of the reason Occupy Sandy could mobilize so quickly and effectively is that the Occupy movement already had enough building blocks in place, enough experience with alternative structures, enough relationships built and enough organizing being done behind the scenes to leap into action when it was needed.
If we want to last, we need to create the frameworks, processes and systems that keep us in motion — that keep the windows open — for long enough to win.
Where the rain boots meet the road
We need to think clearly about how to deepen, grow and nourish all of the different circles of people in action right now, so we can transition from surviving Hurricane Sandy to beating back the hurricane of profiteers to come, and use the momentum from that to build a vibrant climate justice movement.
Thousands of volunteers have come through Occupy Sandy hubs and gone out to the hardest-hit areas in New York to do relief work and support the community organizing taking shape there. Watching people react strongly in the trainings being facilitated at the different sites and watching them come back to become trainers themselves has been some of the most rewarding activist work I’ve ever participated in.
In my experience, people who come to Occupy Sandy get it. They want to understand the politics behind all of this because they’ve seen the crisis in action. They are ready to stand and fight, and they are excited to envision their task as part of something bigger. We just need to create structures to support that.
Political education needs to be part of our practical skills trainings, and that skills training needs to be broader than the particular mission at hand, so that well-meaning volunteers become grounded organizers with the capacity to be active movement leaders beyond this particular moment.
Hundreds of organizers are at work in this effort already. They’re developing rotations so that some stay at the main hubs to keep a level of consistency and institutional memory while others spend a few days at a time at different sites in the field to help build similar systems and create connections. We need more of that — more coordinating between different hubs, more unifying the different trainings and processes, more strategizing together about directions for moving forward. Before we know it, the communities slowly recovering from Hurricane Sandy will be under direct attack. We need to lay the ground for solidarity across communities and coordination in action, so that when the time comes our volunteers and community members are ready to transform into home defenders, direct action practitioners and occupiers.
Dozens of local community institutions, from churches to community centers, have opened their doors and become the vital infrastructure for this network of relief and recovery all across New York City. Just setting foot in one of the Coney Island hubs based in a church was enough to feel the weight of that institution, its deep roots in the community and the potential it has to make possible a movement to come. Now is the time to be intentional about cultivating these relationships, and to begin developing with them a shared analysis, vision and strategy. Just as the Southern Baptist churches served as the institutional foundations of the civil rights movements, these institutions serving as support systems for relief work today may be the basis of resistance tomorrow and a genuine recovery after that.
Tens of thousands of people have been drastically affected by the storm, and they are responding with courage and foresight; many are emerging as genuine community leaders and skilled activists. I was reminded of this by Tameka — a 39-year old mom in Coney Island who had organized her block. She knew who lived where and who needed what. She knew where to put the hot meals and had all the relationships necessary to make our distribution effort work. Tameka is a community organizer, whether she uses that term or not. What she needs now are direct ties to other people like her in neighboring communities, some support in developing her politics and her skills, and some material aid to help her meet her needs and those in her community. The stakes are high for her; it won’t be long before she will be a leader of a front-line community in a climate justice movement.
Hurricanes and social movements
Welcome to the climate crisis. There’s nothing abstract about it. It isn’t some apocalypse decades away or an event that comes down like one big hurricane to wipe us all out. It’s Hurricane Sandy. It’s all the economic, political and social conditions that were already in place. And it’s the opportunity for forces of profit and repression to push their agenda forward in the aftermath.
But guess what: The climate justice movement isn’t so abstract either. This is it. It’s dedicated organizers recognizing how their work can be aligned across issues. It’s relief providers and hard-working volunteers transforming into activists and community leaders. It’s the hardest hit neighborhoods taking control of their own liberation. It’s local community institutions with deep roots and long histories connecting to one another and mobilizing their efforts as part of a movement. It’s all of that alongside so many other fights for climate justice — from the blockade of the Keystone XL pipeline to the fight for water rights in Bolivia, from Indian women standing up to corporate seed monopolies to youth from 350.org launching campaigns to divest from fossil fuel companies.
There is much work to do. But people are doing it — day by day, block by block. Windows of opportunity have opened here in New York, just as they have in other places around the world. Many people are working to keep those windows open and continue the transformation that is already underway — from volunteer work to organizing, from emergency response to a genuine recovery, from relief to resistance.