Out in the Rockaways and on Staten Island, where weeks after Hurricane Sandy some New Yorkers are still living without electricity, the environmentalist group Time's Up has hooked up with the Occupy Sandy relief effort to provide bicycle-powered generators to the hardest hit areas. This is, literally, power to the people, by the people.
It is axiomatic that disasters like Sandy exacerbate existing inequities, but in a city already struggling with third-world-level disparities -- the city's top one percent of households make as much in a day as the bottom 10 percent make in a year -- the devastation and desperation caused the by the lethal combination of natural disaster, social inequality and government neglect has been staggering. Sandy has laid bare just how unequal New York City is.
While poor New Yorkers faced a coming hurricane, rich New Yorkers got ready for a hurrication. A Barneys pre-Sandy sale, reported by Naomi Klein, "offered deals on Sencha green tea, backgammon sets and $500 throw blankets." Meanwhile, Mayor Bloomberg ordered the power, hot water, heat and elevators shut off in the city's public housing buildings. New Yorkers with resources headed to friends' or relatives' homes when the power went out, an experience, the New York Times reported, that for some turned out to be " as sweetly connective as Facebook -- or better, because it came with a piece of rugelach." The less fortunate headed to city shelters, where there was no green tea or rugelach, only self-heating emergency meals.
For the 12,000 men, women and children on Riker's Island, there was no plan at all to get out of harm's way. Asked about evacuation plans for Riker's at a press conference, Mayor Bloomberg replied, "jails are secure...don't worry about anyone getting out."
Inmates at Riker's weren't the only ones who couldn't go anywhere. In the city's housing projects those that were too ill or too old or too scared to evacuate simply stayed. Trapped in high rises without electricity, water, heat, medications or adequate food, their plight became a full-blown humanitarian crisis, one severe enough that for the first time in its 40-year history Doctors without Borders has set up a relief operation on U.S. soil, out in the Rockaways.
In Coney Island, there were seniors forced to use buckets instead of toilets and then carrying them down dark stairwells often contaminated with human waste as well. Elsewhere the Times marveled at the "ingenuity" of a Greenwich Village resident who flushed the toilet with white Zinfandel when the water ran out ("an easy decision... Never would have let the cabernet go down").
But cluelessness from the one percent is not the main problem for those whose homes or livelihoods have been wrecked, though the mainstream media's gravitation towards stories like this one reflects public and private elites' priorities. It's those priorities that are the real threat. Just as the city's preparations for the storm valued some New Yorkers over others (those outside the jails rather than those inside, for instance), so, too, did the city's immediate response after the hurricane tend to the needs of upper- and middle-class New Yorkers and above all the interests of business, at the expense of the city's most vulnerable residents.
Workers scrambled to restore power in lower Manhattan, while communities out in the devastated shoreline neighborhoods continued to languish without electricity. So, too, did those in public housing throughout the city. The MTA performed what was hailed as a near miracle in restoring downtown subway service in a matter of days. The challenge of restoring service to Coney Island and the Rockaways, where people were cut off from grocery stores and pharmacies as well as power, water and heat, was met with less fervor. Occupy Sandy, Doctors Without Borders and other volunteers were going door to door in NYCHA buildings to assess and meet the needs of residents long before any NYCHA employees showed up.
These same skewed priorities will continue as the recovery process shifts from immediate relief work to rebuilding. We can expect big business, not the mom-and-pop stores that were destroyed by the storm, to be favored. Private homes, not public housing, to be prioritized. Market solutions rather than government aid, to be extolled. Above all, we can expect the one percent to use the urgent human need created by the storm as an excuse to privatize and deregulate anything they can.
We know it's coming -- because we've seen it before. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, top-down government policies remade New Orleans into a whiter, wealthier city, along the way pushing out more than 100,000 people, bulldozing thousands of public housing units, turning public schools into charter schools and suspending prevailing wage laws in the construction industry. Already in New York there are calls to suspend prevailing wage laws here and suggestions to create "free-trade zones" in disaster-affected areas, where regulations, licensing and taxes would be suspended.
But while the invisible hand of the market is getting ready to further line the pockets of wealthy at the expense of the poor, the very visible efforts of thousands of New Yorkers who have become the engine of the relief effort may yet stop it. Scores if not hundreds of community organizations, churches, unions and particularly Occupy Sandy have come together to provide everything from hot meals, flashlights and blankets to mops, shovels and cleaning crews in areas where FEMA, the Red Cross and the city are MIA.
The Center for Constitutional Rights is among a growing number of organizations that have called for a people's recovery, but a people's recovery is actually already underway. Built on principles of mutual aid and local control, this work is providing a model for those of us who are committed to reducing inequities rather than exacerbating them as the city rebuilds. As we move forward, we must dare to imagine communities built and rebuilt based on human needs and social solidarity. We must demand better than a return to pre-Sandy inequalities and instead seize this moment of popular mobilization to create a more equitable city. Another world is possible, the slogan goes. And with the people powering the recovery, just as they are powering the bike generators, another recovery is possible, too.