Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Battle of Brooklyn: Eviction Defense

Riding through Bud Stuy at Mary Lee Ward’s apartment this morning, I passed by Atlantic Yards, where 5th Avenue, its bars, and much of Ft. Green is being consumed into the super shopping big box expanding from Ratner’s unpopular project. Throughout Brooklyn, regular people of the borough are fighting off dynamics of a global urban experience, uneven development, speculative gentrification, displacement, police brutality, long seen in Manhattan. The Battle of Brooklyn is a struggle to help keep what is distinct and rich about Brooklyn, its streets, distinct neighborhoods, and people. While, it is the fourth biggest city in the United States, it has long resisted elements of the homogenization steamroller exorbing other cities – big box stores, chains, and high-rises. The people of the borough fought to preserve their brownstones. Yet, today the battle is changing. While certainly some of the renaissance taking place in Brooklyn is a good thing, growth is paradoxical. Today, the Battle of Brooklyn is a struggle against the sea of identical details, Wallmart, Stadiums, out of place buildings, and displacement of long time residents. Certainly, this was the battle August 19th, 2011 at 8 AM as I rode from Carroll Gardens to Mary Lee Ward’s apartment in Bed Stuy, where she was facing eviction from her long time apartment. Of course, the people of Bed Stuy have long endured hardships of banking. Red lining was practically born in the neighborhood, where bankers once drew lines around the map of the district and denied bank loans for those in the area. Today, many of these same people are facing the foreclosures. Yet, they were also fighting back.

Word on facebook all week was about Friday’s eviction defense action: “Stop the Eviction of Mary Lee Ward! Eviction Blockade” to take place at “Ms. Ward's Home in Bed-Stuy.” The facebook invite provided background on the scene:

Mary Lee Ward, an 82-year-old grandmother and resident of the Bed-Stuy community for 44 years faces eviction from her home due to the deceptive practices of bankers and speculators.

Predatory lenders like the now defunct Delta Funding, Inc. and real estate speculators like 768 Dean Inc. are targeting and destroying diverse communities of color like Bed-Stuy, intentionally stripping them of their equity, wealth and homes!

We, the members of Organizing for Occupation (O4O), a citywide network of concerned NYC residents active in the struggle to make housing a human right, can no longer sit back and watch the destruction of our communities!

Stand in solidarity with Ms. Ward this Friday morning, August 19, 2011!

Stop the eviction of Ms. Ward from her home!


Organizing for Occupation

Riding down Tompkins toward Ms.Ward’s home, I heard roars of the crowd, cheering after countless cars and trucks honked in solidarity, followed by more cheers in a reciprocal display of neighborhood support. “Housing is a human right, fight, fight, fight!” The crowd cheered. Members of Picture the Homeless were there, many locked inside Ms Ward’s home, ready to physically resist the marshals. Activists from neighborhood organizing, as well as global justice circles were there in support. My friend Beka, who fought the rezoning over the Brooklyn waterfront, was there. TV cameras, politicians, undercover police, participants in the Doe Fund program down the block were there. I looked up to the second floor window of Ms. Ward’s apartment and Seth Tobocman and Frank Morales watched. Tobocman is author of War in the Neighborhood, a graphic novel on squatter battles of the 1980’s and 1990’s, when residents fought displacement from the East Village. Then as now, the message was the same: housing is a human right. Black and white signs hung from Ms. Ward’s apartment: “Evict Speculators=Not Grandmothers” and “Predatory lending = Racism and kleptocracy.”

We were all waiting for the marshals to come make an attempt to take Ms Ward’s home. “Hey, my people. We have a story. Tell the whole wide world this is people territory,” people began to chant, clapping along. “Defend the block.” And that they did. More and more people filled both sides of Tompkins Street. “They are not going to come today,” I commented to a friend. “Too many camera crews.” Evictions don’t tend to take place when everyone knows about the plans, too many cameras. Those involved in such unsavory activities thrive in secrecy.

By 9 AM, people were coming in and out of the apartment, where activist film crews sat along with the activists ready to fight the eviction. And out come a lawyer, who notified the crowd that local politicians were working with the “landlord” to work out a deal so Ms Ward would not be displaced from her long time home. Everyone roared. As the morning went on, it started to look like the marshals would not come today, that the eviction blockade had worked, and Ms. Ward would remain at 320 Tompkins. Sometimes activism works. The combination of the mobilization of social networks, legal coordination, direct action, as well as neighborhood leadership all helped provide a show of strength for the neighborhood. Yet, the battle is far from over. And a rally is planned for Monday in front of the speculator’s office. More info TBA.

On my bike ride home, I ran into my friend Austin, who is fighting Walmart moving to East New York. It’ll be yet another ongoing skirmish in the long term Battle of Brooklyn.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Shut Down before Meltdown Ride

Childhood memories alternate between scenes from post-apocalyptic sci-fi movies such as The Day After, War Games, Mad Max, and A Boy and His Dog and new wave imagery of the humans creating something better with their worlds, daydreams and lingering concerns that we just might blow it. This was what growing up in the Cold War was all about. 100,000 million people saw the television movie The Day After in 1983. I recall waking from a dream a few days later, with a lingering feeling that all we had known had been destroyed, by us. It took me a few minutes to realize that the nightmare had not happened, that the sun was out and we had not really committed suicide as a people. Over the following years, I would frequently wake up with that sense of both fear and relief that while we had walked to the precipice, imagined how horrible that might look, we had not crossed that Rubicon, at least not yet. I hoped it would not be soon. The other shoe hasn’t dropped, at least, not yet. In the years to follow, I would grow up to watch the end the Cold War, which generated so many of those nightmares, as a generation of people tried to do away with nukes, and fight to create a sustainable urban environment.

The last ten years of my adult life has included days and days of running around Garrison and the West Side of New York, NY overlooking the majestic Hudson River, a swatch of water which has made a comeback after years of pollution. Through organizing, lawsuits, cleanups, and cultural advocacy by groups such as Clearwater and Riverkeeper, the river is being relocated as a space for work and play, not simply industrial waste and nuclear power.

As a member of Times Up!, a quarter century old environmental group volunteer for, I have watched activism take many forms. Over the last decade, Times Up! has volunteered doing bike valet at the Clearwater Festival at Croton Harmon. I’ve enjoyed watching Pete Seeger sing there, along with Arlo Guthrie, Taj Mahal, and many others. At one show, Guthrie talked about the birth of Clearwater from the simple question: why is there so much shit floating on the Hudson River. Over the years after activists begin to ask this question, Clearwater and Riverkeeper struggled to get down to the bottom of the question, take action, and the river became a place people could swim, play, and thrive.

This Spring, after the Fukushima meltdown we started talking about Indian Point and the need to do more for the issue of the four decade old power plant 35 miles from downtown Manhattan. The plant sits in Buchanan, NY just south of Peekskill, along the majestic Hudson River, where the American Revolution was fought and Rip Van Winkle slept. A melt down comparable to the one in Fukushima would sent radiation down the river directly into New York City, jeopardizing the lives and homes of the 20 million people between the plant the city.

When I mentioned doing an action around Indian Point at one of the Times UP! planning meetings, the idea resonated. Many said they would like to get involved. For some, such as Times Up volunteer Barbara Ross, who is celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of her 1986 walk across the country to stop nuclear energy, the action idea struck a special cord. How should we do it, we asked. “How about a boat up to Indian Point as pirates trying to shut it down!” one volunteer suggested. "Indian Point must not be relicensed. It must be shut down now!” others chimed in. So, we would do an action with a boat. Leaving the meeting, we had a date and plan, lots of bikes and no idea how we would get a boat.

With little but a skeleton of a plan to boat to Indian Point, we started looking at options to get a boat. Gradually the pirate component of the action faded away. The Freegan Yacht Club had a boat they said we could use, but it might take six hours to get up to Indian Point, with it and only a few people could ride. Perhaps we could do an action at Chelsea Piers, create a theatrical evacuation plan amidst the cars and congested streets, and head out to our small boat? People liked the idea of the evacuation ride. We started drawing up propaganda for the action.


Shut Down Indian Point Now!”

This would be our message. As we drafted media materials, we looked at what others thought of the plans. Few had any better assessments of the Indian Point evacuation plans which suggest that in the event of a meltdown that we go inside and roll up the windows. “Indian Point Evacuation Plan is unrealistic!” noted the NY Times on March 20, 2011. FEMA was no more comforted by the plans.

So we had a message down, but we still did not have a boat. Toward the end of June, the group rode up to Croton Harman and did bike valet at the Clearwater. Over the weekend, several people suggested we contacted Clearwater about using the sloop Pete Seeger helped set sail to clean up the Hudson four decades prior. When we reached out, Clearwater showed interest, and the two groups started planning a sail of the Sloop directly to Indian Point, with banners declaring: “Times UP! Shut Down Indian Point!” and “No Fukushima on the Hudson!”

Over the next few weeks of July, members of Times Up! would buy banner making materials, paints, get precise measurements, coordinate artists, banner makers, and so on. The last weekend in July, the group went on a retreat to Jamestown, NY. In between romping on the beach, swimming, eating, chopping wood in various states of undress, members of the group starting painting banners. Within a short walk of the site of the Shoreham Nuclear Power plant which was shut down by Governor Mario Cuomo in 1989 after just one day in action, the group brought the first banner to their site. We took heart from the message that a site such as this can be shut down when a community does not want it. We hope the governor will follow his father’s lead in supporting the no-nukes movement, as well as his own public statements that Indian Point should we be shut down now.

Over the following weeks, we would continue painting banners, making props, and drafting a press release for the action.


WHAT: “Shut Down Indian Point” Bike Ride & Sail Action from Manhattan to Nuclear Power Plant

WHEN & WHERE: Tuesday, August 9, 2011


7:45 am – 8:45 am - "Shut Down Before the Meltdown" bike ride starting from downtown, ending at 8:15 am at Grand Central Station information booth for a quick action dramatizing the impossibility of an evacuation in the event of a nuclear meltdown

Verplanck (upstate NY):

11:00 am – 2:00 pm - Participants from Manhattan & towns surrounding Indian Point board the Clearwater Sloop, docked at King Marine at 270 6th St, then make the 3-hr sail around the Nuclear Power Plant

NEW YORK, NY (August 4, 2011) – The environmental groups, Clearwater and Time’s Up! team up for an August 9th action including a 3-hr sail on the Hudson on the Clearwater Sloop to Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, with 50ft banners reading: "No Fukushima on the Hudson" and "Shut Down Indian Point Now!” to call for the permanent closure of the aging power plant. Cyclists from Time’s Up! will start the journey at 7:45am from 156 Rivington Street, with a theatrical "Shut Down Before the Meltdown" bike ride, carrying windmills and signs highlighting the need for safe energy alternatives including wind and solar power. The August 9th action will also draw attention to Indian Point’s many safety violations, including the lack of a workable evacuation plan.

Twenty million people live within the 50-mile "peak injury" zone of Indian Point nuclear power plant. A large radioactive release triggered by terrorism, natural disaster or accident at the facility could have devastating health and economic consequences, rendering much of the Hudson River Valley, including New York City, uninhabitable.

“New York City is only 25 miles from Indian Point. Can you imagine over 8 million people trying to evacuate New York City in a nuclear meltdown?” said Time's Up! spokesperson Barbara Ross.

”Due to the plant's vulnerability to a terrorist attack, a laundry list of safety problems, the storage of 1,500 tons of radioactive waste onsite, and the lack of a workable evacuation, we are urging Governor Cuomo to deny the plant’s owner, Entergy Corporation, a 20-year license extension and shut down Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant now,” says Ben Shepard, organizer of the August 9th action. "A relicensing hearing is upcoming later this year and we are urging the public to attend."

"The best way to commemorate victims of the Fukushima disaster is to abolish all the nuclear plants on the planet", says Yuko Tonohira, who will be joining the action for her parents and close friends who live in Japan.

The call for closure is supported by over 400 elected officials, including 11 members of Congress, and a broad-based alliance of environmental, health, public policy, and civic groups united under the Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition.

August 8th, we had a final meeting at ABC No Rio on Rivington in the Lower East Side. There we made evacuation outfits, consisting of paint suits, and paper propellers to put on bike helmets, symbolizing the wind power alternative, just like a wind machines, we hope the state can adopt as an alternative to nuclear power. Throughout the meeting, we discussed plans, worst case scenarios, and a phone tree to get everyone to the space by 7:30 for the 8:45 evacuation ride.

Just a few hours later, everyone reconverged in the Lower East side. Some had just a few blocks to ride, others arrived from Williamsburg and Carroll Gardens Brooklyn. While the phone tree did not work, most everyone arrived, basically on time. There everyone put on their evacuation suits, their wind power propellers, we mugged for pictures, did some interviews, and headed out.

“4 hours…

… is how long it took for the Fukushima Daiichi Reactors (in Japan) to melt down!

Can you imagine evacuating 20 million people from New York City in 4 hours?

Neither can we.


Shut Down Indian Point Now!”

I declared through megaphone, in between sirens, as we rode to Grand Central Station, where we planned to display our banners on the stairs, pass out some flyers, and not get arrested before we embarked on an 8:49 AM train to Peekskill. Arriving at Grand Central, where ACT UP once clogged the station for hours, security greeted us as we walked inside with our bikes. “Do you have a permit for that?” a policeman asked me, pointing to my bike. Yes, I did. I pulled out my bike permit for the train. As the policeman inspected the card, my friend noted the train conductors usually look for the bike permits on the train. The policeman then pointed to one of our banners, asking about a permit for that. The following day, the Daily News would report the police were increasingly cruising through social media, where groups such as Times UP! promotes its actions. They obviously had been doing so for this action. By this point, there were ten police with plastic cuffs accompanying us inside and police sitting on the stairs where we planned to hold the banner. Instead of fighting them or taking a bust, we walked back outside, and unfurled our 22 foot sign: “YOU ARE 35 MILES FROM INDIAN POINT. WHAT WOULD YOU DO IN A MELT DOWN?” just outside the entrance as people walked into the station, alternating with our, “Times Up! Shut Down Indian Pointbanner, while passing out flyers.

By 8:35, we moved back inside, escorted by a group of police. “We’re just going to the train” I told them. They seemed glad to see us leave. At the track more police escorted us to the back three trains, which we had to ourselves. They would sit on the back of those trains. Leaving the station, the conductor even announced, ‘If you are taking the train to Indian Point, take one of the back three cars.’

The train to Peekskill took little more than an hour. Getting off, we were met by more police, as well as activists from Clearwater. And our message changed: “You are now less than three miles form Indian Point. What would you do in a meltdown?” Riding the three miles from Peekskill to the Verplanck, police escorted us, stopping when we stopped outside the disposal plant for Entergy Corp, the corporation which runs Indian Point, and stands to lose some $400 million in profits a year if the plant is shut down. This is probably why the corporation has engaged former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who once endorsed convicted federal felon Bernard Kerik to be the head of Homeland Security, to vouch for the safety of the plant. Outside the entrance, a group of police as well as a man with an M37 stood watching guard on the corporation. And the ride proceeded to King Marine at 270 6th Street, Verplanck, where we planned to emark.

While the crew on the Clearwater Sloop hung the banners, members of media arrived and I gave interviews, reiterating the message from our banners. This is not a safe place. The times for nukes is over. I have two kids who I hope will be able grow up happy and healthy without a melt down on the Hudson. This plant is like a beaten up old car. Not many of us drive cars built in the late 1960’s anymore. And we certainly should not depend on decade old machinery, with no possibility for disposal of waste, to fuel whole cities. Much of this message would find its way into several media outlets. That, after all, was a big reason for the action.

By the time, we left, our two banners, hung from both sides of the sloop. We displayed several throughout the boat, binging the message directly to the plant. NO FUKUSHIMA ON THE HUDSON! Some sang; others watched quietly, and we alternated banners for views from the East and West sides of the majestic river. As we sailed by the plant, a group of us staged a die-in, creating an image of what this plant can do.

After a peaceful ride, we rode home in the rain. “Special thanks to Clearwater Environmental Organization and NYC police, Grand Central Station special forces for giving us three empty train cars, undercover government agents dressed like construction workers and the state police for following us around all day,” one of the Times Up volunteers would later post. It was another glorious day, another day to dodge a bullet. There has not been a Fukushima on the Hudson, at least not yet.