Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Storms and the Lessons They Teach Us

11/5/12 -- Fuhgeddabout Fossil Fuels Banner Drop, Manh Bridge. Days after Super Storm Sandy, and on election day, a banner reading "Got Climate Change Blues? Fuhgeddabout Fossil Fuels!" was draped on the Manhattan Bridge. (photos by Brennan Cavanaugh; Creative Commons rules apply, please use responsibly)

Storms take countless shapes and sizes.  There are rain storms, wind storms, hurricanes, thunder storms, political storms, financial crises - lately in New York we're had them all.  Over and over again, they tell us who we are and where we are going.  The storm after the Stock Market Crash of 1929 reminded us that a few regulations and safety net provisions could prevent future crashes while sustaining economic growth for decades, while those in Occupy Right reminded us that the only thing we needed to fear was fear itself and a few unregulated bankers.  The lesson of 9/11 and the anti war mobilization of ten years ago is that wars are not always the best solutions to problems.  Today, we are living through the aftermath of Sandy, the hurricane which hit the East Coast a week ago. People are still without power all over New York, without homes in communities from Red Hook to Hoboken.  The storm seemed to remind everyone that climate chaos is real. 
We have nothing to fear but fear itself and unregulated bankers.
Photo by Jenna Pope
Absurd Response to an Absurd War with Kelly Moore, Benjamin Heim Shepard, Leslie Kauffman and a clown no one had seen before named Monica Hunken in Washington, DC
at the October 2002 Anti War Rally attended by hundreds who already knew the war in Iraq was a sham.
Photo by Diane Greene Lent
Ten years later Hunken is still fighting back.
Direct action with Occupy the Pipeline 2012.
Photo Benjamin Shepard

Storm clouds started brewing week or so ago. People started mentioning a perfect storm was moving to the East Coast.  Few of us thought much of it during the annual Times Up Halloween Party.  My friend Isabelle dressed like ‘Sandy’ from Greece without irony and we danced, drinking beer, shaking  it, and sweating well into the Brooklyn night.

Times Up! Halloween Party, Isabelle dressed as 'Sandy' from Greece, not the storm,
and others.
Photots by Brennan Cavanaugh

Looking at the storm warnings, I had already canceled travel plans for the weekend. 

S17 Eco Block by Jeremy Schaller
Top "Melt In" At Bank of America, Bottom Meditation Circle.
Occupy Wall Street Anniversary #S17 — with Rebecca Manski, Monica Hunken, Peter Rugh and Benjamin Heim Shepard.
Photo by Elizabeth Brossa
"Financial crisis=climate crisis" declared signs during the eco block on September 17th for the Occupy Wall Street one year anniversary.  We have long known climate change is real.  Growing up here, there were not hurricanes.  We've had two ''once in a lifetime" storms in a year.  This summer we watched a movie called the Big Miracle, a story about efforts to save two whales in Alaska from being iced in so they cannot get out to sea in winter of 1988. Today, a quarter century later, much of that ice is gone.  Still, the distance between the post - Katrina consensus that climate change is real after Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth and Mitt Romney's embrace of the climate denialist line is jarring.  Romney ridiculed the president for investing in green energy during the first debate.  Its funny what a few billion dollars from the Koch brothers can do for public opinion?   But climate chaos is real and not enough people are thinking about ways to get out of this.  Instead, those in power think of short term gains from natural gas drilling, fracking, and fossil fuels which satisfy quarterly earnings yet jeopardize the future.  One rarely sees those on the public stage mention sustainability. President Obama failed to mention climate change as Romney ridiculed him about investing in green energy during the presidential debates.

 August 2011, people were displaced and inconvenienced but the damage was limited with Hurricane Irene, a storm which felt largely overbilled.   All weekend long, we planned, prepared, bought candles, card games, and perishables we could actually eat in the event that we lost power.

At Church at Judson the day before Sandy, everyone talked about supporting each other, of being there for each other if things became dark.  The kids had a bowling party scheduled at Melody Lanes in  Sunset Park later that afternoon. Dark clouds were brewing outside.  As the kids enjoyed an afternoon of bowling, I walked to the adjacent bar to catch some of the Jets game.  Serving drinks to a colorful clientele stood a short bartender with a long white lamb chop sideburns and beard.  Ordering drinks, it felt like Isaac Asimov was pouring.  With a something dark this way coming and foreboding in the air, I sat talking with a few of guys in leisure wear eating chicken wings watching the game. One of the qualities I love of New York is the capacity of people to become lost in their own distractions even as life outside is falling apart around them.  So we talked, watched the game, friends, and my kids dropped by, life and fiction blurring on an afternoon Ray Bradbury would have loved.

Monday night, the winds howled outside the window as we all played class struggle and card games.  Friends dropped messages on facebook.  "I just saw a light flicker.  I'm brewing some coffee now.  I can stand a lot but not without coffee."  The storm was supposed to hit from eight to ten pm.  By this time Caroline was putting up tape on the windows.  We never lost electricity in Carroll Gardens, although water flooded up Third Street to Bond from the Gowanus Canal.  Throughout the night, word flooded in from throughout the city.  A gallery in Chelsea under water, with millions in art lost.  Water breached the West Side Highway, flooding her gallery.  Trees down throughout Brooklyn.  Surveying the damage in the neighborhood, we walked down to Gowanus again, where the water was already receding.  Monday it had been up to Carroll Street bridge.  But oil and sewage from the Gowanus had flowed up Second, First and Sackett Streets.  Its easy to forget that Newtown Creek is the site of the largest oil spill in US history.  The Gowanus was already a superfund site, and the hurricane had stirred its polluted foundation up into our neighborhood. We could smell it.

Walking around surveying the damage to homes, trees, and communities, my rage at Mitt Romney and his ilk swelled.   After all, earlier in the campaign he had promised to privatize FEMA.
Trees down in Carroll Gardens. Photo by B. Shepard

Trees, the few trees we have in Carroll Park had fallen, taking out cars and play spaces where kids have long hung out. Trees had fallen all over Park Slope. Red Hook on waterfront was completely flooded.  Word Fairway will be closed for months.  The River Cafe in Dumbo, where Caroline celebrate our anniversary, was destroyed.  And the burger man on top of Paul's Daughter on the Coney Island Boardwalk was blown out to sea.  Communities from Staten Island to the East Village would be without power for days.

We were incredibly lucky.  But our friends in Breezy Point and the Jersey Shore did not fare as well, losing their homes and livelihoods.  The fishing boat that one of my friends works for was destroyed, so he'll be out of work for months.  The elders in Manhattan who were unable to get out of their apartments would have to make it from Tuesday through Friday afternoons without electricity.

The morning after the storm.
Photo by Brennan Cavanaugh

Walking through this space devastated by the second hurricane in New York in a year, in addition to a tornado, I imagined this was just all part of the new climate chaos, the "new normal" as Rachel Maddow puts it.  Yet, climate denalists still ridicule efforts to support green energy programs.

Times Up! moved its energy bikes out from the now flooded Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space.  This is  a space created to highlight efforts to reclaim public spaces and efforts to create sustainable alternatives, such as non-polluting transportation, as well as community gardens.  The irony is this space designed to combat climate change was consumed by a flood caused by it.  For years Times Up! has organized rising sea level rides.  And now a rising sea level absorbed one of its projects.

Community members helping clean out the flooded basement at MORUS.
George brought out the energy bikes to help power the project.
Photo Credt by Brennan Cavanaugh

The author on the energy bike, top, perched on the Power Broker, Robert Moses'story, middle
and Keegan Stephen, bottom.  Certainly Moses would not have loved the idea of a city powered by bikes, not cars.
Photos by Benjamin Shepard

Wednesday Times Up! set up the energy bikes it had brought down to Zuccotti Park during the peak of the Occupy Movement to powered the encampment. And after the flood they helped people who had lost their cell phone power recharge.  Here, riders peddle generating energy which creates a power charge.  I dropped by on Thursday at Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space to help charge the bike.  A crowd of people stood there smiling helping out.  Many were visibly happy to be able to do something. Others were glad to just be able to charge their phones, with a line of people standing to jump on.

Bill DiPaula was there.  We went downstairs where the basement had been flooded.  The offices were destroyed.  A cardboard bulldozer we had made to theatrically fight off bulldozers hell bent on destroying gardens sat without shape.  "Maybe we should save this one as a model" Bill noted. 

"Try to keep it steady" George noted as I jumped on the energy bike.  Sixty watts will recharge a phone, while 120 can repower a lab top. If you ride too fast or slow, you blow a fuse.  A Japanese film crew was there to film us riding.  Asking me how it was going, I told them it felt good to burn some calories, build community and help people stay connected with their families.  The museum is also a public commons, where people share ideas and innovations, conversations and solutions. This is also a space where people come to connect with others.

The night before the group had been cooking free food for everyone.  My friend Jerry the Peddler, who I was arrested with at Esperanza Community Garden, was on hand setting up a table with more food. 

"This is just what we do," he explained.

MORUS is also a place for conversations and organizing.  My friend Monica arrived greeting everyone.  Earlier in the week, her talk on the dangers of fracking, the spectra pipeline and environmental disrepair,  was canceled because of the global warming she was there to warn about.

But instead of preach, this was a space for mutual aid.  It was a place where people shared their energy, exchanged ideas and made plans.  A few of us in the group would plan a We Will Survive Ride or Parade through the neighborhood, as well as additional efforts to provide support.
Free food, pedal power, mutual exchange and energy bikes at ABC No Rio in the Lower East Side.
Photos by Benjamin Shepard

The following day, Times Up! set up the energy bike outside of ABC No Rio, the legendary squat on Rivington where the group holds workshops and meetings on Monday nights. On the way, I passed lines of people awaiting buses to take them into Manhattan, as they stood waiting at Jay Street Metro Tech in downtown Brooklyn.  Cyclists zoomed by, getting into the city in ten minutes.  Riding through lower Manhattan from the Manhattan bridge, there are still no lights on.  There is a quiet in the air.  The feeling of something falling apart is vaguely familiar here in an area which has been the test site for so many experiments in living and urbanism.  Cyclists zoomed through the streets.  Over the past decade the city has made efforts to make room for cyclists, thanks to the pressure of cyclists citywide whose numbers have only increased.  The city is working to make room for them. But cars and police still dominate streets, making little effort to allow for safe riding or even car free bike lanes.  But with gas lines taking three to five or six hours, more and more people are turning to cycling.  Non-polluting transportation, this is the future of cities. 

The author at MORUS after riding the energy bike.
Photo by Monica Hunken.

Arriving at ABC, a group of punks was bar-b-qing, a free food sign hanging on the old squat.  The Times Up! energy bike was there charging people's phones.  And people were engaged, thinking of ways to lend a hand.  The punk of ABC and the energy of the bikes, all parts of a Do-it-yourself urbanism  which is the future of cities.   Instead of bemoaning was missing, those on hand were helping out in every way they could.

"Once again, it was hippies and punks and beatniks and bums to the rescue," noted Jerry the Squatter, who helped organize the event along with the other organizers from MORUS. 

By the next day, the survive a ride had been turned into New Orleans style resurrection parade organized by Times Up! with members of the Church of Stop Shopping, Hungry March Band and regular neighborhood people there to lend a hand, dance, and show the world we will survive this. 
The parade met on Houston Street at Ave C.  Across the streets, folks were waiting for food.
Photo Benjamin Shepard

“Alphabet City got really hammered by the hurricane” noted the Facebook invite. “To boost spirits: a parade. Let's play a parade on Saturday at, say, 12:30 up Avenue C from Houston to C-Squat / MoRUS at East 10th Street.

We need musicians to RSVP - please let us know your instrument or section. Also circus friends, stiltwalkers, jugglers, and others, please come add festiveness and spectacle!

Please bring fruit and other supplies to give out, too. Zines, comics, and activity books make great throws for homes without power! Here's what to do with your dusty library...

Additionally, please fwd this to other musicians/paraders (even if you can't make it yourself).”

Many of us who were taking part have long reveled in the joy of meeting and building community through unsanctioned gatherings such as these parades, bike rides, skate events and so on.

We met at the corner of Ave C and Houston, across the street from a group lined up around the block across the street to get food. 

"If you have been affected by what is going on lately, you can go across the street to get supplies," a young woman informed me.

Turning up the heat on Ave C, marching through the East Village to the relief station at Ave D and back to MORUS.
Photos by Brennan Cavanaugh.

The musicians led the crowd of a hundred or so as we moved up Ave C, giving away treats, singing, sharing space with the survivors of the East Village, who had only recently gotten back their electricity.  We looped up to 6th street, took a right, and another right on Ave D, back to 4th where we passed Paraiso, my favorite community garden.  Walled up by emergency tape, the top half of the willow holding the tree house had fallen.  There are those who think the best thing to do it take out the rest of the tree.  "Save the trees" the crowd chanted as we passed by.  "Who will speak for the trees" mused the Lorax back in the day, with so many down, but by no means out. 

One of my favorite trees, the willow in Paraiso Community Garden, took a beating.
We hope they will remain.

The parade made its way back up 9th and D where the very FEMA which Mitt Romney wants to privatize was there providing food and supplies.  The band and choir sang, "When the Saints Go Marching In."  Smiles emerged in the long Saturday afternoon.

The parade finished with Ave C at MORUS.  A pile of rubage lay on the curb.  Free food for all along the sidewalk, once again, organized by Jeffy the Peddler, who later set up a warm winter fire for everyone on Ave C.   

Dancing among the wreckage on Houston Street.
Photo Benjamin Shepard

The next day, the kids and I toured through Red Hook, bringing some cleaning supplies to those on Van Brunt cleaning out their homes, which had been flooded.  ‘Don’t just show up and gawk, bring something, a beer, supplies.  People are getting pissed at everyone just dropping by for entertainment,’ my friend Dave told me.  Walking through the streets, one small group was cleaning up the glasses of their bar.  Workers from Fairway were riding to other locations for work, those who could get it.  And others were taking care of the trees which had fallen.  Cyclists and volunteers were everywhere.

Running around Red Hook with the girls.
Photos Benjamin Shepard

This is the future of global warming and urban living, I told Dodi and scarlett.  “This is what cities around the world will look like if we do not do something about this.”  Dodi wrote a report earlier in the fall noting that when her parents grew up their greatest fear was war, hers is global warming.  Yet, this is the future we are leaving our kids.

With the Greek historians Thucydides and Herodotus in mind, I have long been aware that people have always thought we were killing ourselves.  But there are other ways to look at the world than from the lens of fatalism.   Pete Seeger reminds us we really can never tell where history will take us.  There is room for agency.  We can make a difference.  At least this is how I felt watching people organize to coordinate relief efforts, serve free food to strangers, and help neighbors recharge their cell phones.  Those with OccupySandy and Times Up! had been organizing to offer alternatives for those still without a way to make their way to work or around the city.  A quick press release explained:


Time's Up! will open their Williamsburg space at 7am Monday & Tuesday with affordable Dutch-style bikes ready for the morning commute

WHAT: Volunteers from Time's Up!, a non-profit Environmental Group, are working day & night fixing recycled affordable Dutch-style bikes ($140 & up) to have available for stranded commuters getting to work Monday morning.

WHEN: Monday, 11/5 and Tuesday 11/6, 7:00 am – 10:00 am

WHERE: 99 South 6th Street, Williamsburg, around the corner from the pedestrian entrance to the Williamsburg Bridge

“With public transportation into Manhattan from Brooklyn at a standstill, including the essential L train, and gridlock in the streets, bicycles are a great solution to keep the city moving through the crisis, says Ben Shepard, Time's Up! volunteer.  Stop by our space at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge and pick up a bike that comes with a free membership to Time's Up!”

Time's Up! volunteers continue to use their bikes to help with recovery efforts, including setting up cell phone charging stations with their energy bikes, delivering needed food and supplies with their cargo bikes and advance scouting of disaster areas." says Barbara Ross, Time’s Up! Spokesperson.

Later that night, Times Up! held a meeting till 1 AM.  Riding over to the meeting, I thought about the momentous night a year prior when we got the word about the Occupy eviction as we finished another late Times Up! meeting.  Arriving at ABC No Rio, a group from the Spectra Pipeline direct action working group were painting a banner with members of Times Up!  We’d meet for another three and a half hours, before departing at 1 AM.  My alarm went off at 5:15 am.  Looking at my cell phone there was already a message from one of the organizers, “Y’all comin?” it chimed.  So I grabbed a cup of coffee and rode over to the Brooklyn side of the Manhattan Bridge where we were meeting for the hang.  “We need two scouts and others to hang the banners,” one of the organizers explained.  “Climate justice!” we chanted as we started.  Hanging the banner in the middle of the bridge, adrenaline was running out of my ears.  Two of us held the paper signs; another two tied the pieces down.  It was freezing up there.  I could barely feel my fingers, but I did not want to be the one who dropped one of the nine banner pieces.  We started hanging the banners at 6 AM and were done by 6:15 AM.  “It doesn’t matter who wins this election, we are still going to have to deal with this problem,” I told Babs who was documenting.  “System change, not climate change,” Keegan chimed in.  “We criticize the problem, and offer a solution...”  Lets get out of here, Monica finished. “This is when we get popped.”  So we rode away.  “There is an indelible joy in getting away with it” I chimed in to Monica, riding down the bridge. 

Banner drop at the sun rise.
Photos Benjamin Shepard
A press release for the action:

Got climate change blues? Fuhgeddabout fossil fuels!” read a banner that hung from the Manhattan Bridge this morning. Dangling above waters which last week rose and swamped many of New York's coastal communities, the banner drew a clear line between Sandy and the carbon corporations are emitting into our atmosphere by the megaton. A graphic on the banner of the “Big Apple” glowed like the sacred heart with solar rays—offering a solution to dependence on oil, gas, and coal—above a city where clean up and volunteer crews continue to labor amid soggy rubble. Renewable power must replace dirty power if we are to mitigate the affects of global warming in the future.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the unseasonal hurricane passed over waters that were nine degrees warmer than average for this time of year. If Sandy is not going to be an augury of more disasters to come, we must immediately and drastically deduce our reliance of fossil fuels and implement existing renewable energy technologies.

Sandy, along with the utter lack of official aid during and after the storm, reveals the consequences of living in a society that cares more for profit than it does for the planet and 99% of its inhabitants. Many of those hardest hit by Sandy are those who have already been hit by the financial crisis and the crisis of poverty, racism and unemployment inherent in the system itself. Even as residents of the Rockaways stood amid their smashed homes without food, water or shelter, the lights of Wall Street burned bright. Those who have thrown their money behind investments in fossil fuels continue to live large while the rest of us feel the consequences.

Occupy Sandy Relief has stepped in where government agencies and the Red Cross have failed. But our emergency relief efforts are just that, attempts to ease the suffering of those in an emergency. To end the crisis that is the rule of the 1%—the Sandies of everyday life—a social, economic and ecological transformation that democratically enables the 99% is necessary.
As we struggle to provide each other with basic needs after the ravages of this storm, it is vital that we also renew our efforts to fight for a just and sustainable earth, an earth that is needed now more than ever.
A joyous banner hang. 
Occupy The Pipeline and Times Up hung a banner from the Manhattan bridge at sunrise this morning of election day, "Got Climate Change Blues? Fuhgeddabout Fossil Fuels!". Fight back against fossil fuels! We can do this, people! Renewable energy now.  Celebrating as we finish on the Manhattan Bridge.
Photos Brennan Cananaugh who just about killed himself leaning over the bridge to get this last shot.

I rode home at 6:45 AM to meet the kids at get ready for Election Day.  Looking at the map of the electoral college and the very red nature of our political map with Dodi, we placed bets on who’d take swing states.  After breakfast, I dropped the kids off at school and came home and voted.  With the Freedom Riders in mind, I took part in a ritual which does not always mean so much, yet people fought so hard for. Participation takes multiple forms, from mutual aid to relief services, direct action banner drops and votes in elections.  Participation means more and more.  It is our only way of creating an alternative to the path we’re on.  New York has always been a space for urban innovation.  Its storms tell us what we are up against.  Our responses tell us who we are and what we will become.  Hopefully, we can trace a path to a more sustainable future so our kids won’t have to contend with a Mad Max like dystopian future of long gas lines, wars over resources and limited green spaces.  Hopefully we can trace a different path to a city with green spaces, bike lanes for all, with clean air, water, and joy and justice in the streets.

Elections postscript:
Thanks for taking the low ride for four years.  Its great to beat these bastards. Sorry Rebublicans, you cannot win without Latinos, gays, women, people of color, unions, the left, the middle. Sorry, your brand is losing favor.

Can't forget Romney tried to echo Reagan with his Welfare Queen condemnation of FEMA. Beating Romney is beating a model of social control. Obama is part of an embrace of a diverse experience in the expansion of US democracy. I am glad regular people beat the Koch Brothers candidate.  I am glad my CUNY students can feel like someone who looks like them and thinks about their experiences will be in leadership.  I am glad my kids have a leader who will not vote against reprodictive autonomy  I am glad there will be reasonable judges, labor, and health policies.  Lets not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  Are there flaws - certainly.  Frances Fox Piven has long said Obama needs a movement to push him.  Occupy push Obama to be better. In the meantime lets celebrate winning one every once in a while. After that, lets get to work.

The lesson of the storm, of the people who created mutual aid networks who shared food and resources and rolled up their sleeves to create the relief networks, this lesson is that regular people, organizers can still make the difference.

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