Monday, December 17, 2012

We Kill at Every Step: Turning a Blind Eye from South Central to the Rockaways (ride to Sandy Survivor Day of Action)

Lilia Trenkova

Photo by Barbara Ross

"We Kill at every step, not only in wars, riots, and executions.  We kill when we close our eyes to poverty, suffering and shame..." - Herman Hesse

Friday afternoon, I got the horrible news from Connecticut and like most people felt like we've been here before.  From John and Robert Kennedy to Harvey Milk and Gabby Gifford, from Columbine to Virginia Tech, haven't we had enough of this?  Does the second amendment really mean citizens carry semi automatic rifles?  Haven't we had enough of the NRA owning our politics? Looking at the pictures of the terror struck kids I felt a sense of sickness and anger at the system which allows this to happen.  For god sakes, we do not need people with assault weapons on the streets.  We don't need assault weapons.  We don't need people left on the edge, left alone to do this. Like a lot of parents, I rode to school to grab my kids and felt a sense of relief to be with them as we romped through the Prospect Park, reveling in our time together, enjoying the changes of seasons and our lives, on a winter afternoon.   

There was not a parent in America not relieved to be taking their kids home after school on Friday.

We had friends over later that night; others just dropped by.  People need places to go when they are down or they just want to connect.  The anomie of our world is often too much.  Those who live in isolation from community have less reason to stop themselves from doing shameful things.  Thinking about Connecticut, I was struck by how many throw around terms which deride the   mentally ill.  As my friend James Tracy argues, we can pass all the gun laws we want.  But unless we deal with the gutted system for the mentally ill this will keep on happening.  

There is something wrong with this picture.

People pushed to the wall do terrible things.

Yet, over and over we ignore them or push them into solitary confinement in our jails, which sadly have become the housing provider of last resort for the poor and the mentally ill.

Two decades ago, I remember people ignoring the poverty in South Central Los Angeles.  Instead of coping with it, the whole city seemed to turn a blind eye, that was until the images of police brutality, acquittals of those who beat Rodney King, and riots brought that injustice to the rest of the city.  Flames engulfed the city and fires rose into the sky.  Fires I would not see again for another decade with the events of September 2011.  My lesson from the riots of 1992 was that healthy cities cannot ignore the poor, the ill, those on the outside.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. You cannot ignore a cancer in one part of the body without it spreading.  It doesn't happen in bodies or the body politic.

Yet, the City of New York seems to be missing this lesson.  Almost two months after Hurricane Sandy, the city seems to be turning a blind eye to the poor on the edges of the city, still suffering without heat or electricity, living in the mold from Coney to Staten Island and the Rockaways. The wounds taking hold will sure to be around for years.  And they may come back from the periphery into the rest of the city, just as the citizens of Los Angeles experienced two decades ago.  Hopefully cancer or cholera or hate or resentment does not spread from the Rockaways.

What we do know is the mold is spreading.

Occupy Sandy note:

"Stop the war on the poor'' - Cara H

Saturday, Times Up! held another of its DisasterRelief Rides, taking supplies by bike from 520 Clinton Ave down to Rockaways

Keegan posted a message to Times Up!

Subject: [xup-core] Fossil Fuel Disaster Relief Ride, this SATURDAY


Hey all,
This week, our Disaster Relief Ride to the Rockaways will be on Saturday, in solidarity with Occupy Sandy's Day of Action, Restore Power to the People.
9am, 99 S 6th Street meet-up to set people up with trailers, as usual
9:30am, 520 Clinton to pick up supplies from Occupy Sandy
We will drop the goods at a free, public distribution center on Beach 100, then join our comrades on Beach 26 for a demonstration to stress the need to empower people to help themselves, that Occupy Sandy has been an effort to create a new, more just and sustainable system, not just prop up the old one. There is no better way to stress this than on your bicycle, so join us!


Times Up! had planned a dance ride for Saturday.   But most everyone involved with the group has been wanting to continue the Relief Rides we've been organizing since Sandy devastated these communities, Occupy broadened its mutual aid networks, expanding out into distributions centers, and partnered with community groups such as New York Communities for Change and Community Voices Heard.

Saturday morning, I rode over to 99 S. 6th Street in Williamsburg Brooklyn, greeting friends and comrades.  We commiserated about how late we'd all been up the night before.  One of the riders rode through the rain doing the same ride just six days prior and still had a cold.  Another worried about recent surgery and the prospect of an riding out 75 blocks further than we had gone the week before.  We joked, groaned, moaned, hooked up trailers for our bikes and set out for Clinton Ave where Occupy Sandy had collaborated with the Church of St Luke  and St. Matthew.  Riding over we were greeted by people on the street, welcomed warmly as we arrived to pick up more supplies. Signs all over the church highlight the importance of mutual aid, of gestures of care, however small. Regardless of how limited these gestures are, this is perhaps all we can do.  And it is certainly better than nothing.  There is very little point of letting what we cannot do, prevent us from doing what we can. 

Waiting to pull materials from the church to the trailers, it was lovely to talk with a few occupiers we'd met the previous fall about the movement and its efforts to battle against the ravages of a system which seems to thrive on disaster capital. 
Getting organized at 520 Clinton
Photo by Barbara Ross
Already developers are out planning for new developments out in the Rockaways.  And the city is making efforts to shut down Occupy Sandy, just like they displaced us from Zuccotti a year ago, charging those who stood in a public park zoned for 24 hour access with trespassing.

Yet, the ideas we were talking about - of creating sustainable economies, community gardens, food security, non-polluting transportation, and mutual aid networks - these are all ideas which have proved vital in post Sandy New York. 

Group by by Kristian Nammack

Riding out was a fun, fast and exhilarating. 
Josh Bisker photo of us riding in supplies.
Past Jacob Riis, countless people cheered for the cyclists as we rode, amazing so many know what we are doing here.
Barbara Ross photo of the gang arriving in the Rockaways

We stopped at the relief distribution center at Beach 21 inside of St Camillus Parish.  Outside people were walking out with supplies. Inside, the space was pulsing. School kids were running a meal center, giving away hot and delicious meals.  People were dropping off food just as fast as volunteers were passing it out.  The hub felt organized, with a canned goods center, a space for dog and cat food, hot food, water, and conversation.  The only empty space in the parish was the FEMA table. 
Bikes arriving.  Empty FEMA table.
Photos by Josh Bisker.

Carrying supplies into the parish, we started just distributing this material to folks standing outside.


Supplies drop off at Beach 100.
Photos by Barbara Ross

After lunch, we jumped back on our bikes to ride another eighty blocks to the rally/ call to action in Far Rockaway. We rode through street after street lined with rubble.

Arriving at 21st and Mott Street, the police surrounded the hundred people or so who showed up for the rally.

Photos by Barbara Ross

People were singing:

"Children living in the mold.
You know that ain't right.
Think about Far Rockaway
Before you sleep tonight
People of Far Rockaway
Are you ready to right?"


Others were chanting:

"Bloomberg, why you chillin' ?
You should we rebuilding!"

Photos by Austin Guest


Arriving at 23rd and Lemay, neighborhood member after neighborhood member offered testimonials.

"We are still living in the mold," explained Leon.  "Bloomberg we are human!... The Red Cross is getting like 13 million at all these fundraisers - do you see them here?  The money ain't coming out at the Far Rockaways."

Several spoke about their insurance companies dragging their feet, withholding claims, of electricity still not being turned on, and the health implications of the slow response by the city. 

Virginia talked about her child who already had a compromised immune system, now living in a house with mold.

"There is no assessment of the mold," she explained.  "Kids are getting sick.  We need evaluation to we can know what can be done.  We need remediation."

"Work with us," signs declared. 

Organizer Pat talked about watching the water roll down her block into her life.  "We sat and saw water coming from the left, from the right from the beach."  Yet, help was never as forthcoming. So, she started organizing a distribution center.  "People have to help each other.  We can't depend on the government.  We've been left out here like a lost country.  We need services out here, healthcare.  We shouldn't be lost out here."

Testimonials by Barbara Ross

Finishing the rally, we said goodbye to Austin Guest, Imani and the others and rode out the beautiful beach.

Bikes rides in a panorama.
By Josh Bisker.

Before leaving, we dropped by 94th street, Veggie Island.  Some helped with bike repairs; Peter and I rode out to the beach again, looking at the crumbling boardwalk, destroyed by the storm.

Instead of the beach beneath the streets as the graffiti declared in the streets of Paris 1968, in 2012 the beach is on the streets in the Rockaways.

Bike repair at Veggie Island. Photo by Barbara Ross

And we rode into the sunset on the two hours back.

Riding back by Josh Bisker.

Tired that night, I felt my aching body, my mind meandering through dreams about D17, 2011, the narrative arch of Occupy from a year past, from S17, to N17, to D17. bubbling through my subconscious, ruminating about where this movement has gone over the last year, from Occupations to evictions, to hurricane relief, its flexible networks coping with disaster, neglect and suppression as it stretches forward through time and need.


 Sunday, we woke, ate some breakfast, and the kids and I romped off to Judson where they lead the chorus.  Throughout the service, we meditated on Advent and the possibility of something new being born.

Afterward, the kids and I grabbed hot chocolates, ate some lunch, enjoying the rainy New York afternoon.  Every parent in the country was glad to be with their kids this Sunday, the hominous feeling that we had dodged a bullet this time.  
Bread and Puppet suggesting we'd be advised not to study war no more.  Maybe they have a point?

Bread and Puppet was at Theater for the New City.  Members of the Rude Mechanical Orchestra performed as house band, just as they romped the streets during the riots, rallies and demos over the last decade in New York.  The show finished with a rousing performance of  "Ain't Gonna Study War no More."     Thinking about the man wearing combat gear who entered a school with a semi automatic weapon on Friday, I started to think maybe Bread and Puppet had a point.  How about studying peace kids?  We can do better.  We have to.  We have to try something different the president declared later that night.  After the shoe bomber, everyone in the US had to take off their shoes in airports, but murder after murder of kids from gun violence we do not change a thing.  We may get a gun law passed.  But change starts with hearts as well as minds, with thinking and learning in another way, in a way which honors peace, not combat gear.


  1. Great article, Ben. One of your best. I love the connection between South Central LA then and the Rockaways now, and how slow we are to learn from history. This piece flows seamlessly from gun violence to mutual aid to bikes :) Respect.

    Check this article out, as well:

  2. Hi Benjamin,
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