Tag Archives: Mayor Bloomberg

Do-It-Yourself Disaster Relief

Ordinary people can be extraordinary in a crisis.

During a mammoth storm, they can risk their own lives to pull others from harm’s way.

Within hours, they can load up cars and vans with those stranded by floods, whisk them away to makeshift shelters and return to pick up more.

And in just a couple of days, they can coordinate themselves into a network of thousands to work with community groups, houses of worship, schools and YMCAs to prepare and deliver food, water, clean clothes and emergency provisions to thousands without power and whose homes have been destroyed.

The mass volunteer effort in New York City in the wake of Hurricane Sandy is a marvel of human empathy and ingenuity. Participating in and witnessing it firsthand is a sure antidote to cynicism about our society’s potential for unity and collaboration. But it is not a sufficient means to orchestrate disaster relief for a city of millions.

If you watch national television, you get the notion that the state and federal governments are coordinating a colossal relief effort throughout the tristate area. But whatever efforts are being coordinated by FEMA in cahoots with the states, there is little to no evidence of them four days after the storm in the hardest-hit areas where poor and working class people live and work.

Kyle Brown, a North Brooklyn resident who worked as a volunteer on Friday, says he saw no signs of any government relief efforts in the Lower East Side’s housing projects along the flooded East River:

Problem is, we were out of everything (especially water) within minutes. It became clear really fast that what we could physically carry with us, while important, would barely make a dent in what was actually needed. Gary and I looked toward the skyline and saw high-rise buildings 10 times the size all around us. There’s just no way these ragtag operations can even touch the enormity of the situation.

The financial capital of the US Empire is limping through its greatest crisis in decades. And yet, in a borough like Manhattan where income inequality before the storm rivaled that of sub-Saharan Africa, almost all visible disaster relief efforts are being coordinated by community activists, teachers and students whose schools are closed, unemployed people and workers of every stripe.

Global warming has combined with decades of privatization and gutted public services to create the perfect neoliberal storm of do-it-yourself disaster relief.

Occupy Wall Street’s legacy of participatory democracy kicked in immediately with activists forming Occupy Sandy relief efforts coordinated through interoccupy.net with many thousands signing up to volunteer. Grassroots activists in Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAV) have been coordinating impressive efforts among Chinatown’s immigrants and in the Lower East Side housing projects.

CAAV’s executive director Helena Wong sent out an urgent message to volunteers two days after the storm describing the situation in lower Manhattan where hundreds of thousands are without power for days and government efforts are nowhere to be found:

We had folks from the City-run evacuation center at Seward Park come to us asking for supplies. The 7th precinct had our sign on their front door and their front desk were directing people to us. At the same time other officers from the 7th precinct TRIED TO SHUT US DOWN.

Where is the leadership of this City?  Where is FEMA? We were told on Wall Street the lights are on in all the buildings, and Christmas lights are on in the streets. It was clear where the priority is when the community next door has not been prioritized. Today was another day where there was no information given out and City officials were nowhere to be seen.

In Brooklyn, where I live, City Councilmember Brad Lander sends out mass e-mail appeals to his constituents to volunteer to feed and supply flooded Red Hook and help out at the Park Slope Armory, which usually serves as a YMCA, but now shelters 600 elderly evacuees from a nursing home along Far Rockaway’s beachfront.

When I arrived at the armory, low-income climate refugees, many suffering dementia, were being tended to by dozens of teachers, unemployed people, an off-duty medical examiner and a couple of freelance writers like me. We did our best to get frail seniors warm clothes, call their loved ones on our cell phones, help feed them and escort them to the bathroom.

The volunteer efforts are heartening and terrifying at the same time. Because no matter how committed people are to helping one another, the power, access and know-how to commandeer vast material and human resources required for comprehensive disaster relief is currently in the hands of the state.

People must ask, why in such a wealthy city is urgent relief being left to individual initiatives days after the storm?

One look at cuts to public-sector jobs and services gives some indication.

The Wall Street Journal reported in July that New York State has shed public-sector workers at a far higher rate than other states since the recession began. More than 83,900 public-sector jobs have been lost in what even the Journal admits is a “significant contraction,” a decline of 5.9 percent since the peak in 2009, compared with a 3.4 percent decline nationally.

For example, the mass transit system that carries more than five million riders every day is largely disabled by the storm and flooding, yet more than 1,800 job cuts recently means there are fewer workers to repair this crucial service without which the city is crippled.

Wall Street’s greed is actually driving many of the service and job losses. The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), a public company which runs the city’s subways and buses, entered into agreements with Wall Street’s biggest banks in hopes of protecting itself against financial instability. Instead, the very banks that engineered the global crisis and were later bailed out by taxpayers, have trapped the MTA “in a web of toxic swaps” that sucks up 16 percent of all revenue, which leads to cuts.

And once again, these are cuts, like the storm, that disproportionately affect the poor and working class. Ridership on the city’s mass transit system is, like the city itself, majority nonwhite and half live in households with incomes of less than $50,000 a year in one of the nation’s most expensive cities.

The fact that it took a mammoth public outcry to stop Mayor Bloomberg, the city’s second-rchest resident, from going ahead with Sunday’s NYC Marathon—whose starting line was to be in devastated Staten Island where bodies are still being pulled from the water—gives some indication of where the city and state’s priorities currently lie. And how we are going to have to force them to confront this crisis.

If the people in power were interested in genuine relief and recovery, all resources and efforts would be turned in that direction. We don’t need Wall Street up and running after only two days down, with their brokers and hedge fund managers clogging city streets and demanding peripheral services.

We need an all-hands-on-deck approach to disaster relief that includes shutting down all nonessential services and gearing all efforts toward helping people and fixing the infrastructure of this crumbling region.

We have 9.5 percent unemployment in New York City. A mass infusion of federal money and political will could employ thousands who are out of work to help clean up, rebuild and get services back up and running.

Public health needs that were urgent before the storm could be attended to and facilities maintained if generators were airlifted  to hospitals and laid off staff were rehired. One of the East River bridges could be dedicated solely for disaster relief to ferry goods and workers around the city, and on and on.

The human and structural damage from Hurricane Sandy is still being calculated. But one casualty is surely the notion that the major metropolitan center of the most powerful and advanced industrial nation in the world will take care of its people in the event of a disaster.

Intrepid volunteers with full backpacks and a few days off work is not a sustainable plan to deal with the scale of this crisis.

Snow Job: The Politics of Snow

Like death and taxes, snow in New York in winter is inevitable. But in this era of assaults on public-sector employees in order to obliterate whatever remains of U.S. workers’ living standards, snow has become intensely political.

“Snow Big Deal!” and “It’s Not Snow Bad,” read the headlines of the NY Post and Daily News today after a manageable (and gorgeous) 6–8 inches fell on the city. Yet our billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has called a weather emergency prompting private schools to close along with many large businesses, not really because of the snow but because of the politics of snow.

Since the blizzard two weeks ago, which dumped 20+ inches on NYC, the mayor and city officials have been trying to foist criticisms of their inadequate response to clearing the streets onto public-sector workers. Screaming headlines with photos of  resting workers, such as “Taking a Plower Nap”—the Post has odious politics, but snappy headlines—played into politicians’ cockamamie analysis of what went wrong. They scapegoat “lazy” sanitation workers for the fact that in working-class neighborhoods you needed a sherpa and St. Bernard to navigate the Alps-like terrain.

In NYC, union sanitation workers are responsible for plowing and salting the streets. Most of the 6,000 uniformed Sanitation Department workers must rise long before dawn to face down rats and the most colossal assortment of human detritus.

Sanitation workers have one of the ten most dangerous jobs in the United States, and they are subject to higher injury and fatality rates than cops and construction workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than 25 out of 100,000 sanitation workers in the country die every year as a result of being run over by a car, crushed by the heavy machinery of a garbage truck or even by suffering explosions from lethal trash.

For all this, in addition to the indignities of the media and politicians’ slanders, sanitation workers in the nation’s most expensive city receive a starting salary of $31,200 a year, which rises to $67, 141 by their sixth year on the job.

After the post–Christmas blizzard, 2,000 workers were assigned 12–14-hour shifts to clear the snow and paid anywhere from $900–$2,100 in overtime pay for their efforts. In other words, for these hard-working men and women who make life in NYC habitable for its more than 8 million residents, snow overtime pay is a means of making ends meet.

It takes a particular amount of gall—and upper-class indifference— for a billionaire mayor along with news editors and network talking heads who make six figures to sniff at the overtime pay of manual workers. In a city where you’d have to search the far reaches of the outer boroughs to locate a one-bedroom apartment under $1,500 a month, sanitation workers’ salaries are hardly generous.

Ignored in all the sniffy columns and nasty official statements that slam these workers, is another central fact of life under the new normal. The city has laid off 400 sanitation workers and another 100 were demoted in position and pay over the last year. When they compare the efficient job performed during the 1996 blizzard to the recent one, none of them mention that the sanitation force is now about 75 percent of what it was then, yet there are not 25 percent fewer streets today than 15 years ago.

This era of life-altering budget cuts is being sold to us through foul assaults on public-sector workers. Don’t believe the snipes.

Sherry Wolf—Public Speaker, Writer and Activist—is author of Sexuality and Socialism, associate editor of the ISR and writes for socialistworker.org. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

NYC Lesson Plan: Destroy the Teachers’ Union

If your car is broken down on the side of the highway and you call a demolition guy for help, chances are you’re not looking to fix the tire. Let’s face it, NYC’s Mayor Bloomberg didn’t select a coddled media mogul who’s never spent a day inside a public school to be the new schools chancellor as a means to improve the country’s largest school system.

Nope, Cathie Black’s role will be to obliterate the teachers’ union, and for that she is eminently qualified.

Here is a woman who was raised in the pampered and segregated cotillion society of American aristocracy, who won equestrian competitions at clubs where Blacks and Jews were verboten and whose claim to fame is marketing that journalistic ode to color weather maps, USA Today.

Early in her career as a corporate tool, Black compelled the denim-clad feminists at Ms. magazine to threaten a mass walkout over her insistence on running Big Tobacco’s siren song for women to achieve equal rates of cancer with men, the infamous Virginia Slims’ “You’ve come a long way, baby,” ad campaign.

When Black and her husband aren’t kicking back at their $4.1 million beach house in Southampton or playing a round of golf at the Westchester Country Club with its $300,000 initiation fee (Jews and Blacks allowed nowadays), they are entertaining in their duplex penthouse apartment on Park Avenue.

The New York Times informs us that she has her modest moments, like when she opts for a yellow cab over a black limo, but she likes her bling too. Black recently loaned her “$47,600 bracelet — a Bulgari confection called the Allegra — to a Manhattan museum for its current exhibit showcasing the jewels and clothing of New York’s most influential women.”

Naturally, she attended private school, as did her two children, and she has no education background whatsoever. Black’s haughty and arrogant demeanor aside, she has a reputation as being a tyrant of a boss, the kind every worker rushes away from to take the stairs when her Gucci purse is spotted peeking out from the elevator doors.

There is no question that this pill of a parasite is totally unqualified to run a school system of one million children, two-thirds of whom qualify for free lunch and 85 percent of whom are Black, Latino or Asian. Cathie Black has not been tapped to revolutionize learning, she’s the billionaire mayor’s pick to destroy one of the last bastions of union power in a city facing $1.6 billion in cuts.

I don’t have any kids in the public schools, or any kids at all for that matter. And my only spin at teaching was as a 23-year-old 6th-grade substitute teacher who was disciplined for playing my students a recording of Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” on the eve of Election Day 1988. (Every student participated in the discussion that day and I am certain not one of the white administrators who chewed me out has ever actually listened to or read a Malcolm X speech.)

While I don’t have that kind of personal stake in the public schools, I do want to live in a city where there are well-educated children and well-compensated, unionized teachers. I know that there are teachers, parents and students currently discussing how to stop the city from granting Cathie Black a pass to wreak havoc on the schools and immiserate the lives of teachers. I will happily join their protests and sign their petitions. Here’s one I found online: http://www.petitiononline.com/DenyWaiv/petition.html

If Cathie Black must live among us, can she at least remain in her hermetically-sealed bubble of wealth and privilege, away from where she can affect the lives of millions?

My next talk will be on What’s Behind the Rise of the Right and What Can We Do to Stop it, NYC at the LGBT Center, Sat., Nov. 20, 7PM, click here for details.