Residents of Red Hook, Brooklyn during Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge. (Photo: Brokelyn)
This week marks the third anniversary of a moment that changed so many lives – including mine – forever. On October 29th, 2012 Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge hit New York City and for days poured destruction onto the city and the surrounding states. Thousands of people were displaced, homes flooded, nearly $100 billion in damage caused, and the lives of already poverty-stricken people were thrown once again into even deeper disarray.
Those were the weeks when my youthful idealism slowly alchemized to a hard, burning realism. Poverty is easy to ignore for too many of us: we build highways over immigrant and working-class neighborhoods to move quickly from the suburbs to the city. With perhaps only the best of intentions, we fund police to criminalize poverty and homelessness into jails. Then we fund foundations, religious institutions and non-profits to provide for the needs of those who aren’t served by our deeply-rigged economic system. All of this is done with white gloves on, and we congratulate ourselves when “official” rates of joblessness and homelessness decline slightly – not because we’ve built a more humane, equitable society but because government rigged the metrics to exclude those too hopeless to even search for work. Still, the poverty endures.
It’s only when the flood waters come in that the deep trenches of the class and racial divides in our cities are fully revealed, and Sandy did just that. Sandy revealed the deep and systemic poverty that lives in the shadows of Wall Street in New York City: the Rockaways, Coney Island, Red Hook, Chinatown, and Long Island, Bergen County in New Jersey. Like Hurricane Katrina before it, Sandy’s destruction carved out the already-existent contours of abandonment in our country.
And the response was … absolutely beautiful. #SandyVolunteers from across the region, even the country, heeded the call of the almost-defunct Occupy movement reincarnated as a people-powered, grassroots disaster relief network. Some 70,000 volunteers braved weather, closed-down streets, gas shortages and mental and physical exhaustion to ferry supplies and expertise to the hardest-hit areas. From my little vantage point holed up in a makeshift relief center in a church, the whole city seemed to be activating to come to the aid of the neediest. It was truly solidarity in action.
For months, I dedicated my life to the relief effort – turning down paid work and nearly driving myself into financial ruin without a thought in my mind of doing anything else. Like the occupation a year early, this was the most important thing happening in the world at the moment. I know I wasn’t the only person to feel that way. So we toiled away to set up dispatches and registries and shuttle people and supplies to the front lines while working with unions and advocacy groups to demand a more just and equitable recovery. Arguably, we succeeded in some respects though there is still so much work ahead: today, we have an administration much more committed to the hungry, the homeless and the displaced from Sandy. But vigilant we must remain.
As I sit in my office in downtown Detroit today, a thousand miles away from the storm, I reflect on all the ways that Sandy changed me. The Detroit Water Brigade was deeply-informed by our Sandy work, and I continue to think of Detroit as a “disaster without water” that demands the same kind of broad humanitarian relief effort to recover and again become a world-class city. Still, I think of how disasters affect the poor the harshest. And how a culture that values people over profits will never be able to respond to disaster like one that truly values human lives above all. It’s reassuring to feel that today so many others feel that way like me, many more than did before Sandy.
This fictional story takes place in the not-so-distant future in Donbartville™, Michigan. This thriving downtown core of the failed city of Detroit was annexed in 2021 in a hostile corporate takeover precipitated – according to Donbartville™ CEO Dean Donbart – by the raging civic unrest that prompted business leaders to band together and erect a large wall around the city center. Chapter 1 of many…
Photo: Paul Sancya / AP
The traffic is heavy on I-75 North as Bob, an Uber driver, slowly crawls towards Flint. Exhaust fumes ricochet around the tunnel walls that surround him, recently-erected to protect the vital trade route from civic unrest in the suburban streets above. He is carrying cases of plastic PureMichigan Water® bottled in Donbartville for distribution across Southeast Michigan. The bottles swish back and forth in the stop-and-go traffic.
Bob is under orders from the United Way of Donbartville® to deliver this water to thirsty families in Flint as part of the Everyone Drinks! campaign. He has his own private opinions about the city’s water charity program, but ever since Nestle® took over all water extraction from the Great Lakes in a multinational deal with U.S. and Canadian trade officials, the water dollars have been pouring in for drivers like him. Residents of poor communities like Flint were offered free bottled water for life delivered to their door weekly if they’d agree to turn off their taps and sign contracts not to sue the city for lead poisoning or protest at all in the future. Most residents happily complied: PureMichigan Water® is so tasty with its trade-secret vitamin supplements. Only meager opposition came from middle-class suburban ratepayers, who asked why they would have to pay for their weekly rations of Water® while poor residents got it for free. Their concerns were quickly assuaged by United Way representatives in community meetings highlighting the Christian imperative of helping the poor. For those who were more business-inclined, a simple argument of free brand advertising in poor neighborhoods swayed most.
Of course outstanding issues remained, and Bob would be the first to acknowledge if pressed the difficulty of showering and cleaning with bottled Water®. City officials in neighboring Detroit ensured residents that, although the 120-year old corroded municipal pipes were irrevocably damaged, the city was designing a drone-based Water® drop-off system that deposits clean bathing water into rooftop water tanks at an affordable price. For low-income families, Affordability Plans were being designed with simple requirements like 2-minute maximum shower length and 1 bowl of cooked rice per meal. For the neediest families, an innovative public-private partnership with The Coca-Cola Company™ would provide free bathing water to families in exchange for minimally-intrusive advertising space on exterior house walls and front lawn signs.
The brake lights of the car in front of him jolted Bob out of his rebellious political thoughts and back into the reality of bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic to Flint. He was anxious to get to Flint to deliver this water, knowing that there are still families in the city without safe drinking water. But more than that, Bob was getting tired and dreading the long drive back to his home in suburban Detroit and his water-insecure neighborhood. He looked forward to the weekend, since he’d been invited by his wealthy friend Dave to sail Lake St. Claire. He hadn’t told Dave, but he planned to bring a few jugs with him on the boat. Though Nestle had worked with Donbartville executives to ban all private water extraction from the Great Lakes, he knew he could sneak a few gallons if he was discreet and Dave played along. He had even smuggled a water purifying filter into his home, one of the last on the black market since the state of Michigan began stockpiling them several years ago.
As he crawled along I-75 North towards Flint, the sun began to set over Lake Michigan. Bob sighed.
I’m moved by this song by Detroit artist Mic Write. Bold and beautiful defiance in the face of a foreclosure monster. Come out and support The Tricycle Collective with me tomorrow night — buying back homes to save them from auction for families.
Where I’m from
we wear our scars like verses
they tell stories.
We are walking chapbooks,
poetry galvanized into our skin
like Big 3 automotive steel
through proud assembly line palms
We seem to break ourselves down
just to handcraft our own resurrection
like life is just some shattered engine block,
and picking the pieces up ain’t hard no more
(we put it down like)
Ni66a this that Rock’N’Rye/
Ice cold, front porch, scorching
Ni66a this that dotted eye/
Pissed, Joe Louis fist still punching
Ni66a this that Spotify/
We don’t play that shit, you done opened Pandora
My city, my block, my street/
Why pity my stock I eat/
I read, I learn, I care
I think your data is obsolete/ (look)
Ni66a this that miss me with your savior complex/
Ni66a this that school aint got no budget why we paying Congress/
Ni66a this that,
artist sharpened in the heart of hardened environments/
Ni66a this that parking in the dark & christening Belle Isle/
Eastern Market where we often walking & we bargain shopping/this,
this that coughing from the coffin- we still alive/
Kayser Soze of locations, standing ovation/
from coming back from the dead for the umpteenth time,
we don’t die, we do re’/
mi fa so la ti do over Titos holding back our Jacksons/
Me I’m Mic, I put Motown on my back to get it back
These our HOMES
These our HOMES
Y’all can’t take em, Y’all cant take em
These our HOMES
These the places we grew up
These the sets that we threw up
This our crib, This our rib,
Y’all can’t take what I aint gone give
Ni66a this my Heaven Of My Everyday
Heaven Of My Everyday
Heaven Of My Everyday Surroundings (2x)
Ni66a these our HOMES
[DOSS THE ARTIST]:
Ni66a this that neighbor done lost his home cuz his taxes late
Ni66a this that student with no school to go/
so he don’t go to school no mo/
he out on Joy road selling “achoo”, that blow/
maybe sticky green, Coppers gon watch him if he sneeze/
government watch him if he tweet/
streets do watch him if he Bling
over dem watches, over dem choppers, open up two shoots till he bleed/
aint no one stop them,/
and still he survive, it’s no surprise he opens his eyes and ask for me,/
and is there heaven for a G?/
And I just laugh when they get mad at the rose from the concrete/
fix yo roads- shouldn’t no rose ever be growing from these streets/
shouldn’t even be no concrete/
nigga this want my seeds free/
like son it’s Go Time, in Motown, it’s yo time eat/ ya see
The higher you leap the harder you fall/
but right now, Imma leap so high I don’t need no bungee at all/
See I’m just drift from a star/
I’m leave y’all blinking in awe/
as you watch this Detroit (D-twa) Heavyweight/
reaching for heaven every day/
These our H.O.M.E.S
Ain’t no big bad wolf, no hungry breath gone/
blow my heart down, give me home or give me death/
This blog post comes on the Fourth Anniversary of Occupy Wall Street and the launch of The Global Platform, a collaborative project I directed with Occupy activists, German political foundation Freidrich Ebert Stiftung and boutique data visualization agency Two-N.
We are ies living a unique moment for humanity. The future of democracy and self-governance will be decided in our generation.
In early June of 2013, the world was blanketed with a thick and righteous indignation. I sat in a small flat in Paris, shifting my lazy gaze from the Eiffel Tower outside my window to the flurry of images cascading down my laptop’s Twitter feed like a waterfall of revolt. What had begun as a trickle of political slogans a few years ago had slowly transformed into a mighty river of online dissent, its rapids busting through the damns of conventional political representation.
I had come to Paris that summer by invitation of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), one of the world’s largest non-governmental organization created by the Marshall Plan in the rebuilding period after World War II. Today, however, the OECD struggles with the growing legitimacy crisis confronting governments around the world in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis. I had been asked to represent Occupy Wall Street, one such movement that erupted in September 2011 in a small park in New York City. I would be speaking to world business and civic leaders about how social media could make government more responsive to its constituents. Given the political tumult surround them, leaders seemed eager to listen.
My gaze drifted back onto the computer screen. A thousand miles away, in a small park in Istanbul, Turkey government forces had raided a small protest camp of environmentalist activists protecting trees from bulldozers. A beautiful woman in a flowing red dress was pepper-sprayed at close distance by a police officer in riot gear. The tweets rippled out from Gezi Park and picked up speed as they ricocheted across the corners of the Internet.
The now-famous ‘Lady in Red Dress’ in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, 2013
The next day I found myself standing in the multitude of #DirenGezi (roughly translated to #OccupyGezi! or Resist Gezi!). It was a diverse assemblage that, like other occupation protests I have visited, reflected a growing trend of globe-trotting social activists ready to pop up at a moment’s notice wherever people perceived their undemocratic government to be failing them. I had come not to take up arms — which in Gezi really meant bandanas, Guy Fawkes masks sold on the street by local vendors, and milky homemade anti-tear gas concoctions — but rather to observe and document the birth and growth of a 21st-century protest movement. What I saw truly shocked me.
Global protest has become deeply interconnected. Youtube videos recorded by anti-austerity protesters in the streets of Greece are uploaded and streamed by young radicals in the back alleys of Istanbul. They show bandana-masked people in gardening gloves retrieving police tear gas canisters and defusing them in buckets of water set down at door-fronts by high-rise apartment neighbors in a kind of symbiotic act: residents don’t want tear gas smoke wafting into their homes, a desire that puts them into tentative alliance with street protesters against the government’s police.
It isn’t just street protest tactics that are shared instantaneously, but entirely new forms of governance that challenge institutional power at the ground level. A guidebook on peaceful non-violent resistance from Occupy Hong Kong inspires youth in Santiago, Chile and Newark, New Jersey. This is an unexpected outcome of globalization: the same technologies developed for global military power and corporate hegemony have been re-appropriated and reverse engineered for global solidarity movements.
We are living in an era defined by two seemingly-contradictory trends: (1) the rise of technologies that facilitated instantaneous, universal communication across geography, race, class, and nationality, and (2) a steady erosion and decline of the democratic ideals of self-governance and the rule of law in the face of the growing power of unaccountable political elites and international finance capital. This is the defining crisis of our time — the future of democracy itself hangs in the balance.
The frequency of global protest has increased steadily since 2008. The ‘World Protests’ study, from which The Global Platform is born, revealed that the most common demands are: real democracy (meaningful political participation), economic justice, and human (and environmental) rights. Much more than a random cacophony of voices, these demands are co-mingling and co-evolving with each other as global social movements connect on the Internet.
I believe this growing call for change shouldn’t be ignored. I believe that elected officials, civil and business leaders, public intellectuals, social activists, and all concerned citizens will benefit from a sharp look at what is transpiring across the globe today.
In the digital age, things happen so friggin’ fast that sometimes it’s worth slowing down amoment to reflect on how far we’ve come. Nowhere in our culture is that as clear to me as in our understanding of mass surveillance. A little more than two years ago, in May of 2013, almost nobody was talking about the NSA spying on our emails, our phone calls and our metadata. Heck, that word was so geeky it glazed eyes on arrival!
May of 2013 was the same month a little-known security contractor named Ed left an NSA facility in Hawaii with a few thumb drives packed with the secrets that would bust open the seal on one of America’s best-kept secrets. He fled for Hong Kong, ultimately Russia, and the stuff he shared unleashed a furious debate about government overreach and privacy around the world. John Oliver called for an end to the government’s ‘Dick Pic‘ program, a feature film and graphic biography were made about him, and scientists in Germany named a new crayfish species after Snowden.
Everybody seems to be talking about Snowden, except our government.
I think that, too, will change. Recently, Democratic presidential hopeful Larry Lessig called Snowden “a hero”. The White House finally responded to a petition signed by over 120,000 people to pardon Snowden — albeit with the wrong answer. This is becoming the elephant in the national room that nobody can ignore.
My simple view is that Snowden shouldn’t be extradited back to the U.S. to face trial, he should be paraded through the streets of D.C. and New York as an American hero. Yes, a hero. Like Thomas Paine, who ignited the first American Revolution and then found himself imprisoned in France for helping ignite a popular revolution there, too. And just like Snowden, Paine found no sympathy from President George Washington, who ignored his appeals for safe transport back to the country he had served because he had alluded to secret negotiation underway with France in his pamphlets.
And so, like New Yorkers did for Paine, we the people must organize to bring Snowden back safely.
When Paine was ultimately brought back to New York, he was greeted by the masses with celebration. The political pressure they applied ultimately earned Paine $3,000 from the nascent U.S. Congress in recognition for his services, plus an estate in New Rochelle, New York – all probably negotiated by Paine’s friend on the inside Benjamin Franklin.
Let’s get more of the 2016 presidential candidates to speak out in support of Snowden, and make this an issue on which we judge all of them, Democrats and Republicans and independents.
I’m feeling the Bern. As the grassroots surge continues around Bernie Sanders for President, I’m excited to announce that I’ll be hosting filmmaker Anthony Baxter in Detroit next month for a free screening of his latest film as a benefit for Bernie Sanders for President*. The film, A Dangerous Game, tells the epic story of Donald Trump’s battle to build luxury golf courses on pristine land, and local residents’ fightback. It’s a perfect tale of misuse of public money, precious resources (especially water!) and the corruption of democracy that is required to put elite private interests before the common good. I hope you’ll join me:
Detroit Workers & Builders Presents…
A DANGEROUS GAME
CINEMA DETROIT 3420 Cass Ave, Detroit August 4th, 7:00pm
Panel discussion with Filmmaker Anthony Baxter and local activists to follow
Photo: Greeks Rally to Say No (“Oxi”, pronounced Oh-key) to the European Central Bank’s Debt Deal – Telegraph.co.uk
“Greek people are proving they want to remain in Europe as equal members and not as a debt colony” -Greece’s leftist Syriza party Eurodeputy Dimitris Papadimoulis
The results of Sunday’s referendum in Greece are in: by a decisive margin, the Greek people have rejected the European Central Bank (ECB) and IMF’s bailout offer. They have collectively done the hard math that pro-austerity political elites and their technocratic minions said was too complicated to leave to the straightforward machinery of real democracy: the vote. With the will of the people (at least those who voted) now registered, Greece’s leaders will have the leverage they need to really stand up to the ECB and the IMF and get some real concessions.
The math that the people of Greece were asked to do isn’t really that hard at all, despite a million attempts by corporate mainstream media to obfuscateandconfuseitinorder to convince the worldthatnosingleGreekactuallyknows what they’re voting about. The math is actually quite simple: more loans up front leads to more cutbacks later (aka “austerity”). It’s what people in my ‘hood of Detroit call the overlay for the underplay.
This is Greece’s pivotal moment, the inflection point in the curve of popular opinion against austerity politics. Just as Ireland did during last year’s uprising against water privatization, the Greeks have reached the logical conclusion of the ECB/IMF agenda, and it’s totally illogical: you cannot grow an economy by shrinking its social safety net and depriving 99% of its people of basic human necessities in the name of fiscal responsibility. That it took a country-wide referendum in order to draw this line in the sand may be the saving grace of popular democracy against global financial capitalism. That will depend upon how Greece’s leftist government translate the will of the people into the negotiations ahead.
This may all seem like a million miles away from home for the U.S., but it couldn’t be closer. Last week, Puerto Rico’s governor admitted that the island cannot pay its debt obligations. And last year, Detroit underwent the largest municipal bankruptcy in the country’s history. Hundreds of cities and townships across the country face serious financial hardships, and are just one step away from their own Greece moment. (This is not because of, as the conservative NY Post claims, big government spending and pensions – austerity politics is squarely to blame.) Greece’s stand is the logical next step in a global anti-austerity movement that traces back to the 2008 financial collapse, the Arab Spring, Indignados and Occupy movements spurred by it, and the surging global populist and pro-democracy electoral victories that have emerged from these movements: Spain’s Podemos party, Greece’s Syriza and right here at home an insurgent independent socialist Bernie Sanders gaining ground on the establishment Democratic Party’s Hillary Clinton. This is grassroots politics, in action.
The consequences of the Greek referendum will be global: they will certainly draw concessions from global banks and pro-austerity governments, and even propel forward initiatives like Jubilee USA’s work at the United Nations to establish a global bankruptcy framework for countries and colonial commonwealths like Greece, Cyprus, Puerto Rico and many others to seek and obtain serious debt relief where paying back illegitimate or over-burdensome debts would end in violations of basic human rights, like the right to water in Detroit.
Will there be turbulence in the markets: almost certainly. Businesses, especially in today’s fast-paced global economy, crave political stability and predictability – the opposite of what real democracy can provide in times like these. Yet, the business world should look to the example of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the years after the great Depression of 1929: the only way to grow economies during economic downtimes is through direct government spending to spur job growth and productivity. In the 20th century, this was aided by a booming war-time economy that created effectively full employment by the early 1940’s. In the 21st century, we can create full employment by more peaceful means: fixing decaying infrastructure, investing in new green technology that will facilitate high-speed public transit, universal healthcare and free higher education.
Let’s let Greece’s example guide the way: in order to build the positive agenda we need for sustainable economic growth, we must first say clearly OXI! to austerity.
Last week, the Ford Foundation – the charitable fund created by Edsel and Henry Ford and now run independently of the motor company – returned to its birthplace, the Motor City. There were no parades, no tears of joy from family reunited after many long years. A raised eyebrow, at best, greeted the Trustees as they returned to renew their commitment to our embattled city.
The reality is that the things that Ford Motor Company represented to many – bustling industry, solid wages, the American Dream – have long since departed Detroit. The Foundation itself left Detroit to New York City in 1953 as it sought to expand its reach nationally and globally, and the relationship of the Foundation to its creators the Ford Family began to deteriorate. In his 1976 resignation letter to the Board, Foundation President Henry Ford II wrote sourly:
“The foundation exists and thrives on the fruits of our economic system. A significant portion of all abundance created by US business enables the foundation and like institutions to carry on their work. In effect, the foundation is a creature of capitalism—a statement I’m sure would be shocking to many professional staff in the field of philanthropy. Perhaps it is time for trustees and staff to examine the question of our obligations to our economic systems and to consider how the foundation, as one of the system’s most prominent offspring, might act most wisely to strengthen and improve its progenitor.”
And by then, industrial capitalism had effectively left Detroit. And left it in shambles. This departure was exacerbated by globalization and federal policies like free trade agreements (think NAFTA and the soon-to-be-approved Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)… do we ever learn?) as well as domestic issues at home like intense racism, housing segregation and employment discrimination that famously exploded into public view with the Riots/Rebellion of 1967. It must have seemed to many like Ford had turned its back on its hometown just as things started going downhill.
The sad irony of Henry Ford II’s words as seen today is that things are worse for capitalism today than they were when he wrote them, and the system is most in need of saving (or ditching?). In 1976, the top .1% of families owned slightly less than 10% of the country’s total wealth. Today, that number is nearly 25%. A single family, the Waltons of Walmart fame, own more than the bottom 40% of American families. (That dwarfs the wealth of the Ford family by over 100-fold, and Ford was famously called a socialist by the New York Times in 1914 for paying $5/day, or $114 in today’s dollars. In contrast, the Waltons don’t even pay enough to keep their employees off food stamps: in fact, their company lobbies for expansion of federal SNAP benefits as the largest corporate beneficiary of them.) Whether you’re for capitalism or against it, there’s something true ringing in those parting words of Henry Ford II.
So perhaps it is best to understand the Ford Foundation’s not-so-triumphant return to Detroit in just this context: if capitalism is to be saved, Detroit is definitely the place to do it. Inequality has reached such soaring heights here that basic human rights like access to water and local democratic control are being stripped away from people. The Foundation actually seems to understand, its current President Darren Walker writing this in a sweeping Free Press op-ed heralding their return:
Today, our focus is on inequality, which is the defining issue of our era. Inequality is more than an economic divide between the super wealthy and the vast majority of people who struggle to make ends meet. It’s also about imbalances in political, social and cultural power that favor the few over the many.
It is why, for instance, when Detroit entered Chapter 9 bankruptcy, it was not the powerful or wealthy who were asked to sacrifice, but those already most vulnerable. Retirees saw their pensions up for grabs; residents’ voices were eclipsed by unelected officials; low-income people had to fight for access to water; and irreplaceable public treasures owned by all were considered disposable.
As my mother used to say, “We all know the sickness, God, but please send down the cure!” The Ford Foundation’s $125 million pledge to the so-called grand bargain to resolve Detroit’s bankruptcy was the largest grant they ever made, and yet that money will only help pay old debts and pension obligations. Who will create tomorrow’s living wage jobs in Detroit, like Henry Ford did 100 years ago? As Detroit Chief Operations Officer Gary Brown recently told me in a meeting on water affordability and payment assistance, “You can’t fix this by just throwing money at the problem.” (Former hedge fund manager Andy Kessler makes the same point in a different way in a recent critique, positing that the Ford Foundation should follow Henry Ford’s example to combat inequality: investing and creating jobs. I agree with some elements of his analysis, but others ring hollow in a city that hasn’t been helped by investors in a long time…)
The truth is that Detroit needs a new industry that is both financially and ecologically sustainable. We don’t need more pity charity and “trade adjustment assistance“, which is hush money for politicians to get rich while helping their crony capitalist friends outsource American jobs. The city that built the automobile could build the next generation of public transit for the world: high-speed rail, renewable batteries for electric cars/buses, solar and wind power, a green New Deal for this country and the globe. Could the Ford Foundation get behind this?
So let me welcome the Ford Foundation back to Detroit, where we have 100,000 unemployed skilled workers ready for jobs and no capitalists to employ them. Ready for the challenge? We are.
PS – Visit DetroitWorkers.com to learn how we’re tooling and retraining Detroiters to fix Detroit, so Detroit can move the world again.