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Detroit Water – A Movement Grows

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Video by Stephen McGee Films

Why We the People Must Stand with Detroit

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Detroit Water Protest

A young Detroiter at a Freedom Friday protest against city water shutoffs.

It is time for we the people to stand with Detroit. The work has already started. Detroit is rebuilding community from the grassroots up, and a few dedicated but under-staffed community organizations are working feverishly to grow a more sustainable, equitable and innovative Detroit than the one you hear about in the mainstream media. They’re working for the most part under-the-radar and on local scale, building housing and worker cooperatives, urban farms, alternative recycling programs, public-private partnerships, and a million other amazing ideas that could only take root in a city as ingenuous and resilient as Detroit. These are Detroit’s Davids against Wall Street’s Goliaths, and they need our solidarity now.


The situation


Today, 60% of Detroit children live in poverty and the infant mortality rate has surpassed Mexico’s. The city, under unelected emergency financial management from the state governor’s office, recently announced a plan to shut off up to 150,000 residential and commercial water accounts – almost 40% of the city – for non-payment. In some neighborhoods, more streetlights are broken or off than on, and there are more than 80,000 abandoned buildings citywide.


Meanwhile, Detroit’s municipal government and economy are still reeling from decades of disinvestment, deindustrialization, white flight, capital flight, and – yes – corruption that have sent former mayors to jail. Simultaneously, City Hall is being crushed under the weight of an imposing and nationally-coordinated media and financial occupation by corporate America. Michigan’s Tea Party state governor, Rick Snyder, took control of Detroit and 6 other majority-black cities last year under a controversial “emergency manager” law. Shortly after Snyder appointed Kevin Orr to run the city, Orr hired his own former corporate bankruptcy law firm to initiate bankruptcy proceedings while also paving the way for land sell-offs to preferred companies and developers as well as privatization of public utilities and services like ambulances and the water department.


Detroit’s retired city employees and pensioners are likely to pay a high price for the bankruptcy, while banks that engaged in dubious municipal credit rate swaps reclaim the majority of their failed loans and extract usurious interest rates on existing bad debt.


I thought Detroit already got a bailout, in 2009?


Nope, the Big 3 auto companies – Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors – got bailed out under the Automotive Industry Finance Program. In return, their top executives sold their corporate jets, and then proceeded to slash health benefits, cut pensions and reduce payments to laid-off workers. The bailout wasn’t enough for Chrysler, which went bankrupt 3 months later. It received an additional $6 billion check straight from the desk of U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, in exchange for vague promises to become “more competitive” and build electric cars. In March of 2009, Treasury approved an additional $5 billion in loans to auto suppliers.


One thing is clear from the auto bailouts: they didn’t do a damn thing to help 99% of Detroit residents. In 2012, two years after the bailout, Detroit still had three times the national poverty rate and half the median income. In fact, the median household income actually declined in the years after the auto bailout from $28,730 (2008) to $23,600 (2012), a full 18% drop. The auto bailout dollars didn’t enrich Detroit proper because for decades Detroit and the auto companies have been disjointed: very little of the wealth created by automobile sales actually stays in Detroit, but gets piped out to the wealthier suburbs or diffuses into the now-global network of financial centers and offshore tax havens.


And Americans as a whole didn’t benefit from the auto bailouts either, in tandem with how they haven’t benefitted from the Wall Street bailouts. 5 years later, the government has spent $80 billion propping up the car companies, but recovered only $54.6 billion of it by October, 2013. That leaves taxpayers on the hook for nearly $25 billion. And the electric cars promised? Chrysler built them, and then Chrysler’s CEO told customers not to buy them because they weren’t profitable. Bailing out the auto companies to save Detroit turned out to be like paying the fox to guard the henhouse, and working Americans are the hens.


In an ideal world


In a world of less dysfunctional politics, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. A functional and compassionate government would have come to the aid of a once-great American city now teetering on the brink of financial collapse and experiencing a full-blown humanitarian disaster.


If the disaster that has befallen Detroit and countless other rustbelt cities had occurred overnight like a hurricane or a tornado, FEMA – the real domestic “emergency managers” – and Red Cross volunteers would be on every corner distributing emergency aid. An army of social workers would descend on the neighborhoods to provided vital services. A New Deal-style emergency jobs program would put thousands of Detroiters to work repairing or demolishing blighted buildings and infrastructure


If the disaster of Detroit had happened in Ukraine, or Israel, or Afghanistan, or Egypt, or any of the dozens of countries around the world where the U.S. government spends over $37 billion annually on foreign aid, U.S. peacekeeping forces would be working side-by-side with local leaders to build schools and hospitals. U.N. Human Rights Observers would be on the ground to ensure the human right of access to clean drinking water. President Obama would stand proudly with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan posing for pictures in front of the Spirit of Detroit sculpture announcing a peace treaty to ensure an end to the violent water shutoffs and evictions.


The Cavalry Isn’t Coming – So We Must


In reality, none of this is going to happen if it doesn’t suit the interests of the large banks and corporations that showed us clearly in 2008 how they have our elected government fully co-opted to serve their bottom lines. To corporate America, Detroit is just a bunch of deadbeat debtors who haven’t paid their bills, not a humanitarian disaster zone. To them, a bailout for Detroit is a bailout of their own coffers; payback on their own soured gambles.


For the rest of us, though, it’s time to help Detroit. If you care about second chances, about life after poverty and unemployment, you are needed in Detroit to build the better world we talked about in 1,000 parks across this country in the fall of 2011.


You ready to start bailing out Detroit the right way? It starts with water, the basic element of life. Join the Detroit Water Brigade and help us start getting water and vital information to Detroiters in need. If we can, we’ll raise the money to buy off the $150 debts of Detroit families to keep the city from shutting off their water – Strike Debt style. If we raise enough money, maybe we can even buy this debt in bulk and bring hope and second chances to some of America’s most-neglected citizens. Once we get going, who knows where we’ll stop? Rebuild the water and energy systems with renewable technologies and designate them a public commons for all. End all evictions. Turn abandoned lots into urban farms. Rebuild schools. End payday lending and expand crowd funding of local small and cooperative businesses. The sky is the limit.


The bailout isn’t coming from above, people. Let’s do this ourselves.


Dispatch from Detroit #3, On Water

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The waves of the Detroit River lap up onto the wall of the riverwalk downtown, and young children play in the fountains that shoot up through the concrete in the park below the towering Renaissance Center. It is Saturday in Motown, and the sun is shining warm rays down on working-class folk enjoying a day of rest.

Just a few miles away, on the east side across the highway, Jean stands on her porch and worries about the pregnant mom whose water was shut off Thursday morning by Homrich contractors working for the City of Detroit under emergency financial management. They came that morning in a red pickup truck with a homemade decal on the side. In an arc around a circle it read “DETROIT WATER COLLECTION PROJECT”- quite official-looking – and inside the circle it read “WATER ****** HOMRICH”, the asterisks representing a scribbled out word SHUTOFF that was removed after community protests about shaming neighborhood residents.

Jean came yesterday to the weekly, growing Freedom Fridays rallies at the Detroit Water and Sewerage Dept (DWSD) to voice her outrage at seeing a pregnant mother and young children denied the basic

Jean speaks out at a Freedom Friday rally, 6/21

Jean speaks out at a Freedom Friday rally, 6/21

human right to water in a city surrounded by the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth, containing 21% of the world’s surface fresh water. Her voice faltered as she worked to hold back tears on the megaphone. Her tone was one part desperation and one part pure rage, a rage that is simmering with the summer heat and the threat of over 100,000 family water shutoffs in the hot months ahead.

The media has been nearly silent on the issue of water shutoffs since Detroit’s emergency management began to ramp them up last month. With so much negative news about bankruptcy and blight already, could it be that the country has become desensitized to Detroit’s suffering? Or is it just increasingly difficult to cut through the corporate spin machine that seems to dictate so much of what we hear and see these days on the TV and in newspapers, as Conan  O’Brien famously demonstrated when he showed how local news stations were just lazily parroting national corporate press releases. Whatever the reason, you won’t be reading about this humanitarian crisis in USA Today – yet.

Yet. Because we’re going to ramp up the pressure and make this issue un-unreportable.

Yet. Because everyone in the country – in the world? – deserves to know that in the richest country on Earth poor people are having their water shutoff because they can’t pay.

Yet. Because if the water shutoffs don’t stop, an army of peaceful resistance will stop them.

This is a call to action to become part of that resistance.

Visit the Detroit Water Brigade and enlist to help deliver resources and support to those most in need.

Water is a human right.

Dispatch from Detroit #2, Slow Down to Rise Up!

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Everything moves a little more slowly here.

I called the Masonic Temple today, a majestic theatre I recall visiting with my parents as a child. I was inquiring about renting the place for a benefit concert to support the thousands of families whose water is threatened with shutoff every week here for non-payment.

“We are a non-profit,” I gently let drop as she reached for the rate sheet.

“Honey, in Detroit, everyone’s a non-profit,” she responded.

In a sense, she’s right. Who living and working in the city today is turning a profit? I’m not denigrating proud local small businesses that are fighting to make it work past the foundation grants and start-up funding and the helpful checks from loved ones. Nor am I dissing the wide web of non-profits that exist to fill the gaping holes in America’s Swiss cheese safety net – though some of them frankly perpetuate rather than curb the inequities. Finally, I am not ignorant of the behemoth corporations who exist in Detroit in name only but whose profits seep out through the tentacles of global finance to New York, Chicago, London, and then Bermuda, Caymans…

No, Detroit is – for the time-being – beautifully unprofitable for most of us. Maybe profit isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe profitability shouldn’t be the final metric of Detroit’s success in the first place.

The fiscal unprofitability of Detroit slows down time here. Demolition projects crawl along at a snail’s pace. Renovations are over-budget and over deadline. Businesses return your calls and emails a few days later. Life moves at a more human than machine pace here.

When I speak to my social entrepreneurial friends here, they talk of targeting neighborhoods that are teetering on the brink of collapse for land bank intervention or community service. In reality, I think we’re all teetering on brinks all the time, but the ones that move us to action are those that make us feel we can have a positive impact. The pride of low-income Detroit residents collides with the excitement and ambition of young urban activists and change-makers, and creates uncomfortable cultural eddies and waves that we must maneuver honestly and thoughtfully. That takes time, and not the kind that Emergency Managers and “grand bargains” offer in their bankruptcy timelines.

The first widespread viral tactic of popular revolution was the barricade in France, and it spread so quickly because it slowed business as usual in the cities to a standstill so the everyday people could organize themselves. Perhaps we need a 21st century tactic like the barricade – be it digital or analog, but always non-violent – to slow down the hectic hum of gentrification and privatization and build out plans to make Detroit more equitable, sustainable, creative, diverse and just plain fun.

To rise up, we just need to slow down.


Photo: Valerie Jean

Dispatch from Detroit #1, On Blight

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Justin Packard Plant

This is the first in a series of reflections on life in the shell of a once-great metropolis that is searching again for greatness. I share stories of the people I meet between the burned-out buildings and the overgrown foliage of a land abandoned by some, scarred and ravaged by others, and still inhabited by a resilient and proud few.


The blight here is like a blemish on the face of industrial capitalism.


Each abandoned, boarded-up home whispers out to suburban blocks where kids still ride their bikes. A family once lived here, with a steady wage and a mortgage they could afford.


Each towering apartment building whose skeleton frame the bright blue summer sky silhouettes whispers like the air blowing freely through rooms once shielded from the outside elements. Many families once slept here, with flowers in their windowsills and milk in the refrigerator.


Each ghost town factory spanning city blocks with once-decadent facades drooping under Earth’s gravity whispers to empty brown fields where only heavy metals live. 100,000 men once worked here, with good line jobs that divvied up capital’s bounty.


Maybe that’s why those from above would like to descend on every neighborhood here and strike it from memory. Lest it be a reminder to the present of the pains of the past. Lest it be a warning to the present of the errors of the past.


I don’t mean to romanticize the ruins. Their mere presence here slows down time, as if history’s long arms reached forward and pulled back the present with gasps of slow down! You’re moving too fast. You’re going to do it again!


No, I’m not romanticizing the ruins as if they were the Parthenon in Greece. I don’t want to put a tourist kiosk at the foot of each one, with a line extending back of eager visitors to catch a glimpse of the once-great empire The Motor City. A cafe on the roof of the Packard Plant to sip lattes and peer out over the banks of le détroit du lac Érié, french for the straight of Lake Erie.


Don’t call in the coroner. Detroit ain’t dead yet.


Its ruins aren’t the remains of great palaces for the gods above. They are testaments to an era of prosperity turned to excess, of opportunity turned to greed, and greed turned to poverty. They are like burned-out tanks on the battlefield of labor versus capital, where capital won decisively and retreated to higher ground while labor fled without time to even pick up its wounded and dead.


But really nobody won, because everybody lost.


Eventually the blight will have to come down, but will we have learned the lessons first? It’s easy to say tear it all down but what will replace it? And more importantly, who will replace those who have left? And will those who stayed be replaced, pushed out?


That which doesn’t exist cannot have ever existed, except in the memories of witnesses and their descendants. Today’s residents are the last remaining witnesses, and their testimony has not yet been fully taken. Their stories have not been written down, their pictures not yet snapped. The media doesn’t rush to their ‘hood with cameras and news trucks when a city contractor comes to quietly shut off the water. The 7 o’clock news isn’t teeming with stories of their evictions and incarcerations and daily struggles, not like it clings to the hopes and aspirations of Dan Gilbert the savior from Above. Only silence.


Silence like the wind blowing through the skeleton silhouettes of burned-out buildings.


Letter to a Stranger

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The Nehalem River (Photo: Justin Wedes)


Dear Stranger,


There’s a light rain in the river bay today. I can see it out the window of my new home perched on the hill. You sit on the road below in your Chevy truck, engine humming with the babbling creek. Foggy mountains frame the distance. Frogs perch in their moss beds.


I haven’t met you yet, but I’m bound to in this small town. Your fate will wrap up with mine like an ivy vine, at least for a short time. At least while we both inhabit these mountains. So I suppose I’ll introduce myself.


Last week I rode in from Brooklyn, New York. My pants are dirty with the dust kicked up by buses and trains from a dozen towns stretched across this great country. My mind is still racing and I’m restless. I’ve been wound up by years of city life and now I’m unraveling. Give me a few days, though, and I’ll settle right in. Deep down I’m a country boy I reckon.


You should know that I’m trouble. Not like a corner-store criminal, but more like a rabble-rouser. A non-conformist. A fighter. I’m passionate and principled. I’m an arguer. A lover, too.


On the way here, I met a man named Josh from Michigan. He was a mighty boxer until a jab to the head landed him in the hospital for brain surgery and four weeks in a comma. The doctor thought he might not ever wake up, but he did. He remembered almost everything, and has three kids now. I told him my biggest fear was to lose my memory, and he told me it isn’t that bad, when you know which parts you’ve lost and which you’ve still got. I told him just thinking about that just gave me a numb thud deep inside my head. I guess I’m cerebrally sensitive.


I met a queer writer named Laurel who writes poems and stories. She was thinking about moving from Oregon to Brooklyn and had taken the trip east by train. When I met her she was on her way back home but thinking of swapping coasts in just the opposite fashion as me. It occurred to me she might be my mirror image, moving at 180° angles to my own life. Maybe there are many of us moving in these orbits, entangled in a quantum dance no matter how distant from each other, unbeknownst to any of us.


You, stranger, might also become entangled with me. Or perhaps we have already crossed paths before. Folks don’t remember most of the people they encounter in life, right? The ones they never speak to or do business with or fall deep in love with. Maybe I ran past you in Central Park last year? Or perhaps your email address is in my inbox? Could it be we share a distant cousin? They say humanity’s most recent common ancestor – the great predecessor we living humans can all trace our converging lineages back to – dates back to 209,000 years ago. Wooly mammoths roamed these parts only 15,000 years ago, so you and I go way back. It’ll be nice to re-meet you.


Have I come on too strong? Let me slow down and listen to you for a minute. Your story is just as important as mine; just as captivating I’m sure. Tell me about it.


The fog is starting to withdraw and I can see the farmlands across the river. The rain halts for a moment, and it is eerily silent up here on my hill. A dog barks in the distance. Birds chirp in the trees. The gears of my mind start to slow down and I can finally begin to relax. I meditate on the sheer beauty of this temperate rainforest. In this space I am a stranger, too. I’m a visitor to the door of mother Earth, beckoning to be let in and to calm my human temper to match the irresistible tranquility of the natural world. Grant me serenity, please.


I am drawn out of my meditation by the muted thump of your Chevy truck door closing. The engine lets out a rough cough and then that same low hum. You’re pulling away and driving into the distance, across the bridge over the river and out of sight.


A rooster sings out in the distance.


I suppose I’ll see you again soon, but for now please accept this letter from one stranger to another.


Until we meet again.

Farewell to the Concrete Jungle

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“Not all those who wander are lost.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

The Arrival

The view from my 1st Brooklyn apartment

In those first sleepless nights, the smells of the Gowanus Canal were stirred up into the air by the cars down the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. They wafted up into my artist loft apartment as I tossed and turned in my under-sized, rented bed. The honeymoon had ended and the reality of city life had begun to creep in. I would repeat to myself, “Some days you win, some days New York wins” with the resignation of a poker player. Those days New York usually won, but now and then a Midwest kid got his chance – and pounced.

You couldn’t tell in the summer of 2008 that we were about to crash. I played music with my band on a kiddie cruise around Manhattan to pick up some extra change while I prepared to enter the public school classroom. The city was always full of life, and you got out of it exactly what you put in – or a little more if you were lucky. Usually, that meant smiles and beers and late nights that soared into the skyscrapers because you always knew someone who knew someone. Work hard. Play hard.


On the Other Side of the Slope

The autumn arrived and teacher life began. Early mornings and ties laced up around the neck on the way to the subway station. Park Slope is that part of Brooklyn where all the NY Times reporters are rumored to live. Where the momma mafia rules the streets with strollers and organic, homeopathic, macrobiotic, vegan-tastic baby food. Your status in this ‘hood is determined by how high up the slope you lived. I started on rusty 3rd avenue, but with aspirations of 7th ave and then majestic Prospect Park West. It never occurred to me that work took my in the exact opposite direction, down 2nd ave to 1st and then across the stinky Gowanus to uncharted territory: Red Hook. Projects. Payday loans. Buses. Graffiti. And so much heart.

I thrived in Red Hook. It has this quirky mix of urban industrial yard and Scottish fishing village. Gentrification was, for the moment, on hold. Education was thriving. Spanish rice and beans from Papi on the corner.

Something changed. My teacher friend John told me he had to move because his roommate had been canned from Lehman Brothers and he couldn’t afford the steep Carroll Gardens rent anymore. Every day another bailout, another bank on the brink. Us teachers were getting anxious. Job cuts always loomed, and not just for Wall Street bankers. Unease lay itself down across the borough like a blanket of clouds.


Second Year’s a Charm

Meanwhile, in Red Hook, I was becoming worth my salt at the school. The students respected me now. They knew I didn’t take their crap, but that I really cared about them. I could level with them without losing my stature. I could lead without them falling behind.

Photo: Justin Douglas

That didn’t mean everything was rainbows and butterflies. When you teach at a school for drop outs (“formerly truant students” was the more optimistic term used), you hope for the best but prepare for the worst. A student once tried to assault me in the classroom. Another time, they saw me with a female teacher taking a walk and the rumors began to fly between class bells. In other moments, students would confide deeply personal things to me. I have always had a soft spot for the underdog, but their stories took my empathy to a whole new level.

I would start the day in the projects and end it at a cocktail party in the penthouse of McGraw-Hill in Manhattan. This, I presumed, was the role of the teacher: bridge-builder between society’s classes, the glue that holds together a fragmenting, unequal nation. I started to piece together a topology of the social structure. My mind raced.


The Bridge Begins to Burn

By now, I had moved up to 6th ave. This wasn’t quite majesty, but as Plato once said: Never discourage anyone who continually makes progress, no matter how slow. The move up the slope had exposed me to the reality of life slightly higher up the “yuppie” (young professional) food chain: it really sucked. It sucked like ‘furniture-too-delicate-and-antique-to-sit-on’ sucks. So much momma mafia. Hefty rents. Before long, I had to get out of there.

Bed-Stuy, short for the Bedford-Stuyvesent neighborhood of Brooklyn, called in the form of a room opening up with a good friend. A traditionally black neighborhood, it was facing gentrification by young artists and creative types priced out of trendier hipster Williamsburg or yuppie Park Slope. Paradoxically I felt more at home here, perhaps because it reminded me of my hometown metro Detroit. Good, honest people with little presumption.

At work, fiscal austerity had multiplied the tension on staff. Somebody was going to be axed at the end of the year. Seniority dictated it would be a young teacher, but there were plenty of those at my school as there are at so many hard-to-staff, so-called “low-performing” schools. Restless to take on some leadership, I had gotten myself elected to union chapter leader and I became an advocate for many other teachers who felt the strain our principal put on us. It was flowing down from above him, as the DOE sought to pressure schools to graduate more kids faster and to do it with less resources. Teachers and their students were paying the bill left behind when bankers got up from the table and split.

I started to spend less time at McGraw-Hill and more at local union rallies and organizing meetings. It was exhilarating to know that there were so many staunch advocates for public education out there, from parents to teachers to community leaders and elected officials. I was introduced to that seminal rite of passage into the activist world: the Panel for Education Policy meeting. Here, passionate parents and firebrand teachers ridiculed and tormented the Mayor-appointed panel that made final decisions on which schools would stay open and which would close, which projects would be funded and which would not. The energy was electric!

One day at work, I was startled when my principal called me into his office to tell me that, because of the budget cuts, my position was being excessed. I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t ready for my teaching career to come to an end so soon. In a rare display of fragility, I broke down crying as soon as I left his office. The pain was raw and deep.



Out of the public schools now, I took a sabbatical from New York to clear my mind and found a teaching gig at an elite private boarding school. I went from teaching the poorest of the 99% to the elite .1% of the 1%. The difference? Nearly naught. Kids are kids. They face the same teenage angst and feelings of neglect from their parents who were either too poor or too rich to pay sufficient attention to their needs. The teacher would have to fill in as parent now.

I tried to help them put their hard times in context. I aimed to open their minds to the struggles of young people on the other end of the spectrum. It was like an economic abyss had opened up and I had a leg on either side as the two cliffs inched apart and I faltered precariously. The slow death of the middle class was tearing our country apart, and I felt the call of activism pulling me out of the classroom.

I returned to NYC rejuvenated, ready to take on the world again. Protests were erupting everywhere, as democratic uprisings threatened entrenched powers from Tunisia to Egypt to Spain and Greece. We would bring them to Wall Street, the belly of the beast, the “global Mubarak” as Occupy co-creator and visionary Micah White would put it. The year of 2011 filled me with a revolutionary fervor that invigorated my body and mind. Causes converged and the street became the public forum in which the people made not only their grievances but also their aspirations heard. Imagination was let loose. Hope and change were untied from their politics-as-usual leashes.


It’s the long haul that matters

By now, I had lived in NYC long enough to know that if you walk backwards on a moving escalator you end up going nowhere fast. But if you run forward, eventually you’ll hit your wit’s end, crash and burn. Best thing to do is ride the wave, and know that only so much can be accomplished in one Big Apple day.

I filled each day with beautiful action. I visited every borough, met new activists and took chances on people. I was wagering everything on this global revolution. I was all in, the only way I know how to be. And it was purely joyous.

I agreed to take on a project with the student leadership class at Paul Robeson High School alongside my partner-in-justice Radio Rahim, the inspiration for the Spike Lee character of ‘Do The Right Thing’ fame. Radio just happened to be my Bed-Stuy neighbor down the street and a venerable character in the education activism scene. The project began as a simple morale-boost for the students as the city was targeting them for closure, but with the energy infused by Occupy it morphed into an all-out campaign to save the school.

The students escalated their campaign in April 2012, releasing a video calling on students across the city to walk out of school with them in solidarity on May 1st, “May Day”. The principal responded with a school-wide clamp-down and a letter home to parents the day before the planned action, complete with a link to the students’ video. His actions back-fired, as parents watched the video with their children and sided with them against the administration. The next day, dozens of them joined community activists and leaders outside to greet the protesting youth.

I was elated. Radio and I had worked hard to garner community support for the students, but they were the ones who had pulled off the magic: all their peers walked out with them! Not only that, but hundreds of students from schools across NYC joined them as well for a teach-in at Fort Greene Park. Even youth from the esteemed Brooklyn Technical High School – far from a struggling school slated for closure – joined their peers from Robeson that day in protest. It was a victory not just for public education, but for the now-globalizing Occupy movement, showing the pendulum was swinging back from banks and corporations to workers and students.


After the Protest

It isn’t easy to sustain the energy of the streets when everyone is back home. My Bed-Stuy mentor, the late and great Jitu Weusi, once taught me that to make a social movement sustainable it must be about education. As Occupy Wall Street’s raw and righteous anger simmered down, my education activism ascended once again but with a new consciousness. The post-Occupy world was different. The analysis had sharpened: we now spoke of class and capitalism instead of just austerity and tax justice. An intelligentsia of sorts was emerging, and I struggled to find my place amongst the greats: David Graeber, Naomi Klein, Angela Davis, Cornel West, Elizabeth Warren, and young rising stars like Nelini Stamp, Marissa Holmes, Jesse LaGreca, Micah White, and many more.

Back in Brooklyn, the veteran students of Robeson had joined together to help us build the Paul Robeson Freedom School to carry on the legacy of the closing high school. I was asked to serve as co-Principal alongside Radio, and we worked to build local partnerships to open a summer program for at-risk middle-school students. The timing couldn’t have been better, as activists from Zuccotti Park searching for community engagement mingled with local youth at street barbecues in the hot city summer evenings. The NY Times even called it “Camp Occupy”.


Going Global

I knew that what we began in Zuccotti had been just the continuation of an international wave of revolt. After the first summer of Freedom School, I grew anxious to chart out the contours of this global uprising. I spent 2013 visiting and speaking at conferences and with activists in 10 different countries: Brasil, Tunisia, Egypt, Paris, the UK, Turkey, Mexico, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Austria. I met revolutionaries and regular folks swept up in a movement for real democracy, social justice, cooperative economics and dignity for all. I dodged tear gas canisters and shared heady late-night conversations with visionaries who dared to believe that another world is possible. I soaked it all in.

Yousef runs a small internet cafe just off Taksim Square where the #OccupyGezi uprising began in April, 2014

My last visit was to the Lacandon Jungle of Southern Mexico. The occasion was the 20th anniversary of the Zapatista indigenous rebel uprising, and a Freedom School was being hosted to bring together global activists, academics and journalists to learn about the progress the indigenous peoples had made since putting down their arms and picking up plowshares. I heard for the first time the term “city savages”, and as a city boy for life it stung. The seed of my mental transformation away from New York City had been planted.


Back to the Big Apple

I find myself today packing up and wrapping up the loose ends of my nearly 6-year dive into Gotham life. I can’t help but take stock of what has and hasn’t changed.

There’s been a good dose of progress towards a more just and equitable New York City since I arrived in 2008:

  • I arrived to a billionaire mayor who spent snowstorm weekends in Bermuda, and I leave the city to one who campaigned in Zuccotti Park on the Tale of Two Cities and tackling income inequality.
  • Cathie Black, magazine-publisher-turned-cocktail-party-friend-of-the-mayor-turned-schools-chancellor, has been replaced by a life-long educator, Carmen Fariña. (I’m particularly proud of having spearheaded the campaign to oust Black.)
  • A fierce direct action campaign begun by US Uncut and escalated by Occupy Wall Street helped secure the extension of the Millionaire’s Tax and now de Blasio’s proposed tax on the wealthy to fund universal pre-K.
  • Young activists are pushing the envelope to find new ways to collectivize and organize workers, like the Hot & Crusty crew.

Not all news is good, though. Some worrying trends since I arrived in New York City:

  • The reported number of homeless people in city shelters has nearly doubled, to 53,270 (Source:
  • The Bloomberg administration has closed 171 schools, nearly all of them in low-income, black and Latino neighborhoods
  • The city’s wealthiest residents and developers are still lavished with unnecessary tax breaks in return for campaign bribes, like those for One57 and four other luxury Manhattan condos.
  • Stop-And-Frisk isn’t dead yet, and police brutality is still rampant in the force – most notably and disturbingly inside and around public schools


The Path Ahead

I am excited to share with you that I’ll be moving shortly to Nehalem, a small town on the north coast of Oregon. I’ll join fellow activist and Occupy Wall Street meme creator Micah White to help kick off the #YouAreNeeded campaign to build grassroots political power. I’ll also take some much-needed time to reflect and write on my experiences as a young activist and educator. The Pacific coast of Oregon is perhaps one of the most beautiful features of this country, and it is a treasure that belongs to the people. The Zapatistas say, “The land belongs to those who work it.” In the same way, those who cultivate the real estate of their minds – thanks, Chuck D for that one! – can truly claim ownership over their thoughts. It’s time to tend to my mind.


I met this guy in Chiapas, Mexico

Thank you, New York

I owe the deepest debt of gratitude to all of those who enriched my life here in New York over the past 6 years. You have made this city bearable. You have comforted me when the grinding wheels of the subway trains, and the blazing sirens, all conspired to derail my calm. You have nurtured my creativity and my endless curiosity. You have challenged me to live more fully and without holding back, and then rescued me from the edge when I tipped. It is to you before any bank that I owe an infinite invoice of appreciation. Thank you.

To my closest friends: love massive. (To my closest enemies: the same!)

To Radio Rahim: peace noble.

To the staff and students of South Brooklyn Community High School: keep dreaming big. The elevator out of Red Hook soars to the sky.

To the Robeson FightersAkeem, Sue, Troy, Lizzie, Ana, all of you – never give up. Know that you inspired thousands with your brave stand.

To all of the corrupt NY state politicians who aren’t yet behind bars: don’t sigh a breath of relief so fast – I leave in my stead a solid cohort of progressive activists who are the future of this broken political system, and they’re finding their way into it.

To Occupy Wall Street: all day, all week.

To Wall Street: keep looking for that way out. We’ll have good-paying jobs for you on the other side once we win.

To all my family and my people in Detroit: you put the fight in me.

Solidarity forever,







Photo: Charles Meacham

Occupy Sandy Submits Public Comments to NYC Plan

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This is Occupy Sandy’s response to New York City’s most recent Community Development Block Grants Disaster Recovery (CDBG-GR) plan. The comments were submitted to the city last night on behalf of Occupy Sandy Policy Work-group and Spokes Council. (Reposted from

Occupy Sandy CDBG-DR Amendment 5 Comments

Dear City:

Occupy Sandy is a grassroots non-hierarchical community-led disaster relief network. We had numerous hubs throughout the affected areas that worked in solidarity with and were accountable to the neighborhoods we served.  We were often the source of information for FEMA, the City, OEM and the Red Cross about on-the-ground needs. We gave out $3.5 million in aid, directed over 50,000 volunteers and have spawned numerous long-lasting community organizations and empowerment projects that continue to this day.

We would like to offer comments to the City of New York’s Substantial Amendment 5 that governs the program allocation. We believe that this funding is an opportunity to redress the long-standing issues and inequities in New York City. For too long the City has been going down the path of homogenization and corporatization, which has led to gentrification and widespread economic and racial displacement. We need to stop this trajectory and redirect this City to develop in an inclusive, transparent, and equitable manner that leads to an affordable, sustainable, and healthy City.  We urge the City to consider the following for those in need:

1.  Disperse money faster.

Seems simple, but the City has created more ways to find fraud than to provide aid.  It’s been over a year since the storm and most people have not received a penny in aid from the City.  The longer aid is delayed, the more expensive a disaster becomes.  We strongly advise the City to work with local community organizations and Long Term Recovery Groups (LTRGs) to figure out what are the holdups and gaps in getting aid to Sandy survivors.  The City should do everything in their power to get the money out within the next 6 months to those most in need.

2. Re-vamp Build It Back.

As the primary vehicle through which Sandy survivors can receive disaster relief, Build It Back has so far been an unconditional failure.  If this is to be the City’s primary relief program, it must work harder to provide real relief now instead of creating additional barriers to accessing aid.

3. Reopen registration for Build It Back and focus outreach to renters and low-income residents.

Initial outreach was insufficient and many New Yorkers who haven’t applied are now shut out of the process.  155,297 households registered for FEMA in NYC while only 25,699 registered for Build It Back.  Renters make up the majority of those affected by Superstorm Sandy according to FEMA registrations, and yet are underrepresented in the current registrants of Build it Back;  which further implies that their needs are not being met.

4. Increase funding for rental assistance (Temporary Disaster Assistance
Program). Ensure TDAP is accessible to undocumented Sandy survivors.

The majority of households affected by the storm were renters, and renters affected by Sandy are more likely to be low-income and people of color than Sandy-impacted homeowners, yet renters are not being served proportionally to their homeowning neighbors. Many renters are experiencing significant rent increases as a result of Sandy, and still others remain displaced.

5. Include elevation assistance for all applicants in Zone A.

Due to existing regulations of the National Flood Insurance Program and changes enacted in the Biggert-Waters Act of 2012, the cost of flood insurance for homes and businesses in a flood hazard zone is increasing exponentially.  These increases are already hitting homeowners on renewal of their premiums.  Resilient housing would lower these premiums.  We strongly believe that the City should work with the state in finding additional funding streams to help elevate housing to FEMA resiliency standards.  This would save money for the NFIP and taxpayers in the long run.

6. Lift the “lis pendens” bar to Build It Back assistance.

Currently, the Build It Back program puts on hold the application of any homeowner with a lis pendens—the initial foreclosure document—filed against his or her property.  In order to remove this hold, the homeowner must demonstrate that the lis pendens has been resolved or will imminently be resolved.  The rationale that Build It Back offers for this lis pendens hold is that the City does not want to rebuild properties for the banks.  While we agree that rebuilding for banks would be horrible policy, we find that this policy assumes foreclosure too fast, thereby creating more foreclosures.  A study by the Furman Center has shown that less than 20 percent of lis pendens filings resulted in a foreclosure auction or the property becoming bank-owned.  Many of these homeowners will retain their homes through loan modifications, or by becoming current once their temporary, often Sandy-induced, hardship has passed. By denying these homeowners aid or delaying their aid to the point where it has little value, the Build It Back program is dooming properties to foreclosure that would not otherwise be lost.  Even for those properties that will eventually be sold at auction or revert to bank ownership, refusing to allow their repair means that these properties will be unmarketable, and, most likely, sit vacant and unrepaired for years if not decades.  The current lis pendens bar to Build It Back benefits is overly broad and harmful to homeowners and communities.  This policy should be eliminated, or more finely tailored to, for example, only include properties on which a judgment of foreclosure has been entered.

7. Provide temporary housing assistance to those who must vacate their homes during rebuilding.

Under the current Build It Back program, homeowners and tenants whose homes were so badly damaged that they must vacate the structure while it is being restored will not be given any assistance with their temporary housing costs.  For homeowners who must make mortgage payments while they pay for temporary rental housing, the lack of temporary housing assistance could put them into mortgage default.  Likewise, tenants may lose their leases, and small landlords face financial hardship, if funds are not made available to defray temporary housing costs.

8.  Extend rehabilitation/elevation assistance for secondary units of small landlords (1-4 units) earning under 50% AMI.

Landlord assistance is currently only offered to those with four or more units, but many individuals in places like Staten Island and the Rockaways are not only elderly and disabled but are the smallest of landlords and depend on rent from small structures such as bungalows as their only source of income.

9. Bolster healthcare facilities in affected areas.

Sandy has reduced hospital capacity in many areas to just one hospital covering multiple zip codes.  For instance, the Rockaways Peninsula has only one hospital, St. John’s Hospital, which is struggling to serve the needs of the peninsula.  The larger and more comprehensive of 2 primary Staten Island hospitals — Staten Island University Hospital — is located in a flood zone.  CDBG-DR funds should be directed toward improving existing healthcare facilities and expanding healthcare services for struggling Sandy-affected areas.

10. Create local jobs with CDBG funds; include day laborers.

Many New Yorkers lost their jobs because of Sandy. Some of these jobs have still not returned, leaving many families continuing to struggle to meet their basic needs.  All CDBG-DR funding includes the Section 3 requirement, which is HUD’s local hiring provision. The City can go above what it is required by federal rules to ensure that jobs created are good jobs, going to New Yorkers, particularly Sandy survivors and day laborers already volunteering in our communities. NYC needs to create requirements that encourage the hiring of Sandy survivors and local day laborers under dignified wages.  Why not put disaster aid funds to work locally by hiring locally?

11.  Create New Models for Funding the Development of New Deeply Affordable Units.

Sandy survivors are struggling with finding and maintaining safe, healthy, and affordable housing since the storm. The affected neighborhoods have seen a drastic spike in rents.  While many homeowners are living in moldy and unfinished homes, others have been unable to return their communities despite a strong desire to do so.  By thinking creatively to leveraging funds as a means to access additional federal resources, the City could create a considerable amount of new deeply affordable housing. We say deeply affordable because we want this new affordable housing to be truly affordable to low-income New Yorkers. The neighborhoods impacted by Sandy were some of the last reasonable priced units in the City and we want to ensure that these neighborhoods recover for those who lived here before the storm.

12. Redevelopment through acquisition should create affordable housing only.  Assistance to lanlords should contain a requisite for affordability.

The CDBG-DR Amendment should clarify that all properties acquired through the acquisition program be dedicated to housing that is affordable to those who live there now and that all rental units repaired or rebuilt with public funds are required to be rented at affordable rates for a minimum of 10 years.  The City should dedicate funds specifically for the development of affordable housing.

13. Reserve “relocation allowance” for homeowners with underwater mortgages in the acquisition program.

Under the Build It Back acquisition program, homeowners will be offered the post-storm value of their homes as the purchase price, plus a relocation benefit.  Some homeowners interested in acquisition have “underwater” mortgages, meaning that the mortgage debt exceeds the value of the property.  This excess debt greater than the home value can claim any additional benefits, including “relocation benefits”, for the bank.  CDBD-DR funds should not provide windfall profits to banks.  If a bank wants to foreclose on a property, they should simply receive the fair market value of the home, as is typical in any foreclosure, and not receive any additional funds.  We therefore urge the city to pay post-storm values to banks, with any excess valuation going to the homeowner and not the mortgage bank.

14. Invest in and Bolster Resiliency in New York City Public Housing.

Maintaining the City’s Public Housing stock is incredibly important as it provides essential housing to very low-income New Yorkers. NYCHA has long struggled with underfunding and long list of uncompleted repairs.  Now is the time to make NYCHA more resilient and green-energy efficient while maintaining accountability and transparency.


We urge the City to embrace inclusive and equitable policies as outlined above to help turn struggling Sandy-affected neighborhoods to vibrant examples of recovery that will inspire NYC as a whole.


Occupy Sandy Policy Working Group and Spokescouncil

A Tree Grows in Chiapas

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Walking the streets of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, I come across a tiny lot just a few feet across between two colonial-style homes. A barred wall rises to protect a towering pine, and a gentle man with a slender grin is watering the old tree.

That’s beautiful árbol, I tell him. He flashes a smile and replies in the crisp, slow Spanish of an elder.

“Lo plantó mi mama Lupita Alvarez hace 20 años. Fue creciendo mi familia y también el árbol.”

His mother had planted this tree, a Lebanese Pine, 20 years ago, and he goes on to tell me how it grew with his family through newborns, new jobs and many worldly travels too.

Today is January 1st, 2014, which happens to be another 20th anniversary: the Zapatista uprising, when the armed indigenous rebels poured into this town with their signature black ski masks. The treekeeper – he tells me his name, Fremont Solis Alvarez – nods in approval as I recall this fact. He bends down to show me how small the tree was that night when the rebellion began, and recounts seeing the valiant fighters marching in from the mountainous jungle.

“El Zapatismo es un movimiento justo. Buscan mejor educación y calidad de vida para los más pobres,” he lectures me as the conversation deepens. It’s a just movement, and they are demanding and building better education and quality of life for the poorest Mexicans.

I am startled out of the conversation by a loud crash to my right. A chayote has fallen from his tree to the sidewalk, a typical Chiapan green vegetable with little thorny spikes that can be served boiled and often with scrambled eggs huevos ranchers style.

He thanks God it didn’t hit me or some passerby and I hand the now smashed-up vegetable to him in the pieces.

Not ripe just yet, he laments but returns to his slender grin as we part ways. The towering tree has many fruits to bear still, if it’s watered religiously and protected.

Like Zapatismo, I’m thinking.

Ode to a Shuttered School

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Akeem Pearce, 2012


150 Albany Ave is where we spent our past

Last of our childhood went by so fast

The place where we chased dreams all through our teens

We would sit in English class and day dream

Poetry class we wrote our story at last

We finally realized all the potential we have

To make it through this school of hard knocks

It was the only place we had besides the blocks

We got a shot to finally shine our light

Now these young hood kids never shined so bright

We could pass any task that we receive in this life

In this school of hard knocks we are Robeson Unite

United we stand through the days and dark nights

Side by side hand in hand fighting for our rights

Heads high standing tall together we will never fall

A family of friends we always put love above all

We will never be forgotten our legacy will survive

An inspiration to the world to motivate every child

The future is alive take a look inside our minds

Then you will see that the legacy of Paul Robeson High will never die