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Imagining a ‘Just Recovery’ from Superstorm Sandy

8:19 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Michael Fleshman / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

Three months have passed since Hurricane Sandy battered New York and trashed the New Jersey coastline, and she hasn’t left. She’s still stalking the landscape strafed with mold and broken homes, and local activists worry that the government’s promises of tens of billions of dollars in federal funding will flood the storm-battered regions with further political turmoil.

Beyond the initial trauma of power outages and waterlogged houses, longer-term struggles still loom over communities like the Rockaways and the Staten Island coast. With recovery funding finally trickling down from Capitol Hill after weeks of gridlock, activists hope the resources won’t be exploited by predatory businesses and politicians, but rather channeled toward creating more inclusive, healthy communities.

In some ways, the grassroots recovery advocates have gotten a head start. Many of the early relief efforts have been radically volunteer-driven, and the Occupy Wall Street offshoot Occupy Sandy has often proven more effective and efficient than the bumbling “official” response by FEMA and other authorities. But how will the Occupiers fare in the impending scramble for contracts, grants and loans while businesses, organizations and government agencies all try to impose corporate visions for reconstruction on the storm-ravaged landscape? Read the rest of this entry →

At ‘Urban Uprising’ Conference, Activists Reimagine the City Post-Sandy

10:11 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

“occupy sandy. 520 clinton avenue.” (bondidwhat via flickr / creative commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

Disaster has a way of concentrating the mind. And Gotham has always had its share of it: whether it’s a slow-burning disaster like the epidemic of income inequality, the endemic scourge of police brutality and racial profiling, or the chronic deprivation of healthy food in isolated neighborhoods. Superstorm Sandy churned all of these elements of urban chaos. But in its wake, the storm has laid bare new pathways for innovations, and new frontiers for struggles against inequality.

The undercurrent of these contradictions ran through a conference this weekend dedicated to “designing a city for the 99%,” a possibility made more real and urgent in the storm’s aftermath. Urban Uprising, held at the New School and the CUNY Graduate Center (where this reporter is also a graduate student), brought together academics, legal experts, organizers and urban ecologists to broach fresh questions about organizing communities: how to harness the energy of Occupy and channel it into direct, localized campaigns; how to balance environmental renewal with economic development; and how to reorient debates on food policy away from apolitical consumer interests and toward the connection between food justice and fighting poverty.

The post-Sandy recovery process colored discussions of one of the main themes: “reimagining the city,” which focused on cultivation, both literal and figurative, of a new urban landscape.

David Harvey, a City University anthropology and geography scholar, has long argued that the Left must learn to organize at the level of the city. His work on the links between urbanization and capitalism helped invigorate the “Right to the City” alliance, one of the groups that organized the conference. During the conference, Harvey noted the ways in which community initiatives like Occupy Sandy are reclaiming urban space for popular struggle. “In a way,” Harvey said in an interview with In These Times, Occupy Sandy is “spreading a political message by a different route. And therefore, Occupy has not gone away. It’s moved into the boroughs… It is therefore a commitment to a different kind of lifestyle, a different kind of on-the-ground politics which in the long run may be just as important as the symbolic politics of Zuccotti Park.”

A broader political backdrop to the discussions was the looming security state that has crystallized over the past decade, putting communities under both economic and political siege. Groups like the Immigrant Defense Project and the Los Angeles Community Action Network described struggles against the militarization of policing around the country, as well as the growing transformation of local police into agents of immigration enforcement, counterterrorism and drug wars. Read the rest of this entry →

Occupying the Big Screen: Film Festival Documents Occupy’s First Year

5:33 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at The Progressive

Occupy Wall Street has always been as much a media phenomenon as a political one. The revolution hasn’t exactly been televised, but Occupy’s biggest victory so far has been its radical public-relations coup, saturating both mainstream and alternative outlets with icons and images of popular protest that have been subsequently broadcast, live-streamed, and projected, bat signal-style, onto the concrete face of the New York skyline. But there are still aspects of the movement waiting to be documented.

Now that the media establishment’s spotlight has faded somewhat, a film festival devoted to Occupy at Manhattan’s Anthology Film Archives has returned those radical aesthetics to the foreground, conscious of the singular ability of old-fashioned film to capture the crackling energy of a social movement. And the films selected by the festival coordinators, Arun Gupta of the Indypendent and New York University media professor Michelle Fawcett, were presented as both a nostalgic retrospective and hopeful prequel to the next chapter.

Read the rest of this entry →

Beyond May Day, Frustrated Immigrant Movement Forges Ahead

7:05 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

May Day rally in San Francisco (courtesy Patricia Jackson, via IndyBay)


The waves of protests and rallies on May Day 2012 had barely cleared out when police happened upon more than 100 undocumented immigrants locked in isolated houses near the Texas border. After being trapped for days deprived of food and water, they were turned over to the border patrol. May First is supposed to be a day to remember the struggles of labor and the poor, but these migrants were forgotten, like so many of the border’s economic refugees.

May Day has historically had a pro-migrant message, from its origins in 19th-century working-class Chicago, to its revival in 2006 as a day of protest for immigration reform. But this year, even with the added momentum of Occupy Wall Street, the pro-immigrant mobilizations were relatively modest, according to advocates, though the struggles facing immigrants are growing more dire.

While the Occupy banner blanketed much of May Day, demonstrations in several U.S. cities incorporated immigrant rights groups, including protests against Arizona’s draconian immigration law SB 1070, currently under review by the Supreme Court, and the Obama administration’s sweeping deportation policies. New York City’s May Day Solidarity Coalition brought together groups that link labor, immigration, and economic justice, like the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and Domestic Workers United.

But immigration issues weren’t highlighted as they were in May Day 2006–possibly a reflection of activist fatigue that’s sunk in after so many years of stonewalling by politicians. And tactically, it might be hard to wrap the purposefully amorphous Occupy ethos around the everyday struggles of immigrants who live in perpetual fear of being ripped apart from their families and deported. Occupy’s focus on direct action and building alternative political communities might not resonate with immigrants who are frightened to even venture outside their homes.

Catherine Tactaquin, executive director of National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights told In These Times that some of the challenges stemmed from legal obstacles that could impede many immigrant activists: Read the rest of this entry →

Freeing the University: Education Occupation on May Day

2:47 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Rand School (Wikimedia)

Cross-posted from In These Times

Pop quiz: what’s the value of an American education? To some, it’s a booming industry that preys on debt-crippled students. But to the educators, youth and workers who keep the system running, school increasingly seems like it’s just not worth the struggle. This May Day, masses of working people–and students who are working to build a future for themselves–are converging in New York City to rethink education and test those ideas in the real world.

Everyone understands that merit and hard work should pay off somehow in the economy. But the narrowing and commercialization of education at every level, from preschool to postdoc, has drained people’s academic aspirations and bank accounts.

On May 1, following the massive 1T Day rally against the “student debt bubble,” the Free University of New York City will bring together various Occupy-inspired grassroots education experiments. Combined with other May Day-related Occupy demonstrations, the program of workshops and talks aims to put theories of “horizontal pedagogy” into practice by inviting regular folks to learn about and question the systems surrounding them: the economy, politics, and school itself.

The planned program, centered in Madison Square Park, will include:

over forty workshops, classes, and collective experiences during the five hour educational experiment. Attendees will be introduced to movements such as Take Back the Land, which has been occupying foreclosed housing; radical student organizing within the City University of New York (CUNY); and indigenous environmentalism. Other workshops focus on creating new ways of living, from permaculture to open access academic publishing, from nonviolent communication to immigration relief for survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

It’s kind of an anti-university, seeking to break down the bureaucratic fortress of credits and degrees. The focus is on empowering both students and teachers, through educational work doesn’t test book-smarts but expands critical thought and challenges expectations.

The Free University, together with parallel initiatives like Occupy University, Occupy CUNY (City University of New York) and Occupy Student Debt campaign, aim to democratize education in the tradition of old school union education programs and the pioneering RAND School of Social Science. The idea is to see workers as students, teachers as workers, and education as a public trust. Read the rest of this entry →

In Year of Uprisings, Reporters Brave Crackdowns from Wall St. to Tahrir Square

6:40 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Photo: shortstackblog)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

You wouldn’t think handling a notebook or a camera could be a hazardous line of work. But according to the latest global Press Freedom Index, abuse and oppression of reporters has made journalism an increasingly risky job in many countries. The past year has even left a notable taint on the U.S. press, despite the country’s mythos as a beacon of free expression.

While the United States certainly hasn’t descended into the ranks of the most oppressive regimes, the watchdog group Reporters without Borders observes that in 2011 the political barriers and outright attacks facing reporters had led to a steep drop in the rankings—27 places down, to number 47:

In the space of two months in the United States, more than 25 [journalists] were subjected to arrests and beatings at the hands of police who were quick to issue indictments for inappropriate behaviour, public nuisance or even lack of accreditation.

The most high-profile violations of press freedom took place during the Occupy protests, as reporters were abused by police and otherwise stonewalled by authorities.

Ever-faithful to his 1% cronies, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg moved swiftly to restrict press coverage of Occupy Wall Street actions, barring journalists from Zuoccotti Park. Authorities justified the “media blackout” by insisting that the purpose was “to prevent a situation from getting worse and to protect members of the press.” The safety assurances presumably weren’t much comfort to the many reporters who got roughed up and arrested while trying to do their jobs.

But as usual, the crackdowns only challenged activists to push back more fiercely as digital images and reports of police brutality and oppression went viral. And much of the heavy lifting was accomplished by a deft, if somewhat chaotic, grassroots media sphere.

Josh Stearns at Free Press tracked dozens of arrests across several Occupy cities through Twitter dispatches.

From cartoonist and journalist Susie Cagle (an occasional contributor to this website), who was arrested during the Occupy Oakland strike actions and “held for over 14 hours”: Read the rest of this entry →

Amid Fuel Price Crisis, Nigeria Goes on Strike

9:49 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Photo: Alashock's Blog)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

Nigeria is a giant on the African continent, a maturing democracy and a major hub for culture and trade. It also contains about one sixth of Africa’s population, many of whom live in abject poverty. So when the government decided to “save” funds by removing a critical fuel subsidy, it lit a tinderbox of populist outrage.

Uprisings have been rocking the country all week. Tens of thousands of protesters amassed to express anger at a jump in oil prices. Labor activists launched a general strike. Oil workers have also threatened to shut down production, jolting global oil markets. Tensions, and the public’s energy, run high as talks between labor and the government are pending.

At the start of the mass actions, the Nigeria Labor Congress and the Trade Union Congress issued a joint statement to

congratulate the Nigerian masses for a second successful day of strikes, rallies and mass protests…. By their actions in the past few days, Nigerians have left the Presidency and the world in no doubt that sovereignty belongs to them and that they intend to reclaim their country.

Read the rest of this entry →

Immigrants Occupy! Broadening a Movement Culture

9:11 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Justseeds Artists' Cooperative

Cross-posted from CultureStrike, a new project that fuses activism and the arts.

The Occupy movements around the country have touched different communities in different ways, resonating with local issues as well as bringing local folks to the front lines of a national struggle for economic justice. For many immigrant communities, everyday struggles with the legal system and the economic crisis encapsulate some of the core issues driving the Occupy ethos. Yet those same issues can be a hindrance to organizing.

As the protests picked up momentum back in October, John Michael Torres, an activist from McAllen, Texas, a low-income largely Latino community, told NPR’s Latino USA:

[L]ittle by little people are starting to understand that this is a big deal… But at the same time you have people who maybe don’t have a TV in their house. Who don’t have the Internet… So in a very poor area of the country, you have that disconnect from what’s going on in the rest of the country. Which is why it’s so important that we’re out there in public spaces, that we’re not relying on the mass media to tell our own stories, but we’re inviting people to come and sit down with us, to participate, to share their own stories as well.

Read the rest of this entry →

Health Workers Deliver First Aid to Protest Movements

6:18 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Tahrir field hospital. (Kamal El Tawil via TwitPic)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

Warning: Defending your rights may be hazardous to your health. Potential side effects can include rubber bullets, tear gas, and batons wielded with impunity.

The recent uprisings around the world illustrate the physical risks involved in intense street protests. At the same time, movements are also discovering the connection between health and activism in another way, through medical workers joining the front lines to deploy their skills and their conviction.

Amid the brutal clashes with security forces at Tahrir Square, barebones field hospitals have held the line, thanks to a grassroots network of Tahrir doctors. One volunteer, Ahmed Adel, who has been aiding wounded protesters since January, told Ahram Online, “Treating the injured protesters here again makes me feel the revolution is about to be completed.”

But hospitals are by no means safe havens. Mohamed Fatouh, a leader of Tahrir Doctors, told the LA Times, “The people are refusing to go to the ambulances because they think they go to the general hospitals, and from there they go to the police.” Read the rest of this entry →