Apparently seeking post-Sandy advice, New York Mayor Bloomberg’s deputies recently paid a visit to New Orleans. According to The New York Times, Deputy Mayors Howard Wolfson, Linda I. Gibbs and Robert K. Steel met with New Orleans officials to discuss recovery and rebuilding. If New York’s development-minded mayor is consulting his equivalents in Louisiana, one can only hope that housing justice activists and especially public housing residents in this city are consulting theirs. When it comes to next steps after Hurricane Sandy, there are lessons to be learned from New Orleans after Katrina. The question is, Which ones will New York learn?
Seven years ago, as Hurricane Katrina was hitting the Gulf Coast, developers and their political allies were already seeing to it that minimum wage laws would be suspended in the name of urgency; they were. In the weeks following, thousands of public school teachers found themselves out of a job. The city’s free hospital was closed and every public housing development was either partially or totally torn down. Next, came a flood of eyes-on-the prize entrepreneurs with all manner of experiments for new models for housing, healthcare and schools. The results have been mixed, but by all available measures, the Big Easy’s more divided and, all these years on, longtime residents (especially African-Americans), feel more disenfranchised than ever.
Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers Center and a community activist who has worked in that city since the storm, says it’s never too early for residents to start pushing for a place at the decision-making table. Change is going to come for sure, but there’s no guarantee that those who have been directly affected will have any say in shaping that change.
“If we wait for the lights to turn on, then what will happen is, by the time the lights turn on, what will be illuminated is the way public housing was stolen from right under the feet of residents, safety net was taken away," Soni told me in the interview transcribed below.
That’s one reason that December 6's day of coordinated action on housing was so encouraging. Loosely linked under the banner “Occupy Our Homes” grassroots and community groups undertook house occupations and bank protests from Atlanta to San Francisco (you can see pictures and a full account at OccupyOurHomes.org.)
Even more noteworthy, in many ways, is the ongoing work that's been continuing in the Sandy-hit neighborhood of Red Hook in Brooklyn, where residents with the help of Occupy Sandy and the Red Hook Initiative have been responding to immediate needs while simultaneously organizing for political power. Frustrated and angry with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the Red Hook residents recently drew up a list of demands. Among those were an extension of the moratorium on evictions, a suspension of rent, employment for local residents in repair work, and the creation of a community-led board. After their first meeting with residents (and a good amount of pressure from local politicians), NYCHA authorities actually met some of the Red Hook Assembly’s requests last week, but the community-led board and transparency in decision-making are still up for grabs.
The spotlight on housing needs to say firmly fixed. And Katrina survivors might be useful experts to bring to the negotiations. It’s not just jobs that local residents need, Soni says, but jobs with potential for advancement and a say in planning. It’s not just immediate relief but long-term, strategic community organizing that the city needs.
“A story that is very instructive to post-Sandy New Yorkers, I think, is what happened years after public housing was initially brought under the wrecking ball,” says Saket Soni (below.)
“We can’t just have a fight to stay in our communities and get access to work in the context of a recovery. We have to make this recovery an opportunity to imagine what kind of society we want to live in, because that’s exactly what the corporations are doing, that’s exactly what politicians are doing.”
Our conversation was recorded at Facing Race 2012 in Baltimore.
Saket Soni: My name is Saket Soni. I am the director of the National Guestworker Alliance and I am also the director of the New Orleans Worker’s Center, which was founded very shortly after Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of Katrina there was a landscape of severe exploitation and in that context we built a worker center that could organize in African-American and immigrant communities, and build a social movement out of what was happening in the Gulf Coast.
Laura Flanders: How did that happen? Can you remember what it was like in those early weeks and months?
Yes, I got to New Orleans shortly after Katrina in December 2005. Katrina happened in August and three months later there was a small band of volunteers huddled in a small back room of a social service agency that was trying to figure out how to build movement out of what happened. It was a very chaotic time. Now we are used to the phrase “disaster capitalism.” It is one thing to read about it it’s another thing to be there while it’s happening.
The images from that time are still vivid and still haunting. We would wake up in the morning and organizers would get to the day labor corners. Suddenly in New Orleans there were massive spots where day laborers were gathering—African-American and Latino construction workers. One of them was a place in the city called Lee Circle. Imagine an eighteen-foot-tall statue of Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederacy—made of granite and marble, looking towards the north to push off the Northern aggression—and there below that statue of Robert E. Lee there are 500 day laborers, African-Americans and immigrants. And buses are coming to pick them up and take them off to the workplace.
There were devastated neighborhoods all over the city; displaced African-Americans primarily; working-class people with their families who wanted to come home. These were neighborhoods without power, neighborhoods devastated, people wanted to come home, build homes and work, but the neighborhoods were barricaded from entry. At the same time, the first places where power was restored and where life was restored was the casinos and the strip clubs and Bourbon Street. Large white vans [would] roll up to the backs of these establishments, doors would open and out would come cleaning crews. Workers would come, clean and then go back into the vans again and leave. The whole city was full of these incredibly intense, vivid images.
There was a hotel on the corner of Bourbon and Canal called the Astral Crowne Plaza. This hotel got millions of dollars in FEMA vouchers to house local people who were displaced from their neighborhoods. These were people who were every day looking for work. They were living by the hundreds in this hotel. I remember arriving at this hotel and right behind the hotel there was this splendid Bourbon Street restored in all its glory: electricity and optimism. Right next door to this hotel were hundreds of local people who couldn’t find work, who were desperate and in the midst of this, this hotel told the Department of Labor under the Bush administration then that they couldn’t find local workers ready or willing to do the work, so the hotel got certified as a guestworker employer and sent recruiters out to Bolivia, to the Dominican Republic and Peru. They brought in guestworkers and wages fell from $14 an hour to $6.09 in the course of a few months. These were the images from post Katrina New Orleans
What happened to public housing?
Of all the stories of heroism after Hurricane Katrina, the stories of the residents of public housing who refused to vacate, who refused to give up their right to remain on their land and in the community in New Orleans and just asserted their right to be who they are, to stay with the people they love is one of the most remarkable stories.
The fight over public housing is not legend; it’s really a fight over the soul of New Orleans. These were buildings, four developments in particular, that are vast and extremely valuable tracks of land. After Katrina, developers and corporations and government officials had the perfect opportunity to take it over. What ensued was a massive debate about the value of public housing and an incredibly cruel corporate campaign to displace thousands of African-Americans.
The displacement of these people was not just an issue of housing. It was also an issue of voting power, and what happened to public housing now is widely known. The residents essentially lost and public housing was destroyed and is still undergoing destruction and redevelopment.
A story that is very instructive to post-Sandy New Yorkers, I think, is what happened years after public housing was initially brought under the wrecking ball. Two years ago in a public housing development called BW Cooper, the last of the big four to undergo construction, residents of public housing started waking up and seeing a chain link fence erected between them and their development. [The residents started] seeing construction start on their development. These are people who, not only is it hard for them to find a job, they are structurally locked out of the economy, these are people who are workers; they are willing and able to work, they would wake up every day and watch the construction happen, and there was no work in the community. They had to start a campaign to embarrass contractors and the housing authority to actually get on the yard.
When they got on the yard we ultimately won forty jobs after a three-month-long public campaign. It turned out that all of those jobs were temp jobs and African-Americans were really mistreated on the yard. So we started a massive career ladder campaign, which is really a campaign led by public housing residents in New Orleans to win careers, not just jobs in the context of reconstruction.
What happened after Katrina was that a city turned into the biggest construction site in the country. I imagine that is largely what is happening in post-Sandy New York. Some of the things that were instructive about New Orleans was that firstly, we all have to know that disaster capitalism is going to happen, but in that context it is also possible to build a kind of disaster collectivism, people working together; people experiencing again what it means to struggle within community, these things are going to very important.
Secondly, we can’t just have a fight to stay in our communities and get access to work in the context of a recovery. We have to make this recovery an opportunity to imagine what kind of society we want to live in, because that’s exactly what the corporations are doing, that’s exactly what politicians are doing. It’s up to communities to imagine what kind of city they want, what kind of state they want. In New Orleans the residents of BW Cooper are not just fighting for the next six months of work. They are trying to figure out how they can have long term training in the construction industry, how they can have careers, how they rebuild a neighborhood around their public housing development and how, ultimately, they can be part of the economy in New Orleans. That’s the kind of creativity and long term thinking, I think, that will be very important.
You talked about coming to New Orleans in the December after the hurricane. A lot of people came to New Orleans in the wake of what happened. A lot of people are now coming from other parts of the city and parts of the country to New York to try and help with the relief efforts. What do we need to know about that and how to do we help communities build a voice for themselves? What’s the role of those who out of the goodness of their hearts try and offer relief?
I think it’s a lot like post Katrina New Orleans. I remember how people from all walks of life just came, some had tools and some didn’t, and frankly that included me. I was an organizer in Chicago, my tool was a clipboard and a bunch of papers in my backpack and I went to help and to be part of reconstruction. Everyone who is coming is coming because they are driven by purpose. They feel connected to the destiny of New York and they want to help rebuild and it’s important that they be let in and it’s important that they help, but it’s also important that we don’t forget that the State plays an incredibly important role in ultimately robustly rebuilding New York and New Orleans. It can’t just be done by vans of well-intentioned individuals. No matter how far to the right the governors of New Jersey or Louisiana are, in the midst of disaster people are always clear about the roles of government. Bobby Jindal asks for relief do does Chris Christie.
In these kinds of moments when the country is descending on New York, we need to turn New York into something more than just a construction site. We need to turn it into ground zero for demanding a much more robust role of government in making sure people have fair housing, and in making sure people have a safety net; in making sure, for example, that thousands of workers who are part time, contingent, contract workers, workers largely in construction and services who are going to service the recovery, who are going to help get back to a fully recovered New York, all of these people need an expanded safety net. They have to have access to healthcare while they are doing difficult work. They have to have access to some kind of benefits while they’re doing this dangerous work.
When can you start having these conversations? Is it too early when people are still out of their homes?
I read recently that the number of New Yorkers who believe in climate change before this happened was 60 percent and now it’s 90 percent. I’m assuming it’s generally true even if the numbers aren’t scientific. I think the conversation about climate change, about housing access, about the future of public housing and the important of residents remaining in their communities; [the conversation about] the importance of workers having a safety net as they work… it’s never too early to start these conversations. We have to start them now. If we wait for the lights to turn on then what will happen is, by the time the lights turn on, what will be illuminated is the way public housing was stolen from right under the feet of residents, safety net was taken away. By the time the lights turn on, there will be neon signs where there was once public housing about the next corporate building that will be erected there and it will be too late. I think for workers and for families the conversation has to start now and it has to be a national conversation. There’s not a person in the world in some place in their heart or constitution a New Yorker. That’s what we have to use to have this conversation about what kind of community we want to build—What is the city of the next forty years?
For more on the D6 action to Occupy Our Homes, check out our interview with housing activist Yolanda Andrews.