Sunday, December 2, 2012

Occupy Sandy, Part 2: Midland Beach


Midland Beach, Staten Island. This section of the city has had the highest concentrated death toll. Up and down every block we see the houses with yellow tags-- and the words enter at own risk without spelling out specifically the  mold problem. So people are moving back, even without light, heat or safety. 

Comfort Cafe and Free Store

Inside the Comfort Cafe, we meet first with the parish priest,Father Diaz, a native of the Philippines. He tells me that 95% of his  parishioners have lost their homes. There are rumors, repeat rumors, of dozens of undocumented bodies in a makeshift morgue. Headed to Potters' Field.  People afraid to report  missing loved ones do to fear of  of deportation. 

Never thought I’d see signs for a NYPD/FDNY Comfort Cafe side by side on a fence with sign for Occupy Sandy Free Store. Here’s what happened: soon after the dust settled from the hurricane, Occupiers George and Amin-- who it turns out had been part of the #OWS encampment at West-Park, arrived at Midland Beach. Wisely went to the local parish priest, Father Diaz.  Told him they were here to help. Got the use of the empty CCD education building across the street. Set up their free store. Put out the word through the Occupy Sandy Social Media Network.  Within 24 hours, food, clothing, supplies were pouring in.

Amin and George
A week or so later, the police and fire guys said that they’d like to open up a cafe. Said they had issues with Occupy. Wanted them gone. Father Diaz and other local clergy said, They’ve been here from the start. This is not about politics, it’s about helping people. They’re staying. Deal with it. So after agreeing to meet every day at 1 PM to check in, they began to work with each other. Warily, but side by side.

So now here are  Red Cross working with Occupy  and retired police and firefighters cooking and serving people. Cooking on charcoal grills and Coleman stoves. While we were there, there was some tension with the Red Cross. They’re trying to get the site designation changed from  emergency recovery to reconstruction. That would mean they could leave. 

The retired police speak up...Wait a want to leave?  These Occupy guys got here before you. They work 15-18 hours a day. They’re not going anywhere. You’re telling us that you’re leaving and they’re staying?

There is no heat or power in the rectory. (Took me back to the old days at West-Park....but at least we had lights.) There is a rumor that Cardinal Dolan is coming December 8th, but still  unconfirmed. 

Occupy Sandy is building a tool library. Looking for power tools. Saws, crowbars, sledge hammers, nail guns.....

There are mold related problems everywhere.
The Red Cross says that because this mold is mixed with saltwater, bleach doesn't work.
 Turns out after putting out a call for people to donate bleach, it doesn’t work with mold mixed with salt water. (We didn’t know that from Katrina?
 Some of these houses will NEVER be inhabited again.

We are four weeks into this crisis  and information regarding mold is still not out. Why?

At this point, the biggest need is for volunteers to be involved in canvassing--spreading the  word about mold and finding out people’s needs.Occupy Sandy’s long term goal is to develop community ownership of the processes that have begun.

Another related action I am  just beginning to understand is the debt strike campaign, when this many of us are in debt crisis,  change must come.

This is a neighborhood of white  homeowners, Russian immigrant homeowners and Latino tenants. it is mainly a working class, middle class neighborhood with a long  identity as a  community of firefighters, police, first responders-- 
There are language and cultural barriers with the Russian and Eastern European immigrants. In the community, many didn't leave, despite the warnings. They are currently experiencing trauma. Some left and came back. Others stayed throughout. Already there is a growing division between those who saw water (as they say) and those who were not there.   

It can’t be said enough...mold is serious public health crisis.....there is a need for educational materials,for one on one engagements in Russian, Spanish and English. No one has figured out how todeal with sewage mixed with saltwater. And once again, there is no temporary housing. 

Jessica is  from the make the road program. She works primarily with Latinos and immigrants, mainly undocumented. People who are ineligible for services....They are organizing clinics to deal with stress and trauma,especially the stress of  mothers who feel they are having to hold everyone together.
Many Latinos have already moved out because they have no homes left and have no place to go. And the local jobs they worked in are gone. 

There is this need for educating,for  signage, for...The reality is,  most people can't afford to leave. They are unable to  move out of emergency status. The conversation goes to the thought that it’s time for churches to go back to old school leadership....our churches and ministers  have to assert local leadership beyond the Red Cross. 

Sully talks with us
Sully, a retired cop from the Emerald Society, tells us that the lights only came back last week. There are bungalows here too. But overall,he says,  it feels like the old west. Only the strong survive. And even more, there seems to be dividing line between north and south shore of Staten Island. Just like a typical third world country.

The visiting nurses have set up here now, too.

Susan, from the north shore says that there has been  lots of response but it has been  uncoordinated.
Finally Amin says, maybe they don't need money-- maybe they need radical solutions. This disaster is hardest on low lying communities of invisible people.One of the cops says, we're paying the load for taxpayers, and we get nothing back..One of the Occupy Sandy volunteers  says that the issue on the Island is one of the individualizing of crisis, no sense of common good...

Story: Sully and the other police were on the case of the two Occupiers related to 9-11. They weren’t hear, they didn’t know...

Little George speaks up. I was eleven years old when 9-11 happened. I watched  it on TV. I felt I would do anything to help New York City. And now  I have the opportunity to stand side by side with you and work together. I feel its an honor to work with you...And Sully and the cops were silenced. 

And the cops see people they don’t understand willing to work to exhaustion to help the community where the live. Their home. This  is the brilliance of this stage of #OWS. They are getting embedded in communities. Working side by side with real people, seeing police and fire personnel as people,not ideological symbols. And they have proven they can deliver. As they sit together and discuss their shared experiences, questions get raised.   So why are we still in the dark? New opportunities  for reflective dialogue emerge. . Once again proving the main point of organizoing: relationships, everything is relationships.

Bishop George Packard is a good man. He was the first to go over the fence in an effort o get Trinity Wall Street engaged. He was ready to challenge his fellow Episcopal church over their liberal persona and massive 1% ownership in lower Manhattan.  It only unerscoes that moving forward, the liberals are more dangeroue than the conservatives. 

Bishop Packard is referred to as the people’s Bishop.  It’s not because  of any ideological commitment, it's because that’s who he is. A purple heart army veteran, chaplain and then head of all chaplains.  He has been there. As opposed to some of our colleagues who speak and analyze well and may even get arrested, but don’t deal with #OWS at the street level, don’t really know any occupiers, or have not been with the hurricane victims.  George has been there. he is there.  He always wears his chaplain's baseball hat and his magenta bishop's rabat. 

He’s also has a  sixth sense with veterans.  He seems to  know who they are. He went to the beleaguered Red Cross worker,  I see you’re a veteran....your vets for vets badge. where did you serve? A conversation ensues. George ends the conversation with a sincere thank you. 

Portajohns in liturgical colors
As we pass the portajohns in green and purple, I share a liturgical joke with him, so we're moving for ordinary time to advent johns, eh? And he laughs. 

For a m  think of the national guards we saw deployed in Far Rockaway. In their camos, their humvees, cradling M 16’s. Blocking off access to parts of of the town.  Residents are angry...put down your guns and pick up a shovel. 

In the corner, the Christmas tree is glimmering with lights. Darkness is nearing. In the background  the voice of Bing Crosby singing,  I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.  

Table discussion: Father Diaz, second from right

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