What Ugliness Is

520 clinton on fire

520 Clinton on fire. Photo: unknown.

On the eve of the most important Christian holiday, someone appears to have set fire to the Church of St Luke and St Matthew at 520 Clinton Avenue in Brooklyn, which is one of the hubs for Occupy Sandy. I find this to be one of the saddest of all the violent images that have come out of the repression of the Occupy movement. A church. That is used for hurricane relief. Set on fire. There’s a violence in America right now that feels ugly.

Luckily, no one was hurt but it was a serious incident. According to the New York Times report:

Father Ballard said the fire had been fueled by a pair of gasoline containers donated to Occupy Sandy volunteers, who had used the church as a staging area for hurricane relief efforts. The gasoline was intended to be used in a generator for a Christmas party in the Rockaways on Sunday night. Father Ballard said the containers had been put outside when the church was cleared of most donated materials to make way for Christmas services.

Clearly, the minister does not think for a minute that this was an accident. Whoever was responsible, if this was an act against the Occupy movement, as seems likely if not proven, it seems yet another escalation of the violent end to 2012.

It also recalls another difficult episode in progressive history, the fire-bombings of churches during the Civil Rights Movement.


People remember the terrible bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham AL (above) in 1963 that killed four young girls but we should also remember the trail that led up to that event:

In January 1957, four Black Churches were bombed in Montgomery, Alabama. In April, two were burned in Bessemer, Alabama. In 1958, burned churches were reported in Birmingham and Memphis. In 1959, a church was reported to have been burned in Roscoe, Georgia.

There were more arson attacks on churches during the movement, especially in 1964 and 1968. A wave of 37 church burnings in 1995-6 led to a specific act of Congress that seemed to quieten the attacks. Two hundred and thirty-five people were convicted under the Church Arson Prevention Act. However, in 2006 nine churches in rural Alabama were attacked again.

Obviously we don’t yet know what happened in Brooklyn. Perhaps it will somehow turn out to have nothing to do with Occupy. But let’s be realistic. It will probably have been done by one or more young men. Their lawyers will tell them to deny any political motive, to say that it was a prank gone wrong. The echoes of the past tell us otherwise.

What to do? Donate to Occupy Sandy (again, yes). Volunteer again. If you are in New York, why not attend the service that will be held tonight at 10pm at the church? I’m the least religious person in the world but this sounds about right:

We are pressed on every side, perplexed, but not easily broken.

-Corinthians 4:8

The lesson of the past is simple: the resistance has to begin immediately and be very visible or there will be more attacks like this.

A Last Blast on Sandy

Out here in Long Island, you can really see the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. Trees are down everywhere, there’s construction on all sides. Yet New York City is trying to shut down its hurricane relief centers. FEMA requires loan applications to be in by December 31. Today the New York Times ran quotes from people calling Sandy the storm of a lifetime, who are planning to rebuild in places where the flooding was most devastating.

So let’s review the climate change situation one last time in 2012. To have experienced a month that was not warmer than the historic average, you must now be at least 27 years old. That means close to 50% of the world’s population has lived only in the time of warming. By all measures scientific and experiential, the climate is changing and the only debate is how fast.

This year, two major exit routes to climate disaster closed. With the desultory agreement at the Doha round of the UN climate change convention, even the most optimistic person has realized that national governments are not going to drive this agenda. For instance, the world’s developed nations are committed to donating about $60 billion to the poorest threatened nations to help them adapt. None has been forthcoming so far. Imagine if these countries were banks–they’d have ten times the cash.

Second, and more worrying, the global hydrocarbon industry has done an end run around the idea of “peak energy.” This much-touted idea from the 1990s suggested that the world’s reserves of fossil fuel were about to be used up and so alternatives would have to be found. The exploitation of natural gas by fracking, and the expectation that reserves under the Arctic and Greenland will become available once the ice melts, have changed all that. Scientists have created means to turn natural gas into diesel, of which there is currently a shortage, and the building blocks for plastics. In other words, the path is technically open not only to continue the fossil fuel economy but to expand it.

These points are not exactly unrelated. Politicians are easily influenced by immense wealth and there’s no money like oil money. The “recoverable reserves” of oil and gas now amount to $160 trillion, which is real money even these days–more in fact than all global equities markets. To take just one example, 85% of Nigeria’s oil revenues go to one per cent of the population. Of that money, some $300 billion is entirely unaccounted for. Living standards for the mass population have not improved during the oil exploitation period of Nigeria’s history. This is where the politics kicks in.


Occupy Nigeria

Remember Occupy Nigeria? There was a reason why millions participated.

Because none of the oil, gas and tar is actually necessary as other research has shown:

A well-designed combination of wind power, solar power and storage in batteries and fuel cells would nearly always exceed electricity demands while keeping costs low.

As Peter Rugh has recently shown in his excellent article on the Far Rockaways, this contradiction is now at the center of post-Sandy politics. He quotes Occupy Sandy activist Jessica Roth

“If the Rockaways were based on clean energy going into this we would have been in a completely different situation. We would have had battery packs off of solar that were storing energy. We would have had wind turbines off the coast, which can pull up to 30 miles an hour off winds coming into the shore.”

Meanwhile, State Senator Addabbo has his mind on gas. While he says he is opposed to fracking, a carbon intensive method of methane extraction widely opposed by environmentalists, he supports the construction of a 30-inch pipeline that Williams Transco plans to build that will pump highly-pressurized, inflammable, fracked gas through the Rockaways.

This is a crossroads in national and international politics that Sandy has thrown into high relief here in New York. Renewable, local energy and a related localized politics interactive with its community–a sustainable democracy. Or a pipelined energy, controlled from afar by a small global elite.

A protest in the Far Rockaways

A protest in the Far Rockaways

This is why we occupied 2012 and how we must take the argument forward. It’s not a “climate” debate. The climate is a model for average temperatures and conditions. There isn’t a politics in a model. The question is how we respond to the change the model predicts, who benefits from that change, and whether those impacted by it will have a voice. It’s about freedom.

A Return to Violence

Even before I heard about the massacre in Connecticut, before I was even technically in the country, I was reminded of the intense peculiarities of the U.S. In the Customs area of American Airlines, every kind of traveler was greeted with an immense slow-moving queue. A tall, white US citizen began remonstrating with American Airlines staff about the lack of energy in helping people. They called in Customs officers as back up and for a moment it looked as if he would be arrested. In fact, after an explanation, nothing happened.

When I finally got to the front, the Customs person I spoke to pointed out that people will have gone home blaming “big government” for that. In fact, it’s American Airlines to blame for pushing 500 people into retirement and not replacing them as part of their “restructuring.” And then he added that he could get fired for saying that. So to keep airline debt-holders happy, thousands of tired travelers are inconvenienced, miss connections, lose luggage–and added bonus, the government gets the blame.

Then, of course, we heard about the shooting. It’s important to repeat, yet again, that these don’t happen in Europe because they don’t allow people access to guns. When we see it reported that support for “gun control” has gone down, let’s remember what this really means in the condensed meme that it represents. “Gun control” means “the African-American socialist president is going to take away your guns as part of his plan to institute a United Nations-run totalitarian society.” Gun sales shot up after Obama’s elections in both 2004 and 2008.

It’s no accident that nearly every shooter in these events is a white male. That’s not to say that the shooting itself was a racialized event but that the fact that white men demand to make it absurdly easy for people like them to get guns has a racialized motive. And then the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords and the “Batman” shooting in Colorado did involve political motives.

I’ve had many occasions over the past year to write about people with unmet needs in this society. Many found their way to the occupations, when they were active, both here and in the U.K. Like most of them, whatever this young man’s issues were, he clearly did not get the help he needed. And he far more clearly received the message that this violent society sends most loudly of all, that violence is a good way to make a point, to resolve issues and to claim attention. And that it’s ok to use that violence on people weaker than yourself, whether women, children, the endebted, the homeless.

In order to make any kind of move away from the culture of violence, it’s obvious that there needs to be limits set on the possibilities that one person can attack another. But that is just a small start. The health care system needs to be able to help all those with needs. That requires more public revenue.

Women against Starbucks in the UK

Women against Starbucks in the UK

In Europe, they have ideas about that too. UK Uncut has shamed Starbucks into making some restitution for their tax avoidance by making these kinds of connections:

Sarah Greene, a UK Uncut activist said: “It is an outrage that the government continues to choose to let multinationals like Starbucks dodge millions in tax while cutting vital services like refuges, creches and rape crisis centres. It does not have to be this way.”

The politics of austerity is also a politics of violence. As the Greek Debt Audit Campaign has put it:

The link between debt, austerity and privatisation is clear. We consider it urgent to end the growing impoverishment of the people and ensure that all can cover their basic needs, as reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: housing, food, healthcare, education, employment and social services.

One way to summarize these rights is the formula “the right to existence” that comes down to us from anti-slavery organizing. A right to existence includes the right not to be subjected to physical or economic violence.

Staten Island today

Staten Island today

When I turned on my phone for the first time, one of the messages I received was from the Small Business Administration because I registered with FEMA after Sandy. It reminded me that the SBA loans were the “primary” form of government “assistance” for the disaster and that the deadline for applications was December 31, 2012. More debt, with deadlines, while people are still clearing up and finding out what their situation really is.

That’s the last official day of this project. Obviously, it won’t be over on that date.

On Continuing Not To Be Dead

Instead of doing that consumerist frenzy holiday shopping thing, why not have an Occupy weekend in NYC? There are important and fun events all weekend on student activism, recovering from Sandy and what’s next for Strike Debt. Still not dead, folks.

Book Block!

Book Block!

On Friday, support the excellent occupation by Cooper Union students by participating in the book block: a parade of books as shields. Make your own from 12-1pm on Friday December 14 at Cooper Square (7 East 7th St) and then join in the discussions on the future of student activism from 1-3pm and who knows what might happen next.

Saturday Dec. 15

This is important. Here’s a call from the Occupy Sandy people taking on mutual aid in Staten Island with people from the local community:


On Saturday we, the residents of affected areas of Staten Island, will come together and make our voices heard as part of a citywide day of action.  We invite you to come hear our stories and go on a tour of our neighborhood, a tour of destruction. We will open our community and our homes to show the world what is really happening in Staten Island. Hurricane Sandy was a disaster, but the lack of government response is shaping up to be another kind of catastrophe. We deserve better and we demand answers and action.

Go! and take your friend the journalist/blogger/film maker to publicize this to the max. Houses in NYC are getting devastated by black mold, just like people were in New Orleans after Katrina. You have to demolish all the walls to get rid of it. FEMA and co are offering nothing but loans. The obvious hope is to create more upscale housing and offices on these sites, although they will equally obviously flood next time as well.

Sunday Dec 16

Winter Jubilee

Not tired yet are you? Good. So go to the Strike Debt Winter Jubilee. This is not another debt abolition event, it’s an introduction to what Strike Debt does, and hopes to do in the future, as well as a seasonal secular celebration of a year of being undead. See you there!

Doing While Thinking

520 Clinton, Brooklyn HQ of Occupy Sandy

There’s a sense of intensity in New York these days. There are rats of astonishing size to be seen in the subway. On my way to Occupy Sandy today, I was part of a platform of horrified travelers at Brooklyn Bridge watching them having sex in the early afternoon. It seems like a portent but the disaster has already happened. It’s time for doing. Doing while thinking.

In the course of the week since I first went, Occupy Sandy has developed from a totally improvised project to a rather amazing operation. Stations are clearly identified, from volunteer orientation to driver dispatch, donation collection, packet creation, tech ops, kitchen, sanitation and media. Sound familiar? Yes, it’s the park only indoors. Occupy has reconstituted itself only this time its orientation is entirely outwards.

As it did in Zuccotti, Occupy is getting good press now for the first time in a while. OWS people have been posting this piece from the New York Times on social media and via email:

Occupy Wall Street has managed through its storm-related efforts not only to renew the impromptu passions of Zuccotti, but also to tap into an unfulfilled desire among the residents of the city to assist in the recovery.

There’s no question to my mind that this is right–there’s a palpable desire to do something, anything. Ironically, the mayor’s office, notable by its absence from all the disaster areas, has been seen trying to co-opt Occupy-led relief efforts in Red Hook.

Even while the Times was coming onto the Occupy team, it had to get in a little dig:

After its encampment in Zuccotti Park, which changed the public discourse about economic inequality and introduced the nation to the trope of the 1 percent, the Occupy movement has wandered in a desert of more intellectual, less visible projects, like farming, fighting debt and theorizing on banking.

It’s a false distinction as the Occupy Sandy banner shows–OS thinks of itself as a mutual aid project, which is very much an intellectual as well as practical concept. And it’s an odd list: farming, which has been been the concern of Occupy Farms, isn’t usually thought of as intellectual by contrast with economic inequality. Debt, on the other hand, is precisely about economic inequality.

Yesterday, artist David Rees launched the Rolling Jubilee to the wider world outside OWS via his blog How To Sharpen Pencils. Launched in conjunction with a co-ordinated social media campaign, the concept has gone viral, with features on CNN, Forbes, the Daily Telegraph, Salon, Daily Kos and all over the Internet.

Le Poisson Rouge, Bleecker St

The Jubilee begins with The People’s Bailout, a benefit event at Le Poisson Rouge to raise money in order to abolish debt that is currently in default. As I’ve explained before, the money will be put into the secondary debt market, established by banks and other lenders to sell on defaulted debt. The Rolling Jubilee will buy this debt but rather than attempt to collect on it, it will abolish it. The debt-buying team have tried out their method and it works.

The point is to use mutual aid as a means of questioning the debt system, just as Occupy Sandy uses mutual aid to question social services and disaster relief. The People’s Bailout relieves individuals of their debt burden. It also asks why, if banks can accept 5% of the total debt from debt collectors, individual debtors are expected to pay 100% of what’s owed to a debt collector who had nothing to do with the loan. Further, why should loans that the banks knew to be dubious be repaid? Why should medical emergencies or the desire for an education lead to personal financial disaster, while banks and other speculators walk away from their debts?

The benefit venue sold out within hours of the blog post. Organizers hope to raise $50,000 during the Telethon and if they do, no less than $1 million of people’s debt will be abolished by the people. The People’s Bailout is doing while thinking. So is Occupy Sandy.