Tag: Race

Race, Class, and Disaster Gentrification

By Zoltán Glück

First published at Tidal (http://tidalmag.org/race-class-and-disaster-gentrification/)

Red Hook Houses Without Power After Hurricane SandyIn the days and weeks following Hurricane Sandy the inequalities at the heart of New York City could scarcely be missed.  While hundreds of thousands of public housing residents went without heat, hot water or electricity, Mayor Michael Bloomberg rushed to get the stock exchange up and running within 48 hours—a stark reminder of whose lives and well-being are valued by current administration. In the immediate aftermath of disasters such contrasts lay bare the violence of race and class.  Who is able to leave and who is able to return are questions about access to resources, vulnerability, and the existing geographies of economic and social inequality. But it is through the process of reconstruction that existing racial and class iniquities are truly reproduced and deepened. In New York City, as the power has finally come back on for residents and as reconstruction efforts plod along, it is perhaps time for a look at how these dynamics are playing out.

In early November, 2012 I attended a meeting in the Red Hook loft apartment of the self-styled neighborhood power broker, Kirby Desmarais, the purpose of which was to build stronger lines of communication between various groups working on relief efforts in Red Hook. These included Occupy Sandy, the NYPD, the National Guard, a representative from Mayor Bloomberg’s office, and a sizeable group of small business owners in Red Hook: over 30 people in total. The meeting itself was uneventful, the National Guard did not plan to do any more than distribute boxes of freeze dried meals, the Mayor’s Office could not promise anything concrete, and 76th Precinct Police Captain Schiff remained mostly silent. Occupy Sandy would continue to collect and redistribute material donations, provide hot food, and build its databases of residents requiring home-delivered meals and needing medical assistance. Those of us working with Occupy Sandy began to feel uncomfortable as it became increasingly evident that the underlying purpose of the meeting was for the group of small business owners to establish direct lines of access to the various institutions with power over the recovery effort. One particularly disturbing aspect of the meeting was its racial composition. In this predominantly working class Black and Latino neighborhood, the small business coalition who were hosting the meeting had only managed to invite one single long-term black resident, a well-known local organizer, Reg Flowers. Such an exclusion of black community leaders from the table was, as Reg put it, at the very least “problematic and it may even be dangerous.” Sadly, such exclusions are also increasingly common and they bear witness to the important role played by gentrification in shaping the forms of recovery and reconstruction in Red Hook after Hurricane Sandy.

From the outside, Red Hook recovery efforts have been lauded in both the media and in activist circles as a stirring example of “community” self-empowerment and mutual-aid. What is less evident from most of these superficial accounts, however, are the deep social fissures and inequalities that are hidden beneath facile notions of “community.” The emergent pattern of racial and class-based exclusions in Red Hook have historical roots; they are also emblematic of a process that I am calling here disaster gentrification: that is, the use of disasters, such as Hurricane Sandy to initiate or consolidated gentrification projects.


First Community AssemblyClass and Race in Red Hook

Before Hurricane Sandy hit, Red Hook was already on the cutting edge of Brooklyn gentrification and had been for a few years. Urban homesteaders had moved in, lured by the waterfront, the aura of feeling slightly farther away from the rest of the city, and what the New York Times glibly calls “the pioneer spirit that has brought chicken coops, beehives and funky bars to a once-desolate industrial stretch of Brooklyn.”[1] As some of this growth has come through the reconversion of previously empty warehouses and industrial areas, Red Hook is often presented as benign form of urban regeneration and creative re-use of a post-industrial landscape. But as with the pioneers of old, people lived in Red Hook before the recent influx of entrepreneurs.

Red Hook has long been a working-class neighborhood. Much of the neighborhood’s urban fabric dates back to its 19th century history as a major hub of maritime commerce. Since the construction of its first port in the 1840’s Red Hook has been home to waves of immigrant populations; Irish, German and Italian workers came for employment on its docks. By the 1920s it could claim to be one of the busiest freight ports in the world. The first of the Red Hook Houses were built as part of a Federal Works Program initiative under FDR in 1938 to accommodate the growing number of dockworkers. Administered by the New York Housing Authority (NYCHA), these tall brick structures are still a defining feature of the neighborhood. Home to 8000 people, they remain the largest affordable housing tract in Brooklyn (and the second largest in New York City). The last installment of the Houses were built in 1955. Then, with the advent of containerization in the 1960s, shipping moved to the larger ports of New Jersey and Red Hook’s economic vitality declined.

During the latter half of the century Red Hook followed the pattern of many de-industrializing urban areas in the United States: white flight opened up space for Blacks, Latinos, and one of New York City’s first Puerto Rican communities. Meanwhile, disinvestment and capital flight from Red Hook, as in many other parts of Brooklyn, left the neighborhood derelict and abandoned by government, public services, and landowners alike. As the late great geographer Neil Smith has argued, neighborhoods like Red Hook were “lost” for capitalist profit extraction: practices such as redlining ensured that no new capital would be invested in these enclaves of urban poverty. This set the stage for Red Hook’s more recent history of gentrification. As Smith argues, gentrification is effectively a “back to the city movement for capital,”[2] through which such “lost” urban spaces are re-conquered for the purpose of profit extraction. Of course, the conquest of the “new urban frontier” inevitably entails the displacement of those who once lived there. [3] Thus, as capital began moving back to the city, it spelled a disaster for working class people across Brooklyn: eviction, harassment, highly racialized tough-on-crime policies, the forcible displacement and dismembering of communities.

Census data bears witness to the rapid transformations that have been reshaping neighborhood like Red Hook. Economic indicators show that Red Hook has seen its median monthly rents increase by upwards of 70% along the water front since 2000 (and 101% in the area directly above the Red Hook Houses), on par with the most rapidly changing census tracts in Williamsburg over the same period.[4] The growing economic disparities in the neighborhood are also evident in this rental data: the median rent at the Red Hook Houses is still $369 per month while loft apartments a block away on Delevan street are listed at 1,900$ per month.[5] This “rent-gap” between what working-class residents have been paying for decades and the promise of ever-rising rental incomes from an affluent gentrifying class is what fuels both property speculation and the forced evictions of long-time residents. Such processes are at the heart of Brooklyn’s changing political economy—they have also had dramatic impacts on the changing racial demographics of its neighborhoods.

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As a recent Fordham study has shown, Brooklyn is home to four of the country’s most rapidly changing neighborhoods as measured by racial composition. In Bed-Stuy, for example, the white population has grown by over 600% over the past decade. Meanwhile, the Center for Urban Research estimates that Brooklyn lost 50,000 African Americans to economic displacement between 2000 and 2010.[6] Red Hook has lost 17% of its Black population and 14.4% of its Hispanic population over the same period. As people are priced out of the neighborhood, block-by-block census records show that the Black and Brown population of Red Hook has quickly receded away from the main commercial strip of Van Brunt street and is now predominantly concentrated in the Red Hook Houses.[7] The old Puerto Rican community of the waterfront has vanished, displaced by affluence and whiteness.

Similar violent processes of displacement and conquest have led the New Orleans Tribune to describe gentrification as “the new segregation.”[8] Gentrification may be analyzed as economic project which displaces the poor and benefits the affluent, but it also articulates itself as a racial project whose violence is vested on people of color. Where it unfolds in neighborhoods like Red Hook, such processes bear out Stuart Hall’s famous argument, that “race is … the modality in which class is lived.” As Hurricane Sandy swept through Red Hook, its waters swept over a social geography already deeply injured by the racial and class inequities of gentrification. It is thus imperative for reconstruction efforts to take these existing divisions seriously, because to ignore them is to be complicit in reproducing and deepening them.

 Recovery Work and Disaster Gentrification

Dynamics of race and class have impacted Post-Sandy recovery work from the start. On the one hand, the sheer urgency relief work during the first few days created an initial atmosphere of solidarity, cooperation, and mutual-aid with residents and incoming activists working, cooking, and canvassing together. I became heavily involved with Occupy Sandy at its inception and helped set up the recovery hub at the Red Hook Initiative on day after the storm where the words “community-powered recovery” were repeated often and proudly. Indeed, it was inspiring and invigorating to see such spontaneous good-hearted, meaningful, and highly effective work being done. However, the lack of analysis around race and class was evident very early on and lead to a number of problems in the day-to-day dynamics of recovery work.

Occupy Sandy Hub at Red Hook Initiative

One of the first problems we encountered was the casual racism of charity work. During the first few days after the storm a well-intended Christian group began partnering with the NYPD to distribute supplies using NYCHA housing police. They also asked the police to provide “crowd control” for the lines of predominantly the Black and Latino residents waiting for much needed supplies such as flashlights, pampers and baby formula. This use of the police put an immediate strain on the relationship between local residents and activists and created a scenario in which race and resources separated the two groups: inside—a group of predominantly white volunteers managing resources; outside—people of color waiting in line in the cold for hours, with the police doing “crowd control.” This highly racialized treatment of aid-recipient as potential criminals was symptomatic of the staggeringly different ideologies concerning what recovery and reconstruction should look like: the philanthropic Church group thought of themselves as providing a service (which apparently required security). This was a stark contrast to the collaborative, solidaristic, mutual-aid project that Occupy Sandy had been trying to build over the course of the first weeks. Weekends were difficult for similar reasons. The neighborhood would be inundated with (predominantly middle-class white) volunteers who were dispatched to canvass, cleanup, gut dry walls, and distribute food. Much good work was done, but the racial stratification of volunteers and residents clearly began to reinforce existing oppressions, turning aid-recipients into passive agents in a process they had increasingly less and less control over.

A second and more serious way that existing structures of oppression were reproduced and deepened was through the activity of a group of small business owners in Red Hook. On December 5th, 2012, more than a month after the storm, Mayor Bloomberg finally came down to pay a visit to the storm-ravaged neighborhood. He did not bother to stop at the Red Hook Houses—home to 8000 of Red Hook’s approximately 11,000 residents—where his administration repeatedly failed to come to the assistance of tenants living without heat, electricity, and in some cases without even running water for weeks. Instead Bloomberg’s visit included stops at the upscale Fairway super market on Van Brunt street and a meeting with local NGOs and members of ReStore Red Hook, a coalition of small businesses in the neighborhood. Of course, in the eyes of city government these are the constituents that matter. It is to them that questions are posed about the neighborhood’s recovery needs. It is to them that recovery grants and special low-interest rate reconstruction loans are offered (currently the predominant means of disaster relief offered by the government). Or, as Kirby Desmarais once gleefully put it: “They are prioritizing the businesses in Red Hook because they know that they feed the community so well.”

This is the myth that is often repeated by the entrepreneurs: that “small businesses keep Red Hook alive.” What is quietly elided, however, is the question of who and what is being kept alive? As the figures on economic displacement indicate, it is not the working-class Black and Latino Red Hook which is being “kept alive” by these businesses—and $19 skirt steaks at Home/Made are clearly not priced to provide sustenance for this community. Rather, as small businesses take up the mantle of speaking for “the Red Hook community” they are also putting forward a vision of what such a community should look like. It is telling that the conversation with Bloomberg reportedly focused on “how to attract more shoppers to Red Hook,” re-opening the subway stop at Smith and 9th street, and how to increase foot traffic along Van Brunt street. This vision of recovery and reconstruction is clearly a vision of gentrification-based recovery.

The agenda of the small business coalition was captured succinctly by ReStore Red Hook founder, Monica Byrne, at a community meeting in early November: “we will not stop until every single small business in Red Hook re-opens its doors again.” As a vehicle for fund-raising, grant applications, and political lobbying, ReStore Red Hook has become a pivotal actor in the dynamics of recovery and reconstruction in the neighborhood. The example of a large grant awarded by the Brooklyn Community Foundation in December for Sandy recovery work is symptomatic. Through personal connections with Carlos Menchaca, Christine Quinn’s official liaison in Red Hook, a coalition of five organizations in Red Hook (including NGOs, residents and small businesses) were able to secure a large grant from the Brooklyn Community Foundation. Without any community oversight over how such funds ought to be disbursed, 80% of the funds were ultimately allocated to ReStore Red Hook. In a neighborhood where over 70% of the population lives in public housing, to allocate 80% of incoming resources to small businesses along a gentrifying corridor simply callous. It is also a form of institutional racism reproduced and replicated through everyday practices. By mobilizing cultural, legal, and political capital to control incoming resources and funnel them towards small businesses, this coalition is indirectly working to disempower and displace the working-class Black and Latino community of Red Hook.

As such, ReStore Red Hook represents the consolidation of the gentrification project after Hurricane Sandy. It is the vehicle through which a gentrifying class in-itself has become a gentrifying class for-itself. It is the consolidation of a class project insofar as it actively organizes a small business class around a common interest. But it must also be understood as a consolidation of whiteness. As meetings in loft apartments become conspicuously racially homogenous and resources are syphoned away from the Black and Brown residents of the neighborhood, disaster gentrification is also project that “ReStores” segregation, poverty, and white supremacy.

Towards a Disaster Anti-Capitalism

As the coalition of small-business owners in Red Hook began to control the direction of reconstruction in the neighborhood, they also began to push Occupy Sandy organizers out. Frequently, insider vs. outsider language and appeals to “the community” were used to keep Occupy organizers out of meeting spaces or to question their legitimacy on listservs and in public meetings. Meanwhile, the Occupy Sandy relief hub at the Red Hook Initiative was displaced after its first week of operation when the RHI board of directors decided that they needed to “return to our normal programming.” Contentiously, RHI continued to collect disaster recovery funds even as their own involvement in the recovery efforts scaled back enormously. According to one source who attended a closed meeting with RHI, the non-profit has accumulated over $2 million in Sandy recovery donations. Conspicuously, the eviction of Occupy Sandy from RHI occurred precisely after organizers began to ask questions about how RHI  was allocating the recovery funds. A number of us who had originally helped set up the relief hub at RHI after the storm urged them to use a participatory budgeting method for distributing the resources, however the organization has remained completely opaque about how such resources will be used. Indeed, after the initial days of spontaneous good will and solidarity, NGOs and small businesses in Red Hook began jockeying for position and funding to the detriment of pan-neighborhood solidarity, not to mention social justice. In this atmosphere of self-serving political myopia many of us who worked to start a “People’s Recovery” in Red Hook left or were pushed out; some went to other nodes in the Occupy Sandy network, while others withdrew from the recovery efforts completely. In this context, we may draw a number of lessons from the intersections of disaster-recovery and disaster-gentrification in Red Hook.

To begin with, the social justice work of Occupy Sandy organizers in Red Hook was particularly vulnerable to being sidelined, subverted, and evicted due to the fact that they did not have deep roots or strong alliances in the neighborhood. Such alliances and ties would have been pivotal for building more effective resistance to the intense political and economic forces of disater gentrification. By comparison, in neighborhoods such as Sunset Park, where Occupy has been engaged in community organizing and anti-gentrification work for the past year, the post-disaster organizing has been more enduring and robust. In the immediate wake of the storm, Occupy activists organized a number of community assemblies in Red Hook with the aim of building a decision-making body through which direct community oversight of recovery efforts might be achieved (including an ill-fated campaign to demand rent abatement from NYCHA). Such efforts were effectively undercut as the important decisions over resource allocation and negotiations with politicians were happening elsewhere. Without a deep organizing base in the neighborhood, Occupy Sandy’s medium-term projects in Red Hook foundered. Ultimately, in order to resist disaster gentrification it is crucial to have a pre-existing base of anti-gentrification organizing. Such a base would have also provided more susatinable, effective, and meaningful ways for “outside” organizers to plug in. Much good political organizing work was done in the days after the storm, but without strong neighborhood alliances this work was quickly demobilized, coopted, and neutralized.

In the long run, the conversation about a just reconstruction must also find strategic ways to talk to small business owners. Despite the short-term gains that ReStore Red Hook might achieve through back-room deals with state functionaries and donation drives, theirs is a losing strategy in the long run. The true beneficiaries of Hurricane Sandy will not be small businesses, but rather the large banks who provide reconstruction loans, the companies who receive the reconstruction contracts, and the emergent industry of eco-disaster-capitalism which sees social catastrophe as a business opportunity. Loan providers are already projected to make $1 billion in profits annually from these loans.[9] By contrast, as of late January, out of the 1,119 small businesses that had applied for federal loans in Brooklyn, only 89 had been approved.[10] Those “lucky” enough to be approved will be saddled with huge debts for years to come and some will even have to put up their homes as collateral.[11] Such a system individualizes and atomizes the burden of reconstruction; it also tears apart the fabric of our communities, pushing some into narrow and self-serving alliances, leaving others to fall through the cracks entirely. Indeed, the petty battles over the pittance of resources and funding that do come to neighborhoods like Red Hook end up reinforcing racial and class divides and destroying neighborhood solidarity. As Tom Agnotti has pointed out, such divisions leave neighborhoods vulnerable and fractured in the face of large-scale developers who are then able to move into the neighborhood without much (unified) resistance.[12] If recent talk about moving toxic sludge from the Gowanus canal to a site in Red Hook materializes, all of the neighborhoods residents will stand to lose from the effects of environmental racism and broken solidarities.

Ultimately, with the increasing frequency of ecological calamity around the world, social justice activists must begin imagining long-term and pre-emptive strategies for coping with disaster. This means deep neighborhood-based political organizing adequate to the needs of the nascent modality of resistance, something we might call disaster anti-capitalism.

 


[1] Buckley, Cara, and William K. Rashbaum. “Power Failures and Furious Flooding Overwhelm Lower Manhattan and Red Hook” October 29th, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/30/nyregion/red-hook-residents-defy-evacuation-warnings-drinks-in-hand.html. (Accessed,  February 1st, 2013)

[2] Neil Smith. “Towards a Theory of Gentrification” Journal of the American Planning Association. Vol. 45.4. 1979.

[3] Neil Smith. The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City. Routeledge: London. 1996.

[4] For a map of census rental see NYTimes “Mapping America” project: http://projects.nytimes.com/census/2010/explorer (Accessed January 12th, 2013)

[5] See, for example: http://www.brownstoner.com/blog/2012/01/rental-of-the-day-5-delevan-street/ (Accessed January 12th, 2013)

[6] http://www.urbanresearchmaps.org/plurality/#nabes

[7] A compelling visualization of this data is available through the Center for Urban Research interface here: http://www.urbanresearchmaps.org/comparinator/pluralitymap.htm (Accessed January 12th, 2013)

[8] Beaulieu, Lovell. “Gentrification: the new segregation?” New Orleans Tribune, 2012.

[9] Strike Debt. “Shouldering the Costs: Who will pay in the Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy?” December 2012. http://strikedebt.org/sandyreport/ (Accessed February 1st, 2013)

[10] Feldmen, Emily. “Hard-Hit Small Businesses Denied Post-Sandy Loans” January 25th, 2013.http://brooklynbased.net/email/2013/01/hard-hit-small-businesses-denied-post-sandy-loans/ (Accessed February 1st, 2013)

[11] Sataline, Suzanne. “Why a victim of Sandy doesn’t want an S.B.A. loan” February 12th, 2013. http://boss.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/12/why-a-victim-of-sandy-doesnt-want-an-s-b-a-loan/?src=rechp (Accessed February 1st, 2013)

[12] Angotti, Tom. “Ikea and Red Hook’s Racial Divide” Gotham Gazette, June 2004. http://old.gothamgazette.com/article/landuse/20040615/12/1008 (Accessed February 1st, 2013)

A Culture of Resistance: Lessons Learned from the Student Liberation Action Movement

Originally Published on Upping the Anti @ http://uppingtheanti.org/journal/article/08-a-culture-of-resistance1/.

By Suzy Subways

In March 1995, 20,000 students from City University of New York (CUNY) were attacked by police after surrounding city hall to protest a draconian tuition increase. This protest, organized by the CUNY Coalition Against the Cuts, marked an upsurge in student movement activity that continued into 1996, when the group transformed into the Student Liberation Action Movement (SLAM), a multiracial radical organization. Before disbanding in 2004, SLAM established chapters at CUNY colleges in all five boroughs of the city. This roundtable focuses on the chapter at Hunter College in Manhattan and explores SLAM’s legacy of building a left culture in New York City and across the country.

SLAM’s legacy is bound up with the evolution of CUNY, which became the primary route out of poverty for the city’s Black, Latino, and immigrant communities starting in the 1970s. Prior to that, despite offering free education since 1847, CUNY was predominantly white. In 1969, Black and Latino students at City College in Harlem, with support from the Black Panthers and Young Lords, occupied CUNY campus buildings and won an open admissions policy that made CUNY accessible to students who needed remedial classes because they had attended substandard high schools. By 1976, the year CUNY started charging tuition, the student body was predominantly people of colour. The policy of open admissions was reversed in 1999, despite SLAM’s militant opposition.

This roundtable is part of a larger and ongoing SLAM oral history project (see http://SLAMherstory.wordpress.com). While many people helped build SLAM, this article highlights the voices of some of the women of colour members. These women represent different generations of SLAM, from founders to younger leaders. Their insights convey their experiences in SLAM and draw out lessons about building organic leadership and creating multiracial, feminist organizations that are accountable to communities directly affected by the issues.

Lenina Nadal was a founding member of the CUNY Coalition Against the Cuts and SLAM. Having graduated in 1997, she returned in 2000 to help create SLAM’s organizer training institute. She is a filmmaker, playwright, and poet, and works for the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. Visit http://www.performingprofound.com

Rachèl Laforest was president of Hunter College’s Black Student Union in 1995 and SLAM’s first student government president in 1996. Before leaving SLAM in 2003, she defended open admissions and worked on SLAM’s High School Organizing Program and the Mumia Youth Task Force. She is Director of Organizing for New York City’s Transport Workers Union (TWU, Local 100).

Luz Schreiber worked on SLAM’s open admissions campaign and other projects between 1998 and 2000. Co-founder of Ollin Imagination (a cultural circle of resistance of parents, artists, students, and educators of colour), Luz is a creative writing major and Hunter Student Union organizer.

Suzan Hammad was president of Hunter’s Palestinian Club before joining SLAM and becoming a lead anti-war organizer in the early part of this decade. She is a painter (see www.cafepress.com/LailatiNar) and continues fighting for a free Palestine.

Tamieka Byer organized college and high school student walkouts against police brutality and the Iraq war as a member of SLAM between 2000 and 2004. She currently works with Amnesty International USA as the Board Liaison.

How did student clubs at Hunter come together in 1995, work in the CUNY Coalition, and start SLAM?

Suzan: Pre-SLAM, some of the first CUNY movement meetings were happening in the Palestinian Club. It was like we were all saying the same thing: “Oh shit, they’re raising our tuition! Oh shit, they’re bombing Palestine! Oh shit!”

Lenina: There was a lot of anxiety among the students, because tuition was going to be raised by $1,000. The Black Student Union had members who were responsible for some of the major takeovers of the Hunter campus and other CUNY campuses in 1990 and ’91. The other clubs that had political consciousness included the Palestinian Club and the Arab Club, which were very strongly affiliated. And right across the hall was the Puerto Rican Club, which had some progressive membership. Those were the organizations that solidified people of colour on the Left.

The only alternative we were being offered was from the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), which was like, “Let’s lobby our representatives to see if we can change it from within.” But the frustration was already building up and working class students were feeling like this might be the last chance they would have at a CUNY education. The stakes were very, very high. It was really a mass movement. It’s like most movements – the leadership can claim it, but they have to claim it after the masses have already said, “This is what we want.” Those of us who had been part of organizations, or who grew up with leftist parents, started to get to know each other and see that we had something to offer to sustain a movement. That’s how some of SLAM’s leadership started to come together.

SLAM was a student group. Why did it fight for political prisoners, visit Zapatista communities, bring medical supplies to Iraq, and protest police brutality and the navy occupation of Vieques?

Tamieka: CUNY doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I mean, you talk about a tuition hike – which seems like a strictly CUNY issue – but you have to ask the question, “Why the hike?” The first thing I learned in SLAM was that tuition was free until the first year people of colour forced their way in. SLAM always made the point that tuition hikes were forcing out lower-income New Yorkers, while the government was spending more money recruiting these same lower-income people of colour to join the military.

Lenina: Despite the fact that SLAM had new leadership every year as people graduated and moved on with their lives, the last group of people in SLAM were still talking about police brutality and saying, “We can’t forget what’s going on in our own neighbourhoods.” It was really amazing for me to see that a radical movement can be sustained if certain values are maintained. Instead of just a political organization, we developed our own culture to pass down.

Rachèl: There were a lot of young people on Hunter’s campus who wound up being attracted to SLAM because we were speaking their language, politically and socially. Our Mumia Youth Task Force concert was a really dynamic event. We packed the entire 2,000-seat Hunter College auditorium. Mos Def and Dead Prez performed. People in the Mumia Coalition knew how valuable SLAM’s level of organizing and sexiness was. Young people wanted to be around folks who really had their finger on the pulse of what was happening in terms of hip-hop. That’s what made SLAM an easy thing to gravitate towards. Once you heard people talk about what they were really about, folks stuck around to listen and had ideas of their own.

I think the Amadou Diallo1 issue made it easier to pull young people into the Mumia stuff. Even though young people had heard about Mumia, he wasn’t a New Yorker. He wasn’t someone that you might have seen when you left the house to go to school that morning. Amadou was. Especially for young people in the Bronx who lived right next to him, Amadou’s murder and the acquittal of those cops allowed them to look at a situation like Mumia’s, and really believe that he was framed for killing a cop.

There are serious lulls in organizing work, and sometimes events like this are catalysts. We realized that folks were angry because there were so many spontaneous gatherings throughout the city. Now, I have to tell you, I was very disappointed, because I think those mobilizations also showed how much people had gotten used to things. The response was angry, but I don’t believe it went far enough. There were young people just running through the streets. But nothing really happened. When a community finds itself completely backed into a corner and is angry, fear drops away. Flipping over a police car, setting something on fire, rawly expressing the rage that you feel – there’s nothing to hold it back. It showed SLAM that young people were so lulled by the system that they were angry, but they weren’t angry enough. We weren’t angry enough.

How did people bring in traditions of resistance from their own communities?

Lenina: People learned about who they were. A lot of people came out of the closet and started to engage in queer political theory by bringing that analysis into the organization to challenge people. We had a Cambodian member who was taken out of Cambodia during a very repressive time and brought to the US. She was discovering what the repression in Cambodia had to do with US foreign policy. Another member taught us how Mao used pop culture to create cultural resistance. He was saying, “how can we have our cultural resistance?” That’s what helped feed Mao’s revolution, and that was going to help feed our revolution. The Puerto Rican students and Black students had access to institutions created in the ’60s and ’70s by young revolutionaries like ourselves. Together, this created a very sensual space: it wasn’t a clash of cultures so much as a joint discovery.

Rachèl: I was a red diaper baby. My parents were an interracial couple at a time when that wasn’t popular in any way. My mom’s parents had been union organizers; both were involved in the Communist Party during the 1920s and ’30s. When I was younger, my mom was a tenant organizer. My father participated in one of the first formations of the Communist Party in Haiti. His family was asked to leave the country because of it. I learned that if there were liberation struggles that affected your life, you participated in them no matter what. SLAM was unique because most of the core group came from that kind of background.

Luz: The village in Oaxaca where I’m from has a great spirit of resistance, dating back to the Mexican revolution in 1910. I came to New York in 1998, four years into the Zapatista rebellion against neoliberalism’s economic policies. People in Chiapas and elsewhere are displaced by these policies. The struggle in CUNY to keep admissions open was also about stopping students being displaced from the university. I was surprised that people in SLAM knew about the Zapatistas. From that, I knew that this was a group of people that cared about what was going on in the world and were eager to learn how indigenous people resisted. The Zapatistas declared, “We want a world that can fit many worlds,” and that resonated with people everywhere. In New York there are many worlds, but the people in power don’t want to make room for all of us.

How did SLAM develop leadership?

Luz: I think I was only able to imagine myself as a leader because I saw powerful Latina and Black women – leaders, intellectual, strong – doing stuff. They said, “We have to make you speak. There’s a rally, and you have to testify because you’re a remedial student.” So they made me get up on top of a desk and recite a Nelson Mandela poem. It wasn’t the most orthodox way to teach public speaking, but it worked. If someone had just said, “It’s important to have women of colour leadership,” that wouldn’t have clicked as much as seeing it in practice.

Tamieka: Lots of trainings! Doing readings and coming back to the group to discuss them. And we were doing the readings while simultaneously doing the work: it was easy to look at something we had just read about imperialism and see how it was still relevant to how we interact with each other, and how America interacts with the rest of the world.

SLAM helped develop new leaders by actually having leaders that represented me. I’ve been at three other organizations since SLAM, and not once has there been more than one strong woman of colour at a time in each organization. In SLAM, part of what developed me was knowing that these strong women of colour had done the same readings I did, made many of the same mistakes I was currently making, and were the better for it.

Lenina: When we started the organizer training institute, we used the School of Unity and Liberation (SOUL) curriculum.2 We recruited about 25 students a semester, and taught them organizing skills like campaign development, power analysis, public speaking, media relations and messaging, graphic design and web design. We also did political education using current events and older texts to define imperialism, patriarchy, and capitalism. In the high school organizing program, we had a video instructor. The young people were looking into the Anthony Baez3 case, so they did a short documentary about that.

Suzan: I felt a very strong connection to our mentors from the Black Nationalist movement. They gave me good advice when I felt confused. I was mentored by their example of devoting their whole lives to the struggle for liberation and peace. They were experienced in organizing, and I really respected their anti-imperialism, anarchism, and Black Nationalism. Palestinians and the Black Panthers had worked together. To this day, not everyone works with Palestinians; we’re still marginalized in the movement.

Why and how did SLAM become a women of colour-led organization? How did SLAM deal with questions of whiteness and male leadership?

Rachèl: The white men did much of the theorizing and writing. The women of colour did much of the relationship-building. The number of people recruited into the organization by white men was very slim. They built relationships with new people who didn’t know them by having theoretical conversations about what was happening and pushed people little by little. The women – and mainly the women of colour – met people at a party or were handing out flyers and getting into a conversation about food or an event. They developed many more relationships at a time.

Internally, the women ran the show. Because we had a better understanding of the population we were dealing with and what folks were going to respond to, we made decisions about what should happen. While some of the white men in SLAM had some great ideas, sometimes people said no for the sake of saying no, just to not move on another idea the white man had put forward. People were angry about not hearing their voices come through in the work. It was in the second year that people started to shut them down, and it came out angrily at first, but eventually it came out respectfully and it was for the right reason. It wasn’t to shush up the white man but because, “Actually, we genuinely don’t think that’s a good idea right here, right now. But we love you, and we want you to keep putting ideas out on the table.”

Luz: I learned to become aware of power dynamics within the group. We called out white privilege, sexism, and homophobia during meetings or any kind of gathering. All these forms of oppression persist because we internalize them. At times it was challenging and even painful. But if a man spoke for too long, someone would ask, “So what do women think of this?” I wasn’t used to seeing a man following a woman’s direction or being challenged for his behavior, and that was amazing. Many men preferred to only engage in theoretical work, write articles, speak at meetings, and argue ideas. For a lot of men, it’s easier to take on the role of the intellectual and leave the organizing and networking to women. The men in the group acknowledged that women were better at organizing. But sometimes it was a cop out: men aren’t good relationship-builders because they don’t practice or try hard enough.

Lenina: SLAM allowed people of colour to have their voices at the forefront by teaching people public speaking, writing, and documentation skills. For white people who have had some level of privilege, who are good writers or speakers, or who have had a good education, their role is really to be a trainer. And they can continue to write because if you’re teaching someone how to be a writer, but you’re also writing yourself, that person feels like, “I’m being taught by someone who really does this stuff and takes it seriously.” You have to see if you can play a role in helping somebody who is afraid that what they say or how they’ll say something won’t be accepted. Historically it hasn’t been.

How did Maoism and anarchism shape SLAM’s decisions and goals?

Rachèl: Those ideologies were interwoven in the work. Anarchism shaped our involvement in the global justice convergence protests against the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000. What we learned from Maoism showed up in the more institutionalized organizing work we did in the High School Organizing Program, the Hunter clubs, and our community anti-police brutality work. All of the folks involved had a genuine desire to be led by those most affected by what was happening. Sometimes it was SLAM members, and sometimes it wasn’t. And I think our struggle to be a multicultural, multi-ideological group allowed us to ask about the needs of a particular community and figure out what role SLAM could play.

The anarchists leaned toward Maoism because the majority of the group leaned toward a Maoist tendency. Folks that subscribed to more Maoist ideas felt safer playing on both ends and were excited by a lot of the anarchist ideas that were put on the table. However, the fact that we had this institution to run that was university-based and had rules and regulations played a role in quelling the more anarchist activities. The anarchist notion of tearing things down and resisting any structure that was not built by us was important. And where Maoism came into play was that it wasn’t just tearing down for the sake of showing outrage. Institution building was meant to replace what we were tearing down with a different approach, new ideas, and a new way of relating to people. I think the two played hand in hand.

Luz: It was amazing to learn theory and see it applied. I remember a demonstration against Herman Badillo, a man on the Board of Trustees that wanted to end open admissions. This was someone who fought for education for minorities early in his political career, and then he made racist statements to the media about Mexicans. Coming from a Latino, it was internalized racism. He said things like, these short people from the hills are coming here and taking over our schools, and we can’t allow this to happen. I was like, “fuck, this shit is real, this is not something from a book.” We needed to challenge the ideology that people of colour were intellectually inferior, culturally inferior, and therefore had to be segregated and denied a right to education.

You can hear all you want about theory, the masses, and how class relations work, but it’s experiences like this that really bring it home and make you understand not only intellectually, but with all your senses. Mobilizing people to fight police brutality and for Mumia Abu-Jamal put ideas into practice. It wasn’t just preaching. Because then Mao only becomes a gospel; it’s not something you can live. I lived it with SLAM. Not only “What does it mean that women were disempowered systematically throughout the centuries?” but also “What does it mean to have women leadership? How does that look, how does that feel?”

Lenina: SLAM’s Little Red Study Group brought together a group of radical teachers and community organizers: people who wanted to have a more radical nonprofit space. We decided to study Marxism seriously. We studied a lot of Mao, a little queer theory, a little feminism. That group evolved into the New York Study Group, which includes former members of Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement (STORM).4 We felt a kind of identification and connection with STORM because it had the same goals around women of colour-led organization.

How did SLAM’s militance relate to issues affecting its members’ communities?

Suzan: I really am glad we were very loud when the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq broke out in 2001 and 2003. I wish a lot of people had stayed that loud, maybe because I related to it so much, because I’m from the Middle East, and there’s been a lot of war in my history. What happened in the Nakba 60 years ago is happening today in Afghanistan, it’s happening today in Iraq. When we took over the Hunter president’s office in February 2003, we just wanted to make a really bold statement. We met people that day who would later become SLAM members. Did we expect to stop the war that day? No. It was an expression of a lot of people’s feelings of “Fuck this!” I think in America today, there’s a lot of people suffering under the surface. I think people were feeling it, but nobody was saying anything.

Lenina: We believed we had to find the most revolutionary way to react. And that was being more militant at a time when this society was constantly encouraging us to be comfortable, passive, and do things without accomplishing anything. Militant action feels good because you’re connecting and doing what’s in your heart, despite whatever the state says. If you have a supportive community, why not take over a bridge? A lot of younger people tell us, “I wish I was around when SLAM was around.” We used to say that about the Young Lords, and the Young Lords probably said that about somebody else. Just do the best you can, you know?

What were some of the contradictions in SLAM becoming student government at Hunter College?

Tamieka: Trying to appease the administration and still hold true to our politics at the same time. Making other student groups and clubs feel welcomed and not like SLAM was a special club that benefited from student government while they were given crumbs. Feeling overwhelmed with hard, emotional, full-time jobs at 20, 21, 22 years of age, in addition to SLAM work.

Lenina: I think you’re hitting at the core of the nonprofit industrial complex. Any time anything becomes institutionalized, it loses a certain amount of energy. It’s like running a small country like Cuba or Nicaragua, where you’re no longer an outside guerrilla. All of a sudden we had money and power within the structure of our college. We had access to CUNY by-laws and knowledge of important meetings where real decisions were going to be made for students. We received this information in memos and we would raise hell in all those meetings. We had unlimited photocopying, and basically anything we needed for organizing (walkie-talkies, things we needed for rallies, for security), we could purchase with student government funds as long as we put it on the books. Plus, several organizations that weren’t funded at the time – groups like Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) and the Taxi Workers’ Alliance – could freely come in and use our copy machine, space, computers, and web access. Hunter was a hub for organizing work.

As time went by, we became a top priority for the Board of Trustees, which wanted to get rid of us. There were very explicit conversations about our organization. We took a very strong stance on Palestine in a city where, to be honest, it got us into a lot of trouble. And taking a stance on police brutality was very important to us, and we didn’t give a shit. If it was going to mean losing student government, then F-it, you know?

Rachèl: We really did capitalize on a moment of a lot of young people being pissed off and wanting a space to channel that energy. You build institutions to try to carry people through the valleys until the next peak of movement activity arrives. People have to be better prepared, and have stronger and tighter language for how to talk about the peaks when they get there. But as far as our organizing capacity, I think it was a double-edged sword. SLAM could not have done the things we did without the resources student government provided. And I think the obligations to run the student government prevented SLAM from doing some of the greatest things it could have done. I lived in the office. I got caught up in so much of the financial bullshit that it didn’t allow me to really go out amongst the students and talk about what SLAM did, why I was a part of it, and how important the issues we were dealing with were.

What do you think led to SLAM falling apart?

Rachèl: In 2000, it was easier to link police brutality to CUNY students. At that time, Hunter was still a majority of people of colour college, so students went home to the very communities we were talking about. Tuition was going up every year, so the class and complexion of the school changed. It became more of a challenge for SLAM to link the antiwar organizing with the student body because students didn’t see the connection between undocumented immigrants being detained and CUNY students being targeted. They didn’t see it as their struggle.

There was also a stigma tied to SLAM being in student government for eight years, as if it had been a dictatorship. Sometimes the student body didn’t want to hear shit anymore.

Lenina: In the end, we were an institution getting money from students. A lot of the people who were getting a salary in SLAM didn’t want to work on student issues. They wanted to work on issues in their communities. It wasn’t too hard for the administration to tell the students, “These people aren’t really serving you.” The problem when you get money from any particular source is that you’re beholden to that source of funding. Because open admissions ended, you began to see more middle-class students that were easily persuaded that we were a little too radical.

Also, when you have a job, it’s no longer really a movement for you. It becomes your 9 to 5. You almost get sick of it, like any job. And it’s funny, because small businesses are encouraged to constantly make people feel a sense of the team and a commitment to the cause. We didn’t really do that, because we didn’t know how. So we were functioning the way you would in a grassroots movement, where it’s like, “You’re not holding up your end of the stick here, what’s wrong with you?” as opposed to “Let’s go back to our mission, our values.” What were we doing to heal ourselves, to reinvigorate ourselves, to keep ourselves excited and to be engaged and understand why this was so important? When you don’t have that consistently, it’s difficult. Especially when you have an administration connected to mayor Giuliani, and they’re mobilizing against you, and you’re doing your darnedest to stay in there, but you don’t have as strong a connection to the student body that was initially so all about you being there.

Tamieka: The older generations of SLAM did the best they could with transferring information and skills to the incoming generation. Looking back, I see that there is a problem if the organization is unable to function without some of its founding members. If we can’t survive without a member who has been in the organization for over eight years, then we’re lacking the self-sustaining part, right? I look back and think, “Boy, if we had those contacts… I didn’t know we had a contact in X organization! Wow, that could’ve been helpful.” But folks get burnt out and are ready to wrap it up. We had a haphazard transfer of institutional knowledge. I’ve seen it everywhere; it’s not just a SLAM problem. How to effectively pass knowledge and history along, and make sure new folks are receptive to this kind of learning. We all have such huge egos. I think too often we wanted to work on our own; we could’ve shouldered some of our work better if we partnered with more organizations, in my generation at least.

SLAM was great at movement building and leadership development, but not so successful at winning immediate victories. The loss of Open Admissions was especially painful. Why do you think SLAM lost so much, and how much do you think it matters?

Lenina: In 1995 they raised tuition by $750 instead of the initial threat of $1,000. Of course, the reformist groups took a lot of credit for that, like the threat of 20,000 young people showing up out of nowhere and running around Wall Street had nothing to do with it! The administration also didn’t cut financial aid as much, but our vision was so much larger. We wanted a school where we didn’t have to pay tuition, period. Some of the most amazing, transformative experiences are experiences where you lose. Those anti-globalization protests were so deeply transformative in terms of like, wow, we could actually build sectors of society with just who we have. We could build a little media sector and a little law sector, and a little sector of doctors, and we could really make this happen on our own. And we didn’t win crap in that, you know?

Rachèl: SLAM chose issues sometimes that we knew weren’t winnable, but were core issues that people could be unified and gathered around. And the strength built by people learning about each other and building that community was a kind of victory. If you are a longstanding organization, and you come down from a peak and you’re in a valley for a while, there are times when choosing small, winnable issues is important for the morale of your members. People have to know that the organization has the strength to win things, even if they’re tiny. But even if the issue itself is not winnable at this point in history it’s a win to bring people together around it, especially if they’re able to stay stuck together around that issue and grow outward. They say to pick your battles wisely, even in interpersonal relationships. And yeah, sometimes you only want to focus on the battles you know are significant to the relationship. And then other times, you just want to have the battle for the sake of making sure that something that’s important to you doesn’t just die by the wayside.

Suzan: Unfortunately, it’s a very unfair power dynamic. The forces against us have a lot of power. But our spirit is stronger, and what we want is greater.

What can SLAM teach the CUNY movement and the Left today?

Rachèl: The one-on-one relationship-building approach to organizing. The internet makes it so that you don’t have to be in human contact with anybody anymore, and that’s not such a great thing. My first boyfriend at Hunter became politicized because every single time I saw him by the cafeteria, I would stop to have a discussion with him about what was happening in the Black Student Union, and how he might be able to get involved. You sort of met a friend and didn’t let them go. Working at Jobs With Justice, they had me running around East Harlem, door-knocking, and they had this whole laid-out script that I never used. That Alinsky5 style is devoid of any real, genuine investment in the issue. Because of SLAM, I had learned how to look for the elements in it that I identified with personally, and let that shape the discussion. And to sit down and try to figure out who folks were, where they were coming from, did this affect them, and if it didn’t, why? Did it move them, and if it didn’t, why? You’ve got to deal with people where they’re at if you want them to move forward in another direction. I brought what I learned in SLAM about the relationship-building approach into my work at the transit union also.

Luz: One of the core philosophies in SLAM was the personal is political. We really took time to build relationships. Sometimes people think that part is not really organizing, because it’s just social. But that’s the foundation of organizing. If you cannot build personal relationships, how can you build organizational capacity? When people set up 1,000 barricades in Oaxaca in 2006 to protect themselves against the government, it was instinctual, because in Oaxaca people have really large, closely knit families. That is a natural social network. People were guarding all the entrances of town and if they said, “Go get your family,” your family means like 200 people. In Oaxaca, those relationships are already built; you just have to tap into them. Here, you have to start from scratch.

For students who come to Hunter now, there’s a student government in the service of the administration. Just knowing that there was this other alternative for so long is amazing. Some people can’t get over it. They ask me, “How did it happen?”

I see less intergenerational work happening now. SLAM really had these mentors from older generations in the community; they weren’t scholars. People who are active now at Hunter have a professor they look up to. Right now, everybody learns from each other, but I don’t feel like there’s leadership. Horizontalism is more attractive, because everyone gets to participate, and more ideas are exchanged. But I think it’s equally important to have systematic accountability. Some people are very repulsed by the idea of leadership. But if there hadn’t been true leadership in the Cuban revolution, it would have failed.

Lenina: We were visionary, because we weren’t just about the economic revolution and the political revolution. It wasn’t just about these capitalist pigs, and socialism was the answer; it was about how the hell does that relate to hip-hop? It’s like, we’re going to take this boring message, something you’d read in a newspaper, and present it in a way that you can understand, like something that happened to your mom or could happen to your best friend, and make it that personal and real for you. It was about love and kindness and getting excited, not just about a new, different type of social order.

Notes

1 Amadou Diallo was an unarmed 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea, Africa, who was killed on February 4, 1999, by four New York City Police Department plain-clothed officers. They fired a total of 41 rounds at Diallo, mistaking his wallet for a gun when he reached for his identification.

2 SOUL works to lay the groundwork for a powerful liberation movement by supporting the development of a new generation of young organizers, especially young women, young people of colour, queer youth, and working-class young people. See www.schoolofunityandliberation.org.

3 Anthony Baez was a Puerto Rican from the Bronx. He was killed in 1994 by asphyxiation during a chokehold by Officer Francis Livoti, after his family’s football hit a police car.

4 STORM was a multi-racial, internationalist, left cadre organization based in the Bay Area from 1994 to 2001. See leftspot.com/blog/files/docs/STORMSummation.pdf.

5 Saul Alinsky wrote Rules for Radicals and has inspired many neighbourhood activist groups like ACORN that have single-issue campaigns. The Midwest Academy is a training center that draws heavily from Alinskyism.

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