Interview with Josh Bisker, Time’s Up and NYU Office of Government and Community Affairs
Interview by Max Liboiron (SRL) with Josh Bisker, Time’s Up activist and New York University Community Affairs (responsible for much Sandy relief). March 13, 2013
A: How’s that?
Q: Yes, that will be perfect. All right, so Josh will you spell your last name for me?
A: It’s Bisker “B” as in “Boy” – I – “S” as in Steven – K E R.
Q: Okay. And what is your affiliation– who do you work for?
A: Um, I have a day job where I work for New York University in the Office of Government and Community Affairs. And a lot of my Sandy involvement was through that office, but the bulk of my Sandy involvement was with Time’s Up. We’re, depending on who you ask, an environmental direct action coalition, or group of anarchists, organizers and activists or a bike coop. And all those things are true.
Q: Okay. Um, so, can you tell me what your experience with Sandy was like? [laughter] General ice breaker question.
A: Um, [long pause]. Like the storm or like the whole, you know, months long…
Q: The storm and then leading through, yeah.
A: Um, the storm was a little embarrassingly safe. Like I live in Park Slope, um, and I was pretty much sitting on my couch with my cat and her being like ‘is it raining?’ “Yes, it is raining.’ Um, and you know, it happened, it passed. Irene was actually more eventful.
Q: Were you living in the same place for Irene?
A: Yeah, but it flooded like crazy, um, so Irene was more eventful. The storm itself was just, you know, an exciting occurrence. And then, you know, the next day the city shut down. And I guess I watch online as, uh, like right after the power plant blew. Um, you know, you kept up on Facebook with your phone —
A: — and we got to all go see clips of when the power plant exploded. Um, but like the day after the storm was when it — you started to figure out that things were worse elsewhere and substantially. Um, I biked down to Red Hook, just to see if I could be of help, um, but I really didn’t have a place that I knew to go. I just knew a couple of the businesses in Red Hook, um, I had relationships with so I went to Jalopy where it was weirdly post crisis and like I didn’t quite get that until I got down there.
Q: What do you mean it was post crisis?
A: Like people were just real shell shocked. I think because of their experiences or um, because someone close to them had lost absolutely everything in a very unexpected turn. So, you know, I got to set up and worked washing glasses behind the bar and things like that because like everyone was just doing too many things for their emotional capacities. So it was good to help out where needed. I went on the Halloween Parade. [laughter]
A: -The Halloween Parade at night. I got to bike around downtown. Biking around—this is actually the one little highlight of the storm week itself, downtown and anywhere, was like biking around downtown was great because, um, everyone was forced to drive real civilly. So everyone kind of drove like a cyclist. They would hurdle down the streets and slow to a crawl at the intersections and look around and then everyone would pass each other.
A: I did not experience any terror during the biking around in lower Manhattan when the lights were out at night or in the daytime. I didn’t hear about any accidents.
Q: So how did your, um, uh, both the NYU and the Time’s Up group, how did that ramp up into Sandiness?
A: NYU closed its– NYU was a little– well they’re both easy stories. NYU shuttered up during storm week, cancelled classes, closed administrative offices. I work for Government and Community Affairs. We deal with our neighbors real directly, so I got the call from my boss’s boss, Alicia Hurley [ph.] to — if anybody can come in, come in. And I was really the only mobile one in the group because of my bicycle.
A: So I shot myself across the bridge and discovered that life on campus, you know, the students, most of their dorms were out so they were living by the hundreds in the Student Center and in the library, um, where they were set up like, you know, World War II evacuee camps on like row upon row of cots. But NYU is a property holder that owns—as is no secret around town—they own big apartment buildings that surround that campus and some of them are huge. And the populations that live in those buildings, um, are very old. They are very old and very vulnerable, and no one predicted, you know, that the storm would conk out power throughout lower Manhattan and that it would be for so long. I guess that might not be true about no one predicted, but as far as, you know, we were able to tell. These buildings had no emergency response systems in place and no community response systems in place so that was a — we, um, organized alongside our nursing faculty and students and, uh, also with VNSNY, uh, the Visiting Nurses Service of New York.
Q: The visiting what?
Q: Nurses, okay.
A: Those people are amazing. Um, did assessments and food and water drops and evac coordinating with, you know, EMTs, for evac and everything. I mean some of those buildings are 30 stories tall and the number of up-and-down to the 30th story I did was awesome. I could not believe it. You know, and it was great. We got to like, create a plan on the fly for how to assess the needs of everyone in those apartments. We talked to building doormen, who had a pretty good handle on who the vulnerable people in their buildings were going to be. It’s not a perfect catch net by any means, um, like we targeted our questions towards the elderly and I feel a little bad about that in some ways because although the elderly are going to be, on many easy levels, like the most vulnerable when things like the power goes out, there’re also low income families and families with a million children and, uh —
Q: Is there a lot of young — young families in those buildings too, right?
A: — yeah, and that can be a really hard population, you know, in those buildings and my mind kind of leapt from some of those buildings to projects on Avenue D and to other places nearby where it’s like, you know, if you haven’t worked all week and you’re not going to work again in a couple of weeks and you got a couple of kids, like they’ve eaten you out of house and home and you need a food drop the same as an old lady does. Like she can’t get out to the store and it’s — it’s just another part of the equation I don’t think we factored in. Maybe it wasn’t as relevant to our population in our buildings but, we didn’t talk about it and I wish we had.
Q: So does the — so if I understand correctly, you — you targeted almost exclusively the elderly and maybe missed other folks?
Q: And where did that decision come from, do you know, or how was it made?
A: [Pause] No, I really don’t know. I mean I know that, uh, most of our — most of our neighborly involvement with the people that live in those buildings whether they’re NYU affiliates or they’re non-NYU affiliates occurs with the aged population.
A: Like, there’s a lot of them that live there, frankly, but like most of our interactions occur with them.
A: And it wasn’t like it was a — a hard and fast system by any means. Like, as we prepared, the nurses themselves to go door to door and as we, um, prepared packs of food that we purchased in Williamsburg and brought over the bridge, and water. We actually elbowed our campus dining services, because they were still running in some capacity, to, on Thursday morning, to start making packs of food that we could deliver to residents like right away, pre-assessment. That was my decision and I was really happy about that. Where my boss’s boss got to turn to me and be like, ‘what do we do?’, I would be like ‘food — we deliver food right away. We make campus services create them, I go organize student volunteers, we make that happen right away.” And she’s like “go, do that.” And then from that, you know, you ask peoples’ neighbors: what happens now? Who needs help? Whose door should I knock on? The really alarming thing in that part of the — the post Sandy process was that the neighbors just did not know each other, at all. You know, there was a door you’d knock on, and it happened a million times, where you knock on the door and someone would say like, you’re the first person I’ve seen in three days. And you’re like, that sucks. Like, that is crazy to me, you know, that there wouldn’t be enough of a community at all, even like a face-to-face community, where people would go knock on each other’s doors and see how they are. Um, partially I — I’m — I’m — I would like to come back to this, but partially I blame it on our physical infrastructure, the way we pack ourselves into not only buildings and floors but also little — mini — mini neighborhoods that we don’t prioritize, um, I arrive at the phrase “autonomous use of space” but I know that’s real jargony so, “unprogrammed free space,” um, because it’s very clear that that gives rise to people being able to come together to craft community. And like, apartment buildings, some apartment buildings will have like a social lounge on the first floor. If you’re 90 and you live on the 30th floor that does you no good. You’ve probably have never been it. You know, there’s no space within which, besides like your home, for people to get together and we’re very protective of our homes. So I — like I understand it, but its frustrating.
Q: So you think, if I’m paraphrasing and understanding you right, do think that if there were more common spaces that were like high-use common spaces, that would actually contribute to community resiliency, social resiliency during hurricanes?
A: Yeah, I believe that ridiculously with all the core of me. And that the thing that we found with Times Up and we — we can like circle back I suppose for how we got there, the brief story is that Times Up did relief rides to the Rockaways at least two days a week and usually more, on our bicycles from Williamsburg in Brooklyn to do a supply pickup at 520, the Occu — Occupy Church [laughs], the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthews. We would bike to the Rockaways, usually to Beach 96th Street, um, for where Rockaway Taco was or Desert Surf Club. We would drop off supplies and then split into groups as we wanted, to do other things. So some people would do demolition because they wanted to and that was me, I — I like doing that. Um, some people would do deliveries because — because easily up to four weeks after the storm there was still a whole number of places that you could only get to easily by bicycle.
A: And you’d — a car would take you an hour and a half from Beach 96th Street to somewhere that, you know, you could there in 10 minutes on a bike.
Q: Great. So you did all your relief work on bicycles basically?
A: Yeah. And it was real important to us for a number of reasons but to — I would love to talk more about that because that’s a community use space thing —
A: What became very clear, um, you know I went done a dozen times with Times Up and then also on buses and with NYU once or twice. I went down frequently, um —
Q: To the Rockaways?
A: To the Rockaways.
A: Where there were common spaces, autonomous use spaces, and like, I’m — I’m choosy about that word because spaces that have uses dictated to them or uses programmed in, I think don’t work like this. They seem not to. Spaces where it was free reign, where the community could organize what it needed, as it needed, seem to create the opportunity for resiliency and health. Here with the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew, there with churches — mostly churches and like a couple of businesses. I’ve never thought so well of churches. It — it’s not only the thing that people keep talking about, that like, oh the churches, you know, know your neighborhood. Like, everyone knows each other. Yeah, that’s true, and it’s really valuable. But the thing that the churches gave to us was space to organize and assess our needs and then deliver upon them. And there are no other spaces like that, no other spaces like that. Schools didn’t operate like that, community centers didn’t really operate like that. I mean, like ,you think of your boys and girls club or whatever, but like they’re struggling so much with just their day-to-day operational costs that they’re always on the line, and they’re not thinking of themselves as an autonomous use community space, it’s just not part of their mission. Its part of nobody’s mission, and like, there’s no leeway in the city or really in the climate of the country to do things that don’t exactly align with your moneymaking mission. So that sucks. If you look at other disasters, um, I — I used to live in Japan and the way that Japanese towns organize themselves is very much around community spaces.
A: Each little quadrant of a town will have usually a number of community spaces. Um, I would be really, really interested to know if in — not in the immediate wiped out areas post Tsunami but the areas on the fringe of that, how those community spaces came into use. I — I don’t know the numbers and I haven’t looked at the right metrics, but I believe really strongly that those spaces, compared to similar storm hit spaces in other parts of the world that like ours, like, you’re going to find that where people had a chance to come together without knowing that they needed a plan, they knew where to go to find out, are going to have, you know, all the metrics that tell you that that was a — a life changing effect for them.
A: But public health here works the same way. And this is easy. Like, the places where we had independent first responders like, um, People’s Relief, like — those are the folks, did you talk to them?
Q: Uh, are they related to Occupy?
A: Uh, yeah but we’re all related to Occupy. [laughter]
Q: We did talk to a lot of — a lot of folks in that category but I don’t know if we’ve specifically done People’s Relief.
A: People’s Relief, um, they’re — they did work post Katrina, they did work in the Intifada, they did work in flood zones in Appalachia. They have like a very thickly experience-based knowledge for how to respond in situations like this, and very late in the game they got given — through I believe the Mayor’s Fund for New York although with a lot of strings as far as I understand — trailers and space. If you look at the long-term healthcare dollars numbers for the people that they served and the people they couldn’t serve, I — I — I’m sure you’re going to find the same thing that happened in Chicago after and during the heat waves, that the centers with community spaces had a lower mortality rate and fewer long-term health effects. We don’t think like this. We don’t think the community’s space correlates to dollars-and-cents outcomes, and like, I think that really strongly. Whether you’re just like a real altruist, you know, community should be able to come together, or whether you’re like a real like dollar and cents person, you should come to the same decision about that. Because everyone who has respiratory ailment right now in the Rockaways–we’re paying for through our healthcare system, and every one of those ailments that turns into lifelong respiratory illness, we’re going to be paying for — for the rest of their and our lives.
Q: Uh-hum. So are sort of places like Canada with universal healthcare, it does — it puts more money into preventative healthcare.
A: I’m not surprised.
A: But we still pay for that. You know, not to go soap boxy, but like it — it is real easy for people, for which to just turn their eyes away from even those dollars and cents. Like prison recitivism — like oh, like if we put preventative money into, like, helping people not go to jail, like, everyone’s pocketbooks are more full. And the same thing is true here for health and the same thing is true for public space. Like, we needed space. The places where we had space made this operation work. If the Church of Saint Luke and Saint Matthew and the church down in Sunset Park had not opened their doors and said “use!” – “go for it. Figure out your needs and use this space,” the number of people that would not have gotten any kind of help is staggering.
Q: Uh-hum. So would you say — so besides, um, common space or — or non-designated public-use space, where are the other sort of needs that you saw arising, immediately after and then longer term because of the storm?
A: When the discussions happen about — and they happened right away – about, you know, “what went wrong? What could we have done better? What did we need?” The –everyone’s words seemed to turn very immediately to “information” and to “infrastructure.” “We needed a more robust infrastructure.”
Q: Like information infrastructure?
A: Both, information and physical. I think it kind of misses the point, and that really, the definition of a crisis we have arrived at is “all of our infrastructure has broken down.” Programming for a harder infrastructure is great and is clearly important, but that’s addressing a very different question, that’s addressing a question of how to stave off the next crisis, not how to respond to it.
A: When it comes to responding to the next crisis I think we need a better knowledge base of what to do in the lack — in the absence– of the infrastructure that we’re used to. So from our point of view that had a lot to do with bicycles. You know, a bicycle is– and a network of bicycles is– immediate, autonomous, infrastructural creation filling that gap. We got to– this is one of a two part answer for me. It’s bicycles, but bicycles geared with the intent of– you can figure out where the needs are and how to fill them. And you’re suddenly an information conduit connecting different hub centers where people have collected information based on their experiences, and you’re a goods distribution center, and you’re a people power distribution center. You know, like suddenly we showed up with literally tons, metric tons of supplies and dozens of bodies and information. And we got to connect places that were too far to relay to on foot in any timeframe that made sense and were blocked otherwise. We got to report and dispense help so that the information could still get through. I don’t think that’s it’s a fair or genuine characterization — though I’ve heard it a number of times — that “we needed better information sharing.” Like, that is not germane to the reality of what actually happened. A community would gather information as best as it could.
A: Unlike kind of victim-blame-y, “we needed to know how to share better” or “we needed a better tech system in place for them to do it,”– that’s not the point. The point is, that’s all going to break down. So how do we have, you know, an understanding in place, not a system, but an understanding in place of what to do.
Q: Uh-hum. So like protocols as opposed to specific infrastructure, that sort of thing?
A: Protocols and like — this – like, the example that I arrive as an analogue is unfortunately a pretty dispiriting one to me, of fire drills. You’re in fire drills since you’re four, you’ve been in fire drills and you think that they’re really lame and they do them at your office and everyone rolls their eyes and they do them in, you know, a perfunctory way for a perfunctory operation, but it’s kind of the only thing we do here in America as far as, or maybe in this region of America. We don’t drill other stuff and we don’t learn other skills with the idea of ‘this could come in handy later.’ We’re very like, I guess, economics driven, it’s a very dollars-and-cents approach to like what we learn and what we do.
A: Whereas, you know, here’s like — everyone should get trained in first aid, even if you hate it, because like it might come in handy. We don’t do that here.
A: Um, you know, everyone should get trained in how to ride a bicycle and like, we don’t do that here because like, it’s – if it’s not good for you like, in terms of your dollars and cents or in terms of your mission then it’s not important knowledge. But it is important knowledge, you know, all those kinds of things. Um – [pause]
Q: So, um, how did Times Up decide to go to the Rockaways?
A: I don’t know. It just made sense. [pause] It just made sense. We’re … a lot of Times Up people were Occupy Wall Street people, um, and we’re part of the Occupy Wall Street Sustainability Working Group, and the resonance of Sandy as an environmental catastrophe that we brought upon ourselves with the use of fossil fuels was very clear, striking, and infuriating to all of us. And seeing the fossil fuels burned and wasted even in the recovery efforts was galling and continues to be galling. So we rode bikes.
A: We got, you know, donations of trailers and we diverted funding into trailers and cargo bikes, and we rode bikes. This actually partially answers your previous question as well. I rode some bus trips down as well that were organized, and the inefficiencies of those bus trips — you know, you have a 55 passenger bus with only 30 seats filled and empty undercarriages too, and it would idle for an hour up here and it would slowly wind its way down through traffic to the Rockaways and it would idle in traffic there as people went about their couple hours of relief work and then it would wind its way back up.
Q: Like the warming buses? When people brought in warming buses, I just — I didn’t know that happened until yesterday when people were talking about the warming buses and I thought that was pretty incredible.
A: And you’re like ‘this is how we got here.’ This specifically is how we got here. And like, you know, so we’re like “go to hell, we’re going to ride bikes.” We’ll get there, we’ll get the equipment there that’s needed, we’ll drop it off, it’ll be fossil fuel free. We also brought energy bikes. Times Up has made and has gone through several iterations of energy bikes–essentially a bicycle put on a like a portable rack, like a stand that you’d use to train–
Q: I saw them at Zucotti.
A: — yeah, that’s us. We made those.
Q: Oh. I have many pictures of you guys.
A: Sweet. [laughter] Um, and so we brought those down and distributed a couple of them around because power is important to people, and you have people with huge gas generators on street corners spewing out fumes to charge a cell phone or two.
Q: So were people using the bikes to charge cell phones and stuff?
Q: And where are those bikes now?
A: Post Sandy – actually, like, right, right post Sandy we were using those bikes in the Lower East Side to pump out people’s basements all up and down Avenue C, Avenue D. You know, bikes and people peddling furiously on them and pumps running and clearing out basements. Those bikes are just our bikes. Any bike is an energy bike, you just set it up to the stand.
A: We have a collection of stands that we made and continue to make. Um, we install some of them in some places. There’s one in MoRUS Museum, the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Spaces on C and 9th Street. We brought many of them down with us and then brought them back up later I believe, although that’s not clear– it’s a pretty good question. Um, the — this loops back to your last question for what we can do for response in these the future —
A: — learning from this one, um, the example of the bus going down at, you know, a third capacity, which is inefficient — and like, I’m not a believer that efficiency is always the most important thing but it’s often a pretty good guide post — is really inefficient in terms of your emissions economy, in terms of your people hours and people time, in terms of your opening supply lines. I’m a believer in autonomous organizing. So, if you have a community of people here who are doing things, and you have a community of people here who are doing things, and you can’t get the goods, physical capital, and material capital from one place to another, you are not empowering people to make good decisions. When the bus goes at a third capacity, in additional to meaning all that, it brings — it speaks to the message that we’re all on our own when it comes to disaster relief. And that sucks, that hurts us big time. But it wasn’t always the case in the country, and the example I go to in my head is in — is World War II. That was a giant national catastrophe, this is a global catastrophe but like, that was treated like a national crisis and the response that happened was —
— the point of view from the government down said “now all the resources in the country are going to be dedicated to this crisis. All of the them.” And that came down at a very, um, hierarchal level of the government saying —
[[non-related issues about batteries running out]]
Q: Okay. Do you remember what you were talking about?
A: Yeah, so in the crisis that was the War, it happened at two levels. The government said “we’re going to use all of your resources, we get to decide what to do with them.” And I that — I don’t know about the inefficiencies of that system but I presume there were many. But the other thing that happened was this broad-shot messaging that said “all your stuff belongs to the war effort.” Your bacon fat, your loose metal, you know, like go out and collect this metal and bring it to the collections centers. And like, from that point, I don’t know about how well it was allocated in this [inaudible 2:10], a lot of in fighting in government branches, whether the army got it or the navy got it—like, I have no idea. That’s kind of not where my mind leaps to. Where my mind leaps to is that it was collectively understood, it was messaged out and messaged out that all of the resources that you had were needed and they were no longer yours. They were now communal. They didn’t use that language, I don’t think it was part of the general lexicon –“communal research sharing,” — and especially like in the 40s when like —
A: — you know, anything “Red” was terrifying. But after Sandy, we didn’t do that. The Mayor and the President and the Governor, nobody, nobody came forward and said that all of the resources that are going to disaster relief now need to be communal resources. And no one even attempted it and said “okay, I see that this is too difficult to coordinate.” But then the anarchists step up and say you don’t need to coordinate it, man, you just let it. But nobody–that message never came through.
A: They needed to have. And it would have saved a lot of people a lot of life. We’re going to feel all the health effects of that forever —
A: When a bus goes down at a third capacity, they’re at fault. But there was no messaging from anyone who anyone’s going to listen to that said “okay, that bus isn’t your bus. That bus is everybody’s bus. That bus belongs to Responding to This Crisis.” And so buses are going down there and people are putting feathers in their caps. ‘Local initiative sends this may one-third-full buses to the Rockaways to do a single day of service.’ And we’re like, great, burn a bunch of fucking fuel and have like [inaudible]. New York University was the same, PS1, everybody in the moment sent buses, and they did great work, but it was their project. And that is not useful, [inaudible].
Q: So how did — how did, um, your biking group then deal with, say, the collaborations or partnerships in that sort of spirit?
A: Very well!
Q: Like who did you partner with? How did you partner with? How did you deal with that on the ground?
A: We had a couple of, um, at first I don’t really even know. Like, at first I think we just biked down and knew that we would be of use. I think I wasn’t present for the first ride, I think I was present for the second and then following. But we just established some, you know, brief personal connections with people that were organizing and that could help us organize. The funny thing about organizing is that you don’t — there’s not a lot of difference between being a volunteer and being an organizer. You know, you — it’s just a matter of initiative and communication. It’s not like there is some, like you know, “well we didn’t talk to Dave? Then we can’t do it, we’re not allowed to.” It’s like, we would go and say “where are we needed” and someone would say “talk to them.” And then they would say “you’re needed here — I know because the information has come to me and I’m conduiting information back and forth.” And we’d say okay, we’ll go there.
A: And in that sense, like, we’re very big supporters of, um, enabling and empowering self-selection for these types of things. Like, if you want to go bike down and then bike back up, that’s fine. If you think it’s safer to ride as a group, but that’s neither here nor there. If you want us to bike down and you messaging, if you wanted to bike down and stay inside of a warm house, if you want to bike down and rip out someone’s moldy floor, like whatever, there’s plenty of spots to help —
A: Like, come help.
Q: Did you guys end up partnering with the city or those sorts of officials or FEMAs at all?
Q: No? Was that an active decision or for other reasons?
A: I think it would have been an active decision but it never came up.
Q: Because they weren’t there?
Q: Yeah, okay. All right. Um, so tell me about — well actually I’m going to back up. When you were talking about World War II, you called it a global disaster.
Q: Right? And I was wondering how you think Sandy relates to that or not. That sort of scale, that sort of extent, especially since you were just talking about climate change.
A: Frankly, I don’t think it does, nearly at all.
A: It hit us where we live and hurts terribly for that reason. And it points out that we are in the midst of a slowly encroaching utter catastrophe, as far as the climate and the rising seas, that we are bringing upon ourselves. But this storm, I mean…. it was a terrible storm, it like, fucked, up a lot of people’s lives and a lot of the city’s infrastructure but, this is not a global catastrophe. We are in the middle of a global catastrophe, and this is a little symptom of it, but no.
Q: Uh-hum. So, uh, also is there a climate change question, um, people are talking a little bit about like PlaNYC was a lot of it was a lot about mitigation and people are now talking just because of the storm, things are going to go more towards adaptation. Um, tell me what you thought about that since you have a sort of a vocabulary of climate change under your belt?
A: Fabulous, a little too late but fabulous. It’s – if there are people who are really optimistic that we can not have the seas swallow New York and Mumbai and, you know, cities across the world then, awesome. We should empower those people to like work real hard for it. But, …. It might not work.
Q: What might not works?
A: –um, uprooting the —
A: I don’t think that either our mitigation or adaption strategies are very focused on what community — how communities can stay healthy in the absence of infrastructure. I think that, I — I — I’m sort of arriving at that as the definition of a crisis.
Q: Community resilience?
A: Yeah. When all the infrastructure goes to hell because of some unforeseen circumstances whether it is an attack or whether it is a storm or, you know, [inaudible 09:16], we still so far are not focusing on identifying what we feel like a healthy community looks like and does, and how to enable that kind of response to happen amongst communities in the future.
A: And I think it’s very much orients around, uh, autonomous use of space, um, and like self-creation of infrastructure.
Q: Uh-hum. Uh, so speaking of infrastructure again will you tell me a bit about your demolition work?
Q: Are you still doing it?
A: No, I haven’t — I did mold or mediation, um, a couple of weeks ago which is way harder, um, and more dispiriting.
Q: That’s the scrubbing, and scrubbing, and scrubbing bit, yes?
A: Yeah. Scrubbing and some chemical treatment. Um, yeah demolition work is way more fun. You feel really guilty for it but, demolition work is way fun. Not entirely guilty — there’s some great stuff in demolition like, um, you get to contribute not only hard work and labor with some of these, but really contribute a bit of spirit and vitality to like, their battered sense of hope. And like, that sounds — I suppose that sounds a little high moral ground or whatever, but it was true. You know, we, every day you come back with a number of like deep stories about people’s fucked situations and like how much you helped them. Um, you know, one of them on one of the early days it was this dark, dark basement that flooded past the ceiling boards, two inches shy of the floor, the first floor. It was a biracial couple that moved down from Flatbush two months before the storm to like escape the pressures of being a biracial couple with an eight month old baby in a neighborhood that didn’t take kindly to it. And like this was like their hope, they like sank their optimism into this purchase of this new house to starting a new life and it was all just fucked — this basement — I thought that they had painted it turquoise, um, and it took me an hour before I realized that it was just thick with mold everywhere, covering every inch of everything. Um, so we gutted it. We — we had a little work crew and another work crew, we called for help because we needed help and people figured out that they could hustle what they were doing and come help us. We got a third crew then and we cleared every inch of everything out of that basement. We had to — it was a split level so it had useable floor, not a concrete floor. We had to pick up the carpet and the linoleum and the wood and the sand and the joists right down to the concrete. And we did it and you could see in this couple that at the beginning of the day they were like shell shocked and monosyllabic and that is fine, that is totally their right, they don’t have to make stupid small talk with us, we came to help them not to like feel great about it. Um, but by the end of the day they were like offering to buy us lunch as if that were even possible, and they were shaking our hands and taking pictures with us, and it was like we helped these people. Like we really helped them because it would have been dozens and dozens of days or thousands of dollars like this. And when we took that away from them, that’s fine, but like, we helped these people feel like they could make it.
Q: With mental health as well as other forms of like infrastructural mediation?
A: Big time. One guy’s house I was in it was, uh, his grandfather’s house. His grandfather bought it like in the 20s for $585, and it came with a boat. And his family was kind of spread out and they had three little houses up and down the peninsula and — and he was just beaten down. And we were tearing up this really, really [inaudible 13:04] flooring and, uh, and tearing everything out and he pulls me aside at some point and says it’s been a really hard year. And I’m like, I’m sure. And he takes off his glove and he starts counting on fingers deaths and losses, and he was like my mother, my mother-in-law, my son’s best friend was hit by a car so my son lapsed into drug use and now he’s a vegetable in a hospital and like he’s just like went down this list and we’re both — I’m like crying in my goggles, and he says that his neighbors come around and ask him how he’s doing? And he says, I’m doing all right. And they say, well if you’re doing all right then we know that we can do all right also because you’ve had it harder than anybody. And he said you can’t ever let it stop you. You can’t ever let it get you down because there are more people counting on you than you can ever know about just to keep going.
Q: That’s [inaudible 14:00] definitely. Um, I had a question that was in my head. Oh so, when you’re talking about the biracial couple one of the things we ask people is that there’s a lot of talk about how race, class and gender are dividing, um, both damage and aid and other sorts of things and I was just wondering if you’ve come across any of that sort of thing, um, in your work in the Rockaways or NYU or other places?
A: Yes. Yes.
Q: And how has it manifested?
A: ….Um, you’re thinking about the projects on Avenue D. They’re our neighbors, you know, at NYU. They’re not in our district. They’re not in our city council district and we don’t have interactions with —
[fire truck goes by with lots of noise]
A: When we deal, in our offices we deal with a lot of, uh, community based non-profits. Um, and it’s through those interactions that we have interactions with these neighbors in those projects at Avenue D. Um,– that was “somebody else’s problem.” I get it, but as genuinely difficult on the spot as the old folks in our towers were, it’s unlikely to be very comparable.
Q: To what was happening in the projects? Do you think it’s worse in the projects?
A: Um, especially because of the nature of people’s jobs. NYU shut down for a week and people were like “week off!” Um, but if you don’t work salary, you work wage, and if you work wage at somewhere that maybe just shuttered up doors, if you worked wage somewhere and you have to commute to by the MTA, you might have just lost an extraordinary amount of like solidity and comfort and money. And I have not seen, except for the people who are just charitable by nature or by organization, um, like people working in their Mission, haven’t seen a lot of folks be like, oh these people are way more fucked than I am, like let me help them out. That sucks.
A: That really sucks to me.
Q: How do you think folks like NYU, uh, like restrict their jurisdiction that they don’t include those sorts of neighbors or they don’t serve…?
A: To be honest, I think NYU does a pretty amazing job about it. I think that for the most part anyone that reaches out to us and is like, “we need help,” we try to help. Um, there’s a lot I don’t like about my job because it’s my job, but like, that was a pretty completely awesome, was seeing the way that the University — it’s like, not a big enough staff in this office, um, but it’s been legitimately awesome to see the way in which the University like, dedicates resources and time to helping folks that just approach them to be helped.
Q: Okay. That’s really con — uh, contrary to the reputation of NYU as a bad neighbor.
Q: It’s sort of interesting.
A: We have an insane PR office that just doesn’t feel like that’s their job, is to be good neighbors. You know, this is a tangent but, you know the — there’s a guy who’s protesting right now in front of the library for days on end because he wants us to house the homeless?
A: And lots of news sources. And I wanted to shake him and be like, who the fuck do you think you are? Like, the amount of effort and time and like tangible results that this university puts into helping homeless people, like whether it’s my office raising thousands of damn dollars and putting thousands of volunteers to the BRC or at a million other places or where the sole purpose of the Silver School like, having entire courses around putting people in placements and like—just, like we’re not in the business of housing people! We’re in the business of helping people and we do that pretty well. Specifically about this.
Q: Uh-hum. Hum, I don’t think a lot of people know that including people at NYU.
A: Yeah. Oh, there is one other thing I did after the storm which I didn’t talk about at all actually, uh, in fact like, it’s not important, but I’m not– I work on music things all the time but Saturday after the storm, I arranged a parade in Alphabet City up and down Avenues C and D. I don’t come from New Orleans but I go there a lot, and like, a lot of the culture of New Orleans speaks very deeply to me, um, and the right way to respond to a gutting tragedy that you can’t know how to respond from is to have a parade.
A: To come outside, to be together, to mourn and to dance and to celebrate. So I got in touch with a bunch of musicians and a bunch of weirdos and freaks and we threw a parade. The ABC Se Puede Alphabet City Aid Parade. It was great. We started at C, at Houston at C, and went up and went all over the place and people came out of their storefronts that they were, you know, still getting the water out of and like, danced with us for a couple of blocks and shook our hands and thanked us. And we handed out food that my office provided kind of on the sly. We handed out tons of food and provisions. We — I kind of wish that more people had brought, because I put out the call for people to bring things to, to disperse but that didn’t really happen.
A: But we provided some good spiritual aid to people and like, were thanked for it all up and down. When in the morning I had called the precinct to tell them that it was happening, because I — I picked up that it goes better then – so, the dispatcher lady at the precinct office she was talking to me on the phone and she’s like what’s your route and I told her the route and she goes, “there’s a FEMA distribution center starting today up on 10th and D,” and I’m like “one of those food centers?” And she says yeah. She said there’s going to be lots of police there, there’s going to be tons and tons of hungry people, and there’s going to be some National Guard. And I was like “so we should steer clear from there?” And she goes “no.” She goes “those people could really use some comfort and relief.” [laughs]
Q: Right, right.
A: And we went up there and it was like we — and it was great. The National Guard came out and people hugged us and, you know, we played for the whole line. We got on the news on Al Jazeera for it. That felt pretty good. And then friends took that idea of a carnival down to Rockaways a couple of weeks later.
Q: Excellent. So are — are you — weren’t you there, uh your office at NYU or Times Up already, um, did they already have sort of relief work as part of their mission before the storm?
A: No. Times Up, I think, because of the stridency of our environmental aims and approach for so many other efforts, like, it made intrinsic sense. You know, like this is an environmental catastrophe and we can take this opportunity to highlight the ways in which, you know, we can not depend on fossil fuels and still get a lot done. I don’t think that we did as good of a job of linking our messaging to our actions on that one. I think it’s not an uncommon failing of direct action.
A: It’s like, “it speaks for itself.” [laughs]. No, it doesn’t.
Q: Yeah, yeah.
A: Um, but as far as NYU goes, actually, I mean again, people reach out our office, Community Affairs, and say “we need help” for whatever it is and we help them.
A: That’s the thing that we do.
Q: Do you think either of those organizations are going to, uh, implement disaster relief as a part of their mission from now on, or this just a drop in the can?
A: I think the next time that a disaster befalls New York, Times Up will spring into action immediately. Immediately– not a scrap of doubt in my mind. Partially because we’re anarchists, and we’re anarchist organizers, and enough of us want to do that and care about it and know that we can make a substantial difference in peoples’ lives immediately, so we’ll do that.
A: NYU, I hope so. I’m cheered but I’m really frustrated with some parts of our response as well. In the months following Katrina, NYU made it so that employees could take three weeks of leave to go help.
Q: Uh-hum. But not for Sandy?
A: Yes for Sandy.
Q: Oh, yes for Sandy? Okay.
A: It took a while to put through, and I was actually very consulted for if there were organizations we could partner with, but there are two parts of the story. So, we have done that. Employees can take 15 days of paid leave–and this came from upper-tier admin. But this is not really been messaged out. There may be a dozen people who knows that this is our current paradigm. We’re three months into the year. And, like, that should have happened immediately because a thousand hours of people time two weeks after the storm has a lot more of an impact than a thousand hours of people time four or five months after the storm.
A: That’s frustrating, deeply, for me. I feel like that is — that is a failing of leadership to identify what things are important to us and how to accomplish them.
A: Um, and that like — that fuzziness of operational modeling has cost people dearly, like, immeasurably in quality of life and, possibly, life as, you know, as people’s health ails.
A: I know that we’re like, we’re — we’re trying to create programming so that we have a better relationship between our nursing staff and students and residents of our buildings and things like that. Hopefully that will get off the ground. I’m working on that, and that feels good. But, I feel like we missed an opportunity to rise and say, ‘oh, like we’re an institution meant to serve the good of the world and the good of the city and like that’s what we do right now. And that fulfills all of our other mission goals too.’
A: We didn’t do that. We came really close, but it’s terribly frustrating.
Q: So one of our findings, um, is that folks on the ground, like community based or anarchists in your case, sort of responses have been better than institutionalized responses to the storm [in terms of speed and coverage]. Could you like in a nutshell talk about the differences or how that might have manifested in your two roles, one is that in that sort of, you know, private institution versus an anarchist cyclist?
A: Yeah, um, yeah and actually that bridging that role, like being the connector between those two very, very different models not only of organizing but of just thinking and communicating, um, is a thing I feel truly blessed to be able to do and effective at, especially in the aftermath of the storm. So you have the anarchists, a million times better than the institutions. I mean it’s — I mean those are two extremes of the spectrums, the anarchist thinkers and the institutional thinkers. It’s not like ‘corporate thinkers,’ it’s institutional thinkers who just take for granted that the hierarchical decision making process is the only effective way to get things done, it’s the only efficient way to get things done, and it’s the only legitimate way to get things done. So, at NYU that meant for a frustrating number of days and weeks after the storm that when we were looking for community partners to see how to direct our resources, [the potential partners] couldn’t be self-started and they couldn’t be grassroots, because those are not entities. Institutions deal with entities and they don’t understand how to recognize the legitimacy of other operations that don’t fall into that. Part of it is liability and like, the crazy high-stakes liability climate of the country right now, but that’s a dodge because leadership can say ‘no, that’s not an important enough priority.’ I had to bring NYU people with me to the Rockaways and to 520 Clinton so that they could see that grassroots organizing was making a difference, every minute, for us to finally loosen our strictures on who is qualified as an entity for us to be able to deal with. And now, you know — it was only 501(c)(3) s and the government, and now it’s anybody that is doing good work. For the very first time a bunch of institutional thinkers are seeing that a different model of thinking can produce results. The anarchists don’t necessarily — well maybe that’s not true now after the storm — the anarchists are not really good at doing that, either. They’re not good at looking at institutions and going like, “oh they’re valuable and, like, can do good things and can, you know, collect and use resources well.” It’s like “we hate them,” and that’s a hard bridge for us to cross. So no one does well in that system. Like, both parts of that system are going to continue to exist and they have to like, figure out to work well together. The government failed on that score. Institutions like NYU failed on that score, and I — unfortunately I think they will continue to do so even though everyone with a head on their shoulders and a brain in their heads should be saying, “oh, the anarchists helped everybody – they saved our asses from like, you know — a total public health catastrophe.”
Q: So you think it’ll go back to the status quo? Us and Them?
Q: What about — do you think the anarchists are going to be like, oh institutions aren’t so, so bad?
A: No. I think only a couple of people are. In general our leadership structures don’t exist or don’t work like that so it’s hard for that message to proliferate.
A: Um, and there is — the stakes are real different. You know, the institutions don’t have a lot to lose. Liability sure, but like, they’re making money for the most part and it’s not that big an issue. They don’t have a lot to lose. But the anarchists have a lot to lose and have an enormous history, personally among so many people and [collectively shared], about having the institutions crush them, roll over them and crush them, violently using [inaudible 30:42], using all kinds of crazy counter terror tactics, using money, using the police, using batons. Like, we have everything to lose all over again. And it is a very, very hard bridge to cross.
A: You do talk to more organizers now who are like, ‘you know, actually I’ve been finding that going to the community board meetings and the police station community meetings, even though my skin crawls at being in there, is good because now we have a relationship. And like it works out better and we get arrested less,’ but like, it’s not a lot of people.
Q: Yep. Um, do you think that post Sandy you or your organizations see New York City differently?
A: In what way?
Q: I don’t know, that’s your question.
Q: It’s a very general, catch-all question, mostly about temporal shifts again, on a personal level or an ideological level.
A: It’s a mixture of hope and optimism and cynicism and fed-up-ed-ness. But we all [in most of the city] go about our lives, you know, and that is just untrue for our immediate neighbors, like our immediate, immediate neighbors. On the other hand, that’s always been the case. Like, the class lines and the poverty lines that continue to divide us aren’t unique. Sometimes I think we all missed an opportunity–and I think it’s intentional from the elite’s point of view—to have come down, to have broken down more of the boundaries, but they’re not helping any of us. And again, like, whether you have these kinds of morals or these kind of morals, we should all be making the same decisions about a lot of this stuff and we’re still not.
A: And although it is still kind of part of the conversations, I know the mayoral race recently is revving up, and there isn’t a lot of mention of this. That should be striking, and it’s not – to everybody, we all kind of just want to be like, well, new year, we’re done, we’re fine here.
A: There hasn’t been a lot of recognition of the work of the grassroots community in a lasting broad sense. I know that people are invited to participate in you know, the task force and the panels, and that is amazing progress — that is amazing progress — but the lack of publicness about it, it’s frustrating. But more — more than that, it’s, I think it forebodes a reversion to the status quo. You know, like the institutions and the mayor’s office is like willing to, uh, use people and partner with people because like it’s going to be good for them to do right now, not politically but like, you know, actually.
A: But they’re not going to pin themselves into a corner where that’s going to become the new model. That’s frustrating.
Q: There’s been criticism that sort of the government quote unquote outreach uses the corporate focus group model.
A: It’s the corporate focus group model and we still — there’s still a lot of tail-wagging-the-dog stuff where we’re like: how can we respond better, how can we do better? Those are great questions; they might not be the first tier questions. The first tier questions might be like: what do we want a community in crisis to look like and how do we want it to respond? What do we want a community post-crisis to look like? We don’t seem to be starting there. And the other questions that are on the same level as that. You know, like I think community post-crisis and community in crisis should be able to talk to other neighbors and have neighbors talk to each and to not be inventing the wheel about how to do that.
A: You know like, the notion of having like, community programs about how to respond to crisis – like, it feels like socialism to everybody I think, it feels like Sovietism.
A: And I think we’re going to continue to shy away from that. But that’s crazy, that doesn’t help us at all.
Q: Is Times Up going to take that sort of thing up, do you think?
A: That’s a pretty good question.
Q: I don’t think NYU will but, you know, maybe that’s just my sense.
A: Actually they may have done that, but in the corporate model.
Q: We actually got one out of Sandy, in one of the buildings I was in [at NYU], we got a crisis training and they example of a crisis they used was Occupy, as civil unrest — why you shouldn’t leave the building, because there’s civil unrest in the streets.
A: Could we talk about that more later?
Q: Yep. Half of us were Occupiers and we were like — that’s funny.
A: That’s amazing. You know, that makes sense because that day everyone was snickering at me at my desk because it was like, okay, we’re going to put you out for —
Q: You’re a threat!
A: — so you can negotiate with those terrorists and their bicycles. [laughing] Again, I lived in Japan and Japan was kind of blissfully outside of the whole Cold War spectrum and stuff, like they were rebuilding their damn country, so like –I think we’re still very, very polarized on a weird kind of foundational level about this whole Sovietism. Which was evil. Like, they had terrible [social] experiments that cost millions of lives of millions people, but like, that’s not socialism by any means.
Q: It’s fascism.
A: So that’s a bad boogeyman. A lot of the people that control the purse strings either believe or are manipulated to believe that any kind of community stuff that is not measurable in dollars-and-cents cost/benefits is crazy Soviet rule. And that’s stupid. In Japan we had all kinds of stuff, like, people knew what to do, you know, whether it was the community fire brigade, or whether it was because we spend hours in schools being lectured on what to do in case of this and this and this. Or like, there’s programs on television that people would want to watch—I don’t know why—like, people would watch them about all kinds of public concerns about stuff. It helped.
A: And continues to help.
A: And you know, there’s a fire up on the mountain and it burns like hell, then like everyone knows to how to help.
A: We could benefit from that kind of thing greatly and I think from that point of view it’s: what do we want our communities to look like in their response, and post response?
A: I don’t see a lot of signals that tell me we’re trying to go there. I think because it would require like government leadership to tell corporate leadership, which is the real leadership of the cities. But like, they don’t get to call those shots anymore because their priorities and public priorities are not in alignment.
A: I don’t see that conversation happening at any time. Will Times Up do that? [long pause] Yeah, to some degree I see us and more [inaudible 38:19] but I see us as already doing that in the co-op. That co-op is direct action made tangible in like the best possible way. Our rides are awesome and our rides take a bunch of shapes, but like, the co-op, the co-op is totally donation based, it’s open all the damn time, we get a ton of people in, people who are bike nuts and people who need training wheels, and we empower them to ride around town. And we have group rides, because people feel comfortable riding so we empower people to be like, oh this thing that I am riding on, this is freedom. In a very Emma Goldman way. This is my freedom. This meets my needs. Like Susan B. Anthony. She was a bicycle advocate. So, um, it feels like we’re already doing that to a degree, just in our day-to-day.
Q: Uh-hum, uh-hum. Okay, uh, just to clarify, um, are Times Up and/or NYU pretty much done with their relief effort stuff now or is it still going on?
A: [long pause] I know that the NYU admin groups are still talking right now. I’m not sure how much of it has to do with preparation for next time and how much of it has to do with cumulative responsive time.
A: It’s my personal hope to manipulate our energies and our resources to having several of large, large projects where we have several thousand volunteers for several days running doing whatever the hell Respond and Rebuild tells us we need to do.
Q: Uh-hum. Responder and Rebuild is a city organization?
Q: Oh really? Oh that’s right, that’s Rapid Response, right?
A: Yeah, Rapid Response. No, Respond and Rebuild are hippies and builders. Um, you know them?
Q: Yeah, I actually I think I’ll be interviewing one of them next week, yeah, a mold remediation lady.
A: They are good — they are good people. They can work.
A: For NYU I’m more hopeful on the nursing front. Um, apparently nurses are awesome. I always thought they were just kind of like junior doctors or something but like, nurses are awesome people. And the nursing teachers and administration, we partnered with them and they have agreed and expressed an interest in following up with more community organizations and more direct building assessments, so we’re trying to work that out right now. It’s tricky because of confidentiality stuff and because of liability stuff, both for students and for the program and everything but like, we’re trying to work that out. I’m pretty optimistic about that. I think the vision is to have a whole workforce that surrounds to meet the assessments of the populations in our buildings. It’s not as geared for like direct intervention on the behalf of the NYU folks but as continued assessments so that we can help link people to home care or visiting nurse services or whatever it is. But part of introducing that conversation is that if that’s the thing, if our students are learning how to do this, they should also be teaching residents how to do this for each other. Like buildings’ tenant associations and things like that, like, there should be someone on your fucking floor who knows the condition of everybody else on the floor.
A: And like —
Q: Monitors — human monitors like?
A: I’m uncomfortable with the term monitors, but yeah. [laughs]
Q: Yeah, that’s the term we used in college, we were called monitors in residences.
A: Oh yeah, the RAs?
Q: Yes, basically a version of RAs, the Canadian version of RAs. [laughter]
A: Maybe if I was in Canada I would not be as freaked out about it. [laughs].
A: That idea might gain traction but it might take a year for the program to actually gain a foot before it does. So that could be a good idea, and I think it would be a great idea to seed out to other communities, saying ‘look, this is effective, here is how to do this.” Um, but other than that we just put together our calendar and, um, rides and events for next — for the next six or eight weeks and we’re not doing an organized ride down to Rockaways during that time. Um, I mean, I feel guilty about it, honestly, but like we’re a group of individual organizers so like every project needs a bottom liner and every project needs some kind of buy-in for people. People just have different priorities right now —
A: — and the way I think it’s, I don’t know, I want to say I think if we were closer down that we would be doing more– it’s an 18 mile bike ride.
Q: Uh-hum. Where do you guy housed?
Q: Oh, Williamsburg. Ok.
A: So from the door of Times Up it’s an 18 mile bike ride, and I think it was through a section of Flatbush, so if you don’t have a good group of people, it’s terrifying and dangerous, um, it’s dark.
A: we’re not– we don’t have any rides scheduled right now. Other rides—I went on some of these these relief bus rides and they frustrated the shit out of me, you know, because as well intentioned and good as they were, it was sending a bus that had one third its capacity filled —
A: — and it was — I went with my dad once and the bus –we left at 10:00 from Canal Street in the City and it turned into 10:30 and then we went to Home Depot on 23rd Street to get supplies, and I was like ‘we just wasted two and a half hours,’ and my dad said ‘no, we just wasted four days,” because this bus has that many people on it. Multiply them by two and a half hours. There was a lot of people patting themselves on the back for contributing. [Time’s Up] might try to put together an energy bike station and project there but again it needs bottom liners and – [pause]
Q: Community buy in?
A: — community buy in and it’s just — it’s a lot of time that we’re not then working on our other stuff.
Q: Uh-hum. Okay. Uh, is there anything that you think we should talk that I didn’t ask?
A: [long pause] I don’t know — my big — I don’t think so — my big, like my big, big takeaway is– from Sandy is the importance of free space and organizing — pointing out that those [inaudible 46:17] things have dollar and cents repercussions in terms of public health.
A: Um, in terms of like [inaudible 46:29] and efficacy with which you can resolve them — that correlates with dollar and cents also. So if the infrastructure breaks the fuck down, you need training, you need bicycles [laughter]. You know, to have a healthy organism [inaudible 46:45] even in the absence of an infrastructure. Um, that’s a lot of it.
Q: Good, great. Thanks so much for volunteering to be interviewed.
A: Thank you very much.
Q: I appreciate it.
A: Oh, and uh, the sense that in a crisis, the city’s leadership or the country’s leadership or whatever leadership is present, ought to, I believe, afford the message that all resources that are being dedicated to the crisis are communal resources. That’s not to say that like the government can take your truck and like decide it’s a crisis relief truck. But if your truck is a crisis relief truck, it belongs to everybody. Every seat should be filled, every iota of capacity should be used. You know, if you want to go volunteer, you know, you shouldn’t have to figure out all the steps to make that happen. You should be able to show up to somewhere that you know about, that you’ve been told about, and they should put you to work. Like, those are the efficiencies that made the Occupy model work and those were the efficiencies that the institutional models were not comfortable with at all. Institutions are like, ‘we have to have everything programmed out and everyone has to be assigned a role and make it work and make it happen so that this organism can work.’ But that is not an organic model; it’s a broken metaphor. You know, like the anarchists and the self-starters were like, ‘all right, we’re going to show up and figure out what needs doing and you’re going to show up and there will be clear ways that you can help. And there going to be the ways you want the help, you get to pick.’ That works. I hope that that proliferates. I can say this: in all the discussions that I’ve been part of at like a larger level, the conferences and things, everyone talks about expanding our networks through infrastructure and making sure that the information can flow, and they are just thinking about building a bigger tree. They’re tiered hierarchical thinkers– institutional thinkers– and they’re like ‘if we build a stronger, bigger tree, then when the next crisis hits…’ And I’m like, ‘come on, a tree?’ Like, really, a tree metaphor? Like, not….
Q: Didn’t those all get knocked down in the storm? [laughs]
A: Yeah, yeah. You’re like, ‘the bigger they are…. nothing? nothing? You know, in — in kind of crit theory circles they talk about rhizomatic responses. Which, for the non-jargon speakers, means grass.
A: Like, a tree might be the wrong metaphor for a giant storm. Because a giant tree will still get blown down and then you are at your crisis, and if we’re defining crisis as the point at which your tree falls down, like, building a bigger tree is the wrong way of addressing that crisis. So, in the institutional model, if you say that we need more things that can be communicated from one end of the chain to the other, we, uh, the autonomous model, the anarchist model, says ‘no, we need more seeds that we can spread.’ You know: grass.
A: That’s — that’s the rhizomatic response, the grass. So if we end up with a set of ideas that worked at 520 Clinton, a set of ideas that worked at Zucotti, then when we brought those ideas to the Rockaways or when the people there sprouted those ideas, they sprouted in a dozen locations and they worked. And like, from that, infrastructure can grow. Like bicycles, frankly, but like, it was a collective sharing of knowledge. I hear that argument countered a lot with a kind of smug response that says ‘there’s a lot of specialized knowledge that you don’t have’ and like, ‘why does the community know what’s best for it? Sometimes there are just things that, you know, there’s not the knowledge base or the intelligence for or whatever it is.’ I think it’s mostly a racist comment when it comes up. And you’re like: fine, no problem, but like, there’s plenty of stuff that the community knows how to do really well and that waiting for infrastructure to come in and fill that gap for is murderous to it. And like, if you want to talk about creating building codes, that – great, that is specialized knowledge and like, people should work on that. But like, not everything is rocket science. Like mucking out houses and like doing assessments and feeding people…
Q: Making PB&Js?
A: Not rocket science. It just needs people to feel empowered and to have space.
A: But without those two things, it doesn’t work. Yeah, so more teaching for a more grass-like response, that’s what I want to say.
Q: Great, that’s a great metaphor.
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