Slán New York. Fáilte go d’tí Boston.
13th March 2017
Slán Ms Greene agus Dianne.
So that’s me packed up and outta New York. I’m on the Amtrack train to Boston taking in the beautiful north eastern American terrain en route to meeting interesting activists in the the land of the Massachusetts tribe (the people of the great hills.)
These last few days in New York were packed with interesting insights as to how the people of the city are tackling a plethora of cultural, social and economic issues.
Donald Trump dominates the headlines. When you switch the TV on it’s; repeal of Obamacare, divestment from family planning, deportation of immigrants, the cutting of Housing and Urban development (HUD) money, and the rise in attacks on ethnic and religious minorities by KKK types who don’t feel the need to wear masks any more.
So it’s better to switch the TV off. What’s not on TV is the widespread resistance to what the liberals know as Trump’s policies, but the poor know as every day life.
In every neighbourhood I visited in the boroughs of New York there was a palpable friction between citizens and society. For the most part it plays out as compliant people working hard to make rent. They are the majority. Many are a pay check away from eviction. Some are comfortable and trendy. A minority are extremely wealthy. They run the city and own the property everyone else is working so hard to make rent for. And of course there is a mass of discarded human beings; homeless, illegal, diseased and dying.
I spent yesterday morning with a group of white, black, latina and, largely poor but hard working, residents prepping an action on a California based slum landlord who owns hundreds of properties in Jersey City. It was fascinating to watch the organisers, Mahmoud and Frank, facilitate a session which echoed of the New Lodge, north Belfast.
Women and men and kids suffering damp, mould, cold, leaks and extortion have exhausted every conventional means seeking a remedy including complaints, courts and political reps. They are now mobilised into an inspiring resistance ready to march on the landlord and hold the city to account. I’m gonna keep stumm on the fine details but will be watching with interest.
These inspirational residents, like Ms Green and Diane, reminded me of Marisa, Elinor, Karen and Danielle of Equality Can’t Wait and Róisín, Seaneen and Angie of the Seven Towers Residents Group and Sipho and Makhosi from Housing4All – thousands of miles apart suffering the same stuff yet uniquely organising themselves outside of the comfortable orbit of the powerful to put things right.
I can’t wait to see how their action plays out and my only regret is I won’t be there to be part of it with them.
Here’s why Black Lives Matter.
I left Ms Greene and Diane and co and caught the path train under the river via the world trade centre. Then I hit multiple delays on the subway caused by ‘police activity’ and misdirection from a recreational liar in the Metro Transit Authority. I arrived nearly one hour late for my brunch turned lunch with the very patient and very inspirational national organiser of the Black Youth Project 100. BYP100 was established at a convening of 100 young people the night Treyvon Martin’s killer was freed by a perverse justice system which also disproportionally incarcerates young black people.
It’ll be hard to do this meeting justice. What can I say? I got to sit and eat a great burger and fries in Rue Dix restaurant in Brooklyn and listen to the life and work of Charlene Carruthers. We got into everything from door knocking to direct action, the black panthers to land justice, sexual violence to incarceration and what it means to be a gay, black woman in America in 2017 – all tactics and issues on BYP100’s menu.
She briefed me on the ways and means of BYP100. One story stands out. For one year these guys occupied and disrupted the Chicago Police Task force meeting demanding Justice for Rekia Boyd, a black woman who was shot dead by an off duty detective. They called for the dismissal of the State Prosecutor, Anita Alvarez, after Rekia’s killer was freed because the judge could not convict him of the lesser charge of manslaughter the prosecutor brought before the court! The judge said the charge should have been first degree murder but because the prosecutor brought the lesser charge of manslaughter before the court the killer walked free. After one year the prosecutor was ousted.
I asked if the replacement prosecutor, a black woman, was any better. Charlene explained that the institution and not the personalities were the problem, which is why BYP100 are as much about building the alternative as they are about challenging the status quo. But by taking the action they placed a black woman and her family centre stage in the movement for black lives challenging sexism, racism and injustice.
Slán New York agus fáilte go dtí Boston.
The resistance manifests itself in many ways. Not all of it is progressive. Without a social and political context and largely unorganised or ignored by the ‘left’ some of the 26 million white poor people nihilistically lashed out by voting for Trump to express their alienation from the status quo. I spent last night with people whose roots are Irish, poor and white who organise across racial lines and are acutely conscious of the economic lines which paradoxically unite and divide everyone.
A big thanks to Michael and his family and Chris, and Ruan and Mary and everyone else, who have worked at everything including as international observers of the Irish peace process, delivering university degrees, writing books on life in Boston and providing therapy and mental well being through story telling. They organise poor people across the US and have set me up with good people in Boston.
They pointed out a powerful dilemma. If 26 million poor white Americans, some of whom voted for Trump, are simply ignored or vilified as racists, where will they go next? These guys are apologists for no one. They are highly conscious and organised individuals working every day on the coal face with people of all creeds and colours at the intersections of housing, health, education, violence, safety and more. They were not commenting from abstract ivory towers.
Their understanding of the problem and solutions resonate I think with Frank, Mahmoud and Charlene – The poor and working class, to use very dated and not quite accurate labels, are simply not represented by the powerful status quo. The job then is building new power in spite of the status quo. Built by the poor themselves not just in their name.
The status quo in America, is not too different from Ireland or South Africa. It is a largely polarised political landscape. Democratic (leftish) and republican (rightish) political machinery at the federal state and municipal level controls everything. Political activity moves in the orbit of this machinery. Community groups, non profits, NGOs, trade unions etc work to influence this machinery by allying with it or defying it at critical electoral junctures. Of those who vote, which is less than half of the eligible population, they go one way or the other strategically depending on their interests at any given moment in time.
The game, the rules and the score are all irrelevant. The status quo remains because whoever is in power maintains it. The power and influence of organised money on political machinery is much greater than anything else which can be mustered to oppose it. Every few years this contradiction between the needs of the many and the wants of the few manifests in mass mobilisation such as the anti war movement, the occupy movement and more recently the movement for black lives. These movements speak loudly to the obvious friction between the majority needs and minority power.
In this moment I’m privileged to meet with people organising resistance across every demographic, but mostly the poor and working class. I’m starting to understand the difference between mobilisation and organisation which can mean the difference between meaningful change and despair.
My train is pulling up to the station. It’s minus 8 degrees and freezing cold. A blizzard is on the way to Boston and I’ll go out in it tomorrow to meet more magnificent people building resistance and change.