I met Sofia Gallisa Muriente back in October, at a screening of Spanish anarchist films from the 1930’s at MoMA. A month later, I found myself in her Brooklyn apartment the morning after Hurricane Sandy had passed. Within 24 hours, she was on the ground in the Rockaways – before transit was restored anywhere in the city, before gas was rationed, and before she even really had much hope of getting back from the far side of Jamaica Bay. While much has been said about Occupy Sandy in the media, very little has been said – outside of social media – by the folks doing the work. Consequently, I’d been encouraging Sofia to write, and provide first-person documentation of her experience – the interpersonal unfoldings, the specter of disaster capitalism, the prefigurative quality of the recovery. Predictably, material tasks always took priority. So, after much coaxing, I managed to get an interview out of her.
Joshua Stephens: You’ve been on the ground working in the Rockaways since pretty much day-one. I know you had a close friend living there whose home was flooded, so you went in with an established relationship, but you also must’ve seen a lot of the initial encounters that unfolded in Sandy’s wake. What was the quality or texture of that, initially?
Sofia Gallisa Muriente: I still hold on to the idea that I came out to help my friend, because it was a concrete, good thing that I could do, instead of volunteering at some overstaffed shelter. At this point, though, it feels like something I tell myself to keep things manageable and personal. The truth is that, from the first day, I realized there was a bigger need and purpose for my being here, and even my friend pushed me away from her house and assured me that working at Yana, distributing donations and dealing with the initial chaos was more important than helping her clean.
In the last seven weeks, we’ve built relationships with so many of the neighbors of Rockaway Park — I just got back to my computer from having sandwiches and wine at a neighbor’s gutted house across the street, the woman living behind our volunteer intake office cooked Puerto Rican food for us last weekend, the teenager across the street has become one of our most passionate initiatives (we’ve helped him write a resume, apply to Americorps instead of the military, go to the hospital, deal with girlfriend trouble, etc.), the 13 year old who works at the Deli gave me orange juice on credit the other day (“you’re here every day — your name is Sofía” he told me) and I have a hard time remembering all the names of Spanish speakers in the neighborhood, but I’ve taken it upon myself to be an advocate for all the undocumented neighbors, who are more destitute than anyone else in a situation like this. The point being, we’re a big family of strangers. Every day, some break my heart and some fill it back up. Any time I’m feeling overwhelmed, someone comes and holds me up with their strength and their resilience. We hold each other up, it’s the only way of moving forward.
JS: The mayor recently airlifted in for a visit, just behind the headquarters of much of the relief work. That must’ve struck a real contrast. Can you talk, at all, about the community’s response to that?
SGM: Unfortunately, I wasn’t there that day. Out of the few days off I take, that was one. All I’d say is that I heard some 11 year old was holding a sign in front of her house that read “Dear Mr. Mayor: The hippies took over my town and they brought it back to life.” If that is true, then it’s all I need to know about Bloomberg’s visit.
JS: I remember the Gothamist article quoting him saying “All joking aside, you guys are doing great work,” allegedly in praise of Occupy Sandy, and when you and I talked about it, you said “Who the fuck is joking?!” It seemed a clumsiness illustrative of how divorced from the reality of the situation even Bloomberg is. How does that land for folks on the ground?
SGM: Well, I stole the “who the fuck is joking?!” from one of the other organizers for Occupy Sandy that I’ve been working with from the beginning who was actually there that day and made sure to use her loud-ass voice to chase him down as he got off the helicopter yelling “THERE’S RESIDENTS THAT WANT TO SPEAK TO YOU, MR MAYOR!” I also remember one of the first city officials that I met through this process, on my third or fourth day out here, who was taking copious notes and asking me about all that we were doing responding with a smirk and a “that’s cute” when I said I was from Occupy Sandy. You run into all sorts of responses to our presence here, and I think the more removed you are from the reality on the ground, the easier it is to project all sorts of preconceptions about Occupy Wall Street onto the work that we’re doing. I think there are a lot of reasons why it’s very different, and a lot of reasons why it’s a continuation of the same ideas, put into practice in a focused environment, and directed at alleviating a crisis.
Being on the ground, though, I don’t even have time to give a shit about the way we’re portrayed. I don’t care if people still think we’re a bunch of spoiled angry white kids, or if we’ve acquired some new legitimacy for our Sandy relief work. Both are problematic and half true. If there’s one thing I love about what we’ve been doing in the Rockaways it’s that we’ve walked away from our dependence on media spectacle and symbolic actions — which were two of the most off-putting things about Occupy Wall Street, for me. We’ve had plenty of press out here, but I think there’s been a conscious effort and ongoing conversation about discouraging misery porn, and not pimping out residents for their tragic stories, but focusing on their strength, resilience and dignity; not allowing well-meaning journalists to turn their focus onto Occupy without discussing the real issues at hand. We have shown that we can be in your face and non-conformist but that we’ll also sit down with FEMA, National Guard, DOH, the Mayor’s office and whoever else wants to get their hands dirty and actually help people out in the Rockaways. We’ve grown from our antagonistic ways of just shaming cops at any given opportunity.
But if Bloomberg shows up in town, lands in our parking lot and pretends to drop by for a quick newspaper interview without addressing anyone else about the ongoing crisis, we’re gonna chase him down and give him a piece of our mind. And fuck him if he thinks we’re cute, or that our heckling is somehow separate from our relief work — this operation runs on love and rage; we’re not yelling at him for being ‘the man’ or for being an alienated white billionaire (ok, in part we are). We’re yelling at him because we’re pissed and exasperated at the stories we hear every day; at the government negligence that has made this a human disaster and not a natural one, and at the thousands of people still going through really rough times relying almost solely on loosely organized grassroots efforts instead of being supported by their city government. And there’s no resident or volunteer that will joke about that.
JS: Early on, there seemed indications that residents were being strong-armed to leave the Rockaways, evoking the sort of things we saw with public housing in New Orleans post-Katrina. Obviously, developers have been grooming the area for gentrification the last few years. Is there much discussion of how grassroots recovery might bolster resistance to such efforts?
SGM: We have definitely been paying close attention to openings for disaster capitalism to ravage the Rockaways, using the storm as an excuse to displace large communities of poor people, mostly of color (that were displaced into this area in the first place), opening marinas or other exclusive beach front attractions, and even using untreated mold as an excuse to condemn, expropriate and/or raze properties. It’s hard to deal with all of this because of the urgency of other issues on the ground, but I’m happy that there’s been a lot of community meetings and other forums of the kind happening throughout the Rockaways — called for by everyone from clergy to community organizations or even relief organizations like Occupy Sandy. The community events keep the conversation rolling and tend to create spaces for residents to speak directly to government officials and agencies. None of this is enough, but it gets the gears moving.
As far as Occupy Sandy goes, I would say some of the most political work we’re doing right now is mold remediation — it goes to the heart of the flood damage and public health crisis, it’s not being addressed by any major organization, it’s long-term and complicated, which already separates Occupy Sandy from most relief efforts, and it’s intrinsically connected to the structural/political failures that tend to leave people devastated after a storm — lack of proper insurance, debt/loans, landlord negligence, etc. I’d encourage folks to look into Respond and Rebuild. They’re a group working within and in solidarity with Occupy that is leading the mold remediation effort — they’re amazing.
JS: It’s pretty clear that Occupy Sandy has rebooted the movement, making for something of a comeback, especially in terms of public relations. Arguably, the project’s effectiveness has vindicated horizontal self-organization in a major way. But I also suspect that the social media euphoria there masks a good deal — both good and bad. Are there themes you wish were more visible?
SGM: For starters, I wish it was more visible how many people are an essential, consistent part of this effort, and are not or have not been associated with Occupy in the past. Not only has much of our relief work been basically channeling volunteers, donations and other resources to pre-established community centers, churches and other community hubs, but a lot of people that have devoted themselves to this effort are newcomers, unfamiliar with Occupy’s language and structural spiderwebs, but supportive of our general philosophy and fundamentally interested in helping people brave through this shit storm. Then, there are the residents that have stepped up as coordinators in this effort — most of which weren’t familiar with Occupy but were attracted by our way of doing things, and general get-things-done attitude. For me, it’s essential to highlight this as a major caveat when building the discourse of Occupy Sandy as a continuation of Occupy Wall Street’s work. There’s definitely an inheritance of ideas and characters, there’s definitely a dependency on communication/logistical structures that would not have existed without Occupy Wall Street, but there’s also a lot of new people testing the flexibility of our ideas and habits. And I’m incredibly grateful for that. It’s a longer conversation, with more ups and downs, but I’ll leave it at that.
JS: An anarchist who’d put in time with Occupy Sandy in Coney Island and Sheepshead Bay said he was concerned that many in those communities are already accustomed to people moving on, abandoning them, and so on — just as a matter of course. And he worried that, despite the vibrancy of what’s been happening, that expectation looms — especially given that any meaningful recovery is likely something we’ll measure in decades, not months or even years. Do you see opportunities for breaking that pattern?
SGM: Recently I went into the bodega next door to Yana to see if they sold minutes for our burner phones, ’cause I wanted to be able to buy them there and keep the money in the neighborhood. Turned out they didn’t sell Verizon cards, so I told David at the counter (by this point we know most people on the block) that if he got them I could buy from him for all our phones on a regular basis and it would be good business. He just looked at me and said “No one likes those, and you guys will only be around for another couple of weeks anyway”. I take it as a challenge but also as a legitimate expectation from the community, which has always been incredulous about our presence there regardless and who would still be incredulous about the magnitude of this storm if it wasn’t for the tides they saw rising in their living room or the fire they saw out the window. I wonder the same thing sometimes, if only because of how financially unsustainable our work out here is, which is something we’re now trying to work on. We’ve been fundraising for organizer stipends of some kind that will allow us to at least make rent, seeing as most other basic expenses are taken care of. Many of us have even discussed moving out there, renting a place, fixing it up, even opening a coffee shop or something. We are all in love with the neighborhood, for better and worse, and are looking for ways of guaranteeing the continuity of our work there, but there’s obviously all sorts of practical and logistical hurdles. I can only speak for my little corner of the Rockaways, where I intend to keep coming for one reason or another for a very long time.
JS: There appears to be a really solid prefigurative dimension to work that’s happening now — I’m thinking particularly of bioremediation and such. That seems both promising and enormously demanding in terms of resources and so on. Has there been fundraising and support adequate to take those approaches, or is there just sufficient commitment to them that material constraints are less of a hurdle?
SGM: I’d say both. Respond and Rebuild is somewhat separate from Occupy Sandy in part so they can pursue all sorts of external funders and bypass Occupy Sandy’s general fund constraints in their search for funding to remediate mold in private homes. They estimate the cost of treating each home at about $1,000 without labor, so it’s uphill but they’re doing an amazing job and are talking to some big organizations, so hopefully it’ll happen. At Yana, we’ve been relying both on Occupy Sandy general funds and a crowdsourcing page, as well as in-kind donations of construction materials that we’ve advertised to people that show up or contact us asking how they can help. Yana is the first rebuilding effort being undertaken in the Rockaways by Occupy Sandy, and we hope it’ll be a proof-of-concept, or a model for how to rebuild sustainably in the Rockaways. So, we’re trying to get it done fast and include all sorts of volunteers and resources in the process to benefit from their different experiences, skills, etc. So far so good.
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Joshua Stephens is a writer, organizer, and board member with the Institute for Anarchist Studies. He splits his time between Brooklyn, NY and the Mediterranean, and is an editor at www.counterconduct.com