Organizing For Survival In New York City

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Above photo: Hungry Monk Photo.

Report from Ridgewood, Queens.

We are in month two of the coronavirus crisis in New York City, and must reassess how we are organizing ourselves. More than ten thousand have died, and we have seen mass burials in a public park, without names or ceremonies. The medical emergency quickly morphed into a crisis of social reproduction, with vast numbers of New Yorkers out of work, without income, and experiencing heightened food insecurity. At the same time, a newly designated class of “essential” workers struggles to maintain grocery stores, delivery services, and transportation. For most of these workers, social distancing conflicts with survival to such an extent that they risk illness to stock food, deliver packages, work cash registers, and drive rideshares. The combined effects of the medical and social disasters exacerbate the pre-existing inequalities in our city, as even mainstream media outlets now highlight the racial and class disparities in the number of illnesses and deaths from Covid-19. Never before has the working class been so visible, but now with state-mandated masks that have become the visual signature of our time.

There’s been an abundance of crisis analysis, consistent in its declaration that any return to what we once knew as normal is impossible. We are living through devastating losses on a daily basis, but must continue to look for the potential openings this crisis reveals.

We want to share some of what we have been doing these last few weeks at Woodbine, an autonomous space we have run since 2014 in Ridgewood, Queens. We have converted our space into a mutual aid hub, with its primary activity being a food pantry in partnership with a local organization named Hungry Monk. This work exists within a larger fabric of dozens of localized mutual aid networks that have sprung up over the past month. But our horizon remains the longer-term work of building dual power within the systemic collapse taking place around us.

As the pandemic has unfolded, we have seen uneven and contradictory forms of so-called “disaster socialism” taking place at urban, state, and national scales, including free bus rides and meals provided by the city, an eviction moratorium, and the farcical $1200 checks signed by Trump himself. No national recovery appears possible at present, and we will be left only with localized and autonomous forms of mutual survival and refusal. The failure of the government to provide a bailout adequate to the crisis must necessarily be met with self-organization, community resilience, and care.

As mutual aid work expands throughout the city, calls for a rent strike on May Day are gaining traction, best expressed by the slogan can’t pay, won’t pay. As we write, we find ourselves in between the dual temporalities of day-to-day survival and the development of a long-term consistency; of bill deadlines that have come and gone, and the visionary demand to #cancelrent. These forms are complementary, potentially creating the conditions for a kind of infinite strike in which communized resources and infrastructures have a crucial role to play, not only in immediate material survival but in building bases of autonomy for a citywide network of dual power, giving rise to what we propose to call “disaster confederalism.”

Bread Lines or Barbarism

Woodbine normally functions as an events and meeting space, hosting coworking hours along with a dinner every Sunday. Last month, following the state-of-emergency declarations from the governor and the mayor, it became clear that we would be forced to cancel all of our normal operations, and we made the decision to transform Woodbine into a relief hub for Ridgewood.

Amid a bloom of other mutual aid projects—including spontaneous online networks in nearly every neighborhood, newly formed tenant unions, volunteer delivery services, and grassroots campaigns to free prisoners—we started to collect and share food, masks, hand sanitizer, and information.

Our food pantry is a collaboration with Hungry Monk, a homeless outreach organization and self-described “community crisis task force,” based out of Covenant Lutheran Church in Ridgewood. Since 2017 Hungry Monk has been running a mobile food pantry and guerrilla soup kitchen in the neighborhood, often setting up at a busy plaza along Myrtle Avenue on Saturdays. Some of us had been volunteering with them for a couple of years and became friendly with their director, Father Mike Lopez.
On March 10, just a few days after Governor Cuomo declared a state of emergency, and amid the confusion and panic about how people would continue to get by without work, Hungry Monk scaled up their pantry efforts, operating daily on the sidewalk outside the church. While a few of us were volunteering, we sensed that we could help expand their efforts and proposed opening up our space as a satellite location for food distribution in the neighborhood.

Since we started we have been able to provide fresh vegetables, fruit, meats, eggs, bread, cheeses, and prepared meals to hundreds of our neighbors for free. We’ve been doing dozens of home deliveries to those currently experiencing symptoms or otherwise unable to pick up from us, including a number of seniors in Ridgewood.

We decided we would operate twice a week, Wednesdays and Fridays, alternating with Hungry Monk’s church distribution on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. This gave both spaces days off to prepare and organize. Because we have two refrigerators in our space, we offered to focus on produce. Hungry Monk gets the food from supermarkets like Trader Joe’s and Wegmans, from nonprofits that do food recovery like Agape Food Rescue and Rethink Food NYC, and from an initiative with Fresh Direct coordinated by the Queens borough president.

The food usually arrives at Woodbine around mid-afternoon on Tuesdays and Thursdays. One of us drives a truck over from the church, and we unload large boxes of produce, prepackaged salads and meals, and bags of breads and pastries. Working in crews of four, we all wear masks and gloves when around one another and the food, and sanitize the space before the food arrives and again before we leave. We open the doors and windows to make sure there’s airflow, we put on some music, and we spend a few hours organizing everything into individual pre-bagged portions. We make the most diverse bags we can until the uneven quantities mean we start producing supplemental bags of whatever’s left over.

We advertise that the pickup starts at ten o’clock in the morning on Wednesdays and Fridays, but recently people have been lining up as early as nine o’clock, before we even arrive. By 9:45 the line wraps around the block. The earliest get the best and most stuff, one or two bags each, or more if it’s for a whole family. We set up two folding tables outside of our space and place the bags on top for people to pick up one by one. We drew circles on the sidewalk to help people measure six-foot distances, but people are now doing this voluntarily. On a recent Wednesday we gave away more than two hundred bags by 10:05, and another truck had to drive over from the church with more food for those still waiting.

The people coming to get the food are diverse: mothers with their children, seniors living on Social Security, down-on-their-luck middle-aged men, and what appear to be newer arrivals to the neighborhood, all of whom tell us they’re now out of work. People are coming prepared, with multiple shoulder bags or shopping carts to carry the food home. Many who’ve come once come again; we’re starting to know each other. We can tell that this isn’t a supplemental addition to people’s regular stock of food, that they’re relying on our and other local pantries to eat. We’ve also distributed more than a hundred homemade masks donated to us by friends and strangers alike. This week a neighbor donated a sewing machine so we can make more masks ourselves at Woodbine.

Our organizing efforts have been covered in two local newspapers, the Ridgewood Times and the Queens Ledger, listing the address and times for our pantry. Last weekend we started flyering the neighborhood, realizing that our social media feeds and email lists weren’t reaching many of those in need in the buildings and blocks around us. We’ve since received messages and emails from more than a hundred people asking how they can volunteer, help, and contribute.

News footage of food lines in America have come as a shock to many, but in New York City long lines to pick up food are a normal sight. With millions of New Yorkers out of work, those lines are only growing as many food pantries are closing down due to health concerns about the virus. Semi-sponsored charity programs like these have always been a means to ensure that the working class can reproduce itself while social programs are slashed. The growing crisis of hunger and food insecurity matches the lack of medical supplies, staff, and beds at hospitals nationwide. In both cases there are calls from politicians and bureaucrats for “mutual aid,” urging citizens to step up to get through this.

We have to face the reality of the mass impulse not toward communalism, but individualism. Notwithstanding the nihilism of the recent pro-Trump #liberate rallies, many people are walling themselves off, hoarding, and attempting to keep themselves entertained and isolated until “it’s all over.” As we continue our pantry, we are asking ourselves how to avoid depoliticized humanitarian service provision, and how to refuse the palliative and compensatory functions of aid within economic and state collapse. What we want is to turn this shared experience into a process of collective self-organization in the face of intensifying crisis.

We are constantly hearing from neighbors whom we have never spoken to, who have never heard of us and our space. Many are asking to volunteer, to help, but we are also asking them: What do you think? What ideas do you have? What can and should be done in this moment? There is no answer or program, there is only beginning to build a framework. All that can be done is start, experiment, talk to those you don’t know, find spaces to use, find masks, supplies, materials, food, equipment. And see if this can be replicated and adapted in neighborhoods and cities throughout the country and the world.

Reaching people is essential, and right now flyering seems as important and successful as our online networks did in the beginning. Ridgewood is dense, most of the residential buildings have around four or more units, and Woodbine’s block alone has twenty buildings. There are hundreds of people on each block around us, with more than sixty thousand living in the neighborhood. This density is precisely what made New York City an early hotspot for the virus, but with unemployment and immiseration skyrocketing, it’s more urgent than ever for all of these people to communicate and collaborate with each other, to find new ways to reinhabit the city together.

At the moment we are creating a broadsheet newsletter to distribute in Ridgewood, building on the flyering we’ve already been doing. The broadsheet will include more resources and analysis on the current and upcoming political struggles that we need to prepare for.

Between Revolution and Apocalypse

The question of building autonomy within and against the present economic and governmental order is not a new one for Woodbine, but the context of the pandemic opens up the deeper and more essential question of how we define the political. How is it that our actions and relationships are political? As this crisis extends ever further into the future, how can we deepen our networks, capacities, and organizing to build political power in Ridgewood? When we started Woodbine we knew that maintaining our own physical infrastructure at the local level would be crucial for responding to the collapsing infrastructure around us.

Woodbine opened its doors in January 2014, in the Queens neighborhood of Ridgewood. Like the rest of Queens, Ridgewood is incredibly diverse, with large Latino communities from Puerto Rico, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic living mostly along its border with Brooklyn. As you get deeper into Queens there are Balkan and Slavic communities from the former Yugoslavia, Albania, Poland, and Romania, alongside older communities of Germans and Italians, and newer arrivals of Egyptian Copts and Nepalese. Many of these communities maintain their own social clubs and centers in Ridgewood, and when Woodbine opened it seemed to fit within this fabric of the neighborhood: a noncommercial community space, somewhat opaque, operating at the periphery of a metropolis that tries to homogenize life.

The two major events that influenced the beginnings of Woodbine were Occupy Wall Street and Hurricane Sandy.

In its emphasis on shared living and collective reproduction in occupied public space, Occupy signaled the arrival of a new phase of revolutionary activity, one that highlighted the inadequacy of electoralism, legislation, and political parties to respond to the 2008 financial collapse. But just months later, Hurricane Sandy demonstrated that any invincibility New York City imagined for itself—infrastructurally, socially, and politically—was a fantasy. There were mass power outages, public transportation was shut down, and many waterfront neighborhoods were devastated. With Sandy it became clear that, a decade after 9/11, New York was in no way meaningfully prepared to deal with climate disaster, but also that we weren’t either. Scattered across various boroughs and neighborhoods, we realized that we were not adequately situated and organized to respond. This is what inspired our collective reorganization in Ridgewood, to localize and densify our efforts, and to be better prepared for both the movements and disasters to come.

The spring of that first year is when we started our weekly Sunday dinners, which continued consistently until the arrival of Covid-19 last month. The regular gathering to cook and share food was meant to break out of the dogmatic, professionalizing, and instrumentalizing modes of relation among activists in the city. The idea was that the rhythm and temporality of collective meals, maintained consistently for dozens of people on a weekly basis, would enrich and deepen both our relationships and the organizational work that came out of them.

One of our first major neighborhood projects was starting the Ridgewood Community Garden in 2015, after hearing from many neighbors of the need for more open, green space for both children and adults. Initially our garden was built in a vacant lot adjacent to our space, owned and neglected by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which operates the subways and buses in the city. After failed negotiations to rent the space from the much-hated public–private agency, we entered the lot illegally, cleared the piles of trash that had accumulated for years, and started to build raised beds, do soil remediation, and plant wildflowers along the fences and walls. Reclaiming this space allowed us to meet our neighbors on the basis of something other than discourse, while simultaneously putting us into conflict with a state bureaucracy that ultimately moved to evict us from the lot just a few months later. In the meantime we gained unanimous positive media coverage for our efforts, including television spots on local news stations NBC4 and NY1, allowing us to meet and form relationships with even more neighbors, civic associations, and the local community board. Even some local politicians, themselves disgruntled by the MTA, supported us in gaining a replacement lot the following year at the neighborhood’s Grover Cleveland High School, where the garden remains.

These new relationships compelled us to also start the Ridgewood Farm Share, a community supported agriculture (CSA) initiative where neighbors purchase fresh produce directly from independent organic farmers in the Hudson Valley, north of New York City. The produce is delivered weekly to Woodbine for pick-up by the members, who run the program as a co-op. For the last five years we have operated CSAs in both the summer and winter seasons, and will do so again this summer in collaboration with Rock Steady, a women- and queer-run cooperative farm in Dutchess County, NY.

The community garden and farm share, along with the neighborhood assemblies that they came out of, shifted the ways we spoke, wrote, and oriented ourselves in Ridgewood. Letting go of aestheticized militancy for its own sake, we tried to meet as many people around us as we could on a different basis. Building the garden and the farm share were radical in themselves without us having to overcode them, as these projects emphasized long-term infrastructure to produce and supply food for the neighborhood, and to control our own spaces in the process. Communications infrastructure has also been vital, and the neighborhood Facebook group we started years ago has exploded with activity since the start of the outbreak, becoming an integral place for neighbors to share information about which supermarkets, hardware stores, and laundromats remain open on any given day.

When the crisis struck, we activated the relationships we had built with our neighbors for the last six years. Mutual aid means not just responding to crises, but creating the conditions to respond. To build is to prepare and survive. Our vision of building autonomy has been precisely to focus on developing and maintaining physical infrastructure—spaces, gardens, and supply lines of food. This is the lived reality of our political analysis, and this is what is allowing us to organize for ourselves and others right now in Ridgewood.

While remaining outside of the machinery of electoral politics, it is crucial to think about our local-scale work relative to larger scales of representation and governance. Last month we contacted all of our elected officials to ask what legislative and executive measures they were pursuing as a response to the pandemic. Knowing in advance that their responses would be unsatisfactory, they nonetheless gave us a picture of the baseline the state imagines for us. We simultaneously contacted all of the Ridgewood civic associations, community centers and organizations, schools, churches, and senior centers to begin a dialogue on how we could organize ourselves locally. We discovered that most of the institutions are not just physically closed, but have ceased functioning.

On March 23, our local state senator, Mike Gianaris, introduced state legislation calling for ninety days of rent forgiveness for residential and commercial tenants. That same day, one of our local US congressional representatives, Grace Meng, said she would introduce similar legislation at the federal level. Our district’s other congressperson, Nydia Velazquez—currently battling coronavirus herself—expressed support. But when we recently pressed Rep. Meng on Twitter for a follow-up, she responded: “I’m looking into it still. Complicated on fed level. Ideal if every governor did it through the states.”

Senator Gianaris was notably one of the most visible and outspoken opponents of the Amazon HQ2 deal in Queens, a pet project of both Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, which collapsed last February. Mayor de Blasio has endorsed Gianaris’s calls for rent relief at the state level, but Cuomo has continually refused, and the bill remains stalled in committee. Cuomo’s refusal to offer rent relief shifts the political antagonism away from governmental policy—and an acknowledgment of the dysfunction of the capitalist economy—and towards landlords and tenants, which in Ridgewood means many people living in the same small building together.

We are All Survivalists Now

As April 1 came, with millions losing their income in the weeks before, a rent strike of sorts happened. While there were calls for an organized rent strike, in reality people didn’t pay simply because they couldn’t. With May 1 approaching, renewed calls for a rent strike are now combining with those for a General Strike. It is a surreal proposition, given that the traditional imagery and language of a mass shutdown of industries and institutions is already a reality.

This crisis should not just raise the question of our individual refusals to pay, but of the necessity for a collective and mass renegotiation of how we imagine the city and the larger economy to work. The mass generalization of self-organization is the only opportunity we have to avoid a future of ever-increasing doom. Any analysis that does not emphatically call for self-organization right now is meaningless, no matter how profound its critique and understanding. Building autonomy will require more than incendiary posts on the web. It will begin much more modestly—by flyering our blocks and neighborhoods, meeting our neighbors, and taking things step by step. There is no shortcut to autonomy.

With the reality of social distancing, both as a governmental mandate and a necessity for collective safety, not many of us can or should gather at one time and place. This requires the development of network models involving nodes and hubs, with each of us serving as a strong link to others. Clandestine resistance movements have been vital throughout history, where hundreds if not thousands of members would never meet or know each other, but operated with confidence knowing that other partisans were out there. This might be what the coronavirus requires of us today. At Woodbine we never meet with more than four people at a time, but there are dozens of us organizing, serving thousands.

At the moment, civil unrest remains scattered and tentative, but we can’t imagine this lasting indefinitely. These rising unemployment statistics are our friends and neighbors, who struggle to meet basic needs as their bills pile up. How do we develop a network to reimagine how necessities are circulated among us? What alliances and partnerships will allow us to collectively survive? At the moment this looks like a homeless outreach organization, a local church, our space at Woodbine, and our shared ability to maintain supply lines of food coming into Ridgewood.

What will our near future look like? One possible scenario is something resembling the New York of the 1970s, when fiscal collapse and divestment left the city looking like a war zone. In the ruins, a kind of radicalized survivalism emerged, with communities building counterinstitutions in the void left by the fleeing state and market. But as we see once-teeming restaurants and other small businesses in Ridgewood indefinitely shuttered, with little likelihood of returning, we know there is nothing utopian about the crisis. Entire lifeworlds are collapsing in both material and existential terms. What comes next could very well be more like Mad Max than Rebecca Solnit’s “paradise built in hell,” but within this uncertain breach our goal is to make visible a new social and political force.

Now that leaving your home is so very rare, the blocks around our apartments have become intensified units of material sharing and organizing. We need material infrastructure to survive—physical spaces, vehicles, refrigerators, printers, and much more. We need more robust supply lines. We need to leverage our local organizing into influence, both socially and institutionally, and we need to deal with the question of money. Three weeks ago, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents parts of the Bronx and Queens, led a fundraising drive to benefit organizations in New York City providing mutual aid during the outbreak, including our partner Hungry Monk as well as Amazon warehouse workers organizing for better working conditions. This has already brought in tens of thousands of dollars to keep our pantry going. Many are still working their normal jobs, collecting regular paychecks. Some have access to personal and family savings. As ever, some of this money will need to be redistributed to maintain each other and our organizing projects.

But we will need more than money. If people have houses, apartments, or bedrooms sitting empty, they should be put to use by organizers. If there are businesses “on pause,” closed community centers, and vacant storefronts, we should figure out how to make them available for collective use. Many of the shuttered restaurants and cafes have kitchens where meals for large numbers of people can be prepared, and refrigerators where perishables can be stored. Two weeks ago, a bilingual bookstore and community center in Bushwick called Mil Mundos, which some of us helped open, offered its space to the organizers of the newly formed Bushwick Mutual Aid group. The group only started last month but quickly gained two thousand members on its Facebook page. Mil Mundos, forced to shut down because of coronavirus, became their physical organizing hub, where it coordinates supply runs, donations, and deliveries.

Dozens of mutual aid networks and hubs have already formed throughout New York City. They will have to be in dialogue with each other about best practices, supply chains, and citywide coordination. One of the key potential alliances going forward will be between mutual aid volunteers and emergency workers. How can these mutual aid hubs become sufficiently powerful and coordinated autonomous bases to organize strikes, occupations, and other mass actions? This is where we can imagine such hubs forming the basis for a new disaster confederalism. The first revolutionary measure is to form immediate links with each other in the midst of a survival crisis. Then comes the longer-term strategy that builds autonomy and solidarity through citywide and regional networks, while pushing the limits of the state’s capacity for redistribution, until its hold is broken. Survival pending revolution.

Woodbine is an experimental hub in New York City for developing the practices, skills, and tools needed to build autonomy.