November 16, 2012 by Posted by Peter Rugh
Rahonda’s bird won’t shut up. It’s an African Gray and it keeps telling anyone who will listen that “it’s cold.” Rahonda said she is getting pretty tired of her parrot stating the obvious. It’s been two weeks since Frankenstorm Sandy left four feet of water in her basement. The water is gone, but the heat still isn’t back and Rahonda has been wearing long johns and gloves to bed. While Rwanda’s bird sits lamenting on its perch back at her home, about a hundred yards away President Obama’s chopper is about to take off from a ball field here in New Dorp, Staten Island.
Myself and three other activists who have been a part of Occupy and its various environmental off shoots visited the island today because we heard the president was stopping by. A major component of our previous activism has been warning folks of the threat fossil fuels pose to our planet, but lately we’ve immersed ourselves in the Occupy Sandy Relief project, facing the destruction that fossil fueled climate change has delivered. This has meant dredging out homes in areas hardest hit by the storm, delivering food to and checking in on New York City’s elderly who have been stranded on the upper floors of blacked-out apartment buildings, and loading trucks with batteries, diapers, fuel, generators, blankets, clothing, water and food. Just as elected officials failed to address the risks posed by climate change, they have also failed to provide anything above a modicum of aid to those most acutely suffering its effects. Where city, state and federal government has let the people down, along with traditional relief agencies such as the Red Cross, Occupy Sandy and community groups have stepped in.
We weren’t in New Dorp five minutes, driving amidst the wreckage of homes decimated by the storm, when, as luck would have it, we came upon the President’s chopper. A police officer standing guard in front of a chain linked fence that surrounded a vacant field told us the Commander and Chief was about to take off. We scrambled to lay out our banner near the shore so that the Prez could see it when he took off. The banner is 79 ft long and comes in multiple pieces. We had everything spread out and were catching our breath when several law enforcement officers approached us. We’d have to leave the area. We were instructed to vacate the premise not for Obama’s security but for our own health. There’s no telling what the water that swept on shore carried with it and what silent but toxic particles remained. A similar question of contamination remains for Red Hook. We hustled across the street and laid out the banner once more. That’s where we met Rahonda Cigarette in her lips, she helped us arrange the words.
“Got climate change blues?” read the banner, “Fuhgeddabout fossil fuels!”
Okay, so this is the same banner we hung from the Manhattan bridge nine days earlier and the Prez along with Mayor Bloomberg can’t be said to have been given the blues by Sandy, maybe a minor political headache when they think off all the constituents they’re going to have to ignore before they can start doling out big bucks to private contractors. New Dorp and nearby neighborhoods are the ones with the climate change blues. But there are only so many humongous banners one can make during times of desperation such as ours and the part about fuhgedding about fossil fuels still holds.
Did Obama get the message? Well, he saw it as he and his entourage hummed away to survey other heaps of rubble. What will really capture Obama’s ear and pressure him to follow the science on climate change amid the din of fossil fuel interests buzzing around Washington these days is a mass movement for climate justice that includes folks like Rahonda who have felt the effects of extreme weather first hand. Otherwise, it’s business as usual. In fact, just the day before congress overwhelmingly passed a bill to build a massive gas pipeline through a section of the Rockaways hit hard by Sandy. Whether the pipeline is built depends what happens when the bill lands on Obama’s desk. Local resident’s are asking the president to use his veto powers to halt the project.
Rahonda didn’t get to have a one on one with Obama during his stop but she has a message for him and Mayor Bloomberg too, “We need HELP!” The National Guard strolled through Rahonda’s neighborhood and asked her a few questions not long after the storm but that’s about all she’s seen in the way of an official response.
Rohanda’s neighbor Robert echoed her sentiments. Speaking to us in front of a hotdog truck resting on its side about twenty feet from his front door he said that two weeks after the hurricane, “Nobody’s touching anything.” Meanwhile, his insurance will only cover the homes foundation, nothing inside.They sent Robert over to FEMA. “All FEMA is offering are small business loans.” Robert said the National Guard was in the area for a couple of days, after that New Dorp has been on its own.
Obama and company headed north and so did we. Fallen trees, water logged and splintered homes, ocean toppled vehicles and roadside Do-It-Yourself relief stations looked out at us we attempted to trail Obama’s chopper from below. We couldn’t keep up but we know what he saw. Only we’re in it. And will remain in it. On the ground. Because these our neighbors and this is our city. We 99% have got to look out for each other. Lord knows, those above us won’t.
As we bird-dogged Obama today, I couldn’t help but think that the wreckage the president viewed he might have glimpsed on the other side of the world in the Gaza Strip, where Israeli warplanes are assaulting dense, impoverished civilian areas with weaponry sold to them by the United States. One disaster was caused by fossil fuel carbon emissions, another by US bombs dropped in a region where strategic oil interests rule the day. Somehow our government has money to stockpile, deploy and sell sophisticated weaponry but not to help its own civilians in a time of crisis. We can bailout banks, but not people like Robert and Rahonda, victims of the war Wall Street and the fossil fuel industry has waged on our environment. In case the Leader of the Free World wasn’t getting the message as he surveyed Sandy’s path we decided to use the end chunk of our banner to help him read the writing on the rubble.
The tens of thousands who have stepped up to deliver mutual aid in the wake of Sandy have a different vision, one of a recovery that puts people to work at jobs that pay a prevailing wage, revitalizes communities and harnesses the power of the wind, sun and tide from the debris strewn earth up so that we can start to live with nature and not against it.
Click here for an upcoming opportunity to join the struggle…