In the Hollis Section of Queens, a working class and lower middle class African American community, two blocks of apartment buildings owned by a multimillionaire real estate operator named Rita Stark have sat vacant for more than 16 years on that community’s major commercial strip. Ugly and decayed, occasionally used by neighborhood drug dealers as a safe haven, they sit across the street from a junior high school and two churches. The local development corporation, elected officials, and ordinary citizens have tried to get these buildings fixed up for years by writing letters, filing petitions, organizing meetings with the owner, all to no avail. Now, all of a sudden, there is hope of action. Why? Because of the Occupy Movement and the example it has set.
Let me explain how. During January of 2012, education scholar and activist Ira Shor and I decided to try to create a support group for Occupy Wall Street at a predominantly African American Church in Queens where a dear friend and colleague, Rev. Dr Mark Chapman, was the pastor. The idea was to create an organization for people who supported the general goals of Occupy Wall Street, but felt uncomfortable sleeping in a park or risking arrest on a regular basis.
The congregation of Hollis Presbyterian Church, consisting largely of senior citizens who had been civil rights activists and remained active in community affairs, seemed ideal for this purpose. So, with Rev Chapman’s help, we set up a first meeting. More than 25 people showed up, indicating how much Occupy Wall Street had captured the imagination of people in this Southeast Queens community. After agreeing a club should be formed, they began debating what local issues they should take up. After a short discussion, the group decided to address the cause of the two blocks of abandoned buildings on Hollis Avenue whose wealthy landlord had stubbornly defied community pressure to sell them or fix them up.
What gave these long-time neighborhood activists hope that they could now finally make headway in solving a festering neighborhood problem was the prospect of bringing the young activists from Occupy Wall Street into the community to shake up the landlord and local elected officials. They saw Occupy Wall Street as a new and welcome force, one that could strike fear in the hearts of the wealthy, not only through a language that held them responsible for monopolizing the nation’s resources at the expense of the majority of the nation’s people (the 99 percent), but because of its capacity to mobilize hundreds, sometimes thousands of young people to take to the streets in support of economic justice.
They decided on a step-by-step strategy to build support for a major protest, beginning with research on the abandoned properties, complaints to the department of buildings to insure violations on the properties were up to date, and the filming of a short video explaining why neighborhood residents were determined to get the buildings fixed up.
All of these actions were undertaken, but it was the last one which had the most effect. Someone from Occupy Queens saw the video on Facebook and immediately asked Reverend Chapman if they could come to the next 99 Percent club meeting to support the initiative. When Rev. Chapman agreed 15 activists from Occupy Queens came to the next meeting.
The chemistry between the two groups was extraordinary. Though the Hollis Group was mostly senior citizens and almost all black, and the Occupy Queens groups was mostly young and middle aged and majority white, they possessed a shared understanding that working class and middle class people were suffering terribly in the current economic crisis and something had to be done about it.
When Occupy Queens described how they were blocking foreclosures in the local courts by “singing in the courts”(!), people from the Hollis Group saw an immediate connection to what was happening in their neighborhood, where many homes were foreclosed, as well as the sign of the re-emergence of an energy and courage and tactical flexibility that had marked the civil rights movement in its glory days.
The two groups decided to create a coalition centered on the transformation of the Rita Stark buildings into community space, building up to an April 21 demonstration at the buildings which was aimed to attract Occupy activists from around the city as well as Hollis residents.
The April 21 event will begin with a Forum at Hollis Presbyterian Church, sponsored by Occupy Queens, where speakers will discuss local and national initiatives to transform foreclosed homes and abandoned commercial and residential spaces into housing for the homeless, and to defend tenants and homeowners from evictions by landlords and banks. The participants in the Forum will then join Hollis residents for a six block march to the Rita Stark properties where a rally and demonstration will take place which includes an “open mic” for community members to say how they think the properties should be developed. This protest, expected to attract several hundred people, will be the first of many actions taken till the issue has a positive resolution.
What is occurring next Saturday is an example of how Occupy Wall Street has not only changed the conversation about economic inequality in the United States, but given people around the nation hope that they can do something about it!
It has done that not only by popularizing a language that puts the onus for the nation’s economic difficulties squarely on the wealthy and the powerful, but by showing that innovative protests that link new groups of activists to existing ones can win victories large and small, in neighborhoods as well as states, and municipalities, and eventually in the entire nation.
With A Brooklyn Accent