Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Report from Occupy Sunset Park's Unity Day!

That's me in the middle with my OSP comrades making last minute preparations at Unity Day 2. Photo by Lisa Maya Knauer.

This blog entry is crossposted from the "Kasama Threads" blog feature on the new Kasama Project 2.0 website. Kasama has revamped its website to include a less bloggy section of main articles, an open section of contributed blog posts for discussion, and even a "Kasama Social" feature that aims to be something like a Red — as in Communist — Facebook, where you can make friends, engage in conversations, post statuses, and talk about issues facing revolutionaries. I decided to make this my first post in the Kasama threads feature, but wanted to share it here on my home blog too. Be sure to check out some of the other contributions on the Open Threads feature. 

On Monday, January 21, Occupy/Ocupemos Sunset Park hosted its second annual celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday. Attended by over a hundred people in the working class community of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, the event was held at St. Jacobi Church, the original home of Occupy Sandy.
This year’s event was smaller than our first Unity Day last year, but we managed to meet two important goals for this year’s event. Last year the overwhelming majority of the 300 participants were from the city-wide Occupy movement. This year we wanted to reach more people in the neighborhood, and by working with a number of co-sponsors, we managed to attract a more sizable percentage of neighborhood folks. We also wanted to present a “Spanish-language first” atmosphere in our event, since so many people we want to reach in the neighborhood are from colonized Puerto Rico or immigrants from Mexico and Central America, and in this we were successful: everything but some of the cultural performances was bilingual. I wound up MCing the event, testing the limits of my own Spanish, but it was really a rewarding experience.

The Welfare Poets perform;
photo by Dennis Flores.
We were a little ambitious in planning the event; and wound up having to jettison a series of small-group discussions and the candle light march we had planned for afterwards due to time, but we got great feedback in general for the program.
It opened with a procession of percussionists from an Afro-Caribbean drumming ensemble. This was followed by a blessing to MLK and the ancestors in Yoruba from the Lucumi Santeria tradition. People were invited to call out the names of people who had passed and soon names like Malcolm X, George Jackson, Pedro Albizu Campos, Lolita Lebron, Chief Bey and Fred Hampton were called out from the audience. The first speech was by Juan Carlos Ruiz of Occupy Sandy who urged us to put MLK in the context of current struggles. He roused the audience by asking the audience to stand up and tell each other “Tu lucha es mi lucha! Your struggle is my struggle!”

This was followed by a performance by the amazing Welfare Poets, a hip-hop/activist ensemble full of rappers, percussionists, drummers, dancers and singers. They were recently targeted by the NYPD, some of their members were arrested and accused of being associated with the Macheteros, underground Puerto Rican independence fighters. One of the Welfare Poets’ songs pointedly criticized President Obama and his drones. By the end of their performance people were dancing in the aisle.

The next speech was by Occupy Sunset Park and Occupy Sandy organizer Diego Ibañez. He talked about the the destruction Hurricane Sandy wreaked on poor communities in Brooklyn and Queens. Then he talked about the “slow hurricane” that effects neighborhoods like Sunset Park all the time: police violence, unemployment, physical neglect, the attacks on immigrants. He ended with a rousing chant of “Community is Unity and Unity is Power!”

The remainder of the program was short presentations by groups and individuals from the community, interspersed with poetry from the Peace Poets and Eric Aviles. First up was an organizer from the Workers Justice Project, a group which helps organize and protect immigrant day laborers. After she spoke one of the laborers spoke up, talking about how workers like himself were the unsung heroes of Hurricane Sandy, being among the first called in to do dangerous reconstruction work. He was moved to tears by the response of the audience. Next up were two of the rent-strikers of the 46th Street Tenants Association that Occupy Sunset Park has been helping. Sara, a forty-year resident of the buildings, originally from Honduras, told the story of living in a building neglected by a slumlord. She told how Occupy Sunset Park had helped them gain media access and the strength to force city agencies to step in. The other tenant, an elderly woman from Mexico, told the audience she didn’t care what people said about her being undocumented, she had the same rights as anyone else to a decent place to live. Next were two speakers from #YoSoy132NY. The first explained the rise of a new Mexican democracy movement organized in response to fraudulent elections, she said their struggle was the same as MLK’s struggle. The second told the story of being an indigenous native Mexican: how dare US immigration rules challenged her right to go anywhere on the continent she and her ancestors had always lived. The presentations were topped off by a rousing speech by a veteran of the Puerto Rican independence struggle, Alfredo Lopez, who echoed MLK’s last speech saying that he might not live to see the victory of our struggles but he was sure that that victory was on its way. Maritza Arrastia, an organizer with Occupy Sunset Park and a veteran of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party closed the speeches with a call for building real unity by building ongoing organizations that could challenge the difficult times that are coming.

We went downstairs for an delicious home-cooked Mexican meal. Surrounded by photos of struggles in the neighborhood and in Mexico, people ate their fill of rice and beans, tortillas and pork with spicy sauce, washed down with agua de lulo and agua de guanabana. I got a chance to talk to a number of attendees. Memorable was a guy and his girlfriend who were visiting from Argentina. When they got to the U.S., he said, he couldn’t believe how awful the political situation was. He was inspired to find something like the Asambleas Populares back home.

After dinner we were joined by the Cetiliztli Nahucampa Ensemble, a dance troupe that not only performs the dances of the indigenous Mexica (the so-called Aztecs), but performs them in the context of sacred ceremony. They lead a blessing to the four directions and to the earth in Spanish and Nahuatl before performing dances and then leading all the participants in a linked-hand serpent dance around the church basement as copal fumes drifted from the base of a carved log drum.

From my perspective the event was a great success. We hoped for a formal discussion in the event on what “unity” means and how to build it, and that didn’t happen, but we’re planning a follow-up event with a less ambitious agenda of dialogue and conversation. I thought it was really significant that none of our speakers talked about pressuring politicians or about reforming police departments or voting in more “responsible” figures into government. This was all about what the community could do for itself. In that regard I felt like it reflected what I feel is the continuing subversive message of the Occupy movement. This is about challenging capitalism in a creative way. The Occupy folks who came seemed a little less fresh-faced and more grizzled: many of them have spent months doing hurricane relief mutual @id.

In truth Occupy/Ocupemos Sunset Park has been struggling to maintain momentum; and for now anyway weekly General Assemblies have ceased. But it’s clear that something real is being built here. We now face the challenges of keeping the struggle sustainable and finding ways to keep people involved. It’s going to call for more creativity to keep building an anti-capitalist community-based movement that is both revolutionary in spirit and connected to peoples’ lives. But the roots we’ve been laying down and the connections we’ve made were really evident at this event. I remain a proud participant.

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