Hot City: Compound Crisis and Popular Struggle in NYC
A series of short reflections on the state of social movements in NYC, from the long hot summer of 2020 to the coming storm season and beyond.
Poised between disaster and revolution, New York City (NYC) is in the midst of a compound crisis, one that exacerbates the violent inequities and explosive contradictions of racial capitalism that underlie the emergencies of our time: the ongoing trauma and economic fallout of coronavirus; the prospect of mass evictions and a rolling rent strike; schools and universities stuck in limbo, with teachers bracing for potential action; weeks of Black-led rebellion against police and property, followed by efforts to variously co-opt, contain, or crush it through increasingly militarized measures of counterinsurgency by the city and federal governments alike; scorching summer temperatures and what is predicted to be a "busy" hurricane season in the fall.
The waves of both immiseration and resistance currently unfolding in the city must be seen against the backdrop of a broader world-historical crisis of white supremacy, settler colonialism, and heteropatriarchy, one powerfully symbolized by the felling of monuments to figures like Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and Theodore Roosevelt across the country and the world over the past two months. Even the place-name "New York City" itself cannot be taken for granted, with movements insisting that we acknowledge the fact that the metropolis stands on the unceded territory of Lenape peoples (Lenapehoking), and that it was erected at its very foundations by enslaved African people. Beyond a recognition of past history, this acknowledgment requires us to see that the current struggle against racial capitalism is intrinsically tied to Indigenous movements for self-determination, sovereignty, and land restitution, as telegraphed by the slogan "no cops on stolen land."
The long, hot summer of 2020 was set ablaze by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, whose dying words "I can't breathe" came to resound in the streets of NYC throughout June and July, echoing those of Eric Garner when he was killed by the NYPD six years ago. The uprising has altered the landscape of political thinking and action in the city, foregrounding abolitionist and decolonial currents grounded in centuries of struggle but until recently beyond the pale of the mainstream Left. This has posed anew strategic and tactical questions concerning how movements move, in the words of Kali Akuno, "from rebellion to revolution." Hot City: Compound Crisis and Popular Struggle in NYC is a series of short interventions on the Verso blog that aim to reflect on this historical conjuncture.
With the intensification of compound crisis, is NYC doomed to another round of racialized austerity, disaster capitalism, and state repression, or can urban social movements fight successfully for the redistribution of wealth and power? As they confront bosses, landlords, and cops on the one hand and practice mutual aid, care, and self-defense on the other, what are the political horizons of movements in NYC right now, and looking forward? How are movements practicing dual power, engaging the terrain of the state with demands, while at the same time working to build and protect their own autonomy? How do localized neighborhood struggles relate to city-wide formations and demands? What is the role of strikes (workplace strikes, rent strikes, fare strikes, student strikes, prison strikes and more)? As the sanctity of property is increasingly eroded, how will struggles around housing, land, and food develop? How will ongoing struggles around cultural institutions, schools and universities (including the massive CUNY infrastructure) be activated as fall approaches? How are movements combatting the forces of state violence and counterinsurgency, ranging from the alt-right, the NYPD, ICE, and the FBI to Trump's declaration of federal war against "lawless" urban centers from Portland to Chicago, which even liberals fear may presage a state of exception and possible coup attempt? As energies of revolt and forces of repression collide, what organizational forms are adequate to our time, ranging from electoral campaigns and policy-driven NGOs to unions and mass-membership organizations like the DSA, to autonomous formations and affinity groups, to underground networks? What spatial scales, forms, and infrastructures are movements in the city taking up, from the building, the block, the neighborhood, the lot, the garden, the barricade, the camp, the no-cop zone, the commune, the social center, the free school, to the de-occupied campus, workplace, or museum? What are the temporal, affective, and seasonal rhythms of movements in the city relative to emergent crises and long-term organizing, from electoral and budget cycles, to accelerated phases of escalation and periods of seeming inertia, to the work of building and caring for relations across years and generations? How do future-oriented planning and projection, on the one hand, interweave with acts of historical recovery, counter-memory, and ancestral connection, on the other? What aesthetic forms and structures of feeling are infusing the imagination of movements as things escalate?
Looming over all of these questions is that of climate crisis at the urban scale, and the disproportionate impact of heat-waves, floods, and black-outs on working-class Black and brown communities. From the enactment of community-based survivalism and energy democracy to mass struggles around large-scale infrastructures of the state and capital, how will movements respond to disasters as they unfold, while also advancing projects for system-wide decarbonization at the scale of the city and beyond? How in turn can efforts at decarbonization be linked to those of decolonization, with the reclaiming of land at their core?
Before and After
From its foundations as a settler-colony grounded in genocide, land theft, and enslavement, this city has always been an epicenter of crises. But it has also been the launching pad for political projects that ramify beyond the city itself. NYC was the crucible for both the Depression and the New Deal, and it was there that the urban austerity of the 1970s and the subsequent projects of revanchist gentrification and broken-windows policing were first rolled out. These developments were met in turn by radical movements for community control of land, universal public services, and self-defense from state violence led by poor people, public workers, students, and tenants. NYC was the epicenter of Occupy Wall Street, and following Hurricane Sandy, the city was a global showcase for the vulnerability and unpreparedness of capitalist urban governance in the face of climate change, as well as for speculative projects of urban reconstruction and resiliency. As currents of popular struggle have flowed from other places like Ferguson, Palestine, Standing Rock, Jackson, Chile, Hong Kong, and Minneapolis, NYC has been an important crux of movement energies where radical projects have struggled to confront a uniquely gargantuan agglomeration of wealth, power, and violence.
In the years immediately preceding the arrival of coronavirus, a wide spectrum of movements were gaining traction in the city, emboldened in part by the election of self-described socialist mayor Bill De Blasio and angered by the resounding disappointments of his administration in addition to the unaccountable power of Governor Andrew Cuomo. The city was a crucial hub for the growth of the DSA and the emergence of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and coalitions of NGOs and CBOs achieved significant (if limited) legislative victories with the tenant's rights bill and the city's own version of a "Green New Deal," both passed in 2019. At the same time, Climate Strike captured headlines with its performative declarations of public emergency, while documents like the A Peoples' Climate Plan For NYC? argued for the need to connect climate justice to the currents of radical organizing occurring elsewhere in the movement landscape of the city. The latter would include actions around monuments and museums, connecting the dots between elite cultural institutions and the governing powers of the city and ultimately flowing into the mass mobilizations against the MTA and NYPD throughout last fall and winter that anticipated the recent rebellion.
These are just some of the elements of the movement landscape in NYC at the time of the eruption of coronavirus, followed in turn by the uprising emanating from Minneapolis. The conjuncture of those events was crystallized on May 26th. That day, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the winner of his "Wear a Mask New York" competition, an anodyne public service campaign attempting to inject creative zeal and civic spirit into the otherwise grim reality of "social distancing" policies as the city prepared to proceed with its so-called re-opening on June 8th. That same day, the figure of the corona mask, which had otherwise been framed in mainstream media as a battleground between liberal public-mindedness and Trumpian individualism, was being radically reconfigured in the streets of Minneapolis. There, the minimal commitment to mutual protection signified by the mask became indistinguishable from the masked anonymity and collective self-defense of an urban uprising (including protection from the tear gas and other weapons deployed by police).
In subsequent days and nights, these actions escalated in intensity and courage, spreading to all major cities. In its early phases, the local manifestation of the George Floyd uprising in NYC involved the burning of NYPD vehicles, the looting of luxury storefronts, and the defiance of De Blasio’s short-lived imposition of curfew. In late June, a coalition of nonprofits and other groups attempted to channel the energies of the uprising into "Occupy City Hall," an Occupy-style protest camp in City Hall Park in order to demand a $1 billion cut from the NYPD budget. This was a demand that had already been formulated before the uprising happened, and even in terms of the reform-minded defunding movement nation-wide, represented a relatively modest demand in political terms (the Minneapolis city council for instance, voted to "disband" its police force in order to rethink public safety altogether). Soon after the demand was in essence neutralized by the City Council on June 30 (the New York Times called it a "budgetary sleight of hand"), many of the initial organizers stepped away, leaving the camp to develop on the terms of its remaining denizens, including large numbers of newly radicalized youth and unhoused people whose political horizons exceeded that of the $1 billion cut. This was signaled by their re-anointment of the camp as "Abolition Park" in the weeks before its eviction in late July, which could be read as an implicit rebuke to the problematic status of "occupy" as a verb ten years after Occupy Wall Street foundered on, among other things, its failure to make settler-colonialism central to its political analysis.
Fall is Coming
Even as the camp and the ubiquitous mass demonstrations captured the imagination of the city throughout July, the pandemic itself has of course continued to unfold. Though numbers in the city have precariously stabilized for now, throughout the spring the city was epicenter of a disaster generated to a significant extent by the foot-dragging of city and state leaders, as well as the criminal negligence of the Trump administration. As of this writing, 32,500 people have died in the city alone, a staggering social catastrophe disproportionately affecting poor and working-class Black and brown communities in places like the South Bronx and Queens. With the pandemic escalating throughout the rest of the country suffice to say that coronavirus will factor centrally in movement developments into the Fall.
Though buffered in some small degree by emergency relief measures (which are running out as we write), the economic devastation of the crisis is still in its early phases. Vast numbers of small businesses are unlikely to re-open, unemployment is at Depression-era levels, and food insecurity is rampant, with bread lines longer than any time in recent history and community-based mutual efforts working themselves to exhaustion. People are being forced to choose between returning to unsafe conditions at work or starvation. An eviction moratorium has recently expired, and about 50,000 eviction cases are expected to be filed after it lifts - with evictions most likely to occur in communities of color. A moratorium on power shut offs by electric utilities across the city and state is not yet law, and the city has now entered the season of heat waves. At the same time, the wealthy are leaving the city in an open-ended exodus to the frontiers of gentrification in the Hudson River Valley and elsewhere, and entire sectors of the FIRE and media sectors appear unlikely to resume in-person work in Manhattan office buildings. A question mark stands over schools while tech companies circle overhead, guided along by the state. Mainstream media have lionized leaders like Cuomo, ignoring his deplorably tardy response to the pandemic - which helped turn the city into the epicenter of COVID19 in the US - and legitimating the fresh round of austerity the governor seems intent on imposing. Universities are in a state of uncertainty, with massive cuts already being implemented in the CUNY system.
As noted above, two crises in turn form the backdrop for the immediate economic and health disasters: that of policing and that of climate breakdown. The wave of protests in NYC and other cities since the murder of George Floyd has been met with brutal force by the NYPD and other police forces around the country. It is abundantly clear that police violence and impunity are systemic, and that they intersect with other modes of racialized violence. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore puts it in her classic Golden Gulag (2007), racism is the “state-sanctioned or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” In the age of COVID-19, people of color have been overwhelmingly subjected to such premature death, whether through the failure of state authorities to impose social distancing in time, through the refusal of food stamps to families grappling with hunger, or through the failure to release prisoners from state jails that have turned into coronavirus super-clusters, among many other examples.
Meanwhile, climate breakdown appears ever more clearly not on a distant horizon but in the quotidian interstices of urban life. The fact that COVID-19 is killing twice as many Black people as white people should not have come as a surprise, despite media predictions that this would be an equal opportunity pandemic. Environmental justice activists in the US have long emphasized that people of color are disproportionately subjected to life-threatening toxins as a result of the siting of polluting facilities such as incinerators, waste transfer stations, and refineries in their communities. This environmental injustice creates precisely the “pre-existing conditions” that lead to vulnerability to diseases such as diabetes, which in turn make people of color vulnerable to coronavirus. The pandemic is showing how rampant racism and structural inequality embedded in the environment are key to the forms of premature death to which so many people of color are subjected. As Hop Hopkins put it recently, “you can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can’t have disposable people without racism.” Racism is killing the planet, and if we want to prevent global ecocide we have to dismantle white supremacy.
It is with this in mind that we conclude by asking how ongoing struggles in the city against police and gentrification can be linked to the reclaiming, decommodification, and community control of land, starting with movements for Indigenous sovereignty, Black self-determination, and migrant sanctuary. How in turn does the centrality of land reorient discussions around climate justice and "green stimulus" in the city? What would a Red Deal - one which, in the words of Nick Estes, “places anti-capitalism and decolonization as central to each social justice struggle as well as climate change” - look like for the city?
In our current interregnum, as Gramsci would say, a great variety of morbid symptoms have appeared. But so too have forces of revolt and signs of renewal. Hot City aims to create a snapshot of the present historical conjuncture as it lurches forward in the remainder of the summer, the coming fall, and beyond.