Q&A: ‘Occupy Sandy’ organizer says Chris Christie should be impeached
“Where FEMA fell short,” wrote the New York Times in November 2012, “Occupy Sandy was there.” In the wake of Hurricane Sandy devastating the New Jersey shore in fall 2012, a group of organizers—many of whom were once part of Occupy encampments in various northeast cities—made it their mission to help clean up the devastation on the coast.
And they’re still at it.
One of the main organizers of the movement is Nathan Kleinman, who last made local and national headlines when he decided to become the first ‘Occupy’ congressional candidate in the U.S. His run was short-lived, though, as Democratic primary opponent Rep. Allyson Schwartz challenged his signatures and eventually got him kicked off the ballot. He ran as a write-in candidate.
This week, Kleinman and other members of Occupy Sandy have started a new happening: Occupy Christie. The occupation has largely gathered in light of the New Jersey Governor’s recent scandals, but organizers say it’s recent allegations made by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer that are even more important than the now-infamous “Bridgegate” we’ve been hearing about for the last few weeks.
I caught up with Kleinman for a quick Q&A on his and Occupy Christie’s motivations (on the day of the governor’s inauguration, no less), and what the last year-and-a-half has been like for Occupy Sandy.
PW: Why are you occupying the New Jersey state capitol this week?
KLEINMAN: Occupy Sandy New Jersey—a collective of activists and storm survivors that formed in the first week after the storm hit and has been engaged in grassroots disaster recovery work since then—came to consensus on launching this action during our weekly conference call this past Wednesday evening. Given the impending re-inauguration of Governor Christie and the intense national media spotlight on his administration, we felt like this was something we just had to do.
We are an “Occupy” group, after all, but this is the first really big action like this we’ve attempted. We only gave ourselves two full days to plan it, and the event is only scheduled to last four days, so we felt like we could do it without causing too much disruption to our day-to-day recovery work.
Indeed, some of my colleagues in OSNJ can hardly even visit “Camp Sandygate” due to responsibilities in the field, but I had nothing this weekend I couldn’t postpone, I love camping, and I’m mad as hell at Governor Christie and his whole corrupt administration, so I agreed to “bottomline” this action (in Occupy-speak, that doesn’t mean that what I say is the bottom line, but that it is my responsibility to manage the action according to the consensus based decisions of the whole group).
I’m occupying in Trenton on behalf of all of the people I’ve been working with since last November, so many of whom are still suffering, still living day to day, still living in mold, or with no heat, or on someone’s couch, or in a tent or sleeping bag somewhere, all thanks to criminal neglect of the Christie administration. People are still struggling to survive here in New Jersey, and Governor Christie is trying to blackmail the Mayor of Hoboken? [Note: This has been alleged by the mayor, and denied by Governor Christie's administration.] If it didn’t fit into such a disturbing pattern, it would be baffling behavior.
You’ve said that so-called “Sandygate” is a bigger deal than so-called “Bridgegate,” even though the latter is getting a crazy amount of media attention. Why?
Bridgegate was bad, don’t get me wrong. Christie’s cronies risked lives by causing that gridlock. But it was only a few days. It probably only a few risked lives. Sandygate—a term we started using days before Mayor Zimmer’s revelations—is a scandal about an utterly botched long-term recovery process in the state of New Jersey. It’s about tens of thousands of people left behind, many in life-threatening situations of food, health, and housing insecurity.
It’s about systemic racial discrimination in the awarding of grants to storm survivors. 14.5% of white applicants were rejected for Resettlement Grants, compared to 38.5% of African Americans.
It’s about people in mobile homes receiving mixed messages about their eligibility for key programs, resulting in many missing deadlines or not applying at all. It’s about people still out of their homes after over a year, including plenty of people who had homes before Sandy who are now living on the streets.
It’s about the failure of the state to even attempt a comprehensive survey of Sandy survivors or displaced people. It’s about residents of entire counties—including Cumberland, one of the poorest in the state—being completely cut off from federal funds doled out by the state of New Jersey despite being in the federal disaster area and being home to some of the same kind of devastation the Atlantic coast received. But since they’re on the Delaware Bayshore, they’re not wealthy, not well connected, and pretty sparsely populated, it seems like the Governor felt like he could neglect them without repercussions.
He’s even publicly defended Cumberland’s neglect, saying “I understand that everybody wants to be attended to with the same level of attention—that’s not possible. And so I make these decisions based upon the level of devastation and the degree of need, and that’s where we spend most of our time.”
The Governor has yet to even visit Cumberland since the storm. I bet even he would find it hard to look in the eyes of someone who’s lost everything and tell them that their “level of devastation” is somehow less than those beachfront homeowners who are getting grants up to $150,000 to lift their homes up on stilts so they can save money on future flood insurance.
This is the reality of Sandy recovery in New Jersey. This is Sandygate. Even before the revelations about improper spending on that political-style ad or the Hoboken bombshell, Sandygate was a scandal. Or at least it should have been.
Are you looking to get these sorts of issues out in the media, or are you trying to bring justice to the governor, assuming Zimmer’s allegations are true?
We’re trying to do both. We’ve been trying for months to bring attention to those who’ve been left behind, so getting the media to talk about the systemic racial discrimination, the regional disparities, the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer, is obviously a goal for us. If the Governor had previously shown any sign of being responsive to constructive criticism, I would probably go on criticizing him. But he chafes at any criticism. Confronted with those racial disparity numbers, and more, in a report (based on the administration’s own numbers) by Fair Share Housing, Christie called that venerable institution a “hack group,” and said he was putting reporters “on notice” that he would not be answering any questions about them ever again.
I’m not saying he ordered his underlings to discriminate against people of color in distributing Sandy aid, but it happened on his watch, and he’s refused to account for why. That should be a scandal too. When you add it all together, it becomes clear that Christie needs to be brought to justice, not just because it seems he’s committed crimes, but because he’s never going to bring justice to the people of New Jersey.
At the very least, he needs to be impeached and thrown out of office. And if anyone belongs in jail, it’s probably him. (I generally don’t believe in putting people in cages, but I’m not sure I’d mind it for him. If I were the judge, I would garnish all of his future earnings so he can never have more money than the poorest person he’s screwed over. That seems fair, no?)
You mentioned earlier that you think you may get arrested during this happening. Why do you expect that to happen?
I’ve been pretty outspoken in my feelings about Governor Christie, and since it’s within his power to have me arrested, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it happens. The state police have also been somewhat threatening to us over the past day—demanding we stay three feet from all signs, telling us that we’re not allowed to sleep where we have been, telling us they may have to “take action” if we don’t comply, etc—and I have been in touch with our pro bono legal counsel throughout the day. Friends on site know where to find the spare keys to my pickup. I’m ready if it happens. If a state policeman braves the cold to try and wake me up tonight and says I’ll be arrested if I continue sleeping in the park, then I will probably be arrested tonight. On the other hand, it seems only logical that a man who just declared that he’s “not a bully” shouldn’t be bashing peaceful protesters over the head or dragging away storm survivors in sleeping bags.
This is a four-day occupation. What kind of Hurricane Sandy-related work have you been doing in New Jersey since the storm hit?
In the beginning I facilitated many, many conference calls, which is something I still do. Occupy Sandy New Jersey organized over 9pm conference calls every night for weeks after the storm hit (we use the InterOccupy system which allows for multiple moderators, real-time hand-raising and/or voting, and everyone not speaking being muted). We make all decisions using a consensus-based process totally in line with typical Occupy practices back at the camp.
With a relatively tight knit, small group of people, it has worked quite well. While we were much more focused on distribution of goods in the beginning, we are still doing that kind of work, along with food distribution, preparation, and service, construction work, coordinating volunteers, and even some case management through some local long term recovery processes (working with the “official” process).
We work to match needs with resources, and to connect people who should be connected. We try to serve as watchdogs of the whole process, and to serve as advocates for individuals and whole classes of people in need. Each of our organizers and volunteers contributes in different ways. I facilitate a weekly call on homelessness after Sandy (Tuesdays at 6:30pm; yes, there will be one [today], even if I’m in jail).
I’m a participant in the Cumberland County Long Term Recovery Group, serving on the Construction & Volunteer Management Committee, and chairing the Public Relations & Communications Committee, which means I also sit on the Steering Committee. I helped coordinate the installation and upkeep of a beautiful organic community garden at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Keansburg, Monmouth County, and plan another in Cumberland in a few months. I’ve been trying hard to help organize manufactured housing residents in Moonachie, Bergen County, who were so devastated by the storm and have been so ignored. I’ve also pushed plenty of brooms, lifted plenty of boxes, and breathed in my share of mold.
For someone who hasn’t been to the Jersey shore in the past year, what are things like there?
As I alluded to earlier, much of the worst devastation happened far from “the shore.” And it’s not only the Delaware Bayshore, where you can still find houses fallen into the Bay, town-sustaining berms flooded away and still not replaced, and far too much storm debris still littering the shallow bay, a deadly hazard that has already killed.
Some of the worst of Sandy’s damage came along the Raritan Bayshore opposite Staten Island, in towns like Keansburg, Union Beach, Keyport and Highlands. In some of those working-class towns along the Raritan Bay, between a quarter and a third of all homes are now vacant. It seems as though communities like Keansburg are almost being set up for gentrification, if they haven’t simply been abandoned. I tried to get reporters to cover the issue of homelessness in Keansburg around the first anniversary of Sandy, and while I finally got one to actually come to Keansburg, his editor wouldn’t devote the resources necessary to follow the story through, though I’ll concede that it’s hard and more than a bit dangerous to track homeless people through the sand dunes and scruffy woods of the Bayshore, build their trust, and convince them to let you photograph or even quote them. But they’re there. You can meet them almost every day at St. Marks’ Center for Community Renewal, where Occupy Sandy New Jersey organizers or volunteers stock the pantry and often serve the daily lunch.
Keansburg was a struggling town before the storm, but now it’s a complete mess. And those two mobile home communities in Moonachie—Vanguard and Metropolitan—are located north of the Meadowlands, very far from anything considered “shore.”
I just spoke yesterday with a woman in Moonachie who is still “living in a mold-infested trailer,” in her words. In so many communities, I hear stories of depression and desperation. One of our organizers is an EMT, and she frequently tells us about the increase in suicide attempts and substance abuse in her town. Sandy threw many people into crisis, and it hasn’t let up at all. There are lots of factors at play, but over the past few days it’s become crystal clear that the biggest roadblock to real recovery is Chris Christie. So that’s what things are like at “the shore.” It’s not pretty.
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