An Axe You Break Down Doors With: Some Sparks of Hope for 2018

An Axe You Break Down Doors With: Some Sparks of Hope for 2018

When my daughter Rosa and I went to Washington DC earlier this month, we thought we were doing it to support my friend Ady Barkan. But it turns out, he was really the one helping us.

By now, you’ve probably heard of Ady. A young father and brilliant activist, he was diagnosed a year ago with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Ady has plenty of reasons for despair. ALS has no cure and no good treatment. It is as cruel and random and unfair as anything could be.   

But this month, Ady found hope—no, he fiercely constructed it—by taking action in solidarity with others to try to stop the #TaxScam, which will steal health care from millions of Americans, in order to give huge tax breaks to corporations and millionaires. His civil disobedience arrests, and his heart-wrenching conversations with U.S. Senators Jeff Flake (Arizona) and Susan Collins (Maine) turned the wonky details of tax & fiscal policy into a morally urgent issue (something he has done before).

Ady’s fearlessness ignited thousands of others to take action. Rosa and I were inspired to be among them. Being arrested with Ady for singing “This Land is Your Land” (because, despite everything, it still is) and protesting at the offices of U.S. Senators is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky,” the author Rebecca Solnit writes. “It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency.”

Ady Barkan is not a lottery winner. But he has created hope to help us break down doors in this emergency.

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When City Council colleagues and I went to Puerto Rico in November (on a trip organized by Melissa Mark-Viverito, in her final weeks as Speaker of the New York City Council), we thought we were doing it to support people like Jacqui Vazquez Suarez in the poor, hard-hit town of Las Mareas. But it turns out, she was really the one helping us.

Like Ady, the people of Las Mareas have cause for despair. They have faced overwhelming devastation, months without power or water, and the profound injustice of an inadequate response rooted in the racist assumption that Puerto Ricans are somehow less American than the rest of us.

But they did not despair. Instead, community leaders like Jacqui Vazquez Suarez in Las Mareas, Alexis Massol-González and Arturo Massol Deyá at Casa Pueblo in Adjuntas, and so many more, organized their neighbors to confront the emergency—from creating a community kitchen for an entire village around a small stove, to laying the groundwork for a new network of solar power.

What Rebecca Solnit writes from her research into disasters across the last century was palpable in Las Mareas:

“What startled me about the response to disaster was ... the passionate joy that shined out from accounts by people who had barely survived. These people who had lost everything, who were living in rubble or ruins, had found agency, meaning, community, immediacy in their work together with other survivors.

The century of testimony … suggested how much we want meaningful engagement, of membership in civil society, and how much societal effort goes into withering us away from these fullest, most powerful selves. But people return to those selves, those ways of self-organizing, as if by instinct when the situation demands it.”

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Now, I know you don’t elect a City Council Member to get arrested in the halls of Congress or travel to Puerto Rico to help with recovery.

So I promise to keep working with you every day on what matters locally: Fighting for a transit system that gets you to work or school a little better, through campaigns to modernize the subway signals and bring back & improve the B71 bus. Making sure fast-food workers have fair schedules, and freelancers don’t get stiffed. Planning for a future in Gowanus that continues to be creative and mixed-use, but that offers more affordable housing and sustainable infrastructure (including bringing back the B71 bus). Protecting tenants from harassment. Working step-by-insistent-step for more integrated schools in District 15 and beyond.

Preserving the small treasures of our neighborhood, from our small businesses (if you have not already, please sign the petition in support of our “Mom & Pop Rent Increase Exemption” proposal) to the Fifth Avenue supermarket to the Pavilion Theater to Kensington Stables (more on that soon, hopefully). And building some new ones, too, like Avenue C Plaza, the Park Slope Library reading garden (my nominee for the best new public space in Brooklyn in 2017) … and the mobile showers for homeless neighbors (to be hosted at the CHiPS soup kitchen) that you voted for in participatory budgeting.

But underneath that work are the sparks of hope born in moments of solidarity like those I was lucky to share with Ady and Jacqui. At its best, local democracy is a way to build the infrastructure for “organized compassion.” (As Rev. William Sloane Coffin said, the prophet's job is to proclaim 'Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” The public official’s job is to work out the irrigation system.)

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As 2017 turns to 2018, we continue to face a very real emergency. Our democracy is under genuine threat, a Constitutional crisis seemingly just one tweet away (by the way, if you have not already, sign up now for what you’ll do if Trump fires Mueller). White supremacy and sexual assault have an ally in the White House. Xenophobic nationalism is on the rise across the globe, setting people against each other … just at the moment when the existential crisis of climate change demands that we work together far better than we have before.

But somehow, over the past year, so many people have wielded hope like an axe.

When we gathered, millions strong, at the Women’s March. When we rallied on a moment’s notice to JFK (and airports across the country), because our people have been refugees, too. Through #GetOrganizedBK and Indivisible and the #BodegaStrike and #Sandy5 and so many more times. When the people of Alabama—led by African-American women—rejected bigotry. When Ady rallied us in the halls of Congress.

On some occasions, I have worried about whether my own activism has been too infused with anger. There’s been a lot to be angry about, in the cruel cynicism and corruption of the tax bill. In the targeting of DREAMers. In the assault on truth. In the deep unfairness of a hurricane or an ALS diagnosis. At many points this year, I was motivated by rage. Too many times, I felt like a partisan in a sports stadium chanting against the other team.   

And that’s where Ady and Jacqui Vazquez helped me, more than vice-versa.

They are not blind, of course, to how unfair things are. But the power of the solidarity they inspire is not rooted in anger, but in something much deeper: the sense that we find our fullest, most powerful selves in organizing together do something about it.  

What Ady and Jacqui—and so many of you—showed this year is that organizing together against darkness, taking risks with and for each other, insisting on organized compassion, is the way to make progress, and the way to make our lives meaningful.  

As we move into 2018, those bright sparks light our way forward.

With renewed gratitude for your acts/axe of hope,

Brad

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