The Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez movement is much more than just a congress - Mother Jones

Gabriel Hernández Solano

For years, tenants in New York’s council flats had complained about the black mold on the walls, the brown liquid dripping from the ceilings, and the cold water flowing from the taps. But the city hadn’t made any repairs. On a Saturday with a white sky last November, neither Gregory Russ, chief of the New York housing authority, nor Bill de Blasio, the presidential candidate who had become mayor, were present in the crowd of activists and residents of the public housing sector who took train 5 to the Bronx drove and huddled in a blue-walled basement at Pelham Parkway Houses to announce their support for a Green New social housing deal. But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, sitting on a folding chair in the front row, listened.

La Keesha Taylor, a resident of Holmes Towers on the Upper East Side, stood on a small stage in front of about 80 people and held an enlarged photo of her son’s blood-spattered bed and pillow. She said she had recently heard him cough in his bedroom and saw him bleed from his nose and mouth, which she attributed to the excessive heat in her apartment. “There is a problem every year when we switch to wintertime and the property has to provide us with heat and hot water,” she said. “I don’t know why they can’t do it right. Winter comes every year.”

When she complained about the excessive heat at a tenant club meeting, the superintendent told her that if he repaired the heat, he would increase her rent. “Now we’re being intimidated,” she told the crowd. “You’re trying to scare me, to complain. You’re trying to keep me committed to this system, this system of abuse.”

La Keesha Taylor speaks to the crowd and takes a photo of her son’s bloody pillow.

Gabriel Hernández Solano

This is the system of intimidation that Ocasio-Cortez ‘students wanted to fight after they chose Congress. In 2019, two of Ocasio-Cortez’s former campaign workers, Ilona Duverge and Gabe Tobias, launched the Movement School, a training program that teaches working class activists how to conduct grass-roots political campaigns. A subset of the organization, Reclaim NYCHA, teaches housing agency tenants like Taylor how to work for themselves in an underfunded public housing system.

When Ocasio-Cortez took the stage in the basement of the Pelham Parkway, she spoke to the enthusiastic crowd with the same aspiration with which she defined her rise to fame. “Public housing was once considered one of the best places to live in America,” she said. “It wasn’t until we talked ourselves out of it that things started to erode. It was only when we decided that it was no longer worth it that it started to hold back. But as long as we appreciated it, it was important. “Applause pierced the air as it continued:” And we can appreciate it again. And we should appreciate it again. “

NYCHA, a city agency that receives both state and federal funding, is New York’s largest rental company, hosting 1 in 15 of the city’s residents. More than half a million New Yorkers live in NYCHA or in state-subsidized areas Section 8: Living in the five districts of the city. This is a potentially significant electoral block, particularly given the continued low turnout in local elections. For example, in the 2017 mayoral election, only 1.15 million of the city’s 4.6 million active voters voted.

“Public housing was once considered one of the best places to live in America,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “It wasn’t until we talked ourselves off that things started to erode.”

But the NYCHA residents have no strength in numbers. Instead, legislators at both state and federal levels have ignored them. Most NYCHA buildings are over 50 years old, and since President Bill Clinton introduced the Faircloth amendment in 1999, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has been prohibited from adding units to the public net housing stock. According to NYCHA, constant disinvestment by the federal and state governments in the agency has led to deterioration in buildings since 1998.

In 2017, a report from the New York Department of Investigation found that NYCHA had lied to the federal government and wrongly claimed it had checked 55,000 homes for lead. Local news site of city reports that 1,100 children living in NYCHA have tested positive for elevated blood levels since 2012. After the HUD appointed a federal monitor to oversee the housing agency, NYCHA employees continued to cover up dangerous situations, replace missing ceiling tiles with cardboard, and plugged rodents without addressing the infestation, according to the city, While the agency can rely on independent contractors for repairs, it is ultimately NYCHA’s responsibility to ensure that the apartments are habitable.

NYCHA tenants were fed up. Based on the principle that 400,000 New Yorkers have enough collective power to bring about change, the 22-year-old Duverge decided to put their frustration into practice.

Duverge knows what it feels like to be overlooked by those in power. When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, Duverge was undocumented after moving from the Dominican Republic to the United States at two months. “For the Trump administration, I see myself as a threat, as an outsider, as an infestation of society,” she said. “It really politicized me.”

The same year she became a citizen, Duverge, then a student at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, joined the campaign of Randy Abreu, a progressive challenger to an incumbent Democratic City Council. Abreu was unsuccessful, but Duverge’s next campaign was not. After working on the main Ocasio-Cortez campaign, she became her deputy director of organization in the general election, planning events and setting routes for volunteers. She called the venture “organized chaos”, an atmosphere in which she thrives. There she met Tobias, another head of the field team, who would become her partner in the management of the Movement School.

Inspired by the people-powered movement that led Ocasio-Cortez to victory over the firmly anchored chairman of the Democratic Caucus, Joe Crowley. Duverge wanted to make it easier for workers to get involved in politics. “What happens if your candidate doesn’t have a Rolodex of millionaire friends?” She said. “We really liked this ideological view of how to build a real grassroots campaign, and we knew it didn’t exist.”

During the general election campaign of Ocasio-Cortez – mostly a formality in the predominantly blue district – Duverge and Tobias launched a series of webinars on progressive organization for voluntary campaigns to gain momentum and take the time to teach the community and to get involved in the political process formally, ”said Duverge. In February 2019, the duo launched a ten-week campaign fellows program that enables 71 people who participate in political campaigns across the country to develop online professionally. In July, they focused their energy on public housing and founded the Reclaim NYCHA program, which Duverge oversees. During 12 weeks from September to November, the 20 fellows included in the free reclaim program learned how to get involved in district committees, tenants’ associations, and individual projects while knowing their rights as NYCHA residents.

Duverge sees the Movement School as part of a larger movement to diversify the voices of key players in community policy and beyond. “You see more colored people, more workers, who are starting to find their voice a little bit more,” she said. “That is why politics in our country as a whole is changing, regardless of the race of the President. Because you see that these movements support the working class and everyday citizens as representatives.”

Ilona Duverge is on stage at a community event on Pelham Parkway.

Gabriel Hernández Solano

On a Saturday in October, eight of the fellows gathered at one of the group’s weekly face-to-face meetings in a basement room at New York City College in Upper Manhattan to hear communications consultant Christina Hernández “how they can reinforce their message.” She clicked through a PowerPoint presentation full of GIFs that taught students how to write press releases, promote media organizations, and use social media. At some point she paused and asked me to tell my colleagues how I decide, which press releases to read and which to skip. I said that they had an advantage since neither of them was a soulless society.

One student, Kimberly Tire, was particularly involved and was the first to raise her hand when Hernández asked the class to attend. Tire, a 52-year-old resident of the Jefferson Houses in East Harlem, protested a rent strike against the infestation, mold and lack of warmth in her home. Through the Movement School she hopes to win over other NYCHA residents in similar circumstances. She has knocked on the doors of every apartment in two of the 18 buildings in her development. “I have had positive feedback,” she said. “Make them aware of the rats and make them aware of the problems we currently have with NYCHA.”

“I’m trying to really mobilize people to see, don’t let NYCHA and the big fish, a big system, intimidate you.”

Reifen told me that she had refused to pay her monthly rent of $ 497 a month since December 2018 when a court ordered NYCHA to repair her apartment, which had problems with a dilapidated closet, a damaged front door, loose plaster in the bathroom, and black mold on a bedroom contained a blanket and a mysterious brown substance in the bathroom that she couldn’t control. She said repair workers had come, but their work was incomplete because they did not have the equipment to finish the job. She also repeated a complaint I’ve heard from several other NYCHA residents: The times when repair workers come are highly unpredictable, and in NYCHA, residents often have to be in their homes all day on weekdays to let them in, what keeps them from doing jobs and other commitments. “I failed two of my NYCHA math courses twice,” said Tire, who graduated from Mercy College in psychology, “because they had access to an exterminator on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”

According to Tire, living conditions have adversely affected the health of her and her children. Two of her sons, aged 13 and 17, suffer from shortness of breath although they’re not asthmatic, and she suspects that her alopecia, which robbed her of the long curly hair she had when she moved to her apartment in 2001 her life situation is connected to her. “I’m trying to stay positive and hopeful,” she said. “But sometimes it gets overwhelming and it goes into a state of emotional distress.”

She said the movement school empowered her to fight NYCHA. “Now I know the terminology to use because we had legal assistants who taught us legal rights,” she said. “I’m trying to really mobilize people to see, don’t let NYCHA and the big fish, a big system, intimidate you.”

Nevertheless, Tire struggled to find other people to go on strike because tenants fear they will be evicted for non-payment. During the class, Tire said that her tenants “felt hopeless and worried they could not do anything.” But she hopes that NYCHA will be forced to fix things if she keeps paying long enough.

After class, the fellows flocked to Convent Avenue to discuss impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. Duverge led the group in jeans and a shirt with the first names of the four progressive Congress women who made up the “troop” into two separate Ubers who went to Ellies Diner in the Bronx, where Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I -Vt.) Organized a meet-and-greet with supporters.

The activist who gathered at the Pelham Parkway Houses in the Bronx was not just a point of sale for tenants who were tired of the system. It was also an attempt to gain support for a law introduced by Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders that aimed to improve the lives of residents of public housing in the United States: a green New Deal for public housing.

The bill provides for the decarbonization of all public housing in America and for the residents of public housing to renovate the facilities. Ocasio-Cortez sees the potential for the Reclaim Fellows to push ahead with changes in the law. This could be the only recourse in situations like Tire, where individual measures are not enough.

“The grassroots organization was the biggest force to enforce rent and tenant protection this year in New York State,” Ocasio-Cortez told me, referring to the 2019 Stability and Tenant Protection Act, which prohibits landlords from giving tenants complaints distribute and limits the deposit to a monthly rent, among other things. “I think grassroots movements are very important to bring about this immediate change at the local and state level at the political level, not just as an election front.”

Taylor, the passionate speaker whose son suffered from the excessive heat, sees the Green New Deal as a “green new light” of hope as her confidence in NYCHA fades. The Movement School has provided Taylor with legal assistance by petitioning for repairs in its development, and is trying to convince residents to help with other developments, including to file lawsuits. But she said, “You are an authority and you are a person, and that is the problem. You have lawyers alongside lawyers, and the only way to get things done is to go to court.”

“I don’t trust NYCHA,” she said at the climax of her speech in front of the crowded basement. “The Green New Deal is our hope. You will invest in our developments – not just in ours, but across the country. We’ll get brand new things. You will revive the developments. You will build. You will give us union jobs. You will give us hope. “

Several voices shouted “Amen!” When the audience burst into applause. Ocasio-Cortez sat cross-legged in the front row and beamed.