On Black Friday, instead of shopping or eating leftover turkey with friends, several hundred protests affiliated with Occupy Wall Street converged at the Walmart in Secaucus New Jersey this afternoon to protest what they term to be unfair labour practices by the retail giant.
Starting this afternoon at around 12: groups, some of which had been bussed in, staged rallies nearby and in front of the Walmart to call for higher wages, better hours and the right to form a union. A marching band played music while members lined up and shouted slogans. Though the crowd was large and had to be repeatedly directed by police to prevent traffic problems, the protesters did not seek to interfere with shoppers or workers. Their goal, as they put it, was to educate members of the public to the working conditions of the workers and to be outside and show support for the workers, they argued, were unable to join them on the picket line due threats or intimidation.
The peaceful protest lasted about four hours and saw a number of people take their literature, and at least one woman said she would no longer be shopping at Walmart until they amended their labour practices. According to Secausus police, there were no incidents of violence or arrests. There were few instances during which store employees spoke to protesters, but mostly management sought to keep their distance from the protest.
On Thursday several hundred people showed up at the church in lower Manhattan to enjoy a holiday feast provided by affiliates of Occupy Wall Street, as well as church members and people in the nearby communities.
The idea was advertised to provide relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy, but organiser Jessica Alfreds said “there’s a lot of people in this neighbourhood who just on a regular day have a hard time coming up with three meals a day,” including the homeless, who made up a good portion of the visitors in the afternoon. Among the Sandy survivors was a widow in her 70s from the Ukraine named Jenny, a resident of Brighton Beach and US resident since 1992. Unable to return to her apartment since the evacuation by police last month, she has been living with friends in a temporary space. Jenny’s apartment building, which was featured in the NY Daily News is contaminated with a “toxic brew” of fuel and seawater, and this was as of the article’s printing on November 18 (see here).
Not only is she among the most vulnerable, but she has few options available to her. “It’s too dangerous to come back,” Jenny said of the building. Te Daily News headline called it “Stinkiest building in Brooklyn,” and it had “nauseating fumes” that cause people to “gag,” which can lead to a whole host of health problems. To add to that is the fact he building remains without heat or electricity. Though initially unaware of the meal, she was asked to go inside by a woman on the street. After sitting down to eat, she said of the Thanksgiving meal, “I’m so thankful up to tears there’s an event.” This is not the only disaster Jenny has lived through. Jenny is a survivor of the German and Soviet occupations of Ukraine during and after WWII, and she was present in Ukraine when the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded, spewing radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere in 1986. Jenny does not know where she will go on Sunday once the family she is staying with has to leave, but left the church with a bitter-sweet smile, hoping for better days.
Among the numerous volunteers, including a number of them who met organisers for the first time as they delivered food from as far away as Long Island, was Deb from Queens, who brought along her two young daughters, Rachel and Arielle. They had carpooled with five other people to deliver blankets, three of which were paid for with funds of Deb’s friend in Canada who was eager to help. When taking a much needed break and to have a bite to eat, one of the girls said the food was “nice” and that she “love[s] helping people.” And help feed a number of people they did.
The church, once the former property of the last Dutch governor of New Amsterdam Peter Stuyvesant and home to his final resting place, saw at least several hundred people get fed, including a number of African Americans – and Mr. Stuyvesant might be rolling in his grave if he knew the church was serving free black people, himself a slave owner and no friend of Africans. How things have changed. Those who were there expressed a sense of solidarity and community surprising to some as it was the first time many had met each other. When governor of New York, Daniel Thompkins asked the legislature to outlaw slavery by 1827 in a gradual way, which was acted upon and made law. He lies in the same churchyard, not far from Mr. Stuyvesant – the former a reminder of the way things once were and the latter a voice for change in some ways that people from Occupy might admire. As what is left of Occupy strives to help the less fortunate and the poor, he sheer diversity of the crowd is a testament to the sort of change that is already taking place from helping survivors in Read Hook or Far Rockaway to just average people on the street in Manhattan, including doing so at great personal risk as they are constantly exposed to a mix of toxic dust, asbestos, lead paint, gypsum and a host of other contaminants. This is the change the government and NGO’s like the Red Cross have largely failed to bring.
A group of Palestinians and their supporters, including Jewish members of the group NKUSA, held a rally in Times Square on Sunday afternoon to protest Israeli attacks on Gaza and to show solidarity with Palestinians. A group of pro-Israeli supporters set themselves up directly across the street from the Palestinians, but they moved further away when tensions grew, insults were traded and violence looked like it might ensue. At some points it did, though you would not know it if you listened to Fox News or others stations that covered the event.
At about 4:30 pm two men in support of the Israeli went into the middle of the street next to the police barricades, approached the Palestinian group and began to taunt them. A small number of men from the pro-Palestinian side jumped over the barricade, and a fight quickly ensued, according to Andrew Wright, an independent journalist and eyewitness of the event. Police nearby formed a ring around the men, making it extremely difficult to tell which side threw the first punch.
At least three men were put in handcuffs and arrested by police, two of whom had visible flags or other markings identifying them with the Palestinian side, including the man in the pictures with a bloodied face. It was not clear if one of the three men arrested at the scene was from the pro-Israeli side, as police physically blocked journalists from taking pictures and forced them to leave the area.
In a video report posted on the My Fox NY News website, posted just after the protest, entitled “NYC reaction to conflict in Middle East,” reporter Stacey Delikat claimed that “those demonstrations in Time Square did remain peaceful.” (fast forward to 02:03 in the video) This is simply incorrect. Ms. Delikat should have been aware of the violence because in the same report she says that police told My Fox News NY, the company for which she filed her report, that they “are expecting more [protests by pro-Palestinian supporters] like them in the coming weeks.”
Ms. Delikat also mentioned that “earlier today there was a heavy police presence in Times Square.” Might the “heave police presence” have something to do with the tensions the two groups have due to the escalating violence in Gaza? Her video focused instead efforts of peace between Israelis and Palestinians in New York, which is real but is not the whole story as the pictures make clear.
AM New York, a free daily that is given to people as they enter the subways on their way to work, also covered the same protest. Their article by Sheila Feeney, entitled “Pro and anti Israel demonstrators both rally in Times Square,” says “It was unclear if any arrests were made in connection with the demonstrations yesterday.” It looked pretty clear to those on the scene that at least three men were detained, put in handcuffs and taken away by police. Two independent journalists are on record saying they saw these men being arrested. Details about what happened to them afterwards have not been reported publicly, but eyewitnesses said the man with the bloodied face had tried to resist arrest, which was why he was tackled by police. Was there not at least one arrest then?
PressTV, which is an Iranian station, filed a video report by Hank Flynn entitled “New Yorkers urge Israel to end war on Gaza.” It too failed to mention violence at the NYC protest in its report either, though they had been seen in the area round the time of the violence filming by reporter Andrews, cited earlier.
When contacted and shown a copy of the photos, the Associated Press said “Unfortunately the photos have lost their news value – they arrived a day after the protest,” and was not interested in publishing them. Fox NY News could not be reached for comment, and the managing editor at AM New York was unable to be reached, even though he was called several times. PressTV’s offices are in Iran, with no local number listed on their website.
Additionally, several people from the pro-Israeli side were observed walking over to Jewish members in support of the Palestinian side, saying inaudible words in Hebrew and, in at least one case, spitting on Jewish members of NKUSA, according to Mr. Wright. It is no wonder the police had to separate the groups, and there had to be a “heavy police presence.” The majority of people on both sides were non-violent, including 50 or so members of the pro-Israeli and several hundred members of the pro-Palestinian side, but there were violent incidents and clear signs of threats. Is it accurate to claim the rallies were “peaceful”?
The removal of debris from homes is certainly welcome to the residents whose homes had to be gutted after Hurricane Sandy immersed entire basements and even engulfed the first floors with seawater. The risk of physical harm from improper removal of hazardous materials, however, is a real and serious threat the local government authorities appear to be doing absolutely nothing about, even though it is aware of the potential risks to people’s health.
There is, first of all, the risk to of exposure to gypsum, crystalline silica (connected with silicosis) and mica (connected with pneumoconiosisa), common materials used in the construction of drywall used to cover walls in the majority of American homes. Each of these materials is a potential hazard if inhaled.
Then there is the problem of lead paint, used in many homes before the 1970’s. A number of the homes in the Midland Beach area were constructed when lead paint was still in use, and it is reasonable to assume that at least some of them had lead paint on their walls or ceilings when Sandy struck. With the mass removal of drywall and other building materials from these homes – literally just ripped out of the homes and dumped on the lawn, sidewalk and street – one has to wonder at the level of contaminants are being released into the air. It is not a question of if there are contaminants, but one of how much toxic materials are being released. As drywall is broken apart, the paint on it can crumble and turn to dust, which is easily released into the air people have to breathe.
In addition, a good number of the people removing the materials are not trained professionals, but homeowners, military personnel and volunteers eager to help those in need. Of the dozens upon dozens of residents our journalists observed removing debris in their walks through the Midland Beach area, at least a 20% had no masks at all, while the majority wore cheap white masks that can be purchased in any hardware shop. Unfortunately these masks offer insufficient protection from dust particles. Less than a pitiful handful were observed wearing masks that could even be considered appropriate for such an environment, which might not have been enough to deal with the dust cloud on November 6th that pervaded the air like an infectious fog.
Even those who are not directly involved in the removal of debris are at risk, such as people passing by, drivers or even volunteers helping distribute supplies. First responders are at risk as well. Virtually none of the police, military or Red Cross workers that our journalists observed had respirators or masks on of any sort (there were a few Red Cross workers with inadequate masks). Marines sent to Staten Island, for example, were photographed by the NY Post removing debris without any respiratory protection. In the same news report sanitation workers have on masks, though they appear to be the inappropriate white masks many residents were using. Even worse, on Sunday one of our reporters saw numerous sanitation crews removing debris and rubbish with no masks at all.
In a pamphlet produced by the New York State Health Department for Environmental Health for homeowners entitled “What Homeowners Need to Know about Lead Paint,” it recommends they keep pregnant women and children away from chipped paint or dust, and that most work on lead paint- as directed by federal law – should done by EPA-certified contractors (2502 1/2003). There certainty are professionals doing work in the Midland Beach area, but there are some who have taken it upon themselves to remove debris on their own.
In addition to the aforementioned, there is the concern about asbestos in the air. In an article dealing with this very topic, the Huffington Post highlighted the dangers residents may be facing in an article published on November 3rd (here). It cited Linda Reinstein of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Association who said, “The collateral damage will be untold for decades,” which is sometimes the length of time exposure can lead to sickness. And since no amount of asbestos exposure is considered safe, it is difficult to know how much exposure will cause cancer. What doctors do agree on, though, is that is vital to limit exposure to asbestos as much as possible. How can residents, workers and people passing through the area on their way to work avoid airborne dust particles that may include asbestos, lead, gypsum, silicia or other toxic dust? What actions have the city, state and federal agencies taken to warn people on Staten Island of the potential hazards? Based on what our journalists saw last week and especially on Wednesday afternoon with a construction vehicle crushing debris and drywall and releasing all sorts of dust into the air, it would appear the answer is absolutely nothing. After so many frist responders and residents in the World Trade Centre area after September 11, 2001 were exposed to toxic dust and the many possibly related deaths and sicknesses (some estimate 1000 deaths), what excuse is there on the part of the authorities not to take the necessary precautions to safeguard the population?
The longer large amounts of dust are released into the air – such as on Wednesday – people’s health is going to be at risk, to say nothing of those removing debris or touching harmful material. It is difficult to see how terrible air quality is in itself not a serious hazard to people’s health. One of our journalists, for example, who visited the area on Wednesday for just a few minutes is already experiencing respiratory problems, including irritation, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. There was nothing the authorities could do to stop Hurricane Sandy. But there are many things the authorities could have done to prevent this dust cloud, and there are things they can do to prevent it from coming back as removal work continues. This is entirely preventible, but the lessons of 9/11/01 at ground zero and the Staten Island landfill seem to be forgotten. The residents, workers and volunteers will bear the brunt of any toxic dust in the years to come, and can rest assured that their elected officials did little to prevent them and their children from being exposed to possible health hazards in the air.
Whilst going down to visit the Midland Beach area that was affected by Hurricane Sandy, one journalist and a photographer had to cut short their intended trip when they saw what appeared to be excessive dust clouds in the air. As they approached Lincoln Ave and Father Capodano Boulevard it looked as if there were sand in the air. Upon closer inspection they witnessed a sanitation or rubbish removal crew piling debris from houses in large container to be hauled away. One walked about to take pictures while the other went back to his staging area to get face masks. On his return the pair attached the masks and limited themselves to only 10 minutes of photography due to the fact the dust particles in the air were intense.
Whilst they could not say for certain that all of the dust was from the debris being crushed and carted away, there is evidence to believe that most of it is. For one thing there was plenty of sand in the area on Sunday when two journalists visited the area but they did not report any unusual dust in the air. There was no widespread collection of debris in one central location, though there were sanitation trucks carting off debris in small amounts. A number of people on the streets were wearing masks on Tuesday while these journalists observed a far lower number doing the same last Sunday.
If the dust is due to the removal of materials then it is important to consider the possible ramification on residents’ health: older homes – of which there are a number in the area – contain asbestos, which if disturbed or removed in an improper manner has links with cancer. Other materials, which may not be as harmful – such as gypsum used in Sheetrock – are not good to inhale and might lead to respiratory problems.
When the World Trade Centre building were destroyed on September 11, 2001 many first responders and residents in the area became sick and developed a number of symptoms many attribute to the release of toxic debris in the area. There were concerns at the time that the air quality was unsafe and that more needed to be done to protect workers and residents. What measures are being taken to measure, record and monitor the air quality in the Midland Beach area today? The answer to that question is of no small importance to the workers, volunteers and residents of the area. With the knowledge we have gained from past errors, is it not reasonable to seek protective measures to avoid the possible exposure of people to potentially dangerous materials?
These images were taken on Sunday, November 5th at or near the Midland Beach area of Staten Island, one of the three devastated sections of the island. Hurricane Sandy caused the damage seen, and these are the relief efforts to assist residents. There are boats washed up onshore, destroyed houses and a general feeling a war zone in these areas.
Civis Journal news went to Staten Island and met with residents as they stood in line to buy fuel, attempted to get relief supplies and deal with the aftermath and recovery of Hurricane Sandy.