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Disasters can be liberating

Grace Lee Boggs

Grace Lee Boggs

By Grace Lee Boggs
Special to The Michigan Citizen

As the climate crisis worsens and more people and places in the world are devastated by hurricanes, droughts and other weather catastrophes, we need more discussion on the role that disaster can play in bringing about social transformation.

Many progressives have accepted Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine narrative that disasters provide opportunities for right wing forces to take over (“disaster capitalism”). But it has been rejected as “disempowering” by anti-nuke activist and writer Rebecca Solnit in her fascinating book, “A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster.”

Solnit believes disasters provide the opportunity for people to grow spiritually.

“Although disasters are terrible, tragic, grievous and not to be desired, they provide an extraordinary window into social desire and possibility and what manifests there matters elsewhere in ordinary times and in other extraordinary times.”

In other words, disasters provide opportunities for visionary organizing.

Thus, touring Detroit in 2007, Solnit not only noted our devastation by deindustrialization but was so impressed by our community gardens that she ended her Harper’s Magazine article “Detroit Arcadia” with this observation: “Detroit is where change is most urgent and therefore most viable. The rest of us will get there later, when necessity drives us too, and by that time Detroit may be the shining example we can look to, the post-industrial green city that was once the steel-gray capital of Fordist manufacturing.”

This week, as we say goodbye to 2012 and welcome 2013, I am happy to report that New York City’s devastation by Hurricane Sandy birthed “URBAN UPRISING!” a two day gathering of architects, activists, urban designers and planners from around the country to re-imagine the city for the next 100 years. A call for engaged citizens to confront key challenges of the 21st century: environmental, economic, social and political. Participants from more than 80 civic organizations across the city were invited to collaborate in working groups to develop strategic action plans to radically alter the way a city works, and who it serves.

Day two sessions were at The New School where we were welcomed by Miguel Robles-Duràn, director of the Design and Urban Ecologies program at Parsons. The first panelist, Rachel LaForest of The Right to the City Alliance, asked the audience to break out of the mindset of choosing goals based on what was winnable and introduced the notion of transformative demands like Housing for People, Not Profit.

Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning Peter Marcuse challenged attendees to imagine a real occupation of Wall Street where the stock exchange hosted general assemblies and the high rises that now house banking enterprises instead housed the homeless. He offered as inspiration a vision of a society where people work without pay and life’s necessities were accepted as inalienable rights and guaranteed to every citizen.

“URBAN UPRISING!” attendees were offered a menu of discussion groups. We had just two hours to come to agreement about how to work together, come up with clear definitions and then “design” our public space. There were occasional interruptions and a few late walk-ins, but we managed to get to work pretty quickly and the tone remained light and very respectful.

Detroit’s devastation by deindustrialization created the space for urban agriculture.

Read more about “URBAN UPRISING!” at

Contact Grace Lee Boggs at

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