A Building Collapses in Harlem...

Thursday, March 20, 2014

This post is helping me to process some of my first reactions to the Harlem building collapse that occurred last week and the media coverage following it. After only finding formal press coverage of the issue while Googling, I would like to be in dialogue with people who are actually on the ground and working on this particular issue -- please email me or Tweet @thecowation with your thoughts.

The first thought I had was: "How dare they?"

There was an explosion in Harlem, the news alert said. Two buildings collapsed. After a while, I turned off the TV and closed the open tabs filled with articles. They all said the same thing. They lamented; they listed the dead.

How dare they portray this as a casual accident, an unexplained tragedy -- a backward glance and then, boom? Anyone you ask could tell you those apartments have been crumbling for years. No landlord in sight, no incentive to be.

One life lost unfurls into three. Then six. Then eight. For every life that is extinguished, five are impacted by life-changing injuries, mental and physical. Maybe more. Yes more, endless more.

The injured are always shuffled to the end of the sentence, always the follow-up. But they remain present, devoid of context after the news cycle has run its course. In ICUs and family homes, unable to get insurance or with insurance that will not cover their care, they survive. Some will end up on subway trains begging, while other riders turn down their heads. Long after the initial event, these people will continue to navigate a world not designed for them.

My best layperson theory about the housing situation in NYC is that it's a ticking time bomb -- the buildings are old and there isn't much incentive to renovate unless you're knocking them down to build condos (read: gentrification). There are few city interventions for communities that aren't cared about, and when there are they always come after they're needed. After the crisis.

How do you mourn when your everyday life is a crisis? This is the same question I asked after the Rana building collapse in Bangladesh, where the death tolls were in the thousands. I continue to ask them now as the bodies are carefully dug out of the rubble in Harlem and the area becomes just another hole in the ground. Who lives on? Who benefits from their misfortune? And how, as onlookers, do we do anything at all?

I am wrestling with these unanswered questions. I have looked back at my social justice influences -- interviews and articles by Mia Mingus for disability justice in particular. Taking a workshop with her a few years ago completely changed my understanding of how social justice work can be connected with healing. As she mentions: we should center disability justice because we all have the potential to become disabled, whether or not we began that way. With that in mind, the question becomes "How do we change this?" Healing work should not only be responsive after a tragedy occurs; it should focus on preventing violence and creating accessible services for those who experience it.

So how dare they? How dare they separate this violent incident from all of the structural violence that led up to it? Its causes are echoed in a laundry list of ways that the system has failed us -- lack of adequate housing, lack of resources for homeless people, and lack of mental and physical healthcare. Not to mention how the myth of U.S. superiority hides its connection to broken infrastructures abroad.

Very few sources connect us with these answers; now, we must write our own.