Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing “Interviews for Resistance” series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed and what is still the same. Today’s interview is the 73rd in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.
Today we bring you a conversation with Amy Zachmeyer, the co-chair for the Houston Democratic Socialists of America.
Sarah Jaffe: A lot of people’s attention has shifted to Florida right now, but tell us what things look like in Houston right now, a couple of weeks after the hurricane.
Amy Zachmeyer: For large portions of Houston, things are going back to normal. The highways are reopening, people are going back to work, and their lives look relatively the same. But, for other portions of Houston, things are not going to be OK for a very long time. A lot of those divides are economic divides. It has also really highlighted the racial segregation in our city, because you go to some neighborhoods and they look fine. Everyone still has their home and their manicured lawn and their car sitting out front. Then, you go into some of the other neighborhoods that were affected and you see where people’s entire lives have been removed from their homes, including the drywall. Everything inside a home that made that home a home has been pulled out and thrown in a large heap on the side of the road. It is a very visual representation of which neighborhoods are affected and which neighborhoods are just business-as-usual.
We see the inequality really clearly in times of disaster.
In a lot of the neighborhoods that we have gone to, we have actually had people tell us, “Nobody else has come to check on me.” Maybe their pastor has come to check on them, but no other organizations have been out there besides the Democratic Socialists in their red shirts. There is something really heartbreaking about that to me.
Can you tell us a little bit more about what people’s needs are right now?
The largest need, I would say, is safe housing. Many of the families are still living in their homes with drywall that is soaked in floodwater. The floodwater itself is toxic and, beyond that, mold has started to grow extremely rapidly. We walk into these homes and our lungs just burn and we have to wear respirators just to do the work. These families, who have contacted FEMA, have been given a list of hotels that are all full and not accepting new people. They are forced to stay in their homes where it is unlivable and toxic, and they have nowhere to go.
Then, some of the people had already experienced the shelters from Katrina, because a lot of people who were displaced by Katrina moved to Houston. So we have people who have already been at the Superdome and when people ask them if they would like to go to the NRG Stadium or the George R. Brown Shelter, they would rather stay in their home where they feel safer, even though it is toxic and unlivable.
I was thinking about that a lot, that Houston is just a place where you have so many people who ended up there after Katrina and couldn’t go home and now…. What does that look like to be displaced twice? It has got to be just horrifying.
It is extremely traumatic. It is now a re-lived trauma, so it has been worse.
What is so interesting to me is that we keep hearing about Texas Strong and all the work that is being done, Houston Strong, all of that. But, the people who are really there for each other are the people who live within these neighborhoods. When we help someone, I will get follow-up from that because I am hearing from them about their neighbor, their cousin, their friend. The community there is something that has been the most moving to me. I think it is something that is really missing everywhere else. While, yes, it is Houston Strong, a lot of Houstonians have shown up, a lot of Texans have shown up to offer assistance, the real strength, in my mind, is the community that already existed for these most vulnerable people. I think we should all learn something from that.
It is interesting, of course, because when these storms strike in places where government services have been pared back versus places where government services are strong, you can really see which parts of the state work and don’t work.
Absolutely. That is something that I spoke about a little bit before we had any idea that this would happen. I spoke at the Democratic Socialists of America Convention about red state organizing. One thing I wanted people in blue states to understand is that when we talk about a socialist social safety net that we are describing something, to people in a red state, that has never existed for them or at least hasn’t in a very long time.
We have massive privatization efforts here to privatize our social services, to privatize human suffering, essentially. When you try to explain to someone that we want more social services, they are thinking of a broken system that doesn’t really help anyone and doesn’t do what it is supposed to do. When we talk about things like Medicare for All, and now, again, in this case, people are seeing a lot of issues with receiving FEMA assistance and even just their food stamps — the system keeps going down. They are trying to get unemployment for their lost wages. That system keeps going down. In places like Texas, where our social safety net is extremely underfunded and privatized as much as possible, the help just isn’t there.
When you are out on the ground, who are you seeing out in the neighborhoods doing the work besides DSA? Are you seeing the Red Cross? My experience after Sandy was that there is a lot of security and not a lot of service in a lot of places.
During the curfew, I would see police out at night. Mostly, on my way home. I do not live in a wealthy neighborhood, but I drove through one to get home from downtown. The police would be lining the wealthy neighborhood watching who was coming in and coming out. Other than that, I haven’t seen a large law enforcement presence. Then, they had to make calls to civilians to bring out their boats because nothing like this was anything that I think any city could plan for. This flood was completely unexpected and catastrophic in a way that Houston has never seen.
But, as far as who I have seen out helping, it has not been the Red Cross. I have not seen the Red Cross anywhere. I did not go to the George R. Brown shelter, which is one of the ones that they were running; but, I do hear a lot of stories coming out of that shelter now that it is kind of devolving into chaos. Then, a different group called BakerRipley is running the NRG Stadium shelter. It is, supposedly, running much more smoothly. I know some people that have family members staying there and they are reporting that it is very nice and that people feel safe.
I have not seen the Red Cross out in the field doing any work in any way. I have seen Black Lives Matter Houston out doing what are called “muck and gut” operations at homes. I know unions have been out doing the work. The AFL-CIO here has been coordinating some efforts, as well as individual unions like the Texas State Employees Union and UNITE HERE. I have also seen churches out and about. A lot of people delivering food. A lot of people in teams literally going door-to-door, saying, “What can we help you with?” But, no, not government agencies and not the Red Cross. I have also seen insurance salesmen out and about.
Tell us about what DSA has been doing.
When this started, we knew that we were going to want to offer some sort of community service to Houston, but we had no idea, one, how bad it would get and, two, how much support we would receive nationally. We set our original fundraising goal at $10,000 and in our wildest dreams, we thought we would raise about $20,000 if things went extremely well. At this point, I think we are at about $113,000 raised so far. We immediately had to figure out how to put together something really big.
I have been incredibly proud of our chapter and our national organization in that we have worked with disaster relief professionals to come up with a plan and do education within our chapter so that we are doing the right things and we are doing the most efficient things. Then, we have made a three-part plan. Our first goal is to [attend to] the undocumented community, because they do not qualify for federal funds and are in an extremely politically hostile environment with things like Senate Bill 4, which luckily did have a stay. But, until the last minute, you still had border patrol doing checkpoints and that kind of thing. We pledged to make a sizeable donation to an organization working specifically with the undocumented community, and we have been able to do some individual aid for undocumented families, as well.
Then, our second plan is to direct aid through supplies and even some just straight financial aid, because we know that food and water is one thing, but there are lots of other needs and each family knows their own needs and we trust them to do that. We have no problem giving financial aid. Our third thing is doing our “muck and gut” operations, which is the largest amount of work. This is the most work I have done in my life, both physically and just as far as time goes. That is where you go into the home and you help remove all of the flood-damaged belongings, which is both a physical labor and an emotional labor, because you have a traumatized family who is watching and helping remove all of their objects. Everything they have worked hard for their entire lives. Every sentimental picture, ticket stub, all the things that they kept just being put in a huge pile on their lawn. So, there is a lot of emotional labor with that, as well.
Then, after you get all the stuff out of the house, you figure out how high you need to remove the drywall and you remove all the drywall that you can, all the insulation you can, then spray it with a chemical. It is a ton of work and it is hot. You have to wear respirators. I have been extremely impressed with the outpouring of support that we have received through volunteers willing to do that.
I want to talk about the importance of doing mutual aid work like this as DSA, as a left organization, and how that helps you build in the community.
We are definitely reaching communities that probably don’t subscribe to Jacobin. It is not the same people that we reach via social media. So, to a certain extent, we are running into people who may not ever realize that they know a socialist. It is not part of the conversation. So, to have socialists out there wearing shirts that say “Houston DSA” on them and doing the work, showing that we are here to be in solidarity with them, that we believe that working people have to stick together and do work for working people to make sure we are all OK, and really living socialism in that way, has been amazing for us.
I am hoping that, even if these people don’t immediately go and say, “Oh, now that my house just had all the drywall removed, let me sign up for the Democratic Socialists of America,” … [they will realize] that we are not just this thing that people complain about on Fox News….
You mentioned that undocumented folks in the area are not eligible for federal aid. I wanted to ask about the connections between, of course, what people are facing in terms of “natural” disaster and the disaster that is the Trump administration for undocumented people in this country.
It is just very scary. It has already been scary. It is extremely stressful for people. The fear is there that if you get pulled over or if ICE shows up at your house, you are going to get sent away. I don’t know if you have seen, but it has been reported that a DACA recipient actually died doing rescue here in Houston. People were willing to put themselves on the line. At the same time, we have to be willing to recognize that, regardless of citizenship status, the diversity of Houston is what makes Houston great and that the most vulnerable people are those who are not in a situation to be helped because of fear of our government. That is what happened with the Trump administration.
But, even beyond that, our current governor, Greg Abbott, and our lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, they are just really at war on the undocumented. They do a lot of dog whistling and a lot of rhetoric around immigration and borders and walls and all of that. That has been going on here in Texas for some time. We have to make sure that people who feel vulnerable, people who are unprotected, and people who are under attack have a barrier between them and the government. I think DSA really hopes that we can help support that and give them aid without having to put them at risk.
Obviously, climate change plays a part in making these storms worse. How does this moment shape the climate justice work you are doing and the way that your organization thinks and talks about climate change?
Climate change is a really difficult subject in some ways here in Houston because we have an economy that, in large part, runs on fossil fuel. Like I said, our stadium is NRG Stadium. That is an energy company. We have a huge area of our city called the Energy Corridor, which is where all of the oil and gas companies have their offices. So, our conversations around climate change are always a little more complicated in that regard. We have a lot of people who understand climate change is [human-made] and a problem and something that needs to be addressed.
But there is a different level of that climate change that has gone on here in Houston that makes it such a disaster, and it is that we have paved our entire city…. It is undeniable that the water just sat on Houston and didn’t have anywhere to go because we paved all the prairie grass in our city. We literally paved near bayous and we built homes near bayous where it is natural that water is going to run off and go into the flood plain and we pave it anyway knowing exactly what is going to happen.
This was a long time coming. There had already been discussions prior to this happening that this could happen. When you combine that with all of the refineries and the chemical plants and those kinds of things that are down here — you can see the hazy sky from the burn-off that is happening at the refineries. You can see that water just sat there for days and days because it had nowhere to go. We don’t have to talk about this abstract science of climate change and how we have affected long-term weather trends and that kind of thing. It is visible and it is right there.
And of course, you had this flood coming right through the energy corridor. Weren’t there explosions at a plant?
If you put the area that the storm affected on a map, it is massive. I hate to be that Texan that says this, but Texas is really big. [Laughs] So we went last weekend to a city called Beaumont. It is about an hour and a half from Houston, 90 miles. We drove through this area. The chemical plant is in Crosby, which is maybe about halfway there or a third of the way there. That hasn’t affected us here, specifically, in Houston. But, it is something that everyone has been talking about because it is nearby. It is not affecting us here, directly.
We still have neighborhoods recovering from Sandy, let alone places that are still recovering from Katrina. How is this shaping what you look at as an organization, going forward? What are you thinking about that maybe you weren’t thinking about before?
I think it has just highlighted what our city needs the most. I think that it has also highlighted what DSA can do really well. Looking forward, I think that we will, for the foreseeable future, be doing work on Harvey relief because it is going to cost billions and billions of dollars for this city to recover and people will be forgotten. There was already a blue tarp project going on that was about homes that still had blue tarps covering their roofs from Hurricane Ike, which was in 2008. There was a project going on currently … to help those people get their roofs repaired now in 2017. I imagine that we are going to be seeing the damage from this for a very long time.
There are things that we can work to address politically. Then, there are ways that we can work to build outreach in the community so that our networks are better, were this to happen again, and we will be able to have an even greater reach. But, politically, there are things that I have been made more aware of — things that people always talk about, like housing or affordable housing being in flood plains. We always talk about these kinds of things, but now I see actionable items that have been highlighted by this disaster.
Moving forward, we will be working with our city council and our mayor to educate them and push them to do the right things for the people of Houston, not just the developers in Houston, who have currently been the only people who have received any attention from them. Then, we will also be making sure that there are ways that we can reach out to people who are in need in Houston not just in times of crisis, but for the foreseeable future.
As we have been doing this work, it has been a really huge emotional toll on me and the other DSA members that I am working with, because people feel the need to explain to you why it is OK for them to receive aid from you, because we are not used to people just being there for you and we are not used to accepting that kind of help. People are in such a state that they really do need it, so they want to tell you why they need it so that they feel OK receiving it.
I think that when I finish all of this and the trauma has passed and the exhaustion has passed, I am going to find when I look back on my entire life that this is going to be the most fulfilling thing that I ever do, because I built real relationships with these people that we are serving, and it has been really something beautiful that I didn’t realize I was missing. In that kind of community relationship that we forget about with social media … this has been real people helping real people. I recognize that many of these people would help me if I were in the same circumstance. I really believe that this will be the most fulfilling thing that I will ever do.
How can people keep up with you and with Houston DSA?
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.