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Amongst the rubble: a look at the Christchurch earthquake from the bottom up

Written By: - Date published: 11:18 am, September 18th, 2010 - 16 comments
Categories: capitalism, class war - Tags: , ,

First posted on the excellent Beyond Resistance blog:

While the dust settles and Christchurch recovers from the 7.1 earthquake, people have begun to pick up the pieces and get on with their lives. But for many working class people this is not so easy. Those most affected by ‘natural disasters’ — whether by the tsunami in the Pacific, earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and now Christchurch, NZ — are those already on the margins of despair.

As the impact of the quake became known we saw the authorities rush to ‘lock down’ the CBD, and after a short time brought in the military in a quasi ‘martial law’ scenario. With the aid of the corporate media and using the odd collapsed and damaged building as a backdrop, a sensational picture was painted of a city in ruins. Their reports were far from helpful — heavily recycling dramatic images while providing little concrete advice and information for those of us on the ground. It was hard to not to get the feeling that it was little more than a ratings seeking adventure at our expense.

Out in the worst affected suburbs people waited for days to receive help from the authorities. While the state hurried to safeguard inner city property, people in the outer limits were left to fend for themselves. Many acts of mutual aid were carried out, with friends and neighbours ‘mucking in’ — firstly to make sure everyone was safe and then supporting each other with what they could to survive. Some shopkeepers offered free milk, people offered water from private wells, and with the University closed students organised themselves into solidarity teams (numbering over 1000 in total) and went about helping those in an inspiring display of mutual aid.

However reports are coming to light of a number of abusive and oppressive scenarios. Workers have been forced to work in unsafe conditions or told to stay home without being paid. First Security, Subway and the Readings Cinema have all put profits before people in a blatant disregard of the interests of their staff. Equally concerning is the example of a Welfare Centre that in a blatant act of racism evicted a large Maori whanau who were seeking comfort, support and refuge in a facility set up for this purpose (‘freeloaders’ was the term used).

Many people have lost everything and many stories are now being told of residents of rental properties having to stay in dangerous and substandard housing with nowhere to go, as greedy landlords refuse to subsidise rent, make repairs or break fixed-term lease agreements. There was also one case where the City Council evicted residents from council flats without any notice and refusing to allow occupants to access their belongings, leaving them homeless, penniless and with only the clothes on their backs. All this is ongoing, as are the aftershocks.

Women have once again copped the worst of it. Cases of domestic violence have skyrocketed while earthquake tremors continue, adding to the already heavy trauma.

We should not be so hasty to lump praise on the State just because it showed a helping hand in a time of need, a hand in the service of the biggest disaster of all — capitalism. Nor should we ignore the draconian measures the state has recently passed. The Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Bill gives a single Minister (Brownlee) the power to repeal or modify practically any law on our statute book, without even having to refer to Cabinet, let alone Parliament. This Act was voted in by all Parties in the House, which shows more than ever the true motives of our supposedly neutral state: increased power for the few, a privileging of property and an emphasis on order (ie business as usual).

While Civil Defence volunteers and Emergency Services did a good job with the organisational structures they had to work with, questions should be asked as to whether a more coordinated but decentralised approach could have brought more relief to those out in the suburbs. One alternative could be a model of community resource facilities run the people themselves, acting as a hub — not only for disaster relief and mutual aid — but as a genuine decision making space that truly enables people in their neighbourhoods to organise collectively to best meet their needs. There are plenty of examples worldwide of such resources being directly controlled and self-managed by those involved via regular assemblies, and these models could equally apply to such national networks such as Civil Defence.

As time goes by many more stories will be told, and we hope they will add to the positive examples already around us. The most spectacular thing that always comes out of these situations — more than damaged buildings or ‘live on the scene’ reports — is the ability of people to help one another. Solidarity and mutual aid has largely formed the foundation of people’s disrupted lives over the last week or so, and shows us that these principles are in fact evident in human nature, however suppressed they currently are by the competition and consumption of our modern environment (an environment in which the State plays a major role).

For those of us in Christchurch who have lived through this experience, who huddled in doorways, shoveled silt, and witnessed first hand the real beneficiary of the state’s response (inner city property), life goes on. For most, it will never be the same again.


16 comments on “Amongst the rubble: a look at the Christchurch earthquake from the bottom up ”

  1. marco 1

    I got to the paragraph about the “Blatant act of racism” and stopped reading this tripe. I know several of the people who were at the welfare centre at the time and you are grossly misinformed and reactionary the rest of post isn’t worth reading.

    • Lanthanide 1.1

      Yes, with the reports of them intimidating other people in the centre, I too am suspicious of the “racism” call.

      It also strikes me that, if anything, the Maori Party are the ones that have made it about race. What if it had been a large white family that were kicked out; would National or Labour or the Greens gotten up and asked for a formal apology? I think not. It seems the Maori Party should’ve confirmed what the actual situation on the ground was before they leapt to conclusions about racism.

      • Zorr 1.1.1

        Have to agree with these comments here.

        Often in the case here where you are writing such a rant you need to be careful where you step. There are a couple of issues with the current story being run about the family in question. Firstly, it is a whanau of 30 people. They showed The Press a single property. Is that their only house for all 30 of them? I do realise that people often live in incredibly squalid conditions and can fit in to such propertys like sardines in a can but with their claim that that is the only property they can reside at, the burden of proof is on them.

        Also, when it comes to judging the reports on the situation you have to take in to account the credibility of the people making the claims. On one side, the welfare workers, Police and everyone else at the site. On the other side, a patched Mongrel Mob (I believe that was the particular gang affiliation) family and the Maori party reacting on their “word”. I think I know which way I lean here.

  2. Bill 2

    Ah. Somebody speaking for the silenced. Finally.

    BTW. Just a little detail. Apparently unscrupulous types were manoeuvring to make a killing out of individuals’ misfortune.

    One way that these unscrupulous types were looking to line their pockets was in taking down dodgy chimneys. And the suggestion was made that they would overcharge and so a ‘stranger danger’ warning was issued to check the credentials and rely on accredited builders only.

    And if that wasn’t going to deter you from accepting help from strangers,(whether paid or not) there was the secondary warning put out claiming that chimneys constructed before 1980 could well contain large amounts of asbestos. So the implication was that attempting to display a degree of initiative would be irresponsible and endanger the health/life of any person engaging in chimney deconstruction.

    Which led me to wonder whether people removing their chimneys prior to the quake were banned from doing so because of asbestos and consequently forced to employ a credited builder at quite some expense.

    And also led me to wonder: ‘Who are the real unscrupulous types seeking to profit from misfortune?’ Master builders trying to ensure that a certain degree of guaranteed work exists for them going forward, or the friend, neighbour or stranger willing to lend a helping hand?

  3. Bill 3

    Notwithstanding Gerry Brownlie’s powers to make things up as he goes along…

    Anybody in Christchurch who witnesses any registered builder demolishing any pre 1980 chimneys without full protective suits and respirators should exercise their civic duty and report said company to the relevant authority (or/and the media) for ignoring the health and safety of their workers.

    And any registered builder who is seen transporting any of this allegedly asbestos laden chimney waste should be reported straight away to the relevant authority (and/or the media) as the transportation and disposal of asbestos is subject to strict regulations due to public safety issues..

  4. Rharn 4

    I spotted some firemen demolishing a chimney in Coronation St a few days back. No saftey resperators etc

  5. prism 5

    There was lots of positive comment from the pollies after the quake about the wonderful way people pulled together and how most went to family and friends and so were all right. There was a lot of emphasis on this and I thought what about the difficulties that the host families were having.

    I did wonder about the extent of civil responsibility for aid when, I think Kim was interviewing Bob Parker. A resident had got in touch with her about the difficulty of getting a portaloo installed by the Council in their street. Parker seemed unsure about this matter and suggested that people could instigate getting one through private firms. This is what had happened, being paid by one woman’s insurance company. I did not hear how these amenities are allocated and whether the woman and rest of residents, would have been entitled or whether they just needed one for their own convenience.

    Are reports coming out of Czar Gerry’s office about the measures that he is using and how he is acting to assist all the residents in the worst-hit areas, now and in the future? Facts to the public, rather than hearsay stories, would be helpful.

  6. tsmithfield 6

    “Equally concerning is the example of a Welfare Centre that in a blatant act of racism evicted a large Maori whanau who were seeking comfort, support and refuge in a facility set up for this purpose (‘freeloaders’ was the term used).”

    This was publicised in Christchurch at the time. As I remember it they claimed their house had been red stickered, when investigations found this not to be the case. Also, this group was acting abusively to others in the center. Given those set of circumstances I would expect anyone from any race to be asked to leave.

    This goes to show that these days its difficult to say anything without being called a racist

  7. Jared 7

    Those welfare centres were explicitly set up to cater for all kinds of distress, whether it be emotional or physical. It was made clear that anyone could use them, to get aid and feel safe regardless of whether you had property damage or not. So to claim that the whanau in question had ‘no visible damage’ or that inspectors only ‘visited one house’ is beside the point.

    As more reports come in it seems clear that racism has been a factor in kicking them out — of course a large Maori whanau are going to ‘intimidate’ those already scared of groups of Maori from the media and common discourse. We shouldn’t be so quick to ride on the back of mainstream media accounts, nor accept the reports of a largely Pakeha audience — at least until more info comes to light. But it does seem that the colour of their skin and their links to certain organisations influenced their removal.

    • Zorr 7.1

      I dislike comments like these because while espousing a view that states they are against the problems inherent in the system, they merely create new problems. It makes me feel like I have just been slapped with a “because you are white you are therefore racist and can’t be trusted to discuss issues involving Maori” sticker. This has nothing to do with the color of their skin – I would have the same complete distrust for a skinhead/neo-Nazi family (or a family involved with LibertariaNZ).

      Once again, as I previously stated above, don’t be so quick to try playing the racism card.

  8. henry olongo 8

    I live 200 metres from the whanau you are discussing. They are a big family with gang connections in ‘shirleyhood’. This is one of chchs safest neighbourhoods because fuckwits know not 2 try burgs round here. They are also nice people. The media beat the story up big time.

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