THE BLOG
11/16/2012 05:46 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2013

What Is a Gift?

By K. Miles and Andy Bichlbaum

As the holiday season fast approaches, it has come to our attention that some of our city officials need some help understanding the concept of "gift."

On Monday, NYCHA chairman John Rhea visited a public housing complex that had been without power, water, or heat since Hurricane Sandy. He told the residents they would be required to pay full rent despite having no services, but that they'd get a rent credit in January, calling it "a nice little Christmas present."

It seems that Rhea needs a lesson in what constitutes a present and what doesn't.

First, what a gift isn't.

If you give someone something you stole from them, it's not a gift. If you give someone money you owe them, it's not a gift. If you wrongfully collect rent, knowing your tenants can legally refuse to pay because you're not providing basic services, and then you give part of that rent back two months later -- that's certainly not a gift.

Got it? Good. Now, what a gift actually is.

If a city's administration launches a coordinated attack on your movement, and then you come back to help save that city's ass when its underfunded agencies find themselves helpless in the face of disaster -- that's a gift. If a city's police force pepper-spray you, hit you with batons, and arrest you en masse for protesting Wall Street, and then, while that city (physically) bails out Wall Street, you pass out blankets to folks with no heat, develop a network of emergency shelters, and carry water up sixteen flights of stairs to public housing residents -- that's a gift. If a city violently evicts you from a park at which you provide free housing and medical care, and then you help provide it all over again when a storm renders thousands of new folks homeless -- that's a gift. A really, really nice one.

Last fall, the New York City mayor's office and police department tried to shut down the Occupy Wall Street movement by every means at their disposal. This fall -- working alongside many other grassroots groups, churches, and individuals to distribute donations and share resources with communities hit by the storm -- Occupy has ended up doing the city's job for them. While the city devoted huge efforts to making sure Wall Street could get back to work as quickly as possible, folks like these -- who have never been given "presents" from the city -- have stepped in to fill the void for everyone else.

For these people, such work is not a matter of gift-giving, but an act of common decency. They understand -- unlike John Rhea -- that food, medical attention, and livable housing are never "presents," but basic human rights.

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