March 11, 2023 By Gabriele Holtermann
Local artist and activist Lashawn “Suga Ray” Marston is on a hunger strike and sleep-in outside the publicly owned NYC Department of Education building at 44-46 Vernon Blvd. in Long Island City.
The Long Island City resident, who grew up at Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing development in the country, began his hunger strike on Feb. 28 and is planning to end the demonstration March 14, his 39th birthday. He told Queens/LIC Post that he started the strike because he wants the city to finally convert the building into much-needed community space.
The six-story building and the land the 600,000-square-foot facility sits on were once eyed by Amazon as its HQ2.
When Amazon withdrew after much community opposition, the Western Queens Community Lands Trust came up with plans to convert the building into a community land trust (CLT) with affordable manufacturing spaces, art and music studios, a shared commissary kitchen for food vendors, a food co-op and a rooftop farm.
The project would create long-term jobs and address the food inequities in Long Island City.
“It’s about food apartheid,” Marston, who runs the community organization “Transform America,” said. “We want to solve that in our neighborhood by having a rooftop farm where we solve the problem of food apartheid. The bad food that we’re eating that’s not nutritious in our supermarkets, and we want to create new jobs.”
Marston took the drastic measure because Long Island City has become a hotbed of gentrification, something Marston refers to as the “tale of two Long Island Cities.”
“I’m doing this for my neighborhood,” Marston said. “I’m not doing this for nothing happening around the world. I’m doing this for the people right here in western Queens, Long Island City and Queensbridge.”
Marston, who said he felt strong and motivated even after 11 days without food and sleeping in a tent, is also protesting 14 crises, including homelessness, a matter dear to his heart.
He pointed out unsheltered people in the city don’t get to sleep in a tent.
“I got lucky. I got a mattress and I got a bunch of blankets,” Marston said. “There are people who live on the streets, who don’t have that. It’s gonna rain tonight. I’m about to put the tarp over my tent so I will stay dry and warm. People are going to be sleeping tonight in the city who are going to keep dry with a piece of cardboard. That’s not okay. So we got to do better as a city and thinking about all of our people, not just the wealthy ones.”
Marston also had a message for Mayor Eric Adams, ”Work with the Western Queens Community Lands Trust. Give us the deed to the space so we can alleviate all the issues in our neighborhood.”
Ephraim Benton aka Fetti, a movie producer, actor and community activist from Bed-Stuy, is one of Marston’s longtime friends. Benton stopped by in support of Marston and to let him know that people were supporting his endeavor.
Benton said that art changed his life and that community centers could help kids tap into their creativity.
“I’m somebody that arts helped change my life,” Benton said. “It takes your mind beyond places. Just knowing that somebody can be creative is a beautiful thing. If you can help the youth tap into that and help bring them out. You know, that’s when you get the next Picasso, you get your next Jay Z’s.”
Alec Lichtenberg, an educator and artist from Elmhurst, stopped by because Marston’s action resonated with him.
“We don’t have enough public spaces where community can gather, create art,” Lichtenberg said. “So I do like that it has that component as well as the food food justice component and other kinds of technical trades.”
John Johnson came all the way from the Far Rockaway in support of Marston. Johnson, who works for National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), met Marston at a NAMI conference in 2018. Johnson wasn’t surprised when he heard of Marston’s plans of a hunger strike.
“It was typical of him. In terms of things that he’s committed to and things I’ve known that he’s done,” Johnson said. “Draw attention to the plight of folks that are struggling, you know, this is what he does. We need more brothers like him committed to the struggle and change and making things happen.”
While most in the community have been supportive of Marston’s action like the food vendor who gives him hot water for his tea, or the neighbor across the street who charges the portable battery, the Department of Sanitation doesn’t seem to be on board.
On Mar. 7, the Dept. of Sanitation posted a “Notice of New York City Clean-Up” on the lighting pole, that was slated to begin on Mar. 11.