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In Hurricane Sandy Relief, a Reminder of Occupy’s Original Spirit

Commentators in the mainstream media have said the effective hurricane relief accomplished by Occupy Sandy represents a new direction in the movement. In fact, nothing could be closer to its founding ideas and actions.

This article is adapted from a blog entry that appeared on the Huffington Post.

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Mainstream media outlets from The New York Times and the Washington Post to the online magazine Slate have reported on the swift and effective response of the umbrella group known as Occupy Sandy. To borrow a metaphor from Times reporter Alan Feuer, it would seem that after nearly a year of "wander[ing] in a desert of more intellectual, less visible projects, like farming, fighting debt and theorizing on banking,” the Occupy movement has finally found its true cause and ultimate commandment: just helping out.

Occupy’s emphasis on sustainable networks and grassroots connectivity was crucial to the early success of the movement.

In fact, this determination to address basic needs has been a concern of the Occupy movement from the very beginning. For those who have followed the movement since its early days, the emergence of Occupy Sandy looks less like the endpoint of an erratic and itinerant journey than a necessary step in the ongoing evolution of the Occupy movement.

Where Feuer suggests that Occupy Sandy “renew[ed] the impromptu passions of Zuccotti,” we see the relief efforts as evidence of the continuity of Occupy’s aims. What started on September 17 of last year as a protest against the disproportionate influence of Wall Street on the American political and economic systems quickly transitioned into an effort to create sustainable networks of community organization.

The impetus, it is true, was simple. Occupy wanted community support networks that were not determined by the corporate logic of the "bottom line" or the victimization stigma that attaches to any movement that demands "entitlements" or "handouts" from the government. The encampment in Zuccotti Park, where all could freely come and go, symbolized an aspiration that would be central to the 2012 election. The country did not want to divide itself into givers and takers, corporate "job creators" and Romney's now-infamous "47 percent."

Charity means: "I'm fine, so I'll give you something." Mutual aid means: "We're all in this together, so let's help each other out."

In an era in which we are increasingly coming to terms with the fact that essential technologies such as the Internet have been built and sustained not by the government or the private sector but by "peer networks," Occupy’s emphasis on sustainable networks and grassroots connectivity was not incidental to the early success of the movement. The slogan “We are the 99%” provided the baseline for a new political discourse in the simple point that everyone—working-class, middle-class, and homeless; black, white, and Latino—both contributes to and benefits from our society.

Within the first week of setting up camp in Zuccotti Park, people in Occupy started talking about the importance of systems of "mutual aid" rather than systems of "charity." Charity means: "I'm fine, so I'll give you something." Mutual aid means: "We're all in this together, so let's help each other out."

The distinction between charity and mutual aid was often met with sneers about the idealism of Occupy Wall Street. Yet the recent efforts of Occupy Sandy have demonstrated the practical and logistical value of mutual aid. While government agencies like FEMA have struggled to mobilize their bureaucratic machinery, and large charitable organizations like the Red Cross have gotten stalled in attempts to funnel money, clothes, and food from donors to victims, Occupy Sandy has been successful in large part because it offers itself as a network of and for people and communities.

The relief centers set up by Occupy Sandy have prioritized meeting people's needs directly rather than telling them what to do and how to get help. The organizer Catherine Yeager put it succinctly in an interview with Democracy Now outside a relief hub in the Rockaways: "FEMA down the street... is handing out pieces of paper that tell you to call a phone number to get help. Here, you come, and you get help immediately." This determination to address basic needs has been a concern of the Occupy movement from the very beginning, as anyone who ate the free meals provided by the kitchen in Zuccotti Park encampment will know.

Anyone who builds truly democratic community structures should be considered part of the movement.

Perhaps the biggest shift in public perception that has taken place over the last few weeks is the realization that the Occupy movement is as good at cooperating with communities as it is at protesting inequality.

Similarly, some of the more intransigent members of Occupy have recognized that, despite the insufficiency of the response by FEMA and large charity organizations, many members of state and local governments have been tirelessly working to help local communities rebuild and restore. Residents on Staten Island gushed about the dedication of the Department of Sanitation workers who were removing rubble from collapsed and damaged houses day and night, and comments from multiple sources indicate that police officers and military personnel have coordinated directly with Occupy Sandy relief hubs.

These are good signs for the future of Occupy. One of the main obstacles that the movement has confronted in the last year has been its tendency to use a stereotypical image of the activist as its public face, failing to accept that anyone who builds truly democratic community structures should be considered part of the project. It is heartening to see real cooperation between Occupy participants and grassroots organizations in the rebuilding efforts, from community relief networks and local churches to immigrant centers.

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Hopefully, the heightened publicity surrounding Occupy Sandy will help to underscore the inclusiveness of its aims and put to rest the idea that Occupy is at its core an "anti" movement.

Let's start by admitting that relief hubs are not the Promised Land that errant former protesters have somehow wandered into, as if the Occupy participants, like the ancient Hebrews, have simply been waiting for a sign from above to direct them where to go.

The inappropriateness of Feuer’s metaphor is symptomatic of the mainstream media’s misreading of Occupy from the movement’s earliest days. Impelled by the competition for the freshest real-time updates, news outlets like The New York Times have covered the movement as a series of fortuitous and isolated events, rather than a long-term process. Now more than ever, we need to recognize the flaw in believing, in Feuer’s words, that “the times have conspired to deliver an event that fully calls upon the movement’s talents.”

This type of work was part of the movement’s project from the beginning. Occupy Sandy and the relief hubs are just one more destination on our shared route to profound and constructive political, economic, and social change.


Jeffrey Lawrence and Luis Moreno-Caballud wrote this article for the Huffington Post. It has been adapted for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions.

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