When the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park met a violent end last November, Occupiers knew the movement wasn’t over. Away from the limelight and the police barricades, they spent the next year building communication networks that enabled skill-sharing and cooperation on a global scale. And they would have continued with this work, quietly supporting small but significant victories along the way, if Hurricane Sandy hadn’t called them into more visible action.
Less than a week after the storm, the back room on the second floor of the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in Brooklyn buzzed with dozens of volunteers. Some sat at a long table lined with laptops, maintaining constant communication with organizers in the hardest-hit neighborhoods of New York City’s outer boroughs. A chart propped against one wall provided instructions on how to connect the massive outpouring of volunteers and supplies with a constantly updated list of needs.
This adaptability is nothing new for participants in Occupy Wall Street. Most of us have learned not to wait for the powers that be to save the day, when change will ultimately come from ordinary citizens.
This belief has never proven more true than in the response to Hurricane Sandy.
Disaster relief takes on inequality
If I hadn’t been part of a group that has learned to question the ability of private industry and the state to meet people's needs, I might have believed Mayor Bloomberg when he said the worst was behind us on the day after the storm. Instead, I headed to Red Hook, a South Brooklyn neighborhood deluged during Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge, to help refill the dwindling insulin supplies of stranded seniors.
There, residents were without electricity, water, and heat, both in the Red Hook Houses—Brooklyn’s largest public housing development—and on Van Brunt Street, a strip lined with specialty shops. At first glance, the storm seemed to have acted as a great equalizer in this gentrifying neighborhood.
A few days later, I saw newspaper photos of cell phone charging stations in the rapidly reviving, wealthy neighborhoods of downtown Manhattan, while hearing from friends in the mostly working-class beach community of the Rockaways that many elderly and disabled people were trapped in their apartments with basic needs unmet. It was clear the media was more interested in covering the inconvenience of being without a smartphone than the life-threatening plights of those who lived in difficult circumstances before the storm.
The systemic inequities that fueled the Occupy Wall Street protests were being reinforced in the wake of disaster. I wondered how economic and racial inequality would affect recovery efforts in Red Hook.
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Similar questions led Conor Tomás Reed, an Occupy Wall Street-affiliated activist and graduate teaching fellow at Baruch College, to join forces with organizers at the youth-focused community organization Red Hook Initiative (RHI) on the day after the storm. Together they recognized a potential opportunity in the crisis.
With the guidance of Cheryl Nash-Chisholm, RHI’s Youth Employment Specialist, Reed facilitated community meetings that brought residents of the Red Hook Houses together with others who worked and lived in the neighborhood. Reed points out that these groups began to work together despite their different backgrounds. “We saw the recovery work from day one as a political effort,” he explained.
Other activists working on the relief effort agreed that they had conceived of their hopes for addressing systemic problems long before the storm arrived. Many of the people working side-by-side cleaning mold and delivering blankets had spent the past year together, organizing and strategizing for long-term impact as part of the Occupy movement.
Paulie Anne Duke, a performer, visual artist, and former participant in Occupy Oakland, heard about the need for volunteers in Red Hook from fellow Occupy activists. She soon found herself acting as a mediator between various political entities in Red Hook, including RHI, Visitation Church, residents, small-business owners, and representatives from the office of New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. She is particularly enthusiastic about a plan to disburse federal aid funds for community organizations in an egalitarian and transparent process inspired by Occupy.
“I would say that Occupy Sandy’s strongest point is bringing an analysis of power and inequality,” Duke said, “looking at structures that are oppressive and coming up with ideas for an alternative.”
Putting new skills to work
That emphasis on power and alternatives may seem like an odd approach to disaster relief. But in a way, disaster relief is what Occupy has always been about.
After Hurricane Sandy, Rebecca Solnit remembered the 2011 Occupy Wall Street camp, writing that “All those tents, medical clinics, and community kitchens in the encampments reminded me of the aftermath of an earthquake. The occupiers looked like disaster survivors—and in a sense they were, though the disaster they had survived was called the economy.” The relief efforts are an extension of this crisis intervention, and should be seen not as Occupy rebranded, but Occupy evolved.
The oft-repeated narrative arc of Occupy is that it burst forth, grew with a fervor, and then disappeared once the encampments were evicted. It’s assumed that dormancy followed until that rag-tag gang of protesters somehow sprang into action in response to Hurricane Sandy.
But while the number of people attending marches and rallies may have plateaued last fall, Occupy never stopped growing. As Reed points out, many of the skills that have proven necessary for the relief effort, such as providing food and medical care in makeshift settings, developed first in the Occupy encampments. And even that version of the story hides the cultivation of political organizing skills that took place after the camps were gone.
“We also learned how to facilitate conversations of thousands of people,” Reed explains. “It wasn’t a dress rehearsal because it was real then, but it was also practice for something on a much larger scale.”
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And Occupy's innovations in communication weren’t limited to general assemblies. InterOccupy, a communication platform that allows activists around the world to coordinate through conference calls and online “hubs,” has proven integral to the efficiency and effectiveness of Occupy Sandy efforts.
InterOccupy organizer Tammy Shapiro explained that the project started with a conference call last October, but it was the new website and CiviCRM software system that has allowed the organizers of Occupy Sandy to keep track of supplies and volunteers.
Even more important, Shapiro said, are the relationships that were built between activists who met in Zuccotti Park. “If we needed someone to cook or do technical support, we all knew who to call,” she explained, “because we’re a network of people who work together.”
Her co-organizer, Larry Swetman, added that this network goes beyond people who met in Zuccotti Park. “There is a person in Kalamazoo, Michigan, who has been incredible in tech support for the New Jersey effort,” he said.
“It’s not just who did I meet in the park,” he stressed, “but who did I meet at the port shutdown [in May] or at the national gathering [in July]?”
Building new realities
For some, Occupy Wall Street may have been merely a response to the economic recession that began in 2009. But for many of us it was about something larger, about upending entrenched systems that depend on inequality. This idea differentiates Occupy Sandy from most other relief efforts. Its organizers don’t just want to rebuild; they want to build better.
“It’s making us shed our naiveté about centralization and working with people who do not have identical politics,” Reed said. “In Red Hook we’ve been trying to think of how best to establish ourselves to support the community and work as allies.”
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