After Sandy, Occupying for good

A volunteer describes her days working with the grassroots relief organization Occupy Sandy. "Occupy is re-purposed, with impressive, ongoing results."

Scroll this

Coverage of Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath is beginning to dry up in major media outlets. Yesterday, the Times reported the staggering costs that last month’s storm accrued in repairs, and a few human interest stories about families and individuals in the Rockaways and Coney Island pepper the back pages of our city’s larger publications. But, by and large, the New Yorkers whose homes and lives were turned upside down by Sandy are shrinking from the public eye as life in the inner boroughs appears to return to normalcy.

This is the way of things: the relief organizations, reporters, and photographers come in, basic goods and services charitably distributed, and shocking stories rush-exported. But beyond the reach of this narrow cycle, entire communities of New Yorkers continue to bear the weight of disaster on top of poverty.

A growing group of activists and volunteers presents a different way. While in-kind and journalistic efforts fade, I receive daily texts, emails, requests, and other messages from the organizers of Occupy Sandy. Today, the group begins to move out of one of the church basements that has served as a major distribution, education, and food-preparation hub in search of a new, more permanent home.

This morning’s latest email closed with, “THANK YOU to all of the volunteers who helped make the both spaces run. We look forward to working with all of you as we continue to do all of the important work ahead of us.” The Times‘ message yesterday was essentially, “We’re in trouble, and Washington better pay up.” The difference in tone is not a small one, and I believe the positive, inclusive, shared-responsibility approach is the kind of forward thinking that New Yorkers ought to adopt.

Though the death of Occupy Wall Street was all but accepted, this unwelcome storm has given the thousands involved an opportunity to use their networks, organizational skills, and fresh thinking towards a more tangible goal: instead of decrying the one percent, Occupy now aims to get New Yorkers back on their feet.

Daybreak at a distribution center.

Out of Occupy’s ghost has risen a very impressive network that imagines New York and New Yorkers in a forward-thinking light. A few days after the storm’s swells subsided, the mayor urged New Yorkers to give dollars rather than hours to well-established volunteer organizations like the Red Cross, but Occupy Sandy offers a different and more dynamic approach to the rebuilding efforts. Within hours of the storm, the old activist networks relit and buzzed with plans towards mobilization. Several hubs were established at churches in Sunset Park, Clinton Hill, and more, and within a week the numbers of meals served, eager volunteers, and donations doubled, tripled into the thousands.

A few weeks ago, I was deployed along with a dozen other volunteers as part of the first group from Occupy Sandy to visit Coney Island. After a brief orientation in the Clinton Hill hub and a walk through of the industrious facilities (the basement below was preparing hundreds of meals, an office above staffed by volunteers and their laptops sent out and received communications, and piles upon piles of donations based on community-sourced requests lay beyond the pews, sorted by volunteer hands. The entire time I was there, new faces streamed in, eager to help. No one was turned away. Some stayed, some went to the surrounding neighborhood to gather blankets, flashlights, diapers, and more, and some of us opted to head to Coney Island and the Rockaways to do outreach work.

The difference between the kind of work Occupiers do and the kind of work that larger organizations that the Red Cross are set up to do is in thoughtfulness, and in direct communication with affected communities. The focus lies on mutual aid rather than charity, a distinction that is not easy to mantain but at least in theory, makes all the difference.

When a group of strangers drove out to Coney Island to volunteer together, we passed lines of people awaiting meals and clothing donations from FEMA or the Red Cross. These organizations came in with a preexisting notion of what residents needed, set up camp in a central location, distributed goods, and planned to get out as soon as a need was deemed met. What about elderly residents trapped in their high rises without working elevators? What about asking the people what they need then coming up with goods and responses to meet these needs? What about human to human contact and sustained relationships with the communities that volunteers enter? These are the aims we tried to meet–not an easy, and not always a successful path–but it’s one well worth exploring as traditional methods of aid and recovery fail to meet the rising tide of environmental disaster and sustained poverty in the regions most affected by storms like Sandy.

Last week, I volunteered again and was sent to the Rockaways. Before heading out, we were seriously informed by one of the organizers not to gasp when we saw some of the homes and other sites of destruction in that area, and with good reason. Things are not back to normal there, and may not be for a very long time. Winter is coming in, and many people are left without basic needs.

It was heartening, though, to see an Occupy Sandy volunteer center with the words “You Are Not Alone” written on poster paper. Construction projects and donation centers are in full operation, and while I was there, posters were going up on telephone poles for a free-of-charge Thanksgiving feast.

Every day, through several modes of online communication, there is an ongoing conversation about what the communities in the Rockaways and elsewhere say they need, and what can be done to improve mutual aid efforts.

This is an even better use of Occupy momentum and networks than the original movement in Zuccotti. There are specific demands to be met. There are communities in need being ignored by, or being offered limited, patronizing aid by the more familiar organizations. Occupy is not dead–it is re-purposed, with impressive, ongoing results.

(Inset photo via Occupy Sandy)