Occupy Sandy: Disaster Relief With a Side of Solidarity
It's 2 PM on Veterans Day, and the lobby of the Ocean Village high-rise in the Far Rockaways is pitch-black. Guided by guards with flashlights, new Occupy Sandy volunteers stumble through an iron door into a bunker-like community room full of supplies. Ocean Village tenants aren't allowed into the supply room, and volunteers must do their best to fill orders (batteries and deodorant, for instance, run out quickly).
The low-income residents have been without power, heat or water for over two weeks, and many are at their wits' end. Vanita Wheeler, an asthmatic, struggles to go up and down 17 flights of stairs, and she fears slipping on urine in the dark if she goes to the bathroom at night. And Latisha Smalls, a single mom who has been struggling to see her psychiatrist for crucial prescription refills, never knew a one-bedroom apartment could get so cold.
Management, it seems, can't get its act together to secure generators, but still makes sure to collect rent.
Relief organizers in the building are at their wits' end, too. "It's the same people coming back and forth right now," says Brie, an Ocean Village resident who has been volunteering relentlessly. "I'm sick of everybody." Residents have largely gotten their most-needed supplies, but some are still stuck in their rooms while others repeatedly come back for extras. Fights have broken out. Something needs to change.
Kei Gowda and Elena Jones, already veterans after mere days of volunteering, step in with a solution: shut down the distribution hub here, but continue serving hot food and checking in on residents who can't leave their apartments. Start a task force devoted to the poorest and hardest-hit areas of the Rockaways below Beach 60th Street. And have Brie take a day off to see her mother.
"Trick or Aid"
Occupy Sandy was born on Halloween with “Trick or Aid,” a group of about ten Occupy Wall Street activists going door to door asking New Yorkers for hurricane relief supplies. The effort exploded on social media and through word of mouth. When the donation piles grew too big for spare corners in private apartments, occupiers quickly set up a small distribution hub in Red Hook, one of the hardest-hit areas of Brooklyn. Then, teaming up with recovers.org and 350.org, they worked with OWS-friendly churches to establish an organized central dispatch that would send piles of goods—and thousands of volunteers—to around 20 different locations.
Most of those volunteers don't identify as occupiers. Many simply Googled ways to help with the relief, and Occupy Sandy's central hub at St. Jacobi Church in Brooklyn was the first to pop up, or the only one accepting volunteers. And yet they are participating in a very Occupy-style effort—horizontal, fast-paced, and constantly evolving.
Occupy has always thrived in a crisis. In the days of Zuccotti Park, that crisis was often self-imposed; urban camping brought with it constant logistical headaches. But through trial and error and with all hands on deck, Occupy constantly improvised solutions to problems as they arose. It trained organizers to think on their feet, and it established wide-reaching social networks. So when the storm hit New York, that same dexterity allowed Occupy Sandy, and the community groups it linked up with, to respond faster and more effectively than the government.
"The National Guard has been reaching out to us for help," said Nicholas, a long-time Occupy organizer.
Some, like Nicholas, have been with the movement forever and volunteer constantly but most are newbies—as were Gowda and Jones—who will come, pitch in, learn, pass that knowledge on to others, and probably leave. Some who volunteer for a day or two might even be children; about 150 kids from the non-profit Beam Center came to help.
The central hub is more organized than some of the distribution centers like Ocean Village and operates like a beehive functioning without a queen. People in the field use a Google voice hotline and a cel.ly mass text hub to communicate needs to dispatchers, who then fill out forms to be sent to ride coordinators, who then pack volunteers and supplies into cars headed for stricken areas. Still other volunteers sort through massive shipments of supplies in the church basement, or briefly orient new recruits before they get whisked away to the field. It's one of the best qualities of Occupy: Anyone who shows up willing to work gets something to do, and that integrates them further into the community.
Occupy Sandy also plugs human and material resources into already-organized community networks. On Staten Island, the Midland Beach VFW center has been converted into a supply station behind ad hoc walls of bottled water, plastic bins, and Red Cross comfort kits. Immediately across the street, five roofs separated from their houses wallow in a battered field. Men sit straddling the tops, ripping them apart with crowbars and sledgehammers.
Local men in baseball caps and Henleys with rolled-up sleeves shout for extra hands to unload some trucks and load up others. A doctor down from Boston stitches up a gash on the hand of a wailing girl. Her blood drips on the pavement.
Inside, bedraggled mothers comb through shelves organized supermarket-style with food, toiletries, and cleaning supplies.
"Take whatever you need," volunteers tell newcomers. This close-knit neighborhood had the highest death toll in the hardest-hit borough; some of the volunteers themselves have lost more than property.
In a tree next to the driveway of the VFW, a stuffed donkey hangs, a noose of yellow rope around its neck.
It's an effigy made by people with no time for craftsmanship. Someone has scrawled on it in Sharpie: "BLOOMBERG (AKA ASSHOLE)."
New challenges, not a new cause
Activists are fond of saying that there are no natural disasters. A cataclysmic natural event merely exposes society's hidden inequities; people starving quietly in their homes are driven into the streets, and recovery from devastation shakes out neatly along class lines.
And everywhere in Occupy Sandy is the six-year-old specter of Hurricane Katrina. It haunts people like Occupy Wall Street activist and Sandy volunteer Sofia Gallisa Murienge because of the government negligence, the appalling death toll, and the eventual aftermath: A privatization agenda forced on a shell-shocked city.
Damage in New Orleans was used as an excuse to tear down low-income housing and usher in mass, rapid gentrification. In the rebuilding, the city's schools were sold off to charter companies. The government targeted a grassroots hurricane relief organization, Common Ground Collective, for repression. And New Orleans has never been the same.
To stave off a similar outcome in New York, Occupy Sandy hopes to grow into more than just a relief effort — it hopes to fight what organizers call "disaster capitalism," the voracious cannibalization of ravaged areas into profits.
"Not just the government, but the property owners in the region are going to take this opportunity to really transform the demographics and the fabric of those neighborhoods," Gallisa Murienge, a 26-year-old independent filmmaker, told Campus Progress. "It's a really terrible thing to watch and we're hoping that we can somehow be a part of creating a resistance to that transformation."
The Occupiers dream of a differently rebuilt city: Green construction and energy. Greater community power. Solidarity. In other words, the same vision activists had the last time they faced an unimaginable crisis.
As response transitions into rebuilding, this vision may clash with the city's. But for now, across much of New York, the community-based response network — of which Occupy is merely a part — is focused on meeting basic needs where the government and NGOs fall short.
There are, of course, limits to all-volunteer initiatives. "We're headed towards rebuilding efforts now, and that's where economies of scale are needed," said Occupy activist Haywood Carey. For instance, Gov. Cuomo has announced a massive job relief program for hurricane-displaced workers. And Occupy has forged a deeply ironic alliance with the very city government that violently evicted it a year ago.
But what the government can't do is help forge a community's identity.
The crown jewel of the Occupy operation is "You Are Not Alone," or YANA, a community center that now serves as a Rockaway Park donation hub. Sal Epizio, who for a year put everything he had into building YANA, had the bad luck of opening the center a week before Sandy hit. He had lost everything, but when Occupy Sandy came around, he opened his doors to them.
Now, after community members saw the work being done and pitched in, YANA has a free medical clinic (to which FEMA has directed patients, according to Gallisa Murienge), volunteer intake and logistics areas, hot meal service, and a warming station.
And volunteers are helping to rebuild Epizio’s center, complete with solar panels and sustainable architecture that Epizio had dreamed of but couldn’t afford. It's an act of solidarity and mutual aid that many residents are unlikely to forget.
"It's really become a moment where a lot of people have been able to rethink the way they treat each other, rethink the way their communities operate," said Gallisa Murienge, "so there's real fertile ground for long-term transformation."
Emily Crockett is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @emilycrockett. Shay O'Reilly is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter @shaygabriel.