Natural disasters have a way of uniting people. Consider the United States after Hurricane Katrina, or the tornadoes that decimated Joplin, Missouri in in 2011: although both instances (but especially Katrina) were marked by problems of class and race, in each case a nation—if only for a short time—rallied together in order to support those living in an area touched by disaster.
The storm which struck the mid-Atlantic United States on October 29—officially named Hurricane Sandy but donned with more colorful titles like “Super-” and “Frankenstorm”—was another such moment. After Sandy hit, donations began to pour into the Red Cross; many politicians (briefly) ceased campaigning, just days before a major election; municipal governments along the Eastern seaboard hustled to return power to the millions of homes which had lost it; and somewhere in New York City, a movement that had been declared dead a dozen times over was gearing up for one of its most impactful campaigns to date.
Disaster Relief Without Bureaucracy
The network of Occupy Wall Street (OWS)-affiliated activists known as Occupy Sandy has built an impressive record of accomplishments in just over a month. Its volunteer network has drawn in tens of thousands of people from across the East Coast, and at the time of this writing the group has raised over $700,000 to aid storm victims in New York City and Northern New Jersey. Not to mention the hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of material goods the group has collected: perishable and non-perishable food, clothing for people of all ages, batteries, blankets, baby wipes, and much, much more.
This massive disaster relief effort didn’t just appear out of thin air, though. Much of the foundation for Occupy Sandy’s mobilization after the hurricane was laid out months in advance, by means of another Occupy-related group.
Michael Badger is a longtime member of InterOccupy, an OWS working group aimed at connecting activists in various Occupy groups, and an administrator of the website interoccupy.net. The website in particular, originally conceived as a series of individualized pages or ‘hubs’ for activists working on different campaigns, would end up playing a key role in facilitating a response to Sandy.
“When I heard that we were organizing around Sandy I reached out to a couple of the people that I had heard were talking about this and said ‘hey, do you want to start a hub?” Badger said. As the relief effort grew, Badger and others in InterOccupy realized that there was a need to centralize all of the information coming in about distribution, volunteer, and drop-off sites popping up across New York City—and that’s exactly what they did.
“In about three days after Sandy happened,” Badger remembered,” we were getting about 50,000 hits per hour. Prior to that, the most we’d ever got in a day was maybe 2000.” The website includes such features as a map of every drop-off site and volunteer site in New York City, as well as a link to ‘Wedding Registries,’ a service of Amazon.com that allows activists to ask for specific items at specific locations in the city, so that donors can purchase the items for them online. The site reflects a well-known ability of Occupy groups to leverage web-based tools to their advantage.
At the communications center at St. Jacobi Church in Brooklyn, one could watch information flow seamlessly between mediums. A call would come in and Google Voice would transfer the call to one of several cell phones linked to a centralized account. Perhaps it was someone in the Rockaways needing ten blankets and twenty hot meals, or twelve packs of diapers and a winter coat—no matter what the person asked for, a volunteer would take down the information and post it to a shared Google spreadsheet, one shared between dozens of volunteers at Brooklyn communications centers.
Volunteers had to sign off on any requests they put in, so methods of accountability were built into the system. If a problem arose, it could be followed through the chain of communication.
Many, both in and out of Occupy, have noted that this sort of decentralized, collaborative effort is what’s made the group’s efforts stand out from those of FEMA and the Red Cross. “The challenge with government and other organizations is that they have a hard time letting go of that centralized control,” Badger noted. “And I think that with Sandy, what we saw was that we at Occupy were able to respond so fast because we had no layers of bureaucracy to go through. “
Bostonians Helping New Yorkers
This was definitely a sentiment shared by Rita Sebastian, a sustainable international development planner and Occupy Boston activist.
“As far as I’m concerned, [Occupy Sandy] is a new type of relief work. It’s targeted, it’s bottom-up, and it works. And it’s sustainable, because you involve the whole community in the process,” Sebastian said.
When the word got out that OWS was looking for donations and volunteers for a Hurricane Sandy relief effort, Occupy activists in the Boston area sprang into action. Much like in New York City, drop-off centers were established around the city for donations, and a website set up to centralize information about the relief efforts and raise money (over $1300). From there, Sebastian and dozens of other activists drove the donations down to New York City, at one point using a loaded 24-foot Uhaul to carry all of the supplies.
Sebastian spent almost two weeks volunteering with Occupy Sandy before Thanksgiving, and returned shortly after the holiday to help set up legal aid clinics. “In the same way that Occupy could not have existed without the National Lawyers Guild, relief work cannot exist without having legal aid.” Sebastian said. “It helps to teach people their rights, to cut through the bureaucratic red tape…and help if their applications [for government assistance] are denied.”
In discussing her time spent volunteering in the Rockaways—a seaside neighborhood of Queens that was hit particularly hard by the hurricane—Sebastian continually noted the thoroughness and organization of the volunteer effort she witnessed.
“At the donation center, we had a traffic pattern with three doors. One door was for donations specifically, and the other was the entrance for people to wait in line, and one was an exit. Batteries for flashlights were in one area, water on the left. Around the corner there’d be clothing, women’s clothing, men’s clothing, children’s clothing. We even had dog and cat food, and some cat carriers and leashes to give away,” Sebastian said. “We always made sure people got what they needed, and that they could come back the next day.”
The efforts to help after Sandy were not limited to Boston, however. Others from around the region did what they could to help with the relief effort, including Occupy New England (ONE), a collaboration of Occupy groups from the Northeast. Jay Kamenis, an organizer with ONE who helped to coordinate its relief efforts, said that connections the group had developed over the last year “became the vehicle for people to connect” after the storm.
“People could say ‘Hey, I’ve got a box truck coming from Maine, and I’m gonna stop anywhere where we can pick up more donations,’” Kamenis said, “so people in a little suburb of Connecticut could collect donations and ask to have them brought down, or somebody from Occupy Portland.”
For Rita Sebastian, some of the most important connections were the new ones made while working in communities after the storm. Sebastian described the powerful impact simple acts of aid had on the lives of those affected most by the storm:
“One day,” Sebastian recalled, “a woman came in to get her son a jacket, her son was probably a college student. He got a very nice jacket, but I said ‘But you need a jacket!’ So we found her a jacket, and a matching hat and scarf and gloves. She was wearing these clothes and posing like a model, and just beaming…because she felt beautiful. It was just one of those moments when you could see that someone felt their dignity was restored. She jumped up and down with joy, because she felt like she was getting such nice things.”
Different Page from the Same Playbook
Much of the commentary and reporting in the mainstream media focused on Occupy Sandy as a “Return of Occupy” to the sociopolitical scene. Many of the same outlets that just two months before had lambasted the movement for the disruptive tactics and street theatrics of its one year anniversary—like Slate, the Boston Herald, and New York Daily News—now were asking some version of the question, ‘Could this be a new direction for the Occupy Movement?’
What many reporters and commentators failed to realize is that this kind of aid was a part of the Occupy movement from the start, both in practice and in ethos. Every major Occupy encampment in the country had a Food Tent, provided limited amounts of clothing and administered first aid as needed. Occupy Boston’s food tent served about 1,000 meals per day at its peak, the majority of it donated or freegan-recycled by groups like Food Not Bombs. An independent assessment of Occupy Vancouver’s 37 day encampment found that the group had provided over $1 million in services, including 37,000 meals, $672,000 of primary medical care and housing for 30 homeless persons.
But even for Occupy groups not as well funded as Boston, Vancouver, or New York City, a campaign like Occupy Sandy speaks to an ideal that even the smallest groups still try to hold to: mutual aid.
The term ‘mutual aid,’ as used in circles influenced by Anarchist philosophy (including Occupy), refers to the concept of people mutually supporting one another out of a sense of shared space and struggle. This support can be material, like in a commune, or emotional, like with Alcoholics Anonymous (although the group would likely not identify as Anarchist-influenced).
What much of the commentariat has failed to notice is that the philosophy behind Occupy Sandy is precisely in line with the overall philosophy of the Occupy movement, a practical application of the lessons learned in Anarchism 101. Far from being something new, the temporary focus on disaster relief is just an extension of the movement’s clarion call, ‘We are the 99 percent.’ This time around, however, it meant engaging the effects of structural inequality on a new terrain: the tattered, debris-strewn path of a hurricane.