On November 9, the New York Times published an article titled “Occupy Sandy: A Movement Moves to Relief.” The URL for the story, which presumably reflects either an alternate or an original headline, offers a slightly more pointed take: “Where FEMA Fell Short, Occupy Sandy Was There.” And that sums up, I think, what many New Yorkers have found in the three weeks since Hurricane Sandy: the big, bureaucratic organizations, and government agencies traditionally associated with emergency relief have been maddeningly limited, while Occupy Sandy, the latest arm of Occupy Wall Street that sprung up right after the storm, seems to be unendingly effective.
I left town at the end of hurricane week, for a vacation I had planned long before. When I ventured out of my neighborhood for the first time, it was to JFK airport, and from there to San Francisco. When I arrived in California, the weather was immaculate, and it felt deeply strange to be in a place where the sun was shining and there had been no storm. Friends out there, a number of them transplants from New York, asked me about the hurricane. They asked me how the city was doing, and I said not great but I didn’t really know, because I hadn’t seen any of the destruction firsthand. One friend asked me specifically about Occupy Sandy — by that time, the reports of the group’s amazing work had started to emerge, and he wanted to know if what he was hearing was true. Again, I told him I didn’t know.
As it turns out, in those first days after the storm, people came from all over New York to volunteer. The response was incredible. These people brought donations as well as themselves, ready and eager to help with the recovery. But many of them were turned away: the city and the Red Cross didn’t know what to do with them. The Red Cross had only just shown up itself, after a fairly delayed response that left a lot of people angry. Then, to add insult to injury, mother nature delivered a Nor’easter the following week. In the face of this second, colder but less destructive storm, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) closed its offices, leaving tens of thousands of people who didn’t (and still don’t) have power or heat to get by without its assistance.
I returned to New York on November 9. It had been almost two weeks since the hurricane, and although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy my vacation, I knew that all I wanted to do when I got back was volunteer with Occupy Sandy. I wanted to be useful, and I wanted see for myself what was happening. I went to one of the organization’s hubs, the Church of St. Luke & St. Matthew in Clinton Hill, on November 10.
Approaching the church was a bit overwhelming: the activity seemed so constant, with all the parts working so efficiently, that inserting myself felt like disrupting a natural ecosystem. Inside the church, there were boxes and bags and more boxes and more bags of supplies and donations lining the pews. There were two tables set up to the right, one of them for volunteer sign-in. After filling out an electronic form and writing my name on a piece of masking tape, I made my way to a circle of chairs to wait for orientation. I started talking with another woman who was also waiting, and as it turned out, she worked for a city housing agency. Employees, she said, had been dispatched to shelters, but at the one where she was stationed, the ratio of government workers to people in need of assistance was at least 2:1. So she came to Occupy to actually do something. That seemed symbolic.
After a brief, basic orientation, those of us who wanted to go out into the field filed past the rows of pews lined with donations, up to the altar, where we met a man named Yo Tom (I didn’t get the proper spelling) for a more extensive talk about the work we would be doing. This training lasted for at least half an hour, maybe 45 minutes, and offered some real insight into the nature of Occupy Sandy and how it differs from traditional relief. The core of it can be summed up in one of Yo Tom’s phrases that has resonated with me ever since: “It’s not service work; it’s social justice work.”
There are a number of ways in which Occupy Sandy gives meaning to this phrase, from the group’s understanding of the hurricane to its actual work helping those hurt by it. Yo Tom talked a lot about the context for the storm — environmentally, global warming, and socially, the fact that most of the New Yorkers still without power and heat 12 days later were people of color living in low-income housing. In other words, the hurricane has helped expose (or remind us of) the larger systemic problems of the city. What’s more, he stressed that the last thing Occupy volunteers wanted to do was to barge into these communities and take charge. We were going out there to bring food and donations, but also to assist local groups and leaders with the work they were already doing. This wasn’t about being white saviors (the group was mixed, but the majority was undeniably white); it was about empowering people.
Along those lines, Occupy Sandy has a highly individualized approach; the group finds out what hurricane victims actually need and solicits donations accordingly, so that, ideally, a community in the Rockaways doesn’t end up with 500 peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches but no cleaning supplies. Yo Tom also discussed human communication as a basic need that a lot of these people, trapped on the top floors of their high-rise buildings, had been doing without. We could help by listening to them for five minutes rather than showing up with a checklist and a predetermined set of questions. Plus, he said, they know what they need best. This struck me as both obvious and immensely important to say and hear. You don’t just assuming everyone needs blankets and show up with blankets.
Of course the reality of things is never quite what we’d like it to be, and when I went out the next day, things felt more ambiguous. Rather than the canvassing in Coney Island I thought I’d be doing, I ended up handing out supplies in Red Hook’s Coffey Park. The tent where we set up our snaking, free, grocery-store-like aisle was a joint effort of the city and Occupy Sandy. Yes, you read that right: the city and Occupy, working together. Not only that, but the group has been working with the online retailer Amazon, where it has an Occupy Sandy wedding registry; UPS, which is running deliveries for them directly; and other big corporations — not exactly the people you’d expect an Occupy offshoot to welcome with open arms.
“The long term goal is to create an initiative that would not have to rely on those sort of large organizations,” Ethan Gould, one of the co-coordinators at the Clinton Hill hub, told me. But “partly because it’s crunch time, it’s a disaster,” he explained, the group has reached out to “large companies with good philanthropy built into their organizational structure” — although not without much internal discussion and debate.
As for Bloomberg and his government, “I’m concerned that the city is in aggregate ignoring its other systemic problems,” Gould said. “I think everyone was just shocked by how hamstrung government efforts were in the first weeks of the storm. Occupy is filling this need. I have a fear that the city will start to take credit for these initiatives.”
That seems a distinct possibility, but at least in the meantime, it’s something of a marvel to see the city working with and learning from Occupy Sandy. And it’s not just New York: there have been reports of the National Guard handing over their donations to be distributed by Occupy.
Back in Red Hook, I joined a mixed group of volunteers, mostly from Occupy and New York Cares, to hand out diapers, shampoo, candles, socks, water, canned vegetables, and whatever else you could think of — or we could find — to residents of the Red Hook Houses, who lined up with carts and trash bags at the ready. This, admittedly, felt much more like service than social justice: we seemed to be pushing them through in an uncomfortably rigid way, and one woman who had quickly stepped up and started leading warned us that people might be greedy and try to take more than they needed. Yo Tom’s words about people knowing their own needs best — spoken in pretty much the opposite spirit of the woman in Red Hook — sounded in my head. What’s more, while not all of the volunteers were white, it was impossible not to notice the racial difference between those giving out winter hats and those accepting them.
Still, the Red Hook residents said “thank you” when we gave them oil lamps, and you could tell that they meant it. These people needed supplies, and for now I was one working limb attached to the body that had managed to get and organize them. For now, for today, in the most immediate and present sense, that was what mattered.