It’s Back!: Sand, Solidarity and Occupy Sandy

13 Nov

Photo: Natalia Porter

Last weekend while in New York doing research, I spent some time helping out at one of the many distribution centres set up in Brooklyn and other parts of the city now offering clothing, bedding, groceries and hot meals to people still suffering the effects of Hurricane Sandy.

Mine was in Coney Island and I only had to walk by one open door to a dank and ruined basement apartment, a mound of broken and softened drywall on the sidewalk, to imagine what having your home flooded is really like.

Down on the beachfront, with its iconic Ferris wheel and hotdog shacks, people were picking rubbish and wreckage off the shore and shoveling sand off of the boardwalk. Further up, mounds of trash were still piled onto the sidewalks, and parked cars left with the grimy imprint of rising water. ‘I want to buy your flood car,’ one enterprising person had written on signs taped to their windows, along with a phone number.

The place where I worked was a small evangelical temple with a mostly Hispanic congregation, and most of those arriving there with their little kids and many needs were immigrants from Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. The church, itself barely cleared after being flooded as well, was packed with giant bags of and boxes of donated items. In the middle of it all, a long trestle table was spread with buffet-style metal servers of chicken, rice and chile con carne.

I spent most of my time sorting and dividing up the packs of clothing into boxes by age and gender; these would, in turn, be trucked out to other centres in the devastated Rockaways and Staten Island.

And one of the organizations sending out both volunteers by the dozen and  supplies by the ton was Occupy Sandy.

That’s right. The Occupy movement is back. And in New York, most of its energies are going towards providing — not charity, but mutual aid, as they like to call it — to Sandy’s many victims, especially the poor. People who lost not only personal possessions but electrical power, heat and in some cases, their homes.

“This is a tragedy that is still unfolding,” as a guy named Justin had put it earlier in the day at an Episcopal church in Clinton Heights, where people young and old were showing up in droves to see what they could do.

Occupy Sandy was restocking “a bunch of recovery sites,” he told a group of us. “People are communicating what the needs are with us through different means to let us know what’s going on,” he said, “and other people go to the recovery areas and distribute supplies out to individuals.”

According to Justin, Occupy Sandy — written up just last Sunday in the New York Times — was also looking for volunteers to go out into apartment buildings and talk to tenants as well. The idea was not so much to ask, ‘what do you need,’ but to engage in active listening. That way, he said, “they would become part of it as well; they start sharing the hotline number and resources and we can start amplifying our efforts.”

Occupy Wall Street got back together a couple of months ago in Zuccotti Park on its one-year anniversary, according to an older woman named Fatima, camped out in front of Trinity church in Lower Manhattan. While there was certainly a kind of organized disorganization to everything the previous day, the work Occupy Sandy was doing now wouldn’t have been possible, she said, without that two-month-old revival.

“One of the things it was able to establish was this network of people who had a common goal, as far as being the change you want to see in the rest of the world,” she said.

With the hurricane and its resulting chaos, “everybody was almost instantaneously able to mobilize, groups of volunteers who already know how to do a kitchen, how to contact each other and go into areas where there was nothing. Because that’s what the Park was; it was just a space that developed into a community within a couple of weeks with a kitchen, a media centre, a distribution centre, a mobile medical tent, everything a community needs,” she told me.

“For some of us,” she added, “it was about getting together, those of us with like minds, to figure out how to create a network to move this up and out and back into families and communities and address the issues that are going on.”

Based on their interests, abilities or perspectives, occupiers broke out into all kinds of different working groups, she said, “because there’s a million different issues on the table.”

Fatima said that she believed that, previously, most observers hadn’t seen what she called “the good that was being done behind the scenes” at Occupy, “that it is in the communities, that it is outreach and feeding station and free stores and ‘what can we do to help your community?’ It isn’t about charity because mutual aid is a community effort. It’s helping communities help themselves.”

Meanwhile, the tiny encampment at places like Trinity or the home of the CEO of Goldman Sachs was just a small part now of what Occupy was all about. “This is ground action,” she said, referring to the flattened cardboard and sleeping bags, bringing them some added visibility “and to set up a platform for people to come by and discuss and ‘oh, I didn’t know you were still here,’” she said, “because there’s a ton of Occupys throughout the city that people don’t see.”

So, aside from Sandy, what does the future hold for the Occupy movement? For Fatima, “now, we’re starting to blossom. It’s starting to resonate.

Yet it is still difficult, she admitted, “to figure out what we’re about, because we are all different people and come from different perspectives. But we all agree on one thing: something has to happen. Something’s got to change.”

Forty years from now — “because it takes a long time for stuff to happen” — the history books will have the final say, she felt, on this unusual and innovative but possibly unworkable movement. “Either they’ll say ‘how fabulous. Look at all the stuff they’ve done. Or else they’ll say, what a bunch of assholes. We don’t know.”

The thing about social movements is that there is no way to predict what will happen to them. The important thing, however, is that they are there, like all those young people who understand that solidarity is part of what makes us human, and that whatever our problems, we are all in this together.

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