Occupy’s relief work in Hurricane Sandy: Our Grassroots Approach to Dealing with Disaster

by Terry Cummings

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Photo by mindswamp.tumblr.com

When Superstorm Sandy, supercharged by global warming, slammed the East Coast last October, it left dozens dead, thousands homeless and mil- lions without power. Within days, the public was told that power had been restored to most highly populated areas. Credit was given to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Red Cross and all manner of official police, fire and utility efforts. But recovery remained spotty. While most of Manhattan was back to business as usual fairly quickly, residents in other areas remained without power or even homes, with no relief in sight.

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Photos by Piotr Redlinski

Occupy Wall Street reacted quickly to help those who found themselves vulnerable after the disaster. The Occupy human network mobilized thou- sands of volunteers to carry out survival and recovery efforts as part of the new Occupy Sandy Relief campaign. People stirred by the Occupy movement had worked together before to support a majority deprived of political power, and now they worked to adapt Occupy’s spirit of mutual support to bring aid to those lacking electrical power. Volunteers delivered flashlights and trays of hot pasta to residents trapped in public housing projects; they arranged for vans to transport people to shelters; they solicited and distribute everything from blankets to generators to those who needed them. Here in Rhode Island, reports began as a trickle about Occupy Sandy’s work, and then grew as the news started to cover Occupy’s mutual aid efforts that sometimes outshone those of FEMA and the Red Cross. The principle of “Mutual aid, not charity” inspired people, and the hurricane’s destructive effects were countered by volunteers who proved to be their own awesome force of nature. What had begun as an effort to resist Wall Street’s bailouts and abuses, learning to live in a camp in a small outdoor park, had expand- ed further, and now was starting to make a difference to those whose homes had been destroyed or damaged. At least, it was a beginning.

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Photos by Piotr Redlinski

Occupy Providence heeded the call for help from Occupy Sandy Re- lief, and members of Occupy Providence made a number of trips to lend a hand. Personally, I participated in the efforts in the Far Rockaways and Sheepshead Bay, NY.

The volunteers from Occupy Providence first showed up at a church at 520 Clinton Ave, Brooklyn, which was serving as a main distribution centers for Occupy Sandy. An Occupy Sandy organizer, Damien Crisp, gave us a 10-minute orientation to hurricane relief, which had a lot of great ideas in it. Damien told us, “Occupy Sandy is an anti-oppression effort: anti-racism, anti-sexism, anticlassism, anti-homophobia. Don’t just bang on someone’s door and identify yourselves as coming from Occupy Sandy. You have to connect with people at a human level, from the bottom up. These human connections are important. So be careful to practice active listening. If someone tells you ‘The storm wet all our blankets,’ don’t just rush to give them blankets. Instead, ask ‘How have you been dealing with that?’ After a while, people will tell you what they need.”

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Photos by Piotr Redlinski

“This is about mutual aid, not charity. Charity is from the top down, like laying bricks on top of each other. Mutual aid is from the bottom up, like grass growing. The grass grows around the bricks, then softens and eliminates them. Meet people with kindness and warmth. And assume everyone you meet is a volunteer.”

If you look at what the Federal relief people do, they just knock on people’s doors and announce “FEMA!” which is supposed to establish their legal credentials— just like cops yelling “Police!” as they bang on doors. Occupy Sandy’s work of kindness and warmth is in a very different spirit, and it doesn’t start by announcing “Occupy Sandy here” as if we’re an outside group of charity people who are there to make decisions for other people. I thought it was great when Damien said, “Assume everyone you meet is a volunteer.”

And now Occupy Sandy Relief is trying to develop something further, the People’s Network. According to Damien, this “really stems from the ideas of mutual aid and expands them into localized social justice and mutual aid in Clinton Hill and Bedford-Stuyvesant.” They are drafting a mission statement and a covenant with the church— 520 Clinton is the address of the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew, which has partnered with Occupy Sandy— and they plan to have a community agreement soon as well.

Meanwhile, Occupy Sandy Relief continues to this day. OSR recently posted on Facebook asking college students “What are you doing for spring break?” as the work carries on.

sandyEfforts to raise more relief funds also continue. The 12-12-12 concert in December in Madison Square Garden raised over $30M in ticket sales alone and was also simulcast on 39 U.S. television stations and on more than 20 international television networks. In total, it was said to have raised $100M. Additionally, nearly $1 million has been donated directly to Occupy Sandy Relief NYC. This is only a drop in the bucket compared to the billions already spent by the federal and state governments, but how much of this government funding has been and will be wasted? In the case of Occupy Sandy Relief, all of contributions are going directly to the relief efforts, and a spreadsheet detailing income and expenditures is available on Occupy Sandy Relief’s website.

More volunteers and more funding are still needed. The church at 520 Clinton was partially destroyed in December by arson after the congregation joined with Occupy Sandy Relief to aid hurricane victims. If you cannot make it to help out with hurricane relief, but would like to donate to support the rebuilding of the church, and to help fund Occupy Sandy Relief’s continued work in the New York metropolitan area, click here.

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