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

by Terry Cummings


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.


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.


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.”


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.

Occupy Providence— A Survey of People Involved

Survey conducted by Annie Rose London

In late December and January, Occupy Providence participants were asked to fill out a survey, and 128 individuals completed it. We believe that the sample represents Occupy Providence participants fairly well, including those who were physically occupying Burnside, those who regularly attended General Assemblies, and those who participated in the movement primarily online. From the responses, it is possible to gain insight into the composition of those in Occupy Providence at one point in time, to determine what OP activities people were engaged in, and to find out what goals inspired people to participate in this movement.

What first brought you to Occupy Providence? (129 responses; someone replied twice?)
Answers:     Rally or march  25%  |  General Assembly 23%  |  General curiosity 19%  |  Workshop/discussion 2%   |  A meal 0%   |   Other 31%      (The “Other” responses were usually listed as experience at other Occupy locations, most frequently Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Boston.)
What working groups have you participated in? (193 responses, of which 47 were “zero”, leaving 81 respondents reporting 146 working group participations or nearly two per person)
Answers:     Direct Action 24  |  Safety & Support 19  |  Women’s/Trans/Genderqueer Caucus 15  |   Food 12  |   Facilitation 11  |  Media 11  |  Visioning 11   |  Sanitation 10  |  Health & Caring 9  |  Legal 7  |  Creative Interdisciplinary Art 8  |  Political Action 7  |  Queer Caucus 5  |  Coordination 4

Are you satisfied with your current level of involvement in OP? (124 responses)
Answers:     Really prefer to increase 27%  |  Prefer to increase 42%  |  Totally satisfied 27%  |  Prefer less 3%  |  Really prefer less 0%
What are some factors that would enable you to participate more?
Top solution: indoor locations.
Next most frequent: events on different topics, in different formats, and with varying co-sponsors.
Others: translation to other languages, shorter events, less gendered oppression, and more coordination.
What skills/talents/resources could you imagine contributing to OP?
Answers:     Cook, build, write, network, build websites, write grants, run workshops, mediate, contribute materials, and many more.
How do folks stay connected to OP? (290 responses)
Answers:     Email listserv 79  |  Facebook 67  |  Coming to the People’s Park 58  |  Word of mouth 55  |  OP website 20  |  Local newspapers 10  |  Twitter 1

How has your level of involvement in OP changed since you first became involved? (123 responses)
Answers:     Increased greatly 6%  |  Increased 22%  |  Stayed the same 24%  |  Decreased 26%  |  Decreased greatly 23%

Leading causes for decreased involvement:
other obligations, accessibility, challenges with finding a way to contribute,
internal structural conflict, most often in the form of oppressive behaviors.
What gender do you identify as? (129 responses)
Answers:     Female 59 (46%)  |  Transgender 3 (2%)  |  Male 60 (47%)  |  Other 7 (5%)
What racial, ethnic, or national background are you most likely to identify as?
Answers:     Over half identified themselves as white, while about 15% viewed themselves as persons of color.
Another 15% did not identify themselves by race or ethnicity at all.
What is your age? (129 responses; someone replied twice)
Answers:     Half of all respondents reported themselves to be in their 20s, with another 20% in their 30s.
Smaller percentages of people ranged in age from their teens to the 70s.
What other identities are important to you?
Answers:     Parents, environmentalists, activists, Providence residents, and immigrants.
How would you describe your political views? (categories created from open responses)
Answers:     Far left 22%  |  Socialist 21%  |  Radical/revolutionary 19%  |  Liberal 16%
Anarchist 15%  |  Progressive 12%  |  Libertarian 9%  |  Democrat 7%  |  Feminist 4%
Are you registered to vote? (114 responses)
Answers:     Yes 86%  |  No  14%
Did you vote in the 2008 presidential election? (122 responses)
Answers:     57% voted for Obama  |  1% for McCain  |  16% for another  |  26% didn’t vote.
Do you plan on voting in the 2012 presidential election? (118 responses)
Answers:     Yes, and I feel strongly 47%  |  Yes, but I don’t feel strongly 28%
No, but I don’t feel strongly 6%  |  No, and I feel strongly 20%
What are the issues that have most motivated your involvement in OP? (590 responses or about 4 per person on average)
Answers:     Economic inequality 108  |  Economic influence on politics 96  |  Housing & Foreclosure 82  |  Systemic transformation/Revolution 82  |  Jobs 81  |  Foreign war and occupation 75  |  Political corruption 75  |  Environmental justice 73  |  Racial inequality 70  |  Education 69  |  Healthcare 69  |  Immigration 64  |  Food justice 60  |  Gender inequality 59  |  Constitutional rights 55 |  LGTBQ rights 51  |  War on drugs 42  |  Foreign trade agreements 38  |  Animal rights 25  |  Other 17
What change in the world do you want to see?
Most common response: A desire for equality among all people.
Common: true democracy, solidarity and community, environmental sustainability, responsible government, and the end of the domination of capitalism.
Somewhat less common: culture shifts and human consciousness shifts.
What change do you hope to see in your own life?
Most common: desire to trust and empower oneself, increased job stability, meaningfulness, increased compassion towards others, bettering one’s political awareness, and community.
What do you think the next steps for should be for OP? (665 responses or about 5 per respondent)
Top responses:
Focus on community outreach 83  |  Focus on coalition-building with other organizations 60  |  More actions/rallies 58  |  Occupy indoor locations 57  |  Focus on public education about relevant issues 56  |  Focus on political pressure 54  | Create alternatives to current systems (e.g., provide free childcare) 52  |  Hold the G.A. in public spaces (such as City Hall, for example) 50  |  Focus on local 1% (e.g., Brown U, Textron) 50