A year ago this week, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protesters were reluctantly decamping from New York’s Zucotti Park, having become a daily fixture to droves of inconvenienced financial district commuters since mid-September when their movement was born.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg had ordered them to evacuate, and save for a formidable city-wide OWS Day of Protest two days later, the loosely organized activists who popularized the term “the 1 percent” to characterize the wealthiest Americans and income inequality faded into memory for most people in the city -- and certainly elsewhere. Occupy's legacy seemed destined to be that of a well-intentioned group of young people with an aimless, disorganized message and few viable solutions.
That is, until Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast.
In the two-and-a-half weeks since the storm ravaged the coastal edges of Gotham’s five boroughs, sweeping away cars and knocking down power lines, tearing roofs and facades clear off waterfront homes and businesses while drowning others in waist-deep waters, an incarnation of the embattled Occupy community has emerged as an unlikely hero of relief efforts in the city. What’s now known as Occupy Sandy has been lauded as the first line of defense for desperate residents of the hardest-hit areas -- disenfranchised communities in New York’s outer reaches that Occupy Sandy mouthpieces insist were abandoned by government disaster relief agencies in those first critical days after the storm passed.
Leaping Into Action
After the hurricane hit, a small group of Occupy-affiliated New Yorkers, some who had lost power or had been otherwise affected by flood damage, took capsule surveys of damaged areas they witnessed firsthand -- particularly in Red Hook, Brooklyn; Far Rockaway, Queens; and Staten Island -- and, believing institutional aid to be unavailable or inadequate, jump-started a wave of citizen volunteerism. In some cases, they reportedly beat the Red Cross, FEMA and the National Guard to the punch by bringing hand-delivered food, clothing and supplies to devastated areas and makeshift disaster relief centers set up in churches and community centers.
Hailed by media outlets from the New York Times to Gothamist to the Huffington Post, Occupy Sandy's grassroots relief efforts have been held up as a symbol of community solidarity, and the group has been complicit in the establishment of a prevailing post-Sandy narrative that has Occupy Sandy succeeding where big government failed. As hurricane victims' needs have become less urgent, with power finally being restored to affected areas, Occupy has used its platform to elevate familiar Occupy Wall Street messages about economic inequality and government inefficiency.
“The way that government institutions like FEMA operate ... they are so immense and bureaucratic that they cannot leap into action” as Occupy Sandy did, said Rebecca Manski, a member of the group's press team.
Manski claims that Occupy Sandy provided a unique benefit by offering emotional comfort to those whose lives were turned upside down by bringing warmth to cold and darkened homes with extended personal visits; giving Sandy's victims an ear when a shoulder to cry on was nowhere else to be found. “I feel like some people's lives were saved because of those conversations,” Manski said.
FEMA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Occupy Sandy’s charges. But Chris Osborne, a spokesperson for the Red Cross -- who pointed out that the nonprofit is not a government agency -- acknowledged the perception that the Red Cross should have responded more quickly but insisted that the nonprofit has not been as invisible as Occupy Sandy advocates claim.
“Obviously, if we could have gotten to any areas a minute faster, we would have,” Osborne said. “We have done everything we can to mobilize our resources.”
Among those resources, Osborne said, are trained mental health workers who purposely blend into the relief landscape in order to unobtrusively assess the emotional state of disaster victims. “They are not wearing a big sign that says 'I am here to check on your mental health,'” he explained.
By this past week, Osborne said there were approximately 4,000 Red Cross volunteers on the ground in New York. The agency has distributed 1.7 million meals and snacks and delivered more than 700,000 relief supplies to Hurricane Sandy victims -- who the organization refers to as “clients.”
“It's unfortunate that we can't be seen on every corner,” Osborne said, later adding, “We need to do a better job of telling our story.”
Like FEMA and the National Guard, the Red Cross has partnered with the New York City Office of Emergency Management to coordinate relief operations. A representative from the OEM declined to answer any specific questions about OEM's central role in Sandy disaster recovery. The office did provide an official statement announcing that it had helped to distribute 2 million meals, more than 600,000 bottles of water and more than 160,000 blankets at city-run sites in affected communities.
Who's Who -- And Who Cares?
On Election Day in the Rockaways (a peninsula in Queens, NY), a man in uniform who this reporter took to be a member of the National Guard met incoming carloads of volunteers on the congested street in front of Belle Harbor's St. Francis de Sales Church, one of several relief distribution centers on the island. The man accepted clothing donations from one group and then directed them take the household goods in their trunks to another site, where the need for these supplies was greater.
Other than him and some other similarly uniformed men, there was no easy way to visually identify any of the hundreds of people swarming in and around the church: some were carrying Red Cross blankets, others were giving walk-up volunteers impromptu assignments, still others were digging through enormous piles of clothes inside the church -- some helping to sort them, some looking for clothing for themselves.
As St. Francis de Sales Church is one of the sites frequently referenced on Occupy Sandy's social media pages -- where regular updates provide information about volunteer and donation opportunities -- it's safe to say that a significant number of people at the site on any given day are part of the Occupy Sandy community (or at least went to the church because of something they read on Occupy's internet communications.)
It's harder to say whether a Nov. 3 New Yorker article's observation that Occupy Sandy “took over” the church is completely accurate. As any active member of the Occupy community will likely tell you, their coordination with local residents of affected areas has been essential to Occupy Sandy's effectiveness. As a result, these local residents, many of whom have organized smaller relief communities of their own and are not necessarily directly affiliated with Occupy Sandy, certainly must comprise a portion of the workers in St. Francis de Sales and any other relief site.
While some in the Occupy community have insisted the Occupy movement did not expect or solicit publicity for their yeoman’s efforts in the wake of the hurricane -- and they have lamented the “corporate” (aka mainstream) media's insistence on giving the community a new label as an aid group -- Occupy nonetheless regularly promotes this media coverage on its social networks.
“It's not a matter of a centralized group of people making a decision about how we want to reinvent ourselves,” Manski said. “We didn't have a meeting that said, 'let's rebrand as Occupy Sandy.'"
But that rebranding is essentially what has happened. And whether or not the Occupy community agrees with this new perception of the organization, Occupy Sandy has indulged in something of a victory lap, appearing intent on parlaying the success of its relief efforts into broader, economically-minded initiatives. Among them: the recently launched “Rolling Jubilee” campaign, which has already raised over $300,000 to purchase Americans’ personal debt -- medical and credit card bills, for example -- from banks in order to erase it. The campaign describes itself as a“bailout for the 99% by the 99%.”
“We Got This”
Occupy Sandy has relied almost exclusively on social media to mobilize unaffiliated New Yorkers eager to help with recovery. The “Occupy Sandy Relief NYC” Facebook page, which has over 25,000 “likes,” is updated around the clock with messages alerting visitors to specific volunteer opportunities and donation requests, along with anecdotes from those in the field. The “Occupy Sandy Recovery” website is a slightly less cluttered alternative for those seeking information about the latest volunteer needs; much of the same information can be found on the @OccupySandyUpdates Twitter feed.
The Facebook page in particular devotes a good deal of its efforts to promoting the success of Occupy Sandy -- via press clips and personal endorsements -- often at the expense of the reputation of government agencies.
The first weekend after the storm, Occupy Sandy Relief NYC posted photos of smiling children, bundled up in winter clothes and holding a sign reading “#WeGotThis,” their hearty grins betraying the anger and desperation felt by the thousands of Hurricane Sandy victims who had been suffering without electricity, heat or adequate food and clothing for several days.
To those familiar with Occupy Wall Street's anti-government agenda, the message seemed to be clear: “We got this” because you didn't, or couldn't, or wouldn't. But Dana Balicki, another member of Occupy's press team, insists the meme was not intended as a dig to the Red Cross or government agencies.
“It's not a competition,” she said. “It's not about affirming Occupy Wall Street. It's about affirming the 99% and our need and ability to take care of each other.”
Occupy Sandy also posted to its Facebook page a photo of a sign that said a FEMA distribution center would be closed a week ago Wednesday due to the Nor'easter that hit the New York area like an aftershock. Balicki maintained that this too was intended as a positive message of affirmation and not a judgment of FEMA.
“Personally, I don't want to see us all competing,” Balicki said. “When you put top-down and bottom-up together, there is a sense of distrust.”
Days later, another Occupy photo made the rounds on social media: In it, an Occupy Sandy volunteer is pictured speaking to a small group assembled in a semi-circle; a few of them are wearing military uniforms. The caption on the photo (which is no longer accessible on Occupy Sandy Relief NYC's Facebook page) claimed that the volunteer was “training the National Guard.”
Not everyone agreed.
A spokesperson for the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs said, after reviewing the photo and consulting with the local National Guard commander, that the men pictured were not members of the New York Army National Guard or the New York Air National Guard. Though he could not specifically identify their affiliation based on the uniforms, it is possible that the men were part of another National Guard operation or members of an ROTC contingent.
While Manski was confident that the caption was accurate, she indicated that the decision to distribute the photo was not one she fully supported. “Putting that out there before we were ready was probably not a good idea,” she said.
Because Occupy stands firmly against the notion of centralized leadership, there can be inconsistencies between messages promoted by those behind their social media initiatives and the opinions of individual Occupy community members, like Manski and Balicki, who were far less personally critical of the relief organizations that have been consistently undermined on Occupy's social media outlets (though Manski did say that FEMA's ready-to-eat meals are "beneath people's dignity").
Occupy does not seek consensus before significant decisions are made. For example, a recent community meeting in Red Hook that was billed in the media as an Occupy Sandy organizational meeting was arranged independently by a single individual who did not communicate her intentions to fellow Occupiers.
“What we have been trying to communicate is that no one person can speak for the whole community,” Manski said, while acknowledging that such diffusion can present a significant challenge to shaping and spreading its message. Still, Manksi insists that “more work gets done when you allow for diversity.”
For his part, the Red Cross’ Osborne is satisfied to share the work of Hurricane Sandy relief with those who want to work hard and are equipped to lend a hand -- no matter what their affiliation or political agenda may be.
“Help has no face,” Osborne said. “If there are people who want to help those that are in need, as long as they are doing it in a respectful and legal manner,” it's to everyone's benefit.
“We are not the only nonprofit in town,” he added. “This disaster is bigger than any organization.”