The Legacy of Occupy Sandy
Finally cooling off from a bike ride on a 100-degree summer day in an air-conditioned coffee shop with a cup of water, Shawn Carrié takes a moment before he offers his eulogy. “Occupy Sandy destroyed all activism in New York,” says the 24-year-old Carrié, who frequented Zuccotti Park. “It sideswiped Occupy Wall Street.”
Yet when Hurricane Sandy made landfall late last October, Carrié raced to Red Hook. A dedicated anarchist, he was skeptical of the relief-industrial complex led by FEMA and the Red Cross, which often fails to adequately respond to disasters and is mired in institutional corruption. He saw the aftermath as a crisis on top of a crisis: the physical damage of the hurricane was just another problem aggravating unemployment, lack of affordable housing, and other social inequities in places like Red Hook and the Rockaways. So he became a part of Occupy Sandy, the attempt by OWS to use the disaster as a chance to build political resistance.
But as time wore on, Carrié found himself cleaning up restaurants getting ready to reopen on the promise that Occupy Sandy volunteers would get rewarded with a free meal. The notoriously anti-organizational movement began contemplating the creation of non-profits in order to tap into new money networks. When electricity was restored to public housing, some volunteers felt their work in the projects was done, even though Carrié, who grew up in public housing in Queens, wanted to keep mobilizing against other cuts and chronic maintenance failures in the housing authority. Worst of all, over the course of a year he started seeing OWS’s most dedicated cadres diverted from the original target: the banks. “This leads me to the conclusion that they’re very different things,” Carrié says of OWS and Occupy Sandy. “The only thing in common is the name. It’s very easy to brand things.”
This month, the Occupy Wall Street movement will enter its “terrible twos.” Many believe that without the encampments and the novelty of the mass demonstrations, the group no longer exists, even if its spirit does. At the same time, plenty of OWS supporters believe the Sandy relief effort was a successful endeavor, especially after several strategic failures in the wake of the Zuccotti Park eviction. Attempts to link OWS with the labor movement fizzled, as even the more sympathetic unions have reverted to membership-driven issues. The May Day 2012 march had more riot cops than strikers. The first anniversary saw little fanfare. Then came Hurricane Sandy.
When OWS activists mobilized in hurricane-hit areas of the city, the media lionized the volunteers who brought food and water to elderly and disabled people stuck in high-rises; even the N.Y.P.D. credited their presence with maintaining public safety. Volunteers set up a medical assistance center. The resistance end of the equation was short-lived, though. Occupy Sandy organized only one protest against the city’s handling of the relief effort, which took place outside Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Upper East Side townhouse in order to call attention to the fact that hurricane ravaged areas were still waiting for vital repairs as winter approached. But in the minds of many activists, the seeds of future organizing have been planted.
Josmar Trujillo, a Rockaway resident, was already sympathetic to OWS politics, and says that Occupy Sandy helped organize new grassroots community groups, like the Wildfire Project, which is trying to ensure community benefit guarantees from the city when new post-storm infrastructure is built. “They have to learn the local political terrain, which is just as thorny in any New York City neighborhood,” he says of Occupy Sandy volunteers. “They’re really checking themselves on leading, because they are outsiders and that carries a lot of negative weight. So they have to balance getting involved and not taking the lead. They bend over backwards to make sure they are not imposing their politics on anybody.”
The positive outcome of this is clear, Trujillo says. When the OWS encampments started in the fall of 2011, there was a lot of support from students, organized labor, left-wing academics, and middle class liberals. There wasn’t great outreach into low-income communities of color, however. But Occupy Sandy, he says, has greatly helped the movement in that regard. Noting that the 2008 financial crisis was the catalyst for OWS, Trujillo says, “If there will be another crisis, OWS is now in neighborhoods. They have connections. Maybe not 20-year-old connections, but they’re more in touch with communities than they were in the heyday of Occupy.”
Brooklyn-based filmmaker and OWS activist Sofia Gallisá Muriente, who headed to the Rockaways right after the storm, says that Occupy Sandy’s goal was to fill in where regular relief work fell short. For example, she notes, there is often little help for undocumented immigrants in situations such as these, especially because there aren’t enough translators, so Muriente, who is Puerto Rican and bilingual, worked with undocumented Salvadoran immigrants in the area to ensure that they were receiving services and care. Further, she explains, government agencies and nonprofits are often hesitant to do mold remediation. So Occupy Sandy, in conjunction with a local network of volunteers called Respond & Rebuild, took up the dirty work.
Muriente insists that the criticism of the Sandy response efforts as distracting from OWS is overblown, seeing Occupy Sandy as a natural extension of the marches in the Financial District. “It’s organically politicized a lot of the residents of affected areas we’ve been working with, people who were not part of OWS,” she says. “In many ways it’s much more effective because it shows the power of these ideas through action, not through discussion or preaching.”
But others have their critiques. For example, Carrié believed that the process of reaching consensus (rather than simple majority votes) slowed down the Sandy response process at some points, and at others resulted in decisions being made by a small group of devotees too quickly. “I almost would have preferred if it was centralized,” he says.
Jackie DiSalvo, an OWS activist leading its efforts to ally with unions, concurs, noting a “situation of extreme autonomy so that every neighborhood was operating separately.” She adds, “In the beginning there were weekly meetings of Occupy Sandy, but on the ground, the people in relief work wanted total autonomy so there was never discussion of any political strategy.”
The lack of strategy was a problem, DiSalvo says, because at the same time Mayor Michael Bloomberg was proposing a hurricane preparedness plan and an outline for rebuilding. This translated into a missed opportunity, she says. “The possibility of offering an alternative to disaster capitalism existed, but Occupy has been unable to play a significant role.”
In late July, there was a march to City Hall demanding that sustainable development and affordable housing play an integral part in any rebuilding plan. But it was sparsely attended, featuring mostly paid organizers from community and labor groups, and it drew little attention from the mainstream press. Occupy Sandy volunteer Jessica Roff, reflecting on the Herculean task of fighting against corporate-backed rebuilding plans, admits that the movement was late to the game. “That’s a good question that we need to regroup on,” she says. “We weren’t out politicizing things because people needed a blanket so they wouldn’t freeze or a meal so they wouldn’t starve.”
Then there was the issue of money. Muriente notes that one of the things that gives Occupy Sandy its power is its lack of bureaucracy, in contrast to the large relief organizations that are beholden to short-term mandates. The fear some had about creating nonprofit groups was that it would lull the movement into non-political, corporatized charity. DiSalvo claims that even though there are such groups who are working with Occupy Sandy, their donor bases as well as nonprofit rules preclude them from putting forth too many demands. “The coalition can’t do anything militant,” she says. “They can’t go to the streets the way Occupy could.”
In June Mother Jones ran a feature on Occupy Sandy pointing to $300,000 the group raised in donations that has gone unspent, raising the question of whether a movement without internal accountability structures can be trusted with large quantities of cash for the purpose of making grants to community groups. The writer, Australian journalist James West, quoted people in affected areas who believed that only a small clique is dividing up the money.
Occupy Sandy members dismissed the article’s truthfulness—organizer Diego Ibañez called it “not even journalism.” Bre Lembitz, who has taken on the task of handling finances for Occupy Sandy, claims the money is “allocated, but not piecemeal allocated,” so that it is intended for “long-term recovery.” She also dismisses the idea that spending decisions aren’t transparent, claiming that community members will decide how to allocate $800,000 through a “spokes-council, a form of general assembly.” Lembitz adds that there will be “participatory budgeting in Staten Island.”
Occupy Sandy members also believe it is unfair to scrutinize such a small, loose network like theirs with the same standard as larger groups. However, in late 2012, the state attorney general’s office insisted on accounting from all relief organizations, large and small, that received donations.
Occupy Sandy’s importation of horizontalism to hurricane-stricken areas also worsened an ideological tension in the movement. The aversion to ridged hierarchy is derived from anarchist methodology, finding hope in autonomous communities rather than unions or government programs. This combination of self-determination, direct assistance, and resistance to the presiding political order, often referred to as mutual aid (or “prefigurative politics”), has deep roots around the world, from worker-controlled factories in Argentina to community kitchens operating out of empty buildings in Greece. But the model for Occupy Sandy also can be found a bit closer to home, in a group called Common Ground Relief in post-Katrina New Orleans.
In the eight years since the levees broke, nearly 30,000 volunteers have passed through CGR. Founded by former Black Panther Malik Rahim and longtime anarchist activist Scott Crow, CGR combines direct relief—in the form of home repairs, community gardens, and medical and legal services centers—with political agitation and subversion. Those things are directly linked, Crow argues, as CGR volunteers broke the locks of a school that the community wanted to reopen and violated evening curfews to carry out relief work. CGR also organized protests of public housing closures, as the local government used the crisis as an opportunity to downsize its operations. Crow, now living in Austin, Texas, says of mutual aid, “It’s people getting together and taking action for themselves to make the world better around them.”
But some believe that insistence upon mutual aid is OWS and Occupy Sandy’s main weakness. “They are reluctant to fight for government. They say that legitimizes it,” DiSalvo says. “The problem with mutual aid is we do not have the resources to meet people’s needs. Without government, people will not have their needs met and people will suffer.” Large-scale rubble removal, for example, often requires expensive machinery.
Suzahn Ebrahimian, who has written about and participated in social movements like OWS, finds a middle ground, noting that in Occupy Sandy mutual aid brought together people who are normally separated from each other. Reflecting on her own experience of using mutual aid to organize African and Eastern European refugees in Idaho, she notes that this could include helping community members get access to state services they might not be able to get on their own. “Person-to-person relationships are revolutionary spaces,” Ebrahimian says. “It’s not as flashy as going out on a march. It’s a participatory type of action and it’s long term.”
Some radicals within OWS also believe that the accolades Occupy Sandy received from the mainstream press and from people previously not aligned with its politics exposed the project’s weakness. If the establishment tolerates you, the idea goes, then you’re not being revolutionary. But that logic cuts the other way, too. For a year OWS fought to win hearts and minds, and the support Occupy Sandy received even in more conservative neighborhoods shows that the movement can have broad appeal. To cringe at popular support is like fearing the possibility of the left finally winning something.
More importantly, OWS began explicitly as a cause without demands, and the devastation of Hurricane Sandy provided a forum for very concrete concerns to be articulated around a general philosophy. It seems that the movement had victories and failures in realizing that opportunity, but Occupy Sandy organizers know this inevitability: Some new crisis will happen again, natural or human-made, with inequality raging in the background.
The July protest to demand equitable and sustainable rebuilding was small, but standing in front of City Hall, union organizer and Occupy Sandy volunteer Nastaran Mohit pointed out that labor groups, including big unions like S.E.I.U. Local 32BJ, were finally joining environmental and housing activists, insisting that any new development create local jobs and preserve affordable housing. That does indeed sound like a formidable coalition that can demand winnable alternatives. Perhaps next month, when the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy is on everyone’s mind, will provide the perfect opportunity to direct the OWS energy toward such a cause.