The Occupy Wall Street movement and the various associated national “Occupy” protests have moved off the front page, so most Americans assume that the activists simply disappeared and went underground.
Though the principles of giving power back to the 99% who don’t control the wealth and influence no longer is “trendy,” the reason for that is that the grunt-work has been done: the founding concepts are now in mainstream discussion, and serious changes are now finally in the works. But where did all those activists go?
Well, many of those same Occupy activists and volunteers have turned their attention to picking up the slack where government, bureaucratic charities and the business 1% have failed.
And that’s “good news, for a change.”
The devastating tempest called “Superstorm Sandy” wreaked havoc – causing billions of dollars worth of damage, massive power outages, and more than 100 deaths since it tore through the northeast coast on October 29th. But like most tragic stories in our culture, many people outside of the region have all but forgotten about it and moved back to their yummy dinners and their facebook posts.
Who is riding to the rescue in the New York City area? President Obama? Mayor Bloomberg? FEMA? The Red Cross? While they may all be playing a role in the relief and rebuilding effort, one activist group is an example of a grass roots volunteer initiative: ”Occupy Sandy.”
Those very same Occupiers that fought for social justice are now leading the fight to help and empower people in the aftermath of the terrible hurricane. Organizer Tammy Shapiro notes: “Occupy Sandy grew out of the Occupy Wall Street network. We had the same foundation.”
Using Occupy Wall Street’s existing websites and ell-phone and text loops to spread the word on mobile devices – even to those who lost power – Occupy Sandy was able to start the very first day after Superstorm Sandy.
Says Shapiro: “We were able to do so because we had a really strong network that was built on trust. People already knew each other so we knew who had what skills to do what needed to be done.”
Born and raised in Washington, D.C. and Maryland, Shapiro majored in international studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She moved to N.Y. in 2006 and currently has a part-time job doing promotions and outreach for a university program. Soon after Occupy Wall Street occupied Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park in September 2011, Shapiro started organizing with the activists.
Occupy Sandy hit the ground running, bringing food, clothes, batteries, flashlights and much-needed supplies for people in the hardest hit areas – from Coney Island to Staten Island to the Rockaways to Red Hook to Sheepshead Bay. – Occupy Sandy organizer Tammy Shapiro
With newcomers joining veteran Occupiers, Occupy Sandy mobilized a force of 20,000 unpaid volunteers at its peak in the first few weeks after Hurricane Sandy struck the N.Y.C. area on Oct. 29. New volunteers appear every day, and the movement has inspired over a half-million dollars in donations to date.
Shapiro knows the work has only begun, but if the experience of Occupy Wall Street has taught her anything, it’s that if we want it done right, we need to take on responsibility and power ourselves.
Shapiro on the government response, and FEMA: “What we saw right after the storm hit was that the government was not doing nearly enough for the citizens and residents of this city. FEMA tries, but they’re not a very effective organization. They’re not necessarily set up to deal with these scenarios, even though we all think they should be.
They don’t have relationships with people on the ground. Their paperwork is confusing and most people don’t know about what they need to do or how to do it.
FEMA is not evil but I don’t think these big bureaucratic agencies can deal with scenarios that have to be dealt with at a moment’s notice.”
On New York Mayor Bloomberg: ”Mayor Bloomberg and other City officials for their own reasons have refused temporary housing in these areas, so we can’t move people out of their homes while we do the work to fix the homes. There’s nowhere for them to go.
There’s a lot of damage to roofs, basements, damage of all kinds. In Staten Island there’s lots of structural damage. Homes are completely destroyed, neighborhoods are wiped out. Countless houses are dealing with mold. Why is he not letting temporary housing in? The most important issue right now is temporary housing.”
On the Red Cross, Food and Supplies: “We didn’t see anyone from the Red Cross for at least a week, a week and a half. The Red Cross does lots of feeding, but they give out really unhealthy food. We on the other hand gave out hot food that we cooked; we’re concerned about the food that we give out. We’re not giving out high sodium foods that are prepackaged and really unhealthy.
“The Red Cross does not build relationships in the way that we did. When the Red Cross wanted to give out blankets or supplies, they’d sometimes drop very large shipments off at our locations, but they weren’t necessarily what people needed, it was just what they had in store.”
What Occupy Sandy does better: “We understood we had to build power-based networks of people to do the work and take care of the communities. We were there much earlier than the government agencies and the Red Cross. It took them probably a week and a half to get on the ground.
A nimble network like Occupy was able to be on the ground a day after the storm . Also, we are there to support the community, and we’ve seen the community as partners all along, whereas these agencies come in and see the community as someone to give aid to but don’t necessarily enlist them in the work themselves.”
Occupy Sandy mobilizes through social networking: ”We raise relief provisions, and donate them free of charge in a combination of different ways. One of the most effective ways is for us to put things out over social media. We had two really large operational hubs in Brooklyn, in Sunset Park and Clinton Hill. We’d put out over social media, ‘we need this, we need that,’ then people would bring whatever we needed at that particular moment.”
“We also set up a registry where we could put up specifically what we needed and people could buy specific items for use. We went to stores in the neighborhoods that were hardest hit and registered items from those stores on the registry so people could buy things directly from stores in the impacted neighborhood, thereby also helping local small businesses in the hard hit communities.”
Fundraising and Volunteers: ”We have a direct fund-raising network through a repay account we had online, as a last resort. But we definitely tried first and foremost to get whatever we could through in-kind donations. We had professional chefs cooking at kitchens, we had a whole huge network of volunteers collecting, organizing and getting supplies out to the areas where they are needed. All free of charge.”
The Mold Problem: ”Mold can cause respiratory illnesses and the rapid repair program – which is a City program to fix people’s homes – doesn’t do anything about mold remediation. That’s a symbol of the broader problem – that they’ll say they did the work and care about people, but they won’t take care of the biggest problem that people face. People are living in mold now and there’s a huge public health crisis brewing.”
Related efforts: Respond and Rebuild: “Numerous other efforts have been formed out of Occupy Sandy effort. “Respond and Rebuild” is a group working in the Rockaways doing mold remediation, deconstruction and reconstruction. We’ve collected tools and supplies for that effort and are continuing to do so.
Heat and Electricity: “There are still lots of families without heat or electricity. A lot of people are heating their homes using their stoves, which isn’t safe. The grid is back on, but what is still the case is that lots of people still need some pretty severe work done on their homes in order for them to be able to turn the electricity back on. So months later there are a lot of homes still without electricity.”
The Climate Change issue: “There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s a connection between climate change and the changing weather patterns we’re seeing. This is the second year in a row there’s been a hurricane or big storm around this time of year. We need to be talking about climate change. And we need to be not just building back normally, but building back better – in a sustainable way, with solar panels.
Climate change and the environment – especially as it relates to business – is one of the major things Occupy Wall Street was talking about. There’s a very huge climate justice network embedded in Occupy.
Rebuild the Right Way with Community Empowerment: “We’re well aware that disasters are often opportunities for the government to take valuable land, or rebuild on land that they see as valuable in some way. That benefits people with the big bucks, but not the people living on the ground.
Part of our work is building strong communities and networks with the knowledge that there might be a fight coming towards us. We believe in community empowered rebuilding efforts – that the community living on the ground should have a say in what happens to their communities.”
Despite what the City government might want people to believe, Shapiro insists that the Big Apple will take years, if not decades to recover – much like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. ”We understood from day one that this wasn’t going to end in a month or two. That this was a long term commitment.”
Occupy Sandy is a shining example of grass roots volunteerism and activism at its best.
Naomi Klein: The Shock Doctrine; The Rise of Disaster Capitalism “The Shock Doctrine is the gripping story of how America’s “free market” policies have come to dominate the world – through the exploitation of disaster-shocked people and countries.” More info here: NaomiKlein.org