A new study titled “The Resilient Social Network” praises Occupy Sandy, the fluid, grass-roots relief network that emerged following the devastation of Superstorm Sandy. The report offers comprehensive analysis of Occupy Sandy’s “Success Drivers” and juxtaposes its findings with the “Limitations of Traditional Relief Efforts,” characterizing the work of conventional responders like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and The Red Cross, and providing recommendations for the way these organizations can improve their efforts in the future. Sounds great, right?
There’s just one problem: the study was conducted for the Department of Homeland Security.
The late journalist Michael Hastings covered the involvement of Homeland Security in monitoring Occupy Wall Street, a Rolling Stone story that he broke in conjunction with Wikileaks in February 2012. One document Hastings obtained, a seemingly harmless five-page report called “Special Coverage: Occupy Wall Street,” led him, presciently, to conclude the following:
“It’s never a good thing to see a government agency talk in secret about the need to ‘control protestors’ – especially when that agency is charged with protecting the homeland against terrorists, not nonviolent demonstrators exercising their First Amendment rights to peaceable dissent. … There is not much of a bureaucratic leap, if history is any guide, between a seemingly benign call for ‘continuous situational awareness’ and the onset of a covert and illegal campaign of domestic surveillance.”
By the end of 2012, The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund had obtained documents that broke the story of the crackdown on OWS wide open, tracing the steps Hastings described from surveillance to action. Homeland Security, along with the FBI, local and state police, regional fusion centers, and private-security firms working for big banks and industry were collaborating in a public/private security structure called the Domestic Security Alliance Council to stifle dissent and shut down OWS.
So when some OWS and Occupy Sandy organizers got wind of the recent report, the feeling was mixed: affirmation peppered with educated misgivings. Michael Premo, a longtime activist and executive producer of Sandy Storyline, a participatory documentary about the impact of Superstorm Sandy, was one of the main organizers I followed for a story in the immediate wake of the storm. When I spoke with him recently about the new report, he invoked historical examples of repression – COINTELPRO, the Green Scare, the coordinated crackdown on OWS – to map out the possible actions that the government could take against political groups. Yet, he believed that the report on Occupy Sandy might be a chance for activists to pat themselves on the back.
“This is an acknowledgement of why [Homeland Security was] so paranoid about Occupy Wall Street in the first place,” Premo said. “The federal government understands how powerful autonomously organized networks can be.”
Areas of Study
The report, completed in September 2013 but released on March 7, begins with an “Executive Summary” that trumpets the triumphs of Occupy Sandy: “In the days, weeks, and months that followed [Superstorm Sandy], ‘Occupy Sandy’ became one of the leading humanitarian groups providing relief to survivors across New York City and New Jersey. At its peak, it had grown to an estimated 60,000 volunteers.” The summary concludes, “Unlike traditional disaster response organizations, there were no appointed leaders, no bureaucracy, no regulations to follow, no pre-defined mission, charter, or strategic plan. There was just relief.”
Among its main observations, the study lists five “Occupy Sandy Success Drivers,” which include “the horizontal structure,” and “social media as the primary means to attract and mobilize a large volunteer corps.” According to Tamara Shapiro, another activist whom I interviewed directly in the aftermath of Sandy and spoke with recently, both points were right, but with caveats.
“Especially in disaster response when you need to be agile and able to shift as information shifts, having a structurelessness to communications, or a way in which people can do what they see in front of them as very real needs without having to get permission, is critical,” Shapiro said. “DHS taking notice that horizontality and a networked approach is effective in a crisis moment means that they could potentially use that for good. However, it could also mean that they will use it for bad. DHS has lots of arms, and clearly, disaster relief is only one.”
When the Department of Homeland Security came into being in November 2002, after Congress passed the Homeland Security Act, it represented the largest government reorganization since the Department of Defense was created, combining 22 separate agencies into one department. Among the agencies that were incorporated into this new monolith were FEMA and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the second-largest criminal investigations unit after the FBI. With one organization charged with delivering disaster relief and another with prosecuting and deporting undocumented immigrants, it seems that the mission of one or both would be compromised by working together.
The DHS report on Occupy Sandy found that fluid, horizontal structures were better able to support relief work for undocumented and immigrant populations than existing agencies. A survey by the nonprofit Make the Road New York found 78 percent of immigrants, documented or not, did not apply for disaster relief from the government.
“What’s complicated about these government agencies, especially DHS, is that Homeland Security is now a massive operation, and it’s really unclear how well different organizations even communicate with each other,” said Michael Premo. “I saw an attempt to navigate that, but as long as there are immigration policies that are as aggressive as Obama’s, any federal agency is not going to be supportive of undocumented people getting access to the services and the assistance that they need.”
When approached by undocumented people in need, Michael Premo observed FEMA’s response: use the Social Security number of a family member who is documented to apply for aid. But in this scenario, the risks usually outweigh the benefits, and immigrants look for other options.
According to the report, in the early stages of emergent response networks, the horizontal integration of organizers and volunteers occurs through social media. Over and over, the report emphasizes information sharing. Activists I spoke with saw problems in this approach.
“It wasn’t just that the methods of communication were useful; it was that the information we were getting was useful, and then the methods of delivery were fast and effective,” said Shapiro, who works with Interoccupy, one of the main communications tools used by Occupy Sandy. “What I see from big institutions like the Red Cross and FEMA and the city is they came into communities and said, ‘We’re here to help you.’ Whereas we said, ‘We’re here to support you in helping each other.’ I think that’s a really big difference, and I think it made our information better. Information will always be better when it’s based in community knowledge.
“There were so many people who had no idea how to interact with FEMA despite FEMA’s best efforts,” Premo said. “We were able to communicate so much better with our communities because we realize how communities work.”
One of the most complex issues that surfaced in the study is the concept of volunteer labor. “Overnight, a volunteer army of young, educated, tech-savvy individuals with time and a desire to help others emerged,” the report croons. But quickly, the issue becomes embroiled in deeper concerns about social and economic inequality. “Occupy Sandy attracted a diverse range of volunteers, many from communities hit hard by the storm,” the study observes. “Many were white, middle-class, and highly educated. Many were unemployed or underemployed and were eager to use their skills.”
“What’s most disturbing to me about the report is [Homeland Security] understood the activities of Occupy Sandy with no political context at all,” said Pamela Brown, an activist and co-author of “Shouldering the Costs,” a report that examines the use of loans as aid in the aftermath of the storm. “It was just people who happened coincidentally to be involved in Occupy Wall Street who came together as Occupy Sandy, which was a totally different kind of effort.”
It would seem the conditions of inequality that brought about Occupy Wall Street were the same conditions, one year later, that brought about the model volunteer “army” of the future. Yet, when you overlook the political aspects of Occupy Sandy, at least in its early incarnations, some very critical elements of the organizing that occurred cease to make sense. For example, the study defines “mutual aid,” a central concept to Occupy Sandy and Occupy Wall Street, as a kind of contractual exercise between communities, not unlike pledges of fealty in feudal societies.
“When a larger need arises, most jurisdictions have the ability to call on neighboring communities for help, often through prearranged agreements, commonly referred to as mutual aid. … Mutual aid often encompasses multiple types of agreements through which jurisdictions can request assistance from each other.” A wikipedia search of “mutual aid” would have given the authors easy access to the organizational and political theories that underly the concept and this simple definition: “a voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit.”
Looking more closely at the ramifications of the report’s view of volunteer labor, Pam Brown finds problems within the overall horizontal structure of the organization. There were limits to the mutual aid Occupy Sandy and communities could provide because volunteers needed to pursue employment to support themselves. “The extreme horizontalism that they look to in the report as an ideal was problematic,” Brown said. “Within the organizing structure, people did emerge as regular volunteers and leaders, but they didn’t have work. So at some point, either they had to find work or they had to advocate to be paid for the work that they were doing that they felt was valuable through stipend.” This model for a volunteer organization is inherently unsustainable if volunteers lack political solidarity. The economic system that creates a surplus of skilled workers also takes them away and forces them to labor for wages.
Beyond leading us to paradoxes like these, the report leaves a number of questions unanswered, like this ambiguous statement: “If there will be more disasters in the future, and there will be, then there will be more opportunities, opportunities like Occupy Sandy.” It is unclear what the report is referring to, but activists like Tamara Shapiro have their own interpretation of these “opportunities.” “What we saw during Sandy was how unbelievably ineffective the Red Cross was,” she said. “So what I’m really interested in is how can we fill in the gap left by that failing model? Can we use these moments of crisis to inject money directly into communities to shape what’s possible?”
Shapiro said she’s still involved in the recovery work in the Rockaways, building worker-owned cooperatives and a coalition to oppose real estate development. Despite the murky intentions of the Homeland Security study, she is proud of many of the recommendations it makes, a testament to the success of Occupy Sandy. “There are contradictions baked in everywhere, but I don’t think that it’s a bad thing. In fact, I think it strengthens our ability to do what we can and should be doing. We proved through Occupy Sandy that the skills we were learning and the tools we were using and the infrastructure we were building could be used incredibly effectively to do something concrete.”