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Scenes from a Crisis: Volunteers Bond with Occupiers for Sandy Relief

(Photo: Brennan Cavanaugh / Flickr)

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In New York, volunteers and relief workers from disparate organizations and backgrounds have come together and bonded under Occupy Sandy’s banner for a common cause.

As the full extent of Superstorm Sandy’s destruction begins to set in, Occupy Sandy continues to expand its effort to provide relief to ravaged areas in Staten Island, Coney Island, Red Hook, and the Rockaways. The work can roughly be divided into two categories: the primary distribution hubs at St. Jacobi Church on Fourth Avenue and 520 Clinton Ave., and the field, where organizers often go intersection by intersection, sometimes door to door to assess needs of the community. What I’ve found, observing these efforts and increasingly participating in them, is that Occupy Sandy has provided the public with a concrete example of the virtue of Occupy’s sometimes abstract ideals.

One of Occupy’s defining features is horizontalism, or non-hierarchical organization, which replaces traditional methods of control with, in theory, mutual affinity and respect. The media often refers to this as “leaderlessness” and calls it a weakness, and when trying to interpret Occupy through the narrow lens of corporate-captured electoral politics that may be a fair criticism. But the premise is completely incorrect. The establishment media never intended to understand Occupy on its own terms when it was in Zuccotti Park or in the streets, but now they are forced to. The fact that volunteers can be trained and assigned to tasks quickly – tasks they aren’t compelled by any strict authority to do and so therefore take ownership of almost immediately – is a virtue rather than a fatal flaw. Likewise, emerging narratives of Occupy “refocusing,” “reincarnating,” or “resurrecting” similarly miss the point and instead rely on lazy, often condescending framing.

Both times I’ve shown up at 520 Clinton Street, the first person I’ve seen is Alexis Goldstein, an Occupy regular who has done extensive work with Occupy the SEC, among other similarly affiliated groups. On Thursday, November 8, I walked up to the table she was sitting behind – “driver organization and dispatch” – and asked if I could catch a ride with someone to wherever they were going. “You can go with him,” Alexis said, pointing to an off-duty EMT whose masking-tape nametag read “Patrick.” We shook hands and within minutes were in his supply-loaded car with another activist named Chris, driving to the Rockaways.

After dropping Chris off at Veggie Island, on the Rockaway Beach boardwalk, a field distribution hub, Patrick and I went to the nearby First Congregational Church (FCC) to deliver some cleaning supplies. Rebecca, who lives in the area and attends services at FCC, had found herself in charge of organizing that space into a distribution center and was clearly feeling overwhelmed. Patrick and I ended spending the entire day there, chipping away at a pile of hundreds of trash bags of donated clothes. By mid-afternoon, four more Occupy Sandy volunteers arrived, and by the end of the day, we had set up a makeshift Goodwill, complete with diapers, canned food, several clothes racks full of coats, water, and kids’ toys.

The second time I caught a ride from 520 Clinton was Saturday, the 10th, out to Staten Island. Occupy Sandy was again working with a church to establish a neighborhood supply center, this time with St. Margaret Mary, a Roman Catholic church in the devastated Midland Beach area. Volunteers helped ready the church for Mass that evening and took supplies around the block to a recreational center the church owns.

I spent the afternoon with Allison Matous, 24, and Jenn Hirsch, 33, who both live on Staten Island and work at Staten Island University hospital as occupational therapists. They told me that immediately after the storm hit, some people actually swam up to the hospital to receive care. “The first patients were a couple and their two dogs,” Allison said, as we drove along Hylan Boulevard in her car, Hot 97 playing quietly in the background.

The three of us had been dispatched to a southern part of the island called Tottenville, a 20-minute drive from Midland beach, because there wasn’t reliable information about the area and if its needs were being met. Parts of the area were totally destroyed. “You can look through that house and see their neighbor’s,” Jenn said, pointing at a house whose first floor had been reduced to the skeletal structure.

Residents had set up a supply distribution center at the corner of Yetman and Billop avenues, and the people we talked to at that time didn’t ask for additional help. Many were waiting to see whether insurance would cover any of the damages and said that friends and family had already helped them clean as much as they could.

One constant refrain in Tottenville is contempt for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). “They don’t do shit,” a woman named Vita said, standing outside her sister-in-law’s house. “FEMA sucks,” Maria, who lived up the street said. “They’re ignoring us.”

When we first got to the neighborhood, Allison was hesitant to initiate conversations, so I was the one who approached the first few people we saw. By the end of the afternoon, however, she had taken the lead. “Hi, we’re here with Occupy Sandy,” she said multiple times, before assessing the needs of the person she was speaking with.

I got a ride back to the city from Steve, who said he had served in the US Marine Corps in Afghanistan. When he told me that, I responded that I couldn’t think of two organizations more different than the Marines and Occupy. “You have no idea,” he said, laughing loudly. He initially went to St. Jacobi with plans to just help out for a day or two, but responsibilities just kept coming. “It’s like an octopus, pulling you in,” he said as we crossed the Verrazano Bridge. He expressed frustration with what he described as the lack of organization of Occupy Sandy, especially when compared with the military, but also stressed that he had met some organizers he really liked.

He had plans that night to meet up with a woman he had met at a bar earlier in the week for a first date. There was no time to go home and change, and he realized he was wearing the same clothes he had been wearing when they met. Laughing and swearing under his breath as his fuel tank quickly approached empty, he exhaled deeply. “Maybe I can ask her to help me push my car home. It’ll be a great bonding experience.”

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