For those of us who’ve spent the last few years covering the struggles of everyday people against the financial and corporate giants who’ve consolidated wealth to unheard-of levels, the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy has been an exercise in “Where the hell have you been?”
The comparisons to Katrina have been everywhere, of course, but for me they hit home when, safe and warm in my Crown Heights apartment, I saw friends and acquaintances who’d been involved with Occupy Wall Street tweeting their relief activities under the hashtag #OccupySandy. As they set up their hub in Red Hook I couldn’t help but think of New Orleans’ mutual aid after the storm, and how leftists and radicals (such as Malik Rahim, who learned about community care from the Black Panthers’ free food and tutoring programs) step quietly into the spaces left vacant by cuts to social programs and city budgets.
Julieta Salgado, a Brooklyn College student and organizer, told me that it started with a text message from a handful of folks working with the Free University. That group wound up at the Red Hook Initiative and from there fanned out into the streets of wealthy, dry Carroll Gardens to seek donations.
“We just walked from door to door and every single person responded, no one turned us down,” Salgado said. “People were thanking us for coming. I think we gave an entryway to some folks who didn’t know how to help.”
The aftermath of disaster, particularly in a neoliberal state whose safety net has been shredded, is a void waiting to be filled by mutual aid. When the state simply isn’t there, people step up to take care of each other — not just looking out for themselves as our libertarian friends would have it, but working together as communities in solidarity. The idea of mutual aid was as much at the foundation of the Occupy movement as its hotly debated horizontalism and opposition to the banks.
The Friday after Sandy, not long after cultural historian Thomas Frank declared Occupy dead, I walked into St. Jacobi Church in Sunset Park and saw familiar faces from Zuccotti Park. They weren’t sitting around debating how to talk about the revolution, as Frank would have it; they were doing hard, necessary, practical work to feed, clothe and support swathes of the city reeling from the superstorm. The obituaries of Occupy had never seemed so wrong.
The church basement was filled with volunteers standing around tables, some preparing food, some sorting donations and putting together boxes, like the Kitchen and Comfort stations many of us remember from Occupy Wall Street. All would be fed. All would be clothed. Instead of waiting for those in need to arrive, as they had at Zuccotti, volunteers were now loading cars filled with precious gasoline to drive to Coney Island, to the Rockaways, to anywhere people weren’t being cared for.
“It’s amazing how organized we are. It’s amazing how much so many people involved with the social movement have learned about themselves, about each other, about how to put these values into practice,” said Michael Premo, one of the Occupy organizers in Sunset Park.
I’d seen lines around the block for food, diapers, blankets, flashlights and water, as the Red Hook Initiative/Occupy Sandy effort expanded to more buildings. The public housing all around us was still cold and without power, but there were so many volunteers that they didn’t know what to do with us all. Salgado showed up again the next day and saw two people whose doors she’d knocked on the night before. They were there to help.
Community groups that jumped into action for Sandy — organizers who make their (meager) livings providing services to people facing foreclosure, to immigrant workers fighting wage theft, to neighborhoods trying to keep out the corporate-backed charter schools — have played a vital role in the relief effort. Political organizing and mutual aid go hand in hand, or they should. The early labor movement wasn’t just about organizing on the job, but organizing in neighborhoods. The folks still trying to build an anticapitalist movement in this country know that shell-shocked people can’t organize until their basic needs have been met.
Rebecca Solnit has written eloquently of the communities that arise in disaster. Occupy Wall Street was a response to a disaster, too: the slow-moving financial hurricane that destroyed homes as surely as the storm. So it shouldn’t be surprising that after Sandy moved through, the first people to jump into action were the same ones who made things run in the park. Observers all agree that the movement suffered from a lack of focus after the encampments were cleared out, but Sandy provided an immediate and critical focus. Within hours, Occupy was already using pre-existing social networks to kick off the relief effort.
“We scaled up in 24 hours. It’s really a testament to how this specific set of values was able to really get us organized with one clear, focused vision,” Premo said.
SENSE OF URGENCY
As I finished up a 10-hour day volunteering in Sunset Park, cars were departing, volunteers were leaving and more coming to replace them, familiar faces running in with news of possible staging locations in other parts of the city. The rhythm was different than Zuccotti Park, the sense of urgency more acute, with reports pouring in of neighborhoods desperately in need of support. But the work was the same, even if the motivation was different. Meet people’s needs, help them solve their problems.
Blackouts provided just a temporary respite from the daily hustle of late-capitalist New York City, but in that space there was room for something else.
As Salgado put it: “The cops are still doing what we expected them to do, Bloomberg is still doing what we expected him to do, and we’re still doing what we expected us to do — but no one else did.”