Sandy Nurse’s Journey from Occupy Wall Street to City Council

Issue 266

Occupy Wall St. alum vows to bring her social movement values with her when she joins the New York City Council on January 1.

John Tarleton Sep 15, 2021

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What’s the best way to make change? Disruptive street protests? Build alternative institutions? Get elected in hopes of changing government from the inside? Sandy Nurse has done it all over the past decade.

Nurse led protests at Occupy Wall Street. She later turned her focus to her community in Bushwick, a working-class, predominantly people of color neighborhood in North Brooklyn, where she co-founded Mayday Space, a community center and grassroots organizing hub. She also launched BK Rot, New York City’s first bike-powered food waste hauling and composting service. Last year, she helped organize Occupy City Hall. The week- long protest encampment outside the seat of city government drew hundreds of participants who demanded that their representatives cut $1 billion from the NYPD’s budget and use the money to fund community services. The measure failed.

Next year, Nurse will be voting on the City’s nearly $100 billion annual budget as the new representative for Council District 37, where she trounced a machine-backed incumbent by 30 points in the June Democratic primary with the support of dozens of progressive politicos, labor unions and community based organizations. Her district covers Bushwick, Cypress Hills, East New York and Ocean Hill-Brownsville

“It’s kind of crazy,” she chuckled as we began to discuss her journey over the past 10 years and how she plans to co-govern with her constituents when she takes office.

THE INDYPENDENT: What drew you to Occupy Wall Street? How did you get involved?

SANDY NURSE: I followed Occupy on Facebook that summer after returning from Haiti, where I was working with the World Food Program. There was a lot of very potent, powerful energy happening around the world where people were just at their end and were congregating in public spaces like Tahrir Square in Egypt. I was feeling pretty depressed about the political culture in the United States. On top of outright corruption, there was the existential threat of climate change and our inability to take meaningful action around that because of all the special interests in our political system.

A friend and I went down to Zuccotti Park on the first day and there were assemblies in the park Park with hundreds of people. It was incredible to watch and participate in. They were looking for people to stay the night. My friend got some blankets from home, and that kicked it off for me.

What was it like being an organizer with the Direct Action Working Group?

Within a day or so of starting to camp at the park, someone said, “Hey, we’re going to have this huddle for anybody who wants to do direct action.” I went over and was like, “Yeah, I’m here to do stuff. I don’t want to sit in the park all day.” So we went over to a corner and started planning marches. Then it became the Direct Action Working Group. We met twice a day. We would do marches to Wall Street coinciding with the opening and closing bell of the stock market to get people up and moving and to give people something to participate in when they got off work.

Things really took off when we planned the march across the Brooklyn Bridge and 700 people got arrested on the bridge. When the media coverage really kicked off, it became just an influx of people who wanted to participate. So much was happening. Every day felt like a week.

It must have been both exhilarating and exhausting.

Occupy required a tremendous amount of energy, mental and physical energy. And the space was hard to manage. It became a place where people who needed food and shelter were seeking refuge. Also, there were real needs with mental health and people struggling with drug use that couldn’t be met by people in the park. We were also infiltrated by undercover cops who sought to create chaos, which took its toll on people. People got exhausted and were no longer interested in pushing the broader message about the 99% vs. the 1%.

What are the memories from Occupy that stand out for you?

There were all sorts of bizarre little moments. At one point we were threatened with being kicked out of the park for being “unclean” and there was this massive cleaning effort. I remember one of the ringleaders of the Sanitation Working Group furiously sweeping the park while shirtless in the rain. For quirky moments, I’m also thinking of the Direct Action Working Group meeting in the graveyard next to Trinity Church twice a day to plan protests.

Also, it was just the haphazard way everything came together. You would wake up and there’s a library that wasn’t there the night before. One of the weirdest moments for me was when Rev. Jesse Jackson came through the park and we gave him a tour. It was really late at night and we walked to a nearby office. And there was this roundtable conversation about how the energy of this movement could be captured for broader electoral movements. A bunch of us pushed back saying this movement isn’t about getting people elected.

Why did you shift to community organizing?

I wanted to do stuff at the hyper-local level and focus on long-term institution building. I’m deeply concerned about the climate crisis. I wanted to experiment at the neighborhood level with how we could actually impact that while creating systems that allow people to take action. With BK Rot, we put into practice some of the thinking of environmental justice movements about using mitigation and adaptation projects as opportunities to create direct benefits for the people who’ve been living in communities that have environmental racism

We created Mayday because we need space for our movements. I see Mayday as like Zuccotti Park in a building. It’s all of the same types of activities — cooking and big events, big assemblies, celebrations. It’s art making, political education and all of the things that were happening at Zuccotti but in a space that’s clean and safe for people.

How did you gravitate toward local politics?

With the Mayday Space, we don’t get public funding. Our model was built on being sustained by the groups who use it. With BK Rot, we have teenagers on bikes collecting trash and processing raw waste. For many years we engaged around trying to have access to public land to house this project. That involved our community board and different land use advocates and the strong support and participation of Councilmember Antonio Reynoso and his staff who made calls to different city agencies to help us get access to public land. That opened my mind to opportunities to work with the state.

I continue to be a street activist and do direct actions and train folks who want to do that. I also like building positive spaces for people to work together and improve our neighborhood. This jump is a part of a longer, unexpected trajectory, but at this time we really need people who are highly energized, proactive, who want to be out there thinking about how we move New York City into the 21st century.

How will you strike a balance between being an outsider aligned with social movements and an insider who will have to work with 50 other City Council members and the mayor?

There’s always going to be an inherent tension in this. The way I’m thinking about it is to not navigate it alone. We have to build alliances among the Left. There are movement groups focused on pushing agendas in our local government. There are groups who don’t believe in electoral politics, but they are out there all the time pushing everybody to look at the problem. We all have a role to play. The best I can do is be as transparent as possible and create as many opportunities for participatory decision making as possible. We need people to come with solutions, with ideas, with the energy to think it through because that’s what is required at this moment to address the challenges we face.

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