Occupy Sandy: Horizontal lessons in community-based disaster recovery

| June 20, 2013
Photo: Restore_the_Rock / flickr

Please support our coverage of democratic movements and become a supporting member of rabble.ca.

By the time Hurricane Sandy crashed up on the shores of New York City in October 2012, pundits had long-declared Occupy Wall Street 'dead.' But with its eviction from Zuccotti Park, the global movement had in fact begun to grow roots that would support the city's hardest hit communities through the difficult days and months that followed the worst storm the city had ever seen.

Filmmaker and housing activist, Michael Preemo, was one of the Occupy Wall Street organizers who sprung into action on the day Sandy hit New York. He was part of the initially-small crew that beat out the responses of the Red Cross and FEMA in those critical early days of the storm, getting in on the ground when the official agencies were still making plans. He describes Occupy Sandy as the 'third phase' of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the city, following the 53-day physical occupation of Zuccotti Park and the early Occupy campaigns like StrikeDebt and Occupy Homes.

"Myself, a friend, Diego, Laura Schlomo, [and] a couple other people, just headed out after the storm, to just check on people, to see what was what and what was happening and who was doing what. At the same time as our friends, Bobby and Brie, were driving out to the Rockaways and some of the neighbourhoods, Breezy Point, that were on fire."

"I had a relationship with a group in Red Hook, called the Red Hook Initiative. And I just literally called them cold on the phone to see if anyone would answer the phone at their office, as we were driving down into Red Hook. I talked to them and I said, 'Look, we want to help you help your community in any way that we can. What we can provide is the potential to be able to amplify your needs throughout our networks ... until you're at a point where you're up and running. ... And that became the first site of Occupy Sandy, which was in Red Hook."

From there, thousands of volunteers emerged from the city's vast woodwork, offering time, food, supplies, skills, and anything else that they could contribute. Whereas the Red Cross efforts focused on the donation of peoples' money, Occupy Sandy welcomed the full breadth of resources New Yorkers had to offer their fellow citizens in need. And unlike the official relief efforts, Occupy Sandy didn't stop at addressing the immediate impacts of the Hurricane. Preemo continued:

There was a group of folks within Occupy Sandy who understood that there are really multiple disasters; there's the initial disaster and then there's the long-term disaster that happens after the volunteers leave, after the cameras leave, that is deeply related to the failures and ongoing crisis of capitalism as a system. ... Our goal was to set up the initial house with the stated and implicit intention to be able to have community-led rebuilding, so that when we got to that point when we were transitioning away from immediate relief, and into a longer-term recovery and rebuilding and redevelopment phases, there would be some type of infrastructure, some type of support network, to be able to support for that long haul.

I would say between December and March, the efforts started to transition from the immediate relief, to the sort of longer-term recovery.

What happened during this longer-term effort would be hard to track as a single narrative. Tammy Shapiro, another Occupier who helped spearhead the early days of Occupy Sandy, described the diversity of the organizing processes that emerged:

In Staten Island they're organizing this long term recovery group, whereas in the Rockaways where people feel so much more disenfranchised, we were actually doing much more to build alternatives, like afterschool programs and coops, and these Wildfire community organizing political training programs, whereas in Sheepshead Bay they had a much smaller team and were in a smaller community and they started doing guerrilla gardening. And so people were responding in ways that fit the group that they had, fit their skills and fit their interests.

Speaking at Left Forum, June 9, Shapiro explained that the breadth of organizing that was occurring throughout the affected communities in March, wasn't the result of "sitting in a room strategizing together," but through a range of independent and autonomous experiments, carried out in different locales. And while admittedly, communication between those involved in these various experiments wasn't as strong as it could have been at the time, the lessons were not lost.

"What we did is we experimented and those experiments are going to be important for the future," said Shapiro. "So now we've experimented with long-term recovery groups, we've experimented with incubating coops, we've experimented with pulling people together for community organizing. We've really experimented with a lot of different things, and that means that we've learned a lot of lessons collectively."

But how did a primarily-protest movement in Lower Manhattan give rise to such an effective and well-ordered disaster response, able to put the purported 'expert' organizations in the field to shame? Preemo explains the transition, as he experienced it, from OWS to Occupy Sandy:

Some people have written that in order to support the emergence of social movements, it's necessary to develop a community of practice, right? Shared values, shared principles, that has a cohesion and language and way of working, that will support the further emergence of positive activity and positive action, right? So Occupy Wall Street was the seeds that helped create a community of practice. And what happened with Occupy Sandy is we operationalized some of the more abstract ideas that were floating around Occupy Wall Street.

What I mean by that is lateral, horizontal approaches to problem solving, as well as analysis. So if you could free up those systems of being able to analyse a problem, being able to strategize a problem, and being able to implement those strategies, and open that up to a lateral or horizontal structure, so that you're really supporting creativity, innovation from your community, to be able to really problem solve in a dynamic way, that speaks to and represents the inclinations and desires of multiple segments of your society, or of your community, it really creates the conditions to really have a robust, and really dope solution, right? And so with Occupy Wall Street, it created a cadre of people that had worked together, had a working relationship, had a degree of a community around how and what they wanted to see in the world. So when Occupy Sandy hit, what happened was those tendencies and ideas were able to be turned into robust, sophisticated operation.

And what made the approach taken by Occupy Sandy so critical to the broader Occupy narrative, even when some OWS members didn't initially see disaster relief as 'political enough?' According to Shapiro:

"All of these projects we’re doing, the coop incubation, afterschool program ... we're doing them in the places where we have the distribution hubs, we're doing them with the communities that we've built trust with because we were there every day. And so I can't overemphasize that being there for people and providing services allows us to build relationships where we can go much deeper when the immediate heightened crisis moment is over."

One conclusion Tammy Shapiro has reached is that there is great potential in combining service provision and political organizing.  

"Then we have the time to sit back and talk politics, then we have time to think about what we can do in the long-term for the community and with the community members. ... what we see in our community is that organizing efforts and service organizations are largely separate from each other, which means that the service organizations are just providing services, often because that's what their grants and donations will allow them to do, and the organizing efforts are focusing on organizing, because we don't really have the capacity to do everything all at once, but really, when you can combine those two, there's an amazing possibility for building trust and going deeper."

 

Liam Barrington-Bush is an activist, social change consultant and author of the upcoming book Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people, due out in September 2013. He Tweets as @hackofalltrades and facilitates the 'more like people' Facebook page.

Photo: Restore_the_Rock / flickr 

embedded_video

Comments

How sad that in the richest country in the world the social support infrastructure is so small that victims of natural disasters have to rely on the Red Cross and the kindness of strangers for their survival and rehabilitation. The "land of the free" still has tens of thousands of displaced refugees from Hurricane Katrina, which was almost 8 years ago.

They have the biggest armed forces in the world, and spend billions every day on the phony world war. But when it comes to looking after their own people it's up to volunteers and charitable donations.

So much for the "responsibility to protect".

Login or register to post comments