The Occupy movement has rallied around its Occupy Sandy humanitarian efforts in parts of New York City devastated by the hurricane, becoming a key force in the city’s decentralized relief operations.
But people who are part of the movement say that their revolutionary mission and the egalitarian values they stand for haven’t changed. The relief efforts, organizers say, are simply an extension of what they’ve always been doing — and that they’ll be back out on streets of the Financial District again someday.
Occupy experienced what looked to outsiders like both a transformation and a revival in the aftermath of Sandy, which left outlying and often poorer neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island decimated. The sometime protesters changed tactics, going directly into the neighborhoods and filling the gaps where the Red Cross and FEMA were coming up short, albeit in a ragtag fashion.
But organizers say that the relief effort is simply an extension of what they were doing before.
“I think that it’s a pretty natural complement to the type of work that occupy has always done,” said Max Berger, a former Howard Dean campaign worker who’s been involved with Occupy on and off since its beginning.
“I don’t think it’s fair to just call it humanitarian assistance. Occupy was born out of a crisis. Occupy has always been about responding to crisis and to empower people to organize themselves and their communities,” Berger said.
History gives precedent for the kind of shift that the occupiers have made. After Hurricane Katrina, activists in New Orleans turned their energies to humanitarian works, forming the Common Ground Collective, which Mother Jones called “in-your-face” and which eventually grew into a national group. The difference is that they never transitioned back to protesting.
Occupy Wall Street activists in New York say that the new humanitarian face of the movement will just become another facet of its decentralized approach, which was characterized in their first year by street protests that became less and less vibrant as time dragged on. The movement seemed to lose its footing permanently after the eviction from New York’s Zuccotti Park and other hubs like it across the country.
The media turned its attention away from the occupiers, except for brief cameos here and there at the political conventions, May 1st, and the movement’s one-year anniversary. That’s changed a bit since the storm.
“I think that being here for people in a time of crisis, you can’t cut that negatively,” said Nicole Carty, an Occupy Sandy organizer who made headlines last year for her family story — her twin sister Jill, far from being a protester, works in financial services on Wall Street. “There’s no way you can talk about it that it’s bad work, it’s obviously good work,” Carty said.
“I don’t think that we’re going to turn into a humanitarian relief organization,” Carty said, echoing Berger. She said that the occupiers were going into the neighborhoods with the goal of not just providing direct aid, but of community organizing, another difference between their approach and that of, say, the Red Cross, which Carty said occupiers were trying unsuccessfully to coordinate with.
“Well the idea is that we want to make ourselves not necessary,” Carty said. “That’s the most sustainable model anyway, a community taking care of its own needs.”
The goal of this is in some ways political, as well as humanitarian.
“In the Rockaways, Staten Island, Coney Island, Red Hook, people are getting politicized because they see that decisions that they had nothing do do with are having an impact on their communities,” said Berger.
“What Occupy is bringing to those people is not just a spirit of we’re doing this for you but you’re doing this for yourself and for each other, and that’s an inherently political process,” Berger said.
Some in Occupy dismiss the idea that what they’re doing for Sandy victims is something new, and the glowing media coverage they’ve received as a result.
“I hate the stories that say ‘Occupy has found a NEW calling! Helping people who need it for free!’” said Shawn Carrié, an Occupy organizer who’s been deeply involved with the movement’s initiative to help the Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook.
“It completely ignores work that proto-Occupy groups like Food Not Bombs and In Our Hearts have been doing for years,” Carrié said.
Damien Crisp, another Brooklyn organizer, agreed.
“Many of our work groups were already working with direct relief in a variety of instances,” Crisp said in an email. “I think it is new for those who were unclear about Occupy and thought it is an aimless band of protesters.”
As for the future, occupiers say they plan to stay in the communities as long as help is needed. But more traditional forms of protest will continue. Protesters have planned a “Rolling Jubilee,” a program to buy back consumer debt, and are jumping in on a Walmart workers’ strike.
“We’re trying to pace ourselves,” said Carty. “That’s absolutely still happening, this more combative side of the movement.”