Sandy relief effort provided spark for Occupy renewal

occupy-sandy-FBHurricane Sandy was late to the party.

The 18th storm of the 2012 season started brewing around Oct. 24 as a stretch of low, unstable pressure over the warm waters of the Carribbean, bringing thunderstorms and progressively higher winds to the region. By Oct. 24, those winds were clocked at close to 75 mph. That morning, Sandy, barely hours into her name, raged ashore in Jamaica as a full-fledged hurricane.

Over the next three days, Hurricane — or Superstorm, as it would later be known — Sandy swept through Cuba, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas, exploding as a Category 2 storm one day, then weakening again to a tropical depression, then back to Category 1 just in time to head north — straight for the U.S. coastline.

Her arrival in Atlantic City, New Jersey, came well after sundown on Oct. 29, a full moon. Winds in excess of 80 mph along with tides 20 percent higher than usual leveled power lines and trees and flooded neighbourhoods. The famous Seaside Heights boardwalk in New Jersey was left a mess of waterlogged, splintered timber, tumbling in the churning foam. Americans were shocked the next morning to see the iconic Seaside Heights roller coaster looming out of the surf, suddenly an icon of something much darker.

From Kingston, Jamaica, to Toronto, Canada, Hurricane Sandy left 149 deaths, thousands homeless, millions without power, and billions upon billions of dollars in damage. Perhaps least expectedly — or most, considering the context — Sandy also saw the return of the Occupy movement, a little over a year after its first protests at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan.

Exactly a year and a day before Sandy devastated New England shorelines, Occupy Wall Street issued a public notice to its followers by way of @OccupyWallStNYC, the New York City movement’s official Twitter account. “The NYPD and FDNY just removed all of our generators from the park,” it all but screamed on Oct. 28, 2011, a message urgently punctuated with the hashtags #ows and #theft.

That morning, police and firefighters descended on the encampment at Broadway and Liberty in New York City. Few were surprised by the sudden presence of local authorities — the FDNY had already announced concerns with “potential fire hazards” at Zuccotti Park, and judging by routine patrols and raids, the police may as well have been camped out, too — but with a New York winter steadily approaching, the group was understandably concerned with means to ride out the elements.

In the media, Occupy Wall Street had been presented as a gaggle of unruly, unkempt activists, too concerned with making a visible splash to organize effectively — politically or otherwise. Perhaps owing to that conventional wisdom, the response of the Zuccotti Park general assembly to these confiscations wasn’t widely reported. That afternoon, in its distinctively leaderless, call-and-answer format, the group approved a $4,000 budget to buy new generators complementing those already offered up by the public. This time, however, the authorities’ public safety concerns — such as they were — wouldn’t have a leg to stand on: without relying on fossil or any other kinds of fuels, these generators would be bike-powered.

Those authorities, of course, still found a way to evict Occupy Wall Street from its encampment, not far from where the World Trade Center once stood. On Nov. 15, 2011, Zuccotti Park was scattered. But on Nov. 1, 2012, they were back — against a backdrop of tragically unexpected conditions.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s first estimates put damage in the New York metropolitan region at close to 900 buildings destroyed, with another 12,000 — at least — severely damaged. In downtown Manhattan, the majority of this damage was from flooding driven dramatically higher by the tide of the full moon. By 8 o’clock in the evening on Oct. 29, 2012, the storm tide had risen to 12 and a half feet — more than two feet higher than levels necessary to inundate the New York City subway system. An hour later, Manhattan was underwater. Sandy took its first life not long thereafter.

When the tide receded and the damage was surveyed, Americans across the affected area — indeed, nationwide — were frustrated by how slowly the American Red Cross, the federal government, and others initially responded to the growing humanitarian crisis on U.S. shores. In places, concerned residents were even prevented from speeding up that response on their own.

“People who want to volunteer are stymied from doing so,” said Vincent Ignizio, a New York City councilor representing Staten Island’s 51st District, in conversation with The Nation.

Predictably, Occupiers weren’t among those dissuaded.

With the tools of autonomous direct action still in hand, Occupy members dispersed to some of the areas hardest hit by Sandy: Staten Island, Rockaway, Red Hook, the Lower East Side, the East Village, Sunset Park, Brighten Bridge, and Astoria. Community hubs and ad-hoc distribution centers were established in these neighbourhoods, with 2,500 volunteers providing 15,000 meals, facilitated by a hundred or so car trips during the first few days after the disaster.

“People are traumatized out there,” Lopi LaRoe, a volunteer with Occupy Sandy, told The Nation‘s Allison Kilkenny on Nov. 5, 2012. Describing a scene of almost apocalyptic devastation in some places, she said, “They’ve lost their homes, some of them lost family members and pets, and they’re really emotional, and they want to tell their stories. The aid we were giving was largely material aid, but now we’re moving into trauma support, and setting up places where people can tell their stories.”

But at its most powerful, Occupy’s role in relieving the trauma of Sandy was even simpler than that.

At some point between 2011 and 2012, that $4,000 earmarked for bike generators evidently came through. Even in international media, news of Occupiers working in tandem with other relief groups, powering pumps and freely charging phones for complete strangers, lightened a very dark, desperate moment for thousands of Americans. Darkly, there was an observation that it wasn’t just activists forced to live in spartan conditions now. But like the economic disaster of 2008 that precipitated the wave of dissent of which Occupy was a part, Sandy didn’t leave its victims much of a choice, either. Those who had endured hardship for the sake of principle — especially while waving a flag of social justice — were in a better position than most to lend a hand — tents, generators and all.

“People’s needs were provided for in [Zucotti] Park,” Brett Goldberg, an Occupy veteran, told the New York Daily News in fall, 2012. “And that’s what we’re doing out here, too. I don’t really think it’s that different.”

“What Occupy Sandy is doing is it’s making a lot of the Occupy organizing very tangible for people,” he said.

For the movement that emerged amid yurts and public, very vocal declarations of solidarity, it’s a template for relief that directly reflects the template for dissent Occupy had already set. Like in the early days at Zuccotti Park — or St. James Park in Toronto, or any of a number of satellite movements worldwide — community, not self-interest, appears to have driven their strategy. Perhaps it’s for this reason — moving from the global stage to the local — that Occupy receded almost out of sight after exploding publicly in such dramatic fashion. Championing for the ninety-nine percent, after all, is really just about sticking up for your neighbours.

After Sandy swept through the U.S. northeast, a painfully large number of Americans learned just that.