Yesterday, here in storm ravaged New York, I witnessed a healthy, versatile and vibrant movement coming together to help fellow citizens at their time of greatest need. In fact, what I saw was proof positive of one of the maxims often associated with the often-proclaimed dead Occupy movement – another world is possible.
It’s Day 4 since Sandy hit, and the Greenpeace solar truck the Rolling Sunlight is out in affected communities providing small creature comforts like powering cell phones, and working with Occupy Sandy, the burgeoning relief arm of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
En route to Far Rockaway to meet up with the Rolling Sunlight, I spent a couple of hours at a Occupy depot in Sunset Park, sorting donated food, clothes, and other supplies, and making sandwiches and hot food to distribute out in the devastated area of Queens.
It is an utter disaster zone out there, the rubble of smoldering buildings lying next to homes with all their worldly goods in a giant sodden pile on the front lawn. There are cars and shipping containers randomly tossed around the streets and a high tide mark about as tall as my head.
There’s no electricity still, and not much in the way of official relief efforts. The system that Occupy has set up, all done by consensus (and, it has to be said, some lengthy discussions) is amazing. They have sophisticated aid centers set up in nearly all of the hardest hit areas, and networks of volunteers manning them.
I spoke to two Occupy organizers, Michael Premo and Tamara Shapiro, and asked them how they managed to get so much infrastructure set up so quickly.
“We got involved with recovers.org [software that helps communities self organize after disasters and currently hosts pages for Red Hook, Astoria, Staten Island and the Lower East Side], and we were on the ground as soon as the storm hit. We started in Red Hook – I had some contacts there and we just asked how people were doing and what they needed. We have a network of people from the social movement that we can activate, and within 10 – 12 hours we had a main cooking and distribution site up,” says Michael.
Tamara emphasizes the power of the existing networks. “Most of us are or have been engaged with Occupy, so a lot of us know each other and are used to the Occupy way of working – that there’s no hierarchy, and people just start doing things.”
Although Occupy has a large social media presence, and the recovers.org site received some early media attention, old fashioned organizing and the hard slog of on-the-ground disaster recovery work is playing a large part in the effort.
“Many of us have years of intense social movement work, some have years of activism experience. More importantly, there is a social cohesion based on shared values,” said Michael.
Tamara points to the obvious numerical power of the Occupy movement highlighted at the one year anniversary events: “We had 5000 people out in the streets just over a month ago. And we have many more latent networks that still exist when they’re needed. That’s the logistical side of it. Then there’s the point, which is that we care about people.”
I ask why they seem to be keeping the Occupy element quite low key. “This is not a time for banner flying, we’re just people who care,” Tamara responds firmly. “Also, Occupy is a political movement and we want all people to feel comfortable coming in.”
I ask Michael and Tamara if Occupy Sandy is doing work of Government agencies, is this a failure of Government or are they just overwhelmed?
Tamara highlights the benefits of working within a non hierarchical structure which allows people to just start doing things without battling red tape. However, she says, “we were the first people in Rockaway, that seems to be a failure.”
“More importantly,” she adds, “is that the Government is dealing with what’s causing this.”
Michael sees the opportunity to engage people in a conversation about politics and the environment. “Some of this is an abstraction until you have no power, no heat, no hot water,” he says.
The group is continuing to identify new sites, and support existing sites. Tamara says they are looking to open depots in more places, as well as sending out cleaning teams and canvassers to assess need.
Faced, like the rest the city, with a major gas shortage, there are concerns about how they will continue to reach the communities who have come to rely on them. Tamara says they may have got their hands on some bio diesel trucks, and are strategically using bike messengers, but that they’ve also heard that the Port has reopened and more gas should come through in the next day or so.
As Michael warns, “disaster relief is a marathon not a sprint.”
Like Occupy, Greenpeace believes the priority right now should be the immediate recovery effort for those on the ground. And like Occupy, we believe this disaster must be seen as what it is – a harbinger of things to come if we continue down our fossil fuelled path to total climate disruption.
We welcome the refreshing comments in recent days from politicians and media, finally connecting the dots between extreme weather and climate change. Now we expect to see action to address our emissions and climate policy, to prevent more frequent and more ferocious storms in the future.
Hear from volunteers and what people are doing to help below and stay updated on Hurricane Sandy relief and the status of the Rolling Sunlight.