Rebuilding from the Bottom Up


By Mike Stivers

Just over a year ago, nearly every national news station in the country was asking Occupy Wall Street a myriad of questions: Why are you sleeping in this park? Who are your “leaders?” What are your demands? And while the latent but still existent Occupy Wall Street continues grappling with these questions, the latest manifestation of the movement, Occupy Sandy, seems to be experiencing an identity crisis of its own—a crisis not of presentation, but of structure

Is Occupy Sandy a network—a loosely organized, amorphous coalition of various groups with shared principles? Or is it more of an NGO—a highly structured, often hierarchical organization that uses language like “sustainability” and “culturally relevant solutions?” Perhaps it is more of a social movement, the latest stage in a process born in Zuccotti Park—a group of individuals committed to solving problems of the freakish climate, the crumbling national infrastructure, and the social safety net, all torn apart by a system of unbridled capitalism that spiraled into crisis just a few years ago.

In reality, Occupy Sandy is a hybrid of these structures. But to what extent does it embody the principles of a network, the values of a non-profit, and the ideology of a social movement? Moreover, what are the strengths and weaknesses of these configurations? Finally, how can Occupy Sandy create an amalgam of these forms that is conducive to an equitable, sustainable, democratic, and anti-oppressive rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy?

Three months after Sandy, one might wonder what exactly Occupy Sandy does. In the first days after the Hurricane it was pretty clear: disaster relief. From its main distribution sites in Sunset Park and Clinton Hill, Occupy Sandy sent food, clothes, cleaning supplies, water, diapers, blankets, generators, love, and most anything else one could imagine to communities in desperate need. But many of these immediate needs are now being met, and many of the New York communities most ravaged by Sandy—the Rockaways, Coney Island, Sheepshead Bay, New Dorp, Red Hook, Howard Beach, Midland Beach, and Red Hook—are once again self-sufficient. And despite the fact that thousands of residents are still without heat or electricity, and in some cases even homes, the rebuilding process is largely underway.

Mold remediation in water logged-basements, supply deliveries in beat up box trucks, and cross-borough data mapping projects constitute just a fraction of the work still being undertaken by brazen, unpaid organizers (not to mention the innumerable meetings needed to coordinate these efforts). It is a formidable challenge to catalogue the entirety of Occupy Sandy’s work. The labor of volunteers is broad, dynamic, and thoroughly interconnected to nearly every aspect of hurricane relief from the local to the federal level. In this, the sweeping range and extensive reach of these efforts resembles Occupy Wall Street’s propensity for intersectionality and potential for a decentralized network model.

This model enables local communities to develop site-specific solutions to the problems they face while utilizing the resources of the larger network. It allows communities to act autonomously and (in theory) avoid the bureaucratic nature of vertically integrated organizations. But as Mark Edelman, professor of Anthropology at Hunter College, points out in his research on peasant networks in Central America, even community-based networks develop power structures.

“Networks are typically represented . . . as two-dimensional linkages between nodes or focal points of equal weight or significance,” Edelman writes. But this representation masks the inherent disparities of resources, privilege, and access that exist between nodes. “Network activists, like other overworked professionals, feel the tug of disparate demands emanating from the regional, national, and local organizations in which they take part.” This difficulty in managing power relations was certainly evident during Occupy Sandy as the various hubs from Midland Beach to Red Hook earnestly tried to ensure a democratic process of resource distribution. The difficulty of this task cannot be underestimated.

Ensuring an equitable and sustainable recovery process requires Occupy Sandy to work within the system of profound inequality that exists in New York. It must satisfy the individual needs of all its hubs—from the geographically disconnected, largely working class neighborhoods of Far Rockaway to the resource heavy, easily accessible distribution center in Clinton Hill. It’s not solely about money, either. Systemic inequality by definition affects multiple systems.

Many volunteers flock to the most accessible sites, which tend to be situated in areas of greater socio-economic privilege. Moreover, those who do volunteer are often those who can afford to miss a day of work (or a week, or month, as many organizers in Occupy Sandy have done). Therefore, the question arises whether more formal processes of organization might improve the network’s efficacy. What would Occupy Sandy look like if resource rich, institutionalized efforts replaced the largely ad-hoc, though extraordinarily commendable, efforts of Occupy organizers? It isn’t clear, though many involved with Occupy’s relief efforts are critical of NGO hierarchical structures and reject them outright.

And what about the countless individuals who devote time, energy, and effort to Occupy Sandy but are forced to return to work or draw on their savings to sustain their volunteering? The current system seems to ultimately lend itself to a different hierarchy—a hierarchy of participation. In the long run, only the most privileged within the city would be the volunteers able to devote time to relief and rebuilding efforts. If that’s the case, then Occupy Sandy appears to perpetuate a system of charity, not mutual aid. So how can Occupy Sandy hold fast to its principles while allowing its members to support themselves?

As of now, no one within Occupy Sandy has been paid for their labor—not a penny of the $889,009.89 raised through Occupy Sandy has been spent on salaries or stipends for organizers. This has been perhaps the most contentious issue within the group. The difficulties of sustaining a diverse, resilient movement that requires members to seek alternative employment need not be recounted here.

As countless individuals assumed given its name, many of the same people who occupied Zuccotti Park last fall are centrally involved in Occupy Sandy, but many within the network had no affiliation with Occupy or its offshoots prior to the storm. Since Sandy struck in October, real estate agents, firefighters, and investment bankers have been among those who contributed to the relief effort. Occupy Sandy drew in people who simply wanted to help and were able to do so thanks to the responsive, effective, and people-powered structure. While it doesn’t feel like a “movement,” the political nature of Occupy Sandy is undeniable.

While many mainstream media outlets praised the efficiency of Occupy Sandy, the radial nature of the relief work was ignored. The New York Times asked its readers: “Is Occupy Wall Street outperforming FEMA?” (To which some neighborhoods still awaiting FEMA assistance undoubtedly answered, “Yes!”) In its discussion of Occupy Sandy picking up “where FEMA fell short,” the newspaper of record barely touched on the movement’s politics. “All relief work is inherently political,” one member of Occupy Sandy remarked during a press interview. The form in which goods are distributed, the degree and nature of interaction with government bodies, and the manner of allocation of funds raised in the wake of the storm are all political processes with which disaster relief organizations, including Occupy Sandy, must engage. It is in these processes that Occupy Sandy’s ideology might be traced back to Occupy Wall Street.

Occupy Sandy borrows heavily from Occupy Wall Street in its principles of direct democracy, transparency, and non-oppressive behavior. It was the only relief organization to provide its volunteers with non-oppression training—a session that helps volunteers acknowledge previously unexamined privileges and structural inequalities. This was a pertinent primer for those entering the affected communities, many of which are low-income and majority people of color. Perhaps the most admired aspect of Occupy Sandy was and continues to be the non-bureaucratic nature of the relief work. Goods were initially distributed without paperwork and relief sites were established based on need, not principle. This fluidity enabled Occupy Sandy to be as tremendously effective as it was. It is a clear testament to the non-hierarchical structure Occupy embodies—a structure that enabled the group to garner widespread support.

Occupy Sandy has thus replicated one of the greatest strengths of Occupy Wall Street—its appeal to people who previously felt out of touch with other movements. Whether it’s Goldman Sachs or FEMA, Occupy has repeatedly proven adept at identifying institutions that are unresponsive the needs of people, proposing alternate systems to address these needs, and engaging in direct action to benefit the people. It was this innovative creation of solidarity networks, motivated by legitimate grievances that caused middle-class suburban couples to bring their children to Zuccotti Park last fall. Occupy’s sense of solidarity manifested itself once again in the affected neighborhoods when the first responders many residents saw were members of Occupy Sandy.

Since Hurricane Sandy hit, countless citizens have seen, heard, and experienced the principles and politics of Occupy firsthand. Principles of collaboration, mutual aid, non-oppression, and solidarity have become even more visible than they were last fall. Marching on Wall Street sends a clear message, but one that may not resonate deeply with all citizens. Delivering home-cooked trays of food to feed thousands sends a very different message, and this one is universal.

The political nature of the relief work is now being translated into the rebuilding of affected communities. One might ask what role Occupy Sandy could play in this process in lieu of the much larger, very well-funded organizations like the Red Cross (which raised $250 million for Hurricane Sandy alone), FEMA, and others. But the value of Occupy Sandy lies more in its form than its content. And while the structural identity of Occupy Sandy is still being defined, it is a far cry from traditionally hierarchical models of disaster relief and social organization.

Occupy Sandy leveraged the power of individuals to ignite a community-based recovery. When Sandy came over the dunes and through the harbors, people of all colors, classes, and creeds responded. While this diversity of response may not seem radical, it was performed outside of the formal institutions of disaster relief. The 70,000+ individuals who have since worked with Occupy Sandy decided that they did not have to wait for the government, the non-profit world, or the private sector to bail them out. They acknowledged the intrinsic power they all possess and the enormous potential they have when acting in solidarity.

This realization can drastically alter the rebuilding process, and not just that of New York after Sandy, but of communities across the country. Occupy Sandy has given a generator tank of political fuel to movements that aim to restore power back to communities, rather than through the institutions that have overseen, ignored, and even profited from the destruction of those communities. It has empowered activists, organizers, and residents to once again proclaim “We Got This.”

One comment to “Rebuilding from the Bottom Up”
  1. Occupy Sandy has started paying stipends to some of its workers. It’s focus is being an NGO, along with funding other the NGOs that its members started as a result of the storm.

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