As capitalists’ response fails, activists mobilize relief aid

New York — People’s organizations stepped up to carry out relief efforts for Hurricane Sandy survivors when it became clear that government-led efforts and corporate charities were not doing enough.

As the storm headed toward New York and New Jersey, vital information about safety and evacuation was being distributed on the Occupy Wall Street website and its Twitter and Facebook pages. “This isn’t the first crisis we have dealt with,” said OWS organizer Yoni Miller. “We were formed in response to a crisis, the crisis of capitalism.”

Many thousands of people responded to the call. Three main volunteer hubs were set up in Sunset Park, Red Hook, and on Clinton Avenue. At these hubs, distribution was coordinated to 20 different sites throughout the city.

Prema Sampat, a South Asian immigrant and transgender woman, volunteered to help deliver supplies. “We delivered canned food, other food items, household supplies, gloves, mops, batteries, hats, blankets all across the city,” she said. “The places were swarming with volunteers. This was all organized within 24 hours.”

Several donation drop-off sites in Brooklyn and Queens were set up at people’s homes and community organizations. Carpooling for volunteers was set up to take people to some of the worst hit areas in the boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan.

An urgent call went out from Occupy Sandy Relief to help one of the hardest hit neighborhoods, the Rockaways in Queens. Extensive flooding was compounded by an entire block of homes and businesses being destroyed by a fire during the storm. A grassroots movement sprang into action.

People’s help arrives in the Rockaways

Officials said residents who would not evacuate the Rockaways would not be provided aid. The area of Far Rockaway was particularly demonized in the media. This coastal working-class enclave, where 52 percent of the residents are African American and Caribbean, is the site of several large government subsidized housing developments.

Instead of aid, a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew was imposed and more than 17 people were arrested and accused of “looting.” Photographs began to surface of National Guard members conducting “stop and frisk” tactics on residents.

“It was just outrageous! That’s when I called Prema Sampat, a South Asian immigrant transwoman, about putting together a car caravan to Far Rockaway, Queens,” said Imani Henry, an activist with the People’s Power Assembly.

In less than 24 hours, residents in central Brooklyn gave donations. “We collected or purchased enough things to pack six cars,” said Henry. “The entire Far Rockaway delegation was LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer] people, mostly of color.”

Occupy Sandy Relief NYC has created an extensive network at Far Rockaway. Along with local community and church groups, they organized hot meals, cell phone charging, and food and clothing distribution at a housing development for over 300 residents.

“While we were volunteering there, I saw five FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] vehicles drive by without stopping. Only when it was time to disperse the crowd did two National Guard trucks and police cars show up to ‘make sure people left’ because of the curfew. Residents said Occupy Sandy Relief’s effort was the first help they had received in three days,” said Henry.

Asian activists step up efforts

The Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, a community organization founded in 1986 that has been involved in anti-war, labor and LGBTQ liberation struggles, played an important role in the relief efforts.

CAAAV’s executive director, Helena Wong, told Workers World how government relief efforts in Lower Manhattan ignored the huge Asian-American community residing in Chinatown, and focused instead on the financial district. While the news reported that electricity on Wall Street was restored, just a few streets over people were in desperate need of medical attention and food.

CAAAV’s office, powered by a generator, became a place for food to be distributed, cellphones charged and medical care given.

In New York City, CAAAV and Occupy Wall Street joined forces. In a short time, over $130,000 was raised. More than 10,000 meals are being served each day to victims. Supplies are being delivered, and cleanup efforts are beginning. People displaced by the storm are being housed in school gyms.

Nicole Davis, a social worker in Brooklyn, helped victims with special needs at the Fort Greene shelter. She assisted elderly people who had been evacuated from their nursing home and local psychiatric hospitals. She is one of many social workers and therapists who have voluntarily given their time.

“Some of the staff from the nursing homes have voluntarily stayed with their patients this entire time,” said Davis. “They have been sleeping on cots, with a few blankets.”

Police repression vs. relief efforts

Helena Wong said New York police attempted to shut down aid at the CAAAV office, claiming it was an unlawful assembly. When CAAAV members went to the precinct to complain about the harassment, at the same time other cops at the same precinct were directing people to go to the CAAAV office for aid. “It’s shocking to see how completely disorganized they are,” she said.

Incidents of police harassment of community mobilizations have been reported throughout the city.

“The scariest thing has been seeing how the police are trying to stop relief efforts,” stated Miller. “Seeing them tell crowds of people who are lined up for food to disperse is horrifying.”

At the orders of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, cars with fewer than three people are being blocked from getting into Manhattan. Cars filled with relief material have been turned back. In response to this policy, and the subway system being shut down, bicycle teams have been mobilized to deliver aid from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

The absence of the “official” charities has also been noticed. “Only a few of us have even seen a Red Cross relief station,” said Miller. “They have raised all this money, but where are they?”

Julian Kliner, another OWS activist, commented, “It’s almost like the government and Red Cross have done nothing.” He said in his work with Go Old Lower East Side it was clear that countless people would not have received aid if it weren’t for community organizations.

The National Guard has actually delivered aid to the Occupy Wall Street relief hubs, recognizing how effective OWS has been in delivering supplies and food.

Miller said that OWS has no intention of ending its relief efforts, especially in New York’s impoverished areas. “Occupy Wall Street is a movement of the 99%, but some parts of the 99% are really suffering a lot more than others. The hurricane has put a spotlight on this. We need to keep organizing with them.”

In New Jersey, activists associated with BAYAN-USA are engaging in relief efforts, as are other community-based organizations.

In New York City, the financial center of global capitalism, what the 1%, with all their government forces, their wealth and their power, could not do, the people are doing.

Imani Henry contributed to this article.