On the ground with Occupy Sandy

Letter to the editor

As part of a delegation from Workers World Party and the People’s Power Assembly movement, I was able to witness firsthand the “Occupy Sandy” hurricane relief operation. Launched by a handful of Occupy activists just one day after the hurricane devastated coastal areas of Brooklyn and Staten Island, the effort has mushroomed into a major — and exemplary — people’s power initiative that shows the tremendous impact of people-to-people solidarity.

There are now several operations centers and numerous field distribution points in various parts of Brooklyn and Staten Island providing relief to tens of thousands of hurricane victims in New York’s coastal areas.

At the operation center I worked in — located in a large Episcopal church in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood nestled between downtown Brooklyn and the massive Bedford Stuyvesant community just beyond it — our delegation was greeted by Easton, an Occupy activist we first met on picket lines in support of cafeteria workers at his college. Easton plugged us in to a five-minute sidewalk orientation with 8-10 other new arrivals, provided by another Occupy activist, who quickly explained the operation’s highlights — collection and distribution of food and other emergency needs like flashlights and batteries, and the current oversupply of shoes and clothing.

Within minutes we were urged to commit ourselves to the effort however possible: as sorters, canvassers, drivers, coordinators, computer specialists, medical workers, contributors, or whatever. Literally hundreds of volunteers were integrated into the effort during the few hours I was there to witness it.

There was a coordinator or dispatch center for each of the functions. One orientee was immediately recruited to “shadow” a coordinator who needed relief. I reported to the driver dispatch desk in the rear of the church sanctuary, where a cluster of four or five organizers put drivers’ information into their laptop computers and advised us they would call us as soon as we could be sent out.

Recent arrivals formed a “bucket line” that continually transported new arrivals of relief supplies. Behind and beside the dispatchers, a large mass of recently arrived goods were sorted and bagged. In the church pews, teams matched the bundles to specific requests transmitted from the communications crew working in a room next to the choir loft.

Downstairs in the church basement, a massive kitchen and food preparation team was at work at five long lines of tables. A crew of at least a hundred people — women, children and men — prepared basic lunch bags with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fruit and cupcakes, while hot food offerings like chili, pasta and casseroles were cooking in the kitchen.

On the church steps, an Occupy organizer I had met in Bloombergville – the 2011 budget protest occupation at New York’s City Hall which preceded Occupy Wall Street — was giving an in-depth orientation to people who would be canvassers. He explained the vision and philosophy of the Occupy Sandy initiative: mutual aid, with respect and sensitivity, awareness that the hurricane’s victims add this most recent tragedy to a long list of hardships and general oppression.

He urged canvassers and distributors to listen carefully to people hurt in the storm, and be aware their needs are multiple. The Occupy Sandy effort must rely, he said, on the leaders who have already emerged among the victims in their communities, and find ways to support and strengthen them — aware that the current stage of grappling with the storm’s immediate impact will be followed by stages of rebuilding, and resisting efforts to displace the victims instead of helping them.

The orientation made it clear that while the storms were natural disasters, their underlying cause was a decades-long refusal by energy corporations and politicians that serve them to deal with climate change caused by overuse of fossil fuel. All the Occupy orienters made it clear that the underlying cause of the disaster is capitalism, and that the fundamental goal of this relief effort is to develop a new way of responding that replaces the oppressive hierarchies of the capitalist system with solidarity and people’s power.

I was proud to see comrades I knew taking roles along with other volunteers in this effort, which appears to be a genuine glimpse of a future in which people come together in a conscious and highly organized way to help each other, and in the process give birth to a better way of organizing society.

– Dee Knight

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