The scene at St. Jacobi church in Brooklyn is controlled chaos: scores
of people sorting and distributing tons of aid for relief centers in the
hardest-hit parts of New York. Everyone is a volunteer, and all seem to
be working at top speed.
It’s part of a city-wide undertaking dubbed Occupy Sandy. What began
more than a year ago as the political protest movement Occupy Wall
Street is now a massive aid effort for storm victims in New York’s
hardest-hit areas, from Staten Island to the Far Rockaways.
Occupy Sandy site coordinator at the church, Pablo Benson, said the aid
campaign is just another face of the community organizing that Occupy
Wall Street has done since the encampment in Zuccotti Park in New York’s
financial district ended.
“It’s funny, because we’ve been hearing a lot of reports about how
Occupy has been dead, and even throughout this period, Occupy has been
actively engaging in community organizing,” Benson said.
Locally, he said, Occupy worked to help tenants at a building in the
neighborhood around the church mount a rent strike.
“We’ve been doing complex logistics, dealing with social media networks,
with inventory. We were inundated with donations in terms of food,
clothes and money,” he said of the original occupation. “So it’s no
coincidence that as soon as this disaster came out, Occupy was ready to
handle the flow of donations, of volunteers, and effectively direct them
to where their work would be most purposeful.”
Donations and volunteers move nonstop through the church, one of several
distribution hubs for the effort. There are clothes, diapers, food,
cleaning products, batteries, candles, even generators.
Outside, volunteers are assembled into groups for ferrying aid and
manpower to Occupy Sandy relief centers in the worst-affected areas.
Volunteers’ cars and trucks that have enough gas are loaded up with
people and goods for trips out to the storm-struck coastal areas.
As a new storm approached New York Tuesday evening, volunteer cooks
stepped up production in the church basement kitchen. They prepare two
hot meals daily for storm victims, many of whom are still living in
homes that lack power or heat.
One cook wrapped up pans filled with pasta, chicken and tomato sauce. It
was going to Coney Island. “Coney Island, where my father was born,
where my grandfather had a candy store,” he said. “Hoping to feed some
good people out there.”
Many storm victims have complained of a lagging response by established
charities and government. Another cook, Mike Birch, said Occupy has a
different model: direct action.
real people power,” he said, stirring a giant pot of chili con carne.
“We don’t rely on the Red Cross, or FEMA, or the city.”
He said he took part in the original protests, and has become involved
again because of Occupy Sandy.
“The other day I was working in Red Hook,” he added. “A woman was
walking down the street with a donation; she had a blanket. Another
woman was coming in the other direction, in need. They just looked at
each other, like ‘Can I?’ And [the donor] took the blanket out, and
handed the blanket to her,” Birch said. “So, that’s the direct action,
not bureaucracy. We’re getting right to the people, people in need.”
Benson said the storm relief effort will continue as long as needed.
When it is over, he said, New York’s Occupy movement will return to
working to build sustainable communities around the city.