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Post-Storm, 'Occupy Wall Street' Becomes 'Occupy Sandy'

Carolyn Weaver

November 08, 2012

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.

“Grassroots, 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.

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