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"It would seem that after nearly a year of 'wander[ing] in a desert of more intellectual, less visible projects, like farming, fighting debt and theorizing on banking,' the Occupy movement has finally found its true cause and ultimate commandment: just helping out."

Occupy Albany has collected supplies for Occupy Sandy relief efforts. (photo: Occupy Albany)
Occupy Albany has collected supplies for Occupy Sandy relief efforts. (photo: Occupy Albany)


Occupy Sandy a Reminder of Occupy's Original Spirit

By Jeffrey Lawrence and Luis Moreno-Caballud, Yes! Magazine

01 December 12

 

Commentators in the mainstream media have said the effective hurricane relief accomplished by Occupy Sandy represents a new direction in the movement. In fact, nothing could be closer to its founding ideas and actions.

ainstream media outlets from The New York Times and the Washington Post to the online magazine Slate have reported on the swift and effective response of the umbrella group known as Occupy Sandy. To borrow a metaphor from Times reporter Alan Feuer, it would seem that after nearly a year of "wander[ing] in a desert of more intellectual, less visible projects, like farming, fighting debt and theorizing on banking," the Occupy movement has finally found its true cause and ultimate commandment: just helping out.

In fact, this determination to address basic needs has been a concern of the Occupy movement from the very beginning. For those who have followed the movement since its early days, the emergence of Occupy Sandy looks less like the endpoint of an erratic and itinerant journey than a necessary step in the ongoing evolution of the Occupy movement.

Where Feuer suggests that Occupy Sandy "renew[ed] the impromptu passions of Zuccotti," we see the relief efforts as evidence of the continuity of Occupy’s aims. What started on September 17 of last year as a protest against the disproportionate influence of Wall Street on the American political and economic systems quickly transitioned into an effort to create sustainable networks of community organization.

The impetus, it is true, was simple. Occupy wanted community support networks that were not determined by the corporate logic of the "bottom line" or the victimization stigma that attaches to any movement that demands "entitlements" or "handouts" from the government. The encampment in Zuccotti Park, where all could freely come and go, symbolized an aspiration that would be central to the 2012 election. The country did not want to divide itself into givers and takers, corporate "job creators" and Romney's now-infamous "47 percent."

In an era in which we are increasingly coming to terms with the fact that essential technologies such as the Internet have been built and sustained not by the government or the private sector but by "peer networks," Occupy’s emphasis on sustainable networks and grassroots connectivity was not incidental to the early success of the movement. The slogan "We are the 99%" provided the baseline for a new political discourse in the simple point that everyone—working-class, middle-class, and homeless; black, white, and Latino—both contributes to and benefits from our society.

Within the first week of setting up camp in Zuccotti Park, people in Occupy started talking about the importance of systems of "mutual aid" rather than systems of "charity." Charity means: "I'm fine, so I'll give you something." Mutual aid means: "We're all in this together, so let's help each other out."

The distinction between charity and mutual aid was often met with sneers about the idealism of Occupy Wall Street. Yet the recent efforts of Occupy Sandy have demonstrated the practical and logistical value of mutual aid. While government agencies like FEMA have struggled to mobilize their bureaucratic machinery, and large charitable organizations like the Red Cross have gotten stalled in attempts to funnel money, clothes, and food from donors to victims, Occupy Sandy has been successful in large part because it offers itself as a network of and for people and communities.

The relief centers set up by Occupy Sandy have prioritized meeting people's needs directly rather than telling them what to do and how to get help. The organizer Catherine Yeager put it succinctly in an interview with Democracy Now outside a relief hub in the Rockaways: "FEMA down the street... is handing out pieces of paper that tell you to call a phone number to get help. Here, you come, and you get help immediately." This determination to address basic needs has been a concern of the Occupy movement from the very beginning, as anyone who ate the free meals provided by the kitchen in Zuccotti Park encampment will know.

Perhaps the biggest shift in public perception that has taken place over the last few weeks is the realization that the Occupy movement is as good at cooperating with communities as it is at protesting inequality.

Similarly, some of the more intransigent members of Occupy have recognized that, despite the insufficiency of the response by FEMA and large charity organizations, many members of state and local governments have been tirelessly working to help local communities rebuild and restore. Residents on Staten Island gushed about the dedication of the Department of Sanitation workers who were removing rubble from collapsed and damaged houses day and night, and comments from multiple sources indicate that police officers and military personnel have coordinated directly with Occupy Sandy relief hubs.

These are good signs for the future of Occupy. One of the main obstacles that the movement has confronted in the last year has been its tendency to use a stereotypical image of the activist as its public face, failing to accept that anyone who builds truly democratic community structures should be considered part of the project. It is heartening to see real cooperation between Occupy participants and grassroots organizations in the rebuilding efforts, from community relief networks and local churches to immigrant centers.

Hopefully, the heightened publicity surrounding Occupy Sandy will help to underscore the inclusiveness of its aims and put to rest the idea that Occupy is at its core an "anti" movement.

Let's start by admitting that relief hubs are not the Promised Land that errant former protesters have somehow wandered into, as if the Occupy participants, like the ancient Hebrews, have simply been waiting for a sign from above to direct them where to go.

The inappropriateness of Feuer’s metaphor is symptomatic of the mainstream media’s misreading of Occupy from the movement’s earliest days. Impelled by the competition for the freshest real-time updates, news outlets like The New York Times have covered the movement as a series of fortuitous and isolated events, rather than a long-term process. Now more than ever, we need to recognize the flaw in believing, in Feuer’s words, that "the times have conspired to deliver an event that fully calls upon the movement’s talents."

This type of work was part of the movement’s project from the beginning. Occupy Sandy and the relief hubs are just one more destination on our shared route to profound and constructive political, economic, and social change.

 

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-6 # Doubter 2012-12-01 09:05
Sounds like they've been "tamed" and have found a place within the "establishment. "
Only a complete collapse or overthrow of the current system will make a REAL difference. Any halfway measures simply get co-opted.
Simple reality.
 
 
+6 # Scott Galindez 2012-12-01 09:37
Occupy has always been about creating another system. "Taming" them will never happen.
 
 
+2 # Phlippinout 2012-12-01 10:44
They beat the pants off the establishment!
 
 
+4 # Smokey 2012-12-01 10:44
[quote name="Doubter"] Sounds like they've been "tamed" and have found a place within the "establishment. "
Only a complete collapse or overthrow of the current system will make a REAL difference. Any halfway measures simply get co-opted.
Simple reality.

Reminds me of the grumpy anarchists and Reds in a previous generation. They sat around in coffeehouses and gin mills talking about the need to "smash the state." And how, please tell us, will the "complete collapse" of the present system happen? When will it happen?

Lots of time gets wasted in "smash the state" chatter. At the end of the day, you get a headache and the vague awareness that the Salvation Army feeds the hungry. Or, at least, the Army does more good than Comrade Fantasy.
(Which side are you on?)
 
 
0 # Doubter 2012-12-02 10:06
Sorry. I was just reminded of the "Zapatistas" in Southern Mexico. The last time I heard about them they were pushing for better garbage pickup.
Nothing wrong with disaster relief or prompt garbage pickup, it just seems like a far cry from demanding social justice.
 
 
+3 # moafu@yahoo.com 2012-12-01 09:26
It's beautiful that the Occupy people are reaching out. It's an example the Fed. Gov't administration should follow instead of flying in to view disaster and then flying off to make empty pronouncements.

The people devastated by Storm Sandy deserve better. The Fed. Admin. dispatches an aircraft carrier to help storm victims in Haiti, but can't shift a few of those ships in the shipyards of NY closer to State Island and Long Island to provide food, shelter, power, and protection.

Empty promises - just like in the election....fro m Dems and Repubs
 
 
0 # cafetomo 2012-12-01 09:50
That the co-opters are themselves susceptible to co-option is an indication that the originally intended form of democracy still exists within the organism, and that it has not calcified into yet another form of owned exploitation. Demonstrably being for instead of against things in general and people in particular, indicates further growth and a degree of maturity that increasingly justifies its' status as more than a movement. It becomes an entity, a place, an establishment of its' own existence located through the acts of every individual accomplishment under its' auspices.

Not always a good thing, to be sure. But under the circumstances, we should happily note that there is far more good being accomplished, no matter whose hand it comes by.

To point exclusively at misguided attempts that occur in a partisan fashion is simply cherrypicking a rationale. When we are truly in need, we become less concerned with biting a hand when it feeds us. When we are fed, a sense of gratitude may lead us to our own acts of charity, and we might possibly come to embody and therefore become, the movement called Occupy.
 
 
+3 # MHAS 2012-12-01 11:31
Mutual aid was a basic principle and practice in mining communities, such as the one where I was raised. It was passed down generation to generation. It is NOT the same as charity--the entire mindset is different. It is a sense that we are in this world together; we need one another as we face crises. Our survival and well being require that we cultivate a sense of community and mutual responsibility. But you can't impose it as an ideal. Real life experience such as arise from actions like Occupy Sandy are what nurture an alternative culture and sensibility to that represented and imposed on us by Wall Street.
 
 
+2 # Smokey 2012-12-01 16:27
I made a few trips to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and I worked with a variety of groups in response to the damage caused by the storm. Katrina brought all sorts of people together. Labor unions, business groups, religious groups, animal rescue organizations, etc.
Same experience after Hurricane Sandy.
(Comparing the two storms and the citizen responses will be helpful.)

Expect a few surprises. After Katrina, I wound up working with a Muslim group. It's a complicated story. They needed some help and I was in the area and everything worked out fine.

Some of the "progressives" who appeared in New Orleans talked a lot but some of them did surprisingly little. Two lady reporters from a liberal magazine promised money in exchange for interviews. The locals are still waiting for the check.

In the recovery effort after Hurricane Sandy, check your ego and your prejudices at the door. Don't lecture
the natives and don't make promises that you won't keep... If the Tea Party is helpful, thank them. Don't curse the Red Cross and the FEMA people and don't laugh at the Salvation Army.

When Professor Blowhard arrives on the scene, to "observe what's happening in the Occupy movement," give him a mop and put him to work. Don't waste too much time with voyeurs and slackers. Get the money before you grant interviews.
 

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