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writing for godot

Occupy’s Not So Invisible Work

Written by Simon Davis-Cohen   
Monday, 02 December 2013 06:53

The morning after, air seems lazy, almost sluggish, exhausted from the night before. Buildings, trees and playgrounds lay battered in the streets. A few porches sport chimes that still ring gently, their tones signaling the start of a race. But only the attentive take notice.

Extreme weather events and financial ‘crises’ crumble infrastructures, schoolyards, and institutions. They are stunning. Though some remain speechless, the tactical find narratives to describe these scenes and transform them into opportunities. Thanks in large part to Naomi Klein’s bestseller The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism many now recognize the importance of developing an eye attentive to the significance of ruins, particularly in an age of pulsating shocks—and climate change.

The Shock Doctrine details a pattern of change that has transformed economies and political structures for the past forty or so years—as well as how this trend has been practically monopolized by large, profit-driven multinational corporations. The mechanism for change that Klein describes is a tactic. It identifies times when the future becomes vulnerable as opportunities for reform and innovation. Shocks, the tactic sees, present such opportunities; when wars and natural or financial disasters topple infrastructures and institutions, voids are created—for those who notice to fill.

After shocks, when voids abound, social (and natural) systems become highly sensitive. What happens next—during post-shock initial conditions—has a profound effect on how communities rebuild. These are opportunities to shape the future—for better or worse. One community-based network (Occupy Sandy) offers a case-study for how grassroots citizen networks can compete over the opportunities produced by shock (Hurricane Sandy), define post-shock initial conditions, and use its position within an initial condition to build more equitable economic structures and prepare for future shocks. Of the qualities that empowered Occupy Sandy to insert itself into the post-hurricane initial conditions (examined below) were a capacity to transform, networks of trust, and a flexible mission statement.

Before voids and opportunities, community networks and organizations remain in a type of preparatory stage within the shock-void-opportunity cycle—a stage whose significance can be hard to notice. However when work is placed within this pattern of change, the ambiguity of preparing for voids that do not yet exist gains meaning. The Brooklyn Food Coalition, also explored below, offers a case study for this preparatory stage. As we come to see, preparing to fill voids is an oddly intuitive task.

Core questions examined here are: How can shocks be taken advantage of to build more equitable, adaptive, and democratic economies? How do communities prepare to fill voids created by unpredictable shocks? What unique qualities of human networks are especially relevant? How do community networks and organizations quickly transform themselves to fill voids and partake in post-shock initial conditions? What can we learn from Occupy Sandy and the Brooklyn Food Coalition?

To begin this exploration, a theory of change, which incorporates Klein’s thesis and concepts from Differential Equations (known by some as the math of predicting the future), is explored.

Naomi Klein’s Differential Equations

The study of how the future changes is often overlooked—though not by all. Stakeholders are looking closely at future-forecasting for good or ill, depending on perspective: community-based networks organizing to establish equitable and adaptive economies; multinational and local businesses hoping to turn public infrastructures and assets into profits; and governments caught in the middle are all examining the future’s malleability.

Enter the world of mathematics. In the mathematics of predicting the future—differential equations and modeling—bifurcation points take center stage. Bifurcation points are places where the future bifurcates or splits, where small changes to a system’s parameters can have dramatic effects. Parameters are what define a system, like the force of gravity, earth’s surface area, or annual days of sunlight; they are thought of as constants, though they often can change. Annual days of sunlight may vary, but when a mathematician tries to predict a lake’s future he or she might treat it like a constant. A bifurcation point within annual days of sunlight could be a place where one more or one less day of sunshine means the difference between a lake that can support frogs and a lake that cannot. Identifying such bifurcation points is critical to understanding how the systems we live amongst change, natural or otherwise.

On university campuses this science is applied to modeling future climate and ecosystem states, the vitality of fisheries, how disease spreads. In politics the same concepts are applicable to how economies and power structures are transformed. In The Shock Doctrine Klein shows how bifurcation points present themselves when systems are rebuilding, or just getting started.

Bifurcation points exist within deer populations’ parameters. However, the forms of bifurcation points that Klein alludes to, and those that take center stage here are those that exist within initial conditions. Starting with a 1000:1 deer to wolf ratio will induce a fundamentally different future than one with an initial condition of 1:1000. At some point, adding or subtracting a wolf or deer to an ‘initial forest’ can mean the difference between the deer’s’ extinction and its continued existence.

In The Shock Doctrine Klein illustrates how shocks—wars, financial crises, natural disasters—destroy infrastructures, businesses and homes, and create voids and a type of initial condition, bifurcation points if you will. Klein reports on shocks from recent history—coups in South America, tsunamis in Southeast Asia, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, austerity—and how free market ideologues, followers of Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Freedman, positioned themselves “to be ready with their solutions when everyone else was still asking questions and regaining their bearings.”

In ecosystems, shocks (floods, hurricanes, fires) similarly create space for the ‘ready and able’ to proliferate. Ecologists call them colonizer species. These opportunists reproduce and spread rapidly, but are generally not adapted to reign for the long haul. Nonetheless their impact on how ecosystems recover or reconstitute is unquestioned. They define the initial conditions from which new ecosystem states grow.

In her book, Klein vividly describes the often-bloody battles over the conditions from which communities rebuild. When public infrastructure is wounded, will it be privatized and managed for profit or will the public retain control? How will ethics change? When factories are leveled what types of businesses will return? Will their models be equitable? These are times when the pace of change quickens.

Neoliberal free market ideologues have recognized the shock-void-opportunity cycle and made it a go-to tactic for implementing their ideas across the globe. Their successes have privatized governmental services and state-owned factories and resources. Parmenides’ maxim that “nature abhors a void” has not fallen upon deaf ears. If created, voids will be filled. This is one reason why multinationals have coupled themselves with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, who provide loans, and frequently unpopular economic reforms to void-ridden countries in ‘need’.

Democratically inclined citizens who have made changing the future their business are taking note of this tactic.

A Community-Based Case Study: Occupy Sandy

Hurricane Sandy hit New York City on October 29, 2012. People lost their homes, subways were closed, gas was in short supply and power outages blanketed the City. It took the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), our nation’s go-to agency for responding to natural disasters, ten days to get on the ground in some of the most impacted areas. Occupy Sandy (OS), a progeny of Occupy Wall Street, was present in some of New York City’s hardest hit neighborhoods the day after the storm.

FEMA’s policy to assume everyone evacuates when told to left the agency blind to the needs of those who were unable or unwilling to evacuate. Some three weeks after the storm hit FEMA pulled together a meeting for volunteer groups that focused on how to get food to the hungry. According to OS organizers, the lack of housing and the health crisis were not discussed.

The original Occupy Wall Street network identified voids it could fill and created OS to fill them—inserting OS into the post-storm initial conditions. Occupy Wall Street’s medical networks that had tended to protesters’ injuries and its legal networks that helped get people out of jail were transformed and applied to the recovery effort. Mother Nature’s wrath replaced tear gas and police brutality. Legal council was applied to housing insurance, navigating the loan programs of FEMA and the federal Small Business Administration, and landlord law. In an interview, Tamara Shapiro, a member of OS notes, “The point of these dispersed networks [like Occupy] is that we’re nimble, we are able to reorganize and recreate ourselves depending on what the situation calls for.”

The day after the storm hit a network of layered OS recovery hubs, hosted by churches and community centers, and a transportation network began to emerge. Central hubs in Brooklyn sent volunteers to hubs in effected areas, where supplies, hot food, medical attention and legal support were made available. From these hubs, OS volunteers, together with local residents, ventured into neighborhoods to speak with people who never evacuated.

They encountered elderly folks who had been living without electricity and little food for days and sometimes weeks, people living inside moldy walls. Funded by citizen donations, OS delivered food and supplies to people’s homes and began providing intensive mold remediation services, replacing damp drywall.

New Yorkers that wanted to help the recovery found an outlet in OS, which was planned and implemented entirely by volunteers. Comparatively, Red Cross volunteers, according to Shapiro, sometimes waited up to two weeks before being called into the street. OS took everyone, filling the void of putting people to work.

Whereas Red Cross, FEMA and the City aimed to help communities by providing food and supplies, OS—though imperfectly—went into impacted areas and merged with existing local networks. The City, who less than a year prior forcibly evicted Occupy Wall Street from its Zuccotti Park encampment, found itself informally reliant(1) upon OS for on-the-ground information.

As time passes and structures that OS once stood in for return, OS’s work shifts focus. When the subway came back online OS’s transportation network was no longer needed. Though it is continuing to provide mold remediation services, legal advice, and advocacy for displaced people, OS has turned its attention to more long term needs, like healthy grocery stores, entertainment, construction jobs, and low income housing. In a sense, OS is transitioning from filling voids created by the storm, which organizations like FEMA had a hard time filling, to filling voids that the storm exposed. The recovery has entered its second stage. Though it has yet to be seen what emerges from the rubble, an initial condition during the time of shock—of bifurcation—OS finds itself in a unique position to participate in the future.

Communities in New York City are experimenting with different ways of entering Phase Two. In partnership with The Working World(2) (who provides loans for new cooperatives), worker-owned cooperatives, funded by earmarked donations to OS, are being planned for the Rockaways(3). These cooperatives hope to keep wealth generated by the businesses in the community, rather than being extracted by external ownership. This comes in sharp contrast to what happens all too often in communities, like the Rockaways, experiencing gentrification—the process by which low-income communities, often of color, are displaced by rising property values and accompanying spikes in rent and property taxes. It is feared that gentrification would accelerate if private land developers get their hands on the rubble. OS is working on two bakery cooperatives, a healthy grocery store cooperative, an entertainment cooperative, and a construction worker cooperative.

In Sheep’s Head Bay a community garden is taking root, and on Staten Island, OS organizer Susannah Dyen told me in an email, over eighty organizations have engaged in a participatory budgeting process to decide how OS funds earmarked for the island will be spent. A community land buyback program is being contemplated to protect low-income housing and offer an alternative to the City and State programs. (Should a resident want to sell their home because of the hurricane the City and State have buyback programs to purchase their land.) Land purchased through the State’s program is converted to public parks. It is feared land purchased through the much larger City program will be turned around and sold to the highest bidder. Organizers on Staten Island are beginning to speak with residents before they sell, and lay the foundation for a third—community-governed—alternative. Regardless of the success of these endeavors, they have now entered the realm of the future’s possibilities.

It is still early. Major battles have yet to be defined. In a speech Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave on the morning of December 6, 2012, he announced that the City had “reached out to the CEOs of Con Ed, National Grid, Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner, Hess and others,” to help with the recovery. He continued, “Seth [Pinsky, the President of the Economic Development Corporation] and his team will be working with all of our City agencies, and lots of outside experts.” The City’s next move has yet to be announced—what will Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s first move be?

Multiple narratives are competing for attention. The Atlantic Cities has launched a special report called “Rethink, Rebuild: Resilient design after Hurricane Sandy(4),” which features original articles by Rebuild By Design’s “panel of experts.” Rebuild By Design(5) is a project of the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force(6)—established by Obama’s Dec. 7 2012 Executive Order.

Eugenie L. Birch, Nussdorf Professor of Urban Research and Co-Director of Penn Institute for Urban Research wrote a piece entitled “How to Bring Economies Back After a Natural Disaster(7)” for the report. In it she advises that “incentives for housing construction or reconstruction, including tax breaks” should be implemented.

Eric Klinenberg, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University and Research Director for Rebuild by Design, and Henk Ovink, a senior advisor to U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan's Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force co-authored an article for the report titled “The Quest for the Best Designs For a Post-Sandy World(8).” In it they allude to ways of making NYC more ‘resilient.’ They say “Sandy revealed major vulnerabilities across the region’s built environment, from inadequate storm surge protection in small beach communities to frail energy grids and flood-prone public housing.” The Task Force is claiming the term “resilience,” and suggesting that “flood-prone public housing” might not make the cut.

For OS organizers, post-Katrina New Orleans offers a narrative. There, disaster was used as an excuse to tear down public education, teachers unions, and public housing. Shapiro says:

“Developers and capitalists take advantage of the crisis to reshape cities, and that is what happened in New Orleans [after Katrina]. The question is if we will be powerful enough to take advantage of the same opportunity but instead of reshaping the community without the community’s input, to be a way for rebuilding that is led by the community, that’s what we are trying to do.”

OS is preparing for what may come next. Some might say the New York City Occupy Wall Street network always has been, we just haven’t noticed. After the storm OS observed that many of the local leaders they encountered had little to no political framework in which to contextualize their concern for their community. The leaders were apolitical. In January, OS facilitated what Shapiro describes as an “organizing/training/political education program” for these neighborhood leaders. Of the attendants included the wife of a pastor whose church housed a recovery hub and a man who lives in public housing across the street from a main hub.

OS politicized and connected these leaders, and incorporated them into the OS network—to prepare for unpredictable challenges like the forthcoming land-use battle that may ensue. The process of activating the original Occupy Wall Street network, through OS, expanded it.

Pre-Shock Invisible Work, Brooklyn Food Coalition

OS’s engagement with Phase One of the recovery—the initial moldy, houseless, hungry conditions—fostered trust that has empowered it to participate in Phase Two. It has moved from one phase to the next, but who could have predicted that the Occupy Wall Street network would have been applied to participatory disaster recovery? This type of transformation has direct implications for the study of how futures change, and how initial conditions—times of bifurcation—can be defined within social systems reeling from shock.

OS’s process of building networks capable of responding to shock took place well before Sandy hit. The relatively young Brooklyn Food Coalition (BFC) offers a glimpse into what this preparatory stage can look like.

The BFC does not provide goods or services. It is a coalition—a facilitator—that prides itself on building what its General Coordinator Nancy Romer calls “sector relationships.” The Coalition has put on two free conferences. In 2009, 3,000 people—primarily Brooklyn residents—attended. The 2012 conference drew 6,000. At the conferences attendees follow tracks that include ‘school food,’ ‘food workers,’ ‘health,’ ‘race and food,’ ‘art and music,’ ‘faith,’ and ‘neighborhood organizing.’ The goal is to cultivate relationships of trust among Brooklynites interested in similar sectors.

To build trust the BFC tells stories—stories of working conditions within the food industry, and how the corporate food system disproportionately impacts and neglects communities of color. In New York City, Romer told me over the phone, those most impacted by the failures of the highly centralized food system are leading the effort to create a new one—overwhelmingly people of color. The BFC creates spaces where people feel safe to share, cry and bond with one another over the injustices of their food system.

Though it is hard to predict what sorts of voids the relationships cultivated by the BFC could fill, Romer envisions political voids. When that which currently connects us, like our reliance on corporate goods, is disrupted or shocked, Romer thinks new narratives of what connects us can emerge. The BFC wants to be among the ‘ready and able’ when old narratives are demystified and participate in the creation of new, food-centric, alternatives.

The BFC focuses on food for a few reasons. Other than its inherent importance and popularity, food is an effective entry point into examining what Romer considers the root challenges facing our society: the state of participatory democracy and climate change. People in Brooklyn care about their food, but not all have made the connection between this concern and our democracy and climate. The food system’s tangible impact on people’s lives provides a human scale in which to frame global warming and political action. For the BFC the focus on food is an end and a means.

Romer’s vision of a political void is similar to what OS’s “organizing/training/political education program” is trying to fill in the wake of the Sandy crisis. But the BFC’s void has yet to present itself. The BFC is still in the preparatory stage of building “sector relationships,” similar to the medical and legal networks Occupy Wall Street produced well before Sandy.

What next?

How long it takes the BFC and the countless other community-based networks and organizations to prepare will shape the myriad of initial conditions from which the future will grow.

In times of shock—of bifurcation—things once deemed impossible can suddenly gain traction. For better or worse, the future loosens. Guiding the aftermath of these bifurcation points requires composure, and a story. Klein succinctly explains, “A state of shock, by definition, is a moment when there is a gap between fast-moving events and the information that exists to explain them…without a story, we are…vulnerable to those people who are ready to take advantage of the chaos for their own ends.” After Hurricane Sandy, community organizers responded with the story of Katrina in mind. Today the BFC is preparing a narrative centered on food.

But stories are not enough. Multinational corporations needed more than stories of economic crisis and necessity to privatize copper mines, cell phone companies, oil fields, and social services. These privatizations would never have succeeded without the IMF’s and Word Bank’s multibillion-dollar conditional loans, which require their crisis-torn recipients to proceed with privatization and austerity. Human communities’ power to influence fragile initial conditions—for equitable and adaptive structures to rise from the rubble—may well depend on whether existing community networks and organizations are capable of quickly transforming to fill voids and influencing post-shock initial conditions, in ways similar to OS.

The most blaring void the day after Hurricane Sandy hit, according to Shapiro, was the lack of communication systems. The storm toppled local cell phone towers. OS was able to fill this void because the people within its network personally trusted each other; they trusted that when they split up to divvy up tasks their comrades would keep their word. This trust, built long before the storm, allowed the network to remain connected despite its inability to communicate.

Only a quality of intimate human networks—trust—could immediately fill the void created by leveled cell phone towers. Working to build such trust has meaning that can be seen and felt today, as members of the BFC can attest to, however its power in equipping communities to define their own futures is invisible, to some.

Though everyday is an initial condition, bifurcation points—opportunities for systemic change—come along more seldom. Will you notice the chimes?


Simon Davis-Cohen, 23, is a co-founder of He can be contacted at s.davis.cohen[at]gmail[dot]com. your social media marketing partner
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