When Sandy’s waters finally receded, they left behind the devastation of lost lives and a mountain of debris. And they also exposed how a system of historic inequity perpetuates itself in real life, real time and real suffering. A network of people from all walks of life who identified as members of Occupy Wall Street came together quickly and organically to intervene.
Organizers set out to practice the anarchist principle of mutual aid on the ground. By bringing the best of Zuccotti Park to people that mostly had no interest in an anti-capitalist movement, and in some cases even associated themselves with the Tea Party, activists thought disaster aid would naturally become political. The slogan quickly became “solidarity not charity.”
In the urgency of the immediate aftermath of the storm, solidarity in practice meant providing hot food, warm blankets and clothing, and attempting to assist the newly homeless with places to stay and abstruse FEMA paperwork.
Fundraising websites went live, and within a few days Occupy Sandy had raised nearly a million dollars. The Occupy network quickly dispersed to three main areas: Red Hook in Brooklyn, the Rockaways in Queens and Midland Beach in Staten Island. Each area faced similar geographic challenges as shoreline communities, but each had distinct – yet equally rocky – economic terrain.
Of course, the storm before Sandy was the so-called Great Recession. Many in the hardest hit areas were already reeling from the new economic realities of long-term joblessness, declining property values and reduced consumer spending. But, for many in these communities these realities had nothing to do with a recession or storm – poverty and oppression were already written on their daily lives. Thus, for some the storm exposed precariousness, but for others the storm held the potential to expose the injustice of long term national policies that led to the unjust enrichment of some and the impoverishment of others.
In this context the line between solidarity and charity was immediately blurred. Since it was unclear what solidarity looked like before the storm, it was even less clear what it looked like after.
Originally published in SocialText/Periscope