OccupySandy: Grassroots Relief from Disaster Capitalism

For the past two days I’ve been volunteering with grassroots relief efforts in New York City in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. While the storm could have been a lot worse, and while New York is one of the richest cities in one of the richest countries in the world, the storm has swept the veil off of the entrenched inequalities at this city’s core.

In New York, a lot of public housing projects and poor neighborhoods are located on the beaches and shores of this maritime capital, and so have been hit hard. On the eve of a pivotal election, all the politicians and media stooges are eager to show images of action and recovery. But the reality is that you can drive out to any one of a number of neighborhoods and find block upon block of low-income high-rises, full of people and utterly dark. Inside, children, the elderly and the sick suffer with no heat, no clean running water, and no electricity. Relief and support has been slow in coming from the powers that be. And two days after the New York Stock Exchange opened, tens of thousands of poor and working class folks are barely scraping by.

Yet one year after Occupy Wall Street bloomed and was quashed it is at the heart of grassroots relief efforts. Much is already being made of the magic of social media and its capacity to connect donors with needs in the wake of the storm. But there’s a hidden story here. That social media process is enabled and facilitated by dozens of Occupy-trained and tested organizers working 10-16 hour days to get the word out about what’s needed, to coordinate the gathering of materials from multiple city-wide drop points, to organize the sorting and bagging of all those materials, to cook hot meals for blacked-out neighborhoods, and to send teams of volunteers out to areas far and wide to provide food, clothing, blankets, water, toys, diapers, medicine (asthma inhalers and insulin, mostly) and whatever else is needed.

I worked in an OccupySandy-run church kitchen in Sunset Park today and yesterday, and drove around doing pick up and delivery. I talked to a lot of volunteers. Some had been involved in the Occupy encampments a year ago and Occupy organizing since, though many had just admired the movement from afar. We all marveled at the efficiency and determination of those who had cut their teeth in Occupy as they gracefully coordinated the often chaotic volunteer efforts and the rapid flow of people and materials. But we also admired these organizers’ good nature and friendliness, their patience and their adaptability, all hard-won qualities that come from organizing under fire in a non-hierarchical, mindful, and consensus-based movement that’s seen its fair share of crises. No one is “in charge,” yet things get done and needs get met. People’s skills and abilities find outlets. People are at their best, despite everything.

In the flooded housing projects and poor neighborhoods (or the rich neighborhoods, that now reveal their closeted destitution), we don’t just glimpse a vision of poverty and distress, we glimpse a vision of our future. This is what humanity looks like after austerity, after the utter destruction of the public’s capacity to care for people and provide them with the necessities of life. This is what is in store for all of us if the present hyper-neoliberal agenda continues apace: to be at the mercy of the elements, to be left to die.

In the “OccupySandy” efforts, we glimpse a vision of a different future. While we need to fight to protect and expand those public services we do have, we also need to reinvent society based on the principles of mutual aid, grassroots organizing, and participatory democracy. If Occupy Wall Street was born in September of 2011 as a protest movement, it has come of age in October of 2012 as nothing less than an emblem of the sort of humanity and politics that will increasingly define the struggles of this generation.

FEMA, the Red Cross and other relief organizations are also hard at work. But in the Occupy movement’s almost immediate and incredibly effective grassroots mobilization in the wake of the storm we are witnessing not merely a new non-governmental organization or aid agency, but an emerging cycle of struggle. The #SandyVolunteers are looking to provide communities with the things they need so they can be resilient and strong, not indebted and dependent. That is, this isn’t about charity, it’s about solidarity. While a lot of the folks volunteering are privileged in that they have the time and resources to be able to afford to do so, most “own” this privilege in the sense that they recognize and reflect on what it means, and they aren’t interested in the alibi of guilt. Instead, there’s a widespread recognition that this storm reveals how very naked and impoverished we all are in the face of a capitalist system that doesn’t give damn about our future.

This is a movement built not on pity or even empathy but on perhaps two things: First, a finely honed, white-hot anger at a form of capitalist degradation and theft that makes us all ultimately worthless (though it doesn’t treat us all equally). Second, a living, breathing exercise in solidarity, creativity, equality and kindness which dreams of a day when these are the values that animate all of society.

While there are, in my opinion, limits to Naomi Klein’s idea of “disaster capitalism,” I think it’s an apt description of one aspect of what we’re facing now: a form of capitalism that both creates and profits from disasters. In this sense, we’re all on the front lines. We’re either waiting our turn for some “natural disaster” in our neighborhood to lay bear the horrific economic and social violence that supports the system, or we’re actively suffering that violence day by day.

Max Haiven is a writer, teacher, and activist who lives in Halifax, NS. He is the author of Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power and co-author of The Radical Imagination (both forthcoming in 2014 from Zed Books). Read other articles by Max, or visit Max's website.