Preliminary notes to a diagram of Occupy Sandy
Even before its surge hit New York City on October 29th, Hurricane Sandy was already unusual. The lead winds of the late-season storm — the largest Atlantic hurricane on record — had begun to fuse with a existing continental front, into something vastly larger and weirder. The combined system would go on to linger in the Northeast for days, stretching our ordinary expectations of a weather event to the breaking point and earning the label of “superstorm.”
But it was the surge, when it came, that redrew the maps. Low-lying areas of New York City, from the beach communities of outer Queens to the West Side of Manhattan, suddenly found themselves part of the Atlantic, as brackish water flooded into basements, subway tunnels, utility vaults and substations. And despite all the backups and failovers and carefully-devised redundancies, the sensitive systems that underwrite the everyday life of our city went down, and stayed down for days.
You know all this, of course. It was instant history, part of the record of our times even while it was happening. And like every other New Yorker, Nurri and I felt it. (For me personally, among the strangest things I experienced was the giddy, dis-placing shock of seeing that the global networks’ routine disaster-porn-of-the-moment was footage of an intersection visible from our own window.) But once the power came back in our neighborhood, it was acutely clear that we got off lightly — really, the worst of it for us was having to throw out a refrigerator-load of spoiled food, a few meals’ worth, maybe a hundred dollars in replacement value all told. This was a feather-touch by comparison with how others fared, and I’m not even talking about people who lost their lives to the tidal surge or the chaos that followed.
In New York City alone, hundreds of thousands of households found themselves without power, light, heat or potable water. Tens of thousands of elderly people and others with limited mobility were stranded on high floors, in buildings where elevator service might not be restored for a week or more. Entire housing projects were left to fend for themselves — in many cases, it must be pointed out, because those responsible for their care and maintenance were stranded offsite by the collapse of the regional transportation network. Attempts to right that network struggled against acute and immediate fuel shortages, amid forty-block lines and spreading mayhem at gas stations. And, in true insult-to-injury style, as only reality at its most implacable can manage, there was barely time for anyone to internalize any of this before an early cold snap settled onto the area.
One bright light in all of this, though, was the effective response. Thankfully, in the aftermath of the superstorm there was an organization capable of standing up a network of intake, coordination and distribution centers and starting relief operations almost immediately. This organization funnelled an enormous quantity of donated goods and supplies out to the hardest-hit areas, ensuring that thousands of New Yorkers were sheltered, warmed and fed, and provided crew after crew of volunteers willing to take on the difficult, dirty, and occasionally dangerous job of site clearance.
Help from below
As it happens, the organization responsible was neither a government agency nor a charitable effort of any kind. It was a spontaneous, self-organized initiative put together by veterans of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the occupation of Zuccotti Park in the fall of 2011, consciously guided by the ideals of that movement and assembled under the banner of Occupy Sandy. Occupy Sandy’s effectiveness constitutes both powerfully impressive testimony as to what ordinary people can achieve when organized in a horizontal, leaderless, distributed and consciously egalitarian network, and a rebuke to the seeming inability of the centralized, hierarchical and bureaucratic organizations to which our society has hitherto entrusted mission-critical disaster recovery functions to cope with what this responsibility demands of them. (Equally interestingly, to me anyway, it also stands as an implicit critique of some of the tactical and strategic missteps made during the original OWS, but that’s a story for a different day.)
Even putting matters of ideology to the side for a moment, though, Occupy Sandy was simply the easiest, fastest and most effective way for an ordinary, unaffiliated New Yorker to get involved with the relief effort. That I am aware of, it was the only organization that had meaningful and productive things for people without specialized skills to do in the days immediately following the storm, with the capacity to handle the massive volume of volunteers, donations and contributions and the network to get those materials and energies where they could do the most good.
For us personally, both factors counted. My wife is among the sincerest, most self-sacrificing and spontaneously giving people I’ve ever met; she would have walked to the Rockaways if it had been asked of her, but she wanted to do something that would count. I think it’s fair to say that I’m both a whole lot lazier than she is and, as a veteran of organizations like ACT UP Philadelphia and the Berkeley Free Clinic, relatively more motivated by and attuned to a specifically antiauthoritarian politics.
So Occupy Sandy ticked both our boxes. As soon after the storm as we were able to, then, we went down to the main distribution hub OS had set up in the sanctuary of the Church of St Luke and St Matthew, at 520 Clinton Avenue, on the border of Fort Greene and Prospect Heights. After we ourselves had undergone a brief orientation, we jumped right in, spending the rest of the day breaking down boxes, doing greeting, getting newcomers into the database, and working as links in a bucket brigade, moving bags and packages from the stream of cars clogging Clinton Avenue into the impromptu warehousing operation that had been set up in the pews of the church. We left tired, dirty and hungry, but — I’ll speak for myself — fulfilled in some pretty deep ways the ordinary experience of my life doesn’t really address.
I was able to devote another day to volunteering this past week, and it was the same again. This work is hugely satisfying — so much so that, despite my urgent need to finish writing the book I’ve been working on for the last four years, I’ve been fighting off the urge to blow that effort off and spend my days helping out at 520. In many ways, it feels like the most important thing I’ve ever been a part of, however small that contribution is.
Of the many aspects of the Occupy Sandy relief effort that have impressed me, though, the foremost is just how resourceful the site coordinators have been, how truly incredible a job they’ve done in fusing a stream of potentially incoherent energies and ambitions into the clear flow of an effective (dare I even say “efficient”?) relief operation, and, actually, how relatively little I’ve seen in the way of wasted time or effort.
I have a great deal of experience with both nonhierarchical/leaderless and top-down, command-and-control institutions — as canonical, in each case, as ACT UP and the US Army — and I have rarely seen such highly functional order assemble itself so rapidly. When I have seen the near equivalent, I think it’s worth mentioning that it’s been in the context of a standing organization dedicated to practicing for contingencies, where individuals are assigned given tasks and roles and repeat action drills relevant to these tasks until they’re inscribed pre-consciously, at the level of muscle memory. For this kind of order to arise spontaneously, in the absence of much in the way of a pre-existing institutional framework, unguided by a context-specific protocol or doctrine, in the wake of a significant natural disaster, strikes me as nothing short of astounding.
(It’s true that Occupy Sandy did not start from zero. The relationships, networks and linkages forged in the previous fall’s struggle were pivotal in allowing a widely-scattered community of activists to constitute themselves as a relief effort in short order, and, as we’ll see, it turns out not to be incidental that relief operations were infused with their values.)
Knowledge in the head, and in the world
But if this bottom-up, self-assembling syndicate achieved its impressive degree of operational effectiveness despite the inevitable reduplications of effort, suboptimal decisions, communication breakdowns and confusions that attended Sandy’s “fog of war,” how much more capable would it be once things had slowed down a bit, and the people involved had a chance to revisit those decisions? How could they redesign the interaction of functional subsystems to result in the most effective use of resources, and then describe this design in such a way as to allow it to be replicated elsewhere?
Those of you who know me well won’t be surprised that among other things, I understand the longer-term propagation of a site like 520 Clinton as, in part, a challenge in knowledge management. What works in setting up a relief hub, and what doesn’t? (Or, restated to account for nonlinearity: What works gorgeously above some threshold of intensity, but oughtn’t be trifled with under any circumstances short of that threshold?) Whatever the textbook answers may be, after three solid weeks of continuous effort, I would imagine that the nonspecialists in disaster relief who are Occupy Sandy bodily and make it what it is can address these questions at least as authoritatively as any “expert,” from hard-won knowledge born out of practical experience under actual crisis conditions.
Is there a way to get the most valuable insights out of the heads of these incredible human beings? Can we get that knowledge out into the world, into some format that’s both robust (so it’s less vulnerable to disruption), widely transmissible (so others can make best use of it) and user-editable (so it accounts for evolution and change)?
Ordinarily, sure. The trouble is that much of this knowledge is what we call tacit — that is, so deeply embedded in the mesh of experiences, spaces and relations that produced it that it’s not particularly amenable to rapid transfer. In a very real sense, nobody can tell you “this is how 520 Clinton works.”
If you had the time, and the active participation of the people you were interested in studying, you might submit a situation like this to a rigorous process of ethnographic observation, contextual inquiry and documentation. You’d produce a thick description accounting for the site, the people you found there, and the tools you observed them to use, and you’d take a great degree of care in capturing all these artifacts, processes and linkages and explaining their interrelation in a methodical and comprehensive fashion.
Or you can do what I did, and just start diagramming the thing.
Between last week and this, with the cheerful help of everyone I spoke to (and particular thanks to Easton, Lev and Caitlin), I’ve begun to map the process flow at 520 Clinton: to identify the site’s major discrete functions, chart the flow of people, material, information and other resources between them, and identify any blockages or breakdowns in these flows. The rest of this post consists of preliminary notes toward just such a map.
Why? I go into more detail about my own motivations, aims and goals toward the end of this piece, but my immediate intention was to address the following two questions:
- Can 520 Clinton’s functionality be successfully replicated elsewhere? Can the flow of human knowledge that drives this site meaningfully be abstracted from place? Are aspects of praxis utterly dependent on the precise arrangement of doors and pews and steps in this one particular sanctuary, or is it portable?
- To some degree, can mission-critical roles and responsibilities be decoupled from individual personalities?
On the one hand, you want to celebrate that OS is animated by specific, distinct people; that’s one of the things that makes this effort different from walking into a McDonald’s, or engaging in any of the very wide variety of other routinized, scripted, focus-grouped interactions we experience in contemporary life. Instead of an interaction conceived of as a “touchpoint,” the most wonderful thing about OS is asking a question and getting “I dunno, talk to Sparky,” or “Anna’s managing that” in reply. Without sentimentalizing anything, it’s clear that the people you meet are here for their own reasons and are guided in action by their own lights, not because they’ve substituted some script in a three-ring binder (or any of the other impedimenta of service-design fuckery) for individual introspection, initiative, belief and motivation.
But what happens when those wonderful human beings collapse from overwork and lack of sleep? When they get sick? When they burn out? Or, as has been known to happen from time to time, when someone who’s promised to take on some responsibility simply flakes out?
One of the easier ways to protect against this is to instill an ethic of shadowing, so the person responsible for a given task is always training their replacement, and the knowledge necessary to do the job eventually comes to live among several people, and not just with a single, potentially indispensible individual. This is simple and effective, and it tends to promote a few other valuable qualities as well. But it doesn’t particularly help you with getting to scale, or replicating across multiple sites, especially if you’re confronted with a need for rapid expansion.
I believe that, ideally, everything necessary to getting a site like this up and running would be handled at the level of personal relationships, with enough time and space for people to work things out for themselves, in whatever way they found most appropriate to their local culture and context. But time and space are luxuries you don’t always have, and I can imagine a number of circumstances in which some kind of written procedure might be helpful. Ever mindful of the tensions inherent in such abstraction, then, I nonetheless offer the follow schematic description of the process flow I witnessed, with the expectation that it will be adapted, challenged, pushed back against and departed from, but with the hope that you will find it useful.
The basic structure of a distribution site
Everything that follows is derived from my direct observation of the 520 Clinton distribution hub at the end of the first and beginning of the second week after the storm, and may not reflect the experience of people working at Jacobi, the relief sites themselves, or other Occupy Sandy activities. (Indeed, given the speed with which things are changing, it may not reflect reality at 520 Clinton anymore.) Major functional areas are set in CAPITALS.
If you were to draw a diagram of activity at 520, among the very first and most prominent things on the page would be two thick lines flowing inward, representing streams of incoming volunteers and materiel. Helping people get situated, both practically and conceptually, is the task of GREETING, REGISTRATION & ORIENTATION, while managing the influx of donated goods is the responsibility of the INTAKE team. There’s also ordinarily a coordinator dedicated to TRAFFIC CONTROL. We’ll deal with each of these tasks separately.
- Whoever takes on GREETING, REGISTRATION & ORIENTATION will have to cope with the arrival of people — on a busy weekend day, quite possibly dozens at once — who know nothing more about Occupy Sandy than that they’re there and they want to help. As I mentioned, in a great many cases the volunteers showing up had no prior ideological commitment whatsoever to the Occupy movement; I talked to more than a few who had earlier tried to volunteer with the Red Cross and had been turned away, and for whom this was simply the best option they had remaining for making meaningful use of their time.
We’ll get to a discussion of ideology in a moment, but the very first thing I want to point out is that when Nurri and I arrived at the site, we spent less than ten seconds meandering cluelessly on the sidewalk in front of the church before someone greeted us with a smile, asked if we were here to volunteer, and guided us smoothly to the desk where they were getting people signed up. I obviously can’t promise that everyone’s experience will be the same, but for us it really was that friendly and that efficient. I’ve been to seven-star hotels that didn’t do nearly as good a job of making me feel welcome.
After this GREETING, we were swiftly ushered into the process of REGISTRATION. The spatial provision made for this is simple: it consists of a folding table where people can make themselves a nametag, with Sharpie marker and one of the strips of white duct tape that someone had thoughtfully pre-cut and laid out on the desk. Even this seemingly very basic step had a certain ideological logic to it, though: people working with OS are universally known by their first name or nickname, and there’s something appealingly democratic about it. It’s kind of nice to find, amidst a process like this, that you’re Adam, and not Sergeant Greenfield. You wind up using people’s names a lot, which I belatedly realized that I’d gotten out of the habit of doing.
And even here, in the tape and marker, there’s a lesson about expedient means, about making do with what you have, and, if you think just a little more deeply about it, how the existence of a cheap (and generally Chinese-made) commodity can so easily have the effect of suppressing individual initiative. I did hear one or two people wondering if they oughtn’t just run down to the Office Depot and buy a bunch of pre-printed hello-my-name-is nametags instead of spending time cutting strips of duct tape to size, but it didn’t take much to dissuade them.
- After fixing themselves a nametag, the next thing that arriving volunteers are asked to do is ensure that their information is entered in the OS database, at the REGISTRATION desk. The form is straightforward, capturing contact information, availability, and whether the volunteer possesses specialized skills — i.e. medical, legal, construction or demolition experience; fluency in Spanish or Russian. When I first arrived, this was handled via three laptops all drawing from a mobile hotspot taped to the desk, but the details have varied; people with smartphones were asked to use them to register. (NB: I found this very difficult to accomplish on my iPhone, and so gave up and took up space on one of the laptops. It may be that when there’s the chance, someone ought to look into a mobile-optimized version of the registration page.)
That I saw, anyway, greeters were always careful to mention that immediately after they’d entered their data on the website, but before getting tasked with anything substantive, volunteers would be asked to attend a brief ORIENTATION session. Though it was indeed brief, and for me the furthest thing from bothersome, I personally believe that it would be more accurate to refer to this as process as “indoctrination.” I want to make it clear that while this is a chilly and rather off-putting word in most contexts, I do not in the slightest mean it pejoratively. In plain words, that is what is happening here, and there’s not a damn thing wrong with it.
I believe that it’s entirely appropriate for a movement founded on core tenets of anti-oppression to ask would-be volunteers to understand those tenets, to explain that expressions of sexism, racism, classism or homophobia would not be tolerated, and to emphasize that people unable to let go of such viewpoints would most likely be more comfortable elsewhere. What I found somewhat more striking was the immediate insistence that what is happening at 520 Clinton and the other OS sites is mutual aid, and precisely not charity, followed by a brief discussion of what the difference implies for the longevity of relief efforts and the relations of power inscribed in them. I found this very moving, personally, and while like everyone I couldn’t wait to dive in to the real work, I stood through the orientation spiel with a shit-eating grin.
At 520 the ORIENTATION process has had to accommodate groups from five on up to about twenty people, so this process requires somewhere this many people can stand comfortably for ten minutes or so, within easily audible range of a coordinator speaking at no more than conversational volume. I have seen this take place in the choir of the church, on the sidewalk out front and in a grassy area immediately inside the low fence, with varying results. On completion of ORIENTATION, volunteers are immediately released for TASKING (with certain exceptions; see the following).
There’s plenty of work to be done in the various processes that take place at the hub itself, but many volunteers have of course arrived with the expectation of getting their hands dirty “in the field,” i.e. at recovery sites. People wanting to do so are first asked to attend a more comprehensive FIELD ORIENTATION; similarly those wanting to will be asked to complete DRIVER ORIENTATION. I haven’t been able to attend either of these so far, but going from what I’ve overheard these strongly resemble a typical safety briefing.
- Many of the volunteers arrive via personal cars or trucks that they expect and badly want to be of use in the relief effort, but are surprised to be confronted with even the relatively minimal ORIENTATION process in place, and haven’t considered what to do with their vehicle while this is going on. Drivers carrying relief supplies may arrive and immediately begin offloading. For the predictable variety of reasons, the street in front of 520 is always congested. In order to prevent this from becoming an issue, then — particularly if it threatens to tail back to the point that it blocks the intersection of Clinton with arterial Fulton Street, and attract the attention of the police — there needs to be at least one coordinator responsible for TRAFFIC CONTROL available to manage the flow of vehicles at all times. Given the lack of line of sight between the street and the functions performed inside the church, it’s obviously preferable if TRAFFIC CONTROL can remain in constant radio communication with DISPATCH and STAGING.
- Donations of food, clothing and other goods are carried (individually or by bucket brigade) inside the church, to a INTAKE and SORTING area that has remained to the left of the aisle. Things that will be useful to the KITCHEN are brought there immediately; the remainder are moved toward STAGING, where they will be formed into shipments requested by DISPATCH, in preparation for release to the recovery sites.
Most of what comes in does so in break-bulk form; it’s not at all unusual to get, say, a heavy-duty trash bag containing a foam pillow, eight different cans of food (for people and pets both), some packaged nine-volt batteries and a box of adult diapers. (As annoying as it might be to handle, that’s actually a relatively thoughtful and useful donation.) If you are lucky enough that DISPATCH has a site that needs just those things, or some close approximation thereof, it doesn’t even enter the system. It goes straight out to a waiting car. In most cases, though, there’s some necessity of SORTING the incoming goods, making sure perishables get used in a timely manner, STAGING of outgoing shipments is simplified, and recovery sites get what they need.
In its basic outlines, 520 can be thought of as a warehousing operation, with the relative luxury of operating on a just-in-time basis. None of this inventory gets sat on for terribly long. It comes in, it gets sorted, it goes out. To date, that I’ve seen, there hasn’t even been any need for inventory management and control, though if you had an eye on the long game that is definitely something you’d want to be thinking about fairly soon now.
Under the general heading of INTAKE, the distinction between SORTING and STAGING has varied with time, volume of incoming materiel, demand from the field sites, and, frankly, with who I was talking to. Some people definitely perceive a difference in these roles and in the areas allocated to them; others do not. (For my own part, it seems useful to think of them as two separate functions and to address them in spatially discrete locations, however close by one another prudence may suggest arranging them.)
- Again, folks with any experience whatsoever in logistics will instantly recognize that what people are running in each of the OS Distro hubs amounts to a spontaneously-organized order fulfillment and shipping system, complete with the artifacts any such place necessarily runs on (e.g. picking-and-packing labels). For Occupy Sandy, the heart of this system is the DISPATCH desk, which works from a master spreadsheet shared with the COMMS team, the KITCHEN and the other hubs (see notes on technology below).
The process involves a lot of moving parts and a number of different teams, but there’s nothing in it so complex that it can’t be described straightforwardly. Incoming requests for relief from the community (there’s another thick line for your process diagram) are parried initially by the COMMS team, who start up a new row in the spreadsheet for each. This includes cells detailing what kind of request this is, what specific goods or skills are being called for, where and when they are needed, and so forth. One or another hub’s DISPATCH team will claim the incoming task, color-coding it to indicate that it has done so, and passing it on to STAGING via that most robust and ubiquitous of technologies, the index card. Each index card bears the time, location and contact information of the aid request on its front, and a packing slip on its back. The shipment is put together, a coordinator assembles the necessary volunteers, driver(s) and vehicle(s), and out the shipment goes.
As the core of Occupy Sandy’s relief operations, this is a pretty well-oiled procedure, and that I saw, it seemed to work incredibly smoothly at 520 Clinton. What at least two people mentioned to me, however, is that the habit of closing the loop each time this is done — closing out each row in the spreadsheet and confirming each job as completed — hasn’t yet been internalized to the same degree as the other phases of the process.
[Note: To be updated with descriptions of the TASKING, KITCHEN, COMMUNICATIONS, and COORDINATION roles.]
Tensions and longer-term implications
A couple of observations:
- There are certainly things that a coordination and distribution center might legitimately do, functional areas that I haven’t see being explicitly addressed here, though perhaps in time they’ll emerge in response to felt need. Over the weeks of the Zuccotti occupation, a surprisingly robust and diversified service ecology grew up, complete with wayfinding and directional-signage infrastructure, so maybe that’s in the wind for 520 and its successors. (To that point, a side note: if anything, the graphic design is even more sophisticated this time around, less oriented to direct agitprop and more toward good practice for clarity, comprehensibility and actionability.)
- If you belong to a school group, a Girl Scout troop or similar, and you are not interested in going out to recovery sites, instead of showing up at the hub en masse, I hear that it would be more helpful if you put your energy into pre-sorting toiletry or blackout kits into Ziploc bags, so that every toothbrush comes with toothpaste, every hygiene kit has soap and tampons and moist wipes and so on. I know that if you or your group is able to do this, it’s extremely useful and very much appreciated. (You can volunteer your group via this online form.)
There is a basic tension here, though, that other kinds of relief organizations simply won’t be subject to. In many cases, the desirable logistical efficiency one realizes by, say, pre-packing personal hygiene kits runs straight into the ethic of mutual aid, which demands we treat aid recipients not as victims to be rescued but as neighbors and equals. This is a time- and labor-intensive process. It’s unavoidably effortful, because it involves respectfully asking people what they understand themselves as needing: “I understand you haven’t had heat here for a few days — how are you dealing with that? How’s that working for you?” The Red Cross can drop a pallet of blankets on your porch and feel like they’ve done their job, maybe. An OS volunteer can’t.
So do you choose to observe pragmatism and efficiency in the operational stewardship of limited resources, or do you remind yourself that thinking of people as abstract “resources” is one of the habits of mind that’s led us to the precipice we now find ourselves standing before? Again, no National Guardsman I’ve ever met is likely to burn cycles pondering such questions. But I’m sure as hell going to, and judging from some of the people I’ve met at 520, I won’t be the only one.
- Networked information technology is critical to the success of this effort, though not in the precise places, ways and modes you might assume. Cloud-based applications, specifically Google Docs, are absolutely core components of the operational workflow. Conversely, the technologically-inclined may be surprised to learn that wikis have remained a starkly underutilized channel of information sharing, even in applications to which they’re ideally suited. And while you might think tablets had evolved to the point that they’d be useful in this context for data entry, if nothing else, using an iPad felt like much more hassle than it was worth. DISPATCH uses those index cards for a reason, and it’s the same reason I wound up resorting to a good old-fashioned legal pad to take these notes. (I will confess that I briefly entertained the notion of a Kickstarter project to develop a stripped-down, open-source, hardened tablet with some of the basic functionality you’d require for running ongoing stability operations — an OccuPad! — and then good sense got the better of me.)
None dare call it anarchy
I promised I’d say a little bit more about my own motivations in putting this all together.
I have three goals. The first is fulfilled immediately the moment I hit “post.” I’ll be addressing the second, as you’ll see, over the next few months, and this post is just the first installment of that work. The last is the kind of goal you only ever work toward on an incremental basis, over a period of time that may well extend longer than any one human life.
My close-range goal is simply to make some material contribution to the discussion around Occupy — a flawed movement I however believe to be, for those of us in the United States, the largest, broadest-based, most sustained and most productive antiauthoritarian current we are likely to experience in our lifetimes. I was struggling desperately to keep my practice afloat during the occupation of Zuccotti, and wasn’t at that time able to participate as anything much more than a body in the crowd. I don’t intend to miss a second opportunity.
My medium-range aim is to help enable the Occupy Sandy community — and the Occupy movement and its allies more generally — produce resources I think of as distro-hub-in-a-box and relief-site-in-a-box. You could interpret this quite literally — I’m imagining something like a Pelican case, containing everything you’d need to get a site up and running, with a laminated sheet explaining how it all fits together duct-taped inside the lid — or more metaphorically, as a basic set of diagrams, guidelines and pragmas aimed at serving the same end: this is where INTAKE goes, you’ll need a place where SORTING happens, this is how we found DISPATCH works best, and so on. Either way, the intention is to provide those facing the terrible challenge of helping their communities recover from large-scale disasters like Sandy with some means of benefitting from New York’s experience, and to do so in a way that’s consonant with the values of autonomy and self-determination at the heart of this effort.
Finally, and again, speaking only for myself, I’m clear that my own longer-term goal is to serve the development of a permanent regional mutual-aid infrastructure here in New York, tuned not just to the needs of recovery from a disaster but of ongoing evolution and growth.
It was painful for me to read the following, in the New York Times‘s coverage of Occupy Sandy:
That sort of response has rankled Nicole Rivera, 47, who lives in a project in Arverne, where the ocean sand still swirls up the street with every passing vehicle. “It’s sad, sometimes it’s a little degrading,” she said as she stood in line in a parking lot waiting for free toiletries.
Ms. Rivera said that she was thankful for the help, but that its face — mostly white, middle- and upper-class people — made her bitter.
“The only time you recognize us is when there’s some disaster,” she said. “Since this happened, it’s: ‘Let’s help the black people. Let’s run to their rescue.’”
“Why wait for tragedy?” she added. “People suffer every day with this.”
A woman standing in front of her in line interjected. “To be honest, I pray to God I never see these people again,” the woman said. “The only reason these people would be out here again for us is if something like this happens again, or worse.”
To which my only possible response is that Nicole Rivera, you’re both wrong and right. You’re wrong in that, from what I have seen, I don’t think anyone involved with OS is particularly motivated by condescension or stoking up their own ego. I haven’t met any pernicious do-gooders at 520, and trust me, I’d know them if I saw them. (One or two folks, yeah, who drove up with sparkling SUVs full of freshly-purchased Home Depot supplies, and wanted everyone to know just how much time, money and effort they’d put into helping out. What are you going to do, send them packing? No, you thank them for their contribution, explain a little bit about the difference between mutual aid and charity, and invite them to get involved.)
But you’re right in that the emergency in a whole lot of people’s lives is ongoing — is structural and endemic and as close to permanent as makes no meaningful difference. Or it would be, if we went back to our lives of (relative or absolute) privilege, and only showed up again the next time a storm hit.
If disaster capitalism means taking advantage of massively disruptive climatic or economic events to swoop in and compel governments to accept string-laden loans, adopt punitive Structural Adjustment Programs and the like, I’m equally wary of what we might call “disaster anarchism.” The most important thing is, always, to acknowledge people’s suffering, and extend to them whatever concrete means they’re likely to find useful in relieving that suffering. So it’s not without a little queasiness that I admit to perceiving the aftermath of Sandy as an opportunity it would be foolish to waste.
This is what, I would argue, the Occupy movement should have evolved into in the first place, a year ago: an ongoing effort to create a fabric of community institutions that live their beliefs matter-of-factly, so that people can experience for themselves the difference between what it feels like to be a consumer and what it feels like to actually participate. In the immediate case of Sandy, it’s most important that we help the people whose lives, homes and livelihoods have been disrupted by the storm take care of themselves — but it’s also not unfair to point out in doing so that the group that was by far the most effective in getting such aid and comfort to the field wasn’t FEMA, wasn’t the Red Cross, wasn’t anything but other New Yorkers organized and acting on the principles of mutual aid. May it only be the first of many in our time.
PS: If you’re concerned with arranging how and where you’ll meet up with family and other loved ones in the event of an emergency, it’s never a bad time to make and share a free Safety Map. And, again, if you’re interested in volunteering at 520 Clinton (or for any other Occupy Sandy initiative), please sign up via the form here. It’d be great to see you there.