In my time with the occupy movement, I’ve been a part of hundreds of conversations about the ‘future’ of the movement and tiring debates about what direction to go next. These conversations and debates have often been fraught with disagreement and hot tempers, and most of the time end in frustration or too many proposals tabled for discussion. Its funny how sometimes the things you don’t and can’t plan for are the things that force you to pivot and change direction.
As “Superstorm” Sandy came ashore, I really did not expect it to do as much damage as it did. I’m from Miami – I’ve been through countless hurricanes (and even Irene in New York) and had chocked up the hype around this storm to the usual fear-mongering of the media machine. I experienced the storm seated at my computer, intermittently checking social media websites to see what was going on. When I started seeing photos of a flooded lower Manhattan, videos of power stations exploding and cranes precariously dangling from skyscrapers, I began to understand that the repercussions of this storm were going to be on a grand scale. I was proven correct the next day as more pictures of the devastation in Far Rockaway, Coney Island, Staten Island and other affected areas starting cropping up online. Personally, I never lost power and my neighborhood of Jackson Heights was left relatively unscathed by the storm. But I knew that in other parts of the city, people had lost everything. And I wanted to help.
I was elated as murmurings began in my many occupy email lists of a occupy-led relief effort, but when I went down to one of the main distribution hubs in Sunset Park, Brooklyn for the first time I was truly blown away. I spent the day today sorting donations, answering questions, directing traffic and generally running around like crazy. The stream of donations was constant; even as we were leaving, two U-Hauls were pulling up full of more stuff. Occupiers (READ: not FEMA or the Red Cross) were coordinating the distribution of these goods to the worst affected areas in NYC AND sending hundreds of volunteers to these sites to provide relief. While one group is helping a family gut their flooded basement in Far Rockaway, another is going door to door on Coney Island checking if folks are ok and delivering supplies. The sheer human effort at work here is breathtaking, reminiscent of the ‘good ol’ days’ (a little over a year ago) at Liberty Square. This is a people-powered recovery. We’re going where the institutions are not – hell they are giving us supplies to distribute!
A week after volunteering at Jacobi, I had the opportunity to go down and help first-hand in Far Rockaway. This time I was also blown away, not as much by organizational work going on, but by seeing this shattered community come together to recover. After checking in at YANA (which stands for You Are Never Alone, a community center acting as Occupy’s hub in the Rockaways), I went down to Beach 60th Street, right where water meets land. Here the boardwalk had been ripped apart and lay strewn on the beach and on the street. Directly across from it, houses were practically buried in 4 to 6 feet of sand that had washed up during the storm. In fact, most of these streets were absolutely inundated with tons and tons of sand. It wasn’t exactly what I thought I was going to see upon going out there. I was ready for mangled houses and moldy basements, but seeing the piles and piles of sand everywhere – and the hundred or so people with shovels and wheel barrows engaging in the Sisyphean feat of digging it out – really took me back. I thought about the people here and what it must be like to have every single possession washed away, but I also thought a lot about the utter power of nature. How quickly it had reclaimed this tiny barrier island and essentially shut it down.
After a few hours of working with both volunteers from outside and community members, the sun began to set and we were advised to leave before ‘the darkness.’ As I got back into the bus that brought me out there and prepared to leave, I looked back at all the people who lived here that didn’t have that option. They would face another long, cold night at the edge of New York City and of the media’s consciousness. I was exhausted after a laborious day moving sand around, but I had a heated, lighted home to return to. These people had no where to go but back to their cold, damp, dark houses. After over 2 weeks, they’re still living in these conditions – powerless, both in the electrical and political sense of the word. There are many beautiful moments of solidarity and kinship happening every minute here, but there is also a lot of work yet to be done.