Occupy Sandy Relief: Rebuilding, Resistance and the Arson of a Church

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The historic Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood was bustling with activity on a brisk, mid-December day. A convoy of vans filled with supplies for victims of Hurricane Sandy just left, volunteers were sorting through boxes of donations, and two dozen Occupy activists were stationed in a room upstairs, some hunkered over computers and others debating over organizing and outreach strategies for Occupy Sandy Relief.  The walls were covered with maps of New York City, a weekly schedule with the note “please take at least one day off” and a hanging Marine Corps uniform.

The owner of the uniform is Rob Zillig who served in the Marines from 2004 to 2008 in the Biological Incident Response Force; basically, his time in the Marines was spent learning about hazmat and disaster response. He is active with Occupy Buffalo and travelled down to New York City to help with disaster relief work after Hurricane Sandy slammed into the city. He tried to work with every organization and agency imaginable – FEMA, the Red Cross – but it was an uphill battle trying to cut through the bureaucracy. He arrived at the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew accidentally after getting lost on the subway. He simply walked in the front door and went to work. One of the attractions of the model of Occupy Sandy Relief is the relative ease volunteers have to actually do relief work.

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Occupy Sandy organizer Alexandra Shwarzstein, like Rob Zellig was drawn to Occupy Sandy’s approach, but unlike him she had never been involved with the original Occupy Wall Street. “A group of people organized in this way can be so highly effective, considering there is no formal structure, no real central group,” she said. Shwarzstein’s background is in fundraising for non-profits, not quite the same thing as Occupy Sandy Relief work.

“I do medical canvassing, work in the kitchen, do dishes, coordination, demolitions,” said Zillig. Also active with Occupy Marines and an antiwar activist, Zillig dons his uniform from time to time and does “a lot of outreach with veterans and police,” emphasizing that much of his outreach is the simple yet important act of “listening to people.” Zillig’s approach echoes a core belief of Occupy Sandy Relief, one that sets it apart from most other relief organizations, non-profits and government agencies: mutual aid.

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The orientation Occupy Sandy organizers give to volunteers emphasizes the bottom-up grassroots approach to relief work and the concept of mutual aid as it relates to hurricane recovery. An “Occupy Sandy FAQ” handout given to all volunteers spells it out in simple language:

Mutual aid is an act that seeks to transform relationships & society for the better. It is about      working with people towards their own liberation and security by providing concrete support to          ensure that people have the power to change the conditions of their own lives.

This bottom-up approach clearly contrasts the top-down nature of charity work. The slogan “Solidarity Not Charity” holds considerable weight with Occupy Sandy organizers and volunteers and it was this slogan emblazoned on the front of The Other Side next to Café Domenico when Occupy Utica used it as a donation drop-off site for relief supplies. Common Ground Relief, set up in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, operates on this same premise.

Occupy Utica joined a vast network of mutual aid in action that found its nexus at the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew, which at one time was one of nearly 50 Occupy Sandy hubs and supply drop-off sites in New York and New Jersey. Volunteers in Utica sorted through donations, sent truckloads of supplies into Brooklyn and a few made it to the devastated neighborhood of Far Rockaway to gut houses that took in 8 feet of water from the hurricane. Some of the most active support came from those not usually seen working with Occupy – the veterans organization 40 and 8 and Tea Party supporters. The inability of the government to rapidly respond to the devastation of the hurricane was not just seen by those active in Occupy. The utter cluelessness of the Bloomberg administration in New York City could be seen in the meetings and orientations given by Occupy Sandy Relief where Bloomberg officials and other city representatives who months earlier had led the crackdown on occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park were now looking to Occupy for direction and answers.

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In some neighborhoods like Far Rockaway in Queens and Sunset Park in Brooklyn, Occupy Sandy Relief was leading the relief work. In many cases Occupy Sandy Relief offered the first form of real assistance residents had received in days, sometimes weeks after the hurricane hit, leading many residents to ask why was it that Occupy activists were more organized than FEMA, the Red Cross and the New York City and US governments? Why, with only a shoestring budget was Occupy able to do what the richest and most powerful government in the world could not? Other questions arose and dots were connected between the storm and climate change, and government prioritization of funding wars and bailing out Wall Street while those who lost everything from the hurricane received nothing.

Recovery work quickly shifted to resistance. Residents in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood started to plan rent strikes, marches, lawsuits and other militant actions over the government’s complete failure in providing heat, electricity and water weeks after the hurricane. Occupy Sandy Relief organized marches on December 15 in Staten Island, the Rockaways and at the house of billionaire Mayor Bloomberg to demand more aid and immediate action from the government. With the coldness of winter now in place and thousands displaced by the hurricane, these actions may only intensify.

In the early morning hours of December 24, the unthinkable happened. The entrance of the Church of St. Mark and St. Matthew engulfed in flames. Three Occupy activists inside the church had to flee for their lives and it took one hundred firefighters to put out the flames. The arson is still under investigation. Many see it as politically motivated and a few are wondering who exactly is behind it. The same week that the arson occurred, it was revealed through public records released through FOIA that the FBI spied on Occupy and coordinated political repression against the movement.

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Programs like Occupy Sandy Relief, when launched by radicals on the Left have been viewed as considerable threats by the US government in the past because they show people just how incapable the US government is in caring for those affected by disasters. If radicals can provide the most basic needs then people start to question altogether the role that the government actually plays. In the case of Occupy, unlikely organizations like the Tea Party and 40 and 8 locally, start to warm up to the concept of Occupy and work in affinity with it. This is why FBI informant Brandon Darby infiltrated Common Ground Relief, established in New Orleans by a Black Panther and anarchists in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

J Edgar Hoover viewed the free breakfast for children program of the Black Panther Party as the biggest threat to US national security in the 1960s and 70s. Under his leadership, the FBI waged a low-intensity war against the Panthers that included targeted assassinations and ultimately destroyed the organization. The FBI threatened and harassed countless priests and congregations who had opened their doors to the free breakfast program of the Panthers. If the FBI has done this in the past, what would stop them from doing this now? Of course it is only speculation at this point, but like Common Ground and like the Panthers, Occupy Sandy Relief is showing people that the primary concern of this system is to bail out the rich while a bailout for those affected and displaced by Hurricane Sandy are still suffering. Mutual aid may become a more attractive model to people as Occupy Sandy gears up for a long-term plan of recovery and resistance.

Brendan Maslauskas Dunn