Climate Change

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


It looked like a war zone. Hundreds of cars littered the streets and sidewalks; large boats had made it far inland during the hurricane and with their torn bodies, rested in the middle of dusty streets. Almost every building had a large pile of trash in front of it – furniture, carpets, cabinets, clothes. The electricity was still out and is not expected to be on until Christmas. Hurricane Sandy was not kind to the Queens neighborhood of Far Rockaway. The hurricane has affected everyone in some way. Two of my mother’s coworkers lost their homes to the hurricane. They were the lucky ones. Two students I know lost their mothers.Image

Shortly after the hurricane hit, members of Occupy Wall Street, with assistance from the climate justice group and, established Occupy Sandy Relief to go into neighborhoods like Far Rockaway where the government response was sluggish at best and provide relief.  Community organizations and Occupiers banded together and overnight established dozens of relief centers and supplies drop-off sites. The two major hubs for Occupy Sandy Relief are located at churches in the Clinton Hill and Sunset Park neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Thousands of volunteers show up daily at these two sites and others and are dispatched all over the city to deliver food, gut houses and walk up twenty or more flights of stairs in buildings still without power to provide food and blankets to residents. Occupy groups and supporters across the country started to ship in supplies and donations. Occupy Utica set up two drop-off sites, one at The Other Side on Genesee Street and another at Trinity Church.


The support was overwhelming. Occupy Utica activists and others accepted and sorted donations every day for the better part of the week. Rebecca Lloyd Wittman, a local lawyer, spearheaded a campaign to bring donations to Occupy Sandy Relief and bring food from local restaurants, bakeries and cooks down to Far Rockaway after getting inspiration from a group 100 Cooks for a Cause. Truckloads of supplies headed down to New York City all week and much help was provided by Occupy Albany and John Ryan from the local veteran’s group Forty and Eight in Oriskany. He commandeered his organization’s truck that looks like a locomotive and is only used for parades. An exception was made for the vehicle to help those in need. To date, five supply runs have been made to New York City and New Jersey.


Two groups headed down to Far Rockaway on November 10 to gut houses that took in three feet of water and serve food. Luck would have it that two members of Occupy Utica did extensive relief work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. They put their experience and skills to work and one, Joe Bepko, is still in New Jersey doing relief work. Although Occupy Utica is not collecting any more donations at the moment, we are encouraging people to make donations on the Occupy Sandy Relief website and stay informed on our blog.

When I arrived at St. Jacobi Church, one of the main relief sites, Friday night to drop off supplies, the place was packed with all kinds of donations. Over a dozen people worked late into Friday night sorting and I thanked them in my broken Spanish for what they were doing. The next morning, I arrived at the Clinton Hill site with over 100 other volunteers to be dispatched to Far Rockaway. When I reached my destination it was a struggle to hold back tears. Far Rockaway is simply not recovering. That neighborhood, and a number of others, has been largely ignored by the government. The residents of the homes that we gutted thanked us profusely for helping out – it was the first help of any kind they actually received. The Red Cross however did stop by one of the houses and dropped off a bucket with bleach but gave the residents inaccurate information on mold remediation. It makes me wonder where exactly the many millions of dollars raised by the Red Cross in the past two weeks for relief work have gone. No wonder the borough president of Staten Island called for a boycott of the organization.


One resident broke down in tears in front of us. She and her husband are two of 100,000s that have been abandoned by the government and many like them are having a rude awakening that this government can invade and occupy foreign countries over night and can bail out corrupt financial institutions at the drop of a hat to the tune of $13 trillion but are unable and unwilling to give the same attention, planning and resources to the people of New York and New Jersey. The National Guard, city officials and FEMA have actually gone to Occupy Sandy Relief briefings and sat down with Occupy organizers to get advice on how to effectively respond to this disaster, especially in neighborhoods like Red Hook where Occupy has taken the lead in relief work. The message should be clear that people are more capable, more efficient and more knowledgeable in addressing the needs of their communities. Out of the wreckage of Hurricane Sandy people are discovering that mutual aid and autonomy are rebuilding communities in a much different way than the government can ever imagine.


Brendan Maslauskas Dunn

(This story was written November 12. Photos taken by Trinh Truong.)

We are still accepting donations at The Other Side (2011 Genesee St, across from the Uptown Theater) on Sunday 12:00 noon – 6:00pm and Monday through Friday 4:00-6:00pm every day.

We do not need clothes, except for winter coats, blankets, socks and underwear. People really need cleaning supplies, bleach, anti-bacterial hand wash, soap, boots, work gloves, shovels, rakes, socks, underwear, baby high chairs, baby car seats, baby food, baby clothes, disposable or reusable utensils and plates, batteries, toiletries, feminine products, toilet paper… and really, think of things you use on an every day basis and anything you can think of to stay warm with (hot hands, one time heating pads, etc.).

Occupy Utica members and other supporters worked at The Other Side today to accept, sort and package donations today. We started keeping inventory yesterday but there were so many donations that we couldn’t keep up. About seven of us were there today and received many clothes, including children’s clothes and winter coats, water, food, toiletries, baby food and diapers. A group of veterans from the group Forty and Eight Voiture and some friends did an incredible job getting donations and were able to fill up a large tractor trailer with supplies. They drove the shipment to the Occupy Albany headquarters today and filled up the storefront. Occupy Albany members are renting a U-Haul tomorrow morning and will bring it down to Brooklyn to different Occupy Sandy Relief centers.

Countless people showed up today, thanks to postings in the blog, on Facebook, on The Utica Phoenix website, on WKTV, word of mouth and, surprisingly, from the signs in front of The Other Side. One local resident dropped off a carload of supplies and told us that his wife is from Coney Island and his family is from Far Rockaway. Their families’ houses were destroyed and twenty relatives are staying in one apartment together. Stories of devastation and government neglect continue to pour in. We have also heard stories from loved ones on the Jersey coast and various neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Staten Island and The Bronx. My mother informed me today that two of her coworkers in the city lost their homes.

Occupy Sandy Relief continues to offer support and assistance in the most neglected neighborhoods of New York City. We currently have 30 relief centers and drop off sites. We will be back at The Other Side Side from 12 noon – 6:00pm and every week day this week from 4:00 – 6:00pm. There is no shortage of things to do and we are always looking for volunteers.

If you want to donate money, please send donations to us in person (we already received $60 toward relief work and transportation costs) or donate directly to Occupy Sandy Relief. Keep in mind that the borough president of Staten Island called for a public boycott of Red Cross because they have done absolutely nothing to help Staten Island and have been pretty useless in many NY neighborhoods. The best thing about donating to Occupy Sandy Relief is that this is an all volunteer grassroots effort, there are no overhead costs, no bureaucracy and the money goes directly to relief work and helping people :

Also keep updated here:

The struggle for relief continues.

-Brendan Maslauskas Dunn

Help with hurricane relief!
Drop off donations at The Other Side in Utica (2011 Genesee Street, across from the Uptown Theater)

Drop off time Saturday and Sunday is from 12:00 noon – 6:00pm. Every day from Monday through Friday will be from 4:00pm – 6:00pm. We need volunteers so feel free to show up to sort out items.


Occupy Utica is teaming up with The Other Side to create a drop-off center to help victims of Hurricane Sandy. We are currently in regular contact with Occupy Sandy Relief in New York City which was set up to give assistance to the most neglected communities hit the hardest by the hurricane. Sandy Relief was set up by Occupy Wall Street, the climate justice group and Thus far, mutual aid relief centers have been established in New Jersey, the Lower East Side, Far Rockaway, Astoria, Chinatown, Staten Island and many other neighborhoods.

The death count from the hurricane is 140 and rising. The MTA has limited service, no service in southern Manhattan and no Brooklyn-Manhattan service. Amtrak and Metro North are shut down, millions are still without power, FEMA and the Red Cross have made little to no appearance in Far Rockaway, schools are shut down, and another storm is expected to hit the city. Residents have made comparisons in some neighborhoods to the damage created by Katrina in New Orleans. This is not just a freak storm – this is a storm made worse by climate change and New Jersey, New York and other Northeastern states are experiencing just a little of what will most likely become a regular occurrence in the not to distant future.

There is, however, hope. People are making the connections between climate change, corporate welfare, government inefficiency and Hurricane Sandy. Up and down the coast, people are acting on the principles of mutual aid – the idea that we can create a better world by working in solidarity with each other and building grassroots democratic community power instead of relying on corporations and the State. Occupy Sandy Relief is acting in this tradition of mutual aid and is rebuilding from the bottom-up. This model was created by Common Ground in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and was the first organization in the Lower Ninth Ward. This model is, in many ways being replicated by Occupy Sandy Relief and Occupy Utica is lucky to have a former organizer with Common Ground in our group.

We need your help. Volunteers are needed in New York City and New Jersey. We need people to volunteer to be at The Other Side to pick up donations and we will be working on a schedule for this. As of now, some of us may be heading down to New York City next weekend, but until then we need to find a way to get supplies down there. We may be able to get supplies to Albany or somewhere downstate at similar drop off sites but we need a way to get it there.

Here is a list of what we need:

Gas cans with gas (please do not bring this to TOS but email or call us if you can bring this), blankets, winter coats, tampons, pads, etc, diapers, fresh socks, fresh undergarments, thermal underwear, towels, soap, baby food, batteries, shoes, non-perishable food, toiletries, water (bottles and jugs), traps, tents… and many other items.

For a complete list of needs, please visit:

For financial donations visit:

For website, facebook, email, twitter updates, visit:

Also visit and for updates and analysis.

Finally, please come to our meeting Friday at 6:30pm at The Other Side to talk about how you can help.

You can contact us by emailing or calling 315 732-2382

Solidarity not charity! For economic, social and climate justice!