Near the end of the Toronto’s Occupy last year, this question was in the air, on most peoples’ tongues.
Friends and comrades would lament that the occupation beside St. James Church had started to “go wrong.” Debates turned into fighting. Services were required for the occupants that couldn’t be given by the suite of volunteers who were there.
I spent just two hours at Occupy Vancouver and witnessed more than one fight where people had to be removed from the site.
How could have Occupy been made useful?
The debate, in theoretical terms, was a difficult one. Was Occupy meant to simply be a symbol of an egalitarian society? Was the occupation itself a tactic or a strategy? Or, was the success of Occupy the occupations themselves?
At McMaster University’s student centre, where it’s easier for merchants to sell jewelry than for students to hold a rally for lower tuition fees, the occupation of a corner of that space was a victory. It became a progressive hub for students on campus to hang out, do homework, organize and discuss strategies.
McMaster University’s Occupy, which lasted many months after all others in Canada, was an outlier.
Last year ended with these questions unanswered for many Occupiers. 2011 was a year of inspiring protests, but after the movement for the 99 per cent started to wind down, how could we all not ask “how can we make Occupy useful?”
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I don’t know if these were the discussions held by Occupiers in New York City though I’m sure that debates were had after the tents were vacated from Zuchotti Park about what to do next.
As is usually the case in life, it’s the unexpected events thrown onto people or movements that define our individual or collective purpose.
The opportunity for Occupy came in the form of a devastating hurricane. Hurricane Sandy blasted through peoples’ homes in New York and New Jersey. It left millions of people in the dark and demonstrated for everyone the gaps that exist within the system.
Occupy Sandy filled many of those gaps, nearly immediately. Driven by the belief in mutual aid, not charity, Occupy Sandy activists have set up an impressive emergency response, equipped to help people through immediate disaster relief to recovery, as long as the volunteers remain.
To volunteer, you simply arrive at one of the central coordinating sites and get placed various teams: communications, demolition, medical services, legal services and others.
With flooding the most significant and damaging aspect of the storm, demolition and reconstruction was in high demand from people who’s homes’ first floors were filled by four or five feet of water. While there, I volunteered for demolition.
The central hub I was dispatched at was the church at 520 Clinton St. in Brooklyn. Inside the church were boxes of clothes, food and other materials. There were information tables and bathrooms. A pipe organ looked over the edge of a balcony adorned with banners that said “Occupy Sandy: People-powered recovery” and “We the people must help each other.”
For demolition volunteers sent to the Far Rockaways, a peninsula that was covered by water as a result of the storm, the next stop was a community centre. Used normally as a church and community hall, half of the large space was dark. The other was buzzing with volunteers illuminated by floodlights powered by an external generator.
From the ceiling to two feet down the walls, the warehouse looked like a prom was imminent. From the floor to eight feet up the wall, it looked like a makeshift hardware store. Silver and blue streamers hung from the roof, around a large, plastic chandelier. Tables were laden with rubber boots, hard hats, masks and gloves all for volunteers to grab before being sent out.
Volunteers were given all the necessary tools: chisels and hammers of all sizes, power tools, wheelbarrows.
For many volunteers on demolition duty, the job included drywall removal and cleanup.
The primary concern, and reason for needing to rip out drywall, is black mould. Unabated, it can cause serious health problems. The homeowners we worked with had called Occupy and asked for help to remove the waterlogged drywall and insulation to stop the spread of black mould.
The Rockaways is still months away from recovery and most of the storefronts I passed remained closed. Combined with the lack of electricity, feeding people has also become a hallmark of the relief efforts.
Food stations are located throughout the neighborhoods. Hamburger trucks, pots of vegan soup, bagels, baked goods, coffee and water can be found easily. On my second day, I ate curry made by the International Yoga Instructors distributed by Occupy Sandy volunteers.
Some of the food stands are administered by other organizations, including church groups. One was giving away clothes, bibles hot chocolate and coffee.
While eating lunch at one location, a woman drove by and demanded to know who was in charge of the site. She said that she was in some way connected to the space and that it was given to Occupy to use as long as no political messages were displayed. She yelled at volunteers until a banner was removed from a large set of solar panels. Begrudgingly, volunteers removed the banner.
“Another world is possible” was the message on the banner that looked upon people receiving a free meal.
I found this interaction to be profound. Occupy Sandy demonstrates that another world is possible, but does so such that potential detractors don’t see the hypocrisy in supporting the actions of the movement while opposing its slogans.
But hypocrisy and hope were everywhere in the Far Rockaways. From the National Guard sitting or driving around staring at the people they passed to hearing a New Orleans-style band march through the streets, it was clear: the hypocrisy that drips from every aspect of our lives under capitalism doesn’t disappear when citizens set up alternative systems. However, the hope that so many of us crave, and that is embodied in the relief efforts, overshadows hypocrisy.
Indeed, another world is possible and it is being built in New York and New Jersey. Occupy Wall Street is demonstrating that citizen-led disaster relief is not only possible, but can be more effective and sophisticated than relief provided by the state.
Through the deeds of tens of thousands of volunteers, Occupy Sandy has answered the question of how to continue to make Occupy useful. Or, how to make it more than useful, even critical. It may be the roadmap to deliver us a collective way past the current, oppressive system that has made Occupy necessary in the first place.
Watch Occupy Sandy. There’s something happening there.
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Is disaster the key to making other Occupys useful? Could the next natural disaster launch Occupy Montreal or Occupy Fredericton into action? What happens if our disaster never comes?
During my time in New York, I couldn’t help but resort to the snooty, anti-Americanness that may be socialized with being Canadian. “How is it possible that the greatest country in the world would be so callous as to abandon its citizens in moments of need?” I would constantly ask myself.
Surely, if the US can carry out drone attacks on the other side of the planet, it has the resources to return electricity to people after a storm.
My Canadian sense of superiority made me think of how much better we have it in Canada, how impossible it would be for the same disaster to elicit the same response from our government.
I was snapped from my privilege-laden reverie soon after coming home. Of course this could happen in Canada. It is happening in Canada.
A friend of mine was in the hospital a few weeks ago, near death, after an extreme allergic reaction. I asked him what the doctors thought had triggered it. “Black mould” he told me. He hasn’t been home since the reaction.
A friend of mine posted on Facebook that a First Nation community in Northern Ontario is down to one working power generator and that with the cold, they’re close to being in an emergency situation.
If OWS and Occupy Sandy have demonstrated that in times of disaster, relief can be provided by communities of activist volunteers, then the dozens of Occupy movements in Canada should be re-orienting themselves toward the needs that exists in our communities.
Are any of the Occupy movements in Canada sophisticated enough to pull off what’s happening with Occupy Wall Street? Am I simply advocating for cooptation and opportunism?
Another world is possible and lessons should be learned from the activists involved in Occupy Sandy, but the questions I’ve raised must also be answered. If the state is failing Canadians, why aren’t Canadians filling in those gaps? What will it take for us to reclaim our own sovereignty, to help each other, to ask each other for help, and to be humble and hard-working servants for one another?
What’s stopping an Occupy Attawapiskat, an Occupy Parkdale or an Occupy George Brown College from springing to life?
Let’s find a way to make Occupy the force that builds the world that we know is not only possible, but that we can hear breathing on those quiet days.
To find out more about Occupy Sandy relief, or to donate, go to their website.