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Occupy Sandy: Mutual Aid in the Wake of the Storm

As the surge of Superstorm Sandy began to subside, the scope of coastal damage became apparent. The devastation of dense communities from the southern Jersey shore to the Rockaways of Queens left us all in awe.

Mother Nature’s fury took its toll, and the a new flood rolled in: Occupy Sandy.

Barely more than a year after the fiscal activists of Occupy Wall Street set up camp in Zucotti Park, some of the same people put out the call for volunteers to aid their neighbors Using Twitter tags, such as #WeGotThis and #MutualAid, the Occupiers have set out to create a new image of disaster relief. People and donations of all types began to flow in and out of “hubs”…the People’s Help-olution had begun.

Walking into the hub at Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, new volunteers are asked to sign in and wear their first name or nickname on a piece of tape. Then comes orientation, a quick summary of the Mutual Aid ideology. “We are not a charity,” explains Damien, one of many volunteer coordinators. “We are the people helping the people…We are here to work hand in hand with the communities, regardless of personal beliefs, race, or religion.”

The horizontal, non-biased approach to every aspect of the project would be clear to all volunteers before they were asked how they would like to help. Whether it’s cleanup or canvasing the communities affected to see what they need, preparing sandwiches or hot meals for thousands every day, there is a job for everyone who walks through the door.

Over the past few weeks, Occupy Sandy exploded into an all-out, grassroots, shipping and receiving business. No suits, no ties, no distinct structure…just regular people stepping up to coordinate an influx of volunteers and items, mostly acquired through a wedding registry set up on The canvasers in the field report the needs of the communities and “distros” to the “comms hub,” which are sent to “dispatch,” which relays to “ins & outs,” which, in turn, loads the “orders” to vehicles, mostly volunteered by generous drivers. It’s an endless row of double-parked sedans, vans, and smart cars waiting to go out, and UPS trucks as well as U-Hauls coming in.

One look at the main hall of the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew would leave you nothing short of inspired. A congregation of people sorting through boxes, itemizing and sorting donations then sending them to the people who have lost their world.

The Occupy idea of Mutual Aid creates an environment in which communities are rebuilding themselves and creating an identity of neighborhood ownership. A responsibility of every individual in a community to contribute to the greater good without relying solely on government at any level. The response of these communities and “People Power”-based initiatives has created a new social dialect amongst the wider sceme of society in and around the areas, directly, effected by Sandy. Organizations with measures of preparedness for such events have been dumbfounded by the, self-sufficient, response of individuals and community initiatives such as in Redhook, Sheepheads Bay, Coney Island, Staten Island, and the Rockaways.

Occupy Sandy itself is not the real story to be published. The true heroes of this disaster relief effort are the people themselves. The man who asks for a shovel to dig out from the sand, the woman helping to serve the soup, the now homeless firefighter who carried his elderly neighbor to safety through the flood, and the child who stands amongst the rubble with a smile and a sign that, simply, says: #WeGotThis.

> Edward Lawton, Buffalo

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