May Day Protests: Occupy Sandy's Fight to Restore New York is Still Going Strong

ByTerri Bennett

Writer's Note: In true Occupy style, this piece was written collaboratively with Jenny Akchin, and co-edited by Brett Goldberg. 

May Day, or International Workers Day, finds itself at the cross-section of several movements. With roots in the labor movement, it has grown to include space for radical economic justice movements, the immigrant rights movement, the student movement, and, last year, Occupy Wall Street.

This year, Occupy Sandy activists are making sure another growing movement is at the table the movement for a community-led rebuilding process after the widespread devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy in the city of New York.

Superstorm Sandy affected nearly every person in New York, whether through gas shortages, subway closures, flooding, or loss of employment. But while for most New Yorkers Sandy was "over" when the subway service resumed, for many living in New York's most affected areas, the recovery process is just beginning. For others still, living in hotels six months later, it hasn't even begun.

It's no coincidence that the areas still hurting after Sandy are those most disconnected from the city center, both geographically and economically. In recent years places like the Rockaways, Staten Island, and Gerritsen Beach haven't done much to fuel Wall Street and the city's economic growth. They haven't benefited much from it it either, so they’re easy to ignore.

For many, the disenfranchisement of low income communities before and after Sandy draws major parallels with the experiences of residents of New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina. We learned a lot from Katrina about racism, about economic divides, about displacement but perhaps the most important lesson was that crises create, for some, an opportunity for profit. Privatization, eminent domain, and large-scale redevelopment were major factors in the post-Katrina picture, and they threaten to be a component of the Post-Sandy recovery picture as well.

But by the same token, there are recovery efforts, both small and large, that local residents and activists are pushing forward in their communities. These initiatives are a serious challenge to the narratives we are used to post-disaster of large agencies and institutions coming in to rescue distressed communities with a pre-determined, profit-driven plan. They're creating the possibility for local leadership in rebuilding, and demanding the ability for communities to guide how they are rebuilt. After all, when communities take care of their own needs, there’s less reason for outside institutions to come in and "fix" the problem.

When Occupy Sandy originally mobilized in November 2012, it quickly developed a respected name across the affected areas. For many residents, this reputation was independent from the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement.

"Many residents view 'Occupy' as any other name," says Goldi, an Occupy Sandy Staten Island volunteer. "We have a good reputation, and we've been on the ground since the beginning, it’s almost like a given because they know us from having helped many of their neighbors."

As the nature of the recovery work has changed, however, Occupy Sandy’s work has increasingly returned to its OWS roots. Hundreds of volunteers have spent months distributing food and needed supplies, helping residents navigate assistance programs, and mitigating health risks caused by mold and unsafe work conditions. Volunteers will continue to do these things as they are needed.

But new, more forward reaching projects are underway, too. Projects have been taking off, such as a cooperative business incubator to increase residents' ownership in local economic recovery, a resident-informed participatory budgeting project in Staten Island, and "Wildfire," a grassroots community organizing and capacity-building initiative in Far Rockaway. Perhaps most importantly, Occupy Sandy volunteers have been vocal allies in calling attention to the failures of NYC's long-term rebuilding plan, forming coalitions with community based organizations and long-term recovery councils to advocate for a rebuilding process that reflects the priorities of residents of the affected areas.

"One of the biggest lessons learned is that we've built a lot of trust with communities by providing services when they were most needed," says Tammy Shapiro, an Occupy Sandy volunteer. "The strong relationships and sense of trust that we've built with residents in the affected areas make us stronger allies and advocates in the fight for a community-led recovery."