Superstorm Sandy destroyed large swathes of New York City’s Rockaway Peninsula last October, and in the storm’s wake, it immediately became clear that the traditional modes of relief (FEMA, the Red Cross) were performing inadequately, if the aid groups bothered to show up at all.
In order to fill the vacuum, Occupy Wall Street activists quickly mobilized on the ground. At one point, Michael Premo, one of the volunteers, estimated the recovery effort included 2,500 volunteers, 15,000 meals and 120 carloads of supplies sent to recovery sites.
But temporary charity is no match for permanent institutional structures, and Occupy Sandy was never meant to shoulder the burden of the failed state.
Al Jazeera America reports that similar problems plague both OWS and Occupy Sandy, including a necessity to engage in politics in order to alleviate certain social ills like poverty, a process that is unappealing to many activists.
In the wake of a tragedy like Hurricane Sandy, where thousands of poor New Yorkers were left without basic resources like electricity and water for many weeks—including many families that are still homeless—activists understandably have disdain for a government that seems determined to serve only an elite 1 percent (though the NYPD did manage to embed an undercover police officer with Occupy Sandy).
However, such a mentality produces a talent vacuum. Bright, young activists avoid engaging with a power structure that badly needs reform, leaving the system to be savaged by corrupt players.
“Unbeknownst to them and surely unintentionally, I think they’re kind of reinforcing a right-wing message that government isn’t the answer,” Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger said to AJA.
Berg goes on to say Occupy’s social critique resonated with him, but any permanent reform will inherently involve engaging with politics.
“Forget ideology; just look at scale—there is no way that charitable efforts can ever, ever, ever come up vaguely close to the scale we need as a society to solve these major problems,” he said. “They’ve done all this really important work, (but) I do just want to put it in context that we’re thinking really, really small.”
Some problems Occupy Sandy was never equipped (nor should activists have been expected) to solve.
AJA provides one example:
Diane Bourbon, a neighbor and mother who works night shifts at a convenience store, received a $10,000 Homeowner Resettlement Program grant from the state, which was aimed at keeping residents in place after Sandy and could not be used for construction or repair. But like others in her situation throughout New Jersey, Bourbon missed out on grants to repair her trailer or buy a new home—worth up to $150,000 and $50,000 respectively—because the vague language in state brochures and websites did not specify whether mobile home owners qualified, leaving many confused and discouraged from applying.