New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, May 1, 2013
NEW YORK » Not long ago, the Occupy Wall Street movement seemed poised to largely fade from the national conversation with few concrete accomplishments beyond introducing its hallmark phrase, "We are the 99 percent."
Then Hurricane Sandy struck. In its aftermath, Occupy Wall Street protesters rushed to apply their rabble-rousing hustle to cleaning out houses, clearing debris and raising more than $1.5 million for relief efforts. In some minds, Occupy members had become less a collection of disaffected class warriors than a group of efficient community volunteers. Occupy Sandy, as the effort came to be known, became one of the most widely praised groups working on the storm recovery.
As Occupy members around the country plan the movement's annual May Day protests, a central question has emerged: whether Occupy Sandy represents a betrayal of the Occupy movement, or its future.
"We're helping poor people; before we were fighting rich people," said Goldi Guerra, 45, who camped for a time at Zuccotti Park, the site in lower Manhattan where the movement took root, and since the storm has spent nearly every day helping victims on Staten Island. "It's still the same equation, but it's much more glass half full, optimistic, giving and" — he added, referring to the many clashes between protesters and the police — "legal."
The shift away from the core message of income inequality has contributed to a growing rift within Occupy, which once seemed poised to become a leftist alternative to the Tea Party. The storm response brought a more mainstream contingent into the shrinking movement, as Occupiers were joined in mucking out houses by people who shared their values but had found their tactics too radical. Now some members say in the process the movement has sold out, that by soliciting donations from corporations such as Home Depot and applying for government grants, it has allied itself with the very forces it was formed to fight against.
"People gain power by standing together," said Bill Dobbs, an Occupy member who early on criticized the change in direction. "If we are doing scores of projects around the city, that's important work, but the focus has to come back to the most powerful financial institutions."
The debate between lofty ideals and practical goals has echoes in Occupy groups around the country.
"A lot of people look towards New York City as kind of a leader," said Tracy Lubbehusen, 36, a member of Occupy Terre Haute in Indiana, who is traveling to New York to take part in the protests Wednesday. "They are thinking that what is going to happen in New York City is going to go for the rest of the country."
Some satellite Occupy groups have similarly evolved into service organizations; others have recommitted to protesting. But even those focusing on protesting have noticed an increase in good will because of the storm response. "I was usually yelled at to get a job," said Chris Wahmhoff, 34, a member of Occupy Kalamazoo in Michigan, which still holds regular protests. "Now literally I will get thumbs up."
On Staten Island, Guerra and some of his peers see storm relief work as consistent with the original movement's principle of tackling injustices it perceives the rich have dealt society. For example, many members believe the intense storm was a product of global warming, and they link that phenomenon to corporations polluting the environment. Fighting for the little guy, these adherents say, has many forms, from scouring mold off I-beams to taking to the streets.
In the Rockaways in Queens, Occupy Sandy members are teaching storm victims about conducting sit-ins, in anticipation of any government efforts to use eminent domain to remove residents' homes from vulnerable parts of the seashore. It is clear, however, that few of the people who bedded down on Zuccotti's concrete remain among the ranks of Occupy Sandy. Many simply returned to school or found jobs, but others have retreated for ideological reasons.
Last winter, in heated email exchanges between separate Occupy Sandy groups serving Red Hook, Brooklyn, some members railed against the groups' cozy relationship with the City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, and the local police precinct. The clash led to walkouts and stopped much of their work in the community, said Rebecca Manski, 35.
"There are various things that have come out of Occupy Wall Street and taken on a life of their own, and we want them to succeed," said Manski, a self-described anarchist who left the Sandy group to home in again on protesting the financial system. "But there is a core of us who believe that the focus should be on Wall Street."
Those original Occupiers who do remain often say they can do so only by compromising. A volunteer in Sheepshead Bay, who declined to give his name because he likes to plant fruits and vegetables on property that he does not own, said he struggled with the idea of taking donations from corporations like Home Depot. Working with officers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency feels like cooperating with the same big government that he moved to New York from Oakland, Calif., to fight against, he said.
Nevertheless, the disaster-relief trailer from which he doles out storm help — which now, with most cleanup complete, includes growing heirloom corn and rutabaga seedlings for local residents to start their own backyard organic farms — was provided by the city. Inside, the words "In Case of Emergency" are posted on one wall, with an arrow pointing at the crisscrossed "A" symbol of anarchism.
The original Occupiers who remain have not just mellowed; they have abandoned some of the hallmarks of the organization, given up as unwieldy in a disaster situation. Occupy Sandy's "free store" on Staten Island was closed in part because people took advantage of it, said Howie Ray, who runs a volunteer hot line for the group. The nightly round-up emails of their work, part of a commitment to transparency, have halted because they were impractical and time-consuming, Ray said.
Other values — and quirks — have remained, though. On Staten Island, it is not unusual for residents from hard-hit working-class areas like New Dorp Beach to show approval or disapproval at community meetings with "twinkles," wiggling their fingers to the ceiling or the floor. The hand gesture was popularized during meetings in Zuccotti Park, as a way to evaluate the group's sentiment toward an idea, without violating an Occupy principle of deciding most things by consensus, rather than by democratic processes.
"We're transmitting culture," said Justin Stone-Diaz, who camped at Zuccotti for the entirety of Occupy's two-month stay there and now lives on Staten Island helping run relief efforts.
Many donors chose to give to Occupy after the storm, as the Red Cross was being criticized for what was seen as a comparatively sluggish response. Its own organizational problems have also cropped up, though, which some volunteers attributed to the movement's resistance to hierarchy. A few volunteers equipped with laptops at the start of the recovery have since disappeared, along with their new computers, an organizer said. And some donations Occupy received for specific neighborhood projects through multiple online giving sites got jumbled together, making it impossible to tell what the money was intended for.
So far Occupy Sandy has spent $670,000, according to information the group makes public online, disbursed for essentials like medical supplies ($5,000) and tools for mold remediation ($93,454).
As immediate needs for relief have died down, however, the group has begun programs reflective of a shift in tactics and a broad interpretation of "rebuilding," like "Wildfire," a series of political action classes in the Rockaways, which so far has received $10,600. That shift, toward what one storm volunteer called "indoctrination," has caused some discomfort among donors and recipients alike.
Some Occupiers say they are simply seeking to stay true to the movement's goals, which drove them to the storm-ravaged region in the first place. "No one was being tricked into donating to Occupy Sandy," said Daniele Kohn, who is part of the team managing Occupy Sandy's finances. "‘Occupy' is part of the name."