After disappearing from both the political conversation and the streets of New York City, the Occupy movement is back.
Occupy Sandy, the group’s response to last week’s hurricane, has brought thousands of volunteers to disaster zones a year after protesters were encamped near Wall Street.
The nerve center for Occupy Sandy is a church in Sunset Park, miles from the financial district. St. Jacobi's Lutheran has essentially been handed over to the movement, and when I visited the other day, there were people streaming in and out of the building: dozens of volunteers loading up cars with food, or sorting mountains of garments. About twenty new recruits sat in the church pews as Yael Sverdlik conducted a quick orientation session.
“Take care of yourselves,” said Sverdlik. “Make sure you take a break. A water break, a bathroom break, eat. That is really crucial for you, to take care of yourselves, so that you can come back as well.”
Sverdlik estimated that around 5,000 volunteers had funneled through the church over a 5-day period, before being whisked off to a disaster zone. Many had no prior connection to Occupy, only hearing about Occupy Sandy through Twitter or Facebook. Others, like musician Stephen C. Baldwin, had been with Occupy since its heyday when it took over Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan.
Baldwin said “many in Occupy regarded Wall Street as a disaster for the economy, and it's still a problem, but now Sandy is a much bigger threat to our well-being and so we've pivoted and we're trying to provide as much relief on the ground as we can.”
Like a lot of other Occupiers, Steve had slowly grown disillusioned with the movement after its tent city was torn down. He wasn't sure what its direction was, and before Hurricane Sandy hit, said the turnout at more recent protests, such as those outside the Republican and Democratic party conventions, had been "pathetically small."
“Occupy sort of turned into this wandering diaspora,” he mused. “Moving up to Union Square, then that falling apart, then moving somewhere else, then popping up here and popping up there.”
But then Sandy hit, and the movement was reinvigorated. Some organizers say it came together so fast because of the social infrastructure formed over the last year.
“We already had this network, we already had these Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, with oh so-many followers,” said Kira Moyer-Sims. “We have these really loud megaphones.”
Outside the church serving as Occupy Sandy's headquarters, a dispatcher was matching volunteers to cars so they could get to various relief sites. I was paired with Joyce Klemperer, Marianne Petit and Heather, who wouldn't give me her last name. They were all heading out to Coney Island in a Toyota Corolla. None had been active with Occupy before but found it inclusive.
“It's pretty impressive the way it's transitioned into a way of letting everybody respond to the storm and not feel like it's up to FEMA or the Red Cross to be the ones to do something," said Klemperer.
Even for those without medical or carpentry skills, said Petit, the movement offered an in. As long as you knew how to use a computer or were "willing to get dirty."
As soon as we arrived at our destination, the Coney Island Gospel Assembly, Heather received a call on her cell phone.
"We're supposed to evacuate," she told us. "Coney Island has to be evacuated."
It was the approaching Nor'easter. But the three women headed inside anyway, and started working with other Occupy and church volunteers to take care of hungry and cold residents in the area.
The pastor, Sister Connie Hulla, said residents would never evacuate: they were too worried, with good reason, that their homes would be robbed in their absence.
Nearby, a small group of residents sat in the back pews of the church. Everyone inside wore their coats, it was that cold, but they said it was still warmer than at home.
Sister Connie worried that as the days went by, people might lose whatever connection they had to their normal lives.
"Suicide," she said. "That worries me. People can get so despondent, and so cold. And so, without hope, that they can do terrible things to themselves."
She had been handing out cash to some residents, and hoped the city would start chipping in. The crisis was the worst she'd ever seen in the community. But she said the Occupy volunteers were "angels," including the medics who were helping take care of diabetics and residents with high blood pressure.
"It's the caring that counts," she said, and then she waited for another storm to descend.