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Opinion: Occupy Sandy Proves its Progressive Mettle in Hurricane Relief

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What was the most surprising media turn of the past few weeks? Was it the backlash against Karl Rove? The apotheosis of Nate Silver? Or the most unlikely of all turns: A string of positive articles about Occupy Wall Street.

First, Hurricane Sandy revealed the problems of lethargic bureaucracies from the Red Cross to FEMA, organizations with resources and reputations, but insufficient nimbleness to meet immediate needs. Standing in contrast was Occupy Sandy, a volunteer-driven cooperative of relief efforts pulling from the core values, relationships and skills of the Zuccotti Park movement.

As Occupy Sandy was being heaped with praise and inundated with donations and volunteers, a second strand of pro-Occupy commentary emerged around the Rolling Jubilee, an effort to draw attention to (and maybe solve?) our debt-laded culture. Donors are buying up debt for cents on the dollar to free unsuspecting Americans of their crippling debt. From financial journals to the New York Times to the lefty blogosphere, this effort has generated interest and applause. And it's organizers: alums of Occupy Wall Street.

Neither of these programs is a total solution. In relief efforts, we need the big machinery of government and civic institutions to help in ways that pools of volunteers can't. Occupy Sandy has been a much-needed band-aid, but it's not going to replace the Red Cross. As for Rolling Jubilee, it's an inspired effort that makes us realize how value-less debt really is if it can be bought for fractions of its supposed "worth." But it's not fundamentally changing the forces that are peddling debt, or the readiness of the financial industry to profit off of the misfortunes of others.

Even if neither effort is a solution in itself, they share a few important characteristics. First, they are based on the principle of mutual aid. Left and right may agree that mutual aid should be at the core of a healthy society. Some of us argue that the government plays a critical role in organizing that mutual aid and others would like to see it left to individual charity or religious institutions. Ultimately, we all agree (except for a few hardcore Randians) that we all do better when we help each other. That's why these two operations have been praised so sincerely - they are about people helping people.

What is at times overlooked is that Occupy Wall Street was always about mutual aid. The most shared images were of protests and pepper sprays, but the scene in Zuccotti was a common kitchen, a free library, shared living space, a medical tent and endless conversations in which people listened to and learned from each other as they modeled a mutually invested society as an alternative to the culture of Big Corporations…and Big Government. Had OWS found a way to make mutual aid its loudest message, it may have found even more followers from the start.

Both Occupy Sandy and Rolling Jubilee are also helpful symbols. They can drive public conversation. They demonstrate there are alternatives. Neither one is an answer in itself, but both offer a set of useful questions that the media has picked up on.

And finally, both projects show that Occupy is still with us. Its anniversary may have fallen from the front pages and the phrase "Occupy" may have been as scarce as "climate change" at the Presidential debates. But the organizers who spent nights in Zuccotti are taking their energy elsewhere. The connections that were developed are as strong as ever. And the experiences are teaching a set of skills that can be deployed in a range of activities other than taking over a park.

Inevitably, the Occupy Movement - which is more about transformation than small reforms - will become confrontational again; and likely, its current media glow will fade. If it can continue to champion mutual aid, it might find more allies wherever its activist energy flows next. Hopefully, its relief efforts - for victims of the hurricane and victims of debt - will inspire broader changers beyond what its bands of volunteers can manage. And without a doubt, we know this isn't the last time we've heard the word "Occupy" in the news.