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Helping Sandy Victims: FEMA, Charity, Politics – Occupy Sandy and Human Relations


At Zuccotti Park, there was always a bit of social service involved in the occupation: — homeless people sheltered, the hungry fed – but it was ancillary to Occupy’s main objectives, which dealt with societal, structural problems. But the reaction to hurricane Sandy, and the formation of Occupy Sandy, brought out a different aspect of the Occupy movement, not directed at Wall Street or big systemic issues, but directly providing help to those in need. What kind of role is that for Occupy? If it is both a simple human response to a social need, prefigurative of relations as they might be in a better society, what does it say about those relations between occupier and hurricane victim? Is it one of charitable donor and donee, have to have-not, possibly assuaging the donor’s guilt at being better off than the donee? Or is it a relationship providing a voluntary replacement for governmental responds substituting for a governmental failure, implicitly creating a joint criticism of government? Or is it to harness a potential supporter to the giver’s agenda and giver.

Several snapshots highlight the differences.
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“An aide to GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney tells CBS News that Romney personally donated to the American Red Cross on Monday to assist disaster relief efforts in the wake of Sandy.
Romney, who replaced campaign events on Monday and Tuesday with “storm relief events” and has urged his supporters to donate to the American Red Cross as well, mailed a check on Monday. A Romney spokesman declined to specify the amount donated.”1

Comment: A proposal for contributions with an overt ulterior partisan political motive. At best a passive relationship between donor and done.

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“After more than a week of self-sufficiency, George Ossy, an immigrant from Africa living amid the chaos of the Rockaways, with his 10-year-old daughter in tow, walked into the relief center down the street, one of several set up by the volunteers who had descended on the storm-battered peninsula in Queens. Moments later, a white woman leaned down to address his daughter. “Have you eaten in two days?” she asked.

Mr. Ossy surged with outrage. Power was out, yes, and nights were cold for sure, but Mr. Ossy, a taxi driver proud of the long days he works to earn money for his family, was insulted by the suggestion that his daughter was not well cared for.”

“I said: ‘What do you think? You think we live in the bush?’” He felt condescended to by the volunteers — many of whom hail from upscale neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn. He turned and left.2

Comment: This type of relationship between donor and recipient is well known in studies of charitable giving, in which the elevated position of the donor over the donee is emphasized for both.

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On the other hand, the New York Times also ran an editorial with the heading:
Day Laborers, Helping Hands
Published: November 19, 2012

“Warmth and gratitude greeted volunteers who did their part to help clean up in Coney Island….”
Comment: The volunteers referred were themselves largely day laborers on Long Island. The relationship thus is from the outset one among equals, and seen by both sides as such.

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Occupy Sandy’s “anthem” is spritely without politics or moralizing.3 A New York Times reporter’s account4 says the only link to other Occupy movements is that the organizers came from earlier ones, Time runs an account about a visit of a volunteer from Occupy Sandy to a house-confined elderly woman that ends with the words: “The word occupy was never spoken.”5

Comment: Parts of an attempt to create an immediate one-to-one relationship of friendship and support, with political implications at most to others.

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A headline from an OccupyMutualAidFacebook post,7 helps explain:

” More Evidence that A Better World is Possible: FEMA & #OWS Occupy Sandy breaking bread in Staten Island.”

Comment: The Donor integrated with government support, in a relationship very unusual for Occupy campaigns.

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One of the Occupiers quoting a person receiving assistance from a volunteer reports that person saying:

‘Remember, Occupy Sandy is NOT charity work. We are here because we know another world is necessary, and the way to make it is through practice in our own communities. This is the Mutual in Mutual Aid. “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Lilla Watson 8

Comment: Presumably exactly what Occupy Wall Street would see as the motivation behind Occupy Sandy, although the two purposes are not necessarily inconsistent with each other, although “to help me” accentuates the difference in the position of giver and recipient.

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A perceptive comment from an Occupy volunteer is quoted, as reported by the Associated Press:9

Is this Occupy Wall Street’s finest hour? In the church basement, Carrie Morris paused from folding blankets into garbage bags and smiled at the idea. “We always had mutual aid going on,” she said. “It’s a big part of what we do. That’s the idea, to help each other. And we want to serve as a model for the larger society that, you know, everybody should be doing this.”

Comment: She stresses the direct mutuality of the process, the essential equality between giver and recipient as human beings. But whether all aid provided should be provided by volunteers, just what part of the response to Sandy is a model for a better society, is a complex question. Organized social support, including by government, which alone has adequate resources for the purpose, needs to be part of any model for the handling of the consequences of disasters. See Blog#23 on the difference between Occupy Sandy as model and as prefiguration of part of what might be, in human terms.

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Comment: And Occupy Sandy also creates a relationship among Occupy volunteers and other contributors, from neighborhood groups to churches to government agencies, including the police, more often treated as enemies rather than partners, which may also prefigure a political strategy Occupy Wall Street might from time to time follow, changing participants understanding of the relationships between individuals and institutions in the process.

Occupy Sandy not only does substantial immediate good for many, it also affects a variety of interhuman relationships, and provides many lessons for the future going well beyond how to respond to disasters.

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1. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-34222_162-57543035/romney-donates-to-american-red-cross/
2. Helping Hands Also Expose a New York Divide, By Sarah Maslin Nir November 17, 2012, Saturday –
New York Times. – N.Y. / Region – News

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/17/nyregion/after-hurricane-sandy-helping-hands-also-expose-a-new-york-divide.html?scp=73&sq=&st=nyt&_r=0

3. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-5zi50cnxA. My thanks to Dan Steinberg for these and subsequent references.
4. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/11/nyregion/where-fema-fell-short-occupy-sandy-was-there.html?pagewanted=2&ref=occupywallstreet&_r=0
5. Best of Enemies: Why Occupy Activists Are Working with New York City’s Government
By Jared Malsin / New York CityNov. 13, 2012.
Available at http://nation.time.com/2012/11/13/best-of-enemies-why-occupy-activists-are-working-with-new-york-citys-government/#ixzz2C9US7rXC
6. http://occupy316.org/2012/11/13/the-truth-about-occupy-sandy/
7. https://www.facebook.com/OccupyMutualAid/posts/242640052531802
8. From Occupy Wall Street Facebook page.
9. Occupy Sandy: Onetime protesters find new cause” By Meghan Barr | Associated Press – Sat, Nov 10, 201, available at: http://news.yahoo.com/occupy-sandy-onetime-protesters-cause-074517400.html
  

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