Just after Thomas Frank declared Occupy dead, killed by its own fascination with process and language, I walked into St. Jacobi Church in Sunset Park Friday and saw so many familiar faces from Zuccotti, not sitting around debating how to talk about the revolution, but doing hard, necessary, practical work to feed and clothe and support swathes of the city reeling from the Superstorm. The obituaries of Occupy had never seemed so completely wrong; not on May Day or September 17th when the streets again rang with protest.
The church basement was filled with volunteers standing around tables, some preparing food, some sorting donations and putting together boxes, like the Kitchen and Comfort stations from the best days at the park. All would be fed. All would be clothed. Except instead of waiting for those in need to arrive, curious, at the park and make their way past the cardboard protest signs to the heart of the occupation, these volunteers now were loading cars filled with precious gasoline to drive to Coney Island, to the Rockaways, to anywhere that people weren’t being cared for.
“It’s amazing how organized we are, it’s amazing how much so many people involved with the social movement have learned about themselves, about each other, about all of how, how to put these values into practice,” Michael Premo, one of the Occupy organizers in Sunset Park, told me.
In Red Hook earlier I’d seen lines around the block for food, diapers, blankets, flashlights, water, as the Red Hook Initiative/Occupy Sandy effort had expanded to more buildings, separated its hot food distribution from the place to get supplies to take home. The public housing all around us was still powerless and cold, but there were so many volunteers that they didn’t know what to do with us all. Salgado showed back up the next day and saw two people whose doors she’d knocked on the night before, there to help.
For those of us who had power and Internet access, of course, the political emails kept coming, of course, because Sandy had the temerity to hit the East Coast right before a bloated hellstorm of an election. I tweeted about some of the ones that seemed in the poorest taste; who sends an email with the subject “close call” in the days after a hurricane if you’re not talking about the storm?
I got at least one apology when I pointed out that perhaps what Staten Island needs at the moment is not Democratic doorknockers, but volunteers to help clear the wreckage and feed and clothe people who have just lost everything, but what seemed entirely lost is the long tradition of service provision as political organizing.
Just ask the community groups who jumped into action for Sandy, the organizers who make their (meager) living providing services to people facing foreclosure, to immigrant workers fighting wage theft, to neighborhoods trying to keep out the corporate-backed charter schools. At 1pm I dropped off two bags of clothing at the New York Communities for Change offices in downtown Brooklyn, walking past gas cans filled last night in Connecticut by volunteers to make sure the cars kept going out to the Rockaways, to Long Island; at 11pm I said goodnight to an organizer going back to sleep in his office to start again tomorrow.
Because political organizing and mutual aid go hand in hand, or they should. Because the early labor movement wasn’t just about organizing on the job but organizing in your neighborhood. Because the folks still trying to build an anticapitalist movement in this country know that you can’t organize with shell-shocked people until their basic needs have been met.
Of course, Common Ground was infiltrated, because solidarity is suspect; you can bet that if these pesky Occupy activists keep feeding and supporting and organizi