Mutual Aid Dispatch


Mutual Aid Dispatch #3: Occupy Sandy

Now is a great time to revisit Occupy Sandy, an example of grassroots, horizontal organizing that stepped in when government organizations like FEMA and NYCHA were stumbling. The ad-hoc effort came about from people who were previously involved in Occupy Wall Street, and grew into a coordinated system that deployed hot meals and supplies with a force of over 60,000 volunteers.

Following Hurricane Sandy, there was a varied reaction across state entities. Public-facing officials made use of their extended screen time to feign efficacy and across-the-aisle cooperation, often overplaying the resiliency of their region. (Sound familiar?) FEMA, although also administering on-the-ground aid, largely focused on monetary loans (with varying success). The MTA reistated service quickly, while NYCHA left residents stranded in unsafe conditions. Meanwhile, other members of government were comfortable taking a back seat while Occupy Sandy provided aid in hardest-hit communities, sometimes providing the supplies for OS to distribute. Along the way, the Department of Homeland Security was keeping tabs on OS, culminating in an exhaustive report that can teach us a lot about how the state exists alongside disaster communities.

By Out of the Woods’ telling, “disaster communities are not intentional communities, drop-out communes, or activist temporary autonomous zones. They’re self-organised, non-market, non-statist social reproduction under adverse conditions.” Within these communities, we see examples of mutual aid - in the case of Occupy Sandy, that looked like community-based organizing around need-fulfillment, without the hierarchical trappings of orgs like the Red Cross. Their occurrence is natural - during crisis, there is an innate “reversion to improvised, collaborative, cooperative, and local society.” But they are also ephemeral, and slated to disappear once normalcy is restored.

Thus, while such autonomous entities springing up when the state is weak might appear threatening, these disaster communities come equipped with the latent promise that they’ll disappear. With that security in hand, the state can feel empowered in utilizing their services, and even, in the case of the DHS report, praising their strategy. But, as Easton Smith argues, there’s more to it than that. By working alongside Occupy Sandy, the state was granted access to a stabilized public; by supporting, rather than squashing its efforts, the state was allowed an intercessor that could quell public frustration in the interim between crisis and normalcy. Meanwhile, the state made OS meet them on their terms, including threats to withhold essential provisions if protests were staged. Members of OS worried that they could either be political or provide aid, although the two needn’t be mutually exclusive.

The solution is not necessarily to bar all interaction with the state. Smith makes the case for some interplay - especially when it comes to getting emergency supplies - but with a full understanding of the value of a disaster community, which can be leveraged. Occupy Sandy, by nature of being so ad-hoc, had no foundational understanding of its relationship to the state. And there’s another thing that the DHS report can teach us: that the state knows its enemy. Going forward, we ought to try to understand them at least just as well.

Lastly, we must consider the revolutionary potential of these disaster communities. Let’s accept that they not only can, but must be both aid-giving and political. But even so, Out of the Woods argues that no amount of disaster communities lead to revolution. Maybe so, but when they pull upon existing activist work and mutual aid structures, the effect is different. In the case of covid-19, this may look like anti-prison groups using health-related decareration to stoke justice reform; or the mainstream appropriation of rent striking to link tenants to unions for long-term organizing. The Mexico City earthquake of 1985 is a good example of disaster as a catalyst for reform. Lastly, disaster communities can easily be made into long-term networks, which can develop a more sophisticated relationship with the state, and work to serve more dimensions of our daily lives.

Published on May 7, 2020

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