Q&A: The rebirth of the Occupy movement

With little media coverage over the last year, the Occupy movement's immediate response to Hurricane Sandy came as a surprise to many. Is this the movement's defining moment?
Written by Sonya James, Contributor

Back in October of 2011, it was hard to predict that Occupy Wall Street would reappear, just over a year later, as a hurricane relief effort outshining the Red Cross and FEMA in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

Now Hurricane Sandy is out of the news cycle. Another event got journalists’ attention in the United States. You know, what do you call it… the presidential election?

But Michael Badger and Andrea Ciannavei of InterOccupy were not watching the elections last Tuesday. They were answering messages from organizations like FEMA interested in sharing their resources with Occupy Sandy Relief.

SmartPlanet spoke with InterOccupy to find out how a definitively leaderless movement appeared to be leading the charge.

One of your organizers, Joan Donovan, said Occupy Sandy Relief is "truly a 21st Century relief organization". This sentiment has been repeated by media outlets over the past week. What are the characteristics of Occupy Sandy Relief that separate it from larger organizations like FEMA and the Red Cross?

Andrea Ciannavei: FEMA and the Red Cross have to deal with a lot of bureaucracy. Occupy has a network of organizers who are already there and have access to local community groups. Someone can show up, get sensitivity training, and offer support an hour later.

Occupy Sandy also asks for in-kind donations first – supplies, generators, food, clothes – things that people can actually give and use right away.  While FEMA and the Red Cross have substantial resources, they may not be able to deploy them in less than 24 hours.

Michael Badger: Over the past year Occupy has developed a community of trust. We had to work to develop that. But now we all know each other so we united around Occupy Sandy very quickly. We don’t need to spend time managing each other because of this level of trust.

It seems like a lot of Sandy Relief is happening without residents, press, or the city knowing who is in charge. Should we be re-imagining what leadership looks like?

Michael Badger: I absolutely think so. A leader in the traditional sense is somebody who figures things out and tells people what to do. One of the things we talk about is shared leadership. This means supporting each other to be leaders and to lead along side each other. We need to afford communities to be able to really stand on their own.

Occupy Sandy Relief set up a wedding registry on Amazon.com. It’s the first time I’ve seen a relief effort use Amazon.com strategically. Is it working?

Andrea Ciannavei: It’s gone viral. I’ve also never seen anything like this before.

Organizers on the ground add items to the registry. And they can be clear about what’s needed – instead of people blindly throwing stuff at them.

I think it’s another example of the community being creative about how to mutually support itself.

Where are you currently helping? Give me a run down of where Occupy Sandy relief efforts are working.

Andrea Ciannavei: We have multiple sites in Far Rockaway, Coney Island, Staten Island, Howard Beach, Brighton, Bell Harbor, Queens, and Red Hook. We just heard from someone in Long Island that they’re starting to get a relief hub going.

We have tons of drop-off locations in Manhattan. We have people in the Lower East Side and China Town. Occupy Sandy New Jersey just launched yesterday.

Michael Badger: One of the things that’s interesting about New Jersey is they weren’t doing Occupy Wallstreet. There may have been some smaller occupations – but they don’t have the robust local network of Occupy.

So last night InterOccupy put out a call for anybody in New Jersey who wanted to help. It actually felt very similar to the very first InterOccupy call for the wider movement last October. We thought, “Okay, we have this infrastructure. Now we need to build a response network in areas that don’t have the built-in community like New York.”

What’s really amazing is we have folks from Philly who are coming out to help. Folks from DC. Folks coming to give gas covertly. And people are helping online from all over – Amsterdam, California, even Kalamazoo.

How has the media responded? Is there anything you feel has been left out of the discussion?

Andrea Ciannavei: The media doesn’t talk enough about the areas that are truly suffering. The press and the government have a blind spot when it comes to poor people. The attention always goes to the middle class and the upper middle class. There is so much focus on Manhattan and meanwhile Staten Island is under water. Coney Island is messed up. Far Rockaway is a disaster.

“Oh, the power is out in Manhattan, what are we going to do about the trains?” Well, that is seriously inconvenient but there are more pressing issues.

Michael Badger: I have two things that I want to add. Established disaster relief organizations are now coming to us to see what help they can offer. And that’s really interesting. We’ve gotten emails from World Cares and other disaster relief organizations.

This is not official yet – but I did have a conversation with a group working to connect grass roots organizing to more traditional established organizations. People from FEMA are talking to them about how to get FEMA resources to Occupy Sandy.

The other thing is, we’re looking at this as a long-term recovery effort. We hope to establish the centers we’re setting up for the long term.

I think people are going to remember who was first on the scene when they needed help. And hopefully the community we have within Occupy will expand to these communities.

We’re going to be sticking around to help rebuild what’s been lost. That’s who we are. That’s what we do. We’re already calling this a marathon. It happened to start as a sprint, but we’re in it for the long term.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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