Money and Occupy Sandy — a response from the Rockaways

    Hard-hit by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the Rockaways are home to a high concentration of public housing and low-income apartments in need of repair. Instead, they are being threatened with demolition to make way for high-rise condos, only one of the many political battles unfolding in this community. (Flickr/Angela Rutherford)

    As a member of the Rockaway community, I felt compelled to clarify a few things about a recent Mother Jones article criticizing Occupy Sandy’s allocation and dispersement of donated money.

    First, let me say that although there are real concerns in the community about Occupy Sandy — as there are with other mostly-white, outsider groups — this reporter has seemingly gone out of his way to not include the voices of many residents who spoke glowingly about the network. Many people in Wildfire, a community organizing effort launched by Occupy Sandy that I am a part of, have told me that they saw and heard people tell the reporter all the wonderful things Occupy Sandy has done and continues to do. But the article, which doesn’t really reveal any malfeasance or scandal, doesn’t include these voices.

    People will say that a historically left-leaning magazine like Mother Jones wouldn’t be inclined to smear Occupy like, lets say, the NY Post or Fox News might. My guess is that the reporter thought this story, which implies that the community has had it with Occupy Sandy, might be juicier than the reality. The truth is that Occupy Sandy is trying to build something long term and, as to be expected, it’s hit snags.

    While it is important to respond to this type of article, if only to clarify things in our own heads, this is also an opportunity to reflect on where we are and how we got here — especially regarding the question of money and what Occupy’s role and identity in Sandy-affected areas can be from here on out.

    To be honest, I have some criticisms about transparency in Occupy Sandy. But I think it’s important to first understand how complex a community effort in the Rockaways can be — not even taking into account how exponentially harder (not easier, as some might have thought) it is after Sandy. There is undoubtedly a political class that doesn’t want a wildcard like Occupy having any influence on the peninsula, and some local political forces have an interest in co-opting or obstructing Occupy Sandy’s effort. Even though Occupy Sandy’s non-hierarchical methods have largely prevented cooptation, those same methods have also made it hard to organize and inform people clearly about what the network wants to do.

    In trying to create a new, dynamic political force in the community, organizers face the reality that communities won’t be uncritically patient forever. I myself have an ideological affinity towards Occupy Sandy, and I still find myself bouncing back and forth between unbridled optimism and face-palm frustration. Still, the group represents for many residents — especially those not already tied to traditional political organizations — a chance to participate in grassroots political activism, perhaps for the first time.

    No group is above scrutiny, and an article like the one in Mother Jones could never be written if community members didn’t have at least some legitimate concerns and skepticism about Occupy Sandy — concerns that money will assuredly intensify in an impoverished community. From my perspective, some of the financial issues that Occupy Sandy faces today aren’t too different from issues I saw at Zuccotti. But there are important differences between a park full of mostly white people who migrated there in political solidarity, and a community of color used to getting the short end of the economic and political stick.

    That said, it seems like those who are least involved in Occupy Sandy are the ones voicing the loudest criticism. Those same voices don’t reach the same fevered pitch against the Red Cross, which is sitting on far more aid than Occupy, or the Robin Hood Foundation, whose Wall Street-friendly board of directors is playing kingmaker in coastal communities on a much larger scale. These organizations should logically be held to as strict — or stricter — standards than a group of loosely organized, unpaid activists. Shedding some light on these organizations, which distributed funding to predictable sources, might stir the pot of the normal disaster-aid industry.

    Reminiscent of what happened in Haiti, private non-profit and governmental aid seems to be changing little for residents on the ground in Far Rockaway. Robin Hood steered its money to outside white groups not named Occupy, with no oversight. Government funding has been inefficient and rife with corruption.

    So perhaps the slow, flawed, and sometimes clumsy steps Occupy Sandy is taking may still be a benefit to the community in the long run. The Mother Jones article doesn’t even entertain that possibility. None of this is to say, however, that all Occupy Sandy should be doing is dispersing monetary donations. Here, money can drive a wedge in between the community and outside groups, even those with the best intentions and politics. And if all Occupy Sandy does is cut checks, it runs the risk of being seen in the same light as some of the forces it — and we — are protesting.

    I can only speak as a resident when I make the case that Occupy go back on the offensive and partner with the community to not only try to build back our neighborhoods but — more importantly — call out the policies that created the economic and political crisis we know was here before the storm.

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