Blog #24 – Helping Sandy Victims: FEMA, Charity, Politics – Occupy Sandy and Human Relations


Blog #24 – 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.

———

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.
————————————-

[Photo of Occupy Sandy volunteers bringing lunch to FEMA workers.]

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.

—————————————-

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.

—————————-

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.

———————————.

[Photo of Occupy Sandy briefing NYPD, National Guard and Bloomberg official.]

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 inter-human 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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Blog #23 – Occupy Sandy: Social Change through Prefiguring Action


Blog #23 – Occupy Sandy: Social Change through Prefiguring Action

The Occupy movement has been involved in organizing aid for families hard hit by storm Sandy, and many volunteers , both from Occupy groups and not but organized through them, have been in the hardest hit areas, in some of those hardest to reach and to help. How did that come about?

This isn’t the Wall Street that Occupy Wall Street is occupying; it’s a section of Brooklyn that runs from single-family moderate income housing to public housing. And they’re not there proselytizing for Occupy; they’re working with volunteers from other groups, church groups, neighborhood associations, and with FEMA and other government agencies, including the police, as well.

Occupy Sandy’s “anthem” is spritely without politics or moralizing.1 A New York Times reporter’s account2 says the only link to other Occupy movements is that the organizers came from earlier ones, including Occupy Wall Street. 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.”3

One headline from a OccupyMutualAidFacebook post,4 helps explain:

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

What evidence? It’s that people will show solidarity, will volunteer to help their neighbors or others simply in need, working without compensation (no market relations here), without state compulsion (no hierarchy of power here, externally or internally), no ideological no ideological.

One of the Occupiers says:

“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 Watson5

Sometimes, indeed, a sign betrays the link to other Occupy activities, but very muted:

A perceptive comment from an Occupy volunteer clarifies, as reported by the Associated Press:6

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.”

That’s the logic behind downplaying the link of Occupy Sandy with Occupy Wall Street. It’s also the explanation for a sometimes problematic but core feature of the internal “organization” of the Occupy movements in general: they don’t want to be organizations, but voluntary assemblies of people. The might have facilitators or spokespersons, but not leaders or officers. They operat by consensus rather than majority vote, usually open to anyone to participate, not “members.” General Assemblies in Occupy are not designed for efficiency, but as an expression of how democratic decisions might be made, of what horizontal democracy involves. The overlaps with, but is different from, historical model utopian communities, and indeed from many of the model communes and co-op enterprises of the 1960’s.

There’s a difference between creating a model and prefiguring a particular alternative to existing ways of doing things, exemplifying different forms of human behavior and different relationships between people, and between people and institutions. . The difference can be troublesome if not kept in mind. The utopian communities and the communes were largely seen by their members as isolated from the society in which they existed. There goals were self-government, self-determination, escape from outside determinants of behavior. Perhaps they saw themselves as models, but their efforts were aimed at perfecting their model, not spreading its example round broadly. They reacted to the ills that they saw in the world around them not by dealing directly with them, but by trying to insulate themselves from them. The focus of Occupying on a particular space was shared some of that view of things: Occupiers wanted, in a small way, to create a world of their own. If there also was a hope that their world would be a model for the larger world outside, it was muted, and certainly not widely realized. Thus there were many obituaries for the Occupy movement in the mainstream media when the space in which their model of self-direction was taken from them and the experience apparently ended in a bubble burst, obituaries that incorrectly saw the creation of insulated spaces as the essence of Occupy.

But this utopian “bubble” trend, or the aspiration for an ideal horizontal democracy in the Occupy movement, is not what drives Occupy Sandy. Occupy Sandy is not suggesting that all disasters should be met by voluntary loosely-organized efforts that occur spontaneously and without planning. Rather, it realizes the essential interrelationship between what its adherents are doing and the world outside, even in developing positive relationships not only with FEMA but also with the police and National Guards, most of the time institutions seen as unwelcome intrusions in the model of what Occupy would like to see in the future. Occupy Sandy is simply prefiguring, in its own behavior, how certain social relationships might exist independently of the assumed rigid requirements of the outside world, independently of the market and the state — actually, not independent of the state, but in reliance on it to assemble resources Occupy Sandy itself could not and should not assemble. It is not suggesting that its response to Sandy should be a model of disaster response, as opposed to the response of FEMA and police authorities; it is simply saying such responses should be coupled with an activation of fundamental human instincts of solidarity that are outside of state or market.

Occupy Sandy, then, is linked to the Occupy Wall Street—generated movements not by setting up a model in opposition to the outside world, making itself independent of the outside, but showing how, within that outside world, one can see in action relationships, ways of doing things, that prefigure how they might also be in a changed and better society. And they do it by example, not by signs or confrontations. It is oppositional to the prevailing order too, but in a subtler way than most Occupy actions. It does not replace them for both are necessary, but it is different, and the differences are important. And in what it does it changes people too, both the occupiers and those they come in contact with – a vital part of all Occupy activities.

Two other points about occupy Sandy, on practical, one theoretical. The practical one is that Occupy Sandy has a huge advantage over Occupy Wall Street: it has the support of a large majority of the population, perhaps even of all, certainly a much larger part of the 99% than Occupy Wall Street. There will be trouble in the future, as the differentiation between the effects of storm Sandy on the rich and the poor, the residents of well-built protected homes whose owners carry flood insurance and the lower-income folk who don’t have it, the difference between the residents of public housing and the owners of vacation homes, etc.7 And controversies will arise when, as for instance in the case of Katrina, evaluations show how some people, some activities, some sections of town (here perhaps lower Manhattan), are favored in governmental actions dealing with the damages from the storm.8 Then the militancy of Occupy Wall Street may indeed be needed.

The theoretical point is speculative. Herbert Marcuse, in An Essay on Liberation, begins by asking whether there is not a biological foundation for the need for liberation:

“We would …have, this side of all “values,” an instinctual foundation for solidarity among human beings – a solidarity which has been effectively repressed in line with the requirements of class society but which now appears as a precondition for liberation.”9

He speaks of a “vital need for the abolition of injustice and misery” as a very real and personal emotional need in individuals, often emphasizing particularly its role for the young, a need that impels them towards action designed to eliminate those undesirable conditions, a need to “so something,” actively, with body as well as mind. The frustration that young people experience in finding ways of acting towards fulfilling that need may result in what he calls The Great Refusal, an opting out from prevailing requirements constraining behavior. This line of thinking was often adopted by the participants in the communes of the 60’s and 70’s, and perhaps underlay some of the much earlier utopian communities of history. But Refusal, in his sense, is inherently frustrating. If the withdrawal that led to the communes and to some extent to the Occupy encampments also, is aborted, the need for other forms of action becomes pressing. Working with Occupy Sandy, perhaps, is an expression of that need and a clearly positive way to try to satisfy it.

It may well be that, in the very near future, the unambiguous positive elements of Occupy Sandy will be less needed and the more controversial and conflictual issues that Occupy Wall Street focused on at its beginnings will again come to the fore. In the meantime, however, Occupy Sandy can be wholeheartedly welcomed as not only enormously helpful to many individuals battered by a disaster today, but also as prefiguring actions and relationships that exist today and could be continued and become dominant in a better world tomorrow.

To put it in other terms, Occupy Sandy incorporates, in visible, physical, form the isiZulu saying “umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu”, which means that a person is a person because of other people. A profound truth, moved from philosophy to prefigurative practice in Occupy Sandy.

++++ Warning! ++++ To avoid possible distortions of the Occupy Sandy effort:

1. It should NOT be concluded that volunteer efforts are better than, and a desirable replacement for, public action to deal with disaster. Occupy Sandy’s efforts made full use of governmental assistance, and only government has the resources that are needed to deal with the range of problems those affected encountered. Occupy Sandy shows that more, not less, governmental action is required.
2. It should NOT be concluded that the assistance Occupy Sandy is helping to bring to affected areas is the end of the concern of Occupy with the problems encountered there. In particular, a very watchful eye needs to be kept on how government aid is distributed, and to whom. Experience suggests11 that large business and the wealthy will receive disproportionately large shares of what is available.
3. The same is true of actions needed to prevent a recurrence of the damage created by Sandy. Who will the billions being sought for remedial and preventive action most help, and who will be neglected? What would a socially just response and replanning look like? Who would be involved in its planning and decision-making?

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1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-5zi50cnxA. My thanks to Dan Steinberg for these and subsequent references.
2 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/11/nyregion/where-fema-fell-short-occupy-sandy-was-there.html?pagewanted=2&ref=occupywallstreet&_r=0
3 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
4 https://www.facebook.com/OccupyMutualAid/posts/242640052531802
5 From Occupy Wall Street Facebook page.
6 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
7 See pmarcuse@wordpress.com, Blog #21 – Sandy, Katrina, and the World Trade Center: Are There Social Justice Issues? And Marcuse, Peter. 2011. “Ignoring Justice In Disaster Planning: An Agenda For Research On 9/11, Katrina, And Social Policy,” in Merlin Chowkwanyun and Randa Serhan, eds., American Democracy and the Pursuit of Equality: Essays in Honor of Herbert J. Gans (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2011), pp. 132-161. Slightly different version available in in Urban Reinventors, November, 2009. http://www.urbanreinventors.net/paper.php?issue=3&author=marcuse
8 See pmarcuse@wordpress.com, Blog #22 – Vacant Housing and Sandy
9 An Essay on Liberation, Boston: Beacon Press, 1969, p. 10.
10 Pp. 23-24.
11 See pmarcuse@wordpress.com, Blog #21 – Sandy, Katrina, and the World Trade Center: Are There Social Justice Issues?

Blog # 22 Vacant Housing and Sandy


Vacant Housing and Sandy: a Proposal

It is an abomination to have people desperately in need of housing, both emergency after Sandy and long-term, at the same time that there is a stock of vacant, good quality, accessible housing being held off the market because its owner believes that the market will improve and he/she/it will make more money by waiting to make it available.

The City’s official Housing and Vacancy Survey , undertaken by the Bureau of the Census, lists 68,031, rental units vacant and available, and 31,000vacant units available for sale. Picture the Homeless’s count of vacant buildings in 1/3 of the city calculated that 3,551 vacant buildings in could house 71,707 people.2

At the same time, somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 families are in need of shelter because of Sandy, according to the Mayor.3 Public housing residents were particularly hard hit.4

Proposal: A city ordinance that would require any person or firm controlling the occupancy of a housing unit that has been held vacant for more than 6 months to file a report with the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development providing the address of the unit, its condition, the length of the vacancy, and the reason for the vacancy. If the Mayor declares a Housing Emergency based on a finding of substantial displacement caused by conditions affecting the housing stock, HPD would be directed to examine all vacancy filings and would be authorized to take control of, commandeer, any unit it finds for the purpose of providing emergency shelter to a household in need thereof because of the emergency, and facilitate its use for the purpose of providing emergency shelter.5

Since the use of such a unit does not cause any loss of income to its owner, being vacant when put to such emergency use, the owner would only be compensated for it use after the end of the emergency and after the displacee has found other adequate accommodations, and any additional costs to the landlord would be shared between the city and the displace, based on ability to pay.

Such an ordinance might also have the desirable side effect of discouraging the warehousing of vacant units awaiting a more profit-producing market, when there is general housing need and restricted housing availability.

The ordinance might also be framed to make mortgage foreclosed properties, if REO and held vacant by the mortgage-holder, subject to commandeering for emergency housing. This might again have the side effect of making mortgagees less prone to foreclose.

1. “In 2011, the number of vacant available rental units was 68,000, while the number of
vacant units available for sale was 31,000. At the same time, the number of vacant
units not available for sale or rent was 164,000 in 2011, the highest since 1965, when
the first HVS was conducted (Table 1).” Selected Initial Findings of the 2011 New York City
Housing and Vacancy Survey, Prepared by Dr. Moon Wha Lee
Assistant Commissioner for Housing Policy Analysis and Statistical Research
New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development
February 9, 2012, available at http://www.nyc.gov/html/hpd/downloads/pdf/HPD-2011-HVS-Selected-Findings-Tables.pdf
2. Banking on Vacancy: Homelessness and Real Estate Speculation. A Report by Picture the Homeless, p. 19. See also: Community Voices Heard, A Count of Vacant Condos in Select New York City Neighborhood, Right to the City Alliance, 2010.
3. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-20199672
4. http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/brooklyn/nycha-tenants-struggle-survive-heat-water-post-sandy-article-1.1196965 Community
6. HPD would further be authorized to investigate the circumstances of any vacancy called to its attention as potentially available for purposes of the law, including information from groups such as Picture the Homeless, Community Voices Heard, public housing or other tenant organizations, and if it find that they should have been listed and are shown to be appropriate for purposes of the law, to also take control of them for those purposes.