Best of Enemies: Why Occupy Activists Are Working with New York City’s Government

Though many Occupy activists remain wary of Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD, the movement has revitalized itself with relief work and a new moniker: Occupy Sandy

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Brooklyn resident Theresa Goddard is overwhelmed while discussing her living conditions on Nov. 8, 2012

Two hundred people were lined up at a hurricane relief center in a park in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood on Sunday morning when three volunteers hoisted the banners of two enemy camps that had come together in an uneasy collaboration: the Occupy movement and the office of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

One of those helping hang the banners on white tents with duct tape was Red Hook resident Kirby Desmarais, 26, a band manager and volunteer with the local branch of Occupy Sandy, an effort launched the day after Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of the East Coast in late October. “I’m getting a little verklempt. This is a really big thing,” Desmarais said, looking at the two signs, using the Yiddish word for choked with emotion. One banner read, “Occupy Sandy Mutual Aid Not Charity.” The other, sent by the mayor’s office, read, “City of New York Distribution and Relief Center.”

Behind the tents, volunteers unloaded boxes of meals ready to eat from a six-wheel National Guard truck. Red Hook residents, many of whom still lacked electricity in their homes, filed in to fill shopping carts with canned goods, batteries, candles and bottled water. Police officers looked on. Two officials from the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit (CAU) soon appeared but declined to answer questions. Separate from the relief point, a hulking truck sent by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sat on the other side of the park, out of sight.

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Before the hurricane, direct collaboration between Occupy activists and city authorities would have been unthinkable. It was a year ago this week that Bloomberg ordered an early-morning police raid that uprooted the Occupy Wall Street encampment from Zuccotti Park in the financial district, ending a weeks-long standoff. The eviction ended the potent first phase of the movement, which had captivated the media, inspired an international Occupy protest and resulted in numerous confrontations with police.

The disbanding of protest camps across the country sent Occupy to the brink of irrelevance. In New York City, hardcore demonstrators soldiered on, including a few who gave up their jobs and apartments to become full-time Occupiers. Others launched dozens of localized initiatives focusing on foreclosed homes, summer camps and farms. Thousands attended Occupy protests on May Day, but without its vital core in a protest camp, the movement became something of an abstraction. What was Occupy without an occupation?

When Hurricane Sandy brought thrashing winds and a two-story surge of water to the city, Occupy activists mobilized to assemble a relief effort. According to volunteer Shlomo Adam Roth, 34, “We got on the ground in the Rockaways when one of the blocks was still burning.”

As every organizer involved will be quick to remind you, Occupy does not see itself as an organization. It’s a network, a swarm. In the wake of the storm, this decentralized, highly flexible structure proved to be a strength. While huge bureaucratic organizations like the Red Cross and overwhelmed government agencies like FEMA took days to reach some neighborhoods, Occupy made use of Facebook and Twitter to channel volunteers and supplies to existing local institutions like the activist group Good Old Lower East Side, churches, a mosque in Coney Island and ad hoc citizen relief groups that sprang up across the city.

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Being among the first to move made Occupy a vital part of the city’s hurricane relief infrastructure. As a result, this radical nonstate movement finds itself in the unlikely position of coordinating with government institutions it might otherwise be in conflict with. The group is now in contact with a wide range of agencies, and organizers said they participated in two recent conference calls that included FEMA. The agency’s news desk did not respond to requests for confirmation from TIME.

On the ground in the city’s disaster zones, the urgency of the situation has yielded some unlikely cooperation. This dynamic was apparent at an Occupy hub in a community center called You Are Not Alone in the Rockaways on Saturday. Amid the National Guard vehicles rumbling through the mud and the acrid smell of mold and ash, Tamara Crifasi, 30, a television producer, was frenetically coordinating deliveries and volunteer flows. On the phone, she gave directions to someone looking for the center: “It’s Beach 113, after the bombed-out buildings.”

Crifasi said members of the Red Cross had visited the day before. “I think they were trying to see how our operation was working,” she said. The National Guard has provided security when volunteers lock up the building at night and has even directed traffic for them, she added, saying, “They haven’t necessarily been coming and giving us a hard time, which is sometimes what people expect.”

Nowhere has cooperation been closer than in the unique case of Red Hook, where the joint Occupy-government relief point was set up on Nov. 11. That center was the result of an unusual 30-person meeting that reportedly included four members of the National Guard, a police officer and Andrew Olsen from the CAU and took place in Occupier Desmarais’ Red Hook loft on Saturday.

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Desmarais, a young mother who participated in the original Zuccotti occupation and helped organize Saturday’s meeting, stressed that this type of intimate collaboration with city authorities was localized to Red Hook (Occupiers are part of a local relief committee in the neighborhood) and acknowledged that the relationship was a tenuous one, given Occupy’s history of confrontation with police. But she argued that the local group needed to work with police to address specific needs like security. “We all have agreed that we’re cleaning the slate,” she said, referring to a conversation with a local police captain. “We’re building this relationship so that it’s healthy, so that the community’s needs are met right now.”

Other volunteers at Occupy’s Red Hook branch were more conflicted about working directly with the authorities, particularly the police. Paulie Anne Duke, 23, a veteran of the militant Occupy Oakland movement, who ran Saturday’s meeting, said, “It’s really hard for me to work in the housing projects and befriend people in the housing projects and open the conversation about working with someone who’s kind of their enemy, who’s not their ally, the NYPD.”

If Occupy Sandy is a network, then St. Jacobi Evangelical Lutheran Church in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood is its buzzing, chaotic nerve center, complete with crackling walkie-talkies and offices stuffed with organizers on laptops. At 8:40 a.m. on Saturday, Occupiers were puzzling over a problem: someone had applied a padlock to the gate leading to the church basement, where volunteers sort through mountains of supplies, and no one knew who had the key. Volunteer Roth devised a solution. After borrowing a power-cutter tool from a bodega across the street, he threw on a pair of sunglasses and warned everyone to stand back. “That’s probably church property,” someone mused as Roth began to saw on the lock, which soon fell off in a blaze of sparks. The supplies were liberated.

At St. Jacobi and at an even larger hub at the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in the Clinton Hill neighborhood, volunteers pulled up in cars, loaded the trunks with bottled water, canned goods and hot meals, received instructions and passengers, and then raced out to the field sites. Shortly after the incident with the power cutter, my ride to the Rockaways arrived, a cobalt blue 1976 Dodge Dart Swinger driven by bespectacled Yonkers native Garrett Shore, 30, who leads historical walking tours in Manhattan.

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Once you arrive in the field, the lines blur between Occupy Sandy as a phenomenon and the hundreds of local, sometimes nameless relief projects. For many volunteers, Occupy is primarily an entry point. Their answer to the question, “Are you with Occupy?,” is usually some variation of “sort of.” Outside the Beach 113th Street site in the Rockaways, Chris Devlin said he had volunteered leaving from the St. Jacobi location three days earlier, but that didn’t make him an Occupier: “I’m a full supporter of people power, but I can’t say I’m with Occupy because this is my first interaction.”

Ultimately, Occupy Sandy is an ethos, a grassroots, on-the-fly approach to disaster relief that, in certain areas of the city, has filled a void left by overwhelmed bureaucracies. It’s an approach adopted by numerous local groups and individuals throughout the city, and Occupy is in large part an attempt to link volunteers and donations to those efforts. “We were worried that the Red Cross and FEMA weren’t doing so well, though they’re definitely at a scale that we can’t match and shouldn’t try,” said Roth. “We’re sort of like the water that’s filling in the cracks.”

At the point of contact with residents of the disaster area, the Occupy brand sometimes vanishes completely. A team of medics who were dispatched on Saturday from the Occupy station on Beach 113th Street visited seniors trapped in darkened apartment buildings. When they knocked on 75-year-old Barbara LaKusta’s door, they said only, “We’re just a volunteer organization.” Because she was recently hospitalized with a hernia, LaKusta had stayed without electricity or heating in her 11th-floor apartment for the 13 days since the storm, missing a doctor’s appointment. No one from any government agency had come to check on her, she said, but her neighbors down the hall had been bringing her groceries. One of the medics lent her a cell phone. “Beverley, are you there? Barbara. Did you get water?” she asked her friend. The word occupy was never spoken.

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