Prior to October 29th, 2012 the Rockaways could hardly have been described as a hotbed of radical politics or a place where idealistic activists might converge. But soon after the waves of the Atlantic receded from Shore Front Parkway, cell phones and laptops of activists around the city began to light up. Some, who a year before had taken to the streets of Manhattan’s financial district as a response to their frustrations with this economic system, were now jumping onto bikes and into cars headed to neighborhoods affected by Hurricane Sandy—including the Rockaway peninsula.
Occupy Wall Street (OWS) was (if it’s fair to speak of it in past tense) somewhat of a Rorschach test for observers. While one’s politics might inform your opinion of OWS, it would probably best be described as a loose network of activists. Of those who arrived in Rockaway, their numbers were smaller and were therefore much tighter, more organized and clearer in their objective: disaster relief. And as immense as the disaster Sandy wrought on the normally isolated Rockaway community, so too were the needs—so activists and volunteers of any political stripe were welcomed amid the woeful official response.
As everyday people filled the void that governmental and semi-governmental agencies like FEMA and the Red Cross left agape, it didn’t matter if these outside volunteers were conservative southern churches, bleeding heart liberal activists or some brand of hipster; people were coming to help people. In fact, most labels flew out of the window in the aftermath of Sandy. Nobody had time to wonder if some left-wing conspiracy was afoot when Greenpeace solar panels popped up on Beach 113th Street a few days into the recovery. Those panels were charging phones and lanterns.
A network of people who were operating, via the tools of tech-savvy modern day activists, a central hub of operations in Brooklyn was simultaneously managing volunteers and projects for the Rockaways, Red Hook, Sheepshead Bay, Coney Island, New Jersey and Staten Island. Some in this network, now calling itself Occupy Sandy, weren’t Wall street protesters or activists. In fact, some weren’t very political at all and had gravitated more to the practical notion of embedding themselves in communities to do relief work. So the idea that these were simply some bohemian activists or radical socialists wasn’t entirely true. Occupy Sandy was simply one of the, if not the most, connected and organized efforts not to come from the government or nonprofit sector—it was the it place for young New Yorkers to volunteer.
In Rockaway, Occupy Sandy volunteers came across a business owner named Sal Lopizzo, whose worker training center had opened its doors just weeks before the storm. The center, You Are Never Alone (YANA), had been destroyed by the flood but spared the fire that destroyed many buildings on a stretch of Rockaway Beach Boulevard. Within a few hours of meeting, with the destruction surrounding them as the backdrop, Sal and Occupy Sandy volunteers agreed to turn his space into a base of operations for their Rockaway relief efforts. From that point on, food distribution, medical canvassing and a wide variety of projects began to sprout out of YANA. Volunteers and supplies were packing the space but it was far and away from a militarized response. It was a people’s response, with all of the great work and imperfections that people are capable of.
Occupy Sandy volunteers, and it’s important to define them in their role then as volunteers and organizers rather than political activists, were working with groups as global as Doctors Without Borders and as local as the Rockaway Youth Task Force(RYTF). And the dynamics of those relationships were interesting. On some days you had the RYTF directing Occupy organizers with canvassing and distribution efforts, while Occupy was, in turn, giving internationally recognized non-profits their marching orders.
For some residents, Occupy Sandy flew under the radar. While some may have driven or walked past the big Occupy Sandy banner, many were too busy to stop and inquire, and either receive or provide assistance at YANA. But amongst the many outside volunteers that were being directed to YANA via social media or word of mouth, there were also locals who partnered with the socalled Occupy Sandy team.
Albert Carcaterra, an 18-year old student whose flood-damaged home he shares with his father near YANA spent much of his time helping with the volunteer effort. Occupy Sandy, he said, gave him the chance to feel useful after the storm. Coleen Vielandi, a retired NYPD employee, credited Respond and Rebuild, an outgrowth of Occupy, with “helping to take my head out of my hands,” when they pumped out her basement after it was clear the city wasn’t helping.
And new relationships that extended east-ward led to new efforts in Far Rockaway, where an official response was even more scarce. As residents and churches began to work with and open their doors to Occupy Sandy volunteers, a long term base was eventually set up on Cornaga Avenue. Their work on the eastern end of the peninsula brought some to the conclusion that an economic disaster had predated the natural one that brought them there. This marked a shift in some ways for Occupy in that some now felt that residents didn’t simply need blankets and hot food.
All this is not to say, however, that the recovery effort was completely uncharted territory for everyone. Some of the activist-turned-volunteers had worked with or had been inspired by the work of an organization called Common Ground, which was a people-powered disaster recovery effort in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. One former member of the group, Suncere Shakur, was now managing distribution in Far Rockaway working alongside residents like Luis Casco, who had never done relief work but knew the community and, vitally, spoke Spanish.
These kinds of unique relationships and chance encounters are perhaps the best way of understanding Occupy Sandy. Instead of city, state or federal officials, you had unpaid activists and residents working side by side. And while not everything went to plan, there were outgrowths of the group that became incredibly important to residents. The aforementioned Respond and Rebuild became one of the most important and effective efforts aimed at helping residents with gutting, mucking and mold remediation (areas where the City effectively dropped the ball). There was also the Wildfire Project, which created a forum through which residents could develop political objectives to analyze root causes and long term strategies that could challenge the immediate plans of a Mayor notorious for his disdain of Rockaway. Kalin Callaghan, a third generation resident from a family of Rockaway activists, called it a “community-led campaign.”
The sum of all these stories, far too many to go into detail here, encompassed what became a hotly-debated topic amongst activists: the evolution of Occupy into a network of mutual aid. While the role of activists and, by extension, outsiders on the peninsula necessarily changes as the neighborhood recovers, the relationship between Occupy and the Rockaways soon after the hurricane paints a complex and compelling story of relationships that can arise from disaster. The future of those relationships is yet to be determined but the foundation is there for all to see.
Josmar Trujillo is a Rockaway resident, independent journalist, and former PTO co-president of Peninsula Prep.