It was Tuesday afternoon. The hurricane had swirled offshore, but the floods had yet to recede. Red Hook was seeping from the cellars of its rowhouses, dripping from the tips of every awning, blacked out all the way to the 20th floor of its NYCHA housing projects. FEMA was nowhere to been seen. The Red Cross was nowhere to be seen. The National Guard was nowhere to be seen. Those massive bureaucracies were processing the paperwork, reviewing protocols, checking boxes and getting everything in place.
The elderly were trapped at the top of dark elevatorless buildings. The sick were wondering how they would chill their insulin, check their pacemakers, refill their prescriptions. Fathers and mothers worried about letting their children walk down pitch black stairwells. There was no way to get food, really.
It began with a call from a single worker at the Red Hook Initiative, to a single Occupy Wall Street participant. Let's get off the internet and out of the office, they agreed; let's go out into the community, and see what's up. Michael Premo came down to meet his friend Sheryl Nash-Chisholm. Then he drove to the Rockaways. At the end of the day he reported back via networks established by Occupy Wall Street throughout this year; he started by informing the OWS outgrowth, Interoccupy, of the needs and possibilities he had seen in Red Hook and the Rockaways that day. Interoccupy had started working with recovers.org and 350.org to establish online platforms for matching volunteers and resources with the needs of people on the ground. But the first relief site in the city emerged of this Occupy Sandy-Red Hook Initiative collaboration.
Within a day, the Red Hook Initiative (RHI) was cooking. Professional chefs donated their time making fragrant soups and meat dishes. Not just consuming meals at lunch and dinner, community members pitched in. There were trays of fingerling potatoes with roasted beets and rosemary, bowls of wild rice with arugula, cranberries and sliced almonds. There were delectable gooey brownies and hot gingerbread rounds. Kids politely asked for juice boxes, licorice sticks and bonbons. Then people off the street started carrying in tin after tin of steaming food from local eateries. By Thursday, RHI had been so flooded with food donations, that the kitchen was becoming obsolete.
But the heat was still off. The buildings still dark. Red Hook after 5:00 was so eerily desolate and devoid of light as to drive a person mad. And those folks who were homebound could die up there with not a soul to know.... So teams of volunteers dipped into the piping tins of fresh food piled up on the tables, crafting solidly balanced and nutritious meals to send throughout the neighborhood. Teams of 40 volunteers every few hours were sent trudging up and dozens of flights, knocking on doors and handing warm plates through dark doorways, many of them to isolated people who hadn't seen anyone in days.
By Friday, Red Hook was in such a state of abundance in terms of food, that Occupy started to coordinate distribution to various other underserved sites it had gotten off the ground in the Rockaways, Coney Island and Staten Island. There was so much food, most of the Red Hook kitchen staff became a distribution force, packing up cars that arrived every half hour, and dispatching them to the most remote disaster sites. Soon the kitchens and supply distribution centers that had been established by Occupy Sandy all over the city, were also in a relative state of abundance; thoughtfully prepared meals were being served from Chinatown to the Rockaways, Red Hook to the Lower East Side.
This wasn't about getting out the max number of cookie-cutter meal packages or assembly-line distribution; less important than being austerely efficient was being abundantly personal and generous and thoughtful. And we reached a lot of people in our very personal way – probably a lot more than the Red Cross or FEMA, and most definitely more than the National Guard, with its tasteless and confusing-to-prepare MREs.
At this, the first relief site in the city, people on the ground refused to wallow in an atmosphere of scarcity and desperation. At moments, even in the midst of this incredible destitution – under the high ceilings of the Red Hook Initiative, filled with the scents of the kitchen, with blankets and coats, and with Red Hook and Occupy Sandy spirit – there is this sense that a great big feast is happening.
What's revolutionary about the way that Occupy Sandy is working at this moment, is that it's not about service provision and receipt. It's about taking care of each other. It's about equitable distribution of resources.
From a simple connection between two friends and allies, emerged an explosion of self-organization, distributed leadership, People Power. Dozens chose to leap into action rather than waiting days upon days for government institutions to kick in. These dozens became hundreds, if not thousands of people, who, rather than idly complaining about the failures of the government or charitable institutions, chose to engage in "Mutual Aid." Mutual Aid, not charity. That boasting meme you may have come across (#WeGotThis) doesn't mean that Occupy Sandy has "got this," as if we can do it alone. #WeGotThis means, the 99% has got this. It means, all hands on deck, 99%! Because acting in our own interest is the same thing as helping each other. If climate change is upon us, it's in our interest to change the world, now.
This piece originally appeared on Food Systems NYC.