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by Editor on November 13th, 2012

Since Hurricane Sandy hit New York, I have been out to the Rockaways three times, and to Staten Island once. I have delivered supplies of food, water, diapers, cleaning materials, and other necessities. I have helped unload other cars and vans delivering similar items and load them into a distribution center that was being set up at Saint Camillus Church. I made a delivery of materials to Midland Park on Staten Island. I spent an entire day on assignment by Team Rubicon, emptying and stripping someone’s flooded, moldy basement, carting out mountains of hardware and electrical tools and what must have been a beloved model train installation. I carried water and other necessities up 17 flights of stairs in a high-rise building full of elderly people who had no power, and thus no elevators–and thus limited access to nearly everything they needed to keep themselves alive.

I have written “I” here, but I was hardly alone. I did all of this with friends new and old, with unaffiliated Upper West Side neighbors who responded to a call for help, with people from the Manhattan JCC, and with a group from my synagogue. I did it with the help of friends who used Facebook to post about places in need, people who posted to Twitter about people with needs, and the encouragement of many friends both within and outside the region.

And nearly everywhere I went in the Rockaways and Staten Island, I saw volunteers connected to Occupy Sandy.

So I write, now, to offer an apology to the folks at Occupy. Here you have it: I’m sorry.

In May of this year–before the hurricane, before the election–I stated that I was distinctly unimpressed with the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. Among other things, I wrote:

Unfortunately, beyond gifting us the convenient marketing idea of the 99% versus the 1%, OWS has not accomplished much—and marketing slogans are useful, but they’re not enough to create or carry a movement over time. Beyond that one framing device, OWS hasn’t taken us anywhere new: complaining about capitalism is hardly a novelty, nor is focusing on the most nefarious or cronyistic aspects of it, especially after the spectacular crash we have gone through in the last three years.

Instead, I said, if…

“…the Occupy-ers really want to have an impact, a transformational effect on our society, then they should take steps to influence our society directly. Instead of expending oxygen saying there’s no explicit political agenda, or arguing over why it’s important that they remain leaderless … move away from political protest and get engaged in real social change. Perhaps the most valuable thing these people could give is their time—time spent doing something rather than, er, nothing.”

That is exactly what has happened, and I suppose one could say I called this outcome rather presciently. But I could never have predicted Hurricane Sandy, and what was missing from my complaint and my suggestion was the creation of the network in the first place. If OWS had not happened–whether you consider it a success or not, or whether you consider “success” beside the point–the network that enables Occupy Sandy to help so many people is clearly a direct outgrowth of the methods tested and the network built during the height of Occupy Wall Street.

Some issues still exist; the insistently leaderless nature of the Occupy movement has its drawbacks. On my first run with supplies, I was directed to go to a church in Belle Harbor. By the time I got there, an hour later, they were no longer accepting deliveries and there was some confusion as to where we should go. On my second run: same problem, a full distribution center and clearly we should have been sent somewhere else. This time, as it began to get dark, the shelters began to close–but no one (Occupy or otherwise) seemed to have a clear sense of where we could go to unload a car full of items, rather than haul them back to Manhattan. As responsive as the group has been, especially via Twitter, the lack of a “central command” means just that: there’s no single master plan.

Overall, though, the impact in hurricane-stricken areas been a well-deserved, well-earned triumph for Occupy. I would not wish the destruction of Hurricane Sandy on anyone, but it has demonstrated a capacity for caring and community engagement that goes miles beyond neighborliness. Personally, I am hoping to make another trip and put in another day of labor. So, I am sorry, Occupy folks, and you have my apology. And I hope when the hurricane crisis fades, you will be able to take what you have learned from this experience and reapply it back to the political arena. Clearly, our nation needs more hands-on help than just slogans about the things that divide us.

Coming soon, part II: New York Neighborly State of Mind

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