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Occupy Sandy: Onetime protesters find new cause

Monday, November 12, 2012

NEW YORK -- The social media savvy that helped Occupy Wall Street protesters create a grassroots global movement last year is proving to be a strength in the wake of superstorm Sandy, as members and organizers of the group fan out across New York to deliver aid including hot meals, medicine and blankets.

They took food and water to Glenn Nisall, a 53-year-old resident of Queens' hard-hit and isolated Rockaway section who lost power and lives alone, with no family nearby.

"I said: ‘Occupy? You mean Occupy Wall Street?'" he said. "I said: ‘Awesome, man. I'm one of the 99 percent, you know?'"

Occupy Wall Street was born in late 2011 in a lower Manhattan plaza called Zuccotti Park, with a handful of protesters pitching tents and vowing to stay put until world leaders offered a fair share to the "99 percent" who don't control the globe's wealth.

The world heard the cry as that camp grew and inspired other ones around the globe. Ultimately, though, the movement collapsed under its leaderless format, and Occupy became largely forgotten. But core members, and a spirit, have persisted and found a new cause in Occupy Sandy.

It started at St. Jacobi Church in Brooklyn the day after the storm, where Occupiers set up a base of operations and used social media like Twitter and Facebook to spread the word.

There is a sense of camaraderie reminiscent of Zuccotti, as young people with scruffy beards and walkie-talkies plan the day's activities. Donations come in by the truckload and are sorted in the basement, which looks like a clearinghouse for every household product imaginable, from canned soup and dog food to duvet covers.

"This is young people making history," said Mark Naison, a professor at Fordham University who has been studying Occupy Wall Street. "Young people who are refusing to let people suffer without putting themselves on the line to do something about it."

Now the group has dozens of relief centers throughout the city and a stream of volunteers who are shuttled out to the most desperate areas. It is partnering with local community and volunteer organizations.

A recent post on Occupy Sandy's Facebook page announced: "Attention! If anyone in Rockaway needs to have their basement pumped, please contact Suzanne Hamalak at suzybklyn@aol.com. Her family wants to help and have industrial pumps...they will do it for free....."

In Rockaway Park, Occupier Diego Ibanez, 24, has been sleeping on the freezing floor of a community center down the street from a row of charred buildings destroyed by a fire.

"You see a need and you fulfill it," he explained. "There's not a boss to tell you that you can't do this or you can't do that. Zuccotti was one of the best trainings in how to mobilize so quickly."

There is little public transportation in the neighborhood, where most people still don't have power and many homes were wrecked. Occupy has supplied residents with hot meals, batteries and blankets. Medics and nurses knock on doors to check on the elderly.

At one Occupy outpost in Rockaway, residents wandered in recently off the garbage-strewn streets looking for medicine.

They lined up in an ice-cold abandoned store that had been hastily transformed into a makeshift pharmacy. Gauze bandages and bottles of disinfectant were piled on tables behind a tattered curtain.

"I think we wouldn't be able to survive without them," said Kathleen Ryan, who was waiting for volunteers to retrieve her diabetes medication, stamping her feet on the plywood floor to keep warm. "This place is phenomenal. This community. They've helped a great deal."

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."


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