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November 12, 2012

Occupy Sandy Does Not Signify Occupy Wall Street Has Found ‘New Purpose’

Posted in: Media,Occupy

Flickr Photo by bondidwhat

The media as a collective has never understood the Occupy movement.

From November 2011 to the movement’s one-year anniversary, various outlets pronounced the movement dead. The pronouncements ignored the various reasons why the movement appeared to be dead, such as less media coverage and the fact that it has never had a national organization at the top. It has always been decentralized.

To pronounce it dead is to say that all the small groups spread out through the nation are no longer organizing. Now, with the success of Occupy Sandy, the media is drawing conclusions about the Occupy movement that again shows it does not understand this social movement.

Following Superstorm Sandy, a grassroots relief effort called Occupy Sandy was quickly organized. It set up in hubs in communities to distribute water, food and other aid. Groups of people went into homes and complexes without water to check on people and ask if they needed help. They helped pump water out of homes and clean out debris. And, in many communities, they were there in these communities before the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or the Red Cross and were the first to begin taking this type of concerted action.

The effort has not gone unnoticed. Various outlets have written articles praising Occupy Sandy. However, in order to write about this latest development in the Occupy movement’s history, they have maintained a history of the past months, which they themselves conjured up. They have characterized this as a rebirth of the Occupy movement or Occupy finding a “new cause.” (The New York Times deserves credit. This informative report on Occupy Sandy largely refrains from repeating common misperceptions propagated by media.)

Meghan Barr for the Associated Press summarized:

…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…

This summary is significantly flawed for various reasons. It makes no mention of the fact that repression by police and city authorities led to the camps being dispersed. That fueled the “collapse.” It selects the “leaderless format” as what led to its downfall because the media’s understanding of change is that movements need known personalities, who can carry the torch, in order to have some measurable impact. This is related to the contention that Occupy leaders should probably have been running for positions in Congress during the 2012 election because that is the next step the movement should have taken to grow. It is what the Tea Party did and they managed to get their people elected so media think the Occupy movement naturally should have done this too. But, such a conclusion ignores how the movement could have suffered a collapse as it waited and waited for newly elected leaders to deliver them change.

The summary suggests Occupy became largely forgotten. Barr may be referring to the media in general. The media decided to stop covering the movement’s actions as extensively as it did in the early months. Yet, if, as WNYC reported, the movement was able to come together “so fast because of the social infrastructure formed over the last year,” which included Twitter and Facebook accounts with many followers, then the movement cannot reasonably be said to have been dead or forgotten. What it really had become was lackluster and needed another catalyst to reinvigorate it because the 2012 Election was sapping the life out of the movement.

The Week published an explainer on Occupy Sandy that summarized, “Occupy Wall Street was largely dismissed after it failed to do anything more than complain about the country’s income inequality problem. But in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, the populist movement has reinvented itself.” The Week suggests all the movement ever did was “complain.” It shows these expressions of the past history of Occupy are more often what the editors of these news organizations think about Occupy and not what really has happened because, at minimum, one should admit they have been central to empowering Americans to stand up and fight foreclosures of their homes.

Finally, Barr’s summary suggests Occupy Wall Street found a “new cause.” The conclusion attempts to separate what Occupy Sandy is doing from the previous efforts of Occupy Wall Street. One might think the protests for the 99% against inequality have been abandoned to provide aid to those, who were victims of the storm. But, as Sarah Jaffe eloquently described, there was an “opportunity for mutual aid” in the aftermath of Sandy, “particularly in a neoliberal state whose safety net has been shredded, where the state simply isn’t there and people step up to take care of each other.” This idea of “mutual aid was at the foundation of Occupy as much as the much-debated horizontalism and the opposition to the banks.”

Laurie Penny wrote, “It’s no accident that the original Occupy Wall Street organizers were among the first to set up and co-ordinate volunteering efforts across New York. She added, “The Zuccotti Park protest camp which was evicted last November and the enormous post-Sandy volunteer effort going on this week are different expressions of the same thing: overwhelming human response to crisis.”

“Occupy Wall Street found a new purpose after the hurricane: bringing relief to those stuck without power,” wrote Caitlin Dickson for The Daily Beast. But, that has been Occupy’s purpose from Day One: bringing relief to those stuck without power. It would make sense that Occupy organizers would appear in communities being neglected.

What Occupy is doing with its relief effort is revolutionary. The establishment expects disaster relief to be apolitical. But, being helped by an organizer from Occupy Sandy undoubtedly introduces or reminds residents of economic and social issues of justice and equality that remain pervasive in communities.

Media organizations miss this aspect of the effort. They see what Occupy organizers are doing as similar to what a charity organization like the Red Cross would do. They see organizers being able to do what FEMA could not do immediately and lauds them for taking action. They notice members of the National Guard, New York Police Department and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office acknowledging their contribution on the ground and conclude this might be a non-protest effort. As a result, media organizations overlook or fail to notice how there is inequality and privilege in disaster relief efforts just as there is inequality and privilege in American culture and society so there is really no “new purpose.” This is the same movement that left an indelible mark on the country in 2011.


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