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. Exploiting social media much the same way they did when organizing nationwide protests last year, the people behind Occupy have mobilized hundreds of volunteers, created Amazon registries for donors to buy relief items for Sandy victims, and set up community hubs and distribution centers across damaged areas in New York City — managing, some say, to outshine official relief organizations like FEMA and The Red Cross. Now dubbed Occupy Sandy, the movement is arguably filling "a void" left by official organizations which, bogged down by bureaucracy, haven't helped quickly enough. A look inside Occupy's transformation, and how the group is aiding Sandy's victims:
What is Occupy Sandy?
According to Occupy volunteer Michael Premo, the Occupy Sandy effort — an offshoot of the grassroots Occupy Wall Street movement — now includes an estimated 2,500 volunteers who, as of Nov. 4, had distributed 15,000 meals and 120 carloads of supplies to recovery sites all across the affected region. Occupy members began stepping in as they saw a need for more recovery supplies, says Allison Kilkenny at The Nation, especially as more and more residents began expressing "frustration with lagging federal aid and assistance from other aid agencies like the Red Cross."
How is Occupy organizing volunteers?
Members of Occupy have set up distribution centers in hard-hit Brooklyn neighborhoods like Coney Island and Red Hook and also in Staten Island, the most devastated borough of New York City. They've also used technology to their advantage, creating Amazon registries of desperately needed supplies, and sharing those lists via Facebook and Twitter pages, constantly updating potential donors on what items are most in need. (Diapers and undergarments are still in high demand among those displaced.) "My friends and I talked about how we could improve the donation system while we were walking to the store to buy some food for meals," John Heggestuen, 25, an Occupy Sandy member who started one registry, tells Bloomberg BusinessWeek.
Have there been any issues with Occupy Sandy?
Some critics worry that it's harder to track donations and relief efforts through Occupy, documenting "exactly who receives gifts or whether they in fact reach Sandy victims," says Ryan Faughnder at BusinessWeek. A few reporters following Sandy's wreckage have also complained that Occupy suffers from the same kind of disorganization and inefficiency that official relief efforts do. "[Its] relief response is incredibly disorganized — volunteers setting up pop-up aid stations every 10 or 15 blocks. Little coordination," Village Voice writer Nick Pinto tweeted. Still, says Kilkenny, while "grassroots aid efforts like Occupy Sandy aren't perfect," there's no denying that they're providing a great service to those in need.
What do groups like the Red Cross say to this?
The Red Cross says it has helped people in "ten states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico affected by Sandy," serving more than 481,000 meals and snacks and providing medical services and relief supplies. But many people in the affected areas say they haven't seen anyone from the Red Cross; Kilkenny reports that people speak about "the Red Cross as though they're phantoms — 'I heard they're out on Staten Island.'" "As frustration grows around the city about the pace and effectiveness of the response from FEMA, and other government agencies and the Red Cross," says Katherine Goldstein at Slate, "I imagine both concerned New Yorkers and storm victims alike will remember who was out on the front lines."