The Wreckage Club: How Long Will Cops, Activists, and Mayor Bloomberg Get Along After Occupy Sandy?


A few months ago, New York City cops were dragging Occupy Wall Street activists through the streets and parks of lower Manhattan. In a series of brutal assaults on civil liberties and skulls alike, officers appeared to be abiding orders barked by sadistic brass monkeys who were more interested in suppressing speech than they were with keeping peace. For a time, it seemed like a small-scale civil war; by the one-year anniversary of Occupy on September 17, mayor Michael Bloomberg's army had grown especially ornery, effectively scaring off all but the bravest demonstrators.

And then Hurricane Sandy covered New York in flood water and frustration, the wind gusts so profound as to shift public opinion if not cause amnesia. Suddenly, those same public park freeloaders and disgusting hippies who'd been maligned by the government and conservative media were not so bad. On instinct, a significant segment of Occupy Wall Street morphed into Occupy Sandy, and like that their past indiscretions were forgiven. Previously tepid news outlets cheered the ragtag brigade; folks in the outer boroughs, not often friendly toward downtown folk, welcomed Occupy assistance with wide open arms.

That goodwill continues, even with the cold setting in around New York. In Sunset Park, St. Jacobi's parish remains – at least until the end of November – a high-traffic hub for supply intake and distribution. Thousands of volunteers still show up regularly, though more come on weekends than on weekdays, and donations are still pouring in. Between cash, work, and in-kind contributions, Occupy Sandy has brought in millions so far. Staples such as boots and diapers are stacked high; hungry folks are fed hot meals regularly.

Success story aside, Occupy Sandy is hardly the flawless operation that some have romanticized (Ad Week ran a particularly nauseating piece about the movement's “rebranding,” complete with polled approval numbers). At least that's the observation of several people on the ground; while sentiments are by and large positive, individual Occupiers still have issues with everything from dealing with the Red Cross, to how funds are being allocated. All things considered, though, something extraordinary is under way – even if there's a river of concern and confusion bubbling beneath the surface.

In traveling home to New York last week, I wasn't just looking for token examples of unlikely allies collaborating for the greater good – though that was a primary interest, and on full display everywhere. My main mission, rather, was to survey how much these wildly disparate groups – namely, cops and Occupiers – were actually learning from each other. I thought of The Breakfast Club, and how the characters in that detention classic wondered if they'd all return to their usual routines when things got back to normal. After Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island are nursed back to life, how long will it be until the beatings resume?


Staten Island Story

It's all true. Cops really are working alongside Occupiers, sharing resources and even the occasional laugh. At the St. Margaret Mary Church School in Staten Island, a team of retired police officers flips burgers, while a crew of Zuccotti Park veterans runs an information table feet away. Most of the cops are Staten Island natives. Most of the Occupiers aren't. Still they share a common, unspoken goal, which is to empower locals. “This is not an occupied area,” says Occupier George Machado. “This is not a space for us. The plan is to organize ourselves out of existence.”

The thought of Machado helping out in Copland, as New Yorkers know Staten Island, is beyond ironic. While working with the direct action and facilitation groups of Occupy Wall Street, he was arrested four times, and still has a case open. A Harlem native who lives in Brooklyn these days, Machado is helping teach Staten Islanders how to coordinate in ways he learned at Occupy – and it seems to be working. A month into the disaster, volunteers from St. Margaret's are taking over the free store that Occupy Sandy helped set up at the parish, where affected families can get everything from batteries to cat food.

None of this should come as a surprise. People are desperate, and looking for help from whomever they can get it – Small Town America Respond (STAR), the Red Cross, your local ad-hoc free store. Aiman Youssef, whose house on Midland Avenue was wrecked beyond repair, runs such an aide operation outside of a shuttered pizzeria. He says that everyone is helping – Occupiers, volunteers from as far as California, and even his state assemblywoman. According to Youssef, the only player that's not pulling adequate weight is FEMA. Last week, he says the federal agency offered him just $19,000 for his leveled home.

Under these conditions, and at the mercy of Mother Nature and the federal government, it's understandable why people from all corners of life would walk together. With the exception of sexual sadists and serial killers, we're all pretty decent people deep down. My guess is that a lot of cops on Staten Island are now realizing this, as their neighborhoods have been fearlessly supported by not just Occupiers, but by other rogue groups such as the Hallowed Sons Motorcycle Club. The kind of tattooed guys you wouldn't fight with a chainsaw, they've provided residents of New Dorp with everything from burgers to overnight protection against looters.

Since the first week after the storm, the Hallowed Sons have acted in the best interest of residents – even if it's meant disobeying police orders. In relatively post-apocalyptic circumstances, and with the nights getting chillier, cops have looked the other way at measures taken to keep people warm and fed. There's nothing wrong with this; in fact, it would be inhumane to deprive folks of those needs. All of which got me contemplating the unthinkable – whether strange bedfellows like these can take on bigger messes, solve bigger problems, and perhaps even prevent catastrophes like Sandy in the future.


Getting Serious

It's hard to see the devastation of the forests when you live among more billboards than trees. That's just one excuse I've always given for ignoring grave environmental calamities while battling education profiteers and finance slugs. Now, along with countless others on the left, I've awakened to the threat posed by climate change (for this I largely credit Wen Stephenson's inspired cover story in the November 5 Phoenix). And so before I headed to see the wreckage in Staten Island, I went to Washington DC, where the rollicking crusade against polluters was in full swing.

When claims that shit's going down, they're known to deliver. With outlets in nearly 200 countries and endless connections to similarly themed groups, the enviro network has streamlined heaps of activist gusto and directed it toward behemoths like Exxon and BP. Last Fall, hundreds of demonstrators aligned with 350 were arrested by the White House while protesting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. This year, the organization's tireless leader, Bill McKibben, ramped up the campaign with a bombshell article in Rolling Stone, and a nationwide awareness tour.

While volunteers clean up the mess that Sandy left, McKibben is, in his words, traveling the country to scare the “shit” out of people. At the DC stop of his “Do The Math” tour, videos from cohorts like Van Jones and Naomi Klein helped shake up the sold out theater. Along with McKibben, the 350 gang dished undeniable realities – the polar ice caps are kaput; July was the hottest month in recorded history; climate change leads to more than 400,000 deaths a year worldwide. “Remember this moment,” said Klein, who has appeared in person at other stops. “This is when we got serious.”

As the auditorium doors opened, the eager flock bolted into the street as if looking for a fossil fuel executive to stomp on. Within minutes, thousands formed lines on both sides of 350's franchise Keystone XL pipeline effigy, hoisted it like the picket sign that it is, and began to march around the White House. Back in the theater, McKibben had framed the looming war against Big Oil along the lines of David and Goliath. Holding the horizontal stretch of tubing straight like a sword, his legionnaires promised to be back in February, on President's Day, for a follow-up joust.

I'm embarrassed to admit this, but if not for stopping in DC, I would have missed the real story in post-Sandy Staten Island. It's not just in the cooperation between odd couples like Bloomberg and Occupy; as noted, people always tend to come through in awful situations. Rather, it's important to watch how the invested parties organize down the road. Many of the Occupy radicals out there volunteering are deeply worried about environmental devastation. The mayor also claims to be concerned, and even backed Obama on the strength of the president's climate change policies. Now the question is what they'll all do about it.

Saving Gotham

Before going further, I should disclose that I was one of the people assaulted by New York fuzz on September 17. I was reporting on the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, as I'd covered several rallies before, when a thug in a white shirt sent me to the wagon with a busted elbow. Having grown up in Queens, this violation caused some emotional damage. I'm already at odds with the city where I spent most of my first 21 years; Bloomberg's Manhattan, and Giuliani's before that, simply isn't the place I'd always dreamed of moving to when I got old enough to cross the bridge. Getting pummeled by NYPD confirmed that.

And then there was that other thing that tore at me throughout the war against Occupy. In case it's not said enough – those officers who throttled and peppered people were working for crooked moneyed interests, plain and simple. Rather than defending citizens against nefarious corporations, they disgraced themselves by acting as security guards for rich and powerful entities. That such obvious chicanery can take place right out in the open, and under a mayor whose proprietary software powers Wall Street, is disgusting enough to make me question if I'll ever move back home again.

It will be interesting to see how Bloomberg engages Occupiers when Sandy recovery is over, and after the south side of the city gets rebuilt. As demonstrated in his vocal outrage over everything from air to artery pollution, the mayor's not a stupid man. With that said, he must know that among the atrocities that activists were lambasting in Zuccotti, many were condemning fossil fuel giants, and fracking, and the root of just about any earthly epidemic you can think of. In the least, Bloomberg must have known that they were protesting the sort of institutions where capitalist cowboys gamble billions on energy futures.

Months from now, when not so much Occupy power is needed out in Staten, and Far Rockaway, and Red Hook, you can count on much of the group's might being aimed at Big Oil. My guess is there will be pickets outside of Exxon and whoever else's New York headquarters, with an emphasis on linking their practices to the destruction caused by Sandy. At that time, will the police strike Occupiers with batons and humiliate them, or will they acknowledge that the evil is in the offices above? How about Bloomberg? How much of an environmentalist will he be then?

These questions will arise sooner than expected. Will New York City lead by example, and divest municipal monies from dirty energy companies? How about all of the historic buildings that were wrecked in Chelsea and Tribeca – will those be whored out to tycoons who seek to build monstrosities on hallowed grounds? Who will authorities protect when people march against that? We have learned a great deal about humanity, and New York spirit in the past month. But not nearly as much as we'll learn when the smoke is finally cleared.

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