In the Rockaways, a peninsula of Queens that was among the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy, anxiety and confusion swirled around today’s election. Some of the designated polling stations had been flooded or converted into emergency shelters; others were impossibly difficult to get to with the gas shortages and amended bus service. The city scrambled to relocate at least 60 polling stations, even setting up generator-powered tents where Rockaway residents could cast their ballots. Yet, communicating these changes to neighborhoods without electricity and cell phone service (not to mention the lack of heat and often running water) was a daunting task, and the dearth of information about voting ended up becoming yet another frustration about the government’s response to Hurricane Sandy.
“We need buses to take us to vote,” declared one resident of a high-rise tower on 74th street who said she had no idea where to vote today. Her neighbors concurred; they’d ventured out of their apartment to inquire and, after finding no sufficient answers, ended up volunteering at a free supply store that community leaders had set up in the laundry room of her 12-floor high-rise. These women were just a handful of tens of thousands across New York and New Jersey who faced the logistical challenges of learning where to vote and getting themselves there. But there was also the deeper sense of disillusionment surrounding the election as many in these neighborhoods continued to wonder just where FEMA was--and why the government appeared to have so much trouble responding to the disaster.
Over the weekend, Slate published an article
asking whether the network activated by Occupy Wall Street was outperforming the Red Cross at responding to Hurricane Sandy. The article quickly went viral, mirroring a sentiment that is also being “shared” across the affected areas using old-fashioned means of communication: word of mouth. While provocative, the article had a point: in areas of Queens and Brooklyn where Occupy’s operations were up and running as early as Wednesday of last week, the Red Cross, FEMA and even the NYPD have increasingly relied on these community organizers to provide information and distribute resources, rather than the other way around.
However, perhaps the fairer question--and one that is intensely relevant on election day--is why Occupy Wall Street is different from the government, and what this difference can teach us about the need for broader civil participation beyond intermittent voting days.
Like the government itself, federal relief agencies wield considerable power. FEMA has billions of dollars and a variety of levels of law enforcement at its disposal. When it teams up with the National Guard, it’s got choppers, busses, hummers and a seemingly unending supply of ready-to-eat military rations ready for immediate deployment. Parachuting into a crisis in order to provide relief, however, has its limitations.
Case in point: one of the first government aid site established on Staten Island, which was set up by a coalition of FEMA, the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and the NYPD on Thursday, was located in the middle of a massive, desolate parking lot off a little-trafficked street. Because of the inaccessible location, few had drawn on these resources, and by dusk the remaining officers were left with a mountain of MRIs and 24-packs of bottled water. When asked about the strange placement, the NYPD Community Affairs officer acknowledged that the location had looked better “on a map.”
In this model of top-down professional disaster relief, those living in the affected areas become reduced to victims in need of relief (be it dry socks or bottled water), rather than people with valuable information about their neighborhood--such as where to locate an aid station. Conversely, the Occupy Wall Street model seeks to draw on the networks already established in the neighborhood, partnering with local churches and community-based organizations such as the Red Hook Initiative, the Good Old Lower East Side, and CAAAV in Chinatown so that neighborhoods are rebuilding themselves and drawing on their own strengths.
The power of this model has become obvious. While the city said that it couldn’t process anymore volunteers, this weekend Occupy Wall Street and its community partners put tens of thousands of volunteers to work, door knocking in senior housing developments in the Lower East Side, cleaning up flood-damaged houses in the Rockaways, transporting hot food and warm clothes to Staten Island, clearing roads in Coney Island and processing hundreds of thousands of donations pouring in from all around the country. Meanwhile, the government workers that were on the ground increasingly began taking orders from this network of volunteers, with camouflage-clad National Guard members unloading cars stuffed with donations collected by anarchists from Maine.
So what does this have to do with voting? Over the last week, the limitations of the government have become starkly--perhaps uncomfortably--apparent. It’s not that public agencies are inefficient (as Romney has alleged) or corrupt and negligent (as has happened during other disasters, namely Hurricane Katrina). It’s more that there are limits as to what the government can do for people--both during a storm-related disaster and during every day life. As millions of Americans cast ballots today, it’s worth remembering that these votes and candidates can only accomplish so much.
The rest, as we should well know by now, is up to us.