Below, Adam Greenfield offers a preliminary map of the flows and processes of an Occupy Sandy relief hub. While doing so, he explores the difference between the ethics of charity and mutual aid, and confronts the tensions between logistical efficiencies and human-centered community outreach. His clear-eyed distillation of the knowledge and experiences of this vast network of concerned citizens can inform not only future disaster relief efforts but also what Greenfield calls “the development of a permanent, regional, mutual-aid infrastructure here in New York.”
Even before its surge hit New York City on October 29th, Hurricane Sandy was already unusual. The lead winds of the late-season storm — the largest Atlantic hurricane on record — had begun to fuse with an existing continental front, into something vastly larger and weirder. The combined system would go on to linger in the Northeast for days, stretching our ordinary expectations of a weather event to the breaking point and earning the label of “superstorm.”
But it was the surge that redrew the maps. Low-lying areas of New York City, from the beach communities of outer Queens to the west side of Manhattan, suddenly found themselves part of the Atlantic, as brackish water flooded into basements, subway tunnels, utility vaults and substations. And despite all the backups and failovers and carefully devised redundancies, the sensitive systems that underwrite the everyday life of our city went down, and stayed down for days.
How do we get the valuable insights and knowledge of these incredible human beings out into the world, in some format that’s both robust, widely transmissible and user-editable?
You know all this, of course. It was instant history, part of the record of our times even while it was happening. In New York City alone, hundreds of thousands of households found themselves without power, light, heat, or potable water. Tens of thousands of elderly people and others with limited mobility were stranded on high floors, in buildings where elevator service might not be restored for a week or more. Entire housing projects were left to fend for themselves (in many cases, it must be pointed out, because those responsible for their care and maintenance were stranded offsite by the collapse of the regional transportation network). Attempts to right that network struggled against acute and immediate fuel shortages, amid forty-block lines and spreading mayhem at gas stations. And, in true insult-to-injury style, as only reality at its most implacable can manage, there was barely time for anyone to internalize any of this before an early cold snap settled onto the area.
One bright light in all of this, though, was the effective response. Thankfully, in the aftermath of the superstorm there was an organization capable of setting up a network of intake, coordination and distribution centers and starting relief operations almost immediately. This organization funnelled an enormous quantity of donated goods and supplies out to the hardest-hit areas, ensuring that thousands of New Yorkers were sheltered, warmed, and fed, and provided crew after crew of volunteers willing to take on the difficult, dirty, and occasionally dangerous job of site clearance.
Help from below
As it happens, the organization responsible was neither a government agency nor a charitable effort of any kind. It was a spontaneous, self-organized initiative put together by veterans of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the occupation of Zuccotti Park in the fall of 2011, consciously guided by the ideals of that movement and assembled under the banner of Occupy Sandy. Occupy Sandy’s effectiveness constitutes both powerfully impressive testimony as to what ordinary people can achieve when organized in a horizontal, leaderless, distributed, and consciously egalitarian network, and a rebuke to the seeming inability of the centralized, hierarchical, and bureaucratic organizations to which our society has hitherto entrusted mission-critical disaster recovery functions to cope with what this responsibility demands of them. (Equally interestingly, to me anyway, it also stands as an implicit critique of some of the tactical and strategic missteps made during the original OWS, but that’s a story for a different day.)
Even putting matters of ideology aside, Occupy Sandy was simply the easiest, fastest and most effective way for an ordinary, unaffiliated New Yorker to get involved with the relief effort. That I am aware of, it was the only organization that had meaningful and productive things for people without specialized skills to do in the days immediately following the storm, with the capacity to handle the massive volume of volunteers, donations, and contributions and the network to get those materials and energies where they could do the most good.
As soon after the storm as we were able to, my wife and I went down to the main distribution hub OS had set up in the sanctuary of the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew, at 520 Clinton Avenue on the border of Fort Greene and Prospect Heights. After we had undergone a brief orientation, we jumped right in, spending the rest of the day breaking down boxes, doing greetings, getting newcomers into the database, and working in a bucket brigade, moving bags and packages from the stream of cars clogging Clinton Avenue into the impromptu warehousing operation that had been set up in the pews of the church.
Of the many aspects of the Occupy Sandy relief effort that have impressed me, the foremost is just how resourceful the site coordinators have been, how truly incredible a job they’ve done in fusing a stream of potentially incoherent energies and ambitions into the clear flow of an effective (dare I even say “efficient”?) relief operation, and, actually, how relatively little I’ve seen in the way of wasted time or effort.
In a very real sense, nobody can tell you ‘this is how 520 Clinton works.’
I began to ask myself, if this bottom-up, self-assembling syndicate achieved its impressive degree of operational effectiveness despite the inevitable reduplications of effort, suboptimal decisions, communication breakdowns, and confusions that attended Sandy’s “fog of war,” how much more capable would it be once things had slowed down a bit, and the people involved had a chance to revisit those decisions? And how could they redesign the interaction of functional subsystems to result in the most effective use of resources — and then, would it be possible to describe this design in such a way as to allow it to be replicated elsewhere?
Over two weeks in November, with the cheerful help of everyone I spoke to (and particular thanks to Easton, Lev, and Caitlin), I began to map the process flow at 520 Clinton: to identify the site’s major discrete functions, chart the flow of people, material, information, and other resources between them, and identify any blockages or breakdowns in these flows.
Ultimately, I was trying to answer the questions: Can the flow of human knowledge that drives this site meaningfully be abstracted from place? And, can mission-critical roles and responsibilities be decoupled from individual personalities?
For many people, the emergency in their lives is ongoing — or it will be, if we go back to our lives and only show up again the next time a storm hits.
I have a great deal of experience with both nonhierarchical/leaderless and top-down, command-and-control institutions — as canonical, in each case, as ACT UP and the US Army — and I have rarely seen such highly functional order assemble itself so rapidly. When I have seen the near equivalent, it’s been in the context of a standing organization dedicated to practicing for contingencies, where individuals are assigned given tasks and roles and repeat action drills relevant to these tasks until they’re inscribed pre-consciously, at the level of muscle memory. For this kind of order to arise spontaneously, in the absence of much in the way of a pre-existing institutional framework, unguided by a context-specific protocol or doctrine, in the wake of a significant natural disaster, strikes me as nothing short of astounding.*
Knowledge in the head, and in the world
After weeks of continuous effort, the nonspecialists in disaster relief who are Occupy Sandy have gained an authoritative level of “expertise” from hard-won knowledge born out of practical experience under actual crisis conditions. So, how do we get the valuable insights and knowledge out of the heads of these incredible human beings and out into the world, in some format that’s both robust (so it’s less vulnerable to disruption), widely transmissible (so others can make best use of it), and user-editable (so it accounts for evolution and change)?
The trouble is that much of this knowledge is tacit — that is, so deeply embedded in the mesh of experiences, spaces and relations that produced it that it’s not particularly amenable to rapid transfer. In a very real sense, nobody can tell you “this is how 520 Clinton works.”
If you had the time, and the active participation of the people you were interested in studying, you might submit a situation like this to a rigorous process of ethnographic observation, contextual inquiry and documentation. Or you can do what I did, and just start diagramming the thing.
Ever mindful of the tensions inherent in such abstraction, I nonetheless offer the following schematic description of the process flow I witnessed, with the expectation that it will be adapted, challenged, pushed back against and departed from, but with the hope that you will find it useful.
Everything that follows is derived from my direct observation of the 520 Clinton distribution hub at the end of the first and beginning of the second week after the storm, and may not reflect the experience of people working at Jacobi, the relief sites themselves, or other Occupy Sandy activities. (Indeed, given the speed with which things change, it may not reflect a subsequent reality at 520 Clinton either.) Also, the following is only a preliminary look at the flows and processes of Occupy Sandy. Missing from the picture sketched out below are details of the major functional areas of TASKING, KITCHEN, COMMUNICATIONS, and COORDINATION.
Traffic Control, Greeting, Registration, and Orientation
If you were to draw a diagram of activity at 520, among the very first and most prominent things on the page would be two thick lines flowing inward, representing streams of incoming volunteers and material. Helping people get situated, both practically and conceptually, is the task of TRAFFIC CONTROL, GREETING, REGISTRATION, and ORIENTATION.
Whoever takes on this task has to cope with the arrival of people — on a busy weekend day, quite possibly dozens at once — who know nothing more about Occupy Sandy than that they’re there and they want to help.
The street in front of 520 is always congested. Many volunteers arrive via personal cars or trucks that they expect and badly want to be of use in the relief effort, and drivers carrying relief supplies regularly appear and begin offloading. In order to prevent this congestion from becoming an issue — particularly if it threatens to stretch back to the intersection of Clinton and arterial Fulton Street, and attract the attention of the police — at least one coordinator must be responsible for TRAFFIC CONTROL at all times. Preferably, TRAFFIC CONTROL can remain in constant radio communication with DISPATCH and STAGING inside the church.
When my wife and I arrived at the site, we spent less than ten seconds meandering cluelessly on the sidewalk in front of the church before someone greeted us with a smile, asked if we were here to volunteer, and guided us smoothly to the desk where they were getting people signed up.
After this GREETING, we were swiftly ushered into the process of REGISTRATION. The spatial provision made for this is simple: it consists of a folding table where people can make themselves a nametag with a Sharpie marker and one of the strips of white duct tape that someone had thoughtfully pre-cut and laid out on the desk. Even this seemingly very basic step had a certain ideological logic to it: people working with OS are universally known by their first name or nickname, and there’s something appealingly democratic about it. And even here, in the tape and marker, there’s a lesson about expedient means, about making do with what you have.
The next thing that arriving volunteers are asked to do is enter their information in the OS database at the REGISTRATION desk. The form is straightforward, capturing contact information, availability, and whether the volunteer possesses specialized skills — i.e. medical, legal, construction, or demolition experience; fluency in Spanish or Russian.
Immediately after they enter their data on the website, but before getting tasked with anything substantive, volunteers are asked to attend a brief ORIENTATION session. This primarily consists of an explanation, based on the core tenets of the Occupy movement, that expressions of sexism, racism, classism, or homophobia would not be tolerated, and that people unable to let go of such viewpoints would most likely be more comfortable elsewhere. What I found somewhat more striking was the immediate insistence that what is happening at 520 Clinton and the other OS sites is mutual aid, and precisely not charity, followed by a brief discussion of what the difference implies for the longevity of relief efforts and the relations of power inscribed in them.
At 520, the ORIENTATION process requires a space for five to twenty people to stand comfortably for ten minutes or so, within easily audible range of a coordinator speaking at no more than conversational volume. I have seen this take place in the choir of the church, on the sidewalk out front, and in a grassy area immediately inside the low fence, with varying results.
On completion of ORIENTATION, volunteers are immediately released for TASKING (with certain exceptions). There’s plenty of work to be done at the hub itself, but many volunteers have of course arrived with the expectation of getting their hands dirty “in the field,” i.e. at recovery sites. People wanting to do so are first asked to attend a more comprehensive FIELD ORIENTATION or DRIVER ORIENTATION.
Intake, Sorting, Staging, and Dispatch
In its basic outlines, 520 can be thought of as a warehousing operation with the relative luxury of operating on a just-in-time basis, a spontaneously organized order fulfillment and shipping system, complete with the artifacts any such place necessarily runs on (e.g. picking-and-packing labels). None of this inventory sits for terribly long. It comes in, it gets sorted, it goes out. For Occupy Sandy, the heart of this system is the DISPATCH desk, which works from a master spreadsheet shared with the COMMS team, the KITCHEN, and the other hubs.
Donations of food, clothing, and other goods are carried (individually or by bucket brigade) inside the church, to an INTAKE and SORTING area. Things that will be useful to the KITCHEN are brought there immediately; the remainder are moved toward STAGING, where they will be formed into shipments requested by DISPATCH, in preparation for release to the recovery sites.
Most of what comes in does so in break-bulk form; it’s not at all unusual to get, say, a heavy-duty trash bag containing a foam pillow, eight different cans of food (for people and pets both), some packaged nine-volt batteries, and a box of adult diapers. If you are lucky enough that DISPATCH has a site that needs just those things, it doesn’t even enter the system. It goes straight out to a waiting car. In most cases, though, there’s some necessity of SORTING the incoming goods, making sure perishables get used in a timely manner, STAGING of outgoing shipments is simplified, and recovery sites get what they need.
The process involves a lot of moving parts and a number of different teams, but there’s nothing in it so complex that it can’t be described straightforwardly. Incoming requests for relief from the community (there’s another thick line for your process diagram) are parried initially by the COMMS team, who start up a new row in the spreadsheet for each. This includes cells detailing what kind of request this is, what specific goods or skills are being called for, where and when they are needed, and so forth. One or another hub’s DISPATCH team will claim the incoming task, color-coding it to indicate that it has done so, and passing it on to STAGING via that most robust and ubiquitous of technologies, the index card. Each index card bears the time, location, and contact information of the aid request on its front, and a packing slip on its back. The shipment is put together, a coordinator assembles the necessary volunteers, driver(s), and vehicle(s), and out the shipment goes.
As the core of Occupy Sandy’s relief operations, this is a pretty well-oiled procedure, and that I saw, it seemed to work incredibly smoothly at 520 Clinton.
Ideally, getting a site like this up and running would be managed at the level of personal relationships, with enough time and space for people to work in ways most appropriate to local culture and context. But time and space are luxuries we don’t always have, and I can conceive of circumstances in which some kind of written procedure would be helpful.
I can imagine the usefulness of a distro-hub-in-a-box and relief-site-in-a-box. This could be interpreted quite literally, as a Pelican case, containing everything you’d need to get a site up and running, with a laminated sheet explaining how it all fits together duct-taped inside the lid. Or, more metaphorically, as a basic set of diagrams, guidelines, and pragmas aimed at serving the same end: this is where INTAKE goes, you’ll need a place where SORTING happens, this is how we found DISPATCH works best, and so on. Either way, the intention is to provide those facing the terrible challenge of helping their communities recover from large-scale disasters like Sandy with some means of benefitting from New York’s experience, and to do so in a way that’s consonant with the values of autonomy and self-determination at the heart of this effort.
But also, 520 Clinton and the Occupy Sandy movement offer valuable lessons for how to develop a permanent, regional, mutual-aid infrastructure here in New York, tuned not just to the needs of recovery from a disaster but of ongoing evolution and growth. For many people, the emergency in their lives is ongoing — is structural and endemic and as close to permanent as makes no meaningful difference. Or it will be, if we go back to our lives of (relative or absolute) privilege and only show up again the next time a storm hits.
This is what the Occupy movement should have evolved into in the first place, a year ago: an ongoing effort to create a fabric of community institutions that live their beliefs matter-of-factly, so that people can experience for themselves the difference between what it feels like to be a consumer and what it feels like to actually participate. In the immediate case of Sandy, it’s most important that we help the people whose lives, homes, and livelihoods have been disrupted by the storm take care of themselves — but it’s also not unfair to point out in doing so that the group that was by far the most effective in getting such aid and comfort to the field wasn’t FEMA, wasn’t the Red Cross, wasn’t anything but other New Yorkers organized and acting on the principles of mutual aid. May it only be the first of many in our time.
* It’s true that Occupy Sandy did not start from zero. The relationships, networks and linkages forged in the previous fall’s struggle were pivotal in allowing a widely-scattered community of activists to constitute themselves as a relief effort in short order, and it turns out not to be incidental that relief operations were infused with their values.
Adam Greenfield is a New York City-based writer and urbanist.
This essay is adapted from a post that appeared previously on Adam Greenfield’s blog, Speedbird. Read the original here.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.