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Interview with Justin Wedes, Occupy Sandy volunteer

Interviewee: Justin Wedes, Occupy Sandy
Interviewer: Ned Crowley
01/10/13

Q:            Why don’t you tell me about your own personal experiences of the storm?

A:            When the storm hit I was in Brooklyn in my apartment on high land, high and dry land and I had been e-mailing and chatting back and forth with some of the kind of key organizers in the movement within Occupy and different organizations as well.  And you know there was a sense that we have to do something that we have networks that we can leverage to get aid to people and to really be on the ground, be the boots on the ground helping people as the flood waters receded.  And part of that came from an interesting conversation I had had a couple months ago with a student leader from Chile, Noam Titelman when he and Camilla Vallejo came up to receive the Human Rights Award.

Q:            I saw them on Fresh Air.

A:            Yeah they’re great.  And we talked about what is it that builds legitimacy for social movements and grounds them in the experiences of real people? When we say we are the 99% it just doesn’t ring true yet because there’s so much of the American public that doesn’t yet see where we’re coming from. And so I had this conversation and one thing that resonated for me was this notion that if you are a social movement worth its weight, worth it’s name, worth anything you have to provide a network of support not just for your immediate members. But in an open social movement like ours there are no borders so it’s to provide a network of support for all of the 99%, for poor people, for the most vulnerable, the bottom 1%.  And that combined with some interesting conversations that I have had with some civil rights era leaders and some folks from the mass incarceration movement, the liberation movement talking about the bottom 1%, people that are currently or formerly incarcerated. You know the sort of — the bottom of American society, the sort of — the underbelly that nobody talks about. These are the people that are hardest hit by natural and human disasters.

And so out of that conversation I realized that what the Chilean students had done in the earthquake to be the first on the ground to respond to people in need was exactly the calling of Occupy Wall Street which was to be the first people on the ground in our communities to stand up and say we’re not waiting for FEMA, we’re not waiting for the mayor’s office, we’re not waiting for the Red Cross or for Wall Street or for anybody to come and save us.  The cavalry isn’t coming, the cavalry is us.  And so we immediately put out the call and there wasn’t an infrastructure formally in place to receive that volunteerism, to receive that support so we built it on the spot.  I mean literally three days I spent trapped in my room, I didn’t leave, I didn’t sleep much at all I just sat by my computer and frantically built websites and Google voice accounts and communicated with disaster relief experts and countless phone calls to organizers on the ground who were driving around in trucks and the Rockaways, we pay accounts and just a flurry of infrastructure, online infrastructure and offline too that we were setting up. And it happened organically because we didn’t descend on communities, we emerged from within them and these are our neighbors, these are our friends, these are our family members.

It’s no coincidence that Red Hook was one of the first areas that we were a presence in because Occupy Red Hook has existed for over a year and there’s been hard fast organizing happening there in the community. And the same could be said of Bay Ridge where we set up our first hub in the Church of St. Jacoby.  And in the lower east side with CAS and other organizations, these were networks that pre-existed, that pre-dated the storm and were reinvigorated by our activists on the ground with a firm commitment to just get support to people, no questions asked. We didn’t care your story, of course we cared about your story but we didn’t really care if you had filled out some form of liability.  Crazy question flew around, the lawyers started calling me, what’s going on, have you filled out the waivers, do you have volunteer waiver forms for liability. I mean all these crazy questions and nobody cared, it was just a hindrance because people would call us and say — we put up a phone number on the websites, call this number if you want to help.  And it took six people answering phones continuously for three weeks to keep those volunteers registering. I mean six people, we set up phone banks continuously running through the day and the night, running on granola bars and donated pizza, it was like Zucotti park.  It was a frenzy but instead of protests it was aid, it was mutual aid or at least that was the aim and it still is.

And the notion of mutual aid is one that I’m still coming to grips with because it’s not as mutual as it needs to be right now.  Our organizers are really struggling, people are really struggling. But there are people who struggle more so how do we really create networks that are not just charity but actually empowering for people that don’t just descend on a community and throw a bunch of parcels and then think okay well we fixed the ills of society now.  These communities are better now, we can leave, everything’s okay, that whole notion that arguably has been one of the causes of this disaster. That these underserved communities have a history of being neglected economically, politically, educationally. So that was the sort of motivating factor here when I was watching the flood waters recede and saw that half the city was out of power.

Q:            So on this last note that you just brought up about underlying problems.

A:            Yeah.

Q:            What do you think the main problems have been for New Yorkers and what are the sort of boundaries and dynamics and edges of those problems according to different kinds of inequality or space or neighborhoods in your opinion?

A:            Well I’m a teacher by training, by education and I taught in public schools here in New York, specifically with students formally truant students and dropouts as they call them. They were drop-ins by the time they got to me.  So my perspective begins with education. I think that if there’s anything that most people of privilege or people of means agree on is that the educational system in this country is beyond broke. And the solutions vary depending on your perspective. But I think that one of the worst inequities in the city is the quality of education that young people receive based on upon their socioeconomic class. And I don’t think that is an issue that is entirely divorceable from all of the other social ills.  It’s intimately connected with housing, with jobs, with over policing, with mass incarceration, with infrastructure, decaying infrastructure. I mean all of these ills are connected in the same way that all of our grievances about them are connected. But education to me represents sort of the highest injustice that exists today. And I think that to address that it does begin with a kind of network that we’re building. It’s useless to try to just blame teachers, it’s useless to try to just blame parents or administrators or students. It’s useless because if you don’t understand the underlying decay of the system then you’re just sort of looking at the tip of the iceberg; you’re just sort of putting a band-aid or trying to put a band-aid on a deep, deep wound. And so as we rebuild one of my most important goals for the organization is to focus on education, is to focus on how are we empowering young people to take on these issues head on, to not despair about the deep inequities and feel victimized. But rather to emerge from them, rise up from them whether it be in anger, whether it be in righteous indignation or just out of desperation we have to rise out of them because there is no other way out other than education.  And that’s why I feel that needs to be as a top priority for our students.

Q:            You have these underlying inequalities that you just talked about and how they’re all interconnected, what is the affect that a storm or any natural event, natural disaster like Sandy has on these communities and how are these sort of differences in the affects, the identified inequalities you mentioned?

A:            Well I think what a storm does is it lays bare the inequities. It’s clear that the poorest people are the ones that are always hardest hit by disaster because they just don’t have the means to rebuild, to protect themselves, to defend against predatory sort of vulture capitalist, disaster capitalists that will come in and take advantage of the crisis and people’s shock and disorientation when they’re just trying to meet their basic man’s lowest needs, the lowest level needs of survival.  And then they’re abused, they’re taken advantage of. That’s clear that it hits poor people hardest. I think what is a little bit more subtle in my experience of this disaster and I’ve experienced a few others but this one most intimately is that in a disaster zone like the Rockaways, the week of the hurricane and after there is a sense of disorder that pervades.  It’s a lawless region, there’s no authority, there’s no state, there’s no governance in this space.

And as compensation for that you see in the evenings these police vehicles, these big police vans driving up and down streets like flashing cars all night, all night. And I’ll ask why are your lights on and there doesn’t seem to be any particular crime going on or anything and they won’t tell you but I think that if they were truthful and if I went into One Police Plaza and I was able to somehow get a hold of the manual I think what they would say is that we’re making sure they don’t riot. We’re out there to make sure they don’t riot, they don’t loot and they don’t riot and they don’t go crazy. Because I think that that is — and it’s not that there wasn’t those things, that there wasn’t looting, rioting I don’t know I don’t think. But looting yes but the sort of sense of like the lack of governance in that space because really if the government isn’t providing the water, isn’t providing the electricity, isn’t providing the heat, isn’t providing the law on the corner, the police officer. If the government isn’t providing those things what is the government then? It’s just abstract in every other sense right?

So absent those services there’s a moment of lawlessness and I think what captivates many of us is the idea that in that time that people actually could show the potential for self governance, the potential for community self determination. That one of the beautiful things to have emerged out of Occupy Sandy was this whole notion that the people can actually do this, we’ve got this.  The hash tag that came out of Stanton Island, we got this. The calvary isn’t coming, it’s just us here and we got this, neighbors helping each other, people picking up trash in the street taking care of one another, helping rebuild each other’s homes.  There’s countless stories, I can tell you about people across the city in these neighborhoods that have defied all sort of conventional roles that citizens play in a nanny state like New York City with Nanny Bloomberg taking care of you from his philanthropy teat, it defies all of that.  And so Occupy Sandy I think is just one manifestation of that inherently human desire to just problem solve, to just fix things and not go begging to the powers that be to come and fix your neighborhood because we got this.

I mean one particular story just briefly is that on the day after the hurricane I went with a couple canvassers because at that time basically we were doing two things. We were one, distributing basic human necessities like bottled water and granola bars and clothing and candles and flashlights and masks and things and sleeping bags and stuff. And the other thing we were canvassing neighborhoods for needs, knocking door to door with clipboards, you know really a beautiful and incredible thing, 70,000 volunteers in the first two weeks, three weeks, largest relief effort on the ground in New York City by far and with the smallest budget.  But I went into Cony Island with a car full of people and we came up to a street and we were walking up the street and there was a huge tree down across the street that was making it impossible for any cars to move up and down it.  Take it most cars were already out of service anyway because they had been flooded on the street. But there was a crew of young people, mostly boys of color and they were trying to use this beat up old car to drag this tree out of the middle of the street.   You could tell that this tree was just too massive to be moved by this small little four door — two door.  And as we came up they were standing on the tree kind of trying to like — and with a saw trying to cut it in half. And they saw us from afar and they must have thought — I was in a suit and we were strangers to the neighborhood we didn’t look like we would belong there necessarily.  So one of them screamed out, Fuck Bloomberg, I think he thought I was from the city or maybe he thought I was Bloomberg from afar.  And we looked at each other, there’s four of us and we laughed to each other because we thought what do they think we’re from the city? And I screamed back, Fuck Bloomberg and we came up to them and they started laughing and we said we’re from Occupy Wall Street and we wondered if you guys want some bottled water, granola bars  you look like you’ve been working hard. And we exchanged some stuff and handed it out.

At this point I don’t even think Occupy Sandy as a noun was existent, I think that it kind of came out in the coming days.  We were just out there as Occupy Wall Street just handing stuff out.  And they said to us, ain’t nobody from the city come here,  we ain’t seen nobody from the city, they all went off to Seagate they passed us by on the way, FEMA had rolled by and didn’t stop here.  And we said well it looks like you guys are — you’re picking up pretty well, we’ll come back tomorrow and we’ll bring some more stuff and then maybe we could — we stay in touch and see how we can support you guys.  And we took a big picture of all of us, everybody on the tree and I have that picture it’s really beautiful. But it was just this moment of sort of realizing that like you know we’re on our own here and there was a sort of unity that emerged and this is where you get into the politics of it. I think later on, at that point we weren’t really thinking so much about the politics but there’s a realization that happens when you know that you’re on your own and the government isn’t coming to help you or at least they’re not able to really provide these things that you’re used to getting.  And that let down I think leads to a kind of realization and if you do it right and this is a true job of an organizer I think. If you do it right it becomes an empowering moment where people realize that banding together we can do something, we can actually make a change and we can strengthen our communities in the absence of the state, in the absence of the government.  And it changes over time, you know and services come back and people try to normalize their lives. But you carry that with you and I think that that can be either a very disempowering and a saddening realization, victimization.  Or it can be a really empowering moment of community and strength.

Q:            So moving in a somewhat different direction, some people are connecting Hurricane Sandy to major weather in New York somewhat rare to climate change. Do you — what do you make of that, do you think there’s a connection between climate change and if so what do you see in the future more storms like this?

A:            Oh hell yeah, I mean there’s no doubt in my mind. This is I believe the largest radius storm to ever hit this region. If you look at it aerially on a map and it’s absolutely connected to climate change. I mean you can believe what you want to believe in the science but the fact of the matter is that cities are making arrangements to change their basic infrastructure anticipating these changes. So unless everybody’s crazy and is investing millions of dollars in sea walls and levees and all of the precautions of climate change you have to acknowledge it’s real. I mean it’s happening and you also have to get serious and have a real soul searching moment as a country and say what are we going to do about this?  Are we going to keep letting Exxon and BP and Trans Canada eat and deplete the resources of our environment at huge costs to our land and to our air? I mean Bill McKibben put it best from 350.org; he came to Washington Square Plaza during Occupy Wall Street and said, we’re occupying Wall Street because Wall Street occupies our atmosphere. They don’t own the air; they don’t own the sky so why do they get to pollute it? And it’s selling out our children and the next generation. And so yeah we need sustainability, we need energy independence, we need not just politically in terms of our world diplomacy which is absolutely true but we need independence from dirty energy. We need clean energy. And I think it’s — this should only accelerate the move towards clean energy because it’s made real for people.  But again as long as poor people suffer the hardest from these disasters until poor people organize there’s not going to be the change that’s needed because the rich and the powerful in this country not only monopolize politics but they also monopolize the energy industry.  And there’s very little incentive for them to change right now.

Q:            So do you think putting yourself in the shoes of the communities that were most affected by Sandy, poor communities, communities of color are these people understanding the hurricane as the climate change, they’re understanding sort of the interventions that need to come the same way?

A:            I’m not sure, I think it’s divided. I mean I’ve spoken to a lot of people about it and one of the things that we’re trying to do is connect the dots.  But more from a perspective of power and what is power in this country and who holds power?  And if you hold the power to the energy infrastructure and to the political infrastructure and to the financial infrastructure and the food infrastructure and the education infrastructure then you essentially control the country.  You control the country. And so people I think are waking up to the fact that there is no true democracy in this country today.  That what we have is oligarchy, that what we have is an out of control empire that is unrestrained and the only way to restrain it is to organize, to organize communities block by block, city by city to take on the behemoth that are the BPs and the General Electrics and the Bank of Americas and the Wells Fargos.  And yes the Googles and the Microsofts for change. And I think that that can happen peacefully as it appears to be happening right now or it can happen more violently. And my hope is that it doesn’t happen violently, I think that we can do this peacefully.  But it means that people in power are going to have to seize control out of the recognition that it’s unsustainable, this model is unsustainable and we’re going to have to take power.

Q:            Two part question, you mentioned a moment ago that in the first two weeks after the storm Occupy Sandy had organized sending out volunteers and this is huge…

A:            Probably more of it yeah.

Q:            Whatever the real number is it was undeniably a sizeable effort. So how did – for Occupy’s larger movement how does Sandy response aimed at the direction of the movement and does it all?

A:            I think that it’s interesting that Occupy Sandy emerged around the same time as the Rolling Jubilee, a project of strike debt which is an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street which is working to organize debtors to create a debtors association, a sort of union or organization nationwide of people in debt. I think it’s interesting because those are two very similar aims in my opinion, although they might not appear on the surface to be.  Strike debt with the notion that we are all in debt and it’s our debt and the illegitimate nature of that debt in the face of this crumbling corrupt financial system that unites us.  And that what we can do is we can bail each other out and that was the Rolling Jubilee. So it was the people’s bailout and in many ways the fact that Sandy came just weeks after the people’s bailout it was like another people’s bailout.  It was solidarity in the true sense. It was mutual aid, it was we can actually take direct action that doesn’t just confront the 1%, it doesn’t just confront power. But it’s direct action as mutual aid, it’s direct action as community support and in doing so we can strengthen our network of solidarity.

So I see Occupy Sandy as being not so much a repurposing or redefining of Occupy Wall Street which the New York Times and others kind of adhere to when they say well Occupy Wall Street has repurposed itself as a disaster relief agency.  I never thought that, we were doing disaster relief from day one, it’s just the disasters that change and not really all that much.  But more the notion that rather than just being confrontational which has its place as well, direct action to confront inequity, to confront injustice and to dramatize the social ills of today is important. But the mutual aid, direct action as mutual aid is a powerful concept because it brings the focus back to us, to the 99%. And what strengths is in our network and what strengths — and what potential for actually bypassing, subverting the powers that be in fixing our communities. And I’ve always noticed that education has been one of those arenas where the most wealthy in our country have tried to position themselves to be the dictators of the reform because they believe that because they’ve been so successful, wildly successful and their kids are just so great, that well every kid should have this type of education. And while I don’t disagree that every kid should have a high quality education like Obama’s children do I’m not sure that what the 1% is actually trying to get in the education realm for the 99% is actually what they’re kids are getting. I think it’s actually the opposite. I think that they recognize that what their kids are getting, if every kid in this country actually had the opportunity to get that it would require a huge investment and a culture shift and the end of these wars as well.  So mutually this direct action offers the opportunity to say we don’t have to listen to 1% to fix our problems for us. We can confront these issues head on right now and we can begin to bail each other out and to help each other.

And so I’m hopeful that in the months to come that Occupy will have matured because of that realization and also there are structures that are emerging from Occupy because of Sandy that are more sustainable. Structures like supporting our own network and finding ways to create collective housing, to create food cooperatives, to create sustainable agriculture and food shares and cooperatives, occupy farms.  Health clinics, free health clinics and all of these things because what we did I think is we woke up recently and said wow all of the things that we’re doing for Sandy are almost as needed in non-Sandy affected neighborhoods.  And so if we just took the tactics of Occupy Sandy and utilized them in every neighborhood in need, in every struggling neighborhood and just came in and offered our services for free and just gave away for free food, healthcare, housing down the line that we could actually kind of spark an imagination, we could change the minds of people who for so long have believed that the only way out of this problem is with money. And we could really — I think we could really grow this thing into a viable popular movement. So I’m hopeful that this is sort of like an inflection point of sorts for our movement, that from this it will mature and grow and evolve and I think emerge stronger absolutely.

Q:            So you mentioned how the movement is sort of a way of not waiting for the 1% to solve the problems of the 99%. How do you think that the efforts in Occupy Sandy has changed the relationship of Occupy to other kinds of actors like the federal agencies, the city governments, NYPD more sort of established NGOs, what’s the relationship and how’s it changed?

A:            I think that it’s possible to interface with those agencies and not betray our core principles and our autonomy.  And I think we’ve done that really well.  The reality of the storm is that it forced — I think it forced all of us to sort of confront how what we were doing before wasn’t helping. Whether you’re a police officer and you were more concerned with the next stop and frisk than with truly helping people, helping protect neighborhoods. Or whether you were a clergyman and were maybe getting a little bit distracted from the vision of a church as a sanctuary for people in need, a true sanctuary, a refuge.  And it refocused us and so all these institutions which are filled up with the 99% and are really tightly interwoven.  Maybe we lost our way.  I think one of the themes of Occupy Wall Street was that maybe we fell asleep for awhile and now we’re waking up from decades of apathy or just decades of sort of complacency.

So maybe the theme of Occupy Sandy is well we’re not just waking up but we’re re-envisioning our role as society and our interdependence more than our independence, more than our individualism, our rugged individualism. So this interconnectedness I think has been — this is a joint effort has been really interesting and it’s also — it doesn’t just change us it changes other organizations too to work with us.  Because they see the way in which we organize and the different processes that we have for decision making and the sort of decentralized horizontal nature of our operation and how quickly scalable it is and how nimble it is. And I think they learn from it and we have — and we skill share and we grow from it. So I’m hopeful that when we emerge from all this which is a long process as well so it’s going to be years, that we actually will have one off a little on them too.  And them and us will be closer to one.

Q:            Do you have any examples of interface or coalition?

A:            Yeah well look at the clergy, look at the faith community it’s incredible how Occupy and the faith community have merged in many ways in the last two months.  Almost all of our hubs are run out of churches or sanctuaries or mosques or temples. And that I think is not by coincidence, I think that’s the best infrastructure that exists in the city for the masses for people to get together and to interface and it is the church, is the faith community.  And so these are some of the last sort of holdouts of communalism, of common — of the commons in the city.  The parks many of them have been privatized or semi-privatized as POPS, Privately Owned Public Space whatever that means or as I like to call Bank Owned Public Space.  And so where is the commons now, where can people go where they’re not going to get hounded by police or harassed that is the public space, that is open, these places. So that kind of interface which was a very hierarchical organization like the church but that can interface with Occupy I think is really a nice blossoming, a blossoming partnership. Any last questions?

Q:            That’s it, any questions for me?

A:            No just keep me posted.

[Tape off]

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