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Sandy Relief Work in Red Hook Exposes Rift in Occupy Movement

By Alan Neuhauser | January 10, 2013 6:47am

RED HOOK — A coalition of volunteer groups that rushed to aid Red Hook residents battered by Hurricane Sandy has started to splinter, spurring members to abandon relief efforts as the neighborhood still struggles to recover.

For more than 60 days, Red Hook Volunteers and Occupy Red Hook have been embroiled in a dispute with the wider Occupy Sandy and Occupy Wall Street movements, sources told DNAinfo.com New York, with each side accusing the other of shutting it out of meetings and failing to meet the true needs of residents.

"It's really unfortunate," said Rebecca Manski, a member of Occupy Sandy and Occupy Wall Street's press team. "This has become very personal."

The fights reportedly erupted over three flash-points — if and how Occupy groups should work with police and government officials; if Occupy members should refuse payment for coordinating relief efforts; and when it's appropriate to identify a group as part of the Occupy movement.

The four groups had together coordinated vast relief efforts throughout the neighborhood, which ranged from raising thousands of dollars for relief work, to cleaning or demolishing dozens of flooded basements across Red Hook, to delivering food and water to residents who went without power for weeks after the storm.

"There are so, so many needs that have come up," Red Hook Volunteers coordinator and co-founder Kirby Desmarais said in a November interview. "I'm working really, really hard to keep these groups working together."

Keeping each Occupy organization in step, however, proved a challenge. A rift emerged as early as two weeks after the storm, as members of Red Hook Volunteers and Occupy Red Hook began working with groups that many regarded as their movement's arch-enemies.

They include the NYPD, the New York City Housing Authority, the Mayor's Office and other politicians and community leaders including Carlos Menchaca, a community organizer with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn who has been heavily involved in relief efforts in Red Hook.

The disagreements sharpened when three Red Hook Volunteers members accepted payment for their work through two grants provided by the Brooklyn Community Foundation.

"There's no need for any political representatives here, there's no need for anyone other than Occupy people and Red Hook residents," Manski, the Occupy Sandy and Occupy Wall Street press contact, asserted.

"As soon as people get paid, you have them guarding their resources and contacts and trying to hold onto their place in the work, and not sharing information because they want to continue to be paid."

Desmarais disagreed.

"That's bulls--t," she said.

"Occupy Sandy has taken a lot of supplies from government, they've worked with the National Guard," she said, emphasizing that she, herself, identifies as an Occupier. "You can't just work from the outside.

"These are people who have been beaten by cops, so I know that it's a very sensitive thing to see me being buddy-buddy with [76th Precinct commander] Capt. [Jeffrey] Schiff. But you need to forgive. We've cleaned the slate. Capt. Schiff took a huge risk working with us, and it's made a difference."

Occupy Red Hook member Monica Byrne, co-owner of Homemade restaurant on Van Brunt Street, was similarly frustrated, praising Quinn's office for its assistance.

“Quinn’s office ... sent us a staffer to work with us side-by-side and help us in any way possible. All that person’s done is listen to us and try to help,” she said. “It’s, frankly, a young point of view that has painted and tarred all the politicians with the same brush.”

The disputes simmered for weeks, ultimately boiling over just before the December holidays when the New York Post published a story Dec. 6 extolling the close working relationship between Desmarais' Red Hook Volunteers and the 76th Precinct and mayor's office.

Desmarais, 26, was quoted as describing the experience as "intense" and "awesome," telling the Post, "There was a shift in energy in the community."

A police source added that the "crisis allowed us all to remove the politics and differences we had to do our job, and come to the aid of the people."

Days later, three Occupy Sandy members — comprising nearly half the leadership group that was coordinating relief work — left Red Hook in protest. They have not returned since.

"They're splitting each other apart," said Wally Bazemore, a longtime Red Hook resident and community activist who has helped lead Red Hook Volunteers' negotiations with NYCHA, which helped win an eviction moratorium and improved the messaging system for Red Hook Houses residents.

"The fact that they're fighting with each other is a major concern, because our purpose is to change policy. In order to change policy, we got to fight the power. And in order to fight the power, we have to be a cohesive unit. We have to be all hands on deck, because this is the fight of our lifetime."

Manski, whom Desmarais has accused of diverting press attention from Red Hook, was unapologetic. Community groups, she argued, cannot both work with the NYPD and identify as part of Occupy.

“The NYPD is not a friend to people of color in New York City. And sadly, Occupy got labeled as a white movement from Day One,” she said.

“When you have a reputation for being a white movement, and you have these headlines that Occupy is working with the NYPD, that’s going to make it problematic for us to broaden and be an inclusive movement.”

Occupy Sandy, Red Hook Volunteers and Occupy Red Hook, despite their disagreements, maintain some ties — Occupy Sandy, for example, provided $2,000 to Red Hook Volunteers from funds raised online for Red Hook relief work, Desmarais said.

Nevertheless, if the groups cannot resolve their differences and achieve a more healthy working relationship, Bazemore said he and three fellow representatives from the Red Hook Houses are considering splitting from the groups.

“We have to clear the air of this, so we can get back to the business of ripping a hole in NYCHA’s incompetence,” he said.

“We have to come to a resolution. If not, we may have to say that we’re just going to use the more radical end of them — if we want to march, we’re going to call them in. The rest we’d do ourselves.”