Who’s Afraid of Occupy Wall Street? The Red Cross, Apparently

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Superstorm Sandy

December 11, 2014; ProPublica

ProPublica and NPR have been doing an investigative series on the Red Cross focusing on its performance during Superstorm Sandy as well as other issues like possible misrepresentation to donors of the organization’s fundraising and overhead costs. The reporters are openly inviting people to help them with their “Red Cross Reporting.” (It is worth saying that reporting on the basis of anonymous sources, as is done in this article, is often a difficult sell, but in this case, there is corroboration in documents and in interviews with named individuals who worked with both the Red Cross and Occupy Sandy.)

In the most recent installment, the investigation returns to the Sandy response. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy and in the midst of a relief effort that was not only spotty but slow, a loose coalition calling itself Occupy Sandy stepped in quickly to seek out survivors and provide badly needed services. In a report entitled “The Resilient Social Network,” the group was described as follows:

“Within hours of Sandy’s landfall, members from the Occupy Wall Street movement—a planned social movement comprised of social activists who protested income inequality in the United States—used social media to tap the wider Occupy network for volunteers and aid. Overnight, a volunteer army of young, educated, tech-savvy individuals with time and a desire to help others emerged. In the days, weeks, and months that followed, “Occupy Sandy” became one of the leading humanitarian groups providing relief to survivors across New York City and New Jersey. At its peak, it had grown to an estimated 60,000 volunteers—more than four times the number deployed by the American Red Cross.

“Unlike traditional disaster response organizations, there were no appointed leaders, no bureaucracy, no regulations to follow, no pre-defined mission, charter, or strategic plan.

“There was just relief.”

So senior staff at the Red Cross told other ARC staffers not to work with Occupy Sandy. “We were told not to interact with Occupy,” said one staffer even though Occupy Sandy had, according to a volunteer, what ARC did not: minute-by-minute information.

ProPublica writes that three staffers spoke with their reporters on the condition of anonymity because they continue to work with the Red Cross. And in fact, in the previously mentioned report which was produced by the Department of Homeland Security a Red Cross chief of volunteer coordination “he was told not to work with Occupy Sandy because of the affiliation with [Occupy Wall Street].”

Here is how ProPublica reports the dynamic,

“Fred Leahy, a veteran Red Cross responder who was a Community Partnerships Manager in Sandy’s aftermath, recalled a meeting a week after the storm in which he and two other officials, one from Washington, discussed ‘the political and donor ramifications of associating with Occupy Sandy due to its outgrowth from Occupy Wall Street.’ He says the meeting was called after an inquiry from Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern.

“‘Occupy Wall Street was not very favorably received by the political people in the city,’ Leahy says. Major Red Cross donors were from the same elite political circles ‘and they didn’t understand Occupy Wall Street.’

“Red Cross responders says that many staffers and volunteers objected to the charity’s stance on Occupy Sandy because among the Red Cross’ fundamental principles is that aid must be delivered without regard to politics or ideology. ‘We are a neutral, humanitarian organization,” one staffer says. “We don’t take sides.’”

Occupy Sandy organizers told ProPublica that the Red Cross declined their calls for days after the storm, and Occupy Sandy organizer Nathan Kleinman reports that a Red Cross staffer said “they couldn’t be seen working with us.”

Still, some tried to work with Occupy behind the scenes, keeping a separate list of contacts so that their working relationship would not be seen by ARC higher ups. “I have no doubt we could have had a much more productive relationship with the Red Cross if they’d been willing to associate themselves with us out in the open,” Kleinman says. “I have no doubt their failure to look past politics hurt the overall recovery.”

Occupy minutes record a confusing relationship, including one incident in which “two Red Cross employees showed up at an Occupy site in Brooklyn ‘asking if [Occupy] could send [the Red Cross] volunteers—and their stipulations for that: they couldn’t wear any Occupy stuff.’ Those conditions were rejected.”—Ruth McCambridge

  • Terry Fernsler

    What happens when organizations become more interested in self-preservation than serving beneficiaries. It’s not just the Red Cross, readers, although they should know better.

  • DCarroll

    I’ve worked as a paid staff person and a volunteer, at the local level, with the Red Cross for over 20 years. While it has many faults, it does much good work. It suffers from its bureaucracy much as any organization its size will. However, much of what is perceived by outsiders as bureaucracy is really experience. While it is wonderful to get relief to victims as quickly as possible (and I too wish the Red Cross were more nimble at this) it is also important to ensure that relief is being distributed appropriately, fairly, and equally. The Red Cross knows from previous experience that many opportunists use disasters to commit fraud.

    The article above is completely missing the point of why the Red Cross could not associate with Occupy Sandy. It could not precisely because it must remain neutral. Remaining neutral does not mean “work with any group because we don’t care what their beliefs are”, it means protecting, as much as possible, one of its seven founding principles of neutrality. Belief in this neutrality is the only reason countries at war have allowed the Red Cross to treat the wounded on the battlefield and visit prisoners of war. We tend to lose sight of that with the American Red Cross whose mission does not include international conflict, but we must remember that it is part of the International Red Cross. Sadly, there have been instances of terrorists and extremists who have decided not to trust that neutrality and Red Cross volunteers have suffered and been killed because of it. The Red Cross must remain neutral, avoiding relationships with political groups in particular, in order to continue to do the good work it does in areas of international strife. If the decision not to work with Occupy Sandy was made simply because of donor concerns, then shame on the Red Cross. I, however, choose to believe it was a decision made based on higher principles.

  • StaceyA

    As a non-profit professional who lost both my house and my office in the storm I can tell you exactly who was on-site and for how long. I will also tell you that of all the help we received from various groups, the Red Cross was the least helpful. All together, my family received 2 granola bars and 2 bottles of water from the Red Cross. They were packed up and out of town within a few weeks. I later called their office looking for assistance with housing and was told that they were still trying to assign case managers but that none of their funds would be used for direct aid to families. We are back in our house and trying to repay the many kindnesses that were shown to us but I can guarantee that we will never donate to the Red Cross.

  • Strobe Fischbyne

    I understand that horizontal organizing can be more nimble, but let’s look at Occupy Wall Street. The large majority of Occupy organizers subscribed to anarchist outlook, if you believe the statistics provided by Mark Bray. Anarchists love it that natural disasters disrupt state government control, and join relief efforts believing them to exemplify the idea of “spontaneous order.” People helping people without the interventions of the tyrannical state. We are talking about anti-government zealots.

    Occupy Sandy might have looked good, but here on the West Coast, we have a problem with anarchists who cause riots, latching on to whatever issue is handiest. Were there an earthquake in San Francisco and Oakland tomorrow, I’m sure anarchists would mobilize to create relief networks in the community. They would also begin to cherish the disruption of state control and believe they were creating “autonomous zones,” working to defend them. They would spread anti-government propaganda and use every misstep and delay on the part of the government as a reason to agitate for riots.

    Take a look at the #OccupyOakland Twitter feed. Are you really asking that the Red Cross sanction and aid relief efforts by these people? Are you telling me that, as a citizen who might need relief following an earthquake, that I would need to listen to a lecture on spontaneous order in order to obtain some supplies? That I watch as they denounce government relief efforts and any police presence as cause to storm a relief center? Because this is what you appear to be setting in motion with this article.

    The Red Cross policy against letting political organizations use natural disasters as agitation tools is a good one.