Posted 7 months ago on April 5, 2014, 3:44 p.m. EST by LeoYo
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Occupy Sandy and the Future of Socialism
Saturday, 05 April 2014 09:41
By Sam Knight, Truthout | Op-Ed
At St. Margaret Mary's Church in the Midland Beach neighborhood of Staten Island, Matthew 5:3 adorns the back of the congregation, declaring the poor blessed in spirit, "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." The locals, however, seemed to think that Her Majesty's Spirit was plagued by pangs of torturous anxiety roughly two weeks after Superstorm Sandy - donations of clothing and blankets flooded the church's pews.
But whatever one makes of the promise of posthumous bliss as a reward for pious poverty, the scene portrayed a less controversial tenet of Christianity - being one's brother's keeper. The impromptu relief effort at the church and beyond - as in every crisis - quashed the notions that humans are inherently selfish and that they believe profit-maximizing produces the optimal social outcome.
There might be no better example of a machine that exploits the selfless gene than the Red Cross.
The clothing dump also demonstrated that instinctual altruism can easily be counterproductive and, perhaps, not even selfless. The gifts - piles upon piles of them - were depriving the battered community of space it desperately needed. Donations appeared to be more the result of an attic-cleaning than a well-thought-out desire to help.
Just outside the church, another scene of clumsily administered relief was on display. At the nearest intersection, a Red Cross van announced, via megaphone, "hot soup!" to no one in particular. Two blocks in either direction, locals were ladling warm meals to anyone seeking a hearty eat. The truck left not long after arriving. It fed no one.
It seemed fitting that the Red Cross showed up outside the church as the latter struggled with a misallocation of goodwill. There might be no better example of a machine that exploits the selfless gene than the Red Cross. Major catastrophes - from 9/11 to Katrina, from the 2010 Haitian earthquake to the 2004 Asian tsunami - are often closely followed by criticism of the organization. Sandy was no exception.
At the heart of the problem is how the Red Cross manipulates information to perpetuate itself. Two weeks after Sandy, Reuters published an extensive article detailing how the Red Cross' gargantuan war chest was, and never is, intended to be allocated toward comprehensive recovery. The organization's primary goals are "to supply food and run shelters, not to provide transportation, arrange cleanup operations or coordinate last-minute volunteers." Its largest undertaking, financially speaking, is blood and plasma service. In its 2010-2011 fiscal year, it spent $2.21 billion to help maintain 40 percent of the US blood supply - a vital service, to be sure.
Yet the Red Cross appeals heavily for donations when disasters strike and is designated by Congress as the only nonpublic entity "with the responsibility 'to lead and coordinate efforts to provide mass care, housing, and human services after disasters that require federal assistance.' " As such, it was a magnet for donations and, perhaps, the most visible relief organization during the Sandy cleanup. Concurrently, it endlessly frustrated the locals. Anecdotes of Red Cross woe reported by Reuters included its refusal to help a 90-year-old woman who asked for assistance moving to a heated shelter. It did, however, manage to find the money - $181,000 - to put up volunteers at a swanky Manhattan hotel in the middle of November.
As Nick Pinto, then of the Village Voice, chronicled, the Red Cross' operations, or lack thereof, were acutely felt by victims in the immediate aftermath of the storm. "New Yorkers living in the cold, in the dark, without food or medicine, who had received no help or human contact at all" were furious. Colleen Dalton, a resident of a ravaged working-class Rockaways neighborhood, told Pinto she felt betrayed by the government and the Red Cross. "The Red Cross stinks," she said. "All that money, they should have been here. I don't think anyone in my family will donate to them again." Another Rockaways resident named Tina Winston told him how one Red Cross truck pulled up in the neighborhood, but its operators "turned people away because they said it wasn't life or death."
Backing up anecdotes of ineptitude are reams of official inquiries. In May, as a state attorney general probe was in the works, the organization came under fire for revealing that it hadn't spent over one-third of the money it raised in the late fall for storm relief - its Sandy relief kitty accumulated roughly $299 million, according to the July report by AG Eric Schneiderman. In July, the Red Cross came under fire again for allegedly withdrawing aid to 1,000 victims who said they had been promised grants worth up to $10,000. In October, The Red Cross, having spent 90 percent of $309 million for Sandy relief, agreed to dole out another $6 million to Sandy victims, but only after more needling by Schneiderman's office.
What made Occupy Sandy so effective was that its relationship with victims was based on the very characteristic that saw criticism leveled at it throughout the occupation of Zucotti Park - horizontalism.
Thus, long after reporters had left the battered neighborhoods, the relief organization continued to infuriate victims. And when, three months after the storm, the Red Cross did agree to fund long-term relief - a mold remediation program in partnership with the city government and other charities - it acutely underfunded the initiative. "The program was established with the goal of providing remediation to 2,000 homes throughout the city," Pinto reported for Al-Jazeera in October, and it had already worked on 1,800 domiciles. But roughly 30,000 to 40,000 homes were adjudged to be in need of the treatment. The $15 million initially allocated by the Red Cross and a handful of other organizations seemed to be window dressing.