Some people were shocked when Occupy Wall Street — a protest movement that aimed to expose the excessive power of the financial industry and its corrupting influence on government — suddenly came to life through grassroots efforts to bring relief to individuals and communities devastated by Hurricane Sandy.
This was not the first time that a radical movement known for its uncompromising and confrontational stance toward government and corporate power decided to provide direct services to individuals who suffered extreme hardship as a result of the conditions those movements exposed.
During the early 1930s, the American Communist Party — whose first response to the Great Depression was huge hunger marches on city halls and private charities demanding “work or wages” — began to shift to neighborhood based action to aid individual families. In 1931, the Communist-led Unemployment Councils began organizing people to put back the furniture of families evicted for non-payment of rent and organize huge protests against police and marshals who returned to finish the eviction.
These anti-eviction protests, starting small, kept thousands of people in their apartments in cities from New York to Chicago to San Francisco, and in some communities like the Bronx, made it virtually impossible for landlords to evict tenants.
Then, in 1933, when the Roosevelt Administration appropriated billions of dollars to create relief programs for the unemployed, the Unemployed Councils — and its later manifestation, the Workers Alliance — became an informal bargaining agent for unemployed individuals and impoverished families at city relief offices, helping them get the aid they were entitled to and upon occasion leading sit-ins at relief offices if they were denied it.
These protests helped the Communist Party build a strong base of respect, if not loyalty, in many working class neighborhoods and proved a tremendous asset in having unemployed workers and their families organize on the side of industrial unions when they fought for union recognition, rather than providing a core of strike breakers.
Now lets jump ahead 30 years to the Black Panther Party. The BPP’s claim to fame was organizing armed surveillance of police who patrolled Black communities. and insisting on the right of people in Black communities to bear arms in self defense. These BPP policies were the ones that created the greatest controversy and attracted the greatest attention, but within two years of the Party’s founding, it was organizing free breakfast programs for children all around the nation, and creating pioneering health care programs in underserved Black communities, a strategy documented by Alondra Nelson in her brilliant book Body and Soul. While some sections of the BPP suffered fierce government repression and others self-destructed, these service programs had a lasting positive impact on many of the communities they organized in.
These two historic examples should be borne in mind by those who might be prone to criticize the Occupy Movement for providing services to those in need rather than concentrating all their energies on attacking the underlying conditions that lead to massive levels of suffering. They are making a turn to communal action and mutual aid that the most effective radical organizations in American history all employed at key points in their history. And which helped insure that their contribution to progressive change in America would be deep and lasting.