An Occupy Sandy photo faux pas

A storm relief image that went viral with incorrect context serves as a social media lesson

A photo depicting a cluster of men in military uniform listening attentively to a woman with a plastic “OCCUPY” armband shot around the twittersphere this past weekend, cited as evidence of something pretty unusual: Occupy Sandy training the National Guard in relief work.

A sample of tweets:

Photographer Adam Welz, who has documented his attempts to get both credit for and a correction on the photo from various Occupy groups on his blog, told me that he was volunteering at Occupy Sandy’s distribution center at 520 Clinton Avenue, Brooklyn, when he saw the tableau of activists and men in uniform, snapped a photo, and tweeted it (the tweet has since been deleted). After his wife retweeted the picture, it went viral, was re-posted to an site without attribution, and then almost immediately tweeted out by @OccupyWallSt.

But critics, including Welz, raised doubts about the identity of those men: Their uniforms had no badges on them, were a bit disheveled, and seemed out of date. Still, as his photo shot across social media, it was mostly shared—including in Welz’s initial tweet, though he no longer believes it to be true—describing the men as US military members. Soon, nearly everyone sharing the photo identified the men as National Guard.

Viral photos are often removed from their original context, and Welz’s experience is a cautionary tale, in a way. He lost credit and control of the scene he witnessed, which he described as simply a moment of visual irony. Instead, his photo was used as a referendum on the government’s response to the Sandy damage, and as a promotional tool for Occupy-associated groups looking to draw attention to their efforts.

But there’s another issue in play here: For days before the photo was shot, Occupy Sandy organizers had been grappling with increasing interest in their relief work from government and corporate entities following the disaster Hurricane Sandy left in its wake on October 29. Although none of the following groups returned my request for comment, FEMA, the NYPD’s Community Affairs division, and the Carlyle Group (a large private equity firm) had reached out to Occupy Sandy as a relief organization for collaboration, according to organizer Daniele Kohn. The Carlyle Group reportedly wanted to send 200 volunteers to the effort before they found out how connected Occupy Sandy is to the Occupy Wall Street protests of last fall. On the ground, Occupy and the city have been seen working side-by-side at a disaster relief center in Red Hook.

The viral photo is unusual partially because of the cultural contrast contained within it, as Welz was right to notice, but also because Occupy Sandy’s relief effort has made such a tableau very believable.

So, who is in the photo?

I recognized Samantha Corbin, the trainer, immediately. I’d met her days before when I sat in on an organizational meeting for Occupy Sandy. She’s one of the people running the Clinton Avenue center, one of two major distribution and volunteer hubs for the relief effort - the other is in Sunset Park. Corbin told me by phone that the men in uniform had pulled up in a van, signed up as volunteers, and were asked to participate in the training that every Occupy Sandy volunteer goes through. “We want to make sure everyone has a grounding in anti-oppression principles,” she told me. Eventually, I was given a name of a man, not pictured in the photo, who brought the men in question to Occupy Sandy in the first place: Sgt. Karl Heidenreich, formerly of the New York Guard, now 1st Sgt. of the Oneonta JobCorps military cadet program. Heidenreich was very clear to note that the men pictured are not National Guard.

JobCorps is a trade school-like program run by the Department of Labor. Essentially, the military cadet program is like an ROTC for those participating in JobCorps. Participants might be interested in a military career, or they might be just trying it out. But they’re not US military. The uniforms on the three men pictured are no longer in use, Heidenreich explained, and probably look disheveled from the four-hour car ride he and the 12 cadets who volunteered that day took to Brooklyn.

So why’d they end up at Occupy Sandy? Corbin’s speculation to me that there wasn’t anywhere else for them to volunteer seems accurate, from what Heidenriech said. “I spent a week on the phone with the Red Cross and Salvation Army and got nowhere,” he said. Describing the Red Cross as an “impenetrable wall of bureaucracy, even in the face of devastation,” Heidenriech turned to other visible volunteer groups. Occupy Sandy called him back in a half hour, he said, and got his group an assignment in under an hour. “They have it together,” he said. “It was an honor to work with them.”

His cadets spent from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. volunteering on Coney Island, where they carried food, supplies, and other aid to residents trapped without heat or electricity in high rises damaged in the storm. They’ll be back, too, he said, some time after Thanksgiving. “We plan on coming down every few weeks, until things are back to normal,” he said. They’d make more trips if the four-hour drive to and from Oneonta wasn’t so onerous.

Despite the misidentification of the men in the photo, the story behind it confirms, rather than confounds, the reach of Occupy Sandy’s relief work beyond the movement’s immediate circle of influence. The men are there because of a failure of larger relief groups like the Red Cross and Salvation Army, something that’s been a running theme in coverage of the post-Sandy cleanup and relief work in New York. While it certainly does not show military men taking orders from an Occupy organizer, it does show the effectiveness of Occupy Sandy’s ability to get volunteers out in the field regardless of their previous involvement with or understanding of the Occupy Wall Street movement’s principles. And crucially, for those who care more about getting the work recovering from a disaster done than about a humanitarian aid version of a locker-room contest, the effectiveness of Occupy Sandy’s organizing as a volunteer and supply dispatch point in the wake of the storm has produced a space in which the ironic tableau spotted and photographed by Welz last weekend will likely become less and less unusual.

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Abby Ohlheiser is a staff writer at The Atlantic Wire. She also contributes to the New Humanist and the Revealer