Adam Welz's Weblog

Occupy Sandy, the (not) National Guard & the misuse of a photo I made while helping out after the hurricane

Posted in ALL BLOG POSTS, random bits, Uncategorized by adamwelz on November 11, 2012

UPDATE 12 Nov 2012: Strike Debt have, unethically and without permission, used my image again on their facebook page (see below). They have ignored repeated requests via Twitter, Facebook and email to remove the photo and apologize for their unethical use of it. They are also soliciting cash donations on their website without saying who they are and how such donations will be audited, if at all. I’d like to remind readers that do-gooder schemes can be a great cover for fraud, especially if the people collecting the cash are nameless and the donations are not transparently audited. Donate to Strike Debt at your own risk.

UPDATE 13 Nov 2012: Following a request to facebook, my photograph has been removed from Strike Debt’s facebook profile.

UPDATE 15 Nov 2012: I’ve been reliably informed that the young men in military uniform in my photo that went viral on facebook & twitter are cadets from the Oneonta Job Corps, a training program for low-income youth. They drove 4 hours each way to help old people in storm-damaged accomodation in Coney Island. Strike Debt have yet to apologise for their misleading and unethical use of the photograph.


Yesterday, Saturday 11 November 2012, I helped out with the Occupy Sandy relief effort as part of a group put together by the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective.

I met my teammates at the Church of St Luke & St Matthew at 520 Clinton Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, one of Occupy Sandy’s major hubs. The church is a collection point for relief goods and a co-ordination and meeting place for volunteers.

View from the pulpit of Church of St. Luke & St. Matthew, 520 Clinton Ave., Brooklyn, New York, USA, showing relief supplies collected by Occupy Sandy. 10 Nov 2012 ©Adam Welz

All new volunteers who arrive at 520 Clinton Avenue are asked to participate in a brief orientation session with an Occupy Sandy organizer, during which the goals and philosophy of the effort are clarified; Occupy Sandy is non-discriminatory, is about mutual aid rather than charity, and so on.

While I was in the church a group of men in military uniform arrived to help. I was told that they were National Guard. Like other new volunteers, they participated in an orientation session. Given the recent history of men in uniform arresting thousands of Occupy activists, the irony of men in uniform listening attentively to a young woman** with an Occupy armband did not escape me. I took a photo with my smartphone and, soon after, tweeted it***. Very few people retweeted this tweet.

Men in US military uniform participate in a volunteer orientation session with an Occupy Sandy organizer, 520 Clinton Ave, Brooklyn, NY, USA. 10 Nov 2012 ©Adam Welz

My wife, @sarahgeline, also tweeted it out from her account – including my Twitter handle @AdamWelz in the tweet – from where it was retweeted numerous times, including by @OccupySandy.

Shortly afterwards, though, things got a little interesting: My photo was posted to an page without without attribution and with the sides of the image cropped away, by user StrikeDebt.

It was then tweeted out near-simultaneously by @OccupyWallSt – implying that the same entity was in control of StrikeDebt’s uploads to and the @OccupyWallSt Twitter account.

Twitter user @StrikeDebt then retweeted the @OccupyWallSt tweet and additionally broadcast its own tweet with the link to the cropped, unattributed version of my photo with the statement “Next to @OccupySandy the Nat Guard looks like an unorganized heap”.

Strike Debt also posted the photo on their facebook page, along with a couple of gently mocking comments. (By 18:45 on Sunday 11 November, when I took this screenshot, it had already received in excess of 500 shares)

Since my image of the men in military uniform and the Occupy Sandy organizer may well have been seen by hundreds of thousands of people at this point, I think it’s important (with a nod to Julian Assange) to maintain the integrity of the historical record and make clear that I did not grant permission to @StrikeDebt to use my photograph. @StrikeDebt did not ask to do this and I would not have granted it, given the words that were tweeted alongside the link to it and the fact that they seem willing to claim credit for images that they didn’t make.

I think that cropping the volunteers in civilian dress out of the picture image makes it look like the men in military uniform were alone in receiving special training from the Occupy Sandy organizer, when they were just participating in the regular, brief orientation along with other volunteers. They were not in any way under the command of the Occupy Sandy organizer.

I think that saying that the “National Guard” looked like “an unorganized heap” is misleading. While I was in the church at 520 Clinton these men — who are in fact not National Guard (see UPDATE 3 above and additions below) — were polite, waited their turn in line just like other volunteers and followed orders from the man who appeared to be their leader. I felt that they were there to help in a spirit of service, like the many other volunteers from all walks of life who have contributed their time, ideas and labor with Occupy Sandy.

I think it’s also fair to say that the scene inside 520 Clinton among the Occupy Sandy crew was the mixture of organization and disorganization one expects from an effort with no clear leaders and where everyone is a volunteer. There was a well-organized group of people allocating drivers and vehicles to destinations with lists of relief supplies that were needed. The people handing out relief goods to volunteers were sharp and fast-moving. But it took almost half an hour for the a human chain to that was moving relief goods from the church to waiting UPS trucks outside to get into its stride.

After helping out in Coney Island by going from door-to-door in a high-rise  public housing block that has been without power since Hurricane Sandy roared through, I feel that there is still a significant need for the type of fast-moving, one-on-one relief that Occupy Sandy is providing.

Medical clinic staffed by volunteers operating out of a modified shipping container, Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY, USA. 10 Nov 2012 ©Adam Welz

We encountered old or sick people who were trapped in their apartments because, with building elevators destroyed by the storm surge, they could not get down the pitch dark and thoroughly wet stairwells to the ground floor. Some were running out of vital medications. Due to ongoing leaks — water coming through ceilings and walls — many were developing respiratory problems. The fear and loneliness among some of them was palpable; one trapped woman was more grateful for the fact that we simply shook her hand and treated her with humanity than for the flashlights and medical information we’d assisted her with. There are still many flooded, wrecked cars in the streets, and heaps of flotsam and jetsam from the storm surge on the sidewalks.

Damage from Hurricane Sandy on W 31st Street, Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY, USA. 10 Nov 2012 ©Adam Welz

What Occupy Sandy has achieved is truly remarkable, but alienating National Guardsmen — or others in uniform — who are willing to get involved in an attempt to score a cheap point is not helpful to anyone.

I think the people in my photograph deserve a clear, wholehearted apology from @StrikeDebt.

I would also like @StrikeDebt to acknowledged my authorship of the cropped photo he/she/it/they posted without attribution, acknowledge their cropping and misuse of the image, apologize publicly on their website and remove it from any websites he/she/it/they have access to or control. Basic decency demands nothing less.

note: Any person or entity who would like to publish any of my images can leave a comment on this blog.

*I’ve also been told by militarily-informed sources that these men are *not* National Guard, but actually cadets participating in a ‘delayed entry’ military program, the details of which I’m not sure of, and therefore technically civilians. As you can see, there are no obvious rank insignia on the uniforms and the pattern is, according to my sources, out of date. I’ve updated this blog post to reflect that. There’s are lessons here: Don’t assume that everyone you see in the US in military uniform is, in fact, military.

** Various Occupy-related sites are naming the woman with the Occupy armband as Samantha Corbin, an Occupy Sandy organizer. I have not yet confirmed this.

*** Here’s the second use of my photo on Strike Debt’s facebook page. This time they’ve added a slogan.

**** Here’s my original tweet, which I have now removed from the Twitter feed because the men shown are, according to the best info I currently have, technically civilians, and it was still being retweeted more than a day after I posted it. My original tweet of the photo mistakenly referred to the church at 520 Clinton Avenue as ‘St Marks’. It is, of course, the Church of St Luke & St Matthew.