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:
This is Samantha Corbin an Occupy Sandy organizer, training the National Guard to go out and collaborate with the… fb.me/2wJ7Ts4Ol— OccupyLB (@OccupyLB) November 11, 2012
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 Ow.ly 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raised doubts about the identity of those men: Their uniforms had no badges on them, were a bit disheveled, and seemed out of date.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.