Tag Archives: occupy wall street

Blood and thunder: New York after Hurricane Sandy

In the forty-eight hours since I landed in the United States, flying into storm-torn Brooklyn just days after a bunch of cars floated down Wall Street, nobody has mentioned the election to me once. You know, the presidential election, the one that’s happening in – what is it, three days? Right now, New Yorkers have more important things on their minds. 

Access to food, fuel and electricity, for a start. People who do have these things are opening up their homes to friends and strangers who don’t. Across the city, volunteers are packing cars and heading to the disaster zones of Red Hook and the Rockaways, as well as to Staten Island, the borough worst-hit when Hurricaine Sandy battered through to flatten homes and devastate lives.

Like I said, nobody’s talking about the election. The island I always privately think of as Starship Manhattan spent days cut off from the rest of the city, all of the lights out for days under 34th street, basements choked with brackish water, old people stranded in their homes. There’s an actual crisis taking place: houses have been destroyed, lives lost. The eighteen-month media circus that passes for representative politics in this country seems worlds away from the women in Staten island weeping in front of the remains of their family homes on the nightly news. 

It being practically impossible for anyone without a car and a full tank of fuel to cross the city, I’ve just come back from volunteering down the street at the Williamsburg Church emergency blood drive. Right now New York is in a blood crisis. When the hospitals were evacuated during the storm, there was no time to collect the blood left in storage banks when the power went out, and by the time they got everyone to safety, that blood had rotted. Now they need new blood desperately. 

When me and my friend Veronica Varlow went down to the Church to open our veins for the cause, I was told that my tangy British blood was not acceptable because I might be riddled with mad cow disease ( this from people who haven’t even read my Twitter feed). They did, however, need volunteers to help shepherd those donors who were waiting patiently in line for up to three hours to hand over pints of superior all-American haemoglobin. So, I pinned on a badge and spent a few hours buzzing around filling out forms for people, cleaning tables and chairs, handing out snacks and tea and generally making myself useful. Even doing something so small to help the people helping to rebuild the city felt powerful.

Blood: when disasters happen, I’m always struck by the readiness with which people queue up to restock the banks of blood, platelets, plasma. In the days after September 11, 2001, the donation centres had to start turning people away, and indeed, here at the Williamsburg Church we’re doing the same thing, the donation line already thirty people deep, running around with sign-up sheets where eager donors can leave their name and number in case we need more blood tomorrow. 

There’s something so tender about that impulse. Sure, it says, we could raise money or go and help pump water out of basements in the Lower East Side, but wouldn’t it be simpler just to give you this part of my own body that was pumping in my heart five minutes ago? I’m pretty sure that if the New York blood centre were to put the call out tomorrow asking people to donate a pound of flesh cut from the chest closest to the heart because someone stranded on Staten Island needs it, there’d be plenty of volunteers, and not all of them would be kinky Shakespeare fetishists.

When there’s a crisis on, people want to help.  Running around with the snack basket I was reminded of the floods of volunteers who gave their time, money and expertise to the Occupy camps last year. Practical anarchism. Everyone so keen to do whatever they could to help. Not just the kids from all over the country who kicked in their lives to sleep in the cold and be multiply arrested in the name of a better future, but the shop owners who shipped out their spare produce. The trained nurses who turned up to administer basic medical care to those who had none. The parents who donated freshly-baked pies and soups to the kitchens. The librarians and academics who created an enormous library that, almost a year ago, I watched the NYPD rip apart and hurl into dumpster trucks, just because it was messing up their nice clean corporate dead-zone. 

It’s no accident that the original Occupy Wall Street organisers were among the first to set up and co-ordinate volunteering efforts across New York. The group, which has drifted in recent months, immediately set about organising teams and transportation to the worst-hit areas.The Zucotti Park protest camp which was evicted last November and the enormous post-Sandy volunteer effort going on this week are different expressions of the same thing: overwhelming human response to crisis. 

Crisis is what people in the United States have been living with for at least four years. Active emergency, turning people out of their homes and into the cold, destroying lives. It’s not crass to compare a climate disaster to a juddering crisis of capitalism, because the two are connected, not least because those most responsible are also those most likely to be cosily tucked away in gated compounds shrugging their shoulders when the storm hits. Like the crash, Hurricane Sandy hit the poorest hardest, smashing through Staten Island and the Rockaways while the lights stayed on on the Upper East Side. 

Nobody expected it to be quite this bad. Last year’s Hurricane Irene was bearable for most. But what I’m seeing here, at least in Brooklyn where I’ve been stuck for two days, is a city coming out of a six-month paralysis: finally, there’s a concrete task that people can put their hands to. Sarah Jaffe’s brilliant piece at Jacobin draws attention to Rebecca Solnit’s work on the communities that arise in disaster zones: 

“There’s a particular opportunity for mutual aid in the void in the aftermath of disaster, particularly in a neoliberal state whose safety net has been shredded, where the state simply isn’t there and people step up to take care of each other (not “themselves” as our libertarian friends would have it, and not the rich handing out charity as Mitt Romney wants you to believe, but communities in solidarity). The idea of mutual aid was at the foundation of Occupy as much as the much-debated horizontalism and the opposition to the banks.”

Volunteerism, of course, can be regressive as well as radical. I am reminded of those “broom armies” in London in the middle of the August riots last year, the sea of white, middle-class faced holding up brooms they’d brought to unfamiliar areas of the city, the sweet intention to mop up after a disaster tempered by the idea that the kids from deprived areas who came out to fight the police could just be swept away like so much filth. Like any desperate human impulse, volunteerism can easily be coopted, twisted into something violent, calcifying.

Greece, where I spent part of my summer documenting the human effects of economic collapse, isn’t the only developed country where people have been living in crisis for so long they are starting to numb down and accept it. As Imara Jones pointed out in the Guardian today, 50 million Americans, the same number as those in the states hardest-hit by Hurricane Sandy, are living in acute poverty, and nobody in the presidential race has deigned to talk to or about them, despite the fact that they also have votes.

 How do we respond to crisis when crisis has become status quo? That’s the question facing the entire developed world this year, and neither of the men jostling to lead the nominally free world appear to have any sort of answer. The Occupy Sandy operation is not an answer, either, not even the shadow-play of an answer, but it is deeply radical and compassionate. That means someone’s probably going to try to shut it down reasonably soon, especially if it continues to provide food and assistance to the needy after the floodwaters have receded. A community response to immediate external crisis can be spun as good PR for an administration, but a community response to structural, internal crisis is just embarrassing. In every case, though, the most dangerous thing you can do in any crisis  – the absolute worst thing you can possibly do – is sit at home and accept it.

Back to blood. Funny thing about blood: until the 1970s, America used to buy it. Blood donation, as the United States quickly discovered, is not something you want to inject with a market incentive when you have to juggle things like infection risks and supply shortages. All that changed when Richard Titmus’ book ‘The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy’ was published in 1971, explaining why the values of public service beat the private market every time when it comes to social care. The private market in American blood was regulated until it became something like the British voluntary model – people coming in to open their veins for a biscuit and a cup of coffee, just because somebody else needs their blood more than they do. Quite a lot of my job at billyburg church today was handing out packets of Oreos to younguns waiting in line to do just that –  I still have no damn idea who donated those biscuits – and telling the people massing at the door that no, we have all the blood we need for today, thank you, come back tomorrow. 

“There is in the free gift of blood to unnamed strangers no contract of custom, no legal bond, no functional determinism, no situations of discriminatory power, domination, constraint or compulsion, no sense of shame or guilt,” wrote Titmus. “In not asking for or expecting any payment of money, these donors signified their belief in the willingness of other men to act altruistically in the future.” There is still enough blood beating in the cynical hearts of New Yorkers to pound out an immediate, compassionate response to crisis. Today that gives me hope.

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Occupy Sandy Relief information here – http://interoccupy.net/occupysandy/ – put together by the good folks at OWS, contains all you need to know about what you can do to help.

NYC Blood Drive list of donation centres and times.

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What happened to Occupy? The police! [for The Independent].

I wrote this feature for the Independent today – there wasn’t space for them to include the full piece in the paper, so here it is. Good luck to everyone taking part in #S17 today, I’ll be there bright and early.

***

Rina can’t sleep. It’s two-thirty in the morning and on Wall Street, on a small strip of pavement outside Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan, about fifty people are sleeping rough. They are rolled in blankets and sleeping bags, their hoods pulled up around their ears against the drone of traffic and far-away sirens. One police car is on patrol to keep an eye on them. They smoke and ask passers-by for water. Some of them are a bit grubby. A slogan chalked on the pavement reads “the dirty ones are on Wall Street.”

There’s a point being made with this strategic sleeping. “Look, here in the heart of the financial district of the richest city on earth there is still the puzzling problem of homelessness,” says Rina, who is 19 and wearing pyjamas under her dress. “There are abandoned spaces in urban centres all over America, and yet people still don’t have homes. Why is that?” 

One year ago, a few feet down the road, Occupy Wall Street began – the first protest camp at Zucotti park igniting a wave of anti-capitalist, anti-austerity protests across the world, from Melbourne to London. Tonight it’s just these few sleepers, and one reporter, me, where a year ago you couldn’t move for press. What happened between then and now?

Contrary to popular opinion, Occupy never entirely went away. There are still hundreds of people across New York, and thousands across America and Europe, whose lives are still devoted to what became known as the Occupy ‘movement’, most of them very young and socially precarious. Many gave up everything to be part of the occupations that sprang up across the world, and now they have nowhere else to go.

In the city where it all started, regular meetings still take place, and organising is going on in the boroughs, but media interest has dwindled. Celebrities and big brands are no longer falling over themselves to access this twist in the zeitgeist: radical is no longer chic. Last week, multi-millionaire rapper Jay-Z, who cashed in at the height of the Occupations with T-shirts reading “Occupy All Streets,” told the New York Times that he never really knew what the whole thing was about anyway.

Across the world, the question being asked in time for the anniversary is: “What happened to Occupy?” The question implies that the occupations simply drifted. It implies, falsely, that the activists involved involved lost interest and lacked direction.

But none of the major camps disbanded of their own accord: all of them, from New York to London and beyond, were evicted by force, with batons and tear gas and hundreds of arrests, by police forces bent on ensuring that sustained dissent against big banks and government-imposed austerity would not be allowed to continue. Without police intervention, would the protest camps – some of which withstood blizzards – still be standing? Somehow, our collective memory has refused to accommodate that possibility. Somehow it’s easier to believe that the hippies just got bored.

“Support from the mainstream has slowly dwindled, and it’s dwindled for the wrong reasons,” says Logan Price, a longstanding organiser with Occupy and radical groups in America. “The police had a carte blanche to do whatever they wanted to, and acted within the interests of the Mayors and Homeland Security, to go and break up the occupations and never let them come back. Here in New York, it’s become normal that every time anybody tries to protest, the police will react heavy-handedly. In effect, the right to civil assembly has been suspended in New York.”

Back outside Wall Street, another young man is being arrested. His crime was knocking on the window of the police car to wake up an officer who had fallen asleep on the job, at which point five more police officers swooped down to cuff him and take him away. The noise wakes most of the sleepers: those on their feet yell “we love you, Will!”

Will is one of the first activists to be arrested during the days of action planned for the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, which include plans to surround the New York Stock Exchange this morning. Hundreds are flocking to New York to take part in actions that include plans to surround the New York Stock Exchange this morning, and the officers of and the officers of the NYPD are waiting for them. In the past year over 7,500 activists have been arrested for being involved in peaceful Occupy actions in America alone, drawing criticism from across the world, including from the UN’s “special rapporteur” for the protection of free expression, Frank La Rue, who said crackdowns appeared to be violating the demonstrators’ human and constitutional rights.

“I wouldn’t vote in this election even if I could,” says one protester, who just turned seventeen and gives his name only as ‘Envy’. “This election is kinda funny. It seems like we can either choose going downhill gradually, or going downhill fast.” He sits swinging his feet off the scaffolding, a young black man without a secure future watching the police drag away another young black man without a secure future for the crime of demanding one. It wouldn’t be an unusual sight in the deprived boroughs on the outer edge of Brooklyn. This, however, is the Financial District.

“In the beginning, Occupy was a sanctuary, a safe haven for me,” says Envy, grinning at the memory; he has multiple piercings that sparkle when his face moves. He tells me about dropping out of school because there didn’t seem to be any point and going back because now there does, now he has experienced a loving community and something to fight for. “I will never forget my sixteenth year, ever.”

Franklin, Envy’s on-off boyfriend, a burly white kid in a baseball cap from Boston, has finished yelling ‘shame’ at the police. The pair of them met at Occupy Washington a year ago; there are lots of reasons why young people might need to leave home and find sanctuary, and most of them are political. “Do you love me?” says Franklin, popping his head between Envy and the tape recorder and kissing him.

“Yeah,” says Envy, shyly. 

In ten years’ time when people tell the story of Occupy Wall Street, I hope it will include this. Not a great big story, but a constellation of small stories, of lost kids finding each other, of old campaigners finding a purpose, a great coming-together of the anxious and angry, not all of it utopian. 

One of the police officers who just arrested Will comes back to remonstrate with the sleepers camped on the sidewalk. “People are trying to sleep around here,” he says. The occupiers tell him that they are being robbed by the people across the street at the Stock Exchange, and could he possibly deal with it? The officer tells them all to keep down. He says, it’s been a year. He says, the police have been more than patient with you people. Please, please just be quiet now.