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Laurie Penny, on the streets with Bloomberg's "private army"

"Whose tweets? Our tweets!" Sometimes, only puns will do.

"Whose tweets? Our tweets!" Sometimes, only puns will do.

The Brookfield Winter Garden is the sort of aggressively bland corporate un-place where scuffles with the NYPD are not supposed to happen.

The financial district of New York is full of spaces like this: soulless private-public atriums full of force-grown unseasonal greenery, glistening 1980s marble and glaze-eyed commuters on their way to meetings. It's a place for "passive recreation" -- the stated function of Zucotti Park, also owned and run by Brookfield industries.

Absolutely nothing of emotional or political significance is ever supposed to happen here, ever. Right now, though, scores of members of the police force Mayor Bloomberg called his "private army" are arresting people seemingly at random just for looking like they might be working against the world's largest investment bank, rather than for it.

Just after eight in the morning, several hundred protesters from Occupy Wall Street had gathered in front of the headquarters of Goldman Sachs, banging drums, blearily slurping coffee and carrying a large, wobbly papier-mache squid. The latter was a reference to Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi's iconic denotion of the bank as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money".

Some of the protesters also wore homemade cardboard squid hats. Yeah, take that, everyone who used to be skeptical about radical writers' ability to change the world using only the power of humorous metaphor.

Black bloc it wasn't. But this wasn't New York's day of action, not really. The demonstration was called in solidarity with the workers and occupiers attempting to block major ports along the West Coast of America, many of which happen to be controlled by subsidiaries of the Goldman group. Which also owns much of America's university system. And the shipping industry. And your mortgage. And your soul.

The fact that angry chanting and heavy policing have become routine features of life in the financial district is perhaps only appropriate in a country where four million families have been made homeless by a banking industry that was recently rewarded for trashing the economy with trillions of dollars of public money.

After a noisily peaceful march around the Goldman building, which entirely failed to collapse like the walls of Jericho, some of the protesters broke off to march through the World Financial Centre, adjoining the Winter Garden Plaza. Which is when the police freaked the hell out.

Red-eyed, astonished businesspersons held up their smartphones like protective talismans as emissaries of the 99 per cent danced around the ornamental ferns. Police poured in as someone dropped a West Coast Solidarity banner above the escalators. Protesters stood and shouted "everybody pays their tax, everyone but Goldman Sachs" -- well, close enough, the company paid only one per cent tax in 2008 -- just a little too long. On the turn of a penny, the arrests began.

By now we're used to hearing about protesters being arrested for taking part in peaceful actions, but this is the first time I've truly witness young people being grabbed at random just for standing near a demonstration with a phone or camera.

At least two of the 18 arrestees were journalists, including Radio Dispatch's John Knefel, and it is pure luck that the officer who shoved me through the atrium doors, shouting "your turn now", when he saw me tweeting, did not decide to arrest me too. As citizen journalists and members of the marching band sat in the back of the police van, a chant started: "Whose tweets? Our tweets!"

In the face of this sort of paranoid over-protection of a degenerate financial elite, you have to pun, because otherwise you might put your fist through a wall.

Funnily enough, last week, when hundreds of protesters and local campaigners really did take over a foreclosed property in East New York technically belonging to Bank of America, Bloomberg's army was almost nowhere to be seen.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

REBECCA CONWAY/AFP/Getty Image
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What will it take for people to care about climate change?

A record-breaking heat wave in Rajasthan reveals how badly we lack the necessary infrastructure to cope with the human suffering climate change is already causing.

The question of whether or not climate change is real is rapidly becoming less urgent than what can be done to alleviate the human suffering it is causing. In Rajasthan, north-west India this week, the mercury hit 51 degrees celsius (123°F). That’s the hottest temperature on record in the country. Hospitals are swamped with patients suffering heatstroke and dehydration. The year’s harvest is shrivelling in the ground. People are cooking to death on public transport. Yesterday, a camel left alone in the sun went mad and chewed its owner’s head off. That’s how hot it is in Rajasthan right now. 

In rural areas, where there is no electricity, no fresh water, nothing to cool you but the breeze, citizens are demanding that the government take responsibility and offer relief, provide shelter, water and basic cooling facilities. That’s the sort of heroism that should be unnecessary in the middle of a heatwave: it takes enough energy to lobby local bureaucracy at the best of times, let alone when it’s hot enough that livestock have become homicidal. 

I’ve been obsessed with this story for days, because it’s my personal nightmare. I loathe the heat. The cold, at least, can usually be escaped; heat leaves me drained and frightened. I can’t sleep under duvets. I become a limp dishrag in summer, and temperatures of over thirty degrees celsius regularly see me with my head in an open refrigerator, cursing my grandparents’ decision to become citizens of a country that does not consider air conditioning a necessary artefact of civilisation. But air conditioning is also upsetting: when the merciful roar of the high-energy unit kicks in, you can practically hear the sizzling fossil fuels soothing you with the cool breeze of complicity. In the heat, all I can do is overthink. I would not cope in Rajasthan. I can barely cope with Brighton in July.

The British national sport of complaining about the weather is becoming increasingly insensitive. After three centuries of merrily conquering other nations and building bonfires out of their resources to light our way to a place of power in a burning world, we are still inhabiting one of the only landmasses where the weather isn't actively trying to kill us all the time. Pleasant as it is to carp and moan every time the temperature moves outside the ten-degree range I happen to find comfortable, the temperate, drizzle-through-the-sunshine British climate is pretty much as good as it gets, on a global scale. In fact, on that same global scale, Britain has some claim for having had the most benefit out of fossil fuels for the least climate cost. If we’re not going to cough up reparations, the least we can do is stop whining.

I mention all this for two reasons. Firstly, because the manifestations and implications of climate change are frightening wherever you happen to live, and I find sprinkle of weak humour makes the whole thing bearable, makes me less likely to panic and tap out of the entire discussion as something that's not relevant to me right now because for the meantime, at least, I’m comfy indoors and it’s raining outside.

Secondly, because when the lives and livelihoods of so many are at stake – when the topic for discussion is not tens or thousands but millions of people actually cooking in the unnatural heat – you run into a phenomenon that rationalists call “scope insensitivity”. Let’s say that my nightmare is overwhelming, inescapable heat. I can imagine, viscerally, physically, how it might feel to be trapped in a 51 degree outdoor oven. I can be scared and outraged that there are no emergency shelters being built, no cool water on offer, that so little is being done to alleviate that suffering, when I picture one, or two, or ten strangers sweltering through it. 

But the knowledge that the population of Rajasthan is 73.5 million does not make me 73.5 million times as frightened outraged. My heart cannot hold that much heat-terror. That’s not how the human heart is designed. And that’s what scope insensitivity is: on a species level, it is psychologically extremely difficult to summon the appropriate level of empathy and translate that empathy into action.

That doesn’t mean it’s not useful – vital – to try. Our understanding of urgency has got to scale up. Any useful response to the growing climate crisis will require precisely the sort of collective action on a global, state and local level that neoliberal governments around the world have turned their faces from, either actively destroying the necessary infrastructure to cope with human suffering or refusing to build it in the first place. In a burning world, the time has surely come for lifesaving infrastructure in which everyone is invested. 

As climate change becomes a reality for billions of people all over the world, what are the demands going to be? In Rajasthan, the immediate need is obvious: for tents, cold water, more reliable electricity, contingency plans to deal with coming food shortages, and better provision of amenities for rural communities. The longer-term need is much like everyone else’s: for the governments of the world to earmark enough resources to tackle the human effects of the inhuman weather we’re all going to be suffering through in the decades to come.

The question is no longer whether man-made climate change is actually a thing that’s happening. That’s not because the issue has been resolved in the minds of evangelical naysayers and their fuel tycoon besties. It’s because if you're standing in front of a burning house, the issue of who lit the match can be tabled for the meantime, while we decide how to get the kids out. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.