Blood and thunder: New York after Hurricane Sandy

It’s no accident that the original Occupy Wall Street organisers were among the first to set up and co-ordinate volunteering efforts.

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 now, two 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 11 September, 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.

Occupy Sandy Relief information 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.

This post originally appeared here on Laurie's personal blog.

New York is beginning to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy. Photograph: Getty Images

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

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.