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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle