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.

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war