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.

Getty
Show Hide image

There is one thing Donald Trump can't build a wall against

Muslim immigrants don't bring terrorism - ideology does. 

Rather than understanding the root of the Islamist extremist issue and examining the global scale of the challenge, one US presidential candidate has decided to pin his domestic security hopes on the demonisation of a particular group of people. 
 
The arrest of Ahmad Khan Rahami over the recent New York bombing, an Afghan-born naturalised US citizen, proved too tantalising an opportunity for the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to once again conflate terrorism and immigration. Taking aim at his rival Hillary Clinton, Trump claimed that she “wants to allow hundreds of thousands of these same people", people who he described as having hatred and sickness in their hearts.
 
It is unclear who exactly Mr Trump is referring to here, one can only assume that it is a reference to Muslims, more specifically those not born in the US, and their apparent deep-rooted hatred for all things American. These comments will no doubt strengthen support for his campaign among those who have remained supportive of his overtly anti-Muslim stance, but the reality is that Mr Trump is rather missing the point.
 
Trump’s insistence on profiling Muslims as a measure to curb terrorism is not merely offensive; it reinforces the "us versus them" rhetoric used by the very terrorists he is trying to defeat.
 
The attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando earlier this year was described as the deadliest mass shooting by a single attacker in American history. Omar Mateen, the perpetrator, was not an immigrant. Born in New York, Mateen was an American citizen by birth. This, however, did not stop him from killing dozens of innocent people and wounding many more. 
 
One of the most influential jihadi ideologues, certainly in the Western world, was in fact an American. Not a naturalised citizen, but a born American, Anwar al-Awlaki was a central figure in the propaganda output of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula. Awlaki’s ideas are reported to have been a significant factor in the radicalisation of the Tsarnaev brothers, the perpetrators of the deadly Boston Marathon bombing. 
 
Putting the spotlight on immigration as the most effective means to curb terrorism ignores the real problem; the ideology. The poisonous, divisive, and intolerant mindset that is at the heart of the matter is the real culprit. This ideology, which presents itself as a "true" reflection of Islam is nothing more than a politically motivated worldview that seeks to spread hatred and violence. 
 
Research from the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics has shown that those individuals who buy into this worldview come from a multitude of backgrounds. Some are from poor backgrounds while others are from more affluent ones, some are well-educated while others aren’t. The truth is that there is no prototype terrorist - the common denominator, however, is that they share an ideology. Focusing on immigration as a source for terrorists fails to acknowledge the wide and varied pool from which they recruit.
 
The ideology, which perverts the shared religious heritage that 1.6bn Muslims around the world hold dear, is not simply a threat to the US, but to the world over. There is no wall high enough, no trench deep enough, and no bomb big enough to destroy this ideology. 
 
While the focus on Isis conjures images of the Middle East, this year alone we have witnessed deadly attacks committed by the group including Indonesia, Bangladesh, France, Germany, and Belgium. The ideology that drives the violence is transnational; it’s a global threat that necessitates a global response.
 
The transnational appeal and threat of this ideology is evident with the recent phenomena of online radicalisation. Men and women, boys and girls, have been lured by these ideas from the safety of their own homes, with these powerful ideas moving some to join causes in lands they have never visited. 
 
Recent attacks in France, Germany, and indeed the US, have demonstrated how items that can be obtained ordinarily, such as vehicles and knives, are being weaponised to cause maximum damage. But would a ban on knives and trucks be the solution? The only effective means for defeating terrorists is by challenging and dismantling their ideological appeal, effectively sapping the substance that fuels the violence.
 
Mr Trump, who may become Commander-in-Chief of the world’s most formidable army, must recognise that we are engaged in a battle of ideas, similar to that of the Cold War. A battle in which opposing worldviews are key, words are important, and taking control of the narrative is paramount.
 
In this battle of ideas, Mr Trump is not only hampering the global efforts against groups like Isis and its ilk, but actually reinforcing the ideas put forward by the extremists. Our leaders should not mirror the intolerant attitudes of our enemies or echo their binary worldview. 
Though, when it comes to the Republican candidate, his past statements on the topic indicate, perhaps, that this aim is overly ambitious.
 
Our response must be clear and robust, but we must first acknowledge who, or what, the enemy is. Muslims coming to the US are not the enemy, Muslims born in America are not the enemy, the enemy is the poisonous ideology that has manipulated Islam.
 
Defeating this transnational ideology requires alliances, not alienation. Mr Trump has expressed his commitment to work with allies in the Middle East to fight terrorism, but it is just as important to foster good relations with American Muslims. They can, and should, play an integral role in defeating Islamist extremism at home.

Mubaraz Ahmed is an analyst at the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics. He tweets at @MubarazAhmed.