After the Storm: the Mood Turns Angry
Bronx, New York, November 3, 2012
A watery sun cast its feeble light over New York this morning, after a week of desperation, darkness and cold. The people of this great city are awakening as in a morning after a nightmare. But the sun’s rays bring no real relief. Clear, cloudless nights herald the coming of the cold. And two-and-a-half million people are still without heat, lighting or proper cooking facilities. Many have been without food. Everyone is without gasoline.
The initial reaction was one of shocked disbelief. Hurricanes were things that were supposed to happen in Cuba and Haiti, or in any case in Florida and New Orleans. They were not supposed to happen in New York.
Ethel Liebeskind of Merrick, NY, told the New York Times, as she stood in the storm-tossed ruins of the house she had lived in for 26 years. “This is as bad as Katrina,” she said, “and they got global attention. The South Shore of Long Island should be treated the same way. Don’t forget us on the South Shore of Long Island. We need help.”
One New Yorker said to me: “I lived though 9/11. It was bad but not as bad as this. It really only affected Lower Manhattan. This includes the entire N.Y. Metropolitan area—that is around 18 million people.”
People are standing in line for free meals and gasoline. The lines outside the gas stations can stretch as far as 30 blocks in Brooklyn. Tired and frustrated motorists have been waiting two hours or more only to be told “Sorry, we’re out of gas.” In the whole New York area, patience is wearing thin.
Petra Marfil, 35, of Newark, NJ, had been parked for hours outside an empty Lukoil Station there, hoping for a delivery to fill up her minivan. “I’ve been looking for gas since Wednesday,” she said, adding that her house has no power. “I am cold, hungry. It’s been frustrating.”
Plaintive hand-lettered signs have appeared in stricken areas with messages like: “FEMA please help us.” FEMA is the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But Mayor Bloomberg in his wisdom had told FEMA that its help was not needed.
In the past there have been many hurricanes, but they have never hit New York with such devastating force as this. A few miles to the south and things would have been very different. It is well known that necessity expresses itself through accidents. Hurricane Sandy was an accident, in the sense that it was an event that might have happened but equally might not.
But Sandy did strike, and with unbelievable violence. And it immediately exposed the ugly realities that lay beneath the glittering surface of American capitalism. In a land where inequality has increased to obscene proportions, it is the poor people who have to suffer most from these “acts of God,” while the rich are unaffected, as if they live in a different world, which, to tell the truth, they do.
At a moment when large parts of Manhattan were plunged in darkness, the Goldman Sachs building was resplendent with light. This little detail indicates the gulf that divides the whole of American society. And as the details of this inequality have emerged, the mood of shock has given way to angry complaints of neglect and unequal treatment.
The storm’s U.S. death toll rose to 110 across nine states, the largest number being centered in the New York City area. On Staten Island, where a wall of water slammed into the city on Monday night, rescuers have just pulled two bodies from another house in the Midland Beach neighborhood, bringing to 41 the official death count.
Desperation and anger are particularly intense on Staten Island, the city’s forgotten borough. People hauling ruined furniture and trash onto the street are bitterly critical of the government and relief agencies for not arriving fast enough.
Five days after the event the mood is changing. Emotions are frayed almost to breaking point as more and more bodies are dragged from the ruins. Where before there was shock now there is anger. The cold fury that has been slowly building up beneath the surface needed a focal point, and found it in the person of a single individual: Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Mayor Bloomberg’s marathon mishap
Billionaire Michael R. Bloomberg was once a Democrat, then a Republican, but is now an Independent. That is to say, he is completely independent of the people of New York, but utterly dependent on big business interests. Like the ladies and gentlemen who move vast amounts of money in the warm and well-lit premises of Goldman Sachs, the Mayor has no knowledge of the lives and problems of the ordinary New Yorkers. Like them, he has other priorities—mainly how to make a lot of money.
The Mayor understood that an excellent way of making a lot of money was by hosting the New York Marathon. The Marathon has taken place every year since 1970, including the race in 2001 held two months after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Besides, it was projected to bring in $340 million—a figure certainly not to be sneezed at.
Therefore, in the midst of this major disaster, the Mayor decided to strike a heroic pose. Wrapping himself in the mantle of Statesmanship, and hoping that nobody would notice the dollar bill signs plastered all over his toga, he sternly pronounced: “The Show Must Go On!”
In addition to the money, here was an excellent opportunity for self-promotion. Mayor Bloomberg very much liked the parallel to September 11 and saw himself in the role of the City’s Savior, so he asked the advice of former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. Mr. Giuliani encouraged him to stick with his original plan.
The Emperor Nero is said to have played his lyre and recited Greek poetry as Rome burned. The Emperor Bloomberg sang paeans of praise to the Spirit of the Marathon, while New York struggled to its feet amidst darkness, hunger and cold.
While thousands of families in devastated neighborhoods had no power, the people could see hundreds of generators lying idly behind barbed wire barriers awaiting the arrival of the marathon runners.
This one gesture summed up in people’s minds all the arrogant contempt that the wealthy elite have towards the majority. One indignant woman said of the Mayor: “He is sitting in there warm and dry while we are out here freezing our butts off. He is delusional!”
For days, the Mayor, a man noted for his mule-like stubbornness and arrogance, refused to abandon this position, which appeared almost as a calculated provocation. He insisted on going ahead with the race, saying it would “signal that the city was back to normal.” That is to say—Business as usual—the business of making money.
He only changed his mind at the eleventh hour, when Marathon runners from around the world had already arrived in New York, having received repeated assurances from the Mayor that the event would continue. He changed his mind because he had no alternative.
Critics said that it would be in poor taste to hold a foot race through the five boroughs while so many people in the area were still struggling to recover from the hurricane, and that city services should focus on storm relief, not the marathon. A petition from some marathoners called on runners to abandon the race and do volunteer work in hard-hit areas.
Behind the scenes, pressure was put on Bloomberg to back down. Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly and Deputy Mayors Howard Wolfson and Patricia E. Harris all argued for calling off the event.
A tearful spokeswoman from the Mayor’s office, made an appearance on television in which she announced “with an incredibly heavy heart” that the event would be cancelled. This was perhaps the most disgusting of all the disgusting scenes of the past few days.
This rich and privileged lady is “heartbroken” because of the cancellation of a race. But millions of ordinary families have lost their homes, they have had small children swept out of their arms and drowned, they have lost mothers, fathers, brother, and sisters, and many are still shivering and hungry in houses with no power. They are the ones who have reason to be broken hearted.
The real reason for the cancellation was fear. The anger had turned to fury. One rescue worker commented bitterly: “We are still dragging dead bodies out of the water, and they plan to run through the streets disrupting the traffic.” The near unanimous outrage at the holding of the race reached such a pitch that if it had gone ahead there was a serious risk of a social explosion.
There can be no doubt that such a step would have provoked widespread disturbances on the streets. Imagine what could have happened if angry people attacked the runners or otherwise disrupted the race. What would the police do? Could they afford to appear on the television screens of the nation and the world beating up homeless and desperate people?
Solidarity and the need
Bloomberg said that “most” of Manhattan would have power again by midnight Friday. That may be the case, but other parts of the city were still in the dark. These, he said, would have to wait “a lot longer.” The mayor himself, like Goldman Sachs, did not have to wait at all.
Power utilities say it could take a week or more to fully restore electricity to affected customers, including service stations and terminal operators. The biggest outages were in New Jersey and New York. Each state had more than 1.2 million customers without electricity, the U.S. Department of Energy said. In the meantime, millions of people are shivering in the dark as temperatures continue to fall.
This afternoon we walked along Fifth Avenue, a sleek part of town, which appears unaffected by any of this tragedy. In these elegant towering blocks of apartments, the wealthy citizens enjoy the fruits of other people’s labor while in the streets below, crowded with early Christmas shoppers, the stores are piled high with luxury goods. Here is no hunger, darkness or despair.
The one bright ray of hope in this whole disastrous situation is the way in which ordinary people have been rallying to help their brothers and sisters. This morning in the elevator we met a woman who told us without any prompting that she had four evacuees in her apartment. It is not an isolated case.
Tens-of-thousands of people have volunteered to participate in the vast task of cleaning up, helping people get on their feet, distributing food and other supplies. Many of the would-be Marathon runners have volunteered. Even a blind woman was distributing food to needy people on the streets.
Moved by a totally unselfish dedication to helping others, ordinary New Yorkers are displaying all that is noble in the human spirit. This is the true face of the human race. The narrow egotism of the bourgeois, the vicious creed that tells us that the only way to progress is to trample others underfoot, is only a repulsive expression of the so-called values of capitalism.
This mass solidarity movement was entirely spontaneous. Nobody called it into being. Nobody has organized it. Nobody finances it. And it gives the lie to the claim, so often heard, that human beings are naturally selfish. This revolting libel on the human race has been carefully fostered as a “theoretical” justification of capitalism, with its ugly creed of egotism, summed up in the slogan: “every man for himself, and let the devil take the hindermost.”
Meanwhile, the crisis in New York has impacted on the election campaign. With the vote due on Tuesday [November 6] and both candidates apparently running neck and neck, Romney and Obama are vying with each other to show who has the most concern for the stricken people of that city.
Obama has most to gain. As the current occupant of the White House, he can put on his best Presidential airs, and appear to be moving heaven and earth to help. Late on Friday, the White House said the Defense Logistics Agency would buy up to 12 million gallons of unleaded fuel and up to 10 million gallons of diesel fuel and send it by tanker trucks to communities affected by the storm. The federal government also said Friday it will lend diesel fuel from a strategic stockpile to emergency agencies to help keep supply trucks, power generators and water pumps running.
The Department of Homeland Security said it was suspending laws so tankers can move fuel quickly from Gulf Coast refineries to the Northeast. Two million barrels of gas have been delivered so far, according to Rear Admiral Daniel Abel, the region’s Coast Guard commander. A fleet of tankers carrying gasoline is on the way, so the gas shortages would diminish. And FEMA has been finally mobilized to get food, water and other basic necessities to the stricken areas.
FEMA said the federal government is providing hundreds of generators for “critical infrastructure sites and fuel stations.” On its blog, the agency said it is getting ready to set up fuel-distribution centers in hard-hit areas to get supplies flowing faster.
Romney, despite all his attempts to appear compassionate, has a slight problem here. He was in favor of abolishing FEMA altogether. This champion of free market economics does not believe in encouraging people to depend on state “handouts.” Every American must learn to do without government services. Every American must stand on his or her own feet. Every American, that is, except the bankers who have received over a trillion dollars of public money as a reward for destroying the world’s financial system.
Hurricane Sandy has cruelly exposed the deficiencies of capitalism. A nationalized planned economy cannot prevent hurricanes and other natural disasters, but it can most certainly reduce their destructive effects to a minimum. A rationally planned and democratically controlled system of house building would never have allowed the kind of uncontrolled speculation that builds apartments next to beaches in areas that have the potential for tropical storms. As one New Yorker commented to me: “Beaches ought to be for swimming, not massive housing projects.”
Even the very limited state intervention of FEMA shows the superiority of a centrally planned economy over the primitive chaos of the so-called free market economics. If the USA had had a rational economic system, harmoniously planned for the satisfaction of human needs instead of the dog-eat-dog system of capitalism, New York would never have had to suffer what it is suffering now.
—Socialist Appeal, November 4, 2012