So-called advanced nations are never so advanced that they can stand up to the forces of nature. New York and New Jersey are just the latest examples of seemingly safe and “developed” places which were laid low by a change in the weather. Then again, things outside of human control can expose what was already present but kept hidden. Hurricane Sandy showed us that our society is in reality, not advanced at all.
After the hurricane struck the east coast, it was clear that the United States is nothing more than a failed state with a big military and a strong currency. There is nothing in place to help the masses of citizens in times of crisis. That is because the system isn’t meant to help them. It is meant to help certain individuals and corporations, and everyone else is on their own.
It is ironic that the storm struck just one week before election day. Presidential elections are occasions for Americans to take pride in their so-called democracy and their perceived superiority to the rest of the world. It should have been difficult to gloat this year, when the city of New York literally pulled the plug on housing authority residents, turning off electricity before the storm to force residents to evacuate.
Now one week later, many of them are still waiting for their power to be restored. The mayor said glibly that it will “take time” as another storm bears down and temperatures drop. Thousands of people are waiting on line to buy gasoline and evacuees have nowhere to go. While public officials struggled to restore infrastructure and take care of human beings, the parasites of the private sector had their hands out yet again.
The charitable organization most people were directed to was the Red Cross. That same Red Cross did nothing after receiving millions of dollars in donations during hurricane Katrina, yet is still forced down Americans’ throats as the only solution in every catastrophe. The borough president of Staten Island, righteously angry about Red Cross inaction, used the occasion of a press conference to tell the public to stop giving them money.
While the Red Cross collected more than $23 million dollars during a celebrity telethon but did nothing with the money, Occupy Sandy had no money yet managed to provide food, clothing and medical care to the hardest hit neighborhoods. The Occupy teams pumped water from damaged homes and even gave direction to the National Guard and FEMA teams. The least effective group got all the cash, but Occupy did the real work without help from the public or private sector.
The mayor and the governor held press conferences to thank each other and the now sainted “first responders,” while residents struggled to return to normalcy without gasoline for cars or access to public transportation. Mayor Bloomberg initially insisted on holding the annual marathon until he was forced to cancel because of public and political pressure. The corporate sponsored event, officially named the ING New York City Marathon, is his baby and he was dragged kicking and screaming to concede that it would have been at the very least impolitic to continue this frivolous tradition after more than 40 New Yorkers were killed.
New York was once a city that made room for everyone. Working people, migrants from the southern states and immigrants from all over the world used New York as their stepping stone to a better life. Now it is a city of, by and for the haves. It is the epicenter of inequality and displacement of the poor. Gentrification is taking place at a speedy pace, with an outflow of black residents being replaced on a one for one basis by white newcomers. While nearly all of the bragged about job growth in recent years has been in part-time, hourly work, those workers obviously didn’t get paid if they were unable to get to their jobs or if their employers weren’t operational.
The hurricane didn’t just reveal the under belly of inequality in New York, but also the corruption and dishonesty of American politics. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg bestowed a last minute endorsement on Barack Obama’s re-election effort. In part, he said, because Obama acknowledges the existence of the global warming which has caused an increase in extreme weather events. He certainly knows how to give lip service, but he has approved offshore oil drilling, and fracking, and drilling in fragile regions of Alaska. During the debates with Mitt Romney he bragged about how much gas drilling he ordered in federal lands. Any fuel that comes from the earth is a fossil fuel and therefore contributes to climate change. Obama’s puny and meaningless acknowledgement, in comparison to right wing flat earth theory, is now considered to be something that it isn’t. Just like the rest of his policies.
Hurricane Sandy pointed out in very bold relief that our system just doesn’t work for very many people. Politicians are beholden to the haves for their positions, but the have nots are of no importance because they can’t write big checks or get anyone elected to office. But if the Occupy model were to in place, politicians would have to meet everyone’s needs because involvement in electoral politics is not the goal of activism. If there is any silver lining to this awful event it is showing the limits of politics and the need for grass roots organizing to meet public needs.
The few things that were done well since this tragedy began teach us the same lessons about activism. When politicians complained about the Red Cross, they finally showed up. When the public and politicians demanded a cancellation of the marathon, they succeeded. When Occupy didn’t listen to the city or to FEMA and decided on its own to help people in need, they did it successfully with hardly any money.
The new lessons are the same as the old. Activism without acquiescence to political power can succeed in bringing about tremendous change. There will always be catastrophes but we should not expect a failed system to save us from them.