Big Brother and the New York Blackout

Revolutionary Worker #1212, September 14, 2003, posted at

The following is a correspondence from New York.

When the power went off on August 15, I was walking down New York City's 42nd Street. At first, the only thing that appeared different was that the traffic lights had stopped working. But then I noticed office workers congregating on the sidewalks. And after a block or two of walking, it was clear there was no electricity.

That's how I realized the power was off. Figuring out how the power structure works, that's another matter.

My first guess was that this was a small-scale blackout, so I started walking toward what I thought would be the "Edge of Night." Of course I never found it. As we all would later learn, in 9 seconds 50 million people were without electricity. The blackout affected eight states from Michigan to New York as well as the province of Ontario, Canada. I've since seen satellite maps showing a wedge of North America in darkness while the rest of the continent stands lit. It is quite a picture. A vital section of the USA--which proclaims to be the mightiest nation on earth--in darkness.

From what I've been reading, the technical reason for the blackout was what's referred to as a "balance issue." Somewhere in Ohio, elements of the electrical power grid went down. As a result, hundreds of megawatts of electricity coursing through the wires started heading for alternate sites, which in turn responded by shutting down rather than be burned out by the jolt. In a matter of seconds, this led to the electrical system in a large section of the U.S. going down.

Now government officials and authorities are debating the specific causes of the blackout--which was not the result of a natural disaster or a sudden spike in demand. But the larger reason for how this happened is already apparent.

In the 1990s, the government made major moves to deregulate much of the energy industry--which meant, for example, loosening the rules affecting the power companies, minimizing government oversight, and so forth. In the words of Newsweek, the result of this massive deregulation is that "Today the system is dominated by independent operators in a market-driven system." Deregulation has made it much clearer that under this system, energy is a for-profit commodity subject to the anarchistic workings of the capitalists market.

The power plants that produce energy are owned and operated separately from the lines that transmit them. Energy is directed to where it can be sold . And decisions are made on the basis of how much money can be made--not on how to rationally distribute energy according to the interests of society as a whole. In the complex maze of companies and wires, no one is in charge of the overall flow. And no one, it appears, takes responsibility when it falls down like a house of cards.

"Homeland Security" and the Blackout

Of course, the ruling class did attempt to take charge of their system after the blackout. I later studied the press reports and discovered that the moment power clicked off, the political powers threw the switch on plans they had in place, plans with serious police-state elements.

Officials raced to the offices of the Department of Homeland Security in Washington and struggled to establish communications. At the center of this was FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), which has now been integrated into the Homeland Security Department. Along with this, the newly established domestic branch of the U.S. military, the Northern Command, ordered the launching of F-16s to patrol the Northeast.

Meanwhile, federal authorities quickly declared that the blackout was not a "terrorist" incident. This was aimed at trying to minimize panic and reinforcing the mindset that people should see this crisis --and really any emergency--through the lens of the "war on terror" and should passively follow whatever the authorities pump out.

On the state and local levels, too, plans were put into effect. The first response of New York Governor George Pataki was to head to his underground bunker--a civil defense facility four stories underground, built during the cold war era for use in nuclear war. Then at 5:30 p.m. he declared a state of emergency and deployed National Guard troops and state police throughout New York.

On Long Island, officials headed to the county's underground Emergency Operation Center. There, according to Newsday , the assistant county executive "directed his staff to begin drafting a state of emergency declaration, authorizing special police powers."

Authorities in Detroit and Cleveland--cities hit by the double whammy of losing both electric power and water--quickly put their plans into action. They sent out the National Guard--ostensibly to deliver water-- and put curfews into effect.

In New York City, police went to a Level 2 mobilization, putting 9,000 cops on the streets. Police immediately implemented their disaster plan which, according to Newsday , "decentralizes [NYPD] operations so each borough functions as its own police department." They also implemented their "counterterrorism" plan, Operation Atlas, which calls for deploying heavily armed police at transit hubs and key buildings.

Part of the NYPD's set procedures to deal with a blackout is to disperse crowds. So while thousands of people were spilling into downtown Brooklyn off the Manhattan Bridge (which exits onto Flatbush Avenue), police were busy closing that street, reportedly because of a broken window. In short, the police were a big fucking help.

Making Our Way Home

While the authorities were doing all this, on the street people were in large part left to rely on one another to see their way clear of this crisis and make their way home--wherever that was.

New York is a densely populated city, but you rarely see the totality of it. People are never outside at the same time. The blackout altered that. As I started walking down Broadway, the trickle of people turned into streams and then into a river.

Once I left the confines of Midtown, a major commercial district, what struck me was that the folks in the street were by and large working people, mainly immigrants. As I walked down the narrow strip of Broadway in the 20s, I was among Korean, Chinese, Senegalese, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Haitian, and other people. As we took over the streets, self-appointed people protectors admonished errant car drivers in the best tradition of Ratso Rizzo (of Midnight Cowboy fame), "They're people walkin' here!"

I stopped in Union Square where people were huddled around a van playing a news radio station. James Kalstrom, the former head of the New York FBI office and now Pataki's "terrorism advisor," was on the phone explaining how the blackout was the result of a system that was working as it "was supposed to" in response to a power overload. Then he emphasized again that the system "worked." I motioned to the dark buildings and the closed subway nearby and commented to my fellow listeners that things seem to be working pretty damn well. We all had a good chuckle at that.

Along with such ridiculous claims about the system "working," the authorities talked about people's behavior in a way that they hoped would help keep things controllable for them. As I made my way through Chinatown, Mayor Bloomberg's voice could be heard from a sidewalk boombox people were clustered around. He was talking about how New York is a very different city from what it was during the big blackout in the 1970s--when there was wide-scale looting, especially in the poorest neighborhoods. He also talked about how, like good New Yorkers, we'd all get through this together, or something like that. I could hear the underlying worry, for him and the others in the power structure. Here they were in the largest city of the richest, most technologically advanced country on earth--and they were communicating via generator power. They needed people to stay in line!

And even as they talked about how calm things were, the authorities made sure that people knew the stick would come down hard on those who didn't toe the line. Mayor Bloomberg said, "It is unconscionable to try to take advantage of the public during those kinds of periods, and we won't stand for it." In Detroit, the local prosecutor declared, "Before you pick up a brick and throw it, before you tip over a car, before you take a TV, you better ask yourself, is this worth 10 years of my life?"

Of course, none of these officials said that they "won't stand for" the profit-fueled moves of the power company executives. Nor did they threaten to jail the politicians who unleashed the anarchy of deregulation. No one in the ruling circles talks about that criminality, which affects millions upon millions of people.

Which gets at something basic about political power. At the Manhattan bridge, the police had taken up positions, and they were nervous and agitated. Cops aggressively fed the crowd into the walkways. One cop had his club out, ready to jab into a man who had stepped outside one of the arbitrary police lines. This was the power of the ruling authorities in effect, aimed at protecting their institutions and their system.

But as I fell in with the tens of thousands of ordinary folks making their way onto the bridge, I saw another kind of power. The spirit here was one of people helping one another through this emergency. Amid a mix of different languages--Creole, Polish, English, Spanish, Russian--I was amazed to see where I stood, and my mind took flight. I saw for a moment the world and its people walking home on a hot summer night into a whole different future.

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