Democracy Now!: Sandy exposes NY's 'hideous inequality'

November 3, 2012

Democracy Now! show on November 1 on inequality in New York and its impact in the current crisis, and also the struggle in Syria.

TRANSCRIPT: We continue our coverage of Superstorm Sandy by looking at how it has impacted an economically divided New York City, especially in Manhattan, where the the richest fifth make 40 times more money than the poorest fifth. Inequality in Manhattan rivals parts of sub-Saharan Africa. We’re joined in New York City by Reuters journalist David Rohde, whose new article for The Atlantic is "The Hideous Inequality Exposed by Hurricane Sandy."

Rohde writes: "Those with a car could flee. Those with wealth could move into a hotel. Those with steady jobs could decline to come into work. But the city’s cooks, doormen, maintenance men, taxi drivers and maids left their loved ones at home." Rohde is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a former reporter for the New York Times

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined in New York City by Reuters journalist David Rohde, whose new piece for The Atlantic is called "The Hideous Inequality Exposed by Hurricane Sandy." David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a former reporter with the New York Times. You know, David Rohde was held hostage in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He was imprisoned in 2007 and '08, and he was held for more than seven months before he escaped. His forthcoming book is called Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a [New] Middle East; it'll be published in March of 2013.

David Rohde, welcome to Democracy Now!

DAVID ROHDE: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Continue with what you’re experiencing in New York—those who have and those who don’t have. Many who have don’t have a lot right now, but certainly far more than those who don’t have.

DAVID ROHDE: It’s true. I mean, the hurricane has sort of brought the socioeconomic, you know, divide in this city vividly to the surface. I’ve brought—you know, I’ve got a friend of mine and his wife, his daughter and his mother in our house. And I want to first be positive. I mean, I think New Yorkers are generally helping each other, and we’re all trying to sort of, you know, let our better angels guide us.

But there is a divide, and I was struck. And I wrote the piece because I had to evacuate my apartment with my wife, and we went to a hotel. And it was this sort of extraordinary divide in terms of—there were restaurants open just down the street until, you know, a few hours before Sandy hit. Stores, the hotel itself was staffed. And I started asking people, like, "Why aren’t you home with your families?" And they were—you know, these were sort of maids, doormen, restaurant workers, and they said they were worried about their families, but they had no way—you know, they just had to work. And, you know, it’s, as you said in the intro, the economic divide, that the richest 20 percent make 40 times what the poorest 20 percent make in New York. And, you know, wealth and money helps you. It helps you—it gives you advantages. And the storm made that very clear.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your experiences. You, yourself, live in Lower Manhattan, and with your wife, you moved up to a hotel in Union Square. And then describe the people you talked to, the people who couldn’t stay home from work and left their family members.

DAVID ROHDE: There were two different maids I remember talking to that were still sort of walking through this hotel. It just seemed absurd, actually. The power had gone out in the hotel the night before, yet this one maid came in and sort of changed our sheets. And I just sort of felt—just felt ridiculous. I asked her about her family. She said that she had been in touch with them in Queens.

There was a garage attendant I talked to nearby. He had not talked to his family at all since the storm struck. He was an immigrant, said most of his family is in another country. And I said, "But do you have any relative here?" And he said that he did have a sister in New Jersey, but he hadn’t been able to speak with her at all since the storm broke. He—I honestly let him make a call on my cellphone; he left a message for her. But what struck me was I asked him, "What did you do? How did you get through this storm?" And he had just stayed at this garage where he works, right near Union Square. And he said that throughout the storm, he just had slept in his car.

AMY GOODMAN: The inequality you remind us of is quite astounding. You write, Manhattan—as you said, "Manhattan, [the city]’s wealthiest and most gentrified borough, is an extreme example. Inequality here rivals parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Last year the wealthiest 20 percent of Manhattan residents made $391,022 a year on average, according to census data. The poorest 20 percent made $9,681."

DAVID ROHDE: My friend’s mother who’s staying with us, she grew up actually in Brooklyn, in Williamsburg, and grew up, frankly, pretty poor herself. But she said she’s never seen the city this divided in terms of sort of the extreme wealth and the extreme poor. And it’s this army of people—the doormen, the maintenance workers, nurses—and then, you know, let’s be fair, the doctors, you know, who obviously do well also, they—you know, they’ve been in the hospitals this whole time. But generally, it’s policemen and firemen and ConEd workers that, you know, work through these storms, that don’t have sort of a choice economically. And it’s—again, you know, people are helping each other, but when a crisis like this strikes, it really comes down to your family and your friends. And so, you know, if you are in a better-off, privileged environment—and I am one of those people—you’re going to have more options available and more friends, people with cars that can take you out of the city after—you know, after this kind of storm. I was in the Port Authority bus terminal yesterday. Most buses were canceled. You know, if you’ve got a car, you know, you can move. Again, it’s a reality of our society that money matters. Many wealthy people are doing good things and are trying to help, but it’s just—you know, you have to be honest about what’s happening right now.

AMY GOODMAN: We just heard Renée’s report from the Jacob Riis Houses. Your—it could be one of the last to see repairs.

DAVID ROHDE: That’s true. And it’s—I mean, in a sense, this outage of power has been the great equalizer in the city. There are wealthy neighborhoods below 34th Street that have no power, and poor neighborhoods. I—down where I live, which is sort of the Battery Park area, there are police on street corners. They are sort of directing traffic. There’s some semblance of normalcy. There are ConEd crews. But there’s no—I haven’t seen any sort of FEMA efforts to distribute food or anything like that anywhere in the city. I plan to report today on how is the government functioning. How did it prepare for this hurricane? How is it responding now? We have this huge debate about government, how big should it be, how small should it be. I think this is a really interesting test in terms of what’s happened. I am impressed with sort of the bipartisanship or the effort so far in terms of Mayor Cory Booker in Newark has been tweeting and going out there and helping people himself. Governor Christie in New Jersey has been applauding President Obama. Mayor Bloomberg has been trying to be, as he always tries to be, you know, not so partisan. But can government deliver now when people in the New York metro area need it?

AMY GOODMAN: As Renée went through Jacob Riis Houses, no one had seen Red Cross. Nobody had seen FEMA. You know, when the big blackout happened a few years ago, David, Democracy Now! broadcast by candlelight with a small power generator, and we spoke to people all over the city, how they were affected. But we also called Iraq, because at the time, I mean, Iraq—I mean, still suffers terribly, lack of electricity. But there was some mocking of Iraqis, saying, "What do they want?" Right? This is at the height of the Iraq War. You know, how much does the U.S. have to do for them, was—was some of the questions of the pundits on television. But when we see the outage like this, that we’ve seen on the East Coast, we understand what this infrastructure means. David, you’re a foreign—you were a foreign correspondent for a long time. You were actually imprisoned, held as a prisoner by the Taliban from 2008 to 2009, until you escaped. I want to have a much longer conversation on another day with you about that and also about your new book coming up. But what are your thoughts on that issue of what infrastructure means?

DAVID ROHDE: You know, this is a—you know, for Americans, an experience of what it’s like to be in one of these war zones, what it’s like in Syria today as the civil war rages there, and what it was like in Iraq and Afghanistan. And this will end for New Yorkers, but it will continue for people in those regions. And my kind of takeaway from sort of 15 years of coverage, from the war in Bosnia through Afghanistan and Iraq, is that, you know, we have more in common with people in these countries than we think. And we tend to have these kind of polarized views in the U.S.—to be frank, on the left, you know, let’s just get out, you know, we do more harm than good; and on the right, maybe sort of too much of a focus on military force. You know, there are moderate Afghans today in Kabul that are very afraid that the United States is leaving. And I think U.S. troops should leave Afghanistan. What I want to see is sort of us working more closely with moderates across the Middle East, the people in Benghazi that went out and protested after the American ambassador was killed, who sort of forced the hardline militia out of its base, and not relying on military force to help them, but helping them more with civilian aid, economic aid, helping them sort of get on their own feet and be functioning societies. We really do have allies in this region. The world is interconnected. We can’t simply walk away from the Middle East and pretend it doesn’t matter and that the oil there doesn’t matter. And I guess that’s my—you know, I hope, in a way, this crisis will make—A, it’s a big test for government. I think people should watch it very closely, and maybe government is going to fail, but this is what government is for; and, B, I hope it, you know, makes people maybe somewhat more sympathetic for this—what’s happening in these countries when we read about this tumult in other places, and now we see what it’s like here ourselves.

AMY GOODMAN: And on a foreign policy issue also, to say the least, pressing, Syria, you’ve interviewed many Syrians and Syrian refugees. Your thoughts now on what’s happening?

DAVID ROHDE: I was in Turkey several months ago. The war was not so intense. It was this—in the spring. And I met many very well-educated Syrians, and they were moderates. And they said that their goal was to make Syria like Turkey, which is—it’s not perfect. Turkey’s got a lot of issues in terms of democratic rights. But the economy there is growing. It’s part of the global community. There’s a very strong kind of human rights and strong journalists in Turkey that are trying to modernize that country. And I heard from moderate Syrians what I heard from sort of Muslims across the Middle East, which is that they want to be both modern and Muslim at the same time. They don’t want, you know, jihadists sort of forcing them to pray five times a day at gunpoint. And they also don’t want Americans, soldiers, to be invading their countries and sort of forcing them to be democracies. And what’s sad is those kind of moderate Syrians, as this war has dragged on, have lost influence, I think, and these jihadists are coming in into the vacuum there, and it’s becoming, you know, an uglier and uglier conflict. There’s no easy solution to Syria. And clearly, the solution isn’t, you know, American troops on the ground there. It’s just this same dynamic of—there’s an epic struggle underway between, you know, moderate Muslims and very sort of hardline extremists. And we’ve got to sort of reimagine how we interact with the region and with the people there, and can we help these moderates in some way, as this—you know, the killing just continues in Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: David Rohde, I want to thank you very much for being with us, columnist for Reuters, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a former reporter for the New York Times. His forthcoming book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, will be published in March, and we will have you on again. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we stay right here in St. Louis to take a look at a very interesting race. It’s the race for Senate between Congressmember Todd Akin and Senator Claire McCaskill. Stay with us.

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