With temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, July 21 was no easy Sunday for New Yorkers. Heat waves, while not a constant presence in New York City, certainly pose a significant health risk, especially to the elderly and disabled, and also to laborers working outside.
In the midst of this already unbearable day, by the middle of the afternoon roughly 50,000 New Yorkers, mostly residents of the borough of Brooklyn, experienced a lengthy power failure. While some 30,000 people experienced the outage from 5 pm to 10 pm, roughly 13,000 didn’t see a return in service until the middle of the next day― Monday.
Statements from Consolidated Edison, the utilities provider for electricity in all five New York boroughs, blame the excessive heat for the outage. While this certainly seems reasonable, it really isn’t true. Heat waves are now a yearly occurrence, with multiple major, and often deadly, episodes per summer. Con Edison should know by now that their infrastructure needs to be upgraded to handle extreme weather events, which occur more often each year as the global climate crisis sharpens.
Profits come before good service
Con Edison is an investor-owned utilities company, and is not publicly owned, as some might assume. The massive yearly revenue of the utility company, $12.337 billion in 2018, is not invested fully into capital upgrades to infrastructure and benefits for employees. Instead, much of it is given to shareholders, who privately own parcels of the company and stand to gain from cost-cutting and doing the bare minimum possible. Another power-out took place on July 13, with 73,000 in Manhattan left without electricity. And just eight months ago, a giant explosion rocked an Astoria, Queens, Con Edison plant, a plant which the Environment Protection Agency said should have been shut down a long time ago.
Much like privately owned coffee shops, department stores, and entertainment studios, New Yorker’s electrical utility company is motivated first to pay out its investors, and second to serve the people. That’s why there are power outs.
Black neighborhoods disconnected first
Additionally, the people serviced by Con Edison utility lines are not seen by the company as citizens who all have an intrinsic right to these utilities, but as “customers,” with some being more valuable than others. In practice, this has meant that not only is New York City’s electrical infrastructure failing, but it reeks of rotten racism. While neighborhoods further south like Gravesend and Marine Park were affected by faulty equipment, the electrical utilities to the predominantly Black neighborhoods of Canarsie and Flatlands were deliberately disconnected by Con Edison to prevent a broader power outage which would affect other neighborhoods like the wealthy and predominantly white Mill Basin and Bergen Beach (which lost power anyway due to faulty equipment).
On NYC’s heat vulnerability index, Canarsie and Flatlands both rank at a 4-out-of-5― very vulnerable to heat. But we must remember, to Con Edison, people aren’t people, they’re customers, so Con Edison calculated that it was worth it to sacrifice the safety of these predominantly African American neighborhoods in order to prevent broader outages. This is a separate-and-unequal policy that would receive a standing ovation from the architects of Jim Crow.
Mayor then floods these communities with cops
Mayor Bill de Blasio then dispatched 200 police officers to Canarsie and Flatlands “to provide safety and security.” That’s right, after Con Edison decided to expose Canarsie and Flatlands to a high risk of heat stroke, the mayor deployed his armed thugs against that community. So, in addition to a power outage and extreme heat, Canarsie and Flatlands residents had to deal with terrorizing sight of NYPD rolling up and down their blocks like the gestapo.
Black youth criminalized for splashing water
Meanwhile, both the cops and the mayor were focused on “bringing to justice” oppressed youth in Harlem and Brooklyn who had splashed officers with water in the extreme heat. This bizarre police response occurred just days after the U.S. Justice Department declined to file any charges against Daniel Pantaleo, the cop whose choke hold on Eric Garner caused his death, an event caught on video and seen around the world. Pantaleo is still on the force and collecting overtime pay.
Anne Oredenko, supervising attorney of the Legal Aid Society’s Racial Justice Unit, said, “The disproportionate response from the NYPD to these incidents of young people splashing water on officers compared to officers committing violent misconduct, also often on tape, demonstrates the Department’s failure to see its own hypocrisy….Young people are getting arrested for splashing water on 100 degree days while officers who have killed and seriously injured people continue working, collecting pensions and barely get a slap on the wrist. Historically, Black and Latinx communities have suffered the brunt of police abuse, harassment and violence. The Department should focus on addressing these root issues before attempting to criminalize playing with water.”
This sequence of events is all too common: A crisis caused by some form of corporate greed becomes yet another excuse to scapegoat and attack working class people of color.
City-owned utilities riddled with corruption
The deeply unpopular Mayor Bill de Blasio recently suggested that the city take ownership of Con Edison, citing that “We don’t depend on a private company for water or for policing or for fire protection.” Is de Blasio opening his eyes to the peoples’ plight? Is the mayor actually a socialist, as he is often bated to be by conservative pundits?
Sadly, no. To see Bill de Blasio’s vision of a publicly owned electrical utility company look no further than the city’s sewer system, publicly operated by the Department of Environmental Protection. According to Riverkeeper.org, “more than 27 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted storm water discharge out of 460 combined sewage overflows (“CSOs”) into New York Harbor alone each year.” Brilliant. Similar to Con Edison’s underinvestment in New York City’s electrical grid, the Department of Environmental Protection is failing to upgrade the 19th century waste management method that is the CSO system.
Similarly, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a “public benefit corporation,” is decaying year by year, with constant interruptions to the transit services, including one during rush hour two days before the Con Edison failure that stranded tens of thousands of people in terrible heat. For decades, state and local authorities have raided funds slated for train maintenance and saddled the MTA with debt. The MTA then prioritized the funds it had left, not for much-needed repairs, but for interest payments on bank loans. Today, nearly 17 percent of its budget goes straight to the biggest banks for debt repayment, triple what it paid in 1997, while the subway system has fallen apart.
Mayor’s proposal is smoke and mirrors
De Blasio’s proposal to publicly acquire Con Edison is all optics. Under the current economic system the capitalists would still try to swindle people out of the services they are rightfully entitled to, and elected officials would still cover over corporate theft. In this city, elected officials serve the biggest banks and real estate companies. Few if any of the solutions proposed by our so-called representatives are good for working class and poor people.
We are not just entitled to electricity, transportation, decent water and other services because they are basic human rights (although they are). Rather, the working class literally creates the wealth that makes our entire world—and their profits–possible. Value is generated by labor power― work. It’s the working class that does this work. We are the people who really drive society forward.
Where do we go from there?
If working people organize, we have the potential to bring the entire profit-driven capitalist system to a grinding halt and to replace it with a socialist system run by workers in order to meets human needs. Rather than having our life and labor stolen by the banks, financial firms, and bosses, we could then invest the sweat of our brow into good infrastructure, quality jobs, and happy lives.