The Blackout of 2003: Democracy Now! Broadcasts By Candlelight in NYC

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The nation’s largest blackout ever leaves tens of millions without power. The lights are out in New York City, Toronto, Cleveland, Ottawa, Detroit. Deregulation of the energy is cited by some as possible cause of the massive blackout. Democracy Now! broadcasts a blackout special powered by a gas generator. [Includes transcript]

  • Amy Goodman, Democracy Now! host
  • Bernard White , WBAI Program director
  • Denis Moynihan, Democracy Now! outreacher coordinator
  • Mike Burke, Democracy Now! producer
  • Blackout Drummers, recorded in Union Square, New York August 14


AMY GOODMAN: From Pacifica Radio, This is Democracy Now. It’s the biggest blackout in American History. Welcome to Democracy Now, the War and Peace Report, I’m Amy Goodman, broadcasting, from, well, blocks from Ground Zero. Yes blocks from where, close to two years ago, the World Trade Center was hit by two planes, thousands of people died. People scrambled to get out of the buildings, the survivors, and raced over the bridges to Brooklyn and up the island of Manhattan. Last night, there were similar scenes. Not the grotesque, horrendous event that took place two years ago. But people, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, streaming through New York, trying to make it over the bridges, because the power went out at 4:11, eastern standard time. It not only went out, though, in New York City, it’s out in Cleveland and Detroit, in Toronto and Ottowa, and everyone is pointing fingers. This is becoming an international event. Canada says it happened in the United States, perhaps at Niagara, perhaps in Michigan, perhaps in Pennsylvania. The U.S. government says they believe that the source of the problem was somewhere in a power shortage, a power outage in Canada. Regardless, millions of people are feeling the effects. The staff at Democracy Now is completely amazing, there are about a dozen people here right now, in Chinatown, completely blacked out outside, the lights, it was sunrise a few hours ago, but people made their way by bicycle, by walking, by car, over the bridges into this studio. And everyone is here as we broadcast by candlelight, and we will just find out how many people are listening today. In N.Y., our station, WBAI, is out with the rest of the electricity. In fact, joining us on the telephone right now is the program director of WBAI. He is speaking to us from the People’s Republic of Brooklyn. Bernard White, welcome.

BERNARD WHITE: Good Morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. Well, can you start off by just describing the scene there.

BERNARD WHITE: Well, it was a real eerie scene I guess as one can imagine last night, with people walking around. And many young folks, who were not a part of this before. This is twenty years ago about, this happened here in N.Y. before. So those of us who were around at that time, had a feeling, a kind of déjà vu kind of feeling, that, ok, here we go again. But there were many young people walking around last night who were just stunned. They couldn’t believe that, you know, that the lights went out. I guess we’re all accustomed to just assuming all we gotta do is hit the switch, and the lights will just come on. But last night they went out, and they’re still out. And we watched as the streets got darker and darker, and it was a strange moonless night last night. And the car lights were the only lights that provided any kind of illumination at all. My nephew was out riding his bike, and he could only ride as the cars were coming down the street, because he had to stop. He couldn’t see in front of him, he couldn’t see behind him, and it just was a really eerie feeling. And there was a quietness that kind of came over everybody too. There was nobody screaming, nobody talking loud. Everybody was very respectful of other people. Coming over the Brooklyn Bridge, there was a steady, steady stream of people. You know, it reminded one of what happened on September 11th, when the World Trade Centers went down, except that the people didn’t have that shocked look that they had on that particular day. The skyline Of N.Y. was jut amazing. I live in Brooklyn, near the Navy Yard, so I can see the skyline of Manhattan, and it was just extremely weird, to see these buildings that are always lit, have no light at all. It seems like just a quietness came over the entire city. And I wasn’t in Manhattan, but I hear that in Manhattan, it was just people walking around in a daze, just trying to get home.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I have to say, it has been quite amazing here, Bernard. Yes, people streaming over the bridges, climbing over fences, helping each other. When the electricity went out at 4:11, and, by the way, I should say, we are operating in a hundred year old firehouse, in the garret of Downtown Community Television in Chinatown. Last night, the lights went out at 4:11. I don’t know if it was 4:15, but Dennis Moynihan, our outreach director, did a lot of great outreaching. The first thing you said is, you’re racing to the hardware store for a generator on Canal Street. What was the scene like there?

DENNIS MOYNIHAN: Well, Canal Street is a major cross-town street two blocks from the studio and it’s got a lot of businesses, a lot of retail. So, there are a couple of good spots for where we might’ve found a generator. And not knowing — well, it was interesting — we didn’t know whether if it was just a few storefronts that was out of power, or the block, and then as we found an old transistor radio we found out that it was pretty widespread. So we went out and got a generator. Rich Kim and I ran out and got one, and then embarked on like a twelve hour odyssey to find gasoline, and a little length of hose, in case we needed to siphon.

AMY GOODMAN: All the gas stations were closed, as we went from one place—but to see in Chinatown all the lights out, the store, the shop owners are running outside. People are getting, trying to get cell phones, trying to get radios, everyone is streaming into the street, gas stations everywhere are closed.

DENNIS MOYNIHAN: Right, and eventually made it back home after several hours of walking, and got some great b-roll video footage, that we hope people will be able to see at some point.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, one of the things we were able to record was the Blackout Drummer. They were at Union Square, and there were thousands of people. People had flashlights, people had candles, people were dancing, and people came out with their drums, and they would join in, also people with clarinets —- we might even be playing that in a few minutes, but we’re also here with -—

DENNIS MOYNIHAN: Amy, I just want to say, I have to go down and monitor the generator, so thanks a lot to every here. Also, it’s an amazing testament to the skill of everyone here that this show is actually going out today, so I want to congratulate everyone, and thank the audience for their continued support.

AMY GOODMAN: It is absolutely truly incredible that so many people have made it in. You’re going to hear some of their stories coming in from the various boroughs and provinces. It seems like, I should say authorities, well they’ve been saying since last night, yes, we’ve got some of the power up, although I’m beginning to ask questions about this in the Bronx, in Westchester County, in Long Island, I think they’re just giving people some hope, I think in Midtown Manhattan, about a million, well, millions of homes lost power in New Jersey, but I think Newark has theirs back. And we’ll hear the story of Flip, who is our engineer, Mike DeFillipo, and hear what happened with him in Newark. He had major compound problems yesterday. Authorities in N.Y. saying there are some places, but the majority of people do not have power back. The Canadian Prime Minister Jean Cratien said the sever power cut at a Pennsylvania nuclear power plant may have caused it. Again, U.S. and Canadian officials saying fire or perhaps lightning had hit a power station near Niagara Falls. A New York State power grid operator said there appeared to have been a failure on the high voltage transmission lines connecting the U.S. and Canada. Mike Burke, our producer, is also with us. And, Mike, you just made it in from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, how did you get here.

MIKE BURKE: I borrowed my housemate’s bike and biked into the city for the first time, without a helmet.

AMY GOODMAN: What was it like? We won’t tell anyone. You were wearing your Democracy Now baseball cap

MIKE BURKE: Well, since I woke up about fifty minutes ago, it was quite a rush. But your report about the drumming in Union Square sounded a lot like North Brooklyn last night. It was quite a festive atmosphere there. There was actually a marching band called the Hungry March Band, marching through the streets until about two in the morning, fireworks, public drinking. Almost all the bars were open in Brooklyn, nothing else were. It was amazing looking at the skyline last night. There was one building in all of lower Manhattan that was lit up, and that was Con Ed, the electrical company. I also hear Verizon was as well. Let’s take a listen to the Blackout Drummers, as they were called, in Union Square, as thousands of people gathered.

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