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The Democracy Now! Staff Talks About the Blackout of 2003

StoryAugust 15, 2003
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A dozen members of the Democracy Now! staff made it into our Firehouse studios by foot, bike and taxi to produce the radio and tv show by candlelight. Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman talks with the staff. [Includes transcript]

  • Parvez Sharma, producer
  • Uri Gal-ed, video director
  • Simba Russeau, videographer
  • Leninia Nadal, producer
  • Rich Kim, engineering assistant
  • Mike “Flip” DeFillipo, engineer
  • Elizabeth Press, producer
  • Nell Geiser, production assistant


AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Democracy Now, as we continue to broadcast from Manhattan, from Chinatown. It’s interested to note walking through different neighborhoods, wealthier or less wealthy neighborhoods in the city. I think there are a lot more people who are used to being on the street in places don’t have a lot of air conditioning because they need some air in the evening. It’s much more obvious to see lots of people streaming through streets where there are air-conditioned buildings and they’re usually inside. But this is also an opportunity, you know, every one of these crises gives us an opportunity, and this one is for you all to meet the Democracy Now family, the extended community that comes in and out every day from this hundred year old firehouse and broadcasts Democracy Now. Parvez Sharma is our newest member, he has just joined us as a producer. Hailing from Washington, D.C. and before that, from India. Parvez, what did you do last night? You weren’t here when we were at 4:11 because you were sleeping, recovering from the amazing project you were involved with ,doing the Fela piece for yesterday, also interesting, the great Nigerian afrobeat musician, one of the great Musicians of the 20th Century, because where does he come from? He comes from Nigeria, which provides power to some of the most powerful countries in the world, yet leaving many of the people in the Niger delta, the host communities where Chevron and Shell come into, leaving these people powerless and disempowered themselves, and he sings about oil, as well. But, since you had done that for yesterday morning, you had gone home to sleep, but you woke up to an amazing scene.

PARVEZ SHARMA: Yeah, I woke up in the East Village, which is where I live now, since I moved to New York a few days ago. And it was just amazing to see all these people out in the streets, and there was a lot of music, music of the kind that Mike was also sort of mentioning that he heard out in Brooklyn. But lots of people out in the East Village, civilized, some not so civilized as it got darker, and people were just out in the streets talking, and trying to go to whatever restaurants they could go to, but there was a sense of community.

AMY GOODMAN: And of course, most of the restaurants were closed all over the city, though on my corner there was one that was absolutely packed. Mainly people were just sitting there. They weren’t cooking anymore, but just some place to congregate. Uri Galed is our director. Maybe he, too, could join us, and as he sits down, Parvez, I wanted to ask you your experience here, your experience in India, when we’re talking about electricity, and what people rely on to get by.

PARVEZ SHARMA: In India, electricity is very political. The issue of who gets it and who doesn’t is charged. I think we’ve had people like Arandhati Roy on the show before, on Democracy Now, and she’s been a champion for the dam that they were trying to build and are still trying to build at the Narmada Valley, which would’ve displaced thousands of people, but at the same time, the argument was that there would be more power generated. But I grew up, and I know that my family that lives back in Delhi still, where power cuts are the norm, we call power cuts alod sheding and people will usually have them for two to three hours during the day. But during the summer, Delhi, which is the capital of India, goes sometimes without power for ten hours during the day, and people are very used to that. And mostly everyone who can afford it, has backup generators, which is the large Indian middle class. But people on the streets, of course, do not have access to electricity all the time.

AMYGOODMAN: Well, we’re going to go to a music break. We’re going to play — Elizabeth is at the helm over there, not usually there, she’s usually rolling b-roll in the back as we broadcast on public access TV and satellite TV, as well as on radio stations around the country. But I think she’s chosen a piece for us, and it is Fela Kuti, and he is singing, “Sorrow, tears and blood”, the great Nigerian musician and band leader.

AMY GOODMAN: “Sorrow, tears and blood”, Fela Kuti, who has sung so much about corruption, industrialization, about oil. You are listening to Democracy Now, I’m Amy Goodman. We are broadcasting on a backup generator, it’s on the third floor. We’re in the garret of a hundred year old firehouse, very little light inside, because it is the garret, a few windows, yes, it was sunup a few hours ago, but inside buildings it is very dark in New York City, as it is in a number of states, in the Northeast of the United States, in the biggest blackout in U.S. history. We’re joined by Uri Galed, who is the director of Democracy Now, doing the television part of Democracy Now, and Simba Russo, who is one of the camera people and videographers with Democracy Now, an independent reporter, and as well with Free Speech TV. Uri, your experience last night when the lights went out.

URI GALED: Well, I was sitting at the computer, trying to get some research for a project I’m working on for next week, and the first thing I felt was the A/C was going, like, in waves, and I was like, hmm, I don’t want that to happen. And the next thing I know, the computer went blinking and then just shut off and the lights went out. And I thought it was in my apartment because I tend to sometimes turn all the lights on, the TV, two TVs actually, the computer and the A/C. So I went to my box…

AMY GOODMAN: News junkie is a requirement for Democracy Now!

URI GALED: Oh, absolutely. I realized it wasn’t in my apartment, and I thought, oh, maybe it’s the whole floor. Two minutes later, I started hearing sirens outside, so I thought, ok, it’s probably the whole block. Only after I went downstairs nine floors, it’s the first time I’m happy I’m not living in the penthouse. And I realized that it’s not the whole block, it’s the whole city, and later, the whole east coast, which sounded kind of crazy to me.

AMY GOODMAN: Sort of makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger in the world, in a kind of perverse way. So what did people do in the streets?

URI GALED: I saw lots of — I live in the Murray Hill area of Manhattan, which is in the east side in the thirties, and lots of people just came out of their offices and just sat on the streets, because there was nowhere to go, the subway obviously wasn’t working, traffic was going nowhere. I live right on 36th street which leads right to the tunnels on two sides of Manhattan, and nothing was moving. So people were sitting on the sidewalk, taking their shoes off, and trying to get some water and iced coffee and just talking, and the a few people started trying to help with traffic which was really funny.

AMY GOODMAN: A lot of kids in your area?

URI GALED: Uh, not too many kids. But people just went into the middle of the intersection and tried to help with traffic, and most people did what they were told, and most people, kind of, did what they were told, but every tenth or twentieth car would be somebody who was like, no, you’re not going to tell me to stop, and they would get into the middle of the intersection and…

AMY GOODMAN: What I thought was interesting was watching people take control of traffic. I mean, they had flashlights, they had flares, and it was just neighborhood people, and for once —

URI GALED: It’s their dream, it’s their dream coming true.

AMY GOODMAN: They could say, stop, and you’re not going anywhere. Simba, tell us about where you were at 4:11 yesterday afternoon and through the evening.

SIMBA RUSSO: Well, actually, at the time, usually throughout the day Monday through Thursday, I’m one of two producers for Free Speech Radio News, and actually, at the time, I was reaching out to a couple of our reporters, to see if their pieces were ready for yesterday’s newscast, as well as helping another reporter produce a piece that we wanted for later in the week. And all of a sudden, the internet just went down. I wasn’t sure what happened. I thought actually it was just my building, just my apartment. And so then I went around, went downstairs to check the circuit breakers, to see if I could turn them on and turn them back off again, and turn them back on again. And then I went upstairs, I thought maybe it was just my floor, did the same thing, and then went and I tried to call Kata Mester, at WBAI, who is the other producer to let her know, that, like, you know, I can’t help you right now, because everything’s down. Then all of a sudden I realized the phone wasn’t working and so then from there.

AMY GOODMAN: Oh for those old dial up phones.

SIMBA RUSSO: So, actually, our phone is right next to the window. So, all of a sudden, I hear d — my landlord, she lives downstairs, and her nephew comes in and out throughout the day, and I heard him come, he has a pretty big voice, and he’s like, the whole block is out! And so I was just like, oh, well, maybe it’s just our block. And everybody was like, no it’s all the way to Canada!

URI GALED: Blame Canada!

SIMBA RUSSO: I mean I live in Bed Stuy, so it’s not unusual to see, you know, people sitting on steps, on the brownstones. It’s pretty common, you know, like, people sitting there doing each other’s hair and so forth. So it wasn’t unusual, but it was fun, because then, that’s how you got your news for a while, until, unless you had, like, little radios that you could, you know, hook up with batteries, which I didn’t have until, like maybe around six o’clock or so. So for the longest, it was, the news was off the streets, you know, what people heard, you know, somebody’d be like, oh, reverend said this, or, you know, somebody else said this. That was basically, how, you know, people were reporting in the streets all day, I guess you could say.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s interesting, there were a lot of radios on and, for folks who were going to listen to this on the internet or on other radio stations, call you friends in N.Y., WBAI, it will be going up soon, but we weren’t able to listen to it last night because the transmitter is on top of the Empire State Building. A lot of the radio stations went down on September 11th, because their antennae were on top of the World Trade Center, but ours was on top of the Empire State Building. But it went out, and we will go back up. Mayor Bloomberg was saying, it’s not a matter of minutes, but it is just a matter of hours, and I think that was to placate some of this. I walked through Port Authority, and in the Times Square area going up from Union Square, thousands of people, thousands in the streets waiting for buses, mainly sleeping on the sidewalk. Rich Kim is also here, and maybe someone will take over the controls for him, so he can tell us about his experience. He’s one of our engineers. And also, Lenina Nedal is here. Lenina, if you could come on over. And then we’re gonna hear from Mike DeFillipo. But tell us your experience yesterday, as we talk about the largest blackout in U.S. history, and what people do. It’s very interesting. It’s very much about discovering community, it seems. Hospitals, most of them had backup generators. The reports were, and I don’t know this, that no one, there were no fatalities as a result, so far. But it is not clear. That’s what they were saying in the city last night as people were holding up their radios — as thousands of people — we went over to the Brooklyn Bridge and walked over, and thousands were marching. I saw some very pregnant women who were making their way. Others were trying to get them into cabs that were already packed to try to make sure that they were safe. I had a chance to see Rick Rowley and Jackie Soo In, the great filmmakers who are going to be bringing us their new film, “The Fourth World War”. They just flew in from Toronto. I don’t know if it was their fault for flying in yesterday morning and bringing us this power outage, because, but you know, the U.S. government’s saying it’s Canada’s fault, Canada’s saying it’s the U.S. Where were you, Rich, on a smaller scale.

RICH KIM: Well actually, my friend, I mean, I knew I couldn’t make it home to Queens, it was just like, it was gonna be like a two hour walk. So luckily my friend lives like five minutes walk from here. And, you know, my cell phone wasn’t working, and neither was anyone else’s phones. I mean I tried calling him, but I was just praying, ok, he’s gotta be home. So I was walking there, and I was like, maybe I’ll walk by the ice cream store, they should be doing something, I mean, they’ve got to get rid of their ice cream. So, luckily I walked by, and they were selling it for, like, a buck fifty. And it was backed, there was everyone buying ice cream.

AMY GOODMAN: What flavor did you get?

RICH KIM: Red bean. It was Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. I asked for almond cookie, but they were out, so, I went up to my friend’s place, walked up seven flights of stairs in the dark and just banged on his door. And luckily his roommates were home. And, sure enough, like, after minutes, more and more people just like in the area, friends of roommates and friends of my friend just started coming in. And then, they have a rooftop that’s on the seventh floor, and we all ended up on the rooftop, and we were hungry, and all of his neighbors started coming up to the rooftop, because it was the coolest place. All of the apartments were dark. We were just checking out the skyline, which was all dark, except for the Verizon building.

AMY GOODMAN: Which was lit up like a Christmas tree.

RICH KIM: Yeah, it was absolutely bright.

AMY GOODMAN: As the management fights against the workers getting that living wage they are demanding. I don’t know if it was, well the Verizon network, it was very interesting, all the cell phones, you couldn’t make almost any calls.

RICH KIM: Yeah, they weren’t working at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Lenina, where did you go. You were with us, as Rich was, at 4:11. We all were up here in the firehouse all crowded in. Rich and Dennis went off to get the generator. You all were finishing the show for today which we’ve bumped most of, and by the way, we will be joined by Martin Luther King next week to talk about the 40th anniversary march on Washington. Remember 1963. But, Lenina, where were you after you left Democracy Now, where did you go.

LENINA NEDAL: After I left Democracy Now, I walked from here over the Manhattan Bridge all the way down to Prospect Park, which is where I live. Once thing I noticed was, like you said, the masses of people. I felt like, I was at this anti-war demonstration I went to in Washington D.C., just, you know, in front of you, behind you, everywhere, people people people. And then also, seeing people crawling out of the tunnels that were going into the bridge and getting out of the subways. And there were a couple of people, older people that were very scared but there were so many people just willing to help them get out of the train.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, that is so important. We were talking to subway workers, who got thousands of people out of the subways, and you know, many many trains, hundreds of them were trapped. And fortunately, I mean, with electricity being out, the third rail, is not active, is not live. But we were talking to workers who just had to calm people down and then take them out of those trains and bring them up. I guess that’s what you were seeing on the road level. So where did you go last night, what was your sanctuary?

LENINA NEDAL: My sanctuary was my Tia’s house. Which is like, you know we went there, and it was amazing, because somehow, all of the family had managed to make it to her house, and, you know, she had already, sort of, made food for all of us.

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, so she knew this was going to happen!

LENINA NEDAL: Yeah, and my cousins were, like, swimming in the pool, with, like, candles around the pool, and my uncle had already done some barbeque, so you know, it was like a little party but with no lights, and a little family reunion that we had.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s hard to think of this as a snow day. That’s what they were saying last night on the radio. Think of Friday as a snow day, as you would, you know, you wouldn’t go to work, you wouldn’t go to school, but it is over ninety degrees. Mike DeFillipo, as we talk about heat, you were suffering from serious heat, even before 4:11, yesterday afternoon, when the electricity went out, that had to do with, I think, a fire in your area. But if Rich can take over for you, maybe you and Elizabeth and Nell can come over and as you sit down for this very unusual Democracy Now broadcast, globally and locally with a backup generator, making it possible for us to broadcast amongst the candles here. French Minister Jean Francois Matte estimates up to three thousand people have died directly or indirectly due to heat wave. Lack of air conditioning cited as one of the main reasons. But Mike, you weren’t here with us at 4:11 because you were already dealing with an emergency at home in Newark.

MIKE DEFILLIPO: Yeah, I already had a situation going on at home, that was another whole nightmare. But I’ve always — yesterday for me was, once I found out that there was nothing else that I could do about what I had to do, and going into — you know, I looked over to my neighbor’s place and they were just like, oh, the power’s out. I’m like, what? I had no idea until about seven, eight o’clock in the afternoon, early evening. When I realized no street lights were coming on or nothing else, I’m like, this is strange.

AMY GOODMAN: And you’re an electrician!

MIKE DEFILLIPO: Well, yeah. I mean, well these things happen. The blackout of '77 occurred because of a little relay about the size of your fist, and, you know, these things just happen. And I'm really glad that people, kind of, got their heads together and didn’t go running off thinking this is a tremendous terrorist situation. No, no, no, no. It’s a blackout. It happens. Some relay or transformer somewhere went out and it happens. It’s not a — it doesn’t have to always be something that’s, you know, driven by terrorism or fear.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s right, when you’re late to work, it’s not terrorism. When you can’t find coffee, it’s not terrorism. And this massive blackout. No there was another cause. Elizabeth, you are here in N.Y.

ELIZABETH PRESS: Yes, well I also was not here at 4:11 yesterday, and I woke up around 7pm.

AMY GOODMAN: She was recovering from yesterday’s show as well. People do nights here.

ELIZABETH PRESS: I went out to try to buy some candles, and some matches, and some batteries, and found a radio in the street, and went to the indymedia center where a bunch of people were taking refuge.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s where folks, the IMC, and you can go to, get a lot of information out to the rest of the world, and to our communities. Nell Geiser, you work here, and you work also at WKCR, which is your radio station up at Columbia and Barnard, what has it been like for you? And Flip, how did you come in this morning? We only have a minute, but you were coming in from New Jersey.

MIKE DEFILLIPO: well, after going to the train station to find out that no trains were really running, I borrowed my friend’s car to come in, and that was another nightmare because the Holland Tunnel was a mess, but it was actually the best way to get here nonetheless.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, thank you definitely for making it here. Nell, what was happening in your area.

NELL GEISER: Well, I was here at first, booking a guest for the show today, and then I walked all the way from Canal Street up to 120th Street with lots of other people heading uptown, so it was a lot of fun. A long walk, though.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Nell, and thank you also for getting in here this morning. A lot of people in the streets last night. Today, most people are not going in to work, most people are not going to school. I want to thank this remarkable team of people who made this broadcast happen, as we went to Iraq to speak with Jamie Wilson and George Monbiot who is in Norway. A very important piece, I encourage people to read on the web, on extreme climate change and global warming. Julia Dingle also managed to make it and she is filming Democracy Now. The authorities are saying that a part of the country will be without power throughout the weekend. And I think it’s a very new experience for people in this country to be without power, to experience what most people in the world experience quite a lot. In fact, what wars are fought over — and that is power, electricity, energy. And, interestingly enough, yes, a lot of people are talking about deregulation now, and should be talking about it more, being blamed for part of the problem that has led to the biggest blackout in U.S. history. That does it for the program. A very special thanks to the whole team who I’m looking at right here in the dark through the candlelight, Mike Burke and Mike DeFillipo, Lenina Nedal and Simba Russo, Elizabeth Press and Rich Kim, and Dennis Moynihan, Uri Galed, Nell Geiser, also Parvez Sharma, also thank you to Karen Palmer who helped us out throughout the night over there in Los Angeles. Our website is I’m Amy Goodman, thanks.

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