Monthly Archives: August 2011

Hurricane Diary

The eye of Hurricane Irene is approaching Virginia Beach as I write.  Here in New York City, there’s an eerie calm.  So far, although it’s overcast, it’s barely raining. It’s literally the calm before the storm.

One of the most bizarre aspects of all this, in fact, is the uncertainty.  What will the storm really be like?  Will its strength diminish or increase after it hits landfall in the Carolinas and then heads back out to sea and towards NYC?  Will it swerve away or continue straight on its projected route, dead-on towards New York City?

However one regards such questions, Hurricane Irene is already a landmark event in the natural history of the city.  Parts of the city, including my neighborhood of St. George in Staten Island, have already been evacuated for the first time in the city’s history.

I’m staying in Jackson Heights, Queens.  A few hours ago, I went out to buy some groceries.  As predicted, the stores were packed with people buying everything off the shelves.  But there was a surreal air.  At the entrance, a guy was talking on a cellphone, saying in an amused voice that it was like the end of the world was coming in the store.  It was crowded, and nerves were definitely on edge (one of the first things I saw was two guys arguing over a loaf of bread), but there were no flesh-eating zombies or anything.  Stores are beginning to board up their windows, but there’s still an air of calm, with lots of people walking around shopping and lots of cars in the streets.

Last night there was an animation on TV that looked just like the computer graphic used by Al Gore to illustrate the impact of climate change in An Inconvenient Truth:

This shocking image of submersion, with the implication of potential loss of life and certain loss of billions of dollars in storm-related damage, really underlines the folly of the present moment.

Take one example: I’ve been blogging recently about the Keystone XL Tar Sands pipeline, which is slated to open up one of the largest remaining unexploited troves of fossil fuels on the planet. Yesterday the State Department finalized an environmental review that found that the pipeline posed limited risks to the environment. There’s lots of controversy about this given the thin gauge of the pipeline and the history of accidents. Yet, even more glaring than this, is the absolute folly of arguing that the pipeline poses limited risks to the environment in a year in which environmental disasters, from droughts to floods to blizzards, have caused more damage in the U.S. than in any previous year on record. How ironic that a wing of the U.S. government should issue such a report just as a massive hurricane was barreling towards Washington, D.C.  One could hardly hope for a clearer image of the government and the political elite keeping its collective head in the sand.

But is this really what they are doing?  There’s lots of money to be made from disasters, as Naomi Klein demonstrated so powerfully in The Shock Doctrine.  My friend Christian Parenti’s recent book Tropic of Chaos offers an unnerving series of snapshots of the ways in which elites in the U.S. and around the world are approaching climate chaos.

How this impacts the average person, including the denizens of New York City, on which Nature seems to have painted a giant bull’s eye, remains to be seen.

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Defusing the Carbon Bomb

The Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline has been described by its opponents as one of the biggest carbon bombs on the planet. This pipeline is designed to open up the Canadian tar sands to exploitation: sands contain naturally occurring mixtures of sand, clay, water, and a dense and extremely viscous form of petroleum technically referred to as bitumen. It takes a hell of a lot of water and energy to separate the oil out of this dense mixture, and even then the oil still needs to be refined. The Keystone XL pipeline will bring crude down from Canada, all the way across the lower forty nine, to refineries along the Gulf of Mexico coast.

Of course there are many hazards associated with transporting oil all the way across the continental U.S.  In addition, however, we need to be asking ourselves a crucial question: should be really be opening up a massive store of fossil fuel at this date in history? Shouldn’t we be putting our money and our engineering expertise into developing renewable energy sources? The Keystone project, seen from outside, seems more like some sort of bizarre suicide pact or irrational, instinctual death wish than the work of a species capable of rational planning. The picture to the left shows what is left of the Canadian boreal forest after oil is extracted from the tar sands: a moonscape.

Oil company stooges in Congress recently passed legislation forcing President Obama to make a decision whether to move forward with the Keystone XL project before the end of this year.

In response, a protest campaign has developed that looks set to be one of the key struggles of the climate justice movement. Starting last night, protesters began engaging in acts of non-violent civil disobedience outside the White House to send a message to Obama. This campaign is going to last two weeks, with people being arrested solidly from now until the beginning of September. It promises to be one of the most significant campaigns of direct action in the nation’s history, and hopefully will help spark increasingly intense struggles for climate justice in the U.S. and around the world.

Here’s a link to the Tar Sands Action website, which contains information about the demonstrations and suggestions about how to engage in solidarity actions.

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A Modest Proposal: Tax the Church

Today there was a totally unnerving interview on Democracy Now today with former evangelical Christian heavyweight Frank Schaeffer. Schaeffer is the son of Francis Schaeffer, one of the nation’s foremost evangelical leaders in the 1970s and 1980s and a key proponent of Dominionism: a movement which aims to return the U.S. to governance according to the Bible.

This is, Schaeffer argues literally the equivalent of revolutionary Iran’s attempt to establish Shar’iah law, or rule according to the Koran. As Schaeffer points out, what the Dominionists are engaged in is an attempt to return the country to a neolithic system of laws that advocate complete subservience of women to their husbands, the stoning to adulterers, and the killing of homosexuals.

Pretty insane, right? But, as the segment on Democracy Now details, one of the top Republican candidates for president, Michele Bachmann, is actually a firm believer in Dominionism,  In fact, in a recent profile in The New Yorker magazine, Bachmann states that she entered politics after watching Francis Schaeffer’s film, “How Should We Then Live?”, which was directed by his son Frank.

It’s really shocking that such extreme and flagrantly bigoted views could now be so close to the mainstream of U.S. politics. Most Americans of course have little idea that the ideological zealotry of the Tea Party is directly linked to Dominionist positions that go back to before the Cold War, to the Great Depression, when the economic crash was seen as divine punishment for a sinfully secular nation and when the New Deal and, indeed, all forms of federal government, including progressive taxation, were seen as creeping Communist attempts to destroy Christianity.

Centrist leaders of today like President Obama just don’t get it: they’re dealing with people who believe that the federal government must be abolished in order to preserve the Christian way of life. This is why groups like the Tea Party can continue to act like an oppressed minority while simultaneously holding the entire nation to ransom over otherwise trivial agreements such as raising the debt ceiling.

Given the transformation of the U.S. over the last forty years by an increasingly powerful Christian evangelical insurgency bent on obliterating two hundred years of struggles for gender, racial, and class equality, maybe it’s time to consider a practical step. Maybe we should start taxing religious organizations.

Right now the U.S. is the only democracy in the Western world which allows religious institutions to be completely tax free. In addition, individuals can make whatever donations they want to such institutions and have these donations be tax deductible. This of course is a huge drain on the federal coffers at a time when everyone seems worried about our national debt. But, even more importantly, it’s a massive clandestine subsidy for increasingly extreme religious forces in the U.S.

Aside from these contemporary economic considerations, this state of affairs is also a direct contravention of the Constitution. The first sentence of the Bill of Rights reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Establishing religious organizations as tax-free institutions is a direct contravention of this directive since it facilitates the establishment of religion in the most direct manner possible.

Unlike other non-profit institutions, religious institutions in the U.S are not subject to I.R.S. audit and public scrutiny. Since the “faith-based initiatives” of the George W. Bush administration, more and more public money is siphoned through religious organizations that are not answerable to the public in general, but rather intent on making converts to their own narrow view of the world.

The U.S. is degenerating more and more into a theocracy. Isn’t it about time that we stopped this appalling slide?

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Attacking the Block

At the conclusion of my last blog on the British riots/uprisings, I warned that determined organizing would be necessary in order to avoid the imposition of yet another round of popular authoritarianism. Unfortunately, this comment turned out to be even more prescient than I expected.

In the wake of the disturbances, PM David Cameron has gone on the offensive against what he represents as a “slow-motion moral collapse” across Britain in recent generations. Rather than speaking about the moral collapse represented by the greedy bankers of the financial crisis of 2008 or the sleazy corrupt politicians of the Murdoch phone hacking scandal, of course, Cameron is talking about what the Daily Mail called the “nihilistic and feral teenagers” who shocked Britain last week.

In a brilliant response to this hypocritical moralism, David Harvey points out that such language has deep roots, having been applied by property owners to the members of the Paris Commune in the nineteenth century. Living, as we do, in a “political economy of mass dispossession,” what is there, Harvey asks, to distinguish the rioters from the robbers and pirates who occupy the seats of power except the relatively humble scale of their looting?

What we’re seeing in shockingly sweeping pronouncements such as those of David Cameron’s about “some of the worst aspects of human nature tolerated, indulged, sometimes even incentivized, by a state and its agencies that in parts have become literally de-moralized” is a struggle over signification. Cameron and his allies must frame the looters as hooligans in order to impose a fresh round of popular authoritarianism in Britain.

Such authoritarianism is already being implemented on the ground. Crowd control measures proposed by Cameron’s government include the use of water cannons, the deployment of the military, and the hiring of American supercops to crack down on unrest. Even more troubling is the use of round-the-clock courts to impose harsh jail terms on rioters and plans to evict rioters from public housing and to end their state benefits. Steps to implement the latter policy have already been taken by local housing authorities, with the families of young men who have not yet been convicted of rioting being served with eviction notices.

This new round of popular authoritarianism hasn’t come out of nowhere. Last weekend I saw Attack the Block, Joe Cornish’s film about a group of teenage boys in a housing estate in South London that is under attack by space aliens. The timing of the film’s release in the U.S. was uncanny. As the film stills attacked to this blog suggest, Attack the Block conjures up precisely the fears of urban mayhem and gang violence that are central elements in the current popular authoritarian backlash unfolding in Britain today, but then dismantles and inverts them in a brilliantly anti-racist manner.

The film begins with a gang of multi-racial kids led by an apparently thuggish lad named Moses mugging a young white woman named Sam. While the mugging is taking place, a nearby car explodes into flames. Turns out an alien has just crash landed. Moses investigates and ends up getting into a fight with the alien. True to (stereotypical) form, he smashes its head in. Of course, this alien is a female, and her carcass ends up attracting a horde of far more lethal male aliens. Moses and his mates spend the rest of the film battling these feral monsters, struggling to defend themselves and the other residents of the apartment block from the marauding aliens.

Much of Attack the Block is standard thriller fare of roller coaster style scares and fight scenes. But the film does take the predicament of Moses and his mates seriously. It shows them as genuinely lost, abandoned or, worse still, manipulated by the few adults they encounter and starved for meaningful role models. They are shown to genuinely think of themselves as local defenders, picking only on those they recognize as outsiders and trying to defend their turf and the people they care about against all odds. In one particularly poignant moment, Moses speculates that the government has sent the aliens. First they sent drugs, he says, then they sent guns, now they’re sending aliens to kill us. We’re not killing one another fast enough, so they want to speed up the process, Moses comments.

Despite its many flaws – it almost totally ignores the perspective of young women living in council estates in Britain, for example – Attack the Block does a far better job of imaging what life must feel like to young men growing up at the end of thirty years of neo-liberal austerity in Britain than any of the pronouncements of political leaders today. Whether or not one agrees with its anti-racist celebration of Moses and his friends, the film gives the lie to ideas that the summer riots of 2011 came out of nowhere. Attack the Block shows that these disturbances emerged out of and in response to festering conditions of deprivation that were an open secret in Britain long before the riots/uprisings.

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From the Frontlines: Indigenous People Fighting Climate Change

A recent study by the National Wildlife Federation concluded that Native Americans are the people in the U.S. most affected by climate change.  From Alaskan Native villages slipping into the sea to droughts on some reservations and floods in others, Native Americans are on the frontlines of climate chaos.  They are also leading the fight to challenge the political ecology that is causing climate change.

All too often, this struggle remains invisible to most people in the U.S. and around the world.  As Rob Nixon argues in his recently published book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, contemporary media like to focus on spectacular, immediate violence such as the 9/11 attacks.  Since environmental damage seldom conforms to these spectacular expectations, the struggles of affected communities are often ignored by the dominant media. Given this media silence, we need to find new ways of raising the average person’s awareness about what is happening to indigenous peoples within our own borders and around the world.

This imperative makes the recent work of LifeMosaic particularly important. LifeMosaic is a Scottish-based non-profit which has launched an important new series of short films to help raise awareness and build knowledge about climate change and the struggles of indigenous peoples.

LifeMosaic officially launched the new series, Fever – A Video Guide to coincide with the Continental Encounter of the Peoples of Abya Yala for Water and Pachamama in Cuenca, Ecuador, 21-23rd June 2011.

Fever – A Video Guide, is made up of four short films which have been designed as a resource for Indigenous communities, to help share information about climate change as well as the struggles and the strategies that communities employ to defend their rights and determine their own futures. In the films we hear stories from communities in places as diverse as Ecuador, Nicaragua, the Philippines and Indonesia.

But the films aren’t just for Indigenous People. “[They’re] also for local facilitators,” says LifeMosaic, “to help strengthen the capacity of networks and organizations in their awareness-raising and advocacy work on climate change.” “[The films can also] be used to bring indigenous peoples voices to audiences such as government officials; to all those whose work relates to indigenous peoples, forests and climate change; and in schools, universities, film festivals and other public events,” LifeMosaic adds.

All four films are available in Spanish, English and Bahasa Indonesia. They can be freely viewed or downloaded by anyone. DVD copies may also be requested by visiting LifeMosaic’s website and clicking on “Request a DVD”.  A Community Facilitator Guide is also available: http://www.lifemosaic.net/pdf/Facilitators%20Guide%20English.pdf

Fever was awarded the 2010 award for Creativity and Contribution to the Indigenous Narrative by the Indigenous Peoples’ Latin American Network for Film and Communication at the Xth International Indigenous Film and Video Festival in Quito, Ecuador.

Overview of the films

The first film, Fever , explains the essential points of climate change and why it is so important to Indigenous Peoples. Watch/Download Fever (21 minutes).

The second film, Impacts, shows how large-scale industrial projects like plantations, coal mining and oil extraction impact indigenous peoples’ livelihoods and rights as well as contribute to global climate change. Watch/Download Impacts (20 minutes).

The third film, Organization, provides examples of organizational tools and strategies used by indigenous peoples to protect their cultures, territories and rights. Watch/Download Organization (23 minutes).

The fourth and final film, Resilience, examines indigenous peoples’ increasing resilience to climate change by strengthening their customary systems and developing new approaches for adaptation. Watch/Download Resilience (22 minutes)

All four films help to put the global struggle against climate change in context. Indigenous Peoples are shown to be the populations most heavily impacted by climate change today. But these communities are also the frontline of the global movement against climate change. The LifeMosaic films show how such communities are adopting cutting edge organizational forms such as participatory democracy and online social networking in order to fight back against the political economic forces driving climate chaos.

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Why I Will Be There

From August 20th to September 3rd, a massive demonstration will take place in Washington, D.C. to protest the planned Keystone XL Pipeline, which is slated to bring tar sands oil all the way from Canada to the refineries along the TX gulf coast.  Bill McKibben has described this as an action to defuse the largest carbon bomb in North America.

Looks like fall is going to be a season of discontent.  A series of powerful videos have recently been posted by activists who plan to attend a demonstration in October 2011 to protest our current state of militarized austerity, which of course also has an incredibly destructive effect on the environment.  Journalist Chris Hedges’ explanation of why he plans to attend this event and engage in civil disobedience is particularly powerful, and also serves as a useful explanation for why one might protest the Keystone XL pipeline later this month.

Hedges’ video is one of many powerful pieces that articulate the need for nonviolent direct action at this crucial moment in the struggle for climate justice.  It’s a hard-hitting critique of capitalism’s insatiable need to expand, and, in doing so, to consume the planet.  This is scary stuff, and Hedges delivers his indictment in a pretty dour manner.

Perhaps, in addition to such searing indictments, what the Climate Justice Movement also needs is a bit of humor.  After all, we need to win hearts and minds as well as engage in uncompromising analysis.  In this vein, it might be useful to juxtapose Robert Newman’s brilliant and funny History of Oil with Hedges’s video:

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Policing the Crisis: The London Riots in Historical Perspective

The conflagration currently consuming London and other cities in the English Midlands is generating much heated debate. Little of this commentary demonstrates much of a sense of history.

Authorities such as Prime Minister David Cameron and London mayor Boris Johnson have, for example, been quick to condemn what they and significant segments of the mainstream British media represent as the wanton lawlessness of the ‘rioters.’ Metropolitan Police commander Adrian Hanstock condemned the riots as “absolutely unacceptable” on August 7, saying that a peaceful demonstration had been hijacked by a small number of “criminal elements” using it for their own gain. Racial and class stereotypes about the character of the rioters are not so carefully hidden behind these denunciations.

In the face of these stereotypes, it’s worth remembering that the riots began on Saturday following a nonviolent community demonstration outside a Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) station in the North London neighborhood of Tottenham. This demonstration was organized to demand justice following the death of Mark Duggan, a young Black Briton shot by the police during a planned operation. The London police initially reported that Duggan had fired on them, but subsequent reports by the Independent Police Complaints Commission have revealed that a bullet lodged in a police radio was in fact issued by the Metropolitan Police Service.

The killing of Duggan took place within the context of Operation Trident, a special arm of the MPS established in 1998 to investigate gun crime in London’s black communities. More recently, the MPS launched Operation Razorback in order to crack down on “troublemakers” planning to attend this year’s carnival in Notting Hill. As British activist Darcus Howe explained in a recent interview, these police operations come on top of a broader transformation in police-community relations facilitated by the war on terror that has allowed the police to engage in unimpeded stop, search, and arrest operations in Britain’s Black communities.

Despite the fact that most British police do not carry guns, being arrested in the UK is no joke. As Caroline Davies reported in an article earlier this year, 333 people have died in or following police custody in the UK over the last eleven years; not a single member of the police has been convicted for any of these deaths.

This pattern of police dragnets in Black communities has deep historical roots. As I discuss in my book Mongrel Nation, Black communities were targeted during the 1970s and 1980s by very similar special operations. In 1981, for example, Operation Swamp deployed huge numbers of police into the predominantly Black neighborhood of Brixton in South London. Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government oversaw the revival of Victorian “sus” laws that allowed police to detain anyone who they suspected might be either breaking or about to break the law. Not surprisingly, young Black men were disproportionately targeted, and a significant number of deaths in police custody ensued. In 1981, riots broke out in Brixton and quickly spread to Black, Asian, and white working class neighborhoods of cities such as Birmingham and Manchester.

Exactly the same pattern is repeating itself today. Given this fact, it’s worth remembering how these uprisings were framed at the time. The most trenchant account of urban unrest of the time, Policing the Crisis, suggested that urban “criminality” needed to be placed in the context of the organic crisis of the British state and society. For Stuart Hall and his fellow contributors, public fears about “mugging” (which anticipated and legitimated draconian tactics such as Operation Swamp that sparked the Brixton riots) were a moral panic that condensed much broader fears and redirected those fears onto the scapegoated figure of the “immigrant.” For the contributors to Policing the Crisis, that is, fears about crime helped authorities contain a much broader crisis in Britain.

What was the nature of this crisis? By the 1970s, the economic boom of the post-World War II years had played itself out. Rates of profit were sagging in the industrialized economies of North America and Western Europe. In addition, the 1960s had seen broad criticism of the hollow materialism of the “affluent society” constructed during the consumer-driven boom of preceding decades. The result was what Hall and his colleagues, drawing on the theories of Antonio Gramsci, called an organic crisis: a breakdown that cut across all segments of society, from the economic “base” to the cultural “superstructure.”

In response to these interwoven economic and ideological crises, elites in Britain, the United States, and other developed countries gradually cobbled together the hegemonic project we now know as neo-liberalism. The lineaments of neo-liberalism of course included smashing institutions of working class power, shrinking and/or privatizing the redistributive arm of the state, and beefing up the state’s security apparatus. Hall and his colleagues called this approach popular authoritarianism.

A key element of popular authoritarianism, according to Policing the Crisis, was pinning the cause of the organic crisis on the figure of Black immigrant. Black communities had of course been hyper-exploited and, in tandem, economically marginalized for decades in Britain. Nevertheless, the underground economies that developed as a result were taken out of context and classified as criminal in a process that tended to pathologize entire communities and to treat criminality as a purely racial issue. Policing the Crisis elaborates a theory of Britain’s Black communities as part of an international surplus labor population whose outsider status allowed them to be demonized by British authorities in order to explain away their inability to establish a socially and economically just society. Both the Tories and the Labour Party cooperated in this scapegoating of Britain’s Black population, as a survey of the increasingly racialized elements of immigration legislation demonstrates. This sordid history of caving in to the extreme racial posturing of the Right makes much of the hand-wringing in Europe following the recent murderous rampage of Norwegian racialist Anders Breivik hypocritical at best.

Policing the Crisis remains relevant today. As Operation Trident and Razorback suggest, Black communities in Britain are still subject to heavy, racially targeted policing tactics. Despite the admission of institutional racism within the Metropolitan Police Service in the wake of the investigation of the killing of Stephen Lawrence in 1999, police still operate with total impunity. Finally, authority figures continue to discuss criminality without any reference to the context of austerity and draconian cutbacks in the redistributive arm of the state that has prevailed for the last three decades, and that has intensified to an unprecedented level under the current Tory government.

The uprisings in London and other parts of Britain draw attention to these injustices, just as the Brixton uprising did several decades ago. Sustained organizing, in the media and on the ground, will be necessary in order to prevent the imposition of yet another round of popular authoritarianism in response to these uprisings.

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