Category Archives: race

A Tale of Two Sandys

images-1My friends at the Superstorm Research Lab have just released an amazing white paper on the impact of Hurricane Sandy. Titled A Tale of Two Sandys, the report focuses on the uneven impact of the storm on NYC.

In the words of the report,

On one hand, the crisis was seen as an extreme weather event that created physical and economic damage, and temporarily moved New York City away from its status quo. On the other hand, Hurricane Sandy exacerbated crises which existed before the storm, including poverty, lack of affordable housing, precarious or low employment, and unequal access to resources generally. A Tale of Two Sandys describes these two understandings of disaster and discuss their implications for response, recovery, and justice in New York City.

The paper, along with many of the other resources gathered on the SRL site, is must reading. The SRL project is an incredible example of militant collaborative research.

Leave a comment

Filed under class war, environment, race

Madiba RIP

young+nelsonThe celebrations of Nelson Mandela’s life have been both fortifying and frustrating. They are a testimony to the long road traveled, as well as the whitewashing and historical elisions that take place as we look to the past.

On the one hand, it’s amazing to hear such universal acclaim for a man that politicians like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher once condemned as a terrorist.

On the other hand, the veneration of Madiba ignores the fact that he was only one person – a peculiarly determined and charismatic one, granted – in a much broader movement against madiba1apartheid. When one speaks to South Africans who lived through the apartheid era, one immediately finds that struggle and sacrifice (as well as silent complicity or outright racism) were universal. It is a country scarred by brutal history, but ennobled by tremendous bravery and sacrifice that was nearly universal.

In addition, there are many questions about Mandela’s years in power and the legacy he left. Patrick Bond’s commemorative article offers a judicious account of the deals struck by the ANC once Mandela achieved power in the country’s first democratic elections in 1994. This involved, in Bond’s words, an “intra-elite economic deal that, for most madiba2people, worsened poverty, unemployment, inequality and ecological degradation, while also exacerbating many racial, gender and geographical differences.”

The democracy Mandela brought to South Africa was a flawed and compromised one, although it was still seemingly miraculous given many people’s fears that the country would descend into civil war and racist bloodletting. His heroism through the many years of captivity and his generosity towards his former captors was exemplary. Yet Mandela’s legacy is one that we must both celebrate and lament.

La lucha continua!

Leave a comment

Filed under class war, race

Socialism or Barbarism

Occupation by a fascist or imperialist power is perhaps one of the most common experiences of the last century.  This is certainly true of Italy, which endured nearly two decades of fascist rule, culminating in several years of occupation by the Nazis during the Second World War. Today Italy celebrates resistance to this oppression. Here in Europe, though, this experience of occupation and resistance is being forgotten all too quickly. As a result, Europe is witnessing the return of National Socialism.

Two days ago, in the French elections, Marie Le Pen won nearly 20% of the national vote. She ran on an explicitly racist platform, spewing demagogic vitriol about halal meat as a threat to French values and promising to clamp down on immigration. But in addition to playing on nostalgic white desires for the imaginary homogeneous France of an era before mass immigration, globalization, and financialization, Le Pen promises to leave the EU and to support a generous welfare state, early retirement, and old age pensions. On many of these positions, she is far to the left of the nominally socialist candidate François Hollande.

Extreme xenophobia and racism married to a generous socialist state for a white nation. Sound familiar? This was the formula of the Nazi – an abbreviation of National Socialist – party, although not many people remember the socialist elements of the party’s ideology.

Rabble-rousing populists of this ilk are making gains across Europe in the context of the austerity policies implemented by mainstream parties of both the Right and the Left over the last two years. The center-right government of Mark Rutte in Holland caved in on Monday after Geert Wilders, Le Pen’s Dutch equivalent, withdrew his support for the government because of resistance to austerity. In Prague, massive popular protests – the biggest since the Velvet Revolution – have brought the governing party to the brink of collapse as a result of its implementation of unpopular spending cuts.

We are living through a very dangerous moment, one in which the extreme right is set to capitalize on the lack of a strong progressive alternative to the horrendous, failed policies of austerity pursued by European elites, Sarkozy and Merkel foremost among them, since the financial crisis engulfed Europe.

In the face of this return of National Socialism, it is more urgent than ever to revive the memory of anti-fascist struggle in Europe. Salutary, then, that today was the celebration of Italy’s liberation from the Nazi occupation during the Second World War.

This evening I participated in a torch-light procession of partisans – guerrilla fighters against the Nazis and Italian fascists during World War Two – and their friends and family here in Torino to celebrate the Day of National Liberation. Here are some photos of the march:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Notice how diverse the crowd was in terms of age. For Italy, it was also fairly multi-racial, with a strong anti-racist showing.

During the march I spoke to a young medical student named Federico. He explained that the national association of Italian partisans (whose acronym is ANPI in Italian) was only open to actual fighters during the Second World War until four years ago. At that point, though, a decision was made to open the organization up to younger people in order to transmit its values to new generations. The point, in other words, is to keep the memory of the anti-fascist, anti-Nazi struggle alive while also trying to make that memory active in the present. How can the heritage of the partisans be made meaningful in today’s world, the marchers asked?

The march concluded with a series of speeches by partisans on a stage in Torino’s Piazza Reale. Like Federico, these men stressed that the legacy of anti-fascism needs to be kept alive in the present. Unfortunately, no elderly women were invited to speak, although, as Roberto Rosellini’s great film Roma, città aperta shows, women played a vital role in fighting the fascists. A young woman did, however, make a powerful argument for the need to fight the advance of the Right within Italy and throughout Europe.

With Italy and the rest of Europe moving into increasingly difficult economic straits, this message needs to be amplified in every way possible. As Rosa Luxemburg might have put it, today it’s a case of international socialism or Nazi barbarism.

I’ll give the last word in this posting to the partisans. Here’s a version of the classic partisan song Bella Ciao:

Leave a comment

Filed under class war, democracy, race

Extreme Extraction

The largest grassroots environmental protest in decades came to a triumphant conclusion over the Labor Day weekend. In the course of two weeks, 1,252 people were arrested for sitting in peacefully in front of the White House in a bid to convince Barack Obama to reject the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, which is slated to bring heavy oil from the tar sands deposits in Canada’s Alberta Province all the way across the U.S. to the Gulf Coast for refining. Organizers of the Tar Sands Action declared from the outset that this would be a litmus test for President Obama: he alone will make the decision whether to proceed with the Keystone project, and, as a result, his stance on this pivotal environmental issue will be a clear indication of his broader outlook on environmental affairs. At stake, in other words, is the support of the environmental movement for his reelection bid. The battle against extraction of oil from the tar sands is, however, about far more than simply throwing down the gauntlet to Obama’s Rightward-lurching presidency.

The struggle to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline is indicative of a key shift in the stakes and terms of contemporary environmental conflict, for the tar sands are but one instance of a far broader trend towards extreme extraction today. While the world is not about to run out of hydrocarbon energy sources, discoveries of new energy supplies such as oil fields have become increasingly infrequent and small in recent years. Such scarcity has been one of the key factors driving energy prices higher. As the quality and quantity of conventional sources of fossil fuel have diminished, the energy industry has turned to increasingly inaccessible sources in often hostile and fragile environments. The technology required to extract oil, gas, and coal reserves from such inaccessible sources has grown ever more complex, expensive, and environmentally destructive. The increasing scarcity of easily exploitable energy reserves, in other words, explains the rise of extreme extractive industries such hydrofracturing, deep sea oil drilling, mountaintop coal removal, and tar sands oil extraction. These new modes of extreme extraction are bringing forms of environmental destruction heretofore confined to the global South home to populations in the North who have for decades been relatively sheltered from the most aggressive efforts of the energy industry. Extreme extraction also significantly augments the release of greenhouse gases, intensifying climate change. For this reason, extreme extraction tends to go hand-in-hand with extreme weather and (un)natural disasters.

Yet if extreme extraction brings the environmental chickens home to roost, it also galvanizes new transnational forms of solidarity. As the protests against the Keystone XL Pipeline over the last two weeks demonstrated, extreme extraction is forging coalitions that cross ethnic, regional, and national borders. In tandem with catalyzing such new links, the struggle against extreme extraction is also provoking the American environmental movement to adopt increasingly militant modes of direct action – forms of struggle often pioneered by environmental activists in the global South faced with the destruction of the natural world upon which their lives depend.

*                      *                      *

Extreme extraction would seem to be an unlikely candidate for public support, particularly after the public relations debacle of last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But neither the deep pockets nor the cynicism of the fossil fuel lobby should be underestimated. Oil from the Canadian tar sands, for example, is being marketed to the U.S. public using an incredibly duplicitous discourse of human rights that is shot through with thinly veiled forms of nationalism and racism. As a recent Ethical Oil campaign video demonstrates, tar sands oil is represented in this marketing campaign as a politically correct alternative to oil from oppressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia. “Unlike Conflict Oil from some of the world’s most politically oppressive and environmentally reckless regimes,” the Ethical Oil website states, “Ethical Oil is the “Fair Trade” choice in oil.” Never mind the fact that the U.S. has supported the Saudi regime for decades; oil from the Canadian tar sands is painted as a consumer choice in favor of democracy and human rights, akin to the decision to buy fair trade coffee.

Key to the Ethical Oil campaign is a contemporary version of the longstanding colonial trope of saving brown women from oppressive brown men. The Ethical Oil promotion video therefore focuses on the fact that “we” bankroll a state that “doesn’t allow women to drive, doesn’t allow them to leave their homes or work without their male guardian’s permission.” Instead of legitimating the rule of the British Raj or, in a more recent example of the circulation of this trope, the invasion of Iraq, this discourse of women’s rights is deployed by the Ethical Oil campaign to suggest that American consumers should support oil extracted in more democratic nations. As the Ethical Oil website has it, “Countries that produce Ethical Oil protect the rights of women, workers, indigenous peoples and other minorities including gays and lesbians. Conflict Oil regimes, by contrast, oppress their citizens and operate in secret with no accountability to voters, the press or independent judiciaries. Some Conflict Oil regimes even support terrorism.” The notion of “conflict” oil is intended to evoke the campaign against Blood Diamonds, suggesting that consumers who support the extraction and consumption of oil from Canada’s tar sands rather than from Saudi Arabia are striking a decisive blow for human rights.

Two huge fallacies underlie this apparently neat distinction between Ethical Oil and Conflict Oil. The first is the assumption that the world has to consume more oil, and that Americans must perforce choose between different sources of petroleum. Against this assumption, we should remember the admonitions of climate scientists such as James Hansen that we need to decarbonize the industrialized economies of the world with all possible dispatch if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. Few serious analysts believe such a shift is going to be easy or even possible without transforming our current, growth-dependent capitalist system, but it is nonetheless clearly imperative for our collective survival that we make this change. This is a truth that the notion of ethical oil consumption, like other forms of consumer-oriented green capitalism, conveniently ignores.

The second whopping lie in the Ethical Oil campaign is the notion that any oil can ever be extracted in a wholly ethical manner. Oil is a toxic substance whose extraction and consumption over the last century has significantly raised living standards in some parts of the world, but has also been inextricably tied to colonialism, imperialism, and other violations of people’s rights to self-determination, leading to widespread human rights abuses and the wholesale destruction of the environment. Furthermore, to continue to consume oil is to magnify the baleful impact of climate chaos around the world today and to ensure a bleak and increasingly violent world for future generations.

Oil from the tar sands, which the Ethical Oil campaign is of course designed to legitimate, is a perfect example of the violence of the energy industry. Tar sands oil is based on modes of extreme extraction that wreak unparalleled destruction on the environment and its denizens. Much of that destruction has been relatively invisible, however, since it takes place in the geographically isolated wilds of northern Alberta Province in Canada. An additional factor that makes extraction from the tar sands difficult for the general public to understand and to mobilize against is what Rob Nixon, in his recent book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, calls the “temporal dispersion” of environmental calamities. Like the acidification of the oceans, the thawing of the cryosphere, and many other aspects of climate change, the impact of oil and gas extraction from the Canadian tar sands does not fit within the spectacular visual frame that drives mainstream news media. As Nixon argues, the slow violence that characterizes many environmental catastrophes not only tends to make such disasters relatively invisible to much of the public, but also allows the corporations that perpetrate ecocide to wash their hands of the damage they cause since this violence often unfolds over decades rather than in the spectacular moment. The problem of slow violence is, as Nixon points out, at its heart a challenge of representation. This makes a politics of witnessing – using media that can reverse the geographical and temporal invisibility of environmental crimes – a particularly key mode of contemporary activism.

Melina Laboucan-Massimo’s Oil on Lubicon Land: A Photo Essay offers a powerful instance of such witnessing. Through a collage of photographs and a voice-over narrative, Laboucan-Massimo depicts the impact of three decades of oil and gas extraction on the territory of her people, the Lubicon-Cree First Nation. Lubicon land is now pockmarked by more than 2,600 oil and gas wells, and seventy percent of the tribe’s territory is leased for future “development.” Laboucan-Massimo stresses that this oil and gas extraction has taken place without consent of the Lubicon, infringing the provisions of the Canadian Constitution that protect aboriginal treaty rights. In addition, none of the estimated $14 billion worth of resources removed from Lubicon territory over the years have benefited the tribe materially. Instead, as Laboucan-Massimo demonstrates in her arresting photomontage, the beautiful boreal forests and peatlands that used to support a self-sufficient indigenous way of life based on hunting and gathering have been replaced by a blasted, pitted, and polluted industrial landscape. As indigenous activist Gitz Crazyboy put it during the Keystone protests, this effectively represents a fresh wave of genocide against First Nations people. To destroy the land that sustains indigenous people is also to destroy their culture, to make them dependent wards of an increasingly parsimonious state that has sanctioned the illegal exploitation of their lands.

Oil on Lubicon Land also makes the impact of extreme extraction visible by narrating the April 29, 2011 rupture in the Rainbow pipeline. This spill, one of many almost totally unreported pipeline ruptures over the last year in North America, released 4.5 million liters of toxic crude onto Lubicon land. If members of the tribe were already suffering from the slow violence of respiratory illnesses and cancer clusters produced by the oil and gas industry’s exploits on their land in recent decades, the oil spill rendered the toxicity of extreme extraction graphically visible. According to Laboucan-Massimo, the government not only failed to send out crews to deal with the spill but also did not notify affected communities of the dangers of the spill for almost a week. In a replay of the mendacious collaboration between government regulators and Big Oil that characterized the Deepwater Horizon spill, provincial authorities subsequently claimed that the peatland which absorbed much of the spill was an inert and isolated bog rather than a living ecosystem with vital connections to other parts of Lubicon land, including the aquifers that supply the Lubicon with drinking water.

Oil on Lubicon Land is not just a call for solidarity with the geographically isolated and politically marginalized Lubicon-Cree people, as important as such a call is. Melina Laboucan-Massimo’s photo essay has direct implications for the Keystone XL Pipeline, which will traverse the massive Ogallala aquifer – the source of 30% of America’s irrigation water and 82% of the drinking water for residents of the Plains states. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave the State Department’s Environmental Impact Statement on the Keystone XL a failing grade for reasons tied to the threat represented by the pipeline project to the Ogallala aquifer. The EPA noted, for instance, that the Environmental Impact Statement failed to adequately consider alternate routes for the pipeline that do not run through the Ogallala aquifer, and also failed to disclose or analyze the potential diluents that would have to be used to reduce the viscosity of the bitumen carried in the pipeline, information that would be essential to dealing with potential leaks. Such leaks are a very real concern given the fact that the existing Keystone pipeline ruptured in May 2011, releasing 20,000 gallons of crude in North Dakota. This was only one of the twelve spills that have plagued the Keystone over the last year. TransCanada Corporation’s successor pipeline, the Keystone XL, is, as its cute suffix suggests, designed to carry far more crude – double the quantity, in fact – far further, increasing the potential destructive impact of a rupture.

Adding to these relatively immediate concerns about the pipeline’s potential damage to key water supplies, the EPA report discusses the Environmental Impact Statement’s failure to assess the heightened greenhouse gas emissions associated with the project adequately. Exploitation of the Canadian tar sands is an incredibly energy-intensive process. The first step is to cut down huge swaths of boreal forest, a step that of course generates large amounts of carbon. Next, three-story high motorized shovels and dump trucks have to remove tons and tons of rock and soil to expose the underlying tar sands. Then, the dense bitumen that will be turned into synthetic crude has to be separated from the sand and clay with which it is surrounded. This can be done either by hauling the tar sands to processing plants, where natural gas and a gasoline-like product called naphtha are used to separate and process the bitumen, or by pumping steam underground to “cook” the bitumen over a two-week period, and then pumping the liquefied bitumen out of the ground. Either way, the amount of water and energy needed to extract the bitumen are extremely high, and the entire process creates massive amounts of greenhouse gases. Indeed, according to Naomi Klein, Canada’s carbon emissions are up 30% as a result of increasing exploitation of the tar sands, meaning that all other steps to be good environmental stewards taken by Canadians are meaningless.

The tar sands contain massive fossil fuel deposits. In fact, Canada increased its oil reserves by 3,600% when it decided to report its bitumen as economically recoverable “proven reserves” of petroleum in 2003, making it the possessor of the world’s second-largest oil supply. Nonetheless, in his book Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World, Richard Heinberg predicted that, despite their abundance, the tar sands would not become a meaningful source of energy for the U.S. because the extraction process relies so heavily on cheap and abundant natural gas. What has changed since Heinberg published this prediction in 2004? In 2005, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act after an intense lobbying campaign from the extractive industry and from Vice President Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force. As Josh Fox details in his film Gasland, the Energy Policy Act contained what’s known proverbially as the Halliburton Loophole to the Safe Drinking Water Act, a provision that authorizes corporations engaged in oil and gas exploration and extraction to inject known hazardous materials into land directly adjacent to underground drinking water supplies. The Halliburton Loophole also exempts such corporations from the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Superfund Law.

These legal changes were necessary because the recovery of natural gas has been vastly expanded using a technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or, more popularly, fracking. Like exploitation of the tar sands and other forms of extreme extraction, fracking is necessary because our nation’s unexploited large natural gas reserves are embedded in dense rock formations. To extract these relatively inaccessible reserves, energy companies inject a cocktail of water and secret proprietary fracturing fluids deep underground, where the toxic brew literally explodes, fracturing the rock formations and allowing the natural gas to be siphoned up to the surface. Significant amounts of the fracking fluids remain in the ground after the gas has been extracted. Despite releasing a report in 2004 (under heavy pressure from the Bush administration) that concluded that fracking “poses little or no threat to underground sources of drinking water,” in a 2010 study the EPA discovered toxins such as arsenic, copper, vanadium, and adamantanes in drinking water adjacent to drilling operations; these contaminants have been linked to illnesses such as cancer, kidney failure, anaemia, and fertility problems. The Natural Gas Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board is currently studying ways to make hydraulic fracturing safer, but, as a letter from scientists at 22 leading universities states, six of the seven members of this subcommittee have current financial ties to the natural gas and oil industry. The public has good reason to be skeptical about the reports from such biased sources.

Immediately after passage of the Energy Policy Act in 2005, a bevvy of major energy corporations began the largest and most extensive domestic drilling campaign in history. They were building on drilling conducted since the Bureau of Land Management opened its extensive territories to drilling under pressure from Vice President Cheney in 2001, a move that resulted in the drilling of 450,000 wells in largely rural areas of the American west and south. The large quantities of natural gas recovered in the course of these earlier operations were key to making exploitation of the Canadian tar sands economically viable. Abundant and consequently relatively cheap sources of one fossil fuel hence facilitated extraction of another, with little thought given to the ultimate environmental and human toll of such energy intensive and polluting processes. As we have seen, however, both sources require extreme extraction techniques, both rely on dubious scientific claims about the safety of such techniques, and they each result in grievous environmental damage, both immediate and long-term.

After 2005, drilling operations for natural gas using fracking were extended into the more highly populated areas of North America. In July 2008, Pennsylvania lifted a five-year moratorium on new drilling in state lands to allow access to the Marcellus shale, a sedimentary rock formation that extends under a large part of the Appalachian Basin, from New York’s finger lakes region, through central Pennsylvania, to West Virginia and Maryland. New York quickly streamlined its own leasing process to catch up with Pennsylvania, despite the lack of any significant objective assessments of the environmental and health impacts of fracking. A recent New York Times article revealed that a yet-to-be-released report into the impact of fracking in New York state was conducted by Ecology and Environment, Inc., a consulting firm that “counts oil and gas companies among its clients and that could gain business from increased drilling in the state.” Despite widespread public concern about the paucity and dubious objectivity of environmental impact assessments, New York State officials report they expect to receive applications to drill up to 2,500 horizontal and vertical wells on the Marcellus Shale during a peak year — and about 1,600 in an average year — over a 30-year period. That’s 48,000 wells in New York State alone. Many of these wells will be in areas near the pristine watersheds that feed the renowned public water supply of New York City.

Extreme extraction has arrived on the doorstep of the world’s most affluent and powerful city. Like exploitation of the tar sands, fracking may imperil the water supply of millions of people. The environmental chickens have really come home to roost. This threat is transforming the U.S. environmental movement. For the Indian ecologist Ramachandra Guha, author of How Much Should a Person Consume and many other important works of environmental history, the environmental movement in the U.S. has tended to focus on preservation of what is represented as pristine natural wilderness. Guha argues, in contrast, that environmental protest in India and other zones of the global South has focused more on protests against the encroachment on communal natural resources by what he calls the urban-industrial complex. Since these environmental conflicts hinge on control over resources key to community survival, they tend to center on issues of human rights and distributive justice. Such struggles also tend to generate relatively radical forms of protest such as direct action since they have to do with what Gitz Crazyboy called “taking back our futures.” Guha’s opposition breaks down when it comes to the Environmental Justice Movement in the U.S., which has fought the disproportionate location of polluting industries and toxic dumps in communities of color for at least three decades. Nonetheless, Guha’s analysis is an accurate characterization of the single-issue orientation of most mainstream American environmental organizations.

The campaign against the Keystone XL Pipeline that unfolded over the last two weeks suggests, though, that Guha’s critical characterization of the U.S. environmental movement needs to be revised. As extreme extraction becomes increasingly prevalent and increasingly threatening in the U.S., the American environmental movement is likely to converge with environmental activism in the global South around issues of social justice and collective survival. During the Keystone XL protest in front of the White House, for example, the tar sands were represented as a carbon bomb that needs to be defused. This image of a ticking bomb captures both the ominous long-term temporal menace represented by climate change as well as the danger of immediate destruction that characterizes an exploding pipeline – and, I would add, the volatile process of hydraulic fracturing. Notably, the Tar Sands Action also involved the formation of coalitions and solidarity between groups such as the Indigenous Environmental Network, rural farmers’ organizations, protesters from the Gulf Coast, and urban activists from the Northeast. And finally, the Tar Sands Action took the form of the largest environmental nonviolent direct action protest in several generations. None of these momentous changes in the environmental movement came automatically or easily; it took a lot of work by organizers to bring this protest to fruition. A lot more work remains to be done to adequately include and highlight the concerns of underrepresented groups such as environmental justice activists in the emerging movement for climate justice. Nonetheless, the Tar Sands Action represents an important milestone in the fight to take back our future.

This article was initially posted on Counterpunch.

Photocredits, in order of appearance: Josh Lopez, Milan Ilnyckyj, Shadia Fayne Wood, Shadia Fayne Wood, Shadia Fayne Wood, Josh Lopez, Josh Lopez.

1 Comment

Filed under environment, imperialism, race

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.

1 Comment

Filed under class war, race

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.


Filed under class war, media, race, Uncategorized

Toxic Island

Yesterday I met and interviewed a very interesting Staten Island denizen named Debby Davis. I discovered her through the Toxic Trails map of Staten Island that she created. This map is probably the most important resource for anyone interested in understanding the history of Staten Island as a repository for New York City’s toxic waste over the last couple of centuries.

Davis is a graphic artist who has lived in the Staten Island neighborhood of Stapleton since 1990. She moved to New York City from Connecticut in the 1970s, living initially in the south Bronx and participating in the vibrant East Village art scene of the 1980s.

In recent years, Davis has begun exploring the history and political ecology of her home borough. One of the first products of this project was her photography show This is What Time Does: A Year of Walking Richmond Road, which documented the palimpsestic layers of history visible (and invisible) along this road that traverses various neighborhoods on Staten Island’s north shore. Davis spent a great deal of time in the archives of the Staten Island museum, producing a series of photographs that depict the layering of history through their collage of historical and contemporary images.

More recently, Davis began exploring what she described to me as some of the island’s forbidden places: sites of industrial contamination past and present. These excursions led to the creation of her Toxic Trails map of Staten Island. This work is an online, interactive map of the island’s various contaminated sites, from former and current Superfund sites to shipyards, power plants, bus depots, dumps and landfills, gas pipelines and petroleum storage facilities.

In addition to being an intriguing example of digital art, Davis’s map is an amazing resource for environmental justice activists. Struggles for environmental justice often are catalyzed when people become aware of the dangers posed to their own and their community’s health by local environmental toxins. But these toxins almost always come from somewhere else, and they often have a long history of accumulating in the environment.

Staten Island, for example, has long served as a dumping ground for the much of the city’s waste stream. The reasons for this are complex and multiple. Part of this history has to do with deeply inscribed perceptions of marshes such as those that surround much of Staten Island as a form of natural wasteland. Another part has to do with the Mafia control of New York City’s garbage hauling industry. In addition, though, the land and those who occupied it had to be seen as lesser in one way or another in order to legitimate the creation of a massive landfill such as Fresh Kills.

Much of the strength of the environmental justice movement in fact comes from the legitimate outrage felt by communities over precisely such form of race- and class-biased location of toxins. It is no coincidence, then, that I came across Debby Davis’s toxic map at an event organized by the North Shore Waterfront Conservancy, one of Staten Island’s grassroots environmental justice organizations. Her work is an incredibly important resource for such groups, illuminating the past and offering implicit lessons to help build a better, and more just, future.

Leave a comment

Filed under environment, race

The Banality of Evil: The Photography of David Goldblatt

I just went to see a fantastic career retrospective exhibition of the South African photographer David Goldblatt at the Jewish Museum here in NYC.

Goldblatt came to maturity during the darkest days of the apartheid era, and his photographs document the oppression meted out to the non-white majority in South Africa in the most visceral way.  Here, for example, is a shot of his of a young man recently out of police detention.  The severity of the interrogation methods routinely employed by the South African police are glaringly apparent in the two casts which encase the young man’s arms.

We see all of the homicidal violence of the apartheid regime in Goldblatt’s photographs.  In this photo, for example, victims of a government death squad lie splayed alongside their car.  Such documentary images were crucially important to record during the apartheid era given the government’s attempt to suppress all records of its campaign of secret violence against internal critics and activists.  In Deborah Hoffmann and Frances Reid’s brilliant documentary record of the Truth and Reconciliation Commision, a film called Long Night’s Journey into Day, we see the pain inflicted on a group of mothers whose sons have disappeared, leaving no trace to mourn.

Another image of Goldblatt’s from the exhibition documents the appalling policy of forced removals.  In this image, a woman lies in a bed wrapped protectively around her newborn child.  We are privy to this intimate scene because the house (or shack) within which the mother and daughter had been living has been demolished, leaving them asleep under the brutal empty skies of the land.

As these photographs make clear, Goldblatt acted as a witness to the atrocities of apartheid.  What they also underline is his powerful technique of focusing on the quotidian.  Instead, in other words, of training his lens on protests and rallies – the stuff of standard photojournalism – Goldblatt delved into the everyday humiliations, oppressions, hypocrisies and contradictions of life under apartheid.

For me, some of Goldblatt’s most powerful work focuses on whiteness.  The complexity and painfulness of this position is not always apparent.  I recently sat across from a new friend in a small restaurant in Bolivia, for example, discussing what it was like to be white in South Africa.  He was surprised by my talk of the ambivalences and contradictions of white consciousness during the apartheid era in South Africa.  Of course, average white people in South Africa benefited massively from the apartheid regime’s oppression and exploitation of the non-white majority in the country. This needs to be stated up front and with no hesitation.

But while the material advantages conferred on even the poorest whites by the apartheid system are undeniable, that system nonetheless generated a traumatized sensibility among even the most privileged and cocooned of whites.  In the above image, for instance, a white farm kid is caught in an eerily intimate moment with his black nanny.  He stands with his arms on her shoulders.  Even more powerfully, her left hand is wrapped around his foot.  The intimacy in this nonchalant embrace is overwhelming, exacerbated by the fact that both of the subjects are quite beautiful and that the young black woman’s breast is showing through her flimsy jersey.  The boy is on the cusp of adolescence.  Soon, his childish intimacy with his nanny will shift totally.  She will go from being a mother surrogate (perhaps even closer than his real mother) to become part of an alien and threatening race.  The sexuality latent in Goldblatt’s photograph will become something threatening or exploitative in the extreme.

Goldblatt’s photographs of everyday life among Afrikaners are filled with this sense of latent, ominous contradiction.  How, he asks his viewers and South Africans in general, could people go about everyday life in the midst of such an unspeakably evil system?  This is the same question asked by Pumla Godobo-Madikizela’s A Human Being Died That Night, a memoir of this member of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission encounter with Eugene de Kock, a government assassin known popularly as “Prime Evil.”  Godobo-Madikizela travels to a maximum security prison to interview de Kock after the collapse of apartheid.  What she finds is a man rather than a monster, someone who is gradually coming to repent his crimes.  The upshot is very similar to Hannah Arendt’s account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann after World War II: evil for the most part takes on a totally banal face; average people keep their heads down and focus on the minutiae of everyday life while acting in a manner that is complicit with great evil in many instances in history.

Goldblatt’s images record just such banal evil.  If they were set in the United Kingdom instead of South Africa, they might seem nothing more than dull snapshot-like records of provincial life in the 1960s and ’70s.  But we as viewers know that these photographs are set in South Africa, that the golden-locked boy walking past the supermarket is likely to graduate soon and be conscripted to fight and possibly die in border wars or in suppressing township uprisings.  The teenage beauty pageant contestants are living lives of artificial luxury on the backs of the majority of the South African populace.  The man mowing his lawn on a tranquil Saturday morning lives in a town forcibly purged of black residents.  No doubt on some level these people knew that they were cogs in a truly evil system, but they found stories to tell themselves – stories founded in race and religion – that legitimated their relatively privileged social positions.

Goldblatt also had a quick eye for forms of class stratification within the dominant white class.  Thus, he captures images both of the herrenvolk leaders of the National Party, the architects of apartheid, as well as of the dirt-poor Afrikaner farming families who barely make ends meet, despite the boon of white skin.

Photographs of tragedies such as famine and warfare have largely ceased to shock us.  Since the days of Robert Capa, muckraking photojournalism has lost much of its impact as people have grown accustomed to the society of the spectacle.  Goldblatt’s photographs are different and perhaps remain effective inasmuch as they focus on intimate moments in everyday life that show the vulnerability as well as the bigotry of the South African white tribe.

Finally, the Jewish Museum show is particularly powerful as a result of the curatorial decision to present Goldblatt’s work organized along lines similar to the initial publication of much of the material.  We thus see sections devoted to Goldblatt’s early work in the disappearing gold mines of Johannesburg, a project he undertook in collaboration with Nadine Gordimer.  We see his focus on individuals living in small, exclusively white towns.  And we see his photographic dissection of the distorted landscapes and city-scapes of apartheid South Africa.  These unpeopled urban spaces perhaps speak even more than the portraits, poignant as those are.  This is a landscape blighted by the reduction of one portion of the population to the status of non-entities.  Here on the right, for instance, is an image of a butcher shop that has literally been butchered, its right half removed along with the family that lived there as part of the infamous “Group Areas Act” that permitted forced removals.

Yet, in the midst of this desolation, Goldblatt also shows us how oppressed people managed to find solace and strength in the quotidian, in rituals such as a wedding, for example.  For if evil is banal and, in a place such as South Africa, ubiquitous, resistance and hope are equally evident and omnipresent in everyday life.

1 Comment

Filed under class war, democracy, media, race, Uncategorized, urbanity