Environmental Crisis Unfolding in Houston as Oil and Chemical Industry Spew Toxic Pollutants Into Air
As fallout from Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana continues, at least 30 people have died and more than 17,000 people are in shelters. Hundreds of thousands are under evacuation orders, and all past US rainfall records have been shattered. In Texas, a third of Harris County -- which encompasses Houston -- is currently underwater. Houston officials have imposed a mandatory curfew between midnight and 5 a.m. ExxonMobil says Harvey has damaged at least two of its refineries, causing thousands of pounds of chemicals to be released into the air. Residents in Crosby, Texas, are being evacuated amid concerns a chemical factory damaged by Harvey could explode. We speak with Bryan Parras, organizer with the Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign and the group Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.).
Please check back later for full transcript.
Not only did Trump's business associates appeal to Russian officials for help in building a Trump Tower in Moscow, but Trump also personally called Sen. Thom Tillis in early August to denounce his legislation to protect special prosecutor Robert Mueller from being fired. Now, Mueller is strengthening the already sturdy case of Trump's obstruction of the FBI's investigation.
Donald Trump waves as he walks on the South Lawn after he returned to the White House August 29, 2017, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images)
While Houston drowns and North Korea provokes, the case for the impeachment of President Trump is growing stronger. The news of Hurricane Harvey's destruction and Kim Jong Un's latest missile test has obscured a series of unrebutted revelations that strengthen the already sturdy case that the president has obstructed the FBI investigation into the ties between his campaign and the Russian government.
The revelations shed new light on both the chummy ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government and on Trump's recent efforts to hinder the investigation of special prosecutor Robert Mueller.
Not only did Trump's business associates appeal to Russian officials in late 2015 and early 2016 for help in building a Trump Tower in Moscow, but Trump also personally called Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) in early August to denounce his legislation to protect Mueller from being fired.
In a July 20 interview with the New York Times, Trump said any investigation of his family business in connection with the Russia investigation would be a "violation" of Mueller's responsibilities and grounds for his dismissal. Mueller, it is now clear, has called Trump's bluff. He is delving deeply into Trump's real estate dealings and how they relate to Russia's efforts to influence the 2016 election.
So are congressional investigators. The Times reported Monday that the Trump Organization turned over emails related to the proposed Trump Tower deal to the House Intelligence Committee, which is also investigating Russian meddling in the presidential election.
"Someone Who Knows How to Deal"
The Post reported that Michael Cohen, one of Trump's closest business advisers, asked longtime Putin lieutenant Dmitry Peskov for help in "the development of a Trump Tower-Moscow project in Moscow City."
"As this project is too important, I am hereby requesting your assistance," Cohen wrote. "I respectfully request someone, preferably you, contact me so that I might discuss the specifics as well as arranging meetings with the appropriate individuals."
Cohen's email, the Post noted, "marks the most direct outreach documented by a top Trump aide to a similarly senior member of Putin's government." The deal never came to fruition.
Cohen said in a statement to Congress that he wrote the email at the recommendation of Felix Sater, a Russian American businessman who was serving as a broker on the deal. The Times reported that Sater had boasted the deal could help elect Trump, which may have been the sort of hype that routinely lubricates real estate deals.
But Sater's email to Cohen, published by the Times, voiced hope for a relationship that would go beyond real estate.
"Michael we can own this story," Sater wrote. "Donald doesn't stare down, he negotiates and understands the economic issues and Putin only want to deal with a pragmatic leader, and a successful businessman is a good candidate for someone who knows how to negotiate. 'Business, politics, whatever it all is the same for someone who knows how to deal'…"
The question of how Trump sought to deal with Russia is at the heart of Mueller's investigation.
The proposal for a Trump Tower in Moscow was just another manifestation of Trump's long-standing desire to build in Russia. In 2013, he signed a preliminary agreement to build a hotel in Russia in partnership with Aras Agalarov, a billionaire who had financed the Trump-owned Miss Universe pageant in 2013.
A representative of Agalarov's company attended a June 2016 meeting with top Trump aides and a Russian lawyer organized by Donald Trump Jr. The lawyer offered to provide damaging information about Hillary Clinton collected by the Russian government. The meeting was "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump," according to an email made public by Don Jr.
Six days later, a person identifying himself as "Guccifer 2.0" released a Democratic National Committee file on Trump, stolen from the DNC computers. It was the first in a flood of leaks harmful to Clinton that would continue for the rest of the campaign.
According to an NBC News report Monday, Mueller's team of prosecutors are focusing on Trump's role in drafting a public statement claiming the subject of the meeting was the adoption of Russian orphans by Americans.
A source "familiar with Mueller's strategy" told NBC that whether or not Trump made a "knowingly false statement" is now of interest to prosecutors.
"Even if Trump is not charged with a crime as a result of the statement, it could be useful to Mueller's team to show Trump's conduct to a jury that may be considering other charges."
The revelations show the president and the independent counsel are on a collision course that can only end in a constitutional crisis and impeachment proceedings.
The threat to bring Trump's conduct to a jury is a threat to Trump's family and his presidency. Trump's pardon of Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, convicted of contempt of court for disobeying a court order to cease the profiling of Latinos, shows he believes his political whims take precedence over the workings of the law.
Trump has spoken privately about firing Mueller, only to be talked out of it by aides. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has said Mueller's dismissal would be a "tipping point" for Senate Republicans. Sen. Lindsey Graham has said firing Mueller would be "the beginning of the end" of the Trump presidency.
The tipping point is drawing closer.
Climate science has long predicted that intensified storms like Hurricane Harvey would result from burning fossil fuels, but the US corporate media routinely neglect to inform the public about this danger. Even in the face of the devastation caused by this Category 4 hurricane, leading US newspapers and TV channels chose not to link this extreme weather event to carbon-based pollution.
Rescue workers and volunteers help residents make their way out of a flooded neighborhood after it was inundated with rain water following Hurricane Harvey on August 29, 2017, in Houston, Texas. Harvey, which made landfall north of Corpus Christi August 25, has dumped nearly 50 inches of rain in and around areas Houston. (Photo: Scott Olson / Getty Images)
US corporate media outlets regularly fail to inform the public on the danger of continuing to burn fossil fuels, and they have repeated this failure with their reporting on Hurricane Harvey.
Every major Sunday morning talk show airing on August 27 failed to discuss Harvey in the context of climate change, despite scientific consensus on the role of global warming in driving extreme weather events.
Corporate print media also did a dismal job connecting the extreme weather of Harvey with climate change. From the start of the storm on August 17 to August 29, the 54 most widely read US newspapers -- including The Washington Post, The New York Times and USA Today -- had published roughly a dozen articles on Harvey, in print or online, which discussed the connection between hurricanes and global warming.
A grand total of two articles mentioned fossil fuels, and not a single editorial board took a position on this climate-killing industry.
Guests appearing on CBS's "Face the Nation" and NBC's "Meet the Press" discussed the situation in Houston, the local and federal response to the disaster, but did not question the wisdom of allowing the oil, gas and coal industries to continue business as usual. The segments also neglected to mention the fact that the US military is the world's biggest institutional consumer of fossil fuels.
While cable TV ignored the issue of climate change, most of the few print articles that appeared either mentioned it as a mere detail or ignored the question of the fossil fuel industry.
An article in USA Today (an op-ed) mentioning both global warming and Harvey implored Trump to "use the bully pulpit to prepare a new generation for this new normal," but ignored the prospects for avoiding the worst consequences through curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
The Washington Post editorial board urged us to take up the question of "to what degree superstorms are being made even more frequent and ferocious by global climate change" and future planning to prevent climate-related disasters, but did not call for a fight against its driving force -- carbon-based pollution.
A writer for the St. Louis Post Dispatch warned us about climate change denial in the narrow terms of a failure "to plan for floods" but entirely neglected to discuss the literal climate change denial of President Trump and other members of his administration, who have green-lighted the Dakota Access pipeline. Meanwhile, the insufficient climate proposals put forth by Democrats should also not escape this criticism; the insufficiency of these efforts has been described by one science educator as a form of denial itself.
In the Boston Globe, an op-ed condemned Trump for harming scientific research on climate change but made no mention of his withdrawal of the US from the necessary (albeit imperfect) United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change treaty.
A New York Times article admitted storms are getting "wetter" (an understatement), and described climate change as one factor among several influencing the severity of Hurricane Harvey. Yet the article's attempt to stress the uncertainty of climate change's role in influencing hurricanes without providing space for the unambiguous conclusions of climate scientists (including one whom it cited) runs the risk of reinforcing skepticism in the public (of which 38 percent erroneously believes global warming has not yet begun to affect the planet, according to recent polling).
Take Kenneth Kunkel, a climate researcher whom the New York Times article mentioned and who co-authored parts of the National Climate Assessment. The report released by the federal government in 2014 found an increase in heavy precipitation in the United States since the 1950s and made the following unambiguous statement about the connection to climate change:
The mechanism driving these changes is well understood. Warmer air can contain more water vapor than cooler air. Global analyses show that the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere has in fact increased due to human-caused warming. This extra moisture is available to storm systems, resulting in heavier rainfalls.
One has to be careful neither to overstate nor mystify the state of scientific knowledge on the connection between global warming, weather and human activity. It is true that many scientists are unwilling to link an extreme weather event to climate change, and rightly so: Statistical trends are not established by single data points. However, the same report notes a clear connection despite the need for further research on the extent of human impact:
The intensity, frequency, and duration of North Atlantic hurricanes, as well as the frequency of the strongest (Category 4 and 5) hurricanes, have all increased since the early 1980s. The relative contributions of human and natural causes to these increases are still uncertain. Hurricane-associated storm intensity and rainfall rates are projected to increase as the climate continues to warm.
The UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, is only three months away. Calls for adaptation are necessary but not sufficient. We should all be concerned about the marginalization of global warming and fossil fuels in corporate media's reporting on this catastrophic hurricane.
Coming on the heels of his pardon of racist Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Trump's lifting of the ban on military gear for police sends a clear message: Under this administration, racist cops aren't held accountable and police will again have access to dangerous military-grade weapons like grenade launchers that were taken away by the Obama administration after Ferguson.
Police with rubber bullet launchers stand guard at MLK Jr. Park on August 27, 2017, in Berkeley, California. The park became a center of left-wing protest when hundreds of people opposed to President Trump and hundreds more aligned with Antifa descended on it after a planned right-wing rally was cancelled. (Photo: Elijah Nouvelage / Getty Images)
The Trump administration is lifting Obama-era restrictions on how much spare military gear police departments can obtain.
Civil rights leaders were immediately clear about what this move means for their movements and the nation. "This is not about public safety. It is about declaring war on communities of color," said Scott Roberts, the senior campaign director at Color of Change, in a statement.
The Obama administration limited what types of surplus military equipment could be handed down to local cops after the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, where police descended on crowds of mostly Black demonstrators with high-powered rifles, tactical gear and armored tanks. Protesters in Ferguson rose up in anger over a fallen son, but as the days passed, they also rose up in opposition to the heavily militarized way in which police were responding to them in the streets.
"As we saw in Ferguson -- which prompted President Obama to curtail the program that Trump has now restored -- giving police unfettered access to grenade launchers and weaponized aircraft encourages police to treat people like enemy combatants instead of citizens," Roberts said.
Add the new executive order to Trump's litany of overtly racist moves over the past week. On Friday, President Trump pardoned former Phoenix Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was facing jail time for refusing to stop his officers from racially profiling Latinos. The message coming from the Trump administration could not be clearer: Under this president, racist cops aren't held accountable, and police will again have access to dangerous weapons like grenade launchers and bayonets that were taken away from them after Ferguson.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions took advantage of the weather and a fresh news cycle to put a different spin on the military gear story this week. As Hurricane Harvey battered the Gulf Coast on Monday, Sessions told the national conference of the Fraternal Order of Police in Nashville that the Obama-era restrictions on military gear kept police from accessing helmets, protective vests and "rescue equipment like what they’re using in Texas right now."
However, President Obama's executive order banned police from obtaining certain types of equipment used in warfare, including weaponized aircraft, high-caliber firearms, armored vehicles, grenade launchers and other weapons. Officials also banned camouflaged uniforms, so police would not appear like an occupying army as they did in Ferguson.
Plenty of other types of equipment that can be used during a disaster, including drones, tactical vehicles, command vehicles, helicopters and airplanes remain available under Obama's order, as long as police departments can prove they can afford to maintain the equipment and use it safely. This permitted class of equipment also includes weapons, such as shotguns, riot batons, battering rams and "explosives and "pyrotechnics," according to the Justice Department.
Sessions said Trump has signed an executive order that will lift these requirements, making it much easier for police to obtain military equipment without proving that they know how to use it.
"Giving military-grade weapons to police departments with effectively no strings attached does not help public safety -- it hurts it," Roberts said.
Sessions has cemented himself as the minister of Trump's "law and order" agenda, angering advocates for civil rights and civil liberties on both the left and right in the process. Since taking office, Sessions has orchestrated a brutal crackdown on immigrants, jumpstarted the war on drugs, lifted popular restrictions on civil asset forfeiture and rolled back Obama-era efforts to hold police departments accountable for civil rights violations.
The attorney general is also not shy about his disdain for dissent. Taking aim at civil rights protesters and dissidents in his speech on Monday, Sessions suggested that those who question excessive policing are "radicals" who portray "law enforcement officers as the enemy."
"We will not put superficial concerns above public safety," Sessions said, who also claimed that the Justice Department "vigorously prosecutes" officers when they violate the civil rights of citizens.
For civil rights groups and many communities of color, however, the numbers just don't add up. Since Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, police in the United States have killed more than 1,000 people each year, but the Justice Department so far has failed to press charges against killer cops, even in the most high-profile cases.
In Sessions's world, it seems, police are perpetually on the side of righteousness.
"You are the thin blue line that stands between law-abiding people and criminals --between sanctity and lawlessness," Sessions said.
By pardoning Sheriff Arpaio just days before lifting restrictions designed to prevent local cops from dressing up like an invading army, the Trump administration has further blurred the line between "sanctity" and "lawlessness," making it even clearer that the law only applies to those directly under its increasingly militarized thumb.
This article was published by TalkPoverty.org.
On Monday, President Donald Trump was asked point-blank whether he supports cutting the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) budget in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. His response: "No."
Left unmentioned was the fact that, earlier this spring, the president of the United States called for historic cuts to FEMA's budget. Trump's 2018 budget blueprint proposed more than $1 billion in cuts to FEMA -- 11 percent of its total footprint. The proposal would make major cuts to six FEMA grants, including its two largest for preparing for and responding to emergencies. It would also entirely eliminate four grants, including funding for emergency food and shelter and training for first responders.
The administration's rationale is that FEMA funding cuts are needed to pay for its immigration enforcement and mass deportation efforts -- along with Trump's proposal to build a wall along the southern border. All told, Trump wants to shift $5 billion within the Department of Homeland Security, where FEMA is housed, to Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
FEMA is not Trump's only target for cuts when it comes to disaster preparedness. The budget also takes an axe to the US Coast Guard (unusual given the administration's support for increased US military spending), which has already rescued dozens from the floodwaters in Texas. The budget cuts a whopping $1.2 billion from the Coast Guard's approximately $9 billion budget.
The administration is so focused on deportation that it is neglecting real national security risks
And despite promises to invest in the country's infrastructure, Trump's budget slashes the investments that are critical for disaster preparedness. He would immediately eliminate the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant, which, among other things, helped Florida build a new hurricane evacuation route in the Everglades. His cuts to the Highway Trust Fund would starve the country's highway infrastructure of nearly $100 billion -- and put more than 97,000 jobs at risk in Texas alone. Just last week, Trump announced the rollback of an Obama administration order that new infrastructure projects be designed to survive rising sea levels and climate change (FEMA was in the process of soliciting public comment).
The impact of these cuts will not be felt equally. Cuts to emergency preparedness -- like the natural disasters themselves -- fall particularly hard on the most vulnerable. Communities of color are the most likely to live in neighborhoods that are at risk of flooding. They're also more likely to live near the petrochemical plants that could discharge toxic substances during the hurricane. According to social vulnerability maps, seniors, people with disabilities, immigrants, and people in poverty are all more likely to live in neighborhoods most affected by Hurricane Harvey.
The irony is that the administration is so focused on mass deportation and building a wall that it is openly neglecting real national security risks. FEMA and the US Coast Guard not only respond to natural disasters and protect vulnerable populations; they also respond to terrorist attacks. As with so many other policies, Donald Trump is so focused on chasing his white whale that he's ignoring the core functions of government.
Editor's note: The Center for American Progress has launched a coalition of over 20 groups united in pushing back against any cuts to health care, disability benefits, nutrition assistance, and other basic living standards in the upcoming congressional budgets. Learn how you can get involved here.
Counter-protest leaders shouted their gratitude to the black bloc in Berkeley, California, August 28, 2017. (Photo: Wes Modes / Flickr)"I've been told by people on the ground that Berkeley is no longer safe. All patriots should leave now."—Kyle "Based Stickman" Chapman
A friend of mine is constantly reminding me that 2017, rather than being a relief from horror-saturated 2016, has spiraled down some rabbit hole of political absurdity and surrealism. My mother, a long-naturalized immigrant from Zimbabwe, responded to the election of Donald Trump with a panic and fear that I had never seen from her before. She was born in Zimbabwe while it was still under colonial administration: growing up in Rhodesia meant subjugation by white settlers, fear and humiliation as second class non-white people (even as native people), suppressive violence by the state. Trump reminded her of Ian Smith, she confessed to me, the Rhodesian prime minister and terroristic white nationalist (a redundancy) of her formative years. Her fear should have been a foreshadowing of the absurdities that would follow, but while I comforted her, I still dismissed her. Nine months later, I am on the street protesting against neo-Nazis.
I spent the morning of the would-be Berkeley rally in the downtown park where it was supposed to be held. Because the far-right tends not to care for legalities and often assembles regardless of whether or not they receive permits from a particular city, I sat in anxious wait for their arrival. I circled the park, I photographed everything that made sense to photograph. Between the Berkeley Police Department's nervous anticipatory movement in enforcing the unconstitutional martial law-adjacent limits on assembly passed days before by city council and members of the far-right live-streaming every moment of their small but emphatic assembly in counter-protest, I felt like an unmasked sitting duck -- the criminalization of face coverings was one stipulation of the protected zone within the park, a stipulation they enforced with gusto. I was unsettled with the amount of attention the media was giving to members of the far-right, clearly the stars of any show. The media thirstily (and irresponsibly) thrust microphones into any and every space hoping to pick up sound bites of their commentaries for evening news chatter and clickbait fodder.
The media's careful curation of racist diatribes made under the guise of free speech and multi-positional debate translated into red-baiting articles with headlines like the Washington Post's "Black-clad antifa members attack peaceful right-wing demonstrators in Berkeley," the "peaceful right-wing demonstrator" in question being a young man in a Pinochet t-shirt that was attacked shortly after pepper spraying anti-fascist protestors. Journalists particularly loved Colombian-born Juan Cadavid (aka Johnny Benitez) for his Danny Vinyard good looks and charisma -- just as they not-so-secretly love all apparently trend- and norm-breaking "dapper white nationalists" -- as well as the "novelty" of finding token non-Anglo spokespeople for the white nationalist cause, a pedestal he shares with Latinos for Trump's Irma Hinojosa (they also shared a getaway vehicle).
The counter-protestors amassed in the numbers we did in order to prevent the increasing violence accompanying far-right assemblies both in Berkeley and across the United States over the past year, particularly in the wake of Charlottesville nearly two weeks ago. First Amendment protections of hate speech are transparent justifications made by some far-right contingents when it is glaringly apparent that others simply use these rallies as an opportunity to enact race war-posturing violence upon non-white people, and, secondarily, race traitors (like Heather Heyer). Despite the outward brutality of many members of the far-right, even more attend these rallies to enjoy state-sanctioned safe space for consequence-less hate speech: a circle jerk of unfounded ethnoracial superiority, if you will. But the First Amendment ostensibly protects one from government censure and censorship: communities mobilizing to hold speakers both individually and collectively responsible for articulating and/or aligning themselves are not the government. Anti-fascists are certainly not the government, your speech is not protected from us.
I have seen many comments to the effect that the black bloc moved like a violent gang, and that it was unfair for hundreds of anarchists to gang up on a small handful of members of the far-right. A few things here warrant clarification. Many of the ultra-violent people planning on attending the rally prior to organizer Amber Cumming's "cancellation" of the event simply did not come, and many of the ones that did were either chased off by counter-protesters earlier in the morning or were arrested by the Berkeley Police. Perhaps Mayor Jesse Arreguin's stay away calls and city response made their ethno-political militancy unsexy, especially after the embarrassing defeat of Joey Gibson's cancelled Patriot Prayer rally the day before -- Gibson was one of the thirteen people arrested in Berkeley, and Kyle Chapman, the person that called for rightist factions to unite around the anti-Marxist rally, was unable to attend per the conditions of his bail release. The energies were blunted not only by the cowardice of leadership, but by the overwhelming showing of leftists willing to use any means necessary to refuse to allow further encroachment of neo-Nazism, Confederacy commemoration and apologia, violent American patriotisms (another redundancy), and these blatantly unacceptable white nationalisms in our communities; fighting white supremacy in its totality, though (and especially in the Bay Area) is another battle altogether.
I did not want to be there on Sunday, but I forced myself to be. Beyond the ideals and self-assigned political obligations that ground my actions, I was scared shitless because I had no idea what we would encounter or what we would see, particularly given past far-right violence in Berkeley. And I was afraid of, once again, confronting my own intergenerational traumas of whiteness: of staring down neo-fascists and baton-happy police the same way my mother and grandmother and ancestral line stared down occupying British forces whose colonial entitlements spawned these contemporary ideologies. But, out of fear of sounding like I am declaring some kind of premature victory or sounding naïve (I am neither), there was something hopeful that came out of Berkeley.
Shortly after a coalition of counter-protestors, the one including the black bloc, arrived at the park, the Berkeley Police Department promptly hid themselves behind their riot gear and poised to shoot rounds of tear gas into the crowd. The black bloc put their hands into the air in a now rallying gesture and continuously and necessarily confrontationally yelled "put the gun down!" at the officers. Had the officers shot the tear gas at the crowd, multiple people would likely now be dead or injured: not only would the police have probably killed the frontline anarchists that their canister-loaded weapons were trained upon, but people would have also been killed or injured in the panic of a tightly packed crowd of hundreds of people trying to escape the eye and throat-burning gas. The police lowered their arms and absconded their posts in the park shortly thereafter: both masked and unmasked protestors jumped over police barricades and assembled throughout the park, a people's park.
Media commentary has forced me to understand our collective [mis]definition of violence as we constantly grapple with "well-reasoned" responses to far-right politics and urgently reinscribe the state's monopoly on legitimate forms of force to undermine the legitimacy of self-defense. Community members were implored to stay away from the spaces where fascistic forces assemble, while the media actively normalizes their politics by positioning functionally genocidal politics as "controversial" albeit legitimate opinions within a robust marketplace of ideas. Violence is the state's white supremacist militarization, like Urban Shield, in the name of "community safety"; it is my constant articulation that, as a black anarchist and member of the left more broadly, my defense of self and community (and other communities) in the face of existential threats, is not "violence." Antifa (anti-fascism), a coalescence of left politics in resistance to fascist creepings, is not violence because this kind of community self-defense cannot be violent.
As the counter-protest leaders shouted their gratitude to the black bloc and that it should be thanked and protected (Tur-Ha Ak of APTP later defended the swiftness and decisiveness with which fascists were removed from the area), I almost started to cry. Despite a wide embrace of a diversity of tactics, the bloc is perhaps the one that elicits the most outrage or disagreement because of perceptions of "outside agitator" escalation, its whiteness (how interesting is it that collective anonymity and a disagreeable political tactic is necessarily synonymous with whiteness), the space it consumes. But the bloc, and the wider anti-fascist politic within which it is anchored, represents a notion of community that is both terrifying and exhilarating: a community that supports and defends itself without the interventions and incursions of a violent carceral state the violent machinations of which we have become conditioned to accept. These community resistances, among other acts, remind me that other worlds are possible. And that possibility makes so many otherwise terrifying things worth doing.
The Trump administration has made "achieving American energy dominance" a central policy goal. President Trump asserts that "energy dominance" requires expanding nuclear development, increasing coal and natural gas exports, building transnational pipelines and accessing offshore oil and gas deposits. These efforts, Trump contends, will maximize the nation's "boundless capacity" for energy production, including spreading US fossil fuels around the globe, to showcase its independence from foreign oil.
My research studies how expansionist efforts play out in the US unincorporated territory of Puerto Rico. For centuries, Spanish and US colonial governments and corporations have practiced what could be called "energy dominance" by harnessing human labor and fossil fuels to exploit local resources through mining, coffee and sugarcane development, and other industries. Puerto Rico's history makes clear that Trump's policy, which benefits corporations and their political allies to the detriment of local communities, promises more of the same.
Fueling Energy Colonialism
The United States seized control of Puerto Rico in 1898. Like other imperial powers, the United States justified exploiting other people and places by portraying them as backward and promising to modernize them.
Many US government officials, legal experts, researchers and artists assumed that colonized peoples were inferior. In their view, African and indigenous ancestries and prior colonization by Spain marked people who lived in the newly acquired "possessions" as primitive, childlike and weak.
In his 1899 book "Our Islands and Their People," writer and diplomat José de Olivares stated,
"Without our fostering benevolence, this island [Puerto Rico] would be as unhappy and prostrate as are some of the neighboring British, French, Dutch, and Danish islands."
During this same period, Supreme Court justices described US colonies as home to "uncivilized" and "savage" "alien races." Racist claims of US superiority and goodwill drove colonial policy and relationships of dependency.
Locked Into Fossil Fuel
US imperial ambitions prompted politicians to position Puerto Rico as a showcase for capitalism in Latin America. In the 1940s Puerto Rican Governor Luis Muñoz Marín and US government officials implemented a massive industrialization plan called Operation Bootstrap.
The program used tax breaks, duty-free trade, exploitable local labor, natural resources and cheap foreign crude oil and electricity prices to attract investors. Manufacturing, pharmaceutical and oil-based industries flocked to Puerto Rico.
Beginning in the 1970s, however, these incentives decreased. As tax exemptions expired and wage standards rose, numerous companies left Puerto Rico. The net effect of Operation Bootstrap was to aggravate economic inequality and unemployment and contribute to the territory's debt and environmental crises.
Puerto Ricans pay rates two to three times higher for electricity than continental US residents. They also experience blackouts and other power disruptions caused by the grid's aging infrastructure. A bankrupt public energy utility is largely responsible for these daily hardships.
Fast-Forwarding Energy Projects
In 2011 Puerto Rican government officials began describing local energy challenges as an "energy emergency." They used this framing to structure policy and sway public support for natural gas projects.
One example, the Vía Verde pipeline, was designed to deliver natural gas to northern Puerto Rico. Advocates claimed the project would reduce oil imports and lower electricity bills. Opponents of this widely unpopular proposal raised concerns about endangered species, heritage sites, human health, misleading financial benefits and the dismissal of renewable alternatives.
In 2012 the project was defeated by a broad-based coalition of local community members and Puerto Ricans in the US diaspora. However, the Aguirre Offshore GasPort quickly emerged as an alternative. The GasPort would receive liquefied natural gas shipments from the United States and deliver the gas to shore via an underwater pipeline. Some nearby residents argue that the project will harm local fishers, wildlife and coral reefs. They also are worried about potential pipeline breaks and spills.
Excelerate Energy, the US-based company planning to build the GasPort, connects speed, which it calls "energy fast forward," with progress on its website to promote liquefied natural gas technology. However, the GasPort project ignores calls for local control of sustainable, renewable energy.
Earlier this month Excelerate withdrew its contract with Puerto Rico's public energy utility because it is bankrupt. Excelerate claims it plans to move forward with required regulatory agencies to develop the project, and received support when the Puerto Rico Supreme Court ruled against a petition by grassroots group el Comité Diálogo Ambiental to invalidate the project's environmental impact statement.
This accelerated approach is advanced by the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA, meaning "promise" in Spanish), enacted in 2016. The measure created a control board to impose austerity measures, and also authorizes fast-tracking of critical energy projects.
Critics, including energy experts and environmental justice activists, argue that while Puerto Rico certainly faces energy emergencies, the government is encouraging rushed project impact reviews that inhibit democratic engagement and renewable alternatives.
These controversies reflect struggles elsewhere against accelerated project development that denies self-determination. The Standing Rock Sioux and their allies confronted similar challenges when President Trump reversed President Obama's decision to block the Dakota Access Pipeline. In June 2017 a federal court ruled the Trump administration had cut numerous corners in a review of the pipeline's environmental impacts.
The fast-forward approach also is used by Fueling US Forward, an organization funded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch. The group has targeted low-income communities and people of color, arguing that they are most impacted by energy price fluctuations and should have consistent access to fossil fuels. This strategy, which environmental justice advocates have described as "exploitative, sad and borderline racist," obscures that these same communities are disproportionately burdened by pollution and environmental hazards, many linked to fossil fuel production and use.
Many Puerto Ricans oppose the continued use of their environment as a sacrifice zone for energy colonialism. For example, opposition to illegal coal ash dumping in the southern town of Peñuelas continues to intensify. Activists have used tactics including an encampment and a silent protest.
The University of Puerto Rico's National Institute of Energy and Island Sustainability is working to foster democratic modes of engagement for developing a sustainable, renewable energy future. As a collaborator with local organizers, I have learned from residents who hope to achieve Puerto Rico's first community-designed and -managed solar project in the town of Coquí.
These struggles for community control and climate and energy justice show that many Puerto Ricans reject continued reliance on fossil fuel to power their lives. In an encouraging sign, Puerto Rico's electric utility has just announced plans to add 240 megawatts of large-scale solar generation by 2019.
Meanwhile, with the International Energy Agency predicting that the United States will become a top gas exporter, discussions of "energy dominance" and other related rhetoric will become increasingly relevant. These terms echo both past and present expansionist endeavors. The Trump administration's policies are just the newest chapter.
Disclosure statement: Catalina M. de Onís collaborates with the Comité Diálogo Ambiental, a grassroots group in Salinas, Puerto Rico.
Last month, the Treasury Department announced plans to wind down the myRA program, an Obama-era initiative designed to help low- and middle-income earners start a retirement account. According to the July 28 press release, the Treasury could not justify the expense the three-year-old program represented to taxpayers, given the slow uptake of the program among its target demographic: the 55 million Americans who lack access to a workplace retirement plan.
The argument against myRA's expense is hard to swallow, since the next item on President Donald Trump's agenda is a tax reform plan that could cost as much as $7 trillion over the next decade. The myRA program would be 0.001 percent of the cost. The claim that enrollment has been unenthusiastic isn't much easier to stomach, since the program was so new. Publicity efforts, such as partnerships with Volunteer Income Tax Assistance programs and promotions through government websites and TurboTax, have not yet been executed.
In reality, it was a deeply practical, badly needed program. I spent this past tax season working with United Way of King County to expand the savings options available to low-income taxpayers in Seattle. Tax time is one of the only times a year that saving is a real possibility for low-income earners -- their tax refunds are often the largest lump-sum payment they receive all year. Asking clients a question as simple as, "Are you considering saving a portion of your refund today?" was enough to spark a meaningful conversation about budgeting, savings, and overall financial stability. Tax clients had the option of splitting their refund into a savings account, savings bond, or myRA, which was piloted at United Way's tax sites for the first time this season.
For middle- and upper-income earners, retirement programs are an assumed benefit.
myRA was a great fit for clients who were new to saving. The accounts had no minimum balance required, no fees, and no risk of losing money. Account holders could withdraw contributions in case of an emergency, and had the option to automatically contribute from their paycheck. And since almost 1 in 6 King County households are underbanked or unbanked, myRA's accessibility without a formal relationship with a bank or other financial institution is a major asset. Of course, myRA was not perfect: It was hard to access without a Social Security number, and it counted against people enrolled in other safety net programs like Medicaid and food stamps (SNAP) in states with public assistance asset limits.
Imperfections aside, myRA provided a straightforward and flexible savings platform unlike any other. For middle- and upper-income earners, primarily white collar workers, retirement programs are an assumed benefit. There is no comparable alternative for workers whose employers don't offer such benefits. And with the increasing necessity of "side hustles" in the gig economy, many workers don't even have an employer to fill that role. Five states are moving forward with state-sponsored retirement plans called "Secure Choice," which provides some hope, despite congressional efforts to block them.
After I left Seattle, I worked with a think tank in Washington, DC. I passed by the Treasury building on my way to the office every morning, which gave me plenty of time to reflect on the thousands of taxpayers all the way across the country in the "other" Washington.
The label "taxpayer" is one Americans on both sides of the country (and the states in between) wear with honor, regardless of their political ideology. The structure of our tax code, the loopholes and deductions we permit, and whether or not we feel our tax burden is fair should be reflective of our values. If we value financial stability, for ourselves and our neighbors, we need to support programs like myRA. Without it, there aren't many safe and accessible retirement savings options for lower-income workers. Innovative programs that could level the playing field deserve a chance to prove that they work, instead of being shut down.
This article was published by TalkPoverty.org
North Carolina and South Carolina have been hotbeds of local community resistance to federal proposals to open the Southeast's Atlantic Coast to oil and gas exploration and drilling.
Since 2014, when the latest push to open the Atlantic to drilling got underway in earnest, almost 30 communities along North Carolina's coast and more than 20 along South Carolina's have passed resolutions or otherwise taken stances against seismic testing for offshore oil and gas reserves and/or offshore drilling. While the Obama administration canceled plans to include the Atlantic in the latest five-year offshore drilling plan, the Trump administration is revisiting that decision.
Since then, responding to the strong grassroots opposition in their states, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) and South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) have come out against seismic testing and drilling off their coasts. Federal law governing offshore oil and gas development gives special consideration to a governor's position.
But members of their states' congressional delegations are co-sponsoring a bill that would do an end run around the will of their governors and coastal communities.
US Reps. David Rouzer, a Republican who represents coastal North Carolina's 7th Congressional District, and Jeff Duncan, a Republican who represents inland South Carolina's 3rd Congressional District, have signed on to the Streamlining Environmental Approvals (SEA) Act of 2017 (HR 3133). The measure would amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA) to weaken standards for issuing what are known as "Incidental Harassment Authorizations" -- permits for activities that have the potential to injure dolphins and whales or disrupt their behavioral patterns.
Such permits are needed by companies to carry out offshore seismic testing, which involves the intensive use of extremely loud airguns that can injure marine life and harm fisheries. The blasts take place every 10 seconds or so around the clock for months on and and can approach sound levels as loud as 250 decibels, damaging marine mammals' hearing and interfering with breeding and communication.
In 2015, 75 leading marine scientists wrote a letter calling on then-President Obama to reject seismic testing in the Atlantic over concerns about its harm to ocean life. Last year, 28 marine biologists raised specific concerns about its effects on the North Atlantic right whale, among the planet's most endangered marine mammals.
HR 3133 was introduced in late June by Rep. Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican. Besides Duncan, the other original co-sponsors, all Republicans, were Jody Hice of Georgia and three other Louisiana lawmakers: Ralph Lee Abraham, Garret Graves and Clay Higgins. Rouzer signed on later, on July 20.
The conservation group Oceana has documented how HR 3133 reflects changes to the MMPA that have been sought by the International Association of Geophysical Contractors (IAGC), the trade association for companies that carry out oil and gas exploration using seismic airgun blasting and other technologies.
For example, last October the IAGC handed out a fact sheet at a congressional hearing calling for the same changes made by HR 3133. IAGC President Nikki C. Martin also discussed the changes in testimony delivered last month to the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee. HR 3133 sponsor Johnson submitted questions for the hearing record that point to IAGC's involvement in drafting the bill.
"This is especially important as similar efforts to undermine the MMPA unfold in the White House," said Oceana spokesperson Dustin Cranor.
Those efforts include President Trump's executive order implementing what he calls an "America-First Offshore Energy Strategy," which specifically addresses promoting seismic surveys and expediting incidental harassment authorizations, as well as a proposal from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to streamline the same section of the MMPA that would be amended by HR 3133.
When Johnson introduced the SEA Act in June, the IAGC issued a statement praising the move, saying it would "provide a much-needed common-sense approach" to ensure that offshore energy exploration "can move forward."
While the seismic testing industry is not a major player when it comes to spending to influence Congress, the oil and gas industry that it works for is -- and Rouzer and Duncan are both beneficiaries of its largesse.
The oil and gas industry is among the top industry contributors to Rouzer's campaign and leadership committee, having contributed over $85,000 since he first ran for Congress in 2011. It's also the top industry contributor to Duncan's campaign and leadership committee, donating $165,000 since 2009, and it's his top industry contributor in this current election cycle.
Neither Rouzer's nor Duncan's office responded to a request for comment.
Arizona is no stranger to police raids, but those who came out to protest Trump and his pardon of Arpaio had never seen such violent and aggressive displays of power toward peaceful demonstrators, says Alejandra Gomez, co-director of Living United for Change in Arizona.
Alejandra Gomez speaks at a press conference about Trump's visit to Phoenix. (Photo: Diego Lozano)
Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing "Interviews for Resistance" series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn't, what has changed and what is still the same. Today's interview is the 68th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.
Today we bring you a conversation about Trump's pardon of former sheriff Joe Arpaio with Alejandra Gomez, the co-director at Living United for Change in Arizona: LUCHA.
Sarah Jaffe: You were at the rally and counter-rally outside of Trump's infamous talk last Tuesday night in Phoenix, right? Tell us how it went from where you were?
Alejandra Gomez: I will actually start from when we heard about the pardon. We heard that "45" [Trump] was coming and we heard very quickly after that he was thinking of pardoning Arpaio. We had a couple of our young leaders with us during the staff meeting and immediately there were reactions to that because a lot of those young people worked in the coalition during the Bazta Arpaio campaign to get him out of office. For us, [through] all of that work, we demonstrated that they no longer wanted a criminal in office, and after the election finally the judges ruled that Arpaio was found in contempt of court and completely defying the judge's orders to stop profiling and targeting communities of color and Latino immigrant communities. To us, that was what we knew to be true all along, it was what our families were experiencing. Finally, Arpaio was deemed a criminal and was taken out of office.
To hear that the President of the United States was going to come and pardon Arpaio reinforced what we already know and what we felt during the campaign: that this president has been igniting division and hate during the campaign and now, emboldening in his administration racism, bigotry and white supremacy.
There was a lot of nervousness going into the Trump rally. One of our young people when we were huddling before going to the rally said, "I am scared to go to this rally because of everything that I have been seeing, because of what happened in Charlottesville. It feels terrible to be scared of the President of the United States." That was a very sobering comment. We said, "Well, we have been doing demonstrations for a really long time and our community is resilient, our community knows how to fight back, and we are going there today because we need to show this administration -- because this administration has targeted every single community, the Latino community, immigrant community, LGBT community, transgender community -- that we are standing in solidarity and we are against this agenda."It is a very terrible and backward time when we are having to tell the president of the United States to follow the rule of law and listen to the judicial system.
We went [as counter demonstrators to the rally] and it was a wonderful celebration of all of the various communities coming together to demonstrate together and to push back together on this president. And the community coming together saying to our president, "You need to follow the rule of law and you need to listen to the voters and you need to listen to the judicial system." It is a very terrible and backward time when we are having to tell the president of the United States to follow the rule of law and listen to the judicial system, because he has gone completely rogue.The police deployed tear gas into the middle of the streets because they wanted to keep the crowd contained. There was no warning.
We were at the rally and folks were really chanting, celebrating. It was a wonderful display of all of the wonderful things that our community has been fighting for, which are equality and justice. Toward the end of the night, police officers were in full riot gear. It was completely unnecessary, one, because you had peaceful protesters. We built a relationship with the police department. We have had several actions and have shown that we know how to run respectful, strategic demonstrations. To see they were out in their full garb of riot gear with the masks and the shields and layers of vests on, their guns, rubber bullets, cop cars everywhere. I think that was more menacing than the Trump supporters. Toward the end of the night, there was still different parts of the community there, there were still women with their children there, fathers with their children, family members there together, and the police deployed tear gas into the middle of the streets because they wanted to keep the crowd contained. You just start to see communities run everywhere. There was no warning.
Shortly after that, I think someone threw a water bottle and because of that water bottle -- mind you that the police are in all of their riot gear -- they felt threatened by a water bottle and started to deploy rubber bullets and the "light bombs" (I am not sure what those are called, but they are meant to blind people), and it was a war zone. It was a war zone that was initiated by the Phoenix Police Department. Increasingly, we are seeing this militarization of the police department. We had seen it in other states and to experience it here in Arizona where we have marches with thousands of people.... Our state is no stranger to targeting of our communities for raids. And this was the first time that I had seen such a violent and aggressive display toward peaceful demonstrators.
(Photo: Diego Lozano)
Do you think it had something to do with the fact that Arpaio and his possible pardon was on the agenda or more likely, after Charlottesville?
Police are coming out with a lot more -- I have seen them in SWAT gear with a previous action. So, I feel like slowly there is this trend of an increased police state. I think yesterday was the full coming out of it. One of the things that I know to be true from the experience yesterday is though Charlottesville happened, and that is a terrible and tragic incident where we lost a powerful freedom fighter, Heather [Heyer], the extreme right, the white supremacists, were not met in the same way that peaceful protesters were met here. And this was not directed at all --Phoenix PD did not direct anything toward the right. It was all toward the peaceful demonstrators. They changed their story, and to see that Mayor Stanton and Chief Jeri Williams were complicit in that coverup just shows the absolute lack of leadership.
Give us a little background on Arpaio and the things that made him require a pardon in the first place.
Arpaio is the type of person who always wanted to be in the media, and anything that really got him media attention he would do. So, Tent City was one of the worst ideas that could possibly happen. A complete violation of human rights and prisoners' rights. What would happen in Tent City was, in Arizona, the temperatures reach about 120 degrees at any given time in the summer. You have prisoners outside with no air conditioning, people that have been incarcerated, outside with no air conditioning. There are outhouses for bathrooms. So, all of the feces and urine have stagnated, so you have that smell. You also have everything that is accumulating in terms of bacteria and all of that among the people that have been incarcerated.
On top of that, Sheriff Joe would make it known that he felt people that were in jail should not receive what he would consider food as a luxury. So, he would often give moldy bread and green macaroni to people that were in custody. People had also passed away in the jails because of the harsh conditions. That is just Tent City.
Under his jurisdiction there were smaller cities, these areas where you have largely Native American and Latino populations. In Surprise, Arizona, there were a number of rape cases that were being reported of young women, of young girls, and the sheriff was failing to investigate those rape cases. Millions of dollars were misappropriated. This was all before SB 1070. Then, the raids started to happen and Arpaio completely revamped all his vans and basically it looked worse than border patrol. They would have signs, "If you see an illegal person, report them." Pictures of people. It was a terrible sight to see these vans. Outside of his office, he had a big military tank. All of that is like, "Why does a sheriff need a military tank?" ... that goes back to the misappropriation of funds.
Arpaio would go into peoples' homes, neighborhoods, supermarkets, the flea market, the shopping malls, anywhere where there were communities of color [and] Latino community in particular. He would go in and conduct raids to do roundups and detain and deport people. So, this separated thousands of families in Arizona. And during SB 1070, which was the "Show me your papers" law, you saw this mass exodus of people moving to other states or going back to Mexico. So, not only was there a misappropriation of funds, the terrible dehumanization of people that were in jail, and the uninvestigated cases of child rape, but this constant dehumanization and targeting of one community. So, all of that really built up this persona of who he was, not only here in Arizona, but across the nation. For Arizonans, when we had the election where Trump actually became president, for us it was such mixed feelings because we had just taken Arpaio out of office but elected a "national Arpaio" into office, which was Trump.
People have been talking about Trump's sliding poll numbers and why he would want to pardon Arpaio. I wonder what the reaction has been from your organization and others who spent all this time organizing against Arpaio to this idea that Trump can just pardon him to win points with his base.
Our reaction is that he needs to pardon the victims of Arpaio. We are not shocked that this administration and this president would continue doing the things that he promised on his campaign trail. It was very clear that he had a white supremacist agenda and that he was going to do everything in his power to embolden white supremacy in this country. He is sticking to those promises.
Arizona is an interesting state for a lot of reasons. You guys played a pivotal role in the health care fight, with John McCain finally casting the deciding vote to not repeal the Affordable Care Act. You are going to have an upcoming messy Senate race, I assume in 2018. Give us a brief rundown of the overall political scene in Arizona right now. What is giving you hope for the future?
Arizona is very much in flux. There are a lot of changes happening. We are in a red state and a state that has been anti-immigrant for years and no one was paying attention to communities of color and building political power within communities of color and with undocumented communities. We, as a coalition of organizations said, "Well, we are going to do that work ourselves."
Alongside the mass mobilizations and the powerful marches and displays from the community and organizations, there was voter registration that started to take place within our neighborhoods. Before, nobody was going and talking to our families about registering to vote and why their voice mattered and why they needed to cast their ballots. So, we started that work in 2010. That work has continued until today. So, where we saw 4 percent turnout rates in 2010, we saw 22 percent turnout rates this last election. That shift in politics and moving from being also Maricopa-centered and now really working in other counties like the Pima County area, really thinking statewide, along with all of the other politics that are happening.
In Arizona, there had not been a senate president at the state legislative level that had ever been recalled, and we were told, "Don't do it" because Latinos didn't have enough power and we [supposedly] weren't going to be able to recall the senate president that was a co-author on SB 1070, the "Show me your papers" law. We were able to do it in 2011. So, with that voter registration, with those demonstrations, with our families learning the importance of showing up in the state capitol and going and demanding justice from their local representatives, their municipal representatives, and their federal representatives, we now have a city council that is largely Latino and it is progressive. We also, at the federal level, for years, and the congressional level, as well, we have a stronghold of major area of highly dense Latino populations and communities of color.
So, we have a vulnerable seat, which is the [Congresswoman Martha] McSally race. She is somebody that has to really be careful with how she votes, as well, because her district can easily flip. We are paying attention to that race. We have the potential, depending on how McCain is thinking, of [having] ... two Senate seats open at the same time, with [Jeff] Flake. There are a lot of folks that are thinking of those seats right now and really looking to them.Sen. Flake just released an article where he really called out his party. That pressure only happened because we have been in his office and really pushing him.
But, Flake has really turned a corner because of all of that political power that we are starting to build. He understands that he is dealing with an extremist party that is no longer the "good ole boys" Republican politics of the past. This is an extreme white supremacist agenda and Flake just released an article where he really called out his party for not having a spine and backbone. That pressure only happened because we have been in his office and we have been doing the voter registrations and we have been telling the stories of the community and really pushing him. He understands that he is vulnerable now because in the past we weren't doing the work of voter registration and the community might not have been paying attention, but it is the politics of these days.
Arizona passed a minimum wage ballot initiative with paid sick days. In a right-to-work state, that is very powerful. That impacted close to a million people in the same year that we were also able to take out Arpaio. So, this state is definitely changing.
That is great. How can people keep up with you and with LUCHA?
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.
Immigrants in Houston Face Triple Threat: Flooding, Racist Texas Law SB4 and Potentially Losing DACA
As the fallout from Hurricane Harvey continues, a potential public safety crisis has emerged affecting Houston's nearly 600,000 undocumented immigrants. President Trump could announce as early as today that he will end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which provides legal status for some 85,000 Houston residents and nearly 800,000 people nationwide. Without the status, many residents will be unable to work and rebuild after the storm. Compounding the problem for immigrants, Texas will officially outlaw sanctuary cities on Friday, threatening police chiefs and city officials with criminal sanctions and penalties if they do not help deport immigrants. The law known as SB 4 is being challenged in court, but a federal judge has yet to rule on whether it can take effect. This has prompted concern that many immigrants are not coming forward to seek help amid the flooding because they fear being detained and deported. We speak with Cesar Espinosa, the founder and executive director of FIEL, a Houston-based nonprofit that helps young undocumented members of the Latino community. Espinosa is himself a DACA recipient.
Please check back later for full transcript.
The death toll continues to rise as massive amounts of rain from Hurricane Harvey flood Houston and other parts of Texas and Louisiana. The Houston police and Coast Guard have rescued over 6,000 people from their homes, but many remain stranded. Meteorologists forecast another foot of rain could fall on the region in the coming days. While the National Hurricane Center is now calling Harvey the biggest rainstorm on record, scientists have been predicting for years that climate change would result in massive storms like Harvey. We speak with Dr. Robert Bullard, known as the "father of environmental justice." He is currently a distinguished professor at Texas Southern University. Dr. Bullard speaks to us from his home in Houston, which he needs to evacuate later this morning due to the rising Brazos River.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I'm Amy Goodman.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I'm Juan González. Welcome to all of our listeners and viewers around the country and around the world. The death toll is rising as massive amounts of rain from Hurricane Harvey continue to flood Houston and other parts of Texas and Louisiana. The Houston police and Coast Guard have rescued over 6,000 people from their homes, but many remain stranded. Meteorologists forecast another foot of rain could fall on the region in the coming days. Harvey, which is now a tropical storm, is heading back to the Gulf of Mexico and is expected to make landfall again on Wednesday.
AMY GOODMAN: So much rain has already fallen that the National Weather Service has had to add two new colors to its maps to indicate rainfall levels. Parts of Texas are expected to top 50 inches of rain. And the rivers keep rising. Southwest of Houston in Richmond, the Brazos River reached flood stage overnight at 45 feet, and the National Weather Service forecasts it will peak at 59 feet on Friday and remain over 50 feet through Sunday. Houston's KHOU described the epic amount of rain fall.
KHOU REPORTER: I want to show you what a meteorologist has done. There it is. The meteorologist calculates by the end of Wednesday, Harvey will have saturated all of Southeast Texas with enough water to fill all the NFL and college stadiums, all of those stadiums, more than 100 times. Think about that. More than 100 times. So so far, the meteorologist is saying 15 trillion gallons of rain has fallen on a large area and another 5 trillion or 6 trillion gallons forecast by the end of Wednesday.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The official death toll is 14, but authorities warn it could rise dramatically once the floodwaters recede. Six people from one family died after their van was swept away by floodwaters. Emergency shelters are approaching capacity.
RESIDENT: …crowded. But all they said that we are getting 800 more people. And it's like, what? Where are they going to put us all? You know, what about us from Corpus? What are we going to do? And FEMA is here right now, but the line is enormous. Yesterday we were in line for three hours and couldn't even see FEMA. So, I don't know what's going to happen. Buses just keep rolling in. And we need everybody's help.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Concern is also growing over the environmental impact of the storm. The Houston area is home to more than a dozen oil refineries. The group Air Alliance Houston is warning the shutdown of the petrochemical plants will send more than one million pounds of harmful pollution into the air. Residents of Houston's industrial communities are already reporting unbearable chemical-like smells coming from the many plants nearby. According to Bryan Parras, an activist at the environmental justice group t.e.j.a.s., "Fenceline communities can't leave or evacuate, so they are literally getting gassed by these chemicals." The communities closest to these sites in Houston are disproportionately low income and minority.
Meanwhile, on Saturday, a massive fuel storage tank at Kinder Morgan's Pasadena terminal began spilling after being toppled in the storm. The tank held 6.3 million gallons of gasoline, but it is unclear how much of that leaked. And in the city of La Porte, residents were asked to go to the nearest shelter, close doors and windows after a chemical spill was reported last night.
AMY GOODMAN: While the National Hurricane Center is now calling Harvey the biggest rainstorm on record, it has not come as a complete surprise. Scientists have been predicting for years climate change could result in massive storms like Harvey. Climate scientist Michael Mann wrote this: "Harvey was almost certainly more intense than it would have been in the absence of human-caused warming, which means stronger winds, more wind damage and a larger storm surge."
We go now to Houston to speak with Robert Bullard, known as the father of environmental justice, currently a Distinguished Professor at Texas Southern University. He's the former director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. We are reaching Dr. Bullard from his home in Houston, which he needs to evacuate later this morning due to the rising Brazos River. Professor Bullard, thanks so much for being with us. Can you talk about the situation you are in and so many people in Houston are in right now? Describe the scene for us. And then how you relate it to your life's work, to the issue of climate change and environmental justice.
DR. ROBERT BULLARD: Well, good morning, and thanks for having me. Harvey and the aftermath, the flooding of Houston and the surrounding areas, it's of biblical proportions. This is a nightmare. And the images that you see on television and you hear the voices of people who have been just totally destroyed. And this is a situation where I think it's telling us that we have to change.
We have to change the way we do business and the way that we as humans interact with our environment.
And this is basically the situation where this storm, this flooding of this city, tells us that there is no place that is immune from devastation. I worked in New Orleans in the flooding after Katrina. New Orleans was only 500,000 people. Houston is 2.3 million people. And then you look at the surrounding areas. You're talking 5.5 or almost 6 million people. And so you talk about this devastation. It is historical proportions.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Dr. Bullard, to what degree do you think unchecked development by Houston's officials over the past several decades has created an even worse possibility for calamity when a natural disaster like this hits?
DR. ROBERT BULLARD: Well, Houston is actually -- was a catastrophe waiting to happen, given the fact you have unrestrained capitalism, no zoning, laissez-faire regulations when it comes to control of the very industries that have created lots of problems when it comes to greenhouse gases and other industrial pollution. The impact that basically has been ignored for many years.
And so the fact that -- it is a disaster, but it is a very predictable disaster.
And those communities that historically have borne the burden of environmental pollution and contamination from these many industries at the same time are the very communities that are bearing disproportionally the burden of this flooding. So you get this pre-existing condition of inequality before the storm, and this inequality in terms of how people are able to address this disaster because of vulnerability. And I think what we have to do is, look at lessons -- well, not learn from Katrina in terms of the rebuilding, redevelopment and recovery.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: There has been quite a bit of second-guessing of Mayor Sylvester Turner's decision not to call for an evacuation of the city. I am wondering your take on that, especially given what happened with Hurricane -- was it Rita? -- a couple of years ago, when there was an evacuation effort made, but more people ended up dying -- about 100 people -- in the gridlock that occurred as people tried to leave a city as large as Houston.
DR. ROBERT BULLARD: Well, it is easy to second guess, but the fact is that trying to evacuate 2.3 million people on these highways is almost a task that is impossible. And so I don't think there was anything that you can say, "Well, why is it that the mayor and the county judge decided to go this way?" When you look at the problems of logistics and trying to move this many people on these highways getting out of the city, that probably was not a good choice to make.
So I think the decision to have people shelter in place -- and no one could predict what happened afterwards. So I think the best that we can do now, instead of pointing fingers, is pointing to solutions and pointing to ways that we can address the many problems and challenges that we face today. And having to evacuate and leave your home and go out there and not know what is ahead of you? You have your life, and I am blessed that -- when you see those images, you can see that this is pain.
And I think all governmental officials and governmental agencies and voluntary associations and civic groups and faith groups, we have to come together and make sure that we do what is right. Not what is politically expedient, but do what is right and make sure we build a just and healthy and sustainable city when we rebuild, and when we recover. It has to be just.
President Trump speaks on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office of the White House, January 28, 2017, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Drew Angerer / Getty Images)
President Trump is a compulsive liar; we know that. He lies about things that are world-shattering and things that are trivial in equal measure. One of the more obvious lies he told during the campaign and since he's been in office is his oft-repeated claim that he knows nothing about Russia and that the whole Russia scandal is a hoax made up by the Democrats to deny him his glorious electoral victory.
As CNN summarized in this article, Trump used to brag about his knowledge of Russia and claimed that he had a personal relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin -- until February of 2016 when he suddenly began to claim that he had never met the man and had never done any business in Russia other than the now-legendary Miss Universe pageant in 2013. He slipped up at least once in the ensuing months, telling Bret Baier of Fox News he might know Putin but couldn't talk about it, but for the most part his line was this one, told to a Miami TV station in July of 2016: "I have nothing to do with Russia, nothing to do. I never met Putin, I have nothing to do with Russia whatsoever."
As I said, Trump lies. A lot. So for a long time it was impossible to know whether he was lying when he said he was involved with Russia and knew the country well or when he said he had nothing to do with it whatsoever. That's been cleared up.
Last spring Forbes reported that Trump had been in the process of putting together a deal with the Agalarov family, oligarchs who had helped bring the Miss Universe pageant to Moscow, to build a Trump Tower in the Russian capital. Emin Agalarov, the pop-singer son of billionaire developer Aras Agalarov, told Forbes that they let it go when Trump decided to run for president but that they considered it to be on hold. (And yes, these Agalarovs are the same folks whose publicist arranged the infamous "Clinton dirt" meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and the Russian lawyer.)
On Sunday night the Washington Post reported on yet another plan to build a Moscow Trump Tower in 2015 and beyond, while Trump was running for president. And on Monday the paper, along with the New York Times, released emails about the project written by Trump's longtime business partner Felix Sater and his personal friend and Trump organization executive, Michael Cohen. According to the Times:
Sater's emails were sent to Cohen and boasted of connections to Russian President Vladimir Putin that would allow the project to get completed and help "get Donald elected."
Cohen emailed Putin's personal spokesman to ask for help in getting the stalled project started again.
Later in the day, ABC News reported that Trump had signed off on the letter of intent in the fall of 2015, during the presidential primary campaign, confirming that he knew about the deal and proving once and for all that he'd been full of it when he insisted he'd never had any dealings with Russia.
The Sater emails included this startling claim:
"I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected. Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putin's team to buy in on this, I will manage this process."
Why building this tower was supposed to lead to Trump's election is a mystery. Oddly, none of the emails the Times excerpted directly mention the tower project, raising plenty of questions about exactly what they might have been talking about.
Marcy Wheeler, among others, wondered why Cohen would have reached out to Putin's communications chief about a real estate licensing deal. That communications chief, according to the "Steele dossier," was "the 'main protagonist' of the kompromat campaign against Hillary." Wheeler speculated that this alleged Trump Tower deal, never before revealed, might be cover for another kind of "deal" altogether.
Whether or not this turns out to be some kind of collusion or conspiracy with the Russian government to defeat Hillary Clinton and get Trump elected, we've never seen anything like this: Associates of a presidential candidate directly asking the leader of a foreign adversary to help them arrange for what amounts to a multimillion-dollar payoff. It's shocking on its face, especially since Trump lied about it repeatedly.
There has long been keen interest in both Cohen and Sater as part of this Russia investigation. The two men were boyhood acquaintances growing up in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, around a lot of Russian émigrés. Sater is Russian-American and Cohen is married to a Ukrainian national; both have years of experience working in the gray shadows of the Russian financial and business world. They also have years of experience working with Donald Trump on many projects, including Trump Soho, which was sued for fraud. In recent years Trump's real estate projects have sold nearly $100 million in condos wealthy Russians.
Sater did time in prison for assault and was later convicted for fraud, after which he apparently went to work as an FBI informant. He has also claimed to have been involved with the CIA, tracing illegal arms deals in the Russian black market. He is, to say the least, an interesting character and one that special counsel Robert Mueller presumably has his eyes on.
About two weeks ago this rumor from Paul Wood at The Spectator floated around the internet and no one knew what to make of it:
For several weeks there have been rumors that Sater is ready to rat again, agreeing to help Mueller. "He has told family and friends he knows he and POTUS are going to prison," someone talking to Mueller's investigators informed me.
Sater hinted in an interview earlier this month that he may be cooperating with both Mueller's investigation and congressional probes of Trump.
"In about the next 30 to 35 days, I will be the most colourful character you have ever talked about," Sater told New York Magazine. "Unfortunately, I can't talk about it now, before it happens. And believe me, it ain't anything as small as whether or not they're gonna call me to the Senate committee."
Maybe he's as much of a BS artist as his friend in the White House. He certainly seems like the type. But if this is true it might mean we finally learn whether Trump was merely making corrupt deals with Russian oligarchs to line his own pockets or was actively colluding with the Russian government to become president of the United States. What a choice.
Cafeteria workers in New Orleans are working to organize a union in order to negotiate for better wages and working conditions with Volunteers of America, a wealthy Christian ministry contracting with local elementary schools to provide meals to students. From left to right: Damita Hall, Pamela Bourgois, Quintessa Dampeer and Debra Slaughter. (Photo: Julie Dermansky)
For the school cafeteria workers fighting for living wages and a union, the full-scale privatization of the New Orleans school system created a race to the bottom that robbed Black communities of well-paying jobs. For students and families, it created an academic race to the top that left disadvantaged students behind in a system based on markets and competition.
Cafeteria workers in New Orleans are working to organize a union in order to negotiate for better wages and working conditions with Volunteers of America, a wealthy Christian ministry contracting with local elementary schools to provide meals to students. From left to right: Damita Hall, Pamela Bourgois, Quintessa Dampeer and Debra Slaughter. (Photo: Julie Dermansky)
It's the steamy first week of August in New Orleans, and a number of charter elementary schools are already welcoming students back from a brief summer vacation. I've volunteered to help make lunch. At 8 a.m. I arrive at a kitchen located in a revamped warehouse along the Mississippi River that once housed a cotton press dating back to the 19th century. I sign my name on a volunteer list, don a hair net and get to work. One of the women I'm working with adds a dash of seasoning to a mound of green beans, and we begin scooping servings into little trays already full of shepherd's pie. The meals are then trucked to school cafeterias, heated and served.
The school lunch service is called Fresh Food Factor, and pictures of children holding vegetables in a garden hang in its brightly lit office. The brochure says school administrators are under "increasing pressure" to cut costs, so the program provides a "viable alternative to the quick fix of processed foods" offered by other vendors. Some lower-income neighborhoods in New Orleans are considered food deserts due to a lack of affordable grocers, so serving healthy food in schools can provide kids with options that they may not always have at home.
Fresh Food Factor is run by the local chapter of Volunteers of America, a multimillion-dollar Christian ministry that runs halfway houses, shelters, food banks, drug treatment programs and housing projects nationwide, often with government funding. For right-wing champions of charter schools, such as Betsy DeVos, President Trump's controversial education secretary, Fresh Food Factor would be a shining example for the rest of the country: a religious group serving healthy meals at charter schools that chose to partner with a civic-minded contractor. Democrats would be happy to know that the food service helps schools comply with nutrition standards established by Michelle Obama -- standards that the Trump administration recently scaled back.
Despite its parent organization's name, most Fresh Food Factor workers are not volunteers like me. Employees who cook in the warehouse kitchen or serve students in schools receive wages that start at $9 per hour. Some work full-time, but the food service relies on part-time workers and a smattering of volunteers to fill the gaps. Besides managers and truck drivers, most employees are women of color, the workers commonly called "lunch ladies" who are inseparable from mealtime in public schools. As we wrap dozens of veggie eggrolls in sheets of shiny foil, one part-time kitchen employee tells me that she is not scheduled for enough hours to make ends meet and is looking for additional work, a common story in a local economy built on tourism and low-wage service industry jobs.
Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans' school cafeteria workers and janitors were represented by the same union as teachers and enjoyed the same benefits, including paid vacation and time off during the summers, according to LaTanja Silvester, president of the local Service Employees International Union (SEIU) office. After the storm devastated the city, the state took over the school board and began an unprecedented experiment in school privatization, dismantling the teachers union and firing 7,000 school employees in the process, many of them Black women. Cafeteria workers now work for competing contractors that offer varying pay scales and benefits. Sometimes, benefits like paid sick days aren't offered at all.
"Volunteers of America advocates for alleviating poverty, when in fact the jobs they are providing at the Fresh Food Factor are actually poverty-wage jobs," Silvester told Truthout, adding that SEIU is currently working with employees seeking union representation despite "pushback" from Volunteers of America.
Pamela Bourgois and Damita Hall, Fresh Food Factor employees who serve lunch at Encore Academy, a local charter elementary school, told Truthout they were regularly expected to work off the clock for no additional pay until they began organizing a union and standing up for their rights on the job. Proper safety supplies such as arm-length oven mitts are not provided, leaving some workers to choose between paying for their own safety gear or burning themselves on hot trays. Only full-time managers and lead workers are offered health care benefits, and Bourgois says she has only received one raise in three years. Spokespeople for the New Orleans chapter did not provide a response to several inquiries from Truthout.
Encore Academy is the charter elementary school in New Orleans where Damita Hall and Pamela Bourgois work in the cafeteria. Under the charter system, students are not assigned to a school based on where they live. Instead, parents submit applications with a list of schools ranked from their top choice on down, aware that their child may not be admitted to the school they like best. (Photo: Julie Dermansky)
New Orleans charter schools hire food service contractors like Volunteers of America with money from state and federal school lunch programs because so many students qualify for the subsidies. In 2016, Volunteers of America Greater New Orleans received 59 percent of its $32 million in revenue from state and federal grants and contracts, according to an annual report released by the group. Nationally, Volunteers of America brought in nearly $312 million in total revenue last year.
New Orleans cafeteria workers meet at the local union office. Some school employees work multiple jobs to make ends meet and have children and grandchildren attending charter schools. (Photo: Julie Dermanksy)
Hall says Volunteers of America has responded to their push for union representation with SEIU by hiring a lawyer and deploying other "intimidation tactics." She received a disciplinary write-up for "petty stuff" on the first day of school this year. Still, the women see their jobs as crucial for making sure students are able to learn in class -- something that's hard to do if you're feeling hungry. After all, their own children attended public schools in New Orleans, and now their grandchildren attend charter elementary schools.
"In our position, we know that we are very instrumental in the kids' daily process ... we should be treated better than this, more fairly and justly than what we are," Bourgois says.
Betsy DeVos, the wealthy charter school advocate who survived a razor-thin Senate confirmation vote to become US secretary of education earlier this year, has reignited a fierce national debate over school privatization. Now, all eyes are on New Orleans, where critics say the nation's most complete charter experiment is steeped in structural racism.
After the floods of Katrina were finally cleared, a state board elected by Louisiana's white majority took over the New Orleans school system from the local board elected by the city's Black majority. In the decade since, schools have closed, consolidated and been handed over to private companies and nonprofits. Now, 92 percent of New Orleans students are enrolled in schools run by charter boards, more than any other urban district in the country.
Test scores and graduation rates have markedly improved over the past decade in one of the nation's lowest-performing districts. However, rates of student achievement had nowhere to go but up, and researchers are hesitant to give school privatization full credit for improvements in performance. They say other factors, such as strong incentives to "teach to the test," a $1,000 increase in per pupil spending relative to other districts and the fact that some lower-income students did not return after being displaced by Katrina, must be considered before New Orleans schools are held up as a model for other systems.
At the same time, a federal lawsuit and a list of civil rights complaints have been filed on behalf of immigrant students, students of color and students with disabilities who were denied access to public education because schools have discriminatory enrollment and disciplinary policies, or are simply inaccessible. Many students travel across town to attend class, and schools buy ads on billboards and buses all over the city, while neighborhood schools are often neglected or abandoned. Schools in working-class Black areas are shuttered when students fail to perform on high-stakes standardized tests, leaving empty buildings where neighborhood institutions once stood.
"You label our schools as failing, when in fact it is the system that has failed us, because we never addressed [Brown v. Board of Education], we never made education equal," says Jitu Brown, national director of Journey4Justice Alliance, a coalition of groups from Black and Brown communities impacted by charter schools, including New Orleans.
Fencing blocks access to John McDonogh High School in New Orleans, which has been closed since 2014. Charter schools are shuttered when students fail to perform on high-stakes standardized tests, leaving empty buildings where neighborhood institutions once stood. Many students commute across town to attend class. (Photo: Mike Ludwig)
Brown says the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 decision may have ended the "separate but equal" doctrine of school segregation, but equality has yet to be realized. After convincing two Republican senators to flip and oppose DeVos, who was only confirmed after Vice President Mike Pence cast a tie-breaking vote, Brown and other organizers realized what was missing from the progressive education movement: multiracial coalitions led by the people of color who are impacted most. Activists are currently conducting an "equity assessment" of public schools nationwide to prove just that. The assessment is part of the #WeChoose campaign, a nationwide push for racial justice and sustainable community schools that grew out of efforts to block DeVos's nomination.
"Equity is not just funding," Brown tells Truthout. "It's about expectations, it's about curriculums and how discipline is administered, and we will demonstrate through this assessment that the issue is inequity. It's not bad teachers, it's not bad students from the inner city, it's not disinterested ghetto parents."
Brown says the movement is not railing against individual charter schools, unless they have discriminatory enrollment and disciplinary policies. Some charter schools do embrace progressive policies; for example, one New Orleans elementary school is committed to enrolling a student body that reflects the neighborhood around it, a working-class area with a mix of Black, white and Latino families. However, this diversity policy does not come without controversy and has made the school highly coveted among parents jostling for enrollment spots in a system based on market competition, making it difficult to get into.
"We don't have a problem with charter schools, we have a problem with the charter movement and charter market, which is concentrated in our communities," Brown says. "If charters were so great, white folks would have them, but they don't get charters. They get magnet schools and well-funded neighborhood schools."
Before Katrina, New Orleans schools were heavily segregated by wealth and income, and a recent Tulane University study found that the demographic breakdown of the city's elementary schools has not changed. There have been some changes in high schools, with segregation increasing for low-income students but decreasing for those with special needs. In New Orleans, students are not assigned to a school based on where they live. Instead, parents submit applications with a list of schools ranked from their top choice on down, aware that their child may not be admitted to the school they like best. Black students and activists criticize some charters for enrollment schemes and zero-tolerance disciplinary policies that favor white, abled and wealthier students while keeping -- or kicking -- others out. They say the idea of "school choice" promoted by DeVos is a myth.
Researchers have found that zero-tolerance discipline disproportionately impacts students on the margins, particularly children of color and children with "non-apparent" psychiatric and intellectual disabilities. Charters in cities like New Orleans are incentivized to enroll students who will improve the school's overall performance. Lower-performing students can become targets for punishments that ultimately do not correct behavior, but "reinforce toxic interactions and reproduce cycles of perceived misbehavior," according to the Ruderman Family Foundation. As punishment escalates, students are pushed out of school, where they are more likely to fall into the juvenile legal system and the school-to-prison pipeline.
The New Orleans system is now working toward "reunification" under one local board and says it is addressing concerns about admissions, suspensions and expulsions by centralizing procedures for some schools, but emotions remain raw. In June, the NAACP held a listening session in New Orleans that became increasingly heated as Black students and parents aired their frustrations about living in the petri dish of an unprecedented charter experiment. They lamented the inconsistent stream of teachers from other parts of the country brought in by Teach for America, the organization that has long been criticized for replacing local teachers with lightly trained outsiders who are disconnected from local culture. They questioned how working parents are supposed to stay involved in education when the schools their kids are admitted to are miles from home.
In an especially powerful moment, a group of young students took the microphone despite protests from moderators, declaring themselves experts in the subject of charter schools because they attend them day in and day out. "You don't attend the school, you're not there every day," one student said. "The Teach for America teachers don't care about us, charter schools don't care about us, and our futures are at stake."
The students were members of Rethink, a local group that empowers young people to have a voice in changing schools and other institutions. Rethink member Big Sister Love Rush, who recently graduated from a New Orleans high school at the top of her class, got involved after learning that her alma mater would be shutting down this year. After attending public meetings on charter controversies, Love Rush penned a blog post explaining how pro-charter forces take education "out of the hands of parents, like my mother" and give power to outsiders who "act like [students] have no expertise":
Through all these meetings I keep thinking, who is profiting? Who wins when my school is closed? Who succeeds when conversations about education don't include and aren't centered around students, families and teachers? Who benefits when groups are examining the damage of privatized schools on students without any plan on how to stop that damage? Who is aided when discussions become pep rallies? Who makes the money when schools become sites to make a profit?
The disconnect between students and school administrators can be traced back to the firing of 7,000 school employees after Katrina, a move that ripped members of the local community out of their educational institutions at a time when thousands of families had been displaced by a natural disaster. LaTanja Silvester at SEIU says that many food service workers and janitors eventually returned to their jobs, but wages and benefits now vary widely depending on where they work. Many teachers, however, were replaced by a younger, whiter set brought in from out of town through programs such as Teach for America.
Of the roughly 4,300 teachers dismissed after Katrina, 78 percent were woman and 71 percent were Black, according to the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans at Tulane University. About half of this workforce returned to education in the years following the storm, with 37 percent finding jobs in New Orleans and 18 percent working in surrounding areas. These numbers had dropped dramatically by 2013, when only 22 percent of pre-Katrina teachers were still employed in the city's public schools.
"It's the colonizing of our communities, where we have people running the quality-of-life institutions in our communities through the way they see us, through their lens," Brown says.
After Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, the state dismissed thousands of New Orleans school employees and consolidated schools as it launched an unprecedented experiment in privatization. This school in New Orleans' Mid-City neighborhood has sat empty since the storm. (Photo: Julie Dermansky)
New Orleans is at the forefront of a troubling national trend. Brown points to the Albert Shanker Institute, which recently studied nine cities with charter schools in their systems and found that the share of Black teachers in the workforce had declined in every single one over the past decade. Rates varied widely, with Boston and Cleveland losing 1 percent of their Black teachers, while New Orleans and Washington, DC, lost 24 and 28 percent, respectively. Losses in the total numbers of Black teachers in the population were even greater, ranging from 15 percent in New York City to an alarming 62 percent in New Orleans. Seniority-based layoffs had little to do with these declines. Nationally, minority teachers are hired at higher rates than others, but they exit the profession at much higher rates as well.
"The lesson that is being taught all over the United States is that we are not fit to lead, and that is a result of policy," Brown says.
Black and Brown teachers are more motivated to work with disadvantaged students and hold higher academic expectations for them, which results in better grades and social growth among students, according to the Albert Shanker Institute's study. Students benefit from teachers of their own race or ethnicity, who can serve as role models and share knowledge about their heritage and culture, the study says.
Love Rush adds that the curriculum itself should also reflect the schools' populations. She writes that many students want curriculums that "represent us and people like us," and "that teaches us our true history and the role that it plays in our current lives." Rethink youth activists are currently campaigning to lower the voting age in New Orleans to 14 so students can have a voice in shaping local politics and the schools they attend.
"We can and will do it," Love Rush writes. "We will take our education in our own hands because we are the experts of our experience."
The mass teacher dismissal in New Orleans was reflective of a trend that reached far beyond the classroom. Thousands of jobs that supported Black middle-class people vanished at a time when residents were recovering from an unprecedented natural disaster. Some displaced families have still not returned. In the years since, property values in New Orleans have skyrocketed and working-class neighborhoods have become hipster hotspots, putting increasing pressure on lower-income renters in a gentrifying city.
Brown says the gutting of the Black middle class -- and the deliberate minimizing of its political power -- is not germane to New Orleans, and many of the same cities that have seen a decline in Black teachers have also seen declines in the general Black population. When authorities divest from Black neighborhoods by shutting down their schools and busing children somewhere else, it could be a sign that property in the area may soon become a hot commodity. At a time when the nation is facing a resurgence of overt white supremacy, Brown points out the importance of simultaneously confronting more subtle manifestations of white supremacy.
"I'm a lot more concerned about the white supremacists that are sabotaging our children's education, that's white supremacy too," Brown says. "I'm concerned about the white supremacists that are sabotaging our housing so that we can't live in our neighborhoods, that's white supremacy too."
Back at the Fresh Food Factor kitchen, Volunteers of America's local "neighborhood development" corporation has established another project in a historic building adjacent to the warehouse where school lunches are prepared: 52 furnished loft apartments complete with a rooftop patio offering a view of the Mississippi River. With help from state and federal tax credits and community block grants, Volunteers of America built these lofts to serve "working households" by creating housing in "emerging neighborhoods" near employers and public transportation, according to the project's website.
A number of businesses and shops have sprung up in old warehouses and around a nearby Wal-Mart, and public transportation can deliver residents to the downtown business district within minutes. Volunteers of America offers half of the units at lower prices for residents making under $35,000 a year, but rent still ranges from $886 to $950 a month for those who qualify for the discount. With wages ranging from $9 to $14 an hour, kitchen staff would have to spend about 40 to 60 percent of their income to live in their employer's lofts next door to where they work. Even workers making as much as $34,000 would spend about 30 percent for a single-bedroom apartment, the threshold at which federal authorities consider a household "overburdened."
Volunteers of America has long been in the "affordable housing" business, using federal housing grants to construct residential buildings for lower-income, disabled and elderly people. The group's neighborhood development subsidiary in New Orleans, which was created specifically to replace housing post-Katrina, is a nonprofit that has its own for-profit subsidiary for building residences to rent out. Robert Silverman, a professor of urban planning at the University at Buffalo who focuses on the nonprofit sector, said for-profit spinoffs of nonprofit housing initiatives are becoming more common, but profit incentives also raise concerns about "mission drift."
Volunteers of America is considered a church, so it does not have to file federal tax returns, and it remains unclear how top administrators and property developers are paid for their work.
"It's kind of a new trend that has been bubbling up over the past six or seven years, where a nonprofit will have a for-profit subsidiary connected to it," Silverman told Truthout. "Different rules and tax laws apply to each, but they use it as another way to generate revenue [for the parent organization]."
In 2016, Silverman co-authored a study on affordable housing in several US cities with shrinking populations, including New Orleans. In general, affordable housing is not cited near "opportunity areas" as much as observers would like. Single workers and senior citizens tended to have an advantage, while single mothers with children were less likely to find housing near employers or top-performing schools. Volunteers of America and its subsidiaries run housing projects across New Orleans and southern Louisiana, and Silverman said it appears the group is trying to "hit" different income levels. The riverside lofts next to Fresh Food Factor are probably meant for teachers, police, government workers and others with moderate incomes, rather than the low-wage food service workers employed next door.
"The other side of it is, when the nonprofit starts dabbling in these for-profit ventures, it opens up arguments that can be made for why the people working for the nonprofit themselves should be given living wages," Silverman said.
Pamela Bourgois and Damita Hall just laugh when I tell them how much it would cost to rent a loft apartment next to the kitchen where their coworkers make the lunches they serve. That's what their employer considers "affordable housing?" LaTanja Silvester at SEIU, on the other hand, is frustrated. She's sick of seeing workers employed by one school contractor receiving a living wage under a union contract, while workers doing the exact same job for another school must take on additional work just to feed their kids. School privatization in New Orleans may have created a brutal race to the academic top for students, but Silvester says it also created "a race to the bottom."
"We have to be the city that revamped education and lifted kids out of poverty and provided a pathway for them to be gainfully employed in this country," Silvester said. "And we must take into account who is providing those services, and they are the mothers of the kids who attend those charter schools."
Last month, California Labor Commissioner Julie Su distributed a memo instructing her staff to turn away any Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents who show up at labor offices without a federal warrant. This action came in response to three recent cases in which ICE sought workers' information shortly after they filed claims against their employers. Su told The Los Angeles Times that, in two of these cases, ICE officials showed up at the employees' labor hearing. In case ICE continues to show up at such hearings, Su provided suggested scripts to guide the interaction. "Would you please leave our office? The Labor Commissioner does not consent to your entry or search of any part of our office," reads one portion of the text.
ICE's targeting of labor hearings falls into a much broader pattern of workplace immigration raids. The second term of the George W. Bush administration saw a boom in such policies, with authorities carrying out hundreds of sweeps targeting workers. In May of 2008, hundreds of Homeland Security agents swooped into Postville, Iowa and arrested 389 employees at a kosher meatpacking plant. Nearly 300 of those workers spent five months in jail before being deported. In a town with a population of just 2,300 people, this meant that more than 10 percent of all residents were incarcerated as the result of one raid. "They don't go after employers. They don't put CEOs in jail," said Postville Community Schools superintendent David Strudthoff at the time. "[This] is like a natural disaster -- only this one is man-made. In the end, it is the greater population that will suffer and the workforce that will be held accountable."
While Barack Obama deported more people than any other president, the tactic of targeting workers fluctuated on his watch. Data from ICE indicates that workplace immigration arrests peaked for Obama in 2011 -- but never reached the levels seen under Bush. The National Employment Law Project's (NELP) Haeyoung Yoon told In These Times that, while we haven't seen widespread examples of workplace raids under the Trump administration, this doesn't mean they're not coming eventually. "These efforts take a lot of time to plan," said Yoon.
Underscoring Yoon's point, 55 undocumented workers were detained in February in a series of Mississippi restaurant raids. After the arrests, ICE public affairs officer Thomas Byrd said that the federal search warrants were part of a year-long investigation.
State organizations like the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition are training employers to prepare for the possibility of such sweeps. NELP and the National Immigration Law Center have created a helpful guide for businesses concerned about ICE raids, which includes details on how to keep agents out, what to do if they enter and what actions can be taken after they leave. "Employers and their employees have rights when it comes to immigration enforcement in the workplace," wrote NELP staff attorney Laura Huizar shortly after the guide was published. "Employers can and should take steps now to protect those rights and do what's best for their business and their teams."
In California, where almost half of the state's farmworkers are undocumented, there have been recent legislative efforts to combat workplace raids. The SEIU-sponsored Immigrant Worker Protection Act (AB 450) is a bill, introduced this March, that would require all employers to demand a federal warrant if ICE shows up. The legislation, which was introduced by San Francisco Assemblymember David Chiu, would also prevent businesses from handing over personal employee information unless they were subpoenaed.
But what is to be done about employers who willingly collude with ICE? While explaining her memo, Julie Su told the Los Angeles Times that she suspected businesses of tipping agents off to labor hearings, events where only the employer and employee would be aware of the scheduled time. Earlier this year, Jose Flores, a 37-year-old Massachusetts man, was arrested by ICE shortly after a workers' compensation meeting. Flores' lawyers believe that the arrest might have been retaliation from Flores' employer, Tara Construction, looking for a way to get out of paying out the claim. Stephen Murray, a lawyer for Tara Construction, insists that his client made no contact with ICE and had no reason to believe Flores' was undocumented.
A recent investigation by ProPublica and NPR reveals that this is hardly an isolated case. Their review focuses on Florida, where a 2003 law made it illegal to for workers to file compensation claims using false identification. In the 14 years since, at least 130 injured workers were arrested under the law. At least one in four of those workers was detained by ICE or deported. "State fraud investigators have arrested injured workers at doctor's appointments and at depositions in their workers' comp cases," reads the report. "Some were taken into custody with their arms still in slings."
The report also points out that the Florida model could be a preview of widespread things to come under the Trump administration. If this is true, then the labor movement could end up taking a closer look at Tom Cat Bakery in Queens, where a Homeland Security inquiry and promise of subsequent firings sparked radical protests. Employers who openly collude with Trump's deportation machine might soon be targets of the same resistance.
Michael Brennan's nomination was one of the latest in Trump's spree to fill as many open judicial seats as quickly as possible with young judges who fit a far-right mold. Many of these are lifetime appointments. When Trump entered office, he inherited over 100 judicial vacancies.
(Photo: Bill Oxford / iStock / Getty Images Plus)
Earlier this month, Donald Trump chose Michael Brennan to fill an open seat on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. In doing so, he broke with a 38-year-old Wisconsin tradition.
For decades, when the 7th Circuit seat meant for a Wisconsin judge opened up, a bipartisan state commission voted on a jointly agreed-upon list of judicial nominees for the president to consider. The Wisconsinites gathered to do the same this year, but weren't able to decide on a nominee for a seat that has been vacant for eight years, the result of Republican refusal to vote on Obama's nominee for the seat.
So Trump went ahead and selected Brennan, a former Milwaukee County judge who is a close ally of Wisconsin's Republican governor, Scott Walker. In 2011, while serving on a committee to help Walker select state-level judges, Brennan co-authored an op-ed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel supporting Republican efforts to block Obama's nominee to the 7th Circuit Court -- a nominee who would have sat in the very seat for which Trump has nominated Brennan.
Brennan's nomination was one of the latest in Trump's spree to fill as many open judicial seats as quickly as possible with young judges who fit a far-right, conservative mold. Many of these are lifetime appointments.
When Trump entered office, he inherited over 100 judicial vacancies. The number of judicial vacancies grew during the Obama administration, when Senate Republicans refused to confirm many of Obama's nominees to the seats Trump is now filling. When Obama entered office, there were 54 judicial vacancies. President Trump now has the opportunity to fill over 130.
Those who closely watch the courts -- legal reporters, scholars left and right, and US senators -- agree: Trump's efforts to transform the federal judiciary may be the most enduring accomplishment of his presidency.
"This will be the single most important legacy of the Trump administration," Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware told Business Insider's Allan Smith. "They will quickly be able to put judges on circuit courts all over the country, district courts all over the country, that will, given their youth and conservatism, will have a significant impact on the shape and trajectory of American law for decades." Trump has the power, Coons said, to bring about "a wholesale change among the federal judiciary."
After Neil Gorsuch's confirmation to the Supreme Court, recently ousted Heritage Foundation president and former US Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) wrote that "President Trump should be applauded for carrying through on his promise to appoint good judges from this list, and conservatives hope he continues to use the list for any future appointments." The list DeMint was referring to was one Trump released detailing his potential Supreme Court nominees, which Trump explicitly acknowledged was put together by conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society.
Playing the Long Game
In the seven months since he took office, Trump has nominated 37 judges, including Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. Five have been confirmed. For comparison, by this point in Obama's term, only Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor had been confirmed. In the first full year of the Obama presidency, the Senate confirmed just three of Obama's nominees for the federal court of appeals -- fewer than the number of Trump appointees confirmed in his first six months.
Trump's brazen effort to reshape the judiciary by nominating judges who are ideological and outspoken about their beliefs, particularly on social issues, is a strategy some conservatives have advocated for decades -- and one Trump embraced during the election. "If you really like Donald Trump, that's great, but if you don't, you have to vote for me anyway. You know why? Supreme Court judges, Supreme Court judges," Trump said at a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in July 2016.
Trump was, in fact, taking aim at the judiciary as early as April 2016, when, during a television town hall, he said that there should be "some form of punishment" for women who get abortions if the procedure is outlawed. By the end of that week, he said, "The laws are set. And I think we have to leave it that way." His spokesperson, Hope Hicks, attempted to clarify, telling reporters that Trump would "change the law through his judicial appointments and allow the states to protect the unborn." Today, it seems Trump plans to make good on that promise.
Senators Get on Board
The fear of an ideologically motivated judiciary is not new. The extent to which our judges are truly apolitical was a question being debated long before Trump entered office. And yet, the politicization of the judiciary is not an on-or-off switch. Trump's many nominees, and the basis by which he is picking them, will push the American judiciary firmly in one direction for decades to come, in a manner that will affect every individual who enters one of his chosen judges' courtrooms, reshaping the justice system in the process.
Ron Klain, a lawyer who advised the Obama administration on Merrick Garland's unsuccessful confirmation process, recently calculated that, given the rate the administration is currently confirming judges, one-eighth of all cases filed in federal court will be heard by a judge Trump appointed by the end of 2018.
Like much of the Trump administration's successes, the judicial nomination process, high-speed and precarious as it is, is ultimately effective because Republican senators support Trump's nominees, despite spoken hesitation.
For instance, during his nomination hearings, Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) found 52-year-old judicial nominee John Bush problematic. "I've read your blog. I'm not impressed," Kennedy told Bush. Bush has "a long history of making homophobic and sexist comments," writing under a pseudonym on his wife's blog, Elephants in the Bush. Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) took him to task for linking to "phony stories from paranoid right-wing internet corners," including WorldNetDaily, a fake news website that promoted the Birther Lie, among other conspiracy theories.
But Kennedy voted in favor of Bush's confirmation anyway -- as did every other Republican senator (except the absent John McCain) -- later releasing a statement: "His academic credentials are impressive, and after talking to people who know Mr. Bush better than I do, I believe he will be an impartial, just-call-the-balls-and-strikes judge."
Another Trump nominee, 37-year-old Damien Schiff, is a member of the Federalist Society and works at the Pacific Legal Foundation, which advocates for "private property rights, individual liberty, free enterprise, limited government and a balanced approach to environmental protection." As a judge on the US Court of Financial Claims, Schiff would oversee environmental and agency lawsuits. In the past, he's accused the Environmental Protection Agency of treating Americans "as if they were just slaves" and recommended selling Yosemite National Park to the Walt Disney Company because they'd "do a damn better job, I think."
He also moonlights as a blogger. In one post, he called Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy a "judicial prostitute" for "'selling' his vote as it were to four other Justices in exchange for the high that comes from aggrandizement of power and influence."
At Slate, Dahlia Lithwick reports that during Schiff's nomination hearing,
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse observed that "if President Obama had sent in a nominee who had called Justice Kennedy a 'judicial prostitute,' the other side of this dais would have its hair on fire." Whitehouse didn't even bother to question the lawyer/blogger, yielding his time with the observation that "this just isn't normal."
Schiff passed the committee 11-9 on a straight party-line vote. His nomination will be voted on by the full Senate later this year. Democrats won't be able to filibuster since Sen. Harry Reid, in retaliation for partisan gridlock during the Obama years, moved to limit the use of the filibuster for lower-court judicial nominees in 2013.
"Once you put a bad judge on the federal bench, it hurts not just the liberal and progressive agenda -- it hurts everybody who comes into their courtroom," said Nan Aron, the founder and president of Alliance for Justice, a progressive organization that follows the judiciary.
(Photo: Sezeryadigar / iStock / Getty Images Plus)
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) was set up in the wake of the financial crisis to prevent against the sorts of abuses we witnessed from the mortgage industry during the housing bubble years. The idea was that consumers should not have to worry about buying financial products that jeopardize their financial security, as turned out to be the case with many of the mortgages sold during the bubble years. The CFPB would limit the types of products that could be sold and the ways in which they could be marketed to protect consumers.
This was generally seen as an effort to ensure fairness. Most people are not very educated about financial matters. That is not an indictment of their intelligence; it's just recognition of the fact that they have jobs and lives. Those who don't work in finance or a related industry have little reason to become an expert on the industry's products.
The CFPB is intended to make sure that these people don't get ripped off by those who are experts in finance. This sounds like a basic issue of fairness, but it also helps to promote economic growth. The effect of the CFPB on boosting growth is too little appreciated even by those who strongly support the Bureau.
Take the recent decision by the CFPB to ban clauses in financial industry contracts that mandated arbitration and prohibited lawsuits. Richard Cordray, the head of the CFPB, defended his decision by saying that the ruling may cost the industry $1 billion a year, while their profits last year were $171 billion.
While the $1 billion may be small compared with the industry's profits, it is important to understand where this $1 billion is coming from. If we accept that this rule will effectively be limiting the industry's ability to "rip-off" their customers, then the $1 billion in reduced profits is about putting $1 billion in consumers' pockets that never should have been taken away in the first place.
The notion of "rip-off" here is a term in a contract that a consumer may agree to because they don't understand it. For example, some credit cards have very punitive late charges which their customers may only first realize when they face them. If they understood that the card imposed large charges, they never would have signed up for it.
If the issuers of a credit card know that they will be able to get away with exorbitant late charges if they can find ways to conceal them from their customers, they will have a powerful incentive to find ways to hide the charges in their contract. This means employers and possible psychologists and other experts in order to best design a deceptive contract.
However, if they know that they will never be able to get away with charging excessive fees -- for example if they know that the CFPB would rule against them and make them refund excessive charges -- then they don't have incentive to develop deceptive contracts in the first place. They wouldn't spend the money on the lawyers and other experts to conceal terms in the contract.
This is not only good for consumers; it is good for the economy. We want the financial industry to be devoting resources to finding better ways to serve consumers in order to win business away from competitors, not to figuring out more ways to rip them off. The CFPB should reduce the incentives in the rip-off direction.
This is also a benefit to consumers, not only in getting money back if they have been taken, but in reducing the need to scrutinize the terms of a contract. We don't want someone buying a house to have to carefully read through hundreds of pages of a mortgage contract. They should be able to know the main terms in a page or two and have the rest of the contract in a standard form that they can be assured does not contain surprises.
It would be a needless waste of people's time if everyone had to read through all the terms of every contract they signed. The CFPB can save consumers a huge amount of time by effectively examining the terms for them and providing a seal of approval.
By acting as neutral party that ensures the quality of contracts and stands in the way of bad contracts being issued, the CFPB should lead to a more efficient financial sector. Fewer resources will be wasted by businesses trying to rip people off and less time will be needed by customers to avoid being ripped off. For this reason, contrary to the claims of critics, the CFPB should boost, rather than reduce, economic growth.
In the face of intense racist violence, does it really make sense to debate over abstract notions of free speech? Those who fetishize the virtues of parliamentary debate should keep in mind that it was not the erudition of the wealthy do-gooders that ended the British slave trade but the organizing efforts of the enslaved and formerly enslaved Africans themselves who rebelled and rioted.
(Photo: National Museum of American History)
Adam Hochschild's bestselling 2005 book, Bury the Chains, describes the great debate in the British parliament regarding the abolition of the slave trade (not of slavery itself) in April 1792. It's a historical moment that has fascinating relevance for the debates over "free speech" in the US today.
While the Abolitionist campaign had been active and remarkably popular in England for about five years prior to the debate, and while an unprecedented 390,000 Britons had signed petitions to the Parliament in favor of abolition, the pro-slavery forces spent the equivalent of millions of dollars to flood the field with advertising, lobbyists and essayists defending their source of wealth. Unlike the white abolitionists, who were mostly religious dissenters and tradespeople, the pro-slavery forces, made up of the rich and aristocrats, had vastly more access to parliamentarians through private clubs and elite social space, which they used to bribe and cajole votes. Recall that there was no universal suffrage in Britain at this time, and only male property owners (i.e., elites) could vote for or sit in the House of Commons.
Meanwhile, in spite of the fact that formerly enslaved Africans and their families -- including the great Olaudah Equiano -- were crucial protagonists and intellectual and moral leaders in the abolition struggle in Britain, and the only ones with first-hand knowledge of the experience of slavery, they were only allowed to watch the parliamentary proceedings, not participate. They had to trust white aristocrats and politicians to speak for them.
Further, white abolitionist campaigners who had traveled the length and breadth of Britain at their own expense over the prior few years had routinely had their lives threatened as they sought to investigate and have public meetings about slavery. They were harassed, attacked and defamed in the press. Their lives were threatened.
When the debate came it was organized along the rules of 18th-century English parliamentary discourse, the ironclad and esoteric norms of which would have been familiar only to those who had elite educations. In spite of the fabled anti-slavery aristocrat William Wilberforce's stunning oration and that of other abolitionist-friendly parliamentarians, many slave owners or their agents in parliament also spoke in defense of their horrific privileges.
Let us recall that these men were either personally responsible for, or directly benefited from, a system that normalized slavery -- one of the most heinous crimes in human history. It bears repeating that it included the destruction of whole African civilizations to liquidate their people into enslavable bodies; the horror of the Middle Passage where at least a fifth of all enslaved Africans, packed thickly in the dark, perished or fell ill on those stormy seas and were thrown overboard, dead and alive; the selling of human beings at slave markets and auctions like chattel, including the forced separation of families; the deadly exploitation of slave labor which led to a life expectancy on most plantations of less than 35; the completely normalized, everyday use of torture, including whippings, beatings, sadistic experiments and gory public executions, such as flogging to death, burial alive and burning at the stake; the systematic and arbitrary use of rape both for the pleasure of slavers and to reproduce the next generation of enslavable bodies; and the attempted destruction of what small forms of community and solidarity enslaved people were able to create through divide-and-conquer techniques.
The press and the parliamentarians of the day heralded the passionate civility of the abolition debate in 1792 as evidence of Britain's moral superiority in the defense of free speech and gentlemanly conduct, especially in contrast to the ongoing French Revolution. The debate ended in victory for an amendment to the motion for abolition proposed by home secretary Henry Dundas (after whom towns and streets are still named): a gradual approach where the trade would be phased out over the next decade. The watered-down bill was sent to the House of Lords where it was nixed. Slavery would not be outlawed in the British Empire until decades later, in 1833 (thereafter enslaved people became "apprentices") and slave owners were collectively compensated the princely sum of £20 million for their pains. Formerly enslaved people got nothing.
When we discuss freedom of speech, we all too often inherit the idea that we should model ourselves after those highly educated, well-dressed, erudite and allegedly sober men on the floor of the House of Commons, who, in spite of the charged nature of the content, stayed through the night to debate and consider. The dominant notion of "campus free speech" evokes images of the packed halls at Cambridge or Oxford where clean-scrubbed young men, future parliamentarians (and slave-owners), battle with wits for the ears and minds of their colleagues.
Yet what of the white abolitionists sitting in the gallery who had sacrificed their lives, their wealth and their time for their hopeless cause, forced to listen to the pompous, bought-off aristocrats and sneering slavers spew lies and patent propaganda? What of those abolitionists beaten on the docks of Liverpool, Bristol or London for speaking out?
And what, indeed, of Equiano and the other Black abolitionist leaders whose fingernails must have shredded their own palms as they listened to the civil discourse of the men who had themselves murdered and raped other human beings whom they claimed to own, or who had licensed and profited from that work done by others? How must they have felt, these Black abolitionists who were barred from speaking at all, who had to listen to their stories and their ideas and their research and their monumental pain expressed in dulcet tones by wealthy white do-gooders eager, in spite of their conviction, not to offend or upset the uncomfortable centrists, the "swing voters" of Parliament who held the lives of hundreds of thousands in their well-fed hands? These Black abolitionists must have known that, even if successful, their own labors would be erased and forgotten by the tides of white history, a history that would lionize the Wilberforces and largely ignore the Equianos.
Could any of us, today, have blamed any one of them for barring the doors and lighting the parliament house on fire? Or for at least screaming in rage at the absurd spectacle below? They chose not to.
And how much has changed?
We are discussing today whether or not Nazis and white supremacists should be allowed to speak publicly, to rally in the streets, and to be taken seriously in the media and on campuses. There are plenty of liberal white people who have developed sophisticated arguments for why they should be allowed to do so, or at least why they ought not to be stopped. We are told that limiting freedom of speech is a slippery slope, that once it is undermined in one instance it is weakened in all instances. We are told that giving any attention to these heinous views and people only encourages them. We are told that the future of our civilization depends on civil debate, even with uncivil actors. We are told that their racist ideas are so ludicrous that they will fall like dominoes if vigorously and publicly refuted in debate. We are told that shutting them down is not strategic -- though we are rarely informed what, if any, strategy is in play.
These are all arguments from the proverbial "floor" of parliament. Regardless of their content, they reinforce the authority of the parliament as the only legitimate realm of discussion and decision-making. Yet the irony was, as the later history of abolition proved, the laws of parliament have always been full of loopholes to be abused by the powerful. And as we have learned, even once slavery was abolished, Britain continued to profit from and manage a vast racist empire, even unto the present day when British corporations and financial interests control huge swaths of the rest of the world's wealth.
The view of this "debate" and of free speech from the gallery is much different, then and now.
Many people today can imagine how those who watched silently from the gallery of the Parliament felt because they endure an analogous experience every day in this racist society, still. And still they bite their tongues as the would-be parliamentarians demand a "civil" debate about the very possibility of their freedom and safety. Meanwhile, scholars and writers who publicly decry racism are still subject to death threats and abuse, threats which are made more credible by increasingly well-organized far-right ideologues emboldened by their public notoriety.
Lest we forget, the British did not "free the slaves." Enslaved Africans abolished slavery through rebellion, riots, subversion and conspiracy. They also, in the acts of people like Equiano, used diplomacy, writing, lobbying and political organizing. The white abolitionists simply caught up to the facts on the ground that were being actively changed by the direct action of enslaved people.
When we assess the question of free speech and anti-fascist action, we need to remember that those of us who have inherited the privileges and perspectives of whiteness have been trained not to see what is obvious to many others. The fetishization of the abstract notion of free speech as an unassailable virtue must be complicated by the real histories of struggles for collective liberation.