Counterpunch Articles

Protest, Uprisings, and Race War

The moralizing has begun.

Those who have rarely been the target of organized police gangsterism are once again lecturing those who have about how best to respond to it.

Be peaceful, they implore, as protesters rise up in Minneapolis and across the country in response to the killing of George Floyd. This, coming from the same people who melted down when Colin Kaepernick took a knee — a decidedly peaceful type of protest. Because apparently, when white folks say, “protest peacefully,” we mean “stop protesting.”

Everything is fine, nothing to see here.

It is telling that much of white America sees fit to lecture black people about the evils of violence, even as we enjoy the national bounty over which we claim possession solely as a result of the same. I beg to remind you, George Washington was not a practitioner of passive resistance. Neither the early colonists nor the nation’s founders fit within the Gandhian tradition. There were no sit-ins at King George’s palace, no horseback freedom rides to affect change. There were just guns, lots and lots of guns.

We are here because of blood, and mostly that of others. We are here because of our insatiable desire to take by force the land and labor of others. We are the last people on Earth with a right to ruminate upon the superior morality of peaceful protest. We have never believed in it and rarely practiced it. Instead, we have always taken what we desire, and when denied it, we have turned to means utterly genocidal to make it so.

Even in the modern era, the notion that we believe in non-violence or have some well-nurtured opposition to rioting is belied by the evidence. Indeed, white folks riot for far less legitimate reasons than those for which African Americans might decide to hoist a brick, a rock, or a bottle.

We have done so in the wake of Final Four games, or because of something called Pumpkin Festival in Keene, New Hampshire. We did it because of $10 veggie burritos at Woodstock ’99, and because there weren’t enough Porta-Potties after the Limp Bizkit set.

We did it when we couldn’t get enough beer at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, and because Penn State fired Joe Paterno.

We did it because what else do a bunch of Huntington Beach surfers have to do? We did it because a “kegs and eggs” riot sounds like a perfectly legitimate way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Albany.

Far from amateur hooliganism, our riots are violent affairs that have been known to endanger the safety and lives of police, as with the infamous 1998 riot at Washington State University. According to a report at the time:

The crowd then attacked the officers from all sides for two hours with rocks, beer bottles, signposts, chairs, and pieces of concrete, allegedly cheering whenever an officer was struck and injured. Twenty-three officers were injured, some suffering concussions and broken bones.

Twenty-two years later, we wait for academics to ruminate about the pathologies of these whites in Pullman, whose culture of dysfunction was taught to them by their rural families and symbolized by the recognizable gang attire of Carhartt work coats and backward baseball caps.

Back to the present: To speak of violence done by black people without uttering so much as a word about the violence done to them is perverse. And by violence, I don’t mean merely that of police brutality. I mean the structural violence that flies under the radar of most white folks but which has created the broader conditions in black communities against which those who live there are now rebelling.

Let us remember, those places to which we refer as “ghettos” were created, and not by the people who live in them. They were designed as holding pens — concentration camps were we to insist upon plain language — within which impoverished persons of color would be contained. Generations of housing discrimination created them, as did decade after decade of white riots against black people whenever they would move into white neighborhoods. They were created by deindustrialization and the flight of good-paying manufacturing jobs overseas.

And all of that is violence too. It is the kind of violence that the powerful, and only they, can manifest. One needn’t throw a Molotov cocktail through a window when one can knock down the building using a bulldozer or crane operated with public money. Zoning laws, redlining, predatory lending, stop-and-frisk: all are violence, however much we fail to understand that.

As I was saying, it is bad enough that we think it appropriate to admonish persons of color about violence or to say that it “never works,” especially when it does. We are, after all, here, which serves as rather convincing proof that violence works quite well. What is worse is our insistence that we bear no responsibility for the conditions that have caused the current crisis and that we need not even know about those conditions. It brings to mind something James Baldwin tried to explain many years ago:

…this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.

White America has a long and storied tradition of not knowing, and I don’t mean this in the sense of genuinely blameless ignorance. This ignorance is nothing if not cultivated by the larger workings of the culture. We have come by this obliviousness honestly, but in a way for which we cannot escape culpability. It’s not as if the truth hasn’t been out there all along.

It was there in 1965 when most white Californians responded to the rebellion in the Watts section of Los Angeles by insisting it was the fault of a “lack of respect for law and order” or the work of “outside agitators.”

The truth was there, but invisible to most whites when we told pollsters in the mid-1960s — within mere months of the time that formal apartheid had been lifted with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — that the present situation of black Americans was mostly their own fault. Only one in four thought white racism, past or present, or some combination of the two, might be the culprit.

Even before the passage of civil rights laws in the 1960s, whites thought there was nothing wrong. In 1962, 85 percent of whites told Gallup that black children had just as good a chance as white children to get a good education. By 1969, a mere year after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., 44 percent of whites told a Newsweek/Gallup survey that blacks had a better chance than they did to get a good-paying job. In the same poll, eighty percent of whites said blacks had an equal or better opportunity for a good education than whites did.

Even in the 1850s, during a period when black bodies were enslaved on forced labor camps known as plantations by the moral equivalent of kidnappers, respected white voices saw no issue worth addressing.

According to Dr. Samuel Cartwright, a well-respected physician of the 19th century, enslavement was such a benign institution that any black person who tried to escape its loving embrace must be suffering from mental illness. In this case, Cartwright called it “Drapetomania,” a malady that could be cured by keeping the enslaved in a “child-like state,” and by regularly employing “mild whipping.”

In short, most white Americans are like that friend you have, who never went to medical school, but went to Google this morning and now feels confident he or she is qualified to diagnose your every pain. As with your friend and the med school to which they never gained entry, most white folks never took classes on the history of racial domination and subordination, but are sure we know more about it than those who did. Indeed, we suspect we know more about the subject than those who, more than merely taking the class, actually lived the subject matter.

When white folks ask, “Why are they so angry, and why do some among them loot?” we betray no real interest in knowing the answers to those questions. Instead, we reveal our intellectual nakedness, our disdain for truth, our utterly ahistorical understanding of our society. We query as if history did not happen because, for us, it did not. We needn’t know anything about the forces that have destroyed so many black lives, and long before anyone in Minneapolis decided to attack a liquor store or a police precinct.

For instance, University of Alabama History Professor Raymond Mohl has noted that by the early 1960s, nearly 40,000 housing units per year were being demolished in urban communities (mostly of color) to make way for interstate highways. Another 40,000 were being knocked down annually as part of so-called urban “renewal,” which facilitated the creation of parking lots, office parks, and shopping centers in working-class and low-income residential spaces. By the late 1960s, the annual toll would rise to nearly 70,000 houses or apartments destroyed every year for the interstate effort alone.

Three-fourths of persons displaced from their homes were black, and a disproportionate share of the rest were Latino. Less than ten percent of persons displaced by urban renewal and interstate construction had new single-resident or family housing to go to afterward, as cities rarely built new housing to take the place of that which had been destroyed. Instead, displaced families had to rely on crowded apartments, double up with relatives, or move into run-down public housing projects. In all, about one-fifth of African American housing in the nation was destroyed by the forces of so-called economic development.

And then, at the same time that black and brown housing was being destroyed, millions of white families were procuring government-guaranteed loans (through the FHA and VA loan programs) that were almost entirely off-limits to people of color, and which allowed us to hustle it out to the suburbs where only we were allowed to go. But we can know nothing about any of that and still be called educated. We can live in the very houses obtained with those government-backed loans, denied to others based solely on race, or inherit the proceeds from their sale, and still believe ourselves unsullied and unimplicated in the pain of the nation’s black and brown communities.

As much of the country burns, literally or metaphorically, it is time to face our history. Time to stop asking others to fight for their lives on our terms, and remember that it is their collective jugular vein being compressed. It is their windpipe being crushed. It is their sons and daughters being choked out and shot and beaten and profiled and harassed.

It is their liberty and freedom at stake.

But by all means, white people, please tell us all the one again about how having to wear the mask at Costco is tyranny.

 

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White Supremacy is the Virus; Police are the Vector

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Tensions are high as Minneapolis police murdered a black man named George Floyd, not by gunshot, but by an agonizingly long kneel on his neck; which was not released for seven minutes, several of which the man was not breathing. Protest is a place to emerge into the collective and become unoriginal, to humble yourself in silence as others more aware with said experience lead the charge. However, writing should be the place for originality. A place where we solve the problems of theory that informs action.

It is here where I would like to address a kind of Othering. This is not the Othering of making the minority docile and holy and martyred, but more so the Othering of whiteness and its discontents. I am of the opinion that all people, but especially white people, must begin to live a life that fully embraces shame.

The more racist shit happens the more white guilt rears its ugly head. I will maintain that the primary division within society is between the ruling class and the working class. Working people don’t manage crises; working people are the crisis that must be solved by the pharmaceutical industry, the military-industrial complex, the police, and even the social worker, doctor and teacher, sorry to say. Do these groups intersect? Of course. And are cops generally the most racist people in society? Of course.

But it isn’t this simple. The police are protecting something here. We may not like when it goes viral, when the true nature of the ruling class is broadcast on screen. And yet I maintain two controversial assertions that aren’t so much pro-police as they are anti-racism, as strange as that sentence may sound.

It is very tempting to engage in groupthink. And one of the challenges I have faced is disengaging with the groupthink of even the left and seeing where it takes me. I hear this statement all the time: “you think there are good cops? All cops are bad.”

This may be true, I don’t really care if it is. The reality is that I’m in serious trouble I’m calling 911, but if I see a cop I’m generally assuming the worst, I don’t really think it matters if cops are good or bad. It makes us feel good to call them bad, and maybe it’s true. But I worry about the finality of any ideology.

If the cops are the problem, we are absolved. This horrifies me. Perhaps yes it is a privileged horror but a horror nonetheless. I very much fear the death of white guilt. As toxic as it is, it’s the best we got.

Forgive me but just as I see the prisoner as fully human, I also see the policeman in the same light. Who would I trust more? Like you, dear leftist, it’s the prisoner. Who is more likely to be guilty, like you, dear leftist, I know it’s the police.

However, aren’t we all just playing the roles? Yes we can and should judge each other on the roles we choose to play. How we benefit from the evil we do onto others, and what not. And yet I see the police officer doing his job when he kills the black man. To me this is far more horrifying than him being evil, which he may well be.

This is the same thing as the Trump phenomenon or the COVID phenomenon. We feel better when we externalize evil. But we are the system, are we not? The question is how do we change the incentives? We all know that Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, known for good reason as Gentri-Fry, would not have fired the four police officers without years of the Black Lives Matter movement effectively rearranging desires.

This is the type of progress we must hope for. Not to extradite the problem by washing our hands but to admit that maybe if I was raised in the same way this cop was raised, or if I had the same job he had or if I had the same mental illness he had or what have you, well that could have been me. This is the type of horror White America must embrace. Just as black folks may shake in their boots when they go to the supermarket we must shake in our boots with the possibility that we may be in this situation where we have to make this choice between opportunism and love.

Climate change is no joke. Who can clean their hands of the millions dying already because of it. Xenophobia and the prison-industrial complex solves these natural problems for us. The cops may operate without hypocrisy. We may not.

I do see the police as working class. They operate on the front lines for the capitalists and the white supremacists while we attempt to socially distance ourselves from the days they accidentally fulfill our own ideology and hatred. I say this not as a conspiracy but as a believer in the subconscious racism. I know that most ruling class white people would shoot a black person quite quickly if they went through the police academy.

I speak to as a communist, as someone who hates austerity and as someone who believes that while it’s easy to blame the state for its sins it is far harder to recognize the power we have collectively when we give up the individual freedom and instead embrace accountable government. I know a lot of white Minnesotans will have a lot of government to whine about after this murder but amidst the coronavirus pandemic who saved the most vulnerable, the minorities and poor people most likely to die in the pandemic? The government did. The government that is one of the few state and local governments without a lot of corruption. People are just hypocrites. This do it yourself mentality of not needing to be protected is the most privileged position.

Who needs a strong government, including a strong community-controlled police force more than people of color? Who is more ravaged by crime than these communities? And the crime I mean isn’t just street crime, such as the McMichael dad and son duo, but also crimes such as Flint water. We can’t have it both ways here and say all government is bad when it is the most white and privileged who can survive without it.

This is why more than ever we need to hold the police accountable, this is the point. To say we don’t need police, they’re all bad, well that’s easy for some people to say. Without the police who is to say that MAGA killers wouldn’t be lynching people in the streets? There is the obvious intersection we have to address that the people most likely to be lynching are the corporate mob and the cops themselves. But this is the power of capital and the individual and profit. Seriously powerful. We can’t fight that with this coronavirus paradise where we’re all vigilantes and fighting for ourselves. We need community power.

The police are piling up bodies. They are the vectors. To beat the virus of white supremacy we must control the vectors. We must hold them accountable. But the virus is white supremacy. We can’t solve this plague by socially distancing ourselves from the problem. We are the virus. So instead of just blaming the most sick, let’s be responsible for the future of society. No feeling is more empowering. We shouldn’t just be scared of the cops. We should be scared of becoming them.

Slavoj’s insight that Trump is hated because he is the last thing left-liberals see before they see the class struggle also applies here. The cold-blooded murder of this person, much like the coronavirus, invites outrage but never a conclusion, exactly. Trump comes and we hear “Democrats have failed us”, coronavirus comes and we hear “capitalism has failed us” and then yet another murder of a black man comes and we hear “white privilege has failed us”. None of these are solutions. All of them are catered to be popular and cool and hip but none will solve the problem.

The threat to the social order was displayed by thousands taking to the streets. I think we have to stop externalizing everything. Let’s take control over our own fates here. No one is here to say that any of the standard evils of the day whether that be fake Democrats, angry whites, profiteering capitalists or killer cops should be redeemed in their current form. But just as a strong government can regulate laws, and must be embraced, a strong citizenship can regulate the government, and must be embraced.

Change will come. It will not be because anyone is a good person or a bad person. This I think is the genius ideology of Black Lives Matter. It does not aim at any of the altruisms or platitudes of the liberal left about how capitalism is so heartless or how we all care so much or whatever. It simply says: our lives matter.

The genius is this: this is already is what is being said. United States has greatest human rights, we hate racism, etc., etc. It really is actually taking a step back from all the rosy sayings and asserting something further back in the process that hasn’t been met therefore exposing the whole series of lies rather than just our present failure.

Criticism is for chumps. The time is now to change the world. But here I am a bit more of a pessimist. If we did change the world what would left-liberals be able to stand on their soapbox about? The good thing though is that even the most power-hungry people can get bored. A new project will be found for the ruling class and new resistance to their colonization will have to be met. One by one, we can eliminate the necessity for these projects.

It is important to resist the most explicit forms of domination such as Trump, the police or the virus. If we don’t do that, we risk this form of crisis becoming the only form of engagement we know. It is an equal danger to only oppose a crisis without addressing its cause because then we resist continual return to the site of crisis.

We must ask the crucial question about why authoritarianism emerges. It expresses itself when the traditional order can no longer be legitimized in subtle terms. This may be in part because of pressure put on the ruling class by the poor but sadly it is even more so a part of the poor being unable to cope with the pressures from the ruling class.

While it is tempting to say things keep getting worse or things keep getting better I think it is most accurate to say it’s just the same shit on a different day with different tools and resources and desires for all sides that remain in a struggle. We must fully embrace our side in this historical battle and accept its lifelong challenge. Imagining history to be fixed in a state of hopeless fascism, capitalism or any other ideological prism limits our chance to surprise the world. While murders of blacks and whines of whites may be as predictable as the sun and the moon coming to pass, we can look to that nasty bug by the name of COVID-19 to say that nothing is really set in stone. A new day is here, for those of us still standing. Let’s not waste another moment of it.

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What’s NATO Up to These Days? Provoking Russia, Draining Healthcare Budgets and Protecting Its Own from COVID

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

In November 2019, as experts warned that a novel coronavirus was likely to develop in the near-future, NATO boasted that its European Allies, including the UK, as well as Canada, were boosting their military budgets by an average of 4.6 percent, or an additional $130bn since 2016. The implication is that this increase in military spending is at the expense of healthcare, which is being privatized worldwide.

At least 2 percent of national military expenditure among NATO members goes towards funding the Organization. Meanwhile, experts warned that the World Health Organization (WHO) “continue[d] to experience immense financial stress. The precarious financial situation of the WHO has given rise to extensive dialogue and debate.” The US policymaking elite chose instead to enrich the masters of war. Trump’s record Pentagon budget includes a $139m contract to BAE Systems to build THAAD missile prototypes, starting FY21. It comes as the administration announces a halt to WHO funding.

Meanwhile, the WHO estimates that 80 million infants are at risk of diphtheria, measles, and polio, as regular vaccine programs are impaired by operational restrictions imposed by COVID. Due to lack of funds for safety implementation measures, the Sabin Vaccine Institute has stopped or reduced operations in 68 countries. Between March and April, over half of the 129 countries surveyed reported moderate-to-severe disruptions in vaccine programs.

AFGHANISTAN

NATO looks out for its own as it continues to be one of the occupying powers in Afghanistan, one of the poorest, most desperate nations on Earth. NATO describes protecting its personnel as “paramount.” There is no statement about the Afghan population, who live under NATO’s occupation and thus, if international law mattered, are in NATO’s charge. But NATO is not regarded as a formal occupying power, ergo it has no responsibilities in Afghanistan.

Unlike the governments of Britain and the US, NATO is following WHO guidelines on dealing with COVID-19. Its staff have the requisite personal protective equipment, unlike key frontline, civilian workers in the US and Britain. As British and American health workers, gig economy employees, transportation staff, and others, go unequipped, NATO’s Support and Procurement Agency has delivered for its staff a GeneXpert 16 COVID testing lab, as well as Thermo Fisher’s TaqPath Combo Kit, and Bio Fire machines. The mission, Resolute Support, started on 23 April in Afghanistan. As Trump cut funding for the WHO and blustered about underfunding NATO, in the real world US, Australian, and Norwegian taxpayers donated to NATO’s Resolute Support.

Meanwhile, UNICEF writes about the “deafening silence” in US-occupied Afghanistan. Citing the “ultravulnerable,” a news release notes that a child-friendly tent for internally-displaced persons in Hazrat Bilal, northern Afghanistan, “was a lively place where children could gather safely to chat, play and learn.” But recently, “Those happy sounds have been replaced by a deafening silence since the space was closed to reduce the risk of the coronavirus spreading.” In the absence of hi-tech communications networks, facilitators are going door-to-door, warning and informing about COVID-19. UNICEF is distributing soap in Herat, western Afghanistan, where, like in the rest of the country, few have clean water. UNICEF warns that school closures force abused girls into the dwellings of abusers and prevent teachers from observing signs of abuse. The increased poverty caused by COVID is also increasing the risk of child marriages.

NATO Secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, mentioned none of this in his May 17th address, in which he placed all of the onus on the Taliban to live up to their responsibilities to stick to ceasefire agreements.

LITHUANIA & POLAND

NATO’s Lithuania battlegroup is positioned on the border of Russia’s exclave, Kaliningrad. Lithuania also borders Russia’s last European ally, Belarus, which may soon fall to NATO. The battlegroup consists of 1,200 personnel from eight European countries and is described by NATO as being part of “the biggest reinforcement of the Alliance’s collective defence in a generation.” Beginning May 11th, NATO’s Forward Presence Battlegroup trained with British and Spanish pilots, operating from Šiauliai Air Base, as part of the Organization’s Baltic Air Policing mission. The training involves German and Norwegian Joint Terminal Attack Controllers. NATO describes these as soldiers specializing in guidance for aircraft. British Eurofighter Typhoons and Spanish F-18s were involved.

Perhaps instead of putting its population at risk of nuclear annihilation from a provoked Russia, the Lithuanian government—like the rest of the West—should spend its NATO money on public healthcare? Due to its lack of adequate public health facilities, Lithuania imposed a blunt lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID. Baltic media reported last year on the country’s “expensive and inefficient network” of hospitals. Political leaders “have been procrastinating for years” (sic).

Like Lithuania, Poland shares a border with Kaliningrad. NATO’s choice of appointments has done little to quash theories that COVID-19 is a bioweapon. Poland’s Lt. Col. Piotr Wachna commands NATO’s Combined Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear Defence Task Force. NATO describes Wachna, Deputy Commander of the Polish Army’s 4th Chemical Regiment, as the expert “at the center of the COVID-19 fight.”

Putting a bioweapons expert “at the center” of COVID efforts on one of Russia’s borders is not a good look. The fact that Wachna leads both Poland’s military response to COVID, such as hospital cleaning in Wołomin and Płońsk, as well as heading NATO’s CBRN unit signals a blurred civilian-military line.

As Poland and the US spend $1.5bn out to December 2022 on a Raytheon-built Patriot missiles aimed at Russia, Poland’s healthcare system leaves the population wanting. The European Commission highlights Poland’s “long waiting times for medical services, poor working conditions and low pay for medical professionals.” In 2015, according to the report, “there were only 2.3 practising physicians (which is the lowest ratio in the EU) and 5.2 practising nurses per one thousand population.”

MIND YOUR MINES

Russia is strategically vulnerable in the Baltic Sea via the Gulf of Finland. Henning Knudsen-Hauge, Commander Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group One (SNMCMG1), says that “[t]he Baltic Sea is of high strategic importance for NATO and its partner nations, and therefore also a highly prioritized area of operation.” NATO recently completed its anti-mining exercise, Operation Spirit, without input from Russia in this strategically vital area. The annual exercise is hosted, on a rota, by Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Ships from Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway, which shares a northeastern border with Russia, also participated.

Latvia borders the Russian mainland is, therefore, a major strategic NATO partner and a considerable threat to Russia. “Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 were in Latvian waters during the exercise, and also joined the exercise for a day,” says NATO. “They had recently been in Finland conducting joint training with the Finnish Navy, The Finnish Airforce and NATO Baltic Air Policing.” Finland also has a lengthy border with Russia.

Last year, Latvia’s Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš and Finance Minister Jānis Reirs responded to healthcare workers’ protests outside the Saeima (Parliament) by citing two decades of cuts and stating: “I am pessimistic on the topic of finding additional funds for healthcare workers. There will be no additional funds in [the] 2020 budget.” Last year, Finland’s PM Juha Sipilä resigned over protests triggered by social security and healthcare failures. Politico writes that decentralization “led to widespread geographic variation when it comes to quality and access to health care services.”

CONCLUSION

As I write, 100,000 Americans, most of them elderly and/or vulnerable, have died from the effects of COVID. One of the few benefits of the virus is that it has impeded US troop deployments. The Hill reports: “Defense officials have extended a freeze on troop movement, held ships in port and laid the framework for what the military will look like in an extended pause because of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The US and its allies exacerbate the threat of nuclear apocalypse by continuing to goad Russia with nonstop events, like those listed above. In the midst of these dangers, the lines between peace and war blur. On May 5th, United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) requested an emergency airlift of “humanitarian and/or medical items/patients” from NATO’s Euro Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre. Locations include Ethiopia, Ghana, and South Africa. Frequency involves two flights per week. The UN agencies might have been able to manage this alone, had their budgets not been cut.

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Bibles at the Barricades: How the Right Seized Power in Bolivia

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Returning to La Paz, Bolivia after last November’s coup was like returning to the scene of a crime. Since Bolivian President Evo Morales was removed from power, right-wing interim President Jeanine Áñez has led the country with an iron fist.

State repression immediately following the coup left dozens dead and the government has been throwing political enemies behind bars. The Áñez administration, now using the pandemic as a pretext for further crackdowns on dissent, is part of a rising right across the Americas.

The fierce conflicts following the October 20 election had left their mark on the city when I visited in March. Intersections were scarred from barricade bonfires. Graffiti across La Paz denounced the “Murderer Áñez.” A general sense of fear hung in the air. Rumors of government surveillance and political arrests were rampant. Everyday life continued as usual in the downtown traffic and sun, while state violence was meted out in the shadows.

One morning, I took the city’s aerial cable car system to El Alto to meet with journalist Julio Mamani. I passed hundreds of miners marching into La Paz from El Alto, their helmets shining in the sun, their yells blending with bus horns. Above, participants in a women’s march gathered, wearing green bandanas and denouncing both Morales and Añez for rising feminicides.

Mamani compared the Áñez government to past Bolivian dictators. “I was a witness of the 1979 Massacre of Todos Santos of General Busch. Now [state repression] is more sophisticated. They won’t hunt you down in the same manner. They use other forms, and in this case, it is intimidation.”

“I call it a kind of revenge,” he said.

The country arrived at this moment because of the coordinated efforts of the right. But many different elements converged to oust one of the most popular presidents in Bolivian history.

President Morales and the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party governed the country for 14 years. During that time, the MAS dramatically reduced poverty, used funds from the Bolivia’s vast natural resource wealth for popular social programs, and exerted economic and political sovereignty in the face of US imperialism and global capitalism. The indigenous rural poor benefitted greatly from this political project, and it’s from this sector that the MAS enjoyed its base of support

But in the eyes of Bolivia’s racist right, this was a crime. They wanted their power and profits back.

Certain negative actions and policies of the MAS government over these years in power also contributed to its own crisis of legitimacy in the lead up to the October 2019 elections. Critiques from the left and various movements have been levelled against the MAS government for years for the rise in violence against women, the harmful aspects of deepening extractivism, the handling of last year’s mass fires in the country, and state corruption and abuses of power.

“To understand what’s happening right now in Bolivia, it’s key to also understand the process of increased division and degradation that the social movements suffered during the tenure of Evo Morales,” Bolivian sociologist and historian Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui wrote in November of last year. “The movements who were initially the president’s support base were divided and degraded by a left that would allow only one possibility and wouldn’t allow autonomy.”

Such critiques and issues accumulated over the years. A breaking point was when Morales ignored the results of a 2016 referendum in which a majority of the population voted against allowing him to run again for president in 2019. In the lead up to the October 20, 2019 election, the MAS and Morales were already mired in a crisis of legitimacy, making them an easier target for the right, which had been consolidating forces and capitalizing off of the errors of the MAS.

Meanwhile, the opposition promoted a narrative about the likelihood of fraud in the weeks leading up to the election. The issue of fraud during the October 20th elections, which indicated Morales won another term, has been widely debated and investigated. Many of the people I spoke with in La Paz in March did not believe “monumental” fraud had been committed by the MAS, as the opposition claimed, but that a “typical” low level of irregularities had taken place. Regardless of the extent or existence of fraud, the Organization of American States strategically threw gasoline on the fire during a critical moment of the October crisis with their early claims of fraud, pushing the country into violence.

Following the election, protesters against Morales allied with right-wing leader Fernando Camacho and other racist figures, fomenting destabilization and violence in the country in an effort to force Morales out of office. These efforts ultimately created the pretext for a police and military intervention in the name of order, which is exactly what happened. On November 8, police across the country mutinied against the government, and the military “suggested” Morales step down on November 10.

Within this climate of violence and threats, Morales and other MAS leaders were forced to flee or go into hiding. Fearing for his life, Morales left the country for Mexico on November 10. The right, having planned for a seizure of the government, took advantage of the power vacuum and entered office with the crucial blessing of the Bolivian armed forces and the US embassy.

Right-wing Senator Jeanine Áñez declared herself president in front of an empty Congress on November 12. She celebrated entering office holding a massive Bible. “The Bible has returned to the government palace,” she declared. “My commitment is to return democracy and tranquility to the country.” Days later, state repression left over a dozen unarmed protesters and bystanders dead in Senkata and Sacaba, key areas of resistance to the coup regime.

Various elements contributed to the coup, from the MAS’s crisis of legitimacy to the resurgence and orchestrations of the Bolivian right. Yet the coup would not have been successful without the support of the police, military, and US embassy.

Following Áñez’s seizure of power, Bolivia has endured the worst state violence and political persecution it has seen in decades.

“They’re criminalizing social protest and social leaders—all of them are under severe investigations,” Bolivian journalist Fernando Molina explained to me at a café in La Paz. “If they are found to be linked to Evo Morales, they are detained and investigated. This fascist society uses justice so that their lynchings are not so vulgar, but rather more institutional. It’s a disaster for human rights.”

“There’s a ‘Bolsonarization’ of Bolivia,” Molina explained, referring to Brazil’s far-right President Bolsonaro. “It’s the Latin American version of the alt-right in the US, Trumpism.”

The coup and Áñez’s government empowered this movement. In general,” he said, “I see a right-wing movement, anti-institutional, anti-party, pro-arms, pro-Trump, catholic or evangelicals, as in the case of Añez, also Camacho, the Santa Cruz leader. Anti-gay movements, anti-feminist – those groups are very powerful and they were consolidated by these actions.”

The Áñez government threatens to roll back major progressive policies of the MAS, as well as victories won in the streets by Bolivia’s broad social, labor, and indigenous movements.

“The coup d’état is not just against the state, the government, but also the social movement organizations,” Aymara feminist activist Adriana Guzmán explained last November.

“What we lose is the possibility of carrying forward this process of transformation alongside the state,” Guzmán said. “But we don’t lose hope. We don’t lose conviction, we don’t lose our dreams, we don’t lose the urgency of making another world possible. It is much more difficult in a fascistic state, but we will continue to do it.”

The post Bibles at the Barricades: How the Right Seized Power in Bolivia appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

There is No Peace: an Incitement to Justice

Photograph Source: Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence

Summer 2014: a year since George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing Trayvon Martin. Another summer of violence and justification: US shells incinerating Palestinian children, devastating UN refuges in Gaza, pounding Afghan villages, again. Another trial of another white man who says he was scared, who had to defend himself with a blast of ammunition against an unarmed black teenager – a womanchild this time, 19, in Michigan this time, shot through a locked screen door. Another police killing on the front pages of the New York tabloids: a big man, a black father, put in a choke hold, kneed in the back as he gasped for air, as he told cops he couldn’t breathe; extinguished for passing a cigarette to someone on a street in Staten Island. He may have been selling looseys, police said, and he refused to submit; they had to bring him down. Then they watched as he expired. “The perpetrator’s condition did not seem serious,” one stated.

Eric Garner … Renisha McBride … so many men, women, children in Gaza that even the most conscientious reporters stopped taking all the names.

We titled this book Killing Trayvons because although Martin’s profiling and death received extraordinary attention, they were crushingly ordinary, not only for black and brown youth in the suburbs and city streets of America but in the browner nations of the world, where the US and its clients or proxies stand their ground, claim self-defense, take preventive or pre-emptive action – the verbal sleights-of-hand are many – to deadly effect. As we finalized our work, the title became more grimly apt with each day’s news. Those acknowledged here hardly exhaust the body count.

If Trayvon’s killing was perversely ordinary, its hold on the national imagination was not. It rang an alarm, banged a drum, a hammer, a knell for so many more whose names are mostly unknown. We, therefore, offer this book as a commemoration, a warning and an incitement.

The commemoration, first, for Martin himself. Two and a half years since that rainy winter night in Sanford, Florida, we really don’t know much about what happened, and the stories, poems, polemics, police documents and court transcripts about the case presented here do not settle the matter beyond what was settled the moment George Zimmerman saw black and presumed Suspect.

We don’t know, for instance, if while talking to the police dispatcher Zimmerman used the term “fucking coons” or “fucking punks.” Writers here assert both; at trial, “punks” was the word agreed upon by prosecution and defense, though the audio forensic report from the FBI’s Digital Evidence Laboratory, included here, plainly states that such certainty is misplaced. We don’t know how the fight started, who threw the first punch or why. We don’t know who was screaming, wailing, calling for help, or if they both were. Zimmerman’s attorney Mark O’Mara, whose closing argument is excerpted here, showed the jury an animation that presumed to depict the fight, but that was as imagined as anyone else’s conjecture here as to who physically confronted whom in what way. Zimmerman told police at the scene he had been calling for help, a claim police then repeated as fact to some witnesses who believed it had been Martin screaming. At trial O’Mara told the jury that only one person cried out that night, only one could have; naturally, it was his client. But, again, the FBI rejected any notion of official certainty, and the prosecution did not offer other experts whose methods would meet generally accepted scientific standards.

We didn’t gather up the voices here to settle what must always be unsettled, unsettling.  What dissonance there is among the offerings, what gaps in the story, is the story – of life, of death – and no neat tie-up would bring comfort, or that insipid concept closure, or let Trayvon live again.

Trayvon Martin, as bell hooks says here, was “just being a regular teenager,” walking in no particular hurry, chatting on the phone, on his way home during halftime of the NBA final – “anyone’s son,” to echo the title of Tara Skurtu’s closing poem, and he is dead. That ordinariness is partly what sparked the viral commemorations, the “million hoodie marches,” the countless symbolic and material remembrances, of which the artwork in this book is a signal example. Mimi Thi Nguyen, who is writing about the hoodie’s symbolism for a forthcoming issue of Signs, catalogued some of those memorializing acts in a public talk:

In mourning, militancy and mimicry, posed hoodie photographs – most often consisting of a simple frontal snapshot of a person in a hooded sweatshirt, hood up – proliferated in the aftermath of Martin’s murder. Tweeting the widely propagated photograph of the NBA’s Miami Heat – hoods raised, heads bowed and hands clasped – LeBron James tagged it: “#WeAreTrayvonMartin… #Stereotyped #WeWantJustice.” In addition to photographs of celebrities in hoodies (Common, Jamie Foxx, Sean Combs, Wyclef Jean, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, New York Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony, Arsenio Hall, CNN
contributor and journalist Roland Martin, LeVar Burton, US Representative Bobby Rush, the list goes on), others too sought solidarity through the same, seemingly simple act, including Harvard and Howard law students in front of ivy-covered buildings; elementary schoolchildren lined up along a wall holding bags of Skittles; “moms in hoodies”; New York state senators Kevin Parker, Bill Perkins and Eric Adams; New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn; former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm; attendants at vigils and marches; black-and-white drawings of a range of humanity published in a special issue of The New Yorker; even professional portraiture as protest art. Thousands more appear on Facebook pages like A Million Hoodies for Trayvon Martin and on Tumblrs (often tagged with #MillionHoodies), including I Am Trayvon Martin, featuring photograph after photograph – often snapped with webcams or mobile phones – of persons with their hoodies up. One well-trafficked photograph depicts a pregnant black woman in a hoodie gazing upon her bared stomach, marked with the words “Am I next?”

Ubiquitous and implicating the living with the dead, those photographs, Nguyen observed, “gesture toward a serial murder, the continuing threat that is realizable at any coming moment.”

They gesture toward something else as well: a refusal to be next.

There is a reason, in the biting familiarity of memory and experience, that June Jordan’s “Poem about Police Violence,” written in the 1970s and included here, shot through cyberspace like a fire-arrow in the aftermath of February 26, 2012, and July 13, 2013.

It is not that the first date signaled some newly dangerous season for black youth, or the second some newly low threshold of impunity for their police or quasi-police killers. Although the Stand Your Ground-style laws of Florida and most other states were much discussed following the killing, and although those laws are noxious for essentially issuing a license to kill, George Zimmerman didn’t invoke a Stand Your Ground defense in court. He didn’t need to. Like so many police and white, or white-ish, police stand-ins before him, he already had that license. All he had to do was say he feared for his life.

The anguish and rage that followed the not-guilty verdict, and echo here, were thus not so much responses to the particulars of the trial as they were expressions of pent-up fury over the long list of dead and maimed black men, women and children whose own fear counted for nothing, whose own life was deemed cheap, whose own innocence was never presumed; and over the insecurity and suspicion that dogs the living – black youth especially, for whom there seems to be no safety, no sanctuary, no ground on which to stand.

Other names, other stories, course through these pages, many Trayvons. This book is their commemoration, too. In that sense, it is also a warning.

Beware “the trick bag of the perfect victim,” Jill Nelson writes. The countless named and unnamed victims were not all minding their own business, not all sober, not all good-looking teenagers with no criminal record. At least part of the mass outpouring of sympathy for Martin and his family relates to his image as a good kid, handsome, armed with nothing but Skittles and sweet tea. The white power faction, the right-wing media, the Zimmerman defense, all strove to undermine that image, to recast Martin as a pothead and troublemaker. That was racist and conniving (also emblematic, see Alexander Tepperman’s detailed analysis of the criminalization of a generation), but the crucial political point is that it shouldn’t have mattered if Martin were walking along carrying a bag of reefer or a rap sheet that night. Just as it shouldn’t have mattered if he threw the first punch. Such an act might have been wrong, it might have been stupid, but the brawling of boys and men is a hardy staple of the Rugged Individual story America tells its children. It takes a jacked-up disdain for proportionality to conclude that execution is a reasonable response to a fistfight.

And yet … high or low, power teaches such disdain every day. Lose two towers; destroy two countries. Lose three Israelis; kill a couple thousand Palestinians. Sell some dope; three strikes, you’re out. Sell a loosey; choke, you’re dead. Reach for your wallet; bang, you’re dead. Got a beef; bang, you’re dead.

We call this book an anthology of American violence because killing has a social, not just individual context. It is as easy to make George Zimmerman a monster as to make Trayvon Martin a saint, but that’s a trick bag of another kind. Zimmerman might also be anyone’s son, America’s son, juiced on ignorance and fear, and dangerous like his country. He, too, is an ordinary man – straight, second-rate at most everything he’s tried, a schmuck with a short fuse, dim prospects and a white man’s unthinking sense of skin privilege.

In these pages Vijay Prashad likens Zimmerman to “a domestic drone.” Dave Marsh, quoting Chester Himes, likens him to “a blind man with a pistol.” Thandisizwe Chimurenga compares his action and treatment with that of Johannes Mehserle, the Oakland transit cop who killed Oscar Grant. The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement breaks down statistics indicating that every twenty-eight hours police, security guards or Zimmerman-style vigilantes kill a black person. D. Brian Burghardt combs public records to answer the question “How many people are killed by police every year?” and finds there is no ready answer, no national database (he’s creating one from the ground up), no open accounting of what, in the number of dead, might amount to a 9/11 every year. President Obama says, “Trayvon Martin could have been me thirty-five years ago,” but a lot has happened in those intervening years. Cornel West calls Obama “a global George Zimmerman”; the president profiles brown people as enemies every Tuesday for an assassin’s hit list.

When it comes to Zimmerman, the symbolic associations are thick, and true for that thickness, but symbols aren’t put on trial (or shouldn’t be); individuals are. That Zimmerman was afforded the presumption of innocence, due process and the benefit of reasonable doubt only seemed strange because so many people – so many who are black and brown, and especially so many who are labeled monsters before any evidence is considered – are not. The writers in this book differ in their assessments of the trial. Beyond particulars, however, as Bruce Jackson writes, “a criminal trial is never about the truth.” Except within the narrow limits of the law, it is not really about justice either. On August 7, 2014, Renisha McBride’s killer, Theodore Wafer, was convicted of second-degree murder; he faces possible life in prison. “A life for a life,” some onlookers cried out afterward in satisfaction, but that isn’t justice; it is a legal victory for the state. Justice demands more than an exemplary conviction and another body for the world’s largest prison system.

Justice demands restructuring. So, finally, this book is an incitement to justice.

A country that exports violence all over the world and is its biggest jailer, that schools its people in punishment, inequity and racism, that tortures in defense of liberty, that lets presidents get away with war crimes and enables Israel in mass murder – this country will have police who kill at whim; it will have copycats like Zimmerman, and they will get away with it again, unless confronted by a mighty resistance.

The political legacy of the Martin killing is that extraordinary No, of which every contributor to this book is a part.

It is the Dream Defenders in Florida, who occupied the statehouse and whose director, Phillip Agnew, vowed in a speech excerpted here: “We will not be silenced. We will not be stopped. We will not be bought.” It is in a national network of youth-led organizations and allies called Freedom Side, convened by the Dream Defenders and others on this year’s fiftieth anniversary of Mississippi Freedom Summer to drive a new generation’s train toward justice. It is in nationwide organizing against the New Jim Crow. In people’s efforts, sampled here by Dani McClain and Jordan Flaherty, to think and act together on safety, on security and the role of the state. In the ceaseless challenge to “understand our brains on race,” as McClain quotes Maya Wiley; to reject the prerogatives, however masked, of a heritage embedded in conquest and slavery; and to embrace our parallel common inheritance of resistance. And it will have to grow wider and go deeper.

As we go to press, police in Ferguson, Missouri, say they will not release the names of the officers who killed Michael Brown on August 9 and left his body lying in the street for four hours. Brown was black, 18, unarmed. Police have received death threats, they say. They seem surprised. Ferguson has erupted in fire, looting and broken glass, but it was a battleground before a single window shattered. Police/soldiers have descended with high-powered weapons and full military gear. The FAA has declared the St. Louis suburb a no fly zone. “We care about who killed Michael Brown. We don’t care about Afghanistan,” a youth told reporters soon after the shooting, but those are sides of the same coin. There is no peace.

This essay is excerpted from Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (CounterPunch Books).

Kevin Alexander Gray is a civil rights/liberties activist in South Carolina, a print and radio commentator and the author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike: the Fundamentals of Black Politics (CounterPunch Books). He can be reached at: kevinagray57@gmail.com.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His books include: Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press (with Alexander Cockburn), Born Under a Bad Sky and Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (with Joshua Frank). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

JoAnn Wypijewski is a journalist and editor in New York. She writes the Diamonds and Rust column for CounterPunch magazine and “Carnal Knowledge” for The Nation. She can be reached at: jwyp2000@gmail.com.

 

 

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A Few Good Sadists

Photograph Source: Sabrina Harman poses over the corpse of Manadel al-Jamadi, after he was tortured to death by CIA personnel – Public Domain

Here’s a flashback that may help to explain how we got to where we are: the day was April 30, 2004. Alexander Cockburn and I were sitting by the pool having a gin and tonic at the old Richelieu Hotel in New Orleans’ French Quarter. The concierge, an elegant black man from Haiti named Jean-Claud, dropped a sheaf of papers on our table. “I hope I’m not disturbing you, Mr. Cockburn,” he said. “These just came through for you by fax with a note marked ‘Urgent.’”

Alex looked at the first page. It was the cover of The New Yorker magazine. He turned to me and said with a grin, “Can anything from the New Yorker ever truly be considered ‘urgent’?” He paused. “Unless, they’ve libeled you again.” He was referring to a story written by the late Michael Kelley a few years earlier which had accused me of consorting with eco-terrorists. “Let’s call a cab. Otherwise, we risk missing Allen Toussaint.” We were in New Orleans to attend JazzFest, one of the world’s greatest musical festival, especially for lovers of the blues. I walked backed to my room. As I opened the door, the phone began to ring. It was Alex. “Jeffrey, I don’t know if the fax qualifies as urgent, but I think it spells the end of the Bush administration. Perhaps we should have another drink and go over it.”

The fax was a copy of a 4,000 story by Seymour Hersh titled “Torture at Abu Ghraib.” Hersh’s exposé described in harrowing detailed the torture, humiliation and sadistic abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad by US prison guards and military police. Hersh’s story was based on a secret internal report made by the Army’s own investigator, Major General Anthony Taguba. The report described Iraqi prisoners being stripped naked, bound and gagged, beaten with clubs, confronted with guard dogs, sexually assaulted with wires, nightsticks and a phosphorous tube. Some detainees were dragged across the prison floor by a rope tied to their penises. Others had phosphoric acid poured over their bodies. The horrors of Abu Ghraib weren’t news. Reports of detainee abuse had been circulating in the press for nearly a year. Two lawsuits against the Army had already been filed. What was new in Hersh’s story, what both Alex and I believed would doom the Bush administration and probably land Donald Rumsfeld in prison, was the photos. The sadistic guards had taken selfies, one with the corpse of a man who they’d tortured to death. Others of bound naked men stacked into a pyramid. Others of hooded men with electrical wires rigged to their bodies. Photos that couldn’t be talked away.

We were wrong. Hersh’s story, and the damning photos that illustrated it, didn’t doom the Bush administration. Rumsfeld wasn’t indicted. The real architects of torture almost escaped any notice at all. The blame was laid on guards and low-level officers. A rogue operation we were told. In fact, it didn’t even stop the Bush administration’s torture program. The public was numb. Congress was impotent. The CIA and its murderous henchmen and shrinks continued their dirty work at black sites around the world with a sense of impunity: beating, prodding, stress-positioning, electro-shocking, starving, sleep-depriving and waterboarding detainees at will, for weeks and months at a time, regardless of whether they had any information at all to spill.

Flashforward to Trumptime: Trump may well be the first presidential candidate to publicly advocate torture on the campaign trail. He won’t be the last. Torture has finally found its demographic in the American electorate. It’s a wedge issue. And not just for the FoxNews crowd.

When it came time to replace Mike Pompeo (another holy roller torture advocate) at the CIA,  Trump knew just who to call: Gina Haspel, who had overseen the CIA’s torture operations at a black site in Thailand and later played a role in destroying 92 tapes relating to the agency’s torture program. Haspel is a grade-A war criminal and as such is the kind of woman who both excites and terrifies Trump.

Enter Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, known as “Blade” to his co-conspirators in Navy SEAL Team 7. During the Battle of Mosul in 2017, Gallagher noticed a heavily sedated teenage detainee, thought to be a member of ISIS, being treated by a medic. Gallagher radioed to his squad, “He’s mine.” Gallagher then walked over to the immobilized boy, repeatedly stabbed him in the throat with his hunting knife and then posed for a selfie with the child’s corpse, holding its head up by the hair. Blade then texted the photo to friends back in the states, noting: “Good story behind this, got him with my hunting knife.” When two other SEALs reported the murder to their superiors, Gallagher threatened to kill them. In the end, Gallagher escaped the most serious charges of murder, but was convicted of posing with a corpse. Then Trump intervened, ordering that Gallagher’s demotion be overturned and that he remain a member of the SEALs. Trump brayed that he had “defended a great warrior against the Deep State” and vowed to bring along Gallagher to his reelection campaign rallies.

The missing link between the depraved  crimes of Abu Ghraib and the depredations of Edward Gallagher is, of course, Barack Obama. Obama’s fatal decision not to fully expose and prosecute the torturers of the Bush administration transformed their crimes into US policy. With nothing to restrain him, Trump was free to turn torture and murder into a political spectacle, using the Oval Office to recruit a few good sadists to serve the thirsts of the empire.

Corona Dub

Booked Up
What I’m reading this week…

American Zion: Cliven Bundy, God & Public Lands in the West
Betsy Gaines Quammen
(Torrey House Press)

Donald Trump and His Assault on Truth: the President’s Falsehoods, Misleading Claims and Flat-Out Lies
Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo & Meg Kelly
(Scribner)

Extra Innings: My Life in Baseball
Max Schumacher
(Blue River Books)

Sound Grammar
What I’m listening to this week…

Ghosts of West Virginia
Steve Earle and the Dukes
(New West)

The Piano Equation
Matthew Shipp
(Tao Forms)

Discourses
John Balk
(ECM)

A Formula for Cruelty

“What I have said about Harlem is true of Chicago, Detroit, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco—is true of every Northern city with a large Negro population. And the police are simply the hired enemies of this population. They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function. They are, moreover—even in a country which makes the very grave error of equating ignorance with simplicity—quite stunningly ignorant; and, since they know that they are hated, they are always afraid. One cannot possibly arrive at a more surefire formula for cruelty.” (James Baldwin, A Report From Occupied Territory)

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Trump isn’t the Pope and This Ain’t the Middle Ages

Photograph Source: Tyler Merbler – CC BY 2.0

President Trump orders governors to open up the churches.  Churches defy governors and seek to open.  Someone needs to remind both the president and religious institutions that the Middle Ages are over and Modernity won.

President Trump and many religious institutions are pushing arguments reminiscent of those found in the Medieval Christian Europe where secular authority was subservient to the Pope and Church Law.  Then the Pope claimed that he received his authority from God and princes and secular governments received their authority from the Church.  Myths such as the Donation of Constantine, Pope Gelasius I’s Doctrine of Two Swords, or the biblical injunction “ “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s” (Romans 13:1) endorsed the supremacy of Church over State.  The Church excommunicated disobedient rulers, and in 1076 King Henry IV suffered in snow on the road to Canossa, seeking absolution from Pope Gregory VII.  Those were the glory days for the Christian church.

Yet beginning with Edict of Nantes (1598), the English Glorious Revolution of 1688, and John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration, (1689), the hallmark of Modernity in the West has both been the separation of church and state and equally important, the primacy of secularism and limits on the ability of religious institutions to enforce their doctrines with civil implications and penalty.  Neither should the government enforce religious doctrine nor religion impress itself upon anyone beyond its membership.  This balance is captured in the First Amendment to the US Constitution which guarantees free exercise of religion but also bars the government establishment of religion.

Individual rights are important, but as former Supreme Justice Scalia pointed out in District of Columbia v. Heller, no rights, be that in the Second or First Amendment, are unlimited.  There may be an individual right to own guns but the courts have ruled that felons and minors may be denied a right to possess or use, and the types of  arms may be regulated.  Free speech is a cornerstone of  a free society, but it does not entail  the right to advocate imminent lawless behavior and engage in true threats to others that threaten their health or safety. The same is true for the free exercise of religion.

In general, individual rights are subject to limits under extraordinary circumstances.  To limit a right (not eliminate it ) the government must show a compelling governmental interest that is narrowly tailored and which is the least restrictive means of securing that interest.  Phrased otherwise, the government  must show a reason so important to limit a right and that there is no other way to accomplish it except by the action it  wishes to take.  This is called the strict scrutiny test. Restricting rights is supposed to be difficult and when strict scrutiny is employed, as legal scholar Gerald Gunther once said,  “it is often fatal in fact,” meaning seldom do or should the government win.

Over time the Supreme Court has rightfully struck down many laws regulating free exercise of religion.  But it has held that neutral regulations that do not specifically target religion may be upheld.  These include  mandatory vaccination laws, required medical treatment for minorslaws regulating polygamy and illegal acts, and the use of illegal drugs.   Moreover, while Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act authorizes churches, synagogues, and mosques exemption from the law’s prohibition on religious hiring discrimination when it comes to hiring for their own organization,  the law did not give them carte blanc to discriminate.  Nor has the Court ruled that there is a general religious exemption from civil rights laws, and it has ruled that giving religious organizations a veto over some local laws is unconstitutional. These are all cases where the practice of religion may impact the health or safety of others and in some cases neutral secular laws promoting the health, safety, and welfare of the people prevail.  Wrongly the Court has opened up the ability of religious belief to impact the health and rights of women in  Burwell v Hobby Lobby, emboldening  some to think there  is a broad right to defy laws to protect the public.

This is the situation here when it comes to religious institutions claiming  veto over  laws limiting the scope of religious services during a Covid-19 pandemic.  These laws are not specifically targeting religion and there are not banning religious services from occurring.  They are reasonable laws aiming to protect the public.  Effectively this is what the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said in refusing to enjoin a California executive order restricting religious services during the pandemic.

In Minnesota and across the country churches and other religious institutions are asserting their right to defy the government and open.     This is not the same as the historical role of Christian  civil disobedience where the order from secular authority was to disobey God or a law clearly in violation of God’s laws.  Covid-19 restricts are not prescribing religious orthodoxy, they aim to prevent public harm.  Those who assert a religious “get of jail free” card to do whatever they want  wrongly seem to think that they can live by their own set of laws and rules.  For those who fear Sharia law as overriding secular US law, the same  principle applies here. Government cannot target religious practice, and religion does not have a free pass from all government regulation.

The Middle Ages was all about asserting religious authority over secular institutions.    Last I knew, Modernity won.

 

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The Plague of Racist Cop Murders: Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Black Georgia jogger, 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, was murdered in cold blood by three white racists on February 23. Arbery’s family attorneys, led by Benjamin Crump, have charged that his murder was premeditated.

Local police, on the scene soon after the murder, accepted the testimony of the killers. They were considered “witnesses,” not suspects. One, a former cop and police investigator, Gregory McMichael, who had worked under the jurisdiction of the first two District Attorneys assigned to the case, was immediately released along with his son, Travis. The DAs concluded that Arbery’s murder was fully justified under Georgia law. Under pressure some two months later, when evidence to the contrary emerged, they recused themselves from further deliberations on the case.

Ahmaud Arbery: “Jogging while Black”

Arbery, a former high school football standout, according to the New York Times, was jogging in the predominantly white, middle-class small town of Satilla Shores in south Georgia, a short distance from his house on the other side of the freeway, largely populated by poor Blacks. On that fatal February 23 day, he stopped at an open construction site and entered a partially built house to check it out. According to the owner, who had installed a surveillance camera inside, it was likely to get a drink of water. Nothing was stolen. The owner had previously reported to the police that a number of others were recorded as similarly checking out the house, including several whites. In no instance was anything taken or damaged.

In this instance, however, immediately after Aubrey emerged and continued his jogging, following a few minutes inside, he was confronted by Gregory McMichael’s son Travis, armed with a shotgun and accompanied by his father toting his .357 Magnum pistol. They proceeded to chase after Arbery in their pickup truck followed by a third white man, William “Roddie” Bryan, who videoed the “chase” and subsequent murder on his cellphone. Bryan followed the McMichaels in his own car. The fleeing Arbery was shot three times, as he tried to fight off Travis McMichael, whose car had blocked his path. The killers told the arriving police that they claimed the right of “citizen’s arrest” and “self-defense.

The video recording Arbery’s murder was not revealed by the cops and the District Attorney until some two months later. The first DA, Jackie Johnson, recused herself from the case because former police officer and inspector, Gregory McMichael had worked in her office. The second DA, George E. Barnhill, eventually did the same after Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper, learned that Barnhill’s son worked in the Brunswick District Attorney’s office, which had previously employed Gregory McMichael.

Georgia officials prepare their cover-up

But both Johnson and Barnhill had accepted the murderers’ story before stepping aside. Both had seen the video and kept it hidden. Before withdrawing from the case, Barnhill wrote to the police that he did not believe there was evidence of a crime, stating that the McMichaels had been legally carrying their weapons under Georgia law. He also stated that because Arbery was a “burglary suspect,” the pursuers, who had “solid firsthand probable cause,” were justified in chasing him under the state’s citizen’s arrest law. Barnhill stated that video existed of Mr. Arbery “burglarizing a home immediately preceding the chase and confrontation.” Barnhill’s statement was contradicted by the owner of the home, who had informed police that there was no burglary, that “nothing was taken.” In the letter to the police, Barnhill cited a separate video of the shooting filmed by a third pursuer, only later identified as William Bryan. Barnhill said that this video, which had not been made public, shows Mr. Arbery attacking Travis McMichael after he and his father pulled up to him in their truck.

Arbery family fights back

Interviewed on Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now!” Arbery family attorney Benjamin Crump’s account is startling. Crump insisted:

“Well, as Ahmaud Arbery’s family and my co-counsels have maintained from the beginning, we believe that William “Roddie” Bryan was part of this organized gang that was attempting, based on a premeditated plan, to confront and capture Ahmaud Arbery as he jogged through that community that day. And the text message that was sent by police officer Robert Rash to the homeowner, saying that, ‘If you see him again, don’t call the police. Call Gregory McMichael. He’s a former police officer’ — so, we believe this was an organized mob that was planning on confronting Ahmaud. So it is wholly appropriate that Bryan was arrested and charged.”

Crump’s remarks were made only after the Bryan cellphone video was leaked to the media by the McMichael’s attorneys, who believed that it would vindicate their clients. The aforementioned text message sent to the owner of the house under construction by police officer Robert Rash, with instructions to not contact the police but rather Gregory McMichael, was central to attorney Crump’s charge that Arbery’s murder was premeditated. Here you have the McMichaels, armed, ready and in immediate pursuit, as unarmed Arbery emerges jogging, as had been his habit, from the open construction site, while dutiful Gregory McMichael phones the police from the back of his pick-up truck to inform them of his pursuit. The police arrive less than a minute later.

Crump concisely summarized the Arbery family demands as follows: “We want the Justice Department to not only open a hate crime investigation, but we want them to look at the due process of law violations under the 14th Amendment involving everybody who was involved in this investigation, from the police officers who were first on the scene to the first DA, Jackie Johnson, who, it is alleged, told the police not to file charges in the case; to the second district attorney, Barnhill, who also said, like Jackie Johnson, he had a conflict of interest, but yet wrote a memorandum saying that he saw no probable cause to arrest this murderous father-and-son duo, and, in essence, put his thumb on the scales of justice in favor of the McMichaels; and the third prosecutor, who said when he looked at this video and he looked at all this evidence, the statements, said that he didn’t feel he could arrest them, that he had to take it to a grand jury; and so, the Glynn County Sheriff’s Department, who leaked the video of Ahmaud Arbery from three years prior, we believe, in an attempt to assassinate his character, as well as Robert Rash, the police officer who sent the text to the homeowner that condoned and encouraged this vigilante mob to capture and confront Ahmaud Arbery.”

Until the release of the Bryan video the Arbery case was basically considered closed. The law, in all its racist majesty, was followed, so proclaimed the authorities, who managed to secretly leak a report indicating that Arbery had been previously convicted of a shoplifting offense. He was Black, in a white neighborhood, trespassing in a house under constructing, tagged as a burglar fleeing from a crime and pursued by two and then three innocent bystanders, who were legally armed, legally in pursuit of a criminal and legally entitled to shoot him in “self defense.” All this was deemed by three DAs to be totally in accord with the law. In truth, Arbery was lynched in accord with the “principles of southern justice,” today practiced by killer cops across the nation.

Video’s release brings national media exposure

But again, only with the release of the video, national media, in the context of today’s COVID-19 pandemic, as we shall see, finally took notice. The New York Times asked Michael J. Moore, an Atlanta lawyer who formerly served as a U.S. attorney in Georgia, to review Barnhill’s letter to the Glynn County Police Department, as well as the initial police report. Meanwhile, The Times compiled a detailed minute-by-minute account of the unfolding events, using multiple videos, phone and text messages. Moore emailed The Times stating that Barnhill’s opinion was “flawed” and that the McMichaels appeared to be the aggressors in the confrontation, and such aggressors were not justified in using force under Georgia’s self-defense laws. “The law does not allow a group of people to form an armed posse and chase down an unarmed person who they believe might have possibly been the perpetrator of a past crime,” Moore wrote. The Times compilation, coupled with the release of the Bryan cellphone recording, instantly reversed the lynching cover-up momentum. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), notwithstanding its racist history, took over the investigation and arrested the McMichaels on charges of murder along with Bryan, the previously proclaimed happenstance eyewitness, who is today jailed and charged with the same felony murder.

Cobb County’s first Black female prosecutor, Joyette Holmes, has now been appointed lead prosecutor. As with the events in Ferguson, Missouri, where police murdered innocent Black man Michael Brown, the case is expected to proceed more openly and slowly through a number of legal channels, wherein the temporarily cowed racist criminal “injustice” system can be expected to craft more “refined” arguments and “legal interpretations” aimed at the release or perhaps partial vindication of the three racist Georgia lynch mob participants.

Police murder one unarmed Black person each day!

In racist America police and police-related murders of unarmed Blacks are tragically routine. A partial study of such murders released several years ago at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement demonstrating that cop murders of unarmed Black people take place on average of one per day! I say partial because many districts make it a point to not report such murders. And how many of these murders end in the conviction of the killer cops? Less than a handful! A tiny few of the thousands of racist murderers are ever convicted. We list here just a handful of the Black victims of police murder to keep their memories alive as we continue to challenge the inherent racism in capitalist America.

Dontre Hamilton, Shot 14 times by a police officer in a Milwaukee park. The officer was responding to a call from employees at a nearby Starbucks alleging that Hamilton, who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, was disturbing the peace. Arriving officers first determined that Hamilton had committed no crime.

Eric Garner, Placed in an illegal chokehold by NYPD officers for 15 seconds for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. Garner said “I can’t breathe” 11 times as he was held down by several officers on a sidewalk.

Michael Brown, Shot and killed by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson.

John Crawford, Shot and killed by a police officer at a Walmart in Beavercreek, Ohio. He was shopping and holding a toy BB gun.

Ezell Ford, a 25-year-old mentally ill man, was shot three times, including once in the back, by a white police officer.

Dante Parker, father of five, died in police custody after being repeatedly stunned by a Taser in San Bernardino County

Tanisha Anderson, died after officers in Cleveland slammed her head on the pavement while taking her into custody.

Tamir Rice, 12 years old, was shot and killed by Cleveland police after officers mistook his toy gun for a real weapon.

Rumain Brisbon, was shot and killed by a Phoenix police officer who mistook a pill bottle for a weapon.

Akai Gurley, Shot and killed by a police officer while walking in a dimly lit New York City public housing stairwell with his girlfriend.  New York Police Department Commissioner Bill Bratton called the shooting an “accidental discharge.”

Jerame Reid, Shot and killed by police officers in Bridgeton, New Jersey. He was a passenger in a car driven by his friend, who was pulled over by police.

Tony Robinson, Killed by a Madison, Wisconsin police officer who was responding to reports of someone disrupting traffic.

And on March 13: Breonna Taylor, an EMT in Louisville, Kentucky, was shot dead in her own apartment at one o’clock in the morning. Using a “no knock” warrant for a suspect who had already been apprehended, police broke down her door and fired 20 shots, eight hit Taylor.

And just last week: George Floyd, pinned to the ground with a Minneapolis cop’s knee on his neck, Floyd repeatedly exclaimed, “I can’t breathe.” He died in a hospital shortly after. Police hurled explosive tear gas canisters and fired rubber bullets at the thousands of outraged protestors marching from the site of his killing to the 3rd Precinct police station. Two days later, with thousands of outraged protestors outside, the precinct, earlier evacuated by the police, was burned down. In neighboring St. Paul, buildings were set afire across the city.  As we go to press 500 National Guard troops have been called in by the governor.

The original police report read that Floyd “appeared to be under the influence,” had “physically resisted officers,” and was “suffering mental distress.” Said Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, after viewing a bystander video, “Every bit of what I saw was wrong. It was vicious. And it was unacceptable. There is no grey there.” The four cops involved were subsequently fired. No murder changes have been pressed. No arrests! The announced future FBI investigation can only be expected to find “grey” areas to perhaps, once again, exonerate the killer cops.

A May 28 New York Times article, titled “Fury in Minneapolis Over Latest in a Long Line of Police Killings,” began by noting that the appointment of a Black police chief who once joined a lawsuit that accused the department of being “a cauldron of racist behavior,” has not changed the racist nature of policing. “Excessive force complaints…have become commonplace, especially by African American residents.” The article notes that of the many resident reports of racist and vicious police violence since 2012, “about 1 percent…have resulted in disciplinary action, according to city records.”

Moreover, the article records the repeated failures of numerous efforts to “reform” the police, including the election of a white mayor who “openly discusses systemic racism” and the appointment of a Black police chief who “embraces a community-oriented approach” and earlier in his career sued the department for being “a cauldron of racist behavior.”

The article continues, “There have been some hard-won police reforms including a change to the use-of-force manual requiring that officers intervene when they see colleagues using excessive force.” But when George Floyd was lying on the ground repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe” while Office Derek Chauvin drove his knee into Floyd’s neck – continuing even after he went unconscious – the three accompanying cops at the scene did nothing but keep away the increasingly distressed onlookers who saw it all.

There is no reforming the racist nature of the police in a capitalist society. Their job is to terrorize, divide and make compliant the working class, to ease the way for the workers’ exploitation at the greatest levels of profit possible. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and anti-immigrant hatred are quintessential tools of that exploitation, along with many other institutionalized repressive forms the ruling class promotes and enforces to keep workers divided from each other.

In all of these very briefly detailed cases above, the murder victims were Black and unarmed. No police officer was charged or convicted of murder.

And then there was Malcolm and Martin, And Trayvon and Oscar. And now Mumia and Leonard and countless other victims of racist police murders and frame-ups.

COVID-19 and Ahmaud Arbery

The national exposure of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, a racist killing that would have otherwise passed virtually unnoticed, came at a special time in U.S. history. It broke into the headline at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic, like the racist pandemic that daily plagues U.S. capitalist society, has taken its greatest toll on Black America. Every study today tells us that the COVID-19 death rate of Blacks is qualitatively greater across the country than whites. Blacks have been systematically subjected to racist discriminatory policies that relegate them to the lowest paying service center and other low-wage, dead end jobs, to the poorest housing conditions and the least healthcare coverage, if any.

Largely obscured by capitalism’s incessantly-hyped claims of stability, low unemployment rates and a prosperous economy, this veil of lies has been suddenly and unexpectedly lifted to reveal a society replete with unprecedented inequality – a society with real overall unemployment rates at close to fifty percent. As always, Blacks suffer a disproportionate share of this generalized horror. A broad range of economists today predict that some 42 percent of the jobs lost over the past two months are never coming back. And if the newly unemployed, 40 million in the past seven weeks alone, do find work, it is expected that it will be at significantly reduced pay and benefit rates.

 

Tens of millions of working people have become aware more than ever of the nature of the capitalist beast that today seeks to force millions back to work in the most dangerous of times just to keep capitalist profits rolling in.

It is in this context only that Ahmaud Arbery’s case has come to national attention, including when CNN host Chris Cuomo, brother of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, regularly features COVID-19 pandemic reporting as well as exposés of Georgia’s police racism in Arbery’s case and now with regard to George Floyd. Indeed, the Democratic Party’s “establishment” leaders of U.S. capitalism fully understand that this is no time for blanket denials of society’s ills. They have pressed their presumptive candidate, racist Joseph Biden, to assume a more reasonable stance toward vital social questions, encouraging Biden to at least pay lip service to some of Bernie Sanders’ timid reforms, if not flirt with the idea of tacking on “liberal” Elizabeth Warren as his VP. Or perhaps even a Black running mate like Georgia’s liberal Stacey Abrams, who opening seeks the VP spot, to help the racist Biden win the votes of Black communities in the disgusting spectacle that capitalist electoral politics has descended to.

The racist disparity of COVID-19, where the oppressed suffer the consequences qualitatively more than the general population, is but the flip side of the institutional racism that allows white racist police to murder unarmed Black women, men and children with impunity, while filling the prisons with millions more to work at Fortune 500 corporations in the increasingly privatized, for profit, fifty-cents-an-hour slave labor prison-industrial complex. The fires of mass discontent that now burn in Minneapolis, St. Paul and as we write, in Louisville, Kentucky, are but the initial sparks that may well ignite a working class fightback that opens the door wider than in nearly a century to the thinking of previously unknown thoughts. The great working class masses that hold the potential to bring this degenerate system to an end will have the final word in this matter. The stakes have never been higher.

The post The Plague of Racist Cop Murders: Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and the COVID-19 Pandemic appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

In Search of a Lost Socialism

In May 1914 — 107 years ago this month — a small, yet vibrant socialist colony on the edge of Los Angeles County took root. In the Age of Covid-19, and with the continued violent assault on black and brown people across the US, one must visualize a more peaceful, egalitarian future, where healthcare is free and police are non-existent. The seeds of revolutionary change are all around us, they just need planting. – JF

Chelsea inside the old silo at Llano del Rio.

It’s a typical summer day in the desert of Southern California. Very little breeze and blazing, unforgiving heat. We’re in the Mojave on an excursion to find the ruins of Llano del Rio, a socialist colony that sprouted here in 1914. The temperature is well over 100 and it feels even hotter. As we drive past barren fields, a few groves of Joshua Trees and miles upon miles of scrub brush along Pearblossom Highway — that is, California State Route 138 — it’s hard to imagine an off-the-grid band of leftists calling this sunbaked land home over a century ago.

Job Harriman, the charismatic founder of this utopian community, ran as Eugene Debs’ Veep in 1900 and later for California governor and twice for mayor of Los Angeles, almost winning the thing in 1911 with 44% of the vote. He likely would have been victorious had he not lent his legal services to the infamous McNamara brothers, who blew up the Los Angeles Times building a year earlier. His association with the McNamaras was the death knell of his political aspirations.

The bombing, which killed 21 Times’ employees and injured another 100, was carried out by J.B. McNamara and organized by his older brother J.J., both Irish American Trade Unionists, who opted for violent coercion as efforts to organize unions in Los Angeles were proving futile. After carrying out numerous bombings of ironworks in the city, at least 110 from 1906-1911, J.J. decided it was time to go after the Times, whose editorial board was vehemently anti-union. An unwitting Job Harriman came to the brothers’ defense and allegedly knew nothing of their guilt when the McNamaras covertly copped a plea with the aid of Clarence Darrow, a renowned lawyer of the time.

After losing another mayoral race in 1913, Harriman decided to abandon city politics and put his Marxist ideals to the test. With the help of a group of like-minded investors, Harriman bought 9,000 acres with water rights in Antelope Valley on the western edge of the Mojave Desert in Los Angeles County. He sold shares to families for $500 cash. It was to be a hard-working, yet playful cooperative full of art and music, and by 1914 over 1,000 people had relocated to the community from L.A. and elsewhere. Their dreams were big but the conditions harsh.

“It became apparent to me that a people would never abandon their means of livelihood, good or bad, capitalistic or otherwise until other methods were developed which would promise advantages at least as good as those by which they were living,” declared Harriman.

***

Mark Ruwedel, our trusty guide, has been here many times before but assures Chelsea Mosher and me that it’s likely to still be an adventure. Our dog Joni agrees. She’s a rescue mut from the streets of Baja, and I’m certain she knows a thing or two about risky undertakings. She’s squirming to escape the car, anxiously awaiting our destination wherever that may be. As Mark takes a couple of wrong turns, he recognizes his mistake and backtracks until he spots an old silo.

“Here we are,” promises Mark, as he veers his vehicle to the left and hops over a few rocks down a bumpy dirt path, leading to what looks to me like the middle of nowhere. “How’s this for a communist paradise?”

Two hundred yards down the road and we finally arrive. Baja Joni is the first to leap out, she has to pee, but the ground is far too hot for her bare paws. She scurries for shade. The pee will have to wait. Chelsea and Mark circle around the back of the rig to retrieve their large format film cameras. Both are working artists, and whatever one may think of this merciless landscape, they find intrigue in its obscurity.

Baja Joni.

I’m sold. It is a wondrous place. The San Gabriel Mountains flank the horizon, and heavy rains last winter have kept the vegetation more lush than normal for late June. It’s also crystal clear, not a cloud in the sky, The smog of L.A. is a distant mirage. I close my eyes for a moment, trying to imagine a full-blown communist colony operating underfoot.

There was a nursery, So Cal’s first Montessori school, an extensive library, a kiln, a bakery, a cannery, a sawmill, a machine shop, fields full of alfalfa, a charming hotel, and a communal dining hall. Llano even had a damn orchestra. This wasn’t a New Age hippie commune with free love and acid-induced orgies (not that there is anything wrong with that). This is where a party of anti-capitalists tried to make a socialist life in the desert at the turn of the 20th century. You can almost feel their energy, at least what’s left of it. Despite Llano being designated as a California Historical Landmark, this unique place is all but forgotten.

There are no placards or signs. No markings on any maps and it isn’t written about in any guides or textbooks. There’s little indication at all that this place has such a rich history. A few of the remaining structures have been graffitied. Bottles and crushed cigarette butts litter the silo. No doubt this is a secret hideout for rebellious teenagers from nearby Palmdale, but I bet none are aware that if they lived here in 1915 they’d be part of an industrial school known as the Kid Kolony.

Obviously, there are reasons most Californians, even those that roll by this place now and then, don’t know what existed here. America, if anything, is good at burying its subversive past. Harriman was a visionary, even if his vision didn’t turn out quite the way he intended.

***

Settlers of the colony were initially promised a wage of $4 per day, a substantial amount for the time, but that was later abandoned and workers’ basic needs were met through labor and chores around the property. The outside world began to know of Llano through the pages of The Western Comrade, a feisty left-wing paper owned by Harriman that portrayed the community as a wonderful, family-friendly commune. The Los Angeles Times retaliated against this rosy depiction and mocked Harriman, calling him a fraud and Llano a fake socialist enclave.

Still, they came, leaving the comforts of city life behind. For the first year, most lived in tents, but later adobe structures were constructed, utilizing mostly local materials.

The local adobe clay formed the basic building block of Llano’s earliest residential architecture. A lime kiln was built … and utilized native rock to make cement for construction purposes … The Llano site was remarkably stony. This detriment was turned around by the colonists who built many foundations of stone, since it could be used at no further cost on the site. Circumstance also aided in the construction needs. One day a man was accepted into the colony despite his lack of cash. But he did have a complete sawmill outfit, which was pulled by four yokes of oxen. His equipment, set up in the San Gabriel Mountains above Llano, started producing lumber for the colony’s construction.

***

Chelsea is interested in tracking down the remains of Llano’s lime kiln, tucked away on the side of a rocky bluff. Mark knows the spot. Located along a curvy, paved road, it appears. I imagine the hundreds of people that drive by this relic have no idea what it is, or once was, but they must look on with curiosity. Around the bend, back down the hill, an old chimney pops up. This is where Llano’s hotel sat. By all accounts, it was the hub of activity at the colony. Weekend visitors who were interested in what Harriman and his community were up to would come out to see socialism in action. Members of the Young People’s Socialist League from L.A. would pile in to hear lectures and debate the politics of the day. It was also the meeting place for Llano’s governing body, The General Assembly.

Old lime kiln of Llano del Rio.

Despite its vibrancy, not all was well with Llano. A batch of dissident settlers known as the “brush gang” wanted to oust Harriman as head of the socialist collective Local ranchers were also peeved at Harriman’s antics, claiming his group was violating local water rights. Their utopian desires were under siege. After a few lawsuits were hurled at the colony, members of the anti-socialist commission began paying Llano a visit, as well as state commissioners with the intention of shutting Llano down. Just one year in and times were proving rough for the socialist. Fresh fruit and vegetables were hard to come by and in 1915, Deputy Commissioner H.W. Bowman issued a report lambasting the colony for poor hygiene and lack of fresh food. Bowman also claimed goods were not shared equally among all members.

Whether this was true or not is hard to prove, but it does seem that Harriman had a bit of a messiah complex and there is evidence the social structure of the village was stratified. Nonetheless, from 1916-1917 the colony was persevering despite the obstacles. By this time, over 60 departments in Llano were fully functioning, including; “agriculture, architecture and surveying, art studio, bakery, barber shop, bee-keeping, cabinet shop, cannery, cleaning and pressing, clearing, fencing and grading land, dairy, fish hatchery, general store, hay and grain, hogs, horses and teaming, the hotel, irrigation, laundry, lime kiln, library, machine shop, medical department, poultry, printing, post office, rabbits, rugs, sawmill, sanitation, shoe shop, soap factory, tannery, tractors, transportation, tin shop, wood and fuel.”

Even so, the utopian vision Harriman had for Llano was about to come to a bitter end. In the latter half of 1917, a lawsuit stripped away their water rights. Without access to fresh water, Llano’s fields could not be irrigated and its animals would not survive. Food would soon be non-existent. The ambitions of Llano del Rio was drying up faster than its cisterns.

As Mike Davis writes in City of Quartz:

After the loss of Llano’s water rights in a lawsuit–a devastating blow to its irrigation infrastructure–Harriman and a minority of colonists relocated in 1918 to Louisiana, where a hard-scrabble New Llano (a pale shadow of the original) hung on until 1939. Within twenty-four hours of the colonists’ departure, local ranchers began to demolish its dormitories and workshops, evidently with the intention of erasing any trace of the red menace. But Llano’s towering silo, cow byre, and the cobblestone foundation and twin fireplaces of its Assembly Hall, proved indestructible: as local patriotic fury subsided, they became romantic landmarks ascribed to increasingly mythic circumstances.

***

Mark and Chelsea in the Mojave.

Something must be done to protect what little remains of Llano del Rio.

Writer Aldous Huxley once lived in a former ranch house in Llano, just down the road from the dilapidated silo. Mark drives passed and tells us he’s met the friendly couple that resides in Huxley’s old farmhouse. In a way, these desert folks are the present stewards of Llano, even if unknowingly. From their front porch, they can glimpse the crumbling hotel chimney and the silo and rock wall that must have been part of the ranch’s feeding troughs. Huxley, who lived in the house in the 1940s, wrote the Llano settlers he met “had often talked to me nostalgically of that brass band, those mandolins and barber-shop ensembles.”

We climb back into Mark’s dusty vehicle after a short stop near Huxley’s old home. It’s finally starting to cool a bit and Joni finds a comfortable nap spot. I gaze out at Llano as we drive off into the dimming California light. It must have been a lively place for the short time Llano thrived — bustling with a hope that there was an alternative to the materialism that dominated city life just 90 miles away in a budding Los Angeles.

Job Harriman and his community had conviction. They also had the tenacity to explore what was possible outside the confines of capitalism. Perhaps even more than the surviving structures, this the Llano del Rio spirit we must embrace, preserve, and ultimately cultivate again, and a good start would be to hand this land back over to the inhabitants who predate Harriman’s socialist experiment — the desert coyote and Shoshone.

Photos by Joshua Frank.

Joshua and Joni, photo Chelsea Mosher.

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Who are the “Wrong Hands” in Yemen?

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Politics makes strange bedfellows. Some of them want to kill us.

Take Abu Abbas (as Henny Youngman used to say: “Please.”). Abu Abbas (a nom de guerre for one Adil Abduh Fari al-Dabhani) is the founder and leader of the Abu Abbas brigade, a militia fighting on the government side in Yemen.

Abbas and his eponymous militia are unintended beneficiaries of Pentagon largesse. According to CNN, the Abu Abbas brigade possesses armored tactical military vehicles manufactured by US company Oshkosh Defense. We know this because the Abu Abbas brigade openly paraded the American-made vehicles through the streets of the Yemeni city of Taiz in 2015. Apparently, President Donald Trump isn’t the only one who loves a military parade.

There are two things you should know about Abu Abbas. First, the Abu Abbas brigade isn’t supposed to have the vehicles. The US sold the vehicles to the UAE which violated the sales agreement by transferring them to a third party, the Abu Abbas brigade, without the authorization of the US.

Second, Abu Abbas is affiliated with Al-Qaeda. The Trump Administration placed sanctions on Abu Abbas in 2017, calling him a fundraiser for Al-Qaeda who, in addition, “served with” ISIS. The Washington Post calls Abbas “a powerful Yemeni warlord.”

To recap, the UAE, a nominal US ally, illegally transferred military hardware to a militia affiliated with a major US enemy. Al-Qaeda, you’ll recall, kills Americans. And still does. Ahmed Mohammed Alshamrani, the Saudi pilot trainee who murdered three US sailors at a US naval base in Florida in December 2019, was in contact with Al-Qaeda’s Yemeni franchise, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The FBI learned this from examining Alshamrani’s phone records. AQAP has taken credit for the Florida attack.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have been making war on Yemen since 2015, routinely transfer US arms to extremist militias involved in the fighting. To its shame, the US has been supporting the Saudi-led coalition with arms sales, intelligence sharing, and targeting assistance since 2015. Nobel Peace Prize (Sorry, Mr. Trump. I mean Noble Peace Prize) laureate Barack Obama took the US into the war in 2015. The war in Yemen is now the world’s worst humanitarian disaster in which at least 100,000 people have died.

CNN told the Department of Defense that US weapons were winding up in the hands of extremist militias. DoD said the matter was already being looked into. Great news! The DoD has cleared the UAE of wrongdoing, according to sources in the executive branch and on both sides of the aisle in Congress. So I guess we have nothing to worry about.

Either that, or the US doesn’t care that American weapons are winding up in the hands of US enemies just so long as the US gets to sell more and more arms. The Trump Administration doesn’t care how. If selling arms requires circumventing Congress, Trump is cool with that. So is Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.

In May 2019, Secretary Pompeo concocted a phony emergency with Iran in order to push through $8 billion in arms sales without having to consult Congress. State Department Inspector General Steve Linick was investigating the legality of the sale when President Trump fired him at Secretary Pompeo’s behest on May 15 of this year.

CNN learned from four sources that Pompeo had apparently already decided to push the sale through when he asked subordinates to dream up reasons to justify the sale’s legality. According to Politico, “high-level officials of the State Department, Pentagon and within the intelligence community” advised Pompeo against invoking an emergency in order to make the arms sale.[1]

Going further back, on September 12, 2018, Secretary Pompeo falsely certified that the Saudis and the UAE were “undertaking demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure” in Yemen. Hogwash. The month before, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that “There is little evidence of any attempt by parties to the conflict to minimize civilian casualties.” Had Pompeo told the truth, the US would have been required under the National Defense Authorization Act for 2019 to terminate military assistance to the Saudis and the UAE. That would have jeopardized arms sales.

Even if US arms were not being transferred to extremist militias, arming the Saudis and UAE is bad enough. The Saudi-led coalition uses US arms in indiscriminate attacks on civilians, in contravention of international law. Fragments of a bomb manufactured by US defense contractor Lockheed Martin were found at the scene of a 2019 bombing which killed 40 Yemeni children aboard a school bus. CNN and other media outlets engage in much hand-wringing about US weapons winding up in the “wrong hands,” by which they mean militias. Why aren’t the Saudis and UAE considered the “wrong hands,” too? Oh, I know. Because they buy US arms.

Notes.

1) On June 24, 2019, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced a bill, the Saudi Arabia False Emergencies (“SAFE”) Act. The bill restricts the president’s ability to invoke an emergency in order to evade Congressional review of arms sales to a handful of countries: members of NATO, Australia, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, and Israel. The list conspicuously omits Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

 

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Trump Is Unbeatable in the Race to the Bottom and So Is the GOP

Photograph Source: Forest Service Northern Region – CC BY 2.0

In the race to the bottom, Donald Trump is unbeatable. Therefore, so now too is the Republican Party; being under his thumb, it is with him, every step of the way.

This is why Joe Biden will have a hard time losing in November, no matter how good he and other corporate Democrats are at losing elections they could easily win.

In making Biden their “presumptive nominee,” that born-to-lose penchant of theirs was on full display.

Even while still in his prime, Biden was among the most pathetic of all the leading dunces in his party’s stable; no small feat! Now he is so far past his prime that those days seem like ancient history.

Nevertheless, he should be able to wallop Donald Trump this November – provided, of course, that a reasonably free and fair election actually takes place.

For that comforting thought, we have Trump to thank.

The more he deteriorates as the covid-19 pandemic drags on, and as the economy reaches Depression levels, the better Biden’s chances become. So too, the more his handlers keep him as much out of public view as circumstances will allow.

It is therefore incumbent on everyone who wants to see Trump gone to do whatever they can to turn the spotlight away from Biden and onto Trump. The more that happens, the more certain Trump’s defeat will be.

But this is only part of the story – because Trump is far more likely to hold onto power by generating an unprecedented constitutional crisis that concludes badly than by garnering a sufficient number of electoral college votes, as he did in 2016.

This is what clear-headed people ought to be worrying most about now, not Trump’s popularity in so-called battleground states.

Needless to say, liberal commentators on the cable networks and in the quality press see things differently. They are still stuck on 2016, a time when the idea that the losing candidate would peaceably accept defeat seemed so certain that no one ever gave it a thought.

What will happen now depends on how soundly defeated Trump will be. That will depend, in turn, on how Biden and his surrogates campaign.

The more they make the election about Trump, not Biden and Trump, the more monumental Trump’s defeat will be, and therefore the less able he will be to hold onto power after he loses both the popular and Electoral College vote.

Biden is an even more lackluster candidate than Hillary Clinton was four years ago, but that is not why he ought never to have become the nominee. Those reasons for that have to do with his politics and his character and his political abilities. They have been clear all along, but they are unlikely to have much bearing on the outcome of the November election itself. They will only begin to matter after the election takes place, and in the weeks and months ahead.

This was the case even before the world as we used to know it went haywire. It is many times more plainly the case now, as the economic and public health consequences of Trump’s ineptitude mount.

Pathetic as Biden may be, Trump is worse by many orders of magnitude. Only the terminally benighted and the densest of the dense could fail to see this now. It will be even more obvious by Election Day.

What is anything but obvious, however, is why Trump is so intent on giving his base reasons to desert him.

Perhaps in retrospect, it will become clear that he has been doing this because he really wants to lose or even to be humiliated; that what we are witnessing is the electoral equivalent of suicide-by-cop.

To me now, however, it doesn’t seem that way. For one thing, we should be wary of ascribing that degree of depth to Trump’s mind. It would seem more apt to think of the Donald as a man bereft of depth; to suppose that what we see is all there is.

Also, a more satisfactory explanation is at hand: that he is in way over his head and is therefore floundering about, the way a child would when circumstances seem out of control.

After all, no one except Trump himself and the sycophants around him would call him morally, physically, or morally fit; and, unlike the TV version of Wyatt Earp, War President Bone Spurs is anything but “brave, courageous and bold.”

However, “the weak in courage are strong in cunning.” The morally, physically, and mentally unfit, very often are as well.

And what Trump cares about – if not literally to the exclusion of everything else, then very nearly so – is himself (and also maybe, on a good day, his grownup idiot sons and Ivanka).

But, then, how could Trump be benefiting himself by calling for everything (except perhaps nursing homes in hard hit areas) to open up right away and to stay open come what may – that is, come whatever second or third waves of covid-19 infections and deaths lie ahead?

Could even his basest and most servile underlings answer that? Could Jared Kushner?

And yet he is intent on harming the sad sacks whose votes he needs. Where is the cunning in that?

The question practically answers itself. There is no cunning there.

No one could be as smart as Trump thinks he is or as dumb as he seems to be. But maybe he is the exception to the rule; maybe he is as dumb as he seems.

It is hard, though, to shake the idea that someone who is as rich and powerful as he must have some functioning grey matter beneath his skull. To be sure, Trump got plenty of money and many legs up from his father and his father’s connections. But even so.

Moreover, he was clever enough to put the political juice his father bequeathed him to his own advantage, and he had the good sense to hire lawyers and financial advisors to figure out how he could enrich himself egregiously by using bankruptcy laws to stiff his creditors and the people who worked for him. Then finally, as television’s “vast wasteland” metamorphosized into “reality (schlock) TV,” he was able to ride that wave too to his own advantage.

Thus, he was indeed cunning enough to take a walk on the seamy side, finding riches and fame in the process.

But what he is up to now is different. As the covid-19 virus begins to ravage rural areas in “red” states, he is actively dissuading the people living there from acting in their own best interests.

He wants them to go back to business as usual; and to cheer him on as he campaigns, he would have them gather in crowds as they did in the good old days, not wearing masks and not socially distancing. For good measure, he would also have them deride those who do.

Thus, he would have them inflict harm upon their communities, their families, their friends, and themselves.

What method could there be for that madness?

The idea that there is no method at all is hard to accept, and so a few brave souls try, as best they can, to spin one out of thin air.

The only remotely plausible candidate, however, is one that neither Trump nor any of his minions have ever explicitly endorsed. That would be that the best way to defeat the virus is to do little or nothing to combat it, but instead just to let events run their course until “herd immunity” is achieved.

The idea is that in the short run many more people would suffer than would be the case were strict social isolation procedures in place, but that, in the long run, there would be fewer cases and fewer deaths overall.

The consensus view in expert circles is, of course, very different but, in the Trumpian worldview, expert opinion, when inconvenient, is better mocked than followed. It might therefore be expected that Trump, like his UK counterpart, Boris Johnson, would endorse the herd immunity view.

However, he never has – not explicitly, anyway – and, if he actually is a believer, that would be odd to say the least. Trump babbles on about whatever notion crosses his mind; unlike more capable tyrants, he is not one for keeping his true thoughts hidden from public view. And so, if he hasn’t said it, the chances are not just that he doesn’t believe it, but that he hasn’t given the matter any thought at all.

For certain illnesses, it does make sense to build up herd immunity by doing little or nothing at all. This just isn’t one of those illnesses. A few months ago, when much less was known of the covid-19 virus’ ways and means, this was much less well understood.

Back then, and to some extent still, intellectually serious defenders of the idea that laissez-faire just might be the best way to deal with the problem now afflicting us would point to Sweden as a model.

This is misleading, however, because the position of the Swedish government really isn’t just to let life go on as before; there are plenty of proscriptions and government backed recommendations in place in Sweden too. The differences between what the Swedes have been doing and what has been going on in most other countries are not really difference in kind but only in degree.

Thus, when called to account, Swedish officials don’t so much endorse the herd immunity idea as argue that enforcing sensible public health measures in their country is less necessary than it is elsewhere because Swedes, unlike Americans and most other inhabitants of planet earth, can be counted on to do the right thing of their own accord, without needing coercive measures in place. That may not be entirely true, but neither is it an empty boast.

It is also relevant that, unlike in the United States, all Swedes, like the citizens of nearly all other well-off and less well-off countries, have access to free, high quality health care.

It is relevant too that, while the situation there and throughout Scandinavia has become worse in recent decades, just as it has everywhere else, the degree of inequality in Sweden, again unlike in the United States, remains comparatively low.

In pandemics, the less well-off are always the worst off; their problems become increasingly acute the more extreme the inequality is. This well-known and intuitively plausible finding has been corroborated many times over many years. In the current pandemic, as relevant morbidity and mortality data have been accumulating since March, it has been powerfully corroborated yet again.

Thus, since the covid-19 crisis erupted, Sweden has become literally what the Ottoman Empire was once said to be figuratively: it has become “the sick man of Europe.”

Johnson’s Britain was, for a while, in the same camp, more or less. But after the Prime Minister and others around him became infected themselves, UK politicians have, to some extent disabused themselves of dangerous, laissez-faire nostrums. Not everyone is quite there yet however, and in getting as far as the UK has, a lot of people have suffered and died unnecessarily. Even with the National Health Service holding on robustly despite chronic funding problems, Britain is doing worse in the pandemic than nearly all other European countries.

But whatever some may think, none of this has much to do with Trump. There is nothing strategic about his opposition to the consensus view of public health experts.

Trump does not, and probably cannot, play chess; he is not even able to play checkers well, except when the game is going his way.

There rest of the time, his impulse, like a frustrated child’s, would be to move the pieces around the board in whatever ways suit him at the moment, regardless of such niceties as consistency and logical coherence.

In short, the United States has a president whose actions, as they used to say on “Car Talk,” are “unencumbered by the thought process.”

Thus, I would venture that there really is no method to the madness, certainly none that would rise to the level of a theory. There is only what Trump has plenty of: attitude.

Some of his attitudes aren’t half bad compared to those of his opponents; for example, he is less of a champion of Cold War revivalism (towards Russia; China is another story) than nearly all Democrats are; and neither is he a fan of America’s never-ending wars or of the American military’s global presence and reach.

Above all, anybody who hates the FBI and CIA as much as Trump does can’t be all bad.

However, even when his attitudes are less harmful than those of his opponents, he doesn’t act on them in a constructive way. Instead, true to form, he makes everything he touches worse.

In any case, the driving force behind all that Trump does that is not a direct consequence of his own cupidity and narcissistic delusions, is the racism and nativism he shares with his base. Insofar as he has any politics at all, that is where it comes from.

Trump’s “conservatism” is window-dressing, useful for drawing old school Republican ideologues into his fold. In truth, that man is no more a free-marketeer than he is the instrument of providential design that some of the wackier evangelicals who support him take him to be. Trump’s nativism and racism are real; the rest is a con.

Because, so far, covid-19 disease, along with other ravages of inequality, has mainly affected black and brown people, Trump might have concluded, at some less than fully conscious level and despite the obvious preposterousness of the idea, that he could get away with encouraging suicidal and anti-social behavior within his base because “persons of color” would likely be harmed even more.

This calculation is almost certainly false; under-served rural areas in which Trump supporters abound are likely to become major hotspots as the virus winds its course. But then, as Rex Tillerson long ago figured out, Trump is a “fucking moron,” as is anyone who believes what he says and believes in him.

It is also relevant that Trump seeks out distractions in order to deflect blame away from himself when his machinations fail; he has been at it from Day One. His latest gambit is to “weaponize” sensible public health measures. He hasn’t quite yet said that face masks and social distancing are for sissies, but he has said that it is “politically correct.” To the armed morons who demonstrate against restrictions on economic activities that adversely affect the bottom lines of Trump’s capitalist cronies, that is an even more derisory charge.

The old guard corporate Democrats who quashed the (far too tame) insurgencies that were developing within the ranks of Democratic and independent voters before the South Carolina primary and then the covid-19 pandemic struck have much to answer for.

By bringing Biden out of retirement and making him of all people their nominee, they have squandered an opportunity to make something good, not just less godawful, come out of this seemingly eternal electoral cycle.

But at least Biden is better than Trump – nearly anyone would be, after all – and, with him in the White House, real democracy, “power to the people,” is not nearly as unimaginable as it has been under Trump and surely would be even more so were Biden, like Clinton before him, somehow to find a way to lose.

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Political Ambiguity or a Doomsday Weapon: Why Abbas Abandoned Oslo

Photograph Source: The White House – Public Domain

This time, we are told, it is different and that President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, is absolutely serious about his decision to absolve his leadership from all previous agreements signed with Israel and the United States.

But this time is not different, and Abbas is not serious.

“The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the state of Palestine are absolved … of all the agreements and understandings with the American and Israeli governments … including the security ones,” Abbas declared at an emergency meeting of his leadership held in Ramallah on May 19.

Unsurprisingly, there were no massive demonstrations reported throughout Occupied Palestine in support of Abbas’ latest decision. Aside from a few loyalists in PA-controlled media, it seemed as if the man did not utter a word, let alone cancel all agreements that justified the very existence of his Authority over the course of nearly 30 years.

The demonstrable truth is that Abbas ceased to matter to Palestinians a long time ago. However, for Israel, he mattered greatly, because his Authority has served as an additional security buffer between occupied Palestinians and the occupation army. Thanks to ‘security coordination’, Israel was allowed to fortify its occupation in peace.

Palestinians have long lost faith in Abbas as proved by one public opinion after another. This is not a sudden occurrence, but the accumulation of decades of failure and disappointments. Abbas’ commitment to the Oslo Accords led to absolutely nothing, except for the creation of a massive and utterly corrupt security apparatus that largely exists to ‘coordinate’ the subjugation of Palestinians with their Israeli oppressors.

Since his advent to power in 2005, Abbas and his faithful followers within the Fatah party became obsessed with their enmity, not with Israel and the United States, but with Abbas’ own Palestinian rivals, within Fatah itself – Mohammed Dahlan, etc. – and, to a larger extent, with Hamas in Gaza.

Israel mainly factored in Abbas’ many speeches in Ramallah and at the UN General Assembly in New York; despite all the rhetoric, little or no action ever followed. Concurrently, Israeli soldiers and illegal Jewish settlers carried on with their systematic abuse of Palestinians, unhindered.

Not once did Abbas’ ever-growing security forces (estimated at 80,000 strong) move to block the path of a single Israeli bulldozer demolishing a Palestinian home or uprooting an ancient olive grove in the West Bank. Nor did they prevent the arrest of an anti-Israeli occupation activist. Often, they carried out the arrests themselves.

Even as Israel was pounding Gaza with massive bombs and white phosphorus, Abbas continued barking insults at his Palestinian enemies. He berated Gaza’s armed resistance, yet offered no meaningful alternative to whatever version of ‘resistance’ he championed.

But if Abbas managed to co-exist under these humiliating conditions, why did he decide to cancel the agreements now? To answer this, first, let us look at the political context of Abbas’ decision.

In February 2015, Abbas threatened to sever security ties with Israel as a response to the Israeli decision to withhold millions of dollars of Palestinian tax revenues, which Tel Aviv obtains on behalf of the PA. Similar threats were made in July 2017, this time in response to Israel’s illegal measures around the Muslim holy sites in occupied Jerusalem. And again, in September 2018, when the US unilaterally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. And, yet again, in July 2019, when Israel demolished Palestinian homes in occupied East Jerusalem.

The latest episode, Abbas’s threat to dissolve the PA, was in response to the American announcement of the so-called ‘Deal of the Century’.

These are only the notable threats that registered in media coverage. In reality, Abbas has waged his ‘war’ on Israel in the form of endless threats that were always met with disdain in Israel.

The difference, this time, is because Abbas has never experienced this degree of abandonment and political vulnerability. Discarded by the Americans and disowned by the Israelis, Abbas’ credibility is at an all-time low. More importantly, the Palestinian people have long abandoned any illusion that the path of liberation will go through Abbas’ office in Ramallah.

Overwhelmed by many odds, Abbas decided to conduct what is, most likely, to be his final political act. What happens next matters little, because at this stage the 84-year-old Palestinian leader is left with nothing to lose.

Canceling the Palestinian commitment to the agreements should translate into little on the ground, considering that Israel and the US have already reneged on these agreements.

The Oslo Accords were meant to be relevant up to a point, until 1999, when the final status negotiations were meant to be held as the last step before the establishment of an independent Palestinian State.

Jerusalem, like the rights of Palestinian refugees, was meant to be resolved then, not to be completely “taken off the table”, two decades later. No territorial swap, let alone annexation, was to be permitted without a bilateral agreement between both parties.

Only two components of these agreements survived Israel’s numerous violations: the ‘security coordination’ and the ‘donors’ money’, which kept the PA and its massive – but useless – army in operation.

Now that the US has withheld all funds to Abbas’ Authority, and Israel’s new national unity government has agreed, in principle, to annex much of the West Bank, Abbas is left with nothing.

By canceling all agreements, Abbas and his supporters are hoping that alarm bells sound in Washington and Tel Aviv, especially since the halting of ‘security coordination’ could prove costly to the safety of Israel’s Jewish settlers.

If Abbas was, indeed, serious in his announcement, he would have included in his speech a clear articulation of a new Palestinian political agenda that is predicated on unity – but a true Palestinian strategy was never the PA leader’s ultimate goal.

What Mahmoud Abbas is hoping to achieve, with his latest theatrics, is the establishment of a new political game, one that is based on political ambiguity, so that he is not entirely abandoned by his Western backers, or finally shunned as a collaborator by his own people.

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A Growing Wave of Bankruptcies Threatens U.S. Recovery

The bankruptcy epidemic in the U.S. started last year, long before any COVID-19 pandemic had touched down. U.S. retailers ranked among the greatest casualties of 2019 with a total of 17 bankruptcies. Big names among the retail bankruptcies in 2019 included Gymboree on January 16; Charlotte Russe on February 3; Things Remembered on February 6; Payless ShoeSource on February 18; Charming Charlie on July 11; Barneys New York on August 6; and Forever 21 on September 29.

Now, the retail shutdowns resulting from COVID-19 have simply accelerated what was already a growing trend of companies seeking relief from debts they cannot pay back. Some of the major bankruptcies this year mean permanent, not temporary, job losses.

The 118-year old J.C. Penney Co. had 846 stores when it filed for bankruptcy on May 15 of this year. It said it plans to permanently close 242 of those stores. On May 19, Pier 1 Imports, which filed for bankruptcy in February, said it plans to liquidate all of its remaining 540 stores.

Hundreds of store closings in malls spell escalating job losses and more pain in the commercial real estate market. According to Moody’s, shopping mall vacancies had already reached an historic high of 9.7 percent at the end of March. Distressed mall owners will, in turn, put stress on big Wall Street banks which will have to take more loan loss reserves on their exposure to commercial real estate. That, in turn, will mean that the big banks, which have an outsized presence in consumer and business lending, will start trimming credit card lines to consumers and credit lines to businesses. In fact, that process has already begun. That, in turn, will stunt consumer spending, which, unfortunately, represents two-thirds of U.S. GDP.

Another major shopping mall retailer, J. Crew, filed bankruptcy on May 4. It has been slowly closing stores since 2018. It currently operates 182 J. Crew retail stores, as well as 140 Madewell stores. Due to its debt burden, analysts say it could be forced to close as many as half of its stores.

Neiman Marcus, which filed for bankruptcy protection on May 7, had announced  in March that it would close most of its off-price Last Call stores by early 2021. It has indicated it hopes to keep its 43 Neiman Marcus stores and two Bergdorf Goodman stores open.

Other big name retail bankruptcies this year include Modell’s Sporting Goods on March 11; True Religion on April 13; Roots USA April 29; Aldo May 7; Stage Stores (owner of Bealls, Palais Royal, Peebles, Stage and Goody’s) on May 11.

Just yesterday, discount retailer Tuesday Morning filed for bankruptcy protection with plans to permanently close about 230 of its 687 stores.

But retailers are not the only companies piled high with debt that are increasingly turning to bankruptcy protection. Telecommunications company, Frontier Communications Corp., filed for bankruptcy protection on April 15. It had $17.5 billion in debt.

With almost $19 billion of debt, the century-old Hertz rental car company filed for bankruptcy protection on Friday, May 22. In addition to Hertz, it operates Dollar and Thrifty car rentals. At the end of 2019, it had 38,000 workers. Earlier this year, it announced 10,000 layoffs. Hertz operates a fleet of 500,000 vehicles. It may begin selling off tens of thousands of those cars to raise cash, raising concerns that this could devastate prices in the used car market, potentially shuttering small used car businesses. A long-term problem for Hertz is that approximately two-thirds of its revenue stream comes from business at airports. The public is not expected to warm up to vacation airline travel anytime soon.

Bankruptcies this year in the energy sector are almost as severe as with retailers. One of the largest was Whiting Petroleum, which filed for bankruptcy protection on April 1. It has reported a net loss in four of the past five years. Diamond Offshore filed for bankruptcy on April 27, having also posted losses in four of the last five years, cumulatively totaling $1.2 billion in losses. At the end of last year, Diamond had almost $2 billion in long-term debt on its balance sheet with approximately $156 million in cash.

On April 15, shale driller Yuma Energy filed for bankruptcy protection, seeking court approval to auction off its assets.

Yesterday, S&P Global Market Intelligence reported that “the amount of defaulted U.S. leveraged loan debt over the past 12 months, at $37.4 billion, is 270% ahead of the figure one year ago, and is the highest since February 2010…” In February 2010, the U.S. was still in the midst of the overhang from the 2008 financial collapse on Wall Street, the worst crisis since the Great Depression.

S&P Global further reports that CLOs (Collateralized Loan Obligations) are “by far the biggest investor in the leveraged loan asset class” and that “CLOs have limits on the amount of lower-rated debt they want to hold.”

That would explain why the Federal Reserve has – after warning for months about the threat of leveraged loans – decided to accept CLOs as collateral for the loans it is making under its Primary Dealer Credit Facility (PDCF), just one of its alphabet soup list of Wall Street bailout programs. Stocks and other questionable collateral are also being accepted under this loan facility, which is currently making loans at ¼ of one percent interest to the trading houses on Wall Street.

According to the Fed’s latest report to Congress, as of May 14 it has $9.287 billion in outstanding loans under the PDCF facility against collateral of $10.37 billion. This means that we are now back to the days of the roaring twenties when margin loans against highly questionable collateral are being made on 90 percent margin.

The Vice Chair for Supervision of the Federal Reserve, Randal Quarles, has repeatedly stated that the Fed plans to make extra efforts at transparency and will reveal the names of borrowers and dollar amounts for its emergency loan programs. It has now filed three monthly reports to Congress and not one of the three reports contains any name of a Wall Street borrower or the individual amounts borrowed by a specific Wall Street firm.

This article originally appeared on Wall Street on Parade.

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Conditions Close at Hand

“Man makes his own history, but he does not make it out of the whole cloth; he does not make it out of conditions chosen by himself, but out of such as he finds close at hand.”

– Karl MarxThe Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

Closest at hand is our Coronavirus pandemic, a virus gone viral in the American mass psyche bringing a close to home sense of our mortality. Our wars didn’t do it, at least our “volunteer” wars. When existentialism was the rage, there was a cerebral “fear and trembling, sickness unto death” but not quite the same thing as worrying whether a surface you touched, or a person you spoke to might have been your own messenger from the Grim Reaper.

While all may fear Covid-19, some have solid reasons to fear and others are “working remotely” per usual and have the usual home deliveries, maybe more than when able to dine at restaurants. In short, they’re able to limit their risks of exposure. So, the already struggling to make ends meet now get out there and work and risk virus exposure. If enough of them die, we all reach a herd immunity, even if you’ve been sheltering in the Hamptons or in your retreat in New Mexico.

Nothing new here. Blacks and browns in the U.S. are in that prosperity tabulation where an option to join the military and fight in a rich man’s war, or get back to work during a pandemic are the only options. The economic conditions “close at hand” for minorities caught as usual without monthly dividend deliveries have been “close at hand” most certainly since Reagan announced it was morning in America.

It’s hard for me to believe that a post-pandemic awakening will sweep the country and all the inequities of the past will be righted. I left my Pollyanna at the 3/4 century mark. However, a first step would be to get Mitch McConnell out of power. And we should do what President Trump himself has threatened to do: close down Twitter. Without McConnell to give this president Senate cover and without Twitter to give him a drum to beat hate, fear and lies into his tribe, he would be like Manson, a nutjob with a small pack of recruits out in the desert.

The conditions close at hand for blacks in the U.S. involve not only the disproportionate percentage of black and browns dying of Covid-19 but also continued police killings of blacks. But while it’s okay to announce, “Black Lives Matter,” it seems not to be okay for Joe Biden to say, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”

I interpret this to mean that given the conditions close at hand within which black Americans live, Trump and the Republican Party perpetuate those conditions to reach a constituency of racist hate and fear. And Biden is saying that he takes the same exception to that reality as should ever black person in the U.S

If you are black, then it doesn’t matter in Trump’s America who you are as an individual. You may have voted for him; you may hate Liberals and welfare recipients and so on. You may be bipartisan, or Oxford educated. It doesn’t matter. The only thing that mattered to the police officer who stopped Prof. Henry Louis Gates entering his own home was that he was a black in a good neighborhood and therefore up to something criminal.

Because our culture is chock full of the illusions of personal autonomy, we are vulnerable to sops to our individuality and ourselves victims to outright attack. If you are Latinx in the U.S. right now, you need to have figured out that Trump is using your presence here as an accelerant of white hatred. McConnell’s Republican Senate goes along with this. It didn’t take Jews a long time to figure out that they were all in it together when it came to “The Final Solution.” When it was clear to both the Lakota Sioux and the Northern Cheyenne that the U.S. was out to take over the Black Hills, they didn’t see themselves as this tribe or that but as the people who belonged there unlike the whites who didn’t. They read the conditions close at hand which told them they were in a fight for survival.

There are historical conditions that could be pointed to that show neither Republicans nor Democrats are clearly a survival party for American blacks and browns. But it has not been the Democratic Party that has in recent history tried to constrain the voting rights of blacks and browns. That’s a strategy of today of Republicans. “The Republican Party is intent on illiberal one party-rule and it doesn’t tolerate Democrats exercising power, even if it would benefit the American people.” (Joseph O’Neill, “Brand New Dems?” NYRB, May 28, 2020) And who is more in need of such benefits than blacks and browns trapped on the lowest rungs of white meritocracy.

It doesn’t matter if this black or that black is on a higher rung, or if this individual or that individual speaks up for the beneficence of the Republican Party. This is a tree/forest mindset in which Americans are culturally shaped to see the individual difference of the trees in the forest. They do so because they see themselves as unique, self-creating individuals full of difference and unique presentations of agency.

Meanwhile, it’s the whole forest that burns, every tree equally flammable.

Racist hatred targets the monolith presence and doesn’t stop to measure difference and distinction. If you’re black and don’t want Joe Biden to presume he has your vote, then take the initiative and study what are the conditions close at hand shaping your life now.

A second matter close at hand has to do with the cohesiveness of the Republican Party in contrast to the Democratic Party.

The differences within the former are not ideological, which at base means economics. The Federal Government has the power to regulate and thus weaken profits and so Republican have either to run the government to see that doesn’t happen or obstruct Democrats in power from exercising that power, say, on behalf of climate change, wages, taxes on the wealthy, the public good, as opposed to privatization and so on. If Republicans own the presidency, especially a presidential office they allow to expand at that time, or either the Senate or the House or both, the amount of change that is needed now and before the pandemic cannot happen and did not happen.

The country then is comatose regarding all that needs to be done to rebalance its wealth distribution while forging ahead in all directions that a plutocracy moves if not stopped. We experienced this during Obama’s eight years and, even sadder, we experienced during Clinton’s eight years a helping hand offered to plutocracy.

I am not saying that blacks should stand solid behind Democrats based on their past track record. The politics of identity, diversity and multiculturalism, while seeming to directly work for the benefit of minorities, have turned the Democrats into a party not opposing what needs to be opposed, that is the movement of our economic system deep into plutarchy.

Democratic Party opposition on these chosen grounds have just given fuel to the hate and fear fires the Republican Party uses so effectively. A populace is driven more by passions than by reasons. I see no sign of a generous welcoming of differences of all kinds in American culture but an increasing turn toward selfishness, exclusion, and the truly loathsome guidance as a lifestyle coach of Ayn Rand.

If we weren’t now in such a dire situation under Trump and his regime pushing for autocratic control, it would be sensible tactics for blacks to show the Democratic Party that they do not lockstep vote Democratic. While Democrats do not advocate profit before people, it remains a party dominated by the interests of the wealthy, as divided from wage earners in their everyday life as wealthy Republicans. It wasn’t just two Republican Senators brought up on insider trading charges but also Sen. Diane Feinstein, a liberal stalwart. Barr’s DOJ did not pursue indictments, and one wonders if Feinstein if standing alone would have been so absolved. But what’s in view is the party of green, money not environment, and that gives credence to any hesitation in pointing to the “Party of the People.”

Unfortunately, conditions close at hand give no time or space for such hesitancy. Trump has no problem obviously with the old, the poor, the sick, and blacks and brown most at risk as the economy opens. His golf and spa buddies are not forced to go to work. Anyone with the political leverage to hurt Trump is not being hurt by him. Only the voiceless are.

Trump’s slash and burn attacks on all institutions, traditions and protocols of our democracy have thus far crushed all resistance. It’s hard to imagine what presidential transgressions would get a House of Representative to launch another impeachment. Right now, what’s closer at hand is Trump in a second term launching successful retaliations on everyone who ever opposed him.

Because the Republican Party will continue Trump’s slash and burn tactics, most certainly because they have gone too far in supporting Trump to do anything else, the need for the Democratic Party to turn into aggressive combatants is vital. Instead of hobbling behind the devastation caused by an economics that can only make few winners and many losers, the Democratic Party needs to expose the slimy operations of financial institutions, from banks and brokerages too big to fail to private equity Ponzi schemes and hedge fund clubs above investigation and regulation. It needs to legislate in support of unions and worker owned cooperatives as well as divesting all institutions it funds in any way of fossil fuel investment. The Green New Deal needs to replace Atlas Shrugged as the American bible.

What is also close at hand and terrible in its power to determine our lives is a corrupted presidency.

In the twentieth century, we learned about such, gradually, in the presidency of Nixon. His own autocratic ambitions were supported, Mafia style, by “all the president’s men,” an entourage of enforcers, apologists and protectors, reborn with different faces in the George W. Bush administration. Who held power in the office of the Bushwa presidency in those eight years was not investigated by Obama when he took office. Crimes and misdemeanors fully exposed could have prepared the country for a full-scale attack by the presidency on our Constitutional balance of powers. We learned nothing because nothing was exposed. Donald J. Trump, however, learned where all the weak spots were.

Thus, a dangerous condition close at hand, equal to that of the Republican Party itself, is the office of the presidency, an executive branch that under Trump has shown us quite clearly that all our supposed defenses against autocratic rule and beyond that the tyranny of a mad king are not all what we thought they were.

Perhaps the lackluster promise of a Biden presidency will return the executive branch from a Trumpian declaration that he has total power to its proper place as an equal branch of government, not a usurper. But that lackluster presence may also make it very difficult for Biden to win in a culture that is so very far into loud celebrity, into the flash of viral social media.

The Democratic Party is itself ideologically divided, or, more precisely, it has since the Green New Deal and AOC’s support of Bernie Sanders become ideological rather than a MASH unit for the Republican Party’s war on the American people.

Those who lean so heavily into globalized, financialized capitalism, as the Clintons did and do, fight the only fight they feel comfortable making, a cultural issues battle, comfortably removed from the Republican Market Rule stronghold. Republicans don’t care about who marries who or who chooses what gender or who aborts and who doesn’t when compared to how much they care about not having taxes raised on the rich, or regulations laid on Wall Street finagling.

Democrats have obliged them on this, until AOC, Bernie, Warren and The Squad have infiltrated the party in a way no longer outlier.

Much time and energy has been spent on tearing into a president who is so clearly the maddest, baddest and most dangerous president in U.S. history while the Republican Party has been allowed by Democrats to appear as torn from its better self, its former bipartisan saneness. Trump was not the GOP’s man but there he was and what to do but work with him? The GOP which had branded itself as a party valuing “the traditions of family, life, religious liberty, and hard work” accepted the voice of the People and accepted Trump as president. Those lines of bullshit still play, and Democrats have made no steady campaign to turn them on their head.

And so, Trump will be gone but a party ready to replace a messy electoral democracy with plutocratic control remains. “The Republican Party is now visibly and authentically aligned with racism, vulgarity, sexism, and brutality,” a Trump alignment, but much more fatal to our fragile form of government is this party’s sellout of all of it under the banner of Market Rule.

Just as blacks and Latinx need to consolidate in order to stop Trump from winning another term, Democrats need to do the same, realizing that the 77 year old Biden need only surround himself with Mayor Pete, Beto, AOC, Yang and any number of young, vibrant Democrats to form a government they can stand behind. As long as Biden doesn’t pull any Senator into his administration, the Senate being now more important than the presidency (imagine Trump, convicted in the impeachment trial because McConnell wouldn’t herd the Republicans for him) he can choose widely among not only Liberals four years in the wilderness but all varieties of socialist.

Joe Biden is as riven with sins of commission and omission as the Democratic Party itself, both haunted by weak and poor decisions, deafness to better voices sounding in their own time; neither one of them making any contributing writer to Counterpunch happy. But at this moment, close at hand, their sins are a nun’s compared to those of the Republican Party and the man in the White House, a mad clown that party hangs onto not because they have no choice but because he has been a destructive force within those domains of the Federal government that the Market wants destroyed.

All the patriotic, happy branding the Republican Party hid behind has been torn down by Trump’s vile words and actions and he has been worshipped for it. This has been a happy surprise for the GOP. Who figured it would have been so easy and no price so far to pay?

By January 20th, 2021, all American can have close at hand conditions Trump-free, the memory of his regime curated in a presidential library. Or wherever Tweets will be stored. The goal is not only to remove Trump but to bring the vile mission of the Republican Party into clear view for all to see so that mission cannot raise up another Trump.

 

The post Conditions Close at Hand appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

No Lessons Learned From Bhopal: the Toxic Chemical Leak at LG Polymers India 

The port city of Vizag or Vishakhapatnam, situated on the south-east coast of India in the State of Andhra Pradesh, is home to several hazardous industries. In the early morning on 07 May 2020, five million people residing in the Vizag Metropolitan Region were rudely woken up by the alarming news of a poisonous chemical leak from a plant producing polystyrene-based products situated about 15 kms away on the outskirts of the city. As a result of exposure to toxic Styrene vapours that escaped from the plant, about 12 people and 32 animals have been killed so far. At least another 1000-odd people – living in the adjacent villages up to a radius of six kms – have reportedly suffered injuries of whom over 800 had to be hospitalized. About 4000 others, who were evacuated in time by some alert volunteers, managed to escape without any noticeable injuries. Nearly 10,000 other residents in the vicinity were forced to vacate their homes in panic. There are also sufficient indications that the environment through which the vapours traversed has been adversely affected. Even a week after the tragedy:

“People living in areas adjoining the LG Polymers plant say they are finding it hard to come to terms with the tragedy. Many complain of severe headache, vomiting, itching and burning sensation in eyes, problems in breathing, dizziness, skin irritation, among others.”

There was every possibility that the death-toll would have been far higher if the highly inflammable Styrene vapours had ignited and the huge quantity of Styrene monomer stored in two large tanks at the plant had exploded. Miraculously that did not happen and, therefore, the vast majority of residents of the Vizag Metropolitan Region are extremely fortunate to have survived the latest disaster unscathed. Although Styrene is far less toxic than MIC (methyl-iso-cyanate) – the chemical that had caused the Bhopal disaster in 1984, the enormous amount of Styrene (reportedly about 7000 kiloliters compared to the 80 kiloliters of MIC at Bhopal), which had been stored at the plant at the time of the disaster, did have the potential to cause a massive disaster in the Vizag region that would have had far worse consequences than the one that had wrecked havoc in Bhopal. (Fortunately, the remaining amount of Styrene monomer from the affected tank has been deactivated and 5000 kiloliters from the unaffected tanks at the plant site has been shipped back to Seoul on 11 May 2020.)

The plant in question, LG Polymer India Pvt. Ltd., is owned by LG Chem Ltd., an affiliate of LG Corp – the giant South Korean multinational company. The plant, which had employed about 500 workers, had a production capacity of about 650 tonnes of Styrene-based products every day. Apparently spread over 600 acres of government land, the plant was originally established in 1961 and was then known as ‘Hindustan Polymer’ until LG Chem bought it through a 100% takeover in 1997 and renamed it. Styrene, which was imported from Singapore, was probably stored in two 5000-kilolitre capacity tanks at the Vizag port and at the plant site in two 2500-kilolitre and in six 1500-kilolitre capacity ones.

One of the storage tanks at the plant, which at the time of the disaster had reportedly contained about 1900 kiloliters of Styrene monomer, was the one that had leaked. However, the actual amount of Styrene that had escaped from the tank has not been made public. Quoting officials, the Reuters news agency has reported that, “Styrene … leaked into the air around 2.30 am and enveloped homes.” The report added that, “Company sources disclosed that the leak was detected by a night shift maintenance worker.”However, the company did not alert the authorities or warn the public about the leak. “Authorities said the first call to emergency services came from a resident at 3.25 am, not the company.”

According to yet another report, it was two youngsters – Kiran and Suresh, who are residents of the village adjacent to the plant, who first alerted 4000-odd villagers of RR Venkatapuram about the impending disaster. Kiran, whose house was just about 200 meters from the plant, felt uneasy at around 02.30 am after inhaling vapours of the toxic chemical. Kiran quickly dialed his friend, Suresh, who resided on the other end of the village, who in turn woke up other friends to undertake the task of evacuating the villagers to safety during the next one hour. Unfortunately, not all the villagers could be alerted in time. People in the villages near the plant are extremely angry at the nightmarish experience they were forced to undergo. Due to public protest, the South Korean company had no option but to ship 8,000 kiloliters of Styrene monomer stored at the port along with 5000 kiloliters stored at the plant back to Seoul.

Styrene & the Plastics Industry

According to industry insiders:

“Styrene is one of the most important monomers produced by the chemical industry today. Styrene monomer is a basic building block of the plastics industry.”

However, they had also warned that:

“Styrene’s reactivity is such that it must be handled within a range of specially prescribed conditions. This is necessary not only to avoid certain safety hazards but also to prevent deterioration in the quality of the styrene. However, it has been well-demonstrated that styrene can be used, handled, and stored without difficulty when its physical and chemical properties are understood and the precautions associated with these properties are applied.”

Although about 30 million kiloliters of Styrene is produced and consumed globally every year, several mishaps involving the chemical has continued because, as a study has noted:  

“… the storage and polymerization processes are prone to runaways as monomers are thermally unstable…. A significant number of these incidents were related to styrene production and handling…. Despite this, lessons have not been learned, and the reoccurrence of styrene-related runaway incidents continues.”

The latest disaster at Vizag is yet another example of the utterly irresponsible attitude of at least some sections within decision-makers in the industry whose priority is anything but health & safety and who are averse to upholding principles and in following best practices.

Styrene is a derivative of Benzene, a natural constituent of crude oil. It is a toxic colourless oily liquid that evaporates easily. The invisible Styrene vapour is heavier than air and highly inflammable. As per the safety standards set by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), the Threshold Limit Value (TLV) [also known as Derived No-Effect Levels (DNELs)] for Styrene is 20 ppm TWA (Time Tested Average) over an eight-hour period of exposure. [By comparison, the TLV of MIC is 0.02 ppm.] The Short Term Exposure Level (STEL) for Styrene for a period of fifteen minutes is 40 ppm (parts per million). While, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH), USA, the Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health (IDLH) dose of Styrene is around 700 ppm.  It is suspected to be a human carcinogen and exposure to it may have adverse impact on eyes, skin, respiratory system, gastro-intestinal system, nervous system, liver, and reproductive system.

Impact on Health

As per available information:

+ “Styrene is currently (June 2018) classified for flammability, skin / eye irritation, acute toxicity, hearing damage and is suspected of reproductive toxicity.” [p.9]

+ “May be fatal if swallowed and enters airways.” [p.17]

+ [It is] “Suspected of damaging fertility or the unborn child.” [p.17]

+ “Styrene was reviewed [by the International Agency on Cancer Research (IACR)] most recently in March 2018 during which the classification was changed to Group 2A “probably carcinogenic to humans”. [p.18]

+ “In vitro mutagenicity tests generally only yielded positive results for styrene after metabolic activation.” [p.19]

+ “Styrene is harmful to aquatic life with long lasting effects and therefore entry into drains, sewers and watercourses must be prevented if at all possible.” [p.29]

It has also been acknowledged that:

+ Exposure to “Very high levels [of Styrene] may affect brain and liver function.” 

+ Styrene monomer may be a carcinogen in humans. There may be no safe level of exposure to a carcinogen, so all contact should be reduced to the lowest possible level.”

+ When Styrene is ignited “Poisonous gases are produced in fire.”

Violation of SOPs

Since Styrene is an extremely hazardous chemical, the Company did post a message on the company’s website to reassure the public about its concerns regarding the same. In their message, two top officials of the company, namely, Vice-Chairman and CEO LG Chem, Hak Cheol Shin, and President, LG Polymers India, Sunkey Jeong, had made tall promises regarding the company’s commitment towards health & safety issues, which were as follows:

“Here at LG Polymers India Private Limited of LG Chem, we recognize that Environment, Health and Safety (EH&S) is the fundamental element for securing differentiated competitiveness. For continuous improvement on EH&S performance, LG Chem will be committed to implementing the following guiding principles….

+ We will comply with all applicable EH&S legal requirement and establish leading corporate EH&S rules and best practices….

To ensure compliance with this policy, we will consider EH&S as the top priority in all our business activities.”

Laudatory precepts are, it appears, something to be preached and not practiced. There are clear indications that the recommended Standard Operating Procedures for safely storing Styrene monomer were grossly violated by the management of LG Polymers plant in Vizag. From available news reports, it is very evident that Styrene vapours had escaped from the plant due to criminal negligence on the part of the plant management, who had desisted from taking all the necessary precautionary steps to safely store Styrene at the plant site. The causes of the disaster, according to these reports, were as follows:

“A few industry experts suspected corrosion to be responsible for the leak.”

“Overheating and corrosion of machinery are likely responsible for the tragedy….”

“Initial reports had suggested that maintenance failures, operating errors, and improper storage of the toxic styrene …, may have led to the tragedy.

“A clogged cooling system was the likely cause of a temperature surge in a storage tank…”

In short, the plant management, far from complying “with all applicable EH&S legal requirement and establish[ing] leading corporate EH&S rules and best practices”, was operating a defective and unsafe plant while storing huge quantities of highly hazardous chemicals under dangerous conditions.

Precepts & Practices

The management of LG Polymers knew or should have known that there were proper recommended procedures to safely handle the hazardous chemical Styrene. However, as explained below, the practices followed by the plant management were wholly contrary to the recommended procedures. A closer examination of how the plant management had dealt with each of the major safety concerns related to storing of Styrene monomer completely exposes the highly irresponsible and inexcusable conduct of the plant management regarding safety concerns.

Storage Tank

Recommended Procedures & Precautions:

+ “The standard construction material [for storage tank for Styrene monomer] is carbon steel or stainless steel.”[p.47]

+ “The design pressure [of the storage tank] should be to API-620 [to withstand a pressure of 15 pounds per sq inch gauge] or equivalent.” [p.47]

+ “The internal surface of the tank, including safety devices, must be smooth to avoid adhesion of condensed styrene and thus build-up of polymer. For carbon steel tanks a suitable [phenguard] coating … is recommended.” [p.47]

+ TBC, which is used as the inhibitor to prevent polymerization of Styrene in the storage tank, is“Incompatible with iron and carbon steel.”

+“Presence of rust (particles) inside the tank can form fertile seeds to initiate polymerisation.”[p.42]

Practices of the Plant Management:

It was obvious that the tank that had leaked was made of carbon steel. Since its internal surface was not coated with phenguard coating, its internal surface not only got corroded by reacting with TBC (resulting in the release of rust particles, i.e., iron oxide) but it also allowed adhesion of condensed styrene vapours on the inside roof of the tank and on the safety devises (such as the cooling system) inside the tank leading to build-up of polymer. If proper coating had been done on the inside surface of the tank, it could have prevented both corrosion inside the tank as well as adhesion of condensed styrene on the inside surface of the tank. Failure to prevent corrosion of the tank, which is a blatant violation of Standard Operating Procedure, resulted in Styrene being subjected to unwarranted reactions with iron oxides within the storage tank. The Styrene Producers Association (SPA) of Europe had anticipated this problem well before hand and had issued a warning to all concerned regarding this danger, which was as follows:

“Styrene will polymerise when contaminated by oxidising agents and most halides. The polymerization reaction is exothermic and … may become uncontrolled [violent]. If the heat is not removed, the bulk styrene temperature may rise to a level at which polymerization is self-sustaining and very rapid, evolving the release of large quantities of heat together with volumetric expansion.” [p.9]

This is precisely the manner in which Styrene vapours had escaped from the LG Polymers plant at Vizag. The management’s decision to disregard SPA’s warning was one of the causative factors that resulted in the disaster at Vizag for which the plant management has to be held accountable.

Inhibitor to Inhibit Polymerization

Recommended Procedures & Precautions:

“The most commonly used polymerisation inhibitor is tertiary butyl catechol(TBC).” [p.9]

The “inhibitor must be maintained at certain minimum levels to prevent polymer formation.” [p.12]

“The recommended practice is to maintain the inhibitor (TBC) levels between 10-15 ppm [of the Styrene in the storage tank].” [p.15]

“Facilities storing and handling styrene monomer should have TBC inhibitor on hand in case of emergency. “[p.13]

“At low TBC levels, oxygen depletion is rapid and the inhibition system will quickly become ineffective.”[p.15]

Practices of the Plant Management

One of the major problems that arose at the Vizag plant was the non-availability of adequate amount of the inhibitor TBC, which as per the Standard Operating Procedure should have been stored in adequate quantity at the plant site for emergency use. Since it was not available at the plant site on the day of the disaster, 500 liters of TBC was airlifted on 07 May 2020 from Vapi in South Gujarat (via Daman), which was about 1200 kms away. In addition, on 09 May 2020, another 8300 liters of TBC and other polymerization inhibitors were airlifted from Mundra in North Gujarat, which was over 1500 kms away from Vizag. Non-availability of TBC at the plant site prevented the maintenance staff from ensuring minimum level of inhibitor in the storage tank to prevent polymerization. [It is pertinent to note that: “Lower TBC levels can be accepted when the temperature is low… [p.40], which highlights the need for keeping Styrene constantly under low temperature.] This costly lapse of failing to store adequate amount of TBC at the plant site was another causative factor that resulted in the disaster again due to the utter callousness on the part of the plant management regarding safety matters for which they have to be held accountable.

Oxygen to Support TBC

Recommended Procedures & Precautions:

+ “Styrene should never be handled under an oxygen-free atmosphere.”

+ “The presence of dissolved oxygen is required for the inhibitor to function properly…”[p.12]

+ “… a minimum oxygen level of 3 vol%. in the vapour phase is regarded as being sufficient…. More than 8 vol% of oxygen in the vapour phase can lead to a flammable mixture.”[p.12]

Practices of the Plant Management

Since excessive heat and pressure were generated in the storage tank, which resulted in the escape of Styrene vapours through the safety valve from the plant premises, it is evident that the storage tank did not contain the recommended oxygen level between 03% and 08% of the volume of styrene stored in the tank. The oxygen level apparently went down below 03% vol. or may even have gone down to 0% vol., thereby, rendering the inhibitor TBC completely ineffective, which accelerated polymerization of Styrene monomer that resulted in rapid rise in temperature and pressure in the storage tank. [It is pertinent to note that: “Refrigeration of the styrene and short residence time during storage will reduce the need for oxygen [p.47], which again highlights the need for keeping Styrene under low temperature.] The absence of the recommended level of oxygen in the storage tank is yet another causative factor that resulted in the disaster. Therefore, the plant management is guilty of failing to ensure that the said storage tank contained the requisite level of oxygen to enable TBC to function effectively. The non-fulfillment of that task is an inexcusable lapse for which the plant management has to be held accountable.

Refrigeration to Lower Temperature

Recommended Procedures & Precautions:

+ “Styrene polymerizes slowly at normal ambient temperatures but very rapidly at elevated temperatures.”[p.13]

+ “Insulation and refrigeration of storage tanks are recommended for environments where temperatures exceed 75°F [above 24 degree Celsius]for long periods of time.” [p.22]

+ “The flash point of styrene monomer is 31°C, so therefore there is a chance of creating a flammable mixture in warm climates…”[p.44]

Practices of the Plant Management:

The average annual temperature of Vizag is 27.8 degree Celsius. Therefore, it was necessary to keep Styrene under refrigeration throughout the year preferably under 15 degree Celsius. However, in May, which is the hottest month in Vizag when the temperature sores up to 37 degree Celsius or more, the Styrene storage tanks were not under effective refrigeration. This was a clear violation of Standard Operating Procedure because the plant management was fully aware that Styrene polymerizes rapidly at elevated temperatures. According to a news report, “The leak was caused as temperature in the tank, storing styrene… reached 180 degree Celsius.”  

If there was “A technical glitch in the refrigeration unit, as was conveyed to the media, it was incumbent on the part of the plant management to have ensured that there was a standby refrigeration unit to meet emergency needs. Apparently, there was no such standby refrigeration unit at the plant – another costly lapse for which none other than the plant management is responsible. By failing to maintain temperature of the storage tank at around 15 degree Celsius, the plant management is guilty of allowing the temperature to rise to an extremely dangerous level of 180 degree Celsius, which was the most important causative factor that resulted in the disaster at the Vizag plant for which the plant management has to be held accountable. [In all probability, carbon monoxide (that TBC releases when subjected to high temperatures) must have been the other invisible “killer” gas that escaped along with toxic Styrene vapours from the leaking storage tank.]

Precautions against Stagnancy

Recommended Procedures & Precautions:

“Stagnant product must be avoided”. [p.9]

“Circulation [of liquid Styrene in the storage tank] should be a minimum requirement to make sure that:

Temperature readings are indicative for the bulk

Inhibitor and oxygen are mixed well with the tank contents.” [p.41]

“…the tank contents must be circulated frequently. Experience has shown that efficient circulation is also important to avoid a temperature gradient in the tank.” [p.47]

Practices of the Plant Management

Contrary to the said recommended procedures, the plant management had left Styrene in the storage tank in a stagnant state during the entire period of the lockdown, which has proved to be very costly. While in a stagnant state, the inhibitor TBC tends to settle down at the bottom of the storage tank, thereby, leaving the Styrene at the top to vapourize freely and self-polymerize. The report in TheIndian Express in this regard is revealing: “As the styrene was stagnant for 44 days, officials said, it was possible that some gas [vapours] accumulated at the ceiling of the storage tank and its temperature rose…” The Quint has also reported as follows: “Authorities have confirmed that the gas [vapour] leak took place because of a temperature difference between the top and bottom of a tank that contains the material styrene.”

The observation made by The New Indian Express too is very apt: “With the top portion polymerised and the bottom portion in liquid form…”  The warmer portion of Styrene vapourized and polymerized to a solid state and the colder portion remained in liquid state because the contents in the tank were not in circulation and the top and bottom portions did not mix. The fact that two portions of Styrene in the tank were exhibiting two different temperatures is also proof that the refrigeration system was malfunctioning or was not in operation. The recommended procedure has categorically stated that in order “to avoid a temperature gradient in the tank”, the Styrene has to be periodically kept in circulation within the storage tank. Circulation was also necessary to ensure that the“Inhibitor and oxygen are mixed well with the tank contents”, i.e., Styrene.

When the contents of the tank are not in circulation, the temperature meter would give false reading, i.e., if at all the temperature was being monitored. Moreover, as a portion of Styrene was not under the influence of the inhibitor TBC and oxygen, the process of auto-polymerization of Styrene began and soon become uncontrollable. Therefore, the plant management is guilty of allowing Styrene to remain stagnant in the tank for over 44 days, which was yet another causative factor that resulted in the disaster for which the plant management has to be held accountable. 

Instrumentation for Monitoring

Recommended Procedures & Precautions:

+ “The temperature needs to be monitored continuously.” [p.40]

+ “Pressure and temperature indicators are also advised and should be monitored regularly.” [p.56]

+ Styrene has to be analyzed for polymer content daily if the product temperature is above 25°C. [p.56]

+ “Determinations of inhibitor content, oxygen level in the vapor space, polymer content, and monomer temperature should be made on a routine basis.” [p.13]

+ Constant monitoring is necessary to ensure that “Polymer content of maximum 10 ppm” is never crossed. [p.11]

+ “The TBC content of styrene monomer in storage should never be allowed to be depleted or remain below the 10 ppm level.” [p.21]

Practices of the Plant Management:

The importance of proper instrumentation systems to constantly monitor the status of hazardous chemicals stored and utilized in a plant can never be overstated. There are several parameters of a tank storing hazardous chemicals that have to be monitored: temperature; pressure; level of contents; quality of contents; quantity of contents; etc. It is absolutely shocking to say the least that the maintenance staff and the plant management had no idea that the temperature and pressure of the tank were rising at an alarming rate. They had no idea that the polymer content in the tank had crossed the 10 ppm limit; that the TBC level had fallen below 10 ppm; that the oxygen level had gone down to 0% vol.; and that the inside surface of the tank had begun to corrode.

In short, during the entire lockdown period – from 24 March to 07 May 2020, i.e., for a period of 44 days – the plant management gave no instructions to the maintenance staff to submit status reports regarding the state of the contents in the storage tanks. Are they not bound to maintain proper log books to record the daily status of all the parameters mentioned? Considering the huge amount of hazardous chemicals stored at the plant site, the failure to constantly monitor the status of those toxic materials are important causative factors, which resulted in the disaster. Such costly lapses constitute nothing but absolute criminal negligence on the part of the plant management for which they have to be held accountable.

In short, the plant management is guilty of violating every standard operating procedure to safely store Styrene at the plant. Through willful negligence, they endangered the lives of over five million residents of the Vizag Metropolitan Region, the majority of whom had a miraculous escape while some were not so lucky to survive. Storing over 15,000 kiloliters of a highly hazardous chemical under dangerous conditions for 44 days was an extremely callous and criminal act for which the company and the plant management deserve exemplary punishment.

Emergency Response

Apparently, there was no emergency response mechanism, including an emergency evacuation plan, in place at the plant. As pointed out in a preliminary study conducted soon after the Vizag disaster by Sagar Dhara (former Environment Engineering Consultant, UNEP) and Dr.K.Babu Rao (former Chief Scientist, IICT, Hyderabad), the absence of an emergency response mechanism was wholly contrary to the explicit provision under Section 15 (1) of the Manufacture, Storage, and Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules, 1989,which was as follows:

“Information to be given to persons liable to be affected by a major accident. (1) The occupier shall take appropriate steps to inform persons outside the site either directly or through District Emergency Authority who are likely to be in an area which may be affected by a major accident about-(a) the nature of the major accident hazard; and (b) the safety measures and the “Do’s and Don’ts” which should be adopted in the event of a major accident.” [p.8]

As per the above provision, “bystander populations should have been informed of the risk they were at, and trained in evacuation procedures in the event of an accident.” [p.8] [According to this study, the peak vapour concentration at downwind distance from 0.1 km to 01.00 km may have ranged between 312,000 ppm and 1100 ppm; from 01.00 km to 02.00 kms between 1100 ppm and 130 ppm; and from 02.00 kms to 06.00 kms between 130 ppm and 20 ppm. [p.4] (It may be noted that concentrations of Styrene above 700 ppm can prove fatal and above 20 ppm can cause injuries.)]  However, there is no evidence that the bystander population were ever warned about the risks or trained in evacuation procedures. Moreover,

“The Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board’s (APPCB) Consent for Operations (CFE) Committee had passed an order in the period 1999-2000 stating that all facilities handling hazardous chemicals must put a board with a figure of the maximum vulnerable zone in the event of a catastrophic accident at their main gate and that is visible to public…. It appears that APPCB did not enforce its own orders.” [p.8]

In addition, if the maintenance staff at the plant had been alert and properly trained or if auto-rise-in-temperature alarms had been installed, they would have known that: “As soon as a temperature of 65°C has been reached [in the Styrene storage tank], it takes about 20 minutes before a complete runaway.”[p.42] Twenty minutes notice would have been adequate to sound the emergency alarm in order to warn the residents in the nearby villages to evacuate their homes to safety.  However, as one news report has pointed out, the truth was “… the emergency detection system was either absent or malfunctioning.”  The plant management has tried to explain away their criminally negligent conduct in this regard, which a news report has described as follows: “A LG Chem communications official told CNN that the plant’s alarm only activates if it detects a leak of raw Styrene in liquid form…”  In other words, the plant management had not installed the requisite auto alarm systems to set off alarms incase of unusual rise in temperature or pressure in the Styrene storage tank. According to a BBC report, the emergency siren was probably not in working order since 2017.

The extent of their criminal neglect can be gauged by the fact that the plant management did not sound any emergency alarm even after it came to their notice that Styrene vapours had begun escaping from the storage tank around 02.30 am on 07 May 2020 despite being fully aware that inhalation of Styrene vapours could prove fatal to the unsuspecting residents living near the plant. By failing to have an emergency response plan, including an evacuation plan, the plant management is guilty of willfully flouting the Manufacture, Storage, and Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules, 1989. Instead of abiding by rules, which may have had mitigating effect, the plant management by their reckless conduct has actually compounded the impact of the disaster for which they have to be held accountable.

No Environment Clearance

Another disturbing factor is that the plant was operating for the last 14 years without proper “Environment Clearance” (EC) as per the Environment Impact Assessment Notification (2006) from the Ministry of Environment & Forests, Government of India. The plant management in fact admitted their culpability in this regard. In an affidavit filed before the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority, Andhra Pradesh, on 10 May 2019, one of the Directors of LG Polymers, PPC Mohan Rao, had made this admission:

“That prior environmental clearance was not taken for the said manufacturing activity as per provisions of Environment Impact Assessment 2006 … as no clearance was obtained….

“As on this date our industry does not have a valid Environment Clearance substantiating the produced quantity, issued by the competent authority, for continuing our plant operations. However, we are continuing our plant operations with valid consent for operations from State Pollution Control Board, Andhra Pradesh [APPCB]. Further, I submit the conditions specified in the CFE/CFO have been fulfilled to the satisfaction of APPCB.”

How did APPCB grant Consent for Establishment (CFE) and Consent for Operation (CFO) around the beginning of 2019 for the unit’s expansion? This question was raised by Dr.EAS Sarma, former Secretary in the Ministry of Power & the Ministry of Finance, Govt. of India. Soon after the disaster, in a letter to the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh on 07 May, 2020, Dr.Sarma, expressed his dismay at the goings on as follows:

“It appears that foreign companies like this one are moving into India as the Union Ministry of Environment, in the name of “easing business”, is progressively relaxing the environment clearance procedures and encouraging polluting industries to set up shop in the country, knowing well that even if they violate the law of the land, they will get protection from the official organs of the State.”

Delving further into the matter, D.Raghunandan of the Delhi Science Forum, has commented thus:

“The Bhopal Disaster triggered a slew of environmental regulations, especially as regards hazardous materials and industries using them. It is shocking, though, that almost four decades later, India is witnessing the same gross flouting of rules and regulations and, worst of all, a systemic collusion between regulatory agencies and corporate entities, making a mockery of these very protections for the environment and for people.”

He went on to add that:

“The most shocking aspect of the Vizag LG plant case is the scandalous violations of environment regulations by LG and the casual attitude or even collusion by the authorities…. These permissions by the APPCB, clearly bypassing the SEIAA, for which the APPCB acts as the Secretariat but without the powers of the Authority itself, are probably illegal, as affirmed by many experts in environmental law…. Yet, the case seems to have continued bouncing between Centre and state (Andhra Pradesh), and the application is apparently again pending with the Centre since March 2020. And all this time, LG Polymers has continued operating in Vizag without EC, but with a highly questionable permission from the APPCB!

The manner in which LG Polymers has managed to circumvent the laws of the land to further its interests, highlights the inherent danger in attempting to water down the existing rules under “EIA Notification, 2006” through the proposed “Draft EIA Notification, 2020. In this regard, Raghunandan has noted as follows:

“Ironically this incident draws attention to the proposed Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2020… , which seeks to condone and give post-facto legitimacy to precisely the kinds of violations the LG plant committed.”

Impact on Environment

There was an inherent danger in storing huge quantities of Styrene. A forewarning of the potential threat if Styrene vapours escaped from such a storage facility was issued by the Styrene Producers Association of Europe in 2018. They had warned that:

“Styrene vapour is invisible, heavier than air and spreads along the ground. Therefore, it may travel a considerable distance to a source of ignition and then flashback.” [p.30]

If by chance the escaping Styrene vapours had come across a source of ignition, it was inevitable that the storage tanks containing Styrene would have exploded with extremely grave consequences. The telltale signs left behind in the village though which Styrene vapours traversed after it escaped from the plant is also indicative of the serious damage that Styrene could cause to the environment. According to The New York Times“When a Reuters witness visited the Venkatapuram village adjoining the plant on Tuesday [11 May 2020], leaves on trees exposed to the gas looked shriveled and had turned brown.” A BBC report too has corroborated that: “…banana plants in surrounding farms had turned black and felt like stone.” One may well imagine the damage Styrene vapours would have caused to the lungs of those who had inhaled it!

Reportedly, the impact of the Styrene vapours was persisting even a week after the incident. Quoting the views expressed by experts from the High Powered Committee set up by the State Government in accordance with the directions of the NGT, a news report has stated as follows:

“…people returned to their homes have been experiencing nausea and difficulty in breathing and on Wednesday [13 May 2020] a housewife is reported to have fallen unconscious while doing household chores. She was rushed to the hospital and is recovering…. The expert committee has found that the chemical remnants were deeply ingrained into the land, water and the air and suggested that it is not safe to eat the vegetables or any other grains grown in these villages for at least a year. All the foods in storage in the houses during the leakage were thrown out and every item in households was thoroughly sanitized.”

Another report too had noted as follows:

“Locals claimed the reservoir [in the area] was affected due to leakage of chemical toxins from the plant as layers of particles were seen floating on it and it also resulted in the death of fish in the water body..

These observations are more than sufficient to highlight the need to undertake a detailed environment impact assessment study to evaluate the extent and severity of the damage caused to the environment by the disaster and the remedial measures required for restoring the damage.

Culprits At Large

Although a First Information Report (FIR) was filed by the local police within five hours of the tragedy, the culprits who are responsible for causing the disaster are all still at large even two weeks later. For some strange reason, the police have refrained from identifying the toxic chemical that had caused the disaster. The crux of all that the police have stated in the FIR is as follows:

“At about 0330 hrs some smoke came out from the LG Polymers Company, due to the reason the neighbouring villages (were) affected and getting bad smell and the smell is [dangerous] to human life. Due to fear, all villagers ran…from the houses. In the incident, 5 persons died and the remaining people were admitted in hospitals as in-patients.”

The FIR was registered under Sections 278 (Making atmosphere noxious to health); 284 (Negligent conduct with respect to poisonous substance); 285 (any act with combustible matter to endanger life); 337 (Causing hurt by act endangering life or personal safety of others); 338 (Causing grievous hurt by act endangering life or personal safety of others); and 304-II (Knowledge that the act had likelihood of causing death) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). However, what is most notable is that not only are Sections 278, 284, 285 and 337 of IPC usually applied for relatively minor offences but also the fact that none of the culprits have been named in the FIR till date. Of course, the police may have been mislead into believing that the toxic vapours began to escape from the plant only at around 0330 hrs while subsequent reports show that evacuation of residents of RRV Puram village began at around 0230 hrs.

It is inexplicable why the offenders have not been charged also under Sections 325 (Punishment for voluntarily causing grievous hurt); 326 (Voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means); 428 (Mischief by killing or maiming animals); and 429 (Mischief by killing or maiming cattle, etc.) of IPC. Moreover, on the basis of prima facie evidence, the company and its top officials, including Vice-Chairman and CEO of LG Chem, Hak Cheol Shin; President and Managing Director, LG Polymers India, Sunkey Jeong; Director, Hyun Seok Jang; and General Manager and Director of Operations, LG Polymers, P.P. Chandra Mohan Rao, should have been immediately arrested because they have to be held absolutely liable for the disaster. The decision to impound the passports of all the directors of the company was, of course, a welcome step. The concerned members of the APPCB and the Department of Factories have also to be taken to task for gross dereliction of duty.

Thankfully, the Andhra Pradesh High Court, which took suo motu cognizance of the matter on 07 May 2020, has on 22 May 2020, issued an order, which is very significant. While dealing with a set of PILs, the Court directed that:

“The premises of the company shall be completely seized;

The surrendered passports of the Company Directors should not be released without the leave of the Court.”

The Court also expressed its dissatisfaction with the State Government and the Central Government for their failure to file replies to several issues raised by the petitioners. They have been given time till 26 May 2020 to do so. The next hearing is scheduled on 28 May 2020. Meanwhile, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which also took suo motu cognizance of the matter on 08 May 2020, has set up a Committee to prepare a report on all aspects related to the disaster and submit the same to the Tribunal. The Committee’s report too is awaited.

Compensation

In a quick move to quell public anger, the Government of Andhra Pradesh announced a rather liberal compensation package on the very day of the disaster. Chief Minister YS Jaganmohan Reddy has announced Rs. one crore as compensation to the families of those who died because of exposure to the toxic vapours. Mr Reddy has also announced Rs. 10 lakh for those on ventilator support after exposure; Rs. 1 lakh for those who stayed in hospital for a day or two; Rs. 25,000 for those treated as out-patients after developing health complications; and Rs.10,000 to each resident of the five villages near the plant who suffered trauma. However, identifying the victims and determining the degree of injury of each of them would be a rather complicated process.

In addition, according to the same report:

“The Chief Minister said the government is preparing to issue health cards to these families to provide better health facilities and monitor their health for which village health clinics are going to be established.”

The decision of the State Government to issue health cards and monitor the health status of the Vizag toxic vapour victims are, indeed, very welcome steps. However, primary health centres are hardly equipped to properly carry out all the necessary investigations, diagnosis, and treatment as well as monitor the health status of those victims. Such tasks can be carried out in earnest only by specialists in well-equipped hospitals. Especially when the amount of compensation is tied to the degree of injury, there is a tendency to underplay the degree of injury as is evident in the Bhopal disaster case. Victims will also have to be compensated for loss of property (in the form of loss of standing crop; loss of domestic animals; contamination of land and water bodies; etc.) It is sincerely hoped such a mistake would not be repeated at Vizag.  The long term impact of Styrene on the health and well-being of the exposed population is very worrisome and it is a challenging task before the State Government to handle the matter sensitively and with concern.

The causes and circumstances of the Vizag disaster of 2020 are almost similar to the Bhopal disaster of 1984. It is very evident that no lessons were learned from that traumatic experience 36 year ago.

The post No Lessons Learned From Bhopal: the Toxic Chemical Leak at LG Polymers India  appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

The Odyssey of Elias Demetracopoulos

In twenty-first-century mainstream media, a real journalist is difficult to find. Instead, one finds multiple purveyors of corporate and government propaganda, entertainers who sensationalize the most meaningless tidbits about the lives of public figures, faux investigations of misdoings that focus on the symptoms and not the causes, and outright liars. Elected and non-elected officials use their forums to attack journalists and their employers; their intention being to cast doubt on any and every article published. The resulting confusion has created a situation where scientific facts have become opinions and illogical and even insane conspiracies are considered truths. Most of those who own the media do not seem to have a problem with this scenario. Even those who claim they do rarely bother to use their power and money to change a policy or take down a corrupt and authoritarian leader—most likely because there is little monetary incentive in doing such a thing.

If we look back in time, we discover that certain journalists used their investigative and writing prowess to challenge authority. Sometimes those reporters and the media outlet that employed them really did force an official to step down or a corporation to get investigated and reprimanded. Perhaps two of the best known such journalists were Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, whose reporting on what became known as Watergate helped force Richard Nixon from the White House. Together with their editor Ben Bradlee at the Washington Post, these reporters’ tenacity and access revealed a den of corruption in the Nixon White House and ultimately exposed an administration that was paranoid, power-hungry and even dictatorial. Although neither of these men are above reproach, the fact that they used their sources and access to remove Nixon provides us with an example of how mainstream journalism should go about its business.

Another journalist who used his access and writing powers to expose corruption, diplomatic duplicity and authoritarianism was a Greek reporter named Elias Demetracopoulos. His work for various Greek newspapers and as a stringer for the International Herald Tribune and various US newspapers exposed plots to overthrow governments, CIA involvement in those plots and numerous other abuses involving politicians and generals in Washington, Athens, and elsewhere. Although his politics tended toward liberal republicanism, he had friends and sources across the spectrum. His stories did not just anger the powerful but provoked an ongoing investigation into his connections, lovers, and family. Those seeking to bring him down—from the CIA to the Greek intelligence service KYP to various powerful politicians and capitalists—tried to kidnap him more than once. When his father died of cancer, the military dictatorship in Greece refused to let him go to the funeral. They had revoked his Greek citizenship earlier, leaving Demetracopoulos a man without a country.

A newly published biography of Demetracopoulos, titled The Greek Connection: The Life of Elias Demetracopoulos and the Untold Story of Watergate, is considerably more than the biography of a journalist. It is a tale of adventure, a history of the last eighty years and a tribute to a partisan of Greek democracy. The author, James H. Barron, is a journalist in his own right and a founder of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. The story he tells in this biography begins with Demetracopoulos’ youth. Describing a Greece occupied by the Nazis, Barron describes Demetracopoulos’ role in the Greek resistance forces; a role that included his transportation and use of explosives and a subsequent arrest and torture by fascist troops. The postwar conflict led by leftist elements of the resistance against the rightwing elements, former collaborators and the British army is also portrayed. Although the author’s telling is different than those I have read in books written by communists and other leftists, the facts are the same. Although Demetracopoulos would move to the Leftover time, he aligned himself with those favoring a constitutional monarchy during and immediately after the Nazi occupation.

As Demetracopoulos developed his skills as a journalist, he also expanded his wealth of contacts. Seeing himself as a journalist determined to be objective with his only allegiance being to the truth, those contacts are deep and wide. US military officers, wealthy bankers and industrialists across Europe and the US, political organizers on the ground and politicians in government, socialites and artists; his world of friends and sources is deep and wide. These individuals and their knowledge not only helped Demetracopoulos write numerous scoops, they also provided him with some protection when and if his story offended someone who was powerful and hot-headed. Despite these friends in high places, Demetracopoulos was watched constantly and occasionally feared for his life, especially after the 1966 military coup in Greece. Indeed, it was that coup and the atrocities that took place in its wake that forced Demetracopoulos to move from his role of journalist to activist. He would spend much of the next ten years advocating and lobbying for an end to foreign support for the military junta in Athens, all the while maintaining a cover as an employee of a stock exchange firm.

As the title implies, the scandal known as Watergate lurks behind the story in this text. This is because one of the primary bagmen for the Nixon campaign in 1968 and then in 1972 was a Greek-American multimillionaire wheeler and dealer named Thomas Pappas. Based out of Boston, MA., Pappas was a shameless profiteer whose moral center seemed to be based on maximizing his profits and bank accounts. In other words, he was amoral at best and immoral at worst. He was quick to cozy up to the military junta once it seized control in Greece and considered Demetracopoulos a serious if not mortal enemy. It was Pappas and his connections that helped keep the CIA and KYP on Demetracopoulos’ tail and made him persona non grata in much of official Washington.

The Greek Connection is not the tale of a hero, but it is a heroic tale. The author Barron’s excellently-researched and well-crafted biography of a man whose pursuit of the truth despite the potential cost of that pursuit is an inspiration in an era when the truth is all too often lies; and the truth-teller is all too often imprisoned, killed or (even worse) bought off by those for whom truth is inconvenient and unprofitable.

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Arundhati Roy on Indian Migrant-Worker Oppression and India’s Fateful COVID Crisis

In India there is never one story but thousands, even millions, and so the detrimental impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) on this country of more than 1.3 billion, especially among the poor, has been profound, causing immense suffering. Nor did it help matters much when Prime Minister Narendra Modi shut India into immediate lockdown without warning to mitigate Indians from contracting COVID-19. Thousands of day-laborers and migrant-laborers were left stranded in large cities without food or money such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Gandhinagar, Chandigarh, Chennai, Jaipur, and Lucknow, among others. It was the largest lockdown in the world because of COVID-19.

If such workers had prior warning, say at least a week’s time, then it may have prevented such a massive humanitarian disaster. Yet, Modi and his BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government, did not seem to be concerned about these rural migrants when planning their lockdown. Thousands of migrants are still making the long trek home to their rural villages, while hundreds of them are dying along the way from exhaustion, heat fatigue, thirst, starvation, and road accidents.

Furthermore, if you are suspicious like me that Coronavirus (COVID-19) cases are being underreported in India, this is most likely a safe assumption. At the moment, India ranks 10th among countries with COVID-19 cases. There are simply not enough tests (0.28 tests per 1,000 people as of April 20th) to assess its more than a billion population.

There is so much misinformation about COVID-19 in India, that a group of at least 400 university-affiliated Indian scientists, Indian Scientists’ Response to COVID-19 (ISRC), are debunking myths about Coronavirus such as whether or not cow dung or cow urine will boost one’s immunity against the disease. What is worse, healthcare workers have been targeted with violence as carriers of Coronavirus as they have been in Mexico, and ethnic populations have been stigmatized and beaten because of false rumors about contagion. For example, Muslims in India have been condemned as COVID-19 disease transmitters and as scapegoats, an ethnic population in India of about 200 million. Moreover, Indian Muslims have been attacked, refused medical aid, and boycotted from such negative associations about them as so-called “super-spreaders”.

As acclaimed Indian novelist and political activist, Arundhati Roy explained in a recent interview (May 13th) on France24: “Because in India a lockdown means something different than in Europe or America, because in India a lockdown means people compressed into physical spaces, not distanced, because people live in such small and squalid conditions, most people.” Indeed, as elsewhere in the developing world, where social distancing is near impossible, the same insalubrious conditions exist in India. In India, the healthcare system is underfunded, and sanitary conditions are not good. By contrast, Brazil with its “massive slums” (favelas), is now the country with the second most Coronavirus cases across the globe, whereas the United States still has the most.

On March 24th, Prime Minister Modi appeared on Indian television and announced a “total lockdown” of the Indian nation. All of India’s markets were to be closed as well as all public transportation and even private transportation would be disallowed as well.

In an opinion piece for the Financial Times, Arundhati Roy, wrote about Prime Minister Modi’s absolutist decision-making (April 3rd): “He [PM Narendra Modi] said he was taking this decision not just as a prime minister, but as our family elder. Who else can decide, without consulting the state governments that would have to deal with the fallout of this decision, that a nation of 1.38bn people should be locked down with zero preparation and with four hours’ notice? His methods definitely give the impression that India’s prime minister thinks of citizens as a hostile force that needs to be ambushed, taken by surprise, but never trusted.” Hence, it was ironic when epidemiologists and other scientists across the globe praised Modi for his firmness in locking down the country. Yet, such comments were mostly thoughtless without thinking about India’s massive destitute population.

Roy went on to explain: “Many driven out by their employers and landlords, millions of impoverished, hungry, thirsty people, young and old, men, women, children, sick people, blind people, disabled people, with nowhere else to go, with no public transport in sight, began a long march home to their villages. They walked for days, towards Badaun, Agra, Azamgarh, Aligarh, Lucknow, Gorakhpur—hundreds of kilometers away. Some died on the way.”

The scenes in India of these day-laborers, the so-called migrant workers, were beyond measure, a humanitarian crisis of untold thousands walking in desperation to their home villages. As Arundhati Roy expounded in the Financial Times: “They knew they were going home potentially to slow starvation. Perhaps they even knew they could be carrying the virus with them, and would infect their families, their parents and grandparents back home, but they desperately needed a shred of familiarity, shelter and dignity, as well as food, if not love. As they walked, some were beaten brutally and humiliated by the police, who were charged with strictly enforcing the curfew. Young men were made to crouch and frog jump down the highway. Outside the town of Bareilly, one group was herded together and hosed down with chemical spray.”

In her France24 interview, Roy elaborated: “As for the workers, who are being called migrant workers, who by various schemes and economic policies, who were really swept out of the countryside into cities, and into very, very precarious, very low-paying jobs, and crammed into tenements on the edges of cities. And then, suddenly on the 24th of March, they had no money, they had nowhere to live. They just had to leave. And there was no transport, as the whole world witnessed this. And until today, thousands of people are still walking. But the only good thing is, if we don’t trust the figures entirely, the numbers of people getting infected is increasing. The numbers of deaths are nowhere near where they have been in Europe and America. So, why that is, everyone has theories.”

And yet for the mass exodus back to the countryside, still happening today, Arundhati Roy, proclaimed on France24: “There is going to be so much desperation, there is so much desperation. We are talking about a situation of mass hunger. A lot of people are walking. The reason people are walking to their villages is because they hope that you know that a little bit of land or some community support they will get…there is millions of tons of food in government warehouses to be distributed…Whether those people after going through this absolute trauma, will come back [to the cities], one doesn’t know. Right now, there are still people being held in quarantine centers, detention centers. Some of them are being prevented from going home. There is talk of industries more or less forcing them to work in industries which are just opening up now.”

There are approximately 139 million who are considered to be migrant-laborers and like most of the poor in India, are largely ignored and unnoticed by India’s ruling elite-class. According to recent statistics, about 270 million Indians live at or below the poverty line (2011-2012) and more recently the numbers are estimated at 70.6 million. Yet, the Coronavirus has probably changed all of this, given the forced unemployment from the virus.

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged about $266 billion in economic stimulus, or 10% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to address the COVID-19 issue and protect India’s economy. Yet, not much of anything is being done to help the migrant-laborers making the arduous trek, mostly on foot, to their home villages. State governments have been quicker to act in aiding these hapless commuters in distributing food rations.

The lockdown has caused real desperation among the poor in India’s rural areas such as among residents of a slum colony in Bengaluru (Bangalore) City. Without work, they are struggling to feed their children and themselves, and worse, vegetable prices increased. Furthermore, ration cards are not being distributed as they were before the lockdown, and without men earning from migrant work, starvation is a real issue.

Recently, one of these millions of migrant-workers, Rampukar Pandit, whose anguished face was captured by a photographer on a New Delhi roadside, upon learning about his sickly child at home and with no public transportation to take him home. He began walking to reach his eleventh-month old baby, a 745-mile journey to Bihar State, but was already exhausted without food on the excursion home. Pandit had only reached New Delhi’s outskirts when his image was taken. When the journalist asked Pandit about how Modi’s government has largely done nothing for migrant-workers such as him, Rampukar asserted: “I am a nobody, I’m like an ant, my life doesn’t matter. The government is only concerned with filling the stomachs of the rich.”

In a more recent, Financial Times article (May 23rd), political activist Arundhati Roy, avowed: “The zero-planning lockdown has meant that in these last 59 days (make that 120 days of lockdown and a 10-month internet siege for Kashmir) India has witnessed a nightmare from which we [in India] may never fully recover. Unemployment was at a 45-year high before the lockdown. The lockdown is estimated to have cost 135m jobs.”

In all likelihood too, the migrant-workers who were left stranded in India’s major cities without food, shelter, or money, and who were forced to make their way to their home rural villages somehow, are spreading COVID-19 to the remotest areas of India. So, Prime Minister Modi’s plan to save India with an extreme lockdown, in fact has done the opposite.

Coronavirus in all likelihood is spreading like wildfire among the faceless thousands to other nameless thousands—to everywhere in India.

In sum, Arundhati Roy in her celebrated novel, The God of Small Things (1997), prophetically declared: “It was a time when the unthinkable became the thinkable and the impossible really happened.”

The post Arundhati Roy on Indian Migrant-Worker Oppression and India’s Fateful COVID Crisis appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Goodness Gracious, David Ignatius!!

The Washington Post’s senior diplomatic columnist, David Ignatius, has done it again.  He has a well-earned reputation as an apologist for the Central Intelligence Agency and a defender of increased defense spending and the newly-created Space Force.  Now, Ignatius has added a new plaque to his personal Hall of Fame—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.  In an oped for the Post on May 27, Ignatius has defended Pompeo’s fund-raising dinners at the lavish ceremonial rooms of the Department of State, which incidentally was one of the issues being investigated by the State Department’s Inspector General, Steve Linick.

Linick will not be around to complete his investigation, as we all know, because Pompeo requested that the president fire him.  Donald Trump was glad to do so, and merely wondered why it took Pompeo so long to ask.  Trump provided no reason for firing Linick and failed to honor the 30-day waiting period for such actions, both of which are required by law.  The mainstream media believe the laws that created the office of the Inspector General in 1978 are “murky,” but there is no question that both the president and the secretary of state violated the laws.  Department of State regulations, moreover, prohibit the use of Diplomatic Reception Rooms for functions that have a “partisan, political, or sectarian” purpose.  More than half of the invitees were from the corporate and media worlds.

Pompeo started hosting these dinners two years ago, when he was considering leaving his post to run for the Senate in his home state of Kansas.  These elite dinners are funded by U.S. taxpayers, but, in this case, the major purpose was to identify and recruit donors for this campaign, and to impress conservative media figures such as Ignatius who were central figures at these dinners.  Ignatius’ column provided the very response that Pompeo was seeking.  First of all, it carried the headline “Pompeo’s dinners are no scandal.”  Second, Ignatius challenged the notion that there was any misuse of public funds.  Fortunately, the Congress or the Office of the Inspector General will have the final word on these issues.

Inspector General Linick obviously didn’t agree with Ignatius, nor did members of the House Oversight and Foreign Affairs Committees who have requested documents related to the “Madison Dinners,” including guest lists and any ethics guidance Pompeo may have sought.  Pompeo has confirmed he requested the firing of Linick, but denied that he was aware of any investigations that targeted him.  This is hardly believable because Pompeo was well aware of the opposition within the department to his misuse of staffers to perform personal errands and, more importantly, his efforts to circumvent the congressional ban on continued weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.

Ignatius presumably anticipated criticism of his attendance at the Madison dinner because he proclaimed to “tell the truth, upside and down.  This is journalism, not war.”  Over the years, however, Ignatius has defended the CIA’s political assassination program, and argued that no investigation was necessary because “nobody had been killed.”  He never condemned the CIA training of death squads in Central America, including Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador.  He never deplored the CIA’s Phoenix operation during the Vietnam War, when the agency ran a paramilitary campaign of interrogation, torture, and assassination that targeted many innocent victims.  And he never favored accountability for agency operatives who manned the secret prisons and conducted the program of torture and abuse, such as the current CIA director Gina Haspel.

Ignatius even echoed the views of many of these operatives who dismissed the stewardship of former CIA director John Brennan and praised Trump’s appointment of Pompeo as CIA director in 2017. Ignatius noted the CIA’s unlawful activities during the Iraq War and the Global War on Terror, but argued that any period of discovery, let alone accountability,would weaken the CIA and cause serious morale problems. When Trump held his controversial public appearance at CIA headquarters in January 2017 on his first full day in office, Ignatius noted the visit was “well-received by the worker bees” and that the “country (including the CIA) will have to get used to” Trump’s “rambling braggadocio.”

Ignatius’s record belies the very claim of telling the “truth, upside and down.”  It is noteworthy that, on the very day the Washington Post published his column, the New York Times’s leading columnist, Thomas Friedman, headlined his oped “The Worst Secretary of State Ever.”

 

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Blaming the COVID-19 Pandemic on Too Many Humans:  a Critique of Overpopulation Ideology

A world gripped by a deadly virus has precipitated a deluge of punditry claiming to have found the primal cause of the pandemic. In a recent article Anthony Judge, for example, claims to have tapped into “the collective subconscious” to blame what he calls overpopulation. How well does this claim hold up?

Mr. Judge is concerned about “the epidemic of misinformation” regarding the cause of COVID-19 pandemic, “obscuring a neglected critical factor undermining global strategic viability.” Humanity, he posits, is “unconsciously endeavoring to communicate a vital message to itself…Collective Overpopulation Vitiating Individual Dreams.”

The problem of the pandemic for Mr. Judge has nothing to do with such ephemera as whether access to healthcare should be considered a human right, but something obvious only to the cognoscenti – there are just too many humans. The world’s epidemiologists and health experts, Mr. Judge admonishes, “have been lazily complicit” in not seeing overpopulation as the fundamental problem. Mr. Judge goes on to indict the world’s “international institutions” for being “so negligently complicit” of this “tragic form of ‘misinformation’” by making the “Big Lie” (his emphasis) of omitting the danger of overpopulation.

So, what is the connection between population and pandemic? Employing what he calls “root cause analysis,” Mr. Judge conflates “overpopulation” with “overcrowding.” The overcrowding he is concerned about is that found in “urban slums,” which he specifically cites in the article. That is, the overcrowding of poor people who cannot afford to live in what he calls the “sparsely populated areas.” Predictably, he does not cite the floor of the New York Stock exchange as an example of overcrowding.

Let’s test Mr. Judge’s hypothesis regarding the relationship between density of population and response to the pandemic. Take Belgium, where Mr. Judge lives. After the mini-state of San Marino, Belgium has the unfortunate distinction of having the highest COVID-19 death rate in the world at 82 deaths per 1000 people. Its population density is 974 people per square mile. In comparison, Singapore and Hong Kong are the two most densely populated territories in the world with 20,455 and 17,565 people/mi2 respectively, after the mini-territories of Macau and Monaco. Their death rates are only 23 and 4 per 1000 population, respectively. That is, Belgium has over 20 times the death rate of Hong Kong, while Hong Kong’s population density is over 18 times that of Belgium.

Overpopulation is blamed not only for pandemics but as the primary cause of the world’s myriad ills. Overpopulation, he judges, is also “a primary driver for recourse to narcotics and opioids.” Mr. Judge callously ignores poverty and myriad forms of discrimination as drivers for the sickness of substance abuse.

Consistent with those who espouse the overpopulation thesis, Mr. Judge yearns for an idyllic past when the planet was not as overrun by humans, say the Middle Ages. Since the 1300s, the world’s population has increased over 17-fold. But that much smaller population did not prevent the Black Death pandemic from taking an estimated 75-200 million lives back then.

In short, blaming the condition of humanity for pandemics is not supported by the facts. Densely populated places have succeeded well in containing COVID-19, while there have been far more devastating pandemics than the one we are suffering now, when there were far fewer of us on the planet.

Overpopulation ideology, as represented by Mr. Judge’s article, conflates overcrowding with overpopulation. If there were only three people in the world and they were are packed into a little cave, there would be overcrowding but not overpopulation. Mr. Judge’s sophistry and my critique are not new. Two hundred years ago, Karl Marx made a similar criticism of Thomas Malthus’ contention that the world was overpopulated. Malthus opposed the English Poor Laws because they relieved human suffering and thus encouraged poor people to reproduce. Malthus’ theory was a retrograde response to the French Revolution and the rise of the working class. Overpopulation ideology is misanthropic and reactionary in its origins and its modern expression.

Mr. Judge’s article is silent about our political system or economic order; it’s simply that there are too many people. Aside from being wrong, it begs the question, which people? The ones in slums? The poor? Thanks to Oxfam, we know just who the offending individuals are. A handful of multi-billionaires now have the same wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population.

The objection to overpopulation ideology is not just an intellectual one, but whether such an ideological framework promotes solutions. The ideology of overpopulation poses the wrong causes while obscuring the right solutions.

World population growth rates are precipitously declining and on a trajectory to stabilize this century, with the current rate at 1%. Meanwhile resource consumption continues to increase at a rate of 6 to 7%. Clearly, something beyond simple demographics are at play, and that is what overpopulation ideology obfuscates. The relations of power call to be addressed in our quest of a better world. And this is precisely what the ideology of overpopulation obscures to the benefit of the powerful few and to the detriment of the multitude of humanity.

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