Tomgram: Gottesdiener and Garcia, How to Dismantle This Country

Introductory Comments by Tom Engelhardt (Reprinted from

They say that imperial wars come home in all sorts of ways. Think of the Michigan that TomDispatch regular Laura Gottesdiener describes today as one curious example of that dictum. If you remember, in the spring of 2003, George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of that country’s autocratic ruler, Saddam Hussein. The invasion was launched with a “shock-and-awe” air show that was meant to both literally and figuratively “decapitate” the country’s leadership, from Saddam on down. At that time, there was another more anodyne term for the process that was also much in use, even if it has now faded from our vocabularies: “regime change.” And you remember how that all worked out, don’t you? A lot of Iraqi civilians — but no Iraqi leaders — were killed in shock-and-awe fashion that first night of the invasion and, as most Americans recall now that we’re in Iraq War 3.0, it didn’t get much better when the Bush administration’s proconsul in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer III, disbanded the Iraqi military and Saddam’s Baathist Party (a brilliant formula for launching an instant insurgency), appointed his own chosen rulers in Baghdad, and gave the Americans every sort of special privilege imaginable by curiously autocratic decree in the name of spreading democracy in the Middle East.

It now seems that a version of regime change, Iraqi-style, has come home to roost in parts of Michigan — but with a curious twist. Think of Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, as the L. Paul Bremer of that state. He’s essentially given himself regime-change-style powers, impermeable to a statewide recall vote, and begun dismissing — or, if you will, decapitating — the local governments of cities and school districts, appointing managers in their place. In other words, his homegrown version of regime change involves getting rid of local democracy and putting individual autocrats in power instead. What, you might ask yourself, could possibly go wrong, especially since the governor himself is going national to limn the glories of his version of austerity and autocratic politics?

As it happens, TomDispatch dispatched our ace reporter, Laura Gottesdiener, who has been traveling the underside of American life for this site, to check out what regime change in Michigan really looks like. As with all her reports, this time with photographer Eduardo García, she offers a grim but startling vision of where this country may be headed. Tom

A Magical Mystery Tour of American Austerity Politics 
One State’s Attempt to Destroy Democracy and the Environment 
By Laura Gottesdiener, with photos and reporting by Eduardo García

Something is rotten in the state of Michigan.

One city neglected to inform its residents that its water supply was laced with cancerous chemicals. Another dissolved its public school district and replaced it with a charter school system, only to witness the for-profit management company it hired flee the scene after determining it couldn’t turn a profit. Numerous cities and school districts in the state are now run by single, state-appointed technocrats, as permitted under an emergency financial manager law pushed through by Rick Snyder, Michigan’s austerity-promoting governor. This legislation not only strips residents of their local voting rights, but gives Snyder’s appointee the power to do just about anything, including dissolving the city itself — all (no matter how disastrous) in the name of “fiscal responsibility.”

If you’re thinking, “Who cares?” since what happens in Michigan stays in Michigan, think again. The state’s aggressive balance-the-books style of governance has already spread beyond its borders. In January, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie appointed bankruptcy lawyer and former Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr to be a “legal adviser” to Atlantic City. The Detroit Free Press described the move as “a state takeover similar to Gov. Rick Snyder’s state intervention in the Motor City.”

And this spring, amid the hullabaloo of Republicans entering the 2016 presidential race, Governor Snyder launched his own national tour to sell “the Michigan story to the rest of the country.” His trip was funded by a nonprofit (fed, naturally, by undisclosed donations) named “Making Government Accountable: The Michigan Story.”

To many Michiganders, this sounded as ridiculous as Jeb Bush launching a super PAC dubbed “Making Iraq Free: The Bush Family Story.”  Except Snyder wasn’t planning to enter the presidential rat race. Instead, he was attempting to mainstream Michigan’s form of austerity politics and its signature emergency management legislation, which stripped more than halfof the state’s African American residents of their local voting rights in 2013 and 2014.

As the governor jaunted around the country, Ann Arbor-based photographer Eduardo García and I decided to set out on what we thought of as our own two-week Magical Michigan Tour. And while we weren’t driving a specially outfitted psychedelic tour bus — we spent most of the trip in my grandmother’s 2005 Prius — our journey was nevertheless remarkably surreal. From the southwest banks of Lake Michigan to the eastern tips of the peninsula, we crisscrossed the state visiting more than half a dozen cities to see if there was another side to the governor’s story and whether Michigan really was, as one Detroit resident put it, “a massive experiment in unraveling U.S. democracy.”

Stop One: Water Wars in Flint

Just as we arrive, the march spills off the sidewalk in front of the city council building.

“Stop poisoning our children!” chants a little girl as the crowd tumbles down South Saginaw Street, the city’s main drag.  We’re in Flint, Michigan, a place that hit the headlines last year for its brown, chemical-laced, possibly toxic water.  A wispy white-haired woman waves a gallon jug filled with pee-colored liquid from her home tap. “They don’t care that they’re killing us!” she cries.

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A Flint resident at the march demanding clean water. Photo credit: Eduardo García

We catch up with Claire McClinton, the formidable if grandmotherly organizer of the Flint Democracy Defense League, as we approach the roiling Flint River.  It’s been a longtime dumping ground for the riverfront factories of General Motors and, as of one year ago today, the only source of the city’s drinking water.  On April 25, 2014, on the instruction of the city’s emergency manager, Flint stopped buying its supplies from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and started drawing water directly from the river, which meant a budgetary savings of $12 million a year. The downside: people started getting sick.

Since then, tests have detected E. coli and fecal bacteria in the water, as well as high levels of trihalomethanes, a carcinogenic chemical cocktail known as THMs. For months, the city concealed the presence of THMs, which over years can lead to increased rates of cancer, kidney failure, and birth defects. Still, it was obvious to local residents that something was up. Some of them were breaking out in mysterious rashes or experiencing bouts of severe diarrhea, while others watched as their eyelashes and hair began to fall out.

As we cross a small footbridge, McClinton recounts how the city council recently voted to “do all things necessary” to get Detroit’s water back.  The emergency manager, however, immediately overrode their decision, terming it “incomprehensible.”

“This is a whole different model of control,” she comments drily and explains that she’s now working with other residents to file an injunction compelling the city to return to the use of Detroit’s water. One problem, though: it has to be filed in Ingham County, home to Lansing, the state capital, rather than in Flint’s Genesee County, because the decision of a state-appointed emergency manager is being challenged. “Under state rule, that’s where you go to redress grievances,” she says. “Just another undermining of our local authority.”

In the meantime, many city residents remain frustrated and confused. A few weeks before the march, the city sent out two notices on the same day, packaged in the same envelope. One, printed in black-and-white, stated bluntly: “Our water system recently violated a drinking water standard.” The second, in flashy color, had this cheery message: “We are pleased to report that City of Flint water is safe and meets U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines… You can be confident that the water provided to you today meets all safety standards.” As one recipient of the notices commented, “I can only surmise that the point was to confuse us all.”

McClinton marches in silence for a few minutes as the crowd doubles back across the bridge and begins the ascent up Saginaw Street. Suddenly, a man jumps onto a life-size statue of a runner at the Riverfront Plaza and begins to cloak him in one of the group’s T-shirts.

“Honey, I don’t want you getting in any trouble!” his wife calls out to him.

He’s struggling to pull a sleeve over one of the cast-iron arms when the droning weeoo-weeooo-weeoo of a police siren blares, causing a brief frenzy until the man’s son realizes he’s mistakenly hit the siren feature on the megaphone he’s carrying.

After a few more tense moments, the crowd surges forward, leaving behind the statue, legs stretched in mid-stride, arms raised triumphantly, and on his chest a new cotton T-shirt with the slogan: “Water You Fighting For?”

Stop Two: The Tri-Cities of Cancer 

The next afternoon, we barrel down Interstate 75 into an industrial hellscape of smoke stacks, flare offs, and 18-wheelers, en route to another toxicity and accountability crisis. This one was caused by a massive tar sands refinery and dozens of other industrial polluters in southwest Detroit and neighboring River Rouge and Ecorse, cities which lie along the banks of the Detroit River.

Already with a slight headache from a haze of emissions, we meet photographer and community leader Emma Lockridge and her neighbor Anthony Parker in front of their homes, which sit right in the backyard of that tar sands refinery.

In 2006, the toxicity levels in their neighborhood, known simply by its zip code as “48217,” were 45 times higher than the state average. And that was before Detroit gave $175 million in tax breaks to the billion-dollar Marathon Petroleum Corporation to help it expand its refinery complex to process a surge of high-sulfur tar sands from Alberta, Canada.

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The Marathon tar sands refinery in southwest Detroit. Photo credit: Eduardo García

“We’re a donor zip,” explains Lockridge as she settles into the driver’s seat of our car. “We have all the industry and a tax base, but we get nothing back.”

We set off on a whirlwind tour of their neighborhood, where schools have been torn down and parks closed due to the toxicity of the soil, while so many residents have died of cancer that it’s hard for their neighbors to keep track. “We used to play on the swings here,” says Lockridge, pointing to a rusted yellow swing set in a fenced-off lot where the soil has tested for high levels of lead, arsenic, and other poisonous chemicals. “Jumping right into the lead.”

As in other regions of Michigan, people have been fleeing 48217 in droves. Here, however, the depopulation results not from deindustrialization, but from toxicity, thanks to an ever-expanding set of factories.  These include a wastewater treatment complex, salt mines, asphalt factories, cement plants, a lime and stone foundry, and a handful of steel mills all clustered in the tri-cities region.

As Lockridge and Parker explain, they have demanded that Marathon buy their homes. They have also implored the state to cap emission levels and have filed lawsuits against particularly toxic factories. In response, all they’ve seen are more factories given more breaks, while the residents of 48217 get none. Last spring, for example, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality permitted the AK Steel plant, located close to the neighborhood, toincrease its toxic emissions as much as 725 times. The approval, according to the Detroit Free Press, came after “Gov. Rick Snyder’s business-promoting agency worked for months behind the scenes” lobbying the Department of Environmental Quality.

“Look at this cute little tree out of nowhere over here!” Lockridge exclaims, slowing the car in front of a scrawny plant whose branches, in the midst of this industrial wasteland, bend under the weight of white blossoms.

“That tree ain’t gonna grow up,” Parker responds. “It’s dead already.”

“It’s trying,” Lockridge insists. “Aww, it’s kind of sad. It’s a Charlie Brown tree.”

The absurdity of life in such an environment is highlighted when we reach a half-mile stretch of sidewalk sandwiched between a massive steel mill and a coal-fired power plant that has been designated a “Wellness Walk.”

“Energize your Life!” implores the sign affixed to a chain-link fence surrounding the power plant. It’s an unlikely site for an exercise walk, given that the state’s health officials considerthis strip and the nearby park “the epicenter of the state’s asthma burden.”

After a sad laugh, we head for Zug Island, a Homeland Security-patrolled area populated by what look to be giant black vacuum cleaners but are actually blast furnaces. The island was named for millionaire Samuel Zug, who built a lavish mansion there only to discover that it was sinking into swampland. It is now home to U.S. Steel, the largest steel manufacturer in the nation.

On our way back, we make a final stop at Oakwood Heights, an almost entirely vacant and partially razed subdivision located on the other side of the Marathon plant. “This is the white area that was bought out,” says Lockridge. The scene is eerie: small residential streets lined by grassy fields and the occasional empty house. That Marathon paid residents to evacuate their homes in this predominantly white section of town, while refusing to do the same in the predominantly African American 48217, which sits closer to the refinery, strikes neither Lockridge and Parker nor their neighbors as a coincidence.

We survey the remnants of the former neighborhood: bundles of ragged newspapers someone was once supposed to deliver, a stuffed teddy bear abandoned on a wooden porch, and a childless triangle-shaped playground whose construction, a sign reads, was “made possible by generous donations from Marathon.”

As this particularly unmagical stop on our Michigan tour comes to an end, Parker says quietly, “I’ve got to get my family out of here.”

Lockridge agrees. “I just wish we had a refuge place we could go to while we’re fighting,” she says. “You see we’re surrounded.”

Stop Three: The Great White North

Not all of Michigan’s problems are caused by emergency management, but this sweeping new power does lie at the heart of many local controversies. Later that night we meet with retired Detroit city worker, journalist, and organizer Russ Bellant who has made himself something of an expert on the subject.

In 2011, he explains, Governor Snyder signed an emergency manager law known as Public Act 4. The impact of this law and its predecessor, Public Act 72, was dramatic. In the city of Pontiac, for instance, the number of public employees plummeted from 600 to 50. In Detroit, the emergency manager of the school district waged a six-year slash-and-burn campaign that, in the end, shuttered 95 schools. In Benton Harbor, the manager effectively dissolved the city government, declaring: “The fact of the matter is, the city manager is now gone. I am the city manager. I replace the financial director, so I’m the financial director and the city manager. I am the mayor and the commission. And I don’t need them.”

So in 2012, Bellant cancelled all his commitments in Detroit, packed his car full of chocolate pudding snacks, canned juices, and fliers and headed north to support a statewide campaign to repeal the law through a ballot referendum in that fall’s general election. For two months, he crisscrossed the upper reaches of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, the part of the state that people say looks like a hand, as well as the remote Upper Peninsula that borders Wisconsin and Canada.

“Seven or eight hours a day, I would just knock on doors,” he says.

In November, the efforts paid off and voters repealed the act, but the celebration was short-lived. Less than two months later, during a lame-duck session of the state legislature, Governor Snyder pushed through and signed Public Act 436, a broader version of the legislation that was referendum-proof. Since then, financial managers have continued to shut down fire departments, outsource police departments, sell off parking meters and public parks. In Flint, the manager even auctioned off the plastic Santa Claus that once adorned city hall, setting the initial bidding price at $5.

And here’s one fact of life in Michigan: emergency management is normally only imposed on majority-black cities. From 2013 to 2014, 52% of the African American residents in the state lived under emergency management, compared to only 2% of white residents. And yet the repeal vote against the previous version of the act was a demographic landslide: 75 out of 83 counties voted to nix the legislation, including all of Michigan’s northern, overwhelmingly white, rural counties. “I think people just internalized that P.A. 4 was undemocratic,” Bellant says.

That next morning, we travel north to the city of Alpena, a 97% whitelakeside town where Bellant knocked on doors and the recall was triumphant. The farther north we head, the more the landscape changes. We pass signs imploring residents to “Take Back America: Liberty Yes, Tyranny No.” Gas stations feature clay figurines of hillbillies drinking moonshine in bathtubs.

It’s almost evening when we arrive. We spend part of our visit at the Dry Dock, a dive bar overseen by a raspy-voiced bartender where all the political and demographic divides of the state — and, in many ways, the country — are on full display. Two masons are arguing about their union; the younger one likes the protections it provides, while his colleague ditched the local because he didn’t want to pay the dues. That move became possible only after Snyder signed controversial “right-to-work” legislation in 2012, allowing workers to opt-out of union dues and causing a sharp decline in union membership ever since.

Above their heads, the television screen projects intentionally terrifying images of the uprising in Baltimore in response to the police murder of Freddie Gray, an unarmed African American man. “The Bloods, the Crips, and the Guerrillas are out for the National Guard,” comments a carpenter about the unarmed protesters, a sneer of distain in his voice. “Not that I like the fucking cops, either,” he adds.

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The bartender of the Dry Dock plays pool with other regulars. Photo credit: Eduardo García

Throughout our visit, people repeatedly told us that Alpena “isn’t Detroit or Flint” and that they have absolutely no fear of the state seizing control of their sleepy, white, touristy city. When we press the question with the owner of a bicycle shop, the hostility rises in his voice as he explains: “Things just run the way they should here” — by which he means, of course, that down in Detroit and Flint, residents don’t run things the way they should.

Yet, misconceptions notwithstanding, the county voted to repeal Public Act 4 with a staggering 63% of those who turned out opting to strike down the law.

Reflecting Bellant’s feeling that locals grasped the law’s undemocratic nature in some basic way, even if it would never affect them personally, one resident offered this explanation: “When you think about living in a democracy, then this is like financial martial law… I know they say these cities need help, but it didn’t feel like something that would help.”

Stop Four: The Fugitive Task Force

The next day, as 2,000 soldiers from the 175th Infantry Regiment of the National Guard fanned out across Baltimore, we head for Detroit’s west side where, only 24 hours earlier, a law enforcement officer shot and killed a 20-year-old man in his living room.

A crowd has already gathered near his house in the early summer heat, exchanging condolences, waving signs, and jostling for position as news crews set up cameras and microphones for a press conference to come. Versions of what happened quickly spread: Terrance Kellom was fatally shot when officers swarmed his house to deliver an arrest warrant. The authorities claim that he grabbed a hammer, prompting the shooting; his father, Kevin,contends Terrance was unarmed and kneeling in front of him when he was shot several times, including once in the back.

Kellom is just one of the 489 people killed in 2015 in the United States by law enforcement officers. There is, however, a disturbing twist to Kellom’s case. He was not, in fact, killed by the police but by a federal agent working with a little known multi-jurisdictional interagency task force coordinated by the U.S. Marshals.

Similar task forces are deployed across the country and they all share the same sordid history: the Marshals have been hunting people ever since the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act compelled the agency to capture slaves fleeing north for freedom. One nineteenth-century newspaper account, celebrating the use of bloodhounds in such hunts, wrote: “The Cuban dog would frequently pull down his game and tear the runaway to pieces before the officers could come up.”

These days, Detroit’s task force has grown particularly active as budget cuts have decimated the local police department. Made up of federal Immigration and Customs officers, police from half a dozen local departments, and even employees of the Social Security Administration office, the Detroit Fugitive Apprehension Team has nabbed more than 15,000 people. Arrest rates have soared since 2012, the same year the local police budget was chopped by 20%. Even beyond the task force, the number of federal agents patrolling the city has risen as well. The Border Patrol, for example, has increased its presence in the region by tenfold over the last decade and just two weeks ago announced the launch of a new $14 million Detroit station.

Kevin Kellom approaches the barricade of microphones and begins speaking so quietly that the gathered newscasters crush into each other in an effort to catch what’s he’s saying. “They assassinated my son,” he whispers. “I want justice and I’m going to get justice.”

Yet today, six weeks after Terrance’s death, no charges have been brought against the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent who fired the fatal shot. Other law enforcement officers who have killed Michigan residents in recent years have similarly escaped punishment. Detroit police officer Joseph Weekley was videotaped killing seven-year-old Aiyana Jones with a submachine gun during a SWAT team raid on her home in 2010. He remains a member of the department. Ann Arbor police officer David Reid is alsoback on duty after fatally shooting 40-year-old artist and mother Aura Rosser in November 2014. The Ann Arbor police department ruled that a “justifiable homicide” because Rosser was holding a small kitchen knife during the encounter — a ruling that Rosser’s family members and city residents are contesting with an ongoing campaign calling for an independent investigation into her death.

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Residents march during a #BlackLivesMatter protest on May 1, 2015, in Ann Arbor to call for an independent investigation into Aura Rosser’s death. Photo credit: Eduardo García

And such deadly incidents continue. Since Kellom’s death, law enforcement officers have fatally shot at least three more Michigan residents — one outside the city of Kalamazoo, another near Lansing, and a third in Battle Creek.

Stop Five: The Unprofitable All-Charter School District

Our final stop is Muskegon Heights, a small city on the banks of Lake Michigan, home to perhaps the most spectacular educational debacle in recent history. Here’s the SparkNotes version. In 2012, members of the Muskegon Heights public school board were given two options: dissolve the district entirely or succumb to an emergency manager’s rule. On arrival, the manager announced that he was dissolving the public school district and forming a new system to be run by the New York-based for-profit charter school management company Mosaica Education. Two years later, that company broke its five-year contract and fled because, according to the emergency manager, “the profit just simply wasn’t there.”

And here’s a grim footnote to this saga: in 2012, in preparation for the new charter school district, cryptically named the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System, the emergency manager laid off every single school employee.

“We knew it was coming,” explained one of the city’s longtime elementary school teachers. She asked not to be identified, so I’ll call her Susan. “We received letters in the mail.”

Then, around one a.m. the night before the new charter school district was slated to open, she received a voicemail asking if she could teach the following morning. She agreed, arriving at Martin Luther King Elementary School for what would be the worst year in her more than two-decade career.

When we visit that school, a single-story brick building on the east side of town, the glass of the front door had been smashed and the halls were empty, save for two people removing air conditioning units. But in the fall of 2012, when Susan was summoned, Martin Luther King was still filled with students — and chaos. Schedules were in disarray. Student computers were broken. There were supply shortages of just about everything, even rolls of toilet paper. The district’s already barebones special education program had beenfurther gutted. The “new,” non-unionized teaching staff — about 10% of whom initially did not have valid teaching certificates — were overwhelmingly young, inexperienced, and white. (Approximately 75% of the town’s residents are African American.)

“Everything was about money, I felt, and everyone else felt it, too,” Susan says.

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The smashed glass of the front entrance of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, which closed after students fled the charter school district. Photo credit: Eduardo García 

With her salary slashed to less than $30,000, she picked up a second job at a nearby after-school program. Her health faltered. Instructed by the new administration never to sit down during class, a back condition worsened until surgery was required. The stress began to affect her short-term memory. Finally, in the spring, Susan sought medical leave and never came back.

She was part of a mass exodus. Advocates say that more than half the teachers were either fired, quit, or took medical leave before the 2012-2013 school year ended. Mosaica itself wasn’t far behind, breaking its contract at the end of the 2014 school year. The emergency manager said he understood the company’s financial assessment, comparing the school system to “abroke-down car.” That spring, Governor Snyder visited and called the district“a work in progress.”

Across the state, the education trend has been toward privatization andincreased control over local districts by the governor’s office, with results that are, to say the least, underwhelming. This spring, a report from The Education Trust, an independent national education nonprofit, warned that the state’s system had gone “from bad to worse.”

“We’re now on track to perform lower than the nation’s lowest-performing states,” the report’s author, Amber Arellano, told the local news.

Later that afternoon, we visited the city’s James Jackson Museum of African American History, where we sat with Dr. James Jackson, a family physician and longtime advocate of community-controlled public education in the city.

He explains that the city’s now-failing struggle for local control and quality education is part of a significantly longer history. Most of the town’s families originally arrived here in the first half of the twentieth century from the Jim Crow South, where public schools for Black students were not only abysmally underfunded, but also thwarted by censorship and outside governance, as historian Carter Goodwin Woodson explained in his groundbreaking 1933 study, The Mis-Education of the Negro. Well into the twentieth century, for example, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were barred from grade-school textbooks for being too aspirational. “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions,” Woodson wrote back then.

More than eight decades later, Dr. Jackson offered similar thoughts about the Muskegon Heights takeover as he led us through the museum, his bright yellow T-shirt reminding us to “Honor Black History Every Day 24/7 — 365.”

“We have to control our own education,” Jackson said, as we passed sepia newspaper clippings of civil rights marches and an 1825 bill of sale for Peggy and her son Jonathan, purchased for $371 by James Aiken of Warren County, Georgia. “Until we control our own school system, we can’t be properly educated.”

As we leave, we stop a moment to take in an electronic sign hanging in the museum’s window that, between announcements about upcoming book club meetings and the establishment’s hours, flashed this refrain in red letters:

The education of
Muskegon Heights
Belongs to the People
Not the governor

The following day, we finally arrived back in Detroit, our notebooks and iPhone audio records and camera memory cards filled to the brim, heads spinning from everything we had seen, our aging Prius-turned-tour-bus in serious need of an oil change.

While we had been bumping along on our Magical Michigan Tour, the national landscape had, in some ways, grown even more surreal. Bernie Sanders, the independent socialist senator from Vermont, announced that he was challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic ticket. Detroit neuroscientist Dr. Ben Carson — famous for declaring that Obamacare was “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery” — entered the Republican circus. And amid the turmoil, Governor Snyder’s style continued to attract attention, including from the editors of Bloomberg View, who toutedhis experience with “urban revitalization,” concluding: “His brand of politics deserves a wider audience.”

So buckle your seat belts and watch out. In some “revitalized” Bloombergian future, you, too, could flee your school district like the students and teachers of Muskegon Heights, or drink contaminated water under the mandate of a state-appointed manager like the residents of Flint, or be guaranteed toxic fumes to breathe like the neighbors of 48217, or get shot like Terrance Kellom by federal agents in your own living room. All you have to do is let Rick Snyder’s yellow submarine cruise into your neighborhood.

Laura Gottesdiener is a freelance journalist and the author of A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home. Her writing has appeared in Mother Jones, Al Jazeera, Guernica, Playboy,Rolling Stone, and frequently at TomDispatch.

Eduardo García is an Ann Arbor-based photographer and researcher focused on indigenous peoples in México, Mexican and Central American migration, disappearances, and social movements in Latin America.

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Copyright 2015 Laura Gottesdiener

This Billionaire Governor Taxed the Rich and Raised the Minimum Wage. Now, His State’s Economy Is One of the Best in the Country

By Carl Gibson, Reader Supported News

Mark_Dayton_MinnesotaThe next time your right-wing family member or former high school classmate posts a status update or tweet about how taxing the rich or increasing workers’ wages kills jobs and makes businesses leave the state, I want you to send them this article.

When he took office in January of 2011, Minnesota governor Mark Dayton inherited a $6.2 billion budget deficit and a 7 percent unemployment rate from his predecessor, Tim Pawlenty, the soon-forgotten Republican candidate for the presidency who called himself Minnesota’s first true fiscally-conservative governor in modern history. Pawlenty prided himself on never raising state taxes – the most he ever did to generate new revenue was increase the tax on cigarettes by 75 cents a pack. Between 2003 and late 2010, when Pawlenty was at the head of Minnesota’s state government, he managed to add only 6,200 more jobs.

During his first four years in office, Gov. Dayton raised the state income tax from 7.85 to 9.85 percent on individuals earning over $150,000, and on couples earning over $250,000 when filing jointly – a tax increase of $2.1 billion. He’s also agreed to raise Minnesota’s minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by 2018, and passed a state law guaranteeing equal pay for women. Republicans like state representative Mark Uglem warned against Gov. Dayton’s tax increases, saying, “The job creators, the big corporations, the small corporations, they will leave. It’s all dollars and sense to them.” The conservative friend or family member you shared this article with would probably say the same if their governor tried something like this. But like Uglem, they would be proven wrong.

Between 2011 and 2015, Gov. Dayton added 172,000 new jobs to Minnesota’s economy – that’s 165,800 more jobs in Dayton’s first term than Pawlenty added in both of his terms combined. Even though Minnesota’s top income tax rate is the 4th-highest in the country, it has the 5th-lowest unemployment rate in the country at 3.6 percent. According to 2012-2013 U.S. census figures, Minnesotans had a median income that was $10,000 larger than the U.S. average, and their median income is still $8,000 more than the U.S. average today.

By late 2013, Minnesota’s private sector job growth exceeded pre-recession levels, and the state’s economy was the 5th fastest-growing in the United States. Forbes even ranked Minnesota the9th-best state for business (Scott Walker’s “Open For Business” Wisconsin came in at a distant #32 on the same list). Despite the fearmongering over businesses fleeing from Dayton’s tax cuts, 6,230 more Minnesotans filed in the top income tax bracket in 2013, just one year after Dayton’s tax increases went through. As of January 2015, Minnesota has a $1 billion budget surplus, and Gov. Dayton has pledged to reinvest more than one third of that money into public schools. And according to Gallup, Minnesota’s economic confidence is higher than any other state

Gov. Dayton didn’t accomplish all of these reforms by shrewdly manipulating people – this article describes Dayton’s astonishing lack of charisma and articulateness. He isn’t a class warrior driven by a desire to get back at the 1 percent – Dayton is a billionaire heir to the Target fortune. It wasn’t just a majority in the legislature that forced him to do it – Dayton had to work with a Republican-controlled legislature for his first two years in office. And unlike his Republican neighbor to the east, Gov. Dayton didn’t assert his will over an unwilling populace by creating obstacles between the people and the vote – Dayton actually created an online voter registration system, making it easier than ever for people to register to vote.

The reason Gov. Dayton was able to radically transform Minnesota’s economy into one of the best in the nation is simple arithmetic. Raising taxes on those who can afford to pay more will turn a deficit into a surplus. Raising the minimum wage will increase the median income. And in a state where education is a budget priority and economic growth is one of the highest in the nation, it only makes sense that more businesses would stay.

It’s official – trickle-down economics is bullshit. Minnesota has proven it once and for all. If you believe otherwise, you are wrong.

Carl Gibson, 27, is co-founder of US Uncut, a nonviolent grassroots movement that mobilized thousands to protest corporate tax dodging and budget cuts in the months leading up to Occupy Wall Street. Carl and other US Uncut activists are featured in the documentary We’re Not Broke, which premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Carl is also the author of How to Oust a Congressman, an instructional manual on getting rid of corrupt members of Congress and state legislatures based on his experience in the 2012 elections in New Hampshire. He lives in Sacramento, California.

Eric Holder: The Reason Robert Rubin Isn’t Behind Bars

Reprinted from The Center for Economic and Policy Research under a Creative Commons License

By Dean Baker

The big news item in Washington last week was Attorney General Eric Holder decision to resign. Undoubtedly there are positives to Holder’s tenure as attorney general, but one really big minus is his decision not to prosecute any of the Wall Street crew whose actions helped to prop up the housing bubble. As a result of this failure, the main culprits walked away incredibly wealthy even as most of the country has yet to recover from the damage they caused.

Just to be clear, it is not against the law to be foolish and undoubtedly many of the Wall Streeters were foolish. They likely believed that house prices would just keep rising forever. But the fact that they were foolish doesn’t mean that they didn’t also break the law. It’s likely that most of the Enron felons believed in Enron’s business model. After all, they held millions of dollars of Enron stock. But they still did break the law to make the company appear profitable when it wasn’t.

In the case of the banks, there are specific actions that were committed that violated the law. Mortgage issuers like Countrywide and Ameriquest knowingly issued mortgages based on false information. They then sold these mortgages to investment banks like Citigroup and Goldman Sachs who packaged them into mortgage backed securities. These banks knew that many of the mortgages being put into the pools for these securities did not meet their standards, but passed them along anyhow. And, the bond-rating agencies rated these securities as investment grade, giving many the highest possible ratings, even though they knew their quality did not warrant such ratings.

All three of these actions – knowingly issuing mortgages based on false information, deliberately packaging fraudulent mortgages into mortgage backed securities, and deliberately inflating the ratings for mortgage backed securities – are serious crimes that potentially involve lengthy prison sentences. Holder opted not to pursue criminal cases against the individuals involved.

In the last couple of years Holder did bring civil cases against these banks that led to multibillion settlements. These settlements won big headlines that gave the appearance of being tough on the banks.

If we look at the issue more closely the rationale for these settlements gets pretty shaky. When Bank of America or J.P. Morgan has to pay out several billion dollars in penalties in 2013 or 2014, the people being hit most immediately are current shareholders and to a lesser extent top management. Since stock turns over frequently, the overlap between the group of people who hold these banks’ stock today and the people who benefited from the profits racked up in the bubble years will be limited. This means for the most part the fines are hitting people who did not profit from the wrong doing.

The same story holds for the top executives. Insofar as these are different people from those in charge in the bubble years (this is mostly the case), they can rightly tell their boards that they should not be held responsible for the wrongdoing of their predecessors. As a result, boards are likely to compensate top management if they fail to hit bonus targets due to the fines. This just means more of a hit to current shareholders. So the people who profited from criminal acts get to keep their money, while Holder can boast about nailing people who had nothing to do with the crime.

Had Holder treated this as a normal criminal matter he would have looked to build cases from the bottom up. This means finding specific examples of mortgage agents issuing obviously fraudulent mortgages, cases where these mortgages got bundled into securities at investment banks, and then marked as investment grade by the rating agencies.

The people involved would then be pressed to say whether they are either buffoons or crooks. Most probably would not pass as the former. The next question is why they decided to break the law. When you get people to admit that they were acting on instructions from their bosses, you then ask the bosses whether they want to spend many years in jail or would prefer to explain why they thought it was a good idea to commit fraud. (This is the pattern the Justice Department is pursuing in going after illegal campaign contributions to Washington Mayor Vincent Gray.)

We can never know this pattern of prosecution would have nailed big fish like Goldman’s Lloyd Blankfein or Citigroup’s Robert Rubin. We do know that Holder never even tried. As a result the Wall Streeters who profited most from illegal acts in the bubble years got to keep their haul. This is the message that bankers will take away going forward. This virtually guarantees ongoing corruption in finance.

AUTHOR_Dean_BakerDean Baker is the author of The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive, Taking Economics Seriously, False Profits: Recovering from the Bubble Economy, Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy, The United States Since 1980, The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer, Social Security: The Phony Crisis (with Mark Weisbrot), and The Benefits of Full Employment (with Jared Bernstein). He was the editor of Getting Prices Right: The Debate Over the Consumer Price Index, which was a winner of a Choice Book Award as one of the outstanding academic books of the year. He appears frequently on TV and radio programs, including CNN, CBS News, PBS NewsHour, and National Public Radio. His blog, Beat the Press, features commentary on economic reporting. He received his B.A. from Swarthmore College and his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan.

When Hope Becomes Revolutionary: Change in a Time of Climate Change

Reprinted from

Editor’s Note: Rebecca Solnit, is one of the best writers in America because she’s one of the most original thinkers. Here she reminds us of the revolutionary power of hope, and how hope overturns old regimes from the bottom up.

By Rebecca Solnit

There have undoubtedly been stable periods in human history, but you and your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents never lived through one, and neither will any children or grandchildren you may have or come to have. Everything has been changing continuously, profoundly — from the role of women to the nature of agriculture. For the past couple of hundred years, change has been accelerating in both magnificent and nightmarish ways.

Yet when we argue for change, notably changing our ways in response to climate change, we’re arguing against people who claim we’re disrupting a stable system.  They insist that we’re rocking the boat unnecessarily.

I say: rock that boat. It’s a lifeboat; maybe the people in it will wake up and start rowing. Those who think they’re hanging onto a stable order are actually clinging to the wreckage of the old order, a ship already sinking, that we need to leave behind.

As you probably know, the actual oceans are rising — almost eight inches since 1880, and that’s only going to accelerate. They’re also acidifying, because they’re absorbing significant amounts of the carbon we continue to pump into the atmosphere at record levels.  The ice that covers the polar seas is shrinking, while the ice shields that cover Antarctica and Greenland are melting. The water locked up in all the polar ice, as it’s unlocked by heat, is going to raise sea levels staggeringly, possibly by as much as 200 feet at some point in the future, how distant we do not know.  In the temperate latitudes, warming seas breed fiercer hurricanes.

The oceans are changing fast, and for the worse. Fish stocks are dying off, as are shellfish. In many acidified oceanic regions, their shells are actually dissolving or failing to form, which is one of the scariest, most nightmarish things I’ve ever heard. So don’t tell me that we’re rocking a stable boat on calm seas. The glorious 10,000-year period of stable climate in which humanity flourished and then exploded to overrun the Earth and all its ecosystems is over.

But responding to these current cataclysmic changes means taking on people who believe, or at least assert, that those of us who want to react and act are gratuitously disrupting a stable system that’s working fine. It isn’t stable. It isworking fine — in the short term and the most limited sense — for oil companies and the people who profit from them and for some of us in the particularly cushy parts of the world who haven’t been impacted yet by weather events like, say, the recent torrential floods in Japan or southern Nevada and Arizona, or the monsoon versions of the same that have devastated parts of India and Pakistan, or the drought that has mummified my beloved California, or the wildfires of Australia.

The problem, of course, is that the people who most benefit from the current arrangements have effectively purchased a lot of politicians, and that a great many of the rest of them are either hopelessly dim or amazingly timid. Most of the Democrats recognize the reality of climate change but not the urgency of doing something about it. Many of the Republicans used to — John McCain has done an amazing about-face from being a sane voice on climate to a shrill denier — and they present a horrific obstacle to any international treaties.

Put it this way: in one country, one party holding 45 out of 100 seats in one legislative house, while serving a minority of the very rich, can basically block what quite a lot of the other seven billion people on Earth want and need, because a two-thirds majority in the Senate must consent to any international treaty the U.S. signs. Which is not to say much for the president, whose drill-baby-drill administration only looks good compared to the petroleum servants he faces, when he bothers to face them and isn’t just one of them. History will despise them all and much of the world does now, but as my mother would have said, they know which side their bread is buttered on.

As it happens, the butter is melting and the bread is getting more expensive. Global grain production is already down several percent thanks to climate change, says a terrifying new United Nations report. Declining crops cause food shortages and rising food prices, creating hunger and even famine for the poorest on Earth, and also sometimes cause massive unrest.  Rising bread prices were one factor that helped spark the Arab Spring in 2011. Anyone who argues that doing something about global warming will be too expensive is dodging just how expensive unmitigated climate change is already proving to be.

It’s only a question of whether the very wealthy or the very poor will pay.  Putting it that way, however, devalues all the nonmonetary things at stake, from the survival of myriad species to our confidence in the future. And yeah, climate change is here, now. We’ve already lost a lot and we’re going to lose more, but there’s a difference between terrible and apocalyptic.  We still have some control over how extreme it gets. That’s not a great choice, but it’s the choice we have. There’s still a window open for action, but it’s closing. As the Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Society, Michel Jarraud, bluntly put it recently, “We are running out of time.”

New and Renewable Energies

The future is not yet written. Look at the world we’re in at this very moment. The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline was supposed to be built years ago, but activists catalyzed by the rural and indigenous communities across whose land it would go have stopped it so far, and made what was supposed to be a done deal a contentious issue. Activists changed the outcome.

Fracking has been challenged on the state level, and banned in townships and counties from upstate New York to central California. (It has also been banned in two Canadian provinces, France, and Bulgaria.) The fossil-fuel divestment movement has achieved a number of remarkable victories in its few bare years of existence and more are on the way. The actual divestments and commitments to divest fossil fuel stocks by various institutions ranging from the city of Seattle to the British Medical Association are striking. But the real power of the movement lies in the way it has called into question the wisdom of investing in fossil fuel corporations.  Even mainstream voices like the British Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee and publications like Forbes are now beginning to question whether they are safe places to put money. That’s a sea change.

Renewable energy has become more efficient, technologically sophisticated, and cheaper — the price of solar power in relation to the energy it generates has plummeted astonishingly over the past three decades and wind technology keeps getting better. While Americans overall are not yet curtailing their fossil-fuel habits, many individuals and communities are choosing other options, and those options are becoming increasingly viable. A Stanford University scientist has proposed a plan to allow each of the 50 states to run on 100% renewable energy by 2050.

Since, according to the latest report of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, fossil fuel reserves still in the ground are “at least four times larger than could safely be burned if global warming is to be kept to a tolerable level,” it couldn’t be more important to reach global agreements to do things differently on a planetary scale.  Notably, most of those carbon reserves must be left untapped and the modest steps already taken locally andad hoc show that such changes are indeed possible and that an encouraging number of us want to pursue them.

We can do it. And we is the key word here. The world is not going to be saved by individual acts of virtue; it’s going to be saved, if it is to be saved, by collective acts of social and political change. That’s why I’m marching this Sunday with tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of others in New York City — to pressure the United Nations as it meets to address climate change. That’s why people who care about the future state of our planet will also be marching and demonstrating in New Delhi, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Berlin, Melbourne, Kathmandu, Dublin, Manila, Seoul, Mumbai, Istanbul, and so many smaller places.

Mass movements work. Unarmed citizens have changed the course of history countless times in the modern era. When we come together as civil society, we have the capacity to transform policies, change old ways of doing things, and sometimes even topple regimes. And it is about governments. Like it or not, the global treaties, compacts, and agreements we need can only be made by governments, and governments will make those agreements when the pressure to do so is greater than the pressure not to.  We can and must be that pressure.

The Long View from One Window

I lived in the same apartment for 25 years, moving into a poor but thriving black community in 1981 and out of the far more affluent, paler, and less neighborly place it had become in 2006. A lot of people moved in and out in that period, many of them staying only a year or two. Those transients always seemed to believe that the neighborhood they were passing through was a stable one. You had to be slower than change and stick around to see it. I saw it and it helped me learn how to take a historical view of things.

It’s crazy that anyone speaks as if our world is not undergoing rapid change, when the view from the window called history shows nothing but transformation, both incremental and dramatic. Exactly 25 years ago this month, Eastern Europe was astir.  Remember that back then there was still a Soviet bloc, and a Soviet Union, and an Iron Curtain, and a Berlin Wall, and a Cold War. Most people thought those were permanent fixtures, but in the summer of 1989, Hungary decided to let East Germans (who were permitted to travel freely to that communist country) stream over to the West.

Thousands of people, tired of life in the totalitarian east, fled. Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, as well as East Germany, were already electrified by a resurgent civil society and activist communities that had dared to organize in the face of repression. At the time, politicians and pundits in the West were making careers out of explaining, among so many other things, why German reunification wasn’t going to happen in anyone’s lifetime. And they probably would have been proven right if people had stayed home and done nothing, if they hadn’t begun to hope and acted on that hope.

The bureaucrats on both sides of the Berlin Wall were still talking about the possibility of demilitarizing it when citizens showed up en masse and the guards began abandoning their posts. On that epochal night of November 9, 1989, the people made whole what had been broken. The lesson: showing up is half the battle.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had been so unnerved by developments in the Soviet Union’s Eastern European holdings that she went to Moscow, two months before the fall of the wall, to implore Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to prevent any such thing. That was early September 1989. “No dramatic change in the situation in Czechoslovakia can be expected,” predicted a Czech official two months before a glorious popular uprising, remembered as the Velvet Revolution, erupted and abolished the government in which he was an official.

There are three things to note about those changes in 1989. First, most people in power dismissed the possibility that such extraordinary change could happen or deplored what it might bring. They were comfortable enough with things as they were, even though the status quo was several kinds of scary and awful. In other words, the status quo likes the status quo and dislikes change. Second, everything changed despite them, thanks to grassroots organizing and civil society, forces that — we are now regularly assured — are pointless and irrelevant. Third, the world that existed then has been largely swept away: the Soviet Union, the global alignments of that time, the idea of a binary world of communism and capitalism, and the policies that had kept us on the brink of nuclear annihilation for decades. We live in a very different world now (though nuclear weapons are still a terrible problem). Things do change.

Maybe, in fact, there’s a fourth point to note as well. That, important as they were, the front-page stories about the liberation of Eastern Europe weren’t what mattered most all those years ago. After all, hidden away deep inside theNew York Times that autumn, you can find a dozen or so articles about global warming, as the newly recognized phenomenon was then called. And small as they were, anyone reading them now can see that so long ago the essential problem and peril to our world was already clear.

The thought of what might have been accomplished, had a people’s movement arisen then to face global warming, could break your heart.  That, after all, was still a time when the Earth’s atmosphere held just above 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide, the maximum safe level for a sustainable survivable planet, not the 400 parts per million of the present moment (“142% of the pre-industrial era” level of carbon, the World Meteorological Organization notes). In other words, we’ve been steadily filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gases and so imperiling the planet and humanity since we knew what we were doing.

The Great Smog and the Big Wind

In that fall a quarter of a century ago, the world changed profoundly right before our eyes. Then we settled back into the short-term, ahistorical view that things are really pretty stable, that ordinary people have no power, and that the world can’t be changed. With that in mind, it’s worth looking at Germany today. Maybe because Germans know better than us that things can change for the worse or the better fast, that the world is not a stable and settled place, and that we do shape it, they have been willing to change.

At one point last spring, cold, cloudy Germany managed to get almost 75% of its electricity from renewable sources. Scotland — cold, gray, oil-rich Scotland! — is on track to achieve 100% renewable electrical generation by 2020 and has already hit the 40% mark. Spain now generates about half its electricity through clean and renewable sources. Other European countries have similar accomplishments. In fact, many of the changes that we in the United States will be marching for this Sunday have already begun happening, sometimes on a significant scale, elsewhere.

To remember how radical this new Europe is, recall that most of these places were burning coal not just in power plants or factories but in homes, too, not so many decades ago. Everyone deplores the horrific air of Beijing and other Chinese cities now, but few remember that many European cities were similarly foul with smoke and smog from the industrial revolution into the postwar era. In December 1952, for instance, the “Great Smog” of London reduced daytime visibility to a few yards and killed about 4,000 people in three days.

A decade before that, in response to the war Germany started, North Americans radically reduced their use of private vehicles and gasoline and planted more than 20 million victory gardens, producing vast quantities of food by non-industrial means. We have done that; we could (and must) do it again.

At least, we don’t burn coal in our homes any more, and in the U.S. we’ve retired 178 coal-fired power plants, phasing out many more, and prevented many new ones from being built. The renewable energy sources that were, people insisted, too minor or unreliable or expensive or new are now beginning to work well, and the price to produce energy in such a fashion is dropping rapidly.  UBS, the European investment giant, recently counseled that power plants and centralized power generation are no longer good investments, since decentralized renewables are likely to replace them.

Of course, Germany and Britain are still burning coal, and Poland remains a giant coal mine.  Europe is not a perfect renewable energy paradise, just a part of the world that demonstrates the viability of changing how we produce and consume energy. We are already changing, even if not fast enough, not by a long shot, at least not yet. The same goes for divesting from fossil-fuel investments, even though dozens of universities, cities, religious institutions, and foundations have already committed to doing so, and some have by now actually purged their portfolios.  The excuse that change is impossible is no longer available, because many places and entities have already changed.

Last Glimmers

If you want to know how potentially powerful you are, ask your enemies. The misogynists who attack feminism and try to intimidate feminists into silence only demonstrate in a roundabout way that feminism really is changing the world; they are the furious backlash and so the proof that something meaningful is at stake. The climate movement is similarly upsetting a lot of powerful people and institutions; to grasp that, you just have to look at the tsunamis of money spent opposing specific measures and misinforming the public. The carbon barons are demonstrating that we could change the world and that they don’t want us to.

We are powerful and need to become more so in the next year as a major conference in Paris approaches in December 2015 where the climate agreements we need could be hammered out. Or not. This is, after all, a sequel to the Copenhagen conference of 2009, where representatives of many smaller and more vulnerable nations, as well as citizens’ groups, were eager for a treaty that took on climate change in significant ways, only to have their hopes crushed by the recalcitrant governments of the United States and China.

Right now, we are in a churning sea of change, of climate change, of subtle changes in everyday life, of powerful efforts by elites to serve themselves and damn the rest of us, and of increasingly powerful activist and social-movement campaigns to make a world that benefits more beings, human and otherwise, in the longer term. Every choice you make aligns you with one set of these forces or another. That includes doing nothing, which means aligning yourself with the worst of the status quo dragging us down in that ocean of carbon and consumption.

To make personal changes is to do too little. Only great movements, only collective action can save us now. Only is a scary word, but when the ship is sinking, it can be an encouraging one as well. It can hold out hope. The world has changed again and again in ways that, until they happened, would have been considered improbable by just about everyone on the planet. It is changing now and the direction is up to us.

There will be another story to be told about what we did a quarter century after civil society toppled the East Bloc regimes, what we did in the pivotal years of 2014 and 2015. All we know now is that it is not yet written, and that we who live at this very moment have the power to write it with our lives and acts.

A TomDispatch regular, Rebecca Solnit has 16 books out, the latest of which is the indie bestseller Men Explain Things to Me.   

Copyright 2014 Rebecca Solnit

Feds Set to Open Fracking Floodgates in California Based on One Flawed Study

Reprinted from Common Dreams under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License

Report raises grave concerns about fracking pollution’s threat to state’s air and water, say opponents, and also highlights fact that government officials have never collected the data needed to determine extent of danger and future destruction

(Image: Global Exchange)

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has put the ecosystems, water resources, and residents of California at urgent risk, expert critics are warning, by accepting a failed scientific review of the dangers of fracking in the state as a basis to begin issuing permits for the controversial gas drilling technique as soon as next year.

The BLM-commissioned study was conducted by the California Council on Science and Technology and came in response to a lawsuit brought by two environmental groups—the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club—who objected to the leasing of public land in California to oil and gas companies for the drilling process also known as hydraulic fracturing—which injects water, sand, and chemicals deep into the earth to release fossil fuel deposits trapped in shale formations. A federal judge ordered the study in 2013 after ruling that the BLM had violated state law by issuing oil leases in Monterey County, Calif., without considering fracking’s environmental risks.

The findings of the report, according to the BLM, conclude that no serious dangers were found and signaled that fracking licenses could be issued on federal lands for drilling in 2015. Jim Kenna, the BLM’s California state director, told reporters on a media call that the report would allow state regulators to authorized fracking while also monitoring for safety, environmental impacts, and health concerns.

But as the Los Angeles Times points out, even the independent research organization that conducted the survey on which the decision was based says the study had severe shortcomings and lacked key metrics.

[The report] authors noted that they had little time and scant information on which to base conclusions, citing widespread “data gaps” and inadequate scientific resources for a more thorough study.

For example, the report found no evidence of water contamination from fracking in California, but the scientist directing the research, Jane Long, said researchers also had no data on the quality of water near fracking sites.

“We can only tell you what the data we could get says,” said Long, a former director at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “We can’t tell you what we don’t know.”

Environmental groups say the flaws of report are glaring—demonstrating a rushed process and an inadequate survey of data—and slammed the BLM for indicating that fracking leases would be approved based on such flimsy and inconclusive evidence.

“This report raises grave concerns about fracking pollution’s threat to California’s air and water, but it also highlights the fact that government officials have never collected the data needed to determine the extent of the damage in our state,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “A few months of incomplete data simply can’t support a federal decision to resume selling off our public lands in California to oil companies. Using this report as a basis for continued fracking in California is illogical and illegal.”

The poverty of the report would not be so bad, according to Siegel, if the coming decisions based on its findings were not so profound.

“How can we count on a fair and unbiased process for evaluating the decision to resume leasing when the head of California BLM has predetermined the outcome?” she asked. “First we get the verdict, and then we get the trial.”

According to a review of the study by the San Francisco Chronicle, fracking in California may well, in fact, “endanger groundwater” in the state. The newspaper reports:

The report found that half of the oil wells fracked in the state lie within 2,000 feet of the surface, close to aquifers. Hydraulic fracturing uses a high-pressure blend of water, sand and chemicals to crack rocks containing oil or natural gas. Those cracks can sometimes extend as far up as 1,969 feet – not far from the surface.

Fracking chemicals, some of them toxic, could migrate along the cracks and leach into drinking water, according to the report. There are no recorded cases of that happening in California, the authors note, but it remains a possibility needing further study.

“In California, hydraulic fracturing is occurring at relatively shallow depths and presents an inherent risk for fractures to intersect nearby aquifers,” reads the report, from the California Council on Science and Technology.

Water wells in Kern County, where most of California’s fracking takes place, lie 600 feet to 800 feet below the surface, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

In its analysis, the Center for Biological Diversity listed the federal review’s most disturbing conclusions:

  • Fracking in California happens at much shallower levels than elsewhere, and the report notes that, “Hydraulic fracturing at shallow depths poses a greater potential risk to water resources because of its proximity to groundwater and the potential for fractures to intersect nearby aquifers.”
  • The study notes that investigators “could not determine the groundwater quality near many hydraulic fracturing operations and found that existing data was insufficient to evaluate the extent to which contamination may have occurred.”
  • Some fracking chemicals used in California are “acutely toxic to mammals,” the report says, while also noting that “No information could be found about the toxicity of about a third of the chemicals and few of the chemicals have been evaluated to see if animals or plants would be harmed by chronic exposure.”
  • The report says that “Current practice and testing requirements do not necessarily protect against adding produced water contaminated with hydraulic fracturing fluid to water used in agriculture.”

“How Social Media Silences Debate”

According to a new report by Pew Research Center and Rutgers University, social media are not quite the force for progressive change that many of us would wish. It’s perhaps not too surprising after all that, once again, the Internet simply amplifies many of the strongest qualities already dominant in human nature.

The Internet might be a useful tool for activists and organizers, in episodes from the Arab Spring to the Ice Bucket Challenge. But over all, it has diminished rather than enhanced political participation, according to new data.

Social media, like Twitter and Facebook, has the effect of tamping down diversity of opinion and stifling debate about public affairs. It makes people less likely to voice opinions, particularly when they think their views differ from those of their friends, according to a report published Tuesday by researchers at Pew Research Center and Rutgers University.

The researchers also found that those who use social media regularly are more reluctant to express dissenting views in the offline world.

The Internet, it seems, is contributing to the polarization of America, as people surround themselves with people who think like them and hesitate to say anything different. Internet companies magnify the effect, by tweaking their algorithms to show us more content from people who are similar to us.

Read the full article here:
How Social Media Silences Debate

“A Great Leader Doesn’t Just Occupy The Middle Ground”

Here are some tough words about the Obama presidency from Cornell West, who argues persuasively that the fetish for the middle ground in politics often makes for poor leadership.

In the interview Thomas Frank asks West, “What on earth ails the man? Why can’t he fight the Republicans? Why does he need to seek a grand bargain?”

West replies:

“I think Obama, his modus operandi going all the way back to when he was head of the [Harvard] Law Review, first editor of the Law Review and didn’t have a piece in the Law Review. He was chosen because he always occupied the middle ground. He doesn’t realize that a great leader, a statesperson, doesn’t just occupy middle ground. They occupy higher ground or the moral ground or even sometimes the holy ground. But the middle ground is not the place to go if you’re going to show courage and vision. And I think that’s his modus operandi. He always moves to the middle ground. It turned out that historically, this was not a moment for a middle-ground politician. We needed a high-ground statesperson and it’s clear now he’s not the one.”

West also says:

“He posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency, a national security presidency. The torturers go free. The Wall Street executives go free. The war crimes in the Middle East, especially now in Gaza, the war criminals go free. And yet, you know, he acted as if he was both a progressive and as if he was concerned about the issues of serious injustice and inequality and it turned out that he’s just another neoliberal centrist with a smile and with a nice rhetorical flair. And that’s a very sad moment in the history of the nation because we are—we’re an empire in decline. Our culture is in increasing decay. Our school systems are in deep trouble. Our political system is dysfunctional. Our leaders are more and more bought off with legalized bribery and normalized corruption in Congress and too much of our civil life. You would think that we needed somebody—a Lincoln-like figure who could revive some democratic spirit and democratic possibility.”

Read the full interview here:

Cornel West: “He posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency”

Gasland Update: “Video of the Week”

Here’s Josh Fox’s latest update on Gasland. He lays out some more evidence for — among other things — the connection between fracking and the pollution of wells.

NBC Pulls Its Best Journalist from Gaza Just as Israel Invades

Reprinted from Foreign Policy in Focus under a Creative Commons License


News of the long-anticipated ground attack on Gaza has just broken. Israeli troopshave invaded northern Gaza, vowing to protect Israelis and destroy Hamas—regardless of the human costs to Palestinian civilians. El Wafa Rehabilitation Hospital, the only rehab center in Gaza, has been destroyed by Israeli bombs. Four more small children were killed by an airstrike in eastern Gaza City. Israeli tanks are on the move into the Strip.

And now, with the war threatening to spin out of control, the U.S. public has lost one of its most trustworthy reporters in the embattled Gaza Strip. Citing transparently disingenuous “security concerns,” NBC has decided to remove Ayman Mohyeldin—who has been reporting from Gaza for years—from his post and ordered him to leave Gaza immediately.

Mohyeldin’s coverage has been even-handed, careful, and comprehensive. His coverage of one of the most recent of the many horror stories of the current war against Gaza was a model for what journalism should look like.

On July 16, carefully targeted Israeli strikes killed four little boys on the Gaza beach. Cousins from the Bakr family, and inseparable, the boys were 9-year-old Ismael, 10-year-olds Ahed and Zakaria, and 11-year-old Mohamed. They were playing on the beach, in front of the Gaza hotel where most foreign journalists are staying.

Ayman Mohyeldin had been playing soccer with the boys just a few minutes before the attack. He live-tweeted the horror in real time, clearly shaken to the core himself. “Moutaz Bakr, 1 of the boys who survived #Israeli shelling, was shaking w a broken arm, blood shot eyes, says he saw 3 of his friends killed,” he tweeted. Across social media platforms and in his work for NBC and other international outlets, Mohyeldin kept the coverage at the human level, and brought the reality of the war home to perhaps more people in the United States than any other single journalist.

Mohyeldin was experienced in reporting from the region during some of its most difficult periods. At Al Jazeera English, his reporting of the 2008-09 Israeli assault on Gaza—which resulted in the killing of more than 1,400 Palestinians—was widely praised. So was his coverage of the Tahrir Square events in Cairo’s Arab Spring.

And now his powerful coverage of this latest Israeli assault on Gaza has led to a new reward. Barely a day after his report from the beach in Gaza, Mohyeldin was summarily pulled from his position and ordered by NBC executives to leave Gaza immediately. Glenn Greenwald cited NBC sources who said the NBC brass claimed they had “security concerns” because of Israel’s imminent ground invasion—but the next day sent correspondent Richard Engel, who had just arrived in Tel Aviv, to Gaza to replace Mohyeldin.

Mohyeldin’s coverage was powerfully crafted to show the human cost of conflict. “The terrible human toll from the nine-day Gaza conflict was laid bare Wednesday when four Palestinian boys from the same family were killed as they played football on a beach,” his report began. “Three other children were wounded—one of them critically—in the attack, which appeared to be from Israeli naval shelling near the port area of Gaza City. There were scenes of anguish at the nearby al-Shifa hospital as the parents of the victims learned of the attack. ‘My son! My son!’ cried the mother of one of the boys.”His reports, unlike so many in the mainstream press, included the names and ages of the victims, and an interview with one of the wounded cousins who had survived.

He told the world what he saw. NBC’s rival networks, including CNN and others, cited and republished Mohyeldin’s reports. The story went viral—with all the shaken details of murdered children, grieving parents, and shredded families that so often get lost in mainstream telling.

That, apparently, was unacceptable to Mohyeldin’s superiors. The notion that “security” had anything to do with NBC’s decision was nonsense—when they replaced Mohyeldin with Engel, any remote possibility that they were concerned about the security of one but not the other was beyond laughable.

This is a political move, whether initiated by frightened NBC executives on their own or demanded directly by powerful pro-Israel advertisers or other power-brokers. And it threatens to undermine the significant gains that have already been made in changing the U.S. discourse on Israel-Palestine in recent years.

The coverage is already different—Israel was unable to keep the international press out of Gaza during this most recent assault. The ground invasion now underway is going to make that coverage much more difficult. We’re going to need people like Ayman Mohyeldin more than ever.

Tweet #ShameonNBC to join the protest.

Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

America in Decline: The Empire as Basket Case

Reprinted from with permission of the author.

By Tom Engelhardt

The Age of Impunity

For America’s national security state, this is the age of impunity.  Nothing it does — torture, kidnapping, assassination, illegal surveillance, you name it — will ever be brought to court.  For none of its beyond-the-boundaries acts will anyone be held accountable.  The only crimes that can now be committed in official Washington are by those foolish enough to believe that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from this earth.  I’m speaking of the various whistleblowers and leakers who have had an urge to let Americans know what deeds and misdeeds their government is committing in their name but without their knowledge.  They continue to pay a price in accountability for their acts that should, by comparison, stun us all.

As June ended, the New York Times front-paged an account of an act of corporate impunity that may, however, be unique in the post-9/11 era (though potentially a harbinger of things to come).  In 2007, as journalist James Risen tells it, Daniel Carroll, the top manager in Iraq for the rent-a-gun company Blackwater, one of the warrior corporations that accompanied the U.S. military to war in the twenty-first century, threatened Jean Richter, a government investigator sent to Baghdad to look into accounts of corporate wrongdoing.

Here, according to Risen, is Richter’s version of what happened when he, another government investigator, and Carroll met to discuss Blackwater’s potential misdeeds in that war zone:

“Mr. Carroll said ‘that he could kill me at that very moment and no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq,’ Mr. Richter wrote in a memo to senior State Department officials in Washington. He noted that Mr. Carroll had formerly served with Navy SEAL Team 6, an elite unit. ‘Mr. Carroll’s statement was made in a low, even tone of voice, his head was slightly lowered; his eyes were fixed on mine,’ Mr. Richter stated in his memo. ‘I took Mr. Carroll’s threat seriously. We were in a combat zone where things can happen quite unexpectedly, especially when issues involve potentially negative impacts on a lucrative security contract.’”

When officials at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the largest in the world, heard what had happened, they acted promptly.  They sided with the Blackwater manager, ordering Richter and the investigator who witnessed the scene out of the country (with their inquiry incomplete).  And though a death threat against an American official might, under other circumstances, have led a CIA team or a set of special ops guys to snatch the culprit off the streets of Baghdad, deposit him on a Navy ship for interrogation, and then leave him idling in Guantanamo or in jail in the United States awaiting trial, in this case no further action was taken.

Power Centers But No Power to Act

Think of the response of those embassy officials as a get-out-of-jail-free pass in honor of a new age.  For the various rent-a-gun companies, construction and supply outfits, and weapons makers that have been the beneficiaries of the wholesale privatization of American war since 9/11, impunity has become the new reality.  Pull back the lens further and the same might be said more generally about America’s corporate sector and its financial outfits.  There was, after all, no accountability for the economic meltdown of 2007-2008.  Not a single significant figure went to jail for bringing the American economy to its knees. (And many such figures made out like proverbial bandits in the government bailout and revival of their businesses that followed.)

Meanwhile, in these years, the corporation itself was let loose to run riot.  Long a “person” in the legal world, it became ever more person-like, benefitting from a series of Supreme Court decisions that hobbled unions and ordinary Americans even as it gave the corporation ever more of the rights and attributes of a citizen on the loose.  Post-9/11, the corporate world gained freedom of expression, the freedom of the purse, as well as the various freedoms that staggering inequality and hoards of money offer.  Corporate entities gained, among other things, the right to flood the political system with money, and most recently, at least in a modest way, freedom of religion.

In other words, two great power centers have been engorging themselves in twenty-first-century America: there was an ever-expanding national security state, ever less accountable to anyone, ever less overseen by anyone, ever more deeply enveloped in secrecy, ever more able to see others and less transparent itself, ever more empowered by a secret court system and a body of secret law whose judgments no one else could be privy to; and there was an increasingly militarized corporate state, ever less accountable to anyone, ever less overseen by outside forces, ever more sure that the law was its possession.  These two power centers are now triumphant in our world.  They command the landscape against what may be less effective opposition than at any moment in our history.

In both cases, no matter how you tote it up, it’s been an era of triumphalism.  Measure it any way you want: by the rising Dow Jones Industrial Average or the expanding low-wage economy, by the power of “dark money” to determine American politics in 1% elections or the rising wages of CEOs and the stagnating wages of their workers, by the power of billionaires and the growth of poverty, by the penumbra of secrecy and classification spreading across government operations and the lessening ability of the citizen to know what’s going on, or by the growing power of both the national security state and the corporation to turn your life into an open book.  Look anywhere and some version of the same story presents itself — of ascendant power in the boardrooms and the backrooms, and of a sense of impunity that accompanies it.

Whether you’re considering the power of the national security state or the corporate sector, their moment is now.  And what a moment it is — for them.  Their success seems almost complete.  And yet that only begins to tell the strange tale of our American times, because if that power is ascendant, it seems incapable of being translated into classic American power.  The more successful those two sectors become, the less the U.S. seems capable of wielding its power effectively in any traditional sense, domestically or abroad.

Anyone can feel it, hence the recent Pew Research Center poll indicating a striking diminution in recent years of Americans who think the U.S. is exceptional, the greatest of all nations.  By 2011, only 38% of Americans thought that; today, the figure has dropped to 28%, and — a harbinger of future American attitudes — just 15% among 18-to-29-year-olds.  And no wonder.  By many measures the U.S. may remain the wealthiest, most powerful nation on the planet, but in recent years its ability to accomplish anything, no less achieve national or imperial success, has shrunk drastically.

The power centers remain, but in some still-hard-to-grasp way, the power to accomplish anything seems to be draining from a country that was once the great can-do nation on the planet.  On this, the record is both dismal and clear.  To say that the American political system is in a kind of gridlock or paralysis from which — given electoral prospects in 2014 and 2016 — there can be no escape is to say the obvious.  It’s a commonplace of news reports to suggest, for example, that in this midterm election year Congress and the president will be capable of accomplishing nothing together (except perhaps avoiding another actual government shutdown).  Nada, zip, zero.

The president acts in relatively minimalist ways by executive order, Congress threatens to sue over his use of those orders, and (as novelist Kurt Vonnegut would once have said) so it goes.  In the meantime, Congress has proven itself unable to act even when it comes to what once would have been the no-brainers of American life.  It has, for instance, been struggling simply to fund a highway bill that would allow for ordinary repair work on the nation’s system of roads, even though the fund for such work is running dry and jobs will be lost.

This sort of thing is but a symptom in a country of immense wealth whose infrastructure is crumbling and which lacks a single mile of high-speed rail.  In all of this, in the rise of poverty and a minimum-wage economy, in a loss — particularly for minorities — of the wealth that went with home ownership, what can be seen is the untracked rise of a Third World country inside a First World one, a powerless America inside the putative global superpower.

An Exceptional Kind of Decline

And speaking of the “sole superpower,” it remains true that no combination of other militaries can compare with the U.S. military or the moneys the country continues to put into it and into the research and development of weaponry of the most futuristic sort.  The U.S. national security budget remains a Ripley’s-Believe-It-Or-Not-style infusion of tax dollars into the national security state, something no other combination of major countries comes close to matching.

In addition, the U.S. still maintains hundreds of military bases and outposts across the planet (including, in recent years, ever more bases for our latest techno-wonder weapon, the drone).  In 2014, it still garrisons the planet in a way that no other imperial power has ever done.  In fact, it continues to sport all the trappings of a great empire, with an army impressive enough that our last two presidents have regularly resorted to one unembarrassed image to describe it: “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known.”

And yet, recent history is clear: that military has proven incapable of winning its wars against minor (and minority) insurgencies globally, just as Washington, for all its firepower, military and economic, has had a remarkably difficult time imposing its desires just about anywhere on the planet.  Though it may still look like a superpower and though the power of its national security state may still be growing, Washington seems to have lost the ability to translate that power into anything resembling success.

Today, the U.S. looks less like a functioning and effective empire than an imperial basket case, unable to bring its massive power to bear effectively from Germany to Syria, Iraq to Afghanistan, Libya to the South China Sea, the Crimea to Africa.  And stranger yet, this remains true even though it has no imperial competitors to challenge it.  Russia is a rickety energy state, capable of achieving its version of imperial success only along its own borders, and China, clearly the rising economic power on the planet, though flexing its military muscles locally in disputed oil-rich waters, visibly has no wish to challenge the U.S. military anywhere far from home.

All in all, the situation is puzzling indeed.  Despite much talk about the rise of a multi-polar world, this still remains in many ways a unipolar one, which perhaps means that the wounds Washington has suffered on numerous fronts in these last years are self-inflicted.

Just what kind of decline this represents remains to be seen.  What does seem clearer today is that the rise of the national security state and the triumphalism of the corporate sector (along with the much publicized growth of great wealth and striking inequality in the country) has been accompanied by a decided diminution in the power of the government to function domestically and of the imperial state to impose its will anywhere on Earth.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of  The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute’s His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook and Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me.

Copyright 2014 Tom Engelhardt

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