2021-06-28 Structural Racism Lives

Structural Racism: The Long View

A deliberately misapplied term, “critical race theory,” has recently begun tearing across the U.S., with numerous states (22 to date; the legislation has already passed in 5) having introduced cookie-cutter bills in their state legislatures to “ban” the teaching of this term (or anything it implies) in schools. Will teachers become fearful of addressing topics long considered part of standard grade-and-high school curricula in the wake of this new reign of legislative terror in red states? Will they be forbidden to talk about important figures in U.S. history? Will they no longer feel comfortable introducing long-taught topics (slavery, the three-fifths compromise, the plantation economy, the Missouri Compromise, the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction, the Great Migration(s), Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Movement – Civil Rights Act/Voting Rights Act/Fair Housing Act, just to mention a few such topics relating to Black Americans)?

The term, which was created in the 1980s in American law schools to refer to laws and their accompanying policies that resulted in unequal treatment of Black and white Americans, has now been co-opted to refer to individual and group behaviors perceived as causing the recipients of these behaviors to suffer in both tangible and intangible ways.

Both are examples of racism, but the term in its original sense referred to structural elements of society codified in law and policy, while the latter refers to attitudes and behaviors which are not – at least in the current dominant discourse – directly connected to the structural elements which may continue to underpin, reinforce, and perpetuate such attitudes, even subconsciously (much of the training is directed towards the latter, with unconscious bias-prejudice being assumed on the part of all white participants in such programs).

Our elite private schools and colleges – and a good many of our public school systems – have been carrying out “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” training for their staffs – not only teachers, but administrators as well. This training is in-house for the most part, but it’s provided by contractors – millions of dollars are being earned by private providers of what should be a public service, assuming it’s to be carried out in a spirit of civic commitment.

There is nothing wrong with seeking out greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in U.S. society at large and in schools (and other publicly-funded institutions) in particular. But what’s the specific goal of this training? Presumably, at least in the case of our public schools, diversity, equity, and inclusion would seek to address in a permanent and enduring fashion – sixty-seven years after the fact – school segregation and its diabolical twin, housing segregation. Ideally, we would be witnessing a massive citizen uprising demanding that all residential housing in the U.S. be henceforth zoned “fully integrated, mixed-income” from the Pacific to the Atlantic. At present, zoning laws and regulations remain (largely) in the control of local jurisdictions – and the idea of zoning for mixed-income, mixed-race housing is anathema in many places, particularly higher-income communities zoned for single family homes.

Rather than seeing some decrease in racial and economic segregation, however, what we are facing is an increase in homelessness and the threat of homelessness once eviction moratoriums run out; we’re facing the planned removal of new homeless encampments in wealthy cities absent any apparent plan for providing the homeless with the one thing they require: housing.

Do you observe any mass movements being undertaken by critical race theory warriors? Abject apologies by transgressors aside, what will happen five years from now, when those who demanded diversity, equity, and inclusion realize that residential housing is more segregated than ever? When they realize that our schools are growing more inequitable and less inclusive? When they realize that the income gap between whites and Blacks (and Hispanics and Native Americans) has continued to widen?  

But this has unfortunately been the trend for more than a generation in the U.S., a trend driven largely – though not exclusively – by growing financial disparities between white and Black Americans. “Good schools” are those in middle-class and upper-middle-class, majority white neighborhoods; “bad schools” are those in poorer and majority POC ones. Anyone seeking to purchase a home in a new city has only to study school ratings (conveniently posted on the real estate sites themselves thanks to realtors’ collaboration with Great Schools) to grasp the overall demographics and racial distribution of residents, which correlates with school ratings. Students at wealthy schools, basking in the funding provided by their property tax base, enjoy newer and better-equipped facilities; they are offered both curricular and extra-curricular options aplenty; their parents can pay for extra tuition and outside college counseling to ensure they gain admission to the “right” post-secondary schools. Once these students graduate – with lower levels of debt and better prospects of repaying whatever loans they did take out – the cycle of inequity and exclusion is perpetuated.

Parallel to the emerging discourse – and vociferous counter-discourse – of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training now transpiring all around us are occasional calls by prominent Black writers and intellectuals (and “woke” whites) for reparations. Reparations, however, imply that the U.S. as a society actually do something about the 400+-year legacy of slavery (and, in the case of Native Americans, dispossession, cultural genocide, and actual genocide).

This is proving much harder than paying verbal obeisance to racism’s ugly past and present. One indicative example: the Biden Administration, in its American Rescue Plan (the first of three pieces of legislation; the others are the American Jobs Plan [just passed in greatly truncated form] and the American Families Plan), offered a form of reparations/remediation for Black and other historically-disadvantaged farmers, who were long precluded from USDA and bank loan programs available to white farmers. This is one case of what those who coined the term “critical race theory” were referring to back in the 1980s; another is the fact that domestic workers and farmers were shut out of the Social Security Act of 1935, when most domestic workers / small farmers were Black. The provision, called Section 1005, made $4 billion available to help such farmers obtain pandemic debt relief. But Section 1005 was recently deemed in violation of the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection” clause given that it favors Black, Native American, Hispanic, Alaskan Native, and Asian Pacific farmers and “discriminates” against white farmers, who may have suffered equal or greater financial harm in the pandemic. But if the consequences of discrimination cannot be countered by limited, targeted programs such as this one, what form of remedy can Black and other historically-disadvantaged farmers turn to? As David Muraskin, a lawyer for Public Justice representing Black farmers noted in an email, “As the Court recognized, U.S.D.A.’s discrimination against farmers of color was rampant and severe. This loan repayment program was a necessary step towards fixing those harms. To recognize and correct racism is not racist or unconstitutional.”

Essentially the judge (Martha Morales Howard of the U.S. District Court for Florida’s Middle District) was saying “Yes, harmful discrimination took place. But no, there’s nothing we can do to remediate it.” In other words, here we face a right with no path to a remedy, which is itself unconstitutional.

Let’s consider a different case of “structural racism,” this one involving Native Americans. Last month, Canada was shocked (“shocked”) when a graveyard containing the unmarked graves of at least 215 Indigenous children was identified on the grounds of the former Kamloops School in British Columbia. Residential (i.e., boarding) schools, many run by various Christian denominations – most prominently, Catholics – were widespread in both Canada and the U.S. during the 19th and 20th centuries; many operated for over a century. This week we learned that a second graveyard has been identified in southeastern Saskatchewan on the grounds of the former Marieval Indian Residential School; spokespersons for the First Nations have noted that it is probably larger than the Kamloops one (to date, 751 graves identified). Logically, every residential school would have had its own cemetery; Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has given an estimated number of deaths of around 3,000 – this is almost certainly far too low, based on a total of 150,000 Native Americans who were sent to such schools.  

The object of residential schools in both countries was to “Europeanize” North America’s Indigenous peoples – or at least, that was the purported goal, undoubtedly motivated by racism. Brigadier General Richard Henry Pratt’s statement became a motto of sorts for the U.S. treatment of Native Americans over the past two centuries: “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” This statement set the tone for residential schools’ philosophy, which was one of cultural genocide.

But there were also significant financial benefits for the government and private entrepreneurs to be gained by forced removal of native children from their natal villages and tribes. As noted in a recent Intercept interview conducted by Naomi Klein with members of the Emanuel family, the net result of forced depopulation of tribal lands was that these lands, once emptied, became available for exploitation. Tribal lands contained enormous wealth both above and below ground: forests (for the timber industry), virgin land (for the agricultural sector), minerals (including the highly sought-after rare-earth minerals used in high-tech manufacturing today), and of course, oil. All these sources of wealth remain economically vital for Canada and the U.S. today.

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico), in response to the discovery of the graveyard at the former Kamloops School, this week announced the creation of a special committee, “The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative,” tasked with identifying similar graveyards on the grounds of Indian residential schools (total 357) in the U.S. The committee will be charged with identifying the names, tribal affiliation, and death records of children sent to residential schools in order to “uncover the truth about the loss of human life and the lasting consequences.”

This is a far more challenging project than the press announcements would suggest. It is estimated that “hundreds of thousands” of Native American children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to U.S. residential schools, some of them hundreds of miles distant from children’s villages. Conditions in the schools, judging from survivor testimony, were horrific: hunger was the children’s ever-present companion, healthcare was minimal or non-existent, brutal punishment was meted out to those who continued to speak their native language, and physical, psychological, and sexual abuse were rampant. When a child died, whether due to sickness or abuse, they were sometimes buried in the dead of night – by older children, who were forced to serve as gravediggers – and their graves went unmarked.

Where are the records from these 357 schools kept? Are they in publicly-accessible archives? Are they complete, i.e. do they encompass the full period of operation of each school, with a full record of each child’s admission and course through the school (including details such as date of admission, age upon admission, date of release or date/cause of death)? Does the Church still control the records of the residential schools it operated in the U.S.? The Catholic Church has not been forthcoming about releasing the records of the schools it operated in Canada, where around 60% of all residential schools were run by the Catholic Church, with 47% run by a single order, The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. To date, “the Oblates have refused to release their records to help identify the remains found,” and there is little reason to imagine that the Church will release whatever records they have retained for similar schools in the U.S. Pope Francis, although called upon by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2017 to issue a formal apology for the Catholic Church’s role in the abusive regime of residential schools, expressed sorrow but stopped short of an apology.

Assuming records from these 357 institutions can be obtained, what will they reveal? How complete are they? Do they include tribal affiliations, names of natal villages, and native names and ages of the children who were taken there? (There are many problems involving transliteration of Native American names.) Are deaths, departures, etc. fully recorded? While we should assume that every school had a burial ground for children, it is hard to imagine that every death was duly recorded.

The Secretary announced April 1, 2022 (not an auspicious date) as the deadline for receipt of the Report by the members of the Boarding School Initiative. Almost certainly, this deadline will be extended – and, if the Secretary is serious about obtaining access to the greatest number of records, it seems probable that the Department of the Interior/U.S. Government will need to take the Catholic Church to court. Such cases are fraught, exceedingly complex, and drawn-out, and the Vatican, which will be the shadow defendant, has almost limitless resources at its command. The Church has been fighting the release of residential school records for years in Canada, and the playbook for refusal to cooperate in such an investigation is by now well-established.

In other words, the outcome of this newly-announced initiative is by no means given, especially when we recall that the U.S. does not have the benefit of the enormous testimonial documentation by survivors which Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission amassed during the seven years it was in operation (2008-2015).

Here are the specific points (#71-76) made by the Canadian Commission upon concluding its work in 2015:

  • We call upon all chief coroners and provincial vital statistics agencies that have not provided to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada their records on the deaths of Aboriginal children in the care of residential school authorities to make these documents available to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
  • We call upon the federal government to allocate sufficient resources to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation to allow it to develop and maintain the National Residential School Student Death Register established by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
  • We call upon the federal government to work with churches, Aboriginal communities, and former residential school students to establish and maintain an online registry of residential school cemeteries, including, where possible, plot maps showing the location of deceased residential school children.
  • We call upon the federal government to work with provincial, territorial, and municipal governments, churches, Aboriginal communities, former residential school students, and current landowners to develop and implement strategies and procedures for the ongoing identification, documentation, maintenance, commemoration, and protection of residential school cemeteries or other sites at which residential school children were buried. This is to include the provision of appropriate memorial ceremonies and commemorative markers to honour the deceased children.
  • We call upon the parties engaged in the work of documenting, maintaining, commemorating, and protecting residential school cemeteries to adopt strategies in accordance with the following principles:
    • The Aboriginal community most affected shall lead the development of such strategies.
    • Information shall be sought from residential school Survivors and other Knowledge Keepers in the development of such strategies.
    • Aboriginal protocols shall be respected before any potentially invasive technical inspection and investigation of a cemetery site.

We assume that similar objectives will be set for the American iteration of this initiative, i.e. documentation, maintenance, commemoration, and protection of those cemeteries identified in the U.S. over the coming year(s).

Would these four goals constitute “reparations”? Yes, in some sense – if nothing else, the identification of the graveyards and those buried there would provide a sense of closure for families who have grieved lost children, sometimes for generations. Without closure, we cannot face the future unburdened from pain, anger, and grief.

Is closure sufficient? No. The structural racism illustrated in the century-long history of the U.S. government’s treatment of Native Americans had consequences which live on in the present.

And it is these long-tailed consequences which will demand full remediation.

Further reading:

US to investigate ‘unspoken traumas’ of Native American boarding schools

 “US Boarding Schools to Be Investigated

 “US to Review History of US Boarding Schools: Deb Haaland

 “US Boarding School History

 “Judge Blocks $4 Billion U.S. Debt Relief Program for Minority Farmers

Unmarked Graves Found at another Former Residential School in Canada

 “Stealing Children to Steal the Land

 “Why Wisconsinites and Ojibwe citizens have joined the protest against Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline in northern Minnesota

 “Not one without the other: Reparations for African-Americans and Indigenous peoples

 “Death by Civilization

 “How Journalist Connie Walker Is Seeking Justice for Indigenous Women

 “Trudeau Calls on Catholic Church to Take Responsibility for Residential Schools

2021-05-18 Environmental Injustice Is Not a Theoretical Concept

A Form of Racism Which Requires Deeds, Not Words

Overlay a map of southern Louisiana’s petrochemical and petroleum plants with archival maps of the area’s plantations, and you’ll find that in many cases the property lines match up.”

In the final half-century leading up to the American Civil War, more than a million slaves were transported from Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky to Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The area extending from Natchez to New Orleans – rich soil flanking the Mississippi River – consisted of massive plantations whose owners, responding to a spike in worldwide demand for sugar cane, had discovered that the only way to make a profit on this cashiest-of-cash-crops was to use slave labor to harvest, press, and boil the cane. Slave labor made white cane plantation owners richer than nearly any other group of 19th-century entrepreneurs: per capita, Louisiana was the 2nd-richest state in the nation with more millionaires along the lower Mississippi than in any other single geographic region, despite the fact that 50% of its population was made up of slaves.

Louisiana is of course no longer the country’s second-richest state (rather, it has the nation’s 2nd-highest poverty rate), but there are still plenty of uber-wealthy enterprises entrenched on former plantation lands on either side of the River. The 85-mile stretch of Louisiana straddling the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans has been appropriated by the petrochemical industry over the past century. Today, there are 150 industrial plants, equivalent to 1.76 per mile. In a single district (5) of St. James Parish, Louisiana there are nine plants in operation and two under construction; four more have been proposed and are in various stages of the permit-granting process.

One of the four is a $9.4 billion complex slated to include 14 new facilities owned by the Taiwanese corporation Formosa. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) has proposed air emissions as follows for these plants: “7.7 tons of ethylene oxide—a carcinogen linked to breast cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, and miscarriages; 36.58 tons of the carcinogen benzene; and 1,243 tons of nitrogen oxides, which cause and exacerbate respiratory illnesses.” For its part, Formosa “has relied on sound science in design of the Sunshine Project and is confident it meets all regulatory criteria.” Among the products Formosa will make: “polymer and ethylene glycol, polyethylene, and polypropylene … [T]he concentration of carcinogens in the atmosphere could triple.”

Formosa’s massive construction undertaking has been nicknamed the “Sunshine Project” in honor of a nearby bridge bearing the same soubriquet. Such euphemisms are common to environmentally-destructive industries – after all, calling the project “Dark Skies” or “Particulate Matter” would be bad for PR. This stretch of the Mississippi makes the owners and shareholders of its petrochemical plants (who make plastics [including single-use plastics], synthetic rubbers, electronic components, and fertilizers among other things) rich indeed – so rich that it’s been dubbed by insiders “the Silicon Valley of the petrochemical industry.”

One difference between the 19th and 21st century: while production remains local, industry profits have taken flight – e.g., Taiwan in the case of Formosa. The company boasts that once all 14 plants are operational, local earnings will rise to $84,500, nearly triple current earnings in District 5 of St. James Parish, where the plant(s) will be located. This sounds good, but upon closer examination fails to inspire trust, as is often the case when a petrochemical plant comes calling at your doorstep: local residents note that these plants import high-skilled labor, reserving low-paying jobs like security for locals.

Louisiana has a long history of cultivating, encouraging, and wink-winking at the environmental damage the industry’s presence in the lower Mississippi has wrought.   Between 1997 and 2016, the state granted almost 17,000 tax exemptions under its Industrial Tax Exemption Program (ITEP) while denying a grand total of 8. It’s estimated that this has cost Louisiana nearly $2 billion over 20 years – around $100 million a year – money that could have been used to shore up this very poor state’s infrastructure (schools, parks, libraries, even prisons …).

The Formosa project has generated local opposition, and one focus of the long-form Atlantic piece from which we draw today is on Sharon Lavigne, a retired special education teacher who since learning about Project Sunshine in 2018 has devoted her life to stopping it. She has formed a group called “Rise St. James” in opposition not just to Formosa but to any further industrial development in her parish. Rise St. James has garnered regional and national attention among environmentalists and environmental justice organizations across the country (and beyond – the UN is now involved), and inevitably the campaign against Formosa (which halted construction during the pandemic, though it continued carrying out infrastructure works such as road-building) will probably reach the desk of Cedric Richmond, a former Louisiana Congressman representing its 2nd District, where St. James is located, in his new role as White House Director of Public Engagement. When the issue does reach him, will Richmond confer with Michael Regan, the new EPA Administrator? (Regan, former Director of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, has shown himself willing to intervene in environmental justice cases, even when they’re nearing realization; cf. his letter to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot re: the transfer of a scrap metal recycling plant from Lincoln Park to the Southeast Side of Chicago [Pilsen, Little Village], one of Illinois’ most environmentally-burdened areas).

That the petrochemical industry would make its 20th– and 21st-century home (with a competing outpost in Texas between Houston and Galveston) in this part of the U.S. should come as no surprise upon reflection: the industry requires very large land expanses, and many of the pre-Civil War plantations had remained largely intact after Reconstruction – with huge plots given to whites, and narrow slivers along the River given to Blacks to create small towns and communities. The other thing sugar cane growers and petrochemical plant owners share is the need for access to transportation hubs, and the Mississippi River continues to offer easy/cheap access to the port of New Orleans and thence, to international shipping routes.

The small Black towns – those “slivers” of land granted to Blacks – remain, as do their historic graveyards, many of which date to the pre- and post-Civil War period. Sharon Lavigne believes her ancestors were buried on the Buena Vista plantation grounds, one of two plantations Formosa now occupies (the other is Acadia, whose graveyard remains to be discovered). Formosa was required to survey the land purchased for remains; initially the company claimed they had found nothing, but they were later pressed by the Louisiana Division of Archaeology, went back (?), and identified one of the two cemeteries, which they then fenced off and made essentially inaccessible. When Rise St. James requested permission to visit the Buena Vista cemetery last Juneteenth, the company “questioned the need for the ceremony on the basis that archaeologists couldn’t confirm the ethnicity of the human remains.” The group took them to court, the Judge sided with them, and so Lavigne was given brief access (lasting one hour) to the site.

The plantations – there are about a dozen still “operating,” in some sense, as wedding, baptism, and party venues, and of course as museums and big tourist attractions – are now surrounded by petrochemical plants; only one plantation museum, the Whitney, has made the effort to engage with Louisiana’s slaveholding past. The overseer’s shed there still displays the “tools of chattel”: “neck braces, balls and chains, leg irons, and paddles.” One out of twelve – readers may wish to ponder that percentage.

As in many extremely complex, longstanding, historically-rooted instances of racial-environmental injustice, it’s hard to see a way forward for small towns like Welcome (pop. 824), the home of Sharon Lavigne and a place she vows she’ll never leave. In other, similar cases, companies have bought out entire villages and towns. For example, in 1987, Georgia Gulf bought out Reveilletown, a free Black settlement dating to the 1870s, for $3 million; Dow Chemical bought out Morrisonville for $7 million in 1989. In both, high levels of vinyl chloride had been detected.  In 2002, Diamond, another free town, was bought out by Shell two decades following two fatal chemical explosions.

The problem is that these Black towns are historic homes to the descendants of slaves and as such deserve to be preserved and revered, whereas in fact they have become so toxic that contemporary residents’ health and lives are threatened daily by toxic fumes, soil, and water. What would “reparations” even mean for the residents of St. James Parish? Sharon Lavigne says she won’t leave no matter what – but in the meantime, her own health and that of her family and friends is under constant and direct threat. In a far, far better world than the one we inhabit today, the petrochemical industry would cease to exist along the lower Mississippi. Eventually, if we are to survive climate change, this will have to happen – but it won’t happen today or tomorrow, even assuming Rise St. James successfully deters Formosa from constructing its mega-complex in District 5.

Buy-outs, on the other hand, present a risk of their own: that of no remediation. Once an area directly adjacent to such a complex is abandoned, the prospect of remediation or eventually, full withdrawal by environmental polluters substantially decreases. At present, such regions – and Cancer/Death Alley isn’t the only one, it’s just the largest and most concentrated one – will become environmental sacrifice zones sans human beings. Without human presence, no motive to remediate save the long, slow, torturous process of EPA rulings – should they ever come at all – will remain.

Should Formosa be granted the final permits allowing it to proceed to construction of this petrochemical behemoth? No, for the sake of both racial and environmental justice, and a survey of recent articles indicates that the tide may be turning slowly but inexorably against them. But even though this would be a notable (and unprecedented, in Louisiana) victory for the cause of environmental justice, it would be “one down, 150 to go.”

One of the environmental justice movement’s slogans in this strugle is “Formosa would be a death sentence for St. James Parish.” But the larger issue is that the entire petrochemical industry between Baton Rouge and New Orleans already constitutes a human and environmental death sentence for the lower Mississippi.

Note: A January 2021 podcast featuring Sharon Lavigne, founder of Rise St. James.

2021-05-11 Environmental Injustice: Ecuador

The Most Important Environmental Justice Case You’ve Never Heard Of

First, let’s acknowledge that it is extremely detrimental to the ongoing effort for justice for the people of Ecuador that the press routinely ignores that Chevron admitted to deliberately dumping over 16 billion gallons of toxic oil-waste into the Amazon as a cost-saving measure over the course of decades while operating under its Texaco brand. It never once apologized nor made any meaningful effort to clean up that toxic waste nor assist any of the people it poisoned. Full stop.

Every article about the issue should begin with those undisputed facts.

Amazon Watch (9 March 2021)

Most of our coverage of environmental (in)justice cases over the last four years has focused on the U.S.: Cancer Alley in Louisiana, superfund sites near residential communities in various locations, the risks from industrial hog- and cattle-farming (The Washington Post, in fact, has a lead story on the latter today), and the particulate air pollution suffered by those living near massive warehouse complexes, as for example in California’s Inland Empire (the Guardian had a feature story last month on this).

But the irreparable harm to water, soil, and air caused by polluting industries – especially the extractive industries – is of course not limited to the U.S. Two cases came to our attention in recent days – one in Nova Scotia, the other in Ecuador – which serve to drive home the truism that environmental pollution is overwhelmingly visited upon Black and Indigenous peoples pretty much everywhere we turn.

Today we consider the case in Ecuador, which was subjected to irresponsible and reckless oil prospecting, drilling, and dumping of by-products from drilling between 1967 and 1992 by Texaco, an American oil company now owned by Chevron, whose corporate headquarters are in San Ramon, California and which is active in 180+ countries. In 1964, Texaco entered into a so-called “sweetheart deal” with a pliant Ecuadorian government and began drilling for oil in 1967 in northeast Ecuador, with full-scale production beginning in 1972. Over the next twenty years, the company drilled at hundreds of sites in the Lago Agrio oilfield, and – given there was zero oversight – disposed of the toxic sludge from drilling in around a thousand open-air, unlined pits containing toxic materials (heavy metals and other toxins). In order to keep the pits drained, pipes conducted run-off (toxic) water to streams and rivers used for drinking, bathing, and fishing by peasant farmers and five Indigenous tribes (two of these, the Tetete and the Tagaeri, are now entirely or substantially extinct). In all, it is estimated that the company dumped around 16 billion gallons of toxic waste into these open pits, at a savings of around $3 a barrel, amounting to a $5 billion profit over a 20-year period.

By the early 1990s, the Indigenous peoples and farmers living throughout the 1500-square mile area the drilling encompassed were suffering from heightened cancer rates and other chronic illnesses associated with exposure to toxic materials including the heavy metals barium and cadmium. All this might never have become known had it not been for a chance trip by a young lawyer named Steven Donziger to Ecuador in 1993 with a law school classmate and the latter’s father.

Donziger’s description of what he saw at the Lago Agrio Oil field:

It was like looking at an apocalyptic scene. There was oil on the roads. People were living in abject poverty. They had no shoes. They would get oil on their feet when they walked along the roads. The oil pollution had permeated every aspect of daily life. It was in the food supply. It was in the water supply. It was in the air. The average person there would get exposed multiple times a day to very harmful, cancer-causing toxins, with foreseeable results.

Donziger – inspired by a sense of injustice similar to that we have witnessed in other lawyers who’ve undertaken cases involving environmental injustice such as Jan Schlichtmann (Beatrice Foods/W.R. Grace in Woburn, Massachusetts) and Robert Bilott (DuPont in Parkersburg, West Virginia). Both these cases have been the subject of respected film versions (A Civil Action [1998], Dark Waters [2019]). A full-length documentary covering two years in the case Donziger brought against Chevron, Crude (2009) received positive reviews but unfortunately became the basis for the company’s accusations of fraud including blackmail and bribery of Ecuadorian judges, and devolved into an opportunity for Chevron to persecute Donziger and his colleagues.

One feature these cases share in common is their timeline – Donziger spent an entire legal career (1993-2018, when he was disbarred) engaged against Texaco/Chevron; he has been financially destroyed (his bail alone was set at $800,000 in 2019 for a misdemeanor charge, and he’s now been under house arrest for 643 days, which is 443 days more than the sentence for what he’s being tried for). Schlichtmann, who originally owned a boutique personal injury firm and appears to have started out as a yuppie wannabe, became literally obsessed by the Woburn case, litigation over which drove him to bankruptcy, nearly drove him mad, and absorbed a decade of his life before the EPA eventually took it up and forced a proper clean-up of the site. Bilott has spent 20+ years engaged in litigation against DuPont over its use of PFOA and PFOS. Taking up major environmental justice cases is not for the faint of heart – single-mindedness, a crusader spirit, an ability to withstand hostile professional attacks, and an indifference to monetary gain are prerequisites. But the most important characteristic these lawyers possess seems to be an unshakable sense of justice and a belief – at least initially – in the possibility of obtaining it through the legal system.

Neither Schlichtmann nor Bilott has been subjected to what Donziger has. Chevron has spent almost as much time litigating against Donziger as Donziger has litigating against Chevron. The case was originally filed in the federal court of the Southern District of New York (it was filed there because Texaco’s headquarters were in NYC [Texaco was acquired by/merged with Chevron in 2001]), and it was a decade before the case finally returned to Ecuador to be heard there. Chevron believed it would be impossible to litigate there – lack of funds, lack of legal expertise, lack of public awareness all factored in their calculations – but Donziger marshaled the funds, a legal team, and conducted a major public awareness campaign (he was originally a journalist himself and had freelanced in Nicaragua for several North American newspapers; he is fluent in Spanish). The verdict (2011/2013, 18/20 years after Donziger’s initial trip to Ecuador) initially awarded $18 billion in damages to the approximately 30,000 Indigenous tribal members and farmers his action represented; this was reduced to $9.5 billion – an amount which Chevron, with a market valuation of $136 billion (2020; Fortune 500 ranking = 15) has no intention of paying, despite the fact that the original verdict was confirmed by three appellate courts and the Supreme Court of Canada. Since then, it’s been nothing but a morass of litigation against Donziger, back in the Southern District of New York:

A ruling deeming the Ecuadorian verdict as unenforceable was issued by a United States court in 2014 and by an appeals court two years later. In 2018 the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of Chevron and said the 2013 Ecuador Supreme Court case was obtained “through fraud, bribery and corruption”.

There were plenty of accusations against Donziger and his Ecuadorian colleagues/ the Ecuadorian judicial system: the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague unanimously found in favor of Chevron and Texaco in 2018, stating that the Ecuadorian verdict (in favor of the plaintiffs) was fraudulent and corrupt and should not be recognized (and damages not collected) in any other state (i.e. country). The Court’s findings included the following:

· That the evidence placed before the Court is “the most thorough documentary, video, and testimonial proof of fraud ever put before an arbitral tribunal.”

· That the plaintiffs blackmailed an Ecuadorian judge, triggering him to order the appointment of an “expert” friendly to the plaintiffs.

· That Ecuadorian government prosecutors “actively cooperated” with the plaintiffs.

· That the plaintiffs bribed the “experts” and ghostwrote their report.

· That the plaintiffs paid a retired judge to draft the acting judge’s orders—and that the same judge solicited bribes that Chevron refused to pay, but not so the plaintiffs.

On the other hand, it’s very hard to know how much of the above is actually true and how much is allegedly true. Because:

Most important to always remember is that 17 appellate judges in Ecuador, including its entire Supreme Court and Constitutional Courts, reviewed the facts of the case and validated the $9.5 billion judgment. On top of that, three appellate courts in Canada – including the entire Canadian Supreme Court – validated the judgement for enforcement purposes and implicitly rejected Chevron’s bogus claims of fraud and ghostwriting.

In 2011, Chevron filed a case against Donziger under RICO (=Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, 1970, primarily used in prosecuting mobsters), accusing him of “bribing an Ecuadorean judge, ghost-writing the damages judgment against it and ‘fixing’ scientific studies.” The ruling against Donziger was issued by Judge Lewis A. Kaplan in 2014, where he found that Donziger had committed “offenses against legal ethics, including racketeering, extortion, wire fraud, money laundering, obstruction of justice, judicial bribery, coercion, witness tampering, and arranging for expert’s reports to be ghostwritten.In 2018, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld Judge Kaplan’s ruling.

Donziger has been under house arrest since summer 2019, to which he was sentenced by Judge Loretta Preska (a stand-in selected by Judge Kaplan and not randomly assigned as is normal in such cases) while awaiting trial on contempt of court charges for failing to turn over his computer, cell phone, other devices and passwords to the Court in 2018. Here, Donziger was acting to protect attorney-work product and attorney-client communications, both of which are normally protected by U.S. Courts as privileged.

Donziger’s contempt-of-court trial began (after numerous Covid-19-related postponements dating back to last year) yesterday; Judge Preska is not permitting it to be Zoomed or televised, and court space is very limited. Since the public prosecutor declined to take it up, a private law firm (Seward & Kissel) was appointed by the court to undertake Donziger’s prosecution in the role of “Special Prosecutor.” Finally, it’s a bench trial rather than a jury trial – another request by Donziger Preska denied.

Recent developments in this tortured (in every respect), labyrinthine case include a letter signed by nearly 300 students from 52 law schools across the U.S. declaring a boycott against Seward & Kissel recruitment from among their ranks; the “prosecutor,” Rita M. Glavin, is a partner there (link is to the NYT announcement of her wedding to Matthew Amatruda in 2004, because for some reason, her page isn’t available on the Seward & Kissel site).

Also, on 16 February, “Amnesty International USA, Amazon Watch and 11 other human rights and environmental watchdog organizations stepped forward, issuing a letter to Merrick Garland, […] U.S. attorney general. The letter requested that Garland … conduct ‘a top-to-bottom review of the ongoing and extraordinarily disturbing legal attacks that Chevron Corporation and its counsel has inflicted and orchestrated against renowned human rights lawyer Steven Donziger’”.

Most recently (28 April), these groups were joined by six members of Congress, who also wrote a letter to AG Garland requesting that the DOJ investigate the treatment Donziger has received at the hands of federal judges and the U.S. justice system. The letter notes:  

We have deep concerns that the unprecedented nature of Mr. Donziger’s pending legal case is tied to his previous work against Chevron. It is vital that attorneys working on behalf of victims of human rights violations and negative environmental impacts of corporations not become criminalized for their work. If these restrictions are permitted, advocates across this country will feel as though tactics of intimidation can succeed in stifling robust representation. The results of this case will have a lasting impact in the legal practice, suggesting that representation and advocacy can then impede one’s ability to exercise fundamental protections.

Overall: a long, complex, over-litigated and under-publicized case in which as of now the plaintiffs’ original case, which concerned undisputed and massive environmental and cultural destruction to a part of the Amazon Basin – damage so extensive that what happened is referred to by human rights activists and environmentalists as the “Amazon Chernobyl” – has been relegated to the background of Chevron’s decades-long efforts to silence Steven Donziger, destroying him both professionally and financially, so that he may serve as a lesson (“pour encourager les autres”) to other similarly-inspired environmental justice lawyers not to bring cases against America’s largest and most powerful corporations, and most certainly not to bring such a case against Chevron on its home turf – say, against its operations in St. Amant or St. Francisville in Louisiana, or in Pasadena, California.

Lest we forget who Donziger was fighting for – and who he was fighting against – we conclude with an interview of Donziger by Chris Lynn Hedges from last summer with an accompanying essay, also by Hedges, and finally, a link to the 2009 documentary Crude.

Let the images – the evidence of what Texaco and Chevron wrought in this corner of the Amazon – speak for themselves.

2021-4-12 The American Jobs Plan: The Caregiving Infrastructure

$400 Billion for the Long-term Caregiving Infrastructure

The American Jobs Plan, aka the Biden Infrastructure bill (note: as yet, not passed by Congress, so the final form will almost certainly change as it acquires more concrete detail), has been criticized for treating workers as infrastructure. Roads and bridges and dams and broadband, yes; human workers, no, opponents have stated.

But workers are indeed a vital infrastructure component of the economy and the widely-accepted economic term “human capital” underscores this. The American Jobs Plan’s summary on caregiving infrastructure support aims to:

  • Solidify the infrastructure of our care economy by creating jobs and raising wages and benefits for essential home care workers. These workers – the majority of whom are women of color – have been underpaid and undervalued for too long. The President’s plan makes substantial investments in the infrastructure of our care economy, starting by creating new and better jobs for caregiving workers. His plan will provide home and community-based care for individuals who otherwise would need to wait as many as five years to get the services they badly need.
  • Expand access to long-term care services under Medicaid. President Biden believes more people should have the opportunity to receive care at home, in a supportive community, or from a loved one. President Biden’s plan will expand access to home and community-based services (HCBS) and extend the longstanding Money Follows the Person program that supports innovations in the delivery of long-term care.
  • Put in place an infrastructure to create good middle-class jobs with a free and fair choice to join a union. The HCBS expansion under Medicaid can support well-paying caregiving jobs that include benefits and the ability to collectively bargain, building state infrastructure to improve the quality of services and to support workers. This will improve wages and quality of life for essential home health workers and yield significant economic benefits for low-income communities and communities of color.

[Note: This program addresses one of the U.S.’s grave shortcomings, i.e. caring for our elderly and disabled persons. It is expected that further shortcomings in child care and family leave policy will be addressed in the next major Biden administration bill, expected in the next few weeks.]

“Care work” has traditionally been relegated to the “unpaid” column of labor inputs: those who care for infants (mothers, grandmothers, aunts), the elderly (often, a daughter or niece), the disabled (parents, siblings) aren’t reimbursed for what is called a “labor of love” – but it’s labor, nonetheless, and it’s very hard labor to boot. The U.S. doesn’t have paid family or medical leave as a core element of its social welfare programs (only around 17% of American workers enjoy such benefits), which means that workers (the vast majority of whom are women) who withdraw, either temporarily or permanently from the job market to care for an infant, parent, or disabled relative are out of luck.

In the case of those who can afford outside labor to perform the labor of caretaking, the people who enter their homes are largely women of color: “Care is one of the strongest pillars of our economy, yet those who do this work – disproportionately Black and brown women, often immigrants – are under-supported, undervalued and under-compensated, if compensated at all.

During the past year (the pandemic year), “in addition to losing jobs, women were forced out of the labor force entirely at four times the rate of men, most often due to the fact that caregiving responsibilities disproportionately fell on women. Between January and December 2020, more than two million women left the labor force entirely, including 564,000 Black women and 317,000 Latina women.”

It is ironic that while home care and daycare are very expensive (most of both fields are privatized, with for-profits contracting out workers), remuneration for workers in these fields is shockingly low: home health care workers earn an average of $17,200 yearly, and daycare workers, $25,510. Average pay for home health workers nationwide is just over $12 an hour, meaning that while they work fulltime, many such workers (est. 50%) and their families live in poverty. And this poverty is costly to the country, too: they are eligible for Medicaid, they are eligible for public housing vouchers, their children are eligible for free meals – all benefits picked up by the government and paid for by the taxpayer, even though fulltime work should always provide not a minimum, but a living wage. There’s a gaping difference.

As more enlightened countries have long realized, providing publicly-funded universal pre-K, in-home elder and disabled care helps not just individual families struggling to care for their loved ones; it’s good for the economy as a whole. For every 10 jobs created in care work, an additional 5 are created in the wider economy – an excellent ROI.

Newly-elected Congressman Jamaal Bowman (NY-16) makes the powerful argument that “care jobs” be seen as an equivalent to Green New Deal jobs:

“[T]hey are already relatively low-carbon, and are becoming even more essential as we cope with the health impacts of climate change. We need to make these fast-growing jobs the high-paying, unionized jobs of the future, just as we do in the green energy and manufacturing sectors. Fundamentally, the next economy will be about caring for each other, our communities, and the planet. That means we need to think of climate and care investments as comprising one holistic, integrated agenda – and not prioritize one over the other in the recovery effort.”

The amount the Administration has earmarked for home and community-based care, $400 billion, amounts to 20% of the American Jobs Plan ($2 trillion) and has surprised even advocates. Admittedly, it’s a massive investment. However, long-term care has been chronically underfunded for like, forever in the U.S., and this amount is partly an acknowledgement of our shameful attitude towards the elderly and disabled and partly a much-belated effort to catch up – even partly, even belatedly – with other countries:

Long-term care in the United States has been brutally underfunded for decades, and this is especially true for anyone receiving care at home. Though most long-term care for elderly and disabled people is funded by Medicaid, for those not experiencing poverty, the cost can be staggering and unattainable. And the accommodations are less than desirable. According to a 2019 poll by the Nationwide Retirement Institute, most Americans would rather die than live in a nursing home. That poll was taken before COVID-19 swept through. In at least one instance, corpses literally piled up.”

Nursing home care really cannot serve as a viable model for warehousing our elderly and disabled, as we’ve seen during the pandemic. Congregate settings operated mostly by for-profits which are interested in their bottom line and care little about quality care of residents (a generalization, but not an egregious one – consider deaths in nursing homes during the pandemic if you disagree) just don’t work, or work only on such a small scale that they can’t offer anything like the volume of care the aging U.S. population needs. Advocates and families want their elderly and their disabled relatives to remain at home if at all possible, but for most middle-class families, that’s so costly an option that it can scarcely be contemplated (thus, many middle-class working women drop out of the job market to care for elderly parents – from a short-term economic standpoint, it’s cheaper for them not to work and provide care than it is to hire in-home care).

Even for those families eligible for publicly-sponsored in-home care, waitlists are interminable (estimate: 800,000 people currently waitlisted), and this is one reason why that $400 billion, though enormous, is not incomprehensible – it’s going partly to clear the waitlists for care in every state: “According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the federal government spent $71 billion on home and community-based services in 2018. How much would it cost to clear out the existing waiting lists to access HCBS services? In late 2017, the Congressional Budget Office unofficially told Senate staff and disability advocates that it would take $150 billion to clear out the existing wait list in every state, according to a source close to the issue.”

The details of how this funding will be allocated to states are unclear as yet, but will clarified as the American Jobs Plan makes its way through Congress. Possibly the funding, which basically doubles the current amount available for in-home care over the next decade, will be funneled through the Money Follows the Person program established in 2005 (although this program was allowed to lapse in 2016), in which the federal government provided money to states to move persons in institutions home; the program (like the nursing home program itself) was administered through Medicaid, and only those eligible for Medicaid were eligible to participate.

As we noted in our infrastructure post on water, the devil makes his home in the details of any massive funding program – something of this magnitude will almost certainly require a lot of human infrastructure at the federal, state and local levels – or at least, an expansion of Medicaid administrative personnel, assuming it’s ultimately administered through Medicaid. This is not a minor issue: “The scale of the problem is significant. The number of seniors is projected to grow by more than 40 million, approximately doubling, by 2050, while the population older than 85 will nearly triple. Unlike most other industrialized nations, the United States does not provide a public long-term-care benefit for all older adults.”

One crucial point that remains to be clarified is whether only persons on Medicaid will continue to be eligible for such assistance – if so, the program will do nothing to alleviate the cost burden on the U.S.’s shrinking middle class:

If focused solely on improving the Medicaid backlog, Democrats’ home-care investment may do little to alleviate the cost pressures for elder care bearing down on middle-class families. Retirees do not qualify for Medicaid unless they are below a certain asset limit — $2,000 in most states —which means many burn through their life savings to pay for care services.” In short, “This is far more ambitious than any president has ever proposed for Medicaid long-term-care recipients. It’s a really big deal and a huge, huge step from where we are. But there’s nothing for you if you’re not a Medicaid beneficiary. There are far more non-Medicaid recipients receiving long-term care — and he’s not helping them at all.” (Howard Gleckman, long-term care expert at the Center for Tax Policy)

Interested in learning more? The advocacy group Caring Across Generations provides background, current news and frequent updates.

2021-04-09 The American Jobs Plan: Water Infrastructure

Water is Our Most Precious Resource

The American Jobs Plan – often referred to as the Biden Infrastructure Bill – totals around $2 trillion. There are myriad items in the bill, and we’re going to start looking at them in greater detail, because that’s where the devil makes his home. Today we’ll begin from the $111 billion allotted for “water infrastructure.” That’s a pretty all-encompassing term, broken down as follows in the draft bill: $45 billion for the replacement of lead pipes and service lines; $10 billion for monitoring/remediation of contamination; $56 billion for the modernization of drinking water, wastewater (sewage), and storm water systems; $16 billion to plug orphan oil and gas wells whose emissions – chiefly methane gas – are contaminating local air and water. There are additional funds for “resilience solutions” for drought- and other climate change-affected areas.

There aren’t many specifics publicly-available yet (the bill hasn’t been voted on yet, and will certainly undergo changes), but here’s the excerpt from the official White House Fact Sheet that addresses water infrastructure specifically:

  • Replace 100 percent of the nation’s lead pipes and service lines.  According to the CDC, there is no safe level of lead exposure for children. Lead can slow development and cause learning, behavior, and hearing problems in children, as well as lasting kidney and brain damage. President Biden believes that no American family should still be receiving drinking water through lead pipes and service lines. To eliminate all lead pipes and service lines in the country, he is calling on Congress to invest $45 billion in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and in Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (WIIN) grants. In addition to reducing lead exposure in homes, this investment also will reduce lead exposure in 400,000 schools and childcare facilities.
  • Upgrade and modernize America’s drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater systems, tackle new contaminants, and support clean water infrastructure across rural America. Aging water systems threaten public health in thousands of communities nationwide. President Biden will modernize these systems by scaling up existing, successful programs, including by providing $56 billion in grants and low-cost flexible loans to states, Tribes, territories, and disadvantaged communities across the country. President Biden’s plan also provides $10 billion in funding to monitor and remediate PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in drinking water and to invest in rural small water systems and household well and wastewater systems, including drainage fields.

It’s a lot of money, agreed. But then, we’re talking about a lot of infrastructure, much of it out of sight and a lot of it, underground. And it’s not in good shape, so full replacement – or new technologies – are going to be required. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its infrastructure Report Card recently (2021). Here’s how the ASCE graded the U.S. water systems: Dams: D (there are 2,300 U.S. dams with “high-hazard” potential); Drinking water: C-; Storm water treatment systems: D; Wastewater treatment systems: D+. That’s not a report card to write home about.

Some examples of our inadequate, wasteful, and harmful water infrastructure – an infrastructure which is old (in many places, over a century and in most, more than half a century old): each day, 6 billion gallons are lost – that’s ten times the holding capacity of the Piney Point holding pond in Bradenton, one of whose walls is collapsing. A water main (i.e. a central transmission line) breaks every two minutes.

In addition, many regions of the U.S. are now threatened by climate-change threats to their water systems: saltwater incursion is occurring in coastal areas due to rising sea levels, and one of the country’s major water sources, the Colorado River, from which 10% of the U.S. population gets its water, is rapidly being depleted. Thus the funding for “resilience solutions” and climate change-affected water systems noted above.

There are 50,000 separate water systems across the country – that’s nearly four times the number of school systems (13,000), and this tremendous dispersion of authorities – privately owned, managed and operated through state and/or local subsidiaries – is going to require masterful administration both of funds and implementation.  The funding will come from above – the federal government – but how exactly it will be administered is unclear. Will a separate administrative authority be established? And how long will the fund be operational? It’s been estimated that full replacement of our drinking water infrastructure would require 20 years, but we don’t have that kind of time.

Let’s consider transmission lines extending to residential, public, and commercial consumers. It’s estimated that the U.S. has 6.1 million lead service lines still carrying water. One problem: many of these are, as we noted, extremely old (a century and in some cases, even more), and in many cases, we don’t know their exact location or route.  This will require a country-wide surveying project before replacement work begins, and surveys don’t come cheap. Of the $45 billion in the bill for this task, (at least) $30 billion will be required just for the replacement of lead lines with copper ones; much of the rest will, inevitably, be consumed by the surveys for those 50,000 systems. An EPA rule has required that all systems must “identify and make public the location of lead service lines” by 2024 (recently, an extension has been requested), with the mapping of daycare centers and schools to precede that of residential-commercial consumers.

Where are the qualified personnel going to be found for a job this big, one that will certainly require at least a decade even under ideal circumstances? And how exactly will the replacement projects be managed from a logistical standpoint? Let’s say daycare centers and schools get first priority, as they do for mapping. What about other public buildings? What about healthcare facilities like hospitals? At the granular level, how will this work when the water company replaces the main service lines in your neighborhood? Where will you – and your neighbors – go during the days when there’s no running water? Perhaps you can afford to decamp to a nearby hotel, but what if you’re living in public housing and the water’s shut off for a week or ten days? What then?

Another point: water is delivered via a main transmission line to neighborhoods, commercial centers, apartment complexes – i.e. a “central line” – but each billed consumer (house / shop / apartment) has an individual line which passes through a meter. Typically, the provider is responsible for the cost of maintaining, repairing, upgrading and/or replacing the main/central line, but the individual consumer assumes responsibility for the extension of the line from their lot line/boundary to their home, etc. The average estimated cost of replacing such individual lines is between $2,000 and $3,000 (nationwide – costs vary depending on region and length of line). Many consumers don’t have the money for the extension of the line, while others (e.g. apartment complex owners) will refuse to pay for said extensions. Unfortunately, however, if you replace the main line you have to replace the individual line – when copper pipes are joined to lead ones, this results in a process known as galvanic corrosion, which increases the amount of toxic contaminants entering the home/building/school. Conclusion: the entire system, main and individual lines, will have to be replaced. And that’s not all: some of the nation’s indoor plumbing and water fixtures still feature lead pipes. Can all this get done for $30 billion? We very much doubt it. It might be preferable to see the water infrastructure investments as a down payment or as a way of jump-starting this massive project.

Once the money starts flowing (figuratively speaking), how will systems be prioritized? Will every single one of the country’s 50,000 systems be given an individual rating for age/degree of collapse/lead, arsenic and other toxic chemicals in its pipes? This should be part of the centralized planning system, and money should go first to the oldest, most threatened and most toxic districts in the country – which, we’d be willing to bet, will also be located in some of our poorest zip codes. In fact, it might be interesting to create maps of our most degraded water infrastructure and overlay them with median income figures and racial demographics.

Is this a viable project? In some cases, it will be. But in others, it might be smarter, cheaper (in the long term), far more efficient and climate-resilient to invest in new technologies while we’re rebuilding our water infrastructure system. For example: we use “clean” water, for the most part, for many water-intensive purposes that don’t require it. Through smart collection and treatment systems, 70% of our graywater could be recycled for irrigation of plants, trees, shrubs and grasses. And there are new technologies coming online for basic, water-intensive requirements such as toilet flushing: saltwater, electrical current, even air pressure systems can be employed for flushing, which is one of the biggest components of water consumption. Along all three of our coasts, desalinization can be accomplished using solar energy and graphene membranes, in which sea water is heated by the sun and run through membranes, resulting in clean, drinkable water; could this solution be employed widely in all our coastal cities?

We need to think just as creatively about how to rebuild our water infrastructure as we do about our interstate highway system or our residential housing infrastructure.

Readings:

First 100: To Remove Lead Water Pipes, First You Must Find Them

This Procedure Can Spike Lead Levels in your Water – But You Probably Wouldn’t Know about It

What’s Crucial in Biden’s Infrastructure Bill: Water Investments

America’s Water Infrastructure Is Broken. Why the Biden Plan Won’t Fix It

Who Owns U.S. Infrastructure?”

2021-04-07 NYC Billionaires

Their Feelings Are Hurt 

“… New York City’s business leaders and wealthy residents have been feeling strangely unappreciated of late. Even disliked.”

A piece in yesterday’s Financial Times (Joshua Chaffin, “The Rich Shouldn’t Feel Like the Enemy: Is New York Turning on the Wealthy?”) seemed to us to be careening among several genres: Was it satire? Irony? Straight-up reporting with a hefty serving of “both sides”? We’re still trying to figure out the tone Chaffin – an experienced, long-time FT reporter who really ought to have got his genres straight by now – was trying to adopt.

The thesis seems to be “we uber-rich are vital to NYC’s continued fiscal health; if people start openly expressing their dislike [euphemism, perhaps, for “hostility”], we might get miffed and move away (chiefly, it would seem, to Miami),” Chaffin on this dire prospect: “Hundreds of chief executives and civic leaders warned last week that a big increase in taxes could prompt a 1970s-style corporate exodus to low-tax states like Florida.” [Note: Florida is not a low-tax state; it’s a no-tax state, as in “Florida is one of nine states with no state income tax.”]

In the wake of the pandemic, with NYC (in particular) in financial distress, there was a movement to increase the state income tax on millionaires/billionaires, with the goal of raising an addition $7 billion for the state and city’s coffers; more recently, with better-than-expected tax receipts, the Biden Administration’s ARP and the prospect of the Infrastructure plan passing Congress through reconciliation, this has been lowered to $4.3 billion, with tax increases projected for those earning more than $1 million.

This is a lament we’re familiar with. It was the major argument against introduction of a progressive state income tax in Illinois last year – those opposed, who comprise about 3% of the state’s total tax base, won, as voters roundly defeated the FAIR Tax Amendment on November 3, 2020 (55%-45%). That “we’ll move to Florida” threat seems to be a thing. [Note: late in the piece, Chaffin notes the 2019 purchase of the most expensive home in NYC real estate history by hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin, who’s actually from Chicago and contributed to the failure of the FAIR Tax in his home state.)

But, the super-wealthy claim, it’s more than just the state’s intention to tax them – and their businesses – at a higher rate. People aren’t as nice to them as they used to be: “… wealthy New Yorkers increasingly fret that the city’s political climate is turning hostile. Many complain that they are being unfairly vilified for the fissures in an unequal city that were torn open by a historic pandemic.” [Note: of course none of the fissures in a starkly unequal city have anything to do with them.]

And now the specter of “class warfare” has raised its rebellious head:

Terri Liftin, a Democratic lawyer who is running for New York City comptroller, says it was to be expected that the inequality exacerbated by coronavirus would breed greater hostility towards the rich. But she worries about nascent ‘class warfare’ that, she says, would ultimately leave New York City worse for everyone. ‘You can’t bring us all together if the emotional tide is against the wealthy,’ she says. ‘I don’t think the rich mind paying a bit more but I don’t think they want to pay more if they’re being told they’re terrible people.’”

What is Ms. Liftin saying, exactly? “Be appropriately obsequious and we might be persuaded to give you a percentage point more of our $10 million a year income”?

An “executive and philanthropist” says her circle is upset by Black Lives Matter. “‘They (the rich) feel judged and endangered — both,’ she says. ‘And they don’t want to deal with either one.’”

Chaffin pays limited lip service to other ills NYC has suffered in the past year: 31,000 dead, 500,000 jobs lost, small businesses shuttered (many probably permanently), and the schools – which “literally nourish many impoverished students” – closed (for the most part).

And then there’s the upcoming Mayoral election – the primary will be in June, and since seven out of eight voters in the city vote Democratic, that’s the only election that matters. The rich are worried at the prospect of another “ideological” Mayor like the one they’ve got now. Bill De Blasio apparently committed a cardinal sin in June 2013 after his first primary victory:

De Blasio attended a private lunch with the city’s business leaders and promptly alienated many of them. They expected he would solicit their advice and extend a hand. Instead, the mayor reprised his ‘tale of two cities’ campaign rhetoric, and declared that he cared about the other side.”

As it turned out, De Blasio proved a weak leader in hard times – while the city’s budget increased some 35% during his tenure, “problems like homelessness and public housing have worsened — even before the pandemic.”

The halcyon days of collaboration between labor leaders and the rich are fondly recalled: when the city was in the thralls of a financial – crime- infrastructure collapse crisis in the 1970s (so, a half-century ago), the city’s elites united to right the course of the great ship NYC, founding the Association for a Better New York (ABNY). Once the city made it through the 70s and 80s, the rich came into their own: property values started rising – and continued to rise to their present stratospheric level – and this in turn filled the city’s coffers, as more than half its revenues come from property taxes.   

The good times perhaps reached their apex under Michael Bloomberg, who, after all, was himself a billionaire – he understood what his own class needed New York to be, and he did all in his power to make it over in his own class’s image.  

Chaffin then shifts to one of the billionaire class’s bête noirs, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, specifically her role in the Amazon HQ2 bid in Queens. The head of the Partnership for New York (allied with ABNY) thinks activists don’t understand how dependent the city is on the rich: they “do not appreciate New York’s fragility, particularly when its finances are built upon such a narrow column of wealthy taxpayers. The top 0.05 per cent of earners — just 1,786 filers — accounted for 16 per cent of its income tax revenues in 2018.” There seems conversely to be no appreciation on the part of the rich that a city where nearly a fifth of tax revenues are culled from one-half of one percent of residents has serious short-, mid-, and long-term viability issues.

This “Big Read” story concludes with a paean-of-sorts to Florida, especially Miami, to which some number (hundreds?) of the 1% have moved. Multi-millionaires and billionaires like Miami; there are many people just like themselves enjoying the good life in its wealthiest enclaves, and these days it’s as easy to get a deal done there as it was back in NYC.

But alas, Florida is boring, presumably because it lacks the “high culture” NYC billionaires have become accustomed to. There’s no reference to the lack of public services due to Florida’s non-existent state income tax, perhaps because the billionaires don’t rely on any of them. There’s no reference to the fact that from a climate-change standpoint, Miami is doomed. And there’s no reference to environmental pollution – for example, the near-catastrophe in Bradenton at the Piney Point phosphate plant, where hundreds of millions of gallons of phosphate-laden water threatened to breach a holding pool whose wall began to collapse. That toxic water is currently being pumped into Tampa Bay.

Since the Financial Times isn’t normally read by those who have no money to pay for a single extraordinary health expense (40%), or those threatened by eviction (estimated as high as 30%) or foreclosure, or those who’ve lost one of those 500,000 disappeared jobs, or those unable to find housing in a vastly-inflated rental market and ending up in shelters or hotels the city has temporarily leased during the pandemic, or really by anyone in the country who doesn’t belong – or nearly so – to the top 5 or 10% (Chaffin certainly knows this) this “Big Read” should perhaps be read as an appeasement, an acknowledgement that yes, the natives are getting restless but no, if they’d just settle down everything would be fine (not for them, but for us). If obeisance is paid, noblesse oblige will ensue.

If Chaffin’s piece just happened to circulate widely among those accused of ingratitude to the 1%, a lot more dislike might be added to the mix. It provides an unwitting testament to what the billionaire class really thinks of their fellow New Yorkers.

2021-04-05 The Pandemic and the Commons

The Social Discourse Commons

In an increasingly class-stratified and politically-polarized society, whose values reign supreme? And where do those who disagree with those values go to dispute them?

The values of traditional liberalism, including among others the freedom to live as, where, and with/among whom we choose; the expectation of fairness in the dispensation of social goods and social sanctions, and a basic tolerance of those whose beliefs differ from our own are being sorely tested both by the isolation imposed on us during the year-long pandemic series of lockdowns and by our self-selected presence/absence on what was once touted as a substitute for the “commons,” the Internet (the “digital commons”).

In real life (“IRL”), how many of us are in a position to live anywhere we choose, with whomever we choose, and in any way we choose? How many of us genuinely believe that jobs are awarded (sic) to those best qualified and most “deserving” (and “deserving” in what sense, exactly?) of them? And how tolerant are we IRL of those with whom we disagree – often, sharply – on fundamental issues involving our shared polity?

As we continue to endure masking, social distancing, the ins and outs of (sometimes inequitable) vaccination, openings and shutdowns of both businesses and public services, many of us – those of us not providing essential pandemic services – continue to seek human interaction and discourse through online means, whether Skype, or Zoom, or FaceTime, or FB Messenger. I have initiated regular meet-ups (some complete with each of us consuming their own glass of wine and slices of cheese, or sushi or dessert, separately but together) with old friends, and it’s been a real boon to my morale. With old friends, we can laugh and joke, discuss current events, share our latest COVID-19 complaints, even proceed to engage in more substantive discussion as I do with one bi-weekly meet-up, where we have an assigned topic-of-the-evening and where there’s homework involved in preparation. Initiating such meet-ups was the most positive thing I’ve done during the pandemic in support of my personal mental well-being.

Make no mistake, however, about such get-togethers: they’re a good thing, but they’re not the real thing. And I assume that holds true for most of us – what we most miss is actual human contact. An education podcast we follow, HaveYouHeard, recently asked a previous guest to recruit her students and ask them what they felt they’d lost over the past year. In stark contrast to what administrators and Department of Education officials are bemoaning (“Learning Loss”), what the students feel they’ve lost is almost exclusively related to the social nature of school. Student after student said, first off, that they missed their friends; that they missed their teacher’s physical presence; that they missed their team sports, their drama club’s activities, even the sense of hanging out – or, to put it another way, of not being alone.

Not that school is perfect, far from it. Concerned teachers who’ve been paying attention the past year are entreating administrators to take heed of the lessons learned from remote teaching. For one thing (and this has long been known), school starts too early for children and adolescents – if school bells rang at 8.30 or 9.00 each morning, there would be many fewer students asleep during the first and second periods. For another, children get hungry at odd – and different – hours during the day; why not allow them to snack as needed? And it turns out that some children are doing better with remote learning than expected from their classroom past histories because, well, thirty other students in any given class is too much stimulation – it’s distracted them from learning, rather than helped them learn. We need – we must, both for the sake of public and mental health – reduce class sizes by at least one-third.

The overall message is that what our leaders are trying to force students and teachers back to – what they call “normal” – is not all great. Many things will never be truly “normal” again, and rather than bemoaning this, we should seek to implement what we’ve learned from a year of far-from-normal. Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that students go to school to learn, yes, but they love school because it offers them a social commons, a place to engage with their peers, a place where they can learn to be. One student noted that a year of non-engagement meant that they had “lost my sense of self.” Truly we learn to define ourselves through the eyes of others, no matter how young we are.

Human beings, it need scarcely be repeated, are highly social animals. We spend our lives once we emerge from infancy and dependency on the primary caretaker with others – our peers, be they as young as 2 or as old as 92. We play together, we explore together, we collaborate, we learn – I mean, part of the thrill of being a 3rd-grader was when the whole class understood a new concept in concert – we were all excited, each of us an individual with greater or lesser intrinsic abilities but in that moment learning as one, together – the sum of us all was greater than our individual selves.

The same holds true for most adults. Millions of members of our Professional Managerial Class (the “PMC”) have worked remotely throughout the pandemic. Some fared well, others poorly. Those who fared well tended to be in stable relationships where they were isolated, yes, but not entirely alone; those who fared poorly were either entirely alone, lacking family or friends with whom to create a pandemic “bubble,” or in failing/failed relationships which provoked much unhappiness and provided little comfort. Understandably, the latter are hankering to return to “the office,” to a social world which provides interest, stimulation, distraction, and at least some solace from troubles at home.

In the absence of real-life social interaction, both children and adults have resorted to a simulacrum of fractured, interrupted relations: online communities. Here, however, we have duplicated and unfortunately exacerbated a significant pre-pandemic social issue, i.e. a tendency to gravitate towards forums/spaces where we feel most “comfortable.” Liberals subscribe to liberal online publications/news feeds and survey liberal websites; ditto for conservatives, of course, and for progressives and far-right conservatives – the overlap between progressive/liberal sites/sources and between conservative/far-right sites/sources has gotten smaller, not larger, throughout the last year. How many of us spend significant time checking out what the other side is making of current affairs, what they’re focusing on, what they feel is most important today, this week, this month, this past year?

And what does this narrowing of focus signify for our return to the physical commons, once we return to work and gyms and clubs and church groups and school board meetings and restaurants and cultural events and … well, wherever we choose to go once we’re able, once COVID-19 has been tamed by natural means or once we reach herd immunity through mass vaccination programs?  

Are we returning in the belief that the game’s not rigged against us (i.e. with the expectation that the dispensation of society’s goods / sanctions will be reasonably fair), or that it’s even more rigged than before? Are we returning with more tolerance for the Other – be that the irritating person whose desk is next to ours at the office, the show-off at the gym who worked out for two hours daily over the past year, or the shrill mother complaining because “some” students can no longer “keep up” with the curriculum, and that’s harming her child?

When the pandemic struck the West last March and it became clear that students – and millions of adults – weren’t going to be able to return to school/the office anytime soon (the West’s generalized failure to respond in a timely/appropriate/decisive manner to COVID-19 should by now be obvious), we believed that the most appropriate response-in-lieu-of-any-effective-response should have been for those in charge of education to hit the “pause” button.

That, of course, didn’t happen, but the decision by newly-inducted Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona that the yearly “Big Test” would be administered as planned this spring is pointless and in some sense cruel. Who believes that children who have lost loved ones (nearly 600,000 deaths now), whose parents have been largely absent because they – in contrast to PMC parents – were deemed “essential workers” (essential, but not really deserving of recognition by enhanced pay and benefits), will do as well as the children whose parents hired tutors, or formed “learning pods,” or rushed to exclusive summer enclaves to enroll their offspring in private schools that remained more-or-less open? The Department and its collaborators in the high-stakes, for-profit testing industry claim that the tests are necessary so that students’ “learning loss” can be assessed and remedial programs designed (in many cases by these same for-profit companies or their offshoots) so students can “catch up.” Does anyone doubt what the test will demonstrate, viz. that students in our poorest districts, whether urban or rural, whose parents didn’t have the luxury of staying home and supervising their remote learning experience, whose access to remote learning may well have been negatively impacted by inadequate or non-existent broadband connections, will not do well on the standardized tests? And for that matter, what does “well” even mean in such unprecedented circumstances?

Thousands of the 13,000-odd school districts across the country are already engaged in planning for remedial summer sessions (hoping against hope the pandemic will retreat in the next eight weeks, as if they’ve learned absolutely nothing from its course to date), but students don’t want to go back to school this summer. They want to go back to each other – to re-connect, to re-socialize, to re-discover their lost sense of self. There will be plenty of time to get back to school work and formal learning once social bonds are re-established. And the learning that takes place will be all the more effective once communal ties are re-established.  

Adults should heed what students claim they need, given that our needs are not all that different from theirs. When the pandemic passes – or when, as seems more probable, it retreats to a level deemed “acceptable” to the powers that be – we should re-connect with one another in person for any number of reasons every chance we get, even if masking and some degree of social distancing continue to be de rigueur.

Why? Because American adults’ social discourse commons, like our children’s, has been damaged in the pandemic. Already fractured and split into sharply-divided camps before the pandemic, some writers are now questioning whether our commons is already beyond rescue. These pessimists believe that the latest iteration of the liberal class (the PMC, the “Mandarins”, the “credentialed classes” – pick your pejorative) and the now-vast socio-economic divide are so great that there are almost no occasions for the working class – 70%-75% of the population – to interact with the top 25%-30% except in relations of dependency. The well-off, well-educated, and well-paid live apart and play apart; their code of behavior (based on purported “values”) is different, and not insignificantly, their children often exist separate from everyone else’s, whether in elite private schools or elite public ones protected from the poor (and their parents) by income segregation, which has now become a useful stand-in for racial segregation.

Where is the social commons? Well, it’s everywhere in the real world, but the locus where it’s critical we all return with a renewed commitment to tolerance – not performative tolerance, but actual, demonstrated tolerance – is the public commons, that raucous, contentious place where issues large and small deserve to be discussed, openly and respectfully but honestly, even perhaps in loud tones, over the months and years to come. There’s going to be plenty of contention, because we’re discussing issues critical to our survival, but it’s vital that everybody show up for the discussion. This means direct involvement in the life of the polis – politics – and breaking through the barriers now protecting and segregating decision-takers from those who have to live with their decisions.

How did we all learn to participate in this commons? Where do we all come together as children, to make friends and enemies (to embrace the former and tolerate the latter), to share in the joy of discovery, creativity, friendship, companionship – togetherness – to collaborate, succeed and sometimes, fail? Where’s that place where for 12 years American children come together to learn, including learning how to become full-fledged members of the social discourse commons?

Yep – public school, the training-ground par excellence for a well- and variously- informed, rational, tolerant citizenry, the bedrock prerequisite for the continued existence of an open and lively public discourse commons.

The success of the adult commons depends directly on its predecessor, and that’s one reason the stark income disparities that increasingly characterize the U.S. don’t bode well for the future. If our children don’t play together, learn together, and collaborate/compete together when they’re very young, the chances they’ll be able to do so as 30- or 40-year-olds become significantly impaired. When rich and poor children study and learn and play – and quarrel, yes, that’s part of life – with one another from the age of five, by the time they’re 25 they understand one another far better than if they’d never come in contact. They speak one another’s language – and as any good rhetorician knows, if you don’t speak the other’s language there’s no hope of ever finding common ground.

Public school is the most egalitarian social institution societies have hit upon to induct their members into what it means to be full and equal participants in the social commons. Public schools remain the sole effective preparation we know of for active, life-long membership in the body politic by the majority of citizens/residents. And said schools should be integrated and reflect both the racial and socio-economic demographics of their locale, with every school appropriately funded by its district, state, and the federal government to ensure that the poorest student in any school is deprived of no opportunity offered.  

Here’s how an education blogger we admire but have not had occasion to cite put it:

“Early in the 20th century, public schools had been established serving every community from coast to coast. The results from this vast American public education experiment shine like a lighthouse beacon on the path of Democracy and social happiness. A nation that entered the century as a 2nd rate power ended the century as the undisputed world leader in literacy, economy, military power, industrial might, cultural influence and more.

“Today, unbelievably, more and more forces are agitating to undo public education and even American Democracy itself.”

When we emerge from our pandemic silos, we must rejoin the social discourse commons to preserve both that commons itself, which makes liberal democracy possible, and its foundational institution: public schools.  

2021-03-20 The Atlanta Shootings

Atlanta: Opening Pandora’s Box

The criminalization and demonization of sex work has hurt and killed countless people–many at the hands of the police both directly and indirectly. Due to sexist racialized perceptions of Asian women, especially those engaged in vulnerable, low-wage work, Asian massage workers are harmed by the criminalization of sex work, regardless of whether they engage in it themselves.

–From Red Canary Song’s statement following the March 16 shootings in Atlanta

There are two Asian-Americas: one that is invisible, the other marginal.

 –Claudine Ko in the NYT

Like many of you, I imagine, Deedspeakout closely followed the news in the days immediately following the shooting spree enacted at three Atlanta-area massage parlors (one in Cherokee County, two in Atlanta itself) on the afternoon of March 16, a Tuesday.

A brief review of the facts as known: The 21-year-old shooter, Robert Aaron Long, had purchased a 9 mm. handgun earlier on the same day; there is no waiting period between purchase and possession of a gun in Georgia (or in most other states). Around 3:38 pm, he entered Young’s Asian Massage near Acworth; he had sat outside in his car for about an hour before entering, and until 4:40 pm (survivor witness testimony), everything “seemed normal.” Long exited the spa at 4:50 (camera footage), so within a 10-minute period had killed two employees, both of Chinese descent (including the owner and a new employee) and shot three patrons, two of whom died at the hospital shortly after arrival. The husband of one of the patrons killed hid in another room during the shooting; he was initially considered a suspect (?) and was held, handcuffed, for four hours following the shooting.

Long then drove about 30 miles east to a strip mall in Atlanta, where he first entered the Gold Spa and shot three employees before crossing the street to the Aromatherapy Spa and killing the woman who opened the door to him thinking he was a customer. He left without entering the latter spa.

Long was quickly identified – although not quickly enough to prevent the second series of shootings – with the help of his parents (who had recognized his vehicle outside Young’s Asian Spa when they saw footage on television) and the GPS tracker in his car; he was apprehended about 150 miles south of Atlanta around 8.30 pm, apparently headed for Florida and more killing – perhaps at a company involved in pornography (production?).

As of this writing, Long has been charged with eight counts of murder and one of aggravated assault (of the survivor); he has not been charged under Georgia’s new law involving hate crimes, despite the fact that according to one surviving witness, when he entered the Gold Spa in Atlanta he called out “I’m going to kill all Asians.”

Initial reports seemed exceptionally sketchy, even for so-called “breaking news” stories. For example, it took two days for the names of the Atlanta victims to be published at all, and when they were, there were transliteration / spelling mistakes – the English-language press appeared unsure of the names of those who’d been killed. This, to us, suggested two things: first, connections between the English-language mainstream media in Atlanta and the Korean / Asian communities are not strong, despite the fact that there are several Korean-language and Korean-English (bilingual) publications in the city. Second, it suggested that one or more of the victims might be undocumented workers – there would therefore be only incomplete information available about them on record. It appears that both our initial hypotheses have been borne out by subsequent reporting.

Even today, two weeks after the killings, it’s not clear who the manager(s) were in Atlanta (in Cherokee County, the owner of Young’s Asian Massage parlor, Xiaojie Tan, and a relatively new employee, Daoyou Feng, were killed) and who the employees were; neither is it clear (to us, at least) which of the four Korean women killed in Atlanta were at the Gold Spa, and which at the Aromatherapy Spa – three were at the former, one at the latter, and we presume (since she had the keys) that the woman killed at the Aromatherapy spa was one of its managers.

It’s a complicated story not easily condensed into a 500-word reporting or Opinion piece – most of what I’ve read has addressed only a limited number of the many facets of this case:

The hatred and violence toward Asian, South Asian, and Pacific Islander people is not new. There is a nexus of anti-Asian hatred, hatred of women, conflation of massage therapy and sex work, violence against perceived sex workers, disgusting racism. There are so many things wrong.” (emphasis added)

To the anti-Asian hatred (racism), misogyny, and massage therapy vs. sex work conflation noted above, we may add Christian fundamentalism (whose puritanical attitude towards human sexual desire and extra-marital relations hearkens back to its 17th century origins), Americans’ obsession with guns and gun culture generally – both of which often display a pronounced patriarchal bent, as well as the complexity of the ethnic and national origins of America’s Asian population, which is far from monolithic, with each ethnic/national group having its own pattern(s) of immigration, settlement, and occupation of professional niches within American society.

If one chooses to focus on the killer (which, as far as we can judge, the AAPI community is not doing), then one will accordingly focus on his membership in the Crabapple Baptist Church in Milton, Georgia and his service as a youth pastor there. Churches like Crabapple preach abstinence before/outside of marriage, youthful sexual “purity,” and see young males’ need for sexual outlets as a sin – a cardinal sin. Long claims to suffer from a “sexual addiction,” and had been treated at an evangelical residential addiction facility, HopeQuest, located not far from the first spa Long attacked in Ecworth. Chris Lynn Hedges, who has published a book on the Christian right, wrote a piece last week detailing the links between Christian extremism and sexual prurience, noting that for these sects, “evil” is very real, but it is externalized: the “enemy” lies not within ourselves, but rather is identifiable in the “Other” – seen as a “temptation” to be eradicated. If one eliminates the Other, one eliminates temptation.

Hedges:

The killings in Atlanta were not an anomaly by a deranged gunman. The hatred for people of other ethnicities and faiths, the hatred for women of color, who are condemned by the Christian right as temptresses in league with Satan, was fertilized in the rampant misogyny, hyper-masculinity and racism that lie at the center of the belief system of the Christian right, as well as define the core beliefs of American imperialism.”

Believers are told that Satanic forces, promoting a liberal creed of ‘secular humanism,’ lure people to self-destruction through drugs, alcohol, gambling, pornography and massage brothels.”

We should probably anticipate that when the case comes to trial, the defense will focus at least partly on Long’s years of unsuccessfully battling his inner “demons” of sexual desire – we now know that he had previously patronized two of the spas where he wrought havoc on March 16. The prosecution, in turn, will counter that “sexual addiction” is not recognized as a bona fide mental disorder in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5. Multiple mental health experts will probably be called to testify for both prosecution and defense.

Long had purchased the 9mm. handgun he used in the shootings at Big Woods Goods (a firearms store) in Holly Springs that same morning. In other mass shootings, this would have been a key issue, but the NRA is in bankruptcy proceedings and wasn’t able to do much more than post – what else – the 2nd Amendment in response. Should there be a mandatory wait time between purchase and pick-up of a firearm? Should there be a background check of the purchaser? Should we even be selling assault weapons of the AK/AR type, whether automatic or semi-automatic, to civilians? (Long purchased a handgun, but assault rifles account for 40% of deaths and 69% of injuries in mass shootings over the past 20 years). Is it the complexity of this shooting’s other issues which has relegated any mention of “gun control” to a few editorials? (To his credit, President Biden spoke out on this issue in February, and again following the shooting.)

Asian American writers have to date focused on the racism/sexism apparent in Long’s targeting of Asian-owned massage parlors and spas. Will there be any distinction made between the two women killed at Young’s Asian Massage, who were of Chinese descent, and the four women of Korean descent killed in Atlanta’s “red light district”? Probably not; most Americans don’t easily distinguish between the various ethnic/national groups of Asian Americans and immigrants, but certainly there is a difference for those involved. To many, those of Asian descent are automatically assigned to whatever national group the perpetrator has learned to vilify. Consider the example of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American draughtsman in Detroit out celebrating his upcoming marriage one night in June 1982; Chin was beaten to death by a disgruntled Chrysler worker and his laid-off stepson, who mistook him for Japanese and hated him for Japan’s rising dominance in the automotive industry. Such mistakes in identification are common, and it’s not at all clear whether the shooter himself was able to distinguish the ethnic heritage of the women he killed. (An irony we have not seen noted in any of the coverage of the Atlanta shootings: Long was driving a Korean car – a Hyundai Tucson.)

While the current anti-Asian-American fervor has recently been directly against Chinese-Americans due to the former President’s use of the phrases “Wuhan virus” and “Kung Flu” in referring to COVID-19, half the victims here were of Korean descent, and most of the responses we’ve read have focused on the four women (ages: 51, 63, 69, 74) Long killed in Atlanta. This may be due to the numerical predominance of the Korean community in Atlanta (approximately 50,000 people of Korean descent) vis-à-vis the much smaller community of Chinese descent (2000 census: 13,500); alternatively, it may be due to the specific history of Atlanta’s Asian populations, with greater focus on the group which has most recently arrived, and which therefore is less fully assimilated and accepted by the predominant local culture(s).  

Working-class women of both Chinese and Korean descent have long been identified with professions which focus on “care of the body”: in addition to massage parlors, these women tend to be employed in nail and hair salons, as well as in restaurants (kitchen work) and the garment industry, where the labor is hard and unrelenting and the pay low (assuming they’re documented or citizens; if they’re not, the pay may be almost non-existent, with workers forced to depend largely on tips), and where there is little to no need to know English. (Speaking from the viewpoint of an ELL teacher, the fact that some women are in the U.S. 20,30 or more years without having been provided English language learning opportunities through some community organization, their church, or volunteers says a lot.)

Within these professions, there are class distinctions known to insiders: distinctions between owner-operators (small businesswomen) and employees, between citizens and non-citizens, between those who perform strictly massage-related service and those who perform sex work. Given their ages, it seems unlikely that the four women of Korean descent were performing sex work – more likely, those in their sixties and seventies were masseuses and/or cleaners. Undocumented workers may actually live on the premises and have little or no access to the world outside the spa.

While massage parlors and spas are associated in Americans’ popular imagination with sex work, not all establishments offer the latter service, and not all women in any given establishment provide it. But such subtleties are often lost in the aftermath of tragedy. The Atlanta shootings are thus entangled in America’s profoundly problematic relationship with the sex industry itself, something neither mainstream media, Korean-language media, nor the employees/owners themselves feel comfortable highlighting. One point on which local authorities – government officials, law enforcement – and the massage parlor employees/owners/community disagree, however, is on “what to do” in the wake of the shootings and the rise in anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S. (in the past year alone, there were 3,800 documented cases of hate crimes against Asian Americans).

Red Canary Song, a non-profit mutual aid organization created in the wake of the 2017 suicide of Yang Song, a massage parlor worker, in Flushing, NY, argues for decriminalization of sex work among other measures such as affordable housing, access to public services, labor rights, and protection for undocumented workers – measures sought by advocates for the poorest and most vulnerable among us generally, but of special significance for workers in a niche profession which is particularly vulnerable to both neglect and exploitation by law enforcement. The organization’s position: “Anti-trafficking NGO’s that claim to speak for migrants in sex trades promote increased policing and immigration control, which harms rather than helps migrant sex workers.” Surely the group’s most important – and potentially life-saving – point is decriminalization, but this has scarcely been mentioned in mainstream coverage surrounding the Atlanta shootings, perhaps because the idea is so foreign to a country historically steeped in sexual repression and the simultaneous acceptance of the equally-historically based stereotypes of Asian women as “available” to American Caucasian males:

Asian massage styles are conflated with sex work by a white male consciousness that cannot distinguish between these two things; by white men who fought in South Korea and Vietnam, and took away a belief that Asian women are all prostitutes, destitute and poor, that we can be maimed and killed with no repercussions. To them we are faceless and non-human.”

Returning to Chris Hedges:

White supremacy, which dehumanizes the other at home and abroad, is also fueled by the fantasy that there are superior human beings who are white and lesser human beings who are not. Long did not need the Christian fascism of his church to justify to himself the killings; the racial hierarchies within American society had already dehumanized his victims.

A perfect Pandora’s Box of evils was unwittingly thrown open by the Atlanta shootings. One’s answer(s) to the question of “What Now?” will depend on one’s own background, circumstances, and biases. We can’t undo our national history; we can’t bring back the lives that have been lost, or undo the injustices perpetrated in cycles, over and over again. Can America learn from its own – and others’ – history? Or will it suffice for us to demonstrate for a week or two, issue calls for change in our attitudes towards Asian Americans, and then rush on to the next crisis?

Selection of further reading:

On the history of anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S.:

Why Don’t We Treat Asian American History the Way We Treat Black History?”

The Deep American Roots of the Atlanta Shootings

Chris Hedges in conversation with May Jeong, author of the piece above:

The Deep American Roots of the Atlanta Shootings

On decriminalization and mutual aid (vs. enhanced policing):

How to Protect Massage Workers

Massage Parlor Workers Say Policing Isn’t the Answer to the Violence They Face

What the ‘Atlanta Spa Worker Killings’ Tell Us about America Today

The Christian sex addiction industry:

The Dark Tales of the Christian Sex Addiction Industry

Atlanta area:

“‘It’s Time for People to Hear Us’: Georgia’s Asian Americans Vow to Stand Up Against Hate

Chicago area:

Atlanta Mass Shootings Spark Fear and Anger in Chicago-Area Asian Communities

Bay area:

Coverage of Bay Area Anti-Asian Violence Is Missing a Key Element

(Especially good for understanding how each city/area’s Asian population has its own unique history; here, focus on Blacks and Asians [Chinese-Americans] in San Francisco)

Asian leaders on “Where Next?”:

Amid National Attention on Bias Crimes, Asian American Leaders Struggle over Where to Take their Movement

2021-03-18 What Went Wrong?

The West’s Failure to Vanquish Covid

“This is a national emergency, this is a war that we’re in, and instead of putting generals in positions of power, we’ve deferred to academics. Imagine in World War II, if that was how we treated it all — that we couldn’t make a single mistake” (Michael Mina, Harvard epidemiologist)

Europe – by which we refer to the 27 separate and unique nation-states which compose the European Union – is now in its third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, battling a virus which has mutated into a more transmissible and lethal form. While such a turn was not inevitable, it can happen that a virus becomes more – rather than less – lethal as time passes, and that’s what apparently has happened.

The piece we discuss in this post, “How the West Lost Covid” (David Wallace-Wells), is the best retrospective we’ve read on the almost-universal failure by the “rich West” to confront the virus successfully in the past year – and how a handful of countries bucked the trend and largely succeeded in eradicating it from the start.

There are no easy explanations, though, for how some rich countries have suffered far more than others: climate, demography, the presence or absence of nationalized health care systems, infrastructure – every example has a counter-example. Take California vs. Florida: one state imposed strict lockdowns and closures and masking requirements fairly early on, while the other partied on into late spring 2020 as if nothing was amiss. A year into the pandemic, the two states’ statistics aren’t all that different, and California was ravaged by the virus last fall, when Californians can still be outside and require neither heating nor air-conditioning.  

A significant contributing factor to the West’s failure, however, was its failure to act proactively. Perhaps due to inexperience with large-scale epidemics which threaten to become pandemics (the SARS outbreak in 2003, Ebola), perhaps out of arrogance both scientific (“Our sophisticated, advanced medical infrastructure can handle it”) and cultural (“Our citizens would never submit to a total lockdown/shutdown”), the West dithered throughout January 2020, when the images from Wuhan were illustrating what our future would be like if countries didn’t take prompt action.

The “West” (= the EU and U.S. primarily) went first into denial, then into a sort of fatalistic capitulation mode, convinced that there was nothing to be done except to tough it out and hope for the magic bullet of one or more vaccines. This, however, is not how you confront a global pandemic: the attitude has to be one of full-out war against a common enemy; for the zillionth time, viruses have no respect for national borders, especially in an age of globalization. The only thing they succumb to is the total eradication approach: zero COVID.

Across the EU, with the exception of the outlier countries of Finland, Norway, and Iceland, the failure not just to eliminate but even to contain COVID is more or less a general one – and although the U.S.’s enormous caseload and number of deaths seems incomprehensible, in terms of cases/deaths per million, the U.S. is near the EU average (Spain, France, Italy; the UK, Portugal and the Czech Republic all have higher mortality rates). There are plenty of reasons to be puzzled by why the world’s wealthy West basically surrendered ab initio in a war against an unseen but deadly enemy – the war metaphor, so frequently employed with disease (“fighting cancer” “conquering polio”) is the most appropriate one in a pandemic, and countries which viewed it as such from the outset and adopted the goal of total and complete defeat (eradication, not containment) had incomparably better outcomes: South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, Australia.

On the other hand, it must be said that the countries which succeeded in eliminating or nearly eliminating the virus did nothing terribly different than those that failed – Peru instituted draconian measures and has been devastated by the coronavirus. And the number of factors that might be in play (including chance [stochasticity], demography, distribution of comorbidities, geography, a country’s location, its neighbors, and its place in the global travel network, climate, the presence or absence of air conditioning, residential density, blood type, ICU capacity, proximity to bats and so on) is high. But nearly every factor that would seem to have contributed to a higher infection and mortality rate in one country can be countered by the absence of that factor’s significance in another – take the case of Japan, for example, whose population is elderly and whose proximity to China seemed at best dangerous, at worst fatal: Japan has managed the pandemic successfully – perhaps not at the level of New Zealand, but its caseloads have been far lower than the West’s despite an aging population, location, an only partial lockdown and an absence of mass testing. England, like New Zealand, is an island, but is the hardest-hit country in the world. Experts can’t explain all these discrepancies. 

There is a lot about this disease which just seems chaotic – unpredictable, surprising, and alarming to many medical academic scientists, who seek predictability even in its absence. However, national outcomes can be classified in three broad categories:

  • Europe/North America/South America: failure
  • Sub-Saharan Africa / South Asia: high caseloads, low death rates (due to demographics?)
  • East Asia / Southeast Asia / Oceania: resounding success

While there are variations in success within each category (Canada did better than the U.S.; Uruguay did better than Argentina, etc.), the biggest predictor of how well a country has succeeded against the virus is its location on the world map.

Consider the death rates per million in each of the three categories:

  • UK: 1,800; U.S.: 1,600; Sweden: 1,300; Germany: 900
  • New Zealand: 5; Australia 36
  • Taiwan: 0.42; Cambodia: 0; Vietnam: 0.36; Singapore: 5; South Korea: 32; Japan: 67 (despite an elderly population and the absence of strict lockdowns)

There are two issues here worth noting: first, while the virus originated in China, its Western origin was Northern Italy – and the mutation that infected the West came from there (the U.S. Eastern seaboard was infected with the “Italian variant”). Italy was heavily and fatally infected before it even knew the virus was present. (A question which seems worth asking is: How did the virus reach Northern Italy? – it’s one Wallace-Wells doesn’t address, but we think it’s an important one.)

Secondly, the attitude towards China when it locked down Wuhan – a “super-affluent” city of 11 million people – is characterized as “pandemic Orientalism”: “The disease was dismissed as a culturally backward outgrowth of wet markets and exotic-animal cuisine, and the shutdown was seen not as a demonstration of extreme seriousness but as a sign of the reflexive authoritarianism of the Chinese regime.” In fact this wasn’t the case – China, all rumors and biases to the contrary, is not in the habit of forcing millions of people into lockdown.

One thing that would have helped in the very first stages of the virus’ trajectory: a global travel shutdown – yes, global. It would have given the West a reprieve at the very least – a chance to go into full pandemic preparation mode (to gear up for testing, tracing, and isolation, and to stock up on PPE), and if it had occurred early enough, might well have averted what followed. And it needn’t have been an endless shutdown – several weeks might well have halted the virus’ spread to the West (and the rest of the world, for that matter).

Even after COVID arrived in Europe, many European countries (and of course the U.S.) chose a state of denial. What were leaders thinking? They hesitated to impose strict lockdowns and travel bans early on, not wanting to “dis-accommodate” their residents – or, perhaps more importantly, adversely impact “business.” When COVID was first detected in the state of Washington on the West coast, the East coast dithered – despite Governor Cuomo’s reputation as a “COVID hero,” the lockdown in NYC came too late, and there was nothing that could have saved the city by that time.  And states that eventually shut down all opened up too quickly – again, the goal seems to have been quasi-“suppression” or semi-“containment,” never “eradication.”

So firstly: EU countries and U.S. states acted too late. And their shutdowns (which were never total lockdowns), which advised “hand washing, social distancing, and mask-wearing,” were not accompanied by the other triplet of measures that most successful countries employed: “testing, tracing, and quarantining.” The U.S., for example, should have been testing around 25 million people a day last spring; it barely ever made it to 2 million (and seems to have given up on general population testing now). Without massive testing, contact tracing and quarantining became pointless. It’s been quite amazing to witness the second triplet of measures only partially-embraced and eventually abandoned in the U.S. (and elsewhere).

A good number of EU countries did well initially with strict, extensive lockdowns; since cases were in decline (there was no discussion about eradication) by early summer, the EU decided – too early, as it turned out – to open its borders for vacationers in July – September. Now they’re vowing to do the same thing this year, with discussion of a “Covid passport” to allow (vaccinated) vacationers to pretty much go where they please. In the EU, where vaccine supplies and consequently, vaccination rates remain alarmingly low, this sounds more like a (dangerous and deluded) pipe dream than a plan.

So what was the West thinking (assuming they were thinking at all) a year ago? Essentially, the West decided to sacrifice a few million people on the altar of keeping their economies as open as possible in the hope of the rapid discovery, approval, production and distribution of a vaccine – the modern-medicine obsession (“magic bullet”) that characterizes the rich West.

On March 13, 2020, Michael Ryan, the WHO’s Executive Director of health emergencies – a man who’d spent his career fighting Ebola outbreaks – was asked what lessons he’d learned:

 “What we’ve learned through the Ebola outbreaks is you need to react quickly. You need to go after the virus. You need to stop the chains of transmission. You need to engage with communities very deeply — community acceptance is hugely important. You need to be coordinated, you need to be coherent.

With respect to the coronavirus:

Be fast. Have no regrets. You must be the first mover. The virus will always get you if you don’t move quickly… If you need to be right before you move, you will never win. Perfection is the enemy of the good when it comes to emergency management. Speed trumps perfection. And the problem in society we have at the moment is everyone is afraid of making a mistake, everyone is afraid of the consequence of error. But the greatest error is not to move. The greatest error is to be paralyzed by the fear of failure.” (Emphasis added)

In sum: what did differentiate the three broad geographic categories above was speed and intensity of response. When every day counted, the West let literally weeks – about nine, 60+ days – pass without acting decisively and in a coordinated fashion. From modern historian Adam Tooze, who is writing a book on the pandemic:

Either you control this early on, in which case the trade-offs are relatively manageable and all sorts of conventional things make sense, or you don’t and you end up in a space which really no advanced polity’s decision-making process is very good at coping with. And so then it’s really a matter of degrees of failure across the board.”

With respect to how the U.S. in particular confronted COVID-19 in the early days, it was one PR disaster after another – and the President was by no means the only one to contribute to this. Dr. Anthony Fauci continued to insist throughout February that the virus was relatively unthreatening, like the flu, no cause for alarm, etc. – what was he imbibing, exactly? The Governor of New York has admitted that what he was most concerned about was not the virus, but panic among the populace – in other words, “Stay calm, everybody. Cuomo’s in charge.” But in fact, controlled panic is a pretty sound response to an invisible and insidious enemy – you’re under siege, and playing it cool just won’t cut it. 

Fauci, Trump, and Cuomo weren’t alone in their blasé confrontation style – the media were complicit and in retrospect, the Times and Post and other major outlets should be ashamed of writing stuff like “beware the pandemic panic” (Times), “we should be wary of an aggressive government response to coronavirus” (Post), and “Coronavirus Is Scary, but the Flu Is Deadlier, More Widespread” (USA Today). Alas, to the enormous detriment of the U.S. – and at the cost of more than half a million lives in the pandemic’s first year, “the cause of the alarm was picked up not by those in positions of social authority or with the power to enact preparatory measures but by a rogues’ gallery of outsiders and contrarians” – in other words, cranks and doomsday types with no access to power.

None of the early measures that would have stopped the virus in its tracks were imposed early enough or rigorously enough to succeed – just recall the testing debacle, the failure to set up contact tracing on a massive scale, and what basically was just a theoretical wave in the direction of quarantining and/or isolation. The U.S., acting too late and too disjointedly (if there’s one justification for a national public health policy in a country like the U.S., it’s a pandemic threatening to decimate your population and destroy your economy), eventually had to employ lengthy lockdowns which succeeded only in part – this, because they were never full lockdowns, and because they were meant to be employed in conjunction with the other measures, not independent of them. The loss of life and damage to the economy (770,000 people filed new unemployment claims in the U.S. most recently, the 52nd week in a row that claims have been higher than their highest point in the 2008-2009 financial crisis / recession) is incalculable, with whole sectors knocked out – aviation, tourism and the hospitality industry, restaurants- bars, the performing arts.

Another issue in the U.S. (and not only) is the blinkered focus on, and worship of, scientific, individual-centered, research-driven medicine. It’s a system focused on absolute knowledge and certainty, on testing hypotheses and confirming results, rather than on broad-stroke policy decisions which rely on back-of-the-envelope calculations and rapid action, as was required. Even today, Western leaders – including medical authorities and policy gurus – would rather not act than act and be wrong. But by not acting, they’ve been wrong all along.

The precepts of (Western, enlightenment-inspired, experimentally-driven) medicine have been followed throughout the past year, rather than the precepts of public health, which is often viewed by the medical establishment as a poor (literally and metaphorically, as events proved) step-daughter of medicine. But it’s not – its values and approaches to pandemics, including dealing with masses of people are fundamentally different. The U.S. has noted that, for example, the elderly are far more vulnerable to the virus than others – but public health acknowledges and addresses the fact that one major factor that makes the elderly vulnerable on a mass scale is that so many live in congregate, enclosed, poorly-ventilated and inadequately maintained settings, viz. nursing homes and assisted care facilities. This acknowledgement demanded an entirely different approach. The same goes for all those living in congregate facilities: prisons (jails, state and federal prisons), institutions for the disabled, homeless shelters, and ICE facilities on the southern border. The wealthiest senior citizens without significant co-morbidities could afford to shelter in place and self-isolate – and most of the advice was aimed at this privileged group. For some mysterious reason, the U.S. (and other Western nations) thought that human beings could be forced into isolation, despondence, and depression for a year or more by shaming. Public health experts know that shaming doesn’t work – it may succeed with some small number of people (who didn’t need to be shamed in the first place) for a year, and with a larger number for a few months, but with each successive cycle of lockdowns and re-openings, people become less subject to shaming and therefore, less compliant. People will congregate in secret at homes, they’ll walk along a seaside promenade in droves and throw caution to the winds, they’ll attend protests, thereby counteracting the very measures their government is trying to enforce.

“[W]e have to think also a bit with sustainability in mind. How do we communicate with people? What is the goal? What is the plan? Because I think there’ve been times when it felt like we were a little aimless as a country — just sort of muddling through. At least we should, you know, have a goal” (Natalie Dean, biostatistician, Univ. of Florida)

What, exactly was the goal of the West in its confrontation of the pandemic? Eradication – certainly not, that was seen as impossible; suppression? perhaps, in a few cases; containment? maybe. But mostly it seems to this writer to have been “Let’s cross our fingers, shut our eyes tight, and hope for a vaccine.”

Now we have several vaccines – shutting one’s eyes, crossing one’s fingers and going into full denial mode seems to have worked if you ignore the loss of 538,000 U.S. lives [as of March 17, 2021] and the destruction of the U.S. economy. The EU, sclerotic to the bitter end, played it coy with advance vaccine purchases; it was slow to place orders and haggled over prices. That meant that it’s not getting the supplies it needs, and thus, the vaccination rollout is embarrassingly slow. “Vacation Europe” wants to re-open – Greece has announced it will open to foreign tourists on May 14 to take advantage of its five-month season, which it couldn’t do in 2020. Along with other summer destination countries (Spain, Italy), Greece is pressing for a COVID passport system to allow vaccinated travelers into the country.

But it’s very doubtful that at a rate of fewer than 1 million people a month being vaccinated (around 30,000 daily), Greece will be anywhere near vaccine-induced herd immunity by May – just in terms of sheer numbers, it would require 8 months to vaccinate 8 million people (out of a population of just under 11 million), putting that goal near the end of August – and that’s assuming that the vaccine supply holds steady.

In the meantime, variants are multiplying daily – and it stands to reason that one or more – perhaps many – will evade the vaccines developed to date. What then?

2021-03-01 Social Lenses: “Room 2806” (Part II)

“Les affaires interdits”

For the background to the following discussion, please see our previous post (“Room 2806” Part I). Below I try to isolate and classify the factors which led to the Manhattan Prosecutor’s abandonment of all charges against Strauss-Kahn, and some possible approaches to dealing with perpetrators in future.

Factors involved:

Money: Strauss-Kahn was the son of a lawyer and a journalist (the circles within which he has basically remained, both socially and matrimonially). Born in a Parisian suburb, the family moved to Morocco when he was two (1951), and thence to Monaco (1960), where his father worked as a lawyer. He moved back to France when he began university. The family was well-off, but didn’t have the funds to promote him in accordance with his boundless ambition. This only became possible upon his third marriage to Anne Sinclair. Sinclair, the daughter of French Jews who had married before fleeing France shortly before World War II, is the maternal granddaughter of one of Europe’s most successful 20th-century art dealers, Paul Rosenberg, who represented Picasso (and was a close personal friend; the two families summered together following their return to France), Léger, Braque, and Matisse among others. His agreement to sell these artists’ works came with the stipulation that he himself would have first rights to purchase, and he thus amassed a collection of art of almost-incalculable value. Rosenberg, sensing that war was imminent, managed to get some (though not all) of his collection out of the country, shipping part of it to his London branch and another part to the U.S. (under guise of the 1939 World’s Fair). Sinclair became her grandfather’s sole heir following the death of her mother Madeline, and her net worth is estimated at around $200 million. That’s serious money, and it bought Strauss-Kahn both the political career he longed for as well as protection and – ultimately – a form of immunity from his dark proclivities, which may have become more pronounced during his years as Director of the IMF when he was “economic czar of the world.”

Power: The information about “Money” above wasn’t in the documentary, but I became curious when at the bail hearing, DSK’s lawyer noted his total assets at around $2 million before adding, almost as an afterthought, that his wife had “substantially more,” which sounded like Brafman was trying to avoid naming amounts. Serious money is a correlate of serious power – whether it is direct as in DSK’s case (the Public Information officer of the NYPD notes that at the time of his arrest, Strauss-Kahn was the “8th or 9th most powerful man in the world”) or indirect, as is the case with America’s billionaire class, many of whom prefer donating to policy think tanks and political campaigns over actually running for office, although there is increasingly some cross-over. West Virginia’s richest man, Jim Judges, is Governor; the Governor of Illinois, JB Pritzker, has an estimated net worth of nearly $4 billion. And of course there is the recent example of the U.S. President.

Power can buy politicians and policies favoring the moneyed class(es) – most of Trump’s policy initiatives, implemented through Executive Orders, are of this type (rollbacks of policies which opened up federal lands to exploitation by the extractive industries, relaxation of environmental regulations favoring the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries). Trump’s sole legislative triumph was a tax measure that massively favored the rich.

Power combined with money can buy exemptions from Justice. The documentary features several former colleagues and friends (and even DSK’s second wife, Brigitte Guillemette) claiming that their colleague/friend/spouse would never have engaged in the sexual behavior of which he stood accused. But did any of them actually believe that? DSK had long been known to them; was it the case that they could acknowledge he was a “conventional” French womanizer, given to serial liaisons, but not that he was what he emerges as in the Sofitel case, the Banon case and perhaps most tellingly, the Carlton hotel case? There seems to be a line between affairs with members of one’s own social class – even extending to much younger members – and the type of sex DSK preferred with women who did not belong to his social class.

Class: Strauss-Kahn’s case reminded us of that of Jeffrey Epstein, the American financier (?). While the full case against Epstein was never presented – he committed suicide in his jail cell a little over a month following arrest in July 2019 – an extensive investigation published in the Miami Herald in late 2018 by Julie Brown and Emily Michot exposed many of the details of how his “operation” functioned, with a focus on the early 21st century (2001-2005). While in contrast to DSK, Epstein had never sought political office, his myriad connections with the American (and Anglophone) super-rich and powerful (“princes and premiers”) and his own wealth (estimated at $500 million, although it has proven hard to track down given that much of it was concealed in off-shore accounts) ensured that when he was convicted in Florida in 2008, it was on much-reduced charges (one count of procurement of a minor), and he served only 13 months in the “Stockade,” during which time he was allowed to leave the jail 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, to work at the foundation he created shortly before conviction (and which was dissolved upon his release).

Also in contrast to Strauss-Kahn, Epstein was both client and ultimate procurer (with Ghislaine Maxwell acting as recruiter/groomer) for others (Strauss-Kahn was “only” a client; others did the procuring); also, Epstein specialized in underage girls, while DSK’s preference appears to have been for young adult women.

But both men sought victims from the underclass, those without money, power, or connections. And both either transported or had transported victims from one jurisdiction and/or country to another (this explains the FBI’s involvement in Epstein’s case) – in American legal parlance, this is trafficking (the French legislation and terminology is different; although DSK was “only” a client [prostitution is legal in France], he was accused of pimping [procurement], which would be more properly applied in the U.S. to Epstein).

Thus both men sexually exploited and abused women who could not fight back – in Strauss-Kahn’s case, Diallo, a refugee from the former French Guinea; of the women interviewed in the documentary concerning the Carlton affair, one was an immigrant from Morocco, where DSK spent part of his childhood, and where he and Sinclair owned a home. These women were referred to in code as “equipment,” as “dossiers,” even as “meat” (though DSK vehemently denied he had himself employed the latter term). The men DSK used to obtain women – low-level political allies, businessmen anticipating some sort of a return on the favor – were almost certainly given specific instructions. Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, his “madam,” searched out schoolgirls in lower-class neighborhoods, or working at exclusive establishments in humble positions (the case of Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who was working at Mar-a-Lago when Maxwell spotted her). Once a girl had been recruited, she was asked to “recommend” friends.

While class played a decisive role in the selection of victims, it appears to have been more subtle – or blatant, depending on one’s point of view – in both cases. The French have a long and troubled history of colonialism, and their immigrant class from the former colonies remains even now a permanent underclass.** Strauss-Kahn spent his early years in Francophone Africa (Morocco) and would have adopted the French attitude towards women from North Africa. Epstein, a Palm Beach transplant, would have known where to recruit just the type of girl he and his clients sought: white, often from broken homes, perhaps abused, needy but not absolutely indigent (he wouldn’t have recruited girls from Kissimmee, for example), girls whom his clients would have appreciated, girls who wouldn’t have looked out of place in photographs taken at one or another of Epstein’s residences (cf., for example, photos of Prince Andrew and one of the girls Epstein trafficked to London, Virginia Roberts Guiffre; another of Epstein’s clients was apparently the billionaire hedge fund manager Glenn Dubin, who in 1994 married Eva Andersson, Epstein’s own girlfriend for 11 years).

Law Enforcement: The documentary includes commentary by a number of the men involved in the Sofitel Hotel “incident,” including Paul Browne, NYPD Public Information Deputy Commissioner, Michael Osgood, then Deputy Chief Commissioner in charge of the NYPD Special Victims Unit, as well as the hotel’s Head of Security, John Sheehan. All three – in addition to Diallo’s own attorneys, Douglas Wigdor and Kenneth P. Thompson (who in 2104 became the Brooklyn DA; he passed away in 2016) – believed Diallo’s description of what happened in Room 2806, and none showed any second thoughts about her credibility (the men all spoke for purposes of the documentary, so the footage is new).

The problems in these cases do not seem to be with those who undertake the preliminary investigation; rather, the problems start at the top of the gravy chain of law enforcement and filter down to prosecution (or non-prosecution, as often happens), sentencing (light to non-existent), and various plea agreements. In Epstein’s case, the order to go easy on him apparently came down from the “top,” wherever that was. The federal prosecutor of Miami-Dade County at the time, Alexander Acosta (who later became Secretary of Labor under Trump; he was forced to resign when Epstein was arrested in July 2019), arranged for a federal non-prosecution agreement. Acosta maintained he was given no choice about making the deal. And it was structured as a closed agreement, meaning that neither Epstein’s victims nor the judge in his case even knew its contents – which suggests what, exactly?

Something comparable occurred with the Strauss-Kahn case, overseen by Cyrus Vance Jr., the Manhattan DA. After the decision not to prosecute DSK, Vance gave a rare press conference at which he responded to questions. His answers were pure garden-variety non-answers: “not enough evidence”, and “well, we know something happened in that room, but we’ll never know exactly what because there were no witnesses.”

Remedies?

It’s easy to say “go after trafficking” or “prosecute sexual assault crimes” or “go after offenders no matter how rich, powerful, and well-connected they are.” The problem is, how do you make that happen?

  • You could change the laws to protect victims at trial, for one thing – make it illegal to try to discredit victims on the basis of their personal lives before the specific incident for which the perpetrator is being tried, the standard and nearly-infallible technique employed by the defense in rape and sexual assault cases (It even has a name: “Blame the victim”). But this is a hard sell; it would inevitably have both ramifications for how the perpetrator’s background is presented as well as how other major crimes cases are prosecuted.
  • You could abolish cash bail, like Illinois has just done. If a similar law had been on the books in New York ten years ago, the judge who released DSK on $1 million bail plus a $5 million bond would have had less leeway about releasing him to house arrest. Unfortunately, this probably wouldn’t have made a difference in this particular instance, given that the Manhattan prosecutors and Vance appear to have been unwilling to prosecute at all.
  • You could go after trafficking and procurement (“pimping”) more vigorously – not that this isn’t being done, but police departments’ special victims units are often understaffed and underfunded. A lot of lip service is paid to the need to prosecute perpetrators of rape and sexual assault, but police departments and prosecutors know these cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute and even more difficult to win convictions on – they hate them, in short. And victims know this, too: less than a quarter of sexual assaults are ever reported; fewer than 1% of cases lead to a conviction, and sexual assault perpetrators who are actually tried are far less likely than all other major crimes perpetrators to go to prison. And we must remember that most cases don’t involve men as wealthy, powerful, or well-connected as Strauss-Kahn and Epstein. [Note: For a very interesting initiative involving technology and international trafficking, see TraffikAnalysisHub.]
  • You could try to change social mores to make sexual violence and exploitation absolutely and unconditionally unacceptable, no matter who the perpetrator is. The #MeToo movement (founded 2006), which gained momentum with the cases of Bill Cosby (2018) and Harvey Weinstein (2018), is directly engaged in this effort. Perpetrators of sexual assault have been revealed in the entertainment industry, premier-level sports (cf. particularly U.S. elite gymnastics), the broadcast and print media, and politics. This movement is taking hold abroad as well – Greece became embroiled in its first international-level #MeToo case with the November 2020 revelations by Olympic sailor Sofia Bekatorou about being raped at age 22 (in 1998) by a high official in the Hellenic Sailing Federation, Aristeides Adamopoulos (who is a well-connected political player in Athenian circles). Recent revelations have rapidly spread to the Greek theater world, including the recent arrest on rape charges of the Director of the National Theatre Dimitris Lignadis, whose preference ran to underage boys, some of whom appear to have been refugee boys especially “recruited” for him.

Since 2018, there have been notable prosecutions in the U.S. like those of Weinstein (several of whose victims were represented by Douglas Wigdor, one of Nafissatou Diallo’s lawyers), Cosby, and Larry Nassar (a former Michigan State gymnastics coach associated with Nassar, John Geddert, recently committed suicide after being charged with trafficking and sexual assault).

But Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s victims have not been vindicated, and neither have Jeffrey Epstein’s (despite the arrest of Ghislaine Maxwell in July 2020). We’ll never know whether Epstein would have been tried and sentenced to the full extent of the law. Both he and DSK were “punished” in a sense – DSK after the Carlton case picked up steam and it became impossible for the French power elite to deny that he was, to put it bluntly, a sexual predator, while Epstein became a social pariah after his conviction in Miami in 2008.

But was this the best we could do? It would appear that there’s some point at which money, power, connections and influence overwhelm Justice herself. She may wear a blindfold in popular lore, but she’s not blind to money and power.

If we want to change that, we need to change nearly everything about how 21st-century society functions.

**Update: While re-editing this post, we discovered a recent interview podcast featuring the French journalist Rokhaya Diallo, published by The Intercept on 26 February (interviewer: Vanessa A. Bee). Diallo identifies the cognitive dissonance at the heart of French secularism (since 1905), referred to in French as laïcité. France declares itself “universalist” as opposed to “multicultural,” but of course the default identity is always “white, Christian and most likely, Catholic.” The whole interview is worth reading (or listening to), because it addresses the complexity of France’s colonialist past (particularly in the Maghreb, French North Africa), the ghettoization of Muslims in the banlieus, and how laïcité prevents the French elite from engaging in the sort of collective self-reflection required for them to confront – and repent of – their brutal history as colonialists. Note: the journalist, Rokhaya Diallo (who also is a regular contributor to the Washington Post; for a recent contribution, see here), identifies as French, Muslim, and Black – I looked up her surname, and sure enough, it is unique to French Guinea and the Fula; thus her ancestors immigrated to France from the same county as Nafissatou Diallo.