Recently, President Obama, who has tactfully remained silent as the Democratic primaries have progressed, decided to voice a note of caution. On Friday of last week, he said he felt compelled to weigh in because he didn’t think some of the loudest and most strident voices, particularly on social media, were “representative” of most folks in the party.
He said, “The average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.”
“Even as we push the envelope and we are bold in our vision, we also have to be rooted in reality,” he said, indicating that some independents and moderate Republicans may be put off by certain “left-leaning twitter feeds.”
This may come as a shock, but, for the record, I agree with President Obama. I, too, want to be “rooted in reality.”
But what exactly does that phrase mean? Whose reality was he talking about?
Maybe he was talking about the millions of millennials currently drowning in student debt—those poor suckers who must pay $60,000 to $150,000 for an education that you used to be able to shuck out a few thousand bucks a semester at a decent state school to cover? Of course, most Western countries are far more generous with higher education funding and enrollment costs. The list of developed nations that offer free or heavily subsidized university enrollment should stand as an embarrassment to our untaxed wealth hoarders and an indictment from our struggling middle class. But since no ‘moderate’ Democrat or Republican has thought to offer a plan to adjust the cost or help out these students, I suspect that’s not the ‘reality’ he’s indicating.
Perhaps he was referring to the people who somehow manage to fall through the cracks of Obamacare and must suffer silently without healthcare and dental care for months and years at a time—or bankrupt themselves to pay for healthcare that every other developed nation on earth funds as a matter of right? That’s unlikely as well, since, conventional wisdom among our donor class suggests that only a far left candidate would be interested in a plan that would duplicate what every other industrialized nation on earth offers: comprehensive coverage to everyone, young or old, healthy or infirm, regardless of their ability to pay insurance premiums. In fact, most other national plans rightfully exclude the insurance middle man whose sole purpose seems to be to extract profit from human suffering.
Possibly he was talking about our current ‘Hoovervilles’ of homeless individuals near Oakland, San Francisco or Los Angeles—tent cities whose populations dwarf many rural municipalities? But with no federal legal framework for rent control, housing ridiculously priced, and minimum wage hikes politically unacceptable to ‘moderates,’ those ‘Hoovervilles’ are just the cost of living in America, I guess.
Speaking of the West Coast, could he possibly be talking about those individuals whose electricity was turned off by PG&E recently to avoid sparking fires because their corporate board thought it was wiser to pursue profit over decent maintenance plans for the utility? I don’t think that’s likely since forcing a private utility to actually maintain the public works for which they are getting paid would smack of Socialism. Definitely that’s not our moderate Obama’s reality.
Then again, he might be talking to the hundreds of home owners whose property has been confiscated to make way for pipelines whose existence threatens our survival as a species? Unless, of course, you belong to those sage individuals who still deny climate change. Is that what he means by ‘rooted in reality?’ Perhaps, since so many moderate Democrats and independents enjoy campaign contributions from energy behemoths like Dominion Power, who hope to profit from those very pipelines –like our own blue Virginia Governor, our Virginia Attorney General, and our Virginia House Speaker Elect.
In fact, I find it difficult to understand what ‘reality’ Obama is describing. Unless, he, too, is only thinking narrowly, and speaking to a precious audience of wealthy individuals and donors that might not understand the risible reality so many of his ‘base’ are now suffering? Is that the case? Is he warning us against things like taxing the rich, the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, which is wildly popular among ALL Democrats, and reasonably popular across all parties (with majority positive ratings) because he doesn’t understand or care about what everyone I know experiences every single day? He’s made it clear from his speech that Lefties should not mention the continuing daily deaths from lack of healthcare, the ongoing bankruptcies, suicides and the lost opportunities for education and the extermination of our environment because of ill-conceived plans like fracking natural gas pipelines. Does he suppose that talking about these problems, and advocating viable solutions means ‘tearing down the system’? If so, is the alternative, a stoic, and frankly dumbed down silence?
Apparently, to call such individuals out, to reject those who scheme to rip off underprivileged people or poison our environment with incredibly dysfunctional ideas is, at best, in poor taste. At worst, a radical call to ‘tear down a system.’ Yet, each ‘Lefty’ candidate is working well within the parameters of the existing system. In fact, I suspect the reason Obama decided to put his thumb on the primary scales is precisely because they are doing this so well. So here comes our ‘hope’ hero cautioning respectful silence from the left, please. Maybe he’s got a clever plan? But I don’t think so. His message appears simple: let the wealthy donor class maintain their dark blinders. Don’t bother them with your problems—they’re really not interested. His words are like a seductive whisper….speak no evil to them and you will possibly beat Trump, the wicked one … don’t make the bankers nervous, keep the cash flowing…and allow me to explain your reality to you.
I must say, it is refreshing to hear complete sentences from a President again, but I think I’d rather allow one of those ‘Lefties’ the last word. In the end, they use their language with more discernment, and to a much greater effect.
“When I talk about health care being a human right and ending the embarrassment of America being the only major country on earth that does not guarantee health care for every man, woman and child, that’s not tearing down the system,” Bernie Sanders said, “That’s doing what we should have done 30 years ago.”
To my ears, that sounds remarkably real.
By Jack Johnson
This is the way the world ends….
Not with a bang but a whimper –The Hollow Men, T.S. Eliot
The maddening thing about the pipeline discussion, of course, is that it shouldn’t be happening at all. People who understand the science do not entertain the idea that even a little pipeline would somehow benefit Virginians, much less the dual monster pipelines – the Mountain Valley Pipeline and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline– that are daily discussed with the feckless calm of oblivious passengers sipping martinis on the Titanic.
Late in the evening, I try to work up metaphors that can adequately capture the insanity of this moment. I keep coming back to an old New Yorker cartoon: man in disheveled suit, sitting beside a group of other survivors around a campfire in some obviously post-apocalyptic landscape.
“But for a brief, shining moment,” says the man in the suit, “we managed to create enormous value for our shareholders.”
I suspect this sums up the position of Dominion Power, EQT and other investors in the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast Pipeline projects, and apparently our own state government from the Governor on down to the Department of Environmental Quality and the State Water Control Board. Heedless of the demonstrable long term and short term damage such pipelines will cause to the environment, and ultimately, human civilization, these corporate and state entities use every possible legal and political weapon to advance the pipelines’ construction. It’s as if they live on a different planet from the activists I know who are increasingly alarmed by the obfuscation and outright lies being handed to them by state government at almost every level.
I had an opportunity to talk with some of these activists over the weekend and they were justly infuriated at the latest dodge by the State Water Control Board. Especially, the most recent move not to revoke MVP’s permit. Here’s a little background.
Before construction started for the Mountain Valley Pipeline in 2017, the State Water Control Board, under Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, (which ostensibly has authority over the project), voted 5-2 in December 2017 to certify the project’s path through Southwest Virginia, finding a “reasonable assurance” that digging trenches for the massive buried pipe along steep slopes would not contaminate nearby streams and rivers.
But, according to the Roanoke Times, in August, the Department of Environmental Quality found multiple failures of erosion and sediment control measures. By December 2018, the board decided to take the unprecedented move of convening a hearing to consider revoking MVP’s certification, one of several permits that allowed construction of the 303-mile pipeline through Virginia.
Rather than carry through with the revocation, based on over 300 violations that the Mountain Valley Pipeline had rung up in the previous year, the State Water Control board decided to undo that process last Friday, March 1st.
On a unanimous vote, the State Water Control Board withdrew its earlier decision to hold a hearing to consider revoking the water quality certification it issued for the pipeline in December 2017. Coming after a four-hour closed session, the vote shocked and angered activists.
“Shame on you!” One pipeline opponent shouted at the board members as others joined in. “Shame! Shame! Shame!”
Several people were escorted out of the room.
One board member claimed they did not have the authority to revoke federal permitting for the MVP. Another was concerned about what they saw erosion-wise while visiting the pipeline right of way, but wasn’t concerned enough, apparently, while yet another board member promised “vigorous enforcement” of the requirements MVP agreed to for controlling soil erosion and runoff.
According to one activist, officials from the Mountain Valley Pipeline told DEQ that they would continue with construction regardless of whether their permit was or was not revoked, and the State Water Control Board decided that they would leave the permit in place. It remains to be seen whether the State Water Control Board and DEQ will enforce any of the permit conditions, or whether the suit brought in early December against MVP by Attorney General Mark Herring will have any effect on a corporation that says it will continue to do whatever it wants.
Those are the public stories, presented for the average reader, skimming lines of newsprint, not aware that this decision, along with hundreds of others like it, are sealing their children’s fate, such that, within the next 100 years or so, life on earth, as we currently understand it, will be a remote, idyllic dream.
The backstory, if you are interested in how civilizations are destroyed by the callous and the powerful, comes from a sweet little political maneuver by Governor Ralph Northam.
The terms of two members — one who voted for the pipeline and the other against it — expired, and their replacements accounted for the flip in the panel’s position.
Roberta Kellam was the member who was deeply concerned about the pipeline’s violations. She was subsequently replaced.
In an op-ed to the Roanoke Times, she wrote:
“Based on what I observed along 30 miles of MVP construction, it continues to be unclear to me why the DEQ has not instructed MVP to stop work in accordance with its authority.
“My tour of the MVP corridor traversed areas of very steep slopes, floodplains and freshwater wetlands. I observed situations that were clearly a threat to water quality, such as unprotected steep slopes, pipeline segments floating in water and erosion and sediment control measures in disrepair.
“But what struck me even more than the environmental impacts was meeting the people dealing with the pipeline construction and its failed erosion control measures on their own properties — farmers and other land owners who graciously invited me to visit their properties and see for myself.
“It was clear that many people felt that DEQ was not protecting their water quality to the extent promised during the water quality certification hearings and that they had lost faith in the DEQ.
“From time to time during 2018, I saw photographs taken by local residents of situations on the ground that appeared to threaten water quality.
“In response to my inquiries about site conditions, I was repeatedly told by DEQ Director David Paylor that the local residents are “untruthful” and their photographs were “misleading.” In the week before Hurricane Florence, when weather forecasts indicated potential catastrophic rainfall in the region, Director Paylor told me that work had stopped even though video and photographs provided by local residents showed otherwise.
“When I further questioned Director Paylor about apparent water quality impacts, he accused me of “working for the opposition” with such ferocity that I felt compelled to defend myself in writing, referring to our responsibilities to protect water quality.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Roberta Kellam’s replacement, James Loften made the motion to hold the hearing that ended up affirming MVP’s permit. The motion was supported by Paula Hill Jasinski, a newbie appointee as well, who was attending her first formal board meeting.
In lieu of revoking the permit, some pipeline opponents called for immediate stop- work action. Said Lara Mack, Virginia field coordinator for Appalachian Voices, “We now call on the DEQ to do what’s necessary — and has been necessary for months — and issue a stop-work order for the Mountain Valley Pipeline.”
According to Melanie Davenport, DEQ’s water permitting director, there is no need for such a stop work order, because many of the 300 violations have already been mitigated or don’t rise to the level that would require work to stop. But that’s not what Roberta Kellam or any of the activists on site are saying. Quite the opposite. Each new day of construction brings new environmental damage, new runoff, new water pollution.
All this happens within the small bubble of state law, state environmental experts and an enormously influential and powerful state utility. Yet, the stakes in Virginia pale by comparison to the larger stakes at play, of which Virginia is just a microcosm. In other words, Virginia is just one more nail in the global climate coffin we are building for ourselves. That it is a coffin is indisputable. The most recent IPCC report makes it eminently clear that to build anything like a pipeline to carry natural gas is a bad idea. Building massive infrastructure to produce slightly less carbon and slightly more methane (another greenhouse gas) is, at minimum, a dysfunctional tradeoff. It’s not nearly as effective as building a true carbon free infrastructure (solar, wind and other renewables) posited by something like the Green New Deal. What’s worse, environmentalists are concerned that continued pipeline approvals will lock in U.S. dependence on fossil fuels for decades to come.
“Building pipelines that are not needed will lead to billions of dollars of stranded assets and slow down our process to building cleaner energy solutions,” Gillian Giannetti, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said.
With the rapid decline in the cost of renewables, the economics of building gas pipelines that are meant to last 40 to 60 years no longer adds up, Jonathan Peress of the Environmental Defense Fund said. “In 15 or 20 years, it is clear that alternatives to gas are going to be more economic than building pipelines, but yet these pipelines will still be under contract, people will still be paying for them,” he said.
Similar sentiments were expressed by former FERC chair Norman Bay, who warned of overbuilding the pipeline system and burdening future ratepayers before he stepped down from the commission in 2017.
Since 1999, FERC has approved approximately 400 natural gas pipeline projects while rejecting only two. Under current Republican control, FERC is, in the words of many activists, a rubber stamp agency. When the Governor defers to FERC authority over DEQ, he is simply rubber stamping the pipeline’s approval, while trying to avoid political heat. All of which adds up to more carbon, more methane and more global warming.
According to the IPCC’s most recent report, the future disasters predicted for ten years down the road, are already here. We are already “experiencing the impacts of rapid and unequivocal global warming: coral reef decline, sea level rise, Arctic sea ice loss, biodiversity loss, declining crop yields, more frequent heat waves and heavy rainfall.” It will get much, much worse, not within a hundred years, but within 5, 10 or 20 years, such that, if you have young children, the politic decisions made now, behind closed doors, for the advantage of a handful of short sighted and powerful individuals, will likely seal your children’s lives and the lives of their children for generations to come. History will judge these politicians and corporate chiefs harshly, as well they should.
Dominion Power CEO, Tom Farrell; Virginia Governor, Ralph Northam; DEQ Director, David Paylor. Just a few names that will ring in infamy as future generations learn of their grotesque behavior. I’m sure there will be more added to the list, but for now, this will suffice. They should all be ashamed.
~Jack R. Johnson
Susan Sontag’s book length essay, “On the Pain of Others” opens with a description of Virginia Woolf’s “Three Guineas” in which Woolf asks a male pacifist who wishes to enlist her aide in preventing future wars to look at photographs of war. The idea is by studying images of war, they will be so thoroughly repulsed that war will no longer be a viable alternative. “For a long time,” notes Sontag, “some people believed that if the horror could be made vivid enough, most people would finally take in the outrageousness, the insanity of war.” Fundamentally, there was a belief that it was merely a failure of imagination that caused war to occur; and given the certainty of such images, if we were to see it clearly, we would never make war again.
Although Sontag is less than sanguine about its efficacy, there can be no doubt that when horrific images are finally brought to the public’s attention—especially the American public—things that were previously acceptable become forbidden. It wasn’t the sworn testimony about Abu Ghraib that caused that horror show to be shut down, but images of American soldiers taking delight in the pain and humiliation—in some cases quite explicit sexual humiliation— of their prisoners. To suggest that the constant replay of bloody images from Vietnam made the war effort almost impossible has become conventional wisdom; and indeed the paucity of photographic evidence of our seventeen-year-old war in Afghanistan speaks directly to that truth. The Pentagon has learned from its past failure, and part of getting over the so called ‘Vietnam syndrome’ is erasing the act of war itself; its pain and horror and monstrous cycles of dehumanization.
Except for those directly involved, Americans are typically shielded from the realities of these wars. If they hear about a bombing or other event, details may be discussed, but dead or wounded American bodies are carefully screened from view. This ‘cleansing’ of the American vision is carefully followed in domestic situations as well, so that we never really see the gore left behind by one of our many mass shootings, but only the tearful anguish of survivors. It is all quite antiseptic. Presumably, this is in the interest of presenting a dignified and civilized front for what is, in fact, a relatively barbaric reality. At some level, there’s a decorum to this which is understandable. ‘Not too direct’ as Joyce Carol Oates warns. We all presume we know what’s happening in Afghanistan, or at a school shooting, and don’t want to offend hurt family members with violent photographs, whose consumption feels almost pornographic. And yet, we don’t really understand or thoroughly imagine what is happening, and it’s allowed barbarities both new and old to continue apace.
One of the turning points for the American Civil Rights movement happened well before Martin Luther King Jr. took to the streets of Birmingham, Alabama. An Afro American boy named Emmett Till was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi in 1955. He was accused of making lewd advances to a white woman, Carol Byrant, at a local store. Byrant’s husband heard of this and he and his brother-in-law J.W. Milam forced Emmett into their car. They took him away and beat and mutilated him before shooting him in the head and sinking his body in the Tallahatchie River.
Three days later, his corpse was recovered but was so disfigured that Mose Wright could only identify it by an initialed ring. Authorities wanted to bury the body quickly, but Till’s mother, Mamie Bradley, requested it be sent back to Chicago. She decided to have an open-casket funeral so that all the world could see what racist murderers had done to her only son. Jet, an African American weekly magazine, published a photo of Emmett’s corpse, and soon the mainstream media picked up on the story. Her decision focused attention on U.S. racism and the barbarism of lynching and Till’s murder was ultimately seen as a catalyst for the next phase of the Civil Rights Movement. In December 1955, the Montgomery bus boycott began in Alabama and lasted more than a year, resulting eventually in a US Supreme Court ruling that segregated buses were unconstitutional.
What Till’s mother did was refuse to erase her son or the barbarity that a white supremacist society had inflicted. In a word, she bore witness and wanted the world to bear witness. Did the photographs of the tortured son help bring home the point? Undoubtedly. Just as photographs of U.S. soldiers killed or wounded in the thick mud of Khe Sanh turned public opinion against that war. It allows the unimaginable to be imagined. To be image-ed-in.
But if you take a moment and scan the publicly available photos from Khe Sahn (link here), they are instructive, showing the suffering of our troops, and in some instances the suffering of the Vietnamese, yet they are not the whole picture. There were many images that are too scurrilous for public consumption—images of genitalia butchered from the enemy’s body and shoved into the enemy’s mouth. Images that will never be made public of enemy combatants tossed from helicopters while still alive, or tortured with car batteries and jumper cables attached to bare nipples. These images are rarely made public because they are so horrific or pornographic in their obvious intent to shock and dehumanize. Yet, they tell a different kind of story about war and the way images are used. They tell you what we all understand at bottom, that war is about dehumanizing. In some cases, about mocking the enemy as a form of dehumanization, mocking them before death with torture, or after death with butchering.
There’s a kind of cultural mockery that we all understand as well, yet rarely talk about. This, too, has photographic evidence. Mockery is a stand in for physical intimidation, which itself is a stand in for direct violence, and finally murder. They are all levels of erasure; of denying humanity.
Imagine for a moment that someone has taken an image of an American soldier, let’s say one of those wounded American soldiers from Khe Sahn, and superimposed on that image, a clown’s nose and mop of red hair, like a later day Ronald McDonald. This is mockery, no doubt, something that you might expect an enemy to carry out; an enemy that in earlier times or even contemporaneously might want to kill you.
Imagine for a moment that someone has taken an image of a holocaust survivor, one of those horribly ghostlike, yet sentient, starved images from Auschwitz and presented them in some mocking manner, smiling in a foolish way, big ears, extra big nose, of course. We’d understand immediately the cruelty of the image, its obvious anti-Semitic intent; the lurking death wish underneath such derision.
The photograph at the beginning of this article was taken during the Jim Crow era. The Jim Crow era was named for the eponymous minstrel show performer whose real name was Thomas Dartmouth (“Daddy”) Rice, an itinerant white actor. Rice first introduced the character who would become known as Jim Crow between acts of a play called The Kentucky Rifle, in which he performed a ludicrous off-balance dance in black face while singing “Jump Jim Crow,” which described his actions (“Weel about and turn about and do jis so/Eb’ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow”). He portrayed the character principally as a dim-witted buffoon.
The intentional cruelty of the photograph above is self-evident; what’s not self-evident perhaps is the contemptuous cruelty of those who dress in ‘black face’, mimicking the mockery of Thomas Rice, aka Jim Crow that suggests it’s okay to deride and dehumanize blacks because they are merely caricatures; not humans who have suffered enormous historical wrongs, in many cases as horrific as Auschwitz survivors.
For our institutions and our leaders, educated individuals, people who have gone to the best schools our nation has to offer, none of this should have been necessary to write or explain. But they have not bothered to learn their own history or care. With such people, who lack both imagination and empathy, it’s obvious such photographs are helpful; their history, our history, must be re-explained, again and again.
~ Jack R. Johnson
A question comes to mind as we watch the slow motion coup in Venezuela: is this really about the legitimacy of Venezuelan president Maduro’s re-election bid, or levels of press freedom in Venezuela? Or is this about something else entirely?
A few facts to consider while we ponder.
Fact one: Saudi Arabia doesn’t even hold elections, and has recently murdered a Washington Post reporter in their embassy in Turkey in a very public fashion, with apparently no deleterious effects on our relationship with Saudi Arabia, diplomatically or otherwise.
Fact two: Venezuela is the largest oil exporter in the Western Hemisphere.
Fact three: Venezuela has the second largest oil reserves of any country in the Western Hemisphere.
Fact four: Venezuela has nationalized its oil industry and used profits from that trade to help poor Venezuelans, a state of affairs often referred to as socialism.
Fact five: The United States has a long and sordid history of intervening in Latin American countries that claim to be practicing socialism; especially if there are particularly attractive resources that might draw our interest (see facts two, three and four above).
The table (note 1) at the end of this article offers a quick ‘greatest hits’ list for our more notable interventions in the region.
You might note, way down on that list, is our intervention in Venezuelan in 2002. In that year, 2002, the U.S. gave its tacit approval of a coup attempt against Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez who had the temerity to further nationalize Venezuela’s oil reserves and use the proceeds to benefit the poor in his country. Declassified CIA intelligence briefings show that the George W. Bush Administration had prior knowledge of the opposition’s plans and probably encouraged those plans. But Chavez was deposed for less than 48 hours until overwhelming popular support and loyalists in the military helped return him to power.
Multiple observers over saw those ‘come back’ elections, by the way; elections that have been closely watched since Chavez came into power over two decades ago. These observers confirmed the validity of the result.
President Jimmy Carter, among others, has testified that Venezuela’s voting system is one of the most secure and transparent in the world. (See note 2 at the end of this article for more details on the system) Carter is the founder of the Carter Center, an institution that monitors electoral processes in many regions of the world.
After Chavez’s death in 2013, Presidential elections were held again in Venezuela for Chavez’ hand picked replacement Nicolás Maduro. Voters gave Nicolás Maduro—who had assumed the role of acting president since Chávez’s death—a narrow victory over his opponent Henrique Capriles Radonski, the Governor of Miranda.
Although not nearly as popular as Chavez, in May 20, of 2018, Maduro once again managed to squeak out a win, and hung on to the title of President. There were elections, and despite the boycott by the opposition parties (or perhaps because of them) Maduro won a definitive victory. Many on the right and center have claimed that this election was illegitimate, but more than 300 international representatives from organizations such as the African Union, the Caribbean Community and the Electoral Experts Council of Latin America, as well as former heads of states, parliamentarians, trade unionists and solidarity activists, were present for Venezuela’s vote and said it was valid.
In the end, Nicolas Maduro was re-elected for the presidential term of 2019-25 with more than 6.2 million votes (67.8%).
Regarding the elections, the Western press has been overrun with cries of ‘vote rigging’ and ‘illegitimate’ because two of the main opposition parties boycotted the elections. They did this because two of its more popular candidates were banned from the election due to charges of inciting violence and ‘administrative irregularities.’
Are these charges legitimate? It’s hard to say. Charges of violence are assayed from both sides of the political spectrum, and, needless to say, both sides are probably culpable in lesser or greater degrees. Violence in Venezuela has escalated dramatically in the last decade. This is related to the economic crisis that has ravaged the country since 2013, that has grown worse in the last 18 months.
Severe shortages of food, medicine, and basic goods, alongside punishing hyperinflation, have driven an estimated three million Venezuelans to leave the country in recent years. Part of the economic crisis is of course due to plummeting oil prices, coupled with Venezuela’s propensity to print its own money, leading to hyperinflation.
But Venezuela’s crisis is not solely Maduro’s doing. The US government and opposition also share responsibility.
On May 6th, even as oil prices were flat-lining, Washington increased its sanctions on the country; sanctions Western media claimed are “unlikely to create major economic hardship” an assertion that is flatly rejected by the United Nations.
According to the United Kingdom’s The Independent newspaper, the General Assembly’s Human Rights council has condemned the US for its illegal actions that “disproportionately affect the poor and the most vulnerable classes.” It has also called on all member states not to recognize nor apply them, and has even begun discussing potential reparations.
Little of this was reported in the U.S. press.
The U.S., on the other hand, with the help of local business, is doing its best to create the economic conditions for regime change, a replay of the Chilean coup in which Nixon told Kissinger to make the ‘economy scream.’
According to The Independent, “The first UN rapporteur to visit Venezuela for 21 years has told The Independent the US sanctions on the country are illegal and could amount to “crimes against humanity” under international law.
Former special rapporteur Alfred de Zayas, who finished his term at the UN in March, has criticized the U.S. for engaging in “economic warfare” against Venezuela which he said is hurting the economy and killing Venezuelans.
“On his fact-finding mission to the country in late 2017, he found internal overdependence on oil, poor governance and corruption had hit the Venezuelan economy hard, but said “economic warfare” practiced by the US, EU and Canada are significant factors in the economic crisis.
“When I come and I say the emigration is partly attributable to the economic war waged against Venezuela and is partly attributable to the sanctions, people don’t like to hear that. They just want the simple narrative that socialism failed and it failed the Venezuelan people,” Mr de Zayas told The Independent.
“What’s at stake is the enormous, enormous natural resources of Venezuela. And I sense that if Venezuela had no natural resources no one would give a damn about Chavez or Maduro or anybody else there,” Mr de Zayas added.
The opposition in Venezuela is also actively making the country’s deep economic crisis worse. Its head of the National Assembly went on a tour of international banks demanding they not lend to his country, while the Trump administration is threatening Venezuelan bondholders not to negotiate the debt. As economist Mark Weisbrot stated, “It is an attempt to topple the government by further destroying the economy and preventing its recovery…There is no other way to describe it.”
The opposition also bears a large share of responsibility for the direct and indirect damage wrought by episodes of violent protest, such as occurred in 2014 and 2017, with full-throated encouragement by the U.S. In addition to property damaged and lives lost, many at the hands of opposition forces, opposition violence fed a climate of fear and polarization, inhibiting the prospects for economic reform and government-opposition dialogue. Right-wing operatives wearing the traditional black balaclava of right-wing death squads have been reported firing ball bearings into the chests of young men, passing pedestrians, drivers.
Professor Gonzalez of the University of Glasgow argues that “their actions go beyond protest; these thugs almost certainly draw a paycheck from the far right. They are likely paramilitaries who work for the drug traffickers whose influence is growing.
“They do not narrowly support the right: they aim to make the country ungovernable, to deepen the despair and the fear that affects growing numbers of Venezuelans.”
In short, they are ripening the conditions for a coup.
That brings us to the announcement this week of a ‘dual’ presidency.
By declaring himself Venezuela’s president on Wednesday, while Maduro legitimately holds that office, Juan Guaidó has brought Venezuela to the edge. Within hours of his declaration, the U.S. recognized the largely unknown politician as the President. Was there a back channel? Of course there was a back channel.
A number of Latin American nations, most with conservative governments backed by the US, have also done so. The growing list includes Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica, and Paraguay. Canada and the Organization of American States have also recognized Guaidó.
The European Union has reportedly considered such a step, but for now has instead issued a call for new elections.
Meanwhile, Juan Guaidó has promised to privatize Venezuelan’s oil reserves (second largest in the Western Hemisphere, you might recall) and within 48 hours of the U.S, recognition of his ‘presidency’, the oil reporting agency S&P Global Platts reported that the opposition leader already drafted “plans to introduce a new national hydrocarbons law that establishes flexible fiscal and contractual terms for projects adapted to oil prices and the oil investment cycle.”
This plan would involve the creation of a “new hydrocarbons agency” that would “offer bidding rounds for projects in natural gas and conventional, heavy and extra-heavy crude.”
In other words, there are rapid moves to privatize Venezuela’s oil and open the door for multinational corporations.
That’s bad, and perhaps signals the end of the Chavez revolution; but worse news is what followed that announcement.
On Friday afternoon, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s appointed Elliot Abrams new special envoy for Venezuela. For those who know Abrams’ history, this is a proverbial gallon of gasoline on an already raging fire.
Of all the defunct functionaries you could choose from the Washington establishment, the worst, by far, to oversee a Latin American country on the verge of a catastrophic civil war is Elliot Abrams.
Why? Because we know that his actions, his capacity with regard to any form of legitimate humanitarian oversight will fail miserably. We know this because he has a career littered with episodes in which he did exactly nothing while bishops were murdered (El Salvador), nuns were raped and murdered (El Salvador), drugs were exchanged for money and weapons of war (Nicaragua, Iran/Contra). And hundreds if not thousands of massacred civilians went unmarked for decades (El Mozote massacre, El Salvador), thanks to his duplicity. (Despite physical evidence, Abrams told a Senate committee that the reports of hundreds of deaths at El Mozote “were not credible.”)
He has lied to the American public. He has lied to congress. In 1991, he was convicted of withholding information from congress and went to jail for his lies, only to be pardoned by George H. W. Bush.
And this, my friends, is where we are. A felon convicted of lying in his capacity as assistant secretary of state, will now oversee one of the most tense and delicate dramas to unfold in our Southern Hemisphere.
The Chavez revolution may be faltering, indeed Maduro may be corrupt to the core, but any chance of correcting the problems by appointing a neoliberal upstart that would immediately seek to privatize core elements of the Venezuelan economy will be a disaster, and will likely lead to civil war.
That civil war, in turn, will be over shadowed by the presence of the ghoulish Elliot Abrams, about whom, the best we can say is ‘go back to jail.’
Venezuela may indeed need change, and the revolution begun by Chavez in an earnest effort to help the impoverished of his nation may well need retooling, and a purging of corrupt elements. A revitalization of economic sectors outside of petrol desperately needs to begin. But there is nothing on offer from either Guaido or the Washington establishment that will bring anything more than further deprivation and misery to a badly suffering country.
On the issue of economic viability and political legitimacy, Voltaire had some sage advice offered at the end of Candide, that Trump and the Washington establishment most certainly should heed: ‘Hoe your own garden.’
1846: The United States invades Mexico and captures Mexico City in 1847. A peace treaty the following year gives the U.S. more than half of Mexico’s territory — what is now most of the western United States.
1903: The United States engineers Panamanian independence from Colombia and gains sovereign rights over the zone where the Panama Canal would connect Atlantic and Pacific shipping routes.
1903: Cuba and the U.S. sign a treaty allowing near-total U.S. control of Cuban affairs. U.S. establishes a naval base at Guantanamo Bay.
First quarter of the 20th century: U.S. Marines repeatedly intervene in Central America and the Caribbean, often to protect U.S. business interests in moments of political instability.
1914: U.S. troops occupy the Mexican port of Veracruz for seven months in an attempt to sway developments in the Mexican Revolution.
1954: Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz is overthrown in a CIA-backed coup.
1961: The U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion fails to overthrow Soviet-backed Cuban leader Fidel Castro but Washington continues to launch attempts to assassinate Castro and dislodge his government.
1964: Leftist President Joao Goulart of Brazil is overthrown in a U.S.-backed coup that installs a military government lasting until the 1980s.
1965: U.S. forces land in the Dominican Republic to intervene in a civil war.
1970s: Argentina, Chile and allied South American nations launch a brutal campaign of repression and assassination aimed at perceived leftist threats, known as Operation Condor, often with U.S. support.
1980s: The administration of President Ronald Reagan backs anti-communist Contra forces against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government and backs the Salvadoran government against leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front rebels.
1983: U.S. forces invade the Caribbean island of Grenada after accusing the government of allying itself with communist Cuba.
1989: U.S. invades Panama to oust strongman Manuel Noriega, who once was a valued CIA intelligence source, as well as one of the primary conduits for illicit weapons, military equipment and cash for U.S.-backed counterinsurgency forces in Latin America.
2002: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is ousted for two days before retaking power. He and his allies accuse the U.S. of tacit support for the coup attempt.
2009: Honduran President Manuel Zelaya overthrown by military. U.S. accused of worsening situation by insufficient condemnation of the coup.
Since 1998 elections in Venezuela have been highly automated, and administered by a non-partisan National Electoral Council, with poll workers drafted via a lottery of registered voters. Polling places are equipped with multiple high-tech touch-screen DRE voting machines, one to a “mesa electoral”, or voting “table”. After the vote is cast, each machine prints out a paper ballot, or VVPAT, which is inspected by the voter and deposited in a ballot box belonging to the machine’s table. The voting machines perform in a stand-alone fashion, disconnected from any network until the polls close.
As part of the election administration the National Electoral Council planned a post-election audit of 54% of polling places, comparing the electronic records with the paper trail.
by Jack Johnson
For Public Release:
The Alliance for a Progressive Virginia supports a strong commitment to public education in general and especially as it pertains to the Virginia public schools.
Since the 2008-9 financial crisis we have watched as the Commonwealth’s public schools have taken blow after blow as priorities were shifted and funding cut.
With this recent past in mind, we are deeply concerned about proposed, substantive redevelopment in the downtown area of the city of Richmond and its possible impact on our troubled local school system. While a majority of Richmond voters have repeatedly demanded fundamental improvements in Richmond schools, they have been answered, not with plans to recruit qualified teachers, repair substandard buildings and cut wasteful top-heavy administration, but instead with aggressive development schemes initiated in the business sector and supported by Richmond City officials who seem to view education in our city as an afterthought to the chimeric pursuit of “growth”.
It is time for our city to realize that we need working services here, now! The long-term dream of enticing low service/high tax base, young professionals to the city with the targeted development of one and two-bedroom luxury apartments and gimmicks like easy (arguably unnecessary), transportation from city-sponsored breweries to a single west end shopping center are not sufficient. If anything, this attempt to cater to a single demographic has led to “growth” in ways that have transformed our city into a place that often seems barely recognizable, and one that does not support vulnerable communities, affordable housing or local business.
Richmond already attracts young, educated professionals with lavish support for our local universities, a thriving food and art scene and a long tradition of gracious living in a welcoming community. The question is how will we retain them when they want to start families? Young families should be an anchor and base for the city but instead we continue to see them migrate to surrounding counties where the school systems are alive and well, taking their tax dollars with them.
It is time for Richmond to stop entertaining tax-funded mega-projects that enrich the business community while leaving the majority of Richmond citizens with little in the way of tangible, positive outcomes. We have seen this movie and all of its remakes time and again, and we know the ending. We keep asking our citizens to pay for boondoggles like for instance, the Redskins training camp complex while essential services are left to atrophy. It’s time to say enough is enough.
The Alliance for a Progressive Virginia supports a thorough and transparent vetting of the proposed Navy Hill/Coliseum project in terms that the general public can understand and respond to at every phase of its potential development. While APV supports Councilperson Kim Gray’s proposal for an independent research team to investigate the particulars of the project on behalf of City residents and would encourage all Council members to support her proposal, we are dismayed and disappointed that once again tax dollars must be spent in order rein in a project we never asked for. Citizens need to have access to meetings at times and at places that accommodate working people, during which they are able to ask questions and receive honest answers, rather than a glossy sales pitch.
We need a lot more information and oversite than we’ve gotten and we need to keep our eye on the ball: Schools and public services must be our top priority!
President, Alliance for a Progressive Virginia.
The following is an open letter from the Alliance for a Progressive Virginia’s President in response.
November 23, 2018
Ralph S. Northam
Governor of Virginia
Dear Governor Northam,
I am writing to you in my capacity as the president of the Alliance for a Progressive Virginia, on behalf of our membership in the Commonwealth, many of whom, myself included, were proud to vote to make you the governor of our beautiful state.
While we deeply appreciate your strong stances on women’s reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights and the expansion of Medicaid amongst other issues, we continue to be deeply concerned with your administration’s policies regarding the two pipeline projects being forced through the heart of the Blue Ridge and Shenandoah Valleys.
APV strongly opposes the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipelines in Virginia for reasons that become clearer almost daily. The negligible job creation and economic growth potential that the pipelines represent: compared to the damage done to vulnerable rural communities, the confiscation of private property and the immense danger posed to our environment, water table, and tourist industry make a strong case for denying the energy industry the opportunity to exploit our most precious resources both human and natural. APV members as well as our Public Policy team have spoken out consistently at every juncture against these pipelines only to watch in alarm as they are pushed through various boards and commissions by a powerful, often apparently unaccountable industry.
At a moment when we simply cannot trust the current administration in Washington to protect our environment and natural heritage, it is incumbent upon individual state leaders such as yourself to work overtime to protect our environment! Once in place, these shortsighted, careless environmental decisions can result in irreversible harm. This is why I feel I must write you personally.
During your campaign and since you took office, I have watched with growing dismay as you defer to the state boards and commissions for decisions regarding the pipelines, rather than take a stand to protect the health, safety and well-being of the citizens of the Commonwealth. We understand that processes and procedures are important but from the start it has appeared as if your administration has been an active partner with energy extraction concerns rather than the protector of our natural birthright. We demand a leader who stands up for all of us not just the wealthy and the privileged.
To be clear, the pipelines will not deliver energy to our own state. They will not provide any usable, necessary service to the people of Virginia, and even if they did, they are not worth the risks they pose or the hardships they will inflict. Fracking in itself is a desperate, massively destructive, last ditch attempt to extract as much profit as possible from remaining fossil fuels at whatever cost to the future. The transportation of fracked materials in high-pressure pipelines that would snake their way through some of the most scenic parts of our state, in order to reach a destination outside of Virginia is a game we’ve seen all too often, where the public takes the risk and a lucky few share the profits. This is not acceptable.
For the last year we have needed you to take a strong public stand in favor of people over profits, but instead we got a hands-off approach to the state-appointed boards that bordered on indifference. Now we have come to a moment of truth where you have chosen to fire several Air Pollution Control board members who have had the temerity to stand up against a pattern of lies and obfuscation by industry. To so blatantly pick sides at this point by removing legitimate obstacles to ACP and MVP has deeply shaken our trust in your administration.
I am asking you, Governor Northam, to rethink your decisions regarding these projects. We need a full explanation of your actions and inactions and we need to see your administration actively standing up to protect our environment, water quality and communities. We are watching what you do.
Rhonda Hening Davis
Alliance for a Progressive Virginia
Public Policy Director
Alliance for a Progressive Virginia
PO Box 14664
Richmond Virginia, 23221
This year has produced a bumper crop of exaggerations, shaded truths and downright fibs on the election trail. So here are a set of arguments gleaned from the bowels of rightwing Facebook posts and blogs with researched responses for when you realize you are arguing with in-laws who are politically to the right of Genghis Khan.
- Democrats want open borders or ALL Democrats want open borders. Note that in this claim no individual Democrat is specified. That’s because no individual Democrat (or group of Democrats) actually want open borders. Not one of them. Democrats have pushed for immigration reform and many think the ‘wall’ is a stupid idea (it is), but that is a far cry from ‘open borders’… If you are a Republican now, you might be asking yourself, ‘Well, why would a candidate say that, if it isn’t true?’ Hold onto that question, it will become important later. But know for now that after exhaustive research we found that not a single Democratic candidate, actually, not a single, living, breathing Democrat has ever once said they wanted open borders. Links provided below.
- Democrats support sanctuary cities. This one is a slight variation of the open border theme. Now, there are some Democrats that support sanctuary cities–BUT there are many MORE who do not. It is by no means universal. In fact, the U.S. Justice department under Trump has sent out notices to 29 such ‘sanctuary’ jurisdictions. So we imagine the maximum number of Democrats who actively support such designations would fall somewhere in that ballpark. Maybe a little more, maybe a little less. That’s a fraction of a congressional count of some 197 House members and 47 Senators. I, personally favor sanctuary status for many individuals who are fleeing violence from their native country and actively seeking asylum. In some cases, sanctuary is necessary because Trump’s Attorney General Sessions has declared that cases of domestic violence and retaliation from gang violence will no longer be covered as an asylum situation. Yet, many of those fleeing Central American countries like Honduras and El Salvador are fleeing horrific levels of gang violence–in fact, some of the worst violence in the world. As a further note on this topic: seeking asylum is not illegal. All those people seeking asylum are NOT illegal aliens. They are unfortunate individuals in dire circumstances, traveling thousands of miles to seek asylum. They are also not, as a rule, gang leaders, or drug lords, or rapists, etc…
- What about the caravan? With regard to the much hyped caravan which is still about two months away from our border, our own military planners’ think that the most likely scenario is that the caravan will continue to dwindle in size as they move north with “no terrorist infiltration.” They do not see it as a threat, and they have declared that they will not fire on caravan members – even if they throw rocks, no matter what the President says, because that is a war crime. In fact, our military is currently more concerned about the presence of “unregulated [U.S. based] rightwing militia members self-deploying to the border in alleged support” of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It estimates that some 200 U.S. rightwing militia members could show up while troops are in the area. Apparently, these folks have been known to steal National Guard equipment.
- Democrats are anti-law enforcement. There’s not a single Democrat I know who is ‘anti-law enforcement.’ There are some Democrats that want law enforcement to be better at their job, especially since this group has the power of life or death over someone in their community. If you don’t want the police officers in your life to do a better job, lucky you. Some of us aren’t so well off–especially those from minority neighborhoods. What some apparently think is ‘anti-law enforcement’ is actually ‘anti-getting murdered’…As a general principle, we at APV stand behind ‘not getting murdered.’
- Democrats want to take my guns away. Closely aligned with the ‘anti-law enforcement’ shibboleth is the idea that Democrats want to take all guns away from everyone. Leaving aside the legal and logistical hurdles that would be required to accomplish this feat, it’s simply not true. There is not a single Democrat who wants to take away all of anyone’s guns. What SOME Democrats want, and by no means ALL, is to regulate the sale of certain types of weapons that have been characterized as military grade or assault weapons: the AR-15 is a likely candidate as it has been used in dozens of mass shootings and its main use is either recreational shootings or mass killings. While many Democrats may be okay with the recreational use of this weapon, I suspect the majority are opposed to using the AR-15 in a mass killing event. Therefore, SOME of them would like to regulate weapons of this type and the sale of ammunition for such a weapon. Many more support gun control measures like more thorough background checks, not allowing weapons to be sold to the blind, mentally handicapped, or violent domestic abusers for obvious reasons.
- Democrats want a healthcare plan that will bankrupt the country. No. Not a single Democrat wants to bankrupt the country. Nor do they advocate a plan that would do this. Now, there are SOME Democrats who want to improve a poorly designed healthcare plan with a single payer plan. There have been multiple studies done that confirm single payer health care (or ‘Medicare’ for all) would be cheaper for our country overall and far more effective for our citizens than anything else currently planned. If done correctly, higher earners (those making 250,000 or more) would pay slightly more for premiums, everyone under that mark would pay less. AND everyone would get covered.On the topic of Obamacare, it is not perfect–largely because the GOP did everything they could to kill it–but it is far better at covering all citizens at some level than the alternative, which is to let our citizens die of preventable or curable illnesses. Also, if you think healthcare is expensive now, wait until the GOP rips out preexisting conditions. Finally, and again, only a partial percentage of the Democrats even favor single payer or ‘Medicare for all’. I, personally, wish more of them did.
- Democrats want to raise taxes. No, all of them generally do not want to raise taxes. SOME of them favor specifically targeted tax increases, like Bernie Sanders (not a Democratic, for the record), who favors a financial transaction tax. This is a minuscule tax amount –0.1% for bonds, 0.5% for stocks– tacked onto a financial trade that would be used to pay the cost of higher education. Many Democrats, however, want to rescind the round of tax cuts under Trump that have largely benefited the top 10%. I personally think it is a good idea for two reasons. 1) the tax cuts are ballooning our debt which is hovering at 20 trillion dollars, and 2) they unfairly enrich the top 1 to 10% percent while doling out table scrapes to anyone making less than half a million a year. A fairly distributed progressive tax program would provide real tax relief to lower and middle class Americans; that is, those Americans who are making less than 250,000 a year. For those making over 250,000 a year, a return to the previous pre-Trump tax standard with a modest bump for capital gains (especially) makes excellent economic sense (it would operate as a broad stimulant to the economy), as well as moral sense, and begin to repair the disastrous levels of inequality which is polarizing this country.
Budgets are moral documents and what Trump’s budget does is reward people who inherit their wealth, or make their wealth off of investments rather than those who actually earn their wealth through hard work. There is nothing moral about being ‘born into money’; nor is there a ‘moral good’ in taking that money and getting massive returns on investments that you do no real work to earn. Both are, at best, morally dubious.
The wealthy individuals the GOP largely represent are enriching themselves and shirking on the nation’s necessary infrastructure costs, healthcare costs, educational costs, and our retirement funds, in order to do it. Ultimately, we all end up paying for that. So remember this coming Tuesday, November 6th, go out and vote. Happy arguing in the meantime.
If you have questions, or just want to vent, please feel free to drop us a comment and we will try to respond as soon as possible.
Five years ago, I was on the island of Lesvos, Greece, as the first Syrian refugees floated in from a nearby Turkish coast. Lesvos was one of the ‘red’ islands that for a short period was filled with ‘Godless’ lefties before a right wing military coup took over Greece circa 1950 and murdered about 50,000 communist party members. Things, of course, had simmered down by the time I visited that morning five years ago, but the IMF austerity regime was causing real pain in the economy and unemployment, always bad, was spiking even further. On top of this, refugees were flooding in from Turkey, across the Aegean on leaky fishing boats and makeshift crafts. I talked with survivors of an overturned raft, some half dozen had drowned, including a nine-month old infant. It was a tragic story, but hardly an Earth shattering event for a Western press accustomed to bombings in Syria, and primed for even the slightest hint of chemical agents; as if death from nerve agent were somehow more deadly than death from salt water drowning.
There were hundreds of refugees at that point in dire need of food, water and shelter. The Greeks, as always, did what they could, even with the IMF tightening an already vicious set of austerity measures. That’s because the Greeks, as always, measured things in human terms. If the press had spent a few days walking with the refugees or talking with the volunteers at the rescue centers, they may have found an enormous capacity for compassion amongst the ever hospitable Greeks, even while suffering some fairly severe depredations themselves. I don’t think this is a quality singular to the Greeks, by the way. Although it was plenty in evidence that summer, I think it can be found where ever humans comfort each other in times of need.
In our country, we’ll find that spirit after hurricanes pillage our communities. I know folks on the far left who have traveled to the heart of rural North Carolina and lent a helping hand after Hurricane Florence pulverized the state. I still remember a post I saw from one of the leaders of that rescue effort gently chiding her fellow volunteers to look beyond cultural and political differences and simply lend a hand. Don’t proselytize while you’re handing out sandwiches, water bottles and sleeping bags, she suggested. I know a few churches that could use that advice.
Others on the left I know will offer sanctuary to those who are fleeing from horrific events farther from home. For example, the Unitarian Church of Richmond has recently opened its door to a Honduran refugee fleeing domestic violence; one of the first ‘Sanctuary churches’ in the state of Virginia. Cities, typically ‘left’ leaning cities, have declared themselves safe or sanctuary zones for immigrants for years now. They do this not because they are ‘un-American’ or wish to cause damage to the country. Quite the opposite. They do it out of respect for what is best in the nature of our country; its openness, its generosity, its willingness to take risks. In that way, the left in this country is very similar to what I saw in the attitude of the Greeks, a compassion for those less fortunate, even as measured by the thin rod of an IMF impoverished citizenry.
In the last few weeks in this country, the left has been the target of some extremely violent actions, pipe bombs by mail, a deadly assault in a grocery store, and the devastating slaughter last Saturday in a Pittsburgh synagogue. As Paul Krugman notes, the man arrested at the Tree of Life synagogue had been critical of Trump for being insufficiently anti-Semitic. Bower’s rage seems to have been fueled by a conspiracy theory that Jewish financiers are bringing brown people into America to displace whites.
This conspiracy theory is, it turns out, a staple of neo-Nazis in Europe. It’s what our own neo-Nazis — whom Trump calls “very fine people” — were talking about in Charlottesville last year, when they chanted, “Jews will not replace us.”
It’s also the barely veiled subtext of the manufactured hysteria over the caravan of would-be migrants from Central America. “The fear mongers aren’t just portraying a small group of frightened, hungry people still far from the United States border as a looming invasion. They have also been systematically implying that Jews are somehow behind the whole thing. There’s a straight line from Fox News coverage of the caravan to the Tree of Life massacre.”
I suppose this is in keeping with the general disinformation fomented about the left in the U.S. For decades now, of course, the terms liberal and left and more recently ‘progressive’ have all been derided as being somehow ‘unpatriotic’ or ‘reckless’ or ‘lazy’ or ‘weak’ or ‘feminine’…In fact, it’s difficult to keep up with all the wildly varied characterizations, but they miss the qualities that make up the progressive left that I know: smart, brave, determined, and generous. Exhaustingly so. I’m not talking about money, or the wealth of George Soros, bless his dreadfully abused name, I’m talking about generosity of time and effort.
From activists sitting in tree tops to stop ill planned pipelines that threaten our world, to the BLM protestors and sport figures taking a knee in solidarity, to the youngsters who have traveled into the heart of hurricane disasters to provide relief to citizens who didn’t agree with them on a single political issue, the left I know is generous and caring. If there’s a fault to be found with them, it’s that they are too much in accord with what the New Testament recommends to survive well in these pitiless times. And yet, that’s also their strength and why I take heart, even as Trump and his acolytes use the ‘caravan’ to stoke an unjustified anger at the left.
I suspect the tactic will fail, but if we must talk about this caravan, let it be in human terms. If it is anything, it is a simple test of our humanity. On one side you have a group, fleeing desperate conditions in Honduras, created in no small degree by our own meddling in that country’s affairs, (when we supported the coup against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in 2009. Honduras has since seen it’s murder rates increase by over 50%, becoming the murder capital of the world). At worst, these people are seeking a better life in our country through the legal process of requesting asylum. On the other side, you have a billion dollar military, armed to the teeth through a military industrial complex maintained by ensuring each state representative gets to bring home a percentage of the allocated military budget to his own home district. The leader of this pharaoh’s army is Donald Trump; a known liar, casino hustler, adulterer, and a con man. Many on the Christian right don’t deny this, but still vote for him, despite the glaring hypocrisy, saying things like, ‘sometimes God uses bad people to do good things.’
Indeed, but if we take that to its logical conclusion, God’s plan ‘to use bad people to do good things…’ ends with the right wing emboldened by a population of Evangelical Christians acting maddeningly unchristian, justifying the worst crimes imaginable: murders of celebrants at synagogues, bombings across the country, selfish retaliations at borders, like matching a billion dollar military against a an impoverished people struggling for survival, all in God’s name.
Is it any wonder the left is reportedly, ‘Godless’? I don’t know which side will win, of course, but I do know which side I’m on.
Remember to vote!
To begin, here are the bare facts of a recent local news item:
Honduran-born Abbie Arevalo-Herrera became the first person to be publically granted sanctuary by a religious denomination in Virginia this week. On Wednesday, June 20th, she was formally granted sanctuary at the First Unitarian Universalist Church near Byrd Park in Richmond, Virginia.
She came to the United States in 2014 to seek asylum after the father of her first child made death threats against her. He punched her the first time when she was six months pregnant. He would routinely scream at her and threatened to take the baby once she was born.
“I’d rather run away because I was thinking that he would maybe kill me because he tried all the time to kill me,” she said.
She fled to Richmond, and until last week, was working through the process of receiving asylum in the country. Despite applying for asylum, Arevalo-Herrera is now facing imminent deportation and the separation of her family after she was told to report to ICE on Wednesday to be deported back to Honduras.
“I don’t want to be taken away from my family,” she said.
Despite escaping from Honduras four years ago, Arevalo-Herrera said the threats from the father of her first child have not stopped.
“22 days ago, she received the most recent threat and they’re threats on her life and her children’s lives,” Lana Heath de Martinez, Welcoming All Coordinator for the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, said.
This comes nearly two weeks after US Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered immigration judges to tighten asylum restrictions. “Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum,” he said.
That ruling is part of the “zero tolerance” policy that Sessions said was necessary to end the ‘lawlessness’ that currently exists in the immigration system.
ICE spokesperson Carissa Cutrell provided the following statement on the matter:
On June 20, Abbie Arevalo-Herrera, a Honduran citizen illegally present in the U.S., failed to report to ICE for removal to Honduras and instead took sanctuary in a Richmond, Virginia, church, making her an ICE fugitive. An immigration judge issued her a final order of removal in March 2015, which required her to depart the U.S.
Now, a little background, perhaps answering certain questions like, ‘what does it mean to take sanctuary, and why, for example, are there so many refugees now fleeing from Central America?’
The sanctuary movement, or the ability to ‘take sanctuary’ is older than Jerusalem. If you are like Mr. Sessions and enjoy dropping bible quotes, you might start with Leviticus 19:33: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong… [he] shall be as native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
You can trace a path from there to the sanctuary movement that was effectively established for slaves fleeing that ‘curious institution’ along the Underground Railroad before the Civil War.
After that, there was sanctuary offered to the Vietnam War conscientious objectors and resistors by the peace churches such as the Quakers, and then finally, the contemporary version of the ‘sanctuary movement’ starting in the early 1980s.
Then, as today, thousands of Central Americans were fleeing horrific conditions in their homelands and seeking refuge in the United States. Then, as today, many of those conditions were the result of our foreign policy choices and actions.
In 1980, the El Salvadoran civil war was raging and the U.S. was seeking to defeat a collection of leftist militants that wanted land reform for the poverty stricken campesinos. The Reagan administration supported the oligarchs, represented by some of the most ruthless authoritarian governments in the region. In 1980, the Salvadoran government imposed martial law on its citizens. This marked the beginning of mass killings by so called ‘death squads.’ Many times these death squads were quasi military networks, funded by far right oligarchs in the region or the government itself, often assisted by military supplies from the U.S., or dark money from the CIA. Human rights sources estimate that 18,000 to 20,000 people were killed or “disappeared” in 1980 alone. Thousands of Salvadorans fled the violence, coming north through Mexico to the United States.
In the fall of 1981, the killing expanded to Guatemala, which led to a similar exodus. Thousands of refugees fled for their safety, but in trying to gloss the severity of the conflict, the U.S. government did not recognize them as political refugees. Instead, the Reagan administration said they were ‘economic’ refugees, denying them legal entry to the United States. Death squads awaited them at the airports on their return home and many were murdered as they stepped off the planes. In response, the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s was born.
According to the Reverend Noel Andersen, National Grassroots Coordinator of the Church World Service, the churches involved in the Sanctuary Movement reminded the United States government that it was not following its own asylum and refugee laws. Thousands of stories from refugees were highlighted through the media with speaking tours that “raised the consciousness of the unjust nature of these civil wars and questioned the U.S. deportation policies that would have sent asylum seekers back to their death.”
Today, although there is no formal civil war, there are still horrific conditions, caused in many cases by the history of our interventions in Central America.
For example, an average of six people a day are murdered in Honduras (a country of six million), eight a day in El Salvador (population 6.2 million) and 14 a day in Guatemala (population 12 million).
Authorities blame most of the murders on the gangs or maras, but human rights groups say many of the killings are the work of off-duty police officers operating in death squads carrying out a sort of “social purge”.
In some cases, you can draw a line from those narco-gangs to the death squads of the 1980s. Elizabeth Oglesby, associate professor at the University of Arizona’s Center for Latin American Studies speculates that these criminal counter-insurgency networks [a.k.a. “death squads”] over the years morphed into organized-crime networks — violent gangs known to burst into the homes of innocent civilians and demand payment. Some of these gangs also learned their trade on the streets of L.A. and passed that knowledge on when they were deported years ago—like the infamous MS-13.
Human rights organizations say the increased repression is generating greater violence, and is pushing the youth gangs to develop more complex structures as a survival strategy. Some gang leaders have reportedly forged new links with the world of drug trafficking and organized crime, in search of protection from the stepped-up police action.
In El Salvador, 1,000 soldiers began to patrol the streets of the capital over a decade ago along with the police, in “anti-gang task forces”. The authorities said the new units are to be made up of three soldiers and two police officers.
Marta Savillón, program director at Casa Alianza, the Latin American branch of the New York-based Covenant House, a child advocacy organization, said the joint task forces tracked down their “victims” like hunting expeditions. She complained that they have only made it more difficult for groups that reach out to young people, because gang members who in the past were identifiable and therefore accessible to those engaged in social work and rehabilitation now go to pains to hide themselves away.
The arrests have also swept up ex-gang-members who were in the process of rehabilitation, she added.
In Honduras, organizations like London-based Amnesty International and Casa Alianza have also reported that death squads are killing youngsters suspected of belonging to gangs, often merely because they sport tattoos.
Savillón said that Casa Alianza has documented 2,778 murders of young people below the age of 23 between 1998 and last July. Most of the victims were members of maras.
Because these murders are usually not investigated, the perpetrators enjoy total impunity, said the activist.
A 2003 report by Amnesty International, “Honduras Zero Tolerance…for Impunity: Extrajudicial Executions of Children and Youths since 1998”, says “Most of the victims lived in poverty, on the margins of society, with little education and few job prospects. Honduran society has viewed the deaths of these children and youths with indifference and apathy, some newspapers even suggesting it as a possible solution to the problem of public insecurity.”
So the refugees come across our borders. Once again.
Not fleeing a civil war, necessarily, but in large part its aftermath, the fierce gangs that grew out of the remnants of civil society, seeking profits through extortion or operating with the drug cartels.
NBC news reported that fieldworkers like Magdel and Mirna Lopez and their son, not yet 2, decided to flee their small village in eastern Honduras after narcotraffickers murdered two of Mirna’s sisters. “We have rights as humans to be safe,” Magdel Lopez told a journalist, “and I believe the troops at the [U.S.] border will respect that.”
She was wrong.
Alexandra Mejia was one of 20 transgender individuals in the caravan fleeing violent persecution back home. The 29-year-old said she left El Salvador’s capital city after drug traffickers raped her and murdered her father. At her dad’s funeral, the same traffickers told Mejia they would kill her if she didn’t flee the country in 24 hours. She took their advice.
Armando had a similar case. A cab driver in his native Honduras, Armando had to cross a patchwork of street gang territories each working day, fearing for his life.
“Every day it was a challenge to go to work, I did not know if I would return to my house. But I had no other choice – I needed money to live and support my sister and my mother, with whom I lived,” says Armando.
Unable to make the ever-escalating extortion demands, Armando skipped a scheduled meeting with the gang and fled on foot and by bus to neighboring Guatemala.
After crossing the border into Mexico, he clambered on to a freight train, better known as ‘la bestia,’ or ‘the beast,’ to make his way north – unaware that he was once again in mortal danger. Criminals preying on the riders tossed Armando under the wheels of the moving train, severing his right leg.
The UNHCR said the number of Central American applications for refugee status had also risen sharply. Of the 350,000 applications between 2011 and 2017, 130,500 – nearly 40% – were filed last year.
Central America was last year home to four of the world’s 50 deadliest cities while Washington’s controversial deportation of Central Americans has been blamed for exacerbating the problem.
“The people who are coming are saying that the level of violence is brutal – they are basically confined to their own houses because there is a lack of freedom. It is very dangerous to go to school, to go to church, to move around,” said Francesca Fontanini, a Mexico-based UNHCR spokeswoman, “They are living in very traumatized and violent circumstances.”
Fontanini said most of those seeking shelter were Hondurans and Salvadorans but the number of Guatemalans had been rising since last year.
According to LawFare.com “among migrants leaving Guatemala, some are fleeing gangs or societal violence in cities, but many migrant families and unaccompanied children come from the Guatemalan highlands, which are more rural, agriculture-based, indigenous, and have lower rates of violence (defined by homicides) than other parts of the country. In asylum proceedings in the United States, women and children from this region frequently cite endemic family and domestic violence, and neglect from the local police who cannot speak their languages or do not answer their phone calls. These areas have also been buffeted by a changing climate, frequent natural disasters, and droughts. And the poverty in these regions leaves residents with little ability for resilience in the face of unpredictable rains or external events.”
“Without an ability to live safely or prosperously in Central America, residents begin looking to head north to the United States. That means coming up with the US$6,000 to $10,000 necessary for hiring a smuggler. To obtain this money, residents may sell their land or property, rely on the generosity of friends or family in the United States, or borrow money from local loan sharks and leave their farms and property as collateral. This latter option has its own consequences: migrants who use loan sharks and then are detected and deported by Mexican or U.S. officials are unable to pay back the loans, losing their lands in the process and becoming displaced once again.”
For those who make it through Mexico, the plan is usually to present themselves to U.S. border agents and seek asylum, as hundreds of thousands of Central Americans have done in recent years.
But this year was different, apparently. The remnants of a caravan for the U.S. arrived at San Ysidro, the San Diego sector port of entry and attempted to present themselves to Customs and Border Protection agents at the line that marked the border itself.
They weren’t allowed to. CBP agents claimed that the San Ysidro facility was already full of asylum seekers whose cases were being processed, and didn’t have room for more. This happens routinely; asylum seekers are often forced to stay in Tijuana for days or longer while waiting to be processed. The caravan group slept under the walkway to the port of entry building on Sunday night. On Monday, they waited to try again.
Now, many refugees that are specifically fleeing domestic violence or gang violence will not get in, no matter how long they wait, of course.
Attorney General Sessions has ordered those items—gang violence, domestic violence– not to count as asylum worthy—even if U.S. policy has helped to create them.
The Reverend Jeanne Pupke senior minister of the First Unitarian Universalist church in Richmond disagrees.
These crimes, domestic violence, gang violence matter, deserve protection, she told a crowd of more than 100 people Wednesday afternoon. She said that she would offer her church as a sanctuary for Abbie Arevalo-Herrera for as long as she wanted to stay there. For as long as it was needed. “For as long as you wish to be among us.”
She told Arevalo-Herrera and the press that the church will stand by her family to fight what she called “immoral” and “inhumane” immigration laws.
“We will not allow them to destroy families,” she said, defiantly. “We are going to kick up a fuss that Mr. Sessions cannot ignore.”
Given the current political climate, Abbie and her family may be there for quite some time. But the church members and local community organizations seem willing to wait. As long as it takes.
Said Alliance for Progressive Virginia policy director, Scott Price, “Each generation is called to judgment by history, so far ours hasn’t made much of an accounting….We are asking our fellow citizens to stand up …Join us, be counted.”
Others refugees are welcome in sanctuary, Reverend Pupke added, “We are privileged as a congregation to open our doors to the stranger. To bear witness. To welcome. To practice radical hospitality, because what it says in Jewish scriptures ‘you yourself were once strangers in this land.’”
It was almost as though she were reading the verse off the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
It’s good that someone still does.
What’s Happening with Red?
At 61 years of age, Red Terry has climbed a tree fifty feet up on Bent Mountain, Virginia in an effort to prevent the Mountain Valley Pipeline from blasting a hole through her property. As of last weekend, there was no resupply of food for her, no recharge for her cellphone, or laptop. No cigarettes. On the ground below her a band of plastic yellow tape formed a perimeter; yellow tape with these words: ‘Police Line.’ The effort might seem ill advised, but she has many supporters who have gathered to offer their encouragement. She also has detractors.
The group at the bottom of the tree-sit, inside the yellow border, include a Roanoke county police officer, a plainclothes negotiator who wants to remain nameless, and a Mountain Valley Pipeline security guard from Global Security who also wants to remain nameless. He keeps his face turned down, so you can’t see who he is. No pictures are allowed.
This is Red Terry’s life right now, out on Bent Mountain, just a little beyond Roanoke, where they have been planning to build the Mountain Valley Pipeline for the last three years, right through the middle of Red’s family property.
I drove up there with another activist last weekend on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Hiking in, I saw lean-tos, flappy blue canopies, orange pup tents, prayer flags and ribbons that decorated the path along the woods. Signs read: “Water Is Life” or “We Will Win.” These are Red’s family and friends. They don’t wear masks and are happy to have their names known. Because of the distance we have to stay back from her, I have to shout just to be heard.
“How long have you been up there, Red!?”
“20 days, give or take!” She yells back. Since April 3rd.
“How long are you going to stay out there?”
“Until common sense prevails!”
“In your view, what would ‘common sense prevails’ mean?” A philosophical inquiry.
“This Mountain Valley Pipeline is going after our trees, our water, our air, and our lives. So we need to get rid of this pipeline. The politicians need to stand up. They need to stop bending over for this business.”
A suitable reply. Nearby, I hear laughter from her supporters.
“Delegate Rasoul was out here, talked to you the other day, did that offer you some hope?”
Delegate Rasoul said at a recent press conference by the Roanoke River, “We’re here to say, ‘don’t touch our drinking water.’” In reference to the problems the pipeline might cause for the local water supply.
He was joined in the television spot by the General Manager and Brewmaster of Parkway Brewing Company who added that negative impact on water quality could stunt the region’s economic growth.
“Deschutes and Ballast Point didn’t come here because the water sucked,” he said pointedly in the conference. “They came here because the water’s good and the quality of life is good. So do we let this impact us to the point where these people who have put millions of dollars into our economy make a second choice about what they’re doing?”
It was a rhetorical question that still needs answering.
All Red said from her tree top was, “Anything that gets talked about is a little bit of hope.”
Cole, Bigger Cole as he is called, Red Terry’s husband, added some detail.
“[Delegate] Sam Rasoul waded in Bottom Creek here with his daughters the other day. His two girls built a bridge out of sticks right there. Those girls did all the work. They asked him [Rasoul], ‘Why can’t she [Red] come down out of the tree? Why will they cut the tees down?”
“I don’t think he had a good answer. He hadn’t put his feet in the creek until then.” It’s a subtle metaphor and Cole, a big man with a spat of gray hair hidden under a khaki cap pauses to let the meaning sink in. He offers a wide smile to match his namesake.
Bigger Cole has a universal view of the situation, “All of our water effects all of their water. We’re a tier 3 water way. It took ten years to get that designation. That means we have some of the best tasting, cleanest water in the state. Probably on Earth. And it feeds the watersheds that let folks all the way to Roanoke and beyond drink good water.”
Streams and creeks from Bent Mountain flow into the Roanoke River, which provides drinking water to the whole region. Fresh springs from Terry’s land, along with thousands of capillary like creeks and tributaries will be crossed by the pipeline hundreds of times over. It occurs to me that we are watching an environmental disaster in slow motion.
The way Bigger Cole sees it, the personal is political. Rasoul had brought his children out to see Red Terry in her tree last week, but once his daughters started asking their questions, he knew he had to do something.
“Once he put his feet in the creek,” as Bigger Cole explained.
Delegate Rasoul heeded his daughter’s concerns. He’s asked the state to suspend permits for soil-clearing to give more time to study water impact. On Wednesday, he was joined by more than a dozen Democratic lawmakers who held a news conference highlighting Red Terry’s protest and calling on the governor to do more.
“We’re asking — urging — demanding that our good friend Ralph Northam … work with us to find common ground,” said Delegate Mark L. Keam, who was joined by Rasoul and other Delegates from Prince William, Fairfax, Alexandria and Richmond to show solidarity with southwest colleagues.
“We stand together, and we stand with Red,” said newly elected Delegate Danica Roem of Prince William County.
This is good, but it may be too late. The way most the people at this encampment see it, if it’s allowed to continue, the Mountain Valley Pipeline will destroy the water quality of Bottom Creek and Bent Mountain; it will destroy the landscape, along with their property values, along with the climate: a kind of devil’s trifecta.
Bigger Cole is not the only one with concerns. His son had also built a tree stand, but was unable to get to it before the police arrived. They took the ladder away, and little Cole had no choice but to stay on as part of a support team in the base camp. But Red’s daughter, Minor Terry, managed to scramble up her stand before they arrived. She’s down the road, also sitting in a tree, about fifty feet up, with Roanoke County police below her and a police line taping her off, as well.
I asked Red if she wasn’t an inspiration to her daughter.
“Do you think you influenced her?”
“I guess. We built these together. I went up and then she went up. She said I wouldn’t be alone, so I guess so. We are a close family. But I’m twice her age, so I get twice the area.” Red laughed.
Age has its privileges, after all, but she notes that the best property, directly below her, got taken by the police.
“Inside the yellow tape, the police got all the good real estate.”
“That’s where we can’t go now?
“Yeah, that’s why everybody has to yell now.”
“When did the police tape go up?”
“It’s been, oh gosh, two weeks. I know that it’s changed like five or six times. Every time I piss somebody off, it gets bigger.”
Red is good at pissing people off. Especially those in authority. A heavy smoker, she called down to police that she needed BC Powder for pain and cigarettes to keep her calm. The police sent up a few aspirins, but they said she’d have to come down to get the cigarettes. She didn’t take the bait. Instead, she dumped out her waste bucket on them, missing them by inches. In reaction, they expanded the crime tape to keep her supporters farther away, and probably to keep themselves clear as well.
“Yeah, I get cold at night,” she said, after I asked her about the weather, and the recent snow, “I have two sleeping bags, hand warmers. In the morning when I stick my head out and see my breath, I feel like a ground hog, I just want to go back under.”
She is charged with trespassing, obstruction of justice and interfering with property rights. And because of Eminent Domain law she’s also been charged with a Federal Contempt of Court charge.
When they took her ladder away, she asked, ‘how am I supposed to get down?’
They responded, “If you need it, it’s going to be down here.”
Since April 3rd, without food, water or cigarettes, she has yet to take them up on the offer.
Camp Kick Ass
I visited Minor Terry’s tree sit a little later that afternoon. When I asked Minor if she thought that the Mountain Valley Pipeline personnel might be afraid of her, because of her mother’s defiance and gruff manner, Minor laughed, then replied:
“Mountain Valley Pipeline can suck it. That’s me filtering.” She laughed again from her tree top, ignoring the blue tent directly beneath her, in which the MVP Global Security personnel sat, monitoring her every word. When I asked if I could speak to him, he said no, but came out for an instance and handed me a card. The bottom half of his face was completely covered with a black respirator mask, that made him look a little like Batman’s nemesis, the Bane.
“Why are you wearing a mask?”
“It’s not a mask, it’s a respirator. ‘Cause of the wood cutting and stuff.”
I wanted to point out that no one else was in need of a respirator, there were no trees currently being cut, and that the mountain offered some of the cleanest air in the state.
“May I get your name?”
“May I take a picture?”
He handed me the card and went back into his tent. There was a website address and a hotline number on it for all MVP communications: 844-MVP-TALK.
When I called the number, I was told to press 4 for a general inquiry for the project team. I left a message asking why they had MVP security personnel on the Terry’s property. I have not heard back from them yet.
At 30, Minor had the same steadfastness of purpose as her mother, but with a slightly lighter touch. Even unfiltered. She saw the absurdity of their situation clearly enough, but also saw that she didn’t have much choice in the matter, at least not from her perspective. She hovered above me by about fifty feet up, at a camp named, unabashedly, “Camp Kickass”
“The pipeline’s not even necessary. I’m here because I’d rather not let them ruin my land, my water and my family’s life. They [MVP] wants to plant a 42 inch [the circumference of the pipeline] bomb in my backyard. I’d be crazy not to try to stop it, don’t you think?”
The notion that the pipeline is a potential bomb is not trivial. The 42 inch pipeline will have a pressure of 1400 psi as it pumps fracked natural gas through Appalachia from Pennsylvania to the Atlantic coast. That’s nearly double the pressure of a smaller pipeline near Appomattox that exploded on September 19, 2008, with flames more than 300 feet high. According to Dr. Alden Dudley, writing in the Roanoke Times, the explosion “left a hole 20 feet deep and 2,250 feet in diameter (almost one half mile) in farmland. It exploded two houses and damaged 100 others. Williams and Transco Companies were fined $1 million for improper pipeline maintenance. Multiple defects in the 52-year-old pipe were known to exist, but they ignored them.”
Dudley paints a vivid picture of what an MVP pipeline ‘bomb’ would be like:
“A hole more than a mile wide. Instant incineration of all adults, children, pets, animals, vegetation, homes, schools, stores, industry, and government offices over an area 3-5 miles in diameter. Dams will be destroyed and lakes gone. Thousands of people will be killed in hill country; tens of thousands if near cities; more than that within cities. Our reputation as an environment-friendly state will never recover. Forget tourists, retirees and breweries that can no longer get potable water. In fact, forget economic development.”
He continues, “This article sounds heretical and outlandish. But certainty of a big bang is predictable. Pipeline companies speak proudly of “only 0.03 percent events per year per thousand miles of pipeline.” At that rate, the 800 mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline should have only one leak every three years. By 2006 the pipe thickness was eroded more than 50 percent, shipping of oil was down 50 percent because of pipe weakness, and there were already more than 500 leaks each year.”
In other words, there will be leaks, predictable as rain, and since it is natural gas under incredibly high pressure, there will also be explosions. It’s not a question of if, but when.
That’s why Minor is up in a tree. In the scheme of things, she tells me, she is a ‘Minor problem.’
A Minor irritant, she jokes.
“So, what’s your ideal outcome?” I asked.
“Oh, bankrupt MVP [and their funding partner, EQT]. But I would accept them caving under pressure, realizing it was just a bad idea, and going home.”
It seems unlikely, but there are signs of hope. Her supporters give her strength to continue, and her family is out there every day. Her brother camps out at night with her so she is never completely alone. Other journalists are coming out daily. On the afternoon I was there, Eleanor Buckley, a reporter from WFXR television in Roanoke hiked out and interviewed her for a nightly news segment.
She had brought with her an apple. She asked the police if she could throw the apple to Minor so that she might have something to eat.
The police officer sitting underneath Minor’s encampment told her ‘no.’
“I can’t give her an apple? A basic human need, an apple?”
“No. I’d have to charge you.”
There’s a deep irony in this, as there is an apple orchard not far from where Minor is camped that was recently cut down– destroyed by MVP — because it was in the path of the pipeline. The apple orchard was over a hundred years old.
“How does that make you feel?” the reporter asked.
“I try not to let it get to me.”
A few days earlier, Roanoke County had assured her they would see to her nutritional needs. But no one has provided her food and whatever supplies she has up with her are probably dwindling fast.
Her ‘wellness check’ amounted to some county personnel calling up to her, asking her how she was doing. One of them tied a plastic bag of Kroger Brand Cliff protein bars near the base of the tree. In order to eat these, she would have to climb down. That was the deal.
The Cliff bars still dangled there for all to see, like bait.
It’s hard to imagine the Terrys had foreseen all this when they first started building their stands, months ago. The entire Terry family worked together constructing the platforms on which Red and Minor now lay. They got the idea when folks up on Peters Mountain, near the West Virginia border stared their sits, nearly 60 days ago.
“Honestly, we kicked the idea around for nearly a year. When the Peters Mountain tree sits went up, we said if they can do it, we can do it. It was inspirational. When we heard about that, we cheered.”
“I have to fight to live here, because I can’t live anywhere else,” Minor explained. She had once moved off the mountain when she was younger, but returned within the year. “I missed it, the mountain, the woods, the silence. It’s my home.”
Now blue and white ribbons tied to stakes outline her tree sit, indicating what MVP calls the Limit of Disturbance (LOD) and what the Terrys jokingly refer to as the Limit of Destruction. According to a recent court ruling, her tree sit is in the LOD, meaning it is now MVP’s property, not Minor’s or Cole’s or Red’s. They have lived on this land for seven generations.
Yet, they remain optimistic. In a recent podcast of End of the Line, Red said that even while she sits yards above everybody, she just keeps making friends. “I’ve got a young girl that set up a tent next to me, because she didn’t want me to be alone at night. I just met her today! And she’s camping out.”
Red and Minor remember the time, not so long ago when they were undisturbed on their property on Bent Mountain. “I have no curtains in my house. I’d get up and I’d look out those windows, and I think that I’m the luckiest person alive.”
Minor describes how her mom fought off the gypsy moths when they first attacked the trees in the Bent Mountain area, for months at a time. She never gave up. “I think fighting off MVP will be at least that hard.” But she’s ready for a fight, Minor said. Certainly she and her mother have no intention of giving up anytime soon. Maybe that’s why they call it Camp Kickass.
The Hellbender Autonomous Zone at Peters Mountain
While I was interviewing Minor Terry, the reporter from WFXR gave me the low down on Peters Mountain camp: it sounded daunting.
It’s a tough hike, she explained. “They really don’t want you to succeed.” They being, in no particular order, EQT, MVP and the U.S. Forest Service.
Here’s why. You are not allowed to walk Pocahontas road, the access road to the camp, even though it’s the access road as well for the Appalachian trail. Rather, just past the entrance for the Appalachian trail, marked by a set of orange cones, you must skirt the mountain ridge, one hundred and twenty-five feet from the center of the road. What this means, in practice, is that you must walk along the side of the mountain at a precipitous angle, filled with bramble and thorns and rocks, and snakes. Yes, snakes.
The U.S. Forest Service which maintain the road, claims the 125 foot barrier is to ensure public safety. I wanted to know who came up with that number, and why, in God’s name, they would think it safer to hug a mountain ridge where one slip could break your neck, then a graveled access road? The Forest Service Ranger whom I talked with at the foot of the mountain would not comment.
Walking along the side of the mountain, I decided to call my handy MVP ‘Talk’ phone number and ask them who came up with that crazy distance. I left MVP another message. I have not heard back from them yet.
It took me about an hour and a half to get there. Through the woods, the rocks, the nettles, the brambles and snakes. Eleanor, from WFXR told me that when she attempted the hike, the rangers told her at the outset: “Call 9/11 when you fall down the hill.”
“I guess they didn’t think I would make it in these shoes.”
The Hellbender Camp is not really a true tree sit, in that there is no person in a tree, per se. Rather, an individual nicknamed Nutty [she wants to remain anonymous] has taken a 60 foot cut pole of wood and raised it with a platform on top for her sleeping area. This has become known as the monopod. She has tethered the pole with multiple wires affixed to nearby trees, stakes in the ground, and, notably, the gate to the access road for MVP. If someone tries to open the gate, the cable goes, the monopod falls over, and Nutty will be severely injured, if not killed outright.
Neither the rangers nor MVP personnel have tried to open the gate, or taken the monopod down, but rangers have given it a violent wiggle which caused everyone in the camp to yell at them until they stopped. Nutty’s game plan was to prevent MVP from getting access to two other tree sitters further up on Peters mountain who have been there for the better part of 60 days.
When I arrived, drenched with sweat and parched, folks at the camp were tense, watching U.S. Forest Rangers re-arranging their yellow crime scene tape. That Saturday, they had a type of open house in the camp for those who wanted to visit, but on the day I arrived, it seemed as if the U.S. Forest Service was fed up with the trickle of visitors they had received. They were pushing everyone back from the monopod yet again.
“What are they doing?” I asked.
“Measuring. Re-measuring. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
“That’s what they say.”
“They don’t seem to be actually measuring,” noted another activist at the camp, “They seem to be guesstimating.”
“It’s not very scientific, that’s for sure.”
The lack of scientific certainty is something of a theme with the MVP saga. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in a ruling allowed the pipeline to go through, but in an important dissent, Commissioner Cheryl A. LaFleur noted that she found the argument for the pipeline based on ‘public interest’ wanting. She found that environmental impacts to the karst region and the water could be worse than anticipated, and that there were other alternatives that were not pursued. Regarding the specific notion of whether the pipeline was in the “public interest,” she said that there was still a great deal of uncertainty as to the destination for the pipeline output. Implicit in this is a question: how much natural gas does the area actually need or use?
Activists at the camp are not uncertain, however. They said that the excess natural gas was intended for markets overseas.
“14 % return on investment is what the pipeline is about. It is not about supplying us with energy, that’s for sure.”
If you follow the chain of this story, from when FERC approved the pipeline to the DEQ State approval by way of the State Water Control Board, you will find example after example of studies not made, assessments skipped, sidelined, or postponed. At each turn, MVP was granted a green light despite concerns by scientists and researchers that no proper assessment of environmental impacts had been made. Given this, it’s easy to understand the activists’ cynicism regarding U.S. Forest Rangers blithely taping off their camp.
“So I guess ya’ll are following your boss’s orders?” asked a wiry fellow off to my left. He had a large gaucho moustache, twirled at either end, and wore a baseball cap. This was Jamie Hale.
The rangers didn’t answer, just kept laying out the plastic yellow tape.
At last, maybe one of them could answer my burning question, “Who came up with that number anyhow?”
Nobody answered. Instead they were watching some of their camp members don backpacks and arranging themselves in a wide arc all along the fence line. I saw an older man, with long silver hair, and dark blue vest, nodding to another activist farther down the line, mouth the word: now.
Then, they were gone. Whoosh. Running under the yellow fence to my left, and then another, to my right.
“Get back! Get back!” One of the younger rangers yelled, while the older ranger who had previously done the measuring, hauled off after the fellow in the vest. They were trying to reach the monopod and either climb it, or throw the packs up to Nutty for resupply. Like Red and Minor, the U.S. Forest Service appeared set on starving her out. Directly below Nutty, the rangers had built a campfire that was thick with smoke, probably making it hard for her to draw a clean breath.
The two backpack laden activists ran back and forth in the woods, crunching on leaves and branches, between the yellow tape and the monopod for a few minutes, both of them breathing heavily, chased by the furious rangers who kept yelling, “’ going to jail!”, like a kind of weird mash up of Blair Witch Project, and Keystone Cops.
“He’s going to jail. Take him to jail!”
Finally, the old ranger brought Doug, the silver haired man, to the ground. “Hold him there!”
From the monopod came Nutty’s voice, watching the scene, “Ya’ll okay? You good?”
The other runner, retreated back behind the yellow line, and went toward the rear of the camp, tried to disappear amid the tents, but a ranger went in to retrieve him.
“What are you doing?” Jamie Hale asked the ranger.
“I’m just doing my job, man.”
“But does that make it right, doing your job makes it right? Come on.”
“You know you’ve touched on the wrong side of history,” said Betty, wife to the man who had been taken down in the woods, “History will judge you!” Betty went into a tent and then returned and handed the ranger a narrow blue tablet container, a little square block for every day of the week, “He has a health condition. He has Lyme’s disease. He’s had two mini-strokes. These are his meds.”
The sheriff was called shortly thereafter, and, in a surprisingly brief period of time, two deputies from the Giles County Sheriff department showed up in what looked like a black Camaro, with Pink letters announcing ‘Sheriff’ and a stylish pink ribbon meant to symbolize the office’s effort to fight breast cancer, I guessed.
The two deputies stepped out of the Sheriff’s car and walked toward the encampment.
Each carried an AR 15.
“Is that an AR 15?” Jamie asked, “We ain’t armed.”
“Well I don’t know that,” said the deputy.
“Now I’m serious. Chad, you know this. Ya’ll don’t need no guns up here.”
“I’m not up here to cause none of you trouble,” said Chad, “None of you problems.”
“Yeah, but your bringing guns into our camp.”
“We’re not disputing ya’lls legal right to be here. And we’re not telling you, you gotta leave.”
“Don’t need guns,” Jamie snapped, “I will guarantee your safety.”
“We had no idea what was going on. We were dispatched out here, 1033. That’s the only information they gave us.”
“You’re defending the Mountain Valley Pipeline,” said another activist, Emily Satterwhite.
“No ma’am. We’re not defending anything. We were just called for assistance, that’s the reason we’re here.”
“You are. You were called for assistance by people defending the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which means you are also defending the pipeline.”
“I understand, but the same scenario, if one of you called us for assistance, we’d come up here and assist ya’ll, too. That’s what we’re sworn to do.”
“Okay, I’m going to call you for assistance.” She pointed to the monopod, “The Forest Service is not letting this person get food or water. What are you going to do about it?”
“We’re state employees, they’re federal employees. They’ve got jurisdiction over us.”
“What are you going to do about it?”
“There’s nothing we can do about it. They have jurisdiction over us.”
“You just said if we called for assistance, you were going to help us. But you’re not helping her,” pointing to the monopod, “You’re helping them. You’re helping MVP.”
“I’m not for the pipeline, I’m not against the pipeline. I have a sworn duty to uphold, and you know this. You and I have already talked about this.”
“Bullshit,” Jamie Hale barked, “These son ‘a bitches are trying to destroy my home, and you going to take my county taxes that pay your salary, Chad—and you won’t– Bullshit.” Jamie Hale looked down and continued to swear, finally looked up, again: “I watched you grow up. I know who you are.”
“We’re not here to cause problems for anybody.”
“Just our friends who are trying to feed a starving woman” Emily muttered. She had tears in her eyes.
“We enforce state law. But we have no jurisdiction over federal law.”
“Go give the girl some food, man.” said Jamie at last, “Don’t let me down. Lay your badge down and go give her some food.”
This story does not end well. The two deputies do not lay their badges down, as you might imagine. They do not feed Nutty. They do nothing of the sort.
Emily said, “I know you say you’re not taking sides, but every time law enforcement shows up. They win.”
Another activist yelled, more simply, “Everybody’s working for the fucking pipeline.”
They arrest the one back packer who was trying to feed a starving friend. The other back packer, Doug, the older man, has a medical condition and is being taken to the hospital to get checked up before he is formally arrested. He is delivered into an ambulance and, at the last minute, Betty asks if she can accompany her husband to the hospital. She is told ‘no’, because he is under arrest and cannot have another rider in the back of the vehicle. But another emergency rescue vehicle is there, and an arrangement is made for Betty to be driven behind the ambulance.
I watch as they all get in, and drive away. When I turn back around, I see Jamie sitting on the side of the mountain viewing all of this. His cap is cocked back. He’s leaned over as though he’s had a stroke himself, clinging to his walking stick.
It’s the end to another skirmish in a war that’s been going on for over three years now. Pretty soon, Jamie warns me, someone is going to die. It might be Nutty. It might be Red, or Minor, or one of the tree sitters farther up on Peters Mountain. They are not giving up, and MVP has the enormous power of money, and its adherent emotion, greed, and bureaucratic fear and inertia to assist them. Yes, something has to give.
Jamie leans against his walking stick, flung out against the mountain side exhausted with the day. There are tears in his eyes, though he’s not the type of man you can imagine weeping. But the way things are here, on the last stands against the pipeline, despair is as reasonable as anything else I’ve seen. I shake his hand.
“Thanks for coming out,” he says. “It’s been a long day, but we got to fight it. Our way of life is being threatened, and our constitution is being threatened.” He looks at the tape recorder I have in my hand, “and you can quote me on that.”
He takes a breath, asks, “You heading home?” I nod, “Look for the little pink ribbons right along the ridge line there on your way back. I marked a trail, so it’ll be easier that way. Tell people,” he says, “when you get back to Richmond, tell people we need their help. Tell them you’ve got to use Hale’s trail to get to the Hellbender camp. Tell them that’s the best way in.”
Update: As of April 26th, both Minor and Red Terry have been allowed food and water. “I want them to be safe, and so we want to make sure that they have food and water,” Govenor Northam said in a Facebook Live interview at the WTOP-FM radio station. “The one that’s up in one of the trees referred to as ‘Red’ has been asking for cigarettes. I worry about her health. She’s 61 years old; she’s up in the … weather; she’s smoking cigarettes,” noted Governor Northam with a hint of disapproval. Governor Northam is a pediatric neurologist.
To which Red Terry responded from her tree sit:
“Hey Gov, I am quitting cigarettes. You quit this pipeline!”
Whitney Whiting’s podcast, End of the Line, referenced in this article, can be heard at https://soundcloud.com/pipelinepodcast/sets/full-episodes