31 March 2011

Ivan Koop Kuper : Stacy and Bunni: A Montrose Love Story

Stacy Sutherland tombstone, Center Point, Texas. Image from Mindspring.com.

Stacy and Bunni:
A Montrose love story
If Stacy Sutherland of the 13th Floor Elevators were alive he'd be celebrating his 65th birthday this May.
By Ivan Koop Kuper / The Rag Blog / March 31, 2011

HOUSTON -- On the corner of Pacific and Hopkins streets in the east Montrose section of Houston is a vacant lot with an untended vegetable garden. The lot was the previous site of a Craftsman-era bungalow that was recently demolished due to neglect. In this house lived Stacy Sutherland, lead guitarist of Texas’ legendary psychedelic music pioneers, the 13th Floor Elevators, and if Sutherland were alive, he would be celebrating his 65th birthday this May.

Known as the soft-spoken member of the band, when the introspective Sutherland did choose to express himself, he did so not only with his thick central Texas drawl, but also with his reverb-drenched leads that cut through the band’s wall of sound, and whose sustained notes seemed like they would never end.

His signature guitar style appeared on four 13th Floor Elevator albums and countless live performances from Austin to San Francisco. But Sutherland had another side of his personality he kept hidden deep inside and that was known only to those close to him.

Stacy Sutherland. Image from Emerald Wood Archives / Flickr.

Montrose is a neighborhood still in transition whose early 20th century architecture has all but vanished. Once considered a “hippie neighborhood,” by the late 1970s this inner city community was approaching the eve of gentrification, with each neglected bungalow soon to be torn down and replaced with several modern townhouses per city lot with no particular continuity regarding their style or design.

Long time Montrose resident and small business owner Robert Novotney recalls a Montrose in the 1970s when rents were “cheap” and a party atmosphere prevailed in the neighborhood seven days a week. He also recalls a “repressive” police force that was always on the lookout for “longhairs” to harass and search, as well as a neighborhood where home invasion by the criminal element was a common occurrence.

“I was broken into once and I had friends that were always getting broken into because they had these nice stereos that you could hear from the street because nobody had air-conditioning back then and they always kept their windows open and it invited burglaries,” Novotney said.

Stacy Sutherland’s all too short life journey can be traced back to his early days in central Texas, when he used to skip high school and practice guitar all day on the banks of the Guadalupe River that flowed through his family’s ranch in Kerr County. Sutherland also spent a brief period in Port Aransas one summer performing with the Lingsmen, a band that included future Elevator drummer John Ike Walton, as well as future bassist, Benny Lynn Thurman.

When Sutherland joined the 13th Floor Elevators, his personal journey took him from the live music clubs of Austin in the 1960s, to the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore Auditorium of San Francisco and eventually to Houston, where he found himself out of money, out of luck, and on the skids.

The 13th Floor Elevators performed together from 1965 to 1969. The band’s core membership and songwriting collaboration always included Sutherland on lead guitar; Roky Erickson, vocalist and rhythm guitar; and Tommy Hall, electric jug, lyricist, and spiritual advisor.

They were just your average Texas rock band that openly proselytized the use of the psychotropic drug LSD as a vehicle to higher consciousness, and who spread their message through their music and lifestyle. They were also one of the first bands of their era to use the term “psychedelic,” and when the 13th Floor Elevators were guests on “American Bandstand” in 1966 promoting their breakout single, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” a naive Dick Clark asked Tommy Hall, “Who is the head man here?” Hall then smugly replied, “We’re all heads.”

Sutherland was a survivor. He survived the turmoil of being in a band signed to a record label whose owners engaged in questionable business practices, numerous arrests for drug possession, an addiction to heroin, and seven months of incarceration in the Eastham Unit of the Texas Department of Corrections near Huntsville. In exile from his central Texas home of Kerrville, in 1975 Sutherland decided to find refuge and a change of scenery in Houston.

Houston was very familiar turf to Sutherland. The 13th Floor Elevators recorded in Houston studios, as well as performed countless concerts in Houston nightclubs. The band also lived communally for a time in an old mansion located on Old Galveston Road owned by their record label and known as “Funky Mansions.” However, what really drew Sutherland to Houston after the demise of the Elevators was the fact that it was home to Ann Elizabeth “Bunni” Bunnell.

Ann Elizabeth "Bunni" Bunnell. Photo courtesy of Jim Hord.

“She was brilliant and a member of MENSA,” said longtime friend and former Montrose neighbor, Jim Hord, “but she couldn’t handle the everyday little things in life. Bunni displayed bad judgment in men and had a lot of slimeball friends.”

Bunnell was a New Jersey transplant to Texas whom Sutherland initially met in the late 1960s during the time he lived in Funky Mansions. She was an “exotic dancer” who took the name “Bunni” when she danced at the “Boobie Rock” on Houston’s lower Westheimer Road. Bunnell was now working as a typist supporting herself and her two children from a previous marriage, and studying to be a court reporter at night.

Sutherland and Bunnell rekindled their relationship in the summer of 1976, and settled into east Montrose where rents were affordable, drugs were plentiful, and crime was rampant. The next year, on Sutherland’s 31st birthday, May 28, the couple married, traveled to central Texas to visit family and friends, and then returned to Houston to resume their domestic routine of volatility and substance abuse.

“Stacy had a very bad temper and the alcohol brought out the worst in him,” said Hord who now resides in Waco, “but Stacy and Bunni brought out the worst in each other. The house was always dirty, and it was infested with roaches. Bunni wasn’t the best housekeeper. Every time I went over to visit, the condition of the house used to really bug me. Bunni had some really bad times in her life, but the time spent with Stacy was the worst.”

516 Pacific Street, The Montrose, Houston. Photo courtesy of Paul Drummond.

Hord remembers Sutherland as someone always toying with the idea of putting another band together, but who went to extreme measures to forgo actually playing music during this unproductive time period. As a frustrated Sutherland sat on his front porch, neighbors were known to come up to him and ask for an autograph, which served as a reminder of by-gone days in the spotlight.

“I don’t remember ever hearing Stacy play guitar when I went over to visit. He used to talk about drugs a lot. He had a fascination with drugs, and he would do anything that came his way. Bunni once told me that when she and Stacy used to go out bar hopping in the neighborhood, Stacy would bandage his hand before leaving the house, and when people would buy him drinks and ask him to play guitar with the band, he would have an excuse not to play and sit in with them, choosing to drink all night instead,” Hord said.

By 1978, the Sutherlands were at an all-time low in their on again, off again relationship, and in the early morning hours of August 24, after a full day of drinking and arguing, Bunnell shot Sutherland in the kitchen of their east Montrose bungalow. The bullet severed a major artery causing massive internal bleeding. Later that day, the Houston Chronicle included the following story:
A Montrose resident was shot to death today in his residence at 516 Pacific Street. Police identified the victim as Stacy Keith Sutherland, 33. Shot once in the stomach with a .22 caliber rifle, at 3:30 a.m., Sutherland died at 5:07 a.m. in Ben Taub Hospital.

Officers arrested a 34-year-old woman at the scene. No charges have been filed.
Hord believes that Bunnell’s actions were taken as a measure of defense to protect her teenaged son who was staying with them at the time from an irrational acting and inebriated Sutherland.

“Stacy was making threatening remarks and acting belligerent towards Bunni’s 15-year-old son,” recounts Hord, “and when Stacy lunged at Bunni in an attempt to enter her son’s bedroom, she pulled the trigger to the .22 rife that the couple kept in the house for protection against burglars.”

On April 10, 1981, after seeing evidence and hearing arguments from council, the Honorable Judge Frank Price of the 209th District Court of Harris County issued a motion for dismissal to Ann Elizabeth Sutherland for the murder of Stacy Sutherland.

More than two years had passed from the time Bunnell was indicted for the felony offense by a Houston grand jury, and according to Bunnell’s attorney, Audley H. Heath, “because more than 120 days had passed since the commencement of the action, the defendant was entitled to a dismissal of the indictment filed in the cause in accordance with the ‘Speedy Trial Act of 1974’ of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.” This statute was later repealed by the Supreme Court of Texas in 2005.

Sutherland died before experiencing the worldwide recognition and the accolades now paid to him and the 13th Floor Elevators from adoring fans, musicians, and the music press. Their music has found a new audience from an entirely new generation, that discovered the band and the body of work they recorded, from that brief moment in time they performed together.

Sutherland is buried at Center Point Cemetery near his family’s ranch in Kerr County, not far from where he used to practice his guitar on the banks of the Guadalupe River. Bunnell eventually became a court reporter, remarried and continued to live in the house at the corner of Pacific and Hopkins streets in east Montrose where she died of cancer in 1987 at age 43.

[Ivan Koop Kuper is a graduate student at the University of St. Thomas, Houston, Texas, and maintains a healthy diet of music, media, and popular culture. He can be reached at kuperi@stthom.edu. Find more articles by Ivan Koop Kuper on The Rag Blog]

Also see:
The 13th Floor Elevators -- Tommy, Bennie, Rocky and Stacy -- at the New Orleans Club in Austin, 1965. Photo by Bob Simmons / The Rag Blog.

Roky Erickson, Stacy Sutherland, and John Ike Walton perform at La Maison in Houston in May or June, 1966. Image from last.fm.

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Ellen LaConte : Garden As If Your Life Depended on It

Digging in for the future. Image from Civil Eats.

Because it will:
Garden as if your life depended on it

By Ellen LaConte / The Rag Blog / March 31, 2011

Spring has sprung -- at least south of the northern tier of states where snow still has a ban on it -- and the grass has ‘riz.

And so has the price of most foods, which is particularly devastating just now when so many Americans are unemployed, underemployed, retired or retiring, on declining or fixed incomes and are having to choose between paying their mortgages, credit card bills, car payments, and medical and utility bills, and eating enough and healthily. Many are eating more fast food, prepared foods, junk food -- all of which are also becoming more expensive -- or less food.

In some American towns, and not just impoverished backwaters, as many as 30 percent of residents can’t afford to feed themselves and their families sufficiently, let alone nutritiously. Here in the Piedmont Triad of North Carolina where I live it’s 25 percent. Across the country one out of six of the elderly suffers from malnutrition and hunger. And the number of children served one or two of their heartiest, healthiest meals by their schools grows annually as the number of them living at poverty levels tops 20 percent. Thirty-seven million Americans rely on food banks that now routinely sport half-empty shelves and report near-empty bank accounts. And this is a prosperous nation!

In some cases this round of price hikes on everything from cereal and steak to fresh veggies and bread -- and even the flour that can usually be bought cheaply to make it -- will be temporary. But over the long term the systems that have provided most Americans with a diversity, quantity, and quality of foods envied by the rest of the world are not going to be as reliable as they were.

What’s for supper down the road?

As they move through the next few decades Americans can expect
  • the price of conventionally produced food to rise and not come down again,
  • prices to rollercoaster so that budgeting is unpredictable,
  • some foods to become very expensive compared to what we’re used to
  • and others, beginning with some of the multiple versions of the same thing made by the same company to garner a bigger market share and more shelf space, to gradually become unavailable.
Tremors in food supply chains and pricing will make gardening look like a lot more than a hobby, a seasonal workout, a practical way to fill your pantry with your summer favorites, or a physically, spiritually, and mentally healing activity -- or all four.

Gardening and small-scale and collective farming, especially of staple crops and the ones that could stave off malnutrition, could become as important as bringing home the bacon, both the piggy and the dollar kind. Why?

The rig is up. Image from The Market Oracle.

Why’s gardening so important now?

There are at least five reasons why more of us should take up spade, rake, and hoe, make compost and raise good soil and garden beds with a vengeance, starting this spring and with an eye toward forever.

1) Peak oil. Most petroleum experts agree that we shot past peak oil in the U.S. around 1971. Lest you’ve missed the raging, that’s the point at which more than half the readily, affordably retrievable oil in reserves has been used up, what remains is more expensive to retrieve, and the dregs are irretrievable. We’ve shot or are about to shoot past peak worldwide, estimates of when ranging from 2007 to 2013, with many oil company execs agreeing to at least the latter.

There are no new cheap-easy oil fields coming on line. Any new fields you hear about or new methods, like tar sands drilling, are expensive, water guzzling, dangerous, environmentally disastrous, and unlikely to produce more than a few years worth of oil, and that a decade or more down the line. That means abundant, cheap oil is about to be history. What difference does that make?

For one thing, there is no replacement for oil that can do all that oil has done as cheaply and universally as oil has done it. I offer an exercise in Life Rules -- “The ABC’s of Peak Oil” -- which helps readers imaginatively subtract from their lives everything that depends in one way or another on cheap easy oil. It doesn’t leave much. (See Beth Terry’s website, for example, for what subtracting plastics may entail.)

The global economy that presently supplies us with our food, runs on cheap oil and lots of it. It runs slower and less predictably on expensive oil that’s hard to get because it’s located in hard-to-reach or high-risk conflict-ridden zones.

Cheap, abundant food on the shelves of grocery and big box stores and food banks, on our tables and in our bellies, depends on cheap abundant oil for fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and to power farm machinery and transport food from fields to processors and packagers and then to purveyors and consumers, around the world. Past peak, that system’s going to have the half-life of the strontium 90 that’s escaping the Fukushimi Dai-ichi reactor: 29 years, or thereabouts. One good global crisis, and not that long.

Poppies for biofuel? Photo by Yannis Kontos / Polaris.

2) Peak soil & space: A couple of links between peak oil and peak soil: First, it matters that one of the proposed alternatives to oil is biofuels. Acreage around the world is being converted from production of corn, wheat, and soy for human and animal consumption -- i.e., food -- to production of ethanol and biofuels to put in trucks and cars and... Which makes remaining corn, et al, more expensive.

Some energeconomy geniuses are proposing that Afghanis, for example, convert the fields of opium poppies that are their primary agricultural export, not to growing grains or legumes or other staple foods, but to biofuel, which would, not coincidentally, make the gasoline that goes in American military equipment much cheaper and provide Afghanis with a profitable market item rather than food.

According to a 2009 National Geographic staff report, “The corn used to make a 25-gallon tank of ethanol would feed one person for a year.” Tell that to Archer-Daniels-Midland, Al Gore’s deep-pockets friend and mega-ethanol and corn products producer.

Second, the huge oil-gluttonous machinery that has made factory farming possible has compacted soils, literally crushing the life out of them.

Arable land in the developing or so-called Third World has been at a premium since time immemorial, thanks to geographic location and/or persistent plundering by empires old and new. Revolutions in north Africa and the Middle East are occurring not just to obtain more democratic governments but also to obtain more food and more affordable food.

Revolutionaries are barking up a tree that’s seen better days.

In the United States and elsewhere in the developed -- read “First” -- world, arable land has reached peak production. All those petroleum-based products that fueled the Green Revolution of the last century, also produce so many crops, constantly, with support from toxic chemicals and without concern for the microbes that make soil a live, self-regenerating system, that most American farmland -- if its farmers didn’t go organic a while back -- is comprised of dead soils.

Peak oil makes a repeat of the petroleum-driven 20th century Green Revolution impossible, which is good for soil and other living things, not so much for food prices and supplies.

After peak, in soil like in oil, comes descent. Adding insult to injury, every year farmers lose thousands of acres of arable land to urban and suburban sprawl and more tons of topsoil than they produce of grain and other field crops to attrition.

Half the Earth’s original trove of topsoil, like that which once permitted the American Midwest to feed the world, has been lost to wind and erosion. Millions of years in the making, it has been depleted and degraded by industrialized agriculture in only a couple of centuries.

China’s soils ride easterly winds across the Pacific to settle out on cars and rooftops in California while the American Bread Basket’s soils are building deltas and dead zones at the mouth of the Mississippi. Like oil, that soil isn’t coming back. We can only build it, help it to build itself and wait.

Peak dirt. Image from treehugger.

3) Monoculture: We can cut to the chase on this one. The food we eat is produced on industrial-strength, fossil-fuel-driven super farms. Those farms practice monoculture: the planting of one crop, often of one genetic strain of that crop, at a time and sometimes year after year over vast landscapes of plowed field. When thousands of acres of farmland are sown with the same genetic strain of grain, uncongenial bout of weather, disease, or pest to which that strain is susceptible can wipe out the whole crop.

At present the Ug99 fungus, called stem rust, which emerged a decade ago in Africa, could wipe out more than 80% of the world's wheat crops as it spreads, according to a 2009 article in the L. A. Times. Recent studies follow its appearance in other countries downwind of eastern Africa where it originated, including Yemen and Iran (where revolutionaries are already protesting rising prices and shortages), which opens the possibility of its emergence further downwind in Central and Eastern Asia.

The race is on to breed resistant plants before it reaches Canada or the U.S. But it can take a decade or more to create a universally adaptable new genetic line that is resistant to a new disease like stem rust that can travel much faster than that. The current spike in the price of wheat is due in part to Ug99 which might properly be renamed “Ugh.”

4) Climate instability. Bad -- uncongenial -- weather has lately devastated crops in the upper Midwest, Florida, Mexico, Russia, China, Australia, parts of Africa, and elsewhere. Many climate scientists believe we've passed the equivalent of peak friendly and familiar weather, too. And while increasing heat will bedevil harvests, intense cold, downpours and flooding, drought and destructive storm systems will make farming an increasingly hellish occupation if profit is what's being farmed for.

The transitional climate will be unpredictable from season and will produce more extremes of weather and weather-related disasters,which means farmers will not be able to assume much about growing seasons, rainfall patterns, and getting crops through to harvest. If the past is precedent, the transition from the climate we've been used to for 10,000 years to whatever stable climate emerges out of climate chaos next, could take decades, centuries or even millennia. Especially if we keep messing with it.

When a whole nation's or region's staple crops, especially grains, are lost or on-again-off-again, everything down the line from the crops themselves become more expensive, from meat, poultry, and dairy to every kind of processed food. I.e., the food we shop for as if supermarkets were actually where food comes from.

5) The roller-coaster economy. This isn't the place for me to offer my explanation for the probability of global economic collapse. (Go here for that.) No pundits, talking-heads, or economic analysts (well, very few) deny there are rough economic times ahead. Even many of the cautious among them acknowledge that we may be looking at five or six years of high unemployment and many of the lost jobs won't be coming back.

The less cautious, like me, predict the collapse of the whole fossil-fueled, funny-money, inequitable, overly-complicated global economic system in the lifetimes of anyone under 50. Well, at the rate we're going in all the wrong directions politically and economically, I hazard the guess, anyone under 80.

Clearly, depending on the present system to provide us with most or all of our food reliably or long-term, is unwise in the extreme. Which is how we get back to why we need to garden as if our lives depended on it.

Bringing food production processes and systems closer to home is going to prove vital to our survival. We need to take producing our own and each other's food as seriously as we've taken producing a money income because growing numbers of us won't have enough money to buy food in the conventional ways and there will be less of it to buy. So what's our recourse?

Urban garden in lower Manhattan. Image from Civil Eats.

Gardening like everybody's business

Under the influence and auspices of the prevailing economy, most Americans have forgotten how to provide for themselves. We've become accustomed to earning money with which we buy provisions. That process is about to have the legs kicked out from under it. Instead of earning money (or its funny-money kin like credit cards) to buy the things we need, we'll need to start providing more of those things for ourselves and each other locally and (bio)regionally.

Gardening -- and small-scale farming -- while they will need to be undertaken in a businesslike fashion, will be less about doing business than about everyone's having something to eat and more people being busy providing it. And while not everyone will be able to garden or farm, we are all able to get up close and personal with those who do.

In a subsequent column I'll review five variations on the theme of gardening to counterbalance the five reasons I think we need to.
  • Back-yard, back-porch, back-40 gardening
  • Community gardens
  • Community Supported Agriculture
  • Urban gardening
  • Taking the 'Burbs.
[Ellen LaConte, an independent scholar, organic gardener, freelance writer, speaker, and editor, living in the Yadkin River watershed of the Piedmont bioregion of North Carolina, is a contributing editor to Green Horizon Magazine and The Ecozoic and Advisory Board member at the EarthWalk Alliance. She was assistant to the late homesteader and bestselling Living the Good Life author, Helen Nearing. Her most recent book is the controversial Life Rules: Why so much is going wrong everywhere at once & how Life teaches us to fix it (Green Horizon/iUniverse, 2010) can be examined at www.liferules-thebook.info. LaConte publishes a quarterly online newsletter, Starting Point, and can be reached at www.ellenlaconte.com.]

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30 March 2011

Dr. Stephen R. Keister : Health Care and the Congress from Bedlam

Birth of the Republican Congress: "The Interior of Bedlam" (Bethlem Royal Hospital), from A Rake's Progress by William Hogarth, 1763. Image from McCormick Library, Northwestern University / Wikimedia Commons.

The Congress from Bedlam:
Health care and American priorities

By Dr. Stephen R. Keister / The Rag Blog / March 30, 2011
"I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America." -- Alexis de Tocqueville.
One might conclude that the current Republican Congress was spawned in Bedlam.

The nation faces what could become the worst financial crisis since the creation of the republic, and a health care crisis second to none. Yet the legislative goals of the Republican Congress, encouraged by the fundamentalist Christian Right and the Tea Party movement, appear to be (1) abolishing Obama’s health care program, (2) curtailing abortion rights, (3) defunding Planned Parenthood, (4) defunding NPR, and (5) declaring English as America's official language.

I find the attack on the health care law beyond comprehension since it was negotiated in secret between the Obama administration and two of the industries that are financial keystones of the Republican Party -- the health insurance cartel and the pharmaceutical industry.

Not only does the legislation guarantee greatly increased profits to these corporate entities, but the entire plan is modeled on the Mitt Romney program under which the Commonwealth of Massachusetts still suffers from higher health costs and no decrease in the number of personal bankruptcies for those unable to pay their medical bills.

Recent information indicates that the insurance companies nationwide have been able to increase their rates by 20-60 percent since passage of the legislation. Little improvement has been made in providing coverage for those with pre-existing conditions because of excessive premium costs, while 50 million Americans are still uninsured and thousands still die from lack of health care.

What is it that creates such fury in Republicans that they wish to do away with the legislation? One might think we had enacted a low cost, inclusive, all-encompassing health care plan like those in most of the nations of the free world.

The near total failure of this legislation is discussed in detail by Kevin Zeese in a Truthout article entitled "One-Year Anniversary: The Incredible Shrinking Obama Health Care Law."

Our Republican friends should also gain great satisfaction in the fact that the personal physician, the traditional family doctor, will soon be replaced by hospital-based doctors, thus increasing the cost to the average citizen and concurrently increasing profits to the hospital industry.

For instance, a stress test may well increase in cost from $170 to $240, a study for sleep apnea will increase from $780 to $1,140, and a Caesarean Section from $2,700 to $3,420.

In my home, Erie, Pennsylvania, we have been watching the evolution of this phenomenon for some years. Here, most medical practices are now under the aegis of two traditional hospitals. As the older practitioners die or retire, options will be increasingly restricted.

This is pushing us further into a corporate structure that idealizes profits rather than professional medicine. This process is discussed in detail in an article at Smart Money, in entitled "Say Farewell to the Family Doctor."

The one bright spot on the horizon is the passage of a universal health care bill by the Vermont House -- The Vermont Health Care Authority -- by a vote of 89-47. The Governor has expressed his approval for the legislation, which still must pass the Senate. The law has been contested by all of the corporate interests that one would anticipate.

Much work is yet to be done, but there is cause for encouragement. The physicians are pleased as punch, and many other doctors may look to Vermont as a good site to move their practices.

Unhappily one can anticipate little movement from the American public in the direction of intelligent economic or health care policies. The average American, sadly, has little knowledge of the state of national affairs and the workings of government -- or what is really in his or her own interest.

Newsweek recently published a survey where 1,000 Americans were given the U.S. Citizenship test, a test taken by new immigrants at the time of naturalization, and 38 percent of current citizens failed it. European tourists with whom I talk know more about current affairs in the United States than do many of my neighbors.

One other bit of encouragement is Rep. Anthony Weiner's move to attach a "public option" to the current federal law. I feel that Rep.Weiner is one of a handful of honest elected representatives in Washington, and I admire his diligence and honor; however, I greatly fear that he is talking to the sea. The organization, Physicians for a National Health Program, continues its efforts and I would encourage those who can donate to do so. Hopefully, one day, it will be more than a voice in the wilderness.

Another positive note is the slowly increasing public attitude favoring the legalization of cannabis. A number of states have approved use of the plant for medical purposes, and many far-sighted individuals are beginning to see a bright side to decriminalization – like increased tax revenue in the billions of dollars, and the elimination of the tremendous expense of incarcerating those convicted for possession. Three more states, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont, are close to arriving at rational decisions.

I tend to support the legalization course, as well as national laws permitting prescription cannabis, though I have never experienced the drug personally. Patients, and relatives of patients, have told me repeatedly that smoking a joint gives much more relief from pain caused by chronic or terminal illness, than prescription opiates.

My underlying fear is that the pharmaceutical industry will get on board the prescription cannabis train and at the same time lobby against legal, government-regulated, individual use of pot, leading to “prescriptions for profit” while individual use continues to be a felony.

I fear, as well, that the lobbies for the liquor industry will do their best to prevent sale of a drug much less physically and psychologically harmful than most alcoholic beverages. I would urge that all who have a rational Congressperson contact him/her and encourage the movement for national legalization.

[Dr. Stephen R. Keister lives in Erie, Pennsylvania. He is a retired physician who is active in health care reform and is a regular contributor to The Rag Blog.]

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Tom Hayden : Samantha Power Goes to War

Samantha Power. Image from The 46.

Obama's 'humanitarian hawk':
Samantha Power goes to war

By Tom Hayden / The Rag Blog / March 30, 2011

Barack Obama’s war in Libya bears the intellectual imprint of Samantha Power, the Dublin-born human rights author who has risen to visible prominence in the White House hierarchy.

Power, who received a Pulitzer Prize for her 2003 book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, came of age as a freelance reporter during the Bosnian wars, when she was in her early twenties. From there she attended Yale and Harvard Law School, becoming executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard. She is married to Obama appointee Cass Sunstein.

Power has made a remarkable career recovery since calling Hillary Clinton a “monster” during the 2008 presidential primaries. She resigned from the Obama campaign after that comment, but has returned to become a special assistant to the president and member of his National Security Council.

Over a long conversation with Power in December 2003, I was struck by the generational factor in her thinking. If she had experienced Vietnam in her early twenties, I felt, she would have joined the radical left, suspicious always of American power. But as an Irish internationalist witnessing death and destruction in the former Yugoslavia, she wondered how the United States could be neutral. She strongly favored the American intervention and air war that followed.

I asked whether she would have favored the Clinton administration sending combat troops to battle the Serbs, a scenario which was in the works when Russia pulled its support from Belgrade, effectively ending that war. I didn’t get an answer, only the promise of “a long conversation” in the future.

Power generalized from her Balkans experience to become an advocate of American and NATO military intervention in humanitarian crises, a position which became known as being a “humanitarian hawk.” She began to see war as an instrument for achieving her liberal, even radical, values.

“The United States must also be prepared to risk the lives of its soldiers” to stop the threat of genocide, she wrote. She condemned Western “appeasement” of dictators. She believed that “the battle to stop genocide has been repeatedly lost in the realm of domestic politics.” In her mind, domestic concerns like discrimination and unemployment are secondary to foreign policy crises, a common attitude in the national security circles she was entering.

I remember wondering why, like U2’s Bono, another Irish human rights activist, Power has been less preoccupied by the human rights abuses inflicted by the British during the 30-year war in the northern part of her own country. If she wasn’t willing to take sides at home, so to speak, why was it easier to take sides in civil wars abroad? Wasn’t the creation of a “more perfect union” at home the foundation of any intelligent foreign policy abroad? A note from her promised more discussion on that, too.

The last I remember speaking to her, Power had gone from supporting Gen. Wesley Clark’s 2004 presidential campaign to volunteering in the Washington office of a new U.S. Senator, Barack Obama. According to her account, she bonded with Obama in a three-hour policy conversation, worked in Obama’s office in 2005-6, and became a close collaborator.

As Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, “Samantha Power deserves special mention for her extraordinary generosity; despite being in the middle of writing her own book, she combed over each chapter as if it were hers, providing me with a steady flow of useful comments even as she cheered me up whenever my spirits or energy were flagging.”

In 2008 Power published a brilliant and moving book on Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN human rights representatives killed in a 2003 bombing at the UN headquarters in Iraq. The agonizing death of the UN diplomat, crushed in the debris of his building, seemed to suggest a similar fate for UN diplomacy in a time of terror. The title of the book conveyed her anguish and passion: Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World.

But the agenda of the humanitarian hawks seemed off the radar as the quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan deepened. Bringing human rights and democracy to the Middle East with bombs and bayonets was increasingly seen as a delusional folly. Foreign policy realism, not human rights, ascended in mainstream thinking.

Power gained prominence as a national security strategist nonetheless, writing a comprehensive 2007 New York Times review of current books on military doctrine. While carefully separating herself from President George W. Bush’s policies in Iraq, she endorsed the Army and Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual associated with Gen. David Petraeus and co-produced with Power’s close colleague Sarah Sewall at the Harvard Center for Human Rights.

Power believed that counterinsurgency provided greater protection for civilians, despite mounting evidence of Iraq’s secret prisons, torture chambers, thousands of civilian casualties, and top-secret assassination operations carried out by Lt. General Stanley McChrystal in 2006, described in Bob Woodward’s The War Within.

Liberal interventionists cringed at the outcome in Iraq, but Power apparently thought the counterinsurgency doctrine was a step towards greater emphasis on human rights.

Then came this year’s Arab awakening, and the resurgence of Samantha Power.

During the past year, Power was tasked by Obama to take part in a closed set of cross-agency meetings to study the dynamics of revolt, repression, and possible American responses to emerging crises in the failing autocracies of the Middle East. Now she was becoming cited as a frequent source for national security reporters, mostly off the record.

Susan Rice, Hilary Clinton, and Samantha Power. Image from Progressive America Rising.

As the military intervention in Libya began, she was featured in The New York Times as one of the women officials lobbying for military action, along with Hillary Clinton and UN Ambassador Susan Rice. McClatchy’s Washington bureau headlined Power as “the voice behind Obama’s Libya action.”

Power’s case for humanitarian intervention is serious and well researched, but subject to ambiguities. Progressives should agree with her that subscribing to the realist school of foreign policy associated with Henry Kissinger, which demotes values in favor of “interests,” is a recipe for romancing dictators. That has been the policy of the “long war on terror” which, until recently, listed Muammar el-Qaddafi as a new friend of the United States, along with old friends Hosni Mubarak and dozens of others.

On the other hand, the realists are correct that U.S. military force simply cannot be applied against every major massacre across a bloody world.

The new Obama doctrine, which could have been scripted from Power’s writings, begins with his refusal “to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action,” while acknowledging that, “It’s true that America cannot use its military wherever repression occurs, that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right.”

After expanding the definition of national interest to include preventing a slaughter in Benghazi, however, Obama adheres to the other themes of his emerging doctrine: the politics of multilateralism (the U.S. coalition would “splinter” if the mission was expanded) and the recognition of limits (primarily the costs of another quagmire like Iraq).

Human rights thus becomes a triggering criteria in the application of military force, but not an exclusive one. Obama says he won’t bomb or invade Tripoli to take out Qaddafi militarily, disappointing the hawkish audience while relieving his liberal base.

If the U.S. gets lucky this time, Power will be vindicated. It’s possible that U.S. air power can protect opposition ground forces on the road to Tripoli until Qaddafi’s regime collapses from within. Even then, the U.S. will have to take part in an unpredictable occupation of Libya until a new set of governing institutions are created, a process that might take months or years.

The cost will climb into the billions in deficit spending while the budget crisis worsens at home. Any triumphant new U.S. allies, like the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, will prove to be unsavory. That’s the best-case scenario for the administration.

In the worst case, the human rights rationale will have served as the initial argument for another long, bloody, and expensive quagmire in a Muslim country. In a growing stalemate, the U.S. will feel impelled to escalate militarily in pursuit of its policy of regime change. That could “splinter” the U.S. coalition and violate the UN mandate, as Obama himself has indicated. It could lead to a bloodbath in Tripoli while preventing one in Benghazi. It could devolve into civil war and an indefinite power vacuum.

And speaking of morality in foreign policy, what will Power advise and Obama decide when asked to prevent massacres in Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Pakistan, or elsewhere (anyone for intervention in China or Russia)?

And who will remember the home front, and the Obama pledge to focus laser-like on the recession-ridden American economy? Who will address the crisis of aging nuclear power plants? Or the human rights crisis of America’s prison system, the largest in the world?

Political pressure is already building to retain American troops and bases in Iraq and Afghanistan beyond the promised deadlines for withdrawal. The secret war in Pakistan has dropped off the front pages for the moment, but will surely erupt again soon.

Perhaps the greatest problem in Power’s worldview is an elitism that scorns domestic policy and politics, the very domain where she believes the crusade to stop genocide is so often “lost.” Anyone primarily concerned with domestic priorities, in her view, must be an isolationist and thus an obstacle to the global struggle for human rights. One can’t imagine Power worrying very much about, say, rent subsidies or pension funds.

The realities are quite the opposite. In a democracy, war requires the consent of the governed, expressed at the very least with the consent of the Congress and subject to the authorization of the federal judiciary.

As Garry Wills points out in Bomb Power, the public and Congress have shriveled before the power of the unitary executive state. It is telling that Obama spent far more time seeking the approval of the United Nations and the Arab League than the U.S. Congress, and has no plans to seek an authorizing vote unless Congress itself insists -- an unlikely prospect for now.

The national security establishment is disconnected from the everyday concerns of the American people. As Andrew Bacevich writes in The Long War, “to the extent that members of the national security apparatus have taken public opinion into consideration, they have viewed it as something to manipulate...”

And as David Rothkopf writes in his aptly-titled history of the National Security Council, Running the World, all 13 Democratic and Republican national security advisers since the 1970s -- from Brent Scowcroft to Stephen Hadley -- are a “natural aristocracy” who either worked for Henry Kissinger or one of Kissinger’s top associates.

The foreign policy caste worries about the intrusion of democracy on their domain (Harvard’s late Samuel Huntington used to complain about “an excess of democracy” after the Sixties, when curbs on foreign policy were briefly legislated). In their privileged world, they assume an unlimited budget for their unlimited foreign policy portfolio.

According to Woodward’s account, Obama himself had to fight his own bureaucracy to uncover the true costs of Afghanistan, and the price was a shock to the president. Obama is ill-advised on foreign policy if his national security elite, including idealists like Power, assume that Americans will have to accept a declining standard of living to put a stop to dictators abroad. Human rights abroad cannot come at the price of democracy at home, but that is the course of liberal empire.

As Power wrote to me in a 2003 note, “With so many problems in hell, where are the Irish when we need them?” It was written in jest. But the answer is a serious one. The Irish are 10 years into their peace process, and the Dublin government has been voted out of office for economic failures.

[Tom Hayden is a former California state senator and leader of Sixties peace, justice, and environmental movements. He currently teaches at Pitzer College in Los Angeles. His latest book is The Long Sixties. This article was also published at The Nation.]

The Rag Blog

[+/-]

David Bacon : Iraqis Call for Real Democracy

Unemployed men demonstrate outside the office of a contractor who had promised them work. Photo David Bacon. Image from Truthout.

Eight years of occupation:
Iraqis take to the streets,
call for real democracy

By David Bacon / The Rag Blog / March 30, 2011

BAGHDAD -- The war in Iraq is supposedly over. The U.S. administration says the occupation, which began on March 20 eight years ago, is ending as well, with the withdrawal of US combat troops. But as the U.S., Great Britain and France begin another military intervention in North Africa, their respective administrations are silent about the price Iraqis are paying for the last one.

The Iraqis, however, are not remaining silent. Demonstrations have taken place in Baghdad, Basra, and Kirkuk, among other cities, calling on the U.S. in particular to stop its escalating military intervention in Libya. Iraqi unions have been especially vocal, linking the U.S. invasion of Iraq with continued misery for its working people.

According to one union representative, Abdullah Muhsin of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers (GFIW), "Eight years have ended since the fall of Saddam's regime, yet the empty promises of the 'liberators' -- the invaders and the occupiers who promised Iraqis heaven and earth -- were simply lies, lies, and lies."

The GFIW, which supported the recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, says the U.S. should "allow the people of Libya, Bahrain and other countries to determine their own destiny by themselves." Falah Alwan, president of the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq, says violence directed against workers and unions is intended to keep a lid on protests against miserable living conditions.

Falah Alwan (right) and workers at a demonstration for labor rights in Baghdad. Photo by David Bacon. Image from Truthout.

"We are still under occupation," he charges. "The new Iraqi army, created by the U.S. occupation, is doing the same job, protecting the corrupt government while we are suffering from the difficulties of daily life."

"There's no electricity most of the time and no drinking water -- no services at all," says Qasim Hadi, president of the Union of Unemployed of Iraq (UUI). Eight years after the start of the U.S. military intervention, "there's hardly even any repair of the war damage -- there's still rubble in the streets. People are going hungry."

Despite often extreme levels of violence in the years of occupation, Iraqis have never stopped protesting these conditions. When demonstrations broke out in other countries of the Middle East and North Africa, people in Baghdad, Basra, and Kirkuk had been taking to the streets for years. In large part, protests continued in Iraq because living conditions never changed, despite promises of what the fall of Saddam Hussein would bring.

"There has basically been no change in the unemployment situation since the occupation started," Hadi charges. "There are more than 10 million unemployed people in Iraq -- about 60-70% of the workforce." According to the UUI, government unemployment statistics are artificially low because they don't count many people. "Women aren't counted," Hadi says, citing just one example, "because the government says their husbands or fathers are responsible for supporting them."

Hadi was one of Baghdad's first protesters, leading marches of unemployed workers to the gates of the Green Zone, where U.S. occupation chief Paul Bremer had his offices, almost as soon as Bremer moved in. On July 25, following the May 2003 invasion, Hadi was arrested by U.S. troops for protesting. For the next six years, he led one protest after another, making the UUI a thorn in the side, first of the U.S. occupation administration, and then of the Iraqi regimes that followed.

Some government representatives tried to stop the union's growth with bribes. "They said they'd give us a position in the Labor Ministry and make us responsible for unemployed people," Hadi says. Those attempts were unsuccessful because, he explains, "we belong to the union because we want civil rights, not for ourselves, but for all people."

When bribes didn't work, threats followed. "A representative of the Dawa Party (the party of Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki) told us to leave the union," Hadi recalls. "If we didn't, he said we'd be enemies of the people of Iraq. We know what this language means. They will kidnap you. They'll make holes in your body with a drill. They will kill you slowly, with lots of pain."

Hadi isn't exaggerating. During the years of U.S. occupation, many union organizers have been murdered, some, like Hadi Saleh, brutally tortured first.

"People who get threatened like this change the place where they sleep many times," he says. "Sometimes they go live in another city. I don't care what they do to me. I have a dream I'm fighting for. But when they threatened to kidnap my wife and children I couldn't stay." A year ago, Hadi left Iraq.

A stand where the children of oil refinery workers sell motor oil to passing drivers. Workers at the refinery are paid part of their wages in oil because the refinery doesn't have enough money to pay them cash. Photo by David Bacon. Image from Truthout.

He describes enormous economic pressure on families. "Prices are very high and millions of people have no income at all," he elaborates. "Even for those who have a job, wages are so low you see people on the street selling all their furniture. If they get a sugar ration, they sell it instead. People stop drinking tea because they have to spend all their money just on the food they need to stay alive. It surprises me how people can survive."

The Iraqi government only counts 2 million unemployed and pays unemployment benefits to a quarter of them. Benefits are low, about $110 a month and if there's more than one unemployed person in the family, they reduce the benefit. But the worst problem, the UUI says, is that you have to register with the governing political party at the same time you register for benefits. "If you oppose the governing party, you can't register," Hadi says. "Benefits are given out as political bribes."

Unemployment, hunger and corruption were the fuel that fed the rising wave of protest that culminated in Iraq's Day of Rage at the end of this February.

At the beginning of the month, Baghdad neighborhoods saw rallies calling for dismissing and jailing corrupt officials, including those involved in election fraud. Al-Kuray'at neighbors protested declining services, while the people of Al-Mutanabbi Street demanded more freedom.

Some held banners saying "The Baghdad Municipality is wasting billions and the capital is sleeping in trash." Other banners had warnings for the government: "O inhabitants of the Green Zone -- think about the others" and "Remember the fate of Arab dictatorship regimes and how their people revolted."

On Al-Fardaws Avenue in central Baghdad, protesters accused a security company of executing an Al-Ma'lif man in front of his children, and called for ending random arrests and home invasions by police.

One of the sorest points for Iraqis has been the lack of more than a couple of hours of electricity a day and skyrocketing prices for gasoline and diesel oil, not just for vehicles, but for the small generators many people now use to run their air conditioners in summer heat that can reach 120 degrees.

Last summer, Basra was rocked by protests over the lack of services. Police put down June demonstrations over blackouts, supported by the Iraqi Electrical Utility Workers Union, the first national union led by a woman, Hashmeya Muhsin.

Haider Dawood Selman was killed and several others injured. Electricity and Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani then issued an order to shut the union down. A thousand Basra workers protested, shouting slogans asking Shahristani where the $13 billion appropriated for electricity reconstruction had disappeared. Within days, the union was expelled from its offices as well.

A similar fate met Iraq's oil union after it, too, protested corruption, privatization, unemployment and bad housing. Hassan Juma'a and Falih Abood, president and general secretary of the Federation of Oil Employees of Iraq, were hauled into court and threatened with arrest.

The government has never taken off the books the infamous Public Law 150, issued by Saddam Hussein in 1987, which makes unions illegal for public workers, including those in the oil and electricity industries.

Both Qasim Hadi and Hashmeya Muhsin charge that the electricity blackouts are not simply the result of unrepaired war damage -- the claim of the U.S. contractors like Bechtel Corp. that received billions of dollars for their (unsuccessful) reconstruction.

"Since 2005 there have been many projects to fix the electrical stations," Hadi says, "but the money appropriated for them has been stolen. Big generators are not repaired. The workers in the stations say they can fix them, but instead they're sold and government people pocket the money. Each new minister just demands more money and time." In addition, Hadi says, blackouts are used to punish communities for opposing the government.

Muhsin incurred the government's anger when she accused ministers last year of using blackouts and repression to create an atmosphere of desperation. "If people are desperate enough, the government believes they'll accept anything to get electricity, including privatization," she charges. "It knows our union won't accept that, so it wants to paralyze us so we can't speak out."

Under Saddam Hussein, power was free and there were no blackouts. Today, large private generators sell power on a thriving black market at 10-15 times the government's power price.

This year, as the February demonstrations grew, other workers joined in, including the oil and gas workers' branch of the GFIW, which struck the refinery and fields of the North Oil Company in Kirkuk on February 13. The union demanded pay raises, especially for temporary workers who make only a tenth of a normal salary.

The Mechanics and Printing Workers Union held a one-day protest in Baghdad, followed by a contingent calling itself the Youth of the 14th of February, who organized a big rally that day in Tahrir Square. In addition to the constant complaint of lack of services and corruption, young people demanded jobs.

A poster in a Baghdad factory, warning workers not to pick up unexploded bombs and ordinance. Photo by David Bacon. Image from Truthout.

As the month wore on, the government passed an $82 billion budget, financed almost entirely from oil revenue. Endemic corruption, however, practically guarantees that little of that will reach the country's hungry and unemployed populace. The growing anti-government tone of the demonstrations was displayed in one large banner at a Tahrir Square rally that read, "The oil of the people is for the people, not for the thieves."

Finally, unions, left-wing political parties, and other organizations of Iraqi civil society announced a national mobilization for February 25, the Day of Rage. The Maliki government attempted to keep turnout low by arresting leaders of organizations calling for the protest.

One was Jabbar al-Asadi, a member of the Executive Bureau of the Iraq Freedom Congress (IFC) in Baghdad and a member of the People Protests Committee in Iraq. Another was IFC member Mahmood Khalis, who had applied for a rally permit for Tikrit (Saddam Hussein's hometown). The offices of both the Iraqi Communist Party and the Iraqi Nation Party were closed by troops as well.

Nevertheless, Yanar Mohammed, president of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, reported that almost 70,000 people participated in the day's protest rallies. One demonstration in Samarra was the first tribal protest organized by women, in part because widows now make up a majority of the city's female population.

"The army shot the demonstrators in the evening," Mohammed says, "attempting to disperse them. Seven were killed in Samarra and 15 were wounded." According to the Iraqi Society for the Defense of Press Freedoms, 14 people were killed in Hawija, Mosul, Tikrit, and Basra during the February 25 Day of Rage.

It's hard to measure the number of people even in the Baghdad protest, the largest, because the government used force to disperse people that day, and when even more protested on the day following, tanks closed off the square.

Marwan was an IFC activist who helped organize the demonstration. He told Hadi, "When we started they surrounded us with Hummers. We were shouting slogans -- 'Give us 24-hour electricity! Give us a minimum wage! Raise the salaries of those who work! Give us unemployment benefits!' At first we thought the authorities would protect us, but then they suddenly withdrew. Then cars rushed in full of plainclothes police. They attacked us with knives, sticks, and their fists. That's when we began demanding that the government resign." Marwan was shot in the neck.

The government closed streets leading into Tahrir Square. While 6,000 people were able to assemble there, Hadi says, in every street around it there were many times the number of people in the square itself. Al Jazeera reported 20,000 in one street alone.

"Everyone was shouting about their civil rights," Hadi says. "Then the police and army began to attack them, so everyone sat down. They called out to the army and police, 'There's no reason to hit us!' When the attacks continued people fled into the neighborhoods. The police followed, beating and shooting people. Residents let people into their homes, but then the army followed."

If only several hundred people were brave enough to demonstrate in Baghdad's Tahrir Square on March 4, a week later, the reason was obvious. Iraqis have never become inured to high levels of violence, even after eight years of occupation. But it is not likely that shooting demonstrators and a massive show of force will end the protests sweeping Iraq. Instead, the state's violence has pushed protesters into moving beyond calls for better conditions to demands that the government itself resign.

"The government says we're Baathists or Al Qaeda," says Qasim Hadi. "That's their main tactic -- try to scare people, to say we're going back to 2003. But it's a lie. They know the people don't want them. They're just the government because the U.S. and Iran helped them get power with threats and militias and the military. But I believe people will lose their fear and the protests will get bigger and bigger."

[David Bacon is a writer and photojournalist based in Oakland and Berkeley, California. He is an associate editor at Pacific News Service, and writes for Truthout, The Nation, The American Prospect, The Progressive, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications. His documentary photography has been exhibited widely. His latest book is Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants. This article was also published at Truthout.]

The Rag Blog

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29 March 2011

Lamar W. Hankins : Natural Gas and the Perils of Fracking

Light my fire. Images from the documentary film, Gasland.

The perils of fracking:
Protecting our water
from natural gas production

By Lamar W. Hankins / The Rag Blog / March 29, 2011

Anyone who drinks water has a stake in the production of natural gas. You don’t have to own a gas well to be concerned about how natural gas is produced. All you have to do is be fond of drinking safe water.

We’ve heard a lot in recent years that the answer to this nation’s energy needs is greater use of natural gas, which is available in the United States in great abundance, rivaling the oil found in Saudi Arabia according to some sources. Watching the documentary film Gasland, an independent production by Josh Fox, reminded me of another public health issue of several years ago.

A committee hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in 2009 included testimony from representatives of several major gas drilling companies. They were questioned about the practice of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) during the natural gas drilling process. Fracking is the use of hundreds of chemicals to break up the shale formations in which natural gas is confined so that the gas can be captured for use.

When the question was asked of the drilling company representatives about whether the fracking compounds might contaminate ground water, each witness denied that fracking contaminates ground water.

The denials were reminiscent of the 1994 congressional hearings when tobacco executives were asked whether nicotine was addictive. All of those tobacco executives stated that they did not believe nicotine was addictive. We now know that their testimony was a lie. The tobacco companies had known for decades that nicotine was addictive, and many of them used additives to enhance the addictive effects of the nicotine.

The drilling companies, whose representatives were shown testifying in Gasland, had enlisted the assistance of then Vice President Dick Cheney in 2005 to have fracking exempted from the requirements of several environmental laws so that they would not have to report the injection of hundreds of known carcinogens and volatile compounds into the ground.

The exemptions are in the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which provides a key exemption for fracking from the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act, an exemption that came to be called “the Halliburton exemption” because of Cheney’s connections to that drilling company. If the gas company executives do not believe that fracking causes water contamination, why did they push for the exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act?

Sen. Bob Casey, Rep. Diana DeGette, Rep. Maurice Hinchey, and Rep. Jared Polis issued this description of fracking when bills to overturn the exemption were introduced in both houses of Congress in 2009:
[Fracking is] a process whereby fluids are injected at high pressure into underground rock formations to blast them open and increase the flow of fossil fuels. This injection of unknown and potentially toxic chemicals often occurs near drinking water wells. Troubling incidents have occurred around the country where people became ill after fracking operations began in their communities. Some chemicals that are known to have been used in fracking include diesel fuel, benzene, industrial solvents, and other carcinogens and endocrine disrupters.
Fracking is used in the production of both natural gas and oil.

Rep. Polis included this in a press release:
It is irresponsible to stand by while innocent people are getting sick because of an industry exemption that Dick Cheney snuck in to our nation’s energy policy. Many new sources of energy, including natural gas, will play an important role in our nation’s transition to cleaner fuels, but we must make sure this isn’t at the expense of public health. The problem is not natural gas or even hydraulic fracturing itself. The problem is that dangerous chemicals are being injected into the earth, polluting our water sources, without any oversight whatsoever.
The film Gasland is all about the concerns expressed succinctly by Rep. Polis. To gather information for his film, Josh Fox drove around this country from Pennsylvania and New York to Wyoming, New Mexico, and Texas.

While the federal government has yet to act to control fracking, a few other governments have become concerned enough about the production of natural gas to pay for studies of their own.

Most notable is the town of Dish, Texas. located near Denton. (The town changed its name from Clark to Dish in a deal with the satellite cable company of the same name in exchange for the company providing free satellite service to all of Dish’s 200 residents for 10 years).

The study paid for by Dish (the town) found extremely high levels of both carcinogens and neurotoxins in the environment after extensive natural gas production was done in the area in 2009. In early March, Dish sued six drilling companies that run a network of natural gas compressors and pipelines in the town. Both air pollution and water contamination problems have been noted in and around Dish.

Perhaps the most dramatic footage shown in Gasland is the lighting of water coming right out of home water faucets in several locations around the country where gas drilling has been done using fracking. The streams of water that catch on fire may be the result of some of the chemicals used in fracking, or from natural gas that fracking has released into the ground water, or a combination of both.

In all cases, the source of the flammable water was water wells that had produced potable water until the gas drilling had been done.

Calvin Tillman, until recently the mayor of Dish, has no faith in the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Texas Department of State Health Services, or any other state or federal agency to look after the health of Texans. He believes that they exist to protect the well-being of the industries they are supposed to regulate.

The health hazards of natural gas production appear to be another case involving an industry too powerful to be held accountable for its actions. And the Texas Legislature, which is owned by the corporations, will do nothing to change that situation. But this past week Reps. Diana DeGette and Jared Polis once again introduced the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act (FRAC Act) to regain federal regulatory authority over fracking.

The FRAC Act did not pass when the Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress, so it is unlikely to pass now that the Republicans control the House.

Gasland, which won five awards from as many film festivals in 2010, as well as an Oscar nomination, is available for viewing from Netflix, and at theaters and other venues around the country, and can be purchased for less than $15 on the internet. Its content is so threatening to the oil and gas industry that the industry hired a public relations firm to debunk much of the film’s claims through a website and press releases, but those efforts pale when compared to the footage of tap water being lit with a match as it comes straight out of the faucet.

The industry’s position seems to be “Don’t believe your lying eyes.”

[Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, city attorney, is also a columnist for the San Marcos Mercury. This article © Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins.]

The Rag Blog

[+/-]

Jordan Flaherty : Race and Politics in Rural Louisiana

Image from The Louisiana Justice Center.

Race and politics in rural Louisiana town
The Black mayor of Waterproof, Louisiana has spent nearly a year behind bars without bail.
By Jordan Flaherty / The Rag Blog / March 29, 2011

NEW ORLEANS -- A legal dispute in the rural Louisiana town of Waterproof has attracted the attention of national civil rights organizations and activists. Color Of Change, an online activist group that helped garner national attention for the Jena Six Case, recently rallied their members in support of Waterproof mayor Bobby Higginbotham, who has been held without bail since May of 2010.

Advocates say the town’s mayor and police chief, both African American, were targeted by an entrenched white power structure, including a parish sheriff and district attorney, who were threatened by newly empowered Black political power in the town and are seeking to use the court system to undo an election.

While the mayor and police chief were both found guilty last year, their defenders say the trials have not resolved the conflict. Rachel Conner, a lawyer representing Higginbotham in his appeal, says she has never seen a case with so many flaws. “Essentially, every single thing that you can do to violate someone’s constitutional rights from beginning to end happened in his case,” she says.

The charges and counter charges are difficult to untangle. At the center of the case is a state audit of Waterproof that found irregularities in the town's record keeping. The Parish District Attorney says the audit shows mayoral corruption. The mayor says the problems pre-date his term, and he had taken steps to correct the issues. The mayor’s opponents claim he stole from the town by illegally increasing his salary. His supporters say he received a raise that was voted on by the town aldermen.

The mayor initially faced 44 charges; all but two were dropped before the trial began. Those charges -- malfeasance in office and felony theft -- were related to the disputed raise and use of the town’s credit card. Miles Jenkins, the police chief, faced charges related to his enforcement of traffic tickets.

The mayor was quickly convicted of both charges but lawyers have raised challenges to the convictions, bringing a number of legal complaints. For example: in a town that is 60% African-American, Mayor Higginbotham had only one Black juror.

Higginbotham’s counsel was disqualified by the DA, and the public defender had a conflict of interest, leaving the mayor with no lawyer. Two days before trial began, the DA gave Higginbotham 10 boxes of files related to his case. Higginbotham’s request for an extension to get an attorney and to examine the files was denied.

There’s more: during jury selection, when Higginbotham -- forced to act as his own lawyer -- tried to strike one juror who had relationships with several of the witnesses, he was told he could not, even though he had challenges remaining. There was also a problem with a sound recorder that the court reporter was using, and as a result there is no transcript at all for at least two witness’ testimony. Finally, during deliberation, the judge gave the jury polling slips that had "guilty" pre-selected, and then later hid the slips.

When Higginbotham was convicted, the judge refused to set bail in any amount. Although a possible sentence for the crime was probation, and despite the former mayor's obvious ties to the community, Higginbotham has spent the last 10 months in jail while his lawyers have worked on his appeal. “He’s not a flight risk,” says Conner. “He’s tied to Waterproof and he’s got a vested interest in clearing his name.”

Civil rights and Black political power

Waterproof, Louisiana is a rural town near the Mississippi border best known for holding an immigration detention center. The town -- population approximately 800 -- sits in Tensas Parish, a mostly agrarian region of the state. Community members say the civil rights movement came late to Tensas -- it was the last parish in the state where Black residents were able to register to vote, and the Klan was active until late in the 20th century.

The current troubles began in September 2006 when Higginbotham was elected mayor of Waterproof. Soon after, he appointed his associate Miles Jenkins as chief of police. Jenkins, who served in the U.S. military for 30 years and earned a master's degree in public administration from Troy University in Alabama, immediately began the work of professionalizing a small town police department that had previously been mostly inactive.

While both Jenkins and Higginbotham are from Waterproof, both had also spent much of their adult lives working in other places, and brought a professional background to their new positions. Allies of Higginbotham and Jenkins say this threatened Parish Sheriff Ricky Jones and DA James Paxton. Annie Watson, a school board member and former volunteer for the mayor, says officers working for Jones told her, “As soon as you people learn that the sheriff controls Tensas Parish, the better off you'll be.”

The charges against Higginbotham come in a context where many African Americans in Louisiana feel that Black political power in the state -- and in the country -- is under attack. Tens of thousands of African-American, mostly Democratic, voters remain displaced from the state post-Katrina.

For the first time since the post-civil war era, both houses of the legislature have Republican majorities, and every statewide elected official is Republican. The newly-dominant Republican majority will oversee the state’s legislative redistricting, as well as passage of Governor Bobby Jindal’s agenda, which includes large cuts to public education and other services, including the elimination of Southern University of New Orleans, a historically Black state university.

The allegations also come at a time of corruption investigations around the state that many civil rights activists say have disproportionately targeted Black elected officials. Tommy Nelson, the Black mayor of the Louisiana town of New Roads, recently filed a motion in U.S. district court that accuses government investigators of exclusive targeting Black elected officials, beginning with a National Conference of Black Mayors gathering in New Orleans in June 2008.

The investigation Nelson refers to resulted in racketeering charges against him, as well as Black elected officials in the Louisiana towns of White Castle and Port Allen. While the Waterproof case is not connected to these other corruption investigations, the cases add context to the charges from allies of Higginbotham that Black political power is the real target of the investigations.

For Conner, the fact that the former mayor remains locked in jail awaiting appeal is the most shocking part of this case. “The vindictiveness, and whatever else is going on under the surface, I think that’s where it shows itself,” she says. Pointing to much more high-profile cases, with much more money involved, Conner asks why Higginbotham is still locked up.

“William Jefferson is out on bail, Tom Delay is out,” she says. “And then you’ve got a guy with errors in his trial from A to Z. They didn’t even set three million dollars as his bond. They set no bond.”

The mayor and his allies have filed legal appeals, and are hoping for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate, or for national media to come in. Tens of thousands of people have signed a petition, initiated by Color Of Change, asking Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal to intervene. Chief Jenkins, who still has pending charges, believes that once word gets out, justice will come to Waterproof. “People need to see exactly what is going on in these little southern towns around here,” he says.

[Jordan Flaherty is a journalist and staffer with the Louisiana Justice Institute. His award-winning reporting from the Gulf Coast has been featured in a range of outlets including The New York Times, Mother Jones, and Argentina's Clarin newspaper. His new book is FLOODLINES: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six. He can be reached at neworleans@leftturn.org, and more information about Floodlines can be found at floodlines.org.]

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