Friday, November 28, 2014

Seeing systemic violence in my life

"A prophet does not 'see' the future, he or she sees the present with such clarity that the future is obvious."
- anon
"Civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often unarticulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims."
- Derrick Jensen
A few months ago, I tried to explain to a friend making $150,000/year how systemic violence works in our society, even against relatively well off people like him. Anyone who chooses to can see this violence committed against the poorest sectors of our society on a daily basis, but most people I know are blind to how this violence is committed against themselves as well.

So I'd like to share the story of how half my extended family was poisoned this summer to illustrate the issue. Unless they choose to move away, they will continue to be poisoned for the rest of their lives, and they will live with and pay for the health consequences.

Part 1: The Violence Flowing Down the Heirarchy

In July, I found this news item: State poised to shut down 11 local oil injection wells (h/t ZeroHedge). From the article (published July 3, 2014; emphasis mine):
Seven independent oil companies have been ordered to halt state-approved wastewater injection work starting noon Monday out of concern they may be contaminating Kern County drinking water.
Emergency orders issued Wednesday by the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources apply to 11 disposal wells east and northeast of Bakersfield. About 100 water wells are located within a mile radius of the disposal wells.

Oil and water officials say the wells may have injected "produced water" -- the toxic and sometimes radioactive liquid that comes up during oil production -- and possibly injected fracking fluid at relatively shallow depths that contain relatively low salinity, oil-free water suitable for drinking and irrigation.
State officials said they have found no evidence the underground injections, some approved by DOGGR as long ago as the 1970s and others very recently, have ever contaminated drinking or irrigation water. Pollution has not been ruled out, however, as regulators conduct site inspections and await test results and other information from the companies.
I learned about the fracking problem in Kern County, California while living in Earthaven, an ecovillage full of social activists who've seen such damage by powerful corporations and the surrounding lies many times. I went to a friend and said, "Regulators just said they told frackers to stop injecting waste water near a city where my family lives, and where I plan to visit soon. But we shouldn't be alarmed because they haven't found signs of danger to drinking water. And you know what that means..." And she and I said in unison: "they found signs of danger to drinking water!"

So I asked, what should I do? I'm going to visit my family in California in a few months. Do I drink their water? Even if I don't drink their tap water, do I eat food they make locally with their local, toxic water? My family believes the government would protect them, and companies wouldn't knowingly inject millions of gallons of toxins into their drinking water, so they'll think I'm nuts if I refuse to drink their water or eat their food - plus it would be impolite, not to mention expensive, as a guest to refuse every single offer of local food and water for my weeks-long stay. To avoid drinking chemicals like mercury, arsenic, lead, and many others, I'd have to be rude!

In the end, during my family visit, I tried to drink my own water where I could. Still, in the interest of minimizing friction with my family, I often ate and drank the same things they did.

Then, in October, this news item appeared: 3 Billion Gallons Of Fracking Wastewater Pumped Into Clean California Aquifiers: "Errors Were Made" State Admits (bolding in original article)
[...] as the California’s Department of Conservation’s Chief Deputy Director, Jason Marshall, told NBC Bay Area, California state officials allowed oil and gas companies to pump up to 3 billion gallons (call it 70 million barrels) of oil fracking-contaminated waste water into formerly clean aquifiers, aquifiers which at least on paper are supposed to be off-limits to that kind of activity, and are protected by the government's EPA - an agency which, it appears, was richly compensated by the same oil and gas companies to look elsewhere.
And the scariest words of admission one can ever hear from a government apparatchik: "In multiple different places of the permitting process an error could have been made."
Because nothing short of a full-blown disaster prompts the use of the dreaded passive voice. And what was unsaid is that the "biggest error that was made" is that someone caught California regulators screwing over the taxpayers just so a few oil majors could save their shareholders a few billion dollars in overhead fees.
The process, for those confused, explained by NBC:
In “fracking” or hydraulic fracturing operations, oil and gas companies use massive amounts of water to force the release of underground fossil fuels. The practice produces large amounts of waste water that must then be disposed of.

Marshall said that often times, oil and gas companies simply re-inject that waste water back deep underground where the oil extraction took place. But other times, Marshall said, the waste water is re-injected into aquifers closer to the surface. Those injections are supposed to go into aquifers that the EPA calls “exempt”—in other words, not clean enough for humans to drink or use.

But in the State’s letter to the EPA, officials admit that in at least nine waste water injection wells, the waste water was injected into “non-exempt” or clean aquifers containing high quality water.

For the EPA, “non-exempt” aquifers are underground bodies of water that are “containing high quality water” that can be used by humans to drink, water animals or irrigate crops.

If the waste water re-injection well “went into a non-exempt aquifer. It should not have been permitted,” said Marshall.
Yet it was, to the tune of 3 billion gallons. And nobody said a word about it until someone finally did a little research and found that people, especially those in power, lie.
And lie they did because the severity of the pollution is only now becoming clear:
In its reply letter to the EPA, California’s Water Resources Control Board said its “staff identified 108 water supply wells located within a one-mile radius of seven…injection wells” and that The Central Valley Water Board conducted sampling of “eight water supply wells in the vicinity of some of these… wells.”

“This is something that is going to slowly contaminate everything we know around here,” said fourth- generation Kern County almond grower Tom Frantz, who lives down the road from several of the injection wells in question.

According to state records, as many as 40 water supply wells, including domestic drinking wells, are located within one mile of a single well that’s been injecting into non-exempt aquifers.

That well is located in an area with several homes nearby, right in the middle of a citrus grove southeast of Bakersfield.
In the meantime, the oil companies are already taking defensive measures, blaming the fiasco on... a "paperwork issue."
The trade association that represents many of California’s oil and gas companies says the water-injection is a “paperwork issue.” In a statement issued to NBC Bay Area, Western States Petroleum Association spokesman Tupper Hull said “there has never been a bona vide claim or evidence presented that the paperwork confusion resulted in any contamination of drinking supplies near the disputed injection wells.”
Well, actually, there is:
However, state officials tested 8 water supply wells within a one-mile radius of some of those wells.
Four water samples came back with higher than allowable levels of nitrate, arsenic, and thallium.
Those same chemicals are used by the oil and gas industry in the hydraulic fracturing process and can be found in oil recovery waste-water.
Similar to how no financial elites went to jail for massive crimes after the crash of 2008, there's no talk of jailing leaders of these companies for poisoning the water of millions of people (in the middle of a drought no less). In California, there's a 3-strikes law where a person who commits a 3rd felony gets a significantly worse sentence than he would if it were not the 3rd time. And what happens to companies that commit millions of felonies? They book the profits and call it a paperwork problem.

Part 2: What happens when we try to stop the violence?
Most people I know don't believe in systemic violence because they believe some combination of the following:
  1. Government regulators for the most part prevent bad behavior, with occasional mistakes
  2. Government prosecutors go after the bad actors, further disincentivizing bad behavior
  3. Most companies wouldn't knowingly do evil, with occasional exceptions
  4. If things got bad enough, I could exercise my constitutional rights to work with others to force positive change. This is a free, democratic country after all!
(4) is the most interesting because it's entirely theoretical for most of my friends and family. That is, they live well enough that they've never had cause to try to effectively change some significantly bad aspect of the society they live in. If my family really decided to understand the political/economic/social root problems that lead to this mass poisoning, and tried to join others to resolve those problems, what obstacles would they face?

Unfortunately, the Occupy protests and the violent police and judicial response to them showed that my family would have a very hard time exercising their Constitutional rights. Chris Hedges documents a recent example of judicial and police corruption that scares people away from social activism. I'll quote him at length, but read the whole article for more:
Update: On May 19 Cecily McMillan was sentenced to three months in jail and five years of probation, plus community service. Click on the word Guardian and the words Huffington Post to see articles on the sentencing.
NEW YORK—Cecily McMillan, wearing a red dress and high heels, her dark, shoulder-length hair stylishly curled, sat behind a table with her two lawyers Friday morning facing Judge Ronald A. Zweibel in Room 1116 at the Manhattan Criminal Court. The judge seems to have alternated between boredom and rage throughout the trial, now three weeks old. He has repeatedly thrown caustic barbs at her lawyers and arbitrarily shut down many of the avenues of defense. Friday was no exception.
The silver-haired Zweibel curtly dismissed a request by defense lawyers Martin Stolar and Rebecca Heinegg for a motion to dismiss the case. The lawyers had attempted to argue that testimony from the officer who arrested McMillan violated Fifth Amendment restrictions against the use of comments made by a defendant at the time of arrest. But the judge, who has issued an unusual gag order that bars McMillan’s lawyers from speaking to the press, was visibly impatient, snapping, “This debate is going to end.” He then went on to uphold his earlier decision to heavily censor videos taken during the arrest, a decision Stolar said “is cutting the heart out of my ability to refute” the prosecution’s charge that McMillan faked a medical seizure in an attempt to avoid being arrested. “I’m totally handicapped,” Stolar lamented to Zweibel.
The trial of McMillan, 25, is one of the last criminal cases originating from the Occupy protest movement. It is also one of the most emblematic. The state, after the coordinated nationwide eradication of Occupy encampments, has relentlessly used the courts to harass and neutralize Occupy activists, often handing out long probation terms that come with activists’ forced acceptance of felony charges. A felony charge makes it harder to find employment and bars those with such convictions from serving on juries or working for law enforcement. Most important, the long probation terms effectively prohibit further activism.
The Occupy Wall Street movement was not only about battling back against the rise of a corporate oligarchy that has sabotaged our democracy and made war on the poor and the working class. It was also about our right to peaceful protest. The police in cities across the country have been used to short-circuit this right. I watched New York City police during the Occupy protests yank people from sidewalks into the street, where they would be arrested. I saw police routinely shove protesters and beat them with batons. I saw activists slammed against police cars. I saw groups of protesters suddenly herded like sheep to be confined within police barricades. I saw, and was caught up in, mass arrests in which those around me were handcuffed and then thrown violently onto the sidewalk. The police often blasted pepper spray into faces from inches away, temporarily blinding the victims. This violence, carried out against nonviolent protesters, came amid draconian city ordinances that effectively outlawed protest and banned demonstrators from public spaces. It was buttressed by heavy police infiltration and surveillance of the movement. When the press or activists attempted to document the abuse by police they often were assaulted or otherwise blocked from taking photographs or videos. The message the state delivered is clear: Do not dissent. And the McMillan trial is part of the process.
McMillan, who spent part of her childhood living in a trailer park in rural Texas and who now is a graduate student at The New School for Social Research in New York, found herself with several hundred other activists at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan in March 2012 to mark the six-month anniversary of the start of Occupy Wall Street. The city, fearing the re-establishment of an encampment, deployed large numbers of police officers to clear the park just before midnight of that March 17. The police, heavily shielded, stormed into the gathering in fast-moving lines. Activists were shoved, hit, knocked to the ground. Some ran for safety. More than 100 people were arrested on the anniversary. After the violence, numerous activists would call the police aggression perhaps the worst experienced by the Occupy movement. In the mayhem McMillan—whose bruises were photographed and subsequently were displayed to Amy Goodman on the “Democracy Now!” radio, television and Internet program—was manhandled by a police officer later identified as Grantley Bovell. [Click here to see McMillan interviewed on “Democracy Now!” She appears in the last 10 minutes of the program.]
Bovell, who was in plainclothes and who, according to McMillan, did not identify himself as a policeman, allegedly came up from behind and grabbed McMillan’s breast—a perverse form of assault by New York City police that other female activists, too, suffered during Occupy protests. McMillan’s elbow made contact with his face, just below the eye, in what she says appeared to be a reaction to the grope; she says she has no memory of the incident. By the end of the confrontation she was lying on the ground bruised, beaten and convulsing. She was taken to a hospital emergency room, where police handcuffed her to a bed.
Had McMillan not been an Occupy activist, the trial that came out of this beating would have been about her receiving restitution from New York City for police abuse. Instead, she is charged with felony assault in the second degree and facing up to seven years in prison. She is expected to take the witness stand this week. [...]
For more info about the arrest incident and trial, refer to a follow-up article by Chris Hedges.

To summarize: a plainclothes police officer sexually assaulted a peaceful protester, surprising her from behind. When she instinctively threw her arms up to protect herself, he violently threw her to the ground and charged her with assault of a police officer. The judge systematically disallowed any evidence showing that the police attacked her and other protesters rather than the reverse. The peaceful protester was convicted of felony assault of a police officer.

It's not just black people in Ferguson who are victims of systemic violence. All of us are subjected to it, through bailouts and non-prosecution if financial criminals, non-enforcement of environmental regulations that lead to toxic air, water and food, and wars that waste money and lives, destroy the environment, and generate more 'terrorists' than they kill. 

Of course, if we try to respond effectively and directly, we encounter incredible police and judicial brutality. And note that every story in this article occurred under Democratic administrations - in California with Governor Jerry Brown and the national Occupy response was coordinated under Democratic President Obama.

This is the essence of systemic violence: everyone is allowed to do the most appealing work they can find and then spend their money on amusements. Responding ineffectively to real problems, for example by complaining on Facebook or sending chain-emails, is allowed. But when people coalesce into groups and really try to cause significant change, even totally peacefully, the violent response comes out.

We cannot await the next election to hope for effective change. We will only be able to choose the lesser of two evils, while neither  choice will effectively address our problems. We must understand the real problems we face and work together with others in our community to protect ourselves.

More reading:
For a record of police brutality against Occupy protesters, refer to this study by NYU School of Law and Fordham Law School: Suppressing Protest: Human Rights Violations in the US Response to Occupy Wall Street.

For a list of chemicals commonly found in fracking waste water, and now in aquifers, streams and tapwater in areas across America, see page 5-102 in this report by New York's Department of Environmental Conservation.