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Break the cycle: Why stronger laws will save bikers and curb reckless drivers

Ghost bikes memorialize fatal bicycle accidents.
Ariel Schlesinger
A ghost bike marks the spot of a fatal bicycle accident.

For the last week, people have been forwarding me this New York Times op-ed by Daniel Duane, which has the attention-grabbing title of “Is it O.K. to Kill Cyclists?” (In short: no. Or: maybe. We’ll get back to that.)

Duane describes himself as a convert to cycling because he likes the shorts, and the wind in his hair, and  because it’s what the cool kids are doing these days. But as of press time he is having a hard time biking anywhere but on remote country roads and on the stationary bicycle in his basement, because fear of death. Specifically, fear of the kind of death where no one gets punished for killing you, because in the cities closest to Duane, especially San Francisco, there have been a series of well-publicized stories recently about accidents between cars and cyclists where the cyclist winds up dead, and the driver, even when clearly at fault, winds up with only a ticket.

“There is something undeniably screwy,” Duane writes, “about a justice system that makes it de facto legal to kill people, even when it is clearly your fault, as long you’re driving a car and the victim is on a bike and you’re not obviously drunk and don’t flee the scene.”

Commentators on this strange state of affairs, he adds, fall into two camps: “cyclists outraged at inattentive drivers and wondering why cops don’t care; drivers furious at cyclists for clogging roads and flouting traffic laws.” Duane attempts to find middle ground between these two groups and arrives at this conclusion: “Everybody’s a little right.” He goes on:

So here’s my proposal: Every time you get on a bike, from this moment forward, obey the letter of the law in every traffic exchange everywhere to help drivers (and police officers) view cyclists as predictable users of the road who deserve respect. And every time you get behind the wheel, remember that even the slightest inattention can maim or kill a human being enjoying a legitimate form of transportation. That alone will make the streets a little safer.

As someone who spent over a decade riding the mean streets of San Francisco that Duane is too scared to venture out of his basement and pedal through, I would say: Sir, we can do a hell of a lot better than that.

Read more: Cities, Politics


Testify in court: Environmental crusader Rev. Billy might face prison


A little over a month ago, the Reverend Billy was arrested on a New York subway platform. This was a little unusual, but not very. The Reverend, a performance artist and activist named Bill Talen, had just been singing, dancing, and preaching into a megaphone inside of a Chase branch in midtown Manhattan, about how the bank’s investment practices were contributing to climate change. He was accompanied by a group of performers dressed like the golden frog of Central America [PDF], one of the first known species to become extinct as the direct result of climate change.

Reverend Billy has been arrested, he estimates, at least 75 times since 1999, when the Reverend first appeared in front of the recently opened Disney Store in Times Square in a white leisure suit and clerical collar. Since then, he’s used the persona of the televangelist to stage theatrical protests about the influence of corporations on American life. In recent years, Talen and the 50-odd performers that now make up the core of the Church of Stop Shopping have focused on the role that corporations play in climate change and species extinction.

Rev. Billy and his golden frogs.
John Quilty
Rev. Billy and his golden frogs.

“I'm not getting better at jail as I get older,” Talen wrote the day of his release from the Tombs, “It's awful." But, he continued, he was glad to be back in Brooklyn. Then, Talen got news that he wasn't expecting. The City of New York was charging Talen and choir director Nehemiah Luckett with riot in the second degree, menacing in the third degree, unlawful assembly, and two counts of disorderly conduct for the Chase protest. The pair faces up to a year in prison. Their trial begins on Dec. 9. I spoke to the free-for-now Talen over the phone (the judge denied the DA's $30,000 bond request and released them on their own recognizance):

Q. Were you surprised to be arrested after that performance at Chase? 


Hearing aid: How to get the most out of an EPA listening session


Last week, I wrote about the plan that is meant to be President Obama’s key environmental legacy: the Climate Action Plan, which, because the president has some problems with Congress, bypasses new legislation entirely. Instead, it uses the Clean Air Act and the EPA to set new benchmarks that will regulate carbon emissions standards on a state-by-state basis.

Each state would have its own benchmark to reach, based on its current emissions, and each would choose how it gets there: through cleaning up existing power plants, closing down the highest emitters and shifting electrical generation to cleaner ones, or just improving energy efficiency throughout the state.

While this plan is not exactly on the lips of every American, it is controversial enough that the EPA decided to hold “Listening Sessions” across the country. With these events, EPA aimed to check the pulse of America -- or at least say it had really tried to check the pulse of America -- before writing the new benchmarks.

I went to a listening session in Philadelphia. I was curious: I had been hearing that listening sessions were being packed with persons bused in by various industries. I had also heard that they were being criticized for being limited in number, and for being mostly located in big cities that were by their nature more full of humans who use energy than those who are involved in digging it out of the ground and setting it on fire. That, at any rate, was the argument for why busing in coal miners and power plant employees was an appropriate response to the agency's choice of venues.


Sierra Club’s New Jersey boss works to insure human/dolphin football games remain hypothetical

Atlantic City postcard.
Party time in Atlantic City, at least until it joins Atlantis.

Environmental organizations -- even big, established ones -- move with the times. Preserving wilderness becomes concern over toxics becomes protecting big-eyed species becomes obsession over the Amazon rainforest. (I'm sure I'm missing a few steps in there.)

Today, they're moving into the next phase -- applying climate change science to the question of how to take care of the landscapes of the future.

Jeff Tittel, the outspoken director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, exemplifies these shifts. In the years he's been director he's worked on water issues, regulation of suburban sprawl, and restrictions on auto emissions. Now he works on flood insurance -- on the grounds that the way things are going, the landscapes we're trying to save aren't likely to stay put.

Q. So you're director of the Sierra Club in New Jersey. Why so interested in flood insurance? It doesn't jibe with my image of what the Sierra Club does.

A. It has to do with New Jersey being clobbered by Hurricane Sandy. Really, we got clobbered. Because of the Stafford Act, we keep on subsidizing building in the wrong places. The Biggert-Waters Act would change that, but it's getting weakened, even by our elected officials who are good on climate change. They're folding under constituent pressure. Our concern is that they're going to block these insurance increases and not make any changes, and that will put even more people in harm's way.


Old hobbits die hard: Why pundits poo-poo the Keystone fight, and why they’re wrong


Last week, the political writer Jonathan Chait wrote a short piece for New York magazine titled “The Keystone Fight is a Huge Environmentalist Mistake.” Others have already well rebutted the argument and summarized the debate. What I would add is that Chait has provided us with an excellent example of what I have come to think of as One Ring syndrome.

At a very deep level, we would like to think that unpleasantly large and murky political issues can be resolved by a single action or policy -- preferably along the lines of throwing the one magic ring that controls all other magic rings back into Mount Doom from whence it was forged.

Every time I read that article the Atlantic publishes at least once a year about how feminism has failed women because it hasn’t given the author and her friends all the boyfriends, babies, and work/life balance that they want, or how Occupy Wall Street failed America because it failed to solve everyone’s problems, I think: One Ring syndrome.  And I am thinking about it now.


“Our most paranoid friends were completely right”


We now know just how much of what happens on or near the internet is being catalogued by our government (basically, everything). Environmental activists have a history of drawing the attention of the surveillance-minded, especially if they are working in landscapes -- forests, tar sands -- that are financially valuable to someone.

I've been asking people to connect these dots. Some of the most interesting answers came from Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT and co-founder of the international news blog Global Voices. As someone who works with activists around the world, Zuckerman has a unique take on the social and technological aspects of living under surveillance. He talked with me recently about how changes in the technological landscape have forced changes in privacy strategies.

Q. Were you at all surprised by the documents leaked by Edward Snowden? 

Ethan Zuckerman.
Ethan Zuckerman.

A. Yes. And then recently we had the NSA revelations where we basically found out that our most paranoid friends were completely right, and that the worst scenarios that any of us could have imagined turned out to be true.

So there has been a really panicky moment in the security space. Even the most hyper-hyper technical and hyper-paranoid folks are having a great deal of trouble securing themselves.


“Economic resistance” — a.k.a. divestment — is as American as apple pie

UIUC Beyond Coal

Bob Massie has been, at various points of his life, a historian, an anti-apartheid activist, a climate-change activist, an Episcopal priest, a money guy, an environmentalist, and various combinations of all of the above. He specializes in linking together the world of finance with the world of environmental and social ideals. For years, Massie was the executive director of Ceres; he’s now the CEO and president of the New Economy Institute.

Massie became involved in the movement to divest from apartheid South Africa as an undergraduate in the '70s. He later went on to write a very long history of the movement, titled Loosing the Bonds: The United States and South Africa in the Apartheid Years. I talked with him about divestment, then and now; the movement's roots in revolutionary America; how colleges try to wait out protests; the carbon bubble that's about to pop; and more.

Q. In Loosing the Bonds, you describe divestment as a very American institution, because of America’s history. What history are you talking about?

Bob Massie.
Bob Massie.

A. There are distinctively American things about boycotts and investment questions, going back to before the American Revolution.

George Washington, for example, was deeply frustrated with how, when most Americans wanted to buy something, they had to buy it in London. They would send their crops -- usually tobacco -- there, and then a broker in London would buy what they wanted for them -- clothes, a violin -- and send it back.

Somehow every time this happened, they lost money. And so Washington, long before he became president, became a part of a movement to boycott English goods. Wearing clothes that were “homespun” -- or made in America -- was considered a patriotic act [PDF].

Similarly the Tea Party occurred because the British were defending the Dutch East Indian Company. It was a defense against a corporate act. And the Stamp Act of 1765.  Economic resistance to unwanted corporate behavior is actually essential to American history.


Green activists navigate life in the post-privacy era


We now know that the U.S. government can obtain virtually any email, video and voice chat, videos, photos, Skype messages, file transfers, and social networking details it wants. We know that it can monitor the location, duration, and telephone numbers involved in any phone call on an ongoing, daily basis.  We know that it monitored the foreign officials who traveled to the G20 summit in 2009. We know that it has deliberately weakened the encryption software meant to protect financial transactions. We know that it has tapped into the fiber-optic cables connecting international servers so that it can copy, basically, any information that moves through them.

What does this mean for environmental activists, who, like the rest of us, increasingly organize their lives over the internet? “I remember in the past we used to tell each other to wipe our phone’s contacts before protests,”  says Joshua Kahn Russell, who has been organizing protests with the Ruckus Society for the last 7 years, and also works as Global Trainings Manager for "I can't imagine activists doing that now, since the government and private companies have infinitely more access to our personal information that we freely provide through Facebook and other social networking sites."

The '90s and early '00s were, arguably, the peak of government paranoia about the environmental movement. In 2005, John Lewis, the top FBI official in charge of domestic terrorism, declared that radical environmentalists were the No. 1 domestic terrorist threat. State, local, and federal officials dedicated a tremendous amount of time and effort to tracking down the disbanded members of The Family, an offshoot of the Earth Liberation Front that set fire to a car dealership, a ski resort, a horse slaughterhouse, and other sites in the Pacific Northwest. The FBI also spent three years monitoring Greenpeace [PDF] and put several members on the terrorism watch list, in an investigation that the Justice Department's inspector general later ruled was improper.

If electronic surveillance is being used on environmental activists, there is not much sign of it yet. “We use everything from two-way radios to cellphones to internet to chat to Facebook to organize,” says Ramsey Sprague, a Texan who has worked with the Tar Sands Blockade. “We follow Basic Security Culture, which is just about being aware of what you are talking about, and who you are talking about it with.”

The most visible manifestation of surveillance in the environmental movement has been a rash of undercover agents. At times they have engaged in activities that blurred the lines between police work and entrapment; but for the most part, they’re a consistent enough presence that every experienced environmental group has a policy for dealing with them.


Brown to student activists: We can’t live without coal

Brown Divest Coal

Rachel Bishop, a recent Brown grad involved in the university's divestment movement, has been spending a lot of time navigating the ins and outs of college governance.

“The president chairs the committee,” she says, of the group of Brown’s trustees who hold sway over the direction of the university’s investments. “We know that the five committee members we asked to recuse themselves because of conflicts of interest did not do so. We know that they didn’t hold a vote. They just had a conversation.”

One of the five who did not bow out is also noteworthy for having a large number of employees under investigation for insider trading. Bishop will have to wait 25 years to know what the discussion was, and who said what, because that’s when Brown University’s archives will unseal the minutes of the meeting.

All she knows, for now, is that Brown Divest Coal -- which appeared to have some of the most practical, low-key goals in the student divestment movement -- just lost its bid to have the university divest from the coal-related companies in its endowment. When Brown divested from businesses connected to apartheid South Africa in the '80s, the college had to shift around 13 percent of its endowment into other funds. Bishop and the other members of the campaign had  crafted their demands narrowly, with an eye to what the advisory committee might view as feasible.

Read more: Climate & Energy


What to expect when you’re expecting the cops

Photo by Zoran Karapancev /

I have never been arrested, a circumstance I owe more to dumb luck than anything else. We live in arresting times. One of the less-known consequences of 9/11 was the dispensing of an unprecedented amount of federal money and military training to 31 American cities seen as being at the greatest risk of terrorist attacks.

Unfortunately, the same things that hypothetically make cities attractive to terrorists -- large numbers of people living together in high-density communities, getting out and interacting with each other in public, easily targetable public spaces -- are also what make cities attractive to large groups of people who feel like gathering together for a rally.

After 2001, America was lucky to avoid further terror attacks within its borders. Meanwhile, city police trained to manage terrorist attacks began to apply their new crowd management techniques in other situations -- like protests. In 2004, 1,800 protesters were arrested at the Republican National Convention in New York -- setting a new record for most Americans arrested at a political convention. Mass arrests also surfaced during the Occupy Movement, where 700 people were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge and over 400 were arrested on a single day in Oakland.

Have mass arrests become the new normal of protest policing? Heidi Boghosian, the executive director of the National Lawyers’ Guild (NLG), a group which has been handling protest arrest cases since the labor protests of the 1930s, spoke to Grist about the practice.

Q. Have you noticed that police treat protesters differently now that they have all this post-9/11 Homeland Security training in crowd control techniques?

A. With the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, and the seemingly permanent state of perpetual war, protesters represent the front-line recipients of punitive policing. They have been easy targets for local and federal law enforcement agencies to label as potential terrorist threats.

Although we have all become prospective criminal suspects to some extent -- witness post-9/11 airport security protocols and requirements that workers wear badges to enter their buildings.

Read more: Cities, Politics