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Froggy went a courting: Rev. Billy’s climate protest heads to trial


Last October, the Reverend Billy was arrested for preaching into a megaphone inside a branch of Chase Bank in Midtown Manhattan. He'd been accompanied by a gang of golden frogs -- the first known species to become extinct as the direct result of climate change. The frogs and the Reverend were there to call attention, through singing and dancing, to Chase Bank’s ranking as the largest lender in the world for new coal plant construction.

Reverend Billy -- an activist and performance artist actually named Bill Talen -- is no stranger to arrest, but what happened next was unusual. Instead of the usual order to do community service, the District Attorney of the City of New York charged Talen and the group’s choir director, Nehemiah Luckett, with riot in the second degree, menacing in the third degree, unlawful assembly, and two counts of disorderly conduct. The Chase branch manager had told the DA’s office that he had mistaken the protest for a robbery, and that several bank customers and employees were reduced to tears by the experience. The two now risked serving up to a year in prison.

The next court date for the duo is Feb. 27. But in the meantime, the prosecution changed its charges and offered a new sentencing recommendation -- one day of community service for Talen, and six months of not getting arrested for Luckett -- if both agreed to plead guilty.

What happened in the meantime, and why did the prosecution change their tune? Talen recently answered my questions over the phone.

Q. Well, first things first. Are you going to plead guilty?

A. Hell no.


Of pipelines, lunch counters, and warheads: Effective protest requires concrete goals

Public Citizen

I'm not entirely sure why I went to a lecture that night, though odds are good that it involved raiding the hors d'oeuvre table. It was late in the '90s, and college was a world that I still didn't understand yet. The sheer expense of everything staggered me -- the books, the food, the bunk in the small dorm room that my roommate had plastered with Janis Joplin posters. I found myself lying awake at night, paralyzed with terror that I wasn't learning enough to justify participating in this strange cultural rite. I found that eating as much cheese as I could in the evening calmed this anxiety, and so I made a habit of attending literary events.

The guest that evening was Susan Brownmiller, who was promoting a book that she'd written about being a feminist in the New York of the 1970s. The thing that historians had failed to notice about second-wave feminism, she said, was that it wasn't just consciousness-raising and looking at your vagina in a hand mirror. There were goals. Women went to law school and ran for political office so that they could change laws, state-by-state, that determined things like when rape was considered a crime and how it was prosecuted. If anyone in the audience was considering being a feminist, she suggested starting with some concrete, achievable steps toward making women's lives better.

The speech did not go over well. A young woman in the front row raised her hand and said that she was getting the impression that Brownmiller was not very interested in other types of feminism -- ones that looked outside the fossilized power structures of contemporary society and sought something more non-hierarchical and balanced with the earth's rhythms. Brownmiller replied that that sounded right: She wasn't interested, even a little, in discussing the earth's rhythms that evening. Several other arms shot up in the front row, and it became clear that Brownmiller had just pissed off an entire women's studies seminar that had traveled to the lecture together.

I didn't agree with everything Brownmiller said that night, but I've thought about that talk often as I've covered politics and watched issues like marriage equality and immigration reform work their way through our culture, courts, and legislatures. I thought about it again when I recently read Martin Luther King Jr.'s interview with Alex Haley in 1964.


How went from “strange kid” to head of the green class

May Boeve grew up in the '90s, in a world where environmentalism was presented less as a social movement than as a personal lifestyle choice: buy a car that doesn't use much gas, insulate your house, use energy-efficient lightbulbs, compost. So when she was an undergraduate at Middlebury College, she and a group of friends set out to practice environmentalism differently, taking their cues from the social justice movements they were learning about in history class (civil rights) and seeing play out in the world around them (marriage equality). "Clearly, a lot of people were concerned about climate change,” Boeve …


Low impact: State Department says Keystone won’t hurt much at all

The Keystone Oil Pipeline is pictured under construction in North Dakota in this undated photograph released on January 18, 2012.
Reuters/TransCanada Corporation

It's Friday, and nothing says Friday like the words "The Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL Project is out." Am I right? Let's just pretend I'm right. It's out, everyone! Some people might get into conspiracy theories about governmental agencies that release highly controversial documents late on a Friday right before the Super Bowl, but surely those are just theories. Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL Project party in the house!

The report is a key step in the process set in motion two years ago, when President Obama rejected the initial application by Transcanada to build the northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline, which would ship tar-sands crude from Alberta to the central U.S., became a lightning rod for protest. Still to come: a broader State Department review of whether the pipeline is in the U.S.'s overall national interest, and then, finally, a decision by Obama himself.

In this process, the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL Project (or the KXL EIR for short) serves primarily as fodder for that final decision. The report released Friday largely concludes that Keystone won't really make a difference to the climate or the environment -- which means that it gives Obama one more excuse to say "yes" to the pipeline and one fewer to say "no."


Did spying take Copenhagen from Hopenhagen to Brokenhagen?


To those interested in trying to stop -- or at least slow down -- climate change, the 2009 Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen, which was dubbed “Hopenhagen” before it began, is remembered today as “Brokenhagen.” The summit’s failure to come to any kind of agreement was a key factor in pushing climate change activists away from working within governmental channels and towards direct action fights, like Keystone.

Why did Brokenhagen happen? Was it just a clash of expectations? Too many cooks in the climate accord kitchen? Was it bad behavior by China? The U.N.? The Senate?

Now we can add one other potential culprit to the Agatha Christie mystery that was Copenhagen: spying.

From the beginning, negotiators told the Danish newspaper Information, the Americans in Copenhagen seemed to know too much. “I was often completely taken aback by what they knew,” an anonymous member of the Danish negotiating team told the paper.


Front-vine lessons: What made Florida’s tomato-field uprising work

Immokalee coalition protest 2011

The first time I ever heard of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers was from a friend who had gone to Immokalee, the region in South Florida where most of the tomatoes of the eastern seaboard are grown, on a volunteer trip. He came back depressed. People were living in circumstances that were not unlike (and in several cases fit the technical definition of) slavery, and they had for generations. People struggled. Nothing changed.

The next time I heard about the CIW, it was because they had changed something, and changed it big. After years of collaborating with federal slavery investigations and pressuring tomato growers for better wages and living conditions, the CIW had decided that the entire system needed to be reformed. Tomato growers didn’t get paid enough to pay fair wages. The federal, state, and local governments, on their own, were not capable of policing the kind of labor violations that were going on.

And so they developed a new plan: convince the biggest tomato buyers to pay an extra 1.5 cents per pound of tomatoes, most of which would be funneled back into worker’s wages; and create an independent certification organization -- The Fair Food Standards Council -- that would handle labor violations.

They set their sights on their first target -- Taco Bell -- and won. With pressure, other companies began to sign the agreements too. Back in Immokalee, they rallied themselves by staging boxing matches where a farmworker punched out competitors wearing the logos of McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, and Whole Foods. Last year, the United Nations brought a delegation from the CIW to Geneva to speak about its successes to the United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights. And earlier this month, Walmart, the CIW’s biggest catch yet, sat down and signed the agreement too, without the CIW’s even needing to mount a public campaign pressuring it to do so.

How did such an improbable thing come to pass? And what can we, like the U.N., learn from their example?

The CIW was founded by a group of farmworkers and organizers in Immokalee, Fla. in 1993. Among them was Greg Asbed, a Brown grad who had gone to work at Florida Rural Legal Services. Recently, I talked with Asbed to try to answer these questions.

Q. You have an independent certifying body. Why, do you have that, and not a union? Other than the fact that unions aren’t doing too well?

A. We don’t have the right to unionize. California has a state labor relations act for agricultural workers but agricultural workers everywhere else are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act and you just can’t organize without fear of losing your job. That’s just been the reality forever. So as a farmworker, you’ve always had to find some other way to do things.

But we’ve always been different. The people who formed the organization didn’t grow up in union families. They came from peasant movements in Haiti and Guatemala. They organized in the way that they knew how.


Crude awakening: As Keystone opens in Texas, neighbors fight to protect their water

Pipeline contruction

Wednesday at 10:45 a.m., Keystone XL South was supposed to begin piping tar sands crude from  Cushing, Okla. to refineries in Texas. That's what the pipeline's builder, Transcanada, had announced.

The pumps that keep crude moving through the pipeline were running last Thursday, as TransCanada performed last-minute tests of the system. But on Friday they went silent, according to observers in the area, and so far it looks like they haven’t started up since.

“Last week we heard info from two different sources that they had a major leak," says Kathy DaSilva, of Nacogdoches, Texas, who has been involved in the fight around KXL South for the last three years. “But we have not been able to verify or find where the leak was.”

Leaks are a big concern for DaSilva. While the national campaign against Keystone XL was framed as a climate change issue, regionally, it was about water. When TransCanada split Keystone into two pipelines -- North (which crossed the Canadian border, and which Obama has yet to approve) and South (which crossed several states, but no borders, and therefore needed no presidential approval, but then somehow mysteriously got it anyway) -- attention shifted to the Obama/Romney race, and KXL arguably became a regional issue again.

But: It’s a big region. The Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer, which the pipeline passes through, supplies drinking water to 60 counties in Texas. This summer, people living along the path of the pipeline noticed that segments that had been completed and buried six months ago were being dug up and replaced.  The replacements were impelled by “an abundance of caution” at Transcanada, a spokesperson said.  TransCanada’s CEO Russ Girling called it “the safest oil pipeline built in America to date.” DaSilva has her doubts.


How looking for cancer’s causes became a political act

Jeanne Rizzo

How does real political change happen?  Jeanne Rizzo has spent decades figuring that out -- but not along any typical route. First a psychiatric nurse, then a concert hall manager and film, music, and theater producer, she gradually became more and more involved in the Breast Cancer Fund -- a national nonprofit that is unusual in focusing on investigating what causes breast cancer rather than how to cure it.

Recently, Rizzo spoke to me about how a music producer gets pulled into the world of legislative politics -- and how she figures out what to do when she gets there.

Q. You ran the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, and worked as a music and film producer. How did you go from that to President and CEO of the Breast Cancer Fund?

A. Right -- that’s a progression you wouldn’t expect to see on a resume. I started out as a nurse. I always did some pro bono volunteer work. I did a lot of work around AIDS. I held benefits at the Great American Music Hall. Later, many of the women who stepped up and volunteered to help with the AIDS epidemic began getting breast cancer diagnoses, so I began to work around that too.

Andrea Martin, who founded the Breast Cancer Fund, asked me to be on the board, and while I was there I did things like get the fund to go on the road with Lilith Fair. The whole time I was learning more, getting more into the science around breast cancer. I kept my nursing license up. Science doesn’t scare me. I know how to read a study.

Then, in 2001, I was at a board meeting and Andrea, the founder -- something clearly wasn’t right. I took her to the hospital and it was a brain tumor. She lived for another two years, but she was never able to work again.

I told the board, I will stay on and manage this for three months, and then you have to find someone else. Then I said, “Okay. I’ll stay for 18 months. After 18 months I won’t be here anymore." We had a lot of missions back then. I cut out most of them and focused ours on the environment -- the possible causes of cancer. To me it was obvious that we ought to be investing more in prevention.

Read more: Living, Politics


Why exploding trains are the new Keystone XL

A train carrying North Dakota crude oil derailed and exploded, July 2013
Public Herald

Back in the olden days of 2011, when America was young and LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” was a song that not everyone had gotten sick of yet, one of the most compelling criticisms leveled against the Keystone XL pipeline protesters went like this: There is oil in the Alberta tar sands. Pretty cheap stuff – about $30 less a barrel than what you can buy overseas. There are people in the U.S., which is not far from this oil, who will pay money for it so they can drive to their jobs or the grocery store or wherever else they …


Leaked Pacific trade treaty draft suggests the planet will pay

Why are these leaders of Pacific trade group nations (gathered in 2010) all smiling?
Wikimedia Commons
Why are these leaders of Pacific trade group nations (gathered in 2010) all smiling?

Back in December, I wrote about the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (a.k.a. the TPP), a trade agreement whose passage is both a firmly stated goal of the Obama administration, and a great nightmare of environmentalists and civil liberties types, for a whole smorgasbord of reasons. Now there's a new development: A leaked draft of the environmental chapter of the TPP appeared Wednesday on Wikileaks.

The main environmental critique of the TPP up until this point was that it would open up the U.S. to lawsuits from companies that had investments in American companies. Under the terms of a draft of the investments chapter, which was leaked back in 2011, any company that did business with the U.S. could argue, under the terms of the treaty, that our environmental laws were interfering with its ability to make money. The lawsuits, which are judged by special treaty-tribunal, don't allow for any sort of appeal, and the records are not available to the public.

Just about every treaty since NAFTA has had an agreement like this, but the U.S. has largely been insulated from its effects -- in the past, it always entered into these treaties with countries that were either too poor to have American investments or just not interested in them. The TPP would include Japan, Mexico, Canada, Australia, Malaysia, Chile, Singapore, Peru, Vietnam, New Zealand, Brunei, and possibly China. So it would shift a power balance that has, however unfairly, been tilted in the U.S.'s favor.

People had hopes, if not especially high ones, for the environmental chapter. The Obama administration had claimed that it would address some cutting-edge environmental issues. It was also thought to be a fairly pragmatic rehash of a Bush-era bipartisan trade deal drawn up between the U.S., Peru, Colombia, Panama, and Korea. That deal established a mutual agreement between all countries to work together to stop illegal logging, trade in endangered species, and overfishing, and to subject anyone found in violation to trade sanctions until they came into compliance.