Notes from the US

Law
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Towards the middle of February the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court ordered judges to ignore a federal court ruling allowing same-sex marriages. Roy Moore sent a memo to courts across the state saying ‘…no judge or official shall issue or recognise a marriage license that is inconsistent with the Alabama Constitution or state law.’ This was barely hours before same-sex marriages were about to flagbegin.
Environment
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In early February one of the largest demonstrations against ‘fracking’ took place in Oakland, California citing concerns over pollution, poisoned water supplies and climate change. The day before, a dozen people were arrested as protesters blocked the entrance to governor Jerry Brown’s office in San Francisco and erected a 16-foot fracking rig in the middle of an intersection. Brown was recently sworn in for a fourth term (not consecutive) on a promise to address climate change.
Meanwhile British company Oxitec plans to release millions of genetically engineered mosquitoes in the Florida Keys to combat tropical diseases. Apparently to control the population of Aedes aegypti, which spreads dengue fever and chikungunya, the move has been strongly criticised by Food and Water Watch, however. Its letter in mid-February to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) points out that Oxitec has failed to submit a New Animal Drug Application (‘NADA’) as the agency’s own guidelines require.

In the same week dozens of students at Harvard University launched a sit-in to demand that the institution divest its US$36.4 (£23.69) billion endowment (the largest of its kind anywhere) with fossil fuel companies.
As if anyone needed reminding of the perils of petrol, in mid-February a train of over 100 tanker carriages containing crude oil from the Bakken shale in North Dakota, where a fracking boom has increased such shipments across the country by 4,000% recently, derailed in West Virginia. The result was a huge fireball that forced more than 1,000 people to evacuate. One carriage went into the Kanawha River, where it was leaking oil.
The same weekend another oil train derailed in Ontario, Canada, causing a fire that lasted for days. But the potential for even greater disaster is huge: according to Todd Paglia from ForestEthics, “…Twenty-five million Americans live in the blast zone and nearly everyone else lives downstream of an oil train route… [w]hether it is explosive Bakken crude or toxic Alberta tar sands this extreme oil cannot be transported safely by train.”
And by the end of the first week in March no fewer than three so-called ‘Bomb Trains’ have crashed and exploded in as many weeks. This time smoke and flames erupted from the scene of a train derailment on 5 March near Galena, Illinois, where the Galena River meets the Mississippi. Mollie Matteson, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, said immediately, “The only thing more mind-boggling than three such accidents in three weeks is the continued lack of action by the Obama administration to protect us from these dangerous oil trains… The government has the authority to take immediate action to address this crisis – which puts homes, waters and wildlife at risk – and yet it has sat back and watched. There are simply no excuses left for the Obama administration. The fact that these trains are still moving on the rails is a national travesty. The next explosive wreck – and there will be more, so long as nothing changes – may take lives, burn up a town or level a city business district, and pollute the drinking water of thousands of people. Enough is enough.”
But barely 24 hours later, there was yet another such incident – this time in Canada: yet another train carrying crude oil from Alberta was derailed in northern Ontario causing a substantial fire and a shroud of black smoke. Five carriages went into the Makami River.
At the same time as Obama vetoed the KeyStone XL pipeline, the journal Nature Communications reported extremely disturbing news: in 2009/2010 alone sea levels along the north-east coast of the United States rose by record levels. For example 128mm in those areas north of New York city – or a fifth of an inch a month! Professor Jianjun Yin of the University of Arizona commented, “The extreme sea level rise event during 2009-10 along the northeast coast of North America is unprecedented during the past century… Statistical analysis indicates that it is a 1-in-850 year event.”
Then at the same time New Jersey governor Chris Christie made settlement that was extremely favourable to oil giant ExxonMobil. The state (and hence taxpayers) will accept just US$250 (£164) million from Exxon after initially seeking US$8.9 (£5.8) billion for environmental contamination caused by the company over ten years ago.
Racism
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As yet another homeless black man named ‘Africa’ was gunned down on television by the Los Angeles Police the previous week, two more events in early March epitomised the priorities of the American élite. Although it was announced definitively that no action will be taken against Darren Wilson, the member of the police force responsible for the shooting death last August of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Department of ‘Justice’ did pronounce on ‘institutionalised racism’.
Even Attorney General Eric Holder explained how the police department in the city used fines and victimisation chiefly of blacks as a source of revenue for local government: “Some officers even compete to see who can issue the largest number of citations during a single stop, a total that in at least one instance rose as high as 14. And we have observed that even minor code violations can sometimes result in multiple arrests, jail time and payments that exceed the cost of the original ticket many times over. Now, for example, in 2007, one woman received two parking tickets that together totalled US$152 [£100]. To date, she has paid US$550 [£360] in fines and fees to the city of Ferguson. She has been arrested twice for having unpaid tickets, and she has spent six days in jail. Yet today she still, inexplicably, owes Ferguson US$541 [£355].” In February over a dozen residents from the St. Louis (Missouri) area filed lawsuits against two local suburbs for creating an illegal debtors prison – just as the report stated; such fines and fees were the city’s second biggest source of income in that financial year.
In a great move to allow greater suffering and greater profits from the weapons industry the Obama administration announced in the middle of February that it will allow foreign allies to buy US-made armed drones: American companies can now sell their drones abroad. Although in theory they will be subject to a commitment to ‘proper use’ principles, those standards are classified.
Surveillance
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A document obtained by The Intercept in mid-February makes extraordinary reading: dated May 2014, its 36-pages are entitled ‘Countering Violent Extremism: A Guide for Practitioners and Analysts’. A handy rating system is included to help social workers, educators and even family members (let alone law enforcement) assign to suspicious individuals a rank of 1 to 5 against criteria and according to categories such as ‘Expressions of Hopelessness, Futility’, ‘Talk of Harming Self or Others’, and ‘Connection to Group Identity (Race, Nationality, Religion, Ethnicity)’.
We hardly need evidence of how total is the state’s grip on those whom it doesn’t like. Many years after Federal courts ordered the closure of Guantánamo Bay, mock trials are taking place. In mid-February at the pre-trial hearing for five people suspected of involvement in the attacks of September 11 2001 two of those on trial spotted a courtroom ‘interpreter’ whom they thought they knew: he was also ‘working’ at a CIA ‘black site’ where they had previously been tortured. Attorney Cheryl Bormann for another alleged plotter, Walid bin Attash, alerted the judge that her client ‘was visibly shaken’ on recognising a man in the maximum-security war court at Guantánamo Bay partially responsible for, or at least involved in, his illegal torture.
The Russian firm Kaspersky Lab claimed in mid-February that the NSA (National Security Agency) has a huge and presumably both well-organised and secret project to embed spying devices deep inside hard drives in computers around the world. Kaspersky says it has uncovered the spyware in personal computers from 30 countries, where government institutions, oil and gas firms, Islamic activists and scholars, and the media all apparently have potentially permanently and otherwise undetected/undetectable equipment. A month later documents obtained and released by Edward Snowden revealed that the CIA has also been bypassing any measures to ensure privacy and security by subverting some aspects of hardware encryption built into Apple’s iPhones.
Sometimes your feelings just get the better of you: the notoriously backward-thinking, anti-labour governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, went on record at the very end of February as comparing pro-union protesters in his state with militants from the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS).
And, as if to show how ignorance and wilfulness sometimes collide extremely cold weather in Georgia (possibly due to climate change – certainly very unusual so far south) delayed the execution of Kelly Renee Gissendaner; she was to become the first woman put to death in the state in about 70 years. Texas, meanwhile, the state with the greatest number of judicial murders is now considering returning to firing squads if lethal drugs – already in short supply – actually become completely unavailable.
Louis Further
References
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Center for Biological Diversity: www.biologicaldiversity.org
Food and Water Watch: www.foodandwaterwatch.org
ForestEthics: www.forestethics.org