Notes from the USA: September 2015

Small American flag recovered amid World Trade Center debris at the Fresh Kills Landfill. 9-11 exhibit at the East Tennessee History Museum. 2003 Smithsonian photo by Hugh Talman.Spying
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Documents continue to emerge from Edward Snowden, the former employee of the National Security Agency (NSA). Significant data was published in mid-August which detailed how telecommunications giant AT&T willingly gave the Agency access to literally billions of emails transmitted across the former’s domestic networks – conceivably every one. These included the headquarters of the United Nations for many years. By 2013, the NSA’s top-secret budget for this partnership with AT&T was over twice that of the next largest such project.

Twitter announced that in the first six months of 2015 it has seen a sharp increase in demands from the US and Japanese governments for account information… the largest rise ever between reporting periods.

In mid-August the Pentagon announced that it is planning to increase its use of drones by 50% over the next few years. This will increasingly rely on private contractors as well as US army terrorists. Authorities in North Dakota have legalised use by the state’s police of drones loaded with pepper spray, tear gas, sound cannons and tasers. The police can now also employ drones to collect ‘intelligence’ video in real time.

More and more states are now planning to defund the health organisation, Planned Parenthood, after an anti-choice group released misleading and heavily-edited videos showing Planned Parenthood employees discussing the sharing of foetal tissue with researchers. In early September a Planned Parenthood centre in Pullman, Washington, was set on fire in an apparently deliberate arson attack.

Racism
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Sid Miller is the Agriculture Commissioner for Texas. In common with many other public figures, he uses Social Media. In mid August he published this post <http://www.politico.com/story/2015/08/sid-miller-texas-official-facebook-post-muslims-121490.html> on FaceBook calling on the U.S. to drop an atomic bomb on Muslim countries just as had been done on Japan in 1945. Miller refused to apologise.

In Texas a video captured on a cellphone and broadcast by a local TV station shows sheriff’s deputies near San Antonio shooting a man dead at the end of August although he had already raised his hands in surrender. In Virginia, a mentally ill African-American man of 24 was found dead in his jail cell after spending four months there for allegedly stealing US$5 (£3.25) worth of food from a grocery store. A judge had ordered that Jamycheal Mitchell should be transferred to a mental hospital; but there were no beds available.

Violence
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A couple of days before a newscaster and camera operator were shot dead on live television in Virginia last month, three pro-firearms lobbying groups – the NRA (National Rifle Association), the Second Amendment Foundation, and the National Shooting Sports Foundation – and two Seattle-based gun shops, the Outdoor Emporium and Precise Shooter, filed a lawsuit against the city of Seattle because it has passed a ‘gun violence tax’. This ordinance levies a small municipal tax of US$25 (£16) on every gun or ammunition purchase within the city limits in support of local initiatives to research and prevent violence.

The prison service in California announced at the start of September that it will significantly reduce the number of prisoners held in solitary confinement. This follows a major legal settlement with prisoners at the Pelican Bay State Prison. But a group of members from a women’s book club was ejected from a train on a tour through the Napa Valley because they are black; officially they reason was that they were ‘laughing too loudly’. One of the women is 83 years old.

The Supreme Court in Connecticut ruled at the end of last month that the state’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment does prohibit the planned executions of 11 men now on death row; this effectively abolishes capital punishment in the state. The decision by 4-3 comes three years after a law in the state repealing the death penalty; but it fails to spare those already sentenced to die there.

Environment
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In August the Obama administration granted Royal Dutch Shell final approval to begin drilling again for oil and gas in the pristine Arctic Ocean – for the first time since 2012 after a series of accidents. This is going ahead despite widespread protests from environmental groups and those in the area who rely for their livelihood on the environment which is to be ruined. Official reports and estimates from the government’s own environmental agencies affirm that there is a 75% likelihood of a major disaster once the company resumes drilling.

Neonicotinoids, or ‘neonics’, are insecticides known to be linked to the decline of bees. In August researchers with the US Geological Survey (USGS) reported that neonics (which are used as a seed coating or foliar spray) were detected in 63% of 48 streams which they sampled.

In early September the University of California announced that it has divested itself of more than US$200 (£130) million worth of investments in coal companies and those mining and working in tar sands directly because of concerns over environmental sustainability. But at the same time – following massive industry pressure – the California State Assembly removed a key provision of governor Jerry Brown’s current climate change legislation, which would have set targets to reduce the use of gasoline.

Officials in Washington state now say that the wildfires burning over more than a quarter of a million acres are the largest in the state’s history.

Towards the end of August Mark Jacobson, a scientist at Stanford University published a plan which the University has developed to transition all 50 states in the US away from fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy by 2050. Announcing the plan at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago, Jacobson – a professor of civil and environmental engineering – said, “Drastic problems require drastic and immediate solutions. Our new roadmap is designed to provide each state a first step toward a renewable future”.

Louis Further

References
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Stanford University: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/february/fifty-states-renewables-022414.html