Truthout Stories Wed, 01 Jul 2015 11:13:29 -0400 en-gb In the Warming Arctic Seas

ARCTIC NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE—I was standing in the back of the sled when it broke through the ice, plunging into the frigid water of the Hulahula River. Just in time, Robert yanked the machine. The heavy sled, instead of falling on me, gradually moved out of the shallow water. It must have been about 40 degrees below zero. I began to settle into hypothermia. Robert Thompson and his cousin Perry Anashugak quickly set up the tent and lit both burners of the Coleman stove. Inside a sleeping bag, I began to warm up. That day, I escaped death, barely. "The river is supposed to have solid ice on the surface in November, not fragile like this," Robert lamented. That was 2001, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in northeast Alaska. 

Five months before the Hulahula River incident, in mid-June, Robert and I were standing on the northern edge of Barter Island. In front of us was Barnard Harbor that extends to a barrier island, which meets the Beaufort Sea. On the south was the coastal plain of the Arctic NWR. A short distance away a mid-sized polar bear was approaching a whale bone left behind from the previous year's hunt by the Iñupiat people of Kaktovik. The sea ice on the harbor was still frozen, but the snow on top was beginning to melt, creating puddles. There was no wind, and the evening sun was casting a warm glow on the white seascape and on the ivory fur of the bear. As the bear walked past one of the puddles, I noticed a perfect reflection and clicked the shutter. In 2001, almost no one, including the biologists, anticipated what was to happen to the bears of the Beaufort Sea.

Dialing the clock back a bit further to April, Robert and I were traveling through the Canning River Valley in the western edge of the Arctic NWR, when we came across a band of 13 muskoxen with a newborn calf, likely a day or two old. The woolly bovines were migrating from the foothills of the Brooks Range Mountains to the coastal plain. Muskoxen, one of the most adapted animals to the extreme cold of the Arctic, give birth on exposed land when the ground is covered with snow and temperatures dip way below freezing. A few hours after the sighting, a strong blizzard started to blow, the temperature around 35 below zero with windchills approaching minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Robert thought it was "unusual" that the band of muskoxen with a newborn calf would migrate like that.


These incidents constitute a starting point, showing how varieties of environmental changes have arrived in a rather short time, since the turn of the 21st century, in a particular place—each representative of the many significant climate change impacts that affect the human communities and the nonhuman biotic life in the entire circumpolar Arctic. When land and sea are going through rapid changes, inhabitants of the area are usually the first to witness it. In 2002, the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States, in cooperation with the Arctic Studies Center of the Smithsonian Institution, pointed out that the indigenous peoples "are already witnessing disturbing and severe climatic and ecological changes," even though "the majority of the Earth's citizens have not seen any significant climate changes thus far." Thirteen years later, a majority of the world's people are experiencing significant impacts of climate change. In the Arctic, the changes have only accelerated. 

Iñupiaq conservationist Robert Thompson and his wife Jane live in Kaktovik, a small town of about 300 residents on Barter Island. A decade ago, the conversations I had with residents of Kaktovik and Arctic Village focused on both climate change and oil development. The lakes were drying up, affecting subsistence fishing. The willow plants were getting much larger and bushier affecting migration of caribou. And wildfires were becoming widespread and more destructive. All this came from the Gwich'in people, while the Iñupiat people said the sea ice was retreating rapidly and the permafrost was beginning to thaw.

In early August 2006, at the northwestern edge of Barter Island, a coffin was lying exposed with bones scattered nearby. The permafrost around the coffin had thawed. Robert told me in an email:

The grave we saw on the other side of the island was of a child. Lon Sonsalla, Fenton Rexford, and I went over there when we heard that a brown bear had broken into the coffin and scattered the body. I picked up a foot. It startled me—it was so light, freeze-dried. We put all the parts back in the box, nailed it shut, and reburied the person. There are two other exposed graves with dates of 1932. These had names and dates cut out of sheet lead; snow had eroded the wood to where the lead was in relief. We also found a wooden marker with a non-native name over by Sungiksaluk, perhaps a whaler. There was also a body that came out of the ground to the east. It was reburied in our cemetery.

The Arctic is warming at a rate of at least twice the global average. With this rapid warming, permafrost, or permanently frozen ground, is thawing. When permafrost thaws, the organic matter inside begins to break down and releases carbon dioxide and methane, the latter about 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide, as a greenhouse gas over a 20-year period. One of the most visible signs of thawing permafrost is "drunken forest"—trees leaning at odd angles as they lose their footing in the unstable soil. In November 2007,  large areas of drunken forest were spreading near Nelemonoye, a Yukaghir community along the upper Kolyma River in the Sakha Republic. Thawing of terrestrial permafrost also has major impact on ecology, hydrology, and human infrastructures, as homes, buildings, roads, and runways can collapse as the ground underneath begins to buckle.

In addition to carbon stored in the organic matter inside permafrost, there is also an enormous amount of methane trapped inside icy crystals known as clathrates. Scientists do not yet know how much clathrate is in the Arctic but think that much of the carbon stored in the Arctic is inside clathrates, which can be found either deep in terrestrial permafrost or beneath Arctic shelves offshore, according to a U.S. National Research Council Report. The release of methane from terrestrial permafrost is a slower process, but from subsea permafrost it can happen steadily, or in sudden, potentially catastrophic, pulses. More than a decade of research by Russian scientists Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov shows that methane is being actively released from subsea permafrost in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Based on their field observations, a team of physical and social scientists in Europe have shown that a decade-long 50-gigaton methane pulse from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf could cost the global economy an average of $60 trillion. To put this in perspective, the financial damage from just one extreme storm, Hurricane Sandy that hit the East Coast of the United States in 2012, was barely $60 billion. So the aggregate impact on property, infrastructure, and food production of a 50-gigaton methane pulse would be equivalent to 1,000 Hurricane Sandys. 

"I was rained on in February," Robert said speaking of an experience he had in winter 2006. "To me, an Iñupiaq, residing on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, to be rained on in February is strange." In the winter of 2005 to 2006, a thousand caribou from the Teshekpuk Lake herd came over to the Arctic NWR, a 240-mile journey. "It rained and then the tundra froze over there, and the animals came over to our area to find food," Robert recalled. "But it also rained on Barter Island, and the tundra froze. I saw some caribou curled up. I thought they were sleeping." 

Robert approached them, thinking "it's strange that they wouldn't be more alert. They weren't because they were dead. The animals could not find food and instead ingested ice and died of hypothermia, a biological study later revealed. Several hundred caribou died on the island that winter. People had to remove the dead animals from the watershed of our freshwater lake so it would not get contaminated."


One of the most significant impacts of Arctic warming on tundra animals in recent years has been rain during autumn and winter months, followed by freezing temperatures that create a hard layer of ice on tundra that animals like caribou or reindeer and muskoxen cannot break through to find food. Earlier this year, Kim Holmén, the international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute told a Guardian reporter that, "Much of Svalbard is covered with ice on land, which is a fatal state for the reindeer," while the fjords around Svalbard remained unfrozen. Holmén further said that they are experiencing "more icing events," and when that happens the reindeer "can't move around, and they can't eat." 

University of Gothenberg Professor Tyrone Martinsson first went to Svalbard in 2001. He circumnavigated Svalbard that summer at 80 degrees North latitude and was surprised to find "no sea ice in the Arctic Ocean around Svalbard." He focused his research on the melting of glaciers in Svalbard. In Sweden, an Arctic country with no coastline along the Arctic Ocean, two prominent areas of climate change research are the rapid melting of glaciers that is redefining the highest peaks of Sweden, as well as climate change impacts on the Saami reindeer herders in northern Sweden.    

The increased precipitation and icing on tundra also contributed to the disappearance of muskoxen from the Arctic NWR coastal plain. The muskoxen, which once had a circumpolar distribution during the Pleistocene era from 11,700 to 2.5 million years ago, were exterminated from the North Slope of Alaska, including the Arctic NWR, after commercial whalers arrived there with guns in the 19th century. In 1969 and 1970, 51 muskoxen from Nunivak Island were reintroduced to Barter Island. The population increased steadily, reaching almost 350 animals in the Refuge by mid-1990. Then it began to decline. They once lived year-round in the coastal plain of the Refuge, and were considered an iconic species of the coastal plain. In recent years, deeper snow and icing made foraging for food difficult, which resulted in starvation and low calf production. The animals would then move to the foothills to find food on windblown ridges. But when muskoxen give birth in April, grizzly bears would wake up from hibernation in the same area. The muskoxen became an easy prey. So adult animals with newborn calfs moved from the foothills to the coastal plain—to avoid their predators. The last official estimate of muskoxen in the Refuge was 29 animals in 2003. It is generally believed that the number is zero today, although some of the animals moved east and west of the Refuge. This could be considered a case of local extermination caused by a warming Arctic. There are other areas in the Arctic, however, where muskoxen are surviving: more than 100,000 animals in the Canadian Arctic and about 10,000 each in Greenland and Russia. Muskoxen and caribou or reindeer are the only Arctic hoofed animals that made it from the Pleistocene era to modern times, but remain vulnerable to Arctic warming today. 

Even though thawing of terrestrial permafrost and icing on tundra are taking place on land affecting humans and nonhuman biotic life, the primary contributor to these changes is to be found in the warming Arctic seas—the rapid retreat of sea ice.


Between 2001 and 2010, the polar bear population in the southern Beaufort Sea region declined by 40 percent. Polar bears critically depend on sea ice for finding food and mates, as well for transport and building offshore dens. But the Arctic sea ice is vanishing at an astonishing rate. Since recording began in 1978, the extent of summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean has been declining steadily. Though it accelerated after the turn of the 21st century, by August 2007, more than a month before the end of the melt season, a new record low for the minimum sea ice extent was reached—1.7 million square miles, followed by lower yet, in 2012, some 1.16 million square miles, which is nearly half of the 1979-2000 average of 2.7 million square miles. The thickness of Arctic sea ice also declined 65 percent between 1975 and 2012. On February 25, 2015, the winter maximum Arctic sea ice extent hit a record low, and it too arrived nearly two weeks before a usual early March date. As the white surface of the ice is replaced by the dark surface of water, more solar radiation gets absorbed rather than reflected back into space, which contributes significantly to Arctic warming, and consequently to further melting of the sea ice, melting of the ice sheets and glaciers, and thawing of permafrost, all of which collectively is having profound impacts on life in the circumpolar north—the area comprising the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions.

"Waves are bigger, now that the pack ice is so far out," Robert says. Thomas Gordon and his son, Simon, from Kaktovik were washed away by waves while they were onshore camping during a hunting trip about 30 miles west of the town. Robert attributes these two deaths to climate change. Storms are also becoming more violent with rapid Arctic warming. The aggregate impact of a reduced expanse and duration of sea ice, combined with stronger waves, intense storms, thawing of permafrost, and a rise in sea level is rapid coastal erosion. During March and April 2002, Robert and I camped along the Beaufort Sea coast at Brownlow Point on the Canning River delta in the Arctic NWR, 60 miles west of Kaktovik. Of the 29 days we were there, we had only four calm days. The rest of the time, blizzards blew steadily with peak wind speeds of 65 miles an hour and temperatures of 45 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, bringing the windchill down to minus 110 degrees. The spot where we camped has now been washed away by the sea.

"Our family has a native allotment acquired by my wife's mother who was born and grew up in the Brownlow Point area," Robert told me. "A few years ago, we went there to see it. We found that the beach had eroded 400 feet, the houses and buildings that had been there were gone, an old boat built by my wife's grandfather was destroyed by waves. Family members had lived there for 100 years. Now it's gone. On Barter Island, where we now live, we have lost at least 100 feet of land on the ocean side of the island."

Kivalina is an Iñupiat community of about 400 residents, situated 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle along the Chukchi Sea. "We have been noticing climate change for several decades now, and we were adapting to the gradual changes," Colleen Swan, tribal administrator of the Native Village of Kivalina, said in April. Kivalina residents started to notice coastal erosion in the 1950s and voted to relocate the village in 1992. But soon they found "there was no designated government body to assist communities with the process" of relocation, sociologist Christine Shearer writes. Federal funds are available only after a disaster, not while a community like Kivalina is going through what writer Rob Nixon calls, "slow violence." 

In recent years, slow has turned into rapid. "Everything changed in October 2004," Colleen says. After autumn storms in 2004 and 2005 caused serious damage to the village, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) declared Kivalina a disaster area. A sea barrier using sand bags was constructed, which "failed the day before its inauguration," Shearer says. After another storm in 2007, which required evacuation, a barrier was built with rocks the following year. The rock revetment "was the only thing that saved the village during a severe storm in November 2011," Colleen says with a sense of relief. "It was like a tropical cyclone, and those don't happen here."

Relocation remains a necessity. The revetment would last about 10 to 15 years, and it's already into seven years of its useful life. "We have no option but to relocate the village to a safer place," Colleen insisted. Nearly 200 indigenous villages in Alaska are being affected by coastal erosion and flooding, with 31 of these facing imminent threats, and 12 requiring relocation, including Kivalina, according to two U.S. Government Accountability Office reports. In February 2015, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell visited Kivalina. Her agency committed $8 million to assist the community. Yet the money is not for relocation but "climate adaptation planning" and "ocean/coastal management planning." In other words, the funds will go toward more meetings to build awareness. Besides, the $8 million is a small sum compared to estimates of the full cost of Kivalina's relocation—about $100 million. 

Germany's Institute of Coastal Research concludes "there are no comprehensive global assessments of the vulnerability of Arctic communities and infrastructure to accelerated coastal erosion." Still, a decades-long mean rate of coastal retreat is about 3.28-6.56 feet per year but can vary up as much as 32.8 to 98.4 feet per year in some locations, with the highest rates found along the Beaufort Sea coast of Alaska, the Yukon and Northwest territories in Canada, and the East Siberian and Laptev seas in Russia. The 400 feet of erosion over a decade in the Brownlow Point area along the Beaufort Sea coast no longer seems implausible given that the maximum rate could be as high as 98.4 feet per year. Single events, however, may cause much larger erosion than the decade-long mean rates, as in the case of storm-induced erosion in Kivalina. While villages like Kivalina are considering immediate relocation, other communities like Tuktoyaktuk along the Beaufort Sea coast of Arctic Canada are pondering "phased retreat." The coastal areas of the East Siberian and Laptev seas are very sparsely populated, and there is no specific knowledge about how impacted those human populations are by coastal erosion, and what plan, if any, they might have about relocation.    

Coastal erosion has profound impact not only on human communities but also on Arctic ecology. The Arctic river deltas are considered biological hotspots of the Arctic coasts. "They have high biodiversity and are extremely productive in relation to adjacent landscapes," the German Institute reports. These ecologically rich Arctic deltas provide habitats for numerous species of birds and fish, but remain vulnerable to rapid coastal erosion and sea level rise, as well as increasing oil and gas activities.

The impact of Arctic warming isn't confined to the Arctic, however. As the Greenland ice sheets and Arctic glaciers continue to melt rapidly, an enormous amount of fresh water is added to the Arctic seas, which steadily increases global sea levels. During the first decade of the 21st century, the Greenland ice sheets melted six times faster than during the last decade of the 20th century, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fifth Assessment report. Both the atmospheric Arctic jet stream and the oceanic Gulf Stream are slowing, due to rapid Arctic warming, with potentially serious consequences. One study published earlier this year links the recent prolonged cold snaps on the East Coast of North America and severe drought in California to the slowing of the jet stream, while another study predicts a larger rise in sea levels due to the slowing Gulf Stream. As various physical components of the Arctic continue to transform—retreating sea ice and thawing permafrost—they create feedback effects, which lead to further warming.


Just as the Arctic is going through rapid and devastating changes due largely to the burning of fossil fuels, it would seem illogical, even unconscionable, to industrialize the Arctic Ocean for fossil fuels extraction, as it would contribute to further warming of the Arctic and rest of the Earth. Yet that is precisely what the Arctic nation states are pursuing—largely for economic reasons—ignoring ecological and human rights concerns. In 2008, the United States Geological Survey released the first-ever area-wide assessment of oil and gas resources in the Arctic, identifying 90 billion barrels of oil, 1,669 trillion cubic feet of gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids—some 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and about 30 percent of undiscovered natural gas. Some 84 percent of it is found offshore—in the warming Arctic seas. Using the USGS and U.S. Department of Energy data, Ernest & Young has calculated that 52 percent of these undiscovered hydrocarbon resources are located in Russia, 20 percent in the United States, 12 percent in Norway, 11 percent in Greenland, and 5 percent in Canada. A majority of the world's natural gas is located in the Russian Arctic, while the U.S. Arctic holds the largest undiscovered oil resources, some 30 billion barrels of oil.

Non-Arctic states like China and India are trying to establish their own stake of Arctic loot as well. In 2013, at the Arctic Council biennial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, six non-Arctic states were added to the Arctic Council as observers: China, India, Italy, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. "All have sought economic opportunities in the region and viewed participation in the Arctic Council as a means of influencing the decisions of its permanent members,"The New York Times noted at the time. The Arctic Council, founded in 1996, is comprised of eight members (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States), and a number of observers.    

Many Arctic nations have a history of offshore exploration going back decades. In the United States, exploration drilling began in the late 1970s and ended in the early 1990s. These efforts largely failed, as exploration did not lead to production except in one instance—a near-shore, anchored-to-the-ground facility, called North Star, run by BP on the Beaufort Sea. In the Canadian Arctic, starting in 1972 through the 1980s, about 90 exploration wells were drilled in the Beaufort Sea, 34 in Nunavut's High Arctic Islands, and three in the Eastern Arctic offshore. Again, exploration did not lead to production, and oil companies gave up the leases in the 1990s. Offshore exploration drilling began in Greenland in the late 1970s. Six wells were drilled, the last in 1990, but again none led to production. Norway began exploring the Barents Sea in 1981, the same year Statoil discovered the huge Snøhvit gas fields, still the only liquid natural gas source north of the Arctic Circle. Over the past three decades Statoil and other companies have drilled more than 80 exploration wells in the Barents Sea. In recent years, the Russian company Gazprom in partnership with Statoil and the French oil giant Total have been evaluating the giant Shtokman gas fields in the Russian Barents Sea. Since 1962, of 61 Arctic fields discovered so far, 43 are in Russia, 11 in Canada, six in Alaska, and one in Norway. The biggest offshore prize is believed to lie in the Russian Arctic—in the Barents, Kara, Laptev, East Siberian, and Chukchi seas. 

Since the turn of the century, with the rapid retreat of sea ice, Arctic nations are once again pushing to develop Arctic seas for oil and gas, but the results from this second wave so far look more like a bust than a boom. Though Canada made a push to develop the Beaufort Sea from 2005 through 2008, as of 2011 there was no active drilling there according to the National Energy Board of Canada. Last year, Chevron put its plan to drill in the Canadian Beaufort on indefinite hold. Earlier this year, Statoil shelved its 2015 drilling plan in the Barents Sea and handed back the three leases it had purchased in Baffin Bay off the west coast of Greenland, although retaining one lease in the Greenland Sea off the east coast of Greenland. Cairn Energy's exploration drilling in Greenland's Arctic waters did not lead to commercial discoveries. Following the Ukraine crisis and American sanctions on Russia, ExxonMobil was prohibited from working with Rosneft to drill in the Kara Sea in the Russia Arctic this year. The French oil giant Total simply walked away from the American Arctic in 2012, stating that drilling there could lead to a "disaster." 

In some Arctic countries the attitude toward developing their seas for oil and gas is beginning to change, slowly. "In Iceland, the talk about oil and gas drilling was all based on the dream of becoming Norway, of getting out of the economic crisis," says renowned Icelandic novelist Andri Snær Magnason, who has also spent time in Greenland. "When research permits were granted by the left Green Party, almost nobody raised a voice against it. The single parliamentarian who was critical on the issue was bashed in social media for being against 'progress.' But times have been changing. The Social Democrats, industrialists by tradition, decided in their last convention to oppose oil drilling, claiming oil is best left in the ground—a bit late, as research permits have been granted to Icelandic/Chinese companies and little can be done to stop them from harnessing what they find. In Greenland, they have been looking for oil for years, but no research is on the horizon this year. For Greenland and Iceland, the oil dream seems far away, and views have shifted in both countries."

Many oil companies are moving away from expensive Arctic exploration because of the low price of oil coupled with fear of environmental disasters. Only Royal Dutch Shell is determined to develop the Arctic seas of Alaska despite great setbacks following a brief season of exploration drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in 2012, which included grounding of one of its drill rigs and criminal charges and penalties leveled against the company and its subcontractor for violating environmental regulations. 

March 31, 2015 was the deadline for nations to pledge greenhouse gas emission cuts to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), in preparation for the UN climate summit in Paris in December. By the deadline, pledges arrived of a 40 percent cut from the European Union, at least 40 percent from Norway, and 50 percent from Switzerland—all cutbacks from 1990-level emissions. On the last day, the United States entered its pledge: 26 to 28 percent by 2025. But that number is based on cuts from the 2005 level, which when translated to the 1990 level that other developed nations are using, would come to about 13.4 to 15.8 percent.

The same day the United States submitted its greenhouse gas cut pledge, however, the Department of Interior published a decision bringing Royal Dutch Shell's plans to drill in the Chukchi Sea of Arctic Alaska during summer 2015 one step closer. But oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean is inconsistent with climate change mitigation efforts. A study published in Nature states unequivocally that "development of [fossil fuel] resources in the Arctic and any increase in unconventional oil production [like Canadian tar sands] are incommensurate with efforts to limit average global warming to 2 degrees Centigrade" above the pre-industrial level.


From 1986 to 2000, Rosemary Ahtuangaruak worked as a community health aide in Nuiqsut, the Iñupiat village closest to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. Rosemary recalls that between 1986 and 1997 there was a "600 percent increase in respiratory patients in a village of 400 people." She concluded that this increase could be attributed to the Alpine oilfield that had expanded closer to her village. "The worst nights on call were nights when many natural gas flares occurred," she said. "Those flares release particles that traveled to us. Increased concentrations of particulate matter from flares occur during inversions, a bowl-like trap, with cold air trapped by warm air."

Natural gas flaring also emits significant methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which contributes to further warming. "We are beginning to understand that oil and gas development brings more than just the risk of spills," Rosemary says. "It also contributes to climate change...I will have to change how I teach my children and grandchildren, as less ice means they will need to learn how to harvest food under different conditions than I was taught."

George Säggan Edwardson is proud of being "the first Iñupiaq geologist." George and his wife live in Barrow, the largest Iñupiat settlement on the Arctic Slope of Alaska, with about 4,300 residents. Barrow is situated where the Chukchi and the Beaufort seas meet. Eventually, he recalls, "we brought the Elders together from Unanakleet to Greenland. Their main worry was where our food chain begins, and that had to be protected at all costs. The Elders said, 'Don't go in the ocean.'" The Iñupiat people consider the Arctic Ocean as their garden and depend on it for nutritional, cultural, and spiritual sustenance.

It is well known that the Chukchi Sea where President Obama is poised to send Shell to drill for oil during summer 2015 is one of the richest and most complex marine habitats on Earth—a migration corridor of endangered bowhead whales, feeding ground of Pacific grey whales, nursery for beluga whales, and home for thousands of polar bears, tens of thousands of walruses and seals, and millions of birds, not to mention all the tiny subsea creatures that make up the food web but elude our eyes. From Shell's seismic studies in the Chukchi Sea, Iñupiat cultural observers came back with sightings of massive schools of salmon fingerlings, "eight miles long by four miles wide," George said. "The Chukchi Sea is a nursery for one-third of the world's remaining fish population." 

For many Iñupiat people, Arctic warming and oil and gas drilling in the Arctic seas are inseparable. Robert emailed that, "People must become aware of what is happening to us and to the animals in our area, and do whatever to remedy the situation so our future generations will have a good place to live." The "remedy" that Robert cites requires leaving a significant portion of the fossil fuels resources in the ground. The Arctic Ocean seems to be the most logical place to begin such a process of restraint. But that is not happening. On May 11, the Obama administration conditionally approved Shell's plans to drill in the Chukchi Sea this summer, which angered environmentalists. It is a "victory for the oil-and-gas industry" and will likely "pave the way for additional companies exploring in the region," The Wall Street Journal noted. In other words, the United States, which assumed the chairmanship of the Arctic Council in late April, is currently leading the process of large-scale industrialization of the Arctic Ocean, not "environmental stewardship" that Secretary John Kerry insisted at the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Iqaluit, Canada. In light of this significant public policy decision, it is not difficult to imagine that the Paris climate summit, which will commence soon after Shell completes the drilling season in the Chukchi Sea, will be more about lofty rhetoric to save faces, not the sincere actions desperately needed to mitigate climate change. 

News Wed, 01 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
After Marriage Equality and Obamacare, Mixed Results From SCOTUS on Abortion, Pollution, Executions

After historic rulings that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide and upheld a key provision of the Affordable Care Act, this week the Supreme Court handed down its final rulings for the current term, dealing with abortion access, air pollution, executions and elections. We examine the decisions and look at pending rulings on affirmative action and union dues with Ian Millhiser, editor of ThinkProgress Justice and author of Injustices: The Supreme Court's History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted.

Please check back later for full transcript.

News Wed, 01 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Rep. Nydia Velázquez: Freedom for Oscar López Rivera Unites Puerto Ricans Across Political Lines

Thousands of people gathered in New York City last month for a march calling on President Obama to release a longtime Puerto Rican independence activist from prison. Oscar López Rivera was convicted in 1981 on federal charges, including seditious conspiracy - conspiring to oppose U.S. authority over Puerto Rico by force. He was also accused of being a member of the FALN, the Armed Forces of National Liberation, which claimed responsibility for more than 100 bombings to call attention to the colonial case of Puerto Rico. In 1999, President Bill Clinton commuted the sentences of 16 members of the FALN, but López refused to accept the deal because it did not include two fellow activists who have since been released. 2015 marks López's 34th year behind bars. He is scheduled for release in 2027. We discuss López's case with Congressmember Nydia Velázquez, Democrat for New York and the first Puerto Rican woman to be elected to Congress.

Please check back later for full transcript.

News Wed, 01 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Before the Dawn: A Reflection on the Guantanamo Diary

Each year, throughout the Muslim world, believers participate in the month-long Ramadan fast. Here in Kabul, where I'm a guest of the Afghan Peace Volunteers, our household awakens at 2:15 a.m. to prepare a simple meal before the fast begins at about 3:00 a.m. I like the easy companionship we feel, seated on the floor, sharing our food. Friday, the day off, is household clean-up day, and it seemed a bit odd, to be sweeping and washing floors in the pre-dawn hours, but we tended to various tasks and then caught a nap before heading over to meet the early bird students at the Street Kids School, a project my hosts are running for child laborers who otherwise couldn't go to school.

I didn't nap - I was fitful and couldn't, my mind filled with images from a memoir, Guantanamo Diary, which I've been reading since arriving here. Mohamedou Ould Slahi's story of being imprisoned in Guantanamo since 2002 rightly disturbs me. In all his years of captivity, he has never been charged with a crime. He has suffered grotesque torture, humiliation and mistreatment, and yet his memoir includes many humane, tender accounts, including remembrances of past Ramadan fasts spent with his family.

Describing his early time in a Jordanian prison, he writes:

"It was Ramadan, and so we got two meals served, one at sunset and the second before the first light. The cook woke me up and served me my early meal. Suhoor is what we call this meal; it marks the beginning of our fasting, which lasts until sunset. At home, it's more than just a meal. The atmosphere matters. My older sister wakes everybody and we sit together eating and sipping the warm tea and enjoying each other's company."

I've never heard Muslims complain about being hungry and thirsty as they await the fast-breaking meal. Nor have I heard people brag about contributions they've made to alleviate the sufferings of others, although I know Islam urges such sharing during Ramadan and aims to build empathy for those afflicted by ongoing hunger and thirst. Mohamedou relied on empathy to help him through some of his most intense anguish and fear.

"I was thinking about all my innocent brothers who were and still are being rendered to strange places and countries," he writes, describing a rendition trip from Senegal to Mauritania, "and I felt solaced and not alone anymore. I felt the spirits of unjustly mistreated people with me. I had heard so many stories about brothers being passed back and forth like a soccer ball just because they have once been in Afghanistan, or Bosnia, or Chechnya. That's screwed up! Thousands of miles away, I felt the warm breath of these other unjustly treated individuals comforting me."

A judge ordered Mohamedou's immediate release in 2010. But the Obama administration appealed the decision, leaving him in a legal limbo.

Mohamedou Slahi. (Photo: International Committee of the Red Cross)Mohamedou Slahi. (Photo: International Committee of the Red Cross)From 1988 to 1991, Mohamedou had studied electrical engineering in Germany. In early 1991, he spent seven weeks, in Afghanistan, learning how to use mortars and light weapons, training which would allow him to join the U.S.-backed insurgency against the Soviet-backed government in Kabul. He was one of Ronald Reagan's celebrated "freedom fighters." In early 1992, when the communist supported Afghan government was near collapse, he again went to Afghanistan and, for three weeks, fought with insurgents to overtake the city of Gardez. Kabul fell shortly thereafter. Mohamedou soon saw that the Mujahedeen insurgents were fighting amongst themselves over power grabs. He didn't want to be part of this fight and so he went back to Germany, then Canada and, eventually, home to Mauritania, where he was arrested and "rendered" to Jordan for questioning, at last arriving in Afghanistan's Bagram Air Force Base on his way to Guantanamo.

I wonder how he is feeling as he observes Ramadan without his family for the 13th consecutive year. I wish he could know that growing numbers of people in the U.S. believe he should be released and want to help atone for the suffering he has endured. Martha Hennessy, who arrived in Kabul with me, several weeks ago, hurried back to the U.S. to face charges for protesting against U.S. legitimation of torture only to learn that both of the Witness Against Torture campaign cases scheduled for trial that week were dismissed. Perhaps public opinion now requires that the U.S. Department of Justice recognize that activists' right and duty to protest the cruel abuses of U.S. torture policies.

Witness Against Torture rally at White House, Jan. 12, 2014. (Photo by the Witness Against Torture campaign)Witness Against Torture rally at White House, Jan. 12, 2014. (Photo by the Witness Against Torture campaign)I wish Mohamedou could visit Afghanistan again, not as part of a training camp for insurgents, not as a terrified, shackled prisoner, but as a guest of the community here. A former U.S. military person dropped by the Street Kids School on Friday morning. The U.S. Air Force trained her to operate weaponized drones over Afghanistan. Now, she comes to Afghanistan annually to plant trees all over the country. She feels deep remorse for the time in her life when she helped attack Afghans.

I don't believe in training anyone to use weapons, but as I read Mohamedou's words about his brothers who went to foreign countries as fighters, I thought of the Pentagon's recent practice runs, over the New Mexico desert, training people to fire the terrifying Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), a bunker buster bomb which is 20 feet long, weighs 15 tons and carries about 5,300 pounds of explosives. People in the U.S. should consider how their horror at the violence of U.S. enemies encourages and exonerates the far more crushing violence of their own government, engaged at this moment in conflicts throughout the developing world and armed with weapons capable of extinguishing all human life within minutes.

On this fast day, I remember that many U.S. people worry, like anyone anywhere, about the hardships a new day may bring, in a dangerous and uncertain time that seems to be dawning on every nation and the species as a whole. In the U.S., we carry the added knowledge that most of the world lives much more poorly - in a material sense, at least - than we do, and that were the sun to truly rise upon the U.S., with familiar words of equality and justice truly realized, we would have to share much of our wealth with a suffering world.

We would learn to "live simply so that others might simply live." We would find deep satisfaction in beholding faces like those of my friends gathered for a friendly morning meal before a day of voluntary fasting. Or, like Mohamedou, find warmth in the imagined breath of others sharing involuntary hardships. "Another world is not only possible," writes author and activist Arundhoti Roy, "she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing." U.S. people must know that life in the daylight might also be the start of an unaccustomed fast.

When will day break? I haven't a clock nearby to tell me when, but I can't go back to sleep. When I see the children adapt so readily to the schooling denied them, when I watch my young friends struggle eagerly to take the small steps allowed them, sowing seeds of mutual understanding or planting trees in Kabul, and when I read such grace and dignity in the words of Mohamedou Ould Slahi after years of torture, I have to believe that a dawn will come. For now, it remains a blessing to work alongside people awake together, even in darkness, working to face burdens with kindness, ready to join with kindred spirits near and far, faces aglow with precious glimmers of a coming day.

Opinion Wed, 01 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Phil Thompson on the Historical Fight for Civil and Economic Rights

Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Phil Thompson discusses the historical opposition to slavery as a labor system, and the Black struggle to advance economic and human rights.

News Wed, 01 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Obama's Push for Corporate Rule: A Moment of Opportunity

Only a few months ago, President Barack Obama was at loggerheads with Republican members of Congress intent on destroying his administration. With bewildering speed, Obama has since turned against his own political base to form an alliance on trade issues with those same Republican members of Congress.

Obama's most vigorous opposition now comes from progressives, including most of the senators and representatives of his own party, who only a few months ago were his most loyal political base. The few corporatist Democratic members of Congress who still support Obama face the threat of opposition in the 2016 primaries, as Democratic voters mobilize to defend democracy, workers, and the environment.

The goal of Obama's surprise alliance is to finalize a series of international agreements—the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA)—each of which will strengthen corporate rights at the expense of human rights, democracy, economic justice, peace, and the healing of Living Earth.

Leaked text from the secret negotiations that are crafting these agreements reveals that contrary to the claims of proponents, virtually every provision would weaken democracy and undermine the ability of nations, people, and localities to shape their economic destinies. Americans from across the political spectrum have been stunned by the sudden emergence of this unholy alliance. In historical context, however, it may be less unlikely than it seems.

America's bipartisan corporate political alliance

U.S. corporations have been actively advancing an agenda of corporate rule since at least 1971. That was when Lewis Powell, soon to be a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, submitted his infamous memo "Attack on the American Free Enterprise System" outlining a grand strategy for a corporate takeover of U.S. politics. The resulting actions rapidly played out as a global corporate colonization of the world's people and resources. I spell out this history in detail in When Corporations Rule the World, released this month (June 2015) in a 20th anniversary edition.

As the corporate agenda unfolded, the Republican Party quite proudly branded itself as the party of big business and, more deceptively, of small government. The Democratic Party became seen as the party of big government, corporate restraint, and social programs for those the corporate state excluded.

But there has long been more cooperation between the two parties in support of big business than either is inclined to acknowledge. Democratic President Carter began the deregulation of the airline industry. Democratic President Clinton rolled back welfare programs, expanded corporate rights with the passage of the WTO and NAFTA agreements, and sponsored the Wall Street deregulation that led to the financial collapse of 2008.

Democratic President Obama carried forward the bank bailouts started by Republican President George W. Bush, shielded senior bank managers from prosecution and prison, and made no effort to restrict the continued growth and consolidation of the biggest Wall Street banks. His campaign for fast-track authority to push through a series of new international corporate rights agreements removes all ambiguity as to where his true loyalties lie.

The public, however, is catching on. Awareness of accelerating consolidation of global corporate rule and its implications for peace, equality, and the environment began to emerge in the mid-1990s about the time When Corporations Rule the World first launched. For many people, that book helped them connect what they were experiencing with what they were beginning to suspect.

The issue a bogus debate obscures

For the past several decades, corporate interests have managed to define the political choice in America as between small government Republicans and big government Democrats. It was a clever misdirection. Because most Americans are properly distrustful of big government, they easily buy into the anti-big government argument. The result is to deflect attention away from the sins of big business—and the implications for government size.

The idea that government is essential to the function of complex societies should be immediately evident to any thinking person. It is similarly clear that letting money-seeking transnational corporations rule as best suits their financial interests has disastrous societal consequences.

Entirely missing from the debate is the extent to which it is the growth of corporate size and influence that creates the need for big government to limit corporate excesses, clean up their messes, subsidize their operations, and field the military and police forces required to protect their global and domestic properties. The subsidies include welfare for underpaid employees, unemployment for those whose jobs they outsource abroad or displace with robots and migrant workers, and medical insurance for those they fail to insure.

Without the burden that monopolistic and predatory corporations place on society, government, particularly national government, could be dramatically downsized and public debt largely eliminated.

An abstract debate over the size of government is a pointless distraction—as those who promote it are likely aware. We should instead ask, "Does our federal government represent the interests of the United States and its people and is its size appropriate to that task?" Tragically, the answer for the United State is no.

Although the American people pay the bills, it is a government of, by, and for the United Corporations of Planet Earth and their needs, not a government designed to meet the needs of our people. We could do nicely with a far smaller federal government, if we limited the size of corporations and structured their ownership to assure that they are accountable to the people of the communities in which they do business.

The essential work of our time

The institutional system of corporate rule is essentially a robotic system programmed to use its economic and political power to extract limitless short-term financial gain by whatever means available. It runs on autopilot beyond human control. And it values life only for its market price. It should be evident to any thinking adult not brain damaged by taking too many economics courses that peace, economic justice, and ecological balance will remain beyond humanity's reach for so long as the rights of people are subordinated to the rights of the corporations that populate this system.

Hope for humanity requires a successful transition to democracy grounded in strong place-based communities and local economies. This transition is not just an ideal. It is essential to human viability.

President Obama and the Republican and Democratic corporatists currently allied with him have positioned themselves on the wrong side of history.

Fortunately, there may be a positive side to their betrayal of the human interest. It reminds us that true transformational leadership depends less on the empty promises of political leaders than on social movements of we the people. The public outrage now focused on their betrayal of democracy and the human interest lays the groundwork for what could be a seismic political realignment.

Possibilities of a transpartisan political awakening

Over the past 20 years, public awareness of the nature and consequences of the expansion of corporate rule has grown significantly. This awareness finds particularly visible expression in the public demand to overturn the Citizens United decision of a corporatist Supreme Court that removes most restraints on corporate funding of elections. And, most recently, we are seeing broad-based and increasingly vocal resistance to the current betrayal of America by Obama's trade agenda.

Progressive voters are outraged by the assault on democracy, workers, the environment, and local communities entailed in the Trans Pacific Partnership. Conservative voters are outraged by the attack on national sovereignty.

The resulting political shock is shining a public spotlight on the extent to which corporate influence has corrupted our national government. It is a short step from here to a recognition that the failures and burdens of our national government are not inherent in government. Rather they are inherent in corporate control of government.

Two highly intelligent, articulate national leaders—Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—are articulating a new message with the potential to redefine the debate and win broad support for steps to end corporate rule. Even voters who may disagree with their politics are drawn to their courage and integrity—qualities otherwise far too rare in American politics.

The moment seems ripe for the foundational political realignment proposed by Ralph Nader in his recent book Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State and outlined in a recent YES! Magazine interview with Ralph Nader and Daniel McCarthy, editor of The American Conservative magazine. Fran Korten, publisher of YES! Magazine (and my wife) suggests we are experiencing a new populist moment.

Call it populism versus corporatism or democracy versus corporate rule. Either way it is a far more meaningful political division than the current division between two big-government political parties debating big versus small while both compete aggressively for corporate money and pursue variations on corporatist agendas.

The distinction between democracy and corporate rule is the issue that underlies most other issues. The task before us is to recognize and act on the potential for a momentous political realignment that can make our government truly "of the people."

Opinion Wed, 01 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Justice Alito Defends Lethal Injection Expert Who Did His Research on

Drug presentation(Image: Drug presentation via Shutterstock)

On Monday, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to uphold Oklahoma’s use of midazolam, a controversial sedative that is used as part of its three-drug lethal injection protocol.

The case, first brought by four condemned Oklahoma inmates, came after several high-profile botched executions in 2014 involving midazolam. The petitioners argued that the use of midazolam presented a “substantial, constitutionally unacceptable risk of pain and suffering.”

As ProPublica has previously detailed, the doctor Oklahoma relied on as its expert witness had never given a patient anesthesia and based much of his research on

That witness, Roswell Lee Evans, ended up being a contentious part of the decision. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito repeatedly defended his testimony. In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor questioned Evans’ credibility. Here are the best bits.

Alito defended Evans’ use of



However, Sotomayor viewed Evans’ use of the consumer website differently. Not only did the website fail to support the most contentious parts of Evans’ testimony – the information from the website may have even supported the petitioners’ arguments:



Alito: Midazolam is not a pain reliever, but inmates will feel no pain.

Alito supported Evans’ testimony that midazolam would keep inmates unconscious and unable to feel pain during an execution, even though Evans himself testified that the drug was not an analgesic:



However, Sotomayor emphasized that just because a supposed expert makes a claim does not mean that the claim is a fact:



Sotomayor compares lethal injection to being burned at the stake

In one of the more colorful passages of her dissent, Sotomayor compares the new court ruling to a former execution technique that would be considered torture today:



In the closing paragraph of the opinion, Alito directly responds to this medieval allusion, asserting that Sotomayor’s words are but “outlandish rhetoric,” further illustrating the supposed deficiencies of the dissenting argument:



Alito: Death-row inmates should have suggested another way to die.

Alito affirms that one of primary reasons the use of midazolam was upheld was because the inmates challenging the drug did not suggest another execution method in its place:



Sotomayor replied in her dissent, asserting that it is the state’s responsibility to find a method that is not unusual or cruel should they want to execute someone:



Breyer challenges lethal injection in its entirety. Scalia calls that “gobbledy-gook.”

Rather than focusing on the minute legal details of majority opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer, writing in a separate dissent, challenges the legality of the death penalty:



In a sneering rebuke, Justice Antonin Scalia ridicules his fellow justice, calling him out by name over 15 times, and concluding:



News Wed, 01 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
JEB! and more ]]> Art Wed, 01 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400 I Am Not Dylann Roof's Woman

"You rape our women and you're taking over our country," Dylann Roof is reported to have said as he opened fire on African Americans in Charleston, killing nine.

His claim to act in women's – which is to say white women's – defense is as old as white male supremacy itself, and it's been refuted for just as long.

Ida B Wells Barnett was the first to debunk lies like Roof's. Over a century ago, she reported the facts and led the campaign to stop lynching. Jessie Daniel Ames a white single mother of three, responded to the call. Ames founded the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching in 1930, which gathered tens of thousands of signatures on a pledge that read in part:

"[P]ublic opinion has accepted too easily the claim of lynchers and mobsters that they are acting solely in defense of womanhood… We dare no longer to permit this claim to pass unchallenged..."

White supremacist killers have never stopped using the false pretext of acting in women's defense. Women of color (as well as men ) have perished as a result, and not just in the US. Because not only vigilantes but also our politicians have used the pretext of "protecting" women to defend their imperial wars. In my lifetime alone -- from the invasion of Grenada (to "rescue" white female medical students) to the invasion of Iraq, there's not been a war that wasn't waged in "women's" name, to devastating result on women and men alike.

"One thing is for certain," said George W Bush shortly after the invasion of Iraq. "There won't be any more mass graves and torture rooms and rape rooms." Hah. His own global torture regime was just then taking root.

The interests white supremacist patriarchal killers serve are their own, their own, their own. Self appointed watchman, George Zimmerman, and killer policemen Daniel Pantaleo, Dante Servin and the rest do not "serve' or protect people in peril. They put us there, as do our packed prisons and jails, and all the rapacious businesses that make pathological private profits off public pain.

Just to be clear: I am not Dylann Roof's woman. Racist, patriarchal violence does not make me safe. It divides me from people I love and tells me real lies about who and what pose a real threat to my life.

White, female, queer, I also know by now that one of white supremacy's goals is to keep me in my place: silent and separate from my sisters and others with whom I might otherwise make common cause. I refuse. And I am not alone.

Women of all colors refute this violence and reject the claim that this killing is in our name. We also pledge to act.  A statement is right now being finalized. If you want to sign up, or find out more, write to me Thanks.

Opinion Wed, 01 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Free Marissa Now and Stand With Nan-Hui: A Conversation About Parallel Struggles

(Marissa artwork by Molly Crabapple; Nan-Hui artwork by Dillon Sung)(Marissa artwork by Molly Crabapple; Nan-Hui artwork by Dillon Sung)

Marissa Alexander is a Black mother of three and a survivor of domestic violence from Jacksonville, Florida. She was prosecuted and threatened with 60 years in prison for defending her life from her abusive husband. She spent three-years behind bars and, beginning January 27, 2015, she is serving a sentence of two years of house detention while being forced to wear and pay for a surveillance ankle monitor.

Nan-Hui Jo is also a survivor of domestic violence who was convicted of child abduction after fleeing her abusive partner with her young daughter to her home country of South Korea. She has been incarcerated since July 2014, and has spent the last 3 months in immigration detention awaiting deportation proceedings. She has not seen her daughter since her arrest, and now faces the possibility of permanent separation from her.

Alisa Bierria, a member of the Free Marissa Now Mobilization Campaign and a member of INCITE! and Hyejin Shim, an organizer with the Stand with Nan-Hui Campaign and a member of Korean American Coalition to End Domestic Abuse (KACEDA) came together with Mimi Kim and Emi Kane of INCITE! to reflect on the common political ties between two women of color surviving the intersections of domestic violence, the U.S. carceral system and immigration control.

MK: Thanks everybody. I just wanted to start with the question, how did you first get involved in working on your specific campaigns? Alisa, I'll start with you.

AB: I heard about Marissa's case in 2012. She was one of those rare domestic violence cases that received mainstream media attention. She is based in Florida and unsuccessfully tried to invoke the Stand Your Ground law, which had a high profile due to the law's influence on George Zimmerman's acquittal after he murdered Trayvon Martin. So the public juxtaposed Zimmerman's acquittal with Marissa Alexander's 20 year mandatory minimum sentence. I was watching that play out and thinking about it in the context of other self defense cases—specifically, Cece McDonald in Minneapolis and the New Jersey 4—Black women who were attacked and, because they defended their lives, they were prosecuted and incarcerated. I started making some phone calls to investigate, and I learned that there was a beginning coalition of people around the country who were trying to get a campaign off the ground. [This amazing team included Sumayya Coleman, African American/Black Women's Cultural Alliance; Helen Gilbert, Radical Women; and Aleta Alston Toure, New Jim Crow Movement.] So I started slow, but then it got fast! The more time builds, the more you committed you become, just to see it all the way through.

MK: What was it that first struck you and made you think that "I really need to get involved in this?"

AB: It's really rare that domestic violence victims who are prosecuted for anything have a national profile because domestic violence is not politically interesting to most people. They think of it as a social service problem or some kind of pathology issue. It was such an opportunity to talk about domestic violence, Black women, the prison industrial complex and self-defense on a national level.

The #BlackLivesMatter call to action began in the shadow of the horrific murder of Trayvon Martin. Because Marissa's case was often juxtaposed with Trayvon's (and Jordan Davis') murder, it received national attention, yet we weren't really seeing a lot of gender analysis at that time. Also, for years INCITE! had been identifying these intersections that Marissa Alexander's case was demonstrating so clearly, and it just became such an opportunity for us to show how the analysis was playing out in this woman's case. This woman who some people actually knew about.

MK: Hyejin, how did you first get involved with the campaign to free Nan-Hui Jo?

HS: I got involved because of KACEDA, a small group of Korean women organizing around domestic violence. In the spring, we heard about the case from a former member who lived in Sacramento. There had been some organizing happening in the Korean church community for her. By this time she'd already gone through one trial that resulted in a hung jury. We learned that a retrial was about to begin—and that the situation was bad. She'd been incarcerated since July. She was denied bail because she was deemed a flight risk, was issued a no-contact order with her daughter, was under an ICE hold and had lost all parental rights. So there was really a sense of urgency when we started organizing. Her trial began on a Friday, and literally that week we began mobilizing. Another KACEDA member wrote a press release and I started making calls to figure out what was happening, kind of like you did, Alisa. I put a call out on Facebook to ask for help and said, look, there's this domestic violence survivor who is being charged with kidnapping for fleeing abuse with her little girl. She's lost all custody and has been in jail for the past 8 months. And she's facing deportation. Come over tonight at 6. And people actually came! It all snowballed from there.

MK: I know that you also work with other domestic violence survivors in your work at Asian Women's Shelter. I was wondering how this moved from being a case that you'd get on a crisis line to something that turned into a campaign. It sounds like it happened pretty quickly.

HS: I didn't view this as a case where I'd be someone's domestic violence advocate. At that point it was clear that what was needed most was not case management. What was needed was organizing. I didn't feel like it was actually most useful for someone to be helping out in a direct services capacity, with prescribed roles and boundaries, especially because this person was being targeted so aggressively in an unpredictable and quickly-escalating situation.

The work that Free Marissa Now did, and the work that Black women and women of color have been doing around domestic violence and criminalization for decades, made it apparent that this was connected to a larger pattern of survivors being targeted by the system. They are targeted by a racist, sexist system for their survival strategies, particularly with the idea that a survivor must always be a perfect victim. There's this belief that a domestic violence survivor must always be the victim of crime, and the abuser is always the perpetrator of crime. So in a way there's not that much room or analysis about what happens when the survivor is actually considered the "perpetrator of a crime," even in the anti-violence movement. Instead, we're taking cues from the state to tell us who real "victims" and "perpetrators" are. In this case you had "domestic violence experts" like the district attorney saying that this was not a domestic violence case. So then what? We needed to organize.

MK: Alisa, I see you nodding. It seems like what Hyejin was saying was resonating for you, as well. Do you want say a little more about that?

AB: Yeah, I'm thinking, "Thank goodness that Hyejin was on the other line," because I have found it rare for folks who are in direct service organizations to have the capacity to imagine a response outside of the usual paradigm of either direct services or pro-criminalization. It's so drilled. Those of us who work in the field, it takes such a significant capacity to do some paradigm shift in your own mind to say, "This is actually more of a community organizing project; she needs a big push for support and let's go make a Facebook page."

Domestic violence organizations were actually pressured by State Attorney Angela Corey to not publicly support Marissa Alexander. So, there's not only an imagination problem but also a real material problem, because people are worried about their funding. One argument was that groups couldn't risk their funding to support one person when they have this whole other group of victims to support. But my pushback was, well, who gets to be part of the larger set of victims that they're serving? It's not just about Marissa not having support, it is also about any survivor who is being prosecuted having access to full support. As long as organizations make choices based on what Angela Corey or other prosecutors want, they're never going to have autonomy in terms of who they support. There will always be this barrier to services for survivors who are more vulnerable to criminalization—that is to say, Black women. It's so important to not only understand the ways that court system and police and prisons are impacting survivors of domestic violence, devastating people's lives and so on, but also the ways that many service organizations are prevented—or prevent themselves—from supporting criminalized survivors.

MK: Hyejin, did you see anything like that in the case of Nan-Hui Jo?

HS: There were some domestic violence orgs that were very reluctant to get on board, or who acted like they were sympathetic as individuals but said they couldn't be sympathetic as an organization. So people were saying that they felt for her, but they couldn't and wouldn't do anything about it.

MK: What do you think were some of the factors they perceived as barriers?

HS: I can't say more on dynamics between this district attorney and these domestic violence organizations right now, but I do wonder if the reliance of domestic violence orgs on the DA to prosecute batterers and thus legitimize domestic violence work is a barrier.

AB: There's this powerful fear of punishment. If an organization has funders or donors that just want to "do good," meaning they want to donate to a domestic violence organization but they don't want to give money to an anti-deportation project, for example, that organization is scared to look too radical.

MK: How much do you think Nan-Hui's and Marissa's incarceration was a factor in some of our expected allies stepping away? Is there a reluctance because of a notion that they might not be deserving in some way because of their criminalization?

AB: I was on a conference call early on in the Free Marissa campaign. There was a woman on the call who is Black and known as an anti-violence expert. She asked if Marissa was really a "genuine" survivor of domestic violence because she had heard that her husband had received a black eye from her. She didn't ask about the context of that injury—which came about as a result of self-defense—she went straight to, "Is she telling the truth?" I couldn't even speak. Because if we're in a situation where this person—who should be the easiest ally in the world—is saying this really problematic stuff on this call, I don't know how we're going to win. So I think we had to fight for allies. Allies did not come easy. I think we had to convince people.

MK: Hyejin, do you have anything that's comparable so far?

HS: It's been lucky that I'm working currently at a domestic violence shelter in SF, which has some more progressive allies. The case is not in our county, and I think that makes it easier for us to be more visible in our support. But one question that comes to mind is, what if it was the other way around? What if this was a campaign to prosecute a batterer instead? It's just interesting to think about. Who would find that politically safe, safer than this campaign to free a survivor? And why? Just think about domestic violence organizations and the commotion around Ray Rice.

MK: To go along those lines, there has been some attention paid to Nan-Hui's abusive ex-partner in this case. What are some of the ways that people have talked about him?

HS: It's funny because in court, the DA was talking about him as someone who'd really cleaned up his act. Like, so he hadn't been that responsible in the past and yes, there was that one time he got violent… but you know, he's a veteran, and all he wants to do is be a good dad now. And, in the DA's closing remarks, he said Nan-Hui was clearly the better parent all along, more competent, mature and responsible. But also that she was also manipulative, vengeful, and too competent, essentially, to be a real victim. There was just a lot of focus on characterizing her as just another sneaky Asian immigrant trying to cheat the system. He called her a "tiger mom" too. Her attempts to survive with her baby through abuse and an immensely confusing legal system were all looked at through this lens of racist criminalization.

MK: I think it's interesting how they raised "tiger mom" as a stereotype that many people are now familiar with now—and the stereotype that people could associate with an Asian woman. How did you see stereotypes with Marissa Alexander play out, Alisa, in terms of Angela Corey or the people that were trying to detract from sympathy for her situation?

AB: The biggest pattern that we saw was this idea that she was too entitled—too entitled to live, too entitled to take control of her life. There was definitely blaming her for being in the abusive relationship to begin with. She's not considered entitled to defend her life because of this notion that she created the conditions for this to happen in the first place. Also, that attitude works seamlessly with the narrative about "uppity" Black women, especially in the South. Marissa Alexander did not know her place. The rhetoric Corey used was not coincidental. Her office circulated this ugly handout to state politicians because some seemed sympathetic to Marissa's case. It said on the top, "The truth about Marissa Alexander," and included Marissa's mugshots at the top and rhetoric about why she should be incarcerated. So there is this very intentional, very racialized framing they used to support the prosecution. Corey politically benefits if the person she is prosecuting could never be understood as a "victim," so she had her own agenda. It wasn't just to be racist in general, but to achieve an end.

Corey also constantly exploited the children for the sake of her argument. There were children in the home when Marissa's husband attacked her and she defended herself, and there was a concern that they could have been hurt in that encounter. Angela Corey had this habit of saying, "Those children – those boys – those Black boys, those young Black boys, were endangered by this woman who acted out of anger." So it was really interesting how she co-opted the rhetoric around violence against Black boys to argue for the prosecution of this Black woman. It happened again in the final hearing when Marissa was finally released from prison to serve a two year term of house detention. The prosecutor put one of the children on the stand, he read a statement that seemed clearly written by that office and, in that statement, they invoked #blacklivesmatter! They totally co-opted it. So the child said, "Doesn't my Black life matter?" and it was heartbreaking, devastating, enraging, and it made me want to throw my computer out the window.

MK: I know this isn't the first time you've been talking together. Can you talk a little bit about how you found the connections between these two campaigns?

HS: From the beginning, I thought of Marissa. One, because it's so recent, and two, because it was such strong organizing I saw on behalf of a survivor who was being criminalized. I went to the INCITE! conference this past year and saw that there was a Free Marissa Now session, and thought, "I have to go to that!" So, we got there really early because we were so excited. And as people were sharing the lessons learned, challenges, and the values that guided the organizing—the ways that y'all described Marissa and holding her humanity intact instead of letting her become just a political symbol—so much of what you shared really resonated with me. And I had been feeling very isolated before that. A lot of our analysis and the ability to do the work was made possible by yours. The connections were obvious, and it was also important to note the real similarities and differences. They were prosecuted similarly and anti-violence "allies" responded similarly. Yet Nan-Hui and Marissa are racialized and gendered in very different ways, and they were aggressively targeted accordingly—one for twenty years, the other for indefinite detention and deportation. There was a lot to share.

AB: We were so excited to meet y'all at COV4. I had heard about Nan-Hui's case because within 48 hours, three friends sent me urgent emails about it. I was like, "Ok, I got it, Nan-Hui Jo." And then we met – and I was like right! The famous Nan-Hui Jo, I know who she is! So it was moving to meet y'all, especially along with members of the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander. And I'd had a little bit of conversation with Nadine Naber in Chicago who's working with the Justice for Rasmea Odeh campaign – which is, again, another kind of ballgame. But it is kindred in that it is a freedom campaign for a survivor of sexual and state violence. So it's true—both cases are different in very important ways, certainly in the ways they're racialized and gendered. And the geographic politics are really important as well. But I was also disturbed about the ways that they were similar. The fact of the pattern, the fact of the structural problem feels clearer and more urgent. Knowing that there was this powerful campaign going on, and knowing that we weren't alone, was grounding. It situated our work in a different kind of way. So it was wonderful to meet y'all.

MK: The people that often get forgotten in these cases – is the children. I've been struck by the ways in which Nan-Hui Jo might be elevated but her daughter is like the secondary character. But she has obviously suffered so much and still is because of the ways that she's lost her mother. Can you talk about that a little bit?

HS: It's been deliberate to keep her child out of it, out of respect to Nan-Hui. But, of course, there's a huge way that this child is being impacted. She's on a plane with Mom coming to Hawaii one minute, and the next her mom gets arrested and is whisked away. And she won't see her for another year or more… and now she's in an environment where none of her caregivers are Korean or speak the language. What we'd heard in court was that the child had suffered a lot in those first months of transition, and couldn't communicate with anyone except her bilingual therapist. She missed her mom. She was having panic attacks.

On the bright side they recently started contact through supervised phone calls, but sadly they can't be in Korean. But of course, one thing that does get erased about domestic violence is how it impacts children, too.

(Courtesy of Nan-Hui Jo)(Courtesy of Nan-Hui Jo)

MK: And she's with the father right now?

HS: Yes, he has full custody.

MK: Did she have a relationship with him before her mother was detained and incarcerated?

HS: Not since she was less than one year old. She's six now.

AB: I think women victimized by domestic violence are disproportionately punished if they have children who are harmed. Look at the case of Tondalo Hall — her boyfriend seriously injured their child and he was sentenced to 2 years in prison. Then they prosecuted Tondalo who received a devastating 30 year sentence. We have this idea that mothers are privileged when it comes to family court, and I really want to push back on that because I constantly see mothers being intensely punished. Particularly domestic violence victims.

MK: Alisa, could you reflect a little bit on the impact of the organizing on Marissa's life and on social movements that are important to you?

AB: We noticed that October is the month where there's all this anti-police brutality action happening and it's DV awareness month. And we were like, "Oh! What a coincidence." So we put together this handout that showed how domestic violence is a state violence issue using the analysis and the statistics. We distributed copies to our base and we urged people to make copies and bring them to DV awareness month and anti-policing events. And I think that that tradition should continue. I think we were able to identify opportunities, but you know, it wasn't always easy. That said, so many people organized across the US and around the world to free Marissa, including making art, direct action, letter writing, fundraising, prayer circles, a caravan, coalition building, media advocacy…people really put their hearts and minds into this project.

MK: Same question for you, Hyejin? I know it's a different situation for you—we don't know if there will be something to celebrate and things are looking very difficult. But what do you think, right now. What are some impacts you've had on Nan-Hui Jo's life and also on the larger movements?

HS: I think that with Nan-Hui… she has definitely seen a tangible difference since we've started organizing. And that has to do with the support that she feels from everyone, but it also has to do with gaining some real wins resulting from the organizing. Those wins include getting her some amazing legal representation for her immigration and criminal cases. She is also feeling seen and taken care of in a way that she wasn't before. Before I know she was feeling very much isolated.

Though it's still really hard, she says she doesn't feel as lonely as she did. In the beginning she felt deeply afraid and alone. We've also formed a close relationship. I think it's love and connection that will help get you through hard times, so I'm happy to be able to support her in multiple ways.

I'm not sure what kinds of larger impacts this might have, but my hope is that people will be able to make the connections more easily than they used to, and have a point of reference for people in our communities actually caring about domestic violence and criminalization. And I think one legacy of the Free Marissa organizing is that we don't feel as alone. I see Marissa's release, even with the terms that it's on, as nothing short of a miracle. And I know this kind of miracle does not happen without so much work. These kinds of campaigns are incredibly time/resource intensive, and very emotional. So I hope that next time—because it will happen again—that there's just more of a support network. That we are more aware of each other than we used to be. That the next time this happens we are more ready.

AB: Yeah. I also think that we have a lot of work to do to connect with other defense campaigns. There are a lot out there. One of the things we've been talking about is organizing a meeting with these organizers to do next steps. To do a more formal debriefing and visioning process of what comes next. I would really look forward to building on the solidarity of these two campaigns with many others.

HS: Yeah, absolutely. Another thing I want to add is that I think people do not see the ways that state violence can actually be leveraged as a way to abuse someone—that it is an extension of the domestic violence. It does count as abuse to intentionally criminalize your former partner in retaliation for self defense. It is violent to advocate for your ex-partner to receive the maximum sentence and get deported. The courts do not exist for "victims" alone. And in this case, her abuser is very much seen as the victim. Abusers sometimes make an effort to report the person they're abusing for child abduction, domestic violence, or child abuse charges first, to retaliate, ruin their credibility, and reinforce a dynamic of control. It's not some completely extraordinary thing. I work at a shelter; we know that sometimes batterers do these things to survivors we are actually housing. So I wish that part was more clear for people—that domestic violence doesn't simply end with two people separating.

AB: Right. And these prosecutions extend domestic violence into the state and then the state legitimizes domestic violence. So…who's the batterer? The batterer is the batterer, but now the batterer's agenda is played out or taken up by the state, and the state is the batterer. And then it gets even more tricky when you look at things like mandatory policies. Mandatory arrest, mandatory minimums. Now it's not even the judge, police officers or prosecutors, it's just "the state." Somebody somewhere passed a law, and now I have to go to prison for 20 years. There's agency with no agent.

MK: Can we end with some words of appreciation for each other and the work of these campaigns?

HS: I have nice things that I want to say all the time. I appreciate how open and generous y'all have been, with both support and sharing your experiences. Organizing can feel very territorial at times. It's been really great to just talk and bounce ideas around with you, and to think more about the future too. When this campaign ends, and it will end, and hopefully she'll be free and here with her child… when it ends, all these problems we've talked about will still be there. And individual campaigns for everyone are just not possible. So what do we need to change so we're not doing these fifteen years later?

AB: Right, I completely agree. So looking forward to figuring out how to strengthen that network and see how that can transform anti-domestic violence organizing in general. Thank you for saying all those nice things! I think it's so important that the campaigns are independent from non-profits. And I think that might contribute to some of the openness that you're talking about. I think it's important to map the ways in which the campaigns are not institutionalized, which creates some level of freedom, even though having no staff is hard because they are, indeed, labor intensive. I think the Stand With Nan-Hui campaign has been brilliant, I've learned a lot from y'all. In addition to the question about what impact our work has had on existing social movements, we can also reflect on the movement that we built. Build on our own terms, with our own politics that we advanced, and with the base that we made. I'm excited about the potential impacts on social movements that I think the campaigns have created or can create in the future. So thank you so much for your political work.

Free Marissa Now & Stand With Nan-Hui: Alisa Bierria, Hyejin Shim, Mimi Kim, and Emi Kane.Free Marissa Now & Stand With Nan-Hui: Alisa Bierria, Hyejin Shim, Mimi Kim, and Emi Kane.

Opinion Wed, 01 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400