From Occupy to City Hall: Meet the Woman Leading the Fight for $15 in Seattle

Kshama Sawant speak at a March 15, 2013, "March for $15" rally in Seattle. (Image: Flickr/ Shannon Kringen)

Kshama Sawant speaks at a March 15, 2013, "March for $15" rally in Seattle. (Image: Flickr/ Shannon Kringen)

In her short time in office, Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant has shaken up the city’s dominant Democratic establishment — and made all the right enemies along the way with her fight to make the Emerald City the first major metropolitan area with a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

Sawant — an Indian-born activist and economist who was a prominent figure in the city’s Occupy movement — wasn’t given much of a chance of winning when she jumped into a race against Richard Conlin, an incumbent who was first elected to the council in 1997. But she tapped into the community’s frustration with politics as usual — and with the city’s growing inequities in income and housing — and ran on a promise to fight for a real living wage.

Sawant, a socialist, forced a runoff with 35 percent of the primary vote, and went on to defeat Conlin in a close contest last November.

Sawant walks the walk. She kept her campaign promise to take home only $40,000 out of her $117,000 salary, saying in a release that a hefty paycheck “removes Council members from the realities of life for working people. Every Council member faces a choice of who they represent and which world they inhabit,” she said. “My place is with working people and their struggles.” recently spoke with Sawant about the movement that she’s building in Seattle. Below is a transcript that’s been lightly edited for clarity.

Joshua Holland: What are you doing with the rest of your salary?

Kshama Sawant: Technically, I’m paid $117,000 by the city. I’m taking home $40,000 and I’m giving the rest to social justice movements. I’ve created a solidarity fund, but I want to make it clear that it’s not charity. The point is that if we are to have a political system that’s accountable to the interests of the majority, then how are we going to do it with public officials and executives being paid salaries that are completely out of the realm of the average worker? In reality, $117,000 is a magnificent salary compared to what most people are making—most people are barely getting by.

The solidarity fund is going to strengthen movements that are fighting for social justice. One of the donations I’ve already made is $15,000 to the 15 Now campaign.

Holland: You’re considered a leader, if not the leader of the fight for a $15 minimum wage. People think of Seattle as a progressive town, and it certainly is, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a powerful business community that opposes this raise.

Can you explain your strategy —are you approaching this with an inside-outside strategy? What kind of coalition are you building?

Sawant: You’re correct that Seattle is a progressive city. But I think people have to parse that to understand what it really means. It means that the majority of the population holds really progressive views on many issues of social and economic justice. But that is not necessarily represented in the city government.

For example, there was a recent poll on $15 an hour in Seattle, and 68 percent of Seattle’s voters said they strongly support the measure. If that distribution was reflected in the city government, we wouldn’t be having any debate at all. We could have just held a vote, passed it and we would be having a victory celebration right now.

The reality is that the political establishment here is controlled by a very pro-business and pro-wealthy elite, as it is in every major city in the United States. And Seattle is an interesting example of a city that is dominated by Democratic Party leadership, but that does not necessarily imply that the political establishment reflects the views of the people they are supposed to represent.

So we need a strategy in order to make sure that the views of the majority of the people in Seattle are upheld in the face of opposition from business. And the reason I’m talking about the political establishment is that you can’t really understand how much power business has unless you understand that they have the vast majority of the political establishment on their side. What the politicians are willing to do really depends on how much push they feel they’re getting from different corners, and ultimately, the strategy for winning $15 an hour — or any other reform for social change — depends on the balance of forces. So, my key task is to figure out how we can build our forces on the ground. All the low-wage workers, community activists and community organizations — they all whole-heartedly support a strong $15 measure, and we have to make sure that their voices are heard. That is what pushes the discussion further along.

The very fact that Seattle is talking about $15 per hour in a serious way — the fact that it is on the top of the political agenda of this city — that itself is proof that grassroots movements work.

Holland: A number of legitimate small business people—not front groups for big companies—testified recently that they couldn’t afford $15. What is your response to that?

Sawant: I think we have to understand the nature of the capitalist system. It disproportionately favors big businesses — the big corporations. And the ones who shoulder the majority of the burden, in different ways, are small businesses and working people.

Look at the impact of the 2008 recession. That’s one quick and easy way of looking at what happened under capitalism. Who suffered? It was working people who have suffered massive unemployment, an epidemic of foreclosures and evictions, and a low-wage economy—almost two thirds of the jobs that have been created since the crash are low-wage jobs. An entire generation is being condemned to low-wage work.

It’s small businesses that have borne the brunt of the economic crisis. When you have a recession that wipes out the spending ability of a majority of the consumer base that small businesses rely on, that’s a real challenge. But if you look at the S&P 500 corporations, they are the ones who are making historically high profits.

So there is truth to the concerns and the fears that small businesses have when they’re wondering, “How can I make this happen? This is going to be difficult, I’m already facing so many challenges.” That’s why my initial proposal—I still stand by it—was to tax big businesses and the super-wealthy in order to provide subsidies for small businesses to mitigate the impact of the wage hike on them. And also to provide full funding for non-profit human services providers.

Instead, what’s happened in Washington State is that the state legislature has essentially throttled the ability of municipalities to institute a progressive tax at the same time as it’s giving out $9 billion in handouts to Boeing executives.

So, I think that we first have to understand that small businesses need to understand that they are being slammed by the same system that is pushing workers to the bottom. We need to fight together on this. And my latest proposal would require big businesses to pay $15 an hour right away, but would give small businesses and non-profits a phase-in period.

Holland: There was a recent study that went back and looked at past minimum wage hikes, and it found that none of the business community’s claims that they would destroy jobs came to fruition.

You mentioned that about seven in 10 Seattle voters favor a $15 minimum. Do you get the sense that the business community has cried wolf one too many times, or are warnings that jobs will be destroyed by just about every progressive policy still potent?

Sawant: Both as an activist and an economist, I think the business community has been crying wolf. The data is so decisive; the data shows, from many, many different cities and states, that an increase in the minimum wage actually benefits the local economies. None of the apocalyptic scenarios that have been painted in all this fear mongering have come to fruition. In fact, minimum wage increases have had very little impact on employment levels. Restaurants and other businesses in San Francisco actually have thrived compared to nearby areas that didn’t increase their minimum wage. The data clearly indicates that all these fears are misplaced.

But as far as whether people believe that Seattle businesses are really just crying wolf, I think that’s a question that is up to the movement. Think of the tens of thousands of workers who will benefit from $15 an hour but are so bogged down in earning a living — in trying to put a roof over their head — that they don’t have the time to engage in these discussions, they don’t have the time to read the economic articles that I’m reading. So whether or not these myths will have a mark on the consciousness of Seattle’s voters is a question to the movement here in Seattle: how much are we as activists — as people who are fighting for this — how much are we willing to go out there and engage with the community, especially with people of color and women — some of the most marginalized workers — and make sure that they are on the same page, that they understand that there is no downside to this other than the fact that businesses will have to accept slightly lower profits, but there is no downside to the economy and workers have only a lot to gain and nothing to lose.

That’s a task for the movement, which is why I’ve helped launch 15 Now, which isn’t limited to Seattle — we have several chapters across the nation.

Holland: I’m going to switch gears briefly. You recently made what The Stranger called “minor history” for voting against accepting a Department of Homeland Security grant for facial recognition software for the Seattle Police Department. These grants are usually just rubber-stamped by city councils because they’re happy to take the money. Can you tell me a little about what went into that decision?

Sawant: I’m not sure how many of your readers are aware, but the Seattle Police Department was recently under a systematic investigation by the Department of Justice and is under a consent decree right now from the DOJ. The DOJ found evidence of systematic excessive use of force by the SPD against youth, people of color and activists.

I think that it’s really problematic, yet the entire city government is rubber-stamping something like this without even asking questions about handing over money to the same police department that has been implicated in wrongful use of force. What are we going to do to correct those problems first?

Also, a lot of the funds would be allocated to a fusion center [a data sharing facility for law and intelligence agencies -- Ed.], which has a long history of targeting activists. The fact that I was the sole ‘no’ vote is an indication not so much of my courage but the fact that we really, really lack any kind of representation for ordinary people. It shows that we need many more independent candidates who have the courage to challenge the establishment and say ‘no’ to business as usual.

Holland: You’ve been in office for a short time, and you’ve been attacked very, very heavily — there’s a petition calling for your recall. Some have criticized your video rebuttal to Obama’s State of the Union Address because it was done with city resources. How are you responding to these attacks?

Savant: I’m not surprised by any of these attacks. In fact, if the establishment wasn’t attacking me, I would be wondering if I’m doing something wrong.

Because the whole point of having a socialist on the City Council — the whole point of having an independent, pro-worker voice in City Hall — is to challenge politics as usual, and if you’re genuinely doing that then you’re going to ruffle some feathers and you have to be okay with that.

I have no response to the people who are making these accusations against me because I know that they are defending the establishment. But to the people out there who have put this faith in me and who want me to continue fighting, I think that if I stopped fighting they would be concerned.

I want to make sure that everything I do inspires other people into action and inspires them to see that this is not about one person. We could change the political balance of power not only in Seattle but everywhere.

I don’t think people are worried that there’s a recall campaign against me. People are frustrated with the fact that for decades we haven’t had voices like mine in government, where there’s at least one person who’s actually standing up for our rights and not being apologetic, not being weak in the knees.

Holland: I want to ask you about being a socialist. It’s understood in the academic world that the word can mean a number of different things — it includes a Scandinavian-style socialism, for example, where there’s a free market paired with a robust public sector.

But when many people hear “socialism,” they think about the state controlling the means of production. It conjures images of East Germany, the Soviet Union.

If you are a social democrat in the Scandinavian mold, doesn’t calling yourself a socialist make it harder for you?

Sawant: First of all, if you look at our numbers from the election campaign last year, well over 93,000 Seattleites voted for me. I don’t have the illusion that 94,000 Seattleites consider themselves socialists. What they voted for was a real change from politics as usual.

We have a political establishment that is dominated by the Democratic Party — there aren’t any Republicans to speak of here — yet the Democratic Party in this city is very closely tied to developers and multi-national corporations. If you look at the lay of the land here in Seattle, large properties are handed over to real estate developers like Paul Allen’s Vulcan, gets to decide how many resources are allocated for transit that benefits only upper-class people while the rest of our bus service is being neglected. There have been decades of policymaking that are clearly slanted towards the wealthy and big business and everybody understands that.

You don’t have to be a socialist to get it, you have to be just an ordinary person in America. The vast majority of young people especially understand that the economy is not working for them and they are looking for something better. Look at the poll that was done nationwide after the federal government shutdown ended. Sixty percent of Americans said they were fed up with the two-party system — they know it doesn’t work and they want a third party.

This is all an indication of the frustration and the disgust that people feel about the political establishment — about the fact that the big banks were bailed out and the rest of us were sold out. It’s starting to crystallize in people’s minds, but they’re not necessarily calling themselves socialists. What they do want is somebody who will fight for them.

Anybody on the left could have run the campaign that we ran. But they didn’t. We did. And it’s not coincidental — it’s because I’m a socialist that I’m very clear about what I stand for. I’ll never apologize for my support for workers’ interest. I did not take a dime from big business so I’m not beholden to them in any way. I did not curry favor with the party establishment, but I did have a great number of Democratic Party supporters who agreed with my campaign and who campaigned for me because they are tired of their own party officials not doing what they believe in.

So not only do I think that socialism isn’t a barrier, it offers a refreshing change in the conversation.

Why Paid Sick Days Are a No-Brainer

Walt Disney word, minnie mouse, disney characters, vacation

The Walt Disney Company, like many businesses, opposes paid sick leave. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

This post first appeared on In These Times.

If you go to Disneyland, you might want to stop Mickey and Minnie from hugging your kid. The Walt Disney Company, like many businesses, opposes paid sick leave. The result, nationwide, is that millions of people show up for work every day sick as a dog (Pluto?), because staying home means losing essential pay or even their jobs. One sick person can infect hundreds, even thousands, with air or food-borne infectious diseases such as flu, colds, Hepatitis A and gastrointestinal illnesses, such as norovirus.

The lack of paid sick days hurts families. A kid comes home with a sore throat, and soon everyone in the house is in bed. Or should be. But unable to take a paid day off, parents send germ-laden children to school — where they extend the chain of infection.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the poor and poorly educated — already more vulnerable to some diseases — are most likely to hold jobs without paid sick days. An NIH study found, “Lack of paid sick leave appears to be a potential barrier to obtaining preventive medical care.” No paid sick leave is also linked to less screening for cancer, diabetes and other diseases that, when caught early, may have better outcomes, according to the CDC, which grants its employees 13 annual paid sick days.

The choice between losing a job and caring for yourself, your family and public health is not one that people should have to make. And, in most countries, they don’t. At least 145 nations mandate paid sick days for short- or long-term illnesses; 127 provide a week or more annually. But in America, 40 percent of private-sector workers and 80 percent of the lowest-paid workers have no paid sick days. That category includes workers in food, hospitality, healthcare, childcare and nursing homes — the very people in closest contact with the public, and with especially susceptible populations.

Every few months, we hear of another cruise ship that returns to dock because thousands of passengers, confined in a closed environment, have infected each other and crewmembers with norovirus, which causes violent diarrhea and vomiting. Well, those of us in contact with schools, workplaces, public transportation, nursing care and restaurants are on the equivalent of our own personal infection cruise — without the luxurious amenities.

Six US cities and Connecticut recently voted to ensure paid sick leave, with other fights underway. This growing movement is opposed by corporations such as Disney and by large financial interests connected with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Largely funded by corporations, trade groups and right-wing foundations — including those linked to the notorious Koch brothers — ALEC creates “model” legislation that is introduced, often verbatim, by state legislators around the country. In fact, ALEC’s fingerprints are all over preemptive bills passed in 10 state legislatures that bar cities and counties from enacting their own paid-leave standards.

The debate balances on the fulcrum of economics. Employers argue that paid sick leave cuts into profitability. Proponents, backed by numerous studies, counter that the effect on profits is small, non-existent or even positive. Indeed, “presenteeism” (sick workers showing up) costs employers $180 billion annually in lost productivity. During the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic more than 8 million sick workers reported for work between September and November, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, and may have infected 7 million coworkers.

Food-borne illness costs chain restaurants millions and ravage public relations. In 2008, after the health department traced more than 500 cases of norovirus to one worker at a Chipotle in Kent, Ohio, the chain gained notoriety for serving its customers a complimentary side order of diarrhea. Chipotle did not respond to inquiries about its sick-leave policy, but workers at three Chipotle locations in Manhattan told In These Times they receive no paid sick leave.

Arguing that paid sick leave is bad for profits is like asserting that bathroom breaks, minimum wages, safety standards and a 40-hour week hurt profits. Or that abolishing child labor and slavery cuts into revenue. So what? Even if paid sick leave did reduce profits, sometimes the bottom line is that the bottom line is not the point. There are greater goods, including public health.

Terry J. Allen, an In These Times senior editor, has written the magazine’s monthly investigative health and science column since 2006.

What You Can Do to Make Your Voice Heard on ‘McCutcheon’ Right Now

Petitions & Legislation

Forty national good government, civil rights, environmental, public interest and labor organizations released a statement on Wedensday protesting the McCutcheon v FEC decision and supporting two pieces of legislation that they hope will "lift up the voices of those unable to write big campaign checks."

--> The Government By the People Act (HR 20)

--> The Fair Elections Now Act (S 2023)

Another effort underway by the Sunlight Foundation and Rootstrikers is a petition asking Congress to enact legislation to mandate disclosure of all contributions of $1,000 or more to parties, candidates and political committees within 48 hours.

--> Real-time disclosure petition

Shortly after the decision in McCutcheon v FEC came down on Wednesday morning, campaign finance reform groups around the country activated their rapid response network to hold rallies in front of the Supreme Court building in Washington, DC, and 38 states.

Groups like Public Citizen, Common Cause,, Move to Amend and many, many others are “standing up against the pervasive, corrupting influence of an electoral system that auctions offices to the highest bidder and suppresses the vote of millions of Americans.” Over the course of the day on Wednesday, there were more than 140 protests.

Now, these organizations are planning their next steps in the fight to overturn Citizens United and McCutcheon, and to protect our right to vote. Those interested in taking action should visit the Money Out / Voters In! website. They have just added a tab to their website encouraging voters to schedule meetings with members of Congress during the April recess (April 12-27, 2014). You can sign up to join a meeting in your town or city.

If you do attend an event, be sure to upload your photos to Facebook and tag them with @Bill Moyers or tweet them to @BillMoyersHQ so that we can see what you’ve done! Below are some pictures from Wednesday’s rallies.

How to Vote Against the Koch Brothers

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his wife Tonette cheer as Republican vice presidential nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan addresses the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., August 2012. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his wife Tonette cheer as Republican vice presidential nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan addresses the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., August 2012. The Koch brothers have made supporting the governorship of Scott Walker a personal priority. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

This post first appeared in The Nation.

The Koch Brothers don’t actually run for office — at least not since David Koch’s amusingly ambitious 1980 bid for the vice presidency on a Libertarian Party ticket that proposed the gutting of corporate taxes, the minimum wage, occupational health and safety oversight, environmental protections and Social Security.

That project, while exceptionally well-funded for a third-party campaign, secured just 1.06 percent of the vote. The Kochs determined it would be easier to fund conservative campaigns than to pitch the program openly. Initially, the project was hampered by what passed for campaign-finance rules and regulations, to the frustration of David Koch, who once told The New Yorker, “We’d like to abolish the Federal Elections Commission and all the limits on campaign spending anyway.”

Who's Buying our Midterm Elections?

The FEC still exists. But the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v FEC and the general diminution of campaign finance rules and regulations has cleared the way for David Koch and his brother Charles to play politics as they choose. And they are playing hard — especially in Wisconsin, a state where they have made supporting and sustaining the governorship of Scott Walker a personal priority.

Two years ago, David Koch said of Walker: “We’re helping him, as we should. We’ve gotten pretty good at this over the years. We’ve spent a lot of money in Wisconsin. We’re going to spend more.” The Palm Beach Post interview in which that quote appeared explained, “By ‘we’ he says he means Americans for Prosperity (AFP),” the group the Kochs have used as one of their prime vehicles for political engagement in the states.

AFP and its affiliates are expanding their reach this year, entering into fights at the local level where their big money can go far — and where the Koch Brothers can influence the process from the ground up.

As Walker prepares to seek a second term, AFP is clearing the way in supposedly nonpartisan county board and school board races that will occur Tuesday.

Consider the case of Iron County. Elections in the northern Wisconsin county have always been down-home affairs: an ad in the Iron County Miner newspaper, some leaflets dropped at the door, maybe a hand-painted yard sign.

This year, however, that’s changed. Determined to promote a controversial mining project — and, presumably, to advance Walker’s agenda — AFP has waded into Tuesday’s competition for control of the Iron County Board.

With dubious “facts” and over-the-top charges, the Wisconsin chapter of the Koch Brothers-backed group is pouring money into the county — where voter turnout in spring elections rarely tops 1,500 — for one of the nastiest campaigns the region has ever seen. Small-business owners, farmers and retirees who have asked sensible questions about the impact of major developments on pristine lakes, rivers, waterfalls and tourism are being attacked as “anti-mining radicals” who “just want to shut the mines down, no matter what.”

Iron County is debating whether to allow new mining, not whether to shut mines down. And many of the candidates that AFP is ripping into have simply said they want to hear from all sides.

But those details don’t matter in the new world of big money politics ushered in by US Supreme Court rulings that have cleared the way for billionaires and corporations to buy elections.

Most of the attention to money in politics focuses on national and state races. But the best bargains for billionaires are found at the local level — where expenditures in the thousands can overwhelm the pocket-change campaigns of citizens who run for county boards, city councils and school boards out of a genuine desire to serve and protect their community.

That’s why it is important to pay attention to Tuesday’s voting in Iron County – and in communities such as Kenosha, where the group has waded into local school board races. The Kenosha contest goes to the core issues of recent struggles over collective-bargaining rights in Wisconsin, pitting candidates who are willing to work with teachers and their union in a historically pro-labor town versus contenders who are being aided by the Koch Brothers contingent in Wisconsin.

But it is equally important to pay attention to the efforts by citizens, working at the local level, to upend the big money and to restore politics of, by and for the people.

The month of March started with a grassroots rebellion in New Hampshire, where dozens of towns called on their elected representatives to work to enact a constitutional amendment to overturn the high court’s Citizens United decision.

Clean-politics advisory referendums are on ballots across Wisconsin. Belleville, DeForest, Delavan, Edgerton, Elkhorn, Lake Mills, Shorewood, Waterloo, Waukesha, Waunakee, Wauwatosa, Whitefish Bay and Windsor will have an opportunity to urge their elected representatives to support an amendment to restore the authority of local, state and national officials to establish campaign finance rules ensuring that votes matter more than dollars. The initiative is backed by groups like Move to Amend and United Wisconsin. “The unlimited election spending by special-interest groups, allowed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, has drowned out the voices of ordinary people,” says United Wisconsin Executive Director Lisa Subeck. “Urgent action is needed to restore our democracy to the hands of the people.”

That urgency is especially real in rural communities — places like Iron County. That’s why the Wisconsin Farmers Union is calling for a “yes” vote. “Citizens of all political stripes — Republicans, Democrats and independents — agree that we need to curb the corrupting influence of money in politics,” says WFU Executive Director Tom Quinn. “Voting yes…will send a clear message that we the people are ready to take back our democracy.”


These Seattle Teachers Boycotted Standardized Testing — and Sparked a Nationwide Movement

This post first appeared at Yes! Magazine.

Kris McBride, Garfield's academic dean and testing coordinator, at left, and Jesse Hagopian, Garfield history teacher and a leader of the school's historic test boycott. (Photo by Betty Udesen.)

Kris McBride, Garfield's academic dean and testing coordinator, at left, and Jesse Hagopian, Garfield history teacher and a leader of the school's historic test boycott. (Photo by Betty Udesen.)

Life felt eerie for teachers at Seattle’s Garfield High in the days following their unanimous declaration of rebellion last winter against standardized testing. Their historic press conference, held on a Thursday, had captured the attention of national TV and print media. But by midday Monday, they still hadn’t heard a word from their own school district’s leadership.

Then an email from Superintendent José Banda hit their in-boxes. Compared with a starker threat issued a week later, with warnings of 10-day unpaid suspensions, this note was softly worded. But its message was clear: a teacher boycott of the district’s most-hated test — the MAP, short for Measures of Academic Progress — was intolerable.

Jittery teachers had little time to digest the implications before the lunch bell sounded, accompanied by an announcement over the intercom: a Florida teacher had ordered them a stack of hot pizzas, as a gesture of solidarity.

“It was a powerful moment,” said history teacher Jesse Hagopian, a boycott leader. “That’s when we realized this wasn’t just a fight at Garfield; this was something going on across the nation. If we back down, we’re not just backing away from a fight for us. It’s something that educators all over see as their struggle too. I think a lot of teachers steeled their resolve, that we had to continue.”

Parents, students and teachers all over the country soon would join the “Education Spring” revolt. As the number of government-mandated tests multiplies, anger is mounting over wasted school hours, “teaching to the test,” a shrinking focus on the arts, demoralized students and perceptions that teachers are being unjustly blamed for deeply rooted socioeconomic problems.

“You’re seeing a tremendous backlash,” said Carol Burris, award-winning principal of South Side High School in New York City and an education blogger for The Washington Post. “People are on overload. They are angry at the way data and testing are being used to disrupt education.”

Last spring, New York became the first major state to implement Common Core State Standards testing, a key element of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative. Burris has compiled data showing a dramatic increase in the time children and teens spend taking New York state tests. Fifth-graders are the hardest-hit, with testing time ballooning from 170 minutes in 2010 to 540 minutes in 2013.

Mark Naison, a professor at Fordham University in New York City, estimates that parents of about 10,000 students across the state joined the “opt-out” movement in April, refusing to submit their youth to Common Core tests. “Probably the largest test revolt in modern American history,” he said.

Inspired by New York’s grassroots revolution, Naison co-founded the Badass Teachers Association (BAT), which by mid-January had 36,443 members and chapters in all 50 states. Florida has the largest representation, with more than 1,575 BAT teachers.

“It takes a lot of courage to speak out. This group says, ‘You’re not alone.’ If we stand up for one another, we can speak back,” Naison said. “We have brilliant people who know how to create websites, fan pages, a YouTube channel. We’ve got this amazingly flexible organization.”

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave the opt-out movement a public-relations gift in November, when he labeled the emerging bloc of mainstream opponents to Common Core testing “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”

Duncan previously had blamed Tea Party extremists for Common Core’s bad rap. And indeed, conservative Republicans are among the program’s greatest critics. They see an alarming federal usurpation of control over local schools and are deeply suspicious of standardized curriculum requirements that they fear promote a liberal agenda.

But on this issue, they’re joined by progressive Democrats — including the BAT contingent — who are outraged that teachers and schools might be blamed and punished for low test scores. Multiple-choice tests on a handful of subjects can’t measure a teacher’s impact on students’ lives or provide meaningful insights into student learning, they say.

“Instead of dealing with issues of poverty, racially isolated schooling, a lack of social services in communities, this [policy] is built on test scores,” said Burris.

Or, as BAT co-founder Priscilla Sanstead says in her Twitter banner: “Rating a teacher in a school with high poverty based on their student test data is like rating a dentist who works in Candyland based on their patient tooth decay data.”

How did we get here?

David Labaree, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, traces the federal government’s creeping control over classrooms back to the Cold War era, when the Sputnik launch triggered the Space Race. In the ’70s and ’80s, fears that the Russians were getting ahead of the United States gave way to worries about the Japanese and Germans. Now it’s the Chinese, he said.

The ’70s marked the first time “high stakes” tests began to emerge, with impacts on grade promotions and graduation requirements, Labaree said. Until then, teachers had a great deal of autonomy over textbook selection and classroom practices; schools were considered successful if graduates found jobs and social mobility was taking place.

The standards movement promoted a narrow emphasis on academic curricula — mostly math and English, plus some science and social studies — as a key element of the US race for economic and political supremacy in the international arena, he said. The modern trend toward “high stakes” tests, which can carry significant impacts on teachers’ careers, has profoundly changed what is — and isn’t — taught.

“It broke down the classroom door,” Labaree said. “It puts a huge pressure on teachers to toe the line and start teaching to the test. It’s changed the nature of a teacher’s work in a way that’s quite devastating. ‘Look, I’m part of a machinery here to raise test scores. I’m not really a teacher any more, I’m just an efficient delivery system of human capital skills.’ That’s the new language.”

Race to the Top

The “accountability” movement got a big boost in 2002, when President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act. For the first time, all public schools receiving federal funding were required to test students every year in grades three through eight, plus once during high school, using standardized state tests in math and reading.

President Barack Obama and Secretary Duncan unveiled the Race to the Top contest in 2009. To be eligible for a share of the program’s $4.35 billion in grants, states were required to adopt the Common Core standards for math and language arts. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia fully signed up. Texas, Virginia, Alaska and Nebraska declined any participation. Minnesota partially joined, rejecting the math standards.

Among the requirements: using test results to evaluate teachers.

Now many states are rethinking their commitment to Common Core. Eight states have reversed, suspended, or significantly delayed implementation. Legislatures in other states continue to debate the issues.

Some states are backing out because of technology issues. Oklahoma, for instance, found that just one in five schools had enough Internet bandwidth and computers to administer the tests, a state official told Education Weekly. And the state projected that classroom time devoted to taking the tests would jump from two or three hours to nine hours.

Seattle’s Garfield High teachers cite similar technology issues in their litany of testing complaints. The MAP test, for instance, forced the closure of all three Garfield computer labs for four months of each school year.

Seattle teachers’ contracts allow MAP results to be used in their evaluations, even though an official from the company that created the test has expressed concerns about the appropriateness of such use. The school district administration says teacher evaluations do not currently include MAP scores.

Garfield’s testing coordinator, Kris McBride, planted the seeds of revolution in December 2012 when she told frustrated remedial-reading teacher Mallory Clarke, “You can refuse to give the test!” The two women first sought — and won — support from the language arts and math departments, then asked for the backing of the entire teaching staff. With a few abstentions, Garfield teachers unanimously voted to support a boycott of the January-February cycle of MAP tests. “This was the crux: It was just immoral to rob the students of that [classroom] time,” Clarke said. “The feeling in the building was just simmering under the surface, waiting for something to do about it.”

Garfield teachers sent Banda’s office multiple letters, emails and voicemails after their December vote, with no response, McBride said. So on Jan. 10, 2013, they staged their press conference.

Support for the boycott

The national ripples were immediate.

“Bravo to the teachers of Garfield High. We support you and thank you for your courageous stand,” wrote Jane Maisel, a leader of the anti-testing group Change the Stakes, in an email to Hagopian.

A Feb. 6 National Day of Action in support of Garfield teachers inspired rallies across the country. In Chicago, for instance, parents at 37 schools gathered signatures on anti-testing petitions. Banda’s office was “bombarded” with emails, Hagopian said.

An International Day of Action on May Day brought support from teachers and parents in Japan, Australia and the United Kingdom, he said.

In the weeks and months following the Garfield declaration, teachers at six other Seattle schools joined the MAP boycott. When Banda’s office ordered school administrators to give the test anyway, local families added power to the revolt, with about 600 students opting out of the winter tests.

Banda convened a task force to study the issue, and in May he announced a partial reversal of district policy: MAP testing now is optional for the district’s high schools. Despite the early threat of 10-day unpaid suspensions, no teachers have been punished for refusing to administer the MAP.

“This wasn’t just a victory against one test,” Hagopian said. “This was a victory for a key concept: that teachers should be consulted about issues like testing and what kinds of learning are best for our students — before districts go to high-paid consultants and billionaires for solutions.” (In January, Hagopian announced he was running for president of the Seattle teachers union to build on that victory.)

Meanwhile, Education Spring was busting out across the country, with rallies, marches, test boycotts and teach-ins. The most dramatic: an estimated 10,000-plus educators and parents from all over New York converged at the state capitol in Albany for a June 8 “One Voice United” demonstration.

Hagopian has been sought out by schools and local unions across the country; he has traveled from Hawaii to Florida telling the Garfield story and helping other educators resist standardized tests.

More effective assessment

During his travels, Hagopian learned of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, a coalition of 28 high schools across the state. Coalition schools track student progress with performance-based assessments. Rather than take standardized tests, students do in-depth research and papers; learn to think, problem-solve and critique; and orally present their projects. He says this approach not only provides more effective student assessment, but also emphasizes critical-thinking skills over rote learning.

Last fall, two Garfield teachers and principal Ted Howard visited consortium schools at the Julia Richman Education Complex, in Manhattan, and returned inspired.

Successful students have a true joy for learning, Howard said, which the modern focus on testing has stripped from classrooms. Consortium schools support teaching as an “art form,” he said, rather than a robotic exercise to raise test scores.

“We’re dealing with human beings and human behavior, and sometimes that’s not quantifiable,” Howard said. “Students [at consortium schools] are saying, ‘Hey, I really want to be here.’”

In February he plans to send two more teachers to New York to visit another, larger consortium high school.

“I got into education for the long haul,” Howard said. “Hopefully, we can get together to change education, to make it better. It won’t change overnight, so we have to stick with it. We speak for students who don’t have a voice, so we have to hang in there.”

Next fall, Washington will be among many states launching the Common Core standards and tests. Opt-out activists across the nation predict that a second, even more vibrant Education Spring is nigh.

“It’s gonna to be huge,” said BAT’s Naison. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s 100,000 [students opting out] in New York next spring.” He also predicts significant uprisings in California, Florida, Illinois and perhaps Texas.

Now he’s planning an epic March on Washington — an upbeat three-day event culminating with a July 28 march to the US Department of Education.

“It’s going to be a very festive,” he said, with flash mobs, plays, songs and a band. “Imagine 10,000 teachers, parents and kids — some in costumes, some playing instruments, with huge banners — demanding that teacher and student creativity be unleashed.”

“It’s going to be the party of the year,” Naison said. “It’s to celebrate what teaching and learning can be, and to shame the people who are taking the fun and creativity out of it.”

Diane Brooks wrote this article for Education Uprising, the Spring 2014 issue of YES! Magazine. Diane is a journalist and communications consultant.  She was a newspaper reporter for many years in Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area, and now lives in Everett, Wash.

Tackling Student Debt and the Privatization of Education

Elizabeth Warren kicks off the Higher Ed, Not Debt campaign in Washington, DC. March 6, 2014. (Image: Generation Progress/Layla Zaidane)

Elizabeth Warren kicks off the Higher Ed, Not Debt campaign in Washington, DC. March 6, 2014. (Image: Generation Progress/Layla Zaidane)

Last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) kicked off a new campaign called “Higher Ed, Not Debt” to tackle the nation’s staggering burden of student loan debt. The campaign will be fought by a broad coalition of unions and progressive groups including the Working Families Party, Progress Now and Jobs for Justice and a couple of think tanks, the Center for American Progress and Demos.

The campaign has broad goals, including highlighting the role Wall Street has played in financializing student debt products. But Nelini Stamp, youth outreach director for Working Families, tells that it is part of a larger battle over education in America from pre-kindergarten up. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our discussion.

Joshua Holland: Tell us about this new campaign.

Nelini Stamp: Last week, groups gathered in Washington, DC, and across the country — more than 10 actions in 10 states — to launch the Higher Ed Not Debt campaign. Working Families is one of dozens of groups involved — it includes national and state-based youth groups, labor organizations and grassroots groups that are trying to tackle the student debt crisis and make higher education affordable.

This campaign has a special message to me, because I was never able to go to college. I didn’t go because when my mother and I applied, we found out that financial aid applications didn’t recognize my mom’s same-sex partner. And I would have been a first generation college student, and we didn’t really know how to navigate loans. So this is something that affected me eight years ago and is still affecting people with the increasingly high burden of student loan debt.

Holland: What are you looking to accomplish, legislatively or otherwise?

Stamp: The Higher Ed Not Debt Campaign has a couple of goals, and one is to tackle the existing $1.2 trillion of debt held by 40 million Americans and to provide relief — a lot of people don’t know there are relief options out there, like income-based repayment, or pay-as-you-earn.

We want to make quality higher education more affordable, as well as accessible, because we believe that higher education is a public good and no one should have to struggle under the financial burden of going to college. And we are working to combat the privatization of higher education and confront the role of Wall Street in the compounding student debt crisis.

Finally, we want to spark a conversation around civic engagement and political participation among young people, as well as older people. I believe around 30 percent of student loan debt is held by people who are over the age of 30.

Holland: Let’s get beyond numbers. How is this issue affecting people who are trying to enter the workforce?

Stamp: The problem is multifaceted. Look at buying a house or a car. Student loan debt is affecting those sales, because if you’re still trying to pay off a loan or two, how are you going to pay for a home? How are you able to own a car to get you to work?

Because of the job market a lot of young people who graduate out of college are finding themselves in low-wage work, or finding themselves in unpaid internships, and are not able to pay back those loans. And when people take out private student loans — there are private and federal student loans — private student loan interest rates can be anywhere from 9-12 percent. That adds up to significant money that could be used for saving up to buy a house or a car, or for rent — it could be used for so many other things that could put those dollars back into the economy. Instead, we’re paying off debt.

And right now, as we speak, at least seven million out of the 40 million borrowers in the US are in default [on their student loans].

Holland: Several factors contribute to the rise in tuition costs, but the leading factor is cuts to education spending in state budgets. We finance higher education through a blend of tuition and federal and state money. It’s easy to sell people on cutting their taxes — everybody wants a tax cut, but then you have to understand that there’s a price to be paid, and it’s being paid by young people coming out of college with this mountain of debt.

The Oregon Working Families Party is pushing a bill called Pay It Forward. It’s being considered in several states. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Stamp: At Working Families, we are doing our best to elevate innovative policies at the state level. And in Oregon, students at Portland State University, with guidance from a couple of professors — Barbara Dudley and Mary King — were looking across the country for solutions and found Pay It Forward. Those students decided to lobby their legislators, and last July Oregon passed Pay It Forward unanimously in the state legislature.

Pay It Forward allows students to go to college tuition-free — you pay no tuition up front. And then you pay a certain percentage of your income every year after you graduate for a certain amount of years. This removes the barrier of access, and instead of paying to the Wall Street banks, you’re paying to the state.

And it sparked similar proposals in more than 15 states across the country.

Holland: Some have criticized this idea as being too modest given the scale of the problem, in part because it would take several years to get enough funding into the system to have it be self-supporting. Another criticism is that Pay It Forward is a retreat from something more ambitious like full public funding of higher education. How do you respond?

Stamp: For years, we’ve been fighting for more funding for higher education and we’ve been getting cutbacks and more cutbacks. In 2010, Oregon cut financial aid by 75 percent. So students in Oregon are in a dire position. Pay It Forward is not necessarily the way to go for every state, but we believe that in states that continue to cut back, we need a forward-looking solution. We can’t just continue to fight against cuts or to fight for tuition freezes. We need to fight for a bold vision — like debt-free higher education. Free higher education is a goal for us and for many of our allies. But I think right now, we saw a way to implement a program that has gotten other states to think about what a world with debt-free higher education would look like. Because right now, we’re just continuing to get cuts every year on the state and local level.

That’s why we decided to move forward with Pay It Forward. And, again, we’re looking at a lot of different options here. We also know that we need to help borrowers who are now paying back $1.2 trillion in loans. So Pay It Forward is just one step and it allows us to think about a debt-free future.

Nelini Stamp Tells Bill About Occupy's Goals in 2012

Holland: Let me shift gears. You spoke about the privatization of education. Working Families is very engaged in New York. Can you give us some insight into this battle between the de Blasio administration and Eva Moskowitz? Who is Eva Moskowitz?

Stamp: Eva Moskowitz has been a big proponent of charter schools. She was a former city council member who now runs the Success Academy Charter Schools. And recently, she has been caught in this battle with Bill de Blasio over the co-location of charter and public schools. De Blasio allowed most of her co-location schools to be approved, except for three.

Recently, while de Blasio was having a rally for universal pre-k, which Eva Moskowitz had said she supported before, Moskowitz decided to do a pro-charter school rally, and she closed down her 22 schools and turned her kids into political props for a rally. Imagine if public schools did that — if we shut down all public schools so they could just lobby for universal pre-k? It would be an outrage. But charters are public in that they’re funded by public tax dollars.

Holland: The fight over charter schools seems to be one that doesn’t always fall along the usual political lines. Many African-Americans are in favor of charters. Does that make it more difficult for progressives to tackle this issue?

Stamp: There’s a reason for that. Just like we’ve been doing in higher education, we’ve been privatizing public schools and we’ve been cutting teachers, teacher salaries. So it’s understandable, because a lot of African-Americans live in lower income neighborhoods and they’re the ones that are targeted by charter schools. And they are seen by many as a solution and an alternative.

I do believe that it makes it a little bit difficult, but I think the bottom line here is that we need to show that we’re fighting for something like free universal pre-k, something that will help everyone, low-income parents, African-American families — we need to fight for that.

Holland: Where does the campaign go next, and how can people get involved?

Stamp: People can get involved by visiting Higher Ed, Not Debt website, the Working Families website, as well as visiting And people should sign petitions, come to rallies, write letters to the governor and support Mayor de Blasio as he fights for free universal pre-k.

By the Way, Your Home Is on Fire: Climate Change and the Dangers of Stasis

This post first appeared at TomDispatch.

Floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina fill the streets near downtown New Orleans, La., on Aug. 30, 2005. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

As the San Francisco bureaucrats on the dais murmured about why they weren’t getting anywhere near what we in the audience passionately hoped for, asked for and worked for, my mind began to wander. I began to think of another sunny day on the other side of the country 13 years earlier, when nothing happened the way anyone expected. I had met a survivor of that day who told me his story.

A high-powered financial executive, he had just arrived on the 66th floor of his office building and entered his office carrying his coffee, when he saw what looked like confetti falling everywhere — not a typical 66th floor spectacle. Moments later, one of his friends ran out of a meeting room shouting, “They’re back.”

It was, of course, the morning of September 11th and his friend had seen a plane crash into the north tower of the World Trade Center. My interviewee and his colleagues in the south tower got on the elevator. In another 15 minutes or so, that was going to be a fast way to die, but they managed to ride down to the 44th floor lobby safely. A guy with a bullhorn was there, telling people to go back to their offices.

Still holding his cup of coffee, he decided — as did many others in that lobby — to go down the stairs instead. When he reached the 20th floor, a voice came on the public address system and told people to go back to their offices. My storyteller thought about obeying those instructions. Still holding his coffee, he decided to keep heading down. He even considered getting back on an elevator, but hit the stairs again instead. Which was a good thing, because when he was on the ninth floor, the second plane crashed into the south tower, filling the elevator shafts with flaming jet fuel. Two hundred to 400 elevator riders died horribly. He put down his coffee at last and lived to tell the tale.

The Last Rural Abortion Clinics in Texas Just Shut Down

Hundreds of abortion rights demonstrators rally outside of the State Captiol in Austin, Texas to protest anti-abortion legislation. Monday, July 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Tamir Kalifa)

This post originally appeared at The American Prospect.

Since November, the last abortion clinics in East Texas and the Rio Grande Valley, some of the poorest and most remote parts of the state, have been hanging on by their fingernails. The two clinics, both outposts of a network of abortion providers called Whole Woman’s Health, stayed open with slimmed-down staffs while their owner, Amy Hagstrom Miller, struggled to comply with the first chunk of HB2 — the voluminous anti-choice law passed by the Texas legislature last summer — which requires abortion doctors to obtain admitting privileges at a local hospital. Today, after weeks of failed negotiations with nearby hospitals, Hagstrom Miller announced that both clinics are closing their doors.

Between July, when HB2 passed and November, when the admitting privileges requirement went into effect, nearly half of Texas’ 44 abortion clinics folded, unable to comply with the new rules.

The clinics in Beaumont, about an hour east of Houston and McAllen, just north of the Mexico border, were the last rural abortion providers left in Texas. Between July, when HB2 passed and November, when the admitting privileges requirement went into effect, nearly half of the state’s 44 abortion clinics folded, unable to comply with the new rules. The health center in McAllen stopped offering abortions and pared down its staff, providing ultrasounds and counseling to the women who continued to walk in the door and helping them coordinate travel to the nearest clinic, two hours north in Corpus Christi. The Beaumont clinic survived this initial purge because one of its physicians had admitting privileges, but he’s in his seventies and wants to retire. His colleagues couldn’t get privileges in his stead, leaving the clinic in a precarious position.

“I had to come to terms with the fact that those clinics had no future,” Hagstrom Miller says. She might have kept looking for a way to keep them open, if she wasn’t facing a much bigger threat. In September, the rest of HB2 will go into effect, requiring all abortion providers to conform to the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers (ASCs), outpatient care units that offer more complicated procedures, usually involving high levels of anesthesia. Only one of Hagstrom Miller’s remaining three clinics, the Whole Woman’s Health in Fort Worth, qualifies as an ASC. Updating the other two clinics to comply with ASC regulations — which include wider hallways and specialized heating and cooling systems — could cost $6 million.

The Corpus Christi clinic (which isn’t one of Hagstrom Miller’s) also has until September to renovate. If that clinic closes, Rio Grande residents will have to embark on a five-hour trek to San Antonio. Women in Beaumont won’t have as far to drive, but they will have to make multiple trips. Under Texas law, women seeking an abortion must obtain a sonogram from the doctor who will be performing the procedure at least 24 hours ahead of time. If you live more than 100 miles from the clinic, you’re exempt from the law. Unfortunately for Beaumont women, their town is a mere 90 miles from the nearest abortion provider in Houston.

For many women, a long drive, an overnight stay and a few days off work are a substantial burden, but not impossible. For the residents of the Rio Grande Valley, though, these new hurdles could make abortion as difficult to obtain as if it were illegal. McAllen is one of the poorest cities in the country, second only to Brownsville, another town nearby. Last fall, Sarah Posner documented some of the barriers that keep women in the Rio Grande from accessing basic reproductive healthcare like birth control. Unpaved roads, erratic electricity and poor sanitation are common in the surrounding communities. Few of the Rio Grande’s residents have jobs with sick leave. By Hagstrom Miller’s estimate, around one-third of her patients are undocumented immigrants who can’t drive beyond the border checkpoints north of McAllen without risking deportation.

Rather than waiting for months to scrape together the money for the procedure and the trip — a Sisyphean task in itself, since the price for abortion skyrockets from as little as $300 in the first trimester to several thousand dollars by the end of the second — more women may take matters into their own hands.

Rather than waiting for months to scrape together the money for the procedure and the trip — a Sisyphean task in itself, since the price for abortion skyrockets from as little as $300 in the first trimester to several thousand dollars by the end of the second — more women may take matters into their own hands. The Rio Grande Valley already has one of the highest rates of self-induced abortion in the country. A 2012 survey found that 12 percent of women in clinics near the Mexico border said they had attempted to end their pregnancy on their own before seeking professional help. “They’re getting drugs from Mexico, drinking teas, eating herbs, falling down the stairs on purpose or convincing their boyfriends to beat them up,” Hagstrom Miller says. “Any of those methods could be fatal.”

The problem is compounded by the Texas legislature’s decision, in 2011, to slash funding for family planning services. Dan Grossman, the vice president for research at Ibis Reproductive Health, a pro-choice think tank, has been investigating the effects of these cuts as co-principal investigator of the Texas Policy Evaluation Project at the University of Texas-Austin. In a 2012 survey of women seeking abortions, nearly half of the respondents said they hadn’t been able to obtain their preferred form of birth control in the past three months. “The cuts in family planning are leading to a rise in unintended pregnancy and an increased demand for abortion,” Grossman says. “More clinic closures means that women will have to wait longer to get the procedure, which means a higher risk of complications.”

In 2013, 38 percent of people living in the Rio Grande Valley were uninsured. When state-funded family planning clinics in the region folded, poor women lost their only source of affordable birth control. Now, some may be getting access to contraception once again, thanks to the rollout of Obamacare. But Texas’s refusal to participate in Medicaid expansion means that many Rio Grande residents will fall into the “coverage gap”— earning too much to be covered under Medicaid but too little to qualify for insurance tax credits — and won’t be able to get the no-cost birth control promised by the Affordable Care Act. Others are undocumented and unable to buy insurance on the exchanges.

Long wait times for appointments will undoubtedly become the norm. By next fall, when the ASC requirement kicks in, six clinics in major urban centers — Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Fort Worth — could be responsible for performing more than 70,000 abortions each year. Hagstrom Miller and others are fundraising to help poor women pay for transportation to these cities, but for many, a trip to Mexico to buy illegal abortion drugs might seem like a better bet.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a writing fellow at the Prospect. Follow her on Twitter @ameliatd.

Actually, You Can Link Specific Weather Events to Climate Change

Chad Stunted Nation
In Louri village in the Mao region of Chad, climate change has meant that the normally once-a-decade droughts are now coming every few years. November 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

This post originally appeared at The Guardian and was republished at Mother Jones as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

“You can’t link climate change to specific weather events.” That is the accepted wisdom that has been trotted out repeatedly as the wettest winter in at least 250 years battered England and Wales. But the accepted wisdom is wrong: It is perfectly possible to make that link and as of today, you can play a part in doing so.

new citizen science project launched by climate researchers at the University of Oxford will determine in the next month or so whether global warming made this winter’s extreme deluge more likely to occur, or not. You can sign up here.

The weather@home project allows you to donate your spare computer time in return for helping turn speculation over the role of climate change in extreme weather into statistical fact. That debate has been reignited by the devastating winter weather and the flooding and storm damage it wrought.

The research that links global warming to particular extreme weather events is called attribution and has already notched up notable successes. The Oxford team showed in 2011 that climate change was loading the extreme-weather dice as far back as 2000, in a study that showed serious flooding in England that year was made two to three times more likely by man-made greenhouse gas emissions. The killer heat waves in Europe in 2003 and 2010 were also made far more likely by global warming, similar research has demonstrated, while another new study shows how Hurricane Katrina would have been far less devastating had it happened 100 years ago.

The attribution studies work by taking a period of time in which an extreme weather event occurred and rerunning it many thousands of times in climate models. One set of models starts with the actual real-world conditions — i.e., with high levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases — and reveals how frequently the extreme event occurs. Another set of models starts with atmospheric and ocean conditions that would have existed without the carbon emissions pumped into the air by human activities and therefore shows how frequently the extreme event occurs would occur in an unwarmed world.

Comparing the frequency of the extreme event in each set of models gives a measure of how heavily global warming has loaded the extreme-weather dice — or not. The models have to be run many thousands of times because the extreme events being studied are, by definition, rare. Many repetitions are required to generate robust statistics and that’s why they need your computer time: It’s a huge computing task. Nathalie Schaller, a member of the Oxford team, explains the experiment further in this video:

The researchers do not know what the result of this new experiment will be and they will post the results of the computer model runs as they come in, on their site and this blog. The science will unfold live before your eyes and theirs, at the same time.

They estimate that a total of roughly 30,000 reruns of the English winter of 2013-14 will be needed to reach a definitive conclusion. That should take a month, depending on how many people sign up.

To give you a sense of what the results will look like, the team have generated some illustrative graphs, based on previous data but not pertaining to the new experiment. The plots show the chance of the total winter rainfall exceeding 450 millimeters in a particular year (the winter of 2013-14 saw 435 mm fall on England and Wales, the highest in records dating back to 1766).

Each rerun winter is represented by a dot, with blue dots coming from the set representing the real-world conditions and green dots coming from the set representing the modeled world without climate change. If the blue dots plot above the green dots, then climate change has made that event more likely and vice versa. If the dots plot in the same place, then climate change has not affected the chances of that event happening.

In the plot below, containing just 120 simulations of the winter, it is hard to discern any convincing trend. That is because when examining extreme events, many simulations are needed to generate a robust result.

The small dots represent uncertainties in the estimates. (Chart, University of Oxford)

But in the following plot, with over 2000 simulations, the trend is much clearer. The new experiment is likely to need 5,000 reruns of the winter under real-world conditions and 24,000 reruns of the winter as it would have occurred in world without climate change.

The small dots represent uncertainties in the estimates. (Chart, University of Oxford)

Predicting the impacts of climate change rightly takes up much of the time of climate change researchers, but this use of climate models reveals the extent to which climate change and extreme weather is a danger right here, right now.

It is rare that anyone with a computer can participate in cutting-edge scientific research, particularly on such a relevant and important topic, but the weather@home project presents that opportunity. The Oxford team would be grateful if you took it.

Damian Carrington heads the environment section of The Guardian.

Hundreds of Students Arrested Outside White House at Keystone XL Pipeline Protest

Loudly denouncing the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, about 1,000 people — most of them students — marched from Georgetown to the White House Sunday. Once there, hundreds fastened themselves to the fence outside the White House, while hundreds more stood with them, waiting to be arrested. By the end of the day, roughly 400 had been taken into custody.

Their message for President Obama: Our demographic helped vote you into office, and we oppose the pipeline. Do you stand with your constituents, or do you stand with the fossil fuel industry and its legion of lobbyists?

We Want to Have a Common Language: Carolina Jews for Justice Stand Out in the Moral Mondays Crowd

This post originally appeared at Tikkun Daily.

Thousands of people march through through downtown Raleigh, N.C. in what organizers describe as a "Mass Moral March" near the State Capitol building Saturday Feb. 8, 2014. Nearly 200 organizations are joining the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the "Moral March on Raleigh," a new name for the "Historic Thousands on Jones Street," as it was originally called. Jones Street referred to the street where the Legislative Building stands and the usual terminus of the march. Advocates are angry about bills Gov. Pat McCrory has signed into law, including the refusal to expand Medicaid under the federal health care law; a reduction in unemployment benefits; an elections-overhaul law that requires photo identification to vote in person; the elimination of the earned income tax credit; and taxpayer-funded grants for low-income children to attend private K-12 schools. (AP Photo/The News & Observer, Chuck Liddy)
Members of the Carolina Jews for Justice joined the Mass Moral March at the state capitol in Raleigh along with nearly 200 other organizations on Saturday, February 8, 2014. (AP Photo/The News & Observer, Chuck Liddy)

It can be isolating to be a progressive Jew in North Carolina. In a state where just one percent of the population identifies as Jewish, it can be tough just to find a religious community, let alone a politically active one. Although older Jews who may have been activists in the civil rights movement of the 20th century still live there, it appears their coordinated work for justice ended along with that era. There is no sustaining, Jewish-identified organizational infrastructure that today’s generation of younger North Carolina Jews could revive and harness for today’s fights.

But recently one Raleigh-based Jewish group has tapped into a wellspring of political passion among Jews and is mobilizing them across the state to challenge the Republican takeover of the legislature. Through building coalitions with other faith and community-based groups, turning Jews out to the Moral Mondays rallies at the state capitol and organizing laypeople and rabbis to take action, the members of Carolina Jews for Justice (CJJ) are speaking up for the political changes they want to see in North Carolina.

Through building coalitions with other faith and community-based groups, turning Jews out to the Moral Mondays rallies at the state capitol and organizing laypeople and rabbis to take action, the members of Carolina Jews for Justice (CJJ) are speaking up for the political changes they want to see in North Carolina.

CJJ president Debbie Goldstein describes the loose but committed network of grassroots volunteers that maintains this activity. “There are eight or 10 of us that keep the day-to-day work going, 20 of us that come all the time and 100 that come out to a rally,” she says. Goldstein adds that while CJJ’s regular meetings are held in Raleigh and Durham, it claims members from all over the state, including the metro regions of Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Asheville and Greensboro. MORE

Why the Tea Party’s Hold Persists

Kay Hohler, of West Des Moines, Iowa, sings the national anthem before the start of a tea party rally on the steps of the Iowa Statehouse, Thursday, April 15, 2010, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Kay Hohler, of West Des Moines, Iowa, sings the national anthem before the start of a tea party rally on the steps of the Iowa Statehouse, Thursday, April 15, 2010, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

This article originally appeared at Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, as part of a symposium on the tea party movement. To read other essays from the series, read “Is the Party Over?

The demise of the tea party was loudly announced right after Congress voted on October 16 to lift the debt ceiling and reopen the federal government. “Finally! The Republican Fever Is Broken,” exulted Jamelle Bouie at The Daily Beast, while Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson proclaimed President Obama’s “victory” over the tea party just as “devastating as Sherman’s march through the South.” With most Americans telling pollsters they do not like the tea party and its tactics, the GOP will eventually have to pivot back to the median voter, explained Noah Feldman in his Bloomberg column, “How the Tea Party Will Die.”

Other optimists placed greater emphasis on the supposed new will of business interests and Republican Party elders to recapture party control. Offering reassurance, supporters of Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner told the pre-eminent inside-the-Beltway gossip site Politico that their guy was more effectively in charge of his raucous GOP caucus following the shutdown debacle. Karl Rove vowed to block far-right tea party challengers in GOP primaries, and the Chamber of Commerce started to make noises about supporting some supposed “moderates” against tea party candidates in 2014 GOP primaries.

The tea party’s hold on the GOP persists beyond each burial ceremony.
But we have heard all this before. The tea party was supposed to be dead and the GOP on the way to moderate repositioning after Obama’s victory and Democratic congressional gains in November 2012. Yet less than a year after post-election GOP soul searching supposedly occurred, radical forces pulled almost all GOP House and Senate members into at least going along with more than two weeks of extortion tactics to try to force President Obama and Senate Democrats to gut the Affordable Care Act and grant a long laundry list of other GOP priorities suspiciously similar to the platform on which the party had run and lost in 2012. The tea party’s hold on the GOP persists beyond each burial ceremony.

In 2011, Vanessa Williamson and I published our book The tea party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, which used a full panoply of research — from interviews and local observations to media and website analysis and tracking of national surveys — to explain the dynamics of this radical movement. We showed how bottom-up and top-down forces intersect to give the tea party both leverage over the Republican Party and the clout to push national politics sharply to the right.

At the grassroots, volunteer activists formed hundreds of local tea parties, meeting regularly to plot public protests against the Obama Administration and place steady pressure on GOP organizations and candidates at all levels. At least half of all GOP voters sympathize with this tea party upsurge. They are overwhelmingly older, white, conservative-minded men and women who fear that “their country” is about to be lost to mass immigration and new extensions of taxpayer-funded social programs (like the Affordable Care Act) for low- and moderate-income working-aged people, many of whom are black or brown. Fiscal conservatism is often said to be the top grassroots tea party priority, but Williamson and I did not find this to be true. Crackdowns on immigrants, fierce opposition to Democrats, and cuts in spending for the young were the overriding priorities we heard from volunteer Tea Partiers, who are often, themselves, collecting costly Social Security, Medicare, and veterans benefits to which they feel fully entitled as Americans who have “paid their dues” in lifetimes of hard work.

On the other end of the organizational spectrum, big-money funders and free-market advocacy organizations used angry grassroots protests to expand their email lists and boost longstanding campaigns to slash taxes, shrink social spending, privatize Medicare and Social Security, and eliminate or block regulations (including carbon controls). In 2009, groups such as FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, the Club for Growth, and Tea Party Express (a renamed conservative GOP political action committee) leapt on the bandwagon; more recently, the Senate Conservative Action Fund and Heritage Action have greatly bolstered the leveraging capacities of the tea party as a whole. Elite activities ramped up after many tea party legislators were elected in 2010.

Tea party activists attend a rally on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, June 19, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Tea party activists attend a rally on the grounds of the US Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, June 19, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Here is the key point: Even though there is no one center of tea party authority — indeed, in some ways because there is no one organized center — the entire gaggle of grassroots and elite organizations amounts to a pincers operation that wields money and primary votes to exert powerful pressure on Republican officeholders and candidates. Tea party influence does not depend on general popularity at all. Even as most Americans have figured out that they do not like the tea party or its methods, tea party clout has grown in Washington and state capitals. Most legislators and candidates are Nervous Nellies, so all tea party activists, sympathizers and funders have had to do is recurrently demonstrate their ability to knock off seemingly unchallengeable Republicans (ranging from Charlie Crist in Florida to Bob Bennett of Utah to Indiana’s Richard Lugar). That grabs legislators’ attention and results in either enthusiastic support for, or acquiescence to, obstructive tactics. The entire pincers operation is further enabled by various right-wing tracking organizations that keep close count of where each legislator stands on “key votes” — including even votes on amendments and the tiniest details of parliamentary procedure, the kind of votes that legislative leaders used to orchestrate in the dark.

The 2010 elections were a high watermark for tea party funders and voters. Amid intense public frustration at the slow economic recovery, only two of five US voters went to the polls. The electorate skewed toward older, whiter, wealthier conservatives; and this low turnout allowed fired-up tea party Republicans to score many triumphs in the House and state legislatures. And the footholds gained are not easily lost. Once solid blocs of tea party supporters or compliant legislators are ensconced in office, outside figures like Dick Armey of FreedomWorks (in 2011) and Jim DeMint of Heritage Action (in 2013) appoint themselves de facto orchestrators, taking control away from elected GOP leaders John Boehner and Mitch McConnell.

In the latest such maneuver during the summer of 2013, radical-right Texas Senator Ted Cruz put himself forward as a bold tea party strategist calling for a renewed all-out crusade to kill Obamacare long after it was assured survival by the Supreme Court and the 2012 presidential election. With his strong ties to far-right funders and ideologues, plus a self-assured, even arrogant, pugnaciousness that thrills much of the GOP electorate, Cruz could direct a chunk of House Republicans to pressure a weak Boehner into proceeding with the government shutdown and debt brinkmanship. Apologists say Boehner was “reluctant,” but what difference does that make? He went along.

Americans may resent the tea party, but they are also losing ever more faith in the federal government — a big win for anti-government saboteurs.
After the immediate effort flopped and caused most Americans to further sour on Republicans, Cruz remained unbowed. And why not? After all, Cruz gained near-total name recognition and sky-high popularity among tea party voters. He now appears regularly on television, and his antics have allowed elite tea party forces to lock in draconian reductions in federal spending for coming rounds of budget struggles. Americans may resent the tea party, but they are also losing ever more faith in the federal government — a big win for anti-government saboteurs. Popularity and “responsible governance” are not the goals of tea party forces, and such standards should not be used to judge the accomplishments of those who aim to undercut, block and delay — even as tea party funders remain hopeful about holding their own or making further gains in another low-turnout midterm election in November 2014.

The bottom line is sobering. Anyone concerned about the damage tea party forces are inflicting on American politics needs to draw several hard-headed conclusions.

For one, at least three successive national election defeats will be necessary to even begin to break the determination and leverage of tea party adherents. Grassroots tea partiers see themselves in a last-ditch effort to save “their country,” and big-money ideologues are determined to undercut Democrats and sabotage active government. They are in this fight for the long haul. Neither set of actors will stand down easily or very soon.

Also worth remembering is that “moderate Republicans” barely exist right now. Close to two-thirds of House Republicans voted against bipartisan efforts to reopen the federal government and prevent US default on loan obligations, and Boehner has never repudiated such extortionist tactics. Tea Partiers may not call for another shutdown right away, but they will continue to be able to draw most GOP legislators and leaders into aggressive efforts to obstruct and delay. In the electorate, moreover, more than half of GOP voters sympathize with the tea party and cheer on obstructionist tactics, and the remaining Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are disorganized and divided in their views of the likes of Ted Cruz.

Speaking of which, Cruz is very well positioned to garner unified tea party support in the 2016 GOP presidential primaries. [See Dave Weigel, “The Tea Party and the 2016 Nomination”] During the last election cycle, no far-right candidate ever consolidated sustained grassroots tea party support, as those voters hopped from Rick Perry to Herman Cain to Newt Gingrich to Rick Santorum. But this time, Cruz may very well enjoy unified and enthusiastic grassroots tea party support from the beginning of the primary election season. In the past, less extreme GOP candidates have always managed to garner the presidential nomination, but maybe not this time. And even if a less extreme candidate finally squeaks through, Cruz will set much of the agenda for Republicans heading into 2016.

When it comes to “reining in” the tea party, business associations and spokespeople may talk bigger than they will act. They have lots to say to reporters, but they show few signs of mounting the kind of organized, sustained efforts it would take to counter tea party enthusiasm and funding. Groups like the Chamber of Commerce have spent decades using right-wing energy to help elect Republicans, who, once elected, are supposed to focus on tax cuts and deregulation. It used to be relatively easy to con Christian-right voters with flashy election symbolism and then soft-pedal their preferences once Republicans took office. Today’s far right is unmistakably another cup of tea. Even as business funders realize this, however, they will be tempted to keep replaying the old strategies, because turning to Democrats will usually not seem acceptable, and it will be almost impossible in many states and districts to mount GOP primary challenges from the middle-right without improving Democratic prospects in general election contests.

Finally, Democrats need to get over thinking that opinion polls and media columns add up to real political gains. Once the October 2013 shutdown ended in supposed total victory for President Obama and his party, many Democrats adopted a cocky swagger and started talking about ousting the House GOP in 2014. But a clear-eyed look shows that tea party obstruction remains powerful and has achieved victories that continue to stymie Democratic efforts to govern effectively — a necessary condition for Democrats to win enthusiastic, sustained voter support for the future, including in midterm elections. Our debates about federal budgets still revolve around degrees of imposed austerity. Government shutdowns and repeated partisan-induced “crises” have greatly undercut US economic growth and cost up to a year’s worth of added jobs. Real national challenges — fighting global warming, improving education, redressing extreme economic inequalities, rebuilding and improving economic infrastructure — go unaddressed as extreme GOP obstructive capacities remain potent in Washington and many state capitals.

True, the events of October 2013 helped millions of middle-of-the-road voters — and even quite a few complacent political reporters — grasp the dangers of the sabotage-oriented radicalism in today’s Republican Party. But it will take a long and dogged struggle to root out radical obstructionism on the right, and the years ahead could yet see Tea Partiers succeed by default. Unless non-tea party Republicans, independents, and Democrats learn both to defeat and to work around anti-government extremism—finding ways to do positive things for the majority of ordinary citizens along the way—tea party forces will still win in the end. They will triumph just by hanging on long enough to cause most Americans to give up in disgust on our blatantly manipulated democracy and our permanently hobbled government.

Theda Skocpol is an American sociologist and political scientist at Harvard University. She is co-author, with Vanessa Williamson, of The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.

Are Tiny Houses the Key to Fighting Homelessness?

This post first appeared in Yes! Magazine.

An architect's rendering of Quixote Village in Olympia, Wash. Image courtesy of Panza.

An architect's rendering of Quixote Village in Olympia, Wash. Image courtesy of Panza.

On a Saturday in September, more than 125 volunteers showed up with tools in hand and built six new 16-by-20-foot houses for a group of formerly homeless men. It was the beginning of Second Wind Cottages, a tiny-house village for the chronically homeless in the town of Newfield, NY, outside of Ithaca.

On January 29, the village officially opened, and its first residents settled in. Each house had cost about $10,000 to build, a fraction of what it would have cost to house the men in a new apartment building.

The project is part of a national movement of tiny-house villages, an alternative approach to housing the homeless that’s beginning to catch the interest of national advocates and government housing officials alike.

“It’s certainly something that we would encourage other communities to take a look at,” says Lee Jones at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
For many years, it has been tough to find a way to house the homeless. More than 3.5 million people experience homelessness in the United States each year, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. Shortages of low-income housing continue to be a major challenge. For every 100 households of renters in the United States that earn “extremely low income” (30 percent of the median or less), there are only 30 affordable apartments available, according to a 2013 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition. MORE

Celebrities, European Leaders Push for Final Deal on Wall Street Tax

This post first appeared on the Institute for Policy Studies blog.

If you love Harry Potter, zombies, European art house films or thumbing your nose at the big banks, you’ll love the new video promoting a Wall Street tax.

This is the first time, in my recollection, that major celebrities have ever showed a united front against the mighty financial industry lobby. The director is David Yates, who made the last four Harry Potter movies. Andrew Lincoln, the star of the hit zombie series The Walking Dead, and Bill Nighy, of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Love, Actually, are among the actors.

Wall Street lobbyists will hate the film because it portrays a newscast 10 years from now in which a panel of bankers rave about the multitudinous benefits their countries have enjoyed as a result of a small tax on trades of stock and derivatives. The only panelist who’s decidedly not over the moon is Nighy, who plays a banker from the UK, which did not adopt the tax.

The viral video is one more setback for the financial industry lobbyists who have been madly trying to block progress on such taxes. In Europe, they seem to be losing the battle.

At a February 19 press conference in Paris, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Hollande confirmed that a coalition of 11 EU governments are on track to finalize a coordinated financial transaction tax before May. European elections are that month, and this is considered a sure vote-getter. The latest Euro-barometer survey shows 82 percent of German and 72 percent of French citizens support it.

There have been hints, however, that the tax could be a watered-down version of the initial European Commission proposal. That original plan would place a tax of 0.1 percent on stock and bond trades and 0.01 percent on derivatives. Expected revenues: 31 billion euros ($US 42 billion) per year.

In a recent speech, EU Tax Commissioner Algirdas Šemeta indicated that negotiators are considering a graduated approach as a compromise. In the first phase, the tax would apply only to stock trades. In subsequent phases, it would be expanded to cover other instruments, including derivatives and possibly foreign exchange spot transactions.

German activist Peter Wahl feels this would be a bit of a setback but not the end of the world. “We could live with a two-step approach as a compromise under the condition that there is a binding timetable for the second step and that derivatives are included in the end,” he said.

Wahl, an analyst with the German group WEED, is one of the leaders of a diverse international campaign made up of labor, global health, climate and other groups that has driven the financial transaction tax (aka Robin Hood Tax) from the fringe to the center of global debates.

At her joint press conference with Hollande, Merkel predicted that “the minute things start to move forward other countries may be less reluctant and it could be expanded.”

European progress is likely to change the dynamic in the United States as well. The Obama administration is not yet supportive, but there is growing support in the US Congress.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) have proposed a 0.03 percent tax on stock, bond and derivative trades, with a tax credit offset for contributions to qualified tax-favored accounts, such as 401(k) retirement funds. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) has introduced the Inclusive Prosperity Act, which proposes tax rates of 0.5 percent on stock, 0.1 percent on bond and 0.005 percent on derivative trades, with an offset for taxpayers who make less than $50,000 per year.

The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates the Harkin-DeFazio proposal could raise $350 billion over 10 years.

There is also growing support among financial industry professionals who believe the small tax would be good for market stability. In a joint letter, more than 50 financial professionals wrote that “these taxes will rebalance financial markets away from a short-term trading mentality that has contributed to instability in our financial markets.”

RoseAnn DeMoro on the Robin Hood Tax
At a time when financial markets are dominated by computer-driven high frequency trading that has little benefit for the real economy, a tax of even a fraction of a percent could encourage longer-term sustainable investment.

At the end of the satirical video, the humiliated British banker lamely resorts to boasting about other occasions in which the Brits were not behind the curve, namely the Beatles and soccer. I suppose American bankers could come up with a few examples of their own. A better response to the growing momentum behind the financial transaction tax would be to just get on board.

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies and is the co-author of the new report “Platinum-Plated Pensions: The Retirement Fortunes of CEOs Who Want to Cut Your Social Security.”

Kentucky’s Keystone XL: The Bluegrass Pipeline

This post originally appeared in In These Times.

Similar to the Keystone XL pipeline, the proposed Bluegrass pipeline in Kentucky has met opposition from an unlikely coalition of environmentalists, religious groups and libertarians defending property rights. (Michael Fleshman/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Similar to the Keystone XL pipeline, the proposed Bluegrass pipeline in Kentucky has met opposition from an unlikely coalition of environmentalists, religious groups and libertarians defending property rights. (Michael Fleshman/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Buff Bradley, a 50-year-old champion thoroughbred trainer, makes for an unlikely environmentalist. The son of Fred Bradley, who’s a former Kentucky state senator, county judge, attorney, songwriter, pilot and horse-breeding icon‚ Buff has spent much of his life bringing up racehorses on his family’s 300-acre farm in western Franklin County. If you like to brush shoulders with the owners of high-speed, million-dollar winning Kentucky thoroughbreds, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the family name.

Buff didn’t choose to take on the fossil fuel industry; the fight came to him. Last April, representatives from the Tulsa-based Williams Energy and Houston-based Boardwalk Pipeline Partners visited his family farm and asked to survey the land for a natural gas liquids pipeline. Bradley respectfully declined to cooperate and got in touch with neighboring landowners with whom surveyors had also paid a visit.

But it didn’t take long for Kentucky’s Bluegrass Region to become the latest, if improbable, flashpoint in North America’s pipeline wars.

Driven by a mix of concerns over safety and property rights and bolstered by a dose of environmentalism, the opposition blurs ideological boundaries.
Williams and Boardwalk quickly moved from surveying land to making offers for easements in order to construct the Bluegrass Pipeline, a jointly owned venture that would ship natural gas liquids over the 1,000 miles from the Marcellus and Utica oil-bearing shale deposits to Gulf Coast refineries. The companies want to lay much of the new pipeline in Kentucky — about 150 miles’ worth — while reconverting old gas pipelines to complete the rest of the route from Kentucky to Louisiana. Meanwhile, environmental groups like Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and the state’s Sierra Club chapter jumped into the fray, taking the side of the property owners like Bradley who are unwilling to sell easements.

Driven by a mix of concerns over safety and property rights and bolstered by a dose of environmentalism, the opposition blurs ideological boundaries.

“I think lots of folks around here are kinda rubbed the wrong way by the thought that some out-of-state multibillion-dollar corporation could just come in, throw their weight around and take whatever land they want from folks to build this pipeline,” says Sellus Wilder, a former city commissioner in Frankfort, the state capital, who’s filming a documentary about the pipeline.

“In Kentucky, in particular, we seem to be a little,” Wilder pauses, “I wouldn’t say territorial, but I think we maybe value our ownership of our own land a little more deeply here.”

A lot to lose, little to gain

The Bluegrass Pipeline isn’t a run-of-the-mill gas pipeline.

The hazardous materials that it would carry, natural gas liquids, are a byproduct of gas drilling. Separated early on from the more commonly used natural gas product that goes toward electricity generation, most gas liquids, which include ethane, propane and butane, are used as feedstock for plastics and other petrochemical products. As the shale revolution barrels ahead in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, energy companies are aiming to capitalize on the high profit margins these liquids fetch on the market.

There’s just one major barrier. The chief processing and refining facilities, at least for now, are on the Gulf Coast, about 1,000 miles away from the Northeast’s fracking heartland. But if companies can manage to get their product to export facilities in Louisiana and Texas, lucrative international markets await: the American Chemistry Council predicts chemical exports to rise by 45 percent over the next five years. Offering up to 400,000 barrels of daily capacity, the Bluegrass Pipeline would help fuel this boom.

The clear stakes of the fight — the pipeline offers large rewards to a small niche of the gas and petrochemical industries while offering little to the Kentucky corridor it would cross — helps explain the passionate tenor of opposition, says Deb Nardone, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Natural Gas national campaign, which, with its limited resources, has steered clear of the local fight so far.

“[Natural gas liquids] are not at all about domestic energy security,” Nardone says. “It’s about what’s going to make the industry money. And that’s what’s started to bring nontraditional allies together, as they realize it’s not in their personal benefit in the long run.”

Indeed, the more that residents educated themselves about the project, the more the opposition’s ranks swelled. Landowners didn’t need to be experts in the political economy of natural gas liquids — or for that matter, even care about climate change — to conclude the pipeline presented little benefits for their home state.

“This is private companies doing this,” says Buff Bradley. “It’s not like it’s gonna be something for us. I don’t even want it close to me. I sure don’t want to leave this earth and leave my kids to deal with it either.”

Tom Fitzgerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, an environmental advocacy group that offers legal assistance, helped circulate information to concerned landowners about the state’s lack of regulation over gas pipelines and the safety risks — two issues that have helped drive public outcry. Hazardous pipeline accidents are rare, but because of the dangerous substances being transported, any leaks and explosions that do occur can be catastrophic.

The nontraditional battle lines are reminiscent of those surrounding the Keystone XL, says Jane Kleeb, director of Bold Nebraska, which helped organize local ranchers and farmers against the pipeline before it became the environmental cause celèbre that it is today.

“For us, there was common ground in the property rights issues and eminent domain,” Kleeb says. “That opens the door for us to engage in conversations with landowners about climate change and about fossil fuels and about Nebraska [getting] 80 percent [of its energy from] coal and how we need to be producing more renewable energy.”

Unlike the Keystone XL, however, those latter types of conversations aren’t driving the movement in the Bluegrass State. But not for lack of trying — green groups are increasingly in touch with landowners in an effort to broaden the politics of opposition. Activists from Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, for example, have pointed to the dirty pipeline proposal as evidence for the need to produce alternative, more sustainable sources of energy.

Those environmentalists also helped bring the movement to the streets: on Wednesday, hundreds rallied in Frankfort for the ninth annual “I Love Mountains Day.” The rally, which is organized by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, usually focuses on mountaintop removal. But this year, some of the speakers, like Sister Claire McGowan, a Dominican Sister of Peace, blasted the Bluegrass Pipeline. (Nuns from the Sisters of Loretto brought attention to the project last fall, when they refused to allow pipeline surveyors on their land).

In spite of these efforts, however, much of the opposition remains grounded in an old-fashioned, libertarian commitment to respecting private property rights, says Fitzgerald of the Kentucky Resources Council.

Of course, not everyone is opposed to the pipeline. Much like the proposed Keystone XL, heavily backed by the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department, a slice of organized labor is siding with the energy industry.

“We support it because it’s work for Kentucky workers,” says Ed Willoughby, director of the Kentucky Laborers Training Fund, which counts 3,000 members. “It provides jobs for Kentucky workers and that’s something we need.”

There’s no guarantee any of the estimated 6,000 construction jobs would actually go to members of any union. But Willoughby says the potential is good enough — swayed, one imagines, by Kentucky’s eight percent unemployment rate, which is eighth-highest in the nation. He’s also unconvinced by the timeless green argument that unions shouldn’t be gobbling up short-term gains at the long-term detriment of the planet.

“The people that work construction, all of our jobs are temporary,” Willoughby says. “Every project has a beginning, every project has an end. When those projects begin they help those working families, they help their kids go to school, they help the economy around because they’re spending more money and are able to pay their house payments and their car payments.”

The end game

In the next few months, the pipeline’s opponents are hoping that a pending lawsuit and upcoming state legislation can stick the final dagger into the heart of the project.

They’ve calculated that Williams and Boardwalk, struggling to secure the necessary easements, will eventually be forced to seize property using eminent domain. Kentucky state law is ambiguous on the matter: While the use of eminent domain is restricted to projects that have a “public use,” the law doesn’t explicitly prohibitprivate natural gas liquids pipelines from qualifying. The companies, for their part, have refused to promise they won’t resort to eminent domain.

The state’s attorney general has already said he doesn’t believe the pipeline would qualify. But to play it safe,Kentuckians United to Restrain Eminent Domain, represented by Fitzgerald, is asking the Franklin County circuit court to clarify whether the operators have grounds to invoke eminent domain.

Meanwhile, in response to pressure from landowners and environmentalists, the Kentucky Legislature is slated to move on a series of bills that would prohibit the pipeline operators from seizing private land. In the upper chamber, Jimmy Higdon, a Republican from Marion County, is sponsoring a bill that would limit the use of eminent domain to state-regulated utilities.

“Our opinion is they can’t get across Kentucky without using eminent domain,” Higdon tells In These Times. “We just want to make sure if a landowner says no, that no means no.”

Higdon says he would rather not comment on any of the environmental issues. He is, quite emphatically, not attracted to this issue out of concern for climate change.

“I can’t say that I’m on board,” Higdon says. “I’m not convinced that [man-made climate change is] 100 percent a sure thing. I think there’s some conflicting information on climate change and I’m not totally convinced yet.”

Susan Steingraber on Going Behind Bars to Protest Fracking
When it comes to impeding development of the natural gas industry, though, activists in Kentucky will take whatever allies they can get. And environmentalists better get used to these sorts of fights, say Kleeb of Bold Nebraska and Nardone of the Sierra Club. As the gas industry seeks to move its products to foreign markets — whether it’s LNG or NGL — that means more pipelines. And that, in turn, means more struggles like these.

“It is much more than just an environmentalist fight,” says the Sierra Club’s Nardone. “It’s about an industry that’s rogue and very little regulated trying to muscle its way into impacting people’s lives.”

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