Thursday, 7 September 2017

How Houston was left to drown

The flooding that has occurred as a result of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas has left lots dead and thousands in need of rescue or shelter. Portrayals of the catastrophe by the National Weather Service and the media as ‘historic’ and ‘natural’ should not be confused as meaning ‘entirely unexpected’ or worse ‘unpreventable’. The outcry buy activists and residents against the unplanned, all for profit development of cities like Houston has been constantly ignored by officials, leaving millions of already downtrodden people in a death trap. 
 
The image circulating online of elderly people sat in a nursing home waist deep in water is a shocking illustration of how some of the most vulnerable sections of the population are struggling to deal with the effects of Hurricane Harvey. While the people in that photograph have been rescued, the poorest residents of Houston who are surrounded by Houston’s vast petrochemical industry, are being gassed by and seeped in the toxic materials unleashed due to damage of oil refineries.
Residents are now facing a gut wrenching choice of staying in Houston or getting out in the desperate hope of finding somewhere else to go.

The Storm was anticipated

 The choices facing Houston’s undocumented immigrants are equally terrifying. Just hours before Harvey struck, Customs announced that they would maintain their checkpoints to verify immigration status as people fled from the coming destruction. Although, due to public outcry, Texas Governor Greg Abbot announced that those fleeing would have access to public shelters regardless of their immigration status, the overall message to the undocumented population was clear: Drown or be deported.
The Private prison corporations running Abbots detention centres, their cells filled with victims of raids carried out by the states deportation machine, were equally vague about their plans to deal with prisoners under their control. Confusion continued with contradictory orders from both the state and local authorities about whether residents should flee or stay put. Many stayed behind, lacking the money to do otherwise. The homeless were naturally distrustful of the authorities who denied them access to food and hounded them from the streets.
The common excuse from local officials in Houston and elsewhere was that telling people to leave would simply trap them on the road as the storm arrived, so the best solution would be for people to take shelter and hope for the best. However, this makes it seem as though the situation facing officials in Houston was somehow unexpected, and that the heads of industry and elected officials there didn’t have a hand in creating the conditions which led to the city becoming such a death tap in the first place.
Houston’s lack of infustructure to manage potential flood events is in many ways an environmental expression of the crisis of neoliberalism. As a crucial port city that thrives off oil revenues, Houston is a large profit making area in the US. The flood of private money into the petrochemical industry has also contributed toward the risk of literal flooding. Heavy investment in impermeable concrete has turned wetlands into high rises, shopping centres, marking lots and manufacturing platforms.
The problem with this is that wetlands act as natural shock absorbers for heavy rainfall. Concrete however, acts like a channel to transit and concentrate water. The activities of developers in Houston then have helped transform neighbourhoods once relatively safe from flooding into basis for collecting floodwater. Regulation on these developers is rare because elected officials are their lapdogs  who regard better drainage systems as a cost that others should pay for. In particular, through regressive taxation on working people.

Unnatural Disasters

The last significant flood prevention that Houston had was a set of dams introduced in the 1940s to prevent the cities system of bayous from overflowing into the central business district. However, as Hurricane Harvey arrived on Friday and the flooding started, the dams were being upgraded. This marks a frightening similarity to how the Levies around New Orleans were being upgraded, just as Katrina struck in 2005.
The dams in Houston are in fact a clear example of the crisis of public infustructure there. This is not the first time Houston has been subject to devastating floods. Not by a long stretch. The most memorable of these is tropical storm Allison in 2001, but they also suffered severe storms in 2008 and 2015. What is similar about them is that in each of these cases the storms were likewise described as ‘unprecedented’. Having ignored the warnings of scientists and the protests of trapped residents, officials are now feigning ignorance and surprise despite the fact that they facilitated the transformation of Houston into a capitalist basin which does not absorb water, but collects it.
Of Couse, if ‘unprecedented’ and ‘unexpected’ storms are happening with greater frequency, and if we accept the fact that the number of natural disasters has quadrupled since 1970, then it should appear obvious that they are no longer ‘unprecedented’ events are they? They are the new normal, bought about by fossil fuelled climate change. In that sense then, they can even be justifiably labelled as ‘unnatural disasters’.
Rising air and ocean temperature alongside increased levels of water vapour in the atmosphere as consequences of extracting and burning fossil fuels, have created the conditions for powerful storms like Harvey to emerge in the Gulf. When Harvey Struck, worsening atmospheric conditions also meant that there was little wind to keep the storm moving once on land. As a result, Harvey came ashore and hovered dumping 11 trillion Gallons of water and transforming poor and working class neighbourhoods into water tanks.

Conclusion

Houston’s fate provides a chilling revelation of what’s to come for other coastal cities as sea levels continue to rise. Nuclear power plants and chemical processing sites along the coast in places such as Bay City, are unnatural disasters just waiting for an unnatural storm to set them loose. Reports that we have seen so far have put the disaster damages cost in the tens of billions, and claimed that the storm has set the city even further back than they were in terms of development. What they haven’t mentioned is that capitalism has rigged the entire Gulf Coast for disaster.
As with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the destruction reached by Harvey will leave Houston’s economy laid bare to be feasted on by the vultures of ‘disaster capitalism’. Publicly owned infustructure, already destroyed by the storm, will be replaced with private development and yet more impermeable concrete.
Trump meanwhile has been busy flattering hurricane Harvey on Twitter, almost as if he thinks the residents of the affected areas did something to provoke Harvey, leading him to make the case for violence happening ‘on many sides’. Aside from this Trump made his priorities abundantly clear as he doubled down on his racism by pardoning the grotesque Sherriff Joe as news coverage of Hurricane Harvey – a storm which made clear the fault lines of race and class division – was growing ever more serious.
Houston’s ruling class has no ability or interest to deal with the cities flood problems, and Trump is not likely to help as he pays attention to racial divisions and diverts necessary funds for much needed public services to a barbaric budget for military spending.
This is why, a recovery from social tragedies like Harvey which benefits ordinary people, will come from struggles that seek to reconfigure urban space in their interests. By overturning the system that currently designs it to maximise the extraction of profit – no matter the human or environmental cost.

Friday, 1 September 2017

On Charlottsville

The Neo Nazi display of hatred in Chartlosville, in which activist Heather Heyer was killed, served as a painful reminder of what the Republican Parties racist agenda and Donald Trump’s pandering to the far right, has done to embolden both the views and actions of white supremacists. Of course, we are not just suddenly seeing the appearance of fascist and racist groups, but they have been encouraged by the Trump administration’s refusal to say a bad word about them as they carry out more and more violent attacks.

Heather Heyer is not the only person to have been killed by White Supremacists since Trumps election and I doubt she will be the last. Earlier this year, two ordinary citizens called Ricky John Best and Taliesen Myrddin Namkai Meche were stabbed to death after interfering to stop the harassment of a Muslim girl on a train. Only a few months ago, a group of Nazi thugs from the self-described ‘alt Reich’ movement, killed African American student Richard W. Collin III.   
Again in these cases, Collins murder received no comment from Trump while the brutal murder of Meche and Best elicited a half-hearted comment. Many people may make apologies or excuses for this, yet Trumps muted or outright lack of condemnation in the face of racist violence stands in such stark contrast to the tidal of wave of vitriol he uses when whipping up his followers into a racist frenzy. Even when Trump finally made a public statement on the horrific events in Charlottesville, it was just vague enough so that it could serve as a statement on the issue but just bigoted enough so that it would please the far right: he said he opposed violence ‘on all sides’.
This behaviour should serve as no surprise to most people. He has dallied and emboldened racists and fascists since the very start of his campaign, courting endorsements from the likes of notorious KKK grand leader David Duke and the American Nazi Party. His chief strategist until only a few days ago was Steve Bannon, the editor of ‘alt right’ propaganda outlet, Breitbart. Sebastian Gorka, an assistant to Trump who has ties to fascist organisations in Hungary, said last week that ‘white supremacists’ are not a problem in the US.
As yet another Racist act of violence that has been so weakly criticised by Trump, it also represents an alarming escalation of organised far right violence in the US. Awful as they were, the other white supremacist murders that have occurred since Trump took office can be seen as unplanned and random acts, the events in Charlottesville on the other hand were planned well in advance. It was well known for several months before, that the racists were going to descend on Charlottesville to protest the removal of a Robert E Lee statue from a local park. This is because far right organisations had been staging numerous protest in the liberal college town for years, including an earlier version of the lighted torches march, which resurfaced on the Friday before Saturdays ‘Unite the right’ rally.
Charlottesville must also be understand as a clear act of racist intimidation. Whatever cause the right were marching for was obscured by the fact that they were fascist agitators and the violence that occurred at their hands. Neo Nazi organisations spoke proudly about how heavily armed they were and how many guns and knives they brought with them. While some of this may have been exaggerated, the racists undeniably showed up with helmets, clubs, pepper spray, wooden shields and assault rifles. The night before the supposed demonstration, hundreds of mostly young white men marched through the University of Virginia Campus brandishing lighted torches and chanting ‘Jews will not replace us’. They also report ably marched on a black church service being held as a symbolic act against the fascists. Despite the claims from various groups inside and outside of the ‘Unite the Right’ movement, that the white supremacists were just exercising their right to free speech, it is absolutely clear that they instead arrived in Charlotsville with the intension to riot and to kill anyone that got in their way.
The mob violence revealed multiple harsh truths: the white supremacists are relatively small only spilling over into just over five hundred. In spite of this they are disproportionately violent, mot afraid to cause serious damage. Finally, they are absolutely coddled by Law enforcement. On Friday evening, the police allowed these torch bearing racists to descend on a black church chanting ‘White Lives matter’ and the Nazi slogan of ‘Blood and soil’, despite the fact that they had no permit to protest. On the day of the main protest police stood by and watched as white supremacists charged at counter protesters and beat people.
 Contrast this with the police responses to Black Lives Matter protests. They let a racist mob intent on hurting and killing people simply run rampant through Charlotsville. Not once did the white supremacists have to deal with Tear Gas, tanks or water cannons. While antiracists chant of ‘the cops and the Klan go hand in hand’ may seem inflammatory to outsiders, it is this cosy relationship that we see at events like Charlotsville, to which the chant refers.
Trumps abject refusal to call the Neo Nazi demonstrators out for what they are, has even embarrassed the harshly anti-immigrant Republican Party into rebuking its association with the far right. Florida senator Marco Rubio, implored Trump to denounce white supremacy. Utah Senator Orrin hatch, said that we should ‘call evil by its name’. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, described the events in Charlotsville as being motivated by ‘pure bigotry’. It seems at this point that the only Republican not doing this is the president of the United States.
This is all crocodile tears as far as me or most of the left are concerned. Let’s not forget, it is the Republican Party that gave Donald Trump the platform he stood on for months, even as he called Mexicans ‘rapists’ and called for a ban on Muslims entering the US. Since ascending to the role of President, they have constantly denied any mismanagement from the Trump administration and have barked ‘fake news; when presented with facts that they don’t like. Even when Trump issued executive orders to try and fulfil his racist promises and abused Immigration enforcement to instil fear in immigrant communities, many republicans still unquestioningly supported him. Why? Because it is convenient for them to do so.
The overarching racism of the Trump administration, widely supported by the Republican Party, is only the very beginning. Just in the past few weeks, they have signalled their intention to investigate whether white people are victims of discrimination in higher education. They have considered limiting the number of non-English speaking immigrants to the United States and they have threatened to increase the number of raids in immigrant communities, specifically targeting young immigrants brought into the country as children for deportation.
Apart from just providing a platform for Trumps racist hate speech, the Republican Party has helped to boost his political agenda – an agenda that  emboldens the racist right to the extent where they feel like they can terrorize or kill anyone who gets in their way. This includes black and brown people as well as the antiracists who fight them.
The fight against racism in Charlotsville finally forced public servants, senators and congressman to speak out against the growth of white supremacy and neo Nazis. We have to continue that struggle against them and stop them – before they kill again.