Returning to “Normal” Would Be Suicide

93423765_10220945463487886_1969486979049455616_nAs the global surge of COVID-19 cases begins to show hopeful signs of a slowdown, more people are beginning to ask: “When can life go back to ‘normal’?” Understandably, weeks of stay-at-home orders and “social distancing” have taken a crushing toll on our collective psyche — testing the resilience of our families, communities, and local economies. The desire to reconnect, in-person, with friends, loved ones, and colleagues is only natural. As testing and contact tracing improves, proven therapies emerge, and hospitals get a handle on caseloads, we can relax more social restrictions and return to some semblance of “normal” human interaction again, albeit with greater safeguards.

But returning to our old growth-obsessed, consumption-driven economy would be nothing short of suicide. To be clear: the tens of millions who have lost their jobs and the countless small- to medium-sized businesses that have been forced to close need all the support we can muster. But we cannot go back to a world in which corporate profits take priority over planetary survival, where they run roughshod over community needs, where they compromise public health and safety for short-term gain, or where they pit us against each other into deeply divided classes, masking our common humanity.

Our Pre-COVID-19 Economy Was Lethal

It’s worth recalling that our old economy had us on the following trajectories:

Is this the “normal” world we want to return to? That world was killing us, along with the natural support systems that make human life possible.

Reopen the Old Economy? Or Prop It Up?

Dinosaur - Oh Shit, the Economy!As stock values have plummeted and consumer demand has faltered, pressure has mounted on President Trump and local government officials to “reopen” the economy. Indeed, several states have now witnessed protests by right-wing activists clamoring for governors to reopen their economies. But since America’s major economic hubs are also the very same areas suffering from the greatest number of COVID-19 cases, it’s unlikely that U.S. cities will simply “snap back” to normal, at least not anytime soon.

With most Americans still in favor of social distancing measures, it’s clear that people are not clamoring to flock to huge concerts or sports arenas, swarm shopping centers with abandon, or splurge on new techno-gadgets, even if they could afford to. They’re going to ensure that their families, friendships, support networks, and communities are made whole again — safely and thoughtfully, at a pace of their own choosing.

Meanwhile, the federal government has sought to cushion the blow caused by COVID-19, doling out roughly $2 trillion to businesses, nonprofits, health care providers, local governments, and low-income citizens. Trillions more are sure to come. Despite decades of unheeded pleas to bolster funding for America’s fraying social safety net and patchwork health system, suddenly Congress was able to deploy massive sums of money in a matter of weeks. We should sear this moment into our collective memory, and greet future claims that “we simply don’t have the money” with utter disbelief, if not contempt.

Renewed Possibilities for a Just & Resilient Future

It’s too soon to tell just how far-reaching the economic impacts will be from the current crisis. But if the cascading problems we are now witnessing are any indication, the glory days of corporate globalization are numbered. By discouraging countries from maintaining their own productive capacity for essential goods (think masks and other protective equipment) — while simultaneously enabling a deadly virus to travel quickly to every corner of the globe — unfettered globalization is beginning to lose its luster. This pandemic has exposed for all to see the deep vulnerabilities and savage inequities of the U.S. economy, particularly our hollowed out manufacturing base, our dysfunctional private health insurance system, and our disastrous oil and gas sector.

From Corporate Globalization to Locally Resilient Economies

A recent assessment by Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch reveals how the trend toward “hyperglobalization” has undermined America’s resilience in the fight against COVID-19. As corporations have scoured the globe, setting up shop in countries with cheap labor and lax environmental rules, the U.S. has lost its own domestic capacity to produce, much less secure critical supplies of masks, ventilators, gowns, and other protective gear. “More than 60,000 manufacturing facilities have been lost to 25 years of corporate-rigged trade policies that made it easier and less risky to move production overseas to pay workers less and trash the environment,” note the authors. Shockingly, even months into this pandemic, American doctors and nurses still lack the critical equipment they need to protect themselves, their families, or their patients. Future trade agreements will have to allow for the rebuilding of domestic manufacturing, ensure greater pay equity between partnering nations, and lift up environmental and public health standards to truly harness the potential benefits of trade.

Another deeply disturbing trend has been the near-collapse of the small business sector. A recent survey by Main Street America found that nearly 7.5 million small businesses are at risk of closing permanently over the next several months if the pandemic persists. To ensure that we don’t emerge from this crisis with a handful of large corporations like Amazon, Big Tech, and major food chains controlling the lion’s share of economic activity, we will need far more than a slap-dash, under-funded small business loan program. We’ll need a wholesale reimagining of our economy that re-centers communities and neighborhoods as the proper locus of commerce and development.

In past crises, the U.S. recognized the dangers of allowing corporate power to dominate the economy, and by extension, our government. In response, America implemented strong anti-trust actions that broke up major monopolies like the railroads, Big Oil, and telecom giants, ensuring a more diverse and competitive market in key sectors. Given the mega-consolidation now plaguing the food, banking, telecommunications, energy, and online retail sectors, similar actions may become necessary again.

Other models like worker, housing, and consumer co-ops, community trusts, public banks, and mutual aid networks will likely become critical as traditional sources of capital dry up and corporations retrench from unprofitable areas. Cities and towns can also encourage the rebirth of local restaurants and food outlets, small manufacturing, and neighborhood retail by easing permit fee requirements, helping to moderate rents, allowing more mixed-use development, and investing in public spaces that promote walkable, vibrant centers of community life and commerce. For the legions of others who will be unemployed or underemployed for some time, polices like Universal Basic Income, a reduced work week, and public programs that help employ people to meet critical care, education and infrastructure needs will also be needed.

From Private Health Insurance to Comprehensive Care for All

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic had entered public consciousness, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign had made a powerful case that America’s employer-based, private health insurance system was woefully dysfunctional, unjust, and needlessly expensive. The coronavirus only underscored Sanders’ critique by exposing painful deficiencies in the U.S. health care system, as millions who lack coverage or access to primary physicians are left scrambling for care as they develop symptoms, or as those requiring intensive care find that hospital beds are often unavailable, much less the equipment or personnel needed. Even if you are fortunate enough to have private insurance, the high cost of premiums and deductibles still deter many from taking advantage of their plans. That means even more people will choose not to see their doctor, encouraging the spread of COVID-19 even farther. “The reality is, there are a lot of people that are thinking, ‘I don’t want a couple-thousand-dollar bill to get tested or to get treated,’” Rep. Ro Khanna told Huffington Post. “That’s going to hurt all of us.”

It’s worth noting that strong social distancing measures and shelter-in-place directives have been made all the more necessary due to our system’s lack of full coverage for all,  its lack of reserve capacity to handle patient surges, and an overall lack of critically needed supplies. If we had a universal healthcare system, not only would everyone feel comfortable about seeing their doctor, we could better coordinate the fair distribution of personnel and equipment where it’s needed most. Instead, in our free-wheeling for-profit system, hospitals and local governments have waged “bidding wars” over critical supplies and ventilators. We deserve better than this. Especially now.

At its core, universal “single-payer” healthcare would be a nonprofit system in which everyone pays into a single financing agency, leaving the actual delivery of care to local hospitals, clinics, and medical professionals. According to Physicians for a National Health Program, a single-payer system could save more than $500 billion per year, while providing comprehensive coverage to everyone in the country without increasing overall spending. With universal coverage, patients would no longer fear huge out-of-pocket costs, and doctors would regain control of decisions around patient care from profit-focused insurance gatekeepers. Moreover, by ensuring comprehensive coverage and continuity of care, U.S. health providers could strengthen primary care practice and redesign how they operate to become more accessible, promote prevention, and proactively support those with chronic illnesses, according to an analysis by the American Academy of Family Physicians. Nearly every other major economy in the world has a variation of single-payer healthcare. It’s high time we joined them.

From Fossil Foolishness to a Green New Deal

As noted above, our “normal” rate of oil consumption was hovering around 100 million barrels a day worldwide, with U.S. consumption at 20.46 million barrels per day as of 2019. Despite the rapid pace of renewable energy development in recent years, fossil fuels like oil and gas still supply about 80% of America’s energy demand. Unfortunately, such enormous volumes of carbon burning have placed the U.S. in a commanding lead among nations most responsible for the destabilization of our global climate, with U.S. total historic emissions reaching nearly 400 gigatons at the start of last year.

Thankfully, such levels of oil and gas consumption may soon become a thing of the past. A recent glut in global production combined with tepid demand had already brought prices crashing in early 2020. Adding insult to injury, COVID-19 wrought devastation to the U.S. oil industry, pummeling consumer demand just as markets were in over-supply. The fracking sector has been hit especially hard, now that it costs more to produce a barrel of oil than it sells for. As of April, oil and gas industry finances had become so dire that the big banks that funded the U.S. fracking boom are now considering seizing the assets of oil firms that cannot make good on their loans. The consequences of the collapse of the American oil industry have yet to be fully felt, but they will surely add urgency to the need to reduce domestic fossil fuel consumption — not to mention energy use overall — and transition quickly to a clean energy-powered economy.

Unfortunately, the clean power sector has also suffered punishing losses during this period. According to a new analysis by E2 Environmental Entrepreneurs, more than 106,000 clean energy workers lost their jobs in March — nearly 70,000 of whom were energy efficiency workers — with hundreds of thousands more projected to lose their jobs in the months ahead. Rather than spending hundreds of billions of dollars on bailouts for the oil industry or highly polluting transportation systems like airlines and cruise lines, we should be investing in America’s clean energy infrastructure, building distributed solar grids, wind farms, and geothermal plants. And since no amount of renewables can possibly replace all the concentrated energy flow we were using from fossil fuels, we will also need to dramatically redesign our cities to require less automobile travel, shorten the distance food travels from farm to table, build out high-speed rail and more reliable transit systems, and retrofit our buildings and manufacturing infrastructure to use far less energy overall.

To do all that, America needs nothing short of a robust Green New Deal, along the lines of the plan envisioned by Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and a growing number of congressional leaders. In the words of the youth-led Sunrise Movement, the Deal is a “10-year plan to mobilize every aspect of American society to 100% clean and renewable energy by 2030, a guaranteed living-wage job for anyone who needs one, and a just transition for both workers and frontline communities.” Critics of the Deal warn that its costs are simply too great. But a host of analyses by climate and energy researchers counter that the costs of inaction would greatly outweigh the costs of bold action now, and could generate trillions in additional savings, along with tens of millions of new low-carbon jobs. With unemployment skyrocketing, why not ensure that those who need work most are matched with the work that most needs doing?

Embracing a New World

None of this visioning is meant to diminish the sheer trauma, economic dislocation, or heart-wrenching losses that people across the country and around the world are now experiencing. These are sorrowful, stressful times, especially for those with little or no protection from the gathering storms. But they’re also pregnant with possibility for a different tomorrow. If this crisis has demonstrated anything, it’s that old ways of doing things can change in an instant. We would be wise to harness the creative power and potential that will emanate from its destructive wake.

In a recent essay on the possibilities for new thinking that COVID-19 has offered us, author and activist Arundhati Roy writes: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”



Aaron Lehmer-Chang
is a digital communications specialist with the City of Oakland. He is co-founder of the California Trade Justice Coalition and the Local Clean Energy Alliance. He also serves on the Program Committee of Earth Island Institute.

20 Year Anniversary: The Battle of Seattle

WTO Protest SignNov. 30, 2019 — The following article, originally published on the Earth Island Journal website, chronicles my first-hand experience traveling to Seattle with my Humboldt State University friends in November 1999 and participating in the historic mass demonstrations that halted the official proceedings of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Tens of thousands of concerned people from throughout the world converged to cast public spotlight on the WTO’s anti-democratic rules that would undermine hard-won environmental and social protections, all in the name of “free trade.” The “Battle of Seattle” that transpired in the streets and the halls of the trade meetings reverberated around the world and inspired a new generation of advocates to reimagine the power of grassroots organizing to transform public consciousness and reclaim popular democracy.

Reports from the Front Lines

by Aaron G. Lehmer

WTO Protest in Seattle Aaron Marching

FROM L to R: Geoff Kelley (in hat), myself (with raised fist), and thousands of demonstrators marching in Seattle against the WTO’s growing threats to democratic self-governance. Photo courtesy of Aghaghia Rahimzadeh

Before the recent showdown in Seattle over the World Trade Organization (WTO), this obscure global agency managed to enjoy a kind of secret innocence. Since its birth during the last round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1995, the WTO has plotted the future course of international commerce with little or no comment from most major media. But thanks to tens of thousands of protesters and concerned citizens from throughout the United States and around the world, the WTO has been successfully hurled into the public limelight.

My journey to Seattle began at 5 am on Friday, Nov. 26. Three of us in Humboldt State University’s Globalization and the Environment graduate program headed north along California’s Redwood Highway in total darkness, eager for the days to come. Through our studies we’d become all too familiar with the WTO and its potential threat to hard-won laws protecting worker’s rights, public safety, and the environment. For us, this was an opportunity to see history in the making and perhaps even to make some history of our own.

APC_0202After hours of rain on our drive through the Pacific Northwest, hopeful rays of sunshine broke through the clouds en route to Seattle. As we drove with friends into West Seattle for dinner, a brilliant orange glow reflected off the towering downtown skyline to the east, almost as a beacon to those soon to descend upon its streets.

Although the city had not yet been besieged with protests, the battle lines had already been drawn. Bus after bus drove down Seattle’s central corridors emblazoned with partisan advertising. One featured a montage of up-beat industry photographs next to the phrase, “Trade: Making Life Better.” Another showed clear-cut forestlands and polluted riverways with a question asking “What are we trading away?”

Our cohort arrived just in time for the start of the “Teach-In on Globalization and the Role of the WTO” sponsored by the San Francisco-based International Forum on Globalization (IFG). Seattle’s mammoth Benaroya Hall wasn’t hosting one of its usual symphony performances that night. Instead, it became base camp for thousands of concerned citizens and environmental, labor, consumer, public health, and Third World activists—all of whom shared common cause in their disdain for the WTO.

 

Resist WTO Postcard FlyerForum Chair Jerry Mander set the tone for the week by asserting the coalition’s principal demand: “There must be no new round of negotiations until governments and civil society have made a complete reassessment of the WTO.” At this, the crowd burst into heated applause.

Mander noted that 52 of the biggest 100 economies in the world are now corporations, the rest of which are entire nations. “In the end, corporations are gaining freedom and nations and citizens are losing freedom,” he said, aiming his remark at WTO policies that command member nations to adopt the “least trade-restrictive” laws governing trade.
Susan George of Amsterdam, Holland’s Transnational Institute rallied the crowd when she cried, “The trade bureaucrats forgot about the people. That’s why we’re fighting the ‘Battle of Seattle’!” Suddenly, most people sprang to their feet, clapping, whistling, and cheering.

Building on the theme of WTO exclusiveness, Martin Khor of Penang, Malaysia’s Third World Network noted that “they don’t vote in the WTO. That would prevent the United States government from getting its way. Democracy is threatening to the sustainability of the WTO.”

Even so, John Cavanaugh of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies sounded optimistic, stating that the “momentum of history is moving from the corporate suites to the Seattle streets.”

Following Cavanaugh, renowned environmental justice activist Vandana Shiva took center stage, dressed in traditional Indian attire. In forceful, passionate tones she asserted that “the WTO is not about free trade. It’s about forced trade.” She went on to explain how the intellectual property rights agreement under consideration by the WTO would allow companies to exclusively patent seeds used for centuries by traditional farmers and then outlaw their ability to save seed for future cropping cycles. “This is nothing less than the rape and theft of our cultural and biological heritage,” Shiva proclaimed.

APC_0204Similar speakers’ forums, workshops, and panel discussions continued throughout the weekend. Representatives from labor unions, food policy institutes, environmental organizations, human rights groups, and Third World justice networks all were on hand to discuss the WTO’s far-reaching impacts.

After a Saturday morning session on sustainable agriculture, actor Danny Glover made a surprise appearance. Smiling widely at the sight of thousands of supporters before him, Glover shouted, “I’m here to meet my allies!”

Many speakers stressed the importance of exempting subsistence farming practices from WTO rules, arguing that meeting local food needs should come before the export demands of the global market. Others warned of a “race to the bottom” in labor and environmental standards as countries are compelled by the WTO to rescind national and local laws protecting their people.

The dangers of biotechnology were also a major topic given the United States’ efforts to overturn the European Union’s ban on select genetically modified food imports. Mae-Wan Ho of London’s Institute of Science for Society painted a frightful picture of agricultural biotechnology, noting that new research is showing that cross-species “genetic engineering is creating unstable new life forms that are engendering new viruses, some of which could be lethal.”

One controversial provision of the WTO, Article III, states that foreign products “shall be accorded treatment no less favorable” than local or domestic ones. In the context of the European food dispute, Steven Shrybman of Vancouver, Canada’s West Coast Environmental Law Center said this rule essentially means that “you do not have the right to consent to the food you eat.”

Media reports continued to filter into the hall throughout the teach-in. Helena Norberg-Hodge of Ladakh’s International Society for Ecology and Culture read approvingly from the latest issue of the Economist magazine, which warned that WTO “critics are winning the battle for public opinion.”

A sense of renewed confidence began to permeate the conference. Tony Clarke of Ottawa, Canada’s Polaris Institute summed it up this way: “We’re moving from being on the defensive to being on the offensive.” An uproarious standing ovation followed this comment, making it difficult not to believe him.

Starting on Monday morning, educational and activist forums moved to the First United Methodist Church. Here, Rep. George Miller (D-CA), Rep. Maxine Walters (D-CA) and a host of environmental and labor leaders rallied the troops as they prepared for the first major march through downtown Seattle.

APC_0205At noon, people began spilling out of the church onto the streets. Several hundred were outfitted in sea turtle costumes to highlight a recent WTO ruling against a provision of the Endangered Species Act requiring imported shrimp to be caught using turtle-excluder devices. Members of the United Steelworkers of America were also in full force, showing their solidarity with environmentalists and other citizen activists.

Signs were held high reading “WTO: Fix It or Nix It” while others showed pictures of dolphins, foxes, and turtles with a caption reading “I’m Not a Trade Barrier!” Organized by the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and an array of labor and public health groups, the “People’s March for Clean, Green and Fair Trade” proceeded toward the Washington Trade and Convention Center amidst shouts of “Just Say No to the WTO” and other slogans.

That night, the United Methodist Church was packed to the hilt as concerned citizens and activists convened for an “Interfaith Prayer Service” organized by the Jubilee 2000 Coalition, a group campaigning for debt relief for the world’s poorest nations.
Earl Shinhoster, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, spoke stridently of the burden that developing nations feel in the face of billions of dollars of debt to wealthy nations. “It’s time to cancel the debt of the world’s most heavily indebted nations,” he said.

An array of ceremonial invocations followed, featuring religious leaders from Native American traditions, Judaism, Unitarian-Universalism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity. The gospel/folk group Sweet Honey and the Rock performed a spirited rendition of “I’m Gonna Let It Shine,” bringing those congregated into a fit of euphoric rhythmic clapping and song.

Through the stain-glassed panes of this house of worship one could hear drumbeats and shouts of “No, No, WTO” from thousands of fellow protesters assembled outside. After the ceremony, church-goers joined them in the streets, forming a solid line of participants stretching for at least ten blocks.

Our intent was to form a human chain around the colossal Seattle Exhibition Center in which WTO delegates were conducting their opening gala. Once we were within sight of the center, however, we were met with a huge police blockade which had fenced off the entire street in front of the WTO gathering.

In frustration, some protesters shook the fences back and forth in the vain hope of cajoling the police to let us through. But after an hour or so, a clear stalemate had been reached. In the distance, a full-color electronic marquee displayed graphic fireworks interspersed with the message “Welcome World Trade Organization.” Unfortunately, it became painfully clear that not all were welcome.

As the crowd dispersed, we encountered a middle-aged woman dressed in rainbow-colored garb, her face glistening with white makeup and sparkling glitter. Calling herself the “Rainbow Lady,” this long-time Seattle resident said she hadn’t witnessed such popular protest in her town since the 1960s. The gleam in her eye showed just how happy she was to witness the revival.

On Tuesday morning, our cohort bussed back downtown and joined an entourage of protesters who were heading toward the Seattle Trade and Convention Center where the 3rd WTO Ministerial Meeting was scheduled to commence. As we made it over the hill facing north, a vast sea of humanity lay before us as far as the eye could see.

At the intersection of University and 4th Street, over 200 students sat in a circle with metal sleeves connecting their linked-up arms. Organizers were prepping them for the confrontations to come, urging those with doubts to bow out while they still had the chance. Others walked around with water and vinegar, dousing bandanas for students to use as makeshift face masks in the event of tear gas attacks.

We passed a line of police officers wearing Kevlar vests and shielded helmets. Most stood solemnly by as various protesters peered beyond them into the security perimeter that had been set up to prevent access to the Convention Center. Rumors began circulating that police had started using rubber bullets against protesters nearby.

Various marching lines passed in every direction, the largest of which easily numbered in the tens of thousands and featured labor groups ranging from the U.S. Teamsters to the International Workers of the World.

WTO Riot Gear FlamesAs we rounded the corner heading east toward the center, a trashed McDonald’s restaurant starkly came into view. Its front windows were broken and all side windows were boarded-up. Just beyond, a Gap store and a Starbucks had suffered similar fates, but with the added injury of being covered with bright red anarchy symbols.

Fellow protesters began speculating that anarchists based in Eugene, Oregon had taken advantage of the situation to foment violent outrage. Our suspicions were confirmed as young people dressed in dark outfits with their faces covered appeared sporadically on balconies where they spray-painted anti-WTO slogans on buildings around downtown.

Some protesters formed human blockades in front of storefronts with broken windows in an effort to prevent further property damage. A van blared music at an intersection where many of the WTO delegates were staying in nearby hotels. The “disc jockey” urged everyone to remain peaceful and to direct their energies toward constructive civil disobedience. Protesters danced to techno and pop music as a group calling themselves the “People’s Delegation for Social Justice” blocked access to The Roosevelt hotel.

Joan Weiss, a Machinists Union member, was one of a thousand designated peacekeepers who attempted to maintain order as the marches continued throughout the afternoon. “There’ve been no major incidents,” she told me at around 2:00 pm.

Soon after, the music van operator announced that protesters were being cleared from a nearby intersection by police using tear gas and rubber bullets. Once the marching orders had been given, several dozen dancing protesters immediately departed to assist their beleaguered comrades.

A few blocks east of the hotel standoff, hundreds of people gathered in front of the Paramount Theater where WTO delegates had been prevented from meeting that morning. We had heard that the official meeting had been delayed by several hours, but we soon began viewing delegates walking in and out of the Convention Center, which was cordoned off for at least a block and half by city police.

Suddenly, liberal film producer Michael Moore waltzed onto the scene and confronted the police standing guard. Moore, known for his ability to get into corporate headquarters where he typically lambasts greedy CEOs, shouted a proposition through a bullhorn: “If they’re really for free trade, why not trade me for (WTO director general) Mike Moore.” The crowd burst into laughter at the suggestion and began shouting “Let Mike In!” to police.

Reports began to fly of increasing clashes with police, prompting our group to go and investigate. As we walked west on Pike Street, we saw hundreds of people surrounding what appeared to be huge bonfire in the middle of the street. One of my fellow grad students, Aghaghia Rahimzadeh, said it reminded her of the Iranian Revolution.

As we neared the intersection, the caustic smell of tear gas filled the air. My eyes started burning and a warm sensation filled my lungs. I quickly covered my face with my sweater in an attempt to avoid breathing in the fumes. The fire turned out to be a tipped-over dumpster that had been set ablaze during an earlier battle with police. Only a few feet away, a line of police officers decked in riot gear stood before an armored police vehicle blocking further access to any side streets.

APC_0203In other parts of downtown, police began a major push to clear the streets, dispersing the crowd with flashbang concussion grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets. Rebel medics were touring the streets offering fellow protesters water and protective masks. With tensions mounting, we decided to seek safer ground.

On our way out of downtown, we ducked into a local restaurant where hoisted television sets showed nervous local broadcasters who broke in with live feeds of the melees taking place only blocks away. All three local news teams focused exclusively on the confrontations between protesters and the police for most of the evening.

Seattle Mayor Paul Schell declared a state of civil emergency and imposed a curfew downtown which covered everyone except those with “proper WTO credentials.” With President Clinton scheduled arrive that night, the police took no chances by securing a several block buffer zone around the Westin Hotel where he would be staying.

Needless to say, the intensity of these events led my small group of fellow travelers to wonder what the rest of the American public and the rest of the world would think of the “Battle of Seattle.” On our ride back to Humboldt County the next day, we grabbed every newspaper we could get our hands on in small towns along the way.

Although reports differed, one thing remained clear: the WTO would no longer be some shadowy institution hidden from public view. As author Bill McKibben wrote in a recent column, “The era when global trade decisions get made without anyone noticing is officially over.”

When the week drew to a close, the WTO talks reportedly collapsed in disarray. To the extent that the protests contributed to this outcome, they were an undeniable success. When the WTO meets again, its members will undoubtedly recall vivid scenes of mass protest, and hopefully, will remember that true democracy requires far more than participation by trade ministers.

The End of Loneliness

This Thanksgiving, I had the privilege of sharing quality time with family and friends. Throughout the afternoon, our home was filled with the sounds of friendly banter and the laughter of children, including twin baby girls who toddled, smiled, and graced us all with their vibrant newness. My son and I snuck in a hike in the redwoods with a close friend and her son, and by sundown, we were surrounded by friends at a holiday potluck, complete with bountiful food and the comforts of home.

To be sure, Thanksgiving celebrations often obscure or omit recognition of the genocide wrought by European settlers upon our Native American brothers and sisters, but the ethic of gratitude and spirit of togetherness embodied in the occasion makes it worth observing. At its best, it’s a time for reflection, acknowledgment of the blessings we have, and an opportunity to share the fruits of the harvest.

Unfortunately, not all share in the bounty, especially those who find themselves alone, isolated, unhoused, or otherwise cut off from society’s increasingly restricted benefits. Less than a mile from our home in Oakland, California, scores of homeless people spent the day in cold, damp tents or make-shift shelters. As rents have skyrocketed, such encampments have sprung up all over town — and across much of America — serving as a shameful reminder of our collective failure to provide basic human dignity to our fellow citizens.

Of course, homelessness is but one example of a much broader social tragedy: the growing sense of loneliness and disconnection people now experience in modern life. A 2018 Cigna health survey of 20,000 adults found that nearly half of Americans suffer from feelings of loneliness, while barely more than half have daily, face-to-face interactions with friends or quality time with family. In place of meaningful, soul-enriching relationships, more of our time and energies are devoted to work, material consumption, digital entertainment, and so-called “social” media. According to a 2017 American Journal of Preventive Medicine study, people who spent the most time on social media were twice as likely to feel socially isolated.

Humans are inherently social beings. Our mental and physical well-being is nourished by the quality of our relationships and the sense of belonging we feel in community. Our planet and our essential nature are crying out for better ways of living that can restore connection and harmony.

Thankfully, the crises of our times are forcing us to reconsider our dying economic order. That system is trying desperately to turn every human relationship and every natural process into something for sale to the highest bidder. But it’s running out of both, veering headlong into the unprofitable chaos of our fraying social order and the hard limits of our planet’s delicate ecological balance.

It’s during this transitional moment in our history that we can and should be creating new and exciting ways of being with each other and reconnecting with the earth. Easier said than done, of course, especially given the tantalizing temptations of commercialism and electronic distraction. But future generations will thank those of us willing to live and love more boldly and with purpose. A return to community will not only end our loneliness and disconnection, it may just be the key to saving our world.

Hope for a New Trade Agenda

Republished from the Earth Island Journal (Summer 2017) issue.

Feelings of fear and hope filled the room where dozens of Sacramento-area activists had gathered in February to hear what Trump’s election might mean for the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and how a resurgent fair trade movement might help push for a better deal.

photo of workers harvesting onions

“We are not statistics!” declared Catherine Houston of the United Steelworkers, to a round of applause. “We are people and it is important to note that the legacy of NAFTA has hurt everyone. People are now working two to three jobs just to survive. That’s not the American Dream.”

In Mexico, NAFTA opened the floodgates to subsidized staples from the US, pushing small farmers off their lands. A powerful alliance of labor, agricultural, environmental, and social justice organizations are coming together to push for trade justice in any renegotiated trade agreement.

Houston’s remarks are disturbingly accurate: According the US Department of Labor’s Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program, the number of certified jobs lost under NAFTA has risen to 910,000 as of December 2016. And that number is only a fraction of total jobs lost, since it represents only those in direct manufacturing industries who filed for TAA aid.

In Mexico, NAFTA’s impact has been even more devastating than in the US. The 1994 agreement opened the floodgates to subsidized corn from the US, pushing millions of small farmers off their historic lands. With their livelihoods destroyed, many fled to the cities looking for work, or risked their lives to cross the northern border, prompting one of the largest immigration surges in modern memory. Those who remained faced an increasingly depressed job market. In fact, the overall minimum wage in Mexico is now only $3.90/day, while an additional 20 million people have fallen below the poverty line, according to a new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

And the impacts extend beyond labor. Environmental groups on both sides of the border are quick to point out that free trade agreements prioritize corporate profits over protection of air, water, and the climate.

Throughout his election campaign Trump’s rhetoric against NAFTA – calling it a “disaster” and the “worst deal ever” – no doubt helped elevate him to the highest office in the land. In his first days in office, he made good on one of his central trade promises by formally withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a controversial 12-nation, corporate-led pact that would have covered over 40 percent of the global economy. Critics were quick to point out, however, that Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP was both ceremonial and easy. Thanks to years of grassroots organizing against it by labor, environmental, health, and social justice advocates, the TPP never secured enough votes to pass, and was never submitted to Congress by the Obama administration.

Still, many thought Trump’s election signaled a new direction on trade policy, and remained hopeful that the era of corporate-driven “free trade” was coming to an end. By early spring, however, his newly minted cabinet resembled a Wall Street and Big Oil roundtable of corporate insiders, with many administration officials on record as avid supporters of the TPP – certainly not a team equipped to “drain the swamp” of special interest influence in Washington.

In a leaked copy of Trump’s NAFTA plans in late March, it became clear his corporate advisors were winning the day on trade. Not only was the administration prepared to keep most of the deal intact, but several new priorities also bore a stark resemblance to the TPP agenda that Trump claimed to oppose during the campaign. Instead of sweeping changes to stop the offshoring of manufacturing jobs or to eliminate NAFTA’s corporate court system that’s weakening labor and environmental laws, the plan would expand protections for digital trade and commerce, strengthen intellectual property rights for corporations, and preserve NAFTA’s ban on “Buy American” programs.

In response, labor leaders around the country criticized the proposal. “This draft leaves standing the worst and most oppressive parts of NAFTA,” said Richard Trumka, president of the American Federation of Labor. “It leaves in place the right of foreign investors to sue the US in private tribunals in order to skirt health, safety, and environmental laws,” he said. Robert Longer, political coordinator for the Communications Workers of America, District 9, didn’t mince words: “This plan represents the ultimate betrayal of working people by the Trump Administration. In modeling NAFTA renegotiations after the failed TPP, President Trump has made clear that corporate rights take priority over the lives of the American people.”

Environmental organizations also expressed alarm about Trump’s plans to keep intact NAFTA’s corporate court system, which provides an official forum for corporations to challenge labor and climate protections, and forces taxpayers to foot the bill for perceived lost profits. “Trump plans to retain NAFTA’s Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions, allowing global corporations to sue countries in front of business-friendly tribunals,” said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth. “These tribunals allow corporations to punish governments wishing to enforce sensible environmental and public interest regulations by imposing massive monetary damages.”

The swift and damning reaction to Trump’s leaked plans quickly prompted administration officials to backpedal from the draft. “That is not a statement of administration policy at this point,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters in late March. “That is not an accurate assessment of where we are at this time.” With this clear indication that the Trump Administration is sensitive to public pressure, advocates have redoubled their efforts, launching public campaigns to hold the president and Congress accountable to a trade justice agenda that puts working people and the planet before corporate profits.

But can the trade justice movement make good on its goal of redirecting America’s corporate-driven trade policies?

If recent years of determined cross-sector organizing are any indication, there just may be reason for hope.

Although President Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP is what made international headlines, the real story is that an unparalleled global uprising of people from all walks of life challenged some of the most powerful economic and political institutions of our time – and won. If it wasn’t for the constant drumbeat of opposition from activists, civil society organizations, and concerned citizens over the years, the TPP would be in legal force today, granting over 9,000 transnational corporations new rights to write the rules of the global economy in their own interests.

What’s more, a powerful intersectional alliance was built, made up of thousands of organizations representing labor unions, family farmers, digital freedom advocates, environmentalists, nurses, LGBTQ advocates, and the migrant justice and Black Lives Matter movements. Having successfully derailed the TPP, it now stands poised to challenge Trump on his corporate trade agenda.

In consultation with Canadian and Mexican grassroots activists, a broad-based network of US organizers, under the banner of the Citizens Trade Campaign, has released a set of key priorities they wish to see enacted under any renegotiated NAFTA. Organized labor is particularly interested in protecting buy local programs and expanding the “rules of origin” requirements for domestically manufactured goods. And environmental organizations want to see NAFTA updated to better reflect and protect clean energy and climate protection goals.

The California Trade Justice Coalition, in partnership with the Citizens Trade Campaign, is organizing a series of informational NAFTA Town Halls where activists from labor, health, social justice, and environmental networks are coming together to share insights and plan for action. The Coalition is also meeting with congressional representatives and community leaders around the state to ensure that a broad base of support is ready to hold negotiators accountable for trade policies that truly benefit working people and the planet.

Learn more about this Earth Island Institute project at: www.catradejustice.org

 

The Golden Gate Barrage – Part III (FINALE)

» Read Part I and Part II of The Golden Gate Barrage!

March 21, 2063, 2230 Hours, Bay-Delta Coastal Protection Zone, Oakland, California

Golden_Gate_Tsunami

The night air was cold and blustery. Wind gusts laced with raindrops swooped in to warn us that storms were coming. Jabari led the way, as Tati and I followed him toward the bars of blue neon light marking the entrance to Fruitvale Landing. He had security clearance to board the inner transit lines, and apparently his family’s rank within the regional authority granted him the right to bring two colleagues — provided, of course, no one had a mark on their records. I assured them my past was clean, though I did wonder whether any of my pre-teen shoplifting sprees ever made it to the corporate vidnets.

Jabari flashed his Golden Gate Authority badge to the attendant. “Good evening,” said Jabari. “Headin’ over to China Basin to check on some spawning grounds I’m overseeing. These are a coupla my insomniac volunteers.”

The attendant remained composed and indifferent as he scanned Jabari’s badge. “Please step forward and look into the scanner,” he said, gesturing toward Tati and I. Tati went first, placing her chin on the rest plate. A matrix of red laser light flashed across her eyes, followed by a green overhead glow. “You’re clear,” said the attendant. I was next.

I hesitated. What if there WAS something damning in my records? I didn’t want to jeopardize the mission! I calmed my nerves and stepped toward the scanner. “It’s okay,” said Jabari, flashing another smile. “Nobody cares about your late night swims past the safety buoys.”

Relaxed by his jokes, I plopped my chin on the rest plate and looked face-forward. The red light scanned my retina, then abruptly stopped in mid-sweep. The attendant looked at me with sudden concern. I began to panic. Oh shit! What do they have on me? Metal cuff-links quickly curled over my wrists, trapping me in the scanning chair. What the FUCK?!

“Hold on,” said the attendant as he checked the readout. “The system’s been a bit buggy lately. Looks like it was just a malfunction.” A feeling of cool relief swept over me as the metal links retracted. I stood up calmly so as not to arouse suspicion.

The blue barrier bars receded, and the attendant motioned for us to pass. We walked close together, heading straight for the escalator to the overhead train cars. Entering our car, I couldn’t help but notice how spartan and new everything looked: spotless plush seating lined each side of the aisle, which was covered in smooth, translucent plating. Most passengers were immersed in vidchats or augmented reality gear sets, while others relaxed in spacious seats with full reclining position. I’d never seen that before! I pulled out my vidpad to snap a photo of the spectacle.

Jabari grabbed my arm, pulling me into an empty seat next to him and Tati. “Probably best to keep that tucked away,” he whispered. “Some of these folks report to higher-ups in the Authority, or serve as security detail for San Francisco elites. They may not appreciate your photography practice like I do.” He winked at me, prompting me to pocket my vidpad.

The ride to the new transbay tube was smooth and comfortable — and deeply disturbing. Along the way, I saw how the waterfront neighborhoods had become one long strip of gentrified playgrounds for the rich: Alameda Shores, Brooklyn Basin, Jack London Estates. All had become their own gated economic enclaves, complete with their own security forces and their own cultural identities, connected to the inland flats only through access checkpoints.

“Don’t look so sad,” Jabari said, taking my hand. His palm was warm and reassuring. How is this guy so confident? And so steamin’ hot? I turned to Tati, who was caressing his shoulder. All I could do was smile at them, wishing desperately to quash my emotional salad of excitement, sorrow, and fear. “These places are just last-ditch attempts to hold on to a dying age.”

I gave him a goofy look of disbelief. “Oh, is that what they are?” They seemed more like a military occupation to me. “Please explain, oh wise one.” I couldn’t help teasing him a bit.

He tried hard to put on his serious face, but couldn’t hold back a grin. He gave me what I chose to think was a flirtatious stink-eye, and we all broke out laughing. After the final East Bay stop, we began our descent into the transbay tube. Jabari got himself together and continued: “Seriously though, none of those ‘hoods could survive without the protection of the Authority. And they’re almost completely powered by the bay’s wave energy coming from Goldilocks.”

Tati interjected: “So take away the barrage, and there goes their power — and most of their shoreline.” That prospect was starting to sound a bit far-fetched, not to mention messy as hell.

“And how exactly do you plan to do that?” I asked. “And where would all the fancy shoreline grabbers go, once the lights go out and their flats start flooding?”

Jabari motioned for us to keep our volume down. I’d almost forgotten that we were surrounded by economic dependents of the Golden Gate Barrage. Lucky for us, they were completely oblivious to our scheming. “Not here,” he said in a hushed voice. We paused our little conspiracy of three, and sank back into our seats. After a few minutes, a sudden surge of light filled the car, followed by the sound of crackling electrical wires. Our car began lurching forward in faster and faster bursts along the track, followed by a fading series of counter-force corrections. The lights dimmed for a moment, then returned to normal, along with our speed.

“What was THAT?” I pleaded, looking to our resident sage for some insight on the matter.

“It’s the barrage,” he said. “There must be quite a storm brewin’ up there. My pops and his team have been working to stabilize the power buffers. But the superstorms are getting too much for ’em to handle. It’s only a matter of time before an electrical surge more powerful than that takes out the whole grid.” He pretty much all but said it: we were simply going to speed along what Mother Nature had already intended.

Our car began to slow as we approached San Francisco’s eastern edge. “We’re getting off at Embarcadero Station,” said Tatiana. “We’re already late, so we have to hurry.” We exited and dashed up the stairwell, as the escalator system was out of order. Sheets of hard rain pounded the city streets, interrupted only by random bursts of lightning. How are we going to make it through all this? We don’t even have raincoats! Covering our heads with our jackets, we crossed an overpass leading across a flooded block of California Street. An interconnected network of walkways had been constructed above street level to allow second-floor access to buildings with water-logged first floors. After a series of hairy turns, we boarded the elevated train line leading to Fort Mason.

I couldn’t shake the vision I now had of floodwaters suddenly creeping up the Oakland embankments, with thousands of new residents streaming out to what’s left of our flatland ‘hoods. Had Jabari and the rebels really thought this through? Once the barrage stopped functioning, there’d be so much panic, so much confusion, and — most likely — so much violence. I  wished I was somewhere else. I wanted justice for Benito and all of us who’ve been cast aside so mercilessly, but there had to be some other way.

“What’s up, Mari?” asked Jabari. This guy can already read me like the back of his hand.

I looked at him for a sign. Some indication that he was conscious of the gravity of his actions. I knew Tatiana wouldn’t be with him unless she believed him to be a man of his word, but was he also guided by soundness of mind, or simple revenge? “I need to know we are trying to save lives here, not cause more misery. For anyone,” I said.

Jabari gave me a look of relief and admiration. “Tati warned me how amazing you are, Mariela,” he said. “All I can say is that I’m grateful you’re here with us tonight.” He paused and looked into my eyes. “We’re not going to ask you to do anything you don’t want to. We simply want justice for our communities and a return to balance.”

I couldn’t help but feel a sense of ease at his words. Tati gave me a side hug in solidarity. “You’ll soon meet the others,” she said. “I think you’ll like what you’re about to hear.”

We reached the end of the line, and began a mad dash for the entrance to Fort Mason. The night guard was composed of two groggy officers, one of whom casually examined Jabari’s badge and waved us in. Thankfully, the storms had calmed somewhat, giving our soaked jackets a chance to dry out a bit. We ducked into one of the old buildings close to the hillside, and were relieved to feel the warmth of a blazing fire. At least a couple dozen mostly young men and women sat around it on roll-out rugs and concrete blocks.

“Jabari!” exclaimed a heavier-set, beautifully adorned woman near the hearth. She radiated a powerful air of confidence as she strode towards us. Her skin was reddish brown, her hair was long, dark, and silky, and her clothes were covered with bright, multi-hued feathers. “We were beginning to wonder if you were coming,” she said, looking at him with a touch of disappointment.

“Our apologies, Ramay,” said Jabari, lowering his head. “I couldn’t risk a comms trail between us. We had some minor delays along the way.” He held out his arm in my direction, and spoke aloud to the group: “Friends, please welcome our newest ally, Mariela Rodriguez, a displaced Oakland native of many generations, whose younger brother just died from toxic pollution after last night’s refinery blast in Richmond.”

Those gathered around the fire stood up and began walking over to me. Nearly everyone wore Authority badges like Jabari. So THAT was how this was going down. It’s an inside operation. They greeted me warmly, shook my hand and offered their condolences. Most were sons and daughters of senior Authority personnel. All had witnessed the trauma it had brought to shoreline communities, and the corrupt leadership that had seized control. I could sense their sadness, but also their collective determination.

Ramay stepped back towards the fire, and turned to face the group. The flames seemed to increase in intensity as they lapped furiously skyward behind her commanding presence. “Friends, the time has come for us to reclaim our homeland,” she began. “We do not seek harm to our fellow earthly travelers here in the bay. Only a return to free-flowing waters, liberated shores, and safe homes for all our peoples. The Golden Gate Barrage promised us much, but in the end, it became a tool of oppression. Its time has passed.”

The group nodded in solemn agreement and took a moment of silence to honor Ramay’s words. Jabari stepped over to a clear section of the room and mounted a small device on the wall. He switched it on, revealing a projection schematic of the barrage, complete with security checkpoints. “We all know what’s at stake,” he said. “Remember: only eight of us need to get inside for this to succeed. Twice that many have agreed to seek entry, in case any of us are turned away. Thank you for your courage. We know you are risking a great deal.”

He stopped for a moment to scan the room, meeting the eyes of those who must have self-selected for the mission. Tatiana stepped towards him and curled a supportive arm around his back. He turned to give her a quick kiss and then continued: “Each of you with badges will be accompanied by an authorized ‘colleague’ who is, of course, offering critical technical assistance with your Authority-approved projects.” He snuck in a slight grin.

“But what if we’re rejected at security?” asked a young woman in the front.

“We’re counting on it,” said Jabari. “Part of their late night protocol is to deny entry to some, even authorized personnel. We just don’t now how many. So let’s not tip ’em off by resisting in any way. Simply smile and say you’ll come back another time.”

He went on to assign teams to entryways on both sides of the barrage, and explained the plan: we would synchronize the shut down of most of the dam’s power buffers by putting them in diagnostics mode at several maintenance control stations. In that state, even normal seaside water pressure might be enough to cause a system overload. But with tonight’s storm-powered waves, it was almost a certainty.

“Once you’re in position, simply send your coded signal to the group,” he said. “When we’ve reached critical mass, our comms system will give the green light. Good luck, everyone. Future generations will thank you for your bravery.” Jabari and Tati mingled with a few members of the mission contingent, then wandered over to me.

“I hope we inspired some confidence in us,” said Jabari, fishing for a sign from me. I nodded and smiled, reflecting a sense of hope that I genuinely felt. Granted, I still had reservations about how things would shake out, but the plan seemed solid. “I’m glad,” he responded, smiling back. “If you’re up for it, I’d like you to join me tonight.”

That took me aback. Why wouldn’t Tati be his partner? These two seemed made for this mission! “Amiga, I’d raise too much suspicion,” said Tati. “They know I’m not a professional colleague, and, pues, I’ve been kicked out before.” I needed to hear that story sometime, but immediately understood. We simply couldn’t risk it.

“Okay,” I said, “I’ll do it!” A sudden rush of dread and excitement came over me.

Jabari gave me a warm embrace, then gave Tati a passionate farewell kiss. Damn, I wouldn’t mind a bit of that myself, I thought. He motioned for me to follow him, and I happily obliged. A ferocious wind tunnel greeted us as we exited the building toward the marina. A few blocks ahead, Goldilocks towered above the inner bay, holding back the angry sea. Its warning beacon was spinning wildly, providing at least some signal lighting to any vessels caught in the gathering storms. The walk was tough and cold, but we made good time. Soon we were at the base of the winding path leading up to the southern entryway.

We passed another guarded neon blue bar barricade, no questions asked, and proceeded through a long glassed-in access corridor overlooking the southern span. The rains were getting stronger again, and the lightning blasts more frequent. I glanced seaward: at least a dozen large trade ships were bouncing on the waves, waiting patiently for the storms to subside before making their way to the locks. A thick sheet of rain smacked loudly against the glass, causing me to jump. “You’ll live,” joked Jabari, grinning back at me.

At the far end of the corridor, a lone silhouette appeared. Jabari stopped, staring ahead with disbelief. I had no idea what was going on, but I knew something was terribly wrong.

“Jabari?” asked the figure, as he walked calmly towards us. “It is you. I guess I should have expected this. When you stormed off, I knew you must be up to no good. I should have trusted my instincts and revoked your security clearance. I’ve never been so ashamed.”

Jabari’s head sank a bit, and he reluctantly stepped forward to meet his father. “Pops, please listen. You don’t know what I’ve seen. What the barrage is really doing,” he said.

“Don’t ‘Pops’ me!” said his father, clearly incensed that his son would even be here. “You’re planning something. What? Some kind of sabotage? Whatever it is, it’s nothing more than some sorry attempt to inflate your ego, to satisfy your sense of moral righteousness. You can’t imagine the damage you’d cause, the lives you’d destroy, if you had your way.” I had to admit: his dad really knew how to get under your skin.

Something shifted in Jabari. I could sense a newfound determination from him as he stepped closer to his father. “Dad, I know you’ve put your heart and soul into this. I know you mean well. But I’m sorry to say you’ve been played,” he said.

Jabari’s father seethed in anger. He raised his fist in the air and shook it vigorously. “I raised you better than this!” he screamed. “Whatever crazy conspiracy you’ve got messing with your head, it doesn’t change the fact that we’ve given our people a second chance. We were losing over 100 square miles of coastline every few years before the barrage.” He looked upon Jabari with the face of a father betrayed, wracked with disappointment.

The pounding rains became even more violent, mirroring the growing tension in the air. In the corner of my eye, I saw one of the larger trade ships being pushed ominously close to the barrage, swaying wildly from side-to-side. Jabari kept pacing toward his father in a slow, suspicious manner. I stepped back, sensing the need to keep my distance.

“We can’t hold the rising seas back forever, and you know it,” said Jabari, raising his voice. “And those who you’ve wrongly chosen to serve have already destroyed the communities you claim to protect! It has to end, pops. I’m sorry it had to be this way.” He lunged toward his father, and plunged a tranquilizer syringe into his hip. Jabari held him close, breaking his fall as his increasingly limp body collapsed to the ground.

What the fuck was going on? Jabari EXPECTED this? My legs began to carry me away, almost involuntarily, back toward the main entryway to the corridor. Jabari was far ahead now, peering toward me with a look of panic. “Where are you going?” he cried.

Just then, the bone-chilling sound of groaning metal roared through the corridor. The storm waves were actually starting to strain the stability of the barrage itself! I could feel a slight sway in the structure beneath me. Outside, a blinding burst of lightning flashed across the western skyline, revealing a huge oncoming wave, easily 20 feet high. Atop the wave was that enormous trade ship, its corporate logo painfully visible as its hull smashed squarely into the barrage’s central barrier. My body flew into the glass, as the massive blow from the trade ship buckled and ripped through Goldilocks’ upper levels. I fell to the floor, which had shifted to a decline, angled at least 10 degrees bayward. This thing wasn’t going to last more than a few more minutes. I had to get out of here!

I looked over to Jabari, and saw him desperately lurching toward me as a wall of seawater began to envelop him. “Jabari!” I yelled. “Jabari!” But it was too late. He slipped and fell into the downward sidewall that had already become a river. I only had seconds before I would be swept up as well. So I lept away as best I could, pushing against the lower wall to keep my balance. At the entryway, there was no sign of the guard, and the security bars weren’t functioning. I dashed for the access pathway and sprinted as fast as possible.

Once at a safe distance, I turned to face it: the massive, once-impenetrable Golden Gate Barrage was now reeling, split in half with a gaping wound that would never heal. Water gushed through the center ravine that had formed by the crash, ripping off more and more sections of the barrage with explosive abandon. I saw at least two more trade ships smash over the opening, then crash into the barge that had struck the fatal blow.

It’s all over now, I thought. There’s nothing to stop the rising tide. Now we must simply learn to adapt. All of us. I noticed the sky becoming blacker, but not because the lightning had subsided. I turned to face downtown. A rolling blackout was blanketing San Francisco in darkness. The city had come to rely on the barrage for far too much. It would now have to learn to live within its means. Perhaps even in balance.

§   §   §

EPILOGUE

March 21, 2068, 1030 Hours, Rolling Hills Memorial Park, Richmond, California

I laid a dozen lilacs on little Beni’s tombstone. Five years ago, he lost his life. Some say it was lost due to pollution from the refinery blast. I say it was lost to indifference, corruption, and greed. I permitted myself a smile as I recalled that the refinery was now merely a fading memory — completely flooded and rendered “beyond repair” by local authorities following the destruction of the barrage. Most of the newly minted coastal ‘hoods also suffered the same fate: complete and total destruction. Very few of the pampered newcomers could stomach living among us lowly flatlanders. So most retreated to the hills or to other wealthy enclaves, where they’ve once again started building new barriers and checkpoints to keep out the riff-raff. I even heard that some corporations and construction outfits are working on a major fortress for San Francisco’s power elites.

Whatever. They can hide away, and wall themselves off to their hearts’ content. Meanwhile, the rest of us have actually been afforded a gift: an opportunity to begin anew. I recently joined the Bay Conservation Corps, which was quite easy, given my connection to Jabari. He’d become somewhat of a legend in the years following his death. I chose to keep his secret. No use in tarring his name — or risking my own arrest, of course. I figure if the Bay Area was being handed a clean slate, I may as well grant myself the same.

Who knows what the future may hold? With all the monumental challenges we face, it won’t be easy. But somehow, some way, we’ll make it through. We always have, and always will.

The Golden Gate Barrage – Part II

» Read Part I of The Golden Gate Barrage!

March 21, 2063, 0730 Hours, Bay-Delta Coastal Protection Zone, Oakland, California

Barrage_Montage_FinalWe were minutes away from Fruitvale Station. Momma was sleeping on my shoulder as the train began its final approach on the elevated track. Every few seconds, the wheels squeaked loudly as our rickety car crawled along. This stretch had always been bad as long as I can remember, but today it sounded like it was on the verge of collapse.

I peered out the window to my right, hoping to catch a glimpse of my old stomping grounds. The rising seas and the Great Greenland Flood had erased half a mile or so of Oakland’s shoreline neighborhoods. Our old house was spared only by a safety margin of several blocks, but we knew it was just a matter of time before we were next.

“Next stop: Fruitvale Station,” crackled the announcement speaker as the car slowed, blaring its arrival horns. The emerging view outside was nothing short of shocking. Beyond the cracked station walls and dilapidated platform, a 20-foot-high chain-link fence stretched for at least several blocks. On the other side — where our family had lived for generations — was a newly constructed, pristine streetscape filled with tree-lined walkways, bustling shops and restaurants, and dozens of earth-toned condominium complexes. Above street level, a parallel transit line had been erected with a gleaming tubular design covering the platform and escalator system. People in white suits and neon skirts were going to and fro, sipping on drinks and vidchatting with abandon.

They gutted everything, I thought. And they’re not worried about the floodwaters. They just walled themselves off, and created their own paradise on top of our misery. I’ll bet they didn’t even bother to fix up our old house. They probably just bulldozed it. But why would they invest so much money right here in the flood zone? It didn’t make any sense.

I woke Momma and guided her weary body out to the platform. She rubbed her eyes, and stared out the station window overlooking the massive fenceline. She rubbed her eyes again, perhaps hoping in vain to wipe away the unbelievable scene before her. “It’s gone, Momma,” I said, curling my arm around her. I stood up on a platform bench for a better view. Sleek new buildings and greenways stretched toward the waterfront as far as the eye could see. It’s almost as though the floodwaters had somewhat receded. But that’s impossible!

“Let’s get out of here,” said Momma, holding my hand for support. We had to take the crumbling stairwell since the elevator wasn’t working. Momma moved slowly, but steadily, and soon we were riding in an old diesel sedan toward Tati’s place. We were lucky today. With the gas shortage, there aren’t nearly as many cars offering rides as there used to be. And this guy cut us some slack for traveling such a short distance.

We approached the front gate of Tati’s apartment with caution, hoping to avoid beggars and the usual onslaught of kids selling candy and pan dulce. I keyed her flat code into the entry pad. Tati’s face soon appeared on the vidscreen. “Mari! Y señora. Please come in!”

As we approached her doorstep, Momma began to cry. On top of losing Benito, she now faced the indignity of not even having her own home to go back to. To grieve. In peace. Tati welcomed us with open arms, joining us for a group sobbing session on her stoop. “Stay here as long as you need to,” she said, wiping away her own tears.

“I’m sorry for your loss, friend,” said a calm, deep voice from the entryway. I looked up to see a young, handsome man in his early 20s, his face nearly expressionless beneath a well-trimmed beard. His smooth skin was a light chocolate brown, and his perfectly sculpted crew cut only highlighted his strong masculine features. I felt a tinge of excitement in my body, but did my best to hold back my interest.

“Meet my boo, Jabari,” said Tati, gesturing towards him with a smile. Jabari smiled back, and tilted his head in acknowledgment. “We’ve been kickin’ it for about a year now,” she continued. “He’s been working hard with the Bay Corps, trying to restore some of the shoreline we’ve lost.”

“It hasn’t been easy,” said Jabari. “No doubt you’ve seen what’s been happening. The suits with deep pockets have been buying up the waterfront, even the underwater parts, and building up new gated ‘hoods. See Fruitvale Landing on your way here?”

Fruitvale Landing. How pompous! I suppose the name fits though, I had to admit. “Yeah, we could barely believe it,” I sighed. “It’s like our entire lives were completely erased.” I thought about all the times we played in each other’s backyards there, my first kiss at the channel overlooking the Alameda shores, and the look on Momma’s face when Daddy died at the docks. So many memories, and so little to show for it. “But why would they set up there? It’s all in the flood zone!”

Jabari’s brow furrowed. “That’s what they want you to believe,” he grumbled. “It’s a sham. They’re not satisfied walling themselves off in the hills, keeping the rest of us fending for scraps. No, they need the shoreline too. The government’s in their back pockets, setting up these ‘Exclusion Zones’ to scare folks out.”

“That’s exactly what happened to us!” I blurted out. “We were robbed! And now Benito’s dead.” I held back my anger, eager to learn more from Jabari. Momma’s ears perked up. “But I still don’t get it. The floods are real. Richmond was knee deep in seawater, and most of West Oakland’s now gone.”

“It’s true,” said Jabari. “Much of downtown San Francisco is underwater too. So’s the South Bay shoreline, and long stretches of the Delta. But they can control the flow now with the Golden Gate Barrage. You know, the mega-dam and lock system?”

I found that hard to believe, but nodded my head in agreement. Jabari continued: “Well, the bay is basically one giant bathtub. You pour water in, the level rises. You drain it, the level goes down. Inside the dam, they installed enormous pipes that are sucking up millions of gallons of bay water each day and then pouring it out to sea.”

So THAT’s how they did it, I thought. The fuckers sure pulled a fast one! And now the rest of us are getting screwed. I caught myself staring at Jabari and quickly looked away. He seemed so confident. So savvy. And soooo attractive. Tati must be so happy.

“Jabari’s papa works for the Golden Gate Management Authority,” Tati said. “Maybe he could give you a tour of the barrage!” Her face and tone seemed a bit sarcastic, but I chalked it up as disgust for the time being. Or did she see me admiring Jabari?

He frowned and cursed under his breath. “Pops probably wouldn’t take a vidcall from me if I tried. Last time we talked, we were screaming at each other over what he was doing,” Jabari said, hanging his head in shame. “He thinks he’s saving the Bay Area.”

We hung out on the stoop for a while longer, then Momma and I took a long nap. Tati’s parents came home from work in the late afternoon, and we all shared a delicious meal of tortillas and rice. Everyone seemed nervous about bringing up Benito, but Momma finally broke the silence: “He was such a good little niño,” she said, wiping her tears. “Always helping, always smiling. I know he’s smiling on us now, seeing us all come together like this. Gracias a ustedes for welcoming us, and for being here for us.” We held hands and said a prayer for Beni, and told stories of our childhood until bedtime. Momma and I retreated to a small guest room in the back, while Tati and Jabari stayed up front, engrossed in a heated debate about his work for the corps. I crashed within minutes.

Moments later, I felt a nudge on my arm that pulled me back awake. Above me, Jabari and Tati were smiling. “Sorry to wake you, Mari,” Jabari whispered. “We thought you might want to join us.” I was incredibly groggy, so I had to sit up just to catch my bearings.

“What’s going on?” I asked, looking over to Momma who was still fast asleep.

Tati leaned in and stared into my eyes. “There’s a lot more going on than we’ve told you, Mari. We’ve got friends here and around the bay who want to put a stop to what’s going on. To shut down that damn barrage once and for all.” I liked the sound of that, to be sure, but had no idea what any of us could possibly do about it. I noticed they both had jackets on and that Jabari was shouldering a large backpack.

“Sounds great to me,” I said. “But where are you going? It’s getting pretty late.”

“San Francisco,” Jabari replied. “Tonight’s a big meeting of our group. They’re gonna love you.” He shot me another of his taunting smiles, and held out his hand. Whatever doubts I had quickly vanished in that moment. I grabbed his hand, and joined the resistance.

 » Read Part III (FINALE) of The Golden Gate Barrage!

 

The Golden Gate Barrage – Part I

March 21, 2063, 0130 Hours, Richmond Medical Center, Bay-Delta Coastal Protection Zone, Richmond, California

Barrage_Montage_FinalBenito gasped for air. His 5-year-old lungs were failing him now. No surprise, of course — he’d breathed highly polluted air nearly every day of his life. He screamed in agony, his blood-curdling shrieks piercing my eardrums like spikes. Tears streamed down his anguished caramel cheeks as he pawed furiously at the white sheets on the hospital gurney. Momma stroked his short black hair with one hand, holding back her own tears as best as she could. In her other hand, she held an old rosary necklace, the one her mother had given her just before she passed. She made the sign of the cross, grabbed Benito’s hand, and looked him in the eyes: “God is with you, Beni.”

Then why isn’t He helping us now? I thought. The nurse told us a doctor would be in to see him soon. But that was over 30 minutes ago! I know, I know. Last night’s explosion at the refinery has them very busy treating other people. But Benito’s dying here!

I jumped off the counter and peered outside the door: an old black woman with a respirator was stumbling toward me as several medical staff walked hurriedly past her; a squealing baby in a plasticine basinett was being wheeled down the hall, its face a gruesome bluish-red; and several dozen others sat coughing in fits along a long row of chairs, the end of which I could barely make out. Poor Benito. What if he can’t hold on?

I darted over to the reception counter, cutting in front of at least a dozen haggard-looking victims of the latest oil refinery blast. I waived my hands frantically, shouting: “Please, please! My brother needs help!” A man behind a glass wall gave me a passing glance, then pressed the corner of his touch-sensitive readout. A mounted vidcam tilted downward to scan my face, producing a data set on his display. He spoke calmly into his mic: “Rodriguez, Mariela. Asthmatic sibling registered to room 109A. A resident doctor is scheduled to evaluate him at 0140 hours. Please step aside, or security will be called.”

They don’t care. None of them care.

I shrank away from the counter, lowering my shoulders in resignation. As I wandered  back, I could hear Benito’s wheezing gasps in the distance. Up ahead, several medics shuffled into his room. I quickly followed, and saw Momma standing silently over him at the foot of his gurney. “Clear!” said a man holding a blinking metal device, which he quickly planted on Benito’s chest. His upper body convulsed in rebellion as his pupils rolled skyward. A loud beeping sound blared from the monitor. Benito’s wheezing was now little more than weak gasps. Everyone was in a frenzy. Everything became a blur as medics took turns administering injections, triggering the chest device, and nervously adjusting Benito’s gas mask. The beeping became a steady high-pitched ring, and a young nurse covered her mouth, staring at the flat red line on the readout.

Momma fell to her knees, clutching Benito’s feet with her outstretched hands. “Nooooo!” she screamed. “Too young!” My own tears were welling up now. This can’t be happening. Beni was just pulling my hair yesterday. Laughing, playing. No, this CAN’T be. A rush of burning rage coursed through me. All I could think about was that swindling real estate guy who sold us that damn house in the first place. “This is the best deal you’re gonna find,” he kept telling Momma. “You’ll be out of harm’s way. Far from the flood zone. And the refinery’s totally safe now.” What a load of crap!

Before my fury got me into any more trouble, I turned and ran. Smashing through the closest doors across the hall, I came to a stairwell. I scaled several flights, trying to shake off my anger. A darkened set of stairs came into view. I kept going, hoping for anywhere to hide from all this madness, all this pain. I pushed open a small door, and stepped out to the rooftop. A faint whiff of burning chemicals breezed past my nose. That fucking refinery. Someone’s gotta pay for what they’ve done to Benito. To all of us.

I could ignore the ambulance sirens and shouting from the streets. I could ignore the toxic haze closing in around me. But I couldn’t ignore the image in my mind of Benito’s smiling, big-toothed face. Little Beni. Poor Beni. Sweet Beni. I finally let myself go, crying like a baby, gasping for breaths between my drooling lips. I draped myself over the ledge overlooking the emergency entrance. Hundreds of people, scores of them children, stood patiently in line, waiting for care they may never receive. We’re TOO damn patient. Too willing to accept these assaults on our health, on our dignity. When will it end?

My vidpad rang in my jacket pocket, playing my friend Tatiana’s unmistakable ringtune. “¿Bueno?” I said reflexively, knowing full well that things were far from good.

“You’re up! You okay?” asked Tatiana, her face overcome with worry. “I was up late, and just heard there was an explosion!” Tatiana still lived in our old ‘hood in Oakland, though thankfully a bit uphill from the floodwater exclusion zone. I hadn’t seen her in months, but ever since I was a little girl, we could always count on her and her family for anything.

“Sí, I’m fine,” I finally said, trying to hide my tears. I paused, then met her gaze. “Pero, Beni’s gone, Tati,” I managed through my sobs. “He couldn’t take the smoke.”

Tatiana put her hand over her mouth in shock, shaking her head in disbelief. “No!” she cried. “Pobrecito. I’m so sorry, Mari. I’m so sorry.”

“Gracias, Tati. I know he’s in a better place now. But Beni never stood a chance, you know?” Our house in Richmond was simply too close to the refinery, and directly downwind from its flares. We knew he was suffering, but couldn’t leave. Momma needed her care-taking job in Berkeley, and our beat-up house wouldn’t have fetched enough to move anywhere else. “We never should have left Oakland!”

“I know, amiga,” she said. “You should get out of there, at least ’til the danger passes and you and tu madre can decide what to do. You’re welcome to stay with us.”

“Muchas gracias, Tati,” I responded. It would be SO helpful to get away, I thought. If only for a little while to figure out what we’re gonna do. “I gotta go back to Momma. She needs me.”

“Of course,” said Tati. “Blessings, Mari. Vid me when you’re ready.”

I pocketed my vidpad and started back to the stairwell. Just then a bright beam of white light cut across the rooftop. I raised my arm to shield my eyes, then turned to face its source: the warning beacon perched atop “Goldilocks,” the newly constructed mega-dam right at the mouth of San Francisco Bay. Everyone’s been singing its praises for years now. It’ll keep out the rising seas, the newscasters would say, and protect our shores from the floodwaters. Of course, it’ll also provide good-paying jobs, generate clean energy, and still allow for trade ships to come in and out through its enormous system of locks.

All that sounded well and good to me, but too little, too late for us, not to mention the 100,000 or so other folks who’ve already been pushed out by the floods. And why couldn’t us Richmond folks get a proper beacon or warning system for all these refinery blasts? Why?

I returned to Beni’s room and saw Momma still bent over his lifeless body. At least he was finally at peace. I hugged her tightly, trying my best to ease her sorrow. Our sorrow. I held off the staff from wheeling him away for about an hour as we sobbed, reminisced, and finally, made arrangements for his body. A proper funeral would have to wait. We stepped outside to a calmer morning. Most of the line had disappeared, except for a dozen or so folks sleeping under hospital blankets by the front entrance. A foul-smelling fog covered the grounds, and a grey-soaked sun began to peek over the East Bay hills.

I convinced mother to go straight with me to Tatiana’s for at least a few days, despite her pleas to return home. “It’s not safe yet, Momma,” I insisted, as we shuttled to the Richmond train station. I knew we could borrow clothes from Tati’s familia or get some from Fruitvale Plaza, so it wouldn’t be a problem. As we left the station, the haze lessened, revealing a haunting sea of flooded buildings toward Richmond Harbor. We were slammed hard in the ’50s after a big chunk of the Greenland ice sheets melted, raising sea levels by several feet in less than a month. Richmond and much of the Bay Area has never recovered.

I wonder what our old neighborhood looks like now? I hadn’t been there for over a year. We’ll see soon enough. And maybe, just maybe, we can find a way out of this mess.

» Read Part II of The Golden Gate Barrage!