Few cities’ reputations supersede them like that of Las Vegas – the home of sin, casinos, neon and unbridled good times. However, behind the glitz, glamour, slot machines and excess, there is a side of Vegas as quirky as it is infamous. Come with us ‘off the beaten Strip,’ as we count down the 12 most intriguing, unusual and alternative experiences that this notorious city has to offer…
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Cost overruns and accusations of faulty designs have dogged projects from New York to his native Spain
He’s one of the world’s most prominent architects, known for his complex aesthetic and intricate designs. But behind Spain’s Santiago Calatrava is a trail of frustrated clients, from a wine cellar near La Rioja whose leaky roof left it battling the elements, to the dazzling City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia whose final cost came in at four times the original price tag.
This week Calatrava defended his projects. “The reality is that throughout my career I’ve tackled projects in Spain that I’m proud of,” he told Spanish daily El Mundo.
In today’s On the News segment: Major changes in ocean biodiversity due to climate change are more extreme than anything our planet has seen in 3 million years; 20-year-old Boyan Slat is getting ready to deploy the first-ever ocean cleaning system; earthworms could be a solution to our climate crisis; and more.
Thom Hartmann here – on the best of the rest of… Science and Green news…
You need to know this. Our warming planet is causing major changes to our oceans. According to new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, warming waters are drastically altering the biodiversity in our oceans. In fact, these changes are more extreme than anything our planet has seen in 3 million years. And, it’s only going to get worse as our planet gets even hotter. While some may claim that it’s no big deal if species migrate to new areas, scientists warn that such drastic changes could disrupt the entire ocean ecosystem. In order to test their theory, scientists at the National Center for Science Research in France developed what they called a “pseudo-species model,” to see how different species would react to warmer oceans. The researchers could then compare those reactions to different times in our planet’s history. According to that analysis, researchers said that in the most dramatic warming scenario – the so-called “do-nothing” scenario – about 70 percent of the marine life in our oceans would change. Even less dire warning scenarios, about half of all ocean life will have to relocate, adapt, or die off. When species suddenly vanish from their historic habitat, the functions that they served in that environment can disappear as well. Ecosystems that rely on symbiotic relationships can be thrown out of balance, and other species could be forced to move or die as well. And, some marine life – like coral – can’t just get up and move. If you think this isn’t important, you need to think again. Our oceans are the lifeblood of our planet. They are the primary force behind our weather and our climate, and they are the main source of food for millions of people all over the world. Changes to our marine life mean changes to human life. It doesn’t matter whether you live in the mid-west or the Middle East, life as you know it would not exist without our oceans.
We can agree or disagree about the quality of a science textbook, but most of us can still agree that the Bible doesn’t belong in science class. For students in some Louisiana public schools however, that’s exactly where they will read about the Book of Genesis. Back in 2008, that state passed legislation that allows teachers to “critique” well-established scientific theory like evolution, but prohibits lessons that teach creationism. But, that hasn’t stopped many of the Louisiana public schools from presenting students with that story as if it is fact. According to a letter from a teacher from Airline High School, “We will read in Genesis and some supplemental material debunking various aspects of evolution from which the students will present.” What ever your religious beliefs may be, you probably don’t want public school teachers instructing kids on biblical teachings – any more than you’d want your preacher teaching economics. Our nation decided long ago that church and state should remain separate, and it’s time to stop blurring those lines in Louisiana.
At 20-years old, many of us were barely able to save rent money – but Boyan Slat is ready to save the world. Last week, EcoWatch.com announced that Boyan, the founder and CEO of The Ocean Cleanup, is getting ready to deploy the first-ever ocean cleaning system. In a blog post about his project, Boyan wrote, “Not only will this first cleanup array contribute to cleaner waters and coasts, but it simultaneously is an essential step towards our goal of cleaning up the Great Garbage Patch.” That’s the nickname for the massive amount of plastic garbage that has collected at each of the ocean’s nature gyres. The amount of plastic waste in our oceans has been increasing for decades, but Mr. Slat has plans to change that. His 2,000-meter booms will use wind and ocean currents to coral plastic garbage and collect it for removal – and it happens to be the longest floating structure ever deployed in the oceans. This pilot program kicks off in 2016 and lasts for two years off the coast of Japan, and it represents the first real attempt to solve the plastic problem in our oceans. This is just the latest example of the many ways that the younger generation is working on real solutions to our environmental crisis. Boyan Slat is doing amazing work, and he’s inspiring people of all ages to get involved in the fight to save our planet.
Next time you enjoy roasted potatoes, you may want to consider your evolutionary roots. According to a recent article in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the origins of cooking may predate the human species. It turns out that even chimpanzees understand the cooking process, and that they will wait for roasted food instead of eating raw food that is immediately available. In a series of experiments, scientists discovered that chimps will reject raw potatoes even if they have to wait for roasted potatoes. Some of the chimps also learned which containers were used for cooking, and they would carry raw food across a room to place it in a cooking device. Scientists contend that cooking probably originated before our species, but may have been more opportunistic than preplanned. In other words, one of the processes that we view as uniquely human isn’t actually unique after all.
And finally… Earthworms do more than help our gardens. In fact, according to new research from Yale University, they could be a solution to our climate crisis. Scientists conducted a study to measure how much carbon is emitted by microbes that digest organic matter, and they found that earthworms and other small animals dramatically effect those emissions. Without earthworms, microbes give off far more carbon emissions, which contribute to our warming planet. The authors wrote, “the failure to incorporate animals and their interactions with microbial communities into global decomposition models has been highlighted as a critical limitation in our understanding of [the] carbon cycle under current and future scenarios.” In other words, failing to include earthworms in our landfills will dramatically change how much pollution is given off when they decay. And, this study shows how much we still have to learn about the symbiotic nature of all species on our planet. Instead of being grossed out by the next earthworm you come across, maybe you should stop and consider their important roll here on the one-and-only planet we call home.
And that’s the way it is for the week of June 8, 2015 – I’m Thom Hartmann, on Science & Green News.
Next month marks the 30th anniversary of a turning point in the history of Greenpeace. On July 10th, 1985 the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior was bombed by French government agents and sunk in a harbor in Auckland, New Zealand. The ship was preparing to head to sea to protest against French nuclear bomb tests in the South Pacific. Greenpeace photographer Fernando Pereira was killed in the attack. Our guest Peter Willcox was the captain of the ship and on board when the boat was blown up.
Even as violence erupted in Baltimore days after the death of Freddie Gray, the police officers at the center of his death still had not explained how he suffered fatal injuries in their custody weeks earlier. A special Maryland law known as a police “bill of rights” gave the officers 10 days to respond to investigators – a protection that the average citizen doesn’t have.
Thirteen other states, including Illinois, have a similar law. In Illinois, police officers have a waiting period before they have to talk to investigators in response to complaints from citizens or even fellow officers. They also can get in writing key information about the investigation, including who will question them and what they’ll be asked.
Critics say Illinois’ 30-year-old law establishes two sets of rules – one for police officers and one for average citizens. And combined with police union contracts, which lay out further protections for officers, advocates for police reform say the law complicates efforts to address police misconduct in Chicago and elsewhere.
“The protections are stronger than what you and I would enjoy in a criminal investigation,” said Mark Iris, president of the Chicago Police Board for 23 years. “Is any one of these things critical by themselves? No. Collectively do they add up to give an officer a big advantage? Yes.”
Police nationwide lobbied for the bill of rights laws in the aftermath of the civil rights movement as people organized against police brutality and demanded civilian review boards. Today, as protests against alleged police abuse take center stage, policing experts say officers are benefiting from rules they created decades ago.
Police “bill of rights”
Police officers shouldn’t be treated like average citizens because of the dangers of their job, said Dean Angelo, president of the Chicago chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents local officers.
The police protections in the Illinois law are necessary because officers’ lives are on the line and because of false and unproven allegations against them, he said. “At some point in time, that person isn’t happy going to jail,” Angelo said. “The easy target becomes the police officer.”
The law applies to officers until they are charged, but investigations of police misconduct, especially excessive force and death cases, rarely result in charges.
Critics of the law say the protections give police an unfair advantage because they have time to prepare a statement and know in advance what they’ll be asked. Both impede prompt investigations of alleged misconduct.
Illinois differs from Maryland where officers have a 10-day waiting period before they are questioned in a criminal case. In Illinois, police establish the waiting period in their union contracts. Chicago police officers typically have two days before giving a statement.
The state law also allows police officers to receive a transcript of their interview with police officials sooner than the average citizen would. Under the union contract, an officer must receive a transcript or recording within 72 hours of an interrogation, and before any additional interviews.
“Let’s say a cop is called in for a subsequent interview,” Iris said. “It’s far easier to be consistent when you’re telling the truth. But when you tell a falsehood and have to do it on repeated occasions, you have to remember, ‘What lie did I tell last time?’ It’s easier with a transcript.”
Under the state law, a police officer has to be interrogated “at a reasonable time of day” and the officer has discretion about what is reasonable.
That’s not the case for civilians, Iris said.
“If it’s three in the morning and police need to speak with you about a shooting case — you’ll be at the police station at three in the morning.”
A history of police protections in Illinois
The story of Illinois’ police “bill of rights” starts in Chicago in the early ’80s with the Fraternal Order of Police.
In 1980, the FOP was elected to represent Chicago police in collective bargaining with the city. The union established its version of a bill of rights in its first contract with the city — and then ushered a law through the statehouse. The Illinois Police Association also backed the law.
A transcript from a 1983 debate in the Illinois General Assembly indicates that the office of Chicago’s top cop helped draft the state law. House Speaker Michael Madigan was among the sponsors, along with Rep. Roger McAuliffe, a former Chicago police officer.
Co-sponsor John S. Matijevich, a former Democratic representative from North Chicago, said police had a strong lobbying presence in Springfield to get the bill passed. Earlier that year, Matijevich had sponsored successful firefighters’ bill of rights legislation, following a strike by Chicago firefighters and a push by public employees to unionize. At the time, other states were passing similar laws.
“I can’t recall everything now,” said Matijevich, “but I was convinced that [police] needed a voice.”
State Sen. Sam Vadalabene, a Democrat from Edwardsville, sponsored the bill in the Senate.
In 1974, Maryland became the first state to approve a police bill of rights. The state laws gained traction amid a rising tide of police unions, which drove the measures around the country.
Samuel Walker, a scholar who consults with cities about policing practices, said the push for a bill of rights was in part a response to the civil rights movement and attempts to strengthen police accountability, including the establishment of civilian review boards.
“Police departments, mostly white at the time, resented accusations of discrimination and racism, and this was their defensive response,” Walker said. “They opposed almost every measure to improve police accountability. They still do.”
A federal police bill of rights remains a top priority for the national FOP, though so far legislation has been unsuccessful in Congress.
Walker emphasized that even where there aren’t state statutes with bill of rights stipulations, police have provisions in their union contracts “that shield officers from meaningful investigations of possible misconduct.”
The power of police unions
The Chicago police union’s contract with the city, which expires in 2017, spells out details that the state law leaves open. For example, the law says the delay period for an interrogation has to be “reasonable.” Under the contract, a police officer is given two days from the date of notification to meet with investigators. If someone has been shot, they must meet with investigators no later than two hours after notification of a request for an interview. The deadline can be pushed back if an officer claims he isn’t in mental or physical condition to be interviewed by the Independent Police Review Authority.
Angelo of the Chicago FOP said officers are questioned at the scene of an incident, including shootings, and have to give superiors their version of events. An official statement, however, could be several days coming.
“You kind of give an individual some time to cool off, or relax or compose themselves,” Angelo said.
Northwestern University professor Locke Bowman said dismantling the extra police protections in the law and union contracts is key to improving police accountability, but elected officials are reluctant to take on a powerful union.
“It’s a tough nut to crack in terms of state law,” said Bowman, executive director of the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center. “It’s a tough nut to crack in terms of contract negotiations with the FOP, which has enormous clout that is greatly feared by every politician here.”
Flint Taylor of the People’s Law Office agrees that the contract allows officers to skirt accountability. He said under the contract the department must destroy misconduct files after so many years, and the city has to pay to defend police officers in court and to pay for misconduct settlements, which topped $50 million in 2014.
“The community never has any impact to speak of with the contracts … and there are no public hearings,” Taylor said. “The community has no voice.”
Angelo said the FOP protects its officers from undue discipline or prosecution, just like any union would do for its members. He said how a police officer responds to an allegation of misconduct can follow him throughout his career.
“We are there to protect the officer’s rights,” Angelo said. “It’s just looked upon differently by people because it’s a police officer involved.”
But Iris said police have more protections than private sector and most public sector employees. “These protections have been pushed strongly by police officer unions,” Iris said. “They’re trying to make it more difficult to take action against their members, not to make it easier.”
The Chicago Reporter is a non-profit investigative news organization that focuses on race, poverty and income inequality.
The Arctic is now the center of one of the world’s great environmental battles. As temperatures rise in the region, the world’s largest oil companies are eyeing vast new untapped reserves once covered year-round by ice. Environmentalists are pushing back in an attempt to save the pristine Arctic and keep the oil underground. We look back at a 2013 protest that caught the world’s attention, when activists from Greenpeace attempted to board a Russian oil drilling rig owned by the Russian state oil company Gazprom. In total, 28 Greenpeace activists and two journalists were arrested and brought to Russia where they were charged with piracy and held for two months. They had faced up to 15 years in prison. They became known as the Arctic 30. We are joined by two guests: Peter Willcox, the captain of the Greenpeace ship involved in the action who spent two months in a Russian jail; and Ben Stewart, a longtime member of Greenpeace and author of the new book Don’t Trust, Don’t Fear, Don’t Beg: The Extraordinary Story of the Arctic 30.
One city neglected to inform its residents that its water supply was laced with cancerous chemicals. Another dissolved its public school district and replaced it with a charter school system, only to witness the for-profit management company it hired flee the scene after determining it couldn’t turn a profit. Numerous cities and school districts in the state are now run by single, state-appointed technocrats, as permitted under an emergency financial manager law pushed through by Rick Snyder, Michigan’s austerity-promoting governor. This legislation not only strips residents of their local voting rights, but gives Snyder’s appointee the power to do just about anything, including dissolving the city itself — all (no matter how disastrous) in the name of “fiscal responsibility.”
If you’re thinking, “Who cares?” since what happens in Michigan stays in Michigan, think again. The state’s aggressive balance-the-books style of governance has already spread beyond its borders. In January, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie appointed bankruptcy lawyer and former Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr to be a “legal adviser” to Atlantic City. The Detroit Free Pressdescribed the move as “a state takeover similar to Gov. Rick Snyder’s state intervention in the Motor City.”
And this spring, amid the hullabaloo of Republicans entering the 2016 presidential race, Governor Snyder launched his own national tour to sell “the Michigan story to the rest of the country.” His trip was funded by a nonprofit (fed, naturally, by undisclosed donations) named “Making Government Accountable: The Michigan Story.”
To many Michiganders, this sounded as ridiculous as Jeb Bush launching a super PAC dubbed “Making Iraq Free: The Bush Family Story.” Except Snyder wasn’t planning to enter the presidential rat race. Instead, he was attempting to mainstream Michigan’s form of austerity politics and its signature emergency management legislation, which stripped more than half of the state’s African American residents of their local voting rights in 2013 and 2014.
As the governor jaunted around the country, Ann Arbor-based photographer Eduardo García and I decided to set out on what we thought of as our own two-week Magical Michigan Tour. And while we weren’t driving a specially outfitted psychedelic tour bus — we spent most of the trip in my grandmother’s 2005 Prius — our journey was nevertheless remarkably surreal. From the southwest banks of Lake Michigan to the eastern tips of the peninsula, we crisscrossed the state visiting more than half a dozen cities to see if there was another side to the governor’s story and whether Michigan really was, as one Detroit resident put it, “a massive experiment in unraveling U.S. democracy.”
Stop One: Water Wars in Flint
Just as we arrive, the march spills off the sidewalk in front of the city council building.
“Stop poisoning our children!” chants a little girl as the crowd tumbles down South Saginaw Street, the city’s main drag. We’re in Flint, Michigan, a place that hit the headlines last year for its brown, chemical-laced, possibly toxic water. A wispy white-haired woman waves a gallon jug filled with pee-colored liquid from her home tap. “They don’t care that they’re killing us!” she cries.
A Flint resident at the march demanding clean water. (Photo credit: Eduardo García)
We catch up with Claire McClinton, the formidable if grandmotherly organizer of the Flint Democracy Defense League, as we approach the roiling Flint River. It’s been a longtime dumping ground for the Ford Motor Company’s riverfront factories and, as of one year ago today, the only source of the city’s drinking water. On April 25, 2014, on the instruction of the city’s emergency manager, Flint stopped buying its supplies from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and started drawing water directly from the river, which meant a budgetary savings of $12 million a year. The downside: people started getting sick.
Since then, tests have detectedE. coli and fecal bacteria in the water, as well as high levels of trihalomethanes, a carcinogenic chemical cocktail known as THMs. For months, the city concealed the presence of THMs, which over years can lead to increased rates of cancer, kidney failure, and birth defects. Still, it was obvious to local residents that something was up. Some of them were breaking out in mysterious rashes or experiencing bouts of severe diarrhea, while others watched as their eyelashes and hair began to fall out.
As we cross a small footbridge, McClinton recounts how the city council recently voted to “do all things necessary” to get Detroit’s water back. The emergency manager, however, immediately overrode their decision, terming it “incomprehensible.”
“This is a whole different model of control,” she comments drily and explains that she’s now working with other residents to file an injunction compelling the city to return to the use of Detroit’s water. One problem, though: it has to be filed in Ingham County, home to Lansing, the state capital, rather than in Flint’s Genesee County, because the decision of a state-appointed emergency manager is being challenged. “Under state rule, that’s where you go to redress grievances,” she says. “Just another undermining of our local authority.”
In the meantime, many city residents remain frustrated and confused. A few weeks before the march, the city sent out two notices on the same day, packaged in the same envelope. One, printed in black-and-white, stated bluntly: “Our water system recently violated a drinking water standard.” The second, in flashy color, had this cheery message: “We are pleased to report that City of Flint water is safe and meets U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines… You can be confident that the water provided to you today meets all safety standards.” As one recipient of the notices commented, “I can only surmise that the point was to confuse us all.”
McClinton marches in silence for a few minutes as the crowd doubles back across the bridge and begins the ascent up Saginaw Street. Suddenly, a man jumps onto a life-size statue of a runner at the Riverfront Plaza and begins to cloak him in one of the group’s T-shirts.
“Honey, I don’t want you getting in any trouble!” his wife calls out to him.
He’s struggling to pull a sleeve over one of the cast-iron arms when the droning weeoo-weeooo-weeooof a police siren blares, causing a brief frenzy until the man’s son realizes he’s mistakenly hit the siren feature on the megaphone he’s carrying.
After a few more tense moments, the crowd surges forward, leaving behind the statue, legs stretched in mid-stride, arms raised triumphantly, and on his chest a new cotton T-shirt with the slogan: “Water You Fighting For?”
Stop Two: The Tri-Cities of Cancer
The next afternoon, we barrel down Interstate 75 into an industrial hellscape of smoke stacks, flare offs, and 18-wheelers, en route to another toxicity and accountability crisis. This one was caused by a massive tar sands refinery and dozens of other industrial polluters in southwest Detroit and neighboring River Rouge and Ecorse, cities which lie along the banks of the Detroit River.
Already with a slight headache from a haze of emissions, we meet photographer and community leader Emma Lockridge and her neighbor Anthony Parker in front of their homes, which sit right in the backyard of that tar sands refinery.
In 2006, the toxicity levels in their neighborhood, known simply by its zip code as “48217,” were 45 times higher than the state average. And that was before Detroit gave $175 million in tax breaks to the billion-dollar Marathon PetroleumCorporation to help it expand its refinery complex to process a surge of high-sulfur tar sands from Alberta, Canada.
The Marathon tar sands refinery in southwest Detroit. (Photo credit: Eduardo García)
“We’re a donor zip,” explains Lockridge as she settles into the driver’s seat of our car. “We have all the industry and a tax base, but we get nothing back.”
We set off on a whirlwind tour of their neighborhood, where schools have been torn down and parks closed due to the toxicity of the soil, while so many residents have died of cancer that it’s hard for their neighbors to keep track. “We used to play on the swings here,” says Lockridge, pointing to a rusted yellow swing set in a fenced-off lot where the soil has tested for high levels of lead, arsenic, and other poisonous chemicals. “Jumping right into the lead.”
As in other regions of Michigan, people have been fleeing 48217 in droves. Here, however, the depopulation results not from deindustrialization, but from toxicity, thanks to an ever-expanding set of factories. These include a wastewater treatment complex, salt mines, asphalt factories, cement plants, a lime and stone foundry, and a handful of steel mills all clustered in the tri-cities region.
As Lockridge and Parker explain, they have demanded that Marathon buy their homes. They have also implored the state to cap emission levels and have filed lawsuits against particularly toxic factories. In response, all they’ve seen are more factories given more breaks, while the residents of 48217 get none. Last spring, for example, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality permitted the AK Steel plant, located close to the neighborhood, to increase its toxic emissions as much as 725 times. The approval, according to the Detroit Free Press, came after “Gov. Rick Snyder’s business-promoting agency worked for months behind the scenes” lobbying the Department of Environmental Quality.
“Look at this cute little tree out of nowhere over here!” Lockridge exclaims, slowing the car in front of a scrawny plant whose branches, in the midst of this industrial wasteland, bend under the weight of white blossoms.
“That tree ain’t gonna grow up,” Parker responds. “It’s dead already.”
“It’s trying,” Lockridge insists. “Aww, it’s kind of sad. It’s a Charlie Brown tree.”
The absurdity of life in such an environment is highlighted when we reach a half-mile stretch of sidewalk sandwiched between a massive steel mill and a coal-fired power plant that has been designated a “Wellness Walk.”
“Energize your Life!” implores the sign affixed to a chain-link fence surrounding the power plant. It’s an unlikely site for an exercise walk, given that the state’s health officials consider this strip and the nearby park “the epicenter of the state’s asthma burden.”
After a sad laugh, we head for Zug Island, a Homeland Security-patrolled area populated by what look to be giant black vacuum cleaners but are actually blast furnaces. The island was named for millionaire Samuel Zug, who built a lavish mansion there only to discover that it was sinking into swampland. It is now home to U.S. Steel, the largest steel manufacturer in the nation.
On our way back, we make a final stop at Oakwood Heights, an almost entirely vacant and partially razed subdivision located on the other side of the Marathon plant. “This is the white area that was bought out,” says Lockridge. The scene is eerie: small residential streets lined by grassy fields and the occasional empty house. That Marathon paid residents to evacuate their homes in this predominantly white section of town, while refusing to do the same in the predominantly African American 48217, which sits closer to the refinery, strikes neither Lockridge and Parker nor their neighbors as a coincidence.
We survey the remnants of the former neighborhood: bundles of ragged newspapers someone was once supposed to deliver, a stuffed teddy bear abandoned on a wooden porch, and a childless triangle-shaped playground whose construction, a sign reads, was “made possible by generous donations from Marathon.”
As this particularly unmagical stop on our Michigan tour comes to an end, Parker says quietly, “I’ve got to get my family out of here.”
Lockridge agrees. “I just wish we had a refuge place we could go to while we’re fighting,” she says. “You see we’re surrounded.”
Stop Three: The Great White North
Not all of Michigan’s problems are caused by emergency management, but this sweeping new power does lie at the heart of many local controversies. Later that night we meet with retired Detroit city worker, journalist, and organizer Russ Bellant who has made himself something of an expert on the subject.
In 2011, he explains, Governor Snyder signed an emergency manager law known as Public Act 4. The impact ofthis law and its predecessor, Public Act 72, was dramatic. In the city of Pontiac, for instance, the number of public employees plummeted from 600 to 50. In Detroit, the emergency manager of the school district waged a six-year slash-and-burn campaign that, in the end, shuttered 95 schools. In Benton Harbor, the manager effectively dissolved the city government, declaring: “The fact of the matter is, the city manager is now gone. I am the city manager. I replace the financial director, so I’m the financial director and the city manager. I am the mayor and the commission. And I don’t need them.”
So in 2012, Bellant cancelled all his commitments in Detroit, packed his car full of chocolate pudding snacks, canned juices, and fliers and headed north to support a statewide campaign to repeal the law through a ballot referendum in that fall’s general election. For two months, he crisscrossed the upper reaches of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, the part of the state that people say looks like a hand, as well as the remote Upper Peninsula that borders Wisconsin and Canada.
“Seven or eight hours a day, I would just knock on doors,” he says.
In November, the efforts paid off and voters repealed the act, but the celebration was short-lived. Less than two months later, during a lame-duck session of the state legislature, Governor Snyder pushed through and signed Public Act 436, a broader version of the legislation that was referendum-proof. Since then, financial managers have continued to shut down fire departments, outsource police departments, sell off parking meters and public parks. In Flint, the manager even auctioned off the plastic Santa Claus that once adorned city hall, setting the initial bidding price at $5.
And here’s one fact of life in Michigan: emergency management is normally only imposed on majority-black cities. From 2013 to 2014, 52% of the African American residents in the state lived under emergency management, compared to only 2% of white residents. And yet the repeal vote against the previous version of the act was a demographic landslide: 75 out of 83 counties voted to nix the legislation, including all of Michigan’s northern, overwhelmingly white, rural counties. “I think people just internalized that P.A. 4 was undemocratic,” Bellant says.
That next morning, we travel north to the city of Alpena, a 97% white lakeside town where Bellant knocked on doors and the recall was triumphant. The farther north we head, the more the landscape changes. We pass signs imploring residents to “Take Back America: Liberty Yes, Tyranny No.” Gas stations feature clay figurines of hillbillies drinking moonshine in bathtubs.
It’s almost evening when we arrive. We spend part of our visit at the Dry Dock, a dive bar overseen by a raspy-voiced bartender where all the political and demographic divides of the state — and, in many ways, the country — are on full display. Two masons are arguing about their union; the younger one likes the protections it provides, while his colleague ditched the local because he didn’t want to pay the dues. That move became possible only after Snyder signed controversial “right-to-work” legislation in 2012, allowing workers to opt-out of union dues and causing a sharp decline in union membership ever since.
Above their heads, the television screen projects intentionally terrifying images of the uprising in Baltimore in response to the police murder of Freddie Gray, an unarmed African American man. “The Bloods, the Crips, and the Guerrillas are out for the National Guard,” comments a carpenter about the unarmed protesters, a sneer of distain in his voice. “Not that I like the fucking cops, either,” he adds.
The bartender of the Dry Dock plays pool with other regulars. (Photo credit: Eduardo García)
Throughout our visit, people repeatedly told us that Alpena “isn’t Detroit or Flint” and that they have absolutely no fear of the state seizing control of their sleepy, white, touristy city. When we press the question with the owner of a bicycle shop, the hostility rises in his voice as he explains: “Things just run the way they should here” — by which he means, of course, that down in Detroit and Flint, residents don’t run things the way they should.
Yet, misconceptions notwithstanding, the county voted to repeal Public Act 4 with a staggering 63% of those who turned out opting to strike down the law.
Reflecting Bellant’s feeling that locals grasped the law’s undemocratic nature in some basic way, even if it would never affect them personally, one resident offered this explanation: “When you think about living in a democracy, then this is like financial martial law… I know they say these cities need help, but it didn’t feel like something that would help.”
Stop Four: The Fugitive Task Force
The next day, as 2,000 soldiers from the 175th Infantry Regiment of the National Guard fanned out across Baltimore, we head for Detroit’s west side where, only 24 hours earlier, a law enforcement officer shot and killed a 20-year-old man in his living room.
A crowd has already gathered near his house in the early summer heat, exchanging condolences, waving signs, and jostling for position as news crews set up cameras and microphones for a press conference to come. Versions of what happened quickly spread: Terrance Kellom was fatally shot when officers swarmed his house to deliver an arrest warrant. The authorities claim that he grabbed a hammer, prompting the shooting; his father, Kevin,contends Terrance was unarmed and kneeling in front of him when he was shot several times, including once in the back.
Kellom is just one of the 489 people killed in 2015 in the United States by law enforcement officers. There is, however, a disturbing twist to Kellom’s case. He was not, in fact, killed by the police but by a federal agent working with a little known multi-jurisdictional interagency task force coordinated by the U.S. Marshals.
Similar task forces are deployed across the country and they all share the same sordid history: the Marshals have been hunting people ever since the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act compelled the agency to capture slaves fleeing north for freedom. One nineteenth-century newspaper account, celebrating the use of bloodhounds in such hunts, wrote: “The Cuban dog would frequently pull down his game and tear the runaway to pieces before the officers could come up.”
These days, Detroit’s task force has grown particularly active as budget cuts have decimated the local police department. Made up of federal Immigration and Customs officers, police from half a dozen local departments, and even employees of the Social Security Administration office, the Detroit Fugitive Apprehension Team has nabbed more than 15,000 people. Arrest rates have soared since 2012, the same year the local police budget was chopped by 20%. Even beyond the task force, the number of federal agents patrolling the city has risen as well. The Border Patrol, for example, has increased its presence in the region by tenfold over the last decade and just two weeks ago announced the launch of a new $14 million Detroit station.
Kevin Kellom approaches the barricade of microphones and begins speaking so quietly that the gathered newscasters crush into each other in an effort to catch what’s he’s saying. “They assassinated my son,” he whispers. “I want justice and I’m going to get justice.”
Yet today, six weeks after Terrance’s death, no charges have been brought against the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent who fired the fatal shot. Other law enforcement officers who have killed Michigan residents in recent years have similarly escaped punishment. Detroit police officer Joseph Weekley was videotaped killing seven-year-old Aiyana Jones with a submachine gun during a SWAT team raid on her home in 2010. He remains a member of the department. Ann Arbor police officer David Reid is also back on duty after fatally shooting 40-year-old artist and mother Aura Rosser in November 2014. The Ann Arbor police department ruled that a “justifiable homicide” because Rosser was holding a small kitchen knife during the encounter — a ruling that Rosser’s family members and city residents are contesting with an ongoing campaign calling for an independent investigation into her death.
Residents march during a #BlackLivesMatter protest on May 1, 2015, in Ann Arbor to call for an independent investigation into Aura Rosser’s death. (Photo credit: Eduardo García)
And such deadly incidents continue. Since Kellom’s death, law enforcement officers have fatally shot at least three more Michigan residents — one outside the city of Kalamazoo, another near Lansing, and a third in Battle Creek.
Stop Five: The Unprofitable All-Charter School District
Our final stop is Muskegon Heights, a small city on the banks of Lake Michigan, home to perhaps the most spectacular educational debacle in recent history. Here’s the SparkNotes version. In 2012, members of the Muskegon Heights public school board were given two options: dissolve the district entirely or succumb to an emergency manager’s rule. On arrival, the manager announced that he was dissolving the public school district and forming a new system to be run by the New York-based for-profit charter school management company Mosaica Education. Two years later, that company broke its five-year contract and fled because, according to the emergency manager, “the profit just simply wasn’t there.”
And here’s a grim footnote to this saga: in 2012, in preparation for the new charter school district, cryptically named the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System, the emergency manager laid off every single school employee.
“We knew it was coming,” explained one of the city’s longtime elementary school teachers. She asked not to be identified, so I’ll call her Susan. “We received letters in the mail.”
Then, around one a.m. the night before the new charter school district was slated to open, she received a voicemail asking if she could teach the following morning. She agreed, arriving at Martin Luther King Elementary School for what would be the worst year in her more than two-decade career.
When we visit that school, a single-story brick building on the east side of town, the glass of the front door had been smashed and the halls were empty, save for two people removing air conditioning units. But in the fall of 2012, when Susan was summoned, Martin Luther King was still filled with students — and chaos. Schedules were in disarray. Student computers were broken. There were supply shortages of just about everything, even rolls of toilet paper. The district’s already barebones special education program had been further gutted. The “new,” non-unionized teaching staff — about 10% of whom initially did not have valid teaching certificates — were overwhelmingly young, inexperienced, and white. (Approximately 75% of the town’s residents are African American.)
“Everything was about money, I felt, and everyone else felt it, too,” Susan says.
The smashed glass of the front entrance of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, which closed after students fled the charter school district. (Photo credit: Eduardo García)
With her salary slashed to less than $30,000, she picked up a second job at a nearby after-school program. Her health faltered. Instructed by the new administration never to sit down during class, a back condition worsened until surgery was required. The stress began to affect her short-term memory. Finally, in the spring, Susan sought medical leave and never came back.
She was part of a mass exodus. Advocates say that more than half the teachers were either fired, quit, or took medical leave before the 2012-2013 school year ended. Mosaica itself wasn’t far behind, breaking its contract at the end of the 2014 school year. The emergency manager said he understood the company’s financial assessment, comparing the school system to “a broke-down car.” That spring, Governor Snyder visited and called the district “a work in progress.”
Across the state, the education trend has been toward privatization and increased control over local districts by the governor’s office, with results that are, to say the least, underwhelming. This spring, a report from The Education Trust, an independent national education nonprofit, warned that the state’s system had gone “from bad to worse.”
“We’re now on track to perform lower than the nation’s lowest-performing states,” the report’s author, Amber Arellano, told the local news.
Later that afternoon, we visited the city’s James Jackson Museum of African American History, where we sat with Dr. James Jackson, a family physician and longtime advocate of community-controlled public education in the city.
He explains that the city’s now-failing struggle for local control and quality education is part of a significantly longer history. Most of the town’s families originally arrived here in the first half of the twentieth century from the Jim Crow South, where public schools for Black students were not only abysmally underfunded, but also thwarted by censorship and outside governance, as historian Carter Goodwin Woodson explained in his groundbreaking 1933 study, The Mis-Education of the Negro. Well into the twentieth century, for example, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were barred from grade-school textbooks for being too aspirational. “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions,” Woodson wrote back then.
More than eight decades later, Dr. Jackson offered similar thoughts about the Muskegon Heights takeover as he led us through the museum, his bright yellow T-shirt reminding us to “Honor Black History Every Day 24/7 — 365.”
“We have to control our own education,” Jackson said, as we passed sepia newspaper clippings of civil rights marches and an 1825 bill of sale for Peggy and her son Jonathan, purchased for $371 by James Aiken of Warren County, Georgia. “Until we control our own school system, we can’t be properly educated.”
As we leave, we stop a moment to take in an electronic sign hanging in the museum’s window that, between announcements about upcoming book club meetings and the establishment’s hours, flashed this refrain in red letters:
The education of Muskegon Heights Belongs to the People Not the governor
The following day, we finally arrived back in Detroit, our notebooks and iPhone audio records and camera memory cards filled to the brim, heads spinning from everything we had seen, our aging Prius-turned-tour-bus in serious need of an oil change.
While we had been bumping along on our Magical Michigan Tour, the national landscape had, in some ways, grown even more surreal. Bernie Sanders, the independent socialist senator from Vermont, announced that he was challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic ticket. Detroit neuroscientist Dr. Ben Carson — famous for declaring that Obamacare was “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery” — entered the Republican circus. And amid the turmoil, Governor Snyder’s style continued to attract attention, including from the editors of Bloomberg View, who touted his experience with “urban revitalization,” concluding: “His brand of politics deserves a wider audience.”
So buckle your seat belts and watch out. In some “revitalized” Bloombergian future, you, too, could flee your school district like the students and teachers of Muskegon Heights, or drink contaminated water under the mandate of a state-appointed manager like the residents of Flint, or be guaranteed toxic fumes to breathe like the neighbors of 48217, or get shot like Terrance Kellom by federal agents in your own living room. All you have to do is let Rick Snyder’s yellow submarine cruise into your neighborhood.
Letting The Freedom Of Truth Uncover The Value Of Life