Hot & Bothered Podcast #11: A Just Transition for New York State? With Franchelle Hart

We’re just under one month into the Trump regime and prospects for curbing climate change feel bleak. ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson has been confirmed as Secretary of State, the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines look like unkillable zombies, and the EPA is closer to the chopping block than ever.

Still, the resistance is alive and well. As thousands flood into the streets to stop a draconian Muslim travel ban and attacks on civil liberties, a coalition of grassroots groups in New York is showing what climate policy might look like in the age of Trump. New York Renews—a coalition of 104 labor, racial justice, green, and community groups from across the state—showed up in Albany this week to pressure Governor Andrew Cuomo into putting climate justice into the budget, allocating state funding for everything from green jobs to infrastructure development in low-income communities.

To hear more about this campaign, we caught up with Franchelle Hart, Executive Director of Open Buffalo, a member of the New York Renews one of the organizations leading efforts for a just transition in upstate New York. Before coming to Open Buffalo, Franchelle worked for years on both state and federal policy, and with 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. She has served as a board member for the Western New York Area Labor Federation and President for the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists’ Buffalo Chapter.

What with the stench of the Trump regime starting to sink in more fully, Kate and Daniel appreciate your loving and constructive feedback bigly—particularly about Daniel’s dad jokes. Tweet your scathing critiques, your deepest fears and your future show ideas to #HotBotheredClimate. Note: we’ll be taking a hiatus after this episode to prepare for our bigger, better second season. That’s right—we’re going refresh the show, find some more funding, and get ready to come out more often. In the meantime, don’t delete Ho

Kilroy in Dresden

The graffito made famous by American GIs as a marker of place, of having been somewhere, stands rewritten as the name for a travel agency on Zellescher Weg in Dresden: “Kilroy Travels.” This phrase, printed in English over a stylized map that depicts no recognizable part of the world, says much about the story of Dresden in the recent past. The world changes. Kilroy is no longer here or there, leaving graffiti scars behind. He’s out of town, on the road, somewhere else. So says the sign on the Reisebüro. He’s everywhere and become anyone. Or, more complicated, he’s become anyone in this city that until a few years ago was nestled deep in East Germany (GDR).

The numerous travel agencies in ex-GDR cities are continual reminders of the changes worked in 1989 by East Germans who went as tourists to other former communist bloc countries like Czechoslovakia or Hungary and, from there, made their way to the West. Every travel agency with posters for Asia and the Mediterranean, with low fares to London, Los Angeles, or Bangkok, marks out the changes of a decade, the possibility of unrestricted and cheap travel.

To see Kilroy the wandering GI celebrated in Dresden seemed odd, even disturbing, in the summer of 2000. For what an American brings to this city is above all the story of the firebombing of February 1945 or, more likely, Kurt Vonnegut’s version of it in Slaughterhouse Five. Any American who read books as a kid in the late 1960s or early 1970s knew that story. Or at least this one thought he did. That the firebombing of the largely non-industrial city of Dresden—filled with thousands of civilians and war refugees fleeing Russian troops as they advanced through the eastern parts of the Reich—was an anticipation in Europe of the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That it was proof Americans and their allies, waging what they believed to be a noble crusade, were fully as capable of war crimes as those they fought against. Anyone looking at Dresden in 2000, though, needs also to remember Hermann Göring’s visionary dream of destroying London from the air with incendiaries rather than high explosives. And with that remembering comes the sense that Vonnegut was not writing about Dresden in 1969 so much as he was writing about the cold war and the napalm bombings of Vietnam. History opens the way to allegory, one place morphs into another, the burden of war guilt looks for some moral repose. But being somewhere means that you have to separate history and allegory for a time so you can begin to see the place as it stands today.

The sections of the city built after World War II can be identified from their poured-concrete buildings, known in German as Plattenbauten; they are most visible as you emerge from the train station and look across the plaza on Pragerstrasse. Equally visible, once you wander around Dresden, is the fact that not all of the city was leveled or burned to the ground i…

Traveling with the Dog: Greyhound and American Journeys

At the Greyhound, Seven Stages, and Trailways bus stations, when you approach the ticket agents behind the glass that separates the world of employees and rules from the public at large, you may be asked, “Where are you trying to go?” I’ve heard that question often—the last time addressed to a very young, backpacking couple in the New York City Port Authority, their faces as bright as sunlit glass. The couple remained impressively unfazed, eager, and hopeful, despite the peculiar welcome.

In an airport terminal, you would be asked, “Where are you going?” or “Where would you like to go?” These are phrases that bespeak service, comfort, a desire to please. The other—Where are you trying to go?—suggests lowly, hardscrabble transience. The journey, it says, may be uncertain. This is very often the case.

A search on Google will pull up ads from the history of Greyhound, which was founded in 1914, preceding the age of mass transit, and which stands today as the sole provider of national bus service. (Though you still see their names, buyouts have made the other lines subsidiaries. Regional lines that compete with Grandfather Greyhound provide transit only between major cities.) The ads illustrate the company’s struggle to forge a pleasant or, if possible, benign identity. They record the historical difficulties of promoting interstate bus travel.

A 1947 ad reads, Greyhound alone, of all the transportation systems serving this Amazing America, can take you to and through every one of the forty-eight states, up into Canada and down to Mexico. Trips through the glittering snows of the North are as restful and as pleasant as travel under sunny Southern skies. The ad features a pristine white family in unruffled clothes, enjoying a Where would you like to go? rather than a Where are you trying to go? experience. Ads throughout the 1940s and 1950s stubbornly appealed to patrons with images of fun, frolic, and family. The picture was fanciful then; today it seems sentimental and slightly fantastic.

The Greyhound romance (if it is still alive) isn’t a holiday one. A long distance ride can be a rough adventure, but not the kind that friends and family traditionally envy. No one would think of promoting long distance bus travel as particularly “restful.” It doesn’t have a strong word-of-mouth reputation among the business-minded, even less among comfort-seeking vacationers. Greyhound is a cheap means to an end that lacks the salt and pepper of travel excitement—a feeling of having been lifted beyond the commonplace, as when in love.

There was a time when the stations were newer, brighter, cleaner, and the clientele solidly middle class, but the claim of an attractive getaway option was always strained, primarily appealing to the American imagination, rather than describing actual services. Even in the “good” old days of the classic Hollywood bus movie, 1934’s …

The Drone of Permanent War

On Valentine’s Day, President Obama signed into law the decidedly unromantic FAA Modernization and Reform Act, providing $63.6 billion dollars for the agency through 2015. This is no doubt a relief for FAA management, as the organization has been without long-term budgeting for the last five years, receiving instead a series of twenty-three short-term budget extensions, but the news is much worse for travel industry employees. No, it wouldn’t be a spending bill passing through the 112th Congress if it didn’t include some kind of union busting, and indeed, it will now be significantly harder for airline and railway workers to form unions and hold union elections, while it will be easier for employers to delay bargaining and hire non-union contractors.

But the real game-changer embedded in the law is the opening of U.S. airspace to unmanned drones. Although Predator drones already patrol our border with Mexico, and some police forces have obtained smaller drones of their own, the legal ability of federal agencies to fly unmanned missions over civil space was unclear, unwritten. Now they’ve got a big green light, and “the only barrier to the routine use of drones for persistent surveillance are the procedural requirements imposed by the FAA for the issuance of certificates,” says Amie Stepanovich of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Eerily, the law also makes way for the use of commercial drones: it’s not clear what Google, GE, or General Motors would do with a drone, but it’s hard to imagine something benevolent. The FAA projects that there could be 30,000 drones in American skies by 2020.

Which dystopian novel is it where thousands of surveillance robots constantly monitor us from the stratosphere? The chilling effects this could have on protest, not to mention acts of more militant resistance, should be obvious. And it’s hard to imagine that, in terms of day-to-day policing, this will mean less police violence and fewer arrests. Add the Department of Justice’s secret memoranda giving the president power to declare U.S. citizens enemies of the state and have them assassinated, and the legal framework now exists to make all U.S. citizens Awlakis, which is to say, blown up by missiles fired from an invisible robot by executive fiat. Is there a moment when the transition to police state actually occurs, or if you’re asking that question has it already happened?

It’s important to remember that the drones’ capacity for total surveillance is not always shared by the government that deploys them. When the widespread use of drones had just begun, in 2010, the amount of footage was already overwhelming analysts. As the number of drones and locations of their use increase, this problem will grow as well, although facial recognition and video-searching algorithms are improving at a rate that may make this negligible. In any case, a federal government capable of filming any space at any time, and potentially firing missiles at that space, is not exactly a boon to democracy.

But the drones do more than just provide sky-bound surveillance cameras, they fundamentally alter the state’s ability to police and make war. Traditionally, the state’s capacity for military action has been limited by the physical, psychic, and social limits of the soldier. Exhaustion and depression, madness and injury, political opposition and death: though hardly sufficient to keep the state from waging war, these factors, much more than cost (which, when it comes to overseas military adventurism, is no object) or the moral qualms of state leaders, do mean that war cannot go on in perpetuity.

One of the major advantages of the drone is, we are told, the reduction of soldier casualties. But in the current paradigm of war, the United States rarely faces a strong state with an effective air force. Predator drones replace the functionality of fighter jets, doing intelligence gathering and high-altitude bombing runs, missions run by the Air Force and the Navy that have had low levels of casualty since Vietnam. Furthermore, it has been shown that remote Predator pilots suffer similar levels of combat stress as soldiers in a war zone, which gives lie to certain claims about drones (though it might point to something noble and beautiful in the human mind: that it is the despair of forced killing, not the fear of instant death, that breaks it.)

No, the major innovation of the drone is not the reduction of U.S. soldier suffering, but removing that suffering from the political calculus and ending the limits that suffering places on the capacity of military force. The United States has already used drones to pursue operations in Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and Syria: while wartime violations of air space are hardly new (Cambodia, Rwanda), the scope and ease with which new (pseudo-)battlegrounds are opened via the operational instantaneity of the drone is disturbing. The drone provides for an almost infinitely scalable, instantly deployable global air force, obliterating the meaning of borders in a way that globalization could never fully actualize.

And while soldiers are still required to fly the drones, their work has become (traumatic) knowledge labor: the flying of Predators is done with a joystick and a screen in air-conditioned cubicles in the United States, more akin, physically at least, to working at a web start-up than flying a helicopter over enemy territory. Without sending masses of soldiers overseas (the ship that houses, repairs, fuels, and launches the drones is still required) we can begin police or military operations anywhere in the world. But unlike the NATO pilots of the 1990s who completed “humanitarian” bombing runs, drones don’t have families or communities at home that miss them or advocate for them, can’t become exhausted by flying constant missions or deterred by warning shots or counter-violence. And while it’s much cheaper, socially, emotionally, and politically, to feed, train, house, and replace a pilot working in Kansas than in Kandahar, it costs much more economically (drones require “two or three times as much backup manpower as a jet fighter“), a win-win for the military industrial complex.

In short, drones provide the technological impetus and the military capacity to turn the entire world into one giant, permanent theater of war and a subject of total surveillance. The United States opening its own air space to drones merely follows this logic, which is already on display in the Middle East. Though bombing can never achieve the tactical victories of a full-fledged military campaign, America has not won a war in a long time. Perhaps there are Drone advocates within the Pentagon who truly believe they will make war more winnable, but surveillance and bombing from the air alone are incapable of successfully combatting guerilla warfare: think “Vietnamization” (or the rampant destruction called “success” in Kuwait and Kosovo). But one of the major goals of war under a profitable mercenary or contractor army becomes its continual propagation, irrespective of results. For the massive funneling of taxpayer dollars into a privatized military sector tasked with justifying itself through constant engagement, each drone’s ticket price, from $4.5 million for Predators up to $200 million for “Global Hawks,” only sweetens the deal. Drones will not make war easier, or more humane, or more accurate, or more successful. They will, however, make it last longer. For a military that functions more and more like a global police force, and an American police apparatus that acts more and more like an occupying military force, for turning the entire world into a field for constant low-level violent confrontation, the drone is a perfect tool.