Joshua Eaton

Independent Journalist

Category: Uncategorized (page 1 of 2)

The NSA and Climate Change Spying: What We Know So Far

THE carbon footprint for the new data center the National Security Agency (NSA) is building in the middle of the Utah desert must be massive. Despite its planned LEED Silver certification, the one-million-square-foot, $2-billion facility will draw 65 megawatts of power and use some 1.7 million gallons of water a day to cool its servers, according to Wired Magazine. When it comes to the NSA, however, many environmentalists have much bigger worries.

Read the rest of this article at DeSmogBlog . . .

What the NSA Leaks Proved About Surveillance

ON 5 June 2013, The Guardian revealed the first documents, culled from tens of thousands, about the United States’ and U.K.’s surveillance programs, leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. At the time, only a handful of people at The Guardian and The Washington Post had any idea how many more disclosures were to come.

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Timeline of School Shootings Since Sandy Hook

TODAY Joshua published an interactive timeline of every major U.S. K-12 school shooting since the Sandy Hook massacre at Al Jazeera America’s website. The timeline includes both incidents that were well-publicized and ones that were obscure.

The Future of Data Journalism

ON SATURDAY, October 25, Joshua gave a short talk on the future of data journalism at the 2013 Digital Media Conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here’s the transcript:

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Joshua a Consultant on CBS Religion Documentary

Joshua served as a consultant on Tibetan Buddhism for the newest CBS Religion and Culture documentary, “World Religions: Tibetan Buddhism, Christian Science, and Jainism,” which is online today.

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The Open Letter

Jordyn Bonds and Mike Gintz are not your stereotypical environmentalists. All skinny, tattooed arms and even skinnier cut-off jeans, they look more like they belong at a house show in Allston than at a Rainbow Gathering. But as we sat in the living room of my ancient Cambridgeville apartment, they spoke passionately about what may be the single biggest problems facing humanity: climate change.

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Timeline of Edward Snowden’s Revelations

Today Joshua published a massive, interactive timeline of every Edward Snowden leak to date on Al Jazeera America’s website. It has a summary every revelation alongside links to all the breaking articles and original documents. That’s almost 30 leaks spread across almost 65 articles at 10 different media outlets in 3 different languages.

Joshua will be updating the timeline continuously as new leaks are published.

Keeping the Faith: Massachusetts Has Become a Center of the Climate Movement

March 11, 2013. Twenty-five people were arrested at the action in an act of intentional, nonviolent civil disobedience (photo credit: Lindsay Metivier).

The Funeral for Our Future action against the
Keystone XL Pipeline at TransCanada’s Westborough, Massachusetts office on
March 11, 2013. Twenty-five people were arrested at the action in an act of intentional, nonviolent civil disobedience (photo credit: Lindsay Metivier).

THE END OF MARCH and the beginning of April saw a toxic mix of unrefined oil and heavy industrial chemicals bleed over lakes, wetlands, residential streets, and front yards in four separate spills across the United States and Canada.

The first major spill occurred on March 26, when a train derailed near Parkers Prairie, Minnesota. The spill released an estimated 20- to 30,000 gallons of highly toxic tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada. A Canadian Pacific Railway spokesperson told Reuters only a single tanker car had ruptured. However, video posted to YouTube by activists showed fourteen tanker cars derailed, several of which appeared to be damaged and at least two of which were wrapped in plastic sheeting.

The most dramatic and well-publicized spill took place just three days later in suburban Mayflower, Arkansas. Exxon’s Pegasus Pipeline sustained a 22-foot gash that leaked 137,000 gallons of noxious dilbit—tar sands bitumen diluted with heavy industrial chemicals like naphtha—across suburban streets, over well-manicured lawns, and into nearby Lake Conway. There have been numerous reports of local police and private security harassing journalists who try to document the spill, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that a Federal Aviation Administration no-fly zone above the spill was under the control of an Exxon employee, not government officials. Over twenty homes had to be evacuated as a result of the spill.

On April 3, another pipeline leaked outside Houston, Texas. Sensors on the West Columbia Pipeline, owned by Royal Dutch Shell, indicated the release of 30,000 gallons of crude oil, but Shell initially denied the leak. Days later, Coast Guard Petty Officer Steven Lehman confirmed to Dow Jones that at least 2,100 gallons of crude oil had leaked into a nearby bayou. “That’s a very early estimate,” Lehman said. “Things can change.”

At the same time, a second train derailment—this one in White River, Ontario, Canada—spilled even more Canadian tar sands oil. Canadian Pacific Railway initially claimed only 168 gallons of oil spilled during the accident, but later revised that estimate up to 16,642 gallons. “The source of the now-discovered release of product from the second car was initially hidden as it was buried under snow,” a Canadian Pacific spokesperson explained to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “The product then migrated a short distance under the snow.”

Micheal Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, summed up the fossil fuel industry’s nightmarish week in words fit for an Onion headline:

In Ontario, the company said it spilled four barrels when it had actually spilled 400. In Arkansas, Exxon learned about the spill from a homeowner but kept pumping tar sands crude into the neighborhood for 45 minutes, and is bullying reporters who want to tell the public what’s going on. In Texas, a major oil spill came to light that Shell had been denying for days.

Brune also explained what these spills mean for U.S. public policy. “Transporting toxic crude oil—and tar sands in particular—is inherently dangerous, more so because oil companies care about profit, not public safety. This is why Keystone XL, at nine times the size of the Arkansas Pegasus pipeline, must never be built.”

Indeed, as noxious crude spread out from ruptured pipelines and derailed trains across North America, a powerful and vibrant movement to resist the Keystone XL Pipeline and other forms of fossil fuel extraction spread out with it.

And Massachusetts is one of the centers of that movement. In fact, a network of student groups, nonprofits, and activists have turned Massachusetts’ climate change movement into one of the most vibrant in the country.

One hub in that network turns around 350 Mass, the state branch of Bill McKibben’s group 350.org. The Massachusetts group is one of the largest in the country, alongside 350 Vermont. In fact, they sent almost 700 people to Washington, D.C. in February for 350.org’s Forward on Climate Rally—the largest climate change rally in U.S. history, with around 50,000 people in attendance.

Meanwhile, the fossil fuel divestment movement has taken hold on at least 19 college campuses across the state—including Harvard, UMass Boston, UMass Amherst, and all of the Five Colleges. The student climate group Students for a Just and Stable Future (SJSF) has been working to form a loose-knit network of SJSF chapters, student divestment groups, and individual campus activists focused around climate activism.

As Allie Welton, SJSF’s process leader and a senior at Harvard College, told Spare Change News, “We’re not as concerned about whose name is on what group as we are about building relationships and a strong network.” That is precisely what it takes to sustain any serious social movement.

Holding this all together is the Better Future Project—a small nonprofit based in Cambridge that provides staffing and support for 350 Mass. Craig Altemose, the Better Future Project’s executive director and one of its co-founders, also co-founded SJSF, and the two organizations maintain deep connections. The Better Future Project also has strong ties with local community organizations and faith communities.

I spoke with Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr. of the Hip Hop Caucus at last February’s Forward on Climate rally in Washington, D.C. He was adamant about the climate movement’s need to engage with faith communities in this way.

I think we need more ministers to, not just preach the Gospel, but to bring a piece to the movement that’s missing, which is a faith component, kind of a deep yearning wisdom that I think the movement needs,” Lennox said. “Sometimes I think the movement can get hit. Like, say the [Keystone XL] Pipeline goes forward. They can get discouraged. But if we have those kind of people in the movement, they can say, ‘Listen, don’t get discouraged. Keep your faith. Hold on. Don’t give up. Keep pushing on toward justice.’

The Better Future Project, 350 Mass, and SJSF aren’t the only activists in Boston who keep pushing for climate justice. For example, a group of about 20 activists who met at Occupy Boston, including myself, organized truckloads of supplies and volunteers from Boston to New York in support of Occupy Sandy. Boston-area street medic Austin Smith wrote about his experiences with this group for Spare Change News last December, and they have continued their support since, though the pace has slowed considerably.

In November of last year, 350.org founder and author Bill McKibben addressed a packed house at Boston’s Orpheum Theater alongside Canadian journalist and author Naomi Klein as part of 350.org’s Do the Math Tour. When I spoke with Klein afterwards, she was optimistic about the potential of movements like Occupy Sandy to challenge the larger economic and political forces behind climate change:

The experience of shock, the experience of trauma, is the experience of helplessness,” Klein explained. “The best way to recover from an experience of helplessness is to be empowered, is to be able to help. So, the very way that Occupy Sandy is functioning—the spirit of mutual aid, of empowering people in their own relief—is the basis, the foundation, of that kind of empowerment later on to fight off disaster capitalism, and, if we’re really optimistic, to envision a kind of people’s reconstruction, a way of building back that is even better than it was before.

Massachusetts has also become a center for the kinds of actions against climate change that empower communities to organize and resist.

Last January, eight young protesters chained and glued themselves together inside the Westborough, Massachusetts offices of TransCanada, the company behind the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline—a $7 billion project to bring oil sands from Canada to U.S. refineries that NASA climate scientist James Hansen has warned would be “game over” for the planet’s climate.

Two months later, 100 local students, activists, and supporters returned to TransCanada’s Westborough office for an event in which I was an active participant. Belting out a moving funeral dirge at the top of their lungs and carrying a fake coffin, they held a mock funeral for their futures—futures that are being killed by climate change. Twenty-five activists were arrested when they handcuffed themselves together and ignored an order to disperse.

And just last month, Rainforest Action Network held a rally at Bank of America’s downtown Boston office during which they delivered a letter signed by 50 investors, economists, faith leaders, academics, and activists asking Bank of America to phase out their investments in coal.

The massive oil spills across the country were a shocking reminder of how much work still needs to be done to pull our society back from the brink of climate crisis. But if the vibrancy and spirit of the climate movement in Massachusetts is any indication, there are still many reasons to keep the faith.

This article appeared in the 31 May 2013 issue of Spare Change News.

A Review of Herman’s House by Angad Bhalla

Herman Wallace

Herman Wallace

SOLITARY CONFINEMENT at the Louisiana State Penitentiary is among the most desperate and forlorn places on Earth. The prison—better known by its nickname, “Angola”—is the largest maximum-security prison in the country, with 5000 inmates. It is a place largely indistinguishable from the slave plantation it once was—a place where sexual slavery and rape are endemic, where the largely black inmates still pick cotton in the fields day in and day out without pay.

Angad Bhalla’s Herman’s House (2012) tells the story of Herman Wallace, who’s been in Angola for 45 years—forty of them in solitary confinement. Wallace went to Angola for bank robbery. In 1967 he started a prison chapter of the Black Panther Party with fellow inmates Robert King and Albert Woodfox. The group organized sit-ins, strikes, and other protests against prison segregation, sexual slavery, and other abuses.

However, Wallace and Woodfox were convicted in the stabbing murder of prison guard Brent Miller in 1971, and King was accused as an accomplice. This was despite the fact that none of the fingerprints found at the scene—including one in blood—matched their own. All three went to solitary confinement. King’s original conviction was overturned after 29 years in solitary confinement and he was released; Wallace and Woodfox are still there. Known as the Angola Three, these men have become an international cause célèbre.

The film tells Wallace’s story through the eyes of Jackie Sumell, an artist who has carried on a correspondence with Wallace over a period of years. In 2003 Sumell began asking Wallace about his dream home. She documented his response—including a full-sized wooden model of his solitary confinement cell and a scale model of his dream home—in a mixed-media exhibit titled “The House that Herman Built” (2003) that has been shown in galleries around the world.

Bhalla’s film takes us through the conception, construction, and exhibition of “The House that Herman Built” while telling Herman’s story and the story of the Angola Three. Eventually we see Sumell move to New Orleans, Louisiana—Herman’s hometown and the home of his sister, Vicki—to build Herman’s dream home as a real-life, brick-and-mortar youth center. She becomes an adoptive member of the Wallace family, and of the depressed, majority-black community she moves into in New Orleans.

This unusual relationship between Wallace and Sumell is the film’s main focus, which is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. While we meet black activists like Vicki Wallace, Malik Rahim, and Robert King, the film hovers over them only briefly. We never get a full, rich portrait of the organizing-from-below that first brought the Angola Three to the world’s attention and has kept it there for fifteen years. At the same time, the story of how a culturally elite, thirty-something white artist from New York City could grow so close to a sixty-something black Angola inmate with little formal education—along with the family and communities that formed him—is irresistible.

The film narrowly avoids drifting into a Nicholas Kristof-style white savior narrative by showing both Sumell’s failures and Wallace’s agency. After she moves to New Orleans—“deeply in debt,” as the film says—all her efforts to buy land and build Herman’s dream house, much less make a living, start to founder. We listen to recorded conversations between the two as Sumell vents her frustration and Wallace calms and encourages her. Later we watch as Sumell cries on the phone while Wallace comforts her after his final state appeal is denied. At one point Sumell talks into the camera about how much she’s learned from Wallace, King, and Rahim. It’s obvious that their friendship is one of peers with deep mutual respect and admiration.

Bhalla also shows us vignettes that speak to Wallace’s character and integrity. In one a white former inmate and his mother discuss how Wallace took him under his wing on the solitary confinement bloc and taught him about compassion. “If that man can do that for my son in there” the mother says, in a drawl plain and beautiful as the Louisiana earth as she mixes a Waldorf salad, “imagine what he could do out here.” The moment is striking.

In another, a lawyer tells how Wallace volunteered to testify against his own deceased nephew so that another prisoner would not be unjustly convicted of murder. When the lawyer told Wallace he did not have to take the stand and risk being cut off from his sister—his only means of support—Wallace looked him in the eye and said, simply, “I expect you to call me to testify. It’s the right thing to do.”

The overall impression one is left with after watching Herman’s House is of Wallace’s deep humanity and of our prison system’s deep inhumanity. Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox have been locked in six-foot-by-nine-foot cells 23 hours a day for the past forty years for speaking out against the racist, violent, and sexually abusive conditions that are central to America’s prisons. There are many words to describe that; civilized isn’t one of them.

This article appeared in the 19 October 2012 issue of Spare Change News.

Art and Revolution: A Review of Ai Weiwei Never Sorry

Ai Weiwei at his 2010 Tate Modern exhibition "Sunflower Seeds."

Ai Weiwei at his 2010 Tate Modern exhibition “Sunflower Seeds.”

EDWARD SAID describes the intellectual “as the author of a language that tries to speak the truth to power.” Alison Klaymen’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry shows us what that looks like in practice. Her documentary follows the Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei as he and his team prepare for exhibitions in Munich and London; document the aftermath of the 2008 Lunggu (“Sichuan”) earthquake; and deal with the demolition of Ai’s Shanghai studio and his incommunicado detainment by Chinese authorities in 2011.

Ai’s father, the famous poet Ai Qing, had the distinction of being jailed by both Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government and by the communist government of Mao Zedong, despite Qing’s membership in the Communist Party. Weiwei grew up in the forced labor camp his father was sent to by Mao. As a young man he studied at the Beijing Film Academy and lived in New York City for twelve years.

Ai rose to prominence in the West after helping design the Beijing National Stadium—the “Bird’s Nest”—then coming out strongly against the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics as “this kind of fake smile which is disgusting.” However, he rose to prominence within China because of his work after the 2008 Lunggu earthquake. Along with another artist he spearheaded a volunteer effort to document and release the names of some 5000 schoolchildren who were killed when their poorly-built school buildings collapsed—statistics the local government had refused to release. His criticism of the Chinese government’s secrecy, corruption, and authoritarianism have only increased since.

Klaymen shows Ai not only as a visual artist and photographer but also as a documentarian, art curator, social media activist, journalist, and human rights advocate. The portrait that emerges is of something increasingly rare in the English-speaking world: a true public intellectual, unbounded by narrow professional or disciplinary boundaries and unafraid of the consequences of truth-telling.

That truth-telling is on-screen throughout the film, but Klaymen manages to give Ai’s visual art space to breath and to speak for itself apart from his politics. For example, Ai smashed a 2000-year-old Chinese pot in his photo-triptych “Dropping a Han-Dynasty Urn” (1995). One of Ai’s early patrons in New York interprets this on-screen as representing Ai’s desire to break with the past and create something new. Meanwhile a New York Times correspondent interprets it as a statement about the destruction of Chinese culture in pursuit of modernization. The documentary itself leaves the question open.

Even as she refuses to impose a static meaning on Ai’s work Klaymen shows how his artistic work and his political activism feed off one another. One is struck by the beauty of the composition when, for example, Ai documents his stay in a Munich hospital in 2008 after a blow from a Chengdu police officer left him with a cerebral hemorrhage that nearly killed him, or when he photographs the politically-motivated demolition of his Shanghai studio in 2011. And one cannot help but marvel at the utopian public space his installation of 100 million handmade porcelain sunflower seeds created at London’s Tate Modern in 2010—that is, before the museum banish the public to a viewing gallery over concerns they might breathe in porcelain dust.

There are points where the film covers ground that might be disorienting to viewers unfamiliar with modern Chinese history and politics—the Chinese Civil War, the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Charter 08, and the Liu Xiaobo case. The film offers little historical background, but these events are mentioned only briefly and always within context. Any viewer willing to ignore unfamiliar references should still be able to understand and enjoy the film.

In fact there are many ways this defiant portrait of Ai Weiwei says more about our country than about his. The United States has had an embargo against Cuba for the past half century. Meanwhile China—which detains artists in Beijing for 81 days incommunicado; tortures nuns in Tibet with electric cattle prods; regularly opens fire on ethnic minorities who dare to protest; and covers up the death of thousands of schoolchildren from shoddy government construction—is granted Most Favored Nation trade status. China is, in fact, the United States’ largest import trading partner, our third-largest export trading partner, and the owner of 14 percent of our external debt.

The photograph that appears on Never Sorry’s promotional materials is of Ai Weiwei flipping off Tiananmen Square, from his “Study in Perspective” (1995-2003) series. But there’s another less well-known photograph in that series that shouldn’t surprise us: Ai flipping off the White House.

This article appeared in the 7 September 2012 issue of Spare Change News.

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