Monday, February 24, 2014

The Ghoulish Gala

Cartoon by Michelle Sayles

I'd known it was coming for a while but it was on a miserable winter day that it all came crashing in on each of us. It was the kind of day that made me long for a stiff drink and a soft bed as I sloshed my way home from the shit-hole job that I'm too embarrassed to tell anybody but close friends and family about. As I pried off my wretchedly holey shoes and attempted to restore blood-flow to my blue toes, I glanced up to see the news spread across the computer screen. In big black letters the headline proclaimed “CONGRESS PASSES FARM BILL, CUTS $8.5 BILLION FROM FOOD STAMPS.”

“Well fuck!” I grumbled as my gastrointestinal tract changed positions in apparent disgust with all things displayed on that glowing blue screen. Given the numerous other shit decisions being handed down from Congress in the name of bi-partisan bullshit, I could no longer claim that this treachery was unexpected. After all, the Congress-as-Human-Centipede model had achieved perfection years ago. Such was the level of stitched-orifice cooperation that the very word “bi-partisan” ought to be recognized as the whole lot singing “fuck you!” in 535 part harmony. Our only hope left was the unlikely possibility that the too-well-spoken Obama would veto this heinous rag brought to him from Capitol Hill.

Suppressing the urge to heave Molotov cocktails at the nearest large edifice, I shook my fist quietly at the drones that are likely monitoring Vermont's northern border and pictured the disgusting bunch of law-writers and lobbyists at their celebratory gala, filing in under that phallic dome in all their ghoulish splendor. Unlike most stiff-necked Washington get-togethers, each of the revolting inhabitants of power and privilege are preparing to let it all hang out tonight. There, using the heavily soiled carcass of Old Glory herself for a tablecloth, all the Senators and Representatives are scurrying to and fro in eager anticipation of their guests of honor. Presiding over every debauched preparation is the bulge-veined Speaker of the House John Boehner: snarling and grunt-thumping from his rabid elephant seal countenance at any hapless human soul within reach. Taking their seats at the great table the Congress are joined by their closest friends and confidants: slithering in from global headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas are the Waltons, looking more like a medusa's head of hagfish than any discernible individual; in one year, nine of their vaunted WalMart stores in Massachusetts had sucked up more than $33 million in food stamps, over four times the amount spent at our nation's well-meaning farmer's markets in the same space of time.

Now arriving, in a click-clack-clacking of claws and spines on the marble floor, are the guests of honor. It can be said that there are many ghouls, monsters, and parasites in attendance this evening, but the sight of these two creatures make even the most resistant of Representatives gasp and scurry to recesses of the corridors, surely the best way to keep out of decapitation range. Horrifically spiny crustaceans bound to be on the “immune to nuclear radiation” list of unsavory creatures, the Brothers Koch have arrived. Identifiable at distance by their arachnid-typewriter footfalls, their latest boondoggle is intimately tied to the Farm Bill.

Part of the evil of this bill is how it preserves corporate exceptionalism: through god-knows-how-many campaign contributions and lobbyists slinking through the capitol, the Koch monster has been able to secure $881 million in mandatory spending for the biomass industry; through which the Koch-owned Georgia-Pacific Company can exploit the Biomass Crop Assistance Program. Six states (spanning from Florida to Oregon) will now let America's worst parasites scratch, scrape, and suck every last shred of biomass from the ecosystem while poisoning any shriveling local economies (not to mention their watersheds) along the way.

Fuck Wikipedia. If you want to know the genuine meaning of “natural resource extraction” look to the windfall profits of Brothers Koch and their scorched-earth march to Washington.

While the Ghoulish Gala rages on, we continue to toil in our lives down below the tables of power. Out of sight from congressional corridors and out of mind of those committing economic genocide upon the fabric of the American Dream. We're growing hungry. More and more of us each day will throw open the doors of creaky cabinets and empty refrigerators and find nothing more than the scraps thrown to us, almost as an afterthought, by politicians and the corporate peddlers they've come to so plainly serve. In years past, most of us hungry enough to receive foodstamps were the very young and the very old. Now, the unbearable ache of hunger and poverty is striking so blindly in America that working age adults make up the majority of the human beings yearning for a meal.

This is new territory for us. We've never been here before as a nation. Rising inequality and pathetically stagnant wages are poisoning the economic well. Middle-earners, those who are neither rich nor poor, are now on the declining side of income distribution. Things are slowly getting worse for everybody with the overwhelming exception of the vile creatures at the top, each disgusting one happily awaiting their feast.

Passing this new bill, they've pushed so many of us so decisively in the hole that they're losing track of their own beltway buzzwords: the painfully accurate term “sequesterity” dripping from their mouths. Even now, the stain is slowly taking hold on that threadbare flag; pooling somewhere in the deep blue of the Union before finally setting in and darkening the stars.

For more work by Dylan Kelley visit his website, Like his Facebook page, and follow him on Twitter via @LivefromGround.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Monkton Homeowners Rebuke Threats of Eminent Domain from Pipeline

Gathering in a small kitchen before a battery of cameras, four Monkton homeowners are raising their voices in ardent resistance to the natural gas pipeline that is proposed to slither its way through Addison County. Recently receiving letters of eminent domain, homeowners Claire Broughton; Louise Peyser; Nancy Menard; and Maren Vasatka held a press conference on Wednesday morning to address the escalating tactics and threats of the Vermont Gas Company.

On January 17th, each of them received a letter from Vermont Gas stating “With the issuance of the CPG [Certificate of Public Good] we have reached a critical milestone in the Project's schedule. We'd like to revisit our proposal with you one more time before Vermont Gas must begin the legal process of eminent domain to acquire the easement rights necessary to construct the Project.” Vasatka, whose home lays along the pipeline's proposed route, spoke candidly of her experience resisting the pipeline and the Canadian owned energy corporation that has set its sights on her home:

“We have tried several avenues for help. We have written to the Public Service Board, we have not received a response. We have reached out to our legislators who tell us they do not have jurisdiction over the Public Service Board. We have reached out to the department of Public Service, whose position is that they represent the rate-payers; and because the rate-payers' funds are being used to buy these easements, the Department cannot assist us, the landowners, to get fair market value for our property for fear of raising the costs to the rate-payers.”

From left: Claire Broughton, Louise Peyser, Nancy Menard, and Maren Vasatka

Continuing through a heated question and answer session; Louise Peyser, who also received a letter threatening eminent domain, chastised Vermont State officials for failing to represent her as a citizen. “The truth is, I don't want a pipeline, I'm faced with it because of the Public Service Board. Why should I give somebody the right to take my happiness, my enjoyment of my home away?” said Peyser. “And it is not in my opinion a public good. I am also a citizen and I've been failed by my Governor, my Board of Selectmen, I've been failed by everybody! There's just no-one who stands up for a single person.” When asked about her refusal so far to agree to an easement with Vermont Gas, Claire Broughton summed up her firm response to VTG Right of Way Agent Stephen Taylor, I'm not signing this because you have not answered my questions.”

When asked if they felt that the pipeline fit with the broader energy and sustainability goals of the Green Mountain State, the Monkton four responded unanimously: “absolutely not.” Elaborating on already existing systems of renewable energy across her community, Vasatka fears that such an enticing pipeline would become a distraction. Addison County could have been a poster-child for renewable energy without this,” she said. “We already have the evils of fossil fuel. Why are we adding another evil?”

With the slow thawing of snow in the North Country, it appears that the stage is set for the summer of 2014 to become a watershed moment for popular resistance to the domestic expansion of fossil fuels and the infrastructure that supports them. As businesses, neighbors, communities, and homes are put under increasing pressure and threat by corporations like Vermont Gas and Gaz Metro, we will arrive at a crossroads leading to separate and distinct futures.

If communities recognize their broader goals for resistance and downright survival, Vermonters will be once again positioned to lead the nation in chartering a radically sustainable relationship to their home landscape. On the other hand, if the propaganda, fear-mongering, and political treachery of Vermont Gas proves successful; we will join the rest of the planet in a lemming's march over the cliff of the coming decades. The climate will change further, shortages and extreme weather will become the new normal, toxic spills and dangerous explosions be innumerable, and we will be party to the worst economic and ecological plundering of any time in our collective history.

Standing of knife's edge of history, Vermont's next footfall may prove to be our most important step yet.

For more work by Dylan Kelley like his Facebook page, visit his website, and follow him on Twitter via @LiveFromGround.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Sanders, Welch Hold Citizen's Meeting to Discuss NSA Surveillance

Speaking at a packed town hall style meeting on Saturday afternoon in Montpelier, Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Peter Welch addressed the growing alarm among Vermonters about the recent string of revelations on NSA surveillance brought about by former intelligence contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Flanked by Executive Director of the National Lawyers' Guild Heidi Boghosian and Nation Legal Affairs correspondent David Cole, the assembled panel used the majority of the meeting to recite remarks condemning the NSA and acknowledging the “Snowden Effect” upon popular discourse (particularly noting that such a town hall meeting wouldn't have occurred if the now-exiled Snowden hadn't facilitated the largest leak of classified information in history).

While many of the pre-written remarks echoed through an attentive but unimpressed audience, Boghosian's detailed explanation of electronic surveillance and data aggregation left many in the audience overwhelmed with the seemingly limitless information gathering capacity of the National Security Agency. Describing a “Co-dependent corporate government surveillance state” Boghosian went on to explain that 80% of 3 and 4 star generals and admirals ultimately end up working for defense industry contractors while continuing to advise the military and intelligence industry. Working hand-in-hand, these interconnected systems are setting up an extraordinarily dangerous conflict of interests both for national security as well as domestic civil liberties.


Heidi Boghosian, Executive Director of the National Lawyers Guild, speaks to gathered citizens about NSA surveillance

Still reeling from the fresh reminder that everyone is under some form of phone or data surveillance, the gathered citizens peppered the panel of statesmen and experts with questions that seemed to inexorably circle around to “What can we [as citizens] do about this?” Boghosian offered the feeble suggestion of looking up your own electronic data trail as gathered by security contractor Axion with the laughably ironic caveat that users are required to provide their social security numbers before accessing any of their own histories. Meanwhile, Cole suggested possible legislation that would emulate the European model of data collection oversight that would establish a “data privacy protection protocol.” The flaw in this approach however is that there already exists an internal check-and-balance system for gathering information (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court) , a system that often serves as a rubber stamp process for the intelligence industry- no known government request for information before a FISA court has ever been denied.

As more questions were presented to the panelists, it became clear that citizens of the Green Mountain State were considering if their elected officials were doing enough to counter civil liberties violations. Over and over again, they were told to do as much as they could as citizens to speak out and protest against the NSA. Yet, with each passing question a growing sense of exasperation with the panel seemed to spread across the room. Is legislation even going to be enough?!” asked one citizen. “Is anybody being held accountable at all?” asked another in reference to the obvious perjury of James Clapper before Congress when asked about NSA surveillance of Americans. “That's not within our power” responded the panel flatly.

Waiting patiently to speak, Executive Director of the Vermont ACLU passionately pointed out that NSA surveillance is not the only form of government monitoring that Vermonters must be aware of. Displaying a copy of his organization's special report on Vermont's northern border, Gilbert reminded everyone present of the enormous amount of information being gathered by Autmated License Plate Readers (ALRPs) that read and data-tagged nearly 8 million license plates across Vermont in the past 12 months. Additionally, Gilbert pointed to "Fusion Centers"; information clearing houses where numerous municipal and state agencies share troves of citizens' information with the federal government. The report recently released by the ACLU of Vermont presents a dire warning: 

"Vermont used to be a state where both the notion and the reality of privacy were true. Over the last 12 years, Vermonters’ reality of privacy has eroded. We are being watched. Today, Vermonters can barely go anywhere without creating a trail of digital information that pinpoints a person’s whereabouts at nearly any time, day after day."
  Allen Gilbert, Executive Director of the Vermont ACLU, speaks up about the ever-increasing surveillance state of the Green Mountains

Also speaking up, Matthew Cropp of Burlington posed a classic double-dog-dare of Senator Sanders and Representative Welch: “Would you be willing to read classified information into the Congressional record in order to make those documents available to the public?” Referencing the 1971 reading of the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record by Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska on behalf of whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. Looking much like a deer in the headlights when asked if he'd fall on the proverbial sword for the sake of protecting a whistleblower, Sanders passed the question off to Peter Welch before mostly dodging it himself: “At some point I think Snowden would like to return to his country” he rambled, “[but] it may come down to him standing trial before a jury of his peers.”

As statesmen and experts took their leave from stage, spotlight, and podium; the crowd of citizens moved slowly and quietly down the stairs of City Hall. Their heads bowed, they appeared resigned to the notion that warrantless surveillance by a vast governmental agency was gradually becoming the new normal. The fictive landscapes of Bradbury, Huxley, and Orwell had become all too real as the citizens walked out into the gently falling snow. 


A citizen emphatically demands answers to her questions about the increasingly controversial Trans Pacific Partnership


 Matthew Cropp of Burlington asks the panel if they'd be willing to make classified information public by reading it into the Congressional Record

 Read the ACLU report on surveillance in the Green Mountains here.

To see more of Dylan's work visit his website, like his Facebook page, and follow him on Twitter via @LivefromGround.