'You're all kings. You're all f#*k*g kings.'

Scenes from "Lobby Day" in Richmond, Virginia

Welcome back to The Long Version, a newsletter by Jonathan Myerson Katz.

They were all there. AR-15s. Glock 9mms. A “whole ass Barrett 50. (sic) cal.”

Oh, and people. A police-estimated 22,000 of them.

They came from across Virginia and the nation, driven by memes, Facebook videos, and calls from the president himself. Organizers were sensitive to reports of violent white supremacists planning to attend, and possibly wreak havoc. Perhaps as a result of their precautions, there were few signs of trouble. Violence was merely threatened, often with a smile.

The vast majority of attendees were white and male. Many were in costume. They identified themselves as “militias” and various kinds of “guards.” Just outside the perimeter of the statehouse, I found myself in the middle of a sort of LARP security briefing. Their commander (?) dismissed them with instructions on patrolling the streets in pairs. What they were patrolling for, and under what authority they were allowed to do so, was not remarked on.

The cops were there too, dressed as cops, but in a very specific way: in their soft blue winter coats, woolen hats, and high-visibility-yellow vests. What they were not dressed as were soldier-cops, with riot helmets, body armor, or riot shields. (The only riot shields I saw were in the hands of one of the militias.) Nor were there any intimidating police Mine Resistant Armored Vehicles in sight. Only one person, a 21-year-old woman, is reported to have been arrested under Virginia’s anti-Klan masking law for concealing her face with a bandana, even though far more threatening masks were everywhere.

Veterans of past protests in Virginia, particularly the Nazi riots that rampaged through Charlottesville in 2017, credited the police’s permissive attitude for the lack of violence.

The few exceptions I saw—protesters getting visibly agitated at the sight of a possible police sniper on the roof of an office building, a little cussing here and there at the sight of police helicopters—makes me inclined to agree.

As my friend and colleague Jamelle Bouie, who I went around the rally with, pointed out, it’s hard to imagine police would take such a cavalier attitude toward a crowd made up predominantly of 22,000 armed black men closing in on the statehouse. (On Martin Luther King Day, no less.)

Or Spanish-speakers. Or, God help everyone, masked Muslims.

But that’s ultimately what Lobby Day 2020 was about. Virginia, like much of America, is going through a marked demographic shift, in which white conservative men are losing not their power but their hegemony. It didn’t seem to matter to the protesters that a clear majority of Virginia citizens elected a Democratic statehouse, nor that promises of gun control were key to that victory. It would have been asking too much to bring up the incident that prompted the outpouring of electoral support: the massacre of 12 people at a municipal office building in Virginia Beach, less than a year ago.

The fact that the gun-control measures passed so far have been mild in the extreme (mandatory background checks, limiting gun sales to twelve handguns per person, per year, etc.) is entirely beside the point.

That’s because the gun rally was not so much about guns as a signal of who has, and who can be entrusted to wield, power. The absence of overt white-supremacist symbols—and media-bait reminders of term-limited Virginia Gov. Northam’s own racist scandal—was a victory of messaging. The carnival-like atmosphere, punctuated by friendly “militias” greeting each other in the streets (“You’re all kings. You’re all fucking kings,” one armed group yelled at the other shorts-wearing militia pictured up top), was to be read as proof of the protesters’ law-abiding natures. But it was all wrapped in a muffled threat.

One of the few official speakers on the statehouse lawn was Stephen Willeford, a plumber from Sutherland Springs, Texas. He was a hero to the crowd because he shot a mass shooter at a church with an AR-15 in 2017 (though, it should be said, only after the shooter used his own AR-15 to murder 26 people and injure 20 more). Willeford punctuated his speech with an old saying. Americans, he said, can use three boxes to protect their rights: the soap box, the ballot box, and the cartridge box.

His point was clear: If the ralliers can’t win with the first two, they will turn to the third.

I doubt many in the crowd would care who originated that saying: a slave-holding governor of South Carolina back in 1830. Nor would it have bothered them to learn that it was said in an arcane legal fight over tariffs. Southern whites back then saw that tariff debate as a slippery slope to ending their minority rule over an enslaved black majority—as much of an existential threat as others see mandating background checks on gun purchases today.

The idea that freedom emanates from a gun—that guns equal freedom, tout court—is so ingrained in a very specific, yet widely held conception of America that it didn’t even bear discussion.

When the speeches were over, even the tens of thousands too far away to hear them turned to peacefully go home, confident their point had been made.

It’s been a long day. Thanks for reading. To get this newsletter in your inbox, sign up above. Your support makes this work possible.

Jonathan Myerson Katz is a freelance journalist and author. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, traces the origins and price of America’s empire through the life of a legendary Marine, Smedley D. Butler. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.

Photos by the author.

Who are the 'good guys' in Richmond?

Some "neutral" militias descending on Virginia are using Facebook to promote violence

Today’s edition of The Long Version is a joint investigation with Judd Legum’s Popular Information. You can sign up for Popular Information at popular.info

For years, supporters and opponents of gun control have squared off in Virginia’s capital, Richmond, on the third Monday in January. With Democrats in charge of the state legislature for the first time in decades—elected in part on promises to enact gun-control measures in response to a mass shooting—a call went out over national pro-gun and right-wing networks to converge today.

This increased attention has brought threats from white supremacists and anti-government extremists. Federal agents say at least one white supremacist group was caught planning a massacre with hopes of provoking a civil war. Virginia Democratic Governor Ralph Northam has declared a state of emergency.

Many of the pro-gun groups are trying to distance themselves from violent white nationalists in advance, stressing their intention for a peaceful demonstration. But some of those same groups have been using Facebook to broadcast couched threats and promote violence.

On December 13, the leader of American Warrior Revolution, a paramilitary organization allied with the militia movement, posted a video to its Facebook page. Joshua Shoaff, a popular right-wing personality who goes by the pseudonym Ace Baker, went on an extended rant threatening U.S. representative Donald McEachin, who represents Richmond.

Shoaff was incensed by a quote, published by the Washington Examiner, in which McEachin suggested that Virginia could mobilize the National Guard to enforce new gun laws if local law enforcement refused to do so. McEachin’s comments came in response to a Republican-backed “sanctuary counties” movement, in which sheriffs have pledged not to enforce new laws such as expanded background checks.

Shoaff declared that McEachin's statement amounted to treason and McEachin, who is African American, should be lynched: 

This message is directly to you. We’re coming to your state. I live in Tennessee. My name is Ace Baker. I’m coming to the state of Virginia on January 20th and I hope to see you personally on Lobby Day. Because I would love nothing more than to tell you to your face, you are a coward. You are a tyrant, committing treason. And as a good friend of mine said a few minutes ago, treason is punishable by death. I’m not telling you that I'm going to kill you. I’m telling you that your acts constitute treason and the punishment for treason is hanging in the middle of the street ... You should be pulled out of office by the hair on your head, walked down the streets of the capital, walked up to the steps of a swinging rope that’s placed around your neck.

The page currently has more than 540,000 followers.

Judd contacted Facebook on Friday and asked whether this video, which had been up for more than a month, violated their rules. Facebook responded by taking down the video and removing Shoaff’s personal profile.

“We have removed this individual and these videos from Facebook. We are monitoring the rally and actively reviewing content against our Community Standards so that we can take action accordingly,” a Facebook spokesperson told Popular Information.

But Facebook did not take any action involving the American Warrior Revolution page itself. Shoaff used the page to post another video on Friday. In it, he said he stood by his previous video, and reiterated his belief “that tyrants should be hung in the streets to be made an example of.”

How is an organization with a track record of violent rhetoric able to maintain a large presence on Facebook? It seems AWR has fooled several prominent institutions.

In the shadow of ‘Unite the Right’

The tension surrounding today’s rally in Richmond can only be understood in light of what happened, seventy miles west and two and a half years ago, in Charlottesville. After a daylong Nazi rampage in which dozens were injured, a white supremacist plowed his car into a crowd of people on the town’s pedestrian mall, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

According to a lawsuit filed by the City of Charlottesville, “Thirty-seven AWR members, many of them armed with semiautomatic weapons,” attended the rally. They were among several armed paramilitary groups who portrayed themselves as neutral peacekeepers, not formally aligned with the violent white supremacists holding the rally, but supporting their right to free speech—many of whom will also be in Richmond.

Even then, Shoaff contradicted his peaceful claims by leaping into violent rhetoric. In a video posted to Facebook, Shoaff said members of AWR would have had legal justification if they decided to murder people. AWR "could have fucking used deadly force… We had the justification to use deadly force that day, and mow people fucking down!" Shoaff said in the video, which is no longer online. In another Facebook video, Shoaff vowed to return to Charlottesville.

As readers of The Long Version know, Trump reacted to the riots in Charlottesville by equivocating about the extremists, then tried to rewrite history himself. On August 15, 2017, he famously declared that there were "very fine people" who participated in the Unite The Right rally.

The next day the New York Times, under the lead byline of Jeremy W. Peters, quoted a member of American Warrior Revolution as an example of one of the “very fine people” he might have been referring to:

“Good people can go to Charlottesville,” said Michelle Piercy, a night shift worker at a Wichita, Kan., retirement home, who drove all night with a conservative group that opposed the planned removal of a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee.

After listening to Mr. Trump on Tuesday, she said it was as if he had channeled her and her friends — all gun-loving defenders of free speech, she said, who had no interest in standing with Nazis or white supremacists: “It’s almost like he talked to one of our people.”

The “conservative group” that Piercy was affiliated with, according to an interview Piercy gave to the pro-Trump website Media Equalizer, was American Warrior Revolution. The New York Times report citing her was the basis for a fallacious viral video by PragerU defending Trump. It has been viewed over 6 million times.

Shoaff repeats his threats

As a result of the lawsuit, AWR was banned from Charlottesville “as a part of a unit of two or more persons acting in concert when armed.” Several other groups expected in Richmond were banned as well.

In the most recent video, which we also flagged to Facebook, Shoaff defended and amplified his December 13 threats against McEachin:

I did make the statement that legislators, representatives, who have been elected to represent the people, when they go from representing their constituents to advocating to use the military arm of the government, the national guard, to go in and take people’s rights away by force that person is a tyrant. And our founders would shoot tyrants in the face. Our founders would hang tyrants in the public square for other tyrants to see. To set an example. I did say that. I did say that tyrants should be hung in the streets to be made an example of. And I stand by that. I believe that ... If someone were to ask me today if I were to retract my statement, fuck no.

Shoaff went on to explain that, while he believed people should lynch McEachin, that was not what he was personally coming to Richmond on Monday to do:

But that does not mean that on January 20, we are coming into the city of Richmond to storm the capitol building. Or to hang that legislator in the middle of the street. It's what our founders would do. It's what our founders told us that we should do. And if these things continue to happen it's probably what people will do. But it's not what we are doing on the 20th.

The second video was not only posted to the main AWR page, but to the many of the 50 AWR state affiliate groups. After a second inquiry, the video was removed on Sunday evening.

Facebook says it has a team of people monitoring activity around the rally and removing content that violates its rules. But Facebook’s haphazard response shows that the company continues to be unable or unwilling to enforce its community standards, which prohibit both “statements advocating for high-severity violence” and “aspirational or conditional statements to commit high-severity violence.”

American Warrior Revolution did not respond to a request for comment.

Pro-lynching Facebook ads

AWR is not the only group using Facebook to promote violence in advance of today’s rally. The “Virginia Militia” has encouraged its 12,000 Facebook followers to attend Monday’s protest in Richmond. In late December, the page ran a paid advertisement on Facebook encouraging people to lynch public officials.

The page also tried to intimidate a member of the Virginia legislature, who had proposed an assault weapons ban, by posting his home address.

Judd flagged this page for Facebook. The company said it was looking into it but so far has taken no action.

A Facebook page called Boogaloo Crüe launched on December 16 already has over 5,000 members. It frequently posts violent memes relating to Monday’s event, including this one suggesting that armed gun-rights extremists (“Boog Boiz”) could overwhelm the Virginia National Guard.

(White supremacists and other extremists have embraced the term “boogaloo” to refer to a future civil war. The term is a joke, riffing on the title of a notoriously silly 1980s movie sequel, but the Anti-Defamation League notes that “an increasing number of people employ it with serious intent.”)

Facebook said it was investigating the page but so far has taken no action.

Officials are under pressure to show that they are taking the threats seriously. Northam has declared a state of emergency, banning all weapons, including firearms, from the capitol grounds.

Trump, on the other hand, has fanned the flames.

Correction (1/20/19, 3:54 p.m.) that McEachin is a U.S., not state, representative

Thanks as always for reading. I will be on the ground in Richmond today, reporting on whatever happens.

Your support makes this work possible. Please sign up for free updates or get a paid subscription. You can also join my Patreon community at patreon.com/jonathanmkatz

Jonathan Myerson Katz is a freelance journalist and author. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, traces the origins and contradictions of America’s empire through the life of a legendary Marine, Smedley D. Butler. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.

Judd Legum spent a decade following politics obsessively as the founder and editor of ThinkProgress. He is the editor of Popular Information, at popular.info. You can follow him on Twitter @JuddLegum.

The cluster in Puerto Rico

Welcome back to The Long Version, a newsletter by Jonathan Myerson Katz. This edition was also published on Slate.

I don’t know if we needed a seismic metaphor for the state of America’s empire, but the ground under Puerto Rico is giving us one.

Hundreds of tiny earthquakes have rattled the main island’s south coast since mid-December. Most have been barely perceptible. But the relentless shaking is taking a toll. Thousands of people have left their homes, fleeing landslides and fear of what’s to come. The strongest so far, a 6.4-magnitude tremor on January 7, killed at least one elderly man. It also knocked out the island’s largest power plant, Costa Sur. The commonwealth’s electrical authority said it could take a year to fix.

President Trump’s reaction has been keeping with the active hostility he’s shown to the millions of U.S. citizens in the territory, which has grown worse since he was criticized for his callous, fatal response to Hurricane Maria in 2017. He took weeks to declare a major disaster, but not before his administration tightened the screws on Puerto Rico even more, suspending its legally-mandated $15-an-hour minimum wage for relief work and inexplicably blocking any spending on the electrical grid.

The federally created Financial Oversight and Management Board, which controls Puerto Rico’s economy, has allocated a similarly restricted amount.

Sí Se Puede

Disasters, it’s often said, are never really natural. They’re formed in the friction between geologic forces, human frailty, and the environments we build (or don’t). Puerto Rico, a centuries-old product of slavery and colonialism, has spent the last 121 years as a colony of the United States.

As I wrote last year in the New York Times Magazine, the territory has effectively been the victim of an internal offshoring pump-and-dump scheme. Mainland banks and the U.S. government used, then abandoned, its economy, never giving its unrepresented population any say. The Financial Oversight and Management Board, created by President Obama, implemented a strict austerity regime. Corrupt local officials siphoned what was left.

The result has been a 43% poverty rate, higher than all but six of the 3,142 counties tracked in the states by the U.S. Census Bureau. This in turn has sparked a death spiral as people flee the islands. From 2009 to 2017, Puerto Rico’s population fell by 12 percent.

That’s when Hurricanes Irma and Maria plowed through. Supercharged by global warming, the later storm was particularly ferocious. Still, much like the earthquake swarm, damage to buildings was minimal. The real disaster—what cost the lives of most of the 2,650 to 3,290 people killed—was the blackout.

The storms exposed something Puerto Rican engineers had known for years: The island’s electrical infrastructure is old, inadequate, and obscenely set up. Seventy percent of the main island’s electricity generation is in the south, in decrepit facilities such as Costa Sur, an oil-and-gas behemoth built from 1962 to 1973. Seventy percent of it is used, on the other hand, in the north, primarily in the San Juan metro. The system depends on a precarious, 1,100-mile-long system of transmission lines, running over the mountains in between.

When I was in Puerto Rico just after Maria, everyone in the response agreed: The priority was to get the electrical grid working as quickly as possible, but rebuild it in a way that would last. Mike Byrne, the head coordinator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in that disaster, told me: “We should take a breath and do it the right way when we build it back, you know? … Looking at this ’50s and ’60s technology, we’ve made some advances. It would be a sin not to take advantage of what we’ve learned since then and build that into the system.”

Instead, Trump’s administration and his preferred allies in the Puerto Rican government frittered away time, money, and people’s lives. The reconstruction was so shoddy, it didn’t even need a geologic disaster to tip it over. In April 2018, seven months after the storm, a piece of construction equipment tripped a wire, plunging the entire island back into darkness.

Greed all over the ground

That this would happen was predictable from the start. As Trump and Congress withheld more than half of the $40 billion obligated for hurricane relief, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority awarded a $300 million, closed-bid contract to a tiny, troubled electric contractor, whose only discernible qualification was that they were headquartered in Trump Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s tiny hometown of Whitefish, Montana. The contract was canceled once the public became aware of it, but not before the contractor had overcharged wildly for man-hours and expenses. Zinke resigned a year later under a cloud of other corruption investigations.

And Whitefish Energy hasn’t even proven to be the most blatantly corrupt electrical contract of the relief effort. Another brand-new company, Cobra Acquisitions LLC, secured at least $1.8 billion in federally-reimbursable contracts to rebuild the electrical grid after the storms. This past September, federal agents arrested Cobra’s former president, Donald Keith Ellison, along with Ahsha Tribble, FEMA’s deputy administrator for Puerto Rico, who led the energy infrastructure recovery under Byrne; and Jovanda R. Patterson, a former FEMA Deputy Chief of Staff. Three face charges including conspiring to commit bribery and disaster fraud.

Cobra is a subsidiary of Oklahoma-based Mammoth Energy Services, which specializes in servicing “companies engaged in the exploration and development of onshore unconventional oil and gas reserves.” It had no previous electrical infrastructure experience. In a quarterly filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Mammoth admitted its losses on the U.S. mainland had been “partially offset by earnings from … operations in Puerto Rico,” pending the resolution of the criminal case.

Ellison’s lawyer told the Washington Post that the indictment “criminalizes normal business and personal relationships that are not criminal under the law.” A FEMA spokesperson confirmed to me that Tribble is still a FEMA employee. Asked if she still has any responsibilities or power to assign contracts, the agency responded that it “cannot comment on personnel matters.”

The circular links don’t stop there. Mammoth has paid at least $390,000 over the last two years to the D.C. lobbying firm Akin Gump, according to my review of the database at the Center for Responsive Politics. One of the Akin Gump lobbyists working for Mammoth, Karen Goldmeier Green, also represents several Puerto Rican clients, including the conservative-leaning Puerto Rico Statehood Council.

She also represents Empresas Fonadellas, the company of San Juan real estate mogul Jaime Fonalledas, which paid Akin Gump at least $6 million since 2009 as part of a multi-front lobbying effort in favor of the fiscal austerity bill and creation of the Oversight Board. (The author Nelson Denis has theorized that Fonalledas, a major GOP donor, was trying to protect his investment in Puerto Rico bonds from bankruptcy.)

Green did not respond to emails asking for comment about the links between her clients.

Quakes without end

The cycles of incompetence and greed have produced endless irony. The austerity crisis led to budget cuts at the Puerto Rico Seismic Network, which is now entrusted with monitoring the earthquake swarm.

More significantly, frustration over the corruption and fecklessness of the hurricane recovery—including an apparent influence-peddling scheme regarding post-hurricane contracts—led to massive protests and the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. The territory has been through two acting governors since.

“It is no wonder that bridges are now collapsing,” the Puerto Rican scholars Yarimar Bonilla and José Caraballo-Cueto wrote in the New York Daily News.

It wasn’t lost on many that Puerto Rico’s earthquake season has coincided with the tenth anniversary of the January 12, 2010, earthquake in Haiti. They do have some elements in common: the hubris of the response, the hypocritical shifting of blame for corruption from Washington to the client governments representing populations of color. Still, Haiti’s quake was a far larger disaster, releasing eight times more energy than the largest in Puerto Rico so far, and unimaginably more deadly.

One other detail reminiscent of that earlier disaster is confusion over earthquake terminology. Namely: Should the temblors terrifying Puerto Ricans, exacerbating the exodus of people from the islands, be called “aftershocks,” “foreshocks,” or a “swarm?” That all depends, the U.S. Geological Survey says. “Aftershocks” are just smaller quakes that come after a larger quake. If it turns out that the true catastrophe is yet to occur, then everything that came before will be re-categorized as “foreshocks.” It’s only looking back that you can really take the measure of what’s happened.

Programing note …

I’m headed to Richmond, Virginia, on Monday to cover the gun protest at the state capitol. A number of groups present in Charlottesville in 2017 will be there; there are indications it could get messy. But I think it’s important to pay witness to what’s happening in America right now.

Doing work like this, without fear or favor, takes time and money, and increasingly isn’t being supported by major publications. You keep my on-the-ground reporting and writing going by getting a paid subscription to The Long Version. It starts at just $6 a month. Thanks for your support.

Jonathan Myerson Katz is a freelance journalist and author. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, traces the origins and contradictions of America’s empire through the life of a legendary Marine, Smedley D. Butler. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.

Photos: AFP, Congressional Research Service, USGS

Surviving survival: Haiti's earthquake, ten years on

That’s me. Ten years ago Sunday. January 12, 2010.

At 4:53 p.m., on a balmy winter’s day in southern Haiti, a fault line no one knew about erupted with a force twenty-five times stronger than the first atomic bomb. I was eight miles up and sixteen miles east, on my bed in the Associated Press house, in a suburb of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

I had been living in and covering Haiti for two and a half years. I thought I had a sense of the curveballs it could throw. I’d moved in the aftermath of a coup and spent the intervening time on the lookout for another. A school had inexplicably collapsed behind my house about a year before, killing 100 kids and teachers. In my time on the island (including two previous years on the other side of the border in the Dominican Republic), I’d been through about half a dozen hurricanes, a few of them serious. We were all wary of a direct hit on the capital. But it wasn’t hurricane season.

My first reaction to the noise was curiosity. Then the shaking started and it turned into denial. As my house fell apart around me, I think I experienced resignation. Then it stopped. Thanks to my friend, Evens Sanon, who had been at my desk on the first floor and ran outside when the wall caved in, I made it outside with only a minor cut on my leg. I ran up the hill looking for a phone to call the AP Caribbean desk in Puerto Rico.

It was only when I got there that I realized I’d been holding my laptop the whole time. I opened up the webcam to take a photo of my neighbor’s house, which had pancaked entirely. That’s when I accidentally took the photo above.

I could tell you the whole story of what happened that day, and the days and weeks and months after, except I’ve already done so in a book I wrote, The Big Truck That Went By.

I could answer the questions people tend to have: How many people died? (Nobody knows exactly, but probably 100,000 to 316,000—definitively the deadliest known natural disaster in the history of the Americas). Where did the money go? (Mostly circled around foreign governments, NGOs, and private contractors; very little came close to Haiti). What did the Clintons do? (You know what, just read the book.)

But I’m tired. Ten years feels like yesterday. It also feels like a very long time. For those of us who lived through the quake, forty seconds felt like a lifetime. Many of my friends and neighbors’ lifetimes stopped there. For those of us who somehow kept going, time picked up slowly: The first day after felt like a decade. The first week a year. I remember hearing about George Clooney’s “Hope for Haiti” telethon and thinking it was strange that MTV was hosting a fundraiser for something that happened a month before. It had been ten days.

Part of the reason it doesn’t feel like ten years exactly is that it wasn’t. When something as big and traumatic and unexpected as the earthquake happens, its aftermath drags on. Some of you probably remember the “post-quake” cholera epidemic, caused (once controversially in my world, now infamously) by United Nations peacekeepers. That was more than nine months later, and started in a whole other part of the country from the earthquake (which was one of the data points that I and epidemiologist Renaud Piarroux indepedently used to figure out what had happened.)

But for everyone who survived all of that, it didn’t stop there either. It didn’t stop as they were forced to rebuild their ruined city, brick by brick, home by home, often by hand. It didn’t stop when the U.S. interfered in a shambolic election, helping put an unqualified pop star in the Haitian presidency. It didn’t end when that president presided over the apparent theft of as much as half a billion dollars of loans extended by the Venezuelan government in the form of discounted petroleum sales. It didn’t end when that president oversaw the questionable election of his chosen successor, an unknown businessman who auditors say was part of the embezzlement scheme.

Ten years after foreign leaders and people all over the world pledged to rebuild Haiti (“better,” as Bill Clinton used to say), the upshot is a country worse off than it was the minute before the earthquake struck. Its politics are in turmoil and its poverty is worse than ever. The global inequality that has made Haiti the dumping ground for the most vicious runoff of the overconsuming, rapacious countries of the world, including our own, keeps finding novel ways to screw the Haitian poor and ensure that the worst of its people tend to end up in charge.

Part of the reason that ten years since the date Haitians still simply call douze janvye feels like it was much more recent, in other words, is that the retraumitizations keep coming. They come when a racist presidential candidate in the United States tries to use the Haiti earthquake as a cudgel against his opponent, then repeatedly derides a nation of unparalleled survivors as a “shithole” while showing support for its president (possibly because his levels of alleged corruption pale next to his).

But the retraumatizations also come in smaller moments: when the eye catches an object moving unexpectedly fast just inside the field of vision, when an airplane wavers in a storm, when a piece of construction equipment rumbles the ground. For me, it is sometimes as if the earthquake never happened, and other times as if it never stopped happening. I suppose it will be that way, God willing, for years to come.

So where are we, this January 12? I’m not in Haiti anymore. A lot of Haitians I know aren’t either. I’m married to a wonderful woman, Claire, who I met because the earthquake brought her to Haiti, and me, when I had given up expecting anything good to happen again. We’re building a new life, brick by brick, on the ruins of the old. Ten years after it all almost came to an end, we and I are still going, ever on the lookout for curveballs but also moments of happiness and peace. I suppose that’s the best you can ask for.

Thanks for reading. Sign up to get this email in your inbox. You can also help keep my work (and Claire’s!) going by getting a paid subscription. Details below:

Jonathan M. Katz is a freelance journalist and author. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, traces the origins and contradictions of America’s empire through the life of a legendary Marine, Smedley D. Butler. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.

Disarm the lifeboats

In this week’s Long Version I cite my fellow Substacker Emily Atkin, whose newsletter, Heated, has become an indispensable daily read on the most urgent crisis of our time. Her mission is to force accountability for global warming on the powerful, corrupt institutions that quite literally fuel it. Past issues have tackled America’s refusal to help poor countries cope with climate disaster and an interview with John Kerry (who’s a subscriber!). Check it out.

Check out Heated World


The 2020s started early in Australia. Broiled by record-breaking summer temperatures, wildfires have already consumed an area the size of West Virginia, and are growing. Cities are shutting down under suffocating smoke. Half a billion animals are dead. People—and horses—are fleeing for their lives.

The root of the disaster could not be clearer. Australia’s annual mean temperature in 2019 was 1.5 degrees Celsius over its mid-20th century average. That happens to be the exact increase the Paris Climate Agreement was trying to limit the world to (over even-lower 19th-century levels). Worse yet, the fires themselves have exhausted half of Australia’s yearly “carbon budget”—the amount of carbon dioxide the country can expend without juicing global temperatures even more. The symptom is fueling its cause.

This fits a pattern emerging all over the world, from the Amazon to the Arctic. Global climate change is moving from the theoretical models of scientific papers to everyday experience. Here in the United States, community officials along the coast are being forced to admit that some parts of their counties will not be saved.

That turn toward reality is scrambling politics we’ve long taken for granted. As Emily Atkin chronicled in Heated, the fossil fuel industry has spent billions of dollars faking a specious public “debate” about global warming, for the purpose of protecting their profits. For decades, they enlisted and funded reactionaries around the world, primarily their cronies in the Republican Party. It got so that if you heard someone so much as admit that climate change was real, you could bet they were on the left.

And yet, if you were paying close attention to the Trump impeachment hearings, you’d have heard Rep. Matt Gaetz—a close Trump ally and proud “America Firster”—list among the crises Congress should be addressing, “the challenges of extinction and climate change.” (Though, nodding to the confusion financed by his fossil fuel industry paymasters, he did smuggle in a dig at the Democrats’ opposition to coal.)

This might seem like good news, but it isn’t, necessarily. As Donald Trump’s reckless escalation with Iran should make perfectly clear, the forces of reaction aren’t joining the fight to save the planet. They’re doing what, in retrospect, was always going to be their next move: trying to save themselves.

Unfortunately for all of us, that isn’t going to work either.

Panic of the Elites

Imagine the habitable world is a cruise liner that’s been sinking in the middle of the ocean. At first the leak was almost theoretical—only some who ventured into the bowels of the hull could even tell that something was amiss. But as the water keeps rising, the emergency becomes more and more apparent.

The people aboard have to decide what to do. Do we use our resources to repair the leak, tend to those already affected, and protect as many people as we can? Or it is every person for themselves?

Disaster experts can predict how most people will react: Most will try to work together to save the most people possible. As Erik Auf Der Heide, a leading disaster expert with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has written, “antisocial behaviors are uncommon in typical disaster situations.” I’ve observed this myself, in natural disasters in places as different as Haiti and Staten Island, for almost all people.

But there is a notable exception. The richest people on the ship are the least likely to cooperate. There is a formal term for this, based on a 2008 paper by the sociologists Caron Chess and Lee Clarke. It’s called “elite panic.” As Rebecca Solnit has written, “Elites tend to believe in a venal, selfish, and essentially monstrous version of human nature.” And as such, they believe that only “their power keeps the rest of us in line.” If the ship—or human society—is disrupted, they think, “our seething violence will rise to the surface.”

We see it again and again in disaster—as police opened fire on unarmed black New Orleanians after Katrina, elite media emphasized “looting” in the aftermath of María in Puerto Rico, and resources were squandered on a security-led response to the Haiti earthquake, with disastrous results.

In his 2012 book Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, the journalist Christian Parenti predicted that elite panic would soon manifest itself in the politics of climate change:

There is a real risk that strong states with developed economies will succumb to a politics of xenophobia, racism, police repression, surveillance, and militarism and thus transform themselves into fortress societies while the rest of the world slips into collapse. By that course, developed economies would turn into neofascist islands of relative stability in a sea of chaos.

He called it “the politics of the armed lifeboat.”

The ‘Real Deal’

Congressman Gaetz is an obvious candidate to help lead the charge to the armed lifeboats. He represents a district in Florida where climate reality is undeniable. He is also an unabashed xenophobe, who rushed to Trump’s defense—and added to the racist pile-on—when the president called Haiti a “shithole.”

In 2019, Gaetz unveiled a climate change proposal he dubbed the “Green Real Deal.” It was an obvious trolling job, a sort of regulation-killing, tax-cutting parody of Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal. The resolution was filled with signaling language about “unilateral disarmament,” and the U.S. becoming the “world’s patsy” by taking on polluting industries at home. He focused on military adaptation and expansion into the Arctic.

(In a preview of Republican messaging to come, Gaetz also shifted blame away from the climate-denier-in-chief, Donald Trump. Instead he vaguely he cited “some in our government” as the source of denial and quipped nonsensically that the military does not have “the luxury of an academic debate about climate change”—as if academia is where that debate has been happening. As they did with the Iraq War, we can expect the right to shift blame for their decades of global destruction to liberals, and get much of the media to go along.)

Australia has a lot in common with the United States: a diverse, former British settler colony with a tradition of (white) individualism, corporate capitalism, and mass media owned by Rupert Murdoch, who was born in Melbourne. Its prime minister, Scott Morrison, is also a buffoonish climate denier, whose party’s fossil fuel cronyism is similarly papered over with clumsy appeals to white nationalism. Like Trump, he ran on a promise to bar the door to refugees. In office, he has threatened an authoritarian crackdown on protests and boycotts against companies that injure the environment.

Lurking behind them are deadlier forces. The white Australian who slaughtered 51 people at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, declared himself an “ethno-nationalist eco-fascist,” bent on killing immigrants who he said “colonize other peoples lands.” The gunman who murdered 22 people, mostly Latinos, at an El Paso Walmart in August, framed his massacre in terms of environmental necessity: “The average American isn’t willing to change their lifestyle, even if the changes only cause a slight inconvenience … So the next logical step is to decrease the number of people in America using resources.”

“Ecofascism” is a misnomer. This is old-school fascism. Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler both feared the exhaustion of resources, and authorized violence in the name of garnering more productive “living space” (spazio vitale in Italian; Lebensraum in German). In Mein Kampf, Hitler claimed that “we have to face the fact that the general standard of living is rising more quickly than even the birth rate,” and that the “right of self-preservation” meant Germans could take the resources they needed by force.

Taking the resources one needs from the unwashed horde remains a staple of right-wing messaging. As the ultimate elite panicker, Tucker Carlson opined in November: “Isn't crowding your country the fastest way to despoil it, to pollute it, to make it a place you wouldn't want to live?”

Sink or Swim Together

Far from facing reality, those who believe that the only way to survive is to engage in a Hobbesian struggle are engaging in a new, deadlier kind of denial. The reasons for this are obvious, in both disaster experience and climate logic.

Disasters teach us, again and again, that the only way to survive any cataclysm is if people work together. (Researcher Mika McKinnon had a good thread this week.) This is especially true when it comes to a planetary crisis. Think again about the sinking ship—a ship alone at sea, with no one coming to save it. Once they’ve shot their way through the crowds, where are the armed lifeboats going to go?

Maybe we harden our borders, go to war against our perceived climate foes, and horde all the resources we can. Maybe we listen to politicians like Gaetz and Morrison who would rather we turn on each other than hold the corporations that fuel their campaigns accountable.

What has that gotten countries like the United States and Australia so far? It won’t help us as crops continue to fail, seas continue to rise, and more and more forests burn. As Parenti wrote, “A world in climatological collapse—marked by hunger, disease, criminality, fanaticism, and violent social breakdown—will overwhelm the armed lifeboat. Eventually, all will sink in the same morass.”

Or, we can take this moment of growing awareness and address this emergency head on, making sure that everyone knows the priorities: to stop wasting time, resources, and money on division and war, and address the causes of the rising flames. It’s our choice. But we’ve got to make it soon.

Thanks as always for reading. Please support independent journalism by signing up to get The Long Version in your inbox. You can also support my upcoming book on Smedley Butler (the author of “War is a Racket”) and the rise (and price) of U.S. empire at patreon.com/katzonearth.

Jonathan Myerson Katz is a freelance journalist and author. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, traces the origins and contradictions of America’s empire through the life of the legendary Marine Smedley D. Butler. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.

Photo of evacuees at Malua Bay, Australia: Alex Coppel

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