Welcome to Issue 57.1 of Digestable, your thrice-weekly mouthful of real things happening in the world, minus alarmist pandemic news.
Today’s news, fermented:
As always, Monday is a deluge of news from this complicated and troubling world. In West Virginia, the struggle to hold Big Pharma liable for the opioid epidemic gets a boost.
Here’s a newly-designated national park in Mozambique.
The Second Look
Half-baked cultural criticism from Gabriel Coleman.
Minnesota is a wounded place these days. With the police killings of Daunte Wright, George Floyd, and Philando Castile, folks in the Twin Cities have remained in an intermittent state of grief and protest for several years, culminating in some key but ultimately marginal judicial successes. These protests for racial justice and the dismantling of the criminal justice system also coincide with the ongoing fight of Anishinaabe water protectors to stop the extension of Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline through ancestral Anishinaabe land.
Last summer’s global protests around the murder of George Floyd spurred a whitelash of anit-protest legislation, and as environmental reporter extraoridaire Amy Westervelt has pointed out, many of these “anti-riot” bills have been spurred on by the fossil fuel industry. Minnesota currently has 6 bills in the legislature that would criminalize protest and most of these have to do with so-called “critical infrastructure” which includes roads and bridges as well as oil and gas infrastructure. The Dakotas, where protests around the Keystone XL pipeline actions took place, have both already passed laws criminalizing protest near oil and gas infrastructure.
In order to weave these strands of protest, legislation, and infrastructure together I want to jump back to some research I did about east Tennessee in the 1930s when the aluminum industry was subject to a similar protest movement. The Aluminum Company of America or ALCOA has been smelting aluminum in the company town of Alcoa, Tennessee since 1913. Turning bauxite into aluminum is an incredibly energy intensive process that requires running an electric current through a vat of molten metal and cryolite 24 hours a day to precipitate pure aluminum onto a carbon anode. In order to generate this massive flow of electricity, ALCOA built a complex series of hydroelectric dams along the Little Tennessee River, eventually coming to a total of 14. Electricity generated at these dams would be carried to the smelting plant through a network of high voltage wires snaking over the Great Smoky Mountains.
In 1937, ALCOA’s workforce would go on strike in an attempt to unionize, keeping the plant closed for 7 weeks. This strike culminated on the night of July 6th when strikers dynamited an electrical tower between the Calderwood Dam and the aluminum plant. The next day after, striker Kenson Click was killed by local police (being a company town, the Alcoa, TN police were managed by the company) strikers occupied in the plant’s powerhouse. These actions demonstrate the importance of disrupting “critical infrastructure” as a protest tactic. Workers knew that if electricity was not continually supplied to the aluminum smelting vats, the mixture in the vats would freeze. Even the momentary disruption of knocking down a power line would cause ALCOA to incur incredible costs and production losses.
The company also knew the dangers of worker organizing and weaponized race to prevent it. Black workers had been hired at the aluminum plant since it opened but were relegated to the most arduous parts of the plant’s operations: the foundry where carbon anodes would be baked and the potrooms where aluminum was smelted. White workers on the other hand initially the only workers hired at the fabrication plant where finished aluminum would be shaped into various wares. This was an explicit effort on behalf of ALCOA to prevent white workers from unionizing, relying on the assumption that Black workers who had much more to lose than their white counterparts, would be deterred from demanding better for themselves. But by the late 30s, ALCOA’s Black workforce had self-advocated and won work outside the potrooms, and it was this more integrated workforce that would disrupt ALCOA’s critical infrastructure to demand and win the right to unionize.
Four years later, ALCOA’s hydroelectric generating capacity would be integrated with the federal Tennessee Valley Authority and the largest dam on the Tennessee River, the Fontana Dam would be constructed to add capacity to the aluminum plant in the name of “national defense.” This marked a growing integration of federal and industrial priorities that took place during WWII, developing into what we today call the military-industrial complex.
I tell this story to connect a few dots. Hydropower constructed for “national defense” reflects today’s legislative efforts to protect the “critical infrastructure” of the fossil fuel industry. The tactics of BLM protests occupying vehicular thruways like 35W, 94, and the ongoing George Floyd Sq. autonomous zone reflects the interruption of ALCOA’s electric current, as does the tactic of water protectors locking themselves inside sections of the Line 3 pipeline. And the unionization of ALCOA’s workforce being enabled by racial integration reflects the overlap of actions to protect Black Lives taking place in southern Minnesota and actions to stop Line 3 in the north.
The designation of “critical infrastructure” indicates both value and vulnerability. In the system that connects militarized police to fossil industry lobbyists, of course vehicular arteries and oil pipelines are valued more highly than the Black and indigenous people fighting for their lives. Pinpointing and disrupting this infrastructure is ultimately a move for collective liberation: clogging the gears that steal Black lives, indigenous land, safe water, and a survivable climate in the name of profit and power. A bill to criminalize this kind of protest is ultimately just another piece of infrastructure to be ripped out.
If you want more of this kind of stuff, I wrote a twitter thread a while back connecting Line 3 to the historical development of pipeline infrastructure as a labor organizing deterrent. Doesn’t quite fit in this piece but you can check it out here. Have a great week all!
Back soon from the superb Latifah Azlan.