Wednesday, May 15, 2013

“Pinkwashing” Israel

Activists Explain How Israel Uses Queers to Rehabilitate Its International Image


Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Nasser Barghouti and Sara Giordano

“Tel Aviv: This City Is HOT!,” read the slogan on the ad, which featured three scantily clad young men in an attempt to sell Queer tourists — Gay men in particular — on vacationing in Israel. It was on a PowerPoint slide shown by San Diego State University women’s studies professor Sara Giordano and Nasser Barghouti, president of the San Diego chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, at Canvass for a Cause headquarters in Hillcrest May 10. Giordano and Barghouti came to talk about how Israel’s increasingly desperate attempts to rehabilitate its international image have taken a new form: “pinkwashing,” attempting to convince the world’s Queers that Israel is a Queer-friendly country and deserves both political and financial support from the Queer community.
“The term ‘pinkwashing’ was started in 2002 by Breast Cancer Action (BCA),” Giordano explained. “As the feminist movement raised awareness of breast cancer, corporations took over the anti-breast cancer campaigns.” What BCA was trying to do, Giordano said, was raise awareness that companies that were cultivating “women-friendly” images by donating to breast cancer groups and sponsoring big events like the Susan G. Komen three-day walks were also “producing many of the toxins that cause cancer. BCA started a campaign called ‘Think Before You Pink.’ A lot of corporations use women’s, Gay or environmental issues to cover up the atrocities they are involved in worldwide.”
Giordano said that the first time the term “pinkwashing” was applied to Israel was by College of Staten Island professor Sarah Schulman in an op-ed in the New York Times in November 2011 ( Schulman said that improvements in the status of Queers in the U.S. and western Europe “have given rise to a nefarious phenomenon: the co-opting of white Gay people by anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim political forces in western Europe and Israel. … [D]epictions of [Muslim] immigrants — usually Muslims of Arab, South Asian, Turkish or African origin — as ‘homophobic fanatics’ opportunistically ignore the existence of Muslim Gays and their allies within their communities. They also render invisible the role that fundamentalist Christians, the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Jews play in perpetuating fear and even hatred of Gays. And that cynical message has now spread from its roots in European xenophobia to become a potent tool in the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
According to Schulman’s article, Israel’s government launched an international public relations campaign called “Brand Israel” in 2005, with help from U.S. marketing executives. Intended to convince people in developed countries that Israel was “relevant and modern,” the campaign included efforts to attract Queer support — and tourist dollars — for Israel. In 2010 an Israeli Web site reported that the Tel Aviv tourism board had allocated $90 million to sell their city as “an international Gay vacation destination.” The campaign included depictions of young same-sex couples and funding screenings of pro-Israel movies at Gay and Lesbian film festivals in the U.S. Giordano explained that the “Brand Israel” campaign was launched in response to increasing anti-Israel sentiment over its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza — and, indeed, over its colonization of virtually all of historic Palestine.

Israeli Jews: Oppressed Become Oppressors

Barghouti’s role in the presentation was to explain just how Israel took over Palestine and how, in order to rule as a minority population in the Middle East, Israelis had to adopt many of the practices of the apartheid government in South Africa. Barghouti is Palestinian, although he was born in Egypt after his family was driven out of historic Palestine by Israelis, and so the issue for him is both personal and political. “The term apartheid is Afrikaans for ‘segregation,’” Barghouti explained. “Israel says it’s a ‘Jewish state’ and indigenous Palestinians are a problem. They’re not considered part of the [Israeli] state even though we were here before the state was founded.”
Citing the definition of apartheid adopted by the United Nations in 2002 — “an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination of one racial group over another” — Barghouti explained why he believes Israel qualifies as an apartheid state. “If you are Jewish and you emigrate to Israel, you automatically become a citizen and can own land anywhere in the country,” he said. “If you are Palestinian, you cannot own land in 93 percent of Israel. That land is controlled either by the state or the Jewish National Fund. The areas Israel took control over in the 1967 war are all under military occupation today, and in effect Palestinians only have access to 10 percent of that land. The rest is taken up by ‘security checkpoints’ and ‘access roads’” over which only Jewish Israelis can drive.
Barghouti showed a slide of four maps of Greater Palestine that starkly demonstrated how complete the Jewish takeover has been. The first map was of Palestine as it existed before World War II, with a series of small white dots representing the 7 percent of Palestine in which Jews had settled. The remaining 93 percent, occupied by Palestinian Arabs, was in green. The next map was of the U.N. partition of Palestine, approved in 1947, which showed the original portion of Palestine assigned to Jews. The third map showed the state of Israel as it existed after the 1948 war, which Israelis call the “War of Independence” and Palestinians call the Nakba — Arabic for “catastrophe.” “The Nakba cost us 80 percent of our historic land in one day,” Barghouti said, “and since 1967 Israel has occupied 100 percent of historic Palestine.” The final map shows Palestine today, with a handful of green dots representing the parts of the West Bank and Gaza that haven’t been taken over by Jewish settlers, encouraged by all Israeli governments regardless of political party, and the infrastructure of walls, checkpoints and “access roads” with which Israel protects the settlers against the indigenous population.
“My ancestors didn’t do the Holocaust,” Barghouti said, “but we’ve become the victims of the victims of Europe.” He talked about one of the most insidious forms of anti-Palestinian apartheid: the fact that Israel’s expansions in 1948 and 1967 left Palestinians literally unable to return to the homes and villages from which their ancestors were driven out by Israeli arms. “Palestinians who still have the keys to their homes are not allowed back,” Barghouti said. “Any Jew can come to Israel and immediately become citizens and keep land. That’s why it’s apartheid.” Barghouti noted that one of the leading Black South Africans in the struggle against apartheid, Bishop Desmond Tutu, has said conditions in Israel are even worse than in apartheid South Africa because “the white South Africans at least allowed the Blacks to live there. We are treated like immigrants in our own land. … Human Rights Watch says Israel has a ‘two-tier system’ for the two populations of the West Bank.”
Barghouti discussed conditions for Palestinians not only in the West Bank and within the internationally recognized boundaries of Israel itself, but in Gaza, the thin strip between Israel and Egypt. The Israeli government formally “abandoned” Gaza in 2006, but has maintained a siege that prevents Gazans from receiving food or trading with the rest of the world. Given Gaza’s location — the only countries that border it are Israel and Egypt, and the Israeli navy has sunk boats that sailed in from Turkey attempting to land supplies for Gaza’s people — the Israeli blockade, supported by Egypt, has essentially turned Gaza into a giant open-air prison for its people, Barghouti said.
“The International Committee of the Red Cross has called Gaza a prison,” Barghouti explained. “The siege is completely against international law. Israel controls Gaza by controlling its borders and not allowing anything in. Even [Conservative British Prime Minister] David Cameron has called Gaza an ‘open-air prison.’ Amnesty International, Oxfam and Christian Aid have called for ‘unconditional lifting of the blockade’ against Gaza.”
When the pro-Western, pro-Israeli government of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak fell as a result of the “Arab Spring” protests in 2012, Gazans hoped — and Israelis feared — that the new Egyptian government would end their participation in the Gaza siege and let goods flow freely between Gaza and Egypt. But that hasn’t happened, according to New York Times contributor Issandr el-Amrani (, because the current Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government of Egypt “fears Israel wants nothing more than to dump its Gaza problem on Egypt’s lap. … For Egypt, the risk is not only further entrenching the divide between Gaza and the West Bank it has tried to heal through inter-Palestinian reconciliation talks, but also creating new security and political problems.”

Israel Tries to Clean Up Its Image

Though most Americans don’t realize this because both the U.S. government and media have generally been cheerleaders for Israel — indeed, Israeli media contain more criticism of Israeli’s policies towards the Palestinians, including the occupation and settlement of the West Bank, than U.S. media — in the rest of the world “Israel’s image is not good,” Giordano said. Israel has been working on its international image since 1948, she explained. “There have been different stories about how you can claim domination over a land,” Giordano said. “You don’t generally say you’re occupying another country to hurt their people.” Instead, she argued, Israel’s flacks currently call their country “the only democracy in the Middle East” and “a more progressive country” than its Arab neighbors.
Giordano identified three components of Israel’s outreach towards Queers: “tourism, culture, and Gay rights and activism.” The tourist component, she said, has mostly been focused on “Gay male tourists from Europe,” with an ad campaign that basically sells Israel as a venue for sex tourism. The Israelis have also started including Jewish Queers in their long-standing policy of offering young Jews from other countries, particularly student activists and community leaders, all-expenses-paid trips to Israel in hopes that when they return they’ll talk up their experiences to their friends and promote Israel as a wonderful country. “Unintentionally, well-meaning LGBT [Queer] groups are convinced to get with Israel,” Giordano said. “There are lots of different Gay tourist sites in Israel.”
On the cultural front, Giordano noted, Israel mounted a major outreach to the Queer community in 2010, when it sponsored an “Out in Israel LGBT Culture Festival” and an “Israeli Pride Month.” They also bought a major sponsorship in the Frameline Queer film festival with the understanding that Frameline would respond by showcasing films with positive depictions of Queer life in Israel. “It’s for the U.S., not for their own Gay citizens,” Giordano explained. “They’re taking out ads in San Francisco trying to promote how Gay-friendly they are.” According to Giordano, Queer-friendly countries like the Netherlands and Sweden don’t feel they have to do that kind of marketing to American Queers — but Israel does.
Giordano also mentioned the role of pornography — and one pornographer in particular — in promoting Israel to U.S. Gay men as a sex-tourist destination. “Michael Lucas produces porn and is very rich,” she explained. “He’s not Israeli — I believe he was born in Russia — but he’s taken it upon himself to promote Israel as a sexually free land for Gay men. During Israel’s war with Lebanon he did a USO-style live sex show in Tel Aviv with free admission for soldiers. In 2009 he filmed Men of Israel, with scenes set in the ruins of Palestinians’ homes depopulated during the Nakba. His latest project is Israel Undressed, trying to show Israel as a Gay-friendly destination. He’s out as being very anti-Arab and anti-Islam.”
Indeed, Lucas has not only produced porn movies to boost Israel’s image among U.S. Gay men, he’s used his money to suppress discussion about Israel’s occupation of Palestine in Queer venues. In February 2011 the Siege Busters, a group working to raise money for yet another attempt to crash Israel’s blockade of Gaza by boat, arranged with the New York LGBT Community Center to use their space for a party to publicize Israeli Apartheid Week. When Lucas heard this, he went ballistic and threatened to organize a contributor boycott of the Center if they allowed the Siege Busters’ event to take place. “If the LGBT Center wants to host a fundraising and awareness party for anti-Semites,” Lucas said, “they might as well go all the way and host a tea dance for Fred Phelps.”
The Center caved completely; they imposed a ban on all events about Israel and Palestine which lasted for two years — until the Center caught flack last February for banning a reading by Sarah Schulman to promote her new book, Israel/Palestine and the Queer International. According to Giordano, it took a sit-in at the Center to get them to lift the ban.
The third issue used by Israel to appeal to Queers, Giordano said, is “claiming Gay rights and using Gay rights in Israel.” Giordano compared this to the justification offered by the U.S. government to go to war against Afghanistan by saying we needed to “save” Afghan women. Indeed, one of Israel’s arguments is that “Israel is a haven for Gay Palestinians and other Gay Arabs,” Giordano said. “They’re blocking all access but they say they’re doing it to ‘save’ Gay Arabs from their ‘backward’ countries.” One of Israel’s arguments is that if Gay Palestinians want to meet potential sex partners or social companions, they have to do it in Israel because no Gay bars or Queer organizations exist in Arab countries.
Of course, as Giordano and Barghouti both pointed out, any Gay Palestinian who tries to go to an Israeli Gay bar will have to deal with the same checkpoints and general hostility of any other Palestinian trying to move about freely in Israel. “Most Gay Palestinians [in Israeli bars] risk being discriminated against in the bar, being arrested by police and called ‘terrorists,’” Barghouti said. “In the 1980’s Israeli police would arrest Gay Palestinians and blackmail them, threatening to expose them to their families if they didn’t cooperate with Israel.”
In a particularly startling example of what Jews used to call chutzpah, the Israelis are even trying to sell their country as a haven for marriage equality — despite the fact that Israeli marriage law is so totally controlled by the Orthodox community that many straight Israelis don’t have marriage equality because they’re not considered “Jewish” enough. “Ninety percent of the Israeli population doesn’t have marriage equality,” Barghouti said. Straight couples who don’t qualify for a marriage in Israel can get married elsewhere, and the Israeli government will recognize their marriage — which has led Israeli travel agents to book tours to Italy so Israeli couples who don’t meet the Orthodox community’s standards for marriage in Israel can sail across the Mediterranean and get hitched, ironically enough, in the home country of Roman Catholicism.

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions

Not only are pro-Palestinian activists comparing Israel’s policies towards Palestinians to apartheid, they’re adopting a strategy based on the one that finally put enough pressure on South Africa’s white leadership to realize the game was up and they’d have to relinquish power. It’s called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions — or BDS for short (a set of initials uncomfortably reminiscent of the sexually kinky community’s current designation of itself: BDSM, or Bondage, Discipline and Sado-Masochism). The BDS movement, Barghouti said, “is non-violent, international and includes both Palestinians and Jews. The movement wants to isolate and pressure Israel until it: 1) ends the occupation of all the lands seized in 1967; 2) recognizes the full rights of all 1.2 million Palestinians in Israel, who now cannot vote or serve in the Israeli military; and 3) recognizes the rights of Palestinians to return to their homes as stipulated in U.N. Resolution 194.”
Barghouti said the idea behind the BDS movement is to make Israel “a pariah state” worldwide, much the way similar campaigns against South Africa made that country a pariah state and hastened the nonviolent end of apartheid. He noted that BDS has attracted support from leading world figures such as Desmond Tutu, Ralph Nader, physicist Stephen Hawking (who turned down an invitation to attend a scientific conference in Israel this June), The Color Purple author Alice Walker, feminist philosopher Judith Butler and British musicians Roger Waters of Pink Floyd and Damon Albarn of Blur. Among BDS actions in the U.S. have been culture-jamming the posters for the Israeli-sponsored Frameline film festival and pickets at benefits for the Jewish National Fund, including one that Giordano said “was trying to organize LGBT Jews” to support an organization that helps keep ownership of property in Israel reserved for Jews.
Asked how they justify support for the BDS movement, Barghouti said that it’s supported by the majority of Palestinians, while Giordano became more autobiographical — and more philosophical. “I have a strong feminist background, I teach in women’s studies, and I’m part of a Jewish anti-Zionist family,” she said. “My grandparents were killed in the Holocaust. A feminist principle is to listen to the voices of the most oppressed people. There are Palestinian and other Arab Queer groups who are calling for BDS.”
For more information on the BDS movement, visit its official Web site at For more information on Queer participation in BDS, the “pinkwashing” of Israel and what you can do about it, visit or

Immigrant Activists Turn Out in Force for May Day


Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“For years we celebrated May Day as a workers’ day, but now it’s been beautifully taken over by the immigration issue,” said Lorena Gonzalez, who just stepped down after eight years heading the San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council to run for the state Assembly, at a May Day rally at the San Diego Civic Center Plaza. “We’re going to have good immigration reform that benefits all workers. We will all benefit when 11 million workers can come out of the shadows.”
Gonzalez’ presence at the event was symbolic of a sweeping change in the American labor movement’s historically anti-immigrant stance. It wasn’t until 2000 that the national AFL-CIO convention switched its position on immigration and passed a resolution supporting rights for undocumented people in the U.S. And the conversion of May Day from a semi-official workers’ holiday into a day devoted to immigrants’ rights began in 2006, after Republicans in the House of Representatives pushed a highly punitive anti-immigration bill written by Congressmember James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin). Millions of U.S. immigrants and their supporters turned out in the streets to protest the Sensenbrenner bill. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate, though elements of it are still on the table as proposed amendments to the comprehensive immigration bill currently under Senate consideration.
The dominance of immigration issues at this year’s May Day celebration became clear when contingents arrived in the Civic Center Plaza carrying both U.S. and Mexican flags, and when many of the speakers in the Plaza spoke in Spanish. “This is an historic day here,” said event MC Pedro Rios. “We’re uniting with workers not only from the U.S. or the Americas, but the world. Our struggle is not unique. Today we want to lift up a typical situation the janitors are dealing with” — which was explained by the speaker he called up, Rosa Lopez, in untranslated Spanish.
A number of speakers expressed concern about the increasing use of E-Verify, a Web-based system that supposedly enables employers to find out if workers and job applicants have the legal right to work in the U.S. E-Verify has made so many mistakes — not only identifying undocumented workers as legal residents but red-flagging legal residents and even U.S. citizens as so-called “illegals” — that one writer joked it should be called “E-Falsify.” Nonetheless, at least three states require employers to use E-Verify on all new hires, and Republicans in Congress are demanding that its use be mandated nationwide. Herm├ín Ramirez, organizing director of Local 135 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), said that when his union tries to enroll workers, “the first thing we’re asked is, ‘Will the company E-Verify and deport us?’”
The most powerful story told about E-Verify was given in Spanish (with an interpreter translating into English) by a woman identified only as Virginia. “I came from Vera Cruz because I’m a single mother and I needed to pay for my daughter’s education,” Virginia said. “I’ve worked in housekeeping and hotels. It’s difficult work and poorly paid. Two years ago I started working at the Hilton in Mission Valley, and often we’d work through lunch breaks to finish the rooms we were assigned. When my co-workers started fighting for a union, I joined because I realized we deserved good pay, a fair workload and the ability to provide for our families. In March this year the hotel was sold, and the new owner did not guarantee our jobs. We did a civil disobedience action, and the owner said they’d hire us back but would check our papers through E-Verify. When the company advised me and 14 other co-workers that we did not pass, we knew we had to fight back. We staged a 14-day hunger strike, but the company fired us anyway.”
Virginia described herself as “undocumented and fired,” but said she and her fellow workers will have to “keep fighting. We have to win comprehensive immigration reform to live in peace, and also union [recognition] so we can live and work in peace and dignity.”
“I learned at six years old that workers are the foundation of this country and the world,” said student activist Malia Rodriguez. “Congress has to give the workers’ rights because workers are their foundation.”
Other speakers at the event included Barrio Logan community leader and former City Council candidate Christian Ramirez and Guillermo Gomez of Union del Barrio. The event ended with an invocation by Rev. Wayne Riggs of the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, after which the participants staged a march to Chicano Park and held another, longer rally there.

Food Workers’ Union Members Discuss Queers and Labor at CFAC

Queer Rights Advance, but Unions Decline and Wealth, Income Become Less Equal


Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Sandy Naranjo

Charles Nelson

“When I was growing up, Gay marriage seemed like it would have to wait until after the revolution, but we thought we’d have a decent minimum wage,” said grocery checker and United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 135 member Charles Nelson at the April 26 meeting of Canvass for a Cause (CFAC) in Hillcrest. “Instead, I’m making less per hour, in terms of gallons of gas than I could buy per hour, than I was in 1976. That’s where we’re going backwards.”
Nelson and a staff member of his union, Sandy Naranjo, spoke on the connection between Queer people and the labor movement. Most of Naranjo’s presentation dealt with coalitions on which the two have come together and challenged employers who were both anti-labor and anti-Queer. Nelson spoke more broadly on the transformation of the American labor market and the way in which activists on social issues like Queer rights have made progress — while the hard-fought gains of previous workers’ movements are being taken away and the distribution of wealth and income in the U.S. has become more and more unequal.
Nelson asked his audience how many of them were actually in a labor union. About three or four people — out of about 30 attending — raised their hands. He then asked how many had worked in a job “where you made something in a factory, a workshop, a jewelry shop, repair shop; or you did construction, you built something, harvested something, fished, mined or drilled for something?” Only two people, both former construction workers, raised their hands.
His point was that, while everyone there was a worker — “no one in this room is a capitalist or collecting interest,” he said — “very few of us have done anything in the classic labor mode. We’ve lost all those jobs to Viet Nam, China, Mexico and the global South.” Nelson said that while many American unions call themselves “International,” most of them don’t have locals in any countries besides the U.S. and Canada. “We have to talk about solidarity with people who live hundreds of miles away,” Nelson said.
According to Nelson, the reason political progressives have been able to make progress on social issues like Queer rights, while they’ve steadily lost ground on economic issues, is that it doesn’t cost the capitalist ruling class much to allow Queer people to marry. Indeed, Nelson said that many Queer leaders are attracting major corporate sponsors for Queer organizations and events “because they figure, ‘He’s Gay, he doesn’t have kids, he doesn’t pay alimony, he’s going to buy your products and take your cruises.’ Allstate is a sponsor of Equality California, and they don’t do that because they think we’re poor.”
Naranjo, who gave her presentation before Nelson did, inadvertently confirmed his point when she told the story of the 1970’s boycott of Coors Brewing Company. The Teamsters’ Union was trying to organize Coors and, searching for support wherever they could find it, they approached San Francisco Queer leaders Howard Wallace and Harvey Milk for help. Milk and Wallace organized a community-wide boycott of Coors and lobbied Gay bars to stop carrying it. “It halved their market share,” Naranjo said. “They made sure every Gay bar did not serve Coors, and their market share fell from 46 to 16 percent.”
The result was that Coors today frequently pays money to sponsor Pride festivals and other events in the Queer community — but, as Naranjo ruefully acknowledged, they’re still as hostile to unions as they ever were.
More recently, the UNITE HERE union targeted the hotels of Right-wing developer Doug Manchester and had Queer help in that campaign. Once campaign finance reports revealed that Manchester had contributed about $200,000 to the effort to put Proposition 8 on the ballot and end California’s legal recognition of same-sex marriage, Queer activists and union leaders joined forces to start “Sleep with the Right People” against the Hyatt Corporation, whose flagship hotel on the San Diego waterfront was a Manchester-owned operation.
As part of a union drive to organize the poorly treated workers in Manchester’s hotels, Sleep with the Right People “launched a nationwide campaign against the Hyatt that if you’re LGBT [Queer] and go on vacation, do not go to a Hyatt,” Naranjo said. “The campaign highlighted anti-worker bigotry and Manchester’s putting money into Prop. 8.” But while the campaign was going on, Manchester purchased the San Diego Union-Tribune, renaming it U-T San Diego, and installed new editors committed to what Naranjo called his “super-conservative, anti-labor, pro-business” policy.
Naranjo mentioned the labor movement’s and Queer movement’s biggest joint lobbying priority: the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would add sexual orientation and gender identities to the groups protected against discrimination in employment by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. “Studies show that [Queer] people are being discriminated against,” she said. “There is a need for federal legislation. Labor has been a great ally with the LGBT movement. Labor is very involved with the political process and regularly endorses political candidates. Though there is dissension on this within the labor movement, but when we interview candidates we ask them about marriage equality. We have to incorporate that because it’s a human-rights issue.”
Nonetheless, Naranjo said, anti-discrimination legislation doesn’t always protect workers’ rights. “The best protection you have is a union contract; without it you can be fired,” she said. “Without a union contract, you won’t have job protection and your partner won’t have benefits. That’s limited to a contract, and a huge percentage of the [U.S.] workforce is not union.”
Indeed, the most discouraging fact of life for the labor movement is how much it’s dwindled as a percentage of the total workforce. Since its high point in the 1950’s, when about one-third of all American workers were represented by unions, total union representation has fallen to about 12 percent. In the private sector, less than 8 percent of all working Americans are union members. The biggest thing that has kept the U.S. labor movement alive is its relative success in organizing government workers — 32 percent of whom in the U.S. are in unions — but that’s under concerted attack from anti-labor politicians like openly Gay former San Diego City Councilmember and Mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio.
“I’m sick and tired of Gay people like Carl DeMaio saying unions are bad and union leaders are corrupt,” Naranjo said. “When we said that DeMaio ‘doesn’t highlight’ his partner” — in his endorsement interview with U-T San Diego DeMaio acknowledged he’s Gay but listed himself as “single” — “his partner, Johnathan Hale, called me a ‘homophobic pig.’ The media said ‘labor, LGBT and environmentalists,’ and painted LGBTG and labor as enemies. We’re not, and we’re going to show that, past, present and future.”
Nelson focused part of his presentation on the need for labor to organize and start gaining, not losing, a greater share of American workers. “It’s hard to organize a union,” he said. “Organizing means people, not ideas. The best thing you can do is gather your friends and co-workers. It doesn’t have to be the Fast-Food Workers’ committee, just you and your co-workers talking about what you’re getting — and not getting.” In addition to the legal challenges of organizing, including the power modern-day labor law gives to companies that want to resist unionization tooth and nail, Nelson said that the changing nature of the modern economy poses challenges to rebuilding the union movement.
“In the ‘new economy,’ we’ve become more disposable,” Nelson explained. “We’re not as necessary to produce anything, but they still need us to consume. People don’t feel like they’re an ongoing part of a job anymore, and a lot of unions haven’t thought in new-economy terms. The AFL-CIO understands it’s a problem. The U.S. is also not a country that’s made it easy to organize, and unions have lost the ‘fight’ they had 100 years ago” — when organizers and workers were literally willing to fight and put their lives on the line against the private armies many corporations maintained to ward off unionization.
Naranjo added a follow-up that showed a surprising degree of public discontent with the Democratic party for a U.S. union official. “Employers fire people for being organizers,” she said, noting that while that’s technically illegal your only recourse is to sue — “and that kills the organizing drive.” When President Obama was elected in 2008, she explained, labor’s biggest priority in Washington, D.C. was passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. This would mean that a union would automatically be certified as soon as a majority of the workers in a given workplace signed up — eliminating the costly representation elections which give companies another chance to intimidate workers out of union representation.
“Obama committed to push the Employee Free Choice Act, but then he gave up on it for the Affordable Care Act,” Naranjo said. “Now they just want to focus on immigration reform, and with the Sandy Hook shootings and the Boston Marathon bombings, the climate has changed and they just laugh at us.”

Monday, May 06, 2013


Call Your San Diego County Supervisor to Stop the Wind Turbine Ordinance for East County!

Call NOW — the vote is scheduled for Wednesday, May 8:

District One: Greg Cox (board chair), (619) 531-5522
District Two: Dianne Jacob, (619) 531-5522
District Three: Dave Roberts, (619) 531-5533
District Four: Ron Roberts, (619) 531-5544
District Five: Bill Horn, (619) 531-5555


Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Donna Tisdale

David Elliott and Donna Tisdale

Jim Pelley

Mark Ostrander

Map showing current and future wind and solar installations planned for East County

Schematic drawing showing just how large the wind turbines will be. The blade assembly alone is as large as a Boeing 747 jetliner!

On Wednesday, May 8, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on a new ordinance and community plan amendment that will essentially destroy the rural character of San Diego County’s back country in the name of so-called “green energy.” It will do this by vastly expanding the land area in San Diego’s East County available for giant wind-turbine and solar electricity installations. The County action is part of a major push by giant energy corporations and developers to build huge facilities that are being ballyhooed as part of a necessary transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources — but, according to opponents, they’re really inefficient and destructive projects that will destroy the communities and habitats of East County and do precious little to help develop truly environmentally friendly energy sources.
The opponents held a rally and press conference outside the County Administration Center on Harbor Drive downtown May 6 at 1 p.m. to explain why they oppose the giant wind developments in East County and what they think the Board of Supervisors should be doing instead. Chair of the event was Donna Tisdale, longtime East County resident and founding organizer of Backcountry Against Dumps, a group she started in the 1980’s to keep a major landfill project from being built in East County. She brought a number of fellow back country residents to talk about what they’ve been going through thanks to the wind projects that already exist in East County, and to plead with the County Supervisors to block the construction of any more of them.
“I live in close proximity to the turbines,” said David Elliott, a member of the Manzanita Band of the Kumeyaay Indians. “It’s been my experience since the turbines have gone in that I’ve suffered numerous adverse health effects. It started off with a heart attack. I’m perfectly healthy, very active, do not smoke, and it went from there. Now we have a whole list of things the energy or the magnetic frequencies from the turbines do to you, [including] sleep disturbance, [loss of] concentration and memory, dizziness, loss of balance. You have headaches. You have ringing in your ears. You have ear pressure or pain. You have heart fluttering and racing heart. I have that.” Elliott pointed to a number of other health effects, including some he’s experienced personally. “I now wear glasses, where before I didn’t,” he said.
One of the direct effects of the turbines on their neighbors is the constant noise they make, Elliott said. “You’re bothered by them if you’re driving by them and you’re going slow,” he explained. “You can hear the whoosh-whooh and the thump-thump. When the wind blows from certain directions, it becomes very intense. I’m on the east side of the ridge that has the turbines, and when the wind is coming out of the west I really get a high sound. And I can still hear them when the wind comes from the east. We used to think the freeway was a little too noisy. It doesn’t even begin to compare with those turbines. At certain times in the evening, when the wind is coming out of the west and those turbines are feathered just right, it sounds like two jets going overhead — except they never go past you. They’re just there, humming very loud.”
Jim Pelley, an aerospace engineer who moved to the East County community of Ocotillo — where a major wind development has already gone in — “to get away from the noise and industrialization of the city.” Only the industrialization followed him, and so did the noise. “I live right in the middle of the Ocotillo wind turbine project, 112 wind turbines surrounding my home,” he explained. “Wind turbines as close as one-half mile from my house. Every window in my house I look out of, I see wind turbines. Living next to this project has been an absolute nightmare. My life is forever changed. It feels like my home has been taken away from me. I am now experiencing health-related issues that I feel are a direct result of this project. I’m having trouble sleeping at night. I feel fatigued. I feel restless, even when I’m tired. I get headaches. My dogs are acting strangely. They’re shaking outside. They run in the house.”
According to Pelley, wind turbines make lousy neighbors. “When I come out of my front door, the first thing I see is wind turbines,” he said. “I don’t see the beautiful Coyote Mountains which are straight out from my home. My eyes are drawn to the wind turbines. At night, the first thing that I see when I come out of my door are the bright red flashing lights on the wind turbines. They are very disturbing. These red lights flash and can be seen all over, throughout my house and all the way as far as El Centro. These lights have a laser shine that hurts your eyes. We like to sleep with our windows open, but if the wind is blowing it sounds like we are sleeping on an aircraft carrier with jets taking off.”
But Pelley’s complaints about the turbines go far beyond just what they’ve done to him personally. “These projects are not ‘green,’” he explained. “The carbon footprint of the Ocotillo wind project is bigger than anybody will ever know. The first-quarter reports from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission [FERC] indicated that the electrical power produced by the Ocotillo project is way below expectations. This project is supposed to yield 34 percent of generating capacity, but based on the first-quarter reports from FERC, the power output appears to be closer to 19 percent.”
Just why that is was explained by attorney Bill Page, who wasn’t at the May 6 press conference but addressed the issue at a community meeting in Hillcrest April 15 sponsored by Activist San Diego. Stonewalled by the local companies — who declared their measurements of wind speed on the site “proprietary information” and refused to share them with him — Page went to Siemens, the German company that actually built the turbines. What he found was that the most each of these turbines can generate is 2.3 megawatts of electricity, and whether they come anywhere near that number depends on how fast the wind blows.
Page showed a graph from Siemens documenting that the efficiency of the turbines drops dramatically as the wind speed slows, and that in order for them to produce enough electricity to be useful, the wind has to be blowing between 24 and 30 miles per hour. When the wind blows faster than 30 miles an hour, Page explained, it’s considered a storm and the turbines are shut down for safety reasons. According to Page’s figures, the actual wind speed in the East County area is a shade under 14 miles per hour — and that means the system will power 10,000 to 14,000 homes, not the 94,000 to 125,000 the developers and project supporters claim. Page said that there are only a few places in the world — “off the coast of Ireland and some parts of Mongolia” — where the wind regularly blows at the 25-mile-per-hour speed needed to make these Siemens turbines work.
The speakers at the May 6 event essentially made three kinds of arguments against the turbines. In addition to the horrors the turbines have brought to these regions and the people who live there, they also claimed that the projects are themselves environmentally destructive and are so inefficient they won’t make much of a dent in fossil-fuel consumption. Pelley’s speech highlighted the earthquake dangers from the turbines and the giant towers that carry them. “The foundations for these 450-foot tall monstrosities, sitting in sand, were not engineered for the area,” he explained. “Southern California has the highest seismic activity in the nation, but somehow standard, one-size-fits-all foundations were used on this project. Some of the wind turbines are actually sitting on the Elsinore fault line.” Pelley also claimed that the turbines already built at Ocotillo have “changed the hydrology” and increased the risk of a major flood.
Asked about another risk factor from the turbines — fire — Donna Tisdale explained that “the turbines actually hold several hundred gallons of oil up in their generators. Their invertors can hold an additional 500 gallons of oil. There can be up to thousands of gallons of oil per turbine. The substations and the switchyards all have a lot of oil. When the Sunrise Powerlink [a series of transmission lines through the desert built in spite of overwhelming community opposition] was built, one transformer in the Suncrest substation took 28,000 gallons of oil. These projects are being built in the back country, where we are ranked at the highest level of fire severity by CalFire [the statewide fire-fighting agency]. We don’t have fire hydrants everywhere because we don’t have water systems. We don’t have imported water. It’s all well water.”
To bolster her case that the turbines increase the fire risk in places that have already had severe fires, as anyone who lived in San Diego County in 2003 or 2007 will remember, Tisdale called on Mark Ostrander, a retired California fire battalion chief and East County resident. Ostrander came to the podium carrying a picture of a wind turbine on fire and said the presence of these turbines has dramatically increased the already severe risk of devastating wildfires in the East County area. He said the projects’ defenders have argued that there are low “fire currents” in East County, which has historically been true, but only because “there is no infrastructure out there, and very little foot traffic. Now we’re going to put in all this infrastructure, with the potential for starting fire.”
And what’s more, he added, the fires the turbines start in East County won’t stay in East County. Both Ostrander and Tisdale said that as the turbines catch fire, their blades will collapse and hot bits of wind-blade debris will spread with the wind. Then some of these bits will land on combustible material in the city of San Diego, and wherever else the wind takes it, and start fires there. “If you look at one of these burning, you see this stuff falling down,” Ostrander explained. “They’ll catch it [in San Diego] in an east wind.” Ostrander also pointed out that most of the East County communities don’t even have professional firefighters — they rely on volunteer fire departments — and when the turbine installations catch fire even the most experienced firefighters will just have to let them burn and concentrate on controlling how the fires spread.
They won’t have water to fight the flames because they don’t have conventional water delivery systems. They won’t be able to drop fire retardant on the blazes from the air — the main way the devastating wildfires in 2003 and 2007 were fought and finally brought under control — because it’ll be too risky for the planes to fly into areas with huge heat levels as well as spinning turbine blades and power lines. Ostrander pointed out that because it’s so difficult to fight fires that start on airplanes, “every one of our major airports has a dedicated fire department that stays there 24/7 to fight aircraft fires.” He said a similarly specialized crew will have to be maintained to fight the fires the wind turbines will cause.
It’s because of the risks, including the potential environmental hazards from any sort of development of the back country, that the last time the County of San Diego updated its general plan they decided, as Ostrander explained, “to keep the rural areas rural because we didn’t have the infrastructure. Now they’re talking about industrial energy zones, and basically turning us into a major corridor, with all this electrical equipment and fire hazards. It’s unconscionable.”
Ironically, Ostrander owns a wind-powered electric generator himself. But it’s only 30 feet tall and it was designed and built to provide his own energy needs. When he first set it up, he said, it generated half the electricity he used at home. It’s an example of what he calls “point-of-need” energy distribution, which means abandoning the model of generating energy at large facilities, transmitting it over long distances to its users, and losing a lot of it along the way. “Point-of-need can be done through rooftop solar, through the tops of parking structures, and lots of other options,” Ostrander explained. “You can take ground that’s already been disturbed, where there are houses and buildings, and put up energy-efficient renewable projects.”
Other objections raised by the speakers at the May 6 press conference included the destruction of native plants, which will increase carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere by getting rid of chaparral and other plants that sequester carbon; the chance that scraping so much soil off the earth’s surface could release valley fever and other microbes that cause disease; the likelihood that the turbine towers will conduct lightning to the earth’s surface and start fires that way; and the fact that they will produce only a small fraction of the energy their proponents claim for them. Ostrander said that in order to avoid imbalancing the power grid, the developers of large wind and solar installations will also have to build gas-fired “peaker plants” to fill in for the lost capacity when the wind doesn’t blow or the weather is cloudy — and at the April 15 Activist San Diego meeting, Bill Page said that the plan is to build 400 megawatts’ worth of fossil-fuel “peaker” capacity for every 250 megawatts the utilities ordering these plants buy from “renewable” sources.
Asked just why these projects are being pushed so hard when they’re environmentally destructive, dangerous and inefficient, Tisdale answered with one word: “MONEY!” She said the only reason these installations are economically viable is the federal subsidies former vice-president Dick Cheney and his friend, Enron CEO Ken Lay, got through Congress in 2005. “They made a plan where they made all these incentives, and then they milk the project, and then they can flip [resell] it, and the next owner can start the incentive process all over again. So it’s a big money-making thing — until the turbines fail.”

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Community Leaders Address Queer Democratic Club

Speakers Cover Marriage Equality, Education, Labor and Party’s Future


Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Eric Isaacson

Lorena Gonzalez

Kevin Beiser

Francine Busby

The predominantly Queer San Diego Democrats for Equality heard from four widely ranging speakers at their regular meeting April 25. Eric Isaacson, local attorney who has represented a wide coalition of faith-based organizations — California Council of Churches, California Faith for Equality, Unitarian-Universalist Legislative Ministry of California; Northern California/Nevada and Southern California/Nevada Conferences, United Church of Christ; Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis; and California Network of Metropolitan Community Churches — in marriage equality litigation since 2004, spoke about the recent U.S. Supreme Court hearings in the cases challenging Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DoMA). Lorena Gonzalez, who recently stepped down after over six years as head of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council to run for the 80th District seat in the California State Assembly, came to get the club’s endorsement — which she did, unanimously. The club also heard from openly Queer San Diego Unified School District board member Kevin Beiser and newly elected San Diego County Democratic Party chair Francine Busby.
“There’s a perception that all religion is against marriage equality,” Isaacson acknowledged at the opening of his presentation — which is why he rattles off the list of his faith-based clients virtually every time he speaks publicly about the issue. Put on the agenda to report on the Supreme Court hearings March 26 and 27, Isaacson’s main theme was that the conservative majority on the current Court may either throw out the case against Proposition 8 altogether or rule on the comparatively narrow ground of whether the initiative’s proponents had “Article III standing” to be in the case at all. This would, Isaacson explained, bring a progressive result — the end of Proposition 8 and the resumption of legally recognized marriages of same-sex couples in California — through legal reasoning conservatives have relied on to keep progressive cases out of the courts altogether.
“Conservative justices have come up with a lot of reasons why you can’t sue in the courts,” Isaacson explained. “The Los Angeles Police Department was pulling people over and choking them, sometimes to death, and the Supreme Court threw out a case challenging that on the ground that the person bringing it didn’t have reason to believe he personally would be pulled over and choked unconscious again. The Supreme Court has used standing to throw out cases brought by environmentalists and peace activists suing to stop drone attacks. But if you want to file suit to make President Obama show his birth certificate, that will also be thrown out.”
Standing became a major issue in both the Proposition 8 and DoMA cases because the government officials who would ordinarily defend the constitutionality of state and federal laws — the governor, the President, and the attorneys general of the U.S. and California — refused to do so. Instead Prop. 8 was defended by attorneys representing the five people who organized the campaign to put it on the ballot, and DoMA was represented by the so-called “Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group” (BLAG), formed by the Republican majority in the House of Representatives to defend the law. Isaacson said there’s already a Supreme Court precedent, Arizonans for Better English, that initiative proponents do not have the right to defend their initiative against a court challenge — but, he added, in the Prop. 8 hearings “the justices who are always in favor of limiting standing — Antonin Scalia, John Roberts, Samuel Alito — had no problem with the proponents having standing, and the others had doubts.”
Isaacson also discussed the possibility that the Supreme Court may “DIG” the Prop. 8 case. “DIG” is short for “dismissed as improvidently granted,” which is basically the Court deciding they made a mistake in agreeing to hear the case at all and therefore they’re not going to rule on it one way or the other. Isaacson said that the supposed “swing” justice, Anthony Kennedy, may seize on this as a way to get rid of a case he doesn’t want to rule on either way. “He’s uncomfortable ruling there’s a nationwide constitutional right to marriage equality,” Isaacson explained, “but he’s also uncomfortable ruling the other way. … He looks for trends, and wants to be right on the trends in both public opinion and the law.” On marriage equality, which voters in state after state turned down until 2012, when the Queer community won all four marriage votes on state ballots, Kennedy may simply want the Court to wait until the trends in public opinion are more clear, Isaacson suggested.
On the DoMA case, Isaacson explained that there are two main sections to the law — Section 2, which allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other states or countries; and Section 3, which denies federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples. Only Section 3 is at issue in the current case. “There are a couple of standing questions in DoMA,” Isaacson explained. “The Obama administration agrees that Section 3 is unconstitutional. Where is the adversity between parties? If the government doesn’t have standing, does John Boehner’s BLAG have standing? The Senate is not on board with them and therefore they’re not the ‘legislative branch.’ The standing problem is so severe the Court hired a Harvard law professor to argue there is no standing.” If the Court throws out the DoMA case for lack of standing, Isaacson said, then Edith Windsor — the Lesbian widow who filed the case to get back over $360,000 in federal estate taxes when her wife died because the federal government didn’t recognize their Canadian marriage under DoMA — “gets her money back, but you don’t get a ruling” on whether DoMA is constitutional.
Isaacson’s predictions? “I think Section 3 of DoMA will be struck down, and I think they’ll avoid a ruling on Prop. 8. But I will be surprised if Prop. 8 survives.” He pointed to the marriage equality bill that had just passed the Rhode Island legislature — and was signed into law by the state’s governor shortly after the meeting — as one more piece of evidence that, regardless of how the Supreme Court handles the current cases, the trend is towards marriage equality.
Lorena Gonzalez introduced herself as a candidate for the 80th Assembly District seat vacated by Ben Hueso, who just won a special election for  the State Senate — replacing Juan Vargas, who gave up his State Senate seat to run for Congress last November after Bob Filner gave up his Congressional seat to run for (and be elected) Mayor of San Diego. Though she’s stepped down as San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council chair to run for the Assembly, she made it clear that her personal priorities as a legislator are going to be the same as they were as a labor leader. “I’m going to wake up every day and think, ‘How can I help people get good jobs and have better lives, including retirees and children?’ I want to go to Sacramento and do real change. I think it’s time to send an organizer to Sacramento.”
After reviewing her personal background — including working her way through Georgetown University and Stanford Law School; serving as senior advisor to then-Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante on environmental, labor and tribal issues; and then being hired to run the local Labor Council — Gonzalez said, “We pushed an agenda and permanently changed San Diego. We helped workers who aren’t or can’t be in unions. We’ve reached out to communities, including the LGBT [Queer] community and ethnic communities. Now it’s time to push an economic agenda. When you secure hard-working people the ability to get by and provide a better life for our generation, that’s important.”
Gonzalez didn’t mention her principal opponent, former Chula Vista City Councilmember Steve Castaneda, though she did joke that in an attempt to embarrass her politically U-T San Diego, owned by anti-labor and anti-Queer developer Doug Manchester, published her salary as head of the Central Labor Council. Longtime club member Gerry Senda mentioned Castaneda and said that, though he’s running as a Democrat now, he was registered as a Republican until 2008. The club ultimately endorsed Gonzalez unanimously.
San Diego Unified School District board member Kevin Beiser, the first openly Queer person elected to that office, came by late in the meeting and thanked the club for giving him the so-called “friendly incumbent” endorsement for his 2014 re-election bid. “It really meant a lot to me that my home club endorsed me,” Beiser said. He then listed some of the district’s accomplishments, including their environmental record: “We’ve banned styrofoam lunch trays, replaced diesel power (for school buses) with biofuels, reduced energy use and passed a resolution for safe nuclear power [i.e., to ask that the San Onofre reactors remain closed until they are certified safe]. We’ve promoted locally grown organic food in school cafeterias, and expanded school gardens.”
Beiser also boasted of the district’s “historic anti-bullying policy,” the expansion of anti-bullying programs from 20 schools to 80, and the district’s commitment to show the movie Bully to all seventh-grade students. He also pointed to progress on the bedrock issue for a school board — are our children learning? “We’ve expanded teacher monitoring and gone to standard district-wide and individual teacher observation forms so we know what learning looks like,” Beiser said. “Just a few years ago we were named an Eli and Edythe Broad finalist for academic achievement and closing the achievement gap for Black and Hispanic students. Our literacy test scores are up 30 percent, science scores are up 50 percent and we’ve made number one in the state in math. Our graduation rates are 80 percent.”
One reason Beiser was grateful for the club’s early endorsement was that he’s concerned that he might be targeted by so-called “education reformers” who advocate a more business-like approach to school governance. “I represent the most conservative district in the city,” he warned. “There are some elements that are furious that they’re being represented by a very progressive LGBT person. We want to run strong and hard.” He said he escaped a big-bucks campaign against him last time because opponents of his agenda didn’t think he had a chance. “This time, I have a big bull’s-eye on my back.” He noted that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “education reform” group already targeted a similarly progressive school board member in Los Angeles, “and I’ve heard whispers on the Republican side that they’re looking at my race.”
Ironically, Beiser said he’s helped by the structure of the school board races, in which candidates run in a district-only primary but the two top finishers run in a citywide general election. When this system was in place for the San Diego City Council, it made it excruciatingly difficult for progressives to win Council seats, so a progressive coalition organized in the 1980’s and got the City Council changed to district-only elections. But they left the school board alone for fear religious-Right “stealth” candidates might be able to take over the school board if they could run in district-only elections. “We want to guard against being third in the primary,” Beiser explained. “When we go outside the district, [the electorate] is much more Democratic.”
The meeting began with a presentation from newly elected county party chair Francine Busby, who began by lamenting the failure of legislation expanding background checks for gun buyers to pass the U.S. Senate — “It’s terrible to think the National Rifle Association is running this country,” she said — but then gave an upbeat presentation about the present and future of the San Diego County Democratic Party.
“We have the first Democratic Mayor in San Diego in over 20 years, the first Democratic-majority Congressional delegation, and the first openly Gay Democratic County Supervisor — with five kids,” Busby said. “But you may not know that 71 percent of our endorsed candidates won throughout the county. Our candidates for the Vista city council and Poway school board came in first. Solana Beach has five Democrats on the City Council, and in Encinitas we got two Democrats and an allied decline-to-state [someone who isn’t registered with a political party] and took over the majority on the city council in the city I live in. We defeated Jerome Stokes, who was the head of SANDAG (the San Diego Association of Governments), and replaced him with Bob Filner. In Escondido we defeated a charter-city amendment and Olga Diaz is running for mayor.”
Busby paid tribute to her predecessor, Jess Durfee — who served as the president of San Diego Democrats for Equality before  his 8 ½-year tenure as party chair — for helping expand the party’s grass-roots activity as well as its ability to fund its candidates’ campaigns. In 2012, she boasted, “we had 1,000 GO Team volunteers reaching 100,000 voters at their doors and making another 100,000 phone calls. This last election season we had seven offices, from Fallbrook to Chula Vista to East County. We sent out 375,000 copies of 16 geographically targeted slate mailers in multiple languages. In 2004 the party had $9,000 to spend on candidates. For 2012 we had $2.5 million. A month before the election, the California Secretary of State brought on online voter registration, and we picked up 20,000 new Democratic voters.” Today, she said, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 85,000 to 90,000 in the city of San Diego, and 22,000 countywide.
Among her priorities for future progress are doing even more voter registration and “increasing communications between our party’ elected officials. She also said that a lot of “disaffected Republicans” are re-registering as Democrats because “we are the ones who stand for equality, justice, rights and opportunities for all.” She’s also hoping that younger voters and voters of color — including Latinos, who represent 30 percent of San Diego County’s population; and Asian-Americans, who are 11 percent — will continue to favor the Democratic over the Republican Party. “The trends are continuing in our favor,” Busby concluded, “and we’ll work hard to turn the city and county of San Diego into a very progressive model.”

Environmental Davids vs. Corporate, Government Goliaths

Activist Meeting Showcases Opponents of Big Solar, Wind Developments


Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTO, left to right: Terry Werner, Donna Tisdale, Peggy Mitchell, Bill Page, Carlos Pelayo

In the Bible, young David took on the seemingly invincible Goliath with a slingshot, killed him and saved his community. At the Activist San Diego (ASD) meeting April 15 at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest, five local environmentalist Davids described their challenges to the modern-day Goliaths — giant energy and utility corporations, the state and federal governments, and even mainstream environmental groups like the Sierra Club — that are foisting huge wind and solar installations on the people of San Diego’s East County region. They also talked about the dangers of hydraulic fracturing, better known as “fracking” — a new, environmentally devastating way of extracting oil and natural gas from the ground — along with the havoc the proposed Keystone XL pipeline will wreak on the planet, and the malign philosophy behind the corporate/government plans to exploit the environment at all costs.
The first three speakers — Donna Tisdale, chair of the Boulevard Planning Group and activist with Back Country Against Dumps; Terry Werner of the Desert Protection Council; and local attorney Bill Page — all talked about the intense conflict between a handful of East County residents and their supporters against utilities, renewable energy companies, government, media and mainstream environmentalists over the plan to turn huge amounts of public land into giant wind- and solar-powered energy factories. Not surprisingly, given America’s sorry history of exploiting and driving out its Native people, Native American reservations are being particularly hard-hit with these developments.
“Almost the entire Campo reservation is going to be turned into turbines,” said Tisdale, who cut her activist teeth with a successful 20-year campaign to keep Campo from being turned into a garbage dump. According to Tisdale, she and her fellow activists spent 15 years working through an official planning process and finally got County approval for a master plan that would keep Campo, Ocotillo and Boulevard, where she lives, relatively undeveloped open space: “One dwelling every 80 acres,” she recalled. Then the federal and state governments, Sempra Energy (San Diego Gas & Electric’s parent company) and various developers of so-called “renewable” projects seized on all that open space until now, as Tisdale acidly put it, “They’re going to turn us into an industrial park.”
Tisdale threw out so much information on the potential dangers of these installations that at times it was hard to pick out what about them riled her the most: the direct effects on local residents, the potential long-term environmental damage or the way the projects are being “fast-tracked” so they don’t have to undergo normal environmental review. “California environmental standards and laws don’t apply to ‘green energy,’” Tisdale said. “San Diego and Imperial Counties and even the federal government are running over us. Governor Jerry Brown says ‘we have to crush’ the opposition to these projects.”
One of the objections Tisdale raised to the wind projects is their sheer size and scope. The towers planned for one East County development are 400 to 515 feet tall — over 100 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty. The actual windmills — the assemblies of three blades and a hub that contains the gears and other mechanisms that make the things work — are the size of a Boeing 747 airliner and weigh over 150 tons. The construction of these installations requires destroying huge amounts of farmland to build not only the wind towers themselves but also the substations that collect any power they generate and transmit it to long powerlines like the Sunrise Powerlink (recently completed despite heavy objections from Tisdale and her fellow activists), where — like all long-distance power transmission — much of the energy generated will be lost along the way.
According to Tisdale, previous communities where giant wind and solar installations have been built have become virtually unlivable. That’s not only because they make huge amounts of noise; even worse, they suck great amounts of water from the ground and thereby threaten people’s drinking and washing supplies. They also increase the danger of wildfires, Tisdale said, because in lightning storms the towers conduct giant amounts of electricity to the ground, where it can ignite brush and other combustible materials. What’s more, cancer rates have gone up in areas where modern-day wind turbines have been built, which Tisdale suspects is due to the huge amounts of microwave energy these things collect. Indeed, Tisdale cited scientific studies that argue that microwave energy is as important a cause of climate change, if not more so, than carbon emissions.
Terry Werner isn’t an East County resident — she lives on the edge of the I-8 corridor in Hillcrest — but because it’s easy for her to get on the freeway and go to the desert for camping trips, she often went there and took an interest in preserving it. She joined the Desert Protection Council, which has existed since 1954. “Our mission is to educate people about all the features of the desert, and hopefully lure people out there so that they’ll love it instead of just driving through it,” she explained. She talked about the reason these giant-scale “renewable energy” projects are being pushed: because they fit “renewable energy” into the business model of giant utilities like SDG&E and Southern California Edison instead of allowing individual households to generate their own power through small-scale solar installations.
“We don’t need any of these big ‘renewable’ projects,” Werner said. Instead, she argued that the future for home energy use should be conservation first — “Do we really need lights and air conditioning on all night, and other wasteful uses of energy?” she said — and then to “look to your local rooftops, schools and public buildings, put solar panels on them and distribute energy to local communities. Large energy projects are 20th century technology. We don’t have to transmit electricity over long distances.” Werner also showed a heartbreaking series of slides showing how the obsession with building large so-called “renewable” energy projects in the desert is destroying the natural beauty, as well as threatening the bighorn sheep and plant species that exist nowhere else with extinction.
Attorney Bill Page talked about his own activism to stop the giant wind projects, the wall of media silence on the issues and the serious questions over whether these installations will actually generate any electricity. “My dad and I did what we were supposed to do” to stop the Ocotillo turbine project, Page said. “The entire project was fast-tracked, moved up one year and approved from January to May. We filed umpteen lawsuits, and now we have 439-foot structures with 747’s used as pinwheels. An aerospace engineer now has this structure just three-tenths of a mile away from a house he built. Who’s going to listen to us? Can I get the media’s attention? They’re not going to rock the boat over this ‘green energy’ project.”
So Page started to research whether the wind projects would actually generate meaningful amounts of energy. What he found wasn’t encouraging. Stonewalled by the local companies — who declared their measurements of wind speed on the site “proprietary information” and refused to share them with him — he went to Siemens, the German company that actually built the turbines. What he found was that the most each of these turbines can generate is 2.3 megawatts of electricity, and whether they come anywhere near that number depends on how fast the wind blows. Page showed a graph from Siemens documenting that the efficiency of the turbines drops dramatically as the wind speed slows, and that in order for them to produce enough electricity to be useful, the wind has to be blowing between 24 and 30 miles per hour. When the wind blows faster than 30 miles an hour, Page explained, it’s considered a storm and the turbines are shut down for safety reasons.
The project developers originally claimed that their installation would generate enough electricity to power 125,000 homes — Page grimly noted that they used that figure instead of an actual number of kilowatt-hours, the usual way electric power generation is measured — but their own report lowered that estimate to 94,000 homes. But that’s only valid, he explained, if the average wind speed in the area is 25 miles per hour. According to Page’s figures, the actual wind speed in the area is a shade under 14 miles per hour — and that means the system will power 10,000 to 14,000 homes. Page said that there are only a few places in the world — “off the coast of Ireland and some parts of Mongolia” — where the wind regularly blows at the 25-mile-per-hour speed needed to make these Siemens turbines work.
“How do these projects get approved?” Page said. “The state doesn’t care how much power the turbines actually produce. They just care about capacity. The wind companies have $534 million in federal subsidies and about 50 to 80 employees. They sell these projects on a benchmark nobody else uses to sell electricity.” He explained that the “number of households” measure is especially deceptive because it ignores that two-thirds of all generated electricity goes to industrial rather than residential uses anyway. What’s more, he said, the utilities ordering these plants from the wind companies that develop them are well aware that they’re not going to produce significant amounts of electricity. They’ve shown that, Page explained, by building 400 megawatts of natural-gas fired “peaker plant” capacity for every 250 megawatts they’ve ordered from “renewable” sources.

Companies, Government to Environment: Frack You!

Peggy Mitchell, representing the local branch of — the international organization founded by climate-change activist and writer Bill McKibben to put pressure on government and corporations to get the percentage of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere down to 350 parts per million (it’s now at over 400 and climbing) — gave a broader presentation on so-called “fracking” and the controversial Keystone XL pipeline proposal. “Fracking” — short for “hydraulic fracturing” — is a process that involves extracting oil or natural gas that’s impossible to get out of the ground through older-style drilling techniques. It’s been widely publicized in the East and Midwest but few people know it’s actually going on in California, Mitchell explained.
California’s fracking is happening along the so-called “Monterey shale,” which, as Mitchell pointed out, “covers 1,750 square miles along the Coast and edges up to agricultural land.” It’s also next to the notorious San Andreas Fault which has generated many of the state’s legendary earthquakes, she added. Mitchell argued that fracking is not only environmentally destructive in itself, the oil extracted by it is also going to release so much carbon into the atmosphere that it will literally render the earth uninhabitable. If California’s known oil deposits are fracked, Mitchell said, “we’re talking about 80 million more tons of carbon per year, and it’s really sour, ‘tight’ oil” — meaning that both refining and burning it generate more pollution than the cleaner “light, sweet crude” from Saudi Arabia that’s the world’s benchmark for oil quality.
Mitchell gave an extensive description of just how fracking is done. It involves drilling into the oil or gas deposit horizontally, then injecting materials to break apart (“fracture”) the ground and release the oil. The fluids used to frack contain 80 percent water; most of the rest is sand or glass, but about 1 percent is a blend of benzene and other volatile chemicals that are dangerous in themselves. What’s more, the energy companies doing the fracking have declared that the composition of their fracking fluids are “trade secrets” and therefore don’t have to be revealed to the public — and a bill former vice-president Dick Cheney slipped through Congress in 2005 exempts fracking companies from all environmental laws to protect the air and water supply, so the companies can dump toxic chemicals into drinking-water supplies and release them into the air — and no government agency can stop them.
One reason to oppose fracking, Mitchell said, is the immense amounts of water it uses. “It’s going to take millions of gallons of fresh water,” she explained. “San Diego doesn’t have oil or gas, but it does have a major water problem.” According to Mitchell, energy companies have already diverted 2.3 trillion gallons of water from homes and farms, and they’re bidding two to three times what farmers can afford to pay for the remaining water. If the Monterey shale is fracked extensively, Mitchell warned, San Diego’s chronic water shortages are only going to get worse — and the Imperial Valley, California’s breadbasket, could dry up and revert from productive farmland to desert.
What’s more, Mitchell argued, fracking itself can trigger earthquakes. It’s already done that, she said, in areas like North Dakota that don’t have a history of seismic activity. And because California’s legislators have been slow to address the issue, the state has virtually no regulations in place to restrict fracking or make sure it happens with as little risk as possible. She pointed to a set of proposed fracking regulations from the state’s Department of Oil, Gas and Resources (DOGAR) released in December 2012 and said they had a few good things “but four times as many bad things as good.” The biggest problem with them, Mitchell said, is they don’t require that companies notify nearby homeowners in advance before they frack.
“Even if we get tight regulations, is fracking going to help us?” Mitchell said. “President Obama has talked about this wonderful natural gas production that’s going to give us 80 years of energy independence, but the world’s population is increasing and developing countries are using more energy as they try to catch up to our lifestyle.” Mitchell said fracking is not going to be a solution to the world’s energy needs because not only is it environmentally destructive, it’s also inefficient and energy-intensive because the fracked fields burn out and stop producing sooner than drilled oil and gas fields. “Just to keep us at steady-state they have to keep drilling new wells,” she explained. “There’s a nearly $10 billion gap between the $42 billion per year to produce the gas and its $32.5 billion value.”
Mitchell also discussed the Keystone XL pipeline, which would run from Alberta, Canada — home of “the dirtiest oil on earth,” she said — to the Gulf of Mexico. Contrary to the rhetoric of pipeline supporters, Mitchell said, most of the oil pumped out of Canada and shipped through the U.S. via Keystone would be sold to other countries rather than used in the U.S. What’s more, she said, “Keystone will unleash 200 billion tons of carbon, taking us from 400+ parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to over 600 parts per million” — which led climate scientist and pioneering anti-global warming activist James Hansen to say that if Keystone is built it’s “game over for the climate.”
The final presentation at Activist San Diego’s environmental meeting was given by Native American activist Carlos Pelayo, who talked about the history of how Native lands have been singled out for environmentally destructive projects: first gold, silver and copper mining; then oil drilling; later uranium mining; and now fracking and the sorts of massive so-called “green energy” projects Tisdale, Werner and Page oppose locally.
The other speakers had used PowerPoint slides in their presentations. Pelayo went farther and presented film footage of government hearings at which Native concerns about such projects were ridiculed. He also showed about two-fifths of a documentary about the Colorado River, in which two young men set out to kayak down its length and make a film about it — only they eventually had to trade in their kayaks for rafts, and then give up watercraft altogether, because well before they got to the U.S.-Mexico border the once-“mighty” Colorado had turned into a series of ditches and all that flowed in them was agricultural runoff.
Pelayo exploded the myth that Native Americans will necessarily believe in the environmentalist traditions of their ancestors and seek to protect these lands. “Many Native people are trying to survive economically, so they’ll sell out to the energy companies and take the money,” he explained. “They’ve gone to the same schools as the rest of us and their values can change. You disconnect the people from the land, and they’re not going to protect the land because they won’t have any idea of the value of it.” He said white authorities have deliberately indoctrinated Native people against their environmental traditions so they’ll see land the way whites do: as a commodity to be bought and sold. “If all you want to do is escape [the reservation], you have no connection to the land you’re on and you don’t care about it as long as the water comes out of the tap, the lights go on and the trash is picked up.”
After Pelayo showed the film of the two young men rafting the Colorado River, he noted that most of the wastewater from fracking is going to end up in what’s left of the Colorado and will ultimately get dumped into the sea. “It’s just one thing after another,” he said. “As long as the people who are connected to the land are eliminated, or their historic, traditional or spiritual memory of the land is cut off, how much support do you think you’re going to get from the general public? We’re talking about a whole different world view of how we live and where the source of our life comes from. We have been so disconnected by our Western view — all of us. We’re all guilty of it. We value other things. And that is why the things that have been presented to you tonight happen. This isn’t the first time, and it won’t be the only time. But we know that this industry — energy, mining, oil, whatever it is — is always about short-term profits, never thinking long-term. We’ve already done that in the United States and now we’re doing it in the Amazon, in Mexico, all over the world, so we can have our little cell phones operating.”