FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

“What About Sierra Blanca, Bernie?” From Radioactive Waste on the Rio Grande to Reparations

by

shutterstock_335859521

Bernie Sanders made a cold political calculation in 1998 that affected the lives of hundreds of poor, powerless people half a country away. He did it because it would benefit his affluent, politically engaged constituency, and, in turn, benefit him.

Two decades later, Sanders is making another political calculation. He’s choosing to disregard African-American demands for reparations because he believes he can concentrate on empowering his affluent, politically engaged constituency, who will, in turn, empower him.

This is not a “political revolution,” and Sanders is no revolutionary.

***

Back in the early 1990s, the state of Vermont had a problem. The Vermont Yankee nuclear plant was generating tons and tons of radioactive waste, but there was nowhere palatable in the state to store it. The only town which was willing to study the possibility, Vernon, was deemed “geologically unstable.” No other towns in Vermont, quite reasonably, wanted the waste.

By October of 1998, Vermont had a solution.

A deal had been worked out between Vermont’s Congressional representation, Texas Representative Joe Barton, and then-Governor George W. Bush. The legislation, which was cosponsored and championed by then-Representative Bernie Sanders, was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1998.

Senator Paul Wellstone, who is often mentioned in the same breath as Sanders among the latter’s supporters, was opposed to the legislation.

The people of Vermont didn’t have much of a problem with the deal. But Texans and their Mexican neighbors over the Rio Grande were outraged.

A delegation from Texas reached out to Sanders and tried to reason with him, citing the environmental and human degradation the waste site would create. They thought they would get an empathetic response from the nominal socialist.

They were wrong.

Sanders’ reply was curt, abrupt, and final:

“My position is unchanged and you’re not going to like it.” When asked if he would at least visit the proposed site in Sierra Blanca, he said: “Absolutely not. I’m gonna to be running for re-election in the state of Vermont.”

The real costs of generating nuclear energy for Vermont, Sanders made clear, would be borne by a small, poor, majority-Hispanic community in Texas. The politically powerless people of Sierra Blanca- where the median income is only $10,500– were chosen to bear the toxic burden of Vermont’s electricity.

In the end, however, the Sierra Blanca site was rejected by the Texas state legislature. It wouldn’t be until 2012 that Vermont would begin shipping its radioactive waste to Texas. The waste goes to a facility in a barren stretch of desert in West Texas, in Andrews County on the New Mexico border.

Still, Sanders’ callous indifference to the political impotence of the constituents of Sierra Blanca is telling. Not only does it show that the now Senator from Vermont doesn’t practice what he preaches when it comes to issues of economic inequality, it also shows blunt ignorance on privilege, race, and class.

He doesn’t seem to have learned much in the past two decades.

***

On February 12, 2016, now-Presidential candidate Sanders was attending “A Community Forum on Black America” in Minneapolis when Felicia Perry, a panelist on stage, asked him about reparations.

“Can you talk about, specifically,” Perry asked, “Black people and reparations?”

Sanders appeared flustered and pivoted quickly to a more comfortable topic: white people.

“What I just indicated, in my view,” Sanders said, holding up his hand to quell the applause for Perry’s question, “Is that… it’s not just black. It’s Latino, there are areas in America, poor rural areas, where it’s whites!”

It’s hard to understand exactly what Sanders means here, but he appears to be indicating that reparations- long identified as penance for centuries of slavery in the United States- should be open to white people as well.

It’s a step in the right direction. Sanders rejected the idea of reparations outright as politically unfeasible the last time he was asked. But while he’s engaging with the concept, it’s also the “All Lives Matter” of reparations.

***

Sanders regularly tells cheering crowds that he is working toward a “political revolution” and to effecting real change in the American political system.

There’s nothing more revolutionary than talking about reparations. The question is shunned in Washington. There’s nothing more consequential to effecting real change in the American political system than standing up for the powerless, even when they’re half a country away.

If Sanders wants to be the champion for the working poor, he’s going to have to do better. Pivoting on reparations to include whites and attempting to create a sacrifice zone in South Texas for the affluence of his home state of Vermont aren’t going to cut it.

Sanders is either tone-deaf on these issues, or he has made a political calculation that he can get through the primary process without them.

He won’t be the first candidate to make that calculation. But he was supposed to be different.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
July 22, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Good as Goldman: Hillary and Wall Street
Joseph E. Lowndes
From Silent Majority to White-Hot Rage: Observations from Cleveland
Paul Street
Political Correctness: Handle with Care
Richard Moser
Actions Express Priorities: 40 Years of Failed Lesser Evil Voting
Eric Draitser
Hillary and Tim Kaine: a Match Made on Wall Street
Conn Hallinan
The Big Boom: Nukes And NATO
Ron Jacobs
Exacerbate the Split in the Ruling Class
Jill Stein
After US Airstrikes Kill 73 in Syria, It’s Time to End Military Assaults that Breed Terrorism
Jack Rasmus
Trump, Trade and Working Class Discontent
John Feffer
Could a Military Coup Happen Here?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Late Night, Wine-Soaked Thoughts on Trump’s Jeremiad
Andrew Levine
Vice Presidents: What Are They Good For?
Michael Lukas
Law, Order, and the Disciplining of Black Bodies at the Republican National Convention
Victor Grossman
Horror News, This Time From Munich
Margaret Kimberley
Gavin Long’s Last Words
Mark Weisbrot
Confidence and the Degradation of Brazil
Brian Cloughley
Boris Johnson: Britain’s Lying Buffoon
Lawrence Reichard
A Global Crossroad
Kevin Schwartz
Beyond 28 Pages: Saudi Arabia and the West
Charles Pierson
The Courage of Kalyn Chapman James
Michael Brenner
Terrorism Redux
Bruce Lerro
Being Inconvenienced While Minding My Own Business: Liberals and the Social Contract Theory of Violence
Mark Dunbar
The Politics of Jeremy Corbyn
David Swanson
Top 10 Reasons Why It’s Just Fine for U.S. to Blow Up Children
Binoy Kampmark
Laura Ingraham and Trumpism
Uri Avnery
The Great Rift
Nicholas Buccola
What’s the Matter with What Ted Said?
Aidan O'Brien
Thank Allah for Western Democracy, Despondency and Defeat
Joseph Natoli
The Politics of Crazy and Stupid
Sher Ali Khan
Empirocracy
Nauman Sadiq
A House Divided: Turkey’s Failed Coup Plot
Franklin Lamb
A Roadmap for Lebanon to Grant Civil Rights for Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon
Colin Todhunter
Power and the Bomb: Conducting International Relations with the Threat of Mass Murder
Michael Barker
UK Labour’s Rightwing Select Corporate Lobbyist to Oppose Jeremy Corbyn
Graham Peebles
Brexit, Trump and Lots of Anger
Anhvinh Doanvo
Civilian Deaths, Iraq, Syria, ISIS and Drones
Christopher Brauchli
Kansas and the Phantom Voters
Peter Lee
Gavin Long’s Manifesto and the Politics of “Terrorism”
Missy Comley Beattie
An Alarmingly Ignorant Fuck
Robert Koehler
Volatile America
Adam Vogal
Why Black Lives Matter To Me
Raouf Halaby
It Is Not Plagiarism, Y’all
Rev. Jeff Hood
Deliver Us From Babel
Frances Madeson
Juvenile Life Without Parole, Captured in ‘Natural Life’
Charles R. Larson
Review: Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail