Posts with «society & culture» label

Hitting the Books: High school students have spent a decade fighting Baltimore's toxic legacy

There was a time in the last century when we, quite foolishly, believed incineration to be a superior means of waste disposal than landfills. And, for decades, many of America's most disadvantaged have been paying for those decisions with with their lifespans. South Baltimore's Curtis Bay neighborhood, for example, is home to two medical waste incinerators and an open-air coal mine. It's ranked in the 95th percentile for hazardous waste and boasts among the highest rates of asthma and lung disease in the entire country. 

The city's largest trash incinerator is the Wheelabrator–BRESCO, which burns through 2,250 tons of garbage a day. It has been in operation since the 1970s, belching out everything from mercury and lead to hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, and chromium into the six surrounding working-class neighborhoods and the people who live there. In 2011, students from Benjamin Franklin High School began to push back against the construction of a new incinerator, setting off a decade-long struggle that pitted high school and college students against the power of City Hall.

In Fighting to Breathe: Race, Toxicity, and the Rise of Youth Activism in Baltimore, Dr. Nicole Fabricant, Professor of Anthropology at Towson University in Maryland, chronicles the students' participatory action research between 2011 and 2021, organizing and mobilizing their communities to fight back against a century of environmental injustice, racism and violence in one of the nation's most polluted cities. In the excerpt below, Fabricant discusses the use of art — specifically that of crankies — in movement building.

University of California Press

Excerpted from Fighting to Breathe: Race, Toxicity, and the Rise of Youth Activism in Baltimore by Nicole Fabricant, published by University of California Press. Copyright 2022.


Making Connections: Fairfield Houses and Environmental Displacement 

As the students developed independent investigations, they discovered what had happened in the campaigns against toxins that preceded their own struggle against the incinerator. They learned that the Fairfield neighborhood, before being relocated to its current site, had been situated near to where Energy Answers was planning to build their trash-to-energy incinerator. At the time of the students’ investigations, this area was an abandoned industrial site surrounded by heavy diesel truck traffic, polluting chemical and fertilizer industries, and abandoned brownfield sites.

Students read that the City had built basic infrastructure in Wagner’s Point, the all-white (though poor and white ethnic, to be clear) community on the peninsula in the 1950s, nearly thirty years before doing so in Fairfield, which was located alongside Wagner’s Point but all (or almost all) Black. As Destiny reiterated to me in the Fall of 2019: 

Wagner’s Point was predominantly white and Fairfield predominantly Black, but both communities were company towns, living in poverty, working in dangerous hazardous conditions, and forced to live in a toxic environment.... On the surface, this history can be read as a story of two communities, different in culture and race, facing the issue together. But this ignores the issue of racism that divided the two communities. For instance, Fairfield did not get access to plumbing... until well into the 1970s. This is an example of structural racism. It is also a story not told by our history books.

The students talked in small groups about systemic and structural racism and unfair housing policies. They investigated the evacuation of Fairfield Housing. They learned that former residents were forcibly relocated to public housing and were offered $22,500 for renters and up too $5,250 per household. They also received moving costs of up to $1,500 per household. When 14 households remained in Fairfield a decade later, then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke stated that he would prefer to move all residents out of Fairfield, but the city did not have any money for relocation. This history provoked Free Your Voice youth to think beyond their community to how structural racism shaped citywide decisions and policies. 

Despite attempts to integrate school systems in the 1950s and the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s intended, specifically, to mitigate racism in housing policies, the provision of public education and the regulation of housing practices remained uneven in the 1970s (and into the present). Students learned that in 1979 a CSX railroad car carrying nine thousand gallons of highly concentrated sulfuric acid overturned and the Fairfield Homes public housing complex was temporarily evacuated. That same year, they read, an explosion at the British Petroleum oil tank, located on Fairfield Peninsula, set off a seven-alarm fire. All of this led the students to deeper inquiry.

Figuring out the ways in which structural racism shaped contemporary ideas about people, bodies, and space is something that Destiny often referred to when speaking publicly. Destiny explained that studying “history allowed us to see our community in a way that gave us the ability to build power or collective strength. So, how do you confront this history, this marketplace?” Building power within the school was about “re-education,” she said, but it was also about rebuilding social relationships across the community and helping residents to understand the structural conditions and histories sustaining inequities that others (especially white others) tried to explain away using racist stereotypes and tropes (e.g., Black youth as “thugs”; “they’re poor because they’re lazy”). These tropes subtly and not so subtly suggested racial and cultural inferiority.

As a group, the students worked to establish a presence in the community and to create spontaneous spaces for dialogue and discussion. They attended a Fairfield reunion in Curtis Bay Park during the summer of 2013, where approximately 150 former Fairfield Homes residents gathered to celebrate their history, reminisce, and have a cookout together. Gathered on the grass next to the Curtis Bay Recreation Center, former residents reminisced about what life was like in the projects. At one point, an elder participant shared with Destiny, “Fairfield was the Cadillac of housing projects.... We were all a family, we took care of one another.” The Free Your Voice students engaged with living history as they listened and learned.

For many of the students, the combined processes of reading texts and listening to elder residents’ stories moved them from numbness to awareness. Being able to discuss what they learned in sophisticated conversations with their peers and the experts they sought out helped to build their confidence as activists and adult interlocutors.

Arts and Performance in Movement Building: The Crankie 

While analysis and study were key to building change campaigns, the students also recognized that building a sociopolitical movement of economically disadvantaged people required more than mobilizing bodies. To be effective, they were going to have to move hearts and minds.

In 2014, Free Your Voice students decided to strengthen the emotional and relationship building aspects of their campaign by adopting art forms, including performance and storytelling, into their communication efforts. Destiny began a speech she delivered at The Worker Justice Center human rights dinner in 2015 by quoting W.E.B. Dubois: “‘Art is not simply works of art; it is the spirit that knows beauty, that has music in its being and the color of sunsets in its handkerchiefs, that can dance on a flaming world and make the world dance, too’” (Watford 2015). Art — in the form of a vintage performance genre known as “the crankie” and rap songs — became a tool the students utilized to tell their stories to much broader publics and to boost emotional connections with their allies. Performances particularly allowed youth to be creative and inventive. Their productions were often malleable. Sometimes, Free Your Voice youth would rewrite a script based on audience feedback. As a result, their performances were often improvisational, and they invited residents to be a part of the storytelling. This allowed the student-performers to develop strong narrative structures and especially realistic characters. 

Not only did students do art, but they also invited artists, including performers, to join the Dream Team to broaden both the appeal and impact of the Stop the Incinerator campaign. One artist at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Janette Simpson, spoke to me at length about the genesis of her commitment to Free Your Voice’s organizing, and how that commitment deepened and extended her work with other campaigns originating with The Worker Justice Center. Free Your Voice students approached Simpson, with their teacher Daniel Murphy acting as their mediator, about incorporating her work in theater into their campaign.12 They sent her a recent report on the environmental history of the peninsula and asked that she read it. That report became the hook that convinced Simpson to collaborate:

I had been thinking about how art and artists can serve social movements, and how artists also have agency in the making of their artwork. Or maybe thinking about autonomy. Free Your Voice youth suggested I read the Diamond report, which was written by a team of researchers from the University of Maryland Law School. I remember being like, Wow! What a story! All these visuals came to my mind... like the guano factories, the ships, these agricultural communities, this Black community versus the white community... the relationship to the water and the relationship to the city. So I decided I would try to illustrate a version of that report in a way. Like, what did people look like in 1800s, and what were they wearing? ... Then I realized that this is not my history, who am I to tell someone else’s story? I need to think more symbolically, and then it came to me to write this illustrative history as a fable or an allegory.

Which is what she did, alongside Terrel Jones (whose childhood lived experiences I detailed in chapter 2). Terrel and Simpson created a crankie, an old storytelling art form popular in the nineteenth century that includes a long, illustrated scroll wound onto two spools. The spools are loaded into a box that has a viewing screen and the scroll is then hand-cranked, hence the name “crankie.” While the story is told, a tune is played or a song is sung. Terrel and Simpson created a show for the anti-incinerator campaign that was performed throughout the city for audiences of all ages and walks of life. The Holey Land, as their show was titled, was an allegory about the powerful connection between people and the place they call home. In this tale, the Peninsula People and the magic in their land are threatened when a stranger with a tall hat and a shovel shows up with big ideas for “improving” their community. As storybook images scroll past the viewing screen, the vibrant and colorful pictures of a peninsula rich in natural resources, including orange and pink fish, slowly get usurped by those of the man with the shovel building his factories, and the Peninsula People are left to ponder the fate of their land. The story ends with a surprising twist, and a hopeful message about a community’s ability to determine their own future.

Federal prosecutors ask court to bar Sam Bankman-Fried from using Signal

US prosecutors have asked a federal court to tighten Sam Bankman-Fried’s bail conditions to prevent the disgraced entrepreneur from contacting his former colleagues. According to court documents seen by The New York Times, lawyers from the Department of Justice allege Bankman-Fried tried messaging the general counsel of FTX's US arm over Signal and email earlier this month. The communication was “suggestive of an effort to influence Witness-1's potential testimony,” the filing states. 

“I would really love to reconnect and see if there’s a way for us to have a constructive relationship, use each other as resources when possible, or at least vet things with each other,” says one message Bankman-Fried sent, according to the Justice Department. The DOJ has asked the judge overseeing Bankman-Fried’s criminal case to bar him from contacting current and former FTX employees, as well as using Signal or any other encrypted or ephemeral messaging app. Following the request, SBF’s legal team accused federal prosecutors of trying to paint their client in the “worst possible light.” They claim Bankman-Fried tried contacting the general counsel of FTX US and CEO John Ray to offer “assistance,” not to interfere with his criminal case. His lawyers also claim a Signal ban isn’t necessary since Bankman-Fried is not using the app’s auto-delete feature.

Prosecutors allege SBF’s use of Signal is consistent with “a history” of using the app to hide his dealings at FTX. Prior to FTX’s implosion in November, Bankman-Fried and former Alameda Research CEO Caroline Ellison were reportedly part of a secret “Wirefraud” group chat on Signal. During his tenure at the exchange, SBF also allegedly directed employees to enable Signal’s disappearing messages feature.

CWA files unfair labor practice charge against eBay's trading card subsidiary

The Communications Workers of America (CWA) has filed an unfair labor practice charge against eBay-owned TCGplayer on behalf of workers at the trading card marketplace. The organization says TCGplayer supervisors and managers, including founder and CEO Chedy Hampson, illegally surveilled union activity in recent weeks.

Workers at TCGplayer are trying to unionze and this week, a supermajority filed for a union representation election. If they're successful, they'll form TCG Union/CWA, which will be the first union within eBay.

Within the past two weeks, multiple TCGPlayer supervisors and managers, including the CEO, have patrolled the floor of the authentication center, taking note of employees who have worn any clothes or insignia identifying them as supporters of @TCGunionCWA.

— CODE-CWA (@CODE_CWA) January 27, 2023

The CWA claims that TCGplayer higher-ups have walked the floors of the company's authentication center in Syracuse, New York. It says the supervisors and managers were taking note of employees who wore clothing or badges that identified them as supporters of the union drive. "This conduct constitutes unlawful surveillance of union activity and further created an impression of surveillance designed to interfere with, restrain and coerce employees in the exercise of their rights guaranteed by Section 7 of the National Relations Labor Act," the CWA said in a statement.

The workers renewed their attempts to form a union after eBay bought TCGplayer late last year in a deal worth up to $295 million. They previously tried to organize in 2020, but withdrew their union election petition a few days before the vote. The CWA says that TCGplayer thwarted those efforts by bringing in a union-busting firm and running "an intense anti-union campaign where workers were regularly ordered to attend captive audience meetings and disparaged by management in company communications."

Engadget has contacted TCGplayer and eBay for comment.

Dutch hacker arrested for trying to sell the personal information of nearly every Austrian citizen

Dutch authorities arrested a hacker for obtaining and trying to sell the personal information of nearly every Austrian citizen in May 2020, according to Reuters. It includes almost nine million data sets, roughly lining up with Austria’s population.

The defendant, arrested in November in an Amsterdam apartment, was reportedly already known to international police. The 25-year-old defendant also offered “similar data sets” from Italy, the Netherlands and Colombia. Dutch police waited until now to announce the arrest to avoid hindering ongoing investigations.

Authorities say the hacker posted the information in an online forum. Police say the trove consists of “registration data,” essential info residents must provide to authorities. That includes their full name, address and date of birth — but not financial info, fortunately. Nevertheless, the police confirmed the material’s authenticity, adding that “since this data was freely available on the Internet, it must absolutely be assumed that these registration data are, in full or in part, irrevocably in the hands of criminals.”

DOJ says it disrupted a major global ransomware group

The US Department of Justice has spent months infiltrating and disrupting the Hive ransomware group, the agency announced on Thursday. The DOJ says Hive has targeted over 1,500 victims in more than 80 countries, extorting hundreds of millions of dollars in ransom payments.

Working with German and Netherlands law enforcement, the FBI seized Hive’s servers and websites, allegedly slowing the group’s ability to attack and extort new victims. It first infiltrated Hive’s network in July 2022, providing over 300 decryption keys to Hive’s current victims and more than 1,000 keys to previous victims — preventing over $130 million in ransom payments. The agency hasn’t announced any arrests. However, it’s still investigating the group, according toNBC News.

Hive used a ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) model, where administrators (essentially the ringleaders) create ransomware strains with easy-to-use interfaces. The administrators then recruit affiliates who use the ransomware software to carry out the theft — and likely much of the risk.

For example, Hive would steal a victim’s data and encrypt their system. The affiliate would then demand a ransom in exchange for the decryption key and a promise not to publish the data. (Of course, it would frequently target the most sensitive data to apply maximum pressure.) If the victims pay, affiliates and administrators would split the ransom 80 / 20. Those unwilling to pay would find their data leaked on the web.

MANDEL NGAN via Getty Images

The US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) says Hive gained access through single-factor logins via Remote Desktop, VPNs, exploiting FortiToken (software-based access key) vulnerabilities and phishing emails with malicious attachments.

“Last night, the Justice Department dismantled an international ransomware network responsible for extorting and attempting to extort hundreds of millions of dollars from victims in the United States and around the world,” said US Attorney General Merrick Garland today. “We will continue to work both to prevent these attacks and to provide support to victims who have been targeted. And together with our international partners, we will continue to disrupt the criminal networks that deploy these attacks.” The FBI recommends victims contact their local FBI field office.

Workers at eBay-owned trading card marketplace TCGplayer are trying to unionize

More than 280 workers at TCGplayer, a marketplace for trading card games like Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon, are trying to unionize. A supermajority of the workers have filed for a union representation election with the National Labor Relations Board. If their efforts are successful, they'll form the first union at eBay, which bought TCGplayer in 2022 in a deal worth up to $295 million.

Employees of several card and tabletop companies have unionized, including Card Kingdom, Bellevue Mox Boarding House, Noble Knight Games and Paizo. The TCGplayer workers are similarly trying to organize with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), which has also worked with severalvideo game studios in their unionization attempts.

“We are ready to unlock the full potential we know TCGplayer can have. By forming a union, we are able to support each other, customers, and sellers to create the best TCGplayer for all of us," Jennifer Bonham, a shipping generalist at TCGplayer, said in a statement. "We are incredibly passionate about our work, but passion can only get us so far. We want to see our collective health and well-being thrive because for many of us, this is the best job we have ever had."

The workers are organizing as TCG Union/CWA and are all employed at the company's authentication center in Syracuse, New York. They each play a hand in ensuring card shipments meet quality standards and that they're accurately completed.

The workers are seeking an end to pay caps; pay rises to account for inflation and cost of living increases; and "a fair and comprehensive sick leave and absence policy that does not punish people" for issues outside of their control. Moreover, they're demanding inclusive career advancement opportunities; fair and transparent hiring practices; clearly defined job roles and expectations; and the resources and training needed to do their jobs. On top of that, they're asking for a seat at the table, along with "just cause and clear grievance and discipline procedures, applied equally to management."

This isn't the first time that the workers have attempted to unionize, as Polygon notes. They tried to do so almost three years ago with the Service Employees International Union. However, just days before the scheduled vote, they withdrew the petition. The eBay acquisition is said to have reignited the unionization drive.

"We have received notice that a petition is being filed by the Communications Workers of America labor union asking the National Labor Relations Board to conduct a vote on union representation," a TCGplayer spokesperson told Engadget in a statement. "We have not seen that petition by the National Labor Relations Board, nor have we had the chance to review it. We respect an employee’s right to choose or to decline union representation, and acknowledge this is a big decision. Our commitment to our employees during this time is to ensure they have the information needed to make an informed and confidential choice."

Engadget has contacted eBay for comment.

YouTube accused of using return-to-office policies to thwart union organizers

YouTube Music contractors in the Austin area who voted to unionize are accusing their employers of abusing return-to-office policies to stifle labor organizers. The Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) alleging that YouTube parent Alphabet and staffing firm Cognizant are using an abrupt return-to-office move, due in February, to punish remote workers, many of whom are reportedly pro-union. Some also live outside Austin. Managers have also been sending work to other offices to "chill" union organization efforts in Austin, according to the complaint, while a supervisor purportedly made implicit anti-union threats.

While the workers are contracted, they claim Alphabet and Cognizant represent a "joint employer." If so, Alphabet would be responsible for working conditions and have to negotiate if the Austin-area team votes in favor of a union.

We've asked Alphabet and Cognizant for comment. In a statement to Bloomberg, a Cognizant spokesperson claims staff were "fully aware" of an eventual return to the office before the petition to unionize, and that it has "repeatedly and consistently" told employees about its return-to-office policy since December 2021. Those contractors who willingly left the Austin area and can't come back to in-person work can also be "considered" for other work at Cognizant, the spokeperson says.

This isn't the first increase in tension between Alphabet and pro-union contractors. In spring 2022, Washington state Cognizant employees working on Google Maps warned they would go on strike over an allegedly unreasonable return-to-office schedule. Cognizant pushed back the return by 90 days. At Google, meanwhile, many cafeteria workers quietly unionized during the pandemic as they sought better conditions.

The row comes as Alphabet is cutting 12,000 jobs worldwide in the wake of rough economic conditions and dropping profits. While that figure only covers direct employees, it reflects pressure to slash employment costs. That, in turn, may set up conflicts with pro-union workers seeking better pay and benefits.

Amazon workers strike in UK for the first time

Amazon union workers in the UK are striking for the first time over wages and what they call "severe" working conditions. They've rejected what they say is a "derisory" £0.50 pay raise (62 cents) and are demanding an increase to £15 ($18.48) an hour. 

A 98 percent majority of GMB union workers at Amazon's Coventry fulfillment center voted in favor of the "historic" walkout and announced a strike date of January 25th earlier this year. Of 1,000 workers at the plant, 300 are unionized and expected to participate in the action. 

Amazon said in a statement that the size of the strike is "only a fraction of 1 percent of our UK employees," according to CNBC. It added that pay has increased 29 percent since 2018 and that it made a one-time £500 payment to help workers with inflation. 

However, two employees interviewed by the BBC said Amazon's offer last August of a small pay raise to between £10.50 and £11.45 per hour was a "smack in the mouth" considering the company's profits and high inflation. "These people had worked two years through the pandemic, that had seen Amazon's shares go through the roof, they had seen the profits just become unimaginable," Darren Westwood told the BBC

They also decried the company's work culture, saying Amazon's warehouse robots "are treated better than us." Westwood said that employees are monitored constantly and questioned for any idle time lasting a few minutes. He also noted that some employees work 60 hours a week to make ends meet.

In April of 2022, workers at Amazon's Staten Island warehouse voted to become the first in the US to join a union, and Amazon's appeal failed last week. The company recently announced that it would eliminate 18,000 jobs, the majority from its retail and recruiting divisions. It has been frequently been accused of poor working conditions, notably after a warehouse collapsed in a tornado, and also faced criticism over anti-union activities

Blizzard support studio workers drop union bid

One Activision Blizzard studio won't form a union, at least not in the near future. The Communication Workers of America (CWA) says it's withdrawing its petition for a union vote at Blizzard support studio Proletariat, which is currently working on World of Warcraft: Dragonflight. As Kotakunotes, a CWA spokesperson claims Proletariat chief Seth Sivak saw employees' unionization move as a "personal attack" and held meetings that allegedly "demoralized and disempowered" the team enough to prevent a fair election.

The pro-union group, the Proletariat Workers Alliance, said in December that it had majority support. Activision Blizzard declined to willingly recognize the union, though, forcing an election through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). It's not clear how much support the vote has now, but Proletariat engineer Dustin Yost says in a statement that the union-busting meetings "took their toll."

We've asked Activision Blizzard and the CWA for comment. There are no immediate indications the CWA plans to resubmit the petition or file a complaint with the NLRB over the alleged anti-union tactics. Yost says he still feels a union is the "best way" to get industry representation.

Staff at Activision Blizzard's Albany studio and Raven Software successfully unionized last year despite accusations of anti-union tactics from the publisher. However, those campaigns were limited to quality assurance testers. Proletariat Workers Alliance hoped to unite the entire studio except for management, which was considerably more complex. According to an Axiossource, some teammates felt the unionization push was too quick and didn't give them the time to understand the consequences.

This doesn't rule out a union at Proletariat or other Activision Blizzard teams. With that said, it comes as workers across the tech space seek to unionize, including at gaming giants like Microsoft's ZeniMax. Developers and testers don't feel they're getting fair working conditions, and they're increasingly willing to speak out on the subject.

Amazon is shutting down the AmazonSmile charity program in February

Amazon plans to wind down AmazonSmile, its giving program that allows buyers to donate to their favorite charities with every purchase, by February 20th, 2023. In its announcement, the e-commerce giant said "the program has not grown to create the impact that [it] had originally hoped" almost a decade after it was launched. Apparently, the program's ability to make meaningful impact was hampered by the fact that it has over 1 million eligible organizations worldwide. Donations were often spread too thin. 

Whenever people use the AmazonSmile website to make a purchase, the company donates 0.5 percent of what they paid to the charity of their choice at no additional cost to them. As a parting donation to participating organizations, Amazon will give them the equivalent of three months what they earned in 2022 through the program. Going forward, the company will focus its charitable work "in other areas where it can make meaningful change." It gave a few examples of its future plans, such as investing $2 billion to build and preserve affordable housing, funding the computer science curriculum for 1 million students across thousands of schools and delivering 12 million meals this year through food banks. 

Amazon didn't expound on what it meant by the program failing to make a meaningful impact. According to Bloomberg through, the company donated almost $500 million to charities over the past 10 years through AmazonSmile, but the average amount per donation is only $230 due to the sheer number of participating organizations. Still, critics can't help but wonder if this is merely one of Amazon's cost-cutting tactics.

If you'll recall, Amazon recently announced that it's expanding its planned job cuts to eliminate over 18,000 roles. Amazon was one of the companies that benefited from COVID lockdowns over the past few years and had to hire thousands of new people to keep up with the demand. Consumers eventually went back to their pre-pandemic shopping habits, and Amazon (with its bottomline affected by the shift) reportedly conducted cost-cutting reviews to figure out which units weren't bringing in money. As a result, Amazon froze hiring, closed brick-and-mortar stores and shut down business units, in addition to cutting jobs.