“Plutopia” and New Mexico
Sometimes in New Mexico when we turn our attention to radioactive pollution, the nuclear industrial complex in our state and around the world, and to the health issues that concern us all, we feel like we’re living in a surreal space, a kind of dreadful and mendacious wonderland in which nothing is as it appears.
We are told on one hand that the core substances of the world’s nuclear stockpile of bombs—polonium and plutonium, both derivatives of uranium—are extremely dangerous, so dangerous that even low levels of the stuff have to be buried a half mile underground in salt caves near Carlsbad. And on the other hand we hear repeatedly that this same stuff, if released into the atmosphere or the water supply, really isn’t a concern or a danger to public health.
All of us in New Mexico who keep up with the bomb industry have had that sense of disorientation that comes from the whiplash experience of being caught between propaganda and commonsense. It leaves you feeling like a crank if you’re concerned with the health risk of radioactivity and like an irresponsible moron if you try to brush your concerns aside.
Author, professor and Guggenheim Fellow Kate Brown of the University of Maryland knows how we feel. Her 2013 book Plutopia published by Oxford University Press, let’s us know that we are not on the neurotic fringe of society because of our concerns about the dangers of nuclear waste. And New Mexico has a whole lot of it—from uranium mining and milling tailings to the enormous number of waste pits at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in the Jemez and Sandia National Labs (SNL) in Albuquerque, to the waste repository known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad and the URENCO National Enrichment Facility near Eunice.
In Plutopia, Brown examines two gigantic plutonium production sites and their associated plutopian towns—one in the U.S. at Hanford, Washington and its company town of Richland, and one in the former Soviet Union at Mayak and its company town of Ozersk. In both countries, despite their opposing economic ideologies, the Cold War production of plutonium was so dangerous it required the same kind of “enticements”—the creation of utopian cities with all the consumer fixin’s. At both Richland and Ozerk, the government provided plutonium scientists and technicians with the safest and best outfitted, indeed utopian, suburban settings available. The inhabitants of both towns, or “villages” as they liked to call them, were living high off the middle class hog, so to speak. But there were terrible drawbacks.
Brown writes “In plutonium cities, security agents and doctors watched residents anxiously, with networks of informants, phone taps, and mandatory medical exams. Plant engineers, meanwhile, were pushed to produce as much plutonium as possible as quickly as possible, and polluted the surrounding landscape freely, liberally, and disastrously.” I think the same thing can be said about LANL, located in and around the town of Los Alamos in the richest county in the state, Los Alamos County. It’s probably the most polluted environment anywhere in New Mexico, despite recent cleanup efforts.
“Why did people so satisfied with their knowledge,” Brown asks “agree to remain in ignorance for decades about the massive environmental contamination going on around them?”
She answers by saying their governments spent lavishly on their living conditions. To “entice workers to agree to the risks and sacrifices involved in plutonium production, American and Soviet nuclear leaders created something new—plutopia. Plutopia’s unique, limited-access, aspiration communities satisfied most desires of American and Soviet postwar societies. The orderly prosperity of plutopia lead most eyewitnesses to overlook the radioactive waste mounting around them.”
“Richland and Ozersk were made in each other’s image,” Brown asserts, “… through the careful footwork of intelligence agents and community boosters who feared the end of plutonium production nearly as much as they feared their nuclear rival.”
When you read about Richland and Osersk, and their production facilities at Hanford and Mayak, you understand something of what the entire nuclear industrial complex must be all about anywhere it appears. The messages from those cold war facilities—that we are only now on the verge of trying to decontaminate—are hauntingly like the spin, denial and arch mendacity we’ve been assaulted with in New Mexico since the Manhattan Project.
Brown has the guts to connect the meteoric rise of cancer in the United States to the nuclear industry and its chief product, plutonium. She writes that “In the United States from 1950 to 2001, the overall age-adjusted incidence of cancer increased by 85 percent. Childhood cancer, once a medical rarity, has become the most common disease killer of American children. Cancer rates are just the end of a continuum of American health problems….” Cancer, heart disease, asthma, such endemic health issues are “etched across American communities, one-quarter of which are within four miles of a Superfund site filled with plastics, chemical solvents, pesticides, nuclear waste, and all the other unwanted detritus of consuming societies. This too is the house plutonium built.”
Plutopia is a reality check for New Mexicans who are stranded in the PR wonderland of the nuclear establishment. Handsomely written, exhaustively researched and foreboding in message, Plutopia shows us what lengths the military and scientific communities were willing to go to in order to produce and engineer enough plutonium pits to arm in the U.S. and the Soviet Union more than 70,000 nuclear warheads at the peak of the Cold War. The health impact of nuclear weapons production from Hanford to Los Alamos to Rocky Flats to Oak Ridge to Paducah and the many other nuclear sites around the country, not to mention those in the Soviet Union, China, India, Great Britain, France and other nations, troubles us all with the specter of a cancer epidemic we know to be raging among us but are unwilling to accept has its sources in one of the great moments of Western science, the fathoming of nuclear reactions in the l930s and 40s and how to put them to destructive use.
Plutopia helps to take the obvious dangers of nuclear arms production and waste disposal out of the realm of contested “data” and shadowy wonderland PR and give it a grounding in self-evident reality that can’t be spun away.
Albuquerque, The New Yorker, and Rolling Stone
After decades of struggling against numerous bum raps by national media for our funny name, our sprawl, our poverty, our strip malls and franchise architecture, Albuquerque found itself last week with probably more than three million people—readers the New Yorker and Rolling Stone—who now think our city is the violent scum capital of the southwest run by a draconian police department and by utterly feckless and culpable elected leaders who dodge, back peddle and scamper away from accountability at the first sign of reality.
What an unmitigated disaster for Albuquerque’s economy, for the economic potential of our people, for our university, our community college, our locally owned businesses, and our cultural institutions to be portrayed as existing in a context that is dominated by gangland police.
Is this untrue? No. Although there have been good signs lately that crisis negotiators are talking troubled people into custody rather than SWAT teams blasting them into oblivion for brandishing penknives or cellphones.
Have our elected leaders, our mayor and the majority of our city council, let the disaster of a Justice Department investigation of some 28 police-involved shootings in five years come to pass by a reckless lack of oversight? Yes.
Has voter apathy and the major media been complicit? Of course.
Has the mayor tried to squirm out of responsibility for this wretched state of affairs on his watch? Of course.
Is this picture of Albuquerque as a violent madhouse the whole story of our city? Not by long shot.
Has virtually everything else that’s marvelous about us been overshadowed by the gross incompetence of our leadership community. Yes. Where else can you put the blame? And there is plenty that’s blameworthy, no doubt about it.
The worst part of it all is that Mayor Berry still won’t own up to any of it.
When confronted with two of the most damning and most accurate accounts of unconstitutional law enforcement so far—in The New Yorker and Rolling Stone—the mayor accuses them of being “outsiders” and brushes both pieces off as just one point of view. But if you read them both, you’ll see solid reporting based on interviews not with outsiders, but with local people, retired police officers, bereaved families of slain children, and others.
The Rolling Stone piece, titled “When Cops Break Bad: Inside a Police Force Gone Wild,” chronicles the killing of James Boyd in the Sandia Foothills eleven months ago. Nick Pinto, the author, observes “In the past five years, the police department of Albuquerque, a city of just 550,000, has managed to kill 28 people—a per capital kill rate nearly double of that of the Chicago police and eight times that of the NYPD.” Pinto highlights an incident in 2010. “The hostility of the city’s government to its homeless population is perhaps best illustrated by an episode…when police began arresting volunteers who were feeding the downtown homeless on Sundays. ‘Who gave them permission to feed the homeless at all?’ asked an internal police e-mail concerning the operation against the volunteers.”
Pinto quotes another email that said the move against compassionate volunteers “had the approval of City Hall.” That would be Mayor Berry’s City Hall. “Darren White [public-safety director at the time] is allowing us to take the gloves off and deal with the issues of concern,” the homeless. I wonder if this same attitude is on the minds of those wanting to dismantle the “tent city” of homeless people on First Street in Albuquerque.
Pinto also quotes State Senator Jerry Ortiz y Pino, that “outsider” with a family history in New Mexico of probably 500 plus years. “The targets of police violence were gang members, drunks or street people, and so it wasn’t like preying on people who had voted for politicians. They were preying on people who the politicians were all too glad to see silenced.”
The New Yorker essay by Rachel Aviv is titled “Your Son is Deceased” with a subtitle of “The city has one of the highest rates in the country of fatal shootings by police, but no officer has been indicted.” Aviv tells of the terrible events that lead in 2011 to the killing of Christopher Torres, a young man who was said to be suffering from schizophrenia.
Aviv wrote that since “1987, the police department has shot at least a hundred and forty-six people. The shooting of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, looked almost routine to people in Albuquerque. They had seen such incidents many times before.”
A retired Albuquerque police officer told Aviv that “officers were socialized to be cynical about civilians.” The officer said “We’re taught to almost dehumanize them. It just got to the point where it’s, like, they’re a piece of shit. We don’t care if they raped a baby or were speeding in traffic—everybody’s a piece of shit.”
Instead of brushing these pieces off as if they were irrelevant and malicious slanders, the mayor might have taken them seriously and worked to refute them point by point. But he couldn’t do that, which says to me that both pieces are too close to the truth to deal with. Those of us who have kept up with police issues over the years, know the truth when they read it too.
Why We Love New Mexico: E.A. (Tony) Mares—1938 – 2015
It was hard to fathom last week that Tony Mares had actually died. He was such a vital, happy, generous man, so wise and kind, so busy and engaged, it didn’t seem that even his ailing lungs could really stop him.
The spark of joy he brought to a conversation that made just being with him such a deep, sweet pleasure, couldn’t possibly have been snuffed out. And indeed that joy hasn’t gone away. So many people in New Mexico remember their happy times with Tony, the times his poetry inspired them, or when they saw him in a Chautauqua performance as Padre Martinez, or when he rose to speak in defense of those suffering social injustices. He might smile at this, but the joy he left behind reminds me of what Maya Angelou said about not being forgotten. “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” If that’s true, Tony will be with a lot of us for a long time.
So many fond memories of lunches with Tony well up now in my memory, long serious conversations about ideas and work and projects, and moments of sublime hilarity. Meals with him were spiced with elaborate tales of accidents and foibles and follies at his own expense. Both of us considered ourselves physically klutzy, so the tales were uproarious. And we exchanged them with abandon. One lunch conversation I remember was woven through with a description of Tony’s afternoon on the bike that kept throwing him off like a bucking bronco. I laughed so long and so hard, I couldn’t finish my lunch, a unique experience for me as an aging gourmand.
Tony Mares’ creative life was rich with the diversity and abundance of a man who never stopped working. Plays, poems, histories, essays, all were his media. And a book is still to come, a long poem on the Spanish Civil War which we all hope sees print very soon. Tony’s website, tonyscantina.com, has a rundown on his history as a writer and thinker.
The Mercury was privileged to do a video interview with Tony on Insight New Mexico in 2013. You can see it here. We talked about his part in contributing to a groundbreaking book titled Resolana: Emerging Chicano Dialogues on Community and Globalization, by Miguel Montiel, Tomas Atencio and Tony Mares. Resolana takes the reality of local people in Northern New Mexico discussing local issues in a civil and expansive way and uses it as a metaphor for the networks possible in global communications.
Tony wrote “Resolana offers hope for the future, a better future, even though at times it may be a messy future. On a local and on a larger geopolitical scale, we need to meet, talk endlessly, and reach intelligent, proactive compromises.” He goes on by saying “we live in a permanently linked world. It would take an unimaginable reversal of science, technology, and the human desire to communicate with others to undo our present networked world.” While networks “could be used in support of nefarious ideologies to control countless human lives across cultures,” he said, they could also “offer a support system, the communications infrastructure, for a constructive approach to globalism that respects and celebrates cultures.”
In our interview, Tony linked the principle of Resolana with another of his intense interests, the life of Padre Martinez of Taos who brought the first printing press to New Mexico around 1838 and published what must have been the state’s first newspaper El Crepusculo de Libertad, the Dawn of Liberty. Tony made the point that Resolana, as a concept of communication, moved from Northern New Mexico with Padre Martinez’s new technology as it might well do on the interconnected world of the Internet today.
Every time I met with Tony I left with the feeling of being heard and comprehended and that I had engaged in vigorous and happy dialogue with him, an interpersonal Resolana, you might say. Tony made a great many people feel that way, I think, because he was genuinely interested in the thinking and learning of others. And remembering that feeling is what makes it so hard to let him go, which of course, in memory, we never have to do completely.