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The Gulf Oil Spill May 12, 2010

I am noticing how what I would write about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico changes over time. When it was just a headline, I started out a petty kind of mean: “How’s that ‘Drill, baby, drill’ thing working out for ya now? Huh?”

When I started to hear about thousands of gallons of oil spilling into the ocean day after day; when I learned that BP’s first quarter profit in 2010 was six billion dollars ($6,000,000,000); when I learned that BP had successfully lobbied its regulators against requiring a back-up system that would have shut that oil off by now; when I read that punitive damages against BP for this criminally destructive hubris would be capped at 75 million dollars ($75,000,000), my response turned to anger. I started to write about privatized profit and socialized risk, remembering my disbelief when I first learned the word for this—externality—in economics class forty years ago. It means that firms don’t have to account for any cost that somebody can’t make them pay for. If they steal the raw materials and dump the waste into the river, they get to call what they are doing wealth creation. I call it piracy. Rage would be so easy.

We were coming up on the 40th anniversary of the expansion of the Vietnam war into Cambodia, the student strike, the shootings of students in Ohio and Mississippi. I could feel it piling onto the shooting in their beds of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, the assassination of Martin Luther King. I could touch like it was yesterday our politics of rage, the drive to act somehow, anyhow, to feel in control of something, to push away that grief and powerlessness over the endless, illegal war, abroad and, it seemed, at home. But there have been all those years since, coming to terms with the real and deadly outcomes of that romantic fantasy. I know too much to stay at rage for more than a minute.

Then one morning I found myself singing along with Martin Simpson,


    And I just can’t keep from crying sometimes
    Well, I just can’t keep from crying sometimes
    When my heart’s full of sorrow and my eyes are filled with tears
    Lord, I just can’t keep from crying sometimes

    Well, well

It’s a bare bones and not very religious rendition of Blind Willie Johnson’s lament, pure sorrow in a human voice and a plaintive guitar. I sang along with it, sang it into the recording app of my iPhone afterward, downloaded it and sang along with it some more. It’s what I learned in prison from the people who have lived with grief and powerlessness for a long, long time, and made a thing of beauty of their survival.

But I don’t want to stop there. Even the most graceful survival is not really enough. We are living with systems of power and dominance that destroy, almost casually, the life in their path. I want to write about how our everyday lives can unmake that dominator order and grow the other human possibility, mutuality. I want to study hard and turn all that I have ever learned in pursuit of the Theory of Everything into offerings of clarity in 500-word pieces of writing.

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About Katherine Power

I didn’t set out to be a terrorist. As a student activist, I moved from protesting the war in Viet Nam to waging guerrilla war to overthrow the government….

Recent and Upcoming Appearances and Publications
1/15/2014 Complexity and Social Change, Occupy Radio
10/31/2013 Surrender, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR
10/25/2013 Surrender, Taos Community Theater, Taos, NM

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