By Deneen Borelli
March 25, 2009
In July of 1967, Detroit and Newark were bathed in fire and blood. Anguished and hurt, people in poor and minority communities in these cities had had enough of crippling policies foisted on them by the ruling political establishment. They stood up and screamed for change.
In the collective melees, 66 died, 1,914 were injured and around 8,500 people were arrested.
It was an uprising against police brutality. It was an uprising against poverty. And it was an uprising against urban renewal and the government’s abuse of eminent domain.
Meant to acquire land for public projects, eminent domain was used as a sledgehammer against blacks rather than a scalpel on behalf of the community. Neighborhoods were torn asunder so others didn’t have to see “slums.”
Back then, this sort of urban renewal was derisively called “negro removal.” Today, it could be repeated by the “Pickens Plan.”
You’ve probably seen T. Boone Pickens on television. He’s the Texas billionaire promising to reduce our dependence on foreign oil by building windmills. He pleads with us to take his word for it that his plan will work and that we should hurry to build wind turbines across middle America.
But the devil is always in the details, and acting without caution risks repeating the injustices that sparked the 1967 riots.
The Pickens Plan calls for wind farms in places such as Texas and the Dakotas, with power supplied to cities through a massive new network of power lines. Pickens wistfully compares this proposed power grid to the interstate highway system.
That’s the problem.
When the 46,000-mile interstate highway system was built to move the privileged between cities and to their new homes in the suburbs, planners paid little mind to the property rights of those living in the way of their idea of progress.
Historian Raymond A. Mohl noted that roadbuilding in the early 1960s dislocated 33,000 people a year. By 1969, that number was up to 200,000 annually.
Some saw these new roads as a tool to pave over black communities already in decline. In Detroit, it was Paradise Valley – also known as “Black Bottom.” In Newark, it was the Central Ward.
New power lines for the Pickens Plan would run 12,650 miles. Where will those lines run? More than likely through communities that have the least political power to oppose them.
Washington, D.C.’s poor Anacostia neighborhood certainly won’t get the preferential treatment that residents of Middleburg, Virginia did. A newly-announced power line near there was designed to go around Civil War battlefields and the estates of horse country’s rich and famous.
Pickens will also likely profit from his plan, despite his downplaying it, thanks to our tax dollars. Wind energy projects benefit from a federal subsidy known as the Production Tax Credit (PTC).
Pickens’ Mesa Power company once hoped to spend $10 billion dollars on a 2,700-turbine wind farm in Texas. According to a report by the National Center for Public Policy Research, “Pickens’ firm stands to receive between $1.66 billion and about $3 billion in PTC payments alone over ten years, a significant portion of its original investment.”
When oil prices fell, however, so did interest in the Pickens Plan. Mesa Power is now scaling back its wind farm proposal.
But Pickens seems to have the ear of President Obama. In his February congressional address, Obama promoted wind power over the fossil fuels currently accounting for the overwhelming percentage of America’s energy production. This would give new and unnatural life to the Pickens Plan.
It will be a true test of Obama’s administration as to whether it will look out for and protect the property rights of people in the communities that supported and prayed for him, or if he will risk more of the racial strife he says he wants to overcome to help big business interests.
If Obama sides with Pickens, he won’t be delivering the kind of change that people voted for.
Deneen Borelli is a fellow for the Project 21 black leadership network. Comments may be sent to DBorelli@nationalcenter.org. New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21 or the National Center for Public Policy Research.