When The Smoke Clears: a short documentary on the Norfolk Southern disaster.
More Perfect Union and The Holler team up
This is where I scribble a little bit about what’s going on. Warning: includes righteous anger and typos.
It’s here. I collaborated with More Perfect Union on a short documentary about the Norfolk Southern disaster in East Palestine. Stop reading immediately and scroll down to watch if you must.
It took some time. I’ve been living out of a barn on my parent’s farm in Wellsville, 20 miles from East Palestine. We insulated a room on the side of the barn and threw in a wood stove. There’s firewood and a swing on the concrete porch. You can relieve yourself off the side of it while looking at the big bend in the Ohio River by Mountaineer Race Track and Gaming Resort. That’s where my prom was held. They roped off the slot machines and threw on some Usher. It was a blast.
My house plants are dead. The handle on my toilet has been broken for a month. You have to dig around in the tank water to flush it like in the old days (that’s what they did back then, right?). But plants and indoor plumbing are luxuries to be trifled with another day. We’re doing important shit here.
I still don’t think of myself as a reporter. It doesn’t pass the smell test. If I was in a lineup at the police station with the other press covering East Palestine I’d definitely be picked for the criminal.
Except… maybe not. I was *not* the one arrested for reporting on the disaster at an early press conference. That honor went to Evan Lambert whose crime, as it appeared, was reporting on an industrial disaster while black.
Major news these days is delivered by clean-cut professionals on a coast with a view from nowhere. But the view from East Palestine was a mushroom cloud of toxic smoke filling the sky and stretching across multiple states. There are axes to grind here and it’s dirty work. Reporting the abuses of powerful corporations requires taking the side of people who have no choice but to go back to life under that toxic cloud. And professionalism is an arbitrary dividing line designed to wield against the unwashed masses wherever they attempt to be involved in stuff that affects them directly. Fooey I say.
I’ve done a lot of weird and unrelated stuff in my life, including earning a Class A commercial driver’s license to haul semi trucks of firewood for my brother’s tree company. It turns out that reporting is similar to taking the test for your CDL. You have to follow the movement of power as it travels through critical parts and inspect how the parts perform and how the power affects them. This is as crucial for the safe operation of a semi-truck as it is to the functioning of a democracy.
When I look at this picture I think of audacity. The audacity of cops arresting a black male reporter on live TV at a press conference with the Governor of a large state during a high-profile industrial disaster. The company laying new tracks right over the crash site just days after the derailment. The first train rolling over the spill minutes after the evacuation order was lifted. The hilariously low initial offers from Norfolk Southern to make amends for this life-altering event. The CEO, Alan Shaw, canceling on a town hall meeting because he didn’t feel safe around residents.
It’s all a big dare from yet another of America’s largest industries to hold them accountable to any degree.
Huge industries know the cards they hold. When the trains don’t run, the stock market don’t go up. The merry-go-round of excess grinds to a halt. The magic of same-day shipping evaporates. Commerce, the lifeblood of America, dries up.
That’s the kind of power that can make you feel untouchable no matter how large your chemical plume is. Go ahead and challenge the Captains of Industry. We dare you.
The Norfolk Southern disaster rhymes with every white-collar shit show in recent memory: private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, Katrina, the 2008 financial meltdown, the BP oil spill, the opioid crisis that killed more people than Vietnam, etc. Each one showers more money and power on those who already have too much, with meaningful accountability nowhere to be found. We’ll see how this one plays out.
Too big to fail. Too big for jail. It’s the way we do business here.
But it’s simple enough to say. And it’s a problem we’ve wrestled with in the past. Too few have too much. And too many don’t have enough.
It’s confirmed over and over again with every white-collar disaster from the rails in East Palestine to the trading floors of Wall Street. The bullshit will even run from a faucet if you crack one open in Flint, Michigan.
So this is our work. We should all lay hands on the axe and grind away because no one can do it alone.
Speaking of that… I was extraordinarily lucky to work with the team that put this together.
Jessica Roi was behind the camera when a rail union leader called this disaster seven weeks before it happened. She tallied up the $18,000 dollars that Congressman Bill Johnson (R-OH 6) gave back after we confronted him at an East Palestine town hall, and filmed that too.
Nehemiah Stark blessed us with a break from filming all kinds of beautiful exciting shit all over the world to do the camera magic that made this film so pretty. His creative direction is in every part of the piece.
Josh Hirschfeld-Kroen edited and produced the whole thing in record time. I really can’t convey to you how crazy his job was, or how well it was done.
Court Fuller co-produced and orchestrated the whole show with their infinite wisdom fresh from doing big things with Inequality Media.
Sam Delgado associate produced, lined up sources, and kept all the moving parts moving as they should.
The production happened under More Perfect Union, the best damn media outlet around for working-class people.
And I feel very lucky to keep the company of the above.
And the most important credit goes to you, dear paid sustainer.
You put me on the story before it happened. None of this would have happened without your support. If you like what you see here, become a sustaining member today for $5/mo ($60/year). It can’t go on without you.
When the Smoke Clears: What’s Really Happening in East Palestine
And while we’re at it, a bonus cut of some Trump dudes King of the Hilling it and talking that sweet working-class populism.