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History was in the news this week, in three very different ways.
First up is the deep freeze in Texas, which overwhelmed the power grid and knocked out electricity for more than 3.5 million people, leaving them without heat. It has taken the lives of at least 23 people.
Most of Texas is on its own power grid, a decision made in the 1930s to keep it clear of federal regulation. This means both that it avoids federal regulation and that it cannot import more electricity during periods of high demand. Apparently, as temperatures began to drop, people turned up electric heaters and needed more power than engineers had been told to design for. Simultaneously, ice shut down gas-fired plants and wind turbines froze. Demand for natural gas spiked and created a shortage.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) told Fox News’s Sean Hannity that the disaster “shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal” for the United States, but Dan Woodfin, a senior director for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the organization in charge of the state’s power grid, told Bloomberg that the frozen wind turbines were the smallest factor in the crisis. They supply only about 10 percent of the state’s power in the winter.
Frozen instruments at gas, coal, and nuclear plants, as well as shortages of natural gas, were the major culprits. To keep electricity prices low, ERCOT had not prepared for such a crisis. El Paso, which is not part of ERCOT but is instead linked to a larger grid that includes other states and thus is regulated, did, in fact, weatherize their equipment. Its customers lost power only briefly.
With climate change expected to intensify extremes of weather, the crisis in Texas indicates that our infrastructure will need to be reinforced to meet conditions for which it was not designed.
There was another interesting development this week with regard to the January 6 insurrection. Representative Bennie Thompson (D-MS), in his personal capacity, not as a member of Congress, sued Donald Trump; Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani; Proud Boys International, LLC; and Oath Keepers. The lawsuit is backed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and argues that these four people or entities each “intended to prevent, and ultimately delayed, members of Congress from discharging their duty commanded by the United States Constitution to approve the results of the Electoral College in order to elect the next President and Vice President of the United States.”
That language is significant. The lawsuit lays out in detail the actions of the former president, Giuliani and the domestic terrorists in the lead-up to January 6, as well as the events of that day (making its 32 pages an excellent synopsis of the material the House impeachment managers laid out in the Senate trial.)
But Thompson is making a very specific claim.
Thompson accuses the four defendants of “conspiring to prevent him and other Members of Congress from discharging… official duties.” This puts them afoul of the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, designed to break that deadly organization in the years after the Civil War when its members were intimidating and assaulting Black and white Republicans in the South. The law makes anyone who has “conspire[d] to prevent, by force, intimidation, or threat, any person from…discharging any duties [of an officer of the United States]…liable to the party injured.”
Thompson also points out that he is 72, within the age group hardest hit by the coronavirus, and the lockdown precautions taken during the riot put his health at risk. This speaks to the part of the law that calls out perpetrators who “injure [an officer] in his person or property on account of his lawful discharge of the duties of his office, or while engaged in the lawful discharge thereof… so as to molest, interrupt, hinder, or impede him in the discharge of his official duties.”
The law allows a successful plaintiff to claim money to make up for the damages the perpetrators caused. But it also punishes the perpetrators and warns others against trying anything similar. And that is what Thompson has asked for.
Thompson appears to be trying to defang the insurrectionists by going after their bank accounts. Bleeding white supremacist gangs dry through lawsuits has proved surprisingly effective in the past. In 1999, a lawsuit bankrupted the Idaho Aryan Nations white supremacists; in 2008, the Southern Poverty Law Center sued a Ku Klux Klan group in Kentucky and won a $2.5 million settlement. Going after Trump, Giuliani, and the organizations central to the January 6 insurrection by taking their money would likely make insurrectionists think twice before they tried such a thing again.
On another front, President Joe Biden held a televised town hall this week to sell the idea of his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. He gave detailed answers to questions about domestic insurrection, the minimum wage, white supremacy, coronavirus, and vaccines. But what stood out was an exchange between the president and the mother of a young man with health issues who cannot get on a list in Wisconsin to get the coronavirus vaccine. Biden told the woman that he could make recommendations to the states, but the order in which they chose to administer the vaccine was up to them.
“But here’s what I’d like to do,” he continued. ”If you’re willing, I’ll stay around after this is over and maybe we can talk a few minutes and see if I can get you some help.”
This is a powerful echo of an exchange President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had with a Black Mississippi farmer, Sylvester Harris, in 1934. In the depths of the Great Depression, Harris was about to lose his cotton farm because he couldn’t make the mortgage payments. In desperation, he traveled a dozen miles into town, picked up a telephone, and called the White House. News stories told readers that Harris had reached FDR, who had promised to stop the impending foreclosure of Harris’s mortgage, and within days, the bank gave him an extension.
In the exchange, Americans saw a president who cared, and a government that finally, after its previous leaders had told them to get out of a terrible catastrophe on their own, responded to their needs.
Heather Cox Richardson is a Professor of History at Boston College. This post originally appeared at her Substack, Letters from an American.