Descendants of Freed Slave’s Land Taken for Amazon Data Center? Time to Radically Rethink Property Rights

This is a story about property: real and imagined, legitimate and illegitimate. It’s a story about who gets to decide who can own what … and whom. It’s a story of reality, both physical and virtual. It’s a story that begins with humans in chains, moves through Disney’s desire to make a theme park out of our most painful history, and ends with the descendants of slaves dispossessed by a company owned by one of the richest people in the world, a company named for a river.

That river runs through the churning electrical heart of the American internet.

It’s also the story of eminent domain gone wrong. We live in a nation that seizes the property of working people while helping the wealthiest among us to carry out some of the greatest property grabs in history.

The moral of the story is this: we need to radically rethink our approach to property rights.

The Virginia Turnpike

The state considered Livinia Blackburn Johnson another human being’s property when she was born into slavery, two years before the end of the Civil War. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 gave freed slaves like Johnson the ability to own property. In 1899, under the provisions of that law, Livinia Johnson purchased a plot of land along Carver Road in what eventually became the town of Haymarket, Virginia.

Now the Dominion of Virginia is seizing the land Johnson purchased, in order to build an Amazon data center. Her descendants have lived in Haymarket for the last 118 years. They are required by law to sell their land to Dominion Virginia Power, which will use it to build towers that will bring power to Amazon’s facility.

The area has been threatened by the march of progress before. The Disney Corporation bought up land around Haymarket in the 1990s in order to build a Civil War theme park, but objections put an end to their plans. Author William Styron wrote in a New York Times op-ed:

“I have doubts whether the technical wizardry that so entrances children and grown-ups at other Disney parks can do anything but mock a theme as momentous as slavery. To present even the most squalid sights would be to cheaply romanticize suffering.”

Disney’s project was blocked and a developer bought up the land it had purchased, building high-end homes for a subdivision he called Somerset Crossing. Here, where stagecoaches once stopped to change horses on a turnpike established in 1812, where the railroad arrived in 1852 and warring armies passed by a few years later, its new five-bedroom McMansions are described without any apparent sense of irony as “colonial.”

The well-to-do residents there managed to block any eminent domain efforts on their property. So Amazon’s agents turned their sights to Haymarket, where Livinia Blackburn Johnson’s descendants presumably have less political pull.

Amazon Highways

A turnpike, according to Merriam-Webster, is a “road (such as an expressway) for the use of which tolls are collected.” There’s a through-line between the horse-drawn turnpikes that crisscrossed Northern Virginia in the 1800s and the more than 100 data centers dotting its landscape today. Those centers carry most of the world’s internet traffic—as much as 70 percent, according to local officials. An unknown but substantial share of that traffic flows through the electronic highways in Amazon’s data centers.

Twenty years have passed since Disney’s failed bid for Haymarket. Disney’s animatronic robots and 3D simulations were state-of-the-art in 1996, when the internet was still in its infancy. Today’s web brings artificial realities into almost every home—and almost every pocket—as words, images, GIFs, videos, and sound. It takes lots of physical energy to churn all that data. Internet promoters speak of the “cloud,” as if these transactions took place in some ephemeral and immaterial dimension. But to invert the words of William Blake, data centers are a “cloud inside a fiend.” Servers need electricity to cool the space around them and keep the data engines moving.

The digital universe runs roughshod over the environment, from the toxic byproducts of chip manufacture to the destruction and disease caused by discarded equipment. Dominion Virginia Power, which received permission from Virginia to seize the Johnson land, says each data center uses enough electricity to light 5,000 homes. To power Amazon’s data center, they’ll need to install 100-foot tall towers carrying 230,000 volts of power on the Haymarket land.

The Power and the Powerful

In these data centers, which are sometimes called server farms, the primary crop is you: your searches, clicks, likes, purchases, movements, habits, and by inference, even your thoughts.

If corporations are mining our lives through “data refineries,” Northern Virginia is its Gulf of Mexico. Computer scientist and author Jaron Lanier writes, “All the computers that crunch ‘big data’ are physically similar. They are placed in obscure sites where they can radiate heat into the environment, and they are guarded like oil fields.”

Lanier argues that individuals should receive “micropayments” for the use of their own data, but that’s not how today’s internet works. Instead, “ordinary people” get the immaterial benefits of an informal economy, while the material wealth flows to the top. As Lanier writes:

“Social media sharers can make all the noise they want, but they forfeit the real wealth and clout needed to be politically powerful. Real wealth and clout instead concentrate ever more on the shrinking island occupied by elites who run the most powerful computers.”

That “wealth and clout” fuels the political and economic processes that are dispossessing these ancestors of slaves. The need to serve Amazon’s profit-making turnpike is usurping the property rights Livinia Johnson’s descendants have enjoyed for more than a century.

Amazon itself is no respecter of community or shared property. It maintained the tax breaks that fueled its initial growth by arm-twisting politicians at the state and local level, robbing government treasuries of the funds needed to preserve and expand our public wealth. It has mistreated warehouse workers, exposing them to 100-degree temperatures and grueling working conditions. Electronic devices track their every move and force them to keep up a brisk pace or face the consequences.

Now, thanks to Virginia’s use of eminent domain, Amazon’s electronic turnpike is about to grow even bigger. How will Big Data use its new processing power? As Nathan Newman points out in a white paper, the industry’s practices include predatory individualized pricing, invasion of privacy, the marketing of subprime mortgages, and the promotion of unethical scams.

Supreme Lordship

The way our country thinks about ownership is, in a word, strange. You do not own your own data, because you have given it away to corporations like Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google (sometimes known by the acronym FANG). The federal government doesn’t own the valuable drug patents it paid for, because it gave them away to corporations. Most of us don’t own our homes or cars, because we have mortgaged them to fundamentally dishonest financial institutions.

All of these property rights—FANG’s ownership of your data, Big Pharma’s exclusive rights to government-financed patents, Wall Street’s ownership of mortgages and pink slips—exist because we as a nation choose to enforce them.

The term eminent domain comes from the Latin dominium eminens, which means “supreme lordship.” Sometimes homes must be taken through eminent domain in order to serve the public interest, for dams to protect the land and provide electricity, or for new roadways to open a city. But eminent domain is also used to benefit corporations like Amazon. The rationale is that communities need economic development just as much as they need highways and waterways, because it brings jobs and economic growth.

But in times of extreme economic inequality like these, most of the wealth from development goes to the already wealthy.

Whose Domain?

The fact that Amazon’s Haymarket story has received so little attention is a measure of our stunted political vision and bleak moral landscape. Apparently our politicians and pundits find it unremarkable that homes passed down from a freed slave can be seized to help a corporation the government created and nurtured.

Yet, the same politicians and pundits would be horrified if we thought differently about eminent domain—or for that matter, the government’s ability to seize assets when the owner is suspected of committing a crime—and chose to use them to correct corporate injustices and right longstanding wrongs.

Attorney General Jefferson B. Sessions III recently reinstated a much-abused policy that allows law enforcement officials to conduct civil asset forfeitures and take the property of individuals they suspect of breaking the law, even if those individuals are never charged with or convicted of any crime.

Civil asset forfeiture can be used against companies as well as individuals. What if civil asset forfeiture was used to seize the assets of corporations that have been proven to break the law, not once, but over and over? The list includes all the country’s biggest banks, as well as corporations like General Electric.

The list also includes Amazon, which has reportedly broken both antitrust and employment laws in the U.S. (It has also allegedly violated European Communityand German laws.) Yet instead of seizing its assets, the assets of others are being seized to maximize its profits. Not that Amazon needs any help. For a brief moment this week, Jeff Bezos was the richest man in the world. He probably will be again.

Rethinking Property

British elites were shocked and horrified when Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn proposed taking over unused luxury apartments in London to house some of the people made homeless by the Grenfell Tower fire. But the public understood. A national poll showed that 59 percent of British adults agreed with Corbyn. City officials, reading the public’s mood, quickly took Corbyn’s suggestion.

There is compelling evidence that pharmaceutical corporations knowingly and criminally encouraged the spread of opioid addiction in this country. Why shouldn’t their executives’ country homes be used to provide drug treatment to addicts? If there is unused investment property in this country (at, for example, One Central Park West), why shouldn’t it be used to help people recover from the ravages of opioids?

It’s clearly time to take back some of the Big Pharma’s patents. Patents are a form of government protection that they have abused, letting people die so they can maximize their profits. It’s time to take those patents away, especially since so many of them were developed at government expense.

It’s time to ask ourselves what kind of country takes property purchased by a freed slave to enrich a corporation, especially one like Amazon, which grew by exploiting a government invention—the internet—and a government loophole—tax-free online sales.

The people gave FANG its enormous wealth and power; it now has the ability to make or break careers and companies. These corporations should be regulated like public utilities. Data should serve the people. And the Dominion of Virginia should leave the descendants of Livinia Johnson alone. The community she created should be allowed to live in peace, while we all work to strengthen our sense of the nation as a community, where property rights are valued, but where human beings are valued even more.

RJ Eskow is a senior fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future.

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