Long Story Short: Explosive revelations
illustration by JP Thimot
Strolling down the avenue? Wear a hardhat.
The Buffalo News recently published a very short police report in The News In Brief, saying that there had been a “minor underground explosion” Saturday morning, March 10, which resulted in the temporary closing of Chippewa Street. Though “minor,” the explosion was powerful enough to blow a manhole cover off, which “caused damage to some buildings in the area.”
What? Have you ever tried to lift a manhole cover? Let me tell you, they are very heavy—between eighty-five and 300 pounds (don’t ask how I know). And this one caused damage to “some” buildings? Some? Meaning more than one? Did it ricochet from building to building like an oversize iron Frisbee?
Police, firefighters, and National Grid workers were called to the scene. But all the police had to say was that the explosion was caused by an underground wiring issue. This prompted me to wonder how common manhole-hurling subterranean explosions are happening around town. The News article makes it sound like no big deal—just another flying steel disk propelled by a flaming sewer hole; nothing to be concerned about. But should people be on the watch for airborne sewer lids? Are designer hardhats the next barhopping fashion trend? It’s fortunate that this happened early Saturday morning, when the Chippewa crowd was home nursing hangovers and the streets were comparatively empty.
Turns out, these phenomena occur more than you might think. In the utility trades, they’re referred to as “manhole events,” and they’re particularly common in bad winters. Why? Because melting snow mixed with road salt drains down those holes, corroding the labyrinth of aging electric cables running under the streets. Eventually sparks ensue, igniting volatile gasses—methane primarily—which build up underground. This calls into question the value of drain sewers as escape tunnels for jail breaks and zombie attacks, but I digress. People have been injured by flying sewer lids, and it’s only going to occur more as our aging underground infrastructure continues to fray.
Think I’m exaggerating? Two summers ago, another “manhole event” happened in Buffalo, on Pearl Street, not far from the recent incident. This one was caught on camera and made national news. You can view the stunning video here.
The case of the “Blacktivist” hackers
In February 2016, an African-American woman named India Cummings died mysteriously in the Erie County Holding Center, prompting protests within Buffalo’s black community. Two months later, an activist group calling themselves “Blacktivist” suddenly appeared online to promote a protest rally at the Erie County Holding Center. Members of the shadowy group reached out to local Black Lives Matter and Western New York Peace Center leaders. Later, Blacktivist attempted to persuade local African-Americans not to vote in the 2016 presidential election.
Only thing is, the “Blacktivists” weren’t African-Americans.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller recently filed an indictment against thirteen Russian internet trolls, some of whom allegedly attempted to sow dissent among Buffalo’s black community. Those crafty Ruskies had deduced that this particular demographic group might not vote for their man in the upcoming presidential election. Russian hackers even paid for literature promoting the Holding Center rally. The Blacktivist “members” never revealed their identity. Still, they began attracting followers who offered assistance.
Later they exhorted African-Americans in Western New York to stay home and not vote in the election, ostensibly to send a message of dissatisfaction to Democrats. Alternatively, they promoted Green Party candidate Jill Stein. A Blacktivist Instagram post read, “Choose peace and vote for Jill Stein. Trust me, it’s not a wasted vote.” The fake news group began to dominate online political activity within the black community. And local activists say they did have some impact.
Think about this: New York State was always going to go for Hillary Clinton. And yet, these Russian hackers spent time and money here to disrupt the election. Imagine what they did in places where their involvement might have actually affected the election results. Now imagine what they will do in the 2018 elections, since the federal government under Trump has taken no action to combat future attacks.
Finding perspective on school shootings
Last Tuesday students across the country—including hundreds if not thousands in Western New York—walked out of schools to call for tougher gun laws. The proliferation of assault-style rifles, and easy access to guns in general, has made the United States a leader in gun-related deaths. And despite legislators’ claims to the contrary, the Supreme Court has ruled that the Second Amendment does not grant the unlimited right to own weapons.
One protesting student at Clarence Town Park held a sign with a bullseye that read, “Target Practice; Am I next?” High profile school shootings—and the excessive media coverage they receive—understandably create anxiety among students, educators, and parents. So, schools go to extraordinary measures to prevent such incidents. Metal detectors, locked entrances, active shooter drills, and surveillance cameras have become ubiquitous.
Maybe It’s time to put the risks of school gun violence in perspective.
Most people are aware that airlines are the safest means of travel, and yet one in three passengers experience some degree of anxiety. Why? Plane crashes are spectacular, and the media coverage is sensational. Humans disproportionately fear dramatic catastrophes, because they are, well, dramatic. We have the false impression that such events are more common than they actually are. It’s called risk perception, and humans are horrible at assessing risk. We worry about the wrong things and overlook real dangers.
The chance of being killed in a school shooting is astronomically low. So low, that the security measures we put into place do little more than provide peace of mind.
Let’s look at the data:
There are around 98,000 kindergarten through twelfth-grade (K-12) school buildings in the United States. Since 1840, there have been 468 incidents of a firearm being discharged in a school. This includes, pre-schools, school busses, school grounds, colleges, and universities. If those shootings—from all 178 years—occurred in K-12 buildings in a single school year, a student would still have only four tenths of one percent chance of being in one of those 468 schools. And in all but a few cases, the number actually killed or injured in each building was small, sometimes zero.
Here’s another way to look at it: about 41 million students attend K-12 schools every year. Over the thirteen years since today’s high school senior first entered Kindergarten, there have been fifty-two students killed in schools and on school grounds. An individual twelfth-grader’s chance of having been one of those victims since kindergarten is .00012, or about one in a million. The chance of being injured by a gun in school is slightly higher, but still infinitesimally small.
Consider some other statistics:
• Every year, about one in ten deaths of children under age fifteen is from a gunshot wound that occurs OUTSIDE of school.
• Nearly 2000 children die each year in home accidents.
• One-thousand die yearly by drowning.
• In New York State (where 70% of people over age sixteen drive), the odds of dying in a car accident each year is one out of 16,390. Seven hundred child pedestrians are hit and killed by cars each year. There are 1,600 deaths of children under age fifteen from car accidents each year. This yearly death toll vastly exceeds the entire number of students killed by guns in schools since 1840.
Why aren’t student protesters demanding legislation to develop safer cars? Because our risk perception is emotionally skewed. Once again, in thirteen years, there have been fifty-two school gun deaths. Horrible, despicable tragedies receive enormous attention, distorting perceptions of frequency and risk.
Schools are about the safest place children can be. A study conducted at the University at Buffalo found that “implementing security measures such as hall cameras, police officers, metal detectors or drug surveillance because of fear generated by remote but high-profile events,” can “hinder teaching and learning.” In practice, the primary merit of heightened school security is lowering the public’s anxiety over something that is extremely unlikely to happen. It’s important to weigh the actual risk students face, against the cost (in every sense of the word) of intensified security. Schools should be welcoming places, not armed fortresses.
Artist and educator Bruce Adams is a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.
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