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The Storm of Progress: Kentucky Tornadoes and the Carceral State

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Dark storm cloud in the sky

Tornadoes may be inevitable but the crises they leave behind are unnatural—produced by systems and institutions.

Thousands continue to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of December’s tornado outbreak. By current estimates, 60 tornadoes stretched across 227 miles through nine midwestern and southern states in the late hours of Friday, December 10, 2021 and the early morning of Dec. 11. Decimated buildings leveled across whole towns remain at the top of news feeds. Still, the most devastating loss was the 90 people killed by the violent storm.

Of those 90 people killed, 77 were from Kentucky. Weeks later, most news coverage focused on emerging and continued relief efforts, from federal disbursements, donation efforts, and animal retrieval, to temporary housing options and gifts for the holidays. Notably, very few are willing to engage with the disproportionate impact of this disaster. Why were so many Kentuckians killed in these violent storms?

Most attempts to grapple with the scale of loss point to the quality of warning systems in place, despite the fact that a tornado’s imminence can only ever be tracked minutes before touchdown. Others bypass the question of why so many Kentuckians were killed and move into action, largely through means of support, like donations and prayer. ​​

Too often these stories about the crisis created by the tornadoes separate the storm damage from the everyday crises Kentuckians face. As two people who live in Kentucky and work on issues of economic and racial justice, we see the tornado devastation as having exposed the “organized abandonment” of urban and rural communities over the last four decades.

The geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore understands organized abandonment as the process by which capital and the state have departed from communities, making it increasingly difficult for individuals, households and communities to flourish and even survive given the absence of “adequate income, clean water, reasonable air, reliable shelter, and transportation and communication infrastructure.” Crucially, she continues, ““what’s risen up in the crevices of this cracked foundation of security has been policing and prison.”

Understanding the tornado destruction in the context of organized abandonment and crisis produces a very different set of questions, resulting in a different set of actions and even collective strategies.

Who had the choice to shelter in place and who did not?

In the days following the tornadoes, reports began to emerge about employment conditions at Mayfield Consumer Products, the candle factory that had been razed by the tornadoes and where eight people ultimately died. By “conditions,” we mean the factory’s physical infrastructure as well as the terms of employment used by the company and invoked on the night of the storms. For example, the factory workers in Mayfield reported being threatened with being fired if they left. Others spoke of losing “points,” the company’s system for managing and penalizing absences, late arrivals, and early departures. A lawyer representing some of the surviving workers has called the factory “a modern-day sweatshop.”

Kentucky is an employment “at will” state, which means that an employer can terminate a contract with an employee without cause, as long as it does not violate federal laws. While representatives from Mayfield Consumer Products deny the many claims from workers about the threats, the fact remains that the company retained the power to fire them and it is clear that many workers perceived that their livelihoods would have been at risk if they had left their shifts early. They also correctly feared that their lives were at risk by staying, asking why the company did not simply cancel the Friday night shift in anticipation of the storms.

Why is it important to understand who worked at Mayfield?

Mayfield Consumer Products is one of the largest employers in Graves County. Wages start near minimum wage, and the company was an important source of working-class employment. The company relies on immigrant labor, with about 100 of its 550 workers being native Spanish speakers.

Because of labor shortages, the company had also turned toward employing incarcerated workers. On the night of the tornadoes, seven people imprisoned at the county jail were working at the factory. Of course, their freedom to leave the night shift ahead of the deadly storm was even more curtailed than that of their co-workers and would have provoked even greater consequences than the possibility of being fired. The correctional officer who guarded them while they worked, Robert Daniel, was one of the eight people to die in the factory that night. In other words, the workers at the factory that night—poor, immigrant, incarcerated, and employed in “guard labor”—offer crucial insight into the composition and vulnerabilities of the contemporary multiracial working-class.

Who takes care of us when the state can’t or won’t?

Even before the tornadoes, access to basic services, such as adequate healthcare, was limited to a select few. This intensified under COVID, with shortages of nurses and the continued closing of rural hospitals. This is not a distinct problem from the carceral state; in fact, it has happened as Kentucky has seen tremendous growth in its incarcerated populations, outpacing most other states. Today, if it were its own country, Kentucky would have the seventh-highest rate of incarceration in the world.

Mass incarceration is an imperfect term for describing this phenomenon, as it really is about how the state itself has invested and reorganized its capacities into and through expanding police and building prisons and jails. In rural communities, for example, jail expansion is one of the few mechanisms available for revenue generation. States pay counties to house state prisoners in local lockups as a way of relieving prison overcrowding and saving money. This arrangement incentivizes and subsidizes a significant expansion of carceral capacity at the county level, including in regions that have seen considerable prison construction.

Who controls the story of what happened?

So far, there have been two dominant political tendencies deployed to frame the moment. In the first, politicians and media alike aim to avoid politicization, choosing to discuss the events as natural disasters and the effort in their aftermath in terms of emergency assistance, disaster relief, and thoughts and prayers. This trope of an apolitical environmental crisis was perhaps best expressed by President Joe Biden, during his visit to the area, when he offered that “there’s no red tornadoes and blue tornadoes.”

Governor Andy Beshear also struck a similar tone in his State of the Commonwealth speech to a joint session of the General Assembly. Stating that “our role in government is not to move the state right or left but to move it forward” he noted of the response to the tornadoes that “All of America—and indeed, the entire world—has now seen who we are: neighbors who open our homes and hearts to one another. People who embrace selflessness, generosity and love. All while we were reminded that any arguments, any divisions, just aren’t that important.”

The governor is right to emphasize the generosity and love shown by Kentuckians in the face of disaster. But attempts to avoid politicizing the disaster make two critical errors, one analytical and one strategic. Tornadoes—from their very possibility to the uneven and disproportionate impact on the multiracial poor and working-class—cannot be abstracted out of political contexts. The recent spike in catastrophic weather patterns is unequivocally connected to climate change, and will likely accelerate. In trying to abandon or avoid politics, the apolitical trope results in ceding the very terrain on which we make sense of what has happened. We know that far right forces, at home and abroad, mobilize around climate change and disaster by encasing crises with scapegoating and fear-based politics. It is crucial for the left to seize the political meaning of this moment and establish an emerging common sense

The second political tendency is equally dangerous, if more confined to social media. In this, commentators blame the disaster on Kentuckians themselves. This constitutes a version of what the historian Elizabeth Catte has called “Trump Country” media pieces, in which journalists tried to make sense of the 2016 election results by blaming rural voters in places like Appalachia and the rust belt.

This form of commentary concerning Appalachia neither originated nor ended with Trump. It extends a long history of covering the region as a distinctive, deficient, and retrograde geography and was even more recently expressed in a slew of “What’s wrong with West Virginians?” pieces about the intransigence of Senator Joe Manchin. This is both a kind of hatred of the mythical “white working-class” expressed through and as coastal elitism and a complete misunderstanding of who, in fact, constitutes the working class. It is also a thoroughly lazy analysis that in its reliance on stereotypes and hardened representations of individuals completely mystifies the structural forces at work. In the case of coverage and commentary on the tornadoes, it grafts an analysis most often found of Appalachia and the rust belt onto western Kentucky.

Unnatural disasters

In his “Ten Theses on the Philosophy of History,” the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin offered an important intervention into the notion of a progressive unfolding of history. Benjamin argues for understanding the present as a congealment of historical forces that “pile up…ruin upon ruin” while propelling us into the future. Of this violent propulsion, Benjamin writes “this storm is what we call progress.”

As thousands continue to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of December’s tornadoes in western Kentucky and elsewhere, we see the importance of examining the damage and the coverage of it as part of an effort to locate both historically. The storms of December, we argue, lay bare the larger storm of which they were a part, and which continues to rage.

Understanding the tornadoes’ disastrous consequences as unnatural—as produced by systems and institutions—offers us different questions to ask and different forms of solutions to seek and develop. One that undeniably would have saved lives that night is unionization and worker-protection legislation, forms of solidarity that leverage power back to workers. Leveraging both of these opportunities requires investing in all kinds of organizing. This is essential if we are to build not only collective power to demand change, but also the collective capacity to carry out meaningful mutual aid efforts. These are crucial for our survival in a state organized around police power, property and profit; they provide vital alternatives to the forces that simultaneously offer episodic relief funds while forwarding long-term strategies of organized abandonment.

The questions above reveal that while tornadoes may be an inevitable part of living in certain areas of the country, the violent and premature death they wrought in December 2021 is thoroughly avoidable. We can and must organize ourselves at and across scales—communities, workplaces, regions—to build and demand what we deserve.