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In These Times features award-winning investigative reporting about corporate malfeasance and government wrongdoing.
Updated: 1 year 13 weeks ago

The U.S. Is Ending the Use of Federal Private Prisons—But That Won’t End Mass Incarceration

August 18, 2016 - 11:22pm

In a major victory for the criminal justice reform movement, the Department of Justice released plans today to end its use of private prisons over the next five years, according to a memo obtained by The Washington Post.

The memo, from Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, states that the department plans on not renewing contracts with private prison operators or substantially scaling down those contracts, with the ultimate goal of abolishing federal private prisons altogether.

Yates also wrote that private prisons “do not provide the same level of correctional services,” “do not save substantially on costs” and “do not maintain the same level of safety and security.”

There are currently over 22,000 prisoners—about 11 percent of the total federal prison population—in 13 federally contracted private prisons around the nation. The memo does not detail where the prisoners will be moved, but Yates told the Post that by May 1, 2017, the total federal private prison population will fall to less than 14,200 inmates.

The 13 federal private prisons are operated by three corporations: the Corrections Corporation of America, The GEO Group, Inc. and Management & Training Corporation. According to Yates, all of the contracts with these corporations will be up within the next five years.

The DOJ announcement follows years of protests, petitions and divestment movements both through coalitions of immigrant and labor groups and on college campuses.

Organizers against private prisons note that the for-profit institutions increase recidivism (and are incentivized to do so, as they can make over $3,000 profit per year per prisoner) and often force prisoners to work for free. The private prisons also have more incidents of contraband, lockdowns, inmate discipline, telephone monitoring and grievances per capita than public prisons, according to a review by the Office of the Inspector General of the DOJ. Contract prisons have higher rates of assaults, both by inmates on prison guards and inmates on each other, than public prisons. In 2012, one GEO Group private juvenile prison in Florida closed after a judge called it "a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions."

Some universities, such as Columbia University in June 2015 and the University of California system in December 2015, heeded the warnings of student activists who organized awareness weeks, orchestrated extended sit-ins and passed student government resolutions, and divested substantially from private prisons. Other universities, such as Northwestern University in Chicago, ignored their student activists and spoke of fiduciary responsibilities and profit margins.

In what may prove to be quite the “I-told-you-so” moment for divestment activists, stocks for the corporations have already begun plummeting. On Thursday morning, stocks for the Corrections Corporation of America dropped 38.02 percent in the first four hours after the announcement and stocks for the GEO Group dropped 39.19 percent.

The fight against private prisons ranged beyond the college campus, stretching across many aspects of the progressive movement. The National Prison Divestment Campaign hosted protest marches in New York and met with Congressional staffers in Washington, D.C. The ACLU has organized protests and released damning reports of abuses within private facilities. Earlier this year, progressive outlets such as Mother Jones and The Nation published exposés and in-depth investigations on the cruelties of the private prison industry, finding that prisoners with serious illnesses are often denied healthcare to save the bottom line, which has led to the premature death of at least two private prison inmates. When the Movement for Black Lives released their platform earlier this month, they demanded federal action “against G4S and other global private prison companies that are profiting from the shackling of our community in the US, in Palestine, in Brazil and around the world.” Even Bernie Sanders introduced a bill in 2015 to end for-profit prisons.

However, while this development is a step in the right direction for the United States’ broken criminal justice system, it is by no means a panacea. Most significantly, the majority of prisoners are held in public prisons, which are often home to similar abuses and are more than capable of perpetuating the social ills of mass incarceration even without their private counterparts. The DOJ memo makes no mention of closing public prisons or attempting to diminish the total prison population.

The DOJ memo also fails to abolish the private detention centers scattered around the U.S.-Mexico border and throughout the country, operated by corporations such as G4S and Geo Group through contracts from the Department of Homeland Security. These detention centers hold tens of thousands of people, including thousands of children, who are denied the due process of law and held in inhumane conditions.

Additionally, state private prisons remain untouched by the DOJ’s policy. There are over 100,000 inmates in state private prisons, almost five times more than those in federal private prisons, according to 2014 statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Finally, the private prison industry has a powerful lobby, and could feasibly reverse the DOJ’s plans. Even after Hillary Clinton announced that she wanted to “end private prisons and private detention centers,” Damon Hininger, the CEO of Corrections Corporation of America, said his company would be “just fine.”

“I would say that being around 30 years and being in operation in many, many states, and also doing work with the federal government going back to the 1980s, where you had Clinton White House, you had a Bush White House, you had Obama White House, we’ve done very, very well,” Hininger said, while speaking at a REITWeek investor forum in June.

Still, up until 2013, the inmate population at private prisons had been rapidly increasing, up by almost 800 percent since 1980, with no end in sight. The closure of 13 federal private prisons is the most significant reversal of that tide to date and serves as a welcome reminder that marching in the streets can lead to reforms down the road.

Categories: Newswire

Can There Be a Party of the Left in Britain?

August 18, 2016 - 10:00am

We may be watching the Labour Party’s death throes. It gets harder by the day to recall that heady time less than 20 years ago when Labour won the General Election—after 18 years of Tory rule—with a huge majority. So what’s happened? Paradoxically, given its title, Richard Seymour’s Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics charts a history of the party’s decline.

It’s a long story of successful efforts by the Labour Party establishment to keep its left wing under control and as far as possible from power. Under Tony Blair, the party was firmly centre-right. Yes, there were a few improvements on welfare and taxation, but Blair was in thrall to Thatcherism, and his government did little to reduce inequality and nothing to return privatised industries and utilities to public ownership. Manufacturing had taken an enormous blow under Thatcher, as had unions. Neither revived under Blair.

Some say it was Blair’s 2003 decision to join Bush in invading Iraq and the war’s disastrous aftermath, followed by “the expenses scandal”—MPs were caught getting fat at the public trough—that inspired this country’s current scepticism about politics, as demonstrated by the fact that the electorate has shrunk across all parties.

Then there was the world recession of 2008, which was not the Labour government’s fault. Indeed, Gordon Brown, who was then the prime minister and a vocal opponent of austerity, saved the UK and some of Europe from even greater economic catastrophe, but the recession probably cost Labour the 2010 election. For the next five years, we lived with a coalition government of Tories and Liberal Democrats.

During that period, Labour MPs were weak in critiquing that coalition’s austerity policies, and even promised more of the same. Their defeat in May 2015 owed a good deal to the almost total obliteration of Labour in Scotland and severe inroads made by the far-right UK Independence Party (UKIP).

The errors and misjudgements of Labour MPs let Jeremy Corbyn emerge as the party’s first-ever leader from its “hard” left wing. Corbyn’s candidacy inspired thousands of people, old and young, to join or rejoin the party to support him, as I did. Last summer Corbyn was elected by a huge majority of party members. He stands for nuclear disarmament and a genuine welfare state.

At the moment, there are 229 Labour MPs in the House of Commons and 172 of them want Corbyn out. They insist he is no leader, is incompetent, that he was lukewarm about Europe and is making their party unelectable. As I write, another leadership contest is planned. Again, members are allowed to vote, and about half a million have signed up—though this time, they will have to pay £25 to do so unless they can prove they’re long-term members.

Owen Smith is standing against Corbyn, and is not markedly more charismatic. But the party, most of the press and some of my friends are convinced that a party led by Corbyn is a party of protest, uninterested in power and therefore to be resisted.

There’s been a good deal of name-calling. Corbyn has been called “devious” and “vain” by some devious and vain senior politicians. Len McCluskey, a union boss and Corbyn backer, has called the whole thing “a squalid coup.” Corbyn supporters are accused of throwing bricks through an MP’s office window, while Corbyn himself is said to have locked himself in his office.

Corbyn may win this leadership contest again, in which case it seems likely that the party will split and cease to serve as an effective opposition. If there is a solution, and there may not be, it lies in electoral reform. Our first-past-the-post system, which in the May election resulted in a Conservative government that was supported by only 37 percent of the voters, no longer suits our differences and anomalies. But I doubt there is anyone or any party that will risk all to introduce some form of proportional representation.

I shall vote for Corbyn because of his policies, because he has inspired a lot of people to return to the Labour Party, and because the parliamentary party has refused to listen to him or to his supporters.

Categories: Newswire

How Hillary Clinton and “American Power” Paved the Way for Shocking Violence in Honduras

August 17, 2016 - 9:33pm

This article was first posted at

“How the Most Dangerous Place on Earth Got Safer” was the headline over the lead article in the New York Times' "Week in Review" (8/11/16), with the teaser reading, “Programs funded by the United States are helping transform Honduras. Who says American power is dead?”

The piece never really got around to explaining, though, how Honduras became the most dangerous place on Earth. That’s American power, too.

Reporter Sonia Nazario returned to Honduras after a three-year absence to find

a remarkable reduction in violence, much of it thanks to programs funded by the United States that have helped community leaders tackle crime…. The United States has not only helped to make these places safer, but has also reduced the strain on our own country.

Nazario described U.S.-funded anti-violence programs in a high-crime neighborhood in the Honduran city San Pedro Sula:

The United States has provided local leaders with audio speakers for events, tools to clear 10 abandoned soccer fields that had become dumping grounds for bodies, notebooks and school uniforms, and funding to install streetlights and trash cans.

She offered the results of this and similar programs as evidence that “smart investments in Honduras are succeeding” and “a striking rebuke to the rising isolationists in American politics,” who “seem to have lost their faith in American power.”

But Nazario failed to explain how American power paved the way for the shocking rise in violence in Honduras. In the early 2000s, the murder rate in Honduras fluctuated between 44.3 and 61.4 per 100,000—very high by global standards, but similar to rates in neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala. (It’s not coincidental that all three countries were dominated by violent, U.S.-backed right-wing governments in the 1980s—historical context that the op-ed entirely omitted.) Then, in June 2009, Honduras’ left-leaning President Manuel Zelaya was overthrown in a military coup, kidnapped and flown out of the country via the joint U.S./Honduran military base at Palmerola.

The U.S. is supposed to cut off aid to a country that has a military coup—and “there is no doubt” that Zelaya’s ouster “constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup,” according to a secret report sent by the U.S. ambassador to Honduras on July 24, 2009, and later exposed by WikiLeaks. But the U.S. continued most aid to Honduras, carefully avoiding the magic words “military coup” that would have necessitated withdrawing support from the coup regime.

Internal emails reveal that the State Department pressured the OAS not to support the country’s constitutional government. In her memoir Hard Choices, Hillary Clinton recalled how as secretary of State she worked behind the scenes to legitimate the new regime:

In the subsequent days (following the coup) I spoke with my counterparts around the hemisphere, including Secretary Espinosa in Mexico. We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras, and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot.

With a corrupt, drug-linked regime in place, thanks in large part to U.S. intervention, murder in Honduras soared, rising to 70.7 per 100,000 in 2009, 81.8 in 2010 and 91.4 in 2011—fully 50 percent above the pre-coup level. While many of the murders involved criminal gangs, much of the post-coup violence was political, with resuscitated death squads targeting journalists, opposition figures, labor activists and environmentalists—of whom indigenous leader Berta Cáceres was only the most famous.

At one point, it seemed like Nazario was going to acknowledge the U.S. role in creating the problems she gives “American power” credit for ameliorating. “We are also repairing harms the United States inflicted,” she wrote—but the explanation she gives for that was strangely circumscribed:

first by deporting tens of thousands of gangsters to Honduras over the past two decades, a decision that fueled much of the recent mayhem, and second by our continuing demand for drugs, which are shipped from Colombia and Venezuela through Honduras.

No mention of the U.S. supporting Honduras’ coup, or the political murders of the U.S.-backed regime.

At one point, three-quarters of the way through the lengthy piece, Nazario did acknowledge in passing the sinister role the U.S. plays in Latin America:

It will take much more than this project to change the reputation of the United States in this part of the world, where we are famous for exploiting workers and resources and helping to keep despots in power.

Surely it’s relevant that some of the despots the U.S. helped keep in power were in the country she’s reporting from, and that this led directly to the problem she’s writing about? But she dropped the idea there, moving on immediately to talk about the U.S.’s interest in reducing the flow of child refugees.

The most troubling part of the op-ed is that it didn’t feel the need to acknowledge or even dispute the relationship between U.S. support for the coup and Honduras’ shocking murder rate. The New York Times covered much of this ground, after all, in an op-ed by Dana Frank four years ago (1/26/12). Now, however, that information is down the memory hole—leaving the Times free to tout donations of trashcans and school uniforms as an advertisement for American power.

Categories: Newswire

The Myth of the Surgical Strike

August 17, 2016 - 5:19am

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

The global war on terror—or whatever it is called nowadays—is not going well. From Afghanistan to Libya, the adversaries of the West seem undaunted by Western bombardment. The Taliban advances towards Lashkar Gar in Helmand Province (Afghanistan), while groups such as the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries and even ISIS hold their ground in central and eastern Libya.

The advantage of the West and its allies (Saudi Arabia and Israel) is its dominance of the skies. None of the groups—neither the Taliban nor ISIS—has an air force or serious ground-to-air capacity. They are at the mercy of the high-altitude bombers—including drones—that can fly over their terrain and hit them at will. But this aerial advantage has a limited ability. It can destroy identifiable targets—what its people on the ground or its eyes in the sky can see. This is possible. What is less possible is to obliterate—without major civilian casualties—the guerrilla fighters on the ground. They do not stand in formation, waiting for annihilation from above. These fighters move in small groups, keep close to natural cover and flitter in and out of civilian areas. To take them from the air is difficult.

When the bombers begin to circle above them, the guerrilla armies of the Taliban and ISIS vanish. This was apparent in 2001, when the Taliban, under heavy U.S. bombardment, took off their turbans and went home or crossed into Pakistan. They waited till the opportunity arose to raise up their guns in places where they knew they enjoyed sufficient support. When the bombing began again, they evaporated. One Afghan security official told me, "the Taliban are like Jinns," the ghostly creatures of Islamic mythology. "They eat bones," he said, quoting the Quran. It was their spectral aspect that interested him. "We know where the Taliban hide," he said, "but we can’t hit them. To hit them hard in some places means we’d have to obliterate entire civilian populations."

Civilian casualties from these aerial attacks come in large numbers, but are reported with casualness. In the key battle in northern Syria for the town of Manbij, the frontline drifted to a set of houses in the village of Tokkar. On July 19, Western aerial bombing against these huts killed over 100 people, with 73 bodies clearly identified as civilians (the rest were too charred to be identified). U.S.-backed troops—the Syrian Democratic Forces—made significant gains toward Manbij, and would likely have taken the key town without heavy U.S. aerial bombardment. What this bombardment has done is to sour the sensibility of the population against their liberation from ISIS control. Such key massacres do little to raise the confidence of the people toward those who arrive under air cover that has inflicted such a terrible toll against ordinary people.

Futility of aerial bombardment is most clearly apparent in Yemen, where the Saudi government has been hitting the country with great ferocity since March 2015. A Panel of Experts assembled by the U.N. Secretary-General reports that in the first six months of this year, the Saudi coalition has struck civilian targets, with one case of specially egregious violation of international humanitarian law. In the case of a village in the southern Lahij province, on May 25, "It is almost certain that the civilian house was the deliberate target of the high-explosive aircraft bombs." Other incidents remain under investigation. The Panel blamed the Houthi rebels for using civilians as human shields. What they suggest is that the Houthis should avoid the cover of civilian areas, stand in an open field and be annihilated by superior Saudi airpower. It is certainly true that the standards of international humanitarian law insist that all combatants—despite the asymmetrical nature of the conflict—should not endanger civilians. However, this is a standard guerrilla armies always resist.

What happens when the aerial bombardment takes place against civilian areas where there is no sign of combatants? On August 7, Saudi aircraft bombed the marketplace in Odhar village in the district of Nihm. There were no combatants in sight according to people on the ground. Nine civilians died. Forty people died when Saudi aircraft struck a nearby market in February. No strategic gain came from these attacks, neither for Saudi Arabia nor for its proxies. The Saudis and their allies lose whatever shred of legitimacy they might have had. An attempt to move a file against Saudi Arabia for humanitarian violations in the institutions of the U.N. has been stifled.

Much the same reaction meets any attempt to bring Israel and the United States to the account for its violations of the laws of war. An old Chinese cartoon from the time of the Boxer Rebellion has a picture of an Englishman beating a Chinese man. The caption below that reads "Civilization." A picture beside that of a Chinese man beating an Englishman carries the caption "Barbarism." The double standard remains.

Summer is the time when the Taliban abandons its shelter and comes out to inflict pain on the Afghan National Army and its NATO allies. All talk of the gains of the Surge are now gone. In Helmand Province, where the Surge had taken place, the Taliban is now close to seizing urban centers such as Lashgar Gar. Once it does so, to root it out will require far more than aerial bombardment. This is what the West and its allies find in Mosul (Iraq), Raqqa (Syria) and Sirte (Libya) – and this is what the Syrian government finds in Aleppo and what the armies of General Khalifa Haftar find in Benghazi (Libya). To fight inside congested urban areas means armies on the ground are required and that they will have to take significant casualties as they move from street to street.

To prevent loss of lives to their armies, the forces of the West and the Russians, as well as their allies, rely upon aerial bombings and urban sieges. It is a tactic also used by its adversaries. They might not have aircraft, but they use suicide bombings. These are as effective in breaking morale as the bombing from the sky. When the forces of Syrian rebels (including the al-Qaeda backed rebels) broke through the ring around Aleppo, they formed their own siege. Their tactics are no better than those of their adversaries. They fight in the bowels of cities, breaking the heart of society.

A few years ago, a fighter in an al-Qaeda backed group in Syria told me that the only adversary he respected were the fighters from Hezbollah. They fought so close, he said, that "we could hear the chattering of their teeth." Much the same is reported of how ISIS sees the Kurdish fighters. These are people who are willing to risk their lives to win back territory. They do not hide beneath bombers.

Perhaps this is why the West has sent back some of its Special Forces into Libya and Syria, despite denials about their presence in these battlefields. Pictures emerge of British Special Forces at al-Tanf inside Syria near the Iraqi and Jordanian borders. These soldiers provided training for the New Syrian Army, one more of the "moderate" forces set up by the West. Their base was soon overrun by Syrian troops, after the British soldiers moved out. French soldiers died in a helicopter crash in Libya, suggesting their presence along the Mediterranean coast. These are small detachments of fighters. They are there to provide assistance to their allies. Gains even here are slim. Territory is taken, but hearts and minds are not won. These are lost immediately when another bomb falls on a civilian marketplace or home and kills another dozen children.

The monstrous anger of the guns continues. Space for a peace process desiccates. The Saudi-Yemen discussions fell apart on Sunday, while the Syrian peace process lifts few hopes. There is no real conversation toward peace in Afghanistan or Libya. Hope in aerial bombardment as the prophylactic for peace is absurd. It has given us instability and chaos. Other roads have to be opened. Other paths seeded.

Categories: Newswire

“The fix is in”: How the Blair Government Helped U.K. Companies Profit From the Iraq War

August 15, 2016 - 10:07pm

Back in 2011, Hillary Clinton famously told a gathering of government officials and business leaders that it was “time for the United States to start thinking of Iraq as a business opportunity.” Documents that were released as part of the U.K.’s Chilcot Report show that long before she had given out this advice—and before the war had even begun—U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government had taken on this mindset with gusto, fighting to make sure British companies benefited from the potential riches involved in Iraq’s postwar reconstruction.

Along with the report itself, a 12-volume behind-the-scenes overview of Britain’s path to war released last month, the hundreds of secret documents and internal memos that have been released alongside it show U.K. officials lobbying to make sure British companies did not miss out on the business opportunities offered by the war, while privately acknowledging the disastrous optics of doing so. Facing pressure from an anxious business community keen to take advantage of the potential spoils of war, the Blair government successfully pushed to make sure British companies had a seat at the table. 

According to the report, as early as September 2002—at a time when the Blair government was still publicly insisting it was not set on war with Iraq, even as it had privately committed itself to regime change—David Manning, the prime minister’s foreign policy advisor, commissioned a report from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) outlining what a post-Saddam Iraqi government would look like. 

The FCO’s report outlined “overarching priorities for Iraq,” such as getting rid of the country’s (ultimately nonexistent) WMDs, as well as a number of “second order objectives,” which included “ensuring British companies benefit from any post-war reconstruction contracts.” A month later, in a telegram titled “Iraq: Dividing the Spoils,” the British ambassador to the United States questioned why this was only “second order,” instead terming it a “top priority” for post-Saddam planning. 

“[The U.K.] will need to register with the Americans that, in the event of war, the U.K. will expect to get a generous share of reconstruction and oil contracts after Saddam’s defeat,” he wrote. “This did not happen in Kuwait after the Gulf War.”

It’s not surprising officials were so eager to capitalize on Iraq’s postwar reconstruction. As internal documents detailed, it was a potential bonanza for the private sector. “[T]he long term commercial opportunities in Iraq will be huge, as a generation of neglected infrastructure is replaced,” read one letter to Blair from Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Secretary of State for Trade and Industry Patricia Hewitt.

Iraq’s oil-producing capacity was especially coveted. “With proved reserves of 112.5 billion barrels of oil (10.7 percent of world reserves) Iraq is second only to Saudi Arabia in terms of remaining oil reserves,” read another note to Manning from an unnamed junior official from Trade Partners UK (TPUK), a government department aimed at promoting British exports. The note also pointed out that the amount of yet-to-find reserves in Iraq “is unmatched anywhere in the world.”

Raising the Issue 

Despite some officials’ obvious eagerness to get businesses involved, the Blair government needed prodding from the private sector. Over the months of late 2002 and early 2003, representatives of U.K. businesses repeatedly expressed to government officials their concern that they were going to be left behind when contracts were finally divvied out, and pressured the government to do more to ensure they wouldn’t be. In an October 2002 meeting with oil groups, the FCO’s Middle East director said the FCO was “determined to get a fair slice of the action for U.K. companies,” according to meeting minutes obtained by The Independent in 2011. 

Over the next months, representatives of BP and other oil companies met with members of the British government several times to stress Iraq’s importance to their operations, and express their concern that businesses from other countries were getting preferential seats at the table over British companies. According to The Independent's documents, there were at least five such meetings between British officials and BP and Shell in late 2002. 

And the U.K., which in the meantime was helping the U.S. plot regime change, had reason to believe it deserved special treatment: one British official learned Dick Cheney had told former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov that the “bids of those countries which co-operated with the U.S. over Iraq would be looked at more sympathetically than those which did not.” 

Even as they repeatedly sought to relay their concerns about being left out of Iraq to government officials, businesses publicly denied these efforts. Months later, on the eve of the war, both BP and Shell would deny they had met with officials to expressly talk about Iraq, saying that it only came up as one topic of conversation in the course of “normal meetings [they] attend from time to time.” “We have no strategic interest in Iraq,” BP insisted, 

By November 2002, it’s evident the Blair government had begun to take these concerns seriously. Departments were “encouraged” to “engage those outside Government in prudent contingency planning … particularly in the oil sector”—but only if “such contact is discreet.” Much of the discussions around Iraqi reconstruction revolved around securing a “level playing field” for British companies—a phrase that came up over and over again in communications sent within the Blair government.

On November 15, the ambassador to the United States, Christopher Meyer, sent Manning a letter about the situation, stating that oil companies “brought in at an early stage will have a natural advantage,” and noting intelligence that suggested the Pentagon had already awarded a contract to Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), a subsidiary of Halliburton. This, as the Chilcot Report notes, was likely the $1.9 million contract KBR received to develop a plan for repairing Iraq’s oil infrastructure. (KBR was eventually awarded a $7 billion contract a week before the invasion—the largest no-bid contract in U.S. history).

Meyer believed Blair would have to personally raise the issue with Bush, which would be a “delicate matter.” He suggested talking points for Blair to do so. Blair should point out that the Iraqi economy would have to be restarted after Saddam’s fall, which the country’s oil industry was central to, wrote Meyer. He should also tell Bush that the U.K. had “energy majors” with the “skills and resources to help,” and express his “hope” that British companies would be invited to discussions about Iraq’s oil. This was, according to Meyer, “the least that we should do”—after all, because the U.K. had been “too squeamish and slow off the mark,” the United States grabbed the “lion’s share” of oil contracts in Kuwait in 1991 while the U.K. “did badly.”

Although it’s unclear if Blair ever raised the issue with Bush, other officials certainly did with their counterparts. In December of that year, Manning reported to Blair that he brought the matter up with Condoleezza Rice over dinner—namely, he had said he hoped British energy companies would be “treated fairly and not overlooked” if Saddam was removed and energy concessions were given out. 

“She commented that it would be particularly unjust if those energy companies who had observed the sanctions regime since the Gulf War were not among the beneficiaries in a post-Saddam Iraq,” he wrote. “She knew UK companies belonged in this category.” 

British officials privately acknowledged the potential for such lobbying efforts to backfire, not just on the U.K. but on the entire war effort. At the time, and since, suspicions abounded that the war was really about securing Western control of Iraq’s oil reserves rather than removing Saddam’s supposed WMDs and freeing the Iraqi people. Both Bush and Blair had to deny such accusations in the lead-up to the war. 

A November 29 note from TPUK to Manning stated: “It would be inappropriate for HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] to enter into discussions about any future carve-up of the Iraqi oil industry, not least because it would suggest that our objectives on Iraq are other than to see the effective dismantlement of Saddam Hussein’s regime.” In case it wasn’t clear how important this point was, this passage was bolded. (Despite this, it also stated that the U.K. should take action to ensure “a level playing field” for British businesses.)  

Baroness Liz Symons, the Minister of State for trade and investment, also wrote to Blair that avoiding overt public support for British businesses “has been the right approach bearing in mind that we have been making the case publicly that this conflict is about WMD not oil (as many have unfairly claimed).” But, she warned, “the pressure from businesses is building.”

Under Pressure

The documents make clear just how much pressure businesses began putting on the Blair government. A February 2003 minute from TPUK to Symons notes that while up to that point “most of our meetings have involved only internal players and have been relatively low key” so as to “avoid giving undue prominence to the commercial aspects of HMG’s handling of the crisis,” planning had entered a new phase. “We expect to be approached directly by firms seeking confidential discussions on early access to Iraq,” it stated. 

The minute outlines the various types of assistance British companies were likely to need from the government, which included advice on how to best do business in a post-Saddam Iraq and help with positioning themselves to obtain reconstruction contracts. The memory of Kuwait reared its head again, with the TPUK reporting companies’ concern that they would be left out in the cold once more, as in 1991. British companies, the minute warned, “are likely to react badly to countries not actively engaged in the [Iraq War] coalition securing reconstruction business.” Symons was also informed that TPUK officials believed the Blair government was “not extracting sufficient commercial advantage from our support for the US, in terms of business opportunities for UK companies.” 

Symons struck a similar note when she wrote to Straw and Hewitt around the same time in 2003. “More and more individuals and companies are approaching me and TPUK about the issue of post-conflict resolution in Iraq,” she wrote. This included Standard Chartered Bank (which was part of a 13-bank group that was selected to run the Trade Bank of Iraq in August 2003, which financed imports and exports in the country) and the British Consultants and Contractors Bureau (a trade organization-cum-lobbying-firm for the consulting industry, now named British Expertise), which expressed “serious concern that insufficient action appears to be happening at a political level to safeguard UK interests” in a post-Saddam Iraq. “I fear that some of our business community believe we are not engaged,” she wrote. “[T]he time is right to be more on the front foot.”

In keeping with this, British officials continued to lobby U.S. policymakers right up to the start of the war. Mike O’Brien, a minister of FCO, visited Washington a mere week before the launch of the war to discuss post-conflict issues, stressing that British companies needed “a fair crack of the whip” to compete for contracts. 

The persistence of both the British government and businesses paid off. While British companies couldn’t compete for primary contracts under U.S. law, the head of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)—the department which helped administer Iraq’s reconstruction—assured British officials that they were more than welcome to bid on subcontracting work with the sufficient clearances. O’Brien went on to send him a list of “trustworthy” companies, according to the report.

The Blair government got its confirmation of this after the war began. After one official at the British Embassy followed up on these meetings, an unnamed USAID official confirmed that the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), which was to act as a temporary government once Saddam was ousted, had been informed that the U.K. needed to be included in the assessment of subcontracts. “The fix is in,” the official said. In May, Blair was informed that the United States “regard [sic] UK companies as leading contenders for sub-contract work.”

While U.S. companies were indeed favored over foreign ones, the “fix” paid off for several British corporations. Engineering firm Amec, in partnership with an American company, won a $1 billion water and sewage contract, as well as a contract for $500 million worth of electricity projects. Development firm Crown Agents won a $7 million reconstruction deal, while three more British companies won lucrative contracts the following years. 

It’s in subsequent years, however, that British companies have really done well for themselves. In 2008, Shell and BP were two of a number of companies (all Western) that won no-bid contracts for work on Iraq’s oil fields. In 2009, BP signed a 20-year contract to manage Iraq’s Rumaila oil field, which at one point accounted for nearly half of Iraq’s oil output.

"Success Story"

Lobbying by the British didn’t end once the war began. The Blair government continued to work on behalf of British companies to ensure they benefitted from the rebuilding of Iraq, talking up British companies’ expertise in vital sectors of the Iraqi economy to Bush administration officials.

Early on in the war, however, officials seemed almost deflated that more British companies hadn’t capitalized on the government’s efforts. Straw and Hewitt noted in a letter to Blair in May that while more than 800 British companies had registered their interest in Iraq with TPUK, around 5 percent of the 3,500 companies who had registered as subcontractors for American construction and civil engineering company Bechtel—the recipient of one of the biggest U.S. contracts for Iraq—were British. Straw and Hewitt floated the idea of securing “firmer political guarantees from the U.S.,” but ultimately determined that now that the government had “create[d] a favorable political atmosphere” for British companies, it was up to them to make the most of the opportunity. 

Even so, the Blair government helped out where it could. In June 2003, Straw wrote to Blair explaining that one of Britain’s biggest engineering firms, Siemens U.K.—the British branch of German industrial giant Siemens—had its bid to supply the cities of Baghdad and Basra with electricity “stalled in Washington by counter-lobbying by GE.” Hewitt was “keen for you to lobby the President on behalf” of the company, Straw wrote. 

Straw advised Blair in a separate letter sent the same day to forcefully bring up the issue of contracts when he spoke with Bush. “[T]he US are completely ruthless on favouring US companies, and will not help UK companies unless you play hardball with Bush,” he wrote. The following day, Blair talked about the matter with Bush, while Hewitt raised the issue a month later with Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), formerly the OHRA, that was in charge of Iraq.

The lobbying effort was successful. Siemens representatives told British Embassy officials in Washington the following month that there had been “a favorable change in CPA attitudes to their participation in the power sector, which they attribute to HMG teamwork on their behalf.” Siemens U.K. ultimately secured a contract worth $95 million to develop a power station in Iraq, as well as $50 million more worth of subcontracts. 

One Department of Trade and Industry official called the Siemens turnaround a “success story” that indicated “the level of political support which may be needed to unblock the US system, and the level of determination to get business success in Iraq.” But more than that, it was also a good indicator of the lengths the British government put in to advocate for the welfare of a private corporation. Helping Siemens secure its contract was no mere side-issue—it was a matter pursued at the very highest level of government. 

Government advocacy for British companies was no doubt motivated by any number of factors, not least of which would be the presumed benefits that would filter down to the British economy. However, as one report on the U.K.’s “oil and gas strategy” for Iraq sent to Blair in July 2005 laid out, Iraq’s oil sector was also viewed as crucial to British energy security. “The UK’s economic well being depends on secure oil and gas supplies at affordable prices,” the report reads. “Sustainable increases in Iraqi oil and gas production would make a large contribution to global energy security.” 

The Iraq War, and the furious scramble for contracts which both preceded it and continued throughout, shows the confluence of private and public interests on a scale rarely seen. While the idea of Iraq as simply a war for oil may be reductive, the Chilcot Report and its accompanying documents show that money and financial interests lined many layers of the path to the Iraq War. 

Perhaps more importantly, however, is what these documents reveal about the relationship between government and business. Government officials are meant to be public servants, yet officials in the Blair government appeared most attentive towards business concerns, ready to bend over backwards to satisfy the whims of corporations, alleviate their concerns and avoid their displeasure. It’s a stark contrast to the Blair government’s dismissal of unprecedented public opposition to the war, and should make us reconsider who our officials’ real constituents are. 

Categories: Newswire

U.S. Peace Activists Should Start Listening to Progressive Syrian Voices

August 15, 2016 - 5:32pm

In a recent In These Times article, reporter Eli Massey writes, “Syrian perspectives have been almost entirely absent from conversations about the refugee crisis, ISIS and the fate of the Assad regime.” While Massey is referring to a failure on the part of journalists, the article—an interview with British Syrians Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami—is also of relevance to U.S. peace activists.

Much of the peace movement, too, has largely ignored anti-Assad progressive Syrian voices and relied heavily on Western pundits for their analysis of the Syrian conflict. Consequently, many peace activists know little about Syria’s peaceful uprising and how it devolved into armed conflict. They know little to nothing of the remarkable ongoing successes and organizing efforts of grassroots groups in liberated areas (some discussed in Massey’s interview). Too many activists view the conflict through a U.S.-centric lens, concerned only with the U.S. role and with Washington’s talk that Assad must step down.

Pro-Assad for Peace?

The results have been Orwellian—a dictator accused of monstrous war crimes is being given tacit support by major organizations in the peace movement. The March 13 United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC) anti-war protest in New York City included people carrying the flag of the brutal Assad regime, some even wearing T-shirts with Assad’s image. The pro-Assad Syrian American Forum officially supported this march along with Veterans for Peace, the Manhattan Green Party, David Swanson of, and other leftwing organizations and peace activists. Speakers included not only longtime peace activists llike Kathy Kelly, a co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, but also Khaldoun Makhoul, a Syrian American and member of the pro-Assad Syrian American Will Association who expressed his enthusiastic support for Assad in an interview at the rally. [The original version of this story incorrectly reported that David Swanson was among the speakers at the rally. We regret the mistake.]

The current Vice President of Veterans for Peace, Gerry Condon, recently returned from a weeklong U.S. Peace Council trip to Syria, where a delegation met directly with Bashar Assad and other regime leaders. Condon wrote on Facebook that he was “honored to represent Veterans for Peace” on the trip. An article about the trip by Vanessa Beeley, a writer and steering committee member of the Syria Solidarity Movement International, gushed about the meetings and the “fascinating insights that were shared. … Our meeting with the Grand Mufti was one of the most profoundly moving and eloquent introductions to the mind of a true man of peace and reconcilitiation [sic].” This is the same Grand Mufti who threatened to unleash suicide bombings on the U.S. and Europe if the West bombed Syria. Beeley has promised that a full report on “the extraordinary conversation with President Bashar Al Assad will be forthcoming.”

A major reason for the support of Assad is that some organizations believe “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” For them it is a simple knee jerk analysis. If the United States opposes Assad, they support him.

Another factor is a deeply ingrained imperialism, an arrogant first world attitude that we know more than the rest of the planet. Orwell’s Big Brother would have approved of today’s "anti-imperialist” leaders subconsciously identifying with the state and behaving like imperialists, imposing their point of view on poorer countries. One of the basic principles for anti-imperialists should be respect for people from the Global South. But respect for anti-Assad progressive Syrians appears to be lacking in many of today’s “anti-imperialist” leaders.

I was active in the 1980s in the Central American peace movement in Chicago. There was sometimes tension between Central Americans and the North American solidarity activists. We recognized our tendency as U.S. activists to try to take charge of organizing efforts, and we tried to work respectfully with our Nicaraguan, Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan counterparts. With effort, we generally succeeded. We understood it was their struggle and that they were more knowledgeable about what was happening in Central America. We were aware of the need to try to take our lead from the people whose countries were under attack, whose family and friends were suffering.

That awareness, that sensitivity towards activists from the affected countries is seemingly absent today from major peace organizations regarding the Syrian conflict. Since the beginning of the revolution, “anti-imperialist” leaders of the peace movement have blatantly dismissed progressive Syrian voices. I’ve been told that Syrians here are like the anti-Castro “gusanos” in Cuba—reactionaries who want to overthrow Assad’s “socialist” government. Never mind that many of the anti-Assad Syrians are strong anti-imperialists: They identify as nonviolent activists, socialists or anarchists, or have other progressive political orientations. Regardless, they are all too often lumped together and dismissed.

If some Syrians have asked the U.S. to bomb Assad’s runways or for U.S. weapons to be delivered to the opposition, one can disagree with them. Such a disagreement is not a justification for disregarding them completely and, in the process, using a broad brush to discount all anti-Assad Syrian voices, many of whom oppose U.S. military intervention. We can still be in solidarity with the Syrian people’s struggle for freedom and dignity even when we have differing opinions about what should be done to end the war.

Yet the Committee in Solidarity with the People of Syria (CISPOS), an organization that has never advocated for U.S. military intervention (and of which I am a member), has been condemned by “anti-imperialists” for hosting “events with expats who support U.S. intervention in their countries.” Specifically, we hosted Syrian activist and University of Arkansas professor Mohja Kahf, who is accused in Consortium News of having "ties to the early destabilization of Syria" through her ex-husband’s work. But the article ignores Kahf’s own work, as a member of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement. Kahf has presented for us and several human rights, university and church groups on nonviolent resistance.

Twisting the Narrative

International human rights organizations like Amnesty International, the U.N. Human Rights Council, Physicians for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch have issued numerous reports condemning the Assad regime’s barrel bombs, starvation sieges and torture prisons. “Clearly the actions of the forces of the government far outweigh the violations” by rebels, said U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay. “It’s the government that is mostly responsible for violations.”

In the face of this consensus, “left” media has put an exorbitant amount of energy into discrediting this human rights reporting, producing headlines like “Human Rights Watch Is Not about Human Rights,” “Biased Reporting on Syria in the Service of War” and “Amnesty International, War Propaganda, and Human Rights Terrorism.” But, while no doubt these human rights organizations are imperfect, the fact that each corroborate the others’ conclusions about the Assad regime should tell us something. And, curiously, the “anti-imperialists” don’t seem to show the same skepticism towards Syria, Russia and Iran’s propaganda campaign—Orwell’s Ministry of Truth would be proud.

These so-called “anti-imperialist” organizations—UNAC, ANSWER Coalition, Anti-War Committee Chicago, Minnesota Anti-War Committee, Veterans for Peace, Women Against Military Madness, Workers World Party, Freedom Road Socialist Organization and others—use some of the same signs at anti-war events: “U.S. Hands Off Syria” and “No U.S. War on Syria.” But these slogans reflect a typically U.S.-centric view of the conflict: They rightly condemn the U.S. role while saying nothing on Assad’s crimes or the rampant bombing by Putin’s Russia, which Amnesty International has accused of deliberately targeting civilians and aid workers.

Many alternative internet media, claiming to be anti-war and anti-imperialist, make a similar mistake. Mint Press NewsAntiWar.comConsortium News and others present a narrative in which the U.S., its allies and its regime change proxies are the primary problem, and Assad is merely protecting his sovereign country—a narrative with little room for anti-Assad civilian activists.

Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) is a group of current and former officials of the United States Intelligence Community, including William Binney, Coleen Rowley and Ray McGovern, that has opposed many aspects of U.S. foreign policy. It was initially formed in 2003 to protest the use of faulty intelligence in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Orwell would have appreciated the irony that the group is now using faulty intelligence to support Assad’s war. In a June 25 statement, the group wrote, “Covert funding and provision of weapons and other material support to opposition groups for strikes against the Syrian Government provoked a military reaction by Assad.” In other words, they claim that U.S. support for the rebels provoked Assad’s military reaction.

That is a distortion. Syrian authors Mohja Kahf, Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al Shami have thoroughly documented the beginnings of the conflict—months of nonviolent protest that were met by brutal repression, snipers, military actions from the Assad regime. VIPS chose their intel from cherry-picked U.S. documents, not from progressive Syrian writers who had interviewed hundreds of Syrians.

Subconscious imperialism, racism, Islamophobia and Americanist chauvinism contribute to the problem. Western activists do not know more than Muslim Arabs about their own country. Some of us may be better educated, more widely traveled and more informed about the historical record of U.S. imperialism than some Syrians—though the reverse is true as well. However, most Westerners do not know more about the Syrian conflict than Syrians themselves. “Anti-imperialists” cannot completely disregard these anti-Assad Syrians.

For decades, the peace movement was on target in opposing the U.S. position on the wars in Vietnam, Korea, Cuba, Angola, Nicaragua and El Salvador. The analysis that the United States was promoting regime change was correct in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Cuba (1960-2015), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003). But Syria is not Iraq. It is not Afghanistan. Syria is Syria. It has its own unique history and culture—and its own Arab Spring of a genuine popular uprising against nearly five decades of the brutal Assad family dictatorship. This revolution is real, and beyond U.S. control.

Undoing the Movement’s Internal Imperialism

The “anti-imperialist” crowd promotes Syrian analyses by Western authors Seymour Hersh, Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn, Robert Kennedy Jr., Gareth Porter and Robert Parry. This is analogous to reading mainly white authors to understand Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement. There are plenty of progressive Syrians to read if the “anti-imperialists” were willing to look—Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, Robin Yassin-Kassab, Mohja Kahf, Afra Jalabi, Leila Al Shami, Rime Allaf, Lina Sergie—and myriad videos and photos taken by Syrians to document Assad and Russia’s attacks on civilians.

The media covers the many competing fighting groups, but there are also many civilian voices who are rarely given media attention. There are still Local Coordinating Committees (LCC) in opposition-held areas where civilians organize basic services and political actions. In the first years of the uprising, the LCCs issued daily reports on the regime’s attacks. Independent media outlets like Syria Direct provide reliable reporting by Syrians about Syria. Syrian civilians have led or featured prominently in campaigns to get the Western peace movement involved in solidarity to stop Assad’s barrel bombs, get aid into starving cities, pressure for ceasefires—but this doesn’t fit into the “anti-imperialists’ ” preferred narrative.

Many anti-Assad Syrians have had their family and friends bombed, killed, imprisoned, tortured, starved, displaced. Many have family members who are refugees spread throughout Europe and the Middle East. Their unrelenting tragedy has been compounded by their treatment by the “anti-imperialist”-led peace movement. Instead of standing in solidarity with progressive Syrians, they repeat Assad’s narrative of the conflict. The “anti-imperialist” leaders of the peace movement have increased Syrians’ suffering with their direct and de facto support of Assad. It is unconscionable.

One of the rewards of solidarity work is the privilege of working with progressive activists from another country. It is inspiring and heartbreaking to go beyond the media, to work with anti-Assad Syrians and learn more about the beginnings of the uprising, the flowering of culture and civil organizations during the revolution, and the subsequent disastrous war and humanitarian crisis.

Instead of smearing solidarity activists as advocates of U.S. military intervention—which I am not—today’s “anti-imperialists” should consider joining us. Without a split on the Left between pro-Assad and anti-Assad groups, our potential to effectively use nonviolent means to pressure for an end to the conflict would significantly increase. Solidarity activists in the U.K. and Code Pink in the U.S. garnered thousands of signatures on petitions to “Drop Food, Not Bombs.” My own group, CISPOS, helped organize the International Solidarity Hunger Strike for Syria to pressure the United Nations to allow humanitarian groups to bring food to besieged areas. Mass demonstrations, teach-ins, boycotts, calls for serious negotiations, solidarity trips to the refugee camps and humanitarian campaigns are all ways to build a worldwide movement in solidarity with the Syrian people, to pressure for an end to the conflict, for peace with justice and for accountability for war crimes. The unifying leadership that is needed for Syria cannot come from a regime that is deeply despised after forty-six years of despotic rule. The Western peace movement should support Syrian civil society activists in their efforts to reclaim democratic governance in their own country.

It is time for peace activists to reassess their thinking on Syria, to listen to progressive Syrian voices.

Categories: Newswire

The Radicalism of Black Lives Matter

August 15, 2016 - 4:00pm

Three years have passed since the July 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin prompted Oakland, Calif., organizer Alicia Garza to write an anguished Facebook post ending with the words “Black lives matter”—words that would channel an outpouring of outrage on social media. A year later, the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., ignited a local rebellion of Black citizenry, and a social movement took shape. That the Ferguson Police Department left Brown’s fatally wounded body on the street for hours encapsulates the disregard for Black suffering that continues to drive protest nationwide.

Already, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and the violence it exposes feel like a fixture of our media and social landscape, the images jarring and unrelenting: Tamir Rice, a boy playing with a toy gun, shot by charging police; police chasing middle-aged Walter Scott and shooting him in the back; the cold-blooded execution of Laquan McDonald on a Chicago street; and most recently, the close-range shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and the point-blank killing of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn., as he reached for his wallet, next to his girlfriend, before the eyes of her child. At the same time, the determined, angry, mournful protests nationwide—on interstate highways, on college campuses, in city streets— have become highly visible as the first sustained grassroots challenge to American policing in U.S. history.

Despite the media’s reductive framing, the movement is far from single-issue. If Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign sought to revitalize an electoral Left, BLM—along with the immigrant rights struggle and the Fight for $15—is reminding us of the power of mass action, moral outrage, youth leadership, civil disobedience, boisterous demonstrations, sophisticated use of media and spirited ideological debate in building a left consciousness and a movement.

A closer look at BLM advocacy reveals a more comprehensive approach to social change than the media typically allows. Again and again, BLM has challenged the abandonment of Black communities underlying this wave of police violence.

What unites the broad tent of BLM organizations and voices is a frustration with the lack of accountability for police who use excessive force, and with the state’s typical response: a task force or commission report that garners laudatory headlines and leads nowhere. Instead, this generation envisions more far-reaching change, including, even, a world without police. The insistent radicalism of the movement’s demands and tactics place it at the vanguard of a reenergized Left.

A reawakening

In late July, groups under the broad umbrella of the BLM movement, including Black Youth Project 100 (BYP 100), BLM DC, Million Hoodies and the #LetUsBreathe Collective, organized a series of nationwide protests that illustrate the movement’s radical ethos. Most targeted offices of police unions, which have shielded police from accountability after they use deadly force. The occupation of these offices, in acts of civil disobedience, led to a spate of arrests.

In Chicago, activists focused on shutting down the Homan Square police complex, a notorious “black site” where, according to the Guardian, thousands of people have been secretly detained and interrogated, and some tortured.

Notwithstanding a circle of stoic, heavily-armed police, the event was suffused with determination, Black affirmation and righteous anger. As protesters put their bodies on the line to block entrances to Homan Square, a buoyant crowd of young people chanted, “We don’t need no cops” and “We shut shit down.” Followed by a “mic check” that led to rounds of “we are here because we love queer Black people”; “we are here because Black people deserve to be free”; “the whole damn system is guilty as hell”; and “I believe that we will win!”

As this issue went to press, a dozen or so activists were occupying a lot opposite Homan Square, dubbed Freedom Square. They have pledged to remain until the City Council withdraws a proposed “Blue Lives Matter” ordinance to classify attacks on police officers or firefighters as hate crimes.

This defiant Black-led youth movement is the first of its kind since the Black freedom struggle of the 1960s. It’s important, however, to see it not only within the history of Black struggle, but within the history—and future—of the Left. Many may associate the U.S. Left and socialist traditions with white male leadership, a focus on class, and a disregard of race, gender and sexuality, but this is inaccurate and incomplete. Black, Latino and Asian-American activists of all genders have participated in Old and New Left traditions for over a century, waging struggles to press anti-imperial, antiracist and feminist consciousness to the forefront of movements for social change. Major leaders of the civil rights movement identified as socialists, most famously Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet for many young activists of color, the word “socialist” still has a white male ring to it, and the Sanders campaign’s initial fumbling with BLM unfortunately revived this older association.

For leftists to assume, based on BLM’s critiques of Sanders, that the movement is a phenomenon apart from the Left, without a class lens and with nothing to teach it, would be a grave mistake. The movement has exposed, for example, how the neoliberal order uses policing to shift the burden of taxation from those with the most to those with the least. Police nationwide ticket the poor to bring in revenue in low-tax jurisdictions. Officer Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and the resulting outpouring of protest led to the exposure of the financial entrapment of poor Black drivers. The Department of Justice concluded that every branch of government in Ferguson was guilty of racial discrimination for targeting African Americans with fines and fees.

Protests over police killings have also revealed the lengths to which police go to thwart poor people’s efforts to survive on the margins. Police approached Eric Garner in Staten Island while he was selling loose cigarettes; they approached Alton Sterling while he was selling CDs on a sidewalk. Both men were just trying to eke out a living.

By embracing a confrontational pose, challenging urban political elites (who tend to be Democrats) and advocating for the marginalized, BLM activists have filled a leadership vacuum in struggling African-American communities. Many Black politicians, and even Black church leaders have been compromised by the rise of neoliberalism in American politics, which has weakened unions, endorsed privatization of public services, facilitated gentrification, and often blamed the poor for their own plight. These developments have undercut bold advocacy to confront the pressing and multiple needs of Black communities. (See "The Black Political Establishment Should Never Have Given Hilary Clinton a Blank Check")

When Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel faced rising calls to resign after revelations of a cover-up in the police killing of Laquan McDonald, Rep. Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther, wrote a letter in support of Emanuel. In contrast, young Black organizers led the call for the mayor’s resignation, and attracted multiracial throngs to fill the city’s streets and shut down its highways. This leadership cohort seems uninterested in cutting deals or finding pathways to power. Rather, they are creating a new model of assertive and empowered citizenship for a generation that has witnessed a sharp rollback of civil and human rights.

The role of the state

BLM reflects its generation’s experiences with a punitive state. A distrust of public institutions has generated an anti-statist thrust among many activists.

Some in the movement do endorse more traditional reforms—Campaign Zero is heavily policy-oriented—but calls to “deescalate,” “defund” and “disarm” pervade BLM discourse, along with even more radical calls for police and prison abolition.

This distrust contrasts with earlier generations of leftists who have tended to see government as a redistributive and progressive force, whether in delivering pensions, clean water, the National Endowment for the Arts or Medicare. However, for a generation raised in an era of social welfare cuts, regressive taxation, endless warmaking, militarized police and robust prison expansion, an expansive state has been shown to be a menace.

Michelle Alexander recently wrote that BLM has made us see police as a “domestic military at war with its own people.” The extraordinary display of secondhand military machinery in the suppression of Black protest in Ferguson opened the eyes of many to the extent domestic police forces have been militarized—even, apparently, President Barack Obama’s. At the urging of activists, he banned the transfer of some types of military gear to local police, including armored vehicles. But after the recent killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, leaders of the national Fraternal Order of Police and National Association of Police Organizations met with Obama and reportedly persuaded him to review the order. Obama’s willingness to do so reveals the limits of piecemeal police reform and the political clout of police groups. BLM activists have reason to be suspicious.

This crisis has produced many ostensible reforms, but as the litany of police killings has shown, none have addressed the fundamental problem of using police to criminalize and contain communities that have been marked as socially disposable. Since 2014, at least two dozen states have passed laws addressing police violence, including the collection of data on police shootings and the use of body cameras on police officers. The latter has been controversial, as some fear that police cameras extend state surveillance and endanger civil liberties. In March, the Justice Department issued new guidelines to states and municipalities in an effort to prevent the jailing of indigent people for the nonpayment of fines or fees. And this summer, state leaders in Louisiana and Minnesota quickly invited the Justice Department to investigate Alton Sterling’s and Philando Castile’s deaths.

While skeptical of these narrow reforms, many in the BLM movement combine an abolitionist sensibility with a call to radically transform governance. BYP 100 calls for defunding police departments, but it also calls on the state to “fund Black futures” by investing in education, healthcare, job creation and other vital needs in Black communities. They want to create a world “where all Black people have economic, social, political and educational freedom”—a vision of the future that would require deploying the authority of the state to fundamentally redistribute resources. Such an undertaking will require a political movement that involves all sectors of the larger progressive movement. And the robust progressive politics embraced by many young BLM organizers position them to become its leaders.

All together now

This new generation of Black leaders has eclipsed figures like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and looks markedly different from its forebears.

The worldview of BLM’s young activists has been shaped by Black, ethnic, gender and queer studies, as well as their coming-of-age in the era of mass incarceration, neoliberalism, endless wars and globalization. For them, acknowledging the diversity of Black experiences—as much as the quest for Black unity—has been a touchstone of their political education. They are attuned to the particular vulnerability of trans folk, for example, to violent policing. Moreover, they are committed to holding up the experiences and perspectives of Black women, including queer Black women, who are the movement’s visionaries and strategists. The initial founders of #BlackLivesMatter are three Black women—Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors. Because of these and other organizers’ insistence that all Black lives matter, we know about the police killing of Rekia Boyd in Chicago and the unjust incarceration of Marissa Alexander in Florida. To some, the term “intersectionality” may seem academic, but BLM leaders have put intersectionality into practice. They’ve embraced a capacious progressive politics supporting prison abolition, gender justice, immigrant rights and critiques of capitalism.

A more perfect union

Just as the phrase “Black Power” once inspired white fear, anger and rebuke, “Black Lives Matter” has been criticized and misunderstood from its inception. Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump have blamed it for racial discord and violence against police. Such vitriolic rhetoric gives cover to many police departments for their heavy-handed response to BLM marches and demonstrations. In Baton Rouge, after the slaying of Alton Sterling, police forcefully broke up protests and arrested scores of protesters.

At the same time, however, polls show BLM has won support and respect from many white Americans, even if, as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently concluded, “White America, however well meaning, is astonishingly oblivious to pervasive inequity.”

BLM is helping force a more honest discussion about race in America. The movement against police violence has reactivated an antiracist struggle in American cities, a healthy departure from the fog of “post-racialism” in the early Obama era. Moreover, BLM organizations participate in coalitions with other movements and attract significant multiracial youth support for their actions nationwide. At the recent convention of the American Federation of Teachers in Minneapolis, hundreds of teachers marched behind a large “Teachers4BlackLives” banner to protest the police killing of Philando Castile. The movement is pushing educators, legislators and activists in allied movements to more forcefully engage the impact of race and racism in U.S. society.

Despite the many challenges ahead and the continuing power of police and politicians to block accountability, BLM has accomplished what no progressive movement has in a long time: It has activated sustained grassroots organizing across the country and provoked a concerted response from those in power. If the movement gains some victories and further shifts public discourse, it will be in a better position to more broadly influence the national left agenda. As the crises of neoliberalism continue to unfold and popular dissatisfaction with the major parties persists, we can be sure that BLM will continue to challenge and inspire us with its radical vision.

Categories: Newswire

Missouri Has Only One Remaining Abortion Provider. Planned Parenthood is Fighting To Change That.

August 12, 2016 - 10:00am

On the morning of June 27, the staff of Planned Parenthood Great Plains (PPGP) waited anxiously, eyes glued to their phones. At 9:05 a.m., the room erupted with emotion—some even crying tears of joy. The Supreme Court had struck down Texas’ House Bill 2 (HB2), an onerous 2013 anti-abortion law that had closed 21 of the state’s 40 abortion clinics and threatened to close at least eight more, ruling that it placed an “undue burden” on women seeking abortions across the state. In one of the most important reproductive rights rulings since Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court established a legal precedent for repealing restrictive abortion legislation.

“It was the most memorable day I’ve had since I started here,” says Bonyen Lee-Gilmore, PPGP’s director of communications and marketing. “And a lot has happened since I started here.”

But for Lee-Gilmore and Missouri’s two Planned Parenthood affiliates, the work is far from over. While Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt fundamentally changed the nature of abortion in Texas, the ruling does not apply nationwide. PPGP now joins affiliates across at least eight states using the Court’s ruling to challenge their own versions of HB2, fighting to ensure that the Whole Woman’s Health revolution does not end at the Texas border.

Planned Parenthood has taken a three-pronged approach: In court, in the Missouri legislature and with activists galvanizing public support, they aim to prove that what constitutes an “undue burden” in Texas is an undue burden everywhere.

Whole Woman’s Health challenged two of HB2’s provisions: The first required all doctors performing abortions to obtain the authority to admit patients at a hospital within 30 miles of their clinic. The second obligated abortion clinics to comply with the building standards—including precise corridor widths and procedure room sizes—of ambulatory surgical centers.

Pro-choice activists group HB2 with myriad other Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider (TRAP) laws passed by conservatives in at least 28 states in recent years. TRAP laws, they argue, were never intended to protect women. They are intentionally designed to put abortion clinics out of business.

They are often successful. Unwilling to entangle their institutions with controversial politics, many hospitals deny admitting privileges to abortion providers. Stringent structural standards require clinics to bulldoze and entirely rebuild their offices.

Despite this, Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller claimed that HB2 would safeguard women’s health by providing enhanced medical care.

The Court disagreed, ruling 5-3 in favor of lead plaintiff Amy Hagstrom Miller. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a concurring opinion, refuted Keller’s testimony, noting “many medical procedures, including childbirth, are far more dangerous to patients, yet are not subject to ambulatory-surgical-center or hospital admitting-privileges requirements. … When a state severely limits access to safe and legal procedures, women in desperate circumstances may resort to unlicensed rogue practitioners … at great risk to their health and safety.”

Authoring the majority opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer stressed that neither restriction “offers medical benefits sufficient to justify the burdens.”

The burden is palpable in Missouri, a rightwing state that has long prided itself on limiting abortion access. In 1986, Missouri became the first state to adopt the admitting privileges requirement, which has since spread to 11 other states. Missouri is a “breeding ground” for anti-abortion laws, says Lee-Gilmore. “They pass them here, then you start to see them spider out, like a spiderweb.”

A report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research names Missouri the seventh-worst state in the nation for reproductive rights. “It’s all meant to be political statements and to punish women,” says Missouri state Rep. Stacey Newman (D). “These bills that they file are harmful. They’re very harmful.”

In September, Missouri lost its second-to-last abortion provider. Under intense pressure from state Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R) and other conservative lawmakers, the University of Missouri voted to revoke Planned Parenthood Dr. Colleen McNicholas’ admitting privileges at its on-campus hospital, forcing the Columbia, Mo., clinic to stop providing abortions. Over 1,000 supporters rallied outside Mizzou’s Speakers Circle in protest, chanting, “Not Mizzou, not the state, women must decide their fate.”

“The burden [has] increased on providers ever since we" stopped offering abortions, says Lee-Gilmore. “When we were doing medication abortion in [Columbia] last summer … every appointment on that schedule was filled. That just shows you the need that exists.”

Rep. Newman, joined by Sens. Jamilah Nasheed (D) and Jill Schupp (D), has already pledged to file anti-TRAP legislation. But given the entrenched conservatism of the Missouri legislature, the winning battle will most likely be judicial.

Lee-Gilmore predicts that Planned Parenthood will release a plan for legal action in the coming weeks.

“We have talked to a lot of patients who never stopped to think about it, never paid attention to the current abortion restrictions until they needed an abortion, and then they understood how restrictive and how difficult it was,” she says.

Through informational meet-ups and movie screenings, Planned Parenthood Advocates in Missouri (PPMO)—an advocacy wing of regional Planned Parenthood organizations—educates Missourians about the current restrictions and motivates them to call their senators, write op-eds to local newspapers and attend PPMO’s rallies across the state. PPGP’s July 9 Repro Rights Rally, held in Wichita, Kan., drew over 200 protesters.

PPMO has also expanded its social media presence, joining other Planned Parenthood affiliates in using the hashtags #KnowWhatsNormal and #UndoTheBurden to promote increased abortion access after Whole Woman’s Health.

“The highest court in the land made it very clear,” says Lee-Gilmore. “These laws are medically unnecessary [and] they put an undue burden on people who are seeking abortion. … I am very confident that we will find our way back to expanding abortion access in our state.”

Categories: Newswire

Black Lives Matter Is Showing Why Progressive Jews Must Support Palestinian Justice

August 11, 2016 - 10:22pm

It’s been hard to write a progressive policy platform this summer without sparking a controversy over Palestinian rights. The Democratic platform drafters held high-profile sparring matches over an amendment that would have condemned Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, leading many to protest the party and the platform itself on the convention floor in Philadelphia. More recently was a debate over A Vision for Black Lives, an extensively researched set of policy demands that emerged from a collective of over 60 organizations from within the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL). This time, though, backlash came from the opposite direction.

While the platform contains nearly 40,000 words on everything from reparations to public education, much of the public conversation around it has orbited around a few lines in a subsection on cutting and then reallocating this country’s military spending. While about a third of Americans support such cuts, it was a sentence about Israel that garnered the most attention: “The US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.”

Almost immediately, liberal and conservative Jewish organizations alike released missives condemning the document. “One can vigorously oppose occupation,” T’ruah, a Rabbinical human rights advocacy group, wrote, “without resorting to terms such as ‘genocide,’ and without ignoring the human rights violations of terrorist groups such as Hamas.”

Boston’s centrist Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) distanced itself from the Movement for Black Lives outright, stating that the group would “dissociate … from the Black Lives Matter platform and those BLM organizations that embrace it.” They also took issue with the platform’s support for the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement, likening it to “cultural warfare.”

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, called the platform’s use of the word genocide “repellant and completely inaccurate.”

Shortly after the first round of statements, Jewish organizations aimed at opposing the occupation—like the member-based Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and IfNotNow, a movement of Jewish millennials—released their own statements in support of the Movement for Black Lives; the former even protested JCRC’s offices. “We refuse to follow leaders that force us to choose between [the] Jewish community and one of the most powerful movements of our time,” IfNotNow declared, and called on the Boston JCRC to retract its statement.

The JVP-affiliated Jews of Color Caucus wrote, “We are appalled at the actions of the white US institutional Jewish community in detracting and distracting from such a vital platform at a time when Black lives are on the line.” The caucus then listed a series of demands directed at the American Jewish community, such as cutting off support to police exchange programs between Israel and the U.S. and for a broad retraction of statements by Jewish groups that have come out against the M4BL.

That so much of the conversation surrounding such a wide-reaching document about Black liberation has boiled down to a fight between Jewish institutions verges on the absurd. But the episode also illustrates a growing rift within the American Jewish community, both around the question of the occupation and America’s own relationship to state violence within its borders, particularly against African Americans. “PEP”—Progressive Except for Palestine—has long been an insult hurled from the Left to those silent on or supportive of the occupation. Now, it seems, blanket and uncritical support for Israeli government policy is drifting further from the American Jewish community’s mainstream, especially among young Jews eager to fight for racial justice.

Rachel Gilmer was one of two drafters of the passage at the center of the controversy. Gilmer, who was raised but no longer identifies as Jewish, is the Chief of Strategy for the Florida-based Dream Defenders, which formed in 2012 in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s death.

“Negative reactions to the platform are disappointing, but not surprising,” she told me, and noted that M4BL has also received outpouring of international support for the document, including from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Legacy Project, comprised of civil rights alumni.

“We believe those who are suffering the brunt of oppression, mass killings and violence have the right to name what is happening to them,” Gilmer explains. Like the anti-police violence group We Charge Genocide, the M4BL uses the word genocide to draw connections between targeted, mass-scale state violence abroad to the killing of African Americans here in the US. The term is controversial, to say the least. In their statement endorsing the platform, the BDS National Committee—a coordinating body for BDS internationally—reference the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe’s characterization of the conflict as “incremental genocide.” Both scholars and grassroots groups debate whether the Israeli government’s actions fall within the UN definition of the word—some use it and some don’t—while leading human rights organizations like Amnesty International generally refrain from invoking it.

Gilmer points out, too, that the text in question also addresses the War on Terror, and the U.S. military’s presence in Honduras, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere. “It is deeply disappointing that the broader message has been missed,” she says, “and that the struggles facing Black people throughout the world that are explicitly named in the document have been lost, ignored or downright rejected over disagreement about our decision to stand in solidarity with the people of Palestine.”

After protests (and police crackdowns) erupted in Ferguson after Michael Brown’s killing in August 2014, Gilmer says that Palestinian activists began reaching out to the Dream Defenders and other racial justice groups over Twitter with advice on how activists could protect themselves against tear gas and other chemicals.

“It became clear then that what was happening in Ferguson was deeply connected to what was happening to people around the world,” she told In These Times via email. “And while our struggles are not exactly the same, it became clear that we are fighting against the same systems.” Since that time, the group has led two delegations of activists of color to Palestine, and intends to send more. As a member of a delegation that travelled there earlier this summer, Gilmer says that she was “ashamed to know that our taxpayer dollars are funding illegal demolitions of Palestinian homes, an apartheid wall that has literally ripped communities apart and an incarceration system that holds children and adults indefinitely without charge.”

Asked about the organizations that have shunned the Movement for Black Lives over the platform, Gilmer noted that, “While I understand folks might disagree with the use of the word, ‘genocide,’ it is incredibly hurtful that they would drop the entire movement and our agenda over it, which is about the basic human rights of Black people and all people.”

If genocide is a complicated word in the Jewish community, occupation is becoming less of one, at least among the younger generation. Millennials born after 1980 are the only U.S. age group where fewer than half sympathize more with Israel than with Palestine.

A recent study from Black Youth Project at the University of Chicago and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that over half of millennials aged 18-30 support the movement for Black lives, compared with 43 percent of all adults.

Emily Mayer, an IfNotNow organizer based in Brooklyn, told In These Times, “What we’re seeing now is moment of polarization in the Jewish community, where people are seeing the limits of a 50 year strategy of being progressive on race in this country and not on Israel.”

Mayer sees value in agitating the Jewish community to show up more fully for the movement for Black lives. For her and the rest of IfNotNow, that means being able to articulate Jews’ own interest in ending white supremacy, as people who have been on its losing end. “We have a stake in ending white supremacy for our own liberation, to reclaim our history and collective memory,” she says. Toward that end, Mayer was dismayed to see friends on the Left posting on Facebook—in support of the M4BL platform—condense American Jews to a monolith or question their allegiance to the Left, leaving out the experiences both of Jews of color as well as historic and ongoing anti-Semitism, in the U.S. and abroad.

"We straddle a line," Mayer says of IfNotNow. "The majority of the American Jewish community is white and benefits from white privilege and perpetuates injustice in Israel-Palestine. And, we believe our community also is the object of real oppression in the world, has a real stake in ending white supremacy, and is worth transforming."

Noting the many ways that accusations of anti-Semitism are used to stamp out critiques of Israeli and U.S. foreign policy, she also emphasized the ways in which Donald Trump’s campaign—now emboldening a small but increasingly visible base of racists and anti-Semites—makes the task of addressing anti-Semitism all the more urgent: “Young American Jews don’t know what real anti-Semitism looks like in our world, but we might be about to find out.” A recycled Trump campaign meme, featuring a Star of David against a backdrop of money, could offer a sign of things to come.

As Trump has shown, anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism are hardly discrete phenomena, often finding voice in the same rallies, far-right political parties and corners of the internet. Nor can anti-Black racism be fully separated from our violence abroad: police and military have proven themselves capable of a kind of intersectional and wide-ranging oppression, unleashing some of the same tactics in Palestine as they do in the U.S. Debates over language aside, it’s unlikely that young organizers are going to let being progressive on racial justice and on Palestine stay separate for much longer.

Categories: Newswire

Why a Georgia Congressman is Fighting to Stop Security Aid to Honduras

August 11, 2016 - 9:02pm

Environmental rights activist Berta Cáceres feared for her life and for the lives of her fellow activists in Honduras. She traveled to Washington, D.C., in April of last year to voice those concerns, and pleaded her case to various lawmakers, including Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson. Less than a year later, her fears became a reality.

Forces stormed Cáceres’ home in the Lenca community of La Esperanza on March 3 and shot her. Cáceres and her colleagues were outspoken about their opposition to a hydroelectric dam being built on the Gualcarque River, sacred land to the Lenca people, by private energy company Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA). News of her death was widely condemned throughout the international community, prompting some lawmakers to take action.

In June, Johnson introduced the “Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act,” calling for the suspension of U.S. security assistance to Honduras until the government there investigates reports of human rights violations and opens an independent investigation into Cáceres’ death. The bill is supported by some 40 organizations and has garnered more than 30 co-sponsors in the House so far.

In These Times recently spoke with Johnson about the bill and the future of U.S. relations with Honduras.

His interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How did you get involved with crafting this bill and introducing it?

I’m very much concerned about human rights issues across the globe, here in America as well as in other places. I first became involved in Honduran issues back in 2012 when there was a drug operation that involved American military personnel—and four innocent civilians were killed at the hands of Honduran security officials, military or internal security. I wrote a letter at that time asking for investigations by the attorney general of the U.S. and also by the State Department. That is what led me to start paying attention to Central American issues.

My interest has continued about Honduras and then I was able to meet Berta Cáceres in April of 2015. She came to my office and we talked about the situation—the human rights issues going on down there in Honduras in so far as indigenous people who are fighting to retain their land, which is being expropriated. On the Gualcarque River, there’s the Agua Zarca Dam that a transnational company was building down there, which actually was stopping the indigenous people who have lived in the area for centuries from being able to sustain themselves. These human rights activists, who were led by Berta Cáceres, were protesting against the construction of the dam on that river and they had been successful in stopping the construction. But there were also a lot of deaths of innocent human rights activists down there that Berta was concerned about when she came here.

Those deaths are at the hands of people involved in the Honduran military and our country sends a lot of money for training Honduran military forces who also end up being security, internal security forces down there. These people are killing their own citizens and are using weapons that America provides. There's a symbiotic relationship between their military and our country.

This legislation seeks to withhold American support for the Honduran military until such time as the Honduran military can clean up its act and get rid of its corrupt officials, and those involved in human rights violations, to become the type of military that would uphold the ideals that our military upholds. So, that’s what the legislation would do—it would withhold military assistance until such time as our policymakers are satisfied that they’re complying with basic human rights norms in Honduras. When you withdraw military assistance, what it does is it influences the best practices of the Honduran military so they can reform themselves and become a better partner to the United States and a better servant to the Honduran people.

Why would the United States want to continue supplying security aid to Honduras? How does it benefit the United States?

We have to go back to the Cold War to see why it is the United States has the policies that it has towards Central and South America. Back during the Cold War, America did not want communism to take root south of our border. Military assistance to dictators and governments of oppression became our norm. When you get people addicted to our military equipment, it’s part of the military industrial complex—you keep people purchasing our weapons and ammunition. We have continued to feed our military industrial complex by arming nations south of our border. The reason that we've been giving (security aid) is to combat the war on drugs, but I think it was probably first as a war against communism. So now we have this war on drugs, which (President Richard) Nixon declared back in 1971, and our country has been fighting this drug war, which has not worked south of our border, and it certainly has not worked here at home.

What we’ve been doing is making the world a more violent place, and we've been propping up dictators and government corruption south of our border through trying to fight a drug war. We've been trying to stunt production south of the border while we’ve been militarizing the streets of America in an effort to fight demand. It's a war on two fronts, fighting production and fighting demand, and neither war has been successful. It's really time for our government to start looking at a new policy for fighting drug addiction in our country. It’s a public health issue as opposed to a criminal justice issue, primarily. We’ve got to understand what we’ve been robotically doing over decades—and the fact that it’s not working.

If the bill were to pass, what sort of implications would that have for Honduras and the United States? What type of message would the United States be sending?

It would be a total reboot of our relationship because right now anything goes as far as the Honduran military and its corruption and lack of protection of human rights and its involvement in actually violating the human rights of its citizens. So it would be a restructuring of that relationship, a change in that relationship, and it would benefit the Honduran people and ultimately the American people.

Why should the American people care? With all that is going on in the world, why should the “Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act” be a priority?

Well, it's a small step in a new direction that promotes human rights as opposed to sending weapons of war across the world. In other words, if Americans want to see a more peaceful world it means that we have to change some of the policies that we promote throughout the world. One of those policies has to do with providing weaponry to governments that then turn around and use that weaponry against their own people. We wouldn't want that to happen in our country. If we lived in Honduras, we would not want that to be happening in our country. We have to sometimes step back … and take a look at what's going on in the lives of others and what creates conditions that prevent other people from being able to fully contribute to the global economy.

If Americans are so concerned about illegal immigration, this is one of the causes, one of the drivers of people to our border. Violence caused by human rights abuses and the war on drugs south of the border, it drives illegal immigration and so Americans that are concerned about illegal immigration should look at this as something that will help stop it. And for other Americans, who are concerned generally about how our military assistance helps to promote either war and violence or peace and prosperity, this is a step forward to make the world a more humane and safe place—even if that's happening in another country. We’re concerned about that because we understand that we live in a global community and people are interrelated and interdependent upon each other. We understand the bigger picture.

Categories: Newswire

The Media Could Still Help Elect Trump

August 11, 2016 - 8:09pm

This post originally appeared at

“Can Donald Trump Rebound?” asks the New Yorker’s John Cassidy in his Monday blog post, posing what seems to be the pressing question now. Cassidy assumes, like nearly all analysts, that it is a political question—basically, “Can Trump get the funds, the TV buys, the infrastructure, the party unity, and last but by no means least the pivot from abnormality to normality that would allow the Republican nominee to close the ever-widening polling gap with Hillary Clinton and compete?”

But the media are being more than a bit disingenuous in their dissections. This isn’t so much a political question as it is a media question, which is to say that the media may hold the answer, not Trump. Even the question itself has a media predicate—namely, that Trump can make everything he has heretofore done and said disappear and then begin anew. You can’t do that unless the press lets you. You can’t reboot your campaign unless the press reboots it for you.

So whether Trump can win this election may be less in his hands than in the media’s. And that is not particularly a good thing if you think that Trump is a danger to the country. This is why: The media have a stake in resuscitating Trump’s campaign or damaging Clinton’s. Don’t be surprised if they try.

Call it the “media bounce” if it boosts Trump, or the “media dip” if it hurts Clinton.

Even while lavishing attention on Trump and giving him largely positive or neutral coverage in the run-up to the primaries, the mainstream media—a good many pundits and even a handful of reporters—have been less than flattering since then. The media seem to adore Trump as a subject, a political train wreck that keeps roaring down the track and flattening more things, because train wrecks are good copy and good TV. At the same time, the mainstream media seem to fear the prospect of Trump as president.

Jim Rutenberg’s media column in Monday’s New York Times is an example of the kind of soul-searching some journalists are undertaking, and the kind I don’t recall ever seeing before in mainstream publications. Rutenberg asks whether the media have an obligation to toss aside their so-called neutrality and reveal Trump for the charlatan, demagogue and truth-twister he is, or whether they should continue to treat him as if he were an ordinary candidate. Brian Stelter on this past weekend’s Reliable Sources on CNN asked a similar question about Trump’s charges of a rigged election, even though CNN is one of the worst offenders in aiding and abetting Trump, and even though they put Trump apologist Jeffrey Lord and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski on their payroll. Earlier the Columbia Journalism Review called for a “Murrow moment” in the coverage of Trump, referring to the way Edward R. Murrow called out Sen. Joseph McCarthy on CBS.

Trump has always been sanguine about these attacks. His operating principle is that all publicity is good publicity, and he crows that he is gaming the media into giving him free attention and thus boosting his candidacy. As Greg Sargent observed in The Washington Post last week, it hasn’t exactly turned out that way. Some publicity is so bad that it can damage a candidacy, especially if it dominates the airwaves and print—to wit, Trump’s squabble with the Khans.

But as a recent report on election coverage from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center shows, after receiving that positive coverage during the “invisible primary” before the actual voting, Trump’s coverage went negative during the primaries. So he has been getting negative coverage for quite some time now—61 percent to 39 percent negative in the last five weeks of the primary season—without it seeming to do him any real harm. In fact, his poll numbers kept climbing throughout.

Still, even as Trump has hit a series of post-convention potholes that clearly have depressed his numbers, there is some reason to think that the potholes could actually turn out to be just speed bumps as far as the media are concerned. In the first place, while the mainstream media may have a greater sense of responsibility in the general election than the primaries, as Sargent posits, they nevertheless thrive on equivocation and equalization. It is, I suppose, what they think distinguishes them from right- and left-leaning websites and Fox News, and it is, I suspect, less the result of any sense of public obligation than it is a form of self-congratulatory piety: We don’t take sides. So what happened last week—for the press to criticize Trump without an equal blast at Clinton—is actually a deviation from the norm, which also means that they are likely to return to the norm and be either less critical of Trump or more critical of Clinton. Think of it as a course correction. Either way, it could help Trump.

But there is another media predilection that could work to Trump’s advantage: the horse race. No one needs to be told that nearly all election coverage now is about who is winning or losing. According to that Shorenstein study of this year’s primaries, 56 percent of the coverage was horse race, only 11 percent substantive, with the rest about process. We may think this is just a matter of emphasis. But it contributes to shaping the entire contour of the election. Because here is the thing about horse race coverage: the media want to keep the race tight, even when, as in the current situation, it isn’t.

If you’re a sports fan, you know that nothing is more yawn-inducing than a blowout—and that is true not just for viewers, but for broadcasters as well. It sends them rummaging to the trunk of anecdotes. That’s because journalists want to be engaged just as much as fans do by the action on the field. It’s good for business. It’s good for one’s own mental state too.

That may be why nearly every losing major party candidate in the general election over the last three decades has either gotten a bounce or has seen the leader suffer a dip. It’s not necessarily because losers suddenly gain steam or leaders suddenly lose it. It is because the media, either through a desire to show their fairness or a desire to keep the campaign entertaining (or both), will begin to manipulate the coverage. In 1980, despite doubts about his gravity, Reagan eventually was depicted as presidential, coming from behind to win convincingly. As the election wore on in 1988, leader Michael Dukakis became a fool atop a tank. In 1992, Clinton’s huge post-convention lead dissipated from nearly 25 points at one time to 6 in the final vote under withering media scrutiny of his character. In 2012, Romney got a bounce when the media declared him the winner of the first debate and started talking about a close election.

It isn’t hard to imagine the media driving a narrative of a “new,” more disciplined Trump, or of a more presidential Trump if he stays on script or doesn’t go on the attack during the debates, or of a Trump catching the populist tide. It is already starting. See CNN’s favorable coverage of Trump’s economic speech.

The idea is to close the gap and give us a good game – a game we will continue to want to watch, and that the media will want to report. The reasons for the bounce are nearly irrelevant. As Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort put it, “We’re comfortable we’ll get the agenda and the narrative of the campaign back on where it belongs.” Exactly. The narrative.

But there is one way in which Trump, who relies on the media even as he eviscerates them, could injure himself, and it is unique to him. If the media have historically tightened the race primarily to heighten its entertainment value, what happens when a race is already loaded with a different sort of entertainment value? With his nonstop flubs, squabbles, explosions, exaggerations, lies and outrages, Trump has been providing a huge media show, his position in the race notwithstanding. For traditional politicians, the media had no alternative but to whip up game tension. Trump whips up lunacy all on his own. Essentially, his shenanigans eclipse the horse race.

Show business can beat traditional politics. It did in the Republican primary. But only if the media play along. In continuing to make a spectacle of himself, Trump has begun to frighten the very reporters who gave him a free pass, and given them another option from having to provide that bounce or dip. He might just cement his loss in the bargain.

Categories: Newswire

Werner Herzog Wants To Know: “Does the Internet Dream?”

August 10, 2016 - 10:00am

We’re lucky to have him—Werner Herzog, giant of the 1960s-1980s New German Cinema movement, reborn in the new millennium as an Angeleno and our era’s most provocative documentarian. For Herzogians, the man’s astounded take on everything he sees—including American folly and self-destruction—is his films’ real subject, whether he’s cruising above the Kuwaiti oil fires (Lessons of Darkness), interviewing death-row murderers (Into the Abyss), visiting the only human encampment in Antarctica (Encounters at the End of the World), or capturing rarely seen paleolithic cave paintings in 3-D (Cave of Forgotten Dreams). His new film, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, is a new order of business, an awed tour of human life shaped by the internet, from a filmmaker whose passions have always sought out the primordial and pre-technological.

A connoisseur of alien landscapes, Herzog is finally completely out of his element here, exploring techno-hubs and “connectedness” stats in a virtual world where almost nothing filmable happens. The film is nearly all interviews (internet-science pioneers, Carnegie Mellon robot researchers, Elon Musk, recovering internet addicts, etc.), with Herzog off-camera prodding with questions and exuding an unmistakable sense of old-fogey freak-out.

Not that the realities at our keyboard-zooming fingertips aren’t alarming, when you take a step back. Herzog starts at the internet’s stone-knives-and-bearskins origin, on the UCLA campus (where the hallways are “repulsive”), and quickly gets zonked by the accelerating scale of change since. According to Herzog, if you were to download a single day’s internet data flow onto CDs, the stack of them would reach to Mars and back. Online gaming is such a time-sucking force that it can be used to crowd-source real scientific innovation (like discovering a retrovirus enzyme structure via a game called Foldit), and at the same time, Herzog notes, “it is not uncommon” for South Korean gamers to wear diapers, so as to minimize interruptions.

From there, he smells trouble everywhere technology sprawls, from the dangers poised by self-driving cars to a family haunted by their daughter’s car-crash photo becoming a global meme, to communities of radiation-averse outcasts living off the matrix in the no-cell-phone zone created around a radio telescope.

Interviewing the inventor of a rather incredible autonomous soccer-playing robot, Herzog asks, “Do you love it?” Only Herzog would wonder how love will be folded into our automated future. He also seeks out portents of doom: the East Coast blackout caused by Superstorm Sandy gives him pause, as does the fact that something as simple as a large solar flare, for which we are overdue, would wipe out all electronic activity worldwide in a cataclysm one scientist characterizes as “unimaginably bad.”

U.S. cybersecurity experts and a master hacker are grilled as well, always for the purposes of backlighting how fragile the system is. Herzog draws no explicit conclusions, but his position is clearly Ludditic—and apparently, with good reason. No expert, Herzog isn’t implicitly asking the impossible: Should we roll it all back? Rather, he asks: How’d we get here? How’d we become so helplessly reliant on an ad-hoc technology that gets exponentially larger and more chaotic every day?

There’s deep digging to do here, but Herzog, a poet more than a philosopher, skims the surface. He’s looking for his own Herzogian truth, asking a plethora of big brains the confounding question, “Does the internet dream?” It’s unanswerable, of course, the kind of question Herzog prefers, but it begs at a quasi-sci-fi idea that bears scrutiny: At what point does the unquantifiable aggregate of internet data and analysis culminate into an intelligence all its own? And then what’ll it do?

Perhaps, with a few A.I. classes under his belt, Herzog could attack that idea and go further. I can see a ten-part PBS series, far more uneasy and compelling than any Neil deGrasse Tyson soft soap, in which Herzog goes looking for the surreal secrets of darknets and the Deep Web, massively multiplayer online (MMO) game “gold farming,” machine ethics, “transhumanity,” and so on. As it is, he may be the closest we have to a Virgil, insisting on humanness and skeptically reconnoitering the darkness.

Categories: Newswire

Donald Trump’s Economic Plan Is a Giveaway to The Super Rich

August 10, 2016 - 12:07am

For a man who appears so bent on breaking with tradition, Donald Trump spewed a lot of it Monday. Following in the footsteps of Republican presidential hopefuls past, Trump delivered an address outlining his “America First” economic plan to the Detroit Economic Club.

Though characteristically light on details, what Trump did say—apart from his protectionist stance on trade—fell squarely in line with the free market dogma that has taken center stage in the GOP from Ronald Reagan through both Bush administrations and the Tea Party that followed them.

“He’s basically adopted the straight Republican platform,” says Dean Baker, an economist and co-director of the progressive Center for Economic Policy and Research.

Trump emphasized that his campaign will, “offer a new future, not the same old failed policies of the past.” Yet the proposals he rattled off have been at the top of conservatives’ agenda for years and in some cases decades: Repealing the so-called death tax (estate tax) for people with more than $5.45 million to pass on, slashing taxes for the wealthy and rolling back regulations.

The few policies ostensibly about putting money into the pockets of working and middle-class families—like a child tax credit—would also end up giving households with higher incomes the biggest breaks. Among the proposals, too, was slashing the number of IRS tax brackets from seven to three, and capping taxation at 33 percent.

“This is a traditional conservative platform,” says Baker. “If you took the part about trade out and a few quips about (Hillary) Clinton, you could certainly envision this coming from Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio.”

Trump’s plan is heavy on the supply-side tax cuts and deregulation that defined Reaganomics, the logic behind which is to jump-start growth and investment rather than directly spur consumer spending. With easier access to cash, the argument goes, businesses will be more free to trickle their savings down to workers and consumers. Interest rates would also shrink as GDP swells.

“The impact of these tax cuts on interest rates is basically zero,” Baker says, noting that only a fraction of the small business owners Trump referenced in his speech are calling for rate reductions. Inflation has been persistently low, too, undershooting targets set by the Federal Reserve Bank.

“The argument for a supply-side tax cut has is weak, but it’s particularly weak now,” Baker says.

Despite 14 disruptions from the crowd, the speech was one of Trump’s best attempts to stay on script, veering only slightly from his prepared remarks. He mostly restrained himself when interrupted, in what might be a sign of Trump’s pivot to appealing more to his party’s center.

Even Trump’s more brazen-sounding proposals, like a “temporary moratorium” on new regulations and a promise to cancel all “illegal and overreaching” executive orders, are—by now—commonplace GOP rallying cries. Twenty-seven states are suing the Environmental Protection Agency over the Clean Power Plan, which was enacted under executive order. Some states have also filed suit to stop another executive action program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Each order now sits stymied in the federal system thanks to Supreme Court rulings.

Aside from being GOP standard fare, the lion’s share of Trump’s plan has also been a priority for big business. A report from the Center for American Progress released in June found that 43 of the country’s top 100 power producers have either directly or indirectly supported the states’ suits against the Clean Power Plan. The Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity has a long history of fighting the plan and other energy regulations, as well.

That Trump’s plan is so in line with lobbyist and establishment GOP demands is even more confounding based on the way his campaign and the plan itself are being framed. Minutes after saying that Clinton “is bought, controlled and paid for by her donors and special interests,” Trump cited a study by the fossil fuel-industry backed Heritage Foundation on the job loss that might be wrought by “Obama-Clinton energy restrictions.” His plans to tear up the Paris Agreement and regulations on oil and gas producers are straight out of the industry’s own playbook.

Not only is Trump’s plan is a boon to corporations, but his advisory team is stacked with bankers and billionaires who also happen to be some of his biggest donors. Politico reports that his all-male team of advisers features five of the GOP’s top patrons, having gifted a collective $2 million to Trump’s run so far.

Only one adviser holds a doctorate in economics, and among the group are a Goldman Sachs alum (Steve Mnuchin) and the former chief economist for Bear Sterns (David Malpass). Notably absent, Baker said, are prominent conservative economists like N. Gregory Mankiw, who served as a key adviser to both George W. Bush and Mitt Romney but distanced himself from Trump.

What Trump’s speech may have clarified is that his platform is a louder, brasher version of what the GOP and its corporate backers have been building since the 1970s. His stance on free trade is an outlier against a program that’s more or less in line with Republican interests, even if the vehicle delivering it—Trump himself—is (for now) one the party’s establishment if chafing up against.

“We’ve tried this experiment and it didn’t work,” Baker says about Trump’s policies.

Free trade hasn’t been the only thing ailing workers these last 30 years, and Trump’s economic plan doubles down on the failed austerity policies that have left ordinary Americans scraping by. From Wall Street to the fossil fuel industry, Trump is in bed with big business. His plans for the economy offer exactly what it wants: More of the same.

Categories: Newswire

If Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine are “Progressive,” Then the Word Has Lost All Meaning

August 9, 2016 - 8:41pm

What’s a progressive, anyway?

The term has a long and unruly history, which I’ll be getting to. But the common-sense meaning of “progressive” is someone who is pretty darn liberal. In fact, you might even say that it signifies politics that are distinctly to the left of liberal. That, at least, has been the contemporary connotation of the word for as long as I’ve been following politics. Increasingly these days, the term is being dumbed down into utter meaninglessness.

Take, for instance, Thad Williamson’s curious and confusing In These Times piece, which praised Hillary Clinton’s selection of Sen. Tim Kaine as her running mate. In his article, Williamson minimizes the importance of ideology as a criterion for judging political candidates. Ideological considerations, he says, amount to little more than litmus tests that are “useless in making more complex judgments” about candidate quality. Yet at the same time, he refers to Kaine as “progressive” (a term he doesn’t define) and plays up Kaine’s record as supposedly “the most progressive governor in Virginia’s history.” Arguing that: a) ideology doesn’t matter much, but b) Tim Kaine’s “progressive” record is one of the reasons he’s such a swell candidate makes no sense.

Williamson is not alone; plenty of other liberals are twisting themselves into pretzels to declare Tim Kaine a progressive as well. But if we look at Kaine’s politics on a right/left spectrum, it’s clear that he is one of the more conservative members of the Democratic Party. His roll call votes for the 113th Congress (the most recent figures available) rank him as the 41st most liberal senator (out of 57 who caucus with the Democrats). And then there are his positions on a wide range of core progressive issues: Kaine has close ties to the financial industry and has supported policies such as anti-labor right-to-work laws, “free trade” measures like NAFTA and fast-tracking the TPP, destructive environmental practices such as fracking, and abortion restrictions like the Hyde Amendment and parental notification laws. (Since being pegged as Clinton’s VP, he has reversed course on right-to-work and the TPP.) That’s a picture that should raise alarm bells for those of us who actually are progressives.

So why are so many liberal writers so anxious to persuade us that, deep in his heart of hearts, Tim Kaine is, too, a progressive? Probably there’s a desire to exaggerate Kaine’s progressivism because Hillary’s own progressive bona fides are questionable. But mostly it seems that today, the progressive label has become little more than a marketing tool, a signifier deployed to distract us from that the actual content of the signified. How did we arrive at this sad state of affairs?

A little history is order. Like “liberal” and “conservative,” “progressive” has long been a contested term. The capital-P Progressive movement, which emerged in the 1890s and flowered in the early 20th century, embraced science, modernity and the use of government to solve social problems. The Progressives supported a wide range of political causes, including antitrust laws, women’s suffrage, food and safety regulations, educational reform, the federal income tax and measures aimed at rooting out political corruption. But in addition to its left-wing social justice orientation, Progressivism also had a darker side. Some leading Progressives—such as Theodore Roosevelt, who unsuccessfully ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1912—supported ugly political projects like eugenics and imperialism.  

Under different incarnations of the Progressive Party, the agrarian populist Robert La Follette and Henry Wallace also ran as third-party presidential candidates, in 1924 and 1948, respectively. By the time of Wallace’s candidacy, however, the Progressive Movement as such had died out, having been superseded by the New Deal liberalism of the 1930s and 1940s. But the association of Wallace and his supporters with the term progressive may have led to a shift in the word’s connotation. Wallace’s Progressive Party was at the leftmost flank of the American political spectrum. The party emerged as an alternative to the anti-communist Cold War liberalism that had taken hold in the aftermath of World War II. Unions, the government and other institutions were busy purging and blacklisting reds and fellow travelers; Wallace’s Progressives welcomed them. The party’s platform supported labor rights, attacked Jim Crow and accused Republicans as well as Democrats of being “the champions of Big Business.”

It seems that after 1948, progressive signified a politics that is leftier than merely liberal. Historian Beverly Gage has noted that around this time, progressive suggested something “more radical ... to be a progressive was suddenly to be a ‘fellow traveler’.”  The association of “progressive” with politics that are firmly to the left lingered for decades—that’s certainly how I remember the term being used in the 1990s. Think The Progressive (“peace and social justice since 1909”), a magazine with politics very similar to those of In These Times. There’s also the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Founded in 1991, the organization comprises only the most liberal members of Congress: over 70 House members and just one senator (who happens to be—you guessed it—Bernie Sanders).

But while the sense persists that progressive suggests a hard left politics that falls somewhere between liberalism and outright communism, the word has also been used to convey something more moderate. As early as the 1970s, liberalism was in bad odor, and some liberal politicians were adopting “progressive” as their preferred euphemism. Writer Rob Hager notes that Rick Perlstein’s book The Invisible Bridge recounts an early example of this strategy: when he ran for president in 1976, Rep. Mo Udall called himself a progressive, not a liberal. As reported in the Milwaukee Sentinel, Udall openly admitted that “progressive means the same thing as liberal,” but said he was dropping the liberal label “because it evokes unfavorable connotations on social issues and wasteful spending.”

Unlike Udall, the business-friendly Democrats who rose to power in the 1980s and 1990s had few ties to traditional liberalism. But they faced a similar problem: what should they call themselves? Many were allergic to identifying themselves with any political orientation at all. When he ran for president in 1988, Michael Dukakis claimed, “This election isn’t about ideology; it’s about competence” (and look where that got him). Clearly, these Democrats were centrists, but apparently no centrist ever likes to call himself one. How could they spice up their bland blancmange of an ideology by associating it with something cool? Initially, some of them accurately defined themselves neoliberals, but that label was quickly abandoned. “New Democrats” and “The Third Way” worked for a while. But slowly, “progressive” was becoming their preferred descriptor. Their adoption of the term reeked of bad faith, but it served a purpose: It’s a happy-talk kind of word that can help launder some really nasty politics. An early example of the co-opting of the term occurred in 1989, when the Democratic Leadership Council had the brass to name its think tank the Progressive Policy Institute.

So far as I can determine, Barack Obama was the first modern-day Democratic presidential nominee to identify as a progressive. Interestingly, he did so when left-wing activists criticized his rightward shift during the 2008 election campaign. Progressive must poll really well, because after Obama came the great stampede. Political figures such as Andrew Cuomo and Rahm Emanuel, not exactly the guys you’d invite to a meeting of your local Democratic Socialists of America chapter, have sworn up and down that they are progressives. Then there’s Hillary Clinton, who’s been running around describing herself as “a progressive who gets things done.” Note the condescension implicit in the phrase: so the rest of us are hapless pie-in-the-sky types who don’t get things done?

Clearly, Clinton’s self-characterization was meant, at least in part, as a diss aimed at Bernie Sanders. During primary season, Sanders and Clinton debated the question of who and what qualifies as progressive. When reporters asked Bernie whether Hillary is a “true progressive,” he replied, “I think, frankly, it is hard to be a real progressive and to take on the establishment in a way that I think has to be taken on, when you come as dependent as she has through her super PAC and in other ways on Wall Street and drug-company money.”

At a Democratic debate a few days later, Clinton was asked to respond. “I am a progressive who gets things done. And the root of that word, progressive, is progress,” she said. “A progressive is someone who makes progress.” Well, okay then.

Clinton’s tautological definition suggests that progressive has become a meaningless term devoid of ideological content; a signifier that signifies nothing in particular. In that sense, perhaps it is an apt descriptor after all for triangulating politicians like Tim Kaine and Hillary Clinton.

Categories: Newswire

Why Trump Puts the Utah Senate Race in Play for Progressives. Yes, Utah.

August 8, 2016 - 12:00pm

What kind of upheaval would it take to put a progressive, transgender woman from Utah in the U.S. Senate?

Maybe Donald J. Trump.

Misty K. Snow thinks so. She’s making a bid to unseat Mike Lee, the state’s junior GOP senator. Though she faces long odds, she believes a storm is gathering that will shatter the status quo.

“If there was ever a chance for Democrats to win Utah, it's this year,” says Snow. “And I believe we'll surprise some people.”

Snow, 31, grew up Mormon. She no longer practices the religion, but there are traces of that history in her campaign. She’s making a progressive vision of family values her theme, and her main priorities are clean air, a $15 an hour minimum wage and paid maternity leave. It’s an agenda that draws on her life experience, and she believes it can appeal to a broad base of voters in Utah.

“A lot of disaffected working-class people see me as the true representative of the working class, whether or not they agree with me on some of the other, more progressive themes,” says Snow, who works as a grocery store cashier.

She became politically involved in 2008, when she began paying attention to (and voted for) Ralph Nader in the presidential election. She was inspired to run this year by the Bernie Sanders campaign and by her dismay at the self-described “conservative Democrat” who was the early favorite to oppose Lee. She beat him in the June primary by nearly 20 points.

Snow’s focus on paid maternity is particularly relevant in Utah, which has the nation’s highest birth rate. And though Utah is solidly Republican, air quality is important to voters there. In a survey of more than 50,000 Utahans last year, respondents ranked clean air near the top of their priorities.

That finding reflects an environmentalist streak in the state. Its last Democratic senator, Frank Moss, who served from 1959 to 1977, built his Senate career in part by being ahead of the curve on water conservation. In The Water Crisis (1967), Moss wrote that “the real reason for our water crisis is our failure to husband our resources.” Moss also distinguished himself by working to improve health care for the poor and elderly.

Beyond Snow’s focus on Utah-centric issues, though, it’s the havoc created by Trump’s candidacy that could clear a path for her to win in November.

Trump’s dubious conservative credentials, religious bigotry and general outlandishness have turned off many of the Republican voters in Utah, where he won just 14 percent of the vote in the state’s caucus. Ted Cruz won 69 percent. A June poll put Hillary Clinton and Trump in a statistical tie in the state. Trump is still the favorite, but the lack of enthusiasm for him will probably diminish turnout among Republicans.

At the same time, Lee, who is a close ally of Cruz in the Senate, has alienated many of the GOP voters most likely to turn out in November—people excited about Trump—by aligning with the Never Trump movement.

And Lee was already unpopular because of his support for the government shutdown that Cruz led in 2013. The federal government is among Utah’s largest employers, in part because of the popular national parks there, and the shutdown hurt both federal employees and the tourist industry supported by the parks.

“A lot of our rural areas really depend on that tourism, so that was really devastating to those communities,” Snow says. “So there’s a lot of anger toward Lee for that, even three years later.”

A poll taken in June found that Lee would beat Snow by about 14 points. Only 45 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of him; 37 percent had an unfavorable opinion, and 18 percent were neutral.

But Snow has a powerful advantage—beyond Trump—that might prove decisive: Young voters. As with the nation broadly, millennials in Utah are much more progressive than older generations. In a survey taken last year, 62 percent self-identified as either “liberal” or “moderate.” Only 39 percent of people born before 1945, and 50 percent of Baby Boomers, self-identified that way.

The base for Lee’s rigidly right-wing politics, in other words, consists of older people, and Utah is easily the youngest state in the Union. It has a median age of 30, versus the national average of nearly 37, and it ranks second in the percentage of its population who are millennials. The strong youth vote was the key reason Sanders beat Clinton by a margin of nearly 60 points in the state.

What does all of this add up to? Will Utah, of all places, elect the Senate’s first transgender member?

It seems unlikely: According to the most recent filings, Lee’s campaign had more than $1 million in its war chest, versus about $6,000 in Snow’s. But in an election season in which Trump poses as the voice of the forgotten and dispossessed, stranger things have already happened.

“I think Lee’s strategy right now is to ignore me, because he thinks he's a sure lock for re-election,” Snow says. “But working-class people know our wages are too low. They know we have huge air-quality issues. I talk about making this an economy that actually works for working people. I understand what it means to live paycheck to paycheck, and I'm going to fight to make life better for working class families. That's the message I'm getting out there.”

Categories: Newswire

The Black Political Establishment Should Never Have Given Hillary Clinton a Blank Check

August 8, 2016 - 10:00am

Early in his campaign for president, Bernie Sanders faced criticism—much of it valid—from Black Lives Matter activists for not being expressly attuned to the specific and distinctive political grievances of African Americans. To his credit, the Vermont senator learned quickly and began incorporating the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement in his speeches and eschewing “All Lives Matter,” the saccharine slogan favored by those who avoid the topic of race. Sanders also produced a racial justice platform addressing issues of mass incarceration and other black grievances. Many black activists, including Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, praised the plan. Garner wrote that black lives like her father’s mattered, adding, “That’s why I’m endorsing Bernie Sanders.”

But it wasn’t just young activists who called out Sanders. Black political leaders joined the fray. During a Congressional Black Caucus Political Action Committee (CBC PAC) endorsement session for Hillary Clinton, Georgia congressman and movement veteran John Lewis questioned Sanders’ civil rights bona fides, declaring, “I never saw him. I never met him.”

Why would Lewis take this odd tack, which discounts the contributions of multitudes who participated in the struggle without having met him? Because, of course, Lewis and the CBC were not mounting a real effort to substantively engage Sanders on racial politics. They were stumping for Clinton.

This rush by black leadership to endorse Clinton was an unforced strategic blunder. Robustly challenging both Clinton and Sanders on racial justice issues—as Black Lives Matter activists did—could have sent a strong message to a party that takes black Americans’ support for granted, fails to deliver real solutions and too often patronizes them.

Black leaders’ uncritical support of Clinton may seem mystifying given the contemptible record of racial scapegoating that is integral to the Clintons’ legacy—such as Hillary’s use of the term “superpredators” to push her husband’s 1994 crime bill, which caused black incarceration to skyrocket. (When challenged by Black Lives Matter activists at a rally this April, Bill Clinton defended both the term and the bill.)

But that support is part and parcel of a decades-long encroachment of neoliberalism and its gospel of market infallibility on black politics, and on the Democratic Party in general. Witness the party establishment’s support of “free trade” and its diminished interest in labor rights, reining in Wall Street and protecting the environment, often with the support of the Clintons.

Not surprisingly, this year the Hillary Clinton delegation ensured the party platform will not include any language explicitly opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a corporate-brokered trade deal that privileges profit maximization over national law, the environment, labor and human rights. The Democratic platform also embraced what it calls “public charter schools,” a Trojan horse for school privatization.

Neoliberalism has also neutralized the passionate advocacy long a feature of black leadership. Few black leaders beat the drum against the Democrats’ rightward drift, even though the party’s abandonment of the working class disproportionately affects black communities. (The CBC did oppose NAFTA, but with Bill Clinton as president, there was not much rabblerousing around it.)

And where were black leaders as the crisis of mass incarceration unfolded? Since enactment of Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, the burden of dealing with its disastrous effects largely fell on underresourced but determined advocacy groups, formerly incarcerated people, affected families and, most recently, Black Lives Matter activists. Although CBC members generally opposed the bill, 28 of 38 members succumbed to pressure from Clinton and voted for it. The bill had been sweetened with social programs and a ban on 19 assault weapons, so that even Bernie Sanders voted “yes” after opposing it.

The black political establishment has fallen prey to the same corporate influence as the rest of the Democratic establishment. In 2010, the New York Times reported that the CBC Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the CBC, raised $53 million over a five-year period, much of it from corporate donors—Big Pharma, telecom and financial industries. Most went to finance leisure activities such as glitzy conventions, golf and casino junkets, and underwriting the foundation’s headquarters.

In a shocking May 2014 report, the Huffington Post documented how key CBC members, including Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore, New York’s Gregory Meeks, Georgia’s David Scott, Missouri’s Lacy Clay and Alabama’s Terri Sewell, undertook to undermine Dodd-Frank’s rules on financial derivatives, linked to the 2008 economic meltdown. Collectively, the five had taken half a million dollars in campaign donations from the financial sector during the previous election cycle. It is a tragic irony that these CBC members represent majority-black districts most devastated by the home-mortgage lending crisis.

Rashad Robinson, executive director of the activist group Color of Change and a critic of the CBC, terms such practices “civil-rights washing”: Corporations use civil-rights groups as a moral cloak to avoid accountability for bad corporate practices. In recent years, the CBC Foundation has been among key black institutions (the National Urban League, the national NAACP and various local chapters and the United Negro College Fund) that received millions of dollars from Wal-Mart as part of its “urban strategy” aimed at fending off worker demands for a living wage and labor rights. These groups gave Wal-Mart moral cover even as its front group, Working Families for Wal-Mart, tried to rally the black community against living wage laws. In 2006, civil rights leader and former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young served as its paid spokesperson.

Some leaders—reassuringly—turn down devious corporate largesse. For example, Rev. Dr. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, rejected a $1,000 check from the meat-packing behemoth Smithfield Foods and instead lent support to an organizing drive by United Food and Commercial Workers. Barber continued as a reliable moral voice, fighting a series of reactionary and anti-labor North Carolina laws through his Moral Mondays campaign.

Poor and disempowered communities, which don’t always have the wherewithal to champion their own interests, deserve more leaders like Barber. Black politicians should heed the dire plea of the mother of Philando Castile, St. Paul’s latest victim of police lynching: “I want my leaders to step up and hold these people accountable. ... We’re being hunted down by police!”

They have not, however, and nowhere has the lack of urgency been more pronounced than in the near-universal endorsement of Hillary Clinton by mainstream black leadership (with a few notable exceptions, such as former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner and Minnesota Rep. and Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Keith Ellison). They endorsed a candidate whose positions on many issues, from free trade to war and privatization—a main calling card of neoliberalism—are inimical to the interests of their communities.

Instead, the black political establishment could have used its moral capital to influence the candidate, taking a page not only from Black Lives Matter but from the Sanders campaign itself, which used popular angst to move Clinton to adopt a “free college” plan that almost resembles his own and to embrace a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage. Clinton has now proposed letting those 55 years and older buy into Medicare—an important nod to Sanders’ single-payer healthcare plan. But it is not clear what African-American leaders have demanded (and will get) from Clinton.

A real debate within the black community over whom to support would have signaled to Clinton and the Democratic establishment that the days of taking black folks for granted are over. It might have forced Clinton to pursue a more aggressive racial justice agenda through the general election and governance (should she win), when “race” is often sacrificed at the altar of political expediency—an expediency that Obama’s presidency unfortunately came to symbolize. Not insignificantly, it would have aligned Black America with the global anti-elite political revolt currently underway. Dating back to anti-colonial times, African Americans have been integral to such global insurgencies.

Instead of using the Sanders challenge to make the candidates compete for black votes, the black establishment effectively awarded Clinton a no-bid contract. Sweetheart deals are as bad in politics as in commerce.

Categories: Newswire

Killings By Police Haven’t Stopped Mexico’s Movement Against Neoliberal Education Reform

August 5, 2016 - 3:49pm

On July 5, teachers at hundreds of schools in Mexico City went on strike to demand the repeal of sweeping U.S.-style “education reforms” that they say undermine labor rights and compromise children’s educations. Thousands of students and parents also took to the streets, where protesters erected blockades.

Support for the teachers’ cause has ballooned in the wake of a violent police crackdown on teachers blockading a highway in Nochixtlán, Oaxaca, on June 19. Gunfire—at least some of it from the Mexican police—killed at least eight people and injured dozens more.

“Parents are now getting involved because they realize this isn’t just about the teachers, it’s about the future of their children,” said Cristian Alfonso Tovar, an elementary school principal in Mexico City who is active in the National Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE), Mexico’s activist teachers’ union, which is driving the protests.

Introduced by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2013, the education reforms include controversial new evaluation standards requiring teachers to pass an exam proving their qualifications. After three failures, they are removed from the classroom. Teachers contend an exam cannot properly assess teaching skill and that the test’s real purpose is to erode job security. The legislation also suggests that parents’ organizations make “voluntary” contributions of money, goods and services to their children’s schools, which some believe is a path to privatization. Teachers say these measures ignore the primary factors hindering education: inadequate public funding, which starves classrooms of resources, and the widespread poverty that prevents many children from even attending school, as their families need them to work. They accuse the government of trying to shift blame for its failures to teachers and parents.

The reforms, supported by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, an association of wealthy nations that includes the United States, and by private think tanks like Mexicanos Primero (Mexicans First), are reminiscent of those that have been imposed in the past decade in the United States over the objections of U.S. teachers’ unions.

But ideology isn’t the only thing that’s been imported across the border. Since 2008, Congress has appropriated $2.3 billion for Mexican police forces to combat organized crime. Human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, say the Merida Initiative, which has funded helicopters, police dogs and training programs for thousands of Mexican police officers, has enabled intensifying repression of civil society by the state.

The deadly confrontation between police and protesters in June is the latest example. A week after teachers had set up the highway blockade, 800 members of the gendarmerie, a military force used for internal policing, along with regular state and federal police, arrived in Nochixtlán to evict them. They were equipped with riot gear, including rubber bullets, tear gas canisters and assault weapons, according to a report issued by Oaxaca-based human rights organizations Fundar Centro de Análisis e Investigación (Fundar Center for Analysis and Investigation) and Consorcio para el Diálogo Parlamentario y la Equidad Oaxaca (Oaxaca Consortium for Parliamentary Dialogue and Equality).

Mexico’s National Security Commission (CSN) said that police had ordered the teachers to disperse, and that the teachers had refused. Teachers say they never heard such an order.

The CSN also initially claimed that the gunshots came from some unknown third party outside the blockade, and that the police were not even armed. Photos published by major news outlets, which showed police aiming guns, soon belied these claims. Mexican officials then said that an armed police unit had been deployed only after other armed actors, possibly guerillas, opened fire. No photos of these armed outside actors or other proof of their presence have emerged.

Twenty-four hours after the killings, teachers re-erected the blockade, vowing that they would not be intimidated by the government.

One elementary school teacher tells In These Times that the group just wanted to speak with the government in order to explain what kind of reform is actually needed. “We want to be better prepared and provide a better education for our students,” she says. “For that to happen, we need better preparation, we want courses, trainings and grad programs that are provided for by the government.” (The teacher asked to remain anonymous out of fear for her safety).

The Nochixtlán operation comes in the context of increased police repression of protests across the nation. Many of these protests can be traced to the president’s policies. In 2014, two years after Peña Nieto began his term, TIME Magazine put him on its cover. “Saving Mexico,” the headline read. “How Enrique Peña Nieto’s sweeping reforms have changed the narrative in his narco-stained nation.” But Peña Nieto’s reforms—including the education measures, controversial telecommunications legislation and the privatization of the national oil company—have generated backlash in his own country.

The 2013 education reforms were met with immediate opposition. CNTE members traveled to Mexico City to occupy the Zocalo, the main plaza, in protest. They were eventually evicted on Sept. 13, 2013, during an enormous police operation involving pepper spray, water cannons and tear gas, as well as the sort of helicopter acquired using Merida Initiative funding.

Teachers have launched protest after protest since the reforms were passed, with another wave starting last November when the assessment exams began. Among the most active regions have been the southern states of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas, whose inhabitants, compared to the rest of the country, are disproportionately poor and indigenous. Through it all, the police have remained heavy-handed.

Prior to the recent mobilizations, the government had said that overturning the reform was completely out of the question, but on July 13 the government agreed to revise the teacher assessment exam. The government is currently in dialogue with the CNTE, but as of press time they have yet to come to an agreement, and the protests continue. Families in Oaxaca continue to mourn their dead loved ones and the barricades still stand. One farmer in Nochixtlán said he had never attended a protest prior to the murder of his 23-year-old son, a supporter of the teachers’ union, on June 19. He now believes all must participate in the movement.

“We must struggle for a Mexico where there is peace, equality, and we all have access to the same opportunity,” said the father, who also preferred anonymity out of fear for his safety. “Too much blood has already been shed.”

Categories: Newswire

The Rio Olympics Are a Reflection of Our Shared Global Crisis

August 5, 2016 - 3:32pm

A global spotlight is on Brazil and it is not looking good. The 2016 Summer Olympics begin in Rio de Janeiro this week amid political scandal, social upheaval and environmental catastrophe.

The media’s impulse has been to point a finger at the country and waggle. But as the global tribe gathers, maybe we should take this opportunity to see in Brazil a reflection of us.

Name a country out of the 206 competing that has been spared the convulsions Brazil is experiencing today. Sure, some are in better shape, some worse, but few of the 11,000 athletes are representing a place without economic inequalities or life-threatening pollution. These are shared conditions resulting in global distress.

Competing and living in dirty water

No place tells a better story of how we got into this mess—and how we can get out of it—than Rio de Janeiro and its polluted Guanabara Bay.

Rio de Janeiro is a city of some 6 million people in the southeastern state of Rio de Janeiro. It is protected from the Atlantic Ocean by the Guanabara Bay, which, shaped like an oval, is about 1-mile wide at its mouth to about 15 miles east to west and 19 miles north to south. Its average depth is around 18 feet, but in some areas it is much shallower.

The scenic overlook of the bay, with Rio’s skyline and Sugarloaf Mountain, which juts up like a breached humpback whale, is the stunningly beautiful, postcard image of the place. These days, however, a close-up photograph of the bay is likely to show trash and dead fish. A massive fish die-off in Guanabara Bay in 2014 resulted in 80 tons of dead Brazilian menhaden. The menhaden has been called the most important fish in the ocean. Their health is linked to the ocean’s health.

News stories about dirty water are common as we head into the Games. Pathogenic microorganisms, chemical pollution and eutrophication have degraded the bay’s ecosystem health and threaten its capacity to sustain life.

Rapid urbanization and industrialization are at the root of much of the trouble.

Sixteen million people live around the bay, one of the most industrialized coastal areas in Brazil and home to more than 16,000 industries. Fifty rivers drain into it and most, like Rio Sarapuí, carry wastes from factories and homes. Large amounts of solid waste, organic matter, heavy metals, organic pollutants and hydrocarbons are regularly introduced into the bay by oil refineries, chemical and pharmaceutical companies, textile and food manufacturers, sewage outfall pipes and runoff from dumps. Until it was closed in 2012, Rio had the largest open-air landfill in the world, located on Guanabara Bay. What its infrastructure includes—three seaports, two airports, and two naval bases—is as important as what it does not include—the adequate containment of chemical and biological wastes.

Sewage is a pervasive problem in the bay and its tributaries. This has gotten a lot of attention because 1,400 Olympic athletes will be competing in open water events at three different sites in Rio: Marina da Gloria and Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, in Guanabara Bay, and Copacabana beach, on the Atlantic.

The Associated Press commissioned water testing at the three competition sites and one tourist beach, checking for viruses and bacteria. The test results showed that anyone that comes in contact with the water, and, in particular, if they swallow it, is risking their health.

Poor water quality is just a fact of life for Rio’s residents: 65 percent of hospitalizations are due to water-transmitted diseases.

Half of the households in the bay’s basin are not connected to sewage treatment. But if you think sewage treatment is the answer to the bay’s pollution problems, think again. There is no doubt it reduces waterborne diseases caused by microbiological agents like bacteria. Nevertheless, researchers have shown that the frequency of gastrointestinal symptoms climbs the closer one gets to treated municipal wastewater sources.

Moreover, sewers exacerbate water pollution problems by encouraging industrial hook-ups to municipal sewer systems. Sewers are publically-funded drains. The public is fooled into thinking that industrial wastes are “treated,” when in fact sewage treatment, even in the most modern systems in the United States, has nothing to do with mitigating chemicals. The end result is a shell game with the leftovers from modern living—often dangerous to public health and toxic to the environment when put where they don’t belong.

Using water to transport waste material to lakes, bays, rivers and oceans is a global problem. But if end-of-pipe treatment is not the solution, what is? The answer is complex but begins with not mixing waste materials together in the first place. This is exactly the opposite of the reigning sewerage paradigm. Instead, we should recover and recycle as close to the source as possible. Materials with no post-production use or those that are too toxic to render harmless should be banned.

Such an approach is based on a pollution prevention framework. We should leapfrog over multi-billion-dollar wastewater treatment facilities and instead put that money into developing 21st century environmental health solutions in Rio and elsewhere that would be worthy of a gold medal on the global sustainability stage.

Shantytowns and Billionaires’ Row

Several million people—by some estimates half of Rio de Janeiro’s population—live in shantytowns called favelas. Everything about them is unsustainable, yet they stubbornly persist because people need a place to live. Favela residents are overwhelmingly poor and people of color, and their communities reflect both race and class injustices. Like the Earth’s other 650-plus million urban residents who live in slum conditions, they do not have the same degree of protection from health and environmental hazards as their wealthy neighbors, or any say in what those protections should be.

There is an average of 5,000 inhabitants per square kilometer in Rio, but in Rocinha, one of the city’s largest favelas, the density is nearly 10 times that much. Waterborne diseases and the threat of Zika are not the only concerns in these communities. Tuberculosis is rampant.

Violence, another serious public health threat, is also common.

Many of the 206 nations represented in the Olympics have communities in similar circumstances, including the United States, where St. Louis, Baltimore and Detroit all have a higher murder rate than Rio—if one doesn’t count the more than 2,500 people killed by Rio’s security forces since the city was awarded the Olympics in October 2009.

Brazil has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world. Brazilian developer and billionaire Carlos Fernando de Carvalho, whose company, Carvalho Hosken, S.A., is helping to build Barra Olympic Park and Athletes’ Village, said he wants Ilha Pura, the athletes’ village in Rio, to become “home to a ‘noble’ elite” with gardens that “only kings have previously had” after the 2016 Games.

Yet the growing gap between rich and poor is a global phenomenon, driven by institutions like the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which are good at measuring inequality while accelerating the conditions that make it so.

Britain’s impending exit from the European Union, a result of a referendum where those without money generally voted to leave and those with money, to stay, has prompted some hand wringing from politicians caught off guard by the vote. Theresa May, Britain’s new Prime Minister, a Margaret Thatcher-admiring Conservative, explained it this way, “There is a growing divide between a more prosperous older generation and a struggling younger generation. And there is a gaping chasm between wealthy London and the rest of the country.”

In the United States, while black men feel their lives are at stake in any confrontation with the police and images of militarized security forces facing unarmed protesters in cities like Baton Rouge travel around the globe, real estate agents worry that New York City’s ultra-luxury real estate boom, with its $100 million price tags, has come to an end. It’s not that the money dried up. The market was flooded with $10 million-plus apartments, so many that Manhattan now has a neighborhood known as Billionaires’ Row.

Sink or swim together

Separation—us and them, nature and me—is the source material for economic inequality and environmental degradation on the mindboggling scale we are witnessing today. Scapegoating “other” and separating ourselves from nature has been the practice of the elites who have benefited from industrialization and who are now in control of the economic and environmental destinies of the global citizenry.

To feel oneself as separate from and without attachment to nature allows for its defilement. If it’s part of you, then what you do to it, you do to yourself. The admiration of its beauty or mechanics without such a connection results in only superficial protections. Call it postcard environmentalism: Look how pretty! (But it’s dying.)

We must learn to hold that beauty at the same time as we hold the environmental catastrophe taking place under the city’s reflection on the water’s edge. This means owning up to the problems and at the same time not letting go of the pleasures of a place and its people. This tension between two very different but co-existing realities creates the energies for action rather than complacency. It helps us fight the despair of environmental degradation while working to clean up our planet.

William Cronon, an environmental historian at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, suggested in his 1995 essay, “The Trouble With Wilderness,” that our romantic ideas of wilderness separated us from nature. When we idealize nature, we stop thinking of ourselves as part of it. Cronon writes:

If wildness can stop being (just) out there and start being (also) in here, if it can start being as humane as it is natural, then perhaps we can get on with the unending task of struggling to live rightly in the world—not just in the garden, not just in the wilderness, but in the home that encompasses them both.

What we see happening in Rio, and in our own cities, is a mirror image of this. We idealize ourselves in relation to the filth and poisons around us. We ignore the fact that no matter how tall the gate at the end of the driveway, or how high the wall between countries, what is coming out of the smoke stacks and sewer outfall pipes is in us. Rio and Guanabara Bay are not (just) over there. They are (also) here, on our planet. The global tribe will sink or swim together. There is no place to go to escape the pollution and violence. It is affecting you as sure as it is the residents of Rocinha.

The old miner’s song, “Which Side Are You On,” was written by Florence Reece in 1931 in Harlan County, Ky., after the police came looking for her husband, a union organizer. The song ends with the line, “Us poor folks haven't got a chance unless we organize.” Us rich folks haven’t got a chance either, unless we join the poor and together realize ourselves to be living in the same home. Representatives from 206 countries are gathering in Brazil this summer. What a good time to start.

Categories: Newswire

Why Bernie Sanders Lost, and How the Next Progressive Challenger Can Win

August 4, 2016 - 10:00am

I’ve come not to bury Bernie Sanders, but to praise him. In his 15-month run for the White House, Sanders shook up the establishment and shifted the boundaries of the politically possible in America. He assembled a coalition of voters that is younger, more progressive and more numerous than anyone could have imagined. As a result, both the Democratic Party’s platform and its nominee’s positions have shifted left. More importantly, Bernie Sanders has set the terms of the debate about the future of the Democratic Party moving forward.

What he did not do is win. As Sanders himself said in his convention speech, “No one is more disappointed than I am.”

But he came close—so close that millions of his supporters could taste it. I got drawn in, too, staying up late into the night in a hotel room in February, juggling spreadsheets and old exit polls, hunting for a plausible path to victory. I even thought I’d found it, and I wasn’t alone.

“Had it not been for the political establishment,” Sanders advisor Larry Cohen, the former president of the Communication Workers of America, says, “Bernie would have won the nomination.”

It’s true that few serious challengers have ever had so many powerful elements within their own party aligned against them. When WikiLeaks unleashed a trove of nearly 20,000 internal emails between Democratic National Committee staffers mocking Sanders and, at times, outright conspiring against him, it seemed to confirm the worst of his supporters’ suspicions that the game was rigged from the start.

But Sanders’ campaign against Hillary Clinton was less a civil war within the party than an attempted hostile takeover. To argue that an anti-establishment candidate lost because the establishment was against him is to close off the possibility of ever successfully challenging that establishment—and that would be a deep disservice to Sanders, his supporters and all they accomplished.

Instead, it seems worth asking why exactly he came up short, and what it might take, next time, for someone to challenge the establishment and win.

The first and possibly fatal misstep Sanders and his campaign made was failing to realize that he could win. You can’t blame them, though—Hillary Clinton spent years preparing for this election, and Sanders entered the race as the longest of long shots.

Whether “winning” was the goal at all was an open question in the beginning, even within the campaign itself. Cohen describes the early days of the campaign as running on two tracks—a traditional track to rack up delegates and a separate track to build a movement for economic justice. “[Early on] I would have thought that the movement-building was the main track,” he says. “It turned out that the more traditional track was clearly within reach.”

Piling up 2,026 pledged delegates across 57 individual primaries and caucuses is a vastly different endeavor than waging a broad campaign for economic justice, and the tactics and strategies to get there are vastly different as well. Sanders spent the first part of the race campaigning in white, liberal college towns where he drew huge crowds with a message that was laser-focused on economic inequality, often to the obvious and awkward exclusion of other issues. In many ways, it was the perfect strategy to draw attention to a message, but it resulted in a coalition that was deep (and deeply passionate) but narrow.

The key to winning a close delegate fight in the Democratic primary is to win big where you can and to keep your losses close. Sanders did the opposite—his wins were often narrow, and his losses were too often blowouts. Nowhere was that more true than in Southern states with large African-American populations.

Much has been written about why Sanders failed to connect with African-American voters, and there’s no sugar-coating the numbers: 76 percent for Clinton to 23 percent for Sanders (among white voters, the two finished dead even). For Sanders supporter Bill Fletcher Jr., a labor activist, former president of TransAfrica and member of Democratic Socialists of America, this was less a failure of effort than a blind spot early on. “The campaign completely underestimated communities of color and completely downplayed the relationship between racial justice, gender justice and economic justice,” he says. “I think those two points were fatal.”

Sanders waited three and a half months after declaring his candidacy before making his first campaign stop in South Carolina. In addition, he made the decision early on to run not just against Hillary Clinton, but against President Obama. Instead of arguing that it was he and not Clinton who was better suited to build on the Obama legacy—for example, using Obamacare as a foundation to get to single payer, instead of scrapping the president’s health reform law altogether—he let Clinton claim the mantle of Obama’s successor. This is a president whose approval rating tops 90 percent among African Americans. These are voters who were never going to vote for Bernie if that meant turning against Barack.

In the end, Sanders came up short by more than 3 million votes—though not enough to prevent many supporters from claiming that it was a combination of election irregularities and voter suppression that cost him the election. But closed primaries are not the same as voter suppression. It’s true that our systems for voting—especially in primaries, which are built on the assumption that not many people participate—are habitually underfunded, understaffed and badly flawed, but there’s no compelling evidence that they’re rigged.

Whether or not the mainstream media is rigged, on the other hand, is an altogether different question. In December, Media Matters reported that ABC’s World News Tonight had devoted less than one minute to Sanders’ campaign in all of 2015, and they weren’t alone in snubbing him. This despite the fact that Sanders regularly drew more support than the object of the media’s early obsession, Donald Trump. Major news outlets also spotted Clinton a 359-delegate lead before the first vote was even cast, by including superdelegates in their official results. That helped create a false impression that endorsements from these party insiders are part of the delegate count that determines who “wins” each state (they aren’t), and a false narrative that the race was never close.

But it’s precisely because of Sanders’ success, against all odds, that the next challenger will face a much different set of assumptions going in.

What Sanders did was pull back the curtain on a complacent Democratic establishment, revealing just how hungry people are—especially young people—for a more progressive and populist economic policy. Sanders’ supporters and volunteer networks are now part of every state, and their influence will be felt within state parties and progressive organizations for a long time to come. If they’re successful, in the future an establishment (including unions and issue-advocacy groups) that is less complacent, less compromising and more receptive to the wants of its members—a more small “d” democratic establishment—may not be so quick to close ranks around a presumptive nominee.

In that environment, a campaign that starts early, with a clear commitment to winning and focus on building a broad and inclusive coalition, could play out a lot differently. Sanders was right about the economic moment that we live in, but he somehow missed the larger social movements and forces—including the struggle for racial justice that is being waged in the streets every day.

“We have to have a storyline that talks to regular people about how these things intersect,” says Fletcher. “Simply being the candidate of economic justice is not enough.” Bernie Sanders had a clear message, and he mounted an inspiring campaign that he used to communicate it. The political debate has forever been altered as a result. But winning campaigns are about more than just making a point.

Naomi Klein, writing in The Nation, put it this way: “We didn’t win, but we could have. We came that close. That’s thrilling. It’s also terrifying. Because if we can win, it means that we must win. That’s a heavy responsibility.”

Categories: Newswire

Bernie Sanders’ Delegates Speak Out About Convention: “They Painted Us As Crazy”

August 3, 2016 - 11:17pm

Since the Democratic National Convention last week, there’s been a lot of ink spilled about Bernie Sanders’ delegates—the rowdy, disruptive group of 1,900 that could be heard on television and in the Wells Fargo Center booing Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton alike.

Sanders’ army was among the convention’s most active participants, leading chants against party elites and staging protests from the floor. Annoyed, more than a few pundits took swings at those delegates, chiding them as everything from “suicidal Marxists who work at TGI Friday's” to “a fanatical, disruptive minority.” And, though a recent poll from the Pew Research Center found that some 90 percent of Sanders’ supporters will back Clinton come November, reporters swarmed the Bernie-or-Bust crowd.

The question now—for those interested in carrying on the political revolution Sanders sparked—is not what will become of votes for Sanders, but what will become of the manpower and campaign infrastructure that recruited them? Can the Democratic Party embrace its insurgent wing, or will it close ranks and steel itself against pressure from below?

In These Times recently sat down with three Sanders delegates to hear their reflections on the convention and their thoughts on the future of the Democratic Party. Like many others, each knocked on doors and planned out efforts to elect Sanders at the state and national level. Waleed Shahid, a delegate from Pennsylvania, is deputy director of membership for the Working Families Party. Charles Lenchner, from the New York delegation, is co-founder of People for Bernie, a project on which Moumita Ahmed—also from New York—organized with as founder of Millennials for Bernie.

Their comments have been edited and condensed.

Was being a delegate what you expected? What was the scene like on the floor?

Waleed Shahid: I think the delegates who are the most diehard Bernie supporters came in expecting some sort of contestation or floor fight even though Senator Sanders said that wasn’t going to happen. All the speeches made it seems like Hillary was already the candidate, and that rubbed the Bernie delegates the wrong way. I went in knowing she’d be the nominee, but I think other delegates maybe didn’t understand the process as thoroughly.

It was weird. You’re there sitting next to mayors and governors, and, for a lot of the Bernie delegates, it’s their first time being involved in the political process. Now they’re sitting next to the political elite. Hillary delegates seemed confused and annoyed with the Bernie delegates. The body language and the way we were being treated didn’t speak to what they were saying on stage about opening the party up to people like us. They were looking around at each other asking, ‘Why are all these young people excited by a socialist 74-year-old from Vermont?’ If they don’t understand that, they’re in for a surprise.

Moumita Ahmed: I didn’t know that we were there as almost a show rather than people with actual minds who were there to express what they saw through the election. Most people expected delegates to show up, cheer and have a great time nominating Clinton. We did have a great time in the Bernie delegation, but we made sure we expressed ourselves. We came out and held signs and things, not necessarily bashing Hillary but showing that we want to ban fracking and stop the TPP, and that we support Palestinian human rights. These aren’t issues that are ‘anti-Hillary Clinton,’ just policies she hasn’t fully adopted. We were trying to represent the people we were there for.

Party officials did everything they could to take our signs and credentials away, and not let the issues be at the front of the DNC. I was told to hush and not boo New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, which—I think—shows a difference in the way each side handles corrupt politicians. I questioned what really is the role of a delegate. To a certain degree, we may have changed the rules there a little bit.

Charles Lenchner: I didn’t really have expectations. The state delegations didn’t feel like a welcoming place for Bernie delegates. Every morning we showed up at breakfast where the speakers were almost all either union officials or elected officials, and basically none of them supported Sanders. It’s almost like party leaders hadn’t figured out that they need to cultivate these people, and don’t want us around for the future. They assume that we’re irrelevant for the long term.

The front rows on the convention floor all had reserved signs on them for elected officials, some of whom were delegates and superdelegates. Some were neither. Those were also being held for VIP guest passes, issued nine to one in favor of Hillary to Bernie people. It was a physical reminder that we were seen as less than the other team. The Democratic National Committee’s goal was explicitly to hide us and cover up any signs we had. They got what they wanted, but they also created a lot of ill will from hundreds of thousands of Bernie people who viscerally experienced how the party establishment doesn’t want them around.

Do you think what you saw came across in how the media was covering the convention?

MA:  I don’t think they accurately represented how people felt. They credited everything we did to Bernie-or-Bust or Jill Stein and the Green Party. Most delegates weren’t Bernie-or-Bust. We all understand that, ultimately, Trump needs to be defeated, and that—especially in swing states—you need to support Clinton. They painted us as crazy.

CL:  The common wisdom about political conventions today—and it’s not wrong—is that the purpose of the convention is to be a television ad for your candidate. So the mass media and DNC work together to have a fine show. What’s lost in that is that a convention could be, or should be, about actual democracy—people having disagreements, forming new coalitions. The work of politics isn’t always pretty. Why don’t we reserve the unity celebration for days three and four? Bernie delegates who don’t have a lot of money raised money to participate in the convention, only to find out that participation involves free breakfasts and parties, and cheering on demand.

What was the most surprising thing about the convention?

WS: I wasn’t expecting to feel as sad as I did to see Sanders on stage. It was a really bittersweet moment. The media covered the walkout, which was a small percentage of delegates. But a much larger percentage of delegates left the convention floor and either went to the lobby or went to a bar downtown. They weren’t protesting. They were sad. There’s a real fear that a lot of the relationships and infrastructure people built through the Bernie campaign is going to disappear overnight.

MA: I was really surprised at how ideological some of these party people are. They’re mad that Bernie is an independent who ran in the Democratic Party. Some of us were talking about open primaries, and they just hated that.

I gave one woman, a Clinton delegate, a sign that said ‘I Support Palestinian Human Rights.’ She wanted to wear it, but her friend said, ‘We can’t do that, we’re not allowed to.’ They don’t want to question party leadership on any level. Even the simple thing of taking a button and putting it on your body is a big no-no for them. I didn’t think the party was this authoritarian.

Will Sanders' supporters back Clinton in the fall? What do you think are the main challenges to party unity?

WS: The vast majority of Sanders’ supporters are going to be voting for Clinton in 2016. But people are upset at the status quo, and unfortunately Hillary represents that. When the Democratic Party leaders and Clinton say that America is already great, it doesn’t sit well. America’s only great when people come together to make that so. Young people are looking for a way to participate that acknowledges that our system is broken. That’s a huge vacuum right now, and progressive leaders and organizations need to step up into it.

MA: I think the vast majority of people are going to support Clinton. It’s in the party establishment’s interest just as much as ours to work together, but I don’t see them doing their part. Their focus is too much on fear-mongering and all of this anti-Trump rhetoric. They’re not tapping into the source of the suffering that most people are feeling, and why they got involved in this political revolution in the first place. I don’t see them bothering with that, and it really worries me.

CL: In swing states, particularly, the vast majority of Bernie supporters are going to vote for Hillary. The appearance of their being massive dissent from Bernie people was an optical illusion. If you’re on team Bernie but are resigned to team Hillary, you’re not going to rush to get press.

Do you think the Democratic Party is worth fighting for? Why? Did you leave the convention pessimistic or optimistic about its future?

WS: I left feeling very optimistic about the party’s future, and hopeful about having lower-case “d” democrats overtake it. Bernie’s not the ceiling of what we can achieve in the Democratic Party. He’s the floor. I’m hopeful we can learn from what went well and what didn’t this cycle with the Sanders movement. In the coming years there’s a lot of space for us to fight, both within and outside the Democratic Party. I don’t think all political change is going to happen in the Democratic Party. It’s just one field of battle.

MA: There is a divide within the party, and a rising progressive wing that I want to help succeed. The way the DNC acted at this convention doesn’t give me hope. What gives me hope is all the people who supported Bernie, and who are now trying to fight within the system to start organizations and elect people like Bernie.

CL: It’s possible to win power outside of the two-party system, but what you’ll find is that one of them will swallow your issue. The GOP became the party of abolitionists because there were too many abolitionists that voted. I think the Democratic Party is a battleground. You can either play on it to win, or you can abandon it to the enemy. And I would rather play on it to win. 

Categories: Newswire