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Updated: 25 min 42 sec ago

Virginia Anti-Corruption Movement Faces Down Corporate Backlash

Fri, 07/20/2018 - 14:19

The appearance of corruption that’s rife throughout the US political system — because corporations are allowed to contribute to the campaigns of politicians that regulate them — is particularly striking in Virginia, one of only six states that don’t limit political contibutions from corporations. (The others are Alabama, Missouri, Nebraska, Oregon, and Utah.)

It’s especially dramatic when it comes to electric utilities. Like most states in the South, Virginia’s electric utility market is regulated for the most part, with investor-owned power companies given license by the state to operate as monopolies while being guaranteed a certain rate of return — 10 percent in Virginia. Those profit-driven monopolies are thus able to take money from captive customers while spending to curry favor with the same politicians charged with oversight.

It’s a rigged system that, not surprisingly, has repeatedly put electricity consumers at an economic disadvantage while benefitting investor-owned companies and their political overseers. But that system is facing a challenge from state anti-corruption activists.

Last year the pro-reform PAC Activate Virginia invited state candidates to sign a pledge promising to refuse campaign contributions from the state’s two large regulated electric monopolies, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Co. The companies are among the most generous political contributors in Virginia, giving millions of dollars over the years to state politicians and party organizations. Activate Virginia was established in late 2016 by three Bernie Sanders delegates concerned about political corruption related to the state’s campaign finance system, and its effort was part of a broader trend of promoting more ethical politics in the state.

The pledge states: “If we’re to be credible as candidates willing to fight to protect our environment, willing to stand up to corporate interests when they conflict with the interests of everyday Virginians, we must remove the appearance of influence through campaign donations.”

In all, 74 House of Delegates candidates and two lieutenant governor candidates signed the pledge. Of those 76 candidates, 52 won their primaries, and 13 won the general election. While most were Democrats, a few Greens and independents also signed on. The effort has continued into the current mid-term cycle, focusing on congressional candidates and looking ahead to the next round of Virginia legislative elections in 2019.

The pledge campaign has been successful enough that it’s been met with backlash from corporate interests. Hunton Andrews Kurth — one of Virginia’s biggest law and lobbying firms — recently announced that it would no longer donate to the campaigns of candidates unless they also accept money from Appalachian Power, one of the firm’s clients.

“Our state government relations practice group feels a high sense of loyalty to all of our clients,” Whitt Clement, a Democrat and former Virginia House delegate who now heads the firm’s state governmental relations practice group, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “The unusual step of [lawmakers] automatically refusing to accept contributions from a client has caused us to hold back our contributions to those same legislators.”

“A Step in the Right Direction”

Hunton is a major player in Virginia state politics. In 2017, a key election year for Virginia, the firm contributed over $225,000 to state-level politics there, according to FollowTheMoney.org. The top recipient of those donations was the Commonwealth Victory Fund of Virginia, the primary fundraising arm of the General Assembly’s Democratic Caucus, followed by the campaigns of Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, and his 2017 Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie.

American Electric Power, the Ohio-based parent company of Appalachian Power, contributed slightly more to Virginia state politicians in 2017 than Hunton, at just over $232,000. Its top recipients were the Northam and Gillespie campaigns, which each received $15,000 from the company.

In Virginia, though, few donors match Dominion’s generosity. The Richmond-based company was the top corporate contributor to the state’s politics in 2017, giving over $746,000. Its top recipient was the Northam campaign (over $72,000), with the Gillespie campaign second ($55,000). It donated at least $30,000 to three others as well: Attorney General Mark Herring ($37,000), the state House Republican Campaign Committee ($32,000), and state Sen. Dick Saslaw ($30,000), who represents a district in Northern Virginia and has served as the chamber’s Democratic leader since 1996.

Dominion has been exceptionally generous to Saslaw over the years, contributing over $310,000 to his campaigns. The only players in Virginia politics that have gotten more from Dominion are the Virginia Democratic Party ($469,726), the Commonwealth Victory Fund ($415,820), and Virginia Republican Party ($390,200).

And Saslaw has repeatedly gone to bat for Dominion. When the state Democratic Party criticized a GOP lawmaker a few years back for being too cozy with Dominion, Saslow apologized to a company official in an email and blamed his party for not doing its “homework” on “how generous Dominion has been” to him and others, the Associated Press reported. Earlier this year, with state lawmakers reconsidering a 2015 rate freeze Dominion sought from the legislature that led to the company collecting about $300 million annually in excess profits, Saslaw sponsored a bill to address the overcharges. Criticized as unfair to ratepayers by consumer advocates including Attorney General Herring, it was eventually incorporated into another measure that was signed into law by Northam.

But as the legislation moved through the state House, something unprecedented happened: Pro-reform lawmakers proposed an amendment to strike a particularly consumer-unfriendly provision from the bill, and it passed with the overwhelming support of lawmakers from both parties. Political observers saw it as a watershed moment, with Dominion no longer getting the deference it once commanded. Indeed, the company — which is also under fire for its role as the lead builder of the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline that would carry fracked gas from West Virginia to North Carolina — increased its lobbying spending in the state by tenfold between May 2017 and April 2018, which a spokesperson defended as necessary “to break through the fake news and propaganda perpetuated by anti-energy groups.”

Despite Hunton’s threats to withhold contributions, Activate Virginia is not backing down. In fact, the group’s executive director, Josh Stanfield, said he sees the firm’s move as a positive one for the state. “If there’s one less lobbying firm giving one less dollar to one less legislator, that’s a step in the right direction,” he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “From my point of view, it’s almost like a concession.”

The pledge effort has continued into the current mid-term congressional election cycle, with 23 candidates for the Democratic nomination in Virginia’s 11 US House races signing it. Six of those won their primaries: Vangie Williams in the 1st District, Elaine Luria in the 2nd, Leslie Cockburn in the 5th, Jennifer Lewis in the 6th, Anthony Flaccavento in the 9th, and Jennifer Wexton in the 10th. Another four Democratic candidates for Virginia state Senate in 2019 have already signed the pledge.

Pledge Spreads to West Virginia

Meanwhile, the no-utility-money pledge idea has spread beyond Virginia. 

Seven 2018 candidates for the House of Delegates in West Virginia — another state with a regulated energy market — have promised not to take campaign contributions from utility monopolies. Since 2014, the state’s two big electric utilities, FirstEnergy and American Electric Power,  together have contributed over $320,000 to West Virginia state politics, according to FollowTheMoney.org.

Leading the pledge campaign in West Virginia is the nonprofit Solar United Neighbors, formerly the Community Power Network. Active in eight states and the District of Columbia, it represents the interests of solar power system owners and clean energy supporters.

West Virginia pledge signer Margaret Staggers was the top vote-getter in the Democratic primary in state House District 32 and will face at least five other candidates in November, none of whom have signed the pledge to date. The other West Virginia signers moving on to the general election in November, neither of whom faced primary opposition, are Lissa Lucas, the Democratic candidate in House District 7, and Barbara Daniels, running in House District 44 as a member of the Mountain Party, West Virginia’s US Green Party affiliate.

Lucas, who’s also turning away super PAC money, became a social media sensation earlier this year when legislative security guards dragged her away from the podium while she was testifying before the state House Judiciary Committee against a bill to allow companies to drill for oil and gas on land without the owners’ consent. Her offense? Listing contributions to committee members’ campaigns from the oil, gas, and utility industries, which the chair said constituted improper “personal” remarks.

Lucas, a professional writer who lives on a farm and says she “might possibly be the world’s only professional chicken advice columnist,” is up against incumbent Republican Del. Jason Harshbarger, who works for Dominion as a gas storage specialist. He’s the main donor to his own campaign and has also received contributions from his employer as well as FirstEnergy.

“I was hoping to make them realize how it looks,” Lucas said after she was ejected from the hearing. “It’s not just the issue of impropriety. It’s the issue of the appearance of impropriety that’s breaking our government.”

The post Virginia Anti-Corruption Movement Faces Down Corporate Backlash appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

From Crib to Court: Trump Administration Summons Immigrant Infants

Fri, 07/20/2018 - 14:10

The Trump administration has summoned at least 70 children under 1 year old to immigration court for their own deportation proceedings since Oct. 1, according to new Justice Department data provided exclusively to Kaiser Health News.

These children, who may be staying with a sponsor or in a foster care arrangement, need frequent touching and bonding with a parent and naps every few hours, and some are of breastfeeding age, medical experts say. They’re unable to speak and still learning when it’s day versus night.

“For babies, the basics are really important. It’s the holding, the proper feeding, proper nurturing,” said Shadi Houshyar, who directs early childhood and child welfare initiatives at advocacy group Families USA.

The number of infants under age 1 involved has been rising — up threefold from 24 infants in the fiscal year that ended last Sept. 30, and 46 infants the year before.

The Justice Department data show that a total of 1,500 “unaccompanied” children, from newborns to age 3, have been called in to immigration court since Oct. 1, 2015.

Unaccompanied Children Summoned to Court

Data for 2018 is through June 30; fiscal year ends September 30. Experts say there are delays in data entry.

Chart: KHN Source: Department of JusticeKHN Source: Department of Justice

Roughly three-fourths of the children involved are represented by a lawyer and they have to make their case that they should stay in the United States.

Officials who review such deportation cases say most children under 1 cross the border with a parent and their deportation cases proceed together.

But some of the infants were deemed “unaccompanied” only after law enforcement separated them from their parents during the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy. The children were sent to facilities across the US under the supervision of the Department of Health and Human Services.

“This is to some extent a … crisis of the creation of the government,” said Robert Carey, who previously headed the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which takes custody of unaccompanied minors. “It’s a tragic and ironic turn of events.”

Younger children are also considered unaccompanied if they enter the US with an older family member who is not yet 18. The data do not clarify which children arrived that way or which were separated from their parents.

The Justice Department did not respond to a request for further data about where the children are housed. They could be in a foster care home, at a group home, with a relative or sponsor or reunited with a parent. HHS, which operates the refugee resettlement office, did not provide comment by publication  time.

In previous statements, the government has argued that separation — and its consequences — are unfortunate but unavoidable under the law.

“There is a surefire way to avoid separation from your children. Present yourself legally … or stay back at your home country, and go through the process others do,” HHS Secretary Alex Azar said on a media call earlier this month. “None of us want children separated from their parents. I want no children in our care and custody.”

The number of unaccompanied children called in to court since Oct. 1, 2015, swells to 2,900 if kids up to 5 are included. The total will rise between now and Sept. 30, when the fiscal year ends, noted Susan Long, a statistician at Syracuse University and director of TRAC, a repository of immigration and federal court data. There’s also an ongoing backlog in entering the data.

In June, a district judge in San Diego ordered the government to reunify families within a month, specifically directing them to unite children younger than 5 with parents by July 10.

HHS reunited about half of those children by July 12 — 57 out of 103. Others, the government said, could not be placed with a parent, citing in some cases “serious criminal history” or parents currently being in jail.

In 12 cases, those children’s parents had already been deported. In another, the government had failed to figure out where the child’s parent was located, and in another, the parent had a “communicable disease,” HHS said.

The Department of Homeland Security, which issues the court orders, also did not respond to a request for comment.

In the removal cases, children have no right to an appointed lawyer, but rather to a list of legal aid attorneys that the child’s current caregiver can contact.

And young children rarely know the details of why they fled their home country, especially without a parent present, noted Eileen Blessinger, a Virginia-based immigration lawyer who has been aiding parents.

“Think about it as a parent. You’re not going to tell your child they might be killed, right?” she said. “A lot of the kids don’t know.”

Immigration court, which is an administrative unit of the Department of Justice, is different from typical courts. It handles “respondents” who may be too young to speak, but has no social workers or legal remedies focused on the best interest of a child, said Lenni Benson, a New York Law School professor and founder of the Safe Passage  Project, which provides legal services to migrant youth.

“An immigration judge has no discretion,” Benson said. “There’s no ‘I’m hearing the mom wants the kid, I’m going to decide what’s best,’” she said. Instead, “it’s ‘the government has charged you with being removable from the US Do you have evidence to show you have a right to be here?’”

Benson recounted being in immigration court in 2014 when a judge asked for a crying baby to be removed from the courtroom. She said she paused to inform the judge that the baby was the next respondent on the docket — and asked that the child’s grandmother stand in.

The stakes for the babies, and any migrant fleeing violence, are high, said Paul Wickham Schmidt, a former immigration judge who retired in 2016 after 13 years on the bench in Arlington, Va.

“Final orders of deportation have consequences,” he said. “For something that has a very serious result, this system has been described as death penalty cases in traffic court.”

Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges and a judge specializing in juvenile cases in Los Angeles, acknowledged that the administration narrowed a directive on how much judges can assist juveniles in court. Still, she said, judges do their best to ensure that young children get a fair hearing.

Justice Department data show that asylum denials are at a nearly 10-year high at 42 percent, and the Associated Press reported that the administration has raised the bar for making a successful case.

At the same time, children can be strapped for resources, Blessinger said.

She described one client whose 7-year-old daughter received legal support from a New York-based charity. Even in that case, she said, the organization acted simply as a “friend of the court” — rather than a full-fledged attorney — requesting delays in proceedings until the child and mother could be reunited. That finally happened Tuesday night, she said.

“It’s the saddest experience. These people are not going to be recovering anytime soon,” she said. “The parents are crying even after they’re reunited.”

The post From Crib to Court: Trump Administration Summons Immigrant Infants appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Years After EPA Cited Health Risks From Chemical Plant, Is Enough Being Done?

Fri, 07/20/2018 - 14:04

What should be done about a chemical plant in Louisiana’s St. John the Baptist Parish that releases chloroprene — a chemical so toxic that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined nearby residents face the highest risk in the country of developing cancer from air pollution?

The answer is simple, according to Retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré: “Fix it, move it, or shut it down.” Honoré is founder of the Green Army, a coalition of environmental groups and concerned citizens fighting against pollution in their communities.

But local, state, and federal regulators haven’t resolved issues swirling around emissions released by the Denka Performance Elastomer plant, located in LaPlace, Louisiana. The plant is next to the Mississippi River, on a stretch of land between New Orleans and Baton Rouge known as Cancer Alley.

Chloroprene Emissions on the Decline but Still Too High?

DuPont’s synthetic rubber plant in LaPlace emitted chloroprene for 46 years before it was sold to Denka. Shortly after Denka took over the plant, the EPA reclassified chloroprene in 2010 as a likely human carcinogen. The EPA deems 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter the acceptable standard for chloroprene emissions, a level that the plant overshoots considerably.

EPA’s 2010 Toxicological Review of Chloroprene determined that short-term exposure to high levels of chloroprene can cause a range of health impacts, from dizziness to chest pains, and suggests that chloroprene causes an increased risk of lung, liver, and kidney cancers, as well as leukemia and immune-system problems.

Though Denka doesn’t agree with the EPA’s findings, the company agreed in January 2017 to reduce chloroprene emissions by 85 percent. It installed costly emissions reduction equipment that began operating at full capacity in March 2018. Emissions are trending downwards, but not to the level that EPA scientists say is the threshold for dangerous exposure or to a level that state or federal regulators are satisfied with.

In June 2017, Denka challenged the agency’s findings on chloroprene’s toxicity, prompting the EPA to formally review its 2010 assessment. After completing the review at the end of January 2018, the EPA backed its findings, but Denka has filed an appeal, which is still under review.

Robert Taylor outside of his home about a mile from the Denka chemical plant.Julie Dermansky / DeSmog Blog

Robert Taylor, founder of Concerned Citizens of St. John the Baptist Parish, a community group borne out of the fear of breathing toxic air, welcomed the EPA’s findings. “We all knew there was something wrong with our air, and then the EPA put a name on it,” he says.

It makes sense that Denka would challenge the EPA’s findings, but the Concerned Citizens group is frustrated with Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) and Department of Health, which also question them.

At a parish council meeting in December 2016, Chuck Carr Brown, head of the LDEQ, accused members of the group of fear-mongering for insisting Denka cut chloroprene emissions to the EPA’s recommended standard.

Brown stands firm that the EPA’s figure of 0.2 micrograms is for guidance; it is not a legal standard that the plant is required to meet. The current standard was set years before the EPA reclassified chloroprene as a likely human carcinogen.

Secretary of the LDEQ Chuck Carr Brown (right) next to Jimmy Guidry, M.D., Louisiana’s top health officer.Julie Dermansky / DeSmog Blog

At an April 24, 2018 meeting of the St. John the Baptist Parish Council, Brown said that the EPA’s number might not be the final standard, once Brown and others have a chance to study results of Denka’s emissions-reduction efforts.

“Currently there is not an ambient air quality standard for chloroprene,” Jennah Durant, an EPA representative said in an email. “EPA, state, and company on- going actions are designed to reduce chloroprene emissions from the plant.

At the same meeting, Jimmy Guidry, M.D., the top state health officer and medical director, declared that people living near the plant do not face a health emergency and downplayed chloroprene’s health risks.

Councilman Lennix Madere Jr., questioning state officials at the April 24 parish council meeting.Julie Dermansky / DeSmog Blog

But when pressed by Councilman Lennix Madere, Jr., who represents the district closest to the plant about what Guidry would feel comfortable saying is a safe level, Guidry did not contradict the EPA’s 0.2 microgram suggested standard. “The EPA has come out and set their number that they calculated from a mathematical formula and until we can prove otherwise we should strive to get to that number,” Guidry said.

Brown gave the council assurances that the emissions levels were much lower than before, and that his agency is continuing to work with Denka to reduce emissions as much as possible.

But Wilma Subra, a technical advisor with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) who has been advising the Concerned Citizens group, told the council that Denka has shown an unwillingness to lower production (which immediately would reduce emissions) or to spend additional money on emissions reduction measures beyond its previous commitment.

Members of the Concerned Citizens of St. John the Baptist Parish at a parish council meeting.Julie Dermansky / DeSmog Blog

Members of the citizens group who attended the parish council meeting were disappointed that the council seemed to accept Brown and Guidry’s wait-and-see attitude. After the meeting, Taylor reached out to Honoré, who since then has been strategizing with the citizens group on what he sees as an undeniable environmental justice issue.

Assessing the Health Risks to Students Detail of a map around the Denka plant that shows the areas in St. John the Baptist Parish with the highest levels of chloroprene exposure, including two schools.Julie Dermansky / DeSmog Blog

In March this year, the St. John the Baptist School Board expressed concern about the safety of children attending the school closest to the Denka plant, leading to a parish council request to the state to review potential health risks.

As a result, the Louisiana Department of Health examined whether potential health risks would be significantly reduced if the children were sent to another school nearby.

On July 6, the department released an assessment indicating that moving students at the Fifth Ward Elementary School, about a half-mile west of the Denka plant, to East St. John Elementary, which is three miles north of the plant, “would not greatly decrease their theoretical risks of developing excess cancers from exposure to chloroprene.”

The preliminary assessment was based on data limited to air sampling results from March to May 2018 and collected after Denka activated its emissions reduction devices.

Subra questions the assessment’s value. She said that looking at a few months of data to determine the risk to students misses the long-term effects of higher exposure that children and their families experienced before the equipment was installed.

The Department of Health’s findings don’t surprise Denka, because the company believes chloroprene is being cast unnecessarily as a dangerous chemical. “There is no evidence to suggest our operations pose any increased risk of health impacts to our surrounding community,” Jim Harris, a spokesperson for Denka, said in an email.

John Cummings is one of the lawyers involved in a lawsuit against Denka and DuPont by residents of St. John the Baptist Parish. The suit is seeking injunctive relief and monetary damages for various issues, including health-related problems and lost property value.

He, too, questions the premise of the state’s health assessment and the timing of its release.

“What sense does it make to consider the value of moving children from one area with bad air to another?” asks Cummings.

The lawsuit, filed in July 2017, is still pending. Federal Judge Martin Feldman denied granting class action status to the lawsuit in March due to a missed deadline. The same judge is expected to rule very soon on a motion by Denka’s attorneys to dismiss the suit altogether.

Disputing the State Health Assessment

Taylor called the state’s health assessment irresponsible. “It is unbelievable that people in positions of authority would make the statement that the Department of Health has made since we became aware of the EPA’s findings,” Taylor said. He gives the report no credence because he can’t see the value in a health assessment that doesn’t include input from the people who live in the community.

The concerned citizens group is anxiously awaiting a health assessment from a Stanford Human Rights Clinic team, which spent weeks earlier this year conducting a randomized health survey of households within a 1.5 mile radius of the Denka plant. The group helped the Stanford team survey more than 500 area households, gathering data on incidences of cancer, other medical diagnoses, and health symptoms.

Members of the Concerned Citizens group and a team from Stanford Human Rights Clinic at a gathering after the team’s on-the-ground health survey work was completed on March 29, 2018.Julie Dermansky / DeSmog Blog

As far as Taylor knows, no one from the Department of Health has ever asked anyone impacted by the chloroprene emissions about their health. The department confirmed it has not spoken with people in the community near the plant about their health issues since the EPA reclassified chloroprene as a likely human carcinogen.

Instead, the department relies on the Louisiana State University Tumor Registry, which collects data on cancer diagnoses. But the tumor registry relies on reported cases of cancer in Louisiana only, and some cases go unreported while others are treated and diagnosed out of state.

State officials and Denka representatives point to the registry’s findings as an explanation for why they think the EPA assessment of cancer risk for St. John the Baptist Parish is wrong. A recent assessment broken down by zip codes doesn’t show an elevated risk of two types of cancer that have chloroprene as a risk factor, according to Robert Johannessen of the Department of Health’s communication office.

Attorney John Cummings at a school board town hall meeting in LaPlace, Louisiana.Julie Dermansky / DeSmog Blog

“The tumor registry is malarkey,” Cummings told me. “If you go down some streets and talk to people, you will find 80 percent of the households have a family member with cancer.”

“There is clearly something fishy going on here,” Taylor said. “Otherwise, why won’t these state officials sit down and face us?”

He thinks the citizens group’s demands are quite reasonable. “We aren’t asking officials to shut the plant down. We just don’t want them to be allowed to go on poisoning us.”

I asked Councilman Madere if the council planned to take any further actions. He told me what happens next is up to the EPA. He said that without a legal standard for emissions, there is nothing anyone at the state level can really do.

I asked the EPA if or when it plans to set a standard for chloroprene emissions, but did not receive an answer.

“While they are looking at numbers on a report, I’m taking care of my daughter and my wife,” Taylor said. Last year, after his wife had a stroke, he convinced her to move to California. He was afraid the air-borne chemicals from the plant, about a mile from their home, would interfere with her recovery.

Robert Taylor’s daughter, Raven Taylor, homebound due to a rare autoimmune disease.Julie Dermansky / DeSmog Blog

Taylor would also like to relocate his daughter, Raven, who suffers from an immune deficiency condition — which EPA’s assessment says is in line with high chloroprene exposure — but the family’s financial situation has prevented the move. He now splits his time between Louisiana and California.

He regrets being unable to attend the funeral of Walter Gerard, a member since the beginning of the Concerned Citizens of St. John the Baptist Parish. Gerard died of cancer on June 27. “How many more members will we lose before we get clean air?” Taylor wonders.

Funeral for Walter Gerard.Julie Dermansky / DeSmog Blog

The post Years After EPA Cited Health Risks From Chemical Plant, Is Enough Being Done? appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Congress Finally Introduces Bill to Address Sexual Harassment at Work

Fri, 07/20/2018 - 13:59

Congress introduced comprehensive legislation on Wednesday to hold employers accountable for sexual harassment in the workplace and put an end to controversial nondisclosure agreements that prevent victims from speaking publicly about harassment out of fear of legal retaliation or losing their jobs.

The bipartisan legislation comes several months after high-profile sexual harassment scandals and the #MeToo movement began rocking the media and thrust the conversation around toxic masculinity and workplace power dynamics into the mainstream headlines. However, similar efforts to address sexual harassment at work, in rental housing and even in Congress itself have stalled because the Republican majority has failed to bring the bills to a vote.

The bill, known as the EMPOWER Act, is backed by a coalition of progressive groups and received a warm welcome from the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), which represents low-wage workers, mostly women working in the homes of their employers, which puts them at particular risk for experiencing sexual harassment on the job.

Antonia Peña, a domestic worker and organizer with the group, said that for childcare providers, home health aides, house cleaners and other domestic workers, sexual harassment on the job is not the “exception,” it’s “the rule.”

“Along with low wages and poor work conditions, domestic workers have to put up with sexual harassment with very few laws to protect us,” said Peña said in a statement. “All people deserve to work with safety and dignity. The EMPOWER Act is one way we are breaking the silence.”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace, but as the flood of stories from the #MeToo movement has shown, sexual harassment at work is a widespread problem, especially for women, LGBTQ people, immigrants, tipped workers and low-wage workers. Surveys have found that between 25 and 85 percent of women say they have been sexually harassed at work, but a majority of cases go unreported, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

The EMPOWER Act is designed to break the “monopoly of power” in the workplace that has long allowed bosses who control paychecks and promotions from silencing those who experience sexual harassment, according to a fact sheet released by the bill’s backers. The bill would prohibit businesses from forcing employees to sign nondisclosure agreements that cover workplace harassment as a condition of employment, promotion, compensation, benefits or change in employment contract.

Employers in a range of industries have used such nondisclosure agreements in contracts and legal settlements to prevent victims of sexual harassment from going public about the abuse. “Mandatory” or “forced arbitration” clauses in employment contracts are also used to push those seeking accountability for sexual harassment into isolating, closed-door arbitration proceedings that are often controlled by the employer. Forced arbitration clauses were recently upheld by the Supreme Court.

Such contract provisions leave employees uncertain of whether they can speak up about workplace harassment without losing their jobs or being sued by their bosses, which perpetuates a “culture of silence,” according to the EMPOWER Act fact sheet.

“The culture of fear and silence created by perpetrators of sexual harassment in the workplace has existed for far too long and must come to an end,” said Sen. Kamala Harris, who introduced the bill in the Senate along with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, in a statement. “It’s time to address the gaps in our laws that allow this misconduct to go unpunished and keep it in the shadows.”

The EMPOWER Act would not prohibit “forced arbitration” clauses or nondisclosure agreements in legal settlements — the National Women’s Law Center points out that some victims of sexual harassment may prefer sealed settlements to protect their privacy — but it would prohibit language in employment contracts preventing employees from going public about sexual harassment and criticizing the companies for allowing it to happen.

Outrage over nondisclosure agreements has been building since The New York Times revealed that such practices protected film producer Harvey Weinstein for decades despite facing sexual harassment allegations from a number of women. Similar scandals have erupted at Fox News, but sexual harassment is not just a problem in Hollywood and the media.

Low-wage workers are particularly vulnerable because they fear speaking out could cause them to lose employment they need to survive. A 2016 study found that two in five women working in fast food reported sexual harassment on the job, including 28 percent who experienced multiple incidents of harassment. An alarming 42 percent of those who reported unwanted sexual behavior felt they had to accept it because they could not afford to lose their job, including 47 percent of Latinas.

In May, women of color working at McDonald’s restaurants demanded a sweeping federal investigation into sexual harassment at the global fast-food chain’s franchises in an effort to force change across the entire industry.

The EMPOWER Act would supplement the current complaint process at the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) with a confidential tip line designed to help the commission and state agencies to target employers that allow systemic harassment. The bill would also require publicly traded companies to disclose the number of judgments and settlements resulting from sexual harassment claims in annual financial disclosures filed with investors and the government.

About one-quarter of the nearly 30,000 complaints filed with the EEOC in 2016 alleged sexual harassment, and 83 percent of the sexual harassment complaints were filed by women, according to the commission and the National Women’s Law Center.

Currently, companies can write off the cost of litigating and settling sexual harassment claims from their taxes, which effectively allows companies to treat the problem as another “cost of business.” The EMPOWER Act would prohibit these write-offs and protect settlements won by victims as non-taxable income. The bill would also require companies to develop training programs to help employees at all levels understand how to prevent, identify and report sexual harassment at work.

While lawmakers from both parties and advocates for women have welcomed the EMPOWER Act, it remains unclear whether the Republican leadership will bring the bill to a vote before midterm elections.

“The #MeToo movement has shown that sexual harassment is all too pervasive for women regardless of where we work,” said Sharmili Majmudar, interim CEO of the advocacy group Women Employed, in a statement. “We encourage all members of Congress to make this bill a priority to ensure its passage.”

The post Congress Finally Introduces Bill to Address Sexual Harassment at Work appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

As Millions Face Starvation, American-Made Bombs Are Killing Civilians

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 15:51

The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen is incredibly difficult to cover on the ground, with many obstacles for journalists hoping to access the capital Sana’a and other areas affected by the US-backed, Saudi-led coalition bombings. We speak with a reporter who smuggled herself into northern Yemen to report on the widespread famine and devastation there in an exclusive three-part series for “PBS NewsHour.” Special correspondent Jane Ferguson is a Beirut-based special correspondent. Her pieces are titled “Yemen’s spiraling hunger crisis is a man-made disaster,” “American-made bombs in Yemen are killing civilians, destroying infrastructure and fueling anger at the US” and “Houthis deny US, Saudi claim that they are Iran’s puppets.”

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We spend the rest of the hour in Yemen, where Houthi rebels say they’re prepared to hand over the crucial port of Hodeidah to the United Nations, if US-backed, Saudi-led coalition halt military operations there. Last month, tens of thousands of civilians fled the city when coalition forces launched an all-out offensive there. The UN warned the offensive would severely exacerbate the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen, which is already experiencing the world’s worst cholera epidemic, with more than a million people afflicted, and with millions more on the brink of famine. This is UN humanitarian coordinator Lise Grande.

LISE GRANDE: Most of the eight-and-a-half million people that we describe as being pre-famine, the reality of their life is that when they wake up in the morning, they have no idea if they will eat that day. No idea. Eight-and-a-half million people are in that category. The UN estimates that by the end of the year, if there is not an end to this war, another 10 million Yemenis will be in that same situation. That’s 18 million innocent civilians who are the victims of this war. And that’s why all humanitarians are saying, “Enough is enough. There has to be a political solution, and the parties to the conflict have to sit at that table and agree on how to stop this.”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That’s a clip from PBS NewsHour’s exclusive three-part series by correspondent Jane Ferguson, who recently smuggled herself into northern Yemen to report on the widespread famine and devastation there.

JANE FERGUSON: The only way into rebel-held Yemen is to smuggle yourself in. And for me, that means to be dressed entirely as a Yemeni woman, with a full face veil, just to get through the checkpoints. I traveled across the embattled front lines to see what’s actually happening inside what the United Nations is calling the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll speak with PBS correspondent Jane Ferguson, now in Beirut, about what she saw in Yemen. But first we’re going to her report. It was part two of her three-part exclusive PBS series. This piece is called “American-made bombs in Yemen are killing civilians, destroying infrastructure and fueling anger at the US”

JANE FERGUSON: Inside rebel territory in Yemen, the war rains down from the sky. On the ground, front lines have not moved much in the past three years of conflict. Instead, an aerial bombing campaign by the Saudi-led and American-backed coalition hammers much of the country’s north, leaving scenes like this dotted across the capital city, Sana’a, and beyond. A few weeks before I arrived, this gas station was hit. Security guard Abdul Al Badwi was in a building next door when it happened. He says six civilians were killed.

Why did they target here?

Can’t explain why they would have targeted something like this.

Elsewhere in the city, a government office building was recently hit. Another pile of rubble, another monument to the civilian deaths of this war.

When this building was hit, it was mostly clerical workers in offices who were injured. And you can still see their blood smeared all over the walls as they were evacuated after the airstrike.

In 2014, Yemeni rebels called Houthis seized the capital and much of the rest of the country. The Houthis are supported by Sunni Saudi Arabia’s archrival, Shiite Iran. So, the next year, the Saudis mobilized a coalition of Arab militaries to defeat the group. The aerial bombing campaign has not managed to dislodge the rebels, but has hit weddings, hospitals and homes.

The US military supports the Saudi coalition with logistics and intelligence. The United States also sells the Saudis and their coalition partners many of the bombs they drop on Yemen. In the mountains outside the capital, we gained exclusive access to the site where the Houthis store unexploded American-made bombs, like this 2,000-pound Mark 84 bomb made in Garland, Texas. It landed in the middle of the street in the capital, we are told. One of the men here told me where each was found around Sana’a.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: [translated] One month ago, it landed near the Shaharah Bridge, next to the central bank of Yemen. It didn’t explode.

JANE FERGUSON: He also showed me the fin of a Mark 82 bomb used to guide it to its target.

Back in the city, the Houthis also let us see a storage site with the remains of American-made cluster bombs. Cluster bombs are among the most deadly to civilians, filled with baseball-sized smaller bombs that scatter over a larger area. Any that don’t explode stay where they fell, primed, and often wounding civilians like land mines. The Houthis have also targeted civilians, throwing anyone suspected of opposing them in jail.

I traveled deep into Yemen’s countryside to find out more about how the bombing campaign is affecting peoples’ lives there. This is what I found: a Doctors Without Borders cholera treatment center completely destroyed by an airstrike the day before. It was just about to open its doors to patients. The war has made it harder for people to access clean running water, leading to the worst cholera outbreak in modern history. Now, every time the rains come, people fall ill.

Cholera is a seasonal disease here in Yemen, and that’s why the aid organizations are getting ready for the worst of the cholera season coming up. This facility was brand-new.

No one was killed here, but the loss of the precious medical facility, filled with life-saving equipment, is devastating.

LISE GRANDE: It’s quite clearly a contravention of humanitarian law. There is no question about that.

JANE FERGUSON: The United Nations warns the Saudi-led coalition on the location of thousands of humanitarian facilities across the country, requesting they don’t bomb them.

Lise Grande is the UN Development Program coordinator in Yemen.

LISE GRANDE: If you look at the total number of requests that we have in and the total number of violations, there have been few violations compared to the requests. But when those violations occur, they are serious indeed.

JANE FERGUSON: In a refugee camp closer to fighting along the Saudi border, people told me they were attacked by warplanes in the last camp they lived in. In 2015, Mazraq refugee camp was bombed by coalition jets. Radiyah Hussein lost a grandson in the attack and walked for days to get here.

RADIYAH HUSSEIN: [translated] They attacked the camp with three missiles in one day, and then we ran away.

JANE FERGUSON: On the road to the refugee camp, several bridges had been bombed. Anger towards America is growing in rebel-held areas of Yemen. Most people here, whether they support the Houthis or not, know that many of the bombs being dropped are American. It provides a strong propaganda tool for the Houthi rebels, who go by the slogan “Death to America.”

Dr. Ali Al Motaa is a college professor. He did his doctorate in the US, but is a strong Houthi supporter.

DR. ALI AL MOTAA: The missiles that kill us, American-made. The plane that kills us, American-made. The tanks, Abrams, American-made. You’re saying to me, “Where is America?” America is the whole thing.

JANE FERGUSON: Despite desperate efforts to end the fighting in Yemen, the violence is getting worse. The Saudi-led coalition launched an attack on Houthi-controlled Hodeidah city last month. The city is home to hundreds of thousands of Yemenis, and aid organizations warned that the attack could kill many civilians. As the bombs began to fall, these people fled to the capital, Sana’a.

DURA ISSA: [translated] My house is a traditional house. And when the bomb landed, the gate was blown off, and the roof was gone.

JANE FERGUSON: Dura Issa’s house was hit. Her family got out alive, but she is now homeless, trying to care for her severely disabled son.

DURA ISSA: [translated] I don’t know where to stay tonight. We don’t have money for a hotel. We cannot afford it. We left in a hurry, scared. We left everything.

JANE FERGUSON: Ahead of the battle, the coalition warned civilians to get out.

MOHAMMED ISSA: [translated] The coalition announced on the TV that we have to leave. They didn’t tell us anything. They just told us to go out. The Houthis made trenches. My house is next to the sea, and the battles are there.

JANE FERGUSON: Millions of Yemenis are just like him, living in fear of the battle raging near their homes, or an airstrike killing them and their families. Both the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition have disregarded innocent civilian life in this war. Every bomb that falls on a hospital, office building or home causes more unease about where they came from.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Jane Ferguson, reporting from Yemen for the PBSNewsHour. When we come back, we’ll go to Beirut, Lebanon — Jane has come out of Yemen, which she smuggled herself into — and speak directly with her. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Yemen Blues” by Yemen Blues. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We’re spending the rest of the hour in Yemen. We’re joined in Beirut by Jane Ferguson, special correspondent for PBS NewsHour.

AMY GOODMAN: Jane is just back from Yemen, where she spent nearly a month reporting this remarkable three-part series for PBS NewsHour on widespread starvation in Yemen, American financing of the Saudi-backed coalition there, and Houthi rebels. Her recent piece in The New Yorker is headlined “Is Intentional Starvation the Future of War?”

Jane, welcome to Democracy Now! I mean, the bravery of you even going into Yemen, which particularly shows what the Yemeni people face, explain how you got there. And then, this piece we just aired, where you talk about the US support for what’s happening, how you found this evidence?

JANE FERGUSON: Getting into Yemen itself is not as complicated, or not even close to as complicated, as getting into northern Yemen. Journalists from some outlets, including American outlets, have been granted visas and allowed to board flights into the south of Yemen. That’s the area that the Saudi-led coalition controls, and that’s into the capital of the south, which is Aden. And you can fly in there. And I was able to get a visa to get to Aden after a couple of attempts, and board a flight to Aden. And from there, as you would have seen in that report, I basically had to drive north. You can drive north across the front line. Yemenis themselves, civilians, are moving back and forth. But you have to go through dozens of checkpoints. I wasn’t able to film them, obviously, for the piece, as I was smuggling my way up. But it took sort of several cars and on various routes to be able to get up there, disguised as a Yemeni woman.

And, you know, once I got there, I had to work with a Yemeni team, because I could only really smuggle myself up. I couldn’t bring my cameraman and have him passed off as a believable Yemeni woman. So, I worked with a Yemeni team when I was in Sana’a, journalists and friends that I’ve known for some time. Now, it’s worth pointing out that news organizations all around the world, and particularly American news organizations, have been trying to access Sana’a, and they very much so want to report from Houthi-controlled areas, but journalists are banned. The Saudis control the airspace, and they ban journalists and human rights researchers from boarding the UN flights. Only UN flights land in Sana’a, in the capital, that is Houthi-controlled. And so, journalists, for a long time, from various news organizations, all the major networks in the US, have been trying to access those areas, but they’ve not been permitted to go. So, you know, it really is a case of whoever can smuggle their way up there. And that’s extremely challenging logistically, because then you end up with one staff member up there and not a support team.

So, when I was there, you know, as you’ve pointed out, a major focus on the reporting is the fact that this is a war that perhaps not so visually on the ground the United States is involved in, but behind the scenes the United States is supporting this war. They are supporting the Saudi-led coalition. And when the Saudi-led coalition formed in 2015, it was Barack Obama then president of the United States, obviously. He brought in support. He supported the coalition’s efforts, not with boots on the ground, but certainly with the logistics that was mentioned there. Some of those logistics include things like refueling Saudi jets. In between bombing raids, if they can be refueled midair by United States Air Force jets, that helps them, makes the process much more efficient. Also the sale of weapons, over $100 billion worth of US weapons agreed in sales to the Saudis, often agreed by Obama, but then confirmed by President Trump.

There’s also various logistical and intelligence support. And this is really where, you know, the Yemenis that I spoke to were coming from in terms of why they saw this as a United States war. And when I would put this question to them, even privately, off camera, to people who didn’t wish to speak on camera because they were not supporters of the Houthis or the coalition, they would say, you know, “We know, we feel very much so like this is a United States war.” And also when you’re on the ground there, like I said in my report, the Houthis are able to use this as a very strong propaganda tool, because they’re able to couch this war in terms of a jihad, a religious war, against not only foreign invaders like Saudis, but they will say, you know, whenever they’re trying to recruit fighters, that this is a war against foreign invaders who are fighting against Islam.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Jane, one of the weapons that the US has sold to the Saudis, as you witnessed and discussed in your piece, are cluster bombs. Could you talk about what you learned about the effects of these bombs? I mean, this is a weapon that is banned by 102 countries. Explain what the effects of cluster bombs are.

JANE FERGUSON: Well, a cluster bomb, effectively, when it’s dropped, it explodes just before it hits the ground. And it can contain anything from dozens to up to hundreds of smaller bombs. They’re around about the size of a baseball, and they are just miniature bombs primed to explode. And they spread out over a wider area. They can be particularly deadly for civilians, especially in countries where people live in, you know, non-brick or non-concrete homes. So, areas where people live in mud homes or wattle homes, straw huts, they can be particularly dangerous in those situations. But they also are — they have a particularly poor fail rate, where, if they land, not all of the small munitions will explode, and so they will remain primed on the ground. And they can be picked up by a child. They can randomly explode much, much later. And that’s why cluster bombs are seen as such a deadly weapon, because they can act like mines, as well as an explosive that spreads itself out.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Jane, your piece also ends with a remarkable and horrific statistic, that an estimated 130 Yemeni children died every day in 2017 from extreme hunger and disease. Now, you point out in this piece, as well as your piece in The New Yorker, that this is a man-made disaster, that there is, in fact, food in Yemen. It’s just that people no longer have the means to buy that food, because millions of workers have been put out of work or are simply not being paid. Can you talk about that?

JANE FERGUSON: Sure. This is the real toll of the war. Of course, civilians are dying in these airstrikes, but not in anywhere near to the numbers of people who are falling ill and dying from the humanitarian crisis that has been caused by this war. Of course, you know, you’ll hear the statistic, “Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian disaster,” but that’s really just a phrase. And it was — you know, one of the reasons I wanted to go into rebel-held Yemen was because no one really understands what that looks like. What does that mean to a viewer?

And what it means is a third of the country, an entire third, over 8 million people, on the brink of starvation, meaning they’re not getting enough nutrients. They cannot afford to buy enough food to feed themselves and their families sufficiently. And, you know, the statistics on the deaths of children are particularly startling, and that’s because, of course, as anywhere in the world, children are the most susceptible to falling ill from malnutrition. They can die of starvation. They can also, and more often is the case, die of infectious diseases, because their bodies have become so weak. And so, when I traveled to various hospitals and went to the children’s wards, which are very — pretty much now just malnutrition wards, you’ll see absolutely terrifyingly thin children. And you’ll see a small trickle of them every single day. A lot of parents can’t afford to bring their children to clinics or hospitals in rural capitals, because the cost of fuel has gone up, which means a bus ride will be more expensive.

And the reason that this is man-made, and the reason that every NGO and humanitarian organization has pointed out that this is man-made, is that it is caused by the war. There hasn’t been a weather pattern or a particular natural disaster. There is plenty of food getting into Yemen. Now, what is happening is that the food prices are higher than they should be. They’re higher than they were before. That’s partly because of the Saudi-led coalition’s blockade on the area. They’re allowing food in, but it’s restricted, and it’s a slow process, and it’s an expensive process, because the ships that import the food, they get held up for weeks at a time, they have to be inspected, and so that process is particularly difficult. Yemen imports the vast majority of its food. It has done since long before this war. So those prices going up have also been coupled with the fact that the economy, certainly in the north, but also really all over Yemen, is on its knees, if not has collapsed, essentially. You’ll see people have just lost their jobs, and so it doesn’t really matter how much food there is in the supermarket, and it doesn’t really matter how expensive it has become, because if you have absolutely no money, then you’re really — you’re not going to be able to buy it anyway. And that’s why Yemenis are hungry. They’re hungry because of the economic collapse. And the economic collapse is as a direct result of this war.

AMY GOODMAN: Jane Ferguson, I wanted to go back to your third exclusive piece for the PBS NewsHour on Yemen, where you report on the Houthi rebels. This is a clip from your series. This is Salim Moghalis, a member of the Houthis’ political wing, who told you they took the missiles from Yemen’s military arsenal when they captured the capital Sana’a.

SALIM MOGHALIS: [translated] The Yemeni people and army have missiles from the past. And the army and experts were able to improve and upgrade these missiles, which is necessary. We are able to produce all sorts of arms, so they can upgrade the old weapons to have longer ranges.

JANE FERGUSON: Beyond the politics, this war has created the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. Millions are on the brink of starvation, and the worst cholera outbreak in modern history rages on.

After three years of war, people here are weary of the airstrikes and the blockade, but they also tell us they believe America could end it. In Sana’a’s market, people are hopeful for an end to the crisis soon.

ABU MOHAMMED: [translated] Since America has the biggest position in the UN, it should have pushed for political and economic resolutions to the conflict. Look, now the people are almost dead. Poverty, hunger, disease, death, injuries, and on top of all that, the warplanes are hitting us.

JANE FERGUSON: Meanwhile in Washington, efforts by some to end the US’s support for the Saudis continue.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Vote yes, vote no. Do not vote to table this resolution.

JANE FERGUSON: A bipartisan group of senators, including Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, failed to get a resolution passed in March which aimed to limit the White House’s authority to get involved in this war.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: We think that, in fact, this war is unauthorized, and it is in fact unconstitutional. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution is pretty clear. It’s the United States Congress that declares war. The president cannot do what he wants unilaterally. The president does not have the authority.

JANE FERGUSON: President Trump enjoys warm relations with the Saudis, especially the country’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The White House is currently pushing for further arms sales of precision-guided missiles to the kingdom. Some fellow Republicans argue the Saudis deserve America’s support in this war. Idaho Republican James Risch sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

SEN. JAMES RISCH: The Iranians are in there, and they are causing the difficulty that’s there. If the Iranians would back off, I have no doubt that the Saudis will back off. But the Saudis have the absolute right to defend themselves.

JANE FERGUSON: To others, it’s not America’s job to defend a nation that doesn’t reflect its values.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: I don’t know that I have ever participated in a vote which says that the United States must be an ally to Saudis’ militaristic ambitions. You know, this is a despotic regime, which treats women as third-class citizens. There are no elections there. They have their own goals and their own ambitions.

JANE FERGUSON: American support for Saudi Arabia is a major propaganda tool for the Houthis, who frame their war here as a form of jihad against the US, a religious battle. But it’s a battle that neither side is winning, regardless of who America helps. Instead, the conflict is defined most clearly by those who are losing — the civilians — struggling to live with its consequences. For the PBSNewsHour, I’m Jane Ferguson in Sana’a, Yemen.

AMY GOODMAN: And Jane Ferguson is with us right now, back in Beirut, special correspondent for the PBS NewsHour. The power of what you’re saying there, that the people who are losing right now is what counts, the massive hunger, the cholera epidemic. Jane, the fact that journalists rarely go to the north, the way you smuggled yourself in, with the Saudis not allowing that, because you see the effects of their bombing, and you see the actual bombs, and you make that connection to the US. Your final comment, in the minute that we have?

JANE FERGUSON: I would point out that, exactly as you say, this is a war which has had a terrible toll on the people of Yemen. And that’s a toll that is unmatched anywhere in the world. Nowhere in the world has a statistic like one-third of an entire country’s population is on the brink of starvation. There are attempts going on right now to broker more serious peace talks, and there is a way to end this war, if all sides negotiate in good faith and are truly willing to make the compromises necessary. And so it is possible that Yemen could see peace before the end of the year, if there is enough political will there.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much, Jane Ferguson, speaking to us from Beirut, Lebanon, just returned from Yemen, where she did this remarkable three-part series for the PBS NewsHour. To see the three-part series, you can watch it at pbs.org/newshour.

That does it for our show. To get a transcript of the show or to watch the video or audio podcast, go to democracynow.org. Democracy Now! is currently accepting applications for a full-time news producer position in New York city. Visit democracynow.org to learn more and apply today. To get our news headlines every day, our Democracy Now! newsletter, send the word “democracynow” to 66866. That’s “democracynow” — one word — to 66866.

The post As Millions Face Starvation, American-Made Bombs Are Killing Civilians appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Pakistan Election Marred by Crackdown on Activists, Journalists

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 15:50

Voters in Pakistan go to the polls next week, but the run-up to the election has already been marred by deadly terrorist attacks, a crackdown on activists and journalists, hundreds of arrests, and accusations of widespread interference by the military. On Friday, a massive suicide bombing at an election campaign gathering in the southwestern province of Balochistan killed 149 people. Hours afterward, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam were arrested at Lahore’s airport as they returned to Pakistan from London in efforts to bolster Sharif’s political party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. We go to Lahore to talk to journalist and writer Munizae Jahangir, host and executive producer of a political talk show on one of Pakistan’s leading networks.

TRANSCRIPT

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show in Pakistan, where voters go to the polls next week. The run-up to the election has already been marred by deadly terrorist attacks, a crackdown on activists and journalists, hundreds of arrests, and accusations of widespread interference by the military. On Friday, a massive suicide bombing at an election campaign gathering in the southwestern province of Balochistan killed 149 people and injured another 200, making it the third-deadliest attack in Pakistan’s history. The bombing targeted an election rally of the Balochistan Awami Party. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. Among those killed was a Balochistan provincial assembly candidate, Siraj Raisani. This is the slain candidate’s brother, Haji Lashkari Raisani.

HAJI LASHKARI RAISANI: [translated] These kinds of incidents have been happening in our country’s history. These incidents are condemned verbally, and sympathies are also offered verbally. But no solid measures are taken to prevent them.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The attack in Balochistan was the third such attack on election rallies in a week. Hours after the deadly bombing, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam were arrested at Lahore’s airport as they returned to Pakistan from London in efforts to bolster Sharif’s political party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or PML-N, one of the leading contenders in next week’s elections. Their arrest came after Sharif, a third-term prime minister, and his daughter were convicted in absentia in a corruption case that Sharif’s supporters say was manufactured by the Pakistani military and intelligence services.

AMY GOODMAN: PML-N members allege their main rival, Pakistan’s Movement for Justice, the anti-corruption party led by former cricket star Imran Khan, has the backing of the Army, which has ruled the country for nearly half its 70-year history. If the vote goes ahead as planned, it will be only the second time Pakistan has made a transition from one civilian government to another.

For more, we go directly to Lahore, Pakistan, to speak with journalist and writer Munizae Jahangir. She’s the host and executive producer of a political talk show on one of Pakistan’s leading networks, and the daughter of Pakistan’s leading human rights activist and lawyer, who died earlier this year, Asma Jahangir. She’s on the board of Asma Jahangir Foundation and a council member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! And since we haven’t spoken since, our condolences on the death of your remarkable mother.

MUNIZAE JAHANGIR: Well, thank you. And I want to thank all your team for the beautiful program that you did after she passed away. Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Munizae, if you can talk about what is happening in your country right now, in Pakistan? If you can begin with this third-deadliest attack, that killed well over a hundred people, and then fit it into the context of this election that’s coming up next week?

MUNIZAE JAHANGIR: Well, of course, this was the third-deadliest attack in Balochistan, in Mastung, which killed over 150 people. And at the moment, the death toll is even rising as we speak, because there are injured, those who are critically injured, and we’ve just had a few deaths in the last past week.

I was at an election rally of Haroon Bilour, the Awami National Party, the secular party, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a day before he was attacked and was killed in a suicide attack. And his party, at that time, blamed the other opponents. They said, “We cannot — you know, we will have to investigate them in the next few days.” And I recently interviewed their leader, Asfandyar Wali Khan, who said that only one party was given a level playing field in this election, and he named Imran Khan. Of course, the ANP is contesting a direct election against Imran Khan’s PTI, which is also very popular and had formed government in the previous government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. But he complains that the other political parties are not being given the level playing field. He said that he was contesting an election against the Taliban in 2013, and in this election, again, you know, the Taliban have already announced that they are going to target his party, and therefore he believes that his party is not being given this kind of level playing field. He also says that since his party is being targeted, and not Imran Khan’s, Imran Khan has gone ahead with political campaigns.

We have seen, with the Pakistan Peoples Party, which is headed by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and his father, Asif Ali Zardari, just before the elections, there were cases that were brought up against them. They were accountability — by the accountability court here in Pakistan. And those cases were later postponed ’til after the elections, because that was the plea that Asif Ali Zardarfi and his sister took. However, it seems that that sword hangs over their head. They have also not been able to campaign. And Bilawal Bhutto Zardari called off his party’s campaign after the attack in Balochistan.

Similarly with the Pakistan Muslim League Noon, which is led by Nawaz Sharif, they were in government, in the federal government, in 2013, and he has returned to be arrested with his daughter at the airport. What we face — and I was on that flight which brought Nawaz Sharif and his daughter, Maryam Nawaz, back from Abu Dhabi to Lahore. There were many journalists on that flight, local TV journalists, and we were not allowed to air any of Nawaz Sharif’s comment on our airwaves, on our TV talk shows. We were told that if we do air his comments or his interview, our TV channels will be blocked out for at least one week. Therefore, no private TV channel or the state TV channel aired the homecoming of Nawaz Sharif. There was one journalist whose show was pulled off air because he showed the kind of support that Nawaz Sharif had from his political workers, who were getting together to welcome him at the airport. His show was taken off air. He did protest on Twitter and then went back on air. So, at that time, there was a complete clampdown on the electronic media. Nawaz Sharif’s statements were not allowed to be aired. His supporters were not allowed to be shown. And the police, according to the police, they arrested around 150 political workers. According to the PML-N, they arrested 300 workers on the 13th of July, the day Nawaz Sharif was returning. They also slapped the leaders of the PML-N with an Anti-Terrorism Act. They charged them with an FIR.

Therefore, it seems that this election, with all political parties — the ANP, the Pakistan Peoples Party and the PML-N — are saying that they have been denied a level playing field, that there has been pre-poll rigging, and only one political party has been given the level playing field — or has been given a free hand to contest this election.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Munizae, can you explain who — you’re saying that you were not allowed, as other networks were not allowed, to air Nawaz Sharif’s interviews or his return to Pakistan. Not allowed by whom?

MUNIZAE JAHANGIR: Well, it’s very obvious that it was not allowed by the establishment. And it is very clear to us right now that the military did not want the current TV channels to air any of the Nawaz Sharif footage. It has been openly said, by many journalists now, on the ground. What we have now is a caretaker government. So, in Pakistan, it’s not — you know, elections go from one government to the other. In between, there’s a caretaker government for three months, that ensures a free and fair election. It seems that the caretaker government is absent. When they were asked why we were not allowed to air this, they said that this is not in our domain. The PEMRA, which is the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, we passed an ordinance. And by that, PEMRA has become independent. And so we asked, “Well, PEMRA has become independent, and it has slapped all these bans on the media, so what do you mean PEMRA has become independent?” So, PEMRA has now — they say, has been given complete authority. And PEMRAkeeps on sending us notices which say that you cannot say anything against the judiciary and the armed forces of Pakistan. They quote a constitutional provision, which does exist in the constitution of Pakistan but has never been used before. So they use that in order to quash dissent. And I think that’s the real problem, that although we do not see the military come out in the forefront, there are organizations that are being used by the military. For example, PEMRA is one, and it is being accused of being used by the military.

On the other hand, other political parties, other political leaders have accused Imran Khan of using airspace that was denied to them, or facilities by the Army that were denied to them. Imran Khan actually used the Nur Khan air base, which belongs to the military and is only reserved for heads of state, and it is only reserved for the military. But he was allowed to use that, and other political parties, other political leaders were not allowed to use that.

On the other hand, we have also seen, with Haroon Bilour, the leader who was killed by the ANP, he was not given protection, simply because the chief justice at the time, Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, gave an order saying that all protections should be brought back and should be retracted, simply because politicians don’t need protection. So he was not given the protection that he needed. He was getting threats. He’s somebody who was attacked before. His uncle had been killed by a suicide bomber. His father had been killed by a suicide bomber. However, he was not given the due protection. And his party believes that if he was given that protection, then he would still be alive today.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the U.S. role in Pakistan. In January — I think it was President Trump’s first tweet of 2018 — he tweeted, “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” Those were Trump’s first words, in a tweet, of 2018. Can you talk about the U.S. role in Pakistan and how it affects your politics and your elections?

MUNIZAE JAHANGIR: Well, the U.S. has interfered a lot in Pakistani politics. It has been monitoring very closely what has been happening in Pakistan. We all know that the United States looks at Pakistan from the prism of Afghanistan, so their focus has really been on trying to clamp down on militant outfits that are fighting this war in Afghanistan.

However, what is interesting in this election is, I’m sure that you must have all been reading, that there are extremist Islamist groups for the first time that are taking part in this election. And one of them is Hafiz Saeed. He’s banned by the United States. His party, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, is banned by the United Nations, because it’s alleged that he had a role to play in the Mumbai attacks. The other party is Allah-o-Akbar party. They had a very successful protest in Islamabad. They pretty much shut down Islamabad and Rawalpindi. And it was only after the Army brokered a deal between them and the government, because they were protesting against the government, demanding that the law minister resign, that they were allowed, you know, to go back, and they were not even charged with the damage they caused to public property and how they beat up policemen.

So, it is these two political parties who are taking part in the election, and this is part of a policy of the military to mainstream militant outfits. When I interviewed the defense minister — the former defense minister, Khurram Dastgir, of Nawaz Sharif’s government, he said that that was a major bone of contention between the military and between the Nawaz Sharif government, of whether to allow these extremist militant groups to enter the mainstream politics or not.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Munizae, I want to go to one of the leading Pakistani journalists and publishers, Hameed Haroon, who publishes the Dawn newspaper. He spoke to the BBC earlier this week in a widely circulated and controversial interview. He spoke to BBC HARDtalk’s Stephen Sackur, who asked him whether he believes the Pakistani military is favoring particular candidates in the upcoming elections.

HAMEED HAROON: I think there’s a preferred face of Pakistan they’d like to see.

STEPHEN SACKUR: Who?

HAMEED HAROON: The security forces and the establishment.

STEPHEN SACKUR: No, no. Who? Who do they favor, in your opinion?

HAMEED HAROON: I think that at this point there appears to be an attempt to favor second-level string leaders and a patch-up coalition, which would rule with direction from the deep state.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Munizae, that’s Hameed Haroon talking about the deep state. Now, you talked earlier about the fact that the military is preventing — putting obstacles before other political parties, but Imran Khan’s party, Tehreek-e-Insaf, or Movement for Justice, is granted an exception. Could you explain why you think that is? What is Imran Khan’s relationship to the military?

AMY GOODMAN: It looks like our Democracy Now! stream to Pakistan is frozen. We’ll see if Munizae Jahangir, if it can — it looks like we’re going to have to leave that question there, but of course we will continue to cover the Pakistan elections. Munizae Jahangir is a Pakistani writer and journalist, host and executive producer of a political talk show on one of Pakistan’s leading networks. She’s the daughter of Pakistan’s leading human rights activist and lawyer, who died of a heart attack earlier this year, Asma Jahangir. She’s on the board of Asma Jahangir Foundation and council member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Yemen, with the remarkable PBS correspondent Jane Ferguson. Stay with us.

The post Pakistan Election Marred by Crackdown on Activists, Journalists appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Republicans Are Shaken After Helsinki, but Still Fear Trump’s Voters

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 15:49

In the wake of his historically disastrous summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Trump is bouncing back and forth like a ping-pong ball, grudgingly making halfhearted statements in support of the US intelligence community with one breath and then contradicting it with the next. Republicans in Congress are desperate for him to clean up the mess he made, but he just keeps making new ones.

He issued a ludicrous walk-back on Tuesday (reportedly drafted by unctuous factotum Stephen Miller), insisting that he only made one tiny little mistake in an otherwise bravura press conference performance. Trump claimed that his now-notorious line, “I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be” should have been “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be.” This not only doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t in any way mitigate all the obsequious fawning and obvious willingness to ignore his own government’s findings, even as Putin stood there and trolled him so hard he could barely keep from laughing out loud.

Since then, Trump has offered CBS News a muddled account of his supposed discussion about election interference during his two-hour private conversation with Putin:

Very strong on the fact that we can’t have meddling, we can’t have any of that — now look, we’re also living in a grown up world. Will a strong statement — you know, President Obama supposedly made a strong statement, nobody heard it, what they did hear is the statement he made to Putin’s very close friend. And that statement was not acceptable. Didn’t get very much play, relatively speaking. But that statement was not acceptable. But I let him know we can’t have this, we’re not going to have it, and that’s the way it’s going to be.

Later on Wednesday, when asked by a reporter at a White House photo op if he believed the Russian government was planning to interfere in the upcoming election, Trump said, “No.” (Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tried to spin it by claiming the president was responding to something else. When you see it in context, it’s clear he was answering that question.)

This would be a direct contradiction of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who gave a speech on July 13 in which he compared the current situation to the days leading up to 9/11, specifically calling out Russia as the most aggressive foreign actor penetrating American digital infrastructure and undermining US democracy.

It’s possible that Trump thinks Putin was so dazzled by his manly strength and charisma at the most successful summit in world history, that when Trump said, “We’re not going to have it and that’s the way it’s going to be,” Putin immediately put an end to the interference. More likely, Trump is just lying about all of it.

And it’s just as probable that Trump knows the interference is ongoing and appreciates the help. Certainly, you have to start wondering if the Republicans in Congress aren’t saying a little prayer of thanks to the Russian president every night. The way the midterm elections are shaping up, a little Russian “meddling” may be necessary for them to maintain their majority.

In the immediate aftermath of the Helsinki press conference it was clear that the GOP establishment was discombobulated. This seemed to be more than even they could tolerate. Some of the usual suspects like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., criticized the president’s performance in strong words while others expressed their “disappointment” and “concern.” It appeared that a crack in the Trump support wall might be appearing.

But after the White House came up with its fatuous “I meant ‘wouldn’t’ instead of ‘would'” most Republicans are rushing to say how happy they are that Trump clarified his remarks and expressing their desire to move forward and let bygones be bygones. The relief among many of them is palpable.

Behind the scenes they’re telling reporters that they’ve held hearings and imposed sanctions and defended NATO and it makes no difference. According to Politico:

Privately, senior-level Republican aides and lawmakers had a second message: what the hell do you want us to do? At the end of the day, senior Republican aides and lawmakers told us yesterday, it’s up to the president to conduct foreign policy. The Hill can — and does — criticize and conduct oversight. So the answer to the media feedback loop is: of course, Congress is not going to do anything substantive. They have no idea what more they should be doing.

They could hold real public hearings, censure the administration, protect Robert Mueller and, most importantly, take strong, decisive steps to protect the integrity of our elections. They could stop acting as Trump’s accomplices and behave as a coequal branch of government.

But they aren’t going to do that because they believe doing so would be political suicide, which they think is pointless. McClatchy reports that Republicans believe they can pick up as many as four Senate seats in November as long as Trump continues to dominate the airwaves with his endless whining about the “witch hunt.”  This analysis comes from GOP operative Josh Holmes:

“Everybody thinks that President Trump is some kind of drag on the Republican Party, [when] in this case, he’s just the essential ingredient,” said Holmes, who’s helped engineer his party’s Senate strategy for the past 16 years as a chief aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

“What the president is doing by continuing to discuss the investigation [into allegations of collusion between his campaign and Russia] and the quote-unquote ‘witch hunt,’ particularly on prime time Fox [News], is doing more to mobilize base voters than any legislative issue we’ve seen,” added Holmes.

In other words, colluding with a foreign country is all part of a cynical strategy to get out their voters in November.

It’s unclear whether that will work. According to Jared Yates Sexton’s article in Salon on Wednesday, there is a growing sense of discontent among rank-and-file Republicans over this Russia business (and I would guess the tariffs will take a toll as well.) There may not be quite as many true Trump aficionados as these clever strategists assume.

But they do have one last trick in their bag. The Washington Post reports that on Thursday House Republicans will vote on a spending bill that contains no money for election security grants to the states. They say the states have received enough money in the past to get the job done. The fact that Dan Coats says the “red light” is flashing as it was before 9/11 doesn’t seem to be a matter for concern.

The GOP establishment saw what Trump did in Helsinki and was momentarily shaken. It was a stunning performance, to say the least. But it’s pretty clear that after thinking it over they’ve decided that maybe Russian interference in the election isn’t such a bad thing after all. It may be their only hope.

The post Republicans Are Shaken After Helsinki, but Still Fear Trump’s Voters appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Eighteen Democrats Join GOP to Pass House Resolution Embracing ICE

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 15:43

Amid a surging grassroots outcry against ICE’s heinous abuses and as a growing number of Democratic voters want the agency to be abolished entirely, 18 House Democrats joined hands with a nearly unanimous GOP caucus on Wednesday to pass a symbolic resolution that expresses “continued support” for ICE and denounces those calling for its elimination.

Responding to the vote on Twitter, Splinter’s Sophie Weiner declared simply, “Primary every single one of them.”

As Alex Kotch reported for The Young Turks, at least one of the Democrats who voted yes — Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) — has accepted and defended donations from the private prison industry, which is seeing a massive profit increase thanks to President Donald Trump’s inhumane anti-immigrant agenda.

Denouncing the resolution as a political stunt by the Republican majority, 133 House Democrats opted to vote “present” instead of yes or no. The measure, which Trump praised in a tweet Thursday morning, passed by an overwhelming margin of 244–35.

Here are the 18 House Democrats who voted in favor of the GOP-crafted resolution:

18 Democrats voted to support a GOP House resolution supporting ICE:

Bera, CA
Cartwright, PA
Costa, CA
Crist, FL
Cuellar, TX
Gottheimer, NJ
Kind, WI
Lamb, PA
Lawson, FL
Lynch, MA
Murphy, FL
O’Halleran, AZ
Rosen, NV
Schrader, OR
Scott, GA
Sinema, AZ
Suozzi, NY
Visclosky, IN

— AJ+ (@ajplus) July 18, 2018

As nearly 20 of their colleagues joined every Republican except Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.) in voting for the enthusiastically pro-ICE resolution, 34 House Democrats — some of whom want to abolish ICE — voted against the resolution.

The House GOP’s non-binding resolution comes as demonstrations against ICE’s tactics and the administration that has empowered the agency continue to spread throughout the nation.

On Wednesday, anti-ICE demonstrators braved the sweltering heat in Miramar, Florida to set up tents in the middle of a city roadway and demand that the state shut down a nearby federal detention facility, where immigrants have reportedly faced abusive treatment.

Amid this grassroots outcry, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) — who voted present on Wednesday’s resolution — officially introduced legislation last week that would abolish the agency within a year. Pocan’s bill currently has eight Democratic co-sponsors.

The post Eighteen Democrats Join GOP to Pass House Resolution Embracing ICE appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Middle East Alliances, Old and New: Confronting “That Part of the World”

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 15:24

My father and I always had a tacit agreement: “We will never speak of That Part of the World.” He’d grown up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Norfolk, Virginia. His own father, a refugee from early-twentieth-century pogroms in what is now Ukraine, had been the president of his local Zionist organization. A liberal in most things (including his ardent opposition to both of the US wars against Iraq), my father remained a Zionist to his dying day. We both knew that if we were ever to have a real conversation about Israel/Palestine, unforgivable things would be said.

As a child in the 1950s, I absorbed the ambient belief that the state of Israel had been created after World War II as an apology gift from the rest of the world to European Jews who had survived the Holocaust. I was raised to think that if the worst were to happen and Jews were once again to become targets of genocidal rage, my family could always emigrate to Israel, where we would be safe. 

It wasn’t until I’d reached my thirties that I began to pay serious attention to the region that is variously known as the Middle East, the Arab world, or the Greater Middle East and North Africa. And when I did, I discovered how deep my ignorance (like that of so many fellow Americans) really was and how much history, geography, and politics there is to try to understand. What follows is my attempt to get a handle on how the Trump presidency has affected US policy and actions in That Part of the World.

Old Alliances…

The United States has a long-standing and deep alliance with Israel. During the Cold War, Washington viewed that country as its bulwark in the oil-rich region against both a rising pan-Arab nationalism and real or imagined Soviet encroachments. In fact, according to the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service, “Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of US foreign assistance since World War II. To date, the United States has provided Israel $134.7 billion current, or non-inflation-adjusted, dollars in bilateral assistance and missile defense funding.”

The vast majority of this largesse has been in military aid, which has allowed Israel, a country of a little more than eight million people, to become the 14th or 15th strongest military power on the planet. It is also the only nuclear power in the region with an arsenal of at least 80 weapons (even if its government has never officially acknowledged this reality). By comparison, Iran, its present archenemy, ranks 21st, despite having a population 10 times greater.

The history of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights — territories it captured in the 1967 war — is too long and complex for even a brief recap here. Suffice it to say that the United States has often been Israel’s sole ally as, in direct contravention of international law, that country has used its own settlements to carve Palestinian territory into a jigsaw puzzle of disparate pieces, making a contiguous Palestinian state a near impossibility.

Then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon explained Israel’s plan for the Palestinian people in 1973 when hesaid, “We’ll make a pastrami sandwich of them.” Promising to insert “a strip of Jewish settlements in between the Palestinians and then another strip of Jewish settlements right across the West Bank,” he insisted that “in 25 years’ time, neither the United Nations nor the United States, nobody, will be able to tear it apart.”

Forty-five years later, his strategy has been fully implemented, as Barack Obama reportedly learned to his shock when, in 2015, he saw a State Department map of the shredded remains of the land on which Palestinians are allowed to exist on the West Bank.

The “pastrami sandwich” strategy has effectively killed any hope for a two-state solution. Now, as the number of non-Jews begins to surpass that of Jews in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, that country once again confronts the inherent contradiction of a state that aims to be both democratic and, in some sense, Jewish. If everyone living in Israel/Palestine today had equal political and economic rights, majority rule would no longer be Jewish rule. In effect, as some Israelis argue, Israel can be Jewish or democratic, but not both.

A solution to this demographic dilemma — one supported by present Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — is to legislate permanent inequality through what’s called “the basic law on Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people,” which is now being debated in the country’s parliament, the Knesset. Among other provisions, that “basic” law (which, if passed, would have the equivalent of constitutional status) will allow citizens “to establish ‘pure’ communities on the basis of religion or ethnicity.” In other words, it will put in place an official framework of legalized segregation.

In the Trump era, Washington’s alliance with Israel has only grown tighter. After recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — despite almost universal international objections — Trump sealed the deal in May, traveling to Jerusalem with a coterie of Zionist evangelical Christians and, on Israeli Independence Day,openinga new US embassy there. That day, May 14th, was the eve of the 70th anniversary of what Palestinians call thenakba(the catastrophe of Israel’s seizure of Palestinian homes and lands in 1948).

Donald Trump could not have sent a clearer signal to the world about exactly where the United States stands on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That same day, as Time reported, “cameras captured the chaos as Israeli soldiers methodically cut down some 2,700 Palestinians, 60 fatally, as they marched toward the fence that separates Israel from the Gaza Strip.” Gazans, in case you’ve forgotten, have been subject for years to a vicious blockade, both literal and economic, that has turned their homes into what has been called the world’s largest open-air prison. And keep in mind that Israel also launched major military operations against that tiny territory in 2008-2009, 2012, and 2014, and appears to be ramping up for a new one.

It’s unlikely, to say the least, that the new “peace deal” that the world awaits from President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner will offer Palestinians much more than another bite of that pastrami sandwich.

…And New Ones

Geopolitics (and a common enemy) can make strange bedfellows. In a recent New Yorker article, Adam Entous suggests that a new ménage-à-quatre was formed in the region in the run-up to Donald Trump’s election, bringing Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the United States ever closer. As it happened, there was even an unexpected fifth player lurking in the shadows: Russia. Entous reports that Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and one of UAE’s most powerful men, suggested to an American friend that Russian President Vladimir Putin “might be interested in resolving the conflict in Syria in exchange for the lifting of sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine.”

The goal of this new alliance was not so much an end to the brutal Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad as an end to the Iranian military presence in Syria. The unofficial alliance of the Saudis, the UAE, and the Israelis was, above all, meant to push back or even bring an end to the present government of Iran. This seems to have been the genesis of a 2016 meeting in the Seychelles Islands between Erik Prince, the founder of the notorious hire-a-mercenary company, Blackwater, and a confidant of then-Trump adviser Steve Bannon as well as the brother of present Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and a figure who might serve as a Russian-UAE go-between. Endous indicates that the deal then proved “unworkable,” because Russia had neither the desire nor the capacity to evict Iran from Syria.

Nevertheless, this July 10th, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu flew to Moscow to meet with Putin for a discussion of the Syrian situation in which the Russians are now, of course, deeply enmeshed. At the same time, a top foreign policy adviser to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was also on his way to Russia to speak with Putin. Netanyahu returned from Moscow with less than he’d hoped for, but at least with “a commitment to keep Iranian forces tens of kilometers from Israel,” according to the New York TimesThe fact that these meetings were happening the week before presidents Trump and Putin were to sit down together in Helsinki and discuss Syria, among other topics, is, however, suggestive. Bloomberg News reported that Putin has “stepped up efforts to broker a deal on the pullback of pro-Iranian militias from Syria’s border with Israel” as he prepared for his summit with Trump.

The American president has already backed away from his predecessor’s insistence that the departure of Syrian leader Assad be a precondition for a peace settlement in that country. For his part, Netanyahu has made it clear that Israel can accept Assad in power as long as the Iranian military units in that country are withdrawn. Before leaving for Moscow, he told reporters, “We haven’t had a problem with the Assad regime; for 40 years not a single bullet was fired on the Golan Heights.” Presumably, Trump and his feckless son-in-law feel the same way.

In the end, the target of all these machinations remains Iran. The dangers represented by a conflict between the Trump administration and Iran (with the Israelis, the Saudis, and the UAE all potentially involved) threaten to make the invasion of Iraq and ensuing events there look mild by comparison. And it’s hardly out of the question. As University of Michigan history professor and Middle East expert Juan Cole notes, overshadowed by other absurdities in Trump’s bombastic post-NATO-summit news conference was this warning: “I would say there might be an escalation between us and the Iranians.”

Meanwhile, in Syria…

Meanwhile, if it weren’t for Yemen (see below), it might be hard to imagine a more miserable place in 2018 than Syria. Since 2011, when a nonviolent movement to unseat Assad devolved into a vicious civil war, more than half the country’s pre-war population of 22 million has become internally displaced or refugees, according to numbers from the UN High Commission on Refugees. Actual casualty figures are impossible to pin down with any exactitude. In April 2018, however, the New York Times reported that the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the number of directly caused deaths at 511,000, including fighters and civilians.

Death and destruction have come from all sides: al-Qaeda-linked terror groups and the Islamic State killing civilians; the Syrian military, which is presently driving opposition forces out of the southern city of Dara’a, where the original uprising began (creating a quarter-million refugees with literally no place to go); and US bombs and other munitions — 20,000 of them — reducing the city of Raqqa to rubble in a campaign to liberate it from ISIS militants. Add it all up and the war, still ongoing, has destroyed millions of homes and businesses, along with crucial infrastructure throughout an increasingly impoverished country.

So many military forces — foreign and domestic — are contending in Syria that it’s difficult to keep track. Wikipedia’s list of those fighting fills screen after screen. On the side of Assad’s government are the Syrian military, elements of the militia of the Iranian-supported Lebanese party Hezbollah (part of the government in that country), some Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces, and of course the Russian military. On the other side are various militant terror groups, including what’s left of the Islamic State, and a wide variety of US-supported anti-Assad groups, including those hailing from the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, a semi-autonomous, multi-ethnic area in the country’s northeast. Throw in Kurdish fighters, including Syrian natives and Kurds from Turkey, and the Turkish military itself (in its bid to tamp down any errant Kurdish nationalism), at least 2,000 US military personnel, and the Israeli air force, striking at Iranian targets in the country, and even with an eventual peace settlement, Syria, the birthplace of the alphabet, will be a desperate nation for decades to come.

Whose fault was all of this? There’s plenty of blame to go around and plenty of actors to shoulder that blame. But when you begin to make that list, make sure to include Washington’s so-called neoconservatives who, as far back as 1996, offered Benjamin Netanyahu (Israel’s prime minister then, too) their “Clean Break” strategy to rebuild the Middle East. That plan started with unseating Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein and went on to destabilize Syria. A number of these neocons, including Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, then became top officials in George W. Bush’s administration, invading Iraq themselves to make sure their dream for the Israelis came true. And what a nightmare it proved to be. Nor should we forget that one of that plan’s loudest advocates during the Bush administration — John Bolton — is now Trump’s national security advisor. In other words, there’s plenty of blame to go around and plenty to worry about.

Does Anyone Remember Yemen?

If there is a place in the greater Middle East even more desperate than Syria, it has to be Yemen. With US logistical and financial support, Saudi Arabia has waged a cruel air war against the Houthis, a home-grown movement that in 2015 overthrew the government of president Ali Abdullah Saleh. What is the Saudi interest in Yemen? As in their support for a potential UAE-Israel-Russia-US alliance in Syria, they’re intent on fighting a proxy war — and someday perhaps via the US and Israel, a real war — with Iran.

In this case, however, it seems that the other side in that war hasn’t shown up. Although, like the Iranian government and most Iranians, the Houthi are Shi’a Muslims, there is little evidence of Iranian involvement in Yemen. That hasn’t stopped the Saudis (with American support) from turning that country into “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.” Their destruction of infrastructure in rebel-held areas has collapsed a once-functioning public health system, touching off a cholera epidemic, with the World Health Organization reporting a total of 1,105,371 suspected cases between April 2017 and June 2018. The infection rate now stands at 934 per 10,000 people.

Even worse than the largely unchecked spread of cholera, however, is Yemen’s man-made famine. Photographs from the country display the familiar iconography of widespread hunger: children with stick-like limbs and blank, sunken eyes. As it happens, though, this famine was not caused by drought or any other natural disaster. It’s a direct result of a brutal Saudi air campaign and a naval blockade aimed directly at the country’s economic life.

Before the war, Yemen imported 80% of its food and even today, despite a disastrous ongoing Saudi/UAE campaign to blockade and take the port of Hodeidah, Yemen’s main economic center, there is actually plenty of food in the country. It now simply costs more than most Yemenis can pay. Because the war has destroyed almost all economic activity in Houthi-controlled areas, people there have no money with which to buy food. In other words, the Saudi offensive against Hodeidah is starving people in two ways: directly by preventing the delivery of international food aid and indirectly by making the food in Yemen unaffordable for ordinary people.

We Have to Talk About It

With President Trump and his secretary of state now talking openly about a possible “escalation between us and the Iranians,” there is a real risk that some combination of the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia could initiate a war with Iran. If there’s one lesson to be learned from US wars since 9/11, it’s “don’t start another one.”

For more than 70 years, Americans have largely ignored the effects of US foreign policy in the rest of the world. Rubble in Syria? Famine in Yemen? It’s terribly sad, yes, but what, we still wonder, does it have to do with us? 

That Part of the World doesn’t wonder about how US actions and policies affect them. That Part of the World knows — and what it knows is devastating. It’s time that real debate about future US policy there becomes part of our world, too.

The post Middle East Alliances, Old and New: Confronting “That Part of the World” appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

The Path to the Supreme Court

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 15:24

The post The Path to the Supreme Court appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Defending Undocumented Nannies, House Cleaners and Caregivers

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 15:21

“If you haven’t used the bathroom yet, now is a really good time to go,” shouts Stacy Kono as 50 people board an early morning bus to San Diego on Sunday, July 1st at a West Oakland (California) parking lot. “It’s a long drive.”

The bus lowers an accessible ramp, allowing several passengers who use wheelchairs to board early. Nearby a group of Chinese youth snap a group photo. Several moms work on corralling energetic toddlers and packing up strollers while another breastfeeds. People finish stashing backpacks, bottled water, and picket signs adorned with bright yellow butterflies into the baggage compartment under the bus and find a seat. While organizers make sure everyone has signed a waiver, the riders settle in, chatting in a mix of English and Spanish.

Kono is the Network Director for Hand in Hand — a national network of employers of nannies, house cleaners and personal attendants that has been mobilizing its members to fight Trump’s policy of family separation. She was one of several organizers of a caravan from the San Francisco Bay Area to the border to participate in the July 2 #FreeOurFuture action called by the imigrant justice group Mijente.

As part of the actions, thousands of people from across the country converged on San Diego, briefly shutting down the Federal Building and Federal Courthouse to call for not just an end to family separation, but to end detentions and abolish ICE itself.

Under his “zero-tolerance” policy, Trump has separated nearly 3,000 migrant children from their parents, sparking widespread outrage. Among those joining the protests have been immigrant rights activists, youth, faith leaders and civil rights advocates. By engaging and turning out members, Hand in Hand is now bringing an additional constituency to the fight in impressive numbers: the employers of immigrant workers.

“As employers of domestic workers, every day we uplift the value of care work. It makes sense why our members would mobilize against a policy that stands between parents and their ability to care for their children,” explains Kono.

One of those members is Monique Harris. Together with her son Brandon and her personal attendant Jules, Harris braved the 16-hour round trip and blazing San Diego sun to be at the march. As someone with Cerebral Palsy, she has employed domestic workers to support her with her daily needs since she was 15 years old. Wearing her Hand in Hand t-shirt and with a hand-written “Families Belong Together” sign affixed to her wheelchair, Harris explained why felt compelled to stand in solidarity with immigrant workers.

“These workers work hard and deserve to be here. My son is with me here today and I can’t imagine someone taking him away from me,” said Harris. “Let the children go back to their families.”

As an organization with many members who have disabilities, Hand in Hand is making important connections between immigrant liberation and disability justice.

“Like many people my age who were disabled in childhood or at birth, I experienced really traumatic separations from my family through institutionalization. At least I got to see my mom for an hour a day and she knew where I was. But six decades later, I am still dealing with the trauma of that separation,” explained Anne Finger, an employer of a domestic worker from Oakland, California. “I know it must be much worse when you don’t know where your kid is or when you’ll ever see them again. That’s the biggest thing that brought me here today.”

Another Hand in Hand member, Jessica James, travelled all the way from Maplewood, New Jersey to be there.“Being a young mother, we all have help. Domestic work makes all other work possible. You’re only as good as your child care. There’s nothing on earth more soul-crushing than to think that I couldn’t get to my own child,” said James. “‘Illegal’ versus ‘legal’ are words meant to divide. Immigrants are holding this country together with hard, thankless work that goes unrecognized.”

Hand in Hand’s caravan to the border was neither the beginning nor end of their its action to reunite families–and to end mass criminalization of immigrant communities altogether.

After Trump was elected, Hand in Hand launched a “Sanctuary Homes” campaign. Already accustomed to encouraging and equipping employers to talk with their workers about wages and working conditions, Hand in Hand asked members to have one-on-one conversations with their workers about how best to support them in the face of escalating attacks on immigrant communities. Gaining confidence, they then asked members to consider opening their homes to refugees.

As the Sanctuary Homes campaign says, “The home can be a powerful center of moral action.” But Hand in Hand has also been taking it to the streets.

Mothers and babies occupied a New York City ICE office in late June. Breastfeeding moms organized a “nurse-in” outside a New Jersey ICE office a few days later. Similar actions took place in Chicago and Detroit. Soon, activists from these actions started getting together on weekly phone calls to debrief actions and coordinate strategy.

Following these successful actions across the country, the network produced a handy toolkit for first time or newer activists to organize their own family-friendly action — with tips on everything from how to locate the nearest ICE office and turn people out to how to get media attention and what to do if and when police arrive.

Based on that template, at a recent “Playdate protest” organized by Hand in Hand in Oakland, approximately 100 young children and their parents met up at the local children’s library and marched across the street to the Alameda County Sheriff’s office to demand the official stop collaborating with ICE.

As uniformed officers blocked the elevators to the building, children ranging from 4 months to 10 years old drew butterflies, a symbol of the right to migrate. They sang songs and spoke about every child’s right to be free.

While most protests have focused on Trump’s policy at the national level, local actions that integrate local demands are proving surprisingly effective. Just this week, the Sheriff’s Office in Contra Costa County, California announced that it will cancel its multi-million dollar contract with the federal government to detain undocumented immigrants, citing among other things the costs and mounting public pressure of protests. Sacramento and Monterey Counties in California also recently terminated their contracts with ICE.

However, activists say those measures are not enough. Rev. Deborah Lee of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, who has led protests outside the Richmond Detention Center for years now, told In These Times, “The families are asking for reunification — that their loved ones be returned immediately through the alternatives to detention program, and that there be no transfers to other facilities.”

For local immigrant families targeted by Trump, the trauma is real and long-lasting, as is the critical importance of building broad, intersectional movements that include employers of immigrant workers.

“My husband Fernando was detained last September on his way to drop off our four-year-old daughter at daycare,” recounted Lourdes Barraza, sharing her story at the Oakland Playdate Protest. “She was traumatized and later begged me not to take her to daycare, saying ‘If daddy hadn’t taken me, he’d be here with us.”

“These family separations need to stop. It’s not just happening at the border, it’s happening in our own communities. It’s good to see employers, like Hand in Hand, here supporting immigrant families,” said Barraza.

Many are doubtful that the Trump administration will make the rapidly approaching July 26th court-imposed deadline to reunite more than 2,000 children and their families, but to activists working around the clock to free immigrant families, one thing is clear: “We need to keep the pressure on,” says Kono.

The post Defending Undocumented Nannies, House Cleaners and Caregivers appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Federal Agencies Halt Reviews of Toxic Pesticides That Endanger Wildlife

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 15:17

Right under the highway and wedged between a plant nursery and an auto manufacturer, a toxic trickle flows. This tributary of the Clackamas River is hardly an inviting sight. Once clear and gurgling, its muddy water barely moves, and plastic bags bunch along its shoreline.

Suzi Cloutier clambers toward the water’s edge, dipping a bottle into the creek. She pulls it out, murky and dripping, taking care to keep her hands away from the rim.

“It’s for the sample’s protection, not mine,” she half-jokes over the roar of 18-wheelers and minivans.

As a field sampler with Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality, Cloutier routinely tests sites in the Clackamas River Basin, home to threatened and endangered species of Chinook and Coho salmon. Last year, every one of her samples from this tributary tested positive for multiple pesticides.

Salmon in this river – and throughout much of the Pacific Northwest – have dwindled from an onslaught of threats, including dams and overfishing. Scientists say pesticides from nearby farms are pushing them closer to extinction.

“It’s like kicking them when they’re down,” Cloutier says.

Under the Obama administration, the government began reviewing the impacts of all pesticides on the nation’s approximately 2,300 endangered and threatened species. Two days before President Donald Trump took office, federal officials issued a preliminary report on three highly toxic and popular agricultural insecticides, concluding that they jeopardize the survival of more than 1,800 species protected by the Endangered Species Act, including 18 types of salmon.

Now, under the Trump administration, these reviews have ground to a halt.

Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has uncovered a close relationship between pesticide companies and federal agencies, mirroring a pattern the Trump administration has followed with many other regulated industries. The pesticide industry has spent years trying to fend off regulations designed to protect endangered species. Under Trump, it is succeeding.

Among the findings, according to documents obtained and interviews conducted by Reveal:

  • Three federal environmental agencies are reshaping the scientific methods used in their reviews at the request of pesticide manufacturers. Some researchers and advocates say that if these reviews, known as biological opinions, do begin again, this change could shift the results in favor of the pesticide industry – and away from protecting endangered wildlife.
  • Officials from all three agencies held a meeting with key pesticide manufacturers, teaching them how to influence the reviews of their products. Manufacturers, in turn, schooled the government on what data to use.
  • The agencies have granted repeated delays in the reviews to resolve questions posed by the companies that scientists say already have been addressed. One agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service, has rebuked its own 3,749-page report, which had documented that pesticides threaten half of the fish and other endangered species under its jurisdiction.
  • A major pesticide manufacturer, Dow AgroSciences, has poured money into lobbying federal agencies and Congress to influence the endangered species review process. Its parent company, Dow Chemical Co., also donated to Trump’s inauguration, and several of its former higher-ups now hold prominent positions in agencies that regulate pesticides.

The delays in the pesticide reviews are worrisome to scientists who research contaminants’ effects on wildlife.

John Stark, a Washington State University ecotoxicology professor who studies salmon, called the delays “really unfortunate. These pesticides are damaging wild (salmon) populations. And they’re still used and used extensively.”

Stark, who contributed to the federal fisheries review, said there is no scientific reason to delay the reviews to conduct more research.

“The review is one of the most comprehensive, well-done and thorough studies I’ve seen done in my life,” he said.

CropLife America, the trade association representing pesticide manufacturers that has advocated for the delays, said in a statement to Reveal that the reviews had relied on “overly conservative assumptions and superficial analysis.”

The goal of the companies is to help the federal agencies “develop an efficient, science-based approach” that will ensure species and their habitat “are protected while recognizing the essential role that pesticides play in the US food system, as well as the protection of public and private lands, homes and human health,” the statement says.

New Way to Review Pesticides

In the 45 years since Congress enacted the Endangered Species Act, wildlife hasn’t had much protection from pesticides. So in 2011, after environmental advocates sued multiple times, the Environmental Protection Agency asked the independent National Academy of Sciences to invent a new way of assessing the risks to endangered species.

Two years later, the process the academy came up with was rather complex: It required three agencies – the EPA, US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service – to each report on the risks of every pesticide. To pilot this approach, the agencies started with malathion, chlorpyrifos and diazinon. Known as organophosphates, they are derived from chemicals developed in Nazi Germany as nerve gases.

Malathion, chlorpyrifos and diazinon target nervous systems, making them highly effective insecticides. They’re used to control pests on crops, vegetable gardens and Christmas tree farms. Although organophosphate use has declined since Cloutier’s childhood in the early 1980s, when she says helicopters regularly sprayed her hometown of Oakland, California, with malathion to kill crop-damaging Mediterranean fruit flies, the chemicals are still popular. According to the US Geological Survey, an estimated 5.8 million pounds of chlorpyrifos, 200,000 pounds of diazinonand 900,000 pounds of malathion were used nationwide in 2015.

And they don’t harm just their targets. These chemicals alter salmon’s swimming patterns, reproductive systems and pursuit of prey, according to Nat Scholz, a scientist at the National Marine Fisheries Service who’s been studying organophosphates and salmon for decades. A salmon uses its powerful sense of smell – thousands of times better than a dog’s – in almost every vital endeavor, from finding food to avoiding predators and migrating. Even low exposure to organophosphates can permanently impair this sense.

In one study, Scholz and other scientists found that any mix of malathion, diazinon and chlorpyrifos at concentrations as low as several parts per billion – including the levels of diazinon and chlorpyrifos found along the Clackamas – can harm or kill Coho salmon.

“Studies on the toxicity of these chemicals to salmon and other fish date back decades,” Scholz said. “By design, organophosphates interfere with the normal function of the nervous system.”

Humans face risks from organophosphates, too. Researchers have linkedchlorpyrifos, malathion and diazinon to reduced IQs in California children exposed in the womb. Last year, chlorpyrifos gained national notoriety when former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt rejected a long-awaited banon agricultural uses of the chemical.

Under President Barack Obama, the three agencies working on pesticide reviews ensured the process was open to the public. They held five open workshops on their scientific methodologies, and the public was allowed to comment on drafts of their evaluations for 10 weeks in 2016. The EPA responded to 78,000 public comments, as well as industry critiques, in detail. On the second-to-last day of the Obama administration, the EPA published its initial reviews of the three pesticides, showing widespread harm to more than 1,800 species.

The agencies also set a deadline: By the end of 2017, all three would publish final biological opinions on the three pesticides.

Once Trump took office, “public input was halted on everything,” said Nathan Donley, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group that is suing the EPA for its failure to provide the reviews.

“The strategy here is to delay, delay, delay,” he said. “Meanwhile, there are species with a few hundred individuals left. And they’re getting poisoned right now.”

Shifting Science or Delay Tactic?

In April 2017, 10 federal agencies and committees received a letter from David B. Weinberg, legal adviser to the three largest manufacturers of organophosphates – Dow AgroSciences LLC; Makhteshim Agan, now known as Adama; and FMC Corp.

Weinberg wrote that the federal approaches to the science were “fundamentally flawed and should be set aside.” The companies said the agencies did not adequately consider how products actually were applied, but instead considered their effects at maximum use.

The reviews, in other words, need to be “science and reality based,” CropLife America said in its statement.

There’s a problem with this argument, however: “Actual use” data is limited. California and Arizona are the only states that require pesticide applicators to report their use, according to the Western Integrated Pest Management Center. Also, such data is not predictive. In other words, even if a pesticide isn’t used one year, it could be used later, especially for rotating crops such as soybeans.

Following Weinberg’s requests, the Fish and Wildlife Service in November sent a letter to the EPA requesting additional time to complete its final assessment. The wildlife agency sought data that mirrored the concerns of industry, especially actual use data and “extrapolation to areas where actual use data does not exist or cannot be obtained.”

Three days later, the EPA replied, granting the Fish and Wildlife Service’s request: “We agree that consultation should continue and be extended as necessary.”

The agencies did not specify when or if they would complete their reviews.

An EPA spokesman said the agency was working with the Fish and Wildlife Service to gather additional information on how and where the pesticides are used. Officials from both agencies said they did not have an estimated completion date for the biological opinions. The marine fisheries service declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.

Since 2016, Dow AgroSciences has spent about $800,000 lobbying the EPA and Congress against organophosphate regulations, according to disclosures. Also, four months before it asked to delay the reviews, parent company Dow Chemical donated $1 million toward Trump’s inauguration. Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris recently had been chosen by Trump to lead the American Manufacturing Council, which disbanded in August.

Several more of Dow’s former higher-ups also have been appointed to positions in pesticide-regulating federal agencies. Former executives Ken Isley and Ted McKinney now work in top positions at the US Department of Agriculture. In March, Trump nominated Peter C. Wright, a longtime corporate lawyer at Dow, to serve as an EPA assistant administrator. Trump’s pick to lead the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, Michael Dourson, was paid by Dow AgroSciences to produce research papers casting doubt on the toxic effects of chlorpyrifos. (Following public outcry, Dourson withdrew himself from consideration in December.)

Dow AgroSciences did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

On the surface, many of the manufacturers’ requests sound reasonable. After all, they are asking for more on-the-ground data and corrections to flaws in the current assessment. But environmental advocates and scientists say the requests are scientifically unwarranted.

“What they’re doing is stall more. It’s ridiculous,” said attorney Patti Goldman of the environmental law organization Earthjustice, which has been suing agencies over organophosphates since the 1990s. “The finding (that organophosphates are harmful) is not going to change.”

Stark, the Washington State University professor, calls the documented effect of organophosphates and other pesticides on salmon “pretty incredible.” He said the National Marine Fisheries Service review was so thorough that it used population modeling, a complex tool that measures pesticides’ impact on individual species – something that no federal environmental risk assessment had included before. The report also traced the journeys of pesticides from spray to breakdown and developed toxicology reports.

Kevin Masterson, a researcher at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality who has been collecting and analyzing Cloutier’s data, agreed that organophosphates’ potential for harming wildlife already is well established.

“For those chemicals, the standards have been around for so long,” he said. “We know if it’s showing up at subparts per billion that it could be having an effect, either a chronic or acute effect, on aquatic life.”

Icon of the Pacific Northwest

At the turn of the 20th century, the Clackamas overflowed with salmon, providing ample food and wealth to the region. Some years, the catch was so large that fishermen dumped scores of surplus carcasses back into the river. The writer Rudyard Kipling visited the Clackamas then and wroteabout its mighty hauls: “Salmon by the hundred – huge fifty-pounders, hardly dead, scores of twenty and thirty-pounders … burst(ing) out in a stream of quick-silver.”

Since then, the river has been overfished, dammed and polluted. The salmon have suffered: Since 1970, fall-run Chinook have dwindled from more than 34,000 fish to less than 4,000. A government report in 2008 found 63 types of pesticides in salmon spawning sites along the Clackamas.

“Given their frequent and widespread occurrence, especially during storms, pesticides have the potential to affect aquatic life and the quality of drinking water derived from the lower river,” the report concluded.

Two of these pesticides, chlorpyrifos and diazinon, regularly show up in concentrations greater than a threshold deemed safe for aquatic life by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. The largest concentrations occur in small tributaries, where salmon like to spawn and raise their babies, putting younger fish at risk of exposure.

The Clackamas runs alongside berry farms, plant nurseries and Christmas tree groves, making it a pooling point for organophosphate runoff. According to one government study, 99 percent of malathion, 86 percent of chlorpyrifos and 16 percent of diazinon sprayed on crops ran off fields into nearby waterways within 15 days of application.

Once in the water, pesticides mingle, compounding their effects on aquatic life, according to studies by Scholz, the National Marine Fisheries Service scientist. And the Clackamas is a tributary of the Willamette River, also home to several endangered species of salmon, which receives still more organophosphates from pesticides sprayed on vineyards and other farms in the nearby Willamette Valley.

Documenting Delays

Of the three agencies tasked with delivering a final biological opinion by the end of 2017, only the National Marine Fisheries Service published its review by the deadline imposed by a court order.

The document, supported by more than 900 cited studies, reviews and reports, found that of the 77 species for which the fisheries service had jurisdiction, the three organophosphates together likely would harm 49 percent of the listed species, including several varieties of sea turtles, sea lions, killer whales and 18 species of salmon. The species most at risk, the report said, are those that inhabit shallow waters near farms and other pesticide use sites.

The agency’s publishing announcement derided the quality of its own work, suggesting it was rushed and therefore invalid, despite years of prior discussions, analyses and decisions.

“Unfortunately, (the fisheries service) … was required to transmit the biological opinion which, given the time, cannot fully account for the need to coordinate on a different process for developing such opinions or to fully engage the public,” officials wrote in their announcement.

In January, less than a month after it originally was supposed to publish a biological opinion, the EPA created a working group to re-evaluate the pesticide reviews. The group will “help provide clarity as to what constitutes the ‘best scientific and commercial data available’ in the fields of pesticide use and ecological risk assessment” and “is not prohibited from seeking or receiving stakeholder expertise, experience, input, information, or other items deemed appropriate.”

In February, Richard Keigwin, director of EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs, sent a letter to the fisheries service, saying its report had a “general lack of transparency and reproducibility,” its estimates were too conservative and its suggestions impractical.

One month later, on March 23, the EPA reopened the biological opinion for comment. A month after that, the EPA and Fish and Wildlife Service held a meeting for representatives of the manufacturers of the organophosphates being examined. Participants included government scientists and representatives from FMC, Dow and Adama.. No environmental groups were invited.

According to a record of the meeting, government scientists briefed applicants on how to comment on draft reports and updated them on the status of the pesticide consultation – an update the public and environmental advocates have yet to hear.

The pesticide executives, in turn, provided government officials with a handout suggesting ways to measure the organophosphates, obtain use information and refine data on how endangered species are exposed. They proposed three more meetings between government and industry. The document does not specify who called the meeting, how long the additional data would take to gather or whether the proposed meetings would take place.

Stephanie Parent, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said this sort of meeting between industry and federal scientists is “probably not unusual.” But she said under the Trump administration, these meetings are likely happening more and having more influence.

Several days after the meeting, five pesticide businesses, coalitions and associations – including Adama and FMC – posted requests to extend the National Marine Fisheries Service review’s comment period 90 days, until Aug. 20. The EPA partially granted the request, extending it to July 23.

With these repeated delays, it’s unknown if or when federal officials will implement measures to protect the nation’s endangered species from pesticides.

After collecting samples at the polluted creek in Oregon, Cloutier and fellow conservationist Sharon Selvaggio drive to a nearby protected forest. The Clackamas here thunders along, cold and healthy: Cloutier detects pesticides here at a fraction of what she finds at the first site and sees far more salmon.

“You’d never believe it, but this is how (the first site) used to look,” Selvaggio says.

With the right protections in place, they say, perhaps it could be this way once again.

The post Federal Agencies Halt Reviews of Toxic Pesticides That Endanger Wildlife appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Deported by Trump, Migrants Press Mexican President-Elect for Support

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 14:29

Mexico City – Guillermo Contreras spent the last 12 years of his life living and working in the United States, but two months ago, as part of the broad crackdown on undocumented migrants by the Trump administration, he was deported and is now in Mexico City trying to rebuild his life.

Contreras – along with other supporters of Otros Dreams en Acción, a grassroots group that works to support people who have been deported or have returned from the US – demonstrated on July 13, 2018, outside a quaint house in Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood that is serving as the office of Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

“López Obrador says he wants to change this system, so we’ve come to ask him, if this is true, that he work with the community of people who have been deported or have returned,” Contreras told Truthout.

The Mexican president-elect was meeting with a high-ranking delegation of US government officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, and senior White House official Jared Kushner. Pompeo told a press conference that the courtesy visit by the US delegation was meant to show the “deep importance” of the US-Mexico relationship to US President Donald Trump. Representatives said they addressed key issues in the bilateral relationship, including security, trade, economic development and migration.

On the campaign trail, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO as he is commonly known, made a number of promises aimed at the community of Mexicans living abroad, as well as those who have been deported. Key among these was his proposal to stimulate economic development within Mexico in order to dissuade people from leaving the country for economic reasons.

That proposal is music to the ears of the administration of US President Donald Trump, who has pursued a nationalistic domestic economic policy that has broken with the free-trade orthodoxy of recent years. But Trump also crafted a highly antagonistic relationship with Mexico and Mexicans, vilifying a country and its people in order to rally his far-right and xenophobic political base.

That antagonism, and more specifically the issue of migration, has largely defined the relationship between the United States and Mexico over the recent period. But political leaders in the United States and Mexico have indicated they are interested in treating the change in government in Mexico as an opportunity to repair that strained relationship.

However, in addition to stepping into a fraught relationship with Mexico’s most important trade partner, López Obrador has inherited a litany of problems, including a sluggish economy, record levels of violence and a human rights crisis.

“Those who left [Mexico] did not do so because they wanted to; they did so because [the Mexican government] abandoned the rural sector,” said Judith Meléndrez Bayardo, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, who also participated in the demonstration. “Because of violence, they are forced to go to the United States.”

Expectations are high, and though people like Contreras are hopeful, they understand that López Obrador faces a tall order.

“The majority of migrants leave because of their economic situation,” Contreras told Truthout. “López Obrador won’t be able to turn the economy around in two years — it is impossible. People will continue to migrate, but they can create employment here so that people don’t need to do it.”

Meléndrez added, “If we are able to have dignified conditions for all Mexicans, I imagine that our compatriots will not have to leave — that is a change of opinion that is very important, to attend to the root causes [of why people leave].”

López Obrador’s Commitment to Mexicans Abroad A supporter of Otros Dreams en Acción holds up a sign outside the offices of Mexican President-Elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico City, where the Mexican leader was meeting with a high-ranking delegation of US officials on July 13, 2018.José Luis Granados Ceja

In a statement, Otros Dreams en Acción said President Enrique Peña Nieto had failed to live up to the commitments his government made to Mexicans abroad. As part of an effort to attend to Mexicans in the US, the Peña Nieto administration allocated more resources for Mexican consulates in the United States, but Otros Dreams en Acción said that investment failed to deliver any real results for migrants abroad.

Otros Dreams en Acción also accused the Mexican government of failing to attend to the needs of those who have been deported or have returned.

“The government continues to lie. There is no help for us as people who have been deported,” said Contreras.

On the campaign trail, Andrés Manuel López Obrador made a number of promises aimed at the community of Mexicans living abroad, as well as those who have been deported.

Many returning migrants struggle to re-establish themselves in Mexico. They sometimes lack the necessary documentation to even open a bank account inside the country, and Mexico’s school system often will not recognize the studies they completed while abroad. Contreras said he found that public officials lacked any sympathy or understanding for people in his situation.

Rebecca Watts, a program associate with the Center for Economic and Policy Research, told Truthout that her research on the reintegration of deported migrants suggests that migrants have largely depended on informal ad hoc social networks upon returning to Mexico. She said those who do not have access to these kinds of networks often face social stigma, isolation and even discrimination.

Otros Dreams en Acción has called on the López Obrador government to make sure that migrants’ groups are at the table in order to ensure that their specific needs are addressed.

Given the fact that the Trump administration is unlikely to abandon its “zero-tolerance” policy and seems certain to continue with its effort to deport people, support for returning migrants will only grow in importance.

In addition to stimulating economic development, López Obrador has committed to supporting migrants in their reintegration process. He has also pledged to fundamentally change the role played by Mexican consulates in the United States, turning them into “special prosecutors” that are charged with the protection and defense of migrants. Watts suggested that migrants would greatly benefit from these kinds of proposals.

Watts also agreed that López Obrador’s proposal to stimulate job growth inside Mexico was the best strategy to mitigate migration but argued that the president-elect will need to contend with Mexico’s 40-year legacy of neoliberal economic policy.

“In Mexico, the persistent sluggish growth, poverty and inequality are all rooted in a set of important economic policy choices,” Watts said.

A Radical Break With Neoliberalism A supporter of Otros Dreams en Acción reads out a statement outlining their demands outside the offices of Mexican President-Elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico City, where the Mexican leader was meeting with a high-ranking delegation of US officials on July 13, 2018.José Luis Granados Ceja

Elected on a leftist platform, López Obrador’s victory in many ways represented a radical break from the economic policies pursued by Mexico’s political elites.

Shortly after taking office in 2012, Enrique Peña Nieto signed a comprehensive “pact for Mexico” with the country’s then-dominant political parties aimed at promoting economic growth, a reduction in inequality and promoting investment.

A recent report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that five years on, the pact largely failed to meet its goals. That report traces Mexico’s woes back to the decision to sign the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Negotiations surrounding NAFTA represent another major sticking point in US-Mexico relations, although the president-elect and the outgoing Mexican administration have agreed to present a united front in future talks.

The perception inside Mexico is that President Enrique Peña Nieto has allowed Trump to largely dictate the direction of talks. Mexicans are likely unwilling to tolerate the type of servile attitude displayed by the outgoing president, and people like Meléndrez expect the new government to stand up to US bullying.

“We shouldn’t worry. The North Americans have a loud bark, [but] I think we’re a country that is much more important than they care to admit. But because they’re arrogant and some governments let themselves be humiliated, they continue to humiliate us,” said Meléndrez.

She added that the major difference between Peña Nieto and López Obrador is the latter’s strong mandate. Peña Nieto narrowly won the 2012 election amid accusations of electoral fraud, whereas López Obrador won with over 53 percent of the vote and all his rivals conceded defeat on election night.

She believes that López Obrador’s election represents the end of one era and the beginning of a new one. López Obrador himself has called his victory the beginning of a “grand transformation,” and Meléndrez emphasizes his popular mandate as a source of enormous legitimacy.

López Obrador’s closeness to the Mexican people has been repeatedly documented and it is a relationship that seems to be deepening.

A Delicate Balancing Act A sign that reads “Separating Families = Fascism” is held outside the offices of Mexican President-Elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico City, where the Mexican leader was meeting with a high-ranking delegation of US officials on July 13, 2018.José Luis Granados Ceja

In an effort to appease demands being made by the US administration, López Obrador’s pick for security chief floated the idea of creating a border protection force for the country’s southern border but was forced to backtrack after outcry from migrants and migrants rights groups.

“We don’t want (border police) like they have in the United States…. We’re different, we’re a distinct people, we have different cultures, we have different customs and our tradition has been to welcome citizens from other countries,” Contreras told Truthout.

Meléndrez argues that López Obrador will have to regularly face these kinds of dilemmas and balance competing interests, but his strong mandate and popular mobilization will allow him to pursue issues that are in the interest of Mexico’s poor and working class.

For now, the relationship with the United States seems to be on more secure footing, but that will surely be tested as time goes on and López Obrador is forced to make decisions that will put him at odds with policy makers in the United States.

Although few details of the meeting between President-elect López Obrador and the US delegation were released, both parties issued statements praising the meeting. However, controversial topics like Trump’s proposed border wall were not discussed.

“Hard to say how that will play out going forward,” said Watts. “The US and Mexico have very different perspectives on some of these topics.”

The post Deported by Trump, Migrants Press Mexican President-Elect for Support appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Can a Cap Be Placed on the Incomes of the Super-Rich?

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 14:25
Is there a means to eliminate the financial class of the super-rich? Would this help reduce income inequality were it come to pass? Sam Pizzigati makes the case that the answer is “yes” in his book, The Case for a Maximum Wage. The following is an excerpt from the book.

Economists and epidemiologists, psychologists and political scientists: Researchers from multiple disciplines have detailed the high price we pay when we tolerate intense maldistributions of income and wealth. If we want a world more welcoming to the best humanity can be, the social science consensus holds, we need to narrow the gaps that divide us.

But how? Here we have no clear consensus. We do have options. Societies can narrow the gaps in income that distance our most and least affluent in three basic ways. We can level up incomes at the bottom of our economic order. We can level down incomes at the top. Or we can do both.

Those who sit atop our economic order — and those who seek their favor — typically do their best to confine us to the first of these options. To narrow our economic divides, friends of grand fortune advise, we need to work at lifting up the bottom. Fighting inequality, they maintain, need only involve attacking poverty, nothing more. 

Raising a society’s bottom-most incomes can certainly narrow a gap between rich and poor. But that gap can also widen — if incomes at the top rise more rapidly than incomes at the bottom. China has witnessed this exact phenomenon over recent decades. Between 1978 and 2015, incomes for China’s poorest 50 percent saw a real increase of 401 percent. Incomes for China’s top 1 percent, in those same years, soared over four times faster, by 1,898 percent. China has become considerably more unequal.

Still, tens of millions of Chinese families have gained greater economic security over the past four decades, and those who see inequality as purely a poverty problem find China’s experience encouraging. We need not fret about how well the rich may be doing, they argue, if the poor are doing better, too.

Some take this stance a step further. Worrying about the rich, they maintain, only serves to distract us from the far more important task of lifting up the poor. Why obsess over the luxury in our penthouses, as former Bill Clinton aide Laura D’Andrea Tyson once asked, when people are living in rat-infested basements?

We should be focusing on helping society’s poorest, not hammering on the richest, adds Princeton economist Alan Blinder, a frequent adviser to Democratic Party presidential hopefuls. For the poor, Blinder believes, “the fantastic earnings of people that make $100 million a year are completely irrelevant.”

The UK Labour Party’s Tony Blair wing, back during its 1990s heyday, held that increases in the grand fortunes of the rich can even speed the demise of dire poverty. The richer the rich become, the argument went, the more they can shell out at tax time to fund social programs for the poor. We are “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich,” as Blair cabinet heavyweight Peter Mandelson famously put the matter in 1998, “as long as they pay their taxes.”

But years later, in an interview with the BBC, Mandelson would somewhat change his tune.

“I don’t think I would say that now,” he acknowledged.

Mandelson’s second thoughts shouldn’t surprise us. Societies that “relax” on the rich don’t get, in return, economies that benefit everyone. They get economies that benefit the rich — at everyone else’s expense.

This dynamic has played out most dramatically in the United States. America’s political elites, Republicans and Democrats alike, have been intensely relaxing on the rich ever since the late 1970s. They have reduced the taxes the rich pay and deregulated the businesses the rich run. The result? Since 1978, the poorest 50 percent of Americans have actually seen their real incomes shrink, by 1 percent. America’s most affluent 1 percent, over that same span, have seen their real incomes nearly triple.

A recent World Bank report finds similar trends on the international front. Stagnation below, windfalls above. “Without significant shifts in within-country inequalities, the report concludes, the World Bank’s current core goal — the elimination of extreme poverty by 2030 — “cannot be achieved.”

In China, meanwhile, the days of rapidly rising incomes — at the economic base — have come and gone. Over the last decade, real wages in the pace-setting city of Hong Kong have increased a grand total of 3 percent. The poorest of Hong Kong’s poor are now living in wire-mesh boxes stacked on top of apartment-house roofs. The boxes typically run six feet long and three feet wide. Locals call their occupants “caged dogs.”

China has not conquered poverty. No nation has. But some nations have dealt poverty much more than glancing blows. These more successful societies all value a more equitable distribution of the wealth their people create. They tax their rich. They regulate their economies. They underwrite public services that all their people can access. They endeavor to both level up and level down. They understand that any offensive against inequality that winks at grand fortune will sputter and stall long before society’s poorest realize any lasting relief.

Any offensive against inequality that only focuses on the rich will, to be sure, will also come up short. No decent society can tolerate destitution. But decency comes easiest when societies do their best to limit grand concentrations of private wealth. The more wealth the wealthy amass, the more political power the wealthy gain. The greater their power, the more their concerns — and their concerns alone — drive what government does and does not do.

Governments the rich dominate do good by the rich. They cut their taxes. They address their aggravations. They help them become richer. The needs of middle-income households, amid this do-gooding for the rich, go ignored. Middle-class people look above their economic station and see the rich and their tax avoidance. They look below and see the poor and their “handouts.” They start seething. Any empathy they may feel for those less fortunate drains away, as does their support for the programs that bring decency to those of modest or no means at all.

Peter Edelman, a former U.S. Department of Health and Human Services assistant secretary and one of America’s most respected poverty-fighters, has watched this process play out.

“I used to believe,” Edelman reflects, “that the debate over wealth distribution should be conducted separately from the poverty debate, in order to minimize the attacks on antipoverty advocates for engaging in ‘class warfare.’ But now we literally cannot afford to separate the two issues.”

The “economic and political power of those at the top,” Edelman continues, is “making it virtually impossible to find the resources to do more at the bottom.”

Campaigners for social justice over a century ago, during our modern world’s first Gilded Age, came to the same conclusion. Level up and level down, they urged. Social reformer Joseph Pulitzer, the foremost newspaper publisher of his day, exhorted America in 1907 to “always oppose privileged classes” and “never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.”

How should we go about attacking these twin predators? We have wide global agreement on the “predatory poverty” side. Decency demands, most nations now understand, a minimum wage, an income floor that guarantees everyone who works — at least in theory — enough income to escape poverty and enjoy a modicum of economic security and dignity. In practice, contemporary minimum wages almost everywhere fall short of that noble goal. Many millions of people worldwide work full-time — and more — at minimum-wage jobs and still live in poverty.

But what if we applied a “maximum wage’’ to our staggeringly unequal economic orders? What if each of our societies set a ceiling on the annual income any one individual could pocket — and linked this maximum to an existing wage minimum? Could this coupling set us on a more effective and lasting egalitarian course?

These pages will argue that linking minimums to newly created maximums would offer us our best hope yet at creating societies that work for all who live within them. In a world of only minimums, the pressure — from the powerful — to keep those minimums low and inadequate will always be unrelenting. The lower the minimum wage, the higher the potential reward for those who employ minimum wage workers.

In a world of minimums and maximums, this powerful incentive to exploit society’s weakest and most vulnerable would erode and eventually evaporate. In any nation that linked minimum to maximum, society’s richest would be able to increase their own personal income only if the incomes of society’s poorest increased first. In such a society, the rich would have a vested personal interest in enhancing the well-being of the poor. The exploiters would have cause to appreciate the value of social solidarity.

The post Can a Cap Be Placed on the Incomes of the Super-Rich? appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Myths About “Violent Offenders” Compromise True Safety

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 14:05

Unfortunately, US lawmakers have a bad habit of passing many criminal punishment policies not based on fact, but rather on fear-mongering of “violent offenders.” After four decades of tough-on-crime rhetoric, together with private prison industry lobbying for long prison sentences, we have a society that wrongly believes that people incarcerated for violent crimes are the most likely to commit further crimes if released. In reality, the opposite is true.

In a 2017 study published in the journal Criminology, the authors concluded that: “Among members of the public, a violent conviction signals a uniquely high level of recidivism risk and increases support for social exclusion, at least in the case of conventional employment roles. That signal, although strong, runs counter to statistical evidence, which shows clearly that those individuals whose most recent crime was violent are less likely to recidivate.”

The study also looked at how labeling affects people’s perceptions. The researchers found that it makes a difference whether someone is called a “violent offender” compared to being called a “person convicted of a violent crime.” The term, “violent offender,” reduces the person to having the sole characteristic of being violent, whereas “person convicted of a violent crime” recognizes the violent act as merely one aspect of a person’s life history. For decades, we have been calling people “violent offenders” — a false moniker that has infected the national psyche.

Not only is it wrong to say that there are completely separate categories of people who commit exclusively violent crimes versus exclusively nonviolent crimes, but also, many people whom we label as “violent offenders” have never actually committed the violence for which they were convicted. In Illinois alone, more than 100 innocent people were incarcerated under the rule of defamed Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge, Detective Reynaldo Guevara and others, who used torture to force confessions.

Leaving aside the hundreds of innocent people incarcerated in Illinois at the hands of state violence via Commander Burge and his underlings, many people are convicted under either the laws of accountability and/or the felony murder rule — mechanisms of conviction that hold people responsible for violence when they were only indirectly involved in an act that resulted in violence, and of which Illinois’s overuse makes it an outlier in the nation.

In fact, due to the laws of accountability and felony murder rule, many people who have been sentenced under the statute that requires a mandatory minimum, life-without-parole sentence for two or more murders or murder of a police officer never personally committed the violent act for which they were convicted. Nevertheless, they are serving life-without-parole sentences under that statute, either for aiding and abetting someone who committed the violent act, or for committing a felony that led to someone being harmed, even though they had no intention of harming anyone. Unfortunately, statistics on people charged under laws of accountability are not kept.

Regrettably, a bill is now being considered that would create a circumscribed young adult “offender” parole system that excludes from consideration anyone who has been sentenced under the mandatory minimum, life-without-parole statute. HB531 limits eligibility for parole to individuals under 21 years of age who were convicted of a crime after the effective date of the bill. It leaves more than 5,000 other Illinoisans to die in prison regardless of their efforts to rehabilitate themselves.

Nearly every study ever conducted on the subject of recidivism rates as they relate to crime categories, including the Illinois Department of Correction’s own statistics*, shows that people convicted of murder have the lowest recidivism rates. Society has created false boogeymen and enacted legislation in response to a myth. This myth is now costing us hundreds of millions of dollars per year — taking funds away from education, fire departments, emergency responders and a host of other social services, the stripping of which makes our communities less safe.

It’s time to make policy based on fact — policy that truly keeps people safe and uses our limited funds wisely. It is also time to return to our ideals of everyone deserving a good education and a second chance. A good start in Illinois would be to amend HB531 to take out the mandatory minimum, life-without-parole statute’s exclusion, increase the age limit to 25 to meet the neuroscience it is based on and invest the money saved into education.

* Illinois Department of Corrections, Statistical Presentation 2004, Springfield, IL, Oct. 7, 2005.

The post Myths About “Violent Offenders” Compromise True Safety appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Oklahoma Could Execute Potentially Innocent Prisoners With Nitrogen Gas

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 13:46

Oklahoma has a notorious reputation for its frequent use of the death penalty and for the excruciating and drawn-out deaths that numerous executions have resulted in there, leading to a suspension of the practice since October 2015.

Oklahoma was the first jurisdiction in the world to adopt lethal injection as a form of execution. The United States Supreme Court ruled the death penalty, as it was implemented at the time in 1972, was unconstitutional, though left the death penalty open to new legislation to allow it to continue. In the wake of the ruling, Oklahoma and other states began legislative processes to reinstate the death penalty, which passed overwhelmingly in the Oklahoma state legislature in 1976.

Republican State Rep. Bill Wiseman voted in favor of re-enacting the death penalty at the time due to political pressure, though he staunchly opposed it as a form of capital punishment. Wiseman helped develop a bill in 1977 to establish lethal injection in hopes of making the death penalty “more humane” than electrocution. In interviews preceding his death in 2007, Wiseman expressed profound regret for the bill, which wound up facilitating the death penalty in the state rather than mitigating its impact.

Since 1976, Oklahoma has had the third-highest number of executed prisoners at 112 individuals, and the highest rate of state executions in the country. Meanwhile, 10 prisoners on Oklahoma’s death row have been exonerated of all charges against them.

The state’s death penalty system has come under scrutiny in the past several years, not only for its frequent use, but for a flawed system that led to the horrific lethal injections of Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner that caused the prisoners to endure a heart attack and excruciating pain for 43 and 18 minutes before death, respectively, in 2015. The issues pushed the state of Oklahoma to issue a moratorium on its executions in October 2015 until the issues were fixed. An April 2017 report published by the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission recommended the moratorium continue and noted “[m]any of the findings of the Commission’s year-long investigation were disturbing and led Commission members to question whether the death penalty can be administered in a way that ensures no innocent person is put to death.”

In March 2018, the state of Oklahoma announced nitrogen gas will be used to execute prisoners once the death penalty moratorium is lifted after months of failing to obtain lethal injection drugs. The moratorium still continues to this day as prevailing issues with the death penalty remain.

“Our Office and the Oklahoma Department of Corrections notified the Governor’s office that Corrections was unable to obtain drugs and the state would be moving forward with a protocol or Nitrogen Hypoxia,” said Terri Watkins, director of communications for the Oklahoma attorney general, in an email to Truthout. “The Oklahoma Department of Corrections is in charge of writing the protocol for executions. That process is underway, but you will need to check with them on the status.” The Oklahoma Department of Corrections declined to comment.

Prisoners Scheduled to Die Could Be Innocent

Several prisoners on death row in Oklahoma have produced substantive cases in favor of their innocence. Richard Glossip was being prepped for execution days before the moratorium on executions was implemented, but the state of Oklahoma could not obtain the lethal injection drugs to carry out killing him before the moratorium went into effect.

Over the past several years, attorneys representing Glossip have worked to collect evidence to prove his innocence. “From a procedural standpoint, everything is at a standstill,” said Don Knight, an attorney representing Glossip, in an interview with Truthout. “Once the Oklahoma Department of Corrections develops a protocol, then they have to give notice and at that point in time all the prisoners on death row represented by the federal [public] defender’s office will challenge the constitutionality of this nitrogen gas protocol, so I think it will take this matter quite a while until they begin to execute again.”

Glossip was convicted and sentenced to death in 1997 for allegedly hiring 19-year-old Justin Sneed to murder Barry Van Treese, Glossip’s boss and owner of the motel he managed at the time. The entire case relies on Sneed’s testimony. In exchange for his testimony, Sneed was spared the death penalty and sentenced to life in prison. He is currently serving his sentence in a medium security prison.

“The best evidence the state has against Richard Glossip is the testimony from Justin Sneed,” attorney Knight told Truthout. This is a guy you would never trust in anything, but his testimony is what put Glossip on death row. It’s a travesty.”

Among the issues with Sneed’s testimony is how it changed over time, and in 2017, Glossip’s attorneys found a witness, Justin Tapley, who shared a cell with Sneed and explained that Sneed bragged about setting Glossip up. Another former fellow prisoner with Sneed, Michael Scott, gave sworn testimony that Sneed discussed the murder in detail and affirmed he acted alone in the crime. A third witness, another former cellmate of Sneed, Roger Lee Ramsey, told attorneys that Sneed told him about the murder plot, which involved a woman, but made no mention of Glossip.

Medical examiner Chai Choi also testified in Glossip’s trial that Van Treese slowly bled to death over an eight-hour period, signaling to jurors that Glossip could have saved Van Treese. This testimony was in direct contradiction to the autopsy report, which concluded Van Treese died within minutes of the attack.

Another prisoner, Julius Jones, was convicted and sentenced to death in 1999 under similar circumstances. The then-19-year-old freshman at University of Oklahoma was convicted of murdering 45-year-old insurance executive Paul Scott Howell. Jones’s co-defendant in the case, Chris Jordan, testified against him in exchange for a 30-years-to-life sentence, which was subsequently reduced to 15 years. Jordan was released from prison in 2014, and his testimony was the basis for convicting Jones.

Attorneys for Jones have argued racism played a significant role in his conviction. In 2017, during interviews with jurors from Jones’s trial, one juror told Jones’s attorneys, “During the trial I was the juror who went to the judge with the comment from another juror about how it was a waste of time and ‘they should just take the n***** out and shoot him behind the jail’ although that juror was never removed and nothing further came from it.” A study published in 2017 found “the probability of a death sentence for a nonwhite defendant charged with killing a white victim (5.8%) was more than triple the probability of a death sentence for a white defendant charged with killing a non-white victim (1.8%).”

“Julius has always maintained his innocence,” said Dale Baich, assistant federal public defender currently representing Jones. “What we’ve learned is the police relied on confidential informants and allowed tunnel vision to set in during their investigation.”

The only eye witness to the crime, the victim’s sister, described the assailant as a Black man wearing a dark stocking cap, with a half-inch of hair sticking out and a red bandana across his face. Jones’s attorneys noted his hair was nearly clean shaven at the time, and the description fits Jordan.

Jones has exhausted his appeals and his attorneys are currently pushing for clemency proceedings and the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to consider new evidence based on the jurors’ testimony in regard to racial bias of at least one juror. Jones’s attorneys are also in the process to find out if the red banana worn by the assailant in evidence can be tested for DNA.

“The race issue is really significant,” added Baich. “The study documents systemic racism and we have identified racist statements made by at least one juror who voted to sentence Julius Jones to death. He was an academic scholar in high school, a star athlete with no history of violent crimes. It sure seems to me like he was set up to take the fall in this case.”

Public Still Favors Death Penalty

A significant hurdle for attorneys representing death row prisoners and death penalty abolitionists in Oklahoma is public opinion in the state still overwhelmingly supports the death penalty. In 2016, voters in Oklahoma approved an amendment to protect the death penalty in the state with 66.36 percent of voters in favor.

“We moved the needle from being viewed as an issue that would be overwhelmingly approved by at least 75 percent of Oklahoma’s voters to it only being approved by 66.36 percent of the voters,” Connie Johnson, who served as chair of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty during the vote, told Truthout. “We lost that race, but we moved the needle, literally and figuratively. The fact that it was expected to pass by 75 percent but only got 66.36 percent is indicative of what a little education can do.”

She cited a variety of factors in favor of abolishing the death penalty, from the number of prisoners on death row who have been exonerated, the high economic costs of enacting the death penalty, and the discrimination the death penalty is based on. “If you live in an urban area, you’re more likely to get the death penalty than if you live in a rural area. If you’re poor, you’re more likely to get the death penalty,” she said. “Then for me, ultimately, as a family member of a murder victim, the reality that the death penalty takes away the opportunity of forgiveness. As a Christian, that was the only way that I was able to overcome my brother’s murder … by forgiving the guy.”

The post Oklahoma Could Execute Potentially Innocent Prisoners With Nitrogen Gas appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

On Mandela’s 100th Birthday, Rev. Jesse Jackson Remembers His Vision

Wed, 07/18/2018 - 15:23

Today marks the 100th birthday of Nelson Mandela, perhaps the world’s most famous former political prisoner. He was imprisoned 27 years in South Africa before his release in 1990. He was elected the country’s first Black president four years later. On Tuesday, former President Barack Obama spoke in Johannesburg at an event marking the centennial and used his first major address since stepping down as president to issue thinly veiled criticism of President Trump. We get a response from Mandela’s close friend, Rev. Jesse Jackson, civil rights leader and the founder and president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. Jackson also responds to the recent US-Russia summit and discusses his upcoming peace mission to South Korea.

Please check back later for full transcript.

The post On Mandela’s 100th Birthday, Rev. Jesse Jackson Remembers His Vision appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Four Years After Eric Garner’s Killing, His Family Still Seeks Accountability

Wed, 07/18/2018 - 15:12

Tuesday marked four years since Eric Garner was killed, when a white New York City police officer wrestled him to the ground, pinned him down and applied a fatal chokehold, while Garner said “I can’t breathe” 11 times. The incident was captured on a cellphone video and spurred mass protests. On Monday, NYPD announced it plans to move forward with long-delayed internal disciplinary proceedings against the officers involved, if the Department of Justice does not announce criminal charges by August 31. Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who applied the fatal chokehold, continues to work for the New York Police Department on paid desk duty and has received multiple raises since Garner’s death. Garner’s mother Gwen Carr called for justice at a press conference this week and joins us in the studio. Her forthcoming memoir is titled This Stops Today: Eric Garner’s Mother Seeks Justice After Losing Her Son.

Please check back later for full transcript.

The post Four Years After Eric Garner’s Killing, His Family Still Seeks Accountability appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Trump and Putin: Which Conspiracy is it?

Wed, 07/18/2018 - 14:58
Categories: News

Trump Administration Seeks Comments on New Anti-Abortion “Gag Rule” Proposal

Wed, 07/18/2018 - 14:49

President Trump has made it no secret that he wants to ban abortion with few exceptions. Earlier this year, his administration released a proposal that, if adopted, would move the US further in that policy direction.

Called the “Protect Life” rule by supporters and a “gag rule” by opponents, the proposal blocks Title X federal funding for reproductive health care providers who refer patients for abortions or even discuss the procedure with them. Along with Medicaid, Title X is one of the primary sources of federal funding for clinics that provide reproductive health services to poor women and the only federal grant program specifically dedicated to comprehensive family planning. Millions of women rely on Title X for cancer screenings, STI testing and treatment, and birth control — though not abortion, as Congress generally barred spending US funds on abortion with passage of the Hyde Amendment in 1976. Without Title X funding, the numbers of unintended pregnancies, unexpected births, and abortions each year in the US are predicted to be 66 percent higher.

The administration is taking public comments on the proposed rule through the end of this month.

This censorious policy approach to reproductive health information is not altogether new for the US In 1984, President Ronald Reagan became the first to institute the so-called “global gag rule,” restricting foreign organizations receiving US family planning assistance from using their own (non-US) funds to provide abortion information to their patients. President Clinton revoked the policy, Bush reinstated it, and Obama undid it again. Trump renewed and expanded it shortly after taking office last year.

But Trump then went even further by proposing a domestic gag rule.

If adopted, the rule would affect an estimated 4,000 US health care providers that rely on Title X funds to care for their 4 million patients — and would disproportionately affect low-income women and women of color. According to a federal Office of Population Affairs report, 64 percent of Title X beneficiaries had incomes at or below the federal poverty level in 2016. The same agency reports that black and African-American women, who account for 13 percent of all US women, make up 21 percent of Title X patients, while 32 percent of Hispanic women and Latinas rely on Title X.

Because the South is poorer on average and home to a majority of the country’s African-American population and a growing Latino community, the region would be disproportionately affected.

The proposed rule is the latest attack on the Title X program, which has faced funding cuts in recent years. From 2010 to 2017, Congress slashed the program’s funding by $31 million – the largest reduction since the early 1980s. Those cuts resulted in over half a million Title X recipients in the South losing reproductive health care coverage.

At the same time, some Southern states already impose their own restrictions on Title X funding. According to the Guttmacher Institute, of the eight states that currently restrict Title X funding, five are in the South: Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Restrictions vary from barring Title X funds to Planned Parenthood specifically, to withholding them from other organizations that provide abortions, to blocking them from health care centers that refer clients for abortions or offer abortion counseling.

The proposed rule is opposed by major medical groups, including the American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American College of Physicians; the American Nurses Association said that it “violates basic ethics of the [nursing] profession.” To date, a bipartisan group of almost 600 elected officials — US senators and representatives, governors, and state lawmakers — has come out against the rule. They include mayors of major cities in Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.

The domestic gag rule proposal is just the latest move by the Trump administration to undermine women’s health care. It has also rolled back the birth control coverage mandate under the Affordable Care Act, proposed funding cuts for teen pregnancy prevention, and stacked the federal courts with anti-choice judges — a trend continued with the recent nomination to the US Supreme Court of Brett Kavanaugh, a conservative who is expected to be the key anti-choice vote on abortion cases. 

“The domestic gag rule is unethical,” said Lindsay Robinson, the North Carolina director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic. “This is the Trump-Pence administration’s way of trying to undermine and control women’s fundamental health and rights. We will not stand for it.”

The post Trump Administration Seeks Comments on New Anti-Abortion “Gag Rule” Proposal appeared first on Truthout.

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