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The Fight for Affordable Housing Unites People in Manufactured Homes Across Racial and Geographic Barriers

Tue, 12/05/2017 - 05:00

In the wake of the housing crisis, manufactured (mobile) homes offered people with fixed or low incomes an affordable alternative, but now Wall Street is trying to get in on this market, too. Kevin Borden, executive director of Manufactured Housing Action (MHAction), discusses how his organization is bringing owners of manufactured homes together to fight this new assault on affordable housing.

Manufactured homeowner activists from 11 states meet in Austin, Texas, on December 1, 2017, to protest Mobile Home University. (Photo courtesy of MHAction)Manufactured homeowner activists from 11 states meet in Austin, Texas, on December 1, 2017, to protest Mobile Home University. (Photo courtesy of MHAction)

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Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We're now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world. Today's interview is the 96th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with Kevin Borden, the executive director of Manufactured Housing Action (MHAction), a nationwide constituency-based group. MHAction works to empower manufactured homeowners, which is the new terminology for folks who live in trailer parks. Borden discusses the group's latest action in Texas and how the need for affordable housing unites people across racial and geographic barriers.

Sarah Jaffe: We are talking on Friday; you just got done with an action down in Texas. Tell us about that and what was going on there.

Kevin Borden: When you think about manufactured housing as a housing sector, there are millions of folks who live in manufactured housing communities -- again, formerly known as trailer parks -- in a number of states across the country. Given that we are still completely enveloped in a housing crisis, all of us in a number of states are still scrambling around trying to find affordable housing. These communities have provided a pretty good affordable housing spot for a number of families on fixed incomes, and low-income workers and immigrant families.

What has been happening in this particular real estate sector for the last 15-20 years is a number of corporate disasters; either publicly traded companies on Wall Street or private equity investors ... right now [are] like, "Oh my gosh, everybody is looking for affordable housing options. Here is one of the options that is out there and if people get pushed out of urban cores, as gentrification escalates, this is where folks are landing. So, now is the time to make a lot of money on these communities." So, investors come in and they buy out the communities. They escalate rents, they just create a complete predatory equity scheme on families that is causing massive amount of heartache for families.

We formulated our organization as a response to that, so we could figure out how we could protect them.... The fifth-biggest corporate owner of these communities is a company called RV Horizons. It is run by ... two white guys: Frank Rolfe and Dave Reynolds. They are in Austin today and they run a school that they call Mobile Home University. They bill it as a boot camp for prospective corporate investors, how to purchase manufactured home communities and how to make a heck of a profit on them.

The New York Times Magazine covered them a couple of years ago. We are here today because one of the communities that they haven't treated the nicest is located right outside of Austin in North Lamar. Folks, mostly immigrant families ... have been organizing for better conditions. We have been working with them and working with a number of other communities that this company RV Horizons owns in a number of other states.

We decided to come to Austin and have an interaction with their Mobile Home University to really tease out that this is not a good business model. The fact that they are spreading the gospel about this business model and charging investors $2,500 to learn their lessons: We need to shine some light on this, because we need these communities to be around. We need the families that live in these communities not to be exploited, and so we are drawing attention to this growing business model.

How did it go?

It went well. We had about 50 folks from 11 different states there, manufactured homeowners from a number of different states across the country. They were meeting at a hotel, so we went to their hotel and took over the lobby.... We also had a group of homeowners that went in to confront Frank Rolfe and ask him for a meeting. I think it is time for him to really sit down with folks in a number of states and meet with people face to face and go over these concerns.

The other item that we wanted to raise ... [was] this university is slated to be coming to a number of other cities in 2018. So, we also want to put a message out there that this business model is not welcome in any city or town. It went as well as could be expected, and I would say they heard our point clearly. Then ... we came outside and had a short press conference, which Austin City Council member Greg Casar spoke at. He is an up-and-coming elected official that works here in Austin on a number of different issues around immigration, around housing. It was a good time.

Talk a little bit about the different communities you have been working with on this project. I know we are talking about Lamar, Texas. I spoke to one of your members from Utah a while back. Talk about what it has been like to try to bring these different communities spread across the country together.

That has been super fun and challenging at the same time. Our theory of change is to really have a very light staff model. There [are] just two of us on paid staff right now. We feel that we are trying to really innovate with organizing methods where we do outreach using online tools -- Facebook, email -- to pull people into the organization and then hold community learning calls with the folks that are facing these issues. Then we ... move to what we call the Leadership Cross-Training Program, where we are having community leaders that live in these communities play the role of organizers. They go around to other communities in their states and to other states.... Our number one hope to start is, "Let's get these homeowners stitched together and working on campaigns in a couple of different ways."

One is just having them work on ... more corporate accountability campaigns. So, is there a similar owner that is behaving poorly that is operating across state lines? Just to draw attention to the issue. We help to boost local policy campaigns. For instance, in Northern California, we worked with a group of senior women who passed a countywide rent stabilization initiative to keep rents in check.

Then, the third thing that is really important to us is, we don't want to be a myopically focused housing organization.... You have these other interests in your life. So, the other thing that we also try to do is, along the way, sprinkle in some political education around expansion and protection of Social Security, economic inequality issues. That is everything from the current tax bill to other issues.

I think the other thing that we are trying to figure out is how to make sure it is very leadership-driven, because given these communities are located in ex-urban and in rural parts of [the US], it would just be unbelievably costly to staff it out with a paid organizer model. Our other hope is that we are really helping to build out the overall progressive ecosystem in geographies where we clearly need to build more.

One of the things that struck me when I first heard about your work was that you are bringing together diverse groups of people together with people in the city -- like when you had folks who were members of MHAction who came to New York for the Goldman Sachs protest. In other cases, you have some of these mobile home communities that are overwhelmingly white, some of them that are overwhelmingly immigrant. How has it been, putting people in contact with folks that maybe they don't talk to and work with on a regular basis?

On some level, what we try to do is just trust that ... at the end of the day, I still want to believe that, generally, people are good. What we have to do is trust folks to find opportunities where we can put folks in a room together to see: "Where are moments that there may be some shared fate that they can be working through together?"

As much as possible, we really are trying to work with amazing organizations like [Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment Action] and New York Communities for Change and organizations like that, to basically take a gander using the housing lens. We really haven't figured out how to unpackage what happened in terms of housing since 2008. We really haven't reimagined what it needs to look like as a country, and as I look back on 2008, I am like, "There is still this big corporate move happening." Blackstone is now [the US's] biggest landlord.... Can we truly use this moment to build the multi-geographic, multiracial movement that has housing as a frame? Because everybody should have a roof over their head. And how can we stitch folks together within certain states or across the country to really win some stuff for our folks?

It is not flowers and roses every week; it is tough. We have to unpackage and deal with language barrier issues, with inherent privilege around race but, I do feel like, at the end of the day, one of the best ways to move through that is getting people in the same room together and trusting them to work through it. That is really how we want to think about the work. It seems like it has been working as well as it can. Our leaders really see that the communities of color leadership in groups like New York Communities for Change -- they see them as their brothers and sisters now. Any time we ask them, "Hey! New York Communities for Change is doing this action ...?" MHAction leaders are like, "Yes, we are down. We will do anything for them." I think that is part of what we are trying to figure out with these other organizations.

We have had so many conversations about rural versus urban in this last year, and not a lot of concrete movement on how to think about that. The fact that the same sort of process is happening in manufactured home parks as is happening in neighborhoods in Brooklyn is a way to bring people together.

It seems to be a good lens for that, to figure it out, for sure.

When did it get started?

MHAction was originally incubated at the Center for Community Change. I was on staff there and was kicking around some ideas back in 2012.... There was an opportunity at the Center for Community Change to test out the project. We started it in 2012. Once we branded it MHAction and built a list of supporters of about 14,000 people, it became clear that the leadership team was starting to have [its] own identity. They started to work and win some campaigns. It just seemed like an opportune moment to lift out on our own. On May 1 of last year ... we went out on our own and became our own entity. We are doing it as a stand-alone organization now.

We are talking on the day that the Republicans are voting to pass this massive pile of tax cuts for rich people in the Senate. I am wondering, as you are having this action, you are thinking about what it has really meant in concrete terms for very, very rich people to control the life options of everybody else. What are you thinking and what are your members thinking about the tax cuts and about what comes next as this administration proves to us what it is all about?

I feel like our folks are very clear about what this really means. It is loosening up more cash for the wealthiest in our country to continue to gobble up different sectors of our economy that make it harder and harder for folks to get by. My sense, from having one-on-one conversations with folks is, folks are smart. They see this tax bill for what it is. It is going to make their lives harder and it is going to get more cash and capital in the pockets of folks like Frank Rolfe and Dave Reynolds, like Sam Zell, who is a multibillionaire that owns the largest publicly traded company that owns manufactured home communities across the country. It is going to be a windfall for him.

Our folks definitely see the direct connection between this tax bill and how it can continue to exacerbate the situation that many families face. Our folks also completely understand that when we start to decimate our public coffers in this way -- with these bizarre tax bills that are based on failed trickle-down economics -- they have seen firsthand what that means. A lot of seniors know; they are on Social Security, they know that it is going to get harder for them to survive. Folks who are on disability know that then the fight is around [Social Security Disability Insurance] to make sure that is funded. It is going to get harder....

How can people keep up with you and MHAction's work?

Of course, like every organization, we have a webpage: MHAction.orgFacebook is one of our go-to methods on how we keep folks up to speed and attracted into the organization.... Facebook allows us to connect with people that are all facing this corporate global takeover ... the corporate consolidation of their communities. Those are the two main ways that people can connect with us.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Categories: News

Tax Plans Pave Way for Massive Cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security

Tue, 12/05/2017 - 05:00

 Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call)Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks with the media after a news conference in Dirksen Building on the tax reform bill on November 30, 2017. (Photo: Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call)

While the Senate and House versions of the highly unpopular GOP tax bill are being reconciled, it's important to remember that the two have one thing in common: adding significantly to the national debt. This may seem counterintuitive for fiscal conservatives, but it's the perfect cover for the GOP's real agenda of cutting the social programs that almost every American relies on.

 Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call)Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks with the media after a news conference in Dirksen Building on the tax reform bill on November 30, 2017. (Photo: Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call)

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Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has a plan: To get rid of nasty deficits, he says, all we need to do is "grow the economy, cut spending." Under this tax plan, only one of those is likely to become a reality.

Republicans say that the tax plan currently working its way through the House and Senate is supposed to accomplish that first goal: growing the economy. It won't succeed. Evidence suggests that the tax plan is highly unlikely to create more than a trickle of growth, and that that growth will stay snugly right where the tax plan is putting it: with corporations and billionaires.

The next step, according to Ryan, is cutting spending. And while Congress hasn't gotten that far yet, the agenda is clear. If a version of the tax plan passes, the next major item of business in Congress will likely include major cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Read My Lips: No New Jobs

The entire tax plan is built around one premise: that cutting taxes causes the economy to grow and creates jobs. The problem is, this doesn't appear to be true.

This time, "welfare reform" won't just target low-income mothers; it will mean drastic cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

study from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business found that additional economic growth due to the tax plan would be miniscule -- less than a tenth of a percent per year in the near term. That's not the kind of growth the economy needs to produce more, or better-paying jobs.

Meanwhile, a study from the Institute for Policy Studies found that corporations that paid lower tax rates actually cut jobs -- while passing the gains on in the form of higher CEO pay.

Stuck with more or less regular economic growth, the massive tax cuts will just add to the nation's debt. The nonpartisan Joint Committee for Taxation found last week that under the original Senate tax plan, the United States will be left with an additional $1 trillion in debt. By some estimates, that debt would be even higher.

This is not a particularly partisan assessment for those who aren't currently in Congress. As the bipartisan duo Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles recently wrote in the Washington Post, "Economic growth isn't going to wash away this debt."

Welfare Reform Redux: Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security at Risk

As President Trump told supporters at a rally in Missouri, "We're going to go into welfare reform." What he didn't say was that this time, "welfare reform" won't just target low-income mothers; it will mean drastic cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

The increased national debt gives the perfect political cover for cutting social programs.

The president has support among his party in the Senate and House: former presidential candidate and Sen. Marco RubioRep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patrick Toomey have all spoken about -- or refused to deny -- the intention to bring about massive spending cuts as Act II of their agenda.

The tax plan is an important key to this momentum toward bringing back "welfare reform," which, of course, wasn't a good idea the first time, either (and which still seems to bring out many of the ugliest stereotypes about poverty). The House and Senate versions of the tax bill have one big thing in common: adding significantly to the national debt.  

It may seem counterintuitive at first, but to "small-government" types, this is a dream come true. The increased national debt gives the perfect political cover for cutting social programs. And this reform won't be limited to traditional welfare programs for struggling parents, which in 2016 amounted to less than half a percent of the total federal budget. Instead, lawmakers will take direct aim at the social programs where the most money is spent, and upon which the most Americans rely: Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

For starters, there are cuts that will take place to these programs even if Congress takes the rest of the year off after they pass this tax plan. These are the result of deficit-reducing mechanisms enacted under a 2010 law that would kick in to the tune of a $25 billion cut to Medicare this fiscal year, even without congressional action. Sen. Mitch McConnell has said that Congress won't let that happen, but it's not clear that he can deliver on that promise.

Even if Congress doesn't permit automatic cuts to Medicare as a result of its tax plan, members have openly said that they'll be back to cut programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Cuts to these programs are highly unpopular among both Republican and Democratic voters, and as a candidate, Trump campaigned on promises to keep them intact. However, current signals from congressional leaders, and Trump himself, are that he will break those promises.

The House and Senate bills amount to a tax cut for the rich that will be paid for by the poor.

The Non-Repeal Repeal of the Affordable Care Act

The Senate version of the tax plan has a provision that repeals a foundation of the Affordable Care Act: the individual insurance mandate.

Insurance markets only work if some healthy people pay into the system to cover the costs for those who get sick. By getting rid of the individual mandate, the Senate tax plan will encourage some currently healthy people to skip health insurance -- making the costs go up for everyone who chooses to stay insured.

According to a nonpartisan estimate from the Congressional Budget Office, this one change would result in 13 million Americans losing health insurance over the next decade -- and those who have insurance can expect their premiums to go up by 10 percent.

The House version of the bill doesn't include the individual mandate repeal. Thus, one of the biggest questions about any final legislation is whether it will include this attack on the Affordable Care Act.

Don't Look Behind the Curtain: It's Not About the Money

While congressional leaders bemoan the expense of Social Security and Medicare -- which do cost a lot, at $982 billion and $604 billion respectively in 2016 -- don't expect them to mention in the same breath that they have voted to increase the military budget to $700 billion.

Each of the differences between the House and Senate versions represents an opportunity to limit the damage this tax plan can do, or possibly to derail it entirely.

Apparently, some things are worth paying for. Those things would include the F-35 jet fighter, an ill-fated and never-used jet that pro-military Sen. John McCain has called "a tragedy and a scandal," and slated to cost nearly $11 billion this year. They'd also include a $20 billion annual bill for nuclear weapons, as well as total payments to for-profit corporations likely to be in the neighborhood of $300 billion.

This should clear up any confusion about what supporters of the tax plan and spending cuts are after. It's not about the money; it's about priorities.

House vs. Senate: It's Not Over Until It's Over

The House and Senate still need to bridge their differences. Here are a few high-stakes differences:

  • The Senate version includes the repeal of the individual health insurance mandate under the Affordable Care Act, which would result in 13 million Americans losing health insurance. The House version does not currently include this provision.
  • The House version treats graduate student tuition as regular income -- even though graduate students never actually receive this money, and can't use it to buy housing, food or anything except an education. The Senate version does not include this provision.
  • The House version gets rid of the estate tax -- which is paid by , with values over $10 million for couples. The Senate version raises the limit on which estate taxes must be paid, but keeps the tax.

Each of these differences -- among others -- represents an opportunity to limit the damage this tax plan can do, or possibly to derail it entirely.

The tax plan is astoundingly unpopular: just 25 percent of voters approve of it. Activists are working around the clock to defeat this legislation, with feet on the ground and nonstop calls to House and Senate offices. These efforts will continue until the last vote is cast.

Even if one of these tax plans does pass both the House and Senate, this activist work will continue. Efforts to reverse the damage will, and must, grow. A bill this unpopular, that benefits only corporations and billionaires, is not built to last. 

Categories: News

What's the Matter With Eastern Europe? Welcome to the Birthplace of Trumpism

Tue, 12/05/2017 - 05:00
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He was a rich businessman, an outspoken outsider with a love of conspiracy theories. And he was a populist running for president.

In 1990, when Donald Trump was still beyond the furthest outskirts of American politics, Stanislaw Tyminski was trying to become the new president of post-communist Poland. He shared something else with the future Trump: nobody in the political elite took Tyminski seriously.

That was a mistake. He was the standard-bearer for a virulent right-wing populism that would one day take power in Poland and control the politics of the region. He would be the first in a long line of underestimated buffoons of the post-Cold War era who started us on a devolutionary path leading to Donald Trump. Tyminski's major error: his political backwardness was a little ahead of its time.

In true Trumpian fashion, Stan Tyminski couldn't have been a more unlikely politician. As a successful businessman in Canada, he had made millions. He proved luckless, however, in Canadian politics. His Libertarian Party never got more than 1% of the vote.

In 1990, he decided to return to his native Poland, then preparing for its first free presidential election since the 1920s. A relatively open parliamentary election in 1989, as the Warsaw Pact was beginning to unravel, had produced a solid victory for candidates backed by the independent trade union, Solidarity. Those former dissidents-turned-politicians had been governing for a year, with Solidarity intellectual and pioneering newspaper editor Tadeusz Mazowiecki as prime minister but former Communist general Wojciech Jaruzelski holding the presidency. Now, the general was finally stepping aside.

Running in addition to Mazowiecki was former trade union leader Lech Walesa, who had done more than any other Pole to take down the Communist government (and received a Nobel Prize for his efforts). Compared to such political giants, Tyminski was an unknown.

All three made promises. Walesa announced that he would provide every Pole with $10,000 to invest in new capitalist enterprises. Mazowiecki swore he'd get the Rolling Stones to perform in Poland. Tyminski had the strangest pitch of all. He carried around a black briefcase inside which, he claimed, was secret information that would blow Polish politics to smithereens.

Tyminski managed to get a toehold in national politics because, by November 1990, many Poles were already fed up with the status quo Solidarity had ushered in. They'd suffered the early consequences of the "shock therapy" economic reforms that would soon be introduced across much of Eastern Europe and, after 1991, Russia. Although the Polish economy had finally stabilized, unemployment had, by the end of 1990, shot up from next to nothing to 6.5% and the country's national income had fallen by more than 11%. Though some were doing well in the new business-friendly environment, the general standard of living had plummeted as part of Poland's price for entering the global economy. The burden of that had fallen disproportionately on workers in sunset industries, small farmers, and pensioners.

Mazowiecki, the face of this new political order, would, like Hillary Clinton many years later, go down to ignominious defeat, while Tyminski surprised everyone by making it into the second round of voting. Garnering support from areas hard hit by the dislocations of economic reform, he squared off against the plainspoken, splenetic Walesa.

Tyminski did everything he could to paint his opponent as the consummate insider, a collaborator with the Communist secret police in his youth. "I have a lot of material and I have it here… and some of it is very serious and of a personal nature," Tyminski told Walesa in a debate on national television, holding that briefcase of his close at hand. Walesa retaliated by accusing him of being a front man for the former communist secret police. Tyminski was forced to admit that his staff did include ex-secret policemen, but he never actually opened that briefcase. Walesa was resoundingly swept into the presidency by an electoral margin of three to one.

Stan Tyminski eventually took his wild conspiracy theories and populist pretensions back to Canada, a political has-been. And yet he was prescient in so many ways (including those charges against Walesa, who probably did collaborate briefly with the secret police). The liberal reforms that Eastern Europe implemented after the transformations of 1989 were supposed to be a one-way journey into a future as prosperous and boring as Scandinavia's. Tyminski, on the other hand, had conjured up a very different, far grimmer future -- unpredictable, angry, intolerant, paranoid -- the very one that seems to have become our present.

Tyminski's "children" now govern nearly every country in Eastern Europe, and the United States, too, is in the grip of a Tyminski-like leader. Perhaps these illiberal leaders have reached the peak of their influence -- or have they? The opposite scenario is too dismal to contemplate: that the political climate has irreversibly changed and liberalism has irrevocably weakened in the US, in Eastern Europe, everywhere.

All (or at Least a Few) Aboard

Imagine the history of Eastern Europe after 1989 as a train leaving a decrepit station where tasty snacks and interesting reading material aren't available, the public address system issues garbled announcements, the bathrooms are out of order, and the help desk unstaffed. As the final boarding chimes echo through the station, the passengers pile onto the train. A lucky few are in a first-class car with access to a surprisingly good cafe and plush sleeping compartments, a somewhat larger group in the reserved second-class seats, and everyone else crowded into totally rundown cars with appalling seats. The ultimate destination all of them have been told is a lovely terminal with well-provisioned stores, clean public restrooms, and a responsive administrative system in a city and country equally well run.

Think of this as the train of "transition." Everyone on it seems convinced that they're en route to a stunning market democracy in a post-Cold War world where political differences and ideological struggles have lost their relevance, where as American political theorist Francis Fukuyama famously put it in 1989, the "end of history" is in sight. "Today," Fukuyama wrote a couple of years later, "we have trouble imagining a world that is radically better than our own, or a future that is not essentially democratic and capitalist." Pragmatic decisions are all that's left, and they're to be chewed over by policymakers and implemented by bureaucrats.

If Eastern Europeans knew what they'd left behind and were fervent about where they were heading, they had little idea about the nature of the journey they were undertaking. German political scientist Ralf Dahrendorf tried to provide a few time stamps for such a transition: six months to create parties and political institutions, six years to establish the basis for a market economy, and 60 years to build a proper civil society. Except for some cranky members of the extreme right and a few Stalinist leftovers, everyone in the region seemed to back this liberal project, seeing it as a ticket into the larger European community.

For the first few years, the train of transition rolled along. There was grumbling in the back cars, but everyone was still on board with the overall plan to reach Western Europe or bust.

As it happened, the first-class passengers were easily transported to the heart of the sunny West. The second-class passengers barely made it across the border. And the rest didn't get far beyond that original, disheveled station.

Mind the Gap

When I first traveled across Eastern Europe in 1990, the very year of the Polish presidential election, many of the people I interviewed expected to be living like Viennese or Londoners within five years, a decade at the most. If this was a delusion, it was one partially fueled by the outside advisers who flooded the region in 1990. Planners from the US Agency for International Development, for example, put a five-year window on their assistance package.

And for some, the transition did last only a few years because cities like Warsaw in Poland quickly became high-priced locations for international corporate offices and NGOs. So the capital cities of Eastern Europe made the trip west, while smaller cities and towns and, above all, the countryside remained mired in the past. This urban-rural gap mirrored the one that still persists between Western Europe and Eastern Europe. In 1991, according to the World Bank's figures, Hungary's per capita gross domestic product was $3,333, Austria's $22,356. By 2016, Hungary's had risen to $27,481, while Austria's stood at $48,004. In other words, though the gap had been narrowed considerably, as with other Eastern European countries -- Poland ($27,764), Romania ($22,347), Bulgaria ($20,326) -- it had at best been cut in half.

"In 1965, West Germany was already the wealthiest and most productive country in Europe," Adam Jagusiak, a former peace activist and Polish Foreign Ministry employee, told me in an interview in 2013. "It took them only 20 years. They produced more than France and Britain. They had their Wirtschaftswunder, their economic miracle. What's most disappointing for most people, not just me, is that after 23 years we cannot close the gap… Poland would have to grow 10 percent annually to close the gap. That's a neck-breaking pace, like Japan in the 1950s and 1960s or like South Korea in the 1970s. We grow maybe two or three percent."

The liberal project succeeded in ushering virtually all of Eastern Europe into the European Union. But in the end, because of the persistent gap between expectations and reality, voters began to look around for something different.

Opportunism Knocks

Stan Tyminski ran for president before unemployment in Poland soared from 6.5% in 1990 to 20% by 2002. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán had far better timing.

Orbán was a young lawyer in Budapest in 1988 when he helped found a liberal party that you had to be under 35 to join. Fidesz, the Alliance of Young Democrats, won a commendable 21 seats in the 1990 elections, good enough for a sixth-place showing. Four years later, that country's former Communist Party (renamed the Socialists) came out on top, while Fidesz dropped a couple spots. What disappointed Orbán far more, however, was the way the Alliance of Free Democrats -- the "adult" version of Fidesz -- opted to form a coalition government with the Socialists.

That was the moment when, having second thoughts about liberalism as a vehicle for his own personal ambitions, he began to transform both Fidesz, which dropped its under-35 requirement, and himself. When economic "reform" shocked Hungary as it had Poland, Orbán recast himself as an increasingly illiberal Hungarian nationalist and his once-liberal party became a pillar of the new right. In 2010, he became prime minister for the second time, a position he's held for the last seven years.

In a remarkable number of ways Orbán anticipated Donald Trump. He reversed his country's longstanding mistrust of Russia by openly courting its president, Vladimir Putin, and pledging to transform Hungarian politics along the lines of that country's "illiberal state." He railed against mainstream journalism, attempted to bend the judiciary (and the constitution) to his will, and rigged the state apparatus to benefit his supporters. In perhaps his most ominous twist, Orbán courted the Hungarian version of the alt-right with relentless anti-immigrant statements and the occasional anti-Semitic gesture.

The Polish right wing was so enamored of Orbán's success that, in 2011, former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski announced that "the day will come when we will succeed and we will have Budapest in Warsaw." Four years later, his Law and Justice Party took power on a mixed platform of populism and conspiracy theories reminiscent of Stan Tyminski's.

Now, Donald Trump is constructing Budapest in Washington D.C., as he unwittingly follows Tyminski's and Orbán's trajectory. The reality TV star cultivated his status as an extreme outsider. During the Obama era, he identified a political opportunity on the right and, in September 2009, switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party. Seven years later, having combined outlandish conspiracy theories (think: birtherism) with an astute critique of liberal elites, he squeaked into power. He surely owes something to native (and nativist) traditions from Huey Long to Ross Perot, but he shares so much more with his compatriots across the Atlantic.

That transatlantic commonality begins with his canny exploitation of the gap between expectation and reality. The United States, like Eastern Europe, was going through its own "economic transition" in the 1990s. Millions of Americans expected the new economy -- the global economy, the digital economy, the service economy, the sharing economy -- to produce new jobs, better jobs. And it did generate enormous wealth, but mostly, as in Eastern Europe, for a narrow, highly urbanized slice of the population. Income inequality has increased so dramatically that the American world now resembles the nineteenth-century Gilded Age.

In the eras of Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, the liberal project meant government intervention in the economy on behalf of working Americans and the disadvantaged. By the time Bill Clinton took the White House in 1993, the focus of the "new" Democrats was already shifting to global free-trade deals that would only accelerate the country's loss of manufacturing jobs and a harsh vision of social spending represented most starkly by Clinton's grim version of welfare reform. Meanwhile, the increasing coziness of the "new" Democratic Party and Wall Street would lead to significant financial deregulation that, in turn, would produce an economic meltdown in 2007-2008.

Although Barack Obama would prove progressive on some issues, he would also embrace Clintonesque positions on trade, social welfare, and Wall Street. As in Eastern Europe, such a liberal project would leave many people behind. So no one should have been surprised that these disappointed voters would eventually seek their revenge at the polls, as traditional Democrats in working-class neighborhoods began to vote Republican.

Aided by "dark money" and his dark mutterings about migrants, Mexicans, and Muslims, Trump rode a wave of Eastern European-style disenchantment to the Oval Office. Now, he's taking his revenge not just against the neoliberalism of the Clinton and Obama years, but the entire twentieth-century liberal understanding of the state.

Conservative anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist once remarked that his dream was not "to abolish government" but "to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." The question today in both Eastern Europe and the US is: Have Trump, Orbán, and others shrunk liberalism to such a degree that they can now drown it in that bathtub? 

The Future of Liberalism

Those wielding political metaphors love the idea of oscillation. You know, the pendulum swinging back and forth, the tide ebbing and flowing, voters opting for one political flavor and then, surfeited, returning to what they once rejected.

So far, voters in Eastern Europe haven't shown any signs of wanting to return to the liberal politics that had delivered their countries to the promised land of European Union (EU) membership. In Hungary, Fidesz continues to lead the polls as the 2018 elections approach. The right-wing Law and Justice Party in Poland has only increased its popularity since it captured the state in elections two years ago.

Indeed, the rest of the region is following their lead. In October, the party of billionaire right-wing businessman Andrej Babiš captured the most votes in the Czech elections. Boyko Borisov, a populist with an authoritarian bent, has returned to power in Bulgaria, while nationalists are back in charge in Croatia. The anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim leader of Slovakia, Robert Fico, has been prime minister for nine of the last 11 years. (Though governing from the social-democratic left, Fico has exhibited distinctly authoritarian tendencies.) These leaders have different political philosophies and operate in different cultural contexts, but they all share one thing: an aversion to the liberal project.

Further out on the fringes, the Eastern European alt-right flourishes. This year, neo-Nazis flew the American flag in a February march in Croatia's capital Zagreb to celebrate Donald Trump; 60,000 far-right nationalists gathered for Poland's annual independence day in November; and Hungary has become a virtual mecca for extremists. As right-wing authoritarians gain mainstream appeal, those further to the right are courting greater visibility.

In Europe, there is still a counterweight to this rejection of the liberal project: the European Union. It has, for instance, strongly censured the Polish and Hungarian governments for their illiberal policies, and it still carries real weight. Unless the EU manages to transform its economic policies in a way that stops favoring rich countries and wealthy individuals, however, it's likely to prove incapable of stemming the tide of reaction. New French President Emmanuel Macron has offered some interesting proposals -- from an EU-wide financial transactions tax to the taxation of digital companies -- that might temper some of the galloping greed. But such EU reforms won't boost the fortunes of liberalism in Eastern Europe unless that organization begins to address the persistent divide between the two parts of the continent and (as in the United States) between thriving metropolitan centers and those left behind in more rural areas.

In America, Donald Trump remains a deeply unpopular president. Widespread political resistance to his administration and the Republican Congress has already claimed some early victories. But thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010, rich, right-wing, anti-liberal individuals and foundations have had an outsized impact on politics. Buoyed by the support of the Koch brothers and others, the Trump administration will do everything possible over the next three years to bankrupt the economy through tax "reform," pack the courts with anti-liberal judges, shed federal personnel, gut federal regulations, and otherwise ensure that the government it hands to its successor will be as close to drowned as possible.

When it comes to this version of "populism," Eastern Europe led the way. The question now is: Will it again? If anti-Trump forces here don't address persistent voter disgust with the status quo, the Eastern European example offers a grim glimpse of a possible American future as right-wing libertarians, intolerant nationalists, and alt-right extremists secure their lock on the policy apparatus.

Waiting for the "inevitable" pendulum swing of politics is like waiting for Godot. The political scene will not regain equilibrium by itself. In Eastern Europe, as in the United States, the opposition has to jettison those elements of the liberal project that have proven self-defeating -- the economics of inequality and the politics of collusion with the powerful -- and offer a genuine antidote to right-wing populists. If not, you might as well slap a do-not-resuscitate order on liberalism, kiss social welfare goodbye, and brace yourself for a very mean season ahead.

Categories: News

Allowing Muslim Ban to Go Into Effect, US Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Trump

Tue, 12/05/2017 - 05:00

 Samuel Corum / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)People gather to protest against President Trump's travel ban, which was blocked a third time by federal courts, in Washington, October 18, 2017. (Photo: Samuel Corum / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)

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In 7-2 ruling handed down Monday afternoon, the US Supreme Court will allow full enforcement of a ban on travel to the United States by residents of six mostly Muslim countries by lifting injunctions imposed by lower courts.

As the Associated Press reports, "The ban applies to travelers from Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. Lower courts had said people from those nations with a claim of a 'bona fide' relationship with someone in the United States could not be kept out of the country. Grandparents, cousins and other relatives were among those courts said could not be excluded."

This is not a ruling on the merits, and we continue our fight. We are at the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday to argue that the Muslim ban should ultimately be struck down. https://t.co/17CQDxpUhx

— ACLU (@ACLU) December 4, 2017

As the ALCU notes, the ruling does not mean the court has sided with the Trump administration on the merits of the "Muslim Ban" itself -- a policy that sparked fierce protests when it was first announced earlier this year and which civil liberties advocates have widely condemned -- but instead stayed orders from lower courts which said that enforcement of the ban should be on hold while the various challenges to the policy made their way through the system.

#SCOTUS grants Trump administration request to broadly apply latest version of travel ban pic.twitter.com/PbIhMdMbp7

— Kimberly Robinson (@KimberlyRobinsn) December 4, 2017

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor were the two dissenting voices on the bench.

Omar Jadwat, director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, had this reaction:

"President Trump's anti-Muslim prejudice is no secret -- he has repeatedly confirmed it, including just last week on Twitter. It's unfortunate that the full ban can move forward for now, but this order does not address the merits of our claims. We continue to stand for freedom, equality, and for those who are unfairly being separated from their loved ones. We will be arguing Friday in the Fourth Circuit that the ban should ultimately be struck down."

Others critics of the ban were swift in expressing their disappointment, but also explained that the order does not contain anything about the court's overall assessment of the case:

Shameful. Trump's #MuslimBan is illogical, islamophobic, and unconscionable. SCOTUS got this wrong. Another stain added to our nation's history. https://t.co/mggSqpmZ2e

— Faiza N. Ali (@faiza_n_ali) December 4, 2017

This is the worst week since the elections and it's gonna get even worse. WAKE UP. #GOPTaxScam #MuslimBan #NoMuslimBanEver

— Linda Sarsour (@lsarsour) December 4, 2017

Just in on Muslim ban: Supreme Court has stayed the injunctions in Hawaii and IRAP cases pending dispo of CA9 and CA4 cases and any cert petition. Ginsburg and Sotomayor note their objection. Not a word on merits or equities. pic.twitter.com/PYtmvRjNTq

— Cecillia Wang (@WangCecillia) December 4, 2017

To Muslims in the United States, those kept apart from loved ones by the ban, and everyone who cherishes religious equality, we stand with you. We continue to fight for freedom and equality and for those who are unfairly being separated from their loved ones. #NoMuslimBanEver

This is not a ruling on the merits, and we continue our fight. We are at the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday to argue that the Muslim ban should ultimately be struck down. https://t.co/17CQDxpUhx

— ACLU (@ACLU) December 4, 2017
Categories: News

Build and Fight: The Program and Strategy of Cooperation Jackson

Tue, 12/05/2017 - 05:00

recently published book Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi, a chronicle of one of the most dynamic but under-documented experiments in radical social transformation taking place in the United States. The book documents the ongoing organizing and institution-building of the political forces concentrated in Jackson, Mississippi, dedicated to advancing the "Jackson-Kush Plan."

 Daraja Press)(Image: Daraja Press)The following is an excerpt from the recently published book Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi. Jackson Rising is a chronicle of one of the most dynamic but under-documented experiments in radical social transformation taking place in the United States. The book documents the ongoing organizing and institution-building of the political forces concentrated in Jackson, Mississippi, dedicated to advancing the "Jackson-Kush Plan." These forces include the Jackson People's Assembly, the New Afrikan People's Organization, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, the Jackson Human Rights Institute and Cooperation Jackson. 

The fundamental program and strategy of Cooperation Jackson is anchored in the vision and macro-strategy of the Jackson-Kush Plan. The Jackson-Kush Plan, as you will read later in this book, was formulated by the New Afrikan People's Organization (NAPO) and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) between 2004 and 2010, to advance the development of the New Afrikan Independence Movement and hasten the socialist transformation of the territories currently claimed by the United States settler-colonial state. And as noted in several articles throughout the book, Cooperation Jackson is a vehicle specifically created to advance a key component of the Jackson-Kush Plan, namely the development of the solidarity economy in Jackson, Mississippi to advance the struggle for economic democracy as a prelude towards the democratic transition to eco-socialism. 

Although Cooperation Jackson is rooted in an ideological framework, vision and macro-strategy, it is not a static organization. Like any dynamic organization we do our best to center our practice on addressing the concrete conditions of our space, time and conditions and to align our theory with our practice. As such, our program and strategy are constantly adapting and evolving to address new challenges and seize new opportunities. And it will continue to do so. 

End Pursuits 

The fundamental program and strategy of Cooperation Jackson is intended to accomplish four fundamental ends: 1.) to place the ownership and control over the primary means of production directly in the hands of the Black working class of Jackson, 2.) to build and advance the development of the ecologically regenerative forces of production in Jackson, Mississippi, 3.) to democratically transform the political economy of the city of Jackson, the state of Mississippi, and the southeastern region, and 4.) to advance the aims and objectives of the Jackson-Kush Plan, which are to attain self-determination for people of African descent and the radical, democratic transformation of the state of Mississippi (which we see as a prelude to the radical decolonization and transformation of the United States itself). 

Controlling the Means of Production 

We define the means of production as the physical, non-human inputs that enable humans to transform the natural world to provide sustenance for themselves. The inputs in question are arable land, access to water, natural resources (wood, metals, minerals, etc.), and the tools and facilities that enable the cultivation of food and the transformation of raw materials into consumable goods and services, and the production or capturing of energy to power the tools and facilities. We also add control over processes of material exchange and energy transfer to our definition to give it greater clarity and force of meaning in line with our commitment to sustainability and environmental justice. The processes we feel are therefore necessary to control are the processes of distribution, consumption, and recycling and/or reuse. Without assuming some responsibility for these processes, we merely perpetuate the dynamics of externalization, particularly the production of pollution and the stimulation of waste from overproduction that are inherent in the capitalist mode of production. 

A population or people that does not have access to and control over these means and processes cannot be said to possess or exercise self-determination. The Black working class majority in Jackson does not have control or unquestionable ownership over any of these means or processes. Our mission is to aid the Black working class in Jackson, and the working class overall, attain them. 

Building the Productive Forces 

On the question of building the productive forces in Jackson, it should be noted that while Jackson is the largest city in the state of Mississippi, and arguably the most industrialized city in the state, it is not and never has been a major center or hub of industrial production. Like most of the Deep South, Mississippi's development as a settler-colonial state has fundamentally been contingent upon the extraction of natural resources, such as timber for colonial and antebellum era ship building, and cash crop agriculture, such as cotton, tobacco, sugarcane, and rice, which were primarily sold as international commodities (see "Exploiting Contradictions" section below). Mississippi, like most of the South (North Carolina, Florida, and Texas being unique exceptions each in their own right), has not been able to break out of its historic position within the US and world capitalist system of being a site of resource extraction and the super-exploitation of labor. One of our primary tasks is to break this structural relationship by playing a leading role in industrializing Jackson, first and foremost, then the Kush district, and eventually the entirety of Mississippi. 

In many respects, we are positioning ourselves to act as a "developer," which is normally a role that is exclusively played by the bourgeoisie, i.e. the capitalist class, or the state. We are aiming to upend this paradigm on many levels and in several strategic ways. One, we are seeking to negate the role of capital being the primary determinate of the social development of Jackson (see point below about exploiting the dynamic of uneven development within the capitalist system below), by situating this role in the hands of the working class through the agency of its own autonomous organizations and its control over the municipal state apparatus. But, we are not seeking to replicate the dynamics of "development" in the standard capitalist sense. The central dynamic in our quest to upend the old aims, norms, processes and relationships of capitalist development, which have little to no regard for the preservation of the environment and ecology, and replace them with new norms that are fixed first and foremost on repairing the damage done to our environment and ecosystems, and creating new systems that will ultimately regenerate the bounty of life on our planet, in all its diversity. This will be possible by strategically incorporating, utilizing, and innovating upon the technologies of the third and (emerging) forth waves of the industrial revolution, which enable the elimination of scarcity, but within ecological limits (see more on this point below). What we aim to do is make Jackson a hub of community production, which is anchored by 3D print manufacturing for community consumption, i.e. direct use-value consumption, and commodity production, to exchange value in consumer markets. How we plan to advance this initiative will be discussed in more detail below. 

Democratically Transforming the Economy 

In order to democratically transform the capitalist world-economy, we have to transform the agent central to this process, the working class, into a democratic subject. This transformation starts with the self-organization of the working class itself. Although not foreign to the working class historically by any means, particularly to the Black working class in the United States (which was often left solely to its own ends for self-defense and survival), worker self-organization is not a common feature of the class at present. This is a dynamic that we must change in Jackson (and beyond). 

Now, to be clear on terms, self-organization means first and foremost workers directly organizing themselves through various participatory means (unions, assemblies, etc.) primarily at their places of work or points of production, but also where they live, play, pray, and study. The point of this self-organization is for workers to make collective, democratic decisions about how, when, and to what ends their labor serves, and about how to take action collectively to determine the course of their own lives and the animus of their own actions. 

We will not and cannot accomplish any of the core ends described above without stimulating the self-organization of the Black working class in Jackson on a mass scale. While Cooperation Jackson, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and the broad forces aligned with the Jackson-Kush Plan have made some significant social and political advances and demonstrated our capacity to reach the masses, particularly in the electoral arena, we still haven't stimulated the self-organization of the Black working class on a mass scale. More work, profoundly more, must be done to accomplish the main tasks in this regard, which are to elevate and strengthen the class-consciousness of the community, foster and cultivate new relationships of social solidarity amongst the working class, and co-construct and advance new social norms and values rooted in radical ecological and humanitarian principles. In effect, what we are aiming to do is develop a new transformative culture. 

In order to reinforce the development of this new culture within the present confines of Mississippi and the overall capitalist world-system, we have to harness the power of the Black working class and utilize it politically to eliminate the structural barriers blocking the "legal" development of the solidarity economy within the state. One of the main things we have to eliminate are the Mississippi legal statutes that presently restrict cooperatives to farming businesses, utilities, and credit unions. We have to create a new legal framework and paradigm that will enable any form of productive endeavor to become a cooperative or solidarity enterprise. 

In the Jackson context it is only through the mass self-organization of the working class, the construction of a new democratic culture, and the development of a movement from below to transform the social structures that shape and define our relations, particularly the state (i.e. government), that we can conceive of serving as a counter-hegemonic force with the capacity to democratically transform the economy. Again, we have taken some baby steps in this direction with the Mayoral election of Chokwe Lumumba in 2013 and the founding of Cooperation Jackson in 2014. But, we have a long way to get where we desire and need to be. 

Advancing the Jackson-Kush Plan 

"Politics without economics is symbol without substance." This old Black Nationalist adage summarizes and defines Cooperation Jackson's relationship to the Jackson-Kush Plan and the political aims and objectives of the New Afrikan People's Organization and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement in putting it forward. Without a sound economic program and foundation the Jackson-Kush Plan is nothing more than a decent exposition of revolutionary nationalist politics. Cooperation Jackson is the vehicle we have collectively created to insure that we do more than just espouse good rhetoric, but engage in a concrete struggle to create a democratic economy that will enable Black and other colonized, oppressed and exploited people to exercise self-determination in Mississippi (and beyond). 

We have to be clear, crystal clear, that self-determination is unattainable without an economic base. And not just your standard economic base, meaning a capitalist oriented one, but a democratic one. Self-determination is not possible within the capitalist social framework, because the endless pursuit of profits that drives this system only empowers private ownership and the individual appropriation of wealth by design. The end result of this system is massive inequality and inequity. We know this from the brutality of our present experience and the nightmares of history demonstrated to us time and time again over the course of the last 500 years. 

We strive to build a democratic economy because it is the surest route to equity, equality, and ecological balance. Reproducing capitalism, either in its market oriented or state-dictated forms, will only replicate the inequities and inequalities that have plagued humanity since the dawn of the agricultural revolution. We believe that the participatory, bottom-up democratic route to economic democracy and eco-socialist transformation will be best secured through the anchor of worker self-organization, the guiding structures of cooperatives and systems of mutual aid and communal solidarity, and the democratic ownership, control, and deployment of the ecologically friendly and labor liberating technologies of the forth industrial revolution. 

As students of history, we have done our best to try and assimilate the hard lessons from the 19th and 20th century national liberation and socialist movements. We are clear that self-determination expressed as national sovereignty is a trap if the nation-state does not dislodge itself from the dictates of the capitalist system. Remaining within the capitalist world-system means that you have to submit to the domination and rule of capital, which will only empower the national bourgeoisie against the rest of the population contained with the nation-state edifice. However, we are just as clear that trying to impose economic democracy or socialism from above is not only very problematic as an anti-democratic endeavor, but it doesn't dislodge capitalist social relations, it only shifts the issues of labor control and capital accumulation away from the bourgeoisie and places it in the hands of the state or party bureaucrats. We are clear that economic democracy and the transition to eco-socialism have to come from below, not from above. That workers and communities have to drive the social transformation process through their self-organization and self-management, not be subject to it. This does not mean that individuals, organizations, and political forces shouldn't try to intervene or influence the development of the working class and our communities. We believe that we should openly and aggressively present our best ideas, programs, strategies, tactics, plans, etc. to the working class and to our communities in open forums, discussions, town halls, assemblies, etc., and debate them out in a principled democratic fashion to allow the working class and our communities to decide for themselves whether they make sense and are worth implementing and pursuing. 

On December 19, Democracy at Work, in support of Cooperation Jackson, will celebrate the release of Jackson Rising in New York with a presentation by Kali Akuno, as well as a roundtable discussion with world-renowned economist Richard Wolff, political economist Jessica Gordon Nembhard and 2017 New York City council candidate Jabari Brisport. Click here for more details

Categories: News

The Founders Gave Us a Tool for Taking Down a Dangerous President

Mon, 12/04/2017 - 05:00
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Almost 10 years ago Bill Moyers Journal hosted a freewheeling discussion about impeachment with conservative scholar (and Clinton impeachment article author) Bruce Fein and journalist John Nichols of The Nation. The impetus was a newly released poll that showed some 45 percent of Americans favored starting the impeachment process for President Bush and Vice President Cheney. 

To see more stories like this, visit Moyers & Company at Truthout.

Among the "high crimes and misdemeanors" the pair were accused of perpetrating were many related to civil liberties and obstruction of justice in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq War. Of course, impeachment never proceeded against Bush and Cheney. Fein and Nichols were clear about the proper use of impeachment -- not as a bludgeon or an axe striking off the head of state -- but as a cure for what ails a very troubled executive.

We asked John Nichols for his perspective on this video, given our current political situation. This is what he had to say: 

Those of us who have for many years worried about the imperial presidency regularly warn that an absence of checks and balances will, invariably, lead to the expansion of presidential powers. 

Impeachment is an essential check and balance -- arguably the most essential, and powerful, if the process is completed with the resignation or formal removal of an errant official. When members of the legislative branch fail to initiate the impeachment process for reasons of political calculation of circumstantial caution, they contribute to the expansion of executive branch authority. Partisans can almost always come up with excuses for avoiding the impeachment process. But when they do, they set the stage for future abuses. In effect, they encourage the imperial presidency to become more imperial.

The failure to impeach former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney for the high crimes and misdemeanors that characterized their tenure sent a signal that lawlessness would not be checked and balanced -- even by a Congress in which the legislative branch was, in the last years of the Bush-Cheney interregnum, controlled by the opposition party. This was a terrible error on the part of congressional Democrats and responsible Republicans, and it has come back to haunt the United States. 

Donald Trump's abuses of power, and the abuses committed by those surrounding him, take advantage of the openings that were created when Bush and Cheney were not held to account. In fairness to Bush and Cheney, they took advantage of openings that were created by previous administrations, and by the failures of previous congresses to demand accountability (especially in the case of the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s). In further fairness to Bush and Cheney, and to the congresses that failed to check and balance those administrations at the moment when interventions were necessary, Trump is a distinct figure who displays a greater penchant for dismissing norms and disobeying rules than past presidents. But the core point remains: when irresponsible and lawless executives are not challenged by the legislative branch, the openings for abuse grow larger.

The failure to hold George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to account for their abuses has, as we warned a decade ago, created an opening for new and in many cases greater abuses. A failure to hold Donald Trump and his lieutenants to account will, necessarily, create openings for even greater abuses by ensuing presidents. That is why the moment in which we find ourselves is far more urgent than the partisans of both parties, and the soothing commentariat that always makes excuses for the avoidance of accountability, may choose to admit. But citizens should be concerned and engaged. The founding generation created the impeachment power to guard against the development of a regal presidency. The presidency we have now is dangerously regal; more authoritarian than responsive, more monarchical than democratic. This is the realization of the worst fears of Thomas Paine and the wiser of those who gathered in 1787. As such, we have a duty to do more than merely hold Donald Trump to account. Our duty now is to restore a proper balance to the governing of a nation that was never supposed to have an imperial president -- or the threats that extend from the royal scam.

Categories: News

On 48th Anniversary of Fred Hampton's Murder, Rampant Surveillance of Black Liberation Movements Continues

Mon, 12/04/2017 - 05:00

Black Panther Party rising stars Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were shot in cold blood by the FBI in their Chicago apartment on December 4, 1969. Remarks from the current administration and an FBI counterterrorism report make it clear that attitudes toward Black liberation movements for racial and social justice have not changed in these 48 years.

 David Fenton / Getty Images)American political and social activist and Black Panther Party member Fred Hampton (1948 - 1969) raises his arms at the "Days of Rage" rally, Chicago, Illinois, October 11, 1969. (Photo: David Fenton / Getty Images)

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In August 1967, notorious FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sent out an urgent directive to all of his field offices under the file name "COINTELPRO-Black Nationalist Hate Groups." It instructed "Racial Matters"(RM) agents to take aggressive -- and highly illegal -- actions to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize the activities of Black-nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership and supporters." On March 4, 1968, exactly one month before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, another urgent Bureau-wide COINTELPRO directive from Hoover's desk instructed RM Agents to devise COINTELPRO actions designed to "prevent the rise of a 'messiah' who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement."

On December 4, 1969 -- 48 years ago today -- RM agents in the Bureau's Chicago office secretly congratulated themselves and hailed their "success" to Hoover for masterminding the bloody pre-dawn police raid that left Fred Hampton, the 21-year-old chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP) -- and most certainly a rising "messiah" -- and Peoria Panther leader Mark Clark dead, and several other young Panthers seriously wounded.

From an early age, Hampton was a charismatic speaker and natural leader. At the age of 14, he had organized a student chapter of the NAACP in Maywood, Illinois, and the chapter soon grew to 700 members. He led a march on the Maywood Town Hall and organized to build an integrated swimming pool there. After he graduated from Proviso East High School, the administration asked him to come back to mediate a confrontation between Black and white students, then had him arrested when he did so. Influenced by Malcolm X, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the realities that he observed and experienced in the movement, Hampton consistently spoke out strongly against police brutality. His politics became increasingly more militant.

In the fall of 1967, Hampton enrolled in Crane Junior College, later renamed Malcolm X College, which was a center of radical Black activity in Chicago. He continued his dynamic organizing there, and injected a new militancy into the student body. During 1968, Hampton, Bobby Rush and several others organized the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and opened their offices at 2350 West Madison Street on the West Side of Chicago.

By this time, Hampton had been expressly targeted by the Chicago FBI office, which was already quite experienced in disruption tactics and techniques, having taken several sophisticated actions in the mid-60s that were designed to exploit and exacerbate the political division between Nation of Islam leaders Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammed. Within days of the opening of the Panther office, Chicago's Racial Matters Squad directed one of its operatives, William O'Neal, to join the Party. O'Neal soon maneuvered himself into a leadership position as chief of security, and served as Hampton's bodyguard during the early days of the Illinois chapter.

Under the leadership of Chairman Fred Hampton and Minister of Defense Bobby Rush, the Chicago BPP grew into a strong organization. Hampton began to negotiate with Chicago street organizations, attempting to convince them to give up their violent activities and embrace the Panther philosophy. Under his leadership, the Party built the original Rainbow Coalition that united the Panthers, the Puerto Rican Young Lords Organization, the Young Patriots (a group of radical Appalachian whites) and the Students for a Democratic Society.

The BPP opened a Breakfast for Children program at several locations in the city, and fed hundreds of hungry young children before they went to school. Hampton frequently spoke at colleges and high schools and met with a wide range of leaders and organizations. He led by example, starting his day at six in the morning at the Breakfast program, and would never ask someone to do something he would not do, from selling the Panther newspaper to defending the Panther office from police attack.

At the same time, the FBI, both nationally and locally, was increasing its efforts to "neutralize the Panther Party and destroy what it stands for." Not only had the Bureau targeted the leadership, including Hampton, whom it registered on its Rabble Rouser, Agitator and Security Indexes, but it also specifically set out to destroy the BPP newspaper and the Breakfast program, as well as the Panthers' liberation schools and health clinics. Under the COINTELPRO banner, utilizing "ghetto informants" who often acted as provocateurs, Racial Matters operatives sought to exploit ideological differences and resultant tensions between the Panthers, street organizations and Black nationalist organizations. In Chicago, RM agents attempted to provoke the Blackstone Rangers to attack Hampton and the Panthers by sending a forged letter to Ranger leader Jeff Fort, that purported to warn him of a "hit" the Panthers had ordered against him -- with the stated goal of provoking Fort to physically attack Hampton. Continuing his work as a COINTELPRO operative, FBI informant O'Neal, who later played a key role in setting up the murderous December 4 raid by supplying the floor plan of Hampton's apartment, blossomed as a provocateur who repeatedly -- and unsuccessfully -- encouraged the commission of illegal acts.

The local police and prosecutors also sought to destroy the BPP with a vengeance. Panthers were constantly harassed and arrested, often for selling the Panther paper. Hampton had been arrested in Maywood for allegedly taking $71 of ice cream and distributing it to neighborhood children. The politically aggressive Cook County state's attorney, Edward V. Hanrahan, put Hampton on trial for robbery. In May 1969 he was convicted and sentenced to two to five years in prison. In August, the Illinois Supreme Court granted Hampton appeal bond, and he returned to Chicago to a joyous welcome at People's Church on South Ashland Avenue. In an inspiring and memorable speech, he told of how he heard the "beat of the people," and was "high off the people" while he was locked up in a downstate maximum-security prison. Upon his release, Hampton immediately resumed his speaking and organizing at a breakneck pace. His unique leadership skills had been duly noted, not only by the FBI, but also by the national leadership of the BPP, and he was being groomed to be an important national spokesperson.

Three months later, Hampton lay dead on his bed in a pool of blood, assassinated by a Chicago police raider who shot him twice in the head at close range. Hampton was a victim of the FBI's COINTELPRO program.

As evidence emerged over time, it was established that the 14-man, pre-dawn police raiding party, operating under the direct supervision of State's Attorney Hanrahan, was armed with O'Neal's floorplan that marked the bed on which Hampton would be sleeping. They carried a submachine gun, semiautomatic rifles, shotguns and handguns. The raiders were led by Chicago police Sgt. Daniel Groth, a shadowy figure with suspected connections to the CIA, and included James "Gloves" Davis, so nicknamed because he donned gloves before he beat people up.

The raiders burst in the front and back doors of the tiny apartment, and Davis killed Mark Clark, who was just inside the front door, with a shot through the heart. They then charged into the front room, shooting Brenda Harris, a 17-year-old Panther who was lying on a bed next to the wall, and "stitched" that wall with machine gun and semiautomatic fire. These bullets tore through the wall and into the middle bedroom, where three Panthers were huddling on the floor, and many of those high-powered bullets continued through another wall into the bedroom where Hampton and his fiancé, Deborah Johnson, who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant, were asleep. The trajectories of many of these bullets were toward the head of Hampton's bed.

In the back bedroom, the mattress was vibrating from the gunfire as Panther occupants Louis Trueluck and Harold Bell were unsuccessfully trying to wake Hampton. The raiders burst through the back door, firing at the bedrooms. They then took Bell, Trueluck and Johnson out of the back bedroom into the kitchen, leaving Hampton alive but unconscious on the bed. In the front, the officer with the machine gun had moved to the doorway of the middle bedroom and fired several machine gun blasts at the defenseless occupants. Ronald "Doc" Satchel was hit five times, while Blair Anderson and another terrified teenager, Verlina Brewer, were also shot.

In the kitchen, Johnson and Bell heard two shots ring out from Hampton's bedroom, and heard a raider say, "He's good and dead now." The toxicological evidence strongly suggested that O'Neal had put secobarbital in Hampton's Kool-Aid hours earlier so that he would not wake up.

Hampton's body was dragged from the bloodstained bed to the hallway floor, to be displayed as the raiders' trophy, while the seven survivors were physically abused, subjected to threats and racial epithets, and then jailed on charges of attempted murder. The raiders then rushed from the apartment to the state's attorney's office where they appeared with Hanrahan at a press conference. There, Hanrahan described a fierce gun battle initiated by the "vicious" and "criminal" Black Panthers, during which his raiders acted "reasonably" and with "restraint."

As we now know, the official version was a false narrative, a lie. Over the next decade the full truth was brought to light, thanks to Chicago's Black and progressive communities, the families of Hampton and Clark, and the survivors of the raid, their lawyers, and their Panther comrades. With the awful truth on the public record, it is important to consider the present moment with that history in mind.

Just months ago, a report drafted by the FBI's counterterrorism division came to public light. Entitled "Black Identity Extremists Likely Motivated to Target Law Enforcement Officers," the executive summary of the skimpy 10-page report brazenly staked out the FBI's position in relation to current Black liberation movements. Relying on six widely disparate incidents where police officers were shot by African-American suspects in the two years after Michael Brown was slain in Ferguson, Missouri, the FBI's counterterrorism analysts wrote:

The FBI assesses it is very likely Black Identity Extremist (BIE) perceptions of police brutality against African Americans spurred an increase in premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement and will very likely serve as justification for such violence. The FBI assesses it is very likely this increase began following the 9 August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent Grand Jury November 2014 declination to indict the police officers involved. The FBI assesses it is very likely incidents of alleged police abuse against African Americans since then have continued to feed the resurgence in ideologically motivated, violent criminal activity within the BIE movement. The FBI assesses it is very likely some BIEs are influenced by a mix of anti-authoritarian, Moorish sovereign citizen ideology, and BIE ideology. The FBI has high confidence in these assessments, based on a history of violent incidents attributed to individuals who acted on behalf of their ideological beliefs, documented in FBI investigations and other law enforcement and open source reporting. The FBI makes this judgment with the key assumption the recent incidents are ideologically motivated.

Such sweeping race-based conclusions, in the hands of an FBI that has been further unleashed by the Trump administration, along with a Justice Department commanded by Jeff Sessions, harkens one back to the days when the Panthers and Black liberation organizations were labeled "Black Nationalist Hate Groups" -- the days of Racial Matters squads and COINTELPRO.

Are Black Lives Matter leaders now being targeted? Are they included on the FBI's latest version of its Rabble Rouser and Agitator Indexes like Fred Hampton was? Are anti-Klan activists riddled by agent provocateurs in the mold of William O'Neal? Are activists who oppose anti-Muslim violence marked for the Bureau's Security Index? What type of COINTELPRO-type actions were afoot at Standing Rock and Charlottesville? Is the Justice Department preparing to use the words and writings of movement activists in prosecutions for seditious conspiracy, as Richard Nixon's Justice Department attempted to do? Such questions abound, and cannot be dismissed as mere paranoia. Rather, we must remain vigilant and informed -- but not deterred -- by this history, as we continue to resist official repression and redouble the struggle for social and racial justice.

Categories: News

Honduras: Protesters Defy Military Crackdown and Flood the Streets to Protest Alleged Vote-Rigging

Mon, 12/04/2017 - 05:00

Tensions are rising in Honduras, where security forces have opened fire on protesters over the weekend, killing at least three people and injuring dozens more. On Sunday, tens of thousands of people poured into the streets to protest what many are calling an electoral coup d'état against opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla. Protesters accuse the electoral commission of rigging the vote in favor of incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernández, who is a close US ally. For more, we speak with Zenaida Velasquez, a Honduran human rights activist and one of the founders of the Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras. We also speak with Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle, a member of La Voz de los de Abajo and one of the founding members of the Honduras Solidarity Network. He has been in Honduras for over a week leading a human rights observation delegation.

Please check back later for full transcript.

Categories: News

Rep. Keith Ellison: GOP Tax Bill Would Reorder Society and Create "Hereditary Aristocracy" for Rich

Mon, 12/04/2017 - 05:00

On Saturday morning, Senate Republicans passed a nearly 500-page tax bill that will have dramatic impacts not only the US tax code, but also healthcare, domestic spending and even oil and gas drilling. The plan would cut taxes by nearly $1.5 trillion. Major corporations and the richest Americans, including President Trump and his own family, would reap the most dramatic benefits. Overall, the bill is expected to add $1.4 trillion to federal budget deficits over the next decade. The bill passed the Senate 51 to 49, with every Democrat voting against the bill and all Republicans voting for it except for Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee. We speak with Minnesota Democratic Congressmember Keith Ellison. He's the first Muslim member of Congress. Ellison is also the deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Please check back later for full transcript.

Categories: News

Two Years After Planned Parenthood Shooting, Abortion Clinics Are Still in Danger

Mon, 12/04/2017 - 05:00
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On November 27, 2015, evangelical Christian Robert Dear methodically drove to a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic -- asking for directions along the way -- entered the building and began shooting with a semi-automatic rifle. He ultimately killed three people and wounded another nine, all before eventually surrendering to police.

In the two years that have followed, Dear -- who proclaimed himself a "warrior for the babies" -- has yet to be found competent to stand trial, remaining in prison indefinitely while his case is on hold.

But while it has been two years since an anti-abortion extremist murdered staff or patients at a clinic, much has changed in the last year that makes another violent clinic attack nearly inevitable in the future.

In the last few months, there's been a significant increase in suspicious packages found at locations that perform abortions. In some cases, these have been hoax devices meant to cause fear but not damage. Others, such as a package in Champaign, Illinois, may not have been so benign.

The attempted arson at Women's Health Practice at the beginning of November and another two weeks later in California suggests that, once more, clinics are under attack as abortion opponents grow bolder with a new, anti-abortion administration at the national helm.

Arson and property damage are just a few ways that abortion opponents are showing they've been emboldened under the Trump administration. Trespassing, aggressive harassment and blockades are also on the rise, showing a newfound disdain for federal laws like the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act.

In the spring of 2017, about a dozen activists associated with Operation Save America physically blocked the doors to the only abortion clinic in Louisville, Kentucky, refusing to move until police physically pulled them aside. Then, in September, activists in three states coordinated simultaneous clinic "rescues" in three cities, entering clinics in Michigan, Virginia and New Mexico. They refused to leave the buildings until police arrested them and removed them physically from the premises.

So far, those arrested in the September actions have received only suspended fines and sentences. And organizer Monica Miller of Citizens for a Pro-Life Society announced plans to have a second "red rose rescue" in the future, noting in an email newsletter on November 21 that none of the earlier "rescuers" had been charged with a FACE Act violation.

Meanwhile, even those clinics that did have some protections are seeing them ebb in the first year of the Trump administration. An Engelwood, New Jersey, buffer zone enacted in March of 2014 has now been dismantled less than four years later, with the mere 8-foot buffer deemed "too expansive" and in violation of first amendment rights.

The ruling is one of the first attempts to roll back buffer and bubble zone protections in the wake of the Supreme Court's 2014 decision that struck down a Massachusetts buffer zone, with other cases still pending.

Trespassing, harassment, clinic invasions and even arson attempts all show that abortion opponents are escalating their tactics with the belief that we've turned a page on how aggressively the Department of Justice will prosecute those who attack abortion clinics, staff and patients.

The FACE Act is only as strong as the willingness of the federal government to charge the individuals who violate it. And without actual jail sentences as a deterrent, protesters will continue to test out the law. Slaps on the wrist only signal that activists who want to break what they believe is an "unjust" law can do so without repercussions, stripping down what little protections clinics currently have.

While those who are working to defang the FACE Act and trespass on clinic property may not be the ones committing acts like arson or murder, they're still contributing to widespread violence and intimidation.

With mass shootings happening in the US on a regular basis, it's lucky that we haven't experienced another situation like the one involving Robert Dear -- an abusive, mentally ill, white Christian who unloaded his weapon into an abortion clinic full of patients. Unfortunately, unless police and the judicial system fully defend and prosecute those who violate any laws at abortion clinics, another horrific act of violence will be inevitable.

Categories: News

Outside Spending Targets Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin

Mon, 12/04/2017 - 05:00
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Outside spending against Democratic incumbent Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin has so far exceeded the combined outside spending against the other 21 Democratic Party senators up for reelection in 2018 by a factor of 5.

There has been $3.1 million in outside spending against Baldwin, and about $532,000 against the other Democratic incumbents combined. (Another $6,214 has been spent against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who caucuses with Democrats).  

Baldwin is one of 10 Senate Democrats running for reelection in states that President Donald Trump carried in 2016. Nearly all of the conservative-aligned outside spending has targeted Baldwin, however.

Baldwin has been a senator since 2013 and was formerly the representative for Wisconsin's 2nd Congressional District. 

Among Democratic senators in Trump-carried states, the next largest amount was about $47,000 targeting West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. About $42,000 has been spent against Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, according to FEC data.

"Outside spending" refers to political expenditures by groups or individuals not coordinated with candidates' fundraising committees.

On the Republican side, outside spending against GOP Senate candidates is even higher.

In the 2018 cycle, about $4.7 million of the roughly $5.2 million -- or around 90 percent -- of outside spending against all Republican candidates for the Senatehas targeted Alabama's Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore. All but about $295,000 of the $4.7 million targeted Moore before the Republican primary in September. Outside spending after the primary has come from two groups, The Advocacy Fund and Highway 31.

Among Republicans, the next highest total was the $28,000 targeting one of Baldwin's Republican challengers, Kevin Nicholson, who has the support of former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Nicholson is a former Democrat who once worked for the Democratic National Committee and even spoke at its 2000 convention.

Uline Inc, a Wisconsin-based shipping supply company owned by Illinois-based conservative donor Richard Uihlein, gave $3.5 million to the pro-Nicholson super PAC Solutions for Wisconsin. Uihlein's investments also include several resorts, spas and restaurants in the state.

Solutions for Wisconsin, in turn, has contributed $1.5 million to Americas PAC and Restoration PAC, which represent the second and third largest outside spenders opposing Baldwin. Uihlein also gave $250,000 directly to Americas PAC. He is the chief donor to a super PAC that has funded ads benefiting Moore as well, The Daily Beast reported

Two advisors Nicholson is replacing on his campaign are taking positions at Solutions for Wisconsin.

So far in the 2018 cycle, Uihlein has funded roughly $6.1 million in outside spending, all of which went toward conservative groups.

The outside spending group that has spent the most against Baldwin is Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, a politically active nonprofit that serves as the fundraising hub of the donor network spearheaded by billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch. 

Freedom Partners has spent around $1.7 million to defeat Baldwin, and as a 501(c)(6) trade association, it is not required to disclose its donors.

Categories: News

The Art of Keeping Guantánamo Open: What the Paintings by Its Prisoners Tell Us About Our Humanity and Theirs

Mon, 12/04/2017 - 05:00
 Muhammad Ansi, Untitled (Pier), 2016.)(Image: Muhammad Ansi, Untitled [Pier], 2016.)   Truthout is funded by readers, not by corporations, lobbyists or government interests. Help us publish more stories like this one: Click here to make a tax-deductible donation!

We spent the day at a beach in Brooklyn. Skyscrapers floated in the distance and my toddler kept handing me cigarette filters she had dug out of the sand. When we got home, I checked my email. I had been sent a picture of a very different beach: deserted, framed by distant headlands with unsullied sands and clear waters. As it happened, I was looking not at a photograph, but at a painting by a man imprisoned at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp.

Of the roughly 780 people once imprisoned there, he is one of 41 prisoners who remain, living yards away from the Caribbean Sea. Captives from the Bush administration's Global War on Terror began to arrive at that offshore prison in January 2002. Since Guantánamo is located on a military base in Cuba and the detainees were labeled "alien enemy combatants," they were conveniently to be without rights under either United States or international law and so open to years of whatever their jailers wanted to do to them (including torture). President Barack Obama released 197 of them in his years in office, but was unable to fulfill the promise he made on his first day: to close Guantánamo.

The man whose painting I saw has been held for nearly 15 years without trial, without even having charges filed against him. The email came from his lawyer who had volunteered to defend a number of Guantánamo detainees. Some had been released after she helped them convince a military tribunal that they were no longer "threats" to the United States. The others remain in indefinite detention. Many of her clients pass their time by making art and, of all the unexpected things to come into my life, she was now looking for a curator who wanted to exhibit some of their paintings.

Collecting the Art of Guantánamo

I'm a professor at John Jay College in New York City. It has a small art gallery and so one day in August 2016 I found myself in that lawyer's midtown Manhattan office preparing, however dubiously, to view the art of her clients. She was pushing aside speakerphones and notepads and laying out the artwork on a long table in a conference room whose windows overlooked the picturesque East River. As I waited, I watched from high up as the water cut a swath of silence through the city. When I finally turned my attention to the art, I was startled to see some eerily similar views. Painting after painting of water. Water trickling through the reeds at the edge of a pond. Water churning into foam as it ran over rocks in rivers. Calmly flowing water that reflected the buildings along a canal.

But above all, there was the sea. Everywhere, the sea. In those paintings in that conference room and in other work sent to me as word spread among detainees and their lawyers that I was willing to plan an exhibit, I found hundreds of depictions of the sea in all its moods. In some paintings, storms thrashed apart the last planks of sinking ships. In others, boats were moored safely at docks or scudded across vast expanses of water without a hint of shore in sight. Clouds bunched in blue midday skies or burned orange in mid-ocean sunsets. One detainee had even made elaborate models of sailing ships out of cardboard, old T-shirts, bottle caps, and other scraps of trash.

Puzzled, I asked the lawyer, "Why all the water?" She shrugged. Maybe the art instructor at the prison, she suggested, was giving the detainees lots of pictures of the sea. The detainees, it turned out, could actually take art classes as long as they remained "compliant." But when there was a crackdown, as there had, for instance, been during a mass hunger strike in 2013, the guards promptly confiscated their art -- and that was the reason the lawyer's clients had asked her to take it. They wanted to keep their work (and whatever it meant to them) safe from the guards.

As it turned out, the art doesn't leave Guantánamo that much more easily than the prisoners themselves. Military authorities scrutinized every piece for hidden messages and then stamped the back of each work, "Approved by US Forces." Those stamps generally bled through, floating up into the surface of the image on the other side. The lawyer had even nicknamed one of the model ships the U.S.S. Approved because the censors had stamped those words across its sails.

So I found myself beginning to plan an exhibition of a sort I had never in my wildest dreams imagined I would curate. And I began to worry. A curator makes so many choices, judgments, interpretations of art. But how could I make them with any kind of accuracy when I was a woman, a non-Muslim, and a citizen of the very nation that had detained these men for so many years without charges or trial? Wasn't I, in other words, the ultimate Other?

 Ghaleb Al-Bihani, Untitled [Red and Purple Boats], 2015.)(Image: Ghaleb Al-Bihani, Untitled [Red and Purple Boats], 2015.)Greek to Me

By training, I'm a classical art historian. I expand fragments. If I show my students a broken ancient Greek vase, I use my words to mend it. I pour in more words to fill it with the memory of the wine it once carried, yet more to conjure up the men who once drank from it, and still more to offer my students our best guesses at what they might have been talking about as they drank.

This mode of dealing with art was known to the ancient Greeks. They called it ekphrasis: the rhetorical exercise of describing a work of art in great detail. For them, ekphrasis was a creative act. The speaker often explained things not shown by the artist, such as what happened just before or just after the illustrated moment. The maiden in this painting is smiling because she has just received a declaration of love, they would say.

But faced with this art from Guantánamo, ekphrasis seemed somehow inappropriate. These artists are still alive, even if entombed. Their artworks are as they intended them, not the fragmentary remains of some past world that needs a framework of interpretation. And whatever interpretation these might need, how in the world was I to provide it? Who was I to pour my words over them?

And yet I knew that they needed help or why would that lawyer have come to me? The detainees certainly couldn't curate their own exhibit in New York because they would be barred from entering the United States even after being released from Guantánamo. So I told myself that I would have to help them realize their desire for an exhibit without inserting my own judgments. I told myself that I would instead be their amanuensis.

From the Latin: a manu, servant of the hand, the term once referring to someone who aided in an artistic project by taking dictation. Consider, for instance, John Milton's daughters, Mary and Deborah, who took down his seventeenth century epic poem Paradise Lost after he had gone blind. They were his amanuenses. He composed the verses in his head at night. Then, in the morning, as a contemporary of his wrote, he "sat leaning backward obliquely in an easy chair, with his leg flung over the elbow of it" while they wrote down what he recited. If they dawdled coming to him, he would complain that he needed to be milked.

I would similarly let the artists speak for themselves through me, or so I thought. I wrote out a list of questions for their lawyers to ask them, including "What do you like about making art?" and "What would you like people to think about when they are looking at your art?" Then I waited for those lawyers to pose them during their Guantánamo visits in the midst of conferences about legal matters.

The answers were strikingly uniform and seemingly unrevealing. They wanted people to see their art, they said, and through it know that they are actual human beings. Really? I didn't get it. Of course, they're human beings. What else could they be?

At first, I wasn't too concerned that their answers didn't really make much sense to me. That's part of the role of an amanuensis. Milton's daughters were ten and six when he began Paradise Lost. It would take them all nearly a decade to finish it. In those years, their father also taught them to read books aloud to him in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, of which they couldn't understand a word.

I was used to being an amanuensis myself. When I was a year and a half old and my mother was still pregnant with my sister, my father had an accident and broke his neck. The fractured edge of a vertebra sliced into his spinal cord, leaving his arms and legs paralyzed. As soon as we were old enough -- and I can't remember a time when we weren't considered old enough -- my sister and I would spend hours a day being his "hands." We opened mail, paid bills, slid computer disks in and out of the desktop that he operated by stabbing at the keys with a long pointer held in his mouth. Through us, two daydreamy little girls, he did all the work of a stereotypical man of the house -- fixing broken appliances, hanging Christmas lights, grilling steak.

To be an amanuensis is, by the way, anything but a passive act. After all, there wouldn't be enough time in the world if you had to tell your own hands what to do in every situation: reach for the coffee cup, close that finger around its handle, bring it to your mouth. In the same way, an amanuensis must anticipate needs, prepare tools, and know when something's missing.

And this sense that something was missing -- honed from my years with my father -- was growing in me as I looked at the artwork and thought about those responses. It was the midsummer of 2017 and the exhibit was set to open in the fall. The file cabinets in my office were filled with paintings, overflowing into piles on the floor that came up to my shins. After the struggle to pry those artworks out of Guantánamo, I didn't know how to say that one piece should be seen by the world and another should stay a prisoner in some dark drawer.

Freedom of the Seas

So I asked again -- this time by emailing Mansoor Adayfi, a former detainee working on a memoir about his time at Guantánamo. He explained that the cells of detainees were right by the sea. They could smell and hear the surf, but because tarps blocked their view, they could never see it. Only once, when a hurricane was coming, had the guards removed those tarps from the fences that separated them from the water. A few days later, when they went back up, the artist-inmates began to draw pictures of the sea as a substitute for what they had glimpsed during that brief moment of visual freedom.

Suddenly, those endless visions of water -- that is, of freedom -- made sense to me. And I understood something else as well. Guantánamo is a system designed to paint the men it holds as monsters, animals, sub-humans who don't deserve basic rights like fair trials. That was the reason those prisoners were speaking, but not speaking, in their art. Why would they say anything that risked a further fall from whatever precarious hold on humanity they still had?

They hoped someday to be released, which was unlikely to happen if the authorities became convinced that they bore any anger towards the United States. And even release would not mean freedom of speech, since they would be sent to countries that had agreed to host them. Dependent on the good graces of these governments, they would continue to live constrained lives in constrained circumstances, needing never to offend these new sets of authorities either.

 Khalid Qasim, Untitled [Fins in the Ocean], 2016.)(Image: Khalid Qasim, Untitled [Fins in the Ocean], 2016.)

I was indeed the Other. I might misinterpret and misrepresent, but so undoubtedly would anyone else in our world speaking for those artists. And they were incapable of speaking for themselves.

So I added an essay of my own to the catalog, becoming ekphrastic. I pointed out what was movingly missing in their artwork. It wasn't that there weren't people in their paintings. It was that those works had invisible holes where the people should have been. All those unmanned boats, sailing across those open waters, were carrying invisible self-portraits of the artists as they hardly dared to imagine themselves: free. Even when there were no boats, the famously mutable sea served as the perfect disguise. Its winds and waves and rocks represented the all-too-human emotions of the artists without ever making them visible to the censors.

It was, of course, so much less dangerous for me to interpret what they were saying than for them to say it directly. I had held many doors open for my father when I was his amanuensis, running ahead to make sure the path was clear and that there were no surprising flights of stairs. If there were, it was up to me to find a new way.

This is what I wanted to do for the artists. Open doors, scout out paths -- but their choice of doors, their choice of paths, not mine. They had told me they wanted people to see them as human beings and that was the case I tried to make for them.

As it turned out, I evidently succeeded a little too well. After the exhibit opened and received a surprising amount of media attention, the artists' lawyers noticed that the authorities were taking longer and longer to clear artworks to leave Guantánamo. Then, three weeks ago, the Department of Defense declared that all art made at Guantánamo is government property. Detainees reported that their guards then told them any art left behind if they were ever released would be burned and works in their cells deemed "excess" would simply be discarded.

As with so many policy decisions about Guantánamo, the true rationale for this one remains hidden. My guess: the US authorities there were surprised that the artwork they had been scrutinizing so carefully for hidden messages had a unifying one they had missed: that its makers were human beings. Which is precisely the realization the authorities need to stop the rest of us from having if Guantánamo is to remain open.

Categories: News

After a Dizzying Weekend, the White House Is Rattled: What's Next?

Mon, 12/04/2017 - 05:00
 Alex Wong / Getty Images)President Trump approaches members of the media to speak on former national security adviser Michael Flynn's lying to the FBI prior to his Marine One departure from the South Lawn of the White House December 4, 2017, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images)   In these troubling and surreal times, honest journalism is more important than ever. Help us keep real news flowing: Make a donation to Truthout today.

President Trump had quite a week. He lied about his "Access Hollywood" tape, attacked CNN International -- prompting authoritarians all over the globe to follow suit -- made a racist slur in front of Native American war heroes and tweeted out far-right conspiracy websites and anti-Muslim videos, prompting a major diplomatic crisis with America's closest ally. It didn't get any better over the weekend.

The Daily Beast reported that Trump had been worried for a while that former national security adviser Michael Flynn had "turned on him" and that the president was "personally hurt" by the news Flynn was potentially cooperating with the special counsel. When it turned out on Friday that Flynn had agreed to plead guilty to lying to the FBI in exchange for telling the prosecutors everything he knows, Trump pretty much lost it. From the tenor of his tweeting over the weekend, hurt has given way to panic.

He managed to stay quiet through Friday night while he attended several fundraisers in New York to deliver the good news to his fellow multi-millionaires that their massive tax cut was one step closer to fruition -- and collect his commission. As he always says, "To the victors belong the spoils!" But by Saturday it had all obviously become too much and Trump tweeted: "I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!"

It appeared that the staff hastily tweeted a tribute to Rosa Parks and yet another Melania Trump "Christmas at the White House" picture in a vain attempt to make that tweet slide down the timeline, but it was too late. Everyone saw that the president had admitted to something he'd never admitted to before: He already knew Flynn had lied to the FBI when he fired him. Knowing that, Trump took FBI Director James Comey aside the very next day and asked him to go easy on his buddy. That would be known as obstruction of justice.

That tweet sent the White House spinning like a top. At first officials insisted it was a "paraphrase" of the statement White House lawyer Ty Cobb had released the day before. But when reporters went to check, there was nothing like that to paraphrase. Finally, Trump's personal lawyer John Dowd fell on his sword and said he had composed the tweet and made a mistake in the way it was worded. He hadn't meant to say that Trump knew Flynn had lied to the FBI before he fired him.

Normally, if a lawyer made such a mistake they would be fired, particularly if the client was the president of the United States. Moreover, nobody believes that anyone but Trump wrote that tweet, because nobody but him would be stupid enough to think that tweet should be written in the first place. The idea that his lawyer would think it was a good idea to tweet anything about the case is simply absurd. It was a foolish admission, right up there with Trump going on TV with Lester Holt and admitting that he fired Comey over the Russia investigation.

Unfortunately for Trump, Dowd went on to confuse the matter even more by telling The Washington Post that Trump "knew in late January that then-national security adviser Michael Flynn had probably given FBI agents the same inaccurate account he provided to Vice President Pence about a call with the Russian ambassador." In other words, Trump knew that Flynn had lied, since lying to Pence was supposedly the reason he was fired.

More importantly, why in the world would Trump have asked the FBI director to go easy on Flynn if he hadn't known Flynn was in legal trouble? That never made any sense at all. Trump attempted to clean that little matter up on Sunday morning with this tweet:

I never asked Comey to stop investigating Flynn. Just more Fake News covering another Comey lie!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 3, 2017

That, of course, is where this was always headed. It's Comey's word against Trump about what happened when he shooed everyone out of the Oval Office to talk to the FBI Director alone the day after Flynn was fired. Comey took notes and told other members of the Justice Department what happened at the time. We don't know if Trump told anyone. But since Trump lies compulsively, it's going to be tough to make the case that the country should take his word over Comey's -- or anyone's.

What this bizarre episode over the weekend showed was the degree of stress that Trump is under, knowing that Flynn is cooperating. It also reveals the right's bold strategy to save him. Trump only tweeted a few words about Flynn. But he was obviously watching Fox News and issued a flurry of tweets about the counter-narrative that network is launching to discredit the Department of Justice and the FBI.

The idea is that Comey and his cronies covered up Hillary Clinton's crimes because they were against Trump from the beginning. (Yes, I know this doesn't make sense; it's a narrative, not a legal brief.) Trump's allies were helped along with that this weekend when news broke that a high ranking FBI agent, whom Mueller had dismissed last summer because he had sent some anti-Trump texts to his girlfriend, was also involved with the Clinton email case.

House Intelligence Committee chair Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., who has supposedly recused himself from the Russia investigation but is obviously up to his eyeballs in it, has declared war on the Justice Department, saying it isn't cooperating. (The department says it is.) Now Attorney General Jeff Sessions has gotten involved, saying that he will ensure that Justice is operating with integrity.

Trump was very excited about this and posted a series of rambling hysterical tweets claiming that the FBI is "in tatters, the worst in history" but that he will "bring it back to greatness." FBI agents and Department of Justice employees were not amused. Former Attorney General Eric Holder tweeted, "you’ll find integrity and honesty at FBI headquarters and not at 1600 Penn Ave right now."

All this dragging on the FBI is a smokescreen, of course. But it will give the right-wing media and Trump supporters a storyline, and Trump loyalists like Nunes probably hope it will eventually turn up something to give Trump a reason to fire Mueller. It hard to see why they bother. If he wants to do it, he'll do it. After this weekend it feels as though the odds of such an impulsive action just went up. For an innocent man, the president is sure acting rattled.

Categories: News

Trump's Scheme to Tie Up a Weakling Watchdog

Mon, 12/04/2017 - 05:00
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Count Mick Mulvaney as one of the many people Donald Trump has appointed to head up agencies they actively want to destroy.

Back at a 2015 House of Representatives hearing, Mulvaney -- a former congressional representative before Trump appointed him to be the director of the Office of Management and Budget -- made it clear how much he loathes the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

"I don't like the fact that CFPB exists, I'll be perfectly honest with you," Mulvaney said of the agency created after the 2008 Great Recession to act as a consumer watchdog overseeing the practices of banks, credit unions, pay-day lenders, mortgage and foreclosure services, and other financial companies.

Of course, Mulvaney isn't alone in his feelings about the CFPB. Many in the Washington political establishment, and definitely the Wall Street bosses who back them, dislike even minimal oversight of the financial sector -- so they've been on a mission to destroy the agency since before it was even established.

"Wall Street hates it like the devil hates holy water," said Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin.

Under Trump, the assault on the CFPB has escalated. When its former Director Richard Cordray announced his resignation and then departed earlier than anticipated from his position in late November, it opened the door for Trump to try to ram through Mulvaney's appointment as director.

The idea was that Mulvaney could do what so many other Trump appointees have excelled at: aim a wrecking ball at a government agency.

In a statement, Teddy Kỳ-Nam Miller, the economic equity director of the Greenlining Institute, predicted that "Mulvaney will be as big a gift to Wall Street grifters as Scott Pruitt has been to polluters."

***

It's not clear that Trump has the power to simply appoint Mulvaney to head up the CFPB -- though, as usual, he is insisting he can do whatever he wants.

A dispute over presidential powers left the CFPB with two possible directors as this story was being written: Trump's pick Mulvaney, and Leandra English, who Cordray named as the CFPB's deputy director before he left and who many believe is legally entitled to head the agency.

At least in theory, the CFPB is supposed to be nonpartisan. Established in 2010 as part of the post-Wall Street meltdown legislation known as the Dodd-Frank Act, the CFPB was meant to be a watchdog to protect consumers from the kind of predatory lending practices that helped wreck the economy in 2008 and disproportionately targeted working-class people and minorities.

Cordray's term wasn't due to end until July 2018. Trump tried to use the opportunity to install Mulvaney -- despite the fact that architects of Dodd-Frank Act say the law provides the CFPB with its own internal mechanism for succession in the event of a vacancy before the end of a director's five-year term. With that in mind, Cordray appointed English as deputy director, expecting she would then become the acting director in his absence.

The struggle for control led to both Mulvaney and English declaring they were the agency's director at the start of this week. On Monday, English sent a memo to CFPB employees as the "acting director" -- countered two hours later by one from Mulvaney, in which he directed employees to "disregard any instructions you receive from Ms. English in her presumed capacity as acting director."

As this article was being written, Trump had won the first battle in the courts, with -- surprise! -- a Trump nominee, Federal District Court Judge Timothy Kelly, refusing a request from English for a restraining order to block Mulvaney's appointment.

***

Make no mistake: The Republicans and Wall Street would love to see the CFPB completely defanged -- and they harbored a particular hatred for Cordray, as the New York Times reported:

Mr. Cordray's critics were quick to cheer his departure. Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas, the Republican chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, called the bureau a "rogue agency" that is "long overdue for new leadership."

Mr. Cordray has been a whipping boy on Capitol Hill for years -- Congress called him to testify nearly 30 times -- but in recent months he also came under attack from other federal agencies. In one case, the Justice Department sided with a mortgage lender that questioned the agency's constitutionality.

The CPFB has had some modest successes -- which is why Wall Street and their political backers hate it. While Cordray was director, the CFPB was able to win "$12 billion in refunds and canceled debts for 29 million consumers," the Times reported. "It cracked down on abusive debt collectors, strengthened protections for mortgage borrowers and created a complaints system that helped hundreds of thousands of people resolve disputes with financial companies."

But the CFPB's successes are overshadowed by the many ways that it was -- along with other portions of Dodd-Frank -- deliberately designed to not be effective at holding large Wall Street firms accountable.

While $12 billion in refunds might seem like a lot, one 2014 estimate by three Federal Reserve Bank economists found that the total cost of the Great Recession bailout of Wall Street would end being between $6 trillion and $14 trillion -- all of it borne by taxpayers.

That's $19,000 to 45,000 per American to bail out banks that were deemed "too big to fail" -- even as millions lost their homes or ended up underwater on their mortgages.

In the specific case of the CFPB, Dodd-Frank limited the agency's effectiveness by putting what the Consumer Federation of America called "a number of unprecedented controls" on its authority -- such as requiring an annual audit; making its actions subject to judicial review; allowing other agencies to petition to veto CFPB rules; and including a cap on its budget, something that no other government financial regulator is subject to.

***

The focus now on the legal question of who should succeed Cordray obscures a larger issue: that the CPFB, as well as the other post-recession "reforms" passed as part of Dodd-Frank, were largely toothless to begin with -- window dressing to allow Democrats in particular to talk about bringing large banks to heel, while never doing much to threaten the power or profits of Wall Street.

A 2012 Rolling Stone report titled "How Wall Street Killed Financial Reform" reported that:

many of the new regulatory concepts survived in the final bill, [but] most of them wound up whittled down to such an extreme degree that they were barely recognizable in the end...[T]he Consumer Financial Protection Bureau...went from being a powerful, independent agency run by Elizabeth Warren to a smaller bureau within the Federal Reserve System run by -- well, anyone but Elizabeth Warren.

As Christopher Baum noted in Socialist Worker last March:

Dodd-Frank limited the scope and effectiveness of its activities by explicitly capping the bureau's annual budget -- uniquely among bank regulators -- and imposing substantial burdens, some of them also unique, on its rulemaking process. The CFPB's regulations can also be blocked by the interagency Financial Services Oversight Council, if that body decides they are a threat to financial stability.

Or Congress can block them -- as it did recently when the CFPB proposed, after five years of study, measures to stop financial institutions from forcing consumers into arbitration, allowing banks to hide fraudulent practices with non-disclosure orders, as in the recent case of Wells Fargo and its creation of fake accounts.

Despite widespread support for the CFPB's proposal to allow consumers to refuse arbitration, Congress came down squarely on the side of the banks.

None of this, of course, is to say that Trump's push to dismantle the CFPB doesn't matter. Every instance in which his administration is able to get its way and his political hacks are able to bulldoze their way through government agencies or tear up regulations only strengthens the administration's hand, while harming ordinary people.

At a time when Washington is poised to pass a massive tax giveaway to the wealthy, the attack on the CFPB is one more slap in the face to working people -- one that again exposes the lie at the heart of Trump's supposed "economic populism."

Categories: News

Tax Cuts Boost Growth and Other Things They Tell Children

Mon, 12/04/2017 - 05:00
 Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call)Speaker Paul Ryan greets Rep. Virginia Foxx during a news conference in the Capitol after the House passed the the GOP's tax reform bill on November 16, 2017. (Photo: Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call)   Who are the powerful funders behind Truthout? Our readers! Help us publish more stories like this one by making a tax-deductible donation.

It is a bit incredible that we are again being told that tax cuts directed primarily toward the wealthy will create a surge of investment and growth, thereby benefitting everyone. The Republicans may have the power to push their tax cut through Congress, but the claim that ordinary workers will benefit is not the sort of thing that serious people should take seriously.

The GOP's basic story is that a cut in the corporate income tax will lead to a huge burst of investment. More investment will lead to gains in productivity, which will allow workers to have higher pay.

There are theoretical models that show this sort of result. But there are also all sorts of assumptions in these models that clearly do not correspond to the real world.

In these models, investment is highly responsive to changes in the after-tax profit rate. But we know this is not the case in the real world. This is demonstrated most immediately by the fact that investment is currently relatively weak.

The real world conflicts with these models since the after-tax profit rate has soared in the last 15 years as the before-tax profit share of income hit its highest level in 50 years. (In the models, investment doesn't care if the after-tax profit rate goes up because of lower taxes or higher before-tax profits.) If a surge in profit rates due to higher before-tax profits didn't lead to an investment boom, why would anyone think that a further increase in profit rates due to lower taxes would spur investment?

We also have tried this tax cut scheme before in the recent past. The 1986 tax reform lowered the tax rate on corporate profits from 46 percent to 35 percent. This is roughly the same size as the current proposed cut. Investment actually fell over the next two years, and even six years out it was less than 10 percent higher, translating into a dismal 1.6 percent annual growth rate.

But President Trump and the Republicans in Congress want us to ignore the evidence, to pay no attention to recent history, and to trust them on this. Okay, more realistically they don't give a damn what the public thinks because the rich campaign contributors, who will be the primary beneficiaries of this tax cut, own enough members of Congress to get it through.

While it is silly to imagine that this tax cut will lead to a surge of growth, there is another possible scenario that is being entirely missed in the debate over the tax cut. Economic growth may be picking up for reasons having nothing to do with the tax cut.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is projecting weak growth of just 1.8 percent over the next decade. That compares to an average of 3.5 percent over the 60 years prior to the collapse in 2008.

Part of the reason for the weaker projected growth is the expectation of slower labor force growth. The main factor here is demographics; the baby boomers are now retiring. There is little likelihood the demographic story will change substantially unless we were to see a big increase in immigration.

However, the other part of the story is productivity growth. The CBO projects that productivity growth will remain close to the 1.0 percent annual rate of the last decade, as opposed to being near the 2.0 percent average for the prior 60 years.

That could be right, but it is also possible that productivity growth will bounce back to something closer to its longer-term average. Productivity growth was over 3.0 percent in the third quarter and it is on track to be close to 2.0 percent in the fourth quarter.

Productivity data are notoriously erratic, but it is certainly possible that we are witnessing the beginning of an uptick in the growth rate. If that proves to be the case, then the projections of large deficits from the tax cut will turn out not to be true. The more rapid growth will mean more tax revenue and less money paid out for transfer programs like food stamps and unemployment insurance.

In this respect, it is worth noting that CBO's ability to predict turning points in productivity has been close to zero. It completely missed the huge upturn in productivity growth in 1995, from less than 1.5 percent annually to almost 3.0 percent. It also completely missed the falloff in rates of close to 1.0 percent in the years after 2005.

Given this track record, it is absurd that people would confidently proclaim that the economy cannot grow faster than 1.8 percent. The people who know anything about economics know that we have very little basis for confidence in such predictions.

This is not an argument for tax cuts targeted for the rich; it is the exact opposite. We already are seeing low unemployment and a tightening labor market. As a result, workers up and down the wage ladder are seeing respectable growth in wages.

There is also evidence that the tighter labor market is leading to faster productivity growth, as companies attempt to economize on labor. In this context, what possible purpose can be served by having a tax cut targeted to rich people, except, of course, making the rich richer. 

Categories: News

When ICE Strikes, Volunteers Hope to Be There to Help Immigrants

Mon, 12/04/2017 - 05:00

In a small back room at Victory in Praise, a predominantly African American church in California, community organizer Arturo Palato gathered a disparate group of citizens. Palato's mission: Convince these people that they have a crucial role to play when immigration authorities come to round up their neighbors. The "rapid response" training program was one of a half-dozen being carried out by Faith in the Valley, an interfaith nonprofit that is seeking ways legal residents and citizens can respond if massive roundups and deportations begin.

 Peg Hunter)Activists display signs in the May Day march in San Francisco, California, on May 1, 2017. (Photo: Peg Hunter)   Nonprofit, independent news outlets like Truthout are critical to countering the mainstream media narrative. Help get the real stories out by supporting Truthout with a tax-deductible donation.

This story was originally published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at revealnews.org/podcast.

In a small back room at Victory in Praise, a predominantly African American church in this Central Valley city, community organizer Arturo Palato assessed his troops. The gathering included a teacher, a social worker, a salesman and a student -- about a dozen in all.

Palato's mission: Convince this disparate crew that they have a crucial role to play when immigration authorities come to round up their neighbors. Take notes. Take photos. And provide key eyewitness accounts if something goes awry.

"We cannot stop ICE from doing what they do," said Curtis Smith, a local pastor and community organizer, as he warned the volunteers not to interfere with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "But we can offer support so that people know they can count on their community to show up in their time of need."

The "rapid response" training program was one of a half-dozen being carried out this fall by Faith in the Valley, an interfaith nonprofit in California's Central Valley that is seeking ways legal residents and citizens can respond if massive roundups and deportations begin. The programs have attracted about 150 volunteers who are signing up to manage distress calls, show up where ICE is conducting roundups and help children who are left behind.

Similar volunteer squads are being organized across the country, including in Virginia, Colorado and Massachusetts. But California's effort promises to be among the largest and most sophisticated, in part because of sheer numbers. It is the state with the most people thought to be living without authorization in the United States: more than 2 million. The Central Valley, with more than 300 varieties of crops that need to be harvested to feed the nation and beyond, is one clear magnet for them.

And even in California, where the governor recently signed a law to discourage law enforcement cooperation with ICE, the impact of Trump administration policies will be felt as federal immigrant assistance programs are cut. That's where grassroots efforts such as the rapid response program come in.

Sukaina Hussain, who teamed with Palato at Victory in Praise, spoke in a rapid cadence to the prospective volunteers, as if to underscore her message: Speed is crucial. She told the story of a man who recently was picked up by ICE in Merced and within a few hours transferred to Fresno, then Bakersfield.

"We called our colleagues in Bakersfield, and by the time they got there, they had already signed deportation orders," Hussain said. The man who was detained, she said, "did not know what to do." And the responders? "All we could do was bring him his clothing."

Faith in the Valley has been working for the past six months to set up the rapid response system.

The effort -- funded by member congregations, individuals and foundations such as the California Endowment, Catholic Campaign for Human Development and Sierra Health Foundation -- is built on a network of volunteers who are contacted via text message. They agree to show up at an ICE raid at a moment's notice to take names, notes and photos to track authorities' actions and find out where the arrested are being sent. Then they can try to send legal help.

So far, the system has been used only once, before the cellphone dispatching was set up. Amanda Peterson, who teaches at Sunnyside High School in Fresno, got a Facebook message from a student that ICE was at a nearby grocery store. She called the emergency number Faith in the Valley had provided and went to see what was happening herself.

"I cruised the parking lot to look for government cars and talked to the manager," she said.

It turned out the ICE officers had gone to the store to get groceries. But Peterson said it was a good test run.

Juan Schwanker, who offer various types of support, including legal aid, to troubled youths at Fathers & Families of San Joaquin, attended the training session at Victory in Praise. He was planning to take part in additional online training to become a dispatcher.

"It seems that the administration agenda is to make folks of different ethnic backgrounds and beliefs feel uncomfortable," he said to the group.

It is making him uncomfortable, too.

"I don't like seeing children being scared," he said. "They come to America, where they have the possibility of seeing their dreams come true. That seems like a distant reality now."

That fear is weighing on many people living in the US without authorization. In the first six months of 2017, there was a steady increase in ICE arrests of those who had no criminal record in the US beyond entry without authorization, federal data show.

The California Assembly recently passed a group of bills aimed at protecting such immigrants and discouraging police cooperation with ICE unless the person ICE is seeking has a substantial criminal record. Many state officials have sparred openly with the Trump administration about its approach.

"These are uncertain times for undocumented Californians and their families," Gov. Jerry Brown said in a statement when he signed one of the laws discouraging information sharing with ICE. "And this bill strikes a balance that will protect public safety, while bringing a measure of comfort to those families who are now living in fear every day."

Groups such as Faith in the Valley hope to do just that. However, these types of volunteer assistance programs soon might face new challenges, as the Trump administration is using several methods to try to restrict immigration and those who offer assistance, including legal aid to immigrants.

Immigration policies quietly restricted Ada Muniz attends a rapid response training program at Victory in Praise in Stockton, Calif. The programs have attracted about 150 volunteers in California's Central Valley. Credit: Miranda S. Spivack for Reveal

While Congress and the Trump administration have yet to begin serious negotiations about immigration, officials already have taken several steps to slow the flow of immigrants.

Media attention has focused on the flashpoints: raids outside churches and detentions of parents without their children, of sick children, of people who have lived in their communities for decades, and of a teenager who sought an abortion and had just crossed the border.

But many details of the more sweeping threats by the Trump administration have been ignored or their significance underestimated. Those plans are hiding in plain sight and portend a broader series of anti-immigrant actions in the next few months, whether or not the administration and Congress change the laws.

The Trump administration recently said it is ending a program that helped fund lawyers who provide assistance to children who cross the border illegally without an adult. The Trump tax overhaul proposal recommends removing the deduction undocumented parents can take for each child, even if the children are US citizens.

The Department of Homeland Security, ICE's parent agency, quietly announced another significant policy change in the Federal Register on Aug. 16. It will end a program that aided thousands of children who arrived at the border after traveling on their own from Central America. Many of those children already had been approved to enter the US because an adult with legal status awaited them here.

This move, said Wendy Young -- president of Kids in Need of Defense -- left as many as 2,700 children and family members "trapped in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala."

The newest target is longtime residents who have lived legally in the US under a program known as Temporary Protected Status. In the next few months, the clock is ticking for a large group of immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

Haitian visa holders, for instance, were cautioned by federal authorities "to prepare for their return to Haiti in the event Haiti's designation is not extended again." In November, the administration made it official: It is ending the program for Haitians and Nicaraguans. The administration already had announced it would end the program for the Sudanese.

The administration's moves have sent chills through the grower community, as well as the hospitality and construction industries. So far, though, there has been no movement in the Trump administration to pressure employers -- just the workers.

However, employers are beginning to look at other hiring methods. Labor Department data show that in the first three months of 2017, farmers filed more than 4,400 applications to hire more than 69,000 guest workers through the H-2A visa program for temporary laborers. That was up by more than a third since last year.

At Victory in Praise, as the rapid response team was beginning to take shape, Schwanker saw the effort's potential.

"Everybody should bring in another person and then another person," he said. "We are going to have a big, strong train to have safety measures in place to protect our folks."

And then he frowned. There really is no choice, he said.

"I have never seen it so bad in my lifetime."

Categories: News

Keeping US Education Segregated Is a Highly Profitable Business for Some

Sun, 12/03/2017 - 05:00

The US has a long history of educating economically vulnerable children in completely different ways than children who are wealthy, says Noliwe Rooks, author of Cutting School. The racial and economic segregation of schools is actually a lucrative business for companies that create these separate and unequal educational experiments with taxpayer funds and very little oversight, she explains.

 Paul Marotta / Getty Images)Protesters demonstrate as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on "A Conversation On Empowering Parents" on September 28, 2017, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. DeVos was met by protesters both outside the venue and inside during her remarks. (Photo: Paul Marotta / Getty Images)

Why are schools in the United States more segregated than they have been since the mid-20th century? In Cutting School, a book that Naomi Klein calls "astounding" and Bill Ayers calls "smart" and "wise," Noliwe Rooks delivers a timely indictment of the corporate takeover and dismantling of public education. Order your copy today by making a donation to Truthout!

Noliwe Rooks argues that educational apartheid has existed throughout the history of the United States, and continues to this day. Not only is this segregated education an abomination, but it also has been a revenue source for white school districts, entrepreneurs and even philanthropy. Rooks sees hope for change in the resistance of young students who are demanding accountability.

Mark Karlin: How has "educational apartheid" changed, and how is it still the same in the United States?

Noliwe Rooks: When I first thought about writing Cutting School I planned to begin in the 21st century. I knew that the racial and economic segregation I was seeing in this century wasn't new, but I thought that the role that philanthropies, corporations, business leaders and politicians played -- in shaping how and why so many of our children today attend schools that are overwhelmingly segregated and that deliver idiosyncratic, often experimental educational forms that are very different from those wealthy students enjoy, and with teachers and curriculum and disciplinary methods that could only be found in poor schools -- was somehow a sign of our particular time. I didn't understand that there was a disturbing continuity.

 Cornell Marketing)Noliwe Rooks. (Photo: Cornell Marketing)However, as I completed the research and writing for the book, I found that in this country we have had and continue to have a stubborn insistence on educating children who are economically vulnerable in completely different ways than we do the children who are wealthy. We try to convince students who are not wealthy that certain forms of education (such as those that are vocational in nature, or that include art, music and support for different learning styles) would work best for them. In this way, educational apartheid has remained constant.

At the same time, children of color, or poor children who are somehow able to live in school districts and neighborhoods that have high performing schools can actually attend them. So, that's a definite change. The late poet, Amiri Baraka, referred to [the US] as a "changing same." I think in many ways that construct aptly describes our nation's educational system relative to students who are poor and of color. Educational apartheid is a changing same.

How is capitalism related to the "segrenomics" of education in the US?

Segrenomics is a term I came up with to describe what I saw in so many discrete educational periods in [the US] where there was a consistent cycle for plundering funds supposedly for our nation's most vulnerable students and then hoarding those same funds to educate students who were either wealthy, or white and often times ... both.

I began to see that the separately unequal educations that define our nation were not merely the product of an apartheid imagination designed to educate different segments of our society into what a scholar named Horace Mann Bond termed the American social order, but was also a lucrative business model that from the 19th century on has aided the financial bottom lines of wealthy businesses. Looked at with that understanding, I began to see that the thicket of separate and unequal educational experiments described in the book (vouchers, charter schools, alternatively certified teachers and superintendents), many of which failed to educate the children they were created for, simply would not have been proposed if there was no money to be made from them.

Segrenomics explains how high levels of racial and economic segregation become a business strategy for companies providing educational strategies designed for children who are poor. It is a specific form of capitalism that relies on segregation to do its work.

In what way does this play itself out in white philanthropy and Black education?

Since the earliest days of taxpayer-supported public education, there have been white foundations and philanthropic organizations that in the south joined with white elected officials to propose schools that offered unequal educations (although in the context of a situation where education is either separate or nonexistent, many people in poor communities will choose separate every single time).

"The folks running these foundations may think they are doing good in the world but often they are segregation's bankers."

One of the most impactful was called the Rosenwald Fund and was started by the child of Jewish immigrants who rose to become the president of Sears, Roebuck [and Company]. His name was Julius Rosenwald. Rosenwald used his fortune to aid in building over 5,000 schools for Black children in the rural south between 1912 and 1960 when the Fund ran out of money.

The Fund was a matching grant and the way it worked was, if a community wanted to apply to the Rosenwald Fund for support they first, as a community, had to raise $500. Then they had to find land on which to build the school and often had to deed that land to county educational officials. Then the community, many of whom were often sharecroppers, had to find the wood and other materials to build the school. Then they had to find the labor to do the work of building the schools.

Once all of that was done, the Rosenwald Fund would contribute the $500 in matching grant fees. County educational officials benefited financially because they got the deed to [the] land. The philanthropy benefited because, starting in 1917, there were huge financial benefits for charitable deductions. State coffers benefited because Black communities were often required to pay an extra tax to educate their children (many former slaveholding states forbade using "white" tax dollars to educate Black children so those communities had to pay to educate white children and then again to educate their own).

The only reason any of this was necessary was because white legislatures simply didn't want to spend the federal money sent South to educate Black children. They took it for the education of white children.

Today, we see deep-pocketed foundations continue this pattern, in that they will fund 90/90/90 charter school chains (schools with 90 percent students of color, 90 percent students who fall below federal poverty levels and 90 percent failing to meet educational standards), contribute to Teach for America (which often charges highly segregated school systems a finder's fee of between $2,000-$5,000 per teacher to provide it with teachers), or fund experiments with educational vouchers that often enrich middle and upper middle class white parents at the same time that they disadvantage low-income students of color. The folks running these foundations may think they are doing good in the world but often they are segregation's bankers.

Where does the wrecking ball to public education, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, fit in this current privatization of public education?

The first point I want to make about Betsy DeVos is that she holds extreme versions of educational views that are centrist in terms of what billionaires, millionaires and the political and financial elite believe. She is extreme in that she does not believe in "government schools" as she calls them and thinks that the government should just give parents educational dollars for them to go off and find whatever type of educational experience they think is best for their kids. She literally doesn't believe in the educational system that she was installed to run, or perhaps dismantle, depending on how you want to look at it.

She's extreme in that, but in general, elected officials are sort of on this educational spectrum and believe we should make it easier for lightly regulated educational businesses to take a bigger and bigger share of the $500-$600 billion-dollar educational market, which is comprised of taxpayer funds often with very little oversight. Schools almost function like ATM machines for folks who have figured out how to use them that way. We have not heard Betsy DeVos offer any type of critique at all about what is often just outright theft.

"All over the country young people are demanding more from their educational experiences. They are winning."

Taken as a whole, the education system is comprised of a majority of students who are of color and fall below federal set poverty levels. Those then are the students most negatively impacted by DeVos' failure of oversight.

Describe your concept of "stealing school."

Over the past five or so years, we have seen a real uptick in the numbers of parents who are trying to escape their public-school systems, which are populated with low-performing charter schools and dysfunctional and low-achieving traditional public schools. What they do is enroll their children in higher-performing schools outside of their districts using the addresses of friends or family. Many districts across the country have begun to hire private investigators to surveil their students and when they discover that the students are enrolled in schools outside of the district in which they live, they are arresting the parents and charging them with educational theft, or stealing school.

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The dollar figures involved often make these charges felonies and so when convicted, these parents are faced with felony convictions on their records that can preclude them from voting, and make it more difficult for them to get jobs. When wealthy parents are caught doing the same thing, they are never sent to jail. This is one of the ways that we can really see how education has become a commodity. We are willing to send parents to jail for wanting the same type of education for their kids as wealthy parents get. We simply do not believe that economically vulnerable children deserve the same type of education.

What should we be aiming for in terms of resistance?

One of the things that I learned writing this book is that all over the country young people are demanding more from their educational experiences. They are winning. They are pushing back against abusive disciplinary practices, against overtesting and against narrowing educational practices and experimental educational forms.

I end the book with the life stories of two of my former students (one from Princeton, another from Cornell) who went into the business of education following their graduations from college. Their words and experiences end the book, not mine. They believe communities need to be consulted about the education of their children and not have outsiders come in and make top-down decisions. They believe that teaching children about politics, sexism, racism and identity is as important for children of color in struggling schools as is science and math. They believe that children always need to be treated with respect -- and that how we discipline in schools matters as much as if and why we discipline. I think that resistance looks like us following where these young people want to lead us.

Categories: News

Jeff Sessions's Constant Lying Is Being Used to Help the Criminal Defense of the White Cop Who Murdered Walter Scott

Sun, 12/03/2017 - 05:00

 Joe Raedle / Getty Images)People join hands in prayer as they visit a memorial set up on the site where Walter Scott was killed on April 11, 2015, in North Charleston, South Carolina. Scott was killed on April 4 by North Charleston police officer Michael T. Slager after a traffic stop. (Photo: Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

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The execution of Walter Scott by South Carolina police officer Michael Slager was an unambiguous example of racist police abuse. Cell phone footage clearly shows Slager, who is white, pumping eight bullets into the retreating figure of Scott, who was black, as he fled from the officer. The distance between the two at the moment Slager began firing on the unarmed Scott appears to be anywhere from 18 to 20 feet, much too far for Scott to have been any kind of credible danger to the officer. Yet Slager falsely reported that Scott ran at him and attempted to wrestle away his Taser, causing the officer to feel "threatened" and necessitating use of lethal force.

Thanks to the emergence of bystander video proving Slager's story of self-defense was a lie, federal prosecutors have charged the ex-officer with obstruction of justice, which Slager is attempting to beat by relying on the case of another well-known liar: Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Slager's defense team is pointing to Sessions' constantly shifting and contradictory congressional testimony to show that their client suffers from the same condition that makes it so hard for the Trump administration official to remember the truth.

The absurd defense is explained in court papers recently filed by attorneys for Slager, who pleaded guilty to federal charges of violating Scott's civil rights in May. This is basically a last-ditch effort by federal officials to get any jail time for Slager, whom a South Carolina jury refused to convict on charges of murder last year despite an abundance of evidence. The new tack being taken by his legal team is to insist that Slager's falsified description of his encounter with Scott -- which is directly contradicted by cell phone video -- wasn't motivated by self-interest or his desire to avoid jail time. Instead, Slager's lawyers argue, those seeming falsehoods are a natural consequence of the pressure the officer was under. "A Swiss cheese memory is a symptom of stress," Slager's lawyers wrote in court papers, "not an indicator of lying."

They go on to compare Slager's truthiness problem with that of Sessions, who over multiple congressional hearings used the phrase "I don't recall" more than 85 times in response to questions. The attorney general has also backtracked on answers he previously provided under oath, miraculously and quite suddenly remembering details, specifically those that potentially absolve him of guilt, when presented with evidence. After multiple tweaks to his story about Trump campaign officials' contact with Russian operatives, including denials about taking part in a meeting where campaign aide George Papadopoulos had suggested brokering a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin, Sessions newly recalled that he had, in fact, been involved in the meeting after his memory was rejiggered by "news reports."

"I do now recall the March 2016 meeting at Trump Hotel that Mr. Papadopoulos attended, but I have no clear recollection of the details of what he said at that meeting," Sessions told the House Judiciary Committee in November. "After reading his account, and to the best of my recollection, I believe that I wanted to make clear to him that he was not authorized to represent the campaign with the Russian government, or any other foreign government, for that matter."

It's curious that Sessions, as writer Eric Levitz notes, "has no clear memory of the meeting, but has a vivid recollection of behaving admirably during it." Despite the sheer unbelievability of his ever-changing testimony, the attorney general insisted his new insights weren't straight-up textbook perjury, but an honest failure to retain information, which seems like a problematic issue for a man who heads a department dedicated to getting the facts straight.

"I will not accept and reject accusations that I have ever lied," Session explained during a November hearing, chalking at least some of his forgetfulness up to the hectic pace of the Trump campaign, "a form of chaos every day from day one." Sessions added that his "story has never changed. I've always told the truth. And I've answered every question to the best of my recollection and I will continue to do so today."

Slager's lawyers are now seizing on that claim for their own client, essentially stating that if Sessions wants us to believe the nonstop speed of the campaign trail served as a mind eraser, murdering a man in cold blood would be at least as hard on one's ability to remember events with clarity. His defense team wrote:

Unlike Slager, who had been in what he perceived as a life and death struggle before he made his statements, Sessions had time to prepare for his congressional testimony, yet still often got it wrong. Why? According to Sessions, he was working in chaotic conditions created by the Trump campaign. This was undoubtedly stressful, though not as stressful as having shot a man to death, or dealing with the aftermath of that, or facing the death penalty or life in prison. As Sessions made clear in his statement, a failure to recall, or an inaccurate recollection, does not a liar make.

America's criminal justice system has always been something of a joke for black folks, who are consistently denied a presumption of innocence, fairness in sentencing or equal treatment under the law. Black victims of crime rarely receive justice, and when those crimes -- including unjustifiable murder -- are committed by cops, punitive action is the exception to the rule. But in Slager's "Sessions defense," we see the consequence of having a division charged with pursuing truth be led by a liar whose dishonesty is so transparent he serves as fodder for late-night talk show monologues and comedy skits.

Michelle Mark, writing at Business Insider, notes that Slager's defense is "somewhat of a taunt to the Justice Department" tasked with handling his prosecution. Each time DOJ officials "call Slager a liar, they could risk appearing to call Sessions, the head of their department, a liar."

While the Trump administration simultaneously talks out of one side of its mouth about its commitment to "law and order," it's become so renowned for its baldfaced lies that criminals can now almost dare it to challenge their own made-up stories. A top-down system of liars, led by a president who spews deception anytime his lips are moving, creates an environment where the very concept of truth is murky and elusive. It's horrifying enough that the DOJ is being transformed by Sessions et al. to achieve his own anti-black and brown political and ideological agenda. The Trump campaign's dedication to establishing its own alternative truth holds genuinely terrifying implications for the future, and even less hope of justice, particularly for the already marginalized.

"Like Sessions, Slager never lied or misled anyone," defense attorneys note in court files. "Like Sessions, he answered the questions that were asked. When he had his memory refreshed, he added the refreshed recollection to his testimony. When he failed to remember certain items, it can be attributed to the stress or chaos of the event during which the memory should have been formed."

The documents include examples from Sessions' sworn testimony of moments when his memory supposedly failed him. Those citations, defense lawyers indicate, show just how much Slager and Sessions have in common. They're basically -- I'm paraphrasing here -- two lying, racist peas in a pod. "The text…[is] particularly apropos to describe memory's imperfections," the court papers note, "and, in fact, could have been spoken by Slager himself."

Categories: News

White House May Share Nuclear Power Technology With Saudi Arabia

Sun, 12/03/2017 - 05:00

 Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images)President Trump makes his way to board Air Force One in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as he heads with the first lady to Israel on May 22, 2017. (Photo: Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images)

The Trump administration is holding talks on providing nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia -- a move that critics say could upend decades of US policy and lead to an arms race in the Middle East.

The Saudi government wants nuclear power to free up more oil for export, but current and former American officials suspect the country's leaders also want to keep up with the enrichment capabilities of their rival, Iran.

Saudi Arabia needs approval from the US in order to receive sensitive American technology. Past negotiations broke down because the Saudi government wouldn't commit to certain safeguards against eventually using the technology for weapons.

Now the Trump administration has reopened those talks and might not insist on the same precautions. At a Senate hearing on Nov. 28, Christopher Ford, the National Security Council's senior director for weapons of mass destruction and counterproliferation, disclosed that the US is discussing the issue with the Saudi government. He called the safeguards a "desired outcome" but didn't commit to them.

Abandoning the safeguards would set up a showdown with powerful skeptics in Congress. "It could be a hell of a fight," one senior Democratic congressional aide said.

The idea of sharing nuclear technology with Saudi Arabia took an unlikely path to the highest levels of government. An eccentric inventor and a murky group of retired military brass -- most of them with plenty of medals but no experience in commercial nuclear energy -- have peddled various incarnations of the plan for years.

Many US officials didn't think the idea was serious, reputable or in the national interest. "It smelled so bad I said I never wanted to be anywhere close to that," one former White House official said. But the proponents persisted, and finally found an opening in the chaotic early days of the Trump administration, when advisers Michael Flynn and Tom Barrack championed the idea.

***

The Saudis have a legitimate reason to want nuclear power: Their domestic energy demand is growing rapidly, and burning crude oil is an expensive and inefficient way to generate electricity.

There's also an obvious political motive. Many experts believe the Saudis aren't currently trying to develop a nuclear bomb but want to lay the groundwork to do so in case Iran develops one. "There's no question: Why do you have a nuclear reactor in the Persian Gulf? Because you want to have some kind of nuclear contingency capability," said Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

A Saudi spokesperson provided a written statement noting that the country's electricity needs have grown "due to our population and industrial growth." The statement noted that "The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, hence is diversifying its energy mix to serve its domestic needs in accordance with international laws and standards. The Kingdom has been actively exploring diverse energy sources for nearly the last decade to meet growing domestic demand."

The technology for nuclear weapons is different from that for nuclear energy, but there is some overlap. The fuel for a power plant can be used for a bomb if it's enriched to a much higher level. Also, the waste from a power plant can be reprocessed into weapons grade material. That's why nonproliferation experts generally prefer that countries that use nuclear power buy fuel on the international market instead of doing their own enrichment and reprocessing.

In 2008, the Saudi government made a nonbinding commitment not to pursue enrichment and reprocessing. They then entered negotiations with the US for a pact on peaceful nuclear cooperation, known as a 123 agreement, after a section of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. A 123 agreement is a prerequisite for receiving American technology.

The talks stalled a few years later because the Saudi government backed away from its pledge not to pursue enrichment and reprocessing, according to current and former officials. "They wouldn't commit, and it was a sticking point," said Max Bergmann, a former special assistant to the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security at the time those negotiations occurred.

US officials feared a domino effect. Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt restrict those countries from receiving the most sensitive technologies unless the US allows them in another Middle Eastern country. "If we accepted that from the Saudis, nobody else will give us legally binding commitment," a former State Department official said.

During that same period, the Obama administration was pursuing an agreement to stop Iran's progress toward building a nuclear bomb while letting the country keep some domestic enrichment capabilities it had already achieved. The Saudi government publicly supported the Iran deal but privately made clear they wanted to match Iran's technology. A former official summarized the Saudi position as, "We're going to develop this kind of technology if they have this kind of technology."

The Obama administration held firm with the Saudis because it's one thing to cap nuclear technology where it already exists, but it's longstanding US policy not to spread the technology to new countries. As Saudi Arabia and Iran -- ideological and religious opponents -- increasingly squared off in a battle for political sway in the Middle East, Republicans argued that the Obama administration had it backwards: It was enshrining hostile Iran's ability to enrich uranium while denying the same to America's ally Saudi Arabia.

***

One such critic of Obama's Iran policy was Michael Flynn, a lieutenant general who was forced out as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014. Flynn quickly took up a variety of consulting assignments and joined some corporate boards. One of the former was an advisory position for a company called ACU Strategic Partners, which, according to a later financial disclosure, paid Flynn more than $5,000.

Flynn was one of many retired military officers whom ACU recruited. ACU's chief was a man named Alex Copson, who is most often described in press accounts as a "colorful British-American dealmaker." Copson reportedly made a fortune inventing a piece of diving equipment, may or may not have been a bass player in the band Iron Butterfly, and has been touting wildly ambitious nuclear-power plans since the 1980s. (He didn't answer repeated requests for comment.)

By 2015, Copson was telling people he had a group of US, European, Arab and Russian companies that would build as many as 40 nuclear reactors in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Copson's company pitched the Obama administration, but officials figured he didn't really have the backers he claimed. "They would say 'We have Rolls-Royce on board,' and then someone would ask Rolls-Royce and they would say, 'No, we took a meeting and nothing happened,'" recalled a then-White House official.

In his role with ACU, Flynn flew to Egypt to convince officials there to hold off on a Russian offer (this one unrelated to ACU) to build nuclear power plants. Flynn tried to persuade the Egyptian government to consider Copson's proposal instead, according to documents released by Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Flynn also tried to persuade the Israeli government to support the plan and spoke at a conference in Saudi Arabia. (The trip would later present legal problems for Flynn because he didn't report contacts with foreign officials on his application to renew his security clearance, according to Cummings. Cummings referred the information to Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Trump's associates and Russia's interference in the 2016 election. Flynn's lawyer declined to comment.)

Copson's outfit eventually splintered. A retired admiral named Michael Hewitt, who was to head up the security services part of the project, struck out on his own in mid-2016. Flynn went with him.

Hewitt's new company is called IP3 International, which is short for "International Peace Power & Prosperity." IP3 signed up other prominent national security alumni including Gens. Keith Alexander, Jack Keane and James Cartwright, former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, Bush Homeland Security adviser Fran Townsend, and Reagan National Security adviser Robert "Bud" McFarlane.

IP3's idea was a variation on ACU's. Hewitt swapped out one notional foreign partner for another (Russia was out, China was in), then later shifted to an all-American approach. That idea resonated with the US nuclear-construction industry, which never recovered from the Three Mile Island disaster in the 1970s and was looking to new markets overseas.

But nuclear exports are tightly controlled because the technology is potentially so dangerous. A 123 agreement is only the first step for a foreign country that wants to employ US nuclear-power technology. In addition, the Energy Department has to approve the transfer of technology related to nuclear reactors and fuel. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses reactor equipment, and the Commerce Department reviews exports for equipment throughout the rest of the power plant.

IP3 -- whose sole project to date is the Saudi nuclear plan -- never went through those normal channels. Instead, the company went straight to the top.

***

At the start of the Trump administration, IP3 found an ally in Tom Barrack, the new president's close friend and informal adviser and an ultra-wealthy investor in his own right. During the campaign, Barrack wrote a series of white papers proposing a new approach to the Middle East in which economic cooperation would theoretically reduce the conditions for breeding terrorism and lead to improved relations.

Barrack wasn't familiar with nuclear power as an option for the Middle East until he heard from Bud McFarlane. McFarlane, 80, is most remembered for his role in the defining scandal of the Reagan years: secretly selling arms to Iran and using the money to support Nicaraguan rebels. He pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress but was pardoned by George H.W. Bush.

Nevertheless, Barrack was dazzled by McFarlane and his IP3 colleagues. "I was like a kid in a candy shop -- these guys were all generals and admirals," Barrack said in an interview. "They found an advocate in me in saying I was keen on trying to establish a realignment of US business interests with the Gulf's business interests."

McFarlane followed up the meeting by emailing Flynn in late January, according to six people who read the message or were told about it. McFarlane attached two documents. One outlined IP3's plan, describing it as consistent with Trump's philosophy. The second was a draft memo for the president to sign that would officially endorse the plan and instruct his cabinet secretaries to implement it. Barrack would take charge of the project as the interagency coordinator. Barrack had discussions about becoming ambassador to Egypt or a special envoy to the Middle East but never committed to such a role. (McFarlane disputed that account but repeatedly declined to specify any inaccuracies. IP3 declined to comment on the memos.)

Flynn, now on the receiving end of IP3's lobbying, told his staff to put together a formal proposal to present to Trump for his signature, according to current and former officials.

The seeming end run sparked alarm. National Security Council staff brought the proposal to the attention of the agency's lawyers, five people said, because they were concerned about the plan and how it was being advanced. Ordinarily, before presenting such a sensitive proposal to the president, NSC staff would consult with experts throughout government about practical and legal concerns. Bypassing those procedures raised the risks that private interests might use the White House to their own advantage, former officials said. "Circumventing that process has the ability not only to invite decisions that aren't fully vetted but that are potentially unwise and have the potential to put our interests and our people at risk," said Ned Price, a former CIA analyst and NSC spokesman.

Even after those concerns were raised, Derek Harvey, then the NSC's senior director for the Middle East, continued discussing the IP3 proposal with Barrack and his representative, Rick Gates, according to two people. Gates, a longtime associate of former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort, worked for Barrack on Trump's inaugural committee and then for Barrack's investment company, Colony NorthStar.

By then, Barrack was no longer considering a government position. Instead, he and Gates were seeking investment ideas based on the administration's Middle East policy. Barrack pondered the notion, for example, of buying a piece of Westinghouse, the bankrupt US manufacturer of nuclear reactors. (Harvey, now on the staff of the House intelligence committee, declined to comment through a spokesman. In October, Mueller charged Manafort and Gates with 12 counts including conspiracy against the US, unregistered foreign lobbying, and money laundering. They both pleaded not guilty. Gates' spokesman didn't answer requests for comment.)

Ultimately, it wasn't the NSC staff's concerns that stalled IP3's momentum. Rather, Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior aide tasked with reviving a Middle East peace process, wanted to table the nuclear question in favor of simpler alliance-building measures with the Saudis, centered on Trump's visit in May, according to a person familiar with the discussions. (A spokesperson for Kushner, asked for comment, had not provided one at the time this article was published; we'll update the article if he provides one later.)

***

In recent months, the proposal has stirred back to life as the Saudi government kicked off a formal process to solicit bids for their first reactors. In October, the Saudis sent a request for information to the US, France, South Korea, Russia and China -- the strongest signal yet that they're serious about nuclear power.

The Saudi solicitation also gave IP3 the problem its solution was searching for. The company pivoted again, narrowing its pitch to organizing a consortium of US companies to compete for the Saudi tender. IP3 won't say which companies it has signed up. IP3 also won't discuss the fees it hopes to receive if it were part of a Saudi nuclear plan, but it's vying to supply cyber and physical site security for the plants. "IP3 has communicated its strategy to multiple government entities and policy makers in both the Obama and Trump administrations," the company said in a statement. "We view these meetings and any documents relating to them as private, and we won't discuss them."

The Saudi steps lit a fire under administration officials. Leading the charge is Rick Perry, the energy secretary who famously proposed eliminating the department and then admitted he didn't understand its function. (It includes dealing with nuclear power and weapons.) Perry had also heard IP3's pitch, a person familiar with the situation said. In September, Perry met with Saudi delegates to an international atomic energy conference and discussed energy cooperation, according to a photo posted on his Facebook page. Perry's spokeswoman didn't answer requests for comment.

Other steps followed. Soon after, a senior State Department official flew to Riyadh to restart formal 123 negotiations, according to an industry source. (A State Department spokeswoman declined to comment.) In November, Energy and State Department officials joined a commercial delegation to Abu Dhabi led by the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's main lobby in Washington. Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Edward McGinnis said the administration wants to revitalize the US nuclear energy industry, including by pursuing exports to Saudi Arabia. The Department of Commerce's International Trade Administration and the Energy Department are organizing another industry visit in December to meet with Saudi officials, according to a notice obtained by ProPublica. And in the days before Thanksgiving, senior US officials from several agencies met at the White House to discuss the policy, according to current and former officials.

The Trump administration hasn't stated a position on whether it will let the Saudis have enrichment and reprocessing technology. An NSC spokesman declined to comment. But administration officials have begun sounding out advisers on how Congress might react to a deal that gives the Saudis enrichment and reprocessing, a person familiar with the discussions said.

Senators have started demanding answers. At the Nov. 28 hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ford, the NSC nonproliferation official who has been nominated to lead the State Department's Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, testified that preliminary talks with the Saudis are underway but declined to discuss the details in public. As noted, Ford wouldn't commit to barring the Saudi government from obtaining enrichment and reprocessing technology. "It remains US policy, as it has been for some time, to seek the strongest possible nonproliferation protections in every instance," he told the senators. "It is not a legal requirement. It is a desired outcome." Ford added that the Iran deal makes it harder to insist on limiting other countries' capabilities.

Sen. Ed Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat who led the questioning of Ford on this topic, seemed highly resistant to the idea of the US helping Saudi Arabia get nuclear technology. "If we continue down this pathway," he said, "then there's a recipe for disaster which we are absolutely creating ourselves." Markey also accused the administration of neglecting its statutory obligation to brief the committee on the negotiations. (The White House declined to comment.)

Any agreement, in this case with Saudi Arabia, would not require Senate approval. However, should an agreement be reached, Congress could kill the deal. The two houses would have 90 days to pass a joint resolution disapproving it. The committee's ranking Democrat, Ben Cardin, suggested they wouldn't accept a deal that lacked the same protections as the ones in the UAE's agreement. "If we don't draw a line in the Middle East, it's going to be all-out proliferation," he said. "We need to maintain the UAE's standards in our 123 agreements. There's just too many other countries that could start proliferating issues that could be against our national interest."

Bob Corker, the committee's chairman, has been a stickler on nonproliferation in the past; he criticized the Obama administration for not being tough enough. Corker isn't running for reelection and has criticized Trump for being immature and reckless in foreign affairs, so he's unlikely to shy away from a fight. (A spokesman declined to comment.) "The absence of a consistent policy weakens our nuclear nonproliferation efforts, and sends a mixed message to those nations we seek to prevent from gaining or enhancing such capability," Corker said at a hearing in 2014. "Which standards can we expect the administration to reach for negotiating new agreements with Jordan or Saudi Arabia?"

Categories: News

There's an Insidious Strategy Behind Donald Trump's Retweets

Sun, 12/03/2017 - 05:00
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On Nov. 29, President Trump retweeted a series of videos that purported to depict violence committed by Muslims. They had originated from the account of a far-right British ultranationalist who had been convicted for harassing a Muslim. The backlash was swift, with British Prime Minister Theresa May saying "the President is wrong to have done this."

But Trump's retweeting of controversial (sometimes outright false) content is part of a pattern.

For example, during the 2016 campaign, George Stephanopoulos asked Donald Trump about his retweet of a follower who insisted that both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were ineligible for the presidency.

"@ResisTyr: Mr.Trump...BOTH Cruz AND Rubio are ineligible to be POTUS! It's a SLAM DUNK CASE!! Check it! https://t.co/NjqWP0pP6X"

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 20, 2016

Trump dismissed Stephanopoulos' question with "it was a retweet" -- as if to say that retweeting someone else's claim meant that he wasn't responsible for the content.

When pressed, Trump continued:

"I mean, let people make their own determination. I've never looked at it, George. I honestly have never looked at it. As somebody said, he's not [eligible]…and I retweet things and we start dialogue and it's very interesting."

It's a response that can be reduced to I'm not saying it, I'm just saying it.

As a scholar of American political rhetoric, I've previously written about the ways that Donald Trump's rhetorical style mirrors that of polarizing figures like George Wallace and Joseph McCarthy.

But it's becoming increasingly clear that what sets Trump apart is his reliance upon paralipsis, a device that enables him to publicly say things that he can later disavow -- without ever having to take responsibility for his words.

Just Saying…

The art of rhetoric -- or persuasive communication -- can include any number of forms: speeches, essays, tweets, images, films and more.

Paralipsis (para, "side" and leipein, "to leave") is a Greek term that translates to "leave to the side." It's thought to be an ironic way for a speaker to say two things at once.

For example, say you wanted to imply that your coworker takes too many coffee breaks without actually accusing him wasting time at work. You might say something like, "I'm not saying that he drinks more coffee than anyone else in the office, but every time I go to the break room, he's in there." You might also shrug and make a "something seems kind of off" facial expression.

Paralipsis is a powerful rhetorical device because it can also allow someone to make a false accusation -- or spread a false rumor -- while skirting consequences.

And Trump has become a master at wielding this tool.

For example, after he was widely condemned for retweeting a graphic of homicide data delineated by race, FactCheck.org found that "almost every figure in the graphic is wrong." His response on the Bill O'Reilly Show was:

Bill, I didn't tweet, I retweeted somebody that was supposedly an expert, and it was also a radio show…am I gonna check every statistic? …All it was is a retweet. And it wasn't from me. It came out of a radio show, and other places…This was a retweet. And it comes from sources that are very credible, what can I tell you?

In other words: I'm not saying, I'm just saying.

Meanwhile, Trump has repeatedly used paralipsis to deflect criticism that he's courting white supremacists.

In January 2016, Trump retweeted a photoshopped image of Jeb Bush from a user with the handle WhiteGenocideTM. In response to the backlash he received for retweeting a white supremacist, Trump simply shrugged: "I don't know about retweeting. You retweet somebody and they turn out to be white supremacists. I know nothing about these groups that are supporting me."

Likewise, he blamed a faulty earpiece for his unwillingness to disavow David Duke and the KKK in a CNN interview:

I don't know anything about what you're even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So I don't know. I don't know -- did he endorse me, or what's going on? Because I know nothing about David Duke; I know nothing about white supremacists.

I'm not saying, I'm just saying.

And when Gawker tricked Trump into retweeting a quote from Benito Mussolini during the campaign, his response was "What difference does it make whether it's Mussolini or somebody else? It's certainly a very interesting quote."

Accountability and Responsibility

Certainly it's a good thing to "start dialogue." Trump knows that "interesting" content attracts retweets, followers, audiences and media attention.

However, there's danger in circulating accusations and rumors, even if the purpose is to "start dialogue." Research shows that once an accusation or a rumor begins to circulate, it's very difficult to retract. Often, a retraction or clarification doesn't receive as much attention as the initial accusation. Meanwhile, the mere act of retracting misinformation can reaffirm the deceptive assertions as facts, even after the clarification.

So what does it mean when a political figure gains a devoted following and rises to prominence -- yet consistently avoids taking responsibility for the content of his public messages?

Political theorists, rhetoricians and historians have grappled with this exact problem since the rise of the "demagogue" in Athens in 429 BC, when Pericles' death created a vacuum for "unofficial" leaders of the people to rise to power.

The danger, according to political scientist Ernest Barker, was that "such a leader -- having no official executive position -- could exercise initiative and determine policy without incurring political responsibility, since it was not his duty to execute the policy which he had induced the assembly to accept."

In the Greek context, Barker described the danger of demagogues who weren't tasked with implementing the policies for which they advocated. In our current political context, Trump can argue that he can't be held accountable because he wasn't the one who originally posted the tweet. He can shrug and claim that he's simply giving a voice to an idea.

In both cases, the defining feature of demagogues is their refusal to accept responsibility for their actions.

Yet Donald Trump (the television star) routinely fired people on his show "The Apprentice" for failing to take responsibility for their team's failures. And he's often given lectures on "responsibility" to his Twitter followers, like on February 14, 2013 when he invited his followers to "take responsibility for yourself -- it's a very empowering attitude."

To use the President's brand of paralipsis: I'm not saying that Trump's a hypocrite and a demagogue. I'm just saying that he doesn't exactly follow his own advice.

Editor's note from The Conversation: This is an updated version of an article first published on March 8, 2016.

The Conversation

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