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The False Case Against "Foreign-Born Terrorists"

Mon, 03/05/2018 - 05:00

 Janko Ferlic)(Photo: Janko Ferlic)

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When you see an immigrant or a foreign visitor, especially from a Muslim country, should your first thought be that you might be looking at a possible terrorist?

Clearly, that's how the Trump administration wants Americans to react. It was the message in the president's first address to Congress a year ago last week when he declared that "the vast majority of individuals convicted of terrorism and terrorism-related offenses since 9/11 came here from outside of our country." At that time, he urged that the US immigration system be reshaped because "we cannot allow a beachhead of terrorism to form inside America."

There's a misleading omission in Trump's formulation, though: homegrown fanatics have killed many more Americans on US soil than foreign-born terrorists have. The disparity grows much wider if you include mass killings carried out not for any religious or ideological cause but (as we have recently been tragically reminded) by mentally troubled individuals. Indeed, in just two such shootings in the last five months in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Parkland, Florida, deranged shooters with assault rifles killed more than three times as many people as all foreign-born jihadists have killed in this country in the last 16 years.

Another key fact is missing, too: only a fairly small number of those "terror-related" convictions were for acts committed or planned in the United States. Many more involved support, in various forms, for terrorist activity in other countries.

Still, Trump and his associates have repeatedly declared that terrorists sneaking into the country through a too-lax immigration system are a pressing threat to public safety in the United States. That was, for instance, the administration's principal headline earlier this year when it released a reportfrom the Justice and Homeland Security departments, which claimed that nearly three out of every four individuals convicted in international terror cases in US federal courts from 9/11 through 2016 were foreign born -- a total of 402, by their count. Announcing that report, Attorney General Jeff Sessions proclaimed that it highlighted the ways in which "our immigration system has undermined our national security and public safety.” In the same press release, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen warned that the United States "cannot continue to rely on immigration policy based on pre-9/11 thinking that leaves us woefully vulnerable to foreign-born terrorists."

Those and a long list of similar statements range from simply misleading to completely false. The deceptions occur in two stages. As a start, the data compiled within government agencies significantly overstate the incidence of Islamist terrorism in this country. Then the president and his associates regularly misrepresent what that already flawed data actually tells us, leaving the truth even farther behind.

"Terror-Related Cases" That Have No Relation to Terrorism 

The basic database on which Trump and his associates rely is the "Chart of Public/Unsealed International Terrorism and Terrorism-Related Convictions." It’s compiled and updated every year by the Justice Department's National Security Division and lists defendants convicted on federal charges in cases since September 11, 2001. Despite its title, the list includes a significant number of cases that are verifiably not terrorism-related and a good many more in which a terrorism connection was not only not proved but remains highly unlikely.

Take Ansar Mahmood's case. It’s far from the only example, but what makes it unusual is that the public record includes an explicit official acknowledgement that terrorism turned out not to be involved.

Mahmood, a 24-year-old legal immigrant from Pakistan, came under suspicion a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks when he was noticed taking photographs at a scenic spot along New York’s Hudson River. A nervous security guard called the police to report that a Muslim-looking man might be taking pictures of a nearby reservoir and water treatment facility.

He was soon picked up, but investigators quickly concluded that he had no connection whatsoever to terrorism. They did, however, turn up evidence that he had registered a car and cosigned an apartment lease for a Pakistani couple who had overstayed their non-immigrant visas and were in the United States illegally. He was quickly charged with "harboring aliens," a deportable offense, and convicted. After a drawn-out appeal process, Mahmood was deported in 2005.

In a letter notifying him that his final appeal to set aside the deportation order had been rejected, William Cleary, a Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement official, wrote: "It was determined that you were not engaged in any terrorist activity and were quickly cleared of any suspicion of terrorist activity." A few lines later, Cleary added a second time, "I am confident you did not engage in terrorist activity, you have never been charged as a terrorist or accused as being a terrorist."

There could hardly be more conclusive evidence that Mahmood's case had nothing to do with terrorism. Yet, years later, his name still appears on that Justice Department list of "Terrorism and Terrorism-Related Convictions." His two friends, also deported after being found guilty of visa violations and obtaining false IDs, are on the list, too, although there was absolutely no suggestion of any terror connection in their cases, either.

Nor are these isolated examples. Others on the conviction list who clearly were not terrorists include three Arab Americans, at least two of them naturalized US citizens, convicted for buying a truckload of stolen breakfast cereal, and a group of 20 defendants, predominantly Iraqis, found guilty in a scheme to fraudulently obtain commercial driver’s licenses and permits to transport hazardous material. There are also cases involving defendants convicted for false marriage claims, foreign students who illegally got jobs in violation of student visa rules, a young man from Saudi Arabia who stored child pornography on his computer, and various others where the record shows no mention of any terrorist link.

Even the most dangerous sounding of these, the one involving hazardous-material permits, may sound ominous, but the scam itself occurred in the 1990s, well before the 9/11 attacks, and prosecutors made it clear that there was no link with terrorism. So did the trial judge, who said he could not "characterize this as a successful prosecution of a terrorism case, because it was not."

None of the 20 defendants who illegally obtained those licenses received any prison time. All were given probation; some paid modest fines. Those sentences would certainly have been far harsher if there had been any genuine suspicion that the defendants might be dangerous. (The driver's license examiner they paid off at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, an American, remains on the "terror-related convictions" list, too.)

Why Are They on the List?

Given the clear evidence that they were never terrorists, why are Mahmood and his friends, as well as those Iraqi truckers and others in similar cases, still officially identified as having been "convicted of terrorism," as the Trump White House has inaccurately characterized everyone named on the Justice Department chart? Or, in the only marginally more careful wording used in the list itself, why are they still guilty of "international terrorism-related offenses"?

The immediate reason is that, like Mahmood, they originally came to the attention of investigators looking for possible terrorist ties. In other words, their cases started out as possible terrorism ones and, under Justice Department procedures, simply remained in that category even when no such ties were found. The broader reason: counting them and others like them that way plays right into the Trump administration's anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and anti-Muslim agenda. It magnifies, falsely, the supposed threat of "foreign nationals" connected with "terrorism-related activity" in the United States.

Setting aside the cases that were clearly not in any way linked to terrorism, there are many more on the chart in which individuals were suspected of ties of some kind to terrorism but were never charged. In those cases, the question is simply left unanswered, but there can be no doubt that some of those suspects, too, were neither terrorists nor supporters of terror movements. In other words, that group similarly inflates the claimed total.

There is another strong hint that many on the Justice Department list are unlikely to have been either terrorists or to have had serious ties to such organizations and it requires no additional research. It's right there on the chart itself in a column listing the sentences that defendants received for their crimes. More than 130 of the offenders on the list (both foreign and US-born), when convicted, were given probation but no prison time at all or were sentenced only to time served before trial. Another 45 were sentenced to one year or less, including several token sentences of one day or, in a single case, a week.

Those light sentences -- for more than a quarter of all the cases on the chart -- certainly seem to indicate that no authority thought the defendants represented a terror threat.

Another Distortion...

Counting cases that have nothing to do with terrorism as "terror-related" isn’t the only way the administration has distorted the facts about immigration and the threat of terrorism. It also counts cases that have nothing to do with immigration.

For example, a White House fact sheet, summarizing the main findings of the January 16th Justice/Homeland Security report, says that 402 foreign-born defendants -- the total given in the report -- all "entered the United States through our immigration system."

That is false. The report doesn’t say that at all. You have to look carefully to find it, but the document explicitly says the opposite, stating that along with those defendants who had at one time or another passed through immigration controls, the 402 foreign-born offenders also include individuals "who were transported to the United States for prosecution." Presumably, some of them were captured overseas by US military or security agencies and some were turned over to the US by a foreign government.

The Justice Department has not disclosed how many such individuals are on the list. The number, however, is apparently substantial. Researchers for the Lawfare Blog, working from an earlier version of the chart, determined that an even 100 defendants (later reduced to 99) "were extradited, or brought, to the United States for prosecution" without going through any immigration procedure. Including those cases as evidence of a lax immigration system is plainly deceptive.

They undercut the Trump administration's anti-immigration narrative in another way, too. Obviously, defendants who were extradited or otherwise brought into the United States for prosecution were more likely than those on the list as a whole to be charged with serious offenses and to receive much stiffer sentences. So adding them to the overall “foreign-born” figure not only gives a false impression of failures in immigration screening, but also inflates the threat that actual immigrants represent.

...and One More

The Trump administration's message about "foreign-born terrorists" and the US immigration system is clear enough: dangerous people are coming into this country to do bad things to Americans. Though you wouldn't guess it from listening to the president or his attorney general and homeland security secretary, a much larger number of cases involved exactly the opposite problem: people leaving the United States, or trying to leave, to do bad things elsewhere.

Only a small minority of the guilty verdicts on the Justice Department's conviction list were for committing or planning violent acts on US soil. Significantly more defendants were tried for supporting terrorism abroad.

The comparison is dramatically clear in an analysis by the Cato Institute's Alex Nowrasteh. Examining an earlier version of the Justice Department's chart of convictions, he discovered that only 40 foreign-born defendants had been found guilty of "planning, attempting, or carrying out a terrorist attack on US soil." More than 200 were, however, convicted for "material support for foreign terrorists, attempting to join foreign terrorist organizations, planning a terrorist attack abroad, or a similar offense taking place abroad." 

The same pattern is evident even in the recent Justice/Homeland Security report, despite all the accompanying dire rhetoric about threats to public safety in America.

The report summarizes eight terror-related cases as "illustrative examples" of crimes by foreign-born offenders. Not one of those crimes caused harm to a person or damage to property in the United States itself. Three of the eight defendants came to the United States as young children. No immigration process, no matter how rigorous, could have screened them out. The same is true of a significant number of others on the Justice Department's list. Just one of the eight defendants -- the only offenders actually identified in the report -- had anything resembling a concrete plan for a terror attack in this country. Of the other seven, one made vague threats about carrying out "an act of martyrdom" in the United States, but only if he wasn't able to go to Syria to join jihadist forces there. The other six cases involved individuals accused of supporting terror groups in other countries, with no mention of any possible acts inside the United States. The case summaries give no indication that any of the eight killed or injured an American anywhere.

A Chilling Footnote

There is one other revealing thread in the administration's campaign to link immigration to terrorism. In the Justice/Homeland Security report's statistical breakdown of terror-related convictions, a footnote to the last line, which shows that 147 defendants were "US citizens by birth," says: "Information pertaining to the citizenship status of the parents of these 147 individuals was not available at the time of this report’s issuance."

The White House fact sheet repeated that point in its summary of the report, noting that it "does not contain information regarding the number of terrorism and terrorism-related offenses committed by individuals who are the children of foreign-born individuals." It then added: "Terrorist attacks carried out by children of foreign-born individuals include the attack in Orlando by Omar Mateen, which killed 49 people and wounded more than 50 others, and the attack in San Bernardino, California, by Syed Rizwan Farook, which killed 14 people and injured 22 others." (For the record, and it’s odd the White House didn't mention it, Syed Farook's wife, who accompanied him in the San Bernardino shootings, was an immigrant.)

Neither the report nor the White House statement explained what crimes committed by US-born shooters have to do with its declared subject: terror-related acts by "foreign nationals in the United States." Nor, obviously, does a mass shooting by a killer born in Chicago (Farook) or Long Island, New York, (Mateen) tell us anything about the effectiveness of immigration screening procedures or any other aspect of the US immigration system, though it does fit a Trumpian vision of a world under threat from dangerous Muslims.

Perhaps those references to the "children of foreign-born individuals" were not meant to cast suspicion on the entire Muslim-American community. Possibly the White House and the Justice Department were not intentionally stoking public hostility and fear by implying that all Muslims, whether immigrants or born in the United States, should be regarded as potentially disloyal or dangerous. But if there was a less chilling motive, it’s hard to imagine what it might be.

Categories: News

Mueller Is Going After Documents From Trump and Nine Named Campaign Associates

Mon, 03/05/2018 - 05:00

 Alex Wong / Getty Images)Special counsel Robert Mueller leaves after a closed meeting with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee June 21, 2017, at the Capitol in Washington, DC. (Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images)

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Special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation appears to be zeroing in on President Donald Trump as new details leak about a subpoena requesting wide-ranging information about the president and his associates going back to 2015. 

NBC News reports,

"According to the subpoena, which was sent to a witness by special counsel Robert Mueller, investigators want emails, text messages, work papers, telephone logs and other documents going back to Nov. 1, 2015, 4½ months after Trump launched his campaign."

The subpoena seeks documents about the president and nine of his associates.

Steve Bannon, Michael Cohen, Rick Gates, Hope Hicks, Corey Lewandowski, Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Keith Schiller and Roger Stone are all named.

According to NBC News, this latest revelation indicates Mueller's intent to find out what Trump knew personally about Russia's efforts to interfere with the 2016 election.

Categories: News

The Leaked Rule That Could Ban Immigrants Based on Income, Explained by Experts

Mon, 03/05/2018 - 05:00

In February, leaked documents revealed that the Trump administration is preparing new rules that would effectively end the United States' family-based immigration system. If implemented, the regulation would prevent low-income and working-class immigrants from entering the country by denying legal status to immigrants considered "likely" to become a so-called "public charge."

The US / Mexico border fence just south of San Diego, California. (Photo: Tony Webster; Edited: LW / Truthout)The US-Mexico border fence just south of San Diego, California. (Photo: Tony Webster; Edited: LW / Truthout)

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In February, leaked documents revealed that the Trump administration is preparing new rules that would effectively end the United States' family-based immigration system. If implemented, the regulation would prevent low-income and working-class immigrants from entering the country by denying legal status to immigrants considered "likely" to become a so-called "public charge."

Currently, immigration officials can only consider the use of cash assistance, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families -- a program that serves very few people -- in determining whether someone is likely to become a "public charge." But under Trump's new rules, immigrants could be barred from legal status for turning to a whole range of public programs that millions of families rely on, including Head Start, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), nutrition assistance for Women Infants and Children (WIC), housing assistance, home heating assistance -- even the Children's Health Insurance Program and subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

To understand what this new policy will mean for immigrant families if it goes into effect, I spoke with Shawn Fremstad, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and Hidetaka Hirota, professor of history at the City College of New York and author of Expelling the Poor, which examines the United States' long history of keeping out immigrants who come from poverty.

Rebecca Vallas: What is the Trump administration considering in this moment, and what do we know about the rules they're working on from the leaks?

Shawn Fremstad: So, as we all know, this is not a very pro-immigrant administration. Just this week they've taken out the "nation of immigrants" language from the actual motto of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), what used to be known as the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service]. But now we know the administration is doing a stealth campaign using this longstanding "public charge" provision in immigration law. It's a way to undermine the family-based immigration system we have and target working-class immigrants from low-income countries, from Mexico, from countries that Trump called "shithole countries."

I was going to say it if you didn't.

Shawn Fremstad: At its core, it's about keeping out poor immigrants. This is a rewriting of a longstanding rule. What it meant historically is that you're a "public charge" if you're basically going to become completely dependent on welfare-cash type benefits, or institutionalized for long-term care with Medicaid. So it's really someone who is not working, not able to work, and doesn't have anybody else supporting them and they're primarily dependent on benefits. So it's a very limited thing.

But what the administration is saying is that it's no longer going to be about whether you're primarily dependent and not working; it's are you going to be low-income? Are you going to be below median income? What they say is they'll weigh it heavily in your favor if you have 250 percent of the poverty line as an income, which is basically around median earnings for a white male worker in the United States.

They also have a long list of benefits that if you're likely to access them after being admitted to the United States as a green card, as a lawful immigrant, those are the kind of things that will be held against you. This is quite radical. It includes things like the Premium Tax Credit that was part of the ACA, which goes up to 400 percent of poverty. For many families that's a middle-class benefit. That would not be something that "makes you a public charge." You could be working full time, making a good salary, and the only issue is you're not getting health care from an employer, so you need to access this.

They also include things like Head Start, Pell grants -- it's an extraordinary list.

Even the Children's Health Insurance Program.

Shawn Fremstad: Yes. It's a long list of programs that legal immigrants are often eligible for in the United States.

Help us understand how this is actually going to look in practice.

Shawn Fremstad: This public charge test comes up in two broad scenarios. One is you're a family member here in the United States, you want to bring over a family member and get a family-based visa for them. They are subject to this public charge test so they have to meet that before they can get the visa. So if that person looks like somebody who might get any of these benefits, then the public charge test could be used to exclude them.

The other situation is there are a lot of people in the United States -- some undocumented, some under different lawful statuses -- who have children in the household who are US citizens, and the child is getting Medicaid because they're eligible as US citizens. The child is getting SNAP or WIC. Now the test can be applied to the parents simply because they got food stamps or Medicaid or other benefits for that child. So there's a potential to keep people out who haven't come to the United States and to penalize people who are here now. It'll make people much less likely to turn to programs that could help their child's healthy development, education, et. cetera.

Professor Hirota, effectively barring entry to immigrants who come from poor or low- income backgrounds is something that you've called "poverty-based immigration control." Tell us about the history of this public charge provision that Shawn's been describing and how it fits into the country's broader history of keeping out immigrants for economic reasons.

Hidetaka Hirota: The public charge clause has a really long history in the United States, with origins in the colonial period. British settlers essentially brought their mother country's poor law, which banished the "transient beggar" -- that is, the poor people who did not belong to the community beyond the boundary of the community. This kind of poor law was eventually inherited by states after the American Revolution, and when a large number of impoverished Irish immigrants arrived in the US over the first half of the 19th century, these laws eventually developed into immigration laws. So America's first immigration law really originated from poor law, and the primary purpose of the law was the deportation back to Europe of the destitute Irish immigrants already in the US.

In the late 19th century these poor laws developed into the nation's first national immigration law -- the Immigration Act of 1882. This law, along with the Chinese exclusion law of 1882, laid the foundation for subsequent national immigration law. And the anti-poverty clause, or likely to become "public charge" laws, remained in national immigration laws. So anti-poverty sentiment was really deeply integrated into the American system of selecting immigrants and this has a longer history than we think.

In the 1930s refugees from Nazi Germany became targeted.

Shawn Fremstad: In different nativist periods this has been interpreted in different ways to target different communities. So in the 1930s refugees from Nazi Germany became targeted. In some periods it's been so-called "degenerates," denying people based on sexual orientation. Nobody says public charge in real language today. It's an archaic, ancient term and it gets filled with whatever the animus is today.

Hidetaka Hirota: I would add that a central feature of this "likely to become public charge" law is massive discretionary power of the inspecting officer. They have tremendous power to determine who could be enter and who should be expelled thanks to this vague clause.

In the mid 19th century, when there were Anglo-American officers, Irish people suffered disproportionately because of this clause compared to other immigrant groups like Germans. And in the early 20th century, Asian immigrants like Japanese and South Asians were targeted for this clause. There were middle class Japanese immigrants with some cash, and they did not appear likely to become a "public charge" from an economic point of view. But the officers excluded them as potential paupers on the grounds that in America, racism was too strong, so these immigrants wouldn't gain employment. Despite the possession of potential cash and middle-class appearance, they were deemed likely to become public charge.

The whole clause can operate with very strong racist dimensions, and this also applies to the Trump administration's proposed new rule. The new rule would not apply to immigrants equally. The officers could have very strong discretionary power in deciding whose visas can be renewable by simply manipulating this "likely to become public charge" rule.

Shawn, how do we expect this to move forward in the weeks ahead and how should folks get involved if they want to try to stop this from becoming the policy of the land?

Shawn Fremstad: Right now it's still in a draft form but we think it will get published in what's called the Federal Register as a proposed rule probably in the next 30 to 60 days. And this will be an opportunity to formerly comment and an important point to really lift this up and focus. I think it's been very under the radar so far because it isn't out there officially and there's so much else going on right now.

And we're seeing chilling effects playing out in communities across this country with immigrant families, actually going into social services office and saying stop my food stamps, stop my kid's Headstart, because I'm afraid this is exposing my family to danger and perhaps the risk of being split up.

Shawn Fremstad: I think at this point people should not panic, one important thing to know is that the draft version of the rule says it will be prospective so it's looking forward; if you had received these benefits in the past we're not going to count that. So making sure you're in touch with immigrant advocacy organizations who can tell you more about this is important.

As the National Immigration Law Center has put it, and I think these are probably the right words to end on with a heavy and truly demoralizing topic: if this policy goes into effect, "no longer would we be the country that serves as a beacon for the world's dreamers and strivers. Instead America's doors would be open only the highest bidder."

This interview was conducted for Off-Kilter and aired as part of a complete episode on February 23. It was edited for length and clarity.

Categories: News

The Lessons of Mass Incarceration for Child Welfare

Mon, 03/05/2018 - 05:00
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The platinum anniversary of the most important shift in American child welfare policy in a generation just passed without notice or public discussion. But almost 20 years to the day after President Clinton signed the Adoption and Safe Families Act into law, those in the waiting area of the Bronx Family courthouse heard a 12-year-old sobbing inconsolably outside the courtroom, where he had just told the judge he did not want to be adopted. The judge had gone ahead anyway to terminate his mother's parental rights -- as judges around the country do tens of thousands of times a year to comply with ASFA.

Touted at the time as a victory for children, ASFA has instead put America first in the world in the legal destruction of families. We are now the only country in the world that routinely pays people to adopt children whose birth parents want desperately to raise them. And we turn thousands of children who will never be adopted into legal orphans, dooming them to remain in foster care until they come of age.

With striking similarity to the 1994 Crime Bill, ASFA was a draconian response to a real social problem. Just as crime was skyrocketing, so too was the number of kids caught in foster care -- both fed by an increase in economic disparities, urban decay and drug abuse. Like the Crime Bill, ASFA addressed these social problems by punishing those who were suffering most from them. Twenty years later, we have a child welfare system that, like our system of mass incarceration, pours unprecedented funds into an industry that destroys families and wreaks generations of damage on underprivileged communities. The racial disproportionality of these harms is undeniable, with Black children substantially more likely than white children to have their relationships to their parents severed. 

Sometimes, of course, children need to be separated from their families to protect them. But the vast majority of children who enter foster care in the United States do so not because their parents have abused them, but because their parents are poor. Homelessness, lack of child care, domestic violence inflicted on mothers and substance abuse are the most common reasons children go into foster care. 

ASFA was motivated by a well-founded concern that children were spending too long in foster care. Momentously, a choice was made to get them out of foster care primarily by creating financial incentives for adoption. Under ASFA, states receive monetary bonuses for getting children adopted quickly, and the federal government pays ongoing subsidies each month to those who adopt children from foster care. Today the United States spends an astonishing $2.6 billion per year subsidizing more than 440,000 adoptions. The Congressional Budget Office anticipates that amount will rise dramatically over the next 10 years. 

Of course, sometimes adoption is the very best possible outcome for a child, but at other times it is harmful to impose one-size-fits-all adoptions. Many of these children remain strongly bonded to their birth parents. Some run back to them from their adoptive homes as soon as they are able to.

In addition, ASFA's unquestioning emphasis on rushing to adoption means this country now annually terminates the rights of thousands of parents of children who will never be adopted. 

What steps could be taken to reduce the harms of ASFA? We could take the steps that other affluent democracies take to help protect poor children: provide universal child care, housing and drug treatment and mental health care that allows parents to address the predictable social ills of poverty while their children remain with them. Those who balk at the cost of such social programs should understand that we are already spending the money. We're simply spending it on keeping children in foster care and subsidized adoptive homes rather than on keeping them safe at home. 

We also could revamp the draconian timeframes imposed by ASFA. We would never say that middle class white parents' relationships to their children should be cut off forever because the parent suffered from an alcohol problem or opioid addiction or mental health issue that the parent did not wholly overcome in 15 months, as ASFA commands for poor families. 

The 12-year-old who tried in vain to convince the Bronx judge to give his mother more time went into foster care because his mother was a victim of domestic violence. She worked hard to get him back, visiting him frequently and doing therapeutic services, but not quickly enough. 

A growing swell of Republicans and Democrats alike have admitted we must address the troubling mass incarceration that is the legacy of the crime legislation they supported in the 1900s. It is time to give the same unflinching attention to the children and families being damaged by the unintended consequences of ASFA. Twenty years of unquestioned, systematic harm is enough.

Categories: News

Atlantic Coast Pipeline Faces Native American Resistance

Mon, 03/05/2018 - 05:00
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Two Native American tribes in North Carolina are among the groups seeking to join a court challenge to federal regulators' decision to approve the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a $5 billion project proposed by utility giants Dominion and Duke Energy. The 600-mile pipeline would carry fracked gas from West Virginia through Virginia to eastern North Carolina, which is home to many Native Americans.

On Feb. 23, the state-recognized Haliwa-Saponi and Lumbee tribes along with 17 public-interest groups led by climate watchdog NC WARN formally asked to join an appeal of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's (FERC) approval of the pipeline issued last fall. The appeal was originally filed in January with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, by the Southern Environmental Law Center and Appalachian Mountain Advocates on behalf of 11 conservation nonprofits.

The tribes' move came one day after the Lumbee Tribal Council held an emergency meeting where it unanimously passed a resolution calling on FERC to formally consult with it about the pipeline's impacts.

"North Carolina tribes have been left out of the Environmental Impact Study," said Jan Lowery, chair of the Lumbee Tribe's Health Committee. "The study did not include the concerns of tribes, and the goal is to get a structured consultation."

The Lumbees' resolution noted the tribe's concerns about how the pipeline could affect unmarked ancestral burial grounds, sacred places, and the environment. It also pointed out that the National Congress of American Indians -- the oldest and largest national organization of American Indian and Alaskan Native tribal governments --  passed a resolution calling on all regulatory agencies to engage in meaningful consultation with the Indian tribal nations that would be affected by the proposed pipeline's construction and operation.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would pass through the territories of four tribes in North Carolina. In addition to the Lumbee and Haliwa-SaponiCoharie and Meherrin communities would also be affected. In a letter that appeared last year in Science magazine, N.C. State University professor Ryan Emanuel documented the flaws in FERC's environmental justice analysis that obscured the disproportionate impact the project would have on Native Americans:

The nearly 30,000 Native Americans who live within [1 mile] of the proposed pipeline make up 13.2% of the impacted population in North Carolina, where only 1.2% of the people is Native American. Yet, the [draft environmental impact statement] reported that fewer than half of the areas along the proposed route had minority populations higher than county-level baseline proportions. The discrepancy stems from the DEIS's failure to account for large differences in population size in the studied areas; large minority populations in some places were masked by much smaller nonminority populations elsewhere. The analysis also failed to account for large differences in baseline demographics among counties, where minority populations range from less than 1% to nearly 70%. These large differences prevented meaningful comparisons among areas in different counties. Together, these flaws rendered FERC's analysis incapable of detecting large Native American populations along the route, leading to false conclusions about the project's impacts.

"We Want to Be Heard"

Similar concerns that FERC's environmental assessment ignored Native Americans were raised in recent years over the Dakota Access Pipeline, a project of Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners that carries crude shale oil from North Dakota to Illinois, and sparked mass protests near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. While the Obama administration halted construction in order to prepare a more comprehensive environmental assessment, the Trump administration reversed that decision. The pipeline began operating commercially last June.

Atlantic Coast Pipeline opponents are shifting their focus back to the federal government following North Carolina's January decision to grant a water quality permit to the project. That decision is mired in controversy because a $58 million mitigation fund financed by the pipeline's developers was announced the same day the permit was granted. Republicans state lawmakers and some pipeline opponents have accused Gov. Roy Cooper (D) -- who recently hired as his legislative director a former lobbyist for Dominion and the American Petroleum Institute -- of engaging in quid-pro-quo politicswith the fund's creation.

Many of the groups seeking to join the lawsuit at the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals are part of an alliance that filed a rehearing request with FERC following the agency's October approval of the project. The request said FERC made a mockery of the legal process by allowing Dominion and Duke to supplement their application numerous times after the comment period ended, leaving the public with no avenue to respond to the companies' claims.

In addition, the groups' request charged FERC with cutting corners on assessing the need for the pipeline, its cumulative health impacts, and environmental justice implications. The pipeline will also have a disproportionate effect on African-American communities in eastern North Carolina, as was documented in a 2017 report by the NAACP and Clean Air Task Force.

Furthermore, the request pointed to FERC's failure to consider the pipeline's climate effects. Pipelines are a major source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas pollutant. The agency's neglect to consider the climate when evaluating pipeline proposals is in the spotlight following a federal court's ruling last year that has put construction of the Sabal Trail Pipeline in Florida -- another project involving Duke Energy  -- in question.

But rather than grant or deny the request for a rehearing within the allotted 30 days, FERC issued what's known as a "tolling order," which allows it to delay the decision indefinitely while construction is allowed to proceed.

"FERC has this habit of just delaying stuff," said John Runkle, an attorney for NC WARN who filed the rehearing request as well as the motion to intervene in the federal lawsuit. "We want to make sure we will be heard."

Categories: News

Trump Raises Alarm by Praising Chinese President's Power Grab at Private Mar-a-Lago Fundraiser

Sun, 03/04/2018 - 05:00

 Thomas Peter - Pool / Getty Images)China's President Xi Jinping and China's first lady Peng Liyuan and U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania attend a state dinner at the Great Hall of the People on November 9, 2017, in Beijing, China. (Photo: Thomas Peter - Pool / Getty Images)

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While President Donald Trump earned some laughs at a D.C. dinner on Saturday -- in his words, "nobody does self-deprecating humor better than I do" -- ethics experts warn his commentary earlier in the day, praising the Chinese president's power grab, was no laughing matter.

CNN obtained audio from a closed-door event in which Trump spoke favorably about a recent move by Chinese President Xi Jinping to remain in his post by removing presidential term limits from the state constitution.

"He's now president for life. President for life. No, he's great," Trump said Saturday during a lunch and fundraiser at his Mar-a-Lago estate, the so-called Winter White House. "And look, he was able to do that. I think it's great. Maybe we'll have to give that a shot some day."

The remarks alarmed ethics experts. Norm Eisen, the Obama administration's legal counsel and current chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), reacted on Twitter:

Trump’s secret reaction to the Chinese communist dictator changing the rules to serve for life:“Maybe we’ll try that here someday.“ You mean, suspend the constitution and make you a permanent tyrant? I don’t think so.

-- Norm Eisen (@NormEisen) March 4, 2018

The most chilling part of this was the ecstatic cheers of his supporters behind closed doors when he said “maybe will try that someday.”

-- Norm Eisen (@NormEisen) March 4, 2018

Former White House ethics attorneys Walt Shaub and Richard Painter also quickly weighed in:

The man repeatedly proves he has no concept of public service. Or America.

-- Walter Shaub (@waltshaub) March 4, 2018

Either he’s losing it, or we’re losing it if we let him stay on after this.
How many hints do we need that he wants to be a dictator?

Trump on China's Xi consolidating power: 'Maybe we'll give that a shot some day' @CNNPolitics

-- Richard W. Painter (@RWPUSA) March 4, 2018

Others added context by pointing to the current conditions in China under Xi Jinping:

.@HRW: under Xi Jinping, "China remains a one-party authoritarian state that systemically curbs fundamental rights"

-- Anil Kalhan (@kalhan) March 4, 2018
Categories: News

Communities in US and Mexico at Risk From Sewage, Pollution and Disease

Sun, 03/04/2018 - 05:00
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Imperial Beach, California -- U.S. Border Patrol Agent Christopher Harris steers his truck along the hilly road next to the border fence separating this beach community in the extreme southwest corner of the U.S. from Tijuana, Baja California's largest city.

On a late November afternoon, Harris tours three different canyons along the border. At the bottom of each canyon, a ribbon of dark wastewater originates in Tijuana and flows into the wetlands of the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge on its way to the Pacific Ocean.

 John Dougherty)Drainage to Pacific Tijuana Slough. (Photo: John Dougherty)

No one in the United States is certain whether the effluent is coming from Tijuana's failing wastewater-treatment system or if it is illegally dumped in the canyon creek beds in Tijuana. On this day, it flowed through dry creek beds, where Harris says it hadn't rained in many weeks.

The saltwater estuary has long been a hotspot for drug smuggling and human trafficking. Harris says Border Patrol agents conducting patrols and apprehensions of immigrants are routinely exposed to contaminated mud and effluent. Harris, the secretary for the National Border Patrol Council Local 1613, says more than 80 agents have suffered from contamination, injuries and illnesses -- including encountering chemicals that sometimes eat right through their boots.

Harris holds up a pair of fairly new work boots and says they belong to an agent who suffered chemical burns on his feet after the rubber soles were melted by chemicals in the effluent.

 John Dougherty)Melted boots. (Photo: John Dougherty)"We're breathing it in," Harris says. "It gets in your mouth, you're ingesting it. It gets in your mucous membranes. We've had people with what they believe is methane burns to the lungs."

During heavy rains there's no doubt that Tijuana's wastewater-treatment system routinely fails, sending hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage flowing into the Tijuana River from Mexico and then into the U.S. The floods of sewage force health officials to close public beaches on Imperial Beach -- where 25 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and 60 percent are nonwhite -- and sometimes further north, toward the Silver Strand State Beach and ritzy Coronado.

Even when there's no heavy rain, 40 million gallons a day of treated -- but mostly raw -- sewage is dumped into the Pacific Ocean from Tijuana's sewage treatment plant, located less than five miles south of the border, says Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina.

The sewage can drift north during southern swells, forcing U.S. public beaches to close. Dedina has led a crusade to try to get desperately needed funds to help Tijuana make emergency repairs to fix collapsing sewer lines and failing pump stations and upgrade its primary wastewater-treatment plant.

An avid surfer, Dedina has repeatedly fallen ill after surfing off Imperial Beach. He says there have been more than 320 sewage spills in the past two years. "It's like a horror show," he says during an interview on a picnic bench overlooking the beach. "It's horrendous."

The serious health problems and environmental contamination are not isolated to Tijuana. The lack of adequate wastewater treatment occurs all along the 1,954-mile U.S.- Mexico border, and the problems don't just originate in Mexico.

A three-month-long investigation by The Revelator reveals thousands of underserved communities on the U.S. side of the border that lack basic environmental and health infrastructure such as sanitary sewer systems and utility-provided drinking water. Most of the people living in these unplanned communities, called colonias, are poor and of primarily Hispanic descent. Environmental infrastructure problems also afflict several larger U.S. cities, including Nogales, Ariz., Calexico, Calif., and Laredo and El Paso, Texas.

While so much of the discussion in Washington, D.C., revolves around Trump's proposed $25 billion border wall, a longstanding humanitarian crisis is going unaddressed along the nation's southern border -- home to some 14 million people.

The Revelator traveled to some of the hardest-hit communities in California, Arizona, Texas and in Mexico and spoke with residents, politicians, health workers and others living among a failing and largely forgotten infrastructure system. We found poverty, sickness and environmental contamination plaguing both large and small communities straddling the U.S.-Mexico border -- a region that experiences poverty rates double the national averages and has some of the highest rates of infectious disease in the United States.

In the coming months, our"Border Betrayed" series will take readers to those border communities and examine the profound health and environmental effects of a region whose infrastructure has been systematically neglected by both countries -- leaving millions of people to suffer the consequences far from the view of politicians and most of America.

Investing in Mexico Helps Americans

To understand the crisis is to understand its roots in money, power and political decisions.

Since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, the United States and Mexico together have invested more than $10 billion in constructing an international network of wastewater treatment plants, potable water connections, modern landfills, hazardous waste collection sites, recycling centers and renewable energy facilities that benefit the citizens of both countries.

But the money has been nowhere near enough to stem the rising tide of environmental health problems afflicting both sides of the border.

The outlook is even worse.

President Trump's proposed $25 billion border wall comes at the same time his administration wants to eliminate funding for the most important Environmental Protection Agency grant program used to construct environmental infrastructure along the U.S.-Mexico border including Tijuana.

The administration also opposes an increase in funding for the North American Development Bank, which provides infrastructure development loans to border communities in the United States and Mexico. Without additional capital, the bank's ability to make loans will be sharply reduced.

Trump's anti-Mexican statements further inflame relations between the countries and come at a time when Mexico is recovering from two major earthquakes that require significant public investment, reducing money for border projects.

"The rhetoric is bad and the policy is zero," Dedina says of Trump's statements and the administration's recommendations for spending on border environmental infrastructure. "They have made it really very clear how they feel."

Concentrating on hot-button issues of immigration ignores the basic human-rights problems that affect citizens in both countries.

"The Trump administration, with all of its hyperbolic rhetoric, has so obscured and clouded the issue that people aren't thinking straight," says Steve Mumme, a professor of political science at Colorado State University, where he specializes in comparative environmental politics and policy with an emphasis on Mexican government and U.S.-Mexican relations.

"They are suddenly retreating to their corners of the ring and thinking that they don't have to engage anymore and the problems will somehow magically solve themselves and people will go away," he says. "Good luck with that."

The Trump administration is clearly aware of the acute sewage contamination issues in Imperial Beach. Dedina says he met with EPA Director Scott Pruitt's senior adviser, Ken Wagner, last fall and discussed the issue. Nothing tangible resulted from their meeting, Dedina says.

Diverting billions of dollars for the wall while at the same time slashing funds to invest in environmental infrastructure -- such us helping to finance improvements to Tijuana's wastewater treatment system -- ultimately hurts Americans, border experts say.

"Investing on the Mexican side of the border really improves the quality of life for U.S. residents," says Paul Ganster, chairman of the Good Neighbor Environmental Board, a federal advisory committee that makes recommendations to Congress and the White House on environmental infrastructure needs on the U.S.-Mexican border.

"It's absolutely clear," says Ganster, who is a social scientist at San Diego State University specializing in Latin America. "There is no doubt about it."

America's Forgotten People

The environmental health crisis stalking millions of people living on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border has been steadily unfolding for decades but has become more acute in the past 20 years as the population along the border continues to surge.

In a strange twist, it is the American side of the border that is substantially poorer when compared to the rest of the United States. Meanwhile, the Mexican border cities are relatively well developed compared to many areas of their country, where basic services like electricity, running water, paved roads and sanitary sewers can be extremely limited or nonexistent.

"The border region tends to be the poorest area in the United States," says Ganster. "And at the same time, across the border in Mexico, is an area where there has been explosive demographic growth and urbanization and manufacturing development."

The Mexican border cities, for the most part, are much larger than their U.S. neighbors. In addition to NAFTA, which greatly increased trade between the two countries, Mexico and the United States have passed laws that encourage U.S. companies to build factories in Mexican border towns. The factories, called maquiladoras, import parts from the U.S. and assemble products in Mexico, taking advantage of $2 an-hour wages. The finished goods are then re-exported back into the United States at reduced tariffs.

Trade and manufacturing have attracted millions of Mexican workers and families to border communities. There were approximately 6,171 maquiladoras employing 2.5 million workers in 2014, according the University of Arizona's Economic and Business Research Center. The mass migration of workers to fill these jobs has overwhelmed the ability of Mexican border cities to keep up with basic services.

Mexico is still a developing nation, and its border cities have relatively small amounts of per capita income to pay for basic services. Mexican border cities have focused primarily on providing electricity and potable water at the expense of other systems that people in the United States might take for granted, Ganster says.

"Sewage has not been the highest priority," he says.

This allocation of limited resources has a direct impact on the United States. Mexican border cities -- including Tijuana, Mexicali and Nogales -- are upstream from their U.S. neighbors. So when the overwhelmed wastewater system in Tijuana fails, public beaches close in Imperial Beach and border agents get sick. When Mexicali's sewage system collapses, the New River is polluted as it flows north to the Salton Sea in California. And when the Nogales, Sonora wastewater and storm water systems can't handle heavy flows, the Santa Cruz River valley in Arizona is contaminated.

Farther east in Texas, there's no escaping the serious health impacts of millions of gallons of raw sewage being dumped every day into the Rio Grande, regardless of which flag flies over your border town.

Border cities in both nations draw their drinking water from the river. In some cases, like in Nuevo Laredo, located just across the Rio Grande from its namesake in Texas, the city's drinking water intake sits within a quarter-mile downstream of two untreated sewage outfalls.

None of these problems are new.

They have persisted for generations and will continue as more people move to towns and cities located adjacent to the border that simply don't have sufficient resources to provide basic environmental infrastructure.

About 14 million people live in 38 Mexican municipalities and 23 U.S. counties adjacent to the border. The population in these municipalities and counties is expected to more than double to 29 million by 2045, according to a 2013 comprehensive analysis of the U.S.-Mexican border by the Border Research Project.

More people means more needs for basic sanitary services, including sewage treatment plants, sanitary landfills, potable water connections, toxic waste management, renewable energy, clean vehicles and road paving to reduce dangerous levels of air pollution that engulfs border communities.

The North American Development Bank, which is owned and jointly operated by the United States and Mexico, estimates that $10 billion is needed just to provide first-time connections for wastewater and/or potable water for communities on both sides of the border, with $8.5 billion just in the United States.

And that doesn't include upgrading collapsing sewer lines and modernizing sewer treatment facilities. Officials estimate that Tijuana alone will need $400 million to overhaul its crumbling wastewater treatment system.

These environmental health problems have been brewing for decades.

Twenty-five years ago the Sierra Club estimated that $20 billion was needed for basic environmental infrastructure along the border -- and that was before NAFTA went into effect.

"There certainly is a higher cost now given that NAFTA included incentives for corporations to shift their pollution to border communities," says Ben Beachy, director of the Sierra Club's Responsible Trade Program.

The World's First Green Bank

Obscured in the raging debate over President Trump's proposed border wall and the ongoing contentious negotiations over whether the United States will withdraw from NAFTA is another crucial trilateral initiative between the United States, Mexico and Canada that created the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation.

During the NAFTA debate in the early 1990s, Congress, environmental groups and other nongovernmental organizations demanded that the trade agreement include environmental and labor protections to address the already serious environmental problems along the U.S.-Mexican border that most agreed were only going to get worse with increased trade.

The environmental cooperation agreement was created to address the ongoing environmental disaster, making NAFTA the first trade agreement that explicitly linked trade to environmental protection.

When NAFTA went into effect on Jan. 1, 1994, only 21 percent of wastewater in Mexican border cities was being treated, causing widespread pollution in shared watersheds including the Tijuana River, the Colorado River, the New River, the Santa Cruz River and the Rio Grande. That number is now close to 90 percent.

In addition to the environmental cooperation agreement, the United States and Mexico also established the Border Environmental Cooperation Commission and the North American Development Bank, widely considered the world's first "green bank," to help Mexican and American border communities finance the construction of wastewater and potable drinking-water projects.

Mexico and United States each contributed $225 million to provide capital for the development bank to make loans and each pledged an additional $1.3 billion in callable capital reserves. The bank's charter created a board of directors with an equal number of representatives from each country.

Today the bank provides environmental infrastructure loans within the borderlands region that straddles both sides of the border. The borderlands includes the area from 62 miles (100 kilometers) north of the border to 186 miles (300 kilometers) south and stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

2018 0304toxic3

The bank's lending has expanded to include wind farms and solar energy to reduce border air pollution and desalinization plants in Mexico to reduce reliance on declining groundwater supplies and over-allocated surface water.

Mexico supports doubling the bank's capitalization, which would allow it to increase annual lending to $350 million by 2024, but the United States has not yet agreed. Without additional capital, the bank's projected annual lending will drop from $250 million to below $90 million, the Treasury Department stated in 2017.

"Strengthening [the development bank] would be tangible demonstration of the United States commitment with Mexico to build a stable and prosperous region," the Treasury Department stated during President Obama's last year in office, adding the bank's "environmental infrastructure projects help promote greater regional stability and diminish migration flows."

Providing the bank with the ability to make more loans would also increase investment opportunities for U.S. companies to build wastewater treatment plants and other environmental infrastructure.

But under the Trump administration, the Treasury Department recommended no increase in the bank's capitalization for fiscal 2018. "Treasury is not requesting funding for the North American Development Bank due to budget constraints," the department stated in its 2018 budget request to Congress." The Trump administration's proposed 2019 budget, was released in February, however, calls for a $10 million contribution to the bank's capital, matching what Mexico had already put in.

Other sources of funding are also at risk. The EPA's Border Environment Infrastructure Fund plays a key role in supporting the North American Development Bank's operations. The grant fund was created in 1996 and was allocated $170 million in the first two years. Funding remained at $50 million a year or more through 2007 before beginning a steady decrease to below $10 million in fiscal year 2017. Trump and House Republicans now want to eliminate funding for the program.

2018 0304toxic4

The fund's grants have played a crucial role in financing development projects by helping make it affordable for financially strapped communities to pay for construction projects. The North American Development Bank, meanwhile, provides construction loans, grants for technical assistance and helps attract money from other public and private sources.

The development bank has awarded $650 million in Border Environment Infrastructure Fund grants since 1996. For every dollar spent, the grants attract $3 in additional funds from other public and private sources, including North American Development Bank loans. Mexico has matched $2 for every $1 in grant funds for environmental infrastructure projects south of the border.

In the past 22 years, the EPA grants have helped finance construction of 59 wastewater treatment plants that are now treating sewage generated by 8.5 million people a day. Thirty-three of the plants were built in Mexico, eliminating 353 million gallons of raw sewage a day that was directly impacting 1.7 million U.S. residents and another 2.3 million indirectly.

"We certainly could use a lot more grant funds," says North American Development Bank managing director Alex Hinojosa. "There is a huge need."

Not only is there demand for new projects, many of those initial projects are now coming to the end of their lifespans, spurring a need for a second wave of construction at a time when financing options are evaporating and population increasing.

Old Infrastructure Is Collapsing

An as-yet undetermined amount of money is needed to replace collapsing sewer lines, worn out sewage pump stations, antiquated sewer treatment plants and safe drinking water systems on both sides of the border, border financing experts say.

"So, once again we have an infrastructure crisis for basic sewer, water and so on," says Paul Ganster, the Good Neighbor Environmental Board chairman. "And that's beginning to have negative effects such as in the Tijuana area. We are a seeing a number of failures in the sewage treatment infrastructure which results in contaminated water flowing downhill and affecting the U.S. side."

Last November the North American Development Bank approved $1.2 million in EPA grant funds for the rehabilitation of 2.8 miles of a major sewer line in Tijuana. Frequent collapses of the sewer trunk line have contributed to sewage spills into the Tijuana River. Mexico has committed another $1.8 million for the project.

Construction will take two years to complete. The project is just one step in the massive overhaul of Tijuana's sewer system. There are more than 40 major sewer collectors in Tijuana with failing pipes that contribute to pollution flows into the U.S., bank officials say. Mexico, so far, has only requested funding assistance to repair five sewer lines.

Tijuana is just one of a long list of critical infrastructure projects that need to be built or repaired. The North American Development Bank has 61 projects currently requesting $295 million in funds on both sides of the border.

"We know this is just a drop in the bucket in comparison to the needs that exist," says Jesse Hereford, a bank spokesman. At the same time as infrastructure needs continue, the EPA grant fund has declined to only $15 million, Hereford says.

There is strong support from border state members of Congress to provide funds for the Border Environment Infrastructure Fund and to increase the development bank's capitalization. Legislation pending in the Senate includes $10 million for the grant fund for 2018 and doubling the bank's capitalization. In late January, Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-CA, requested the grant fund receive $20 million. But there is no similar legislation in the House.

A bipartisan group of border state House members has requested House leaders to restore funding for the grant program that was eliminated from a spending bill in committee last year.

"These funds play a crucial role in protecting public health, including those tasked with protecting our borders by reducing sewage runoff and human exposure to bacterial and viral pathogens," states a Dec. 8 letter signed by 13 House membersrequesting the House Appropriations Committee include $10 million for the grant program.

Rep. Scott Peters, D-CA, has requested the administration to include much stronger environmental provisions during the ongoing NAFTA negotiations between the US, Mexico and Canada.

"The continued lack of enforceable environmental standards in our trade agreements is no longer tenable," Peters stated in Dec. 8 letter sent to Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. Trade Representative leading the U.S. negotiations on NAFTA.

"Recognizing that environmental hazards do not stop at transnational borders, it is of the utmost importance that any renegotiated or future trade agreements with Mexico include high-standard, enforceable environmental provisions that empower the United States to stand up for communities through meaningful dispute resolution," stated Peters, whose district includes San Diego.

But ultimately it comes down to money invested in environmental infrastructure and whether the Mexican and the U.S. governments are willing to spend billions of dollars to protect the health of citizens on both sides of the border.

For communities along the border, the help can't come fast enough.

Categories: News

Killing Children in the Age of Disposability: The Parkland Shooting Was About More Than Gun Violence

Sun, 03/04/2018 - 05:00

 Matt McClain / The Washington Post via Getty Images)People embrace as students return to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Wednesday February 28, 2018, in Parkland, Florida. A mass shooting on February 14 at the school left 17 people dead. (Photo: Matt McClain / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The current debate about school shootings reveals a neoliberal order that has tipped over into authoritarianism where the highest measure of how a society judges itself ethically and politically is no longer about how it treats and invests in its children. How else to explain the fact that mass shootings of children are now discussed in terms of containing their effects rather than eliminating their causes.

 Matt McClain / The Washington Post via Getty Images)People embrace as students return to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Wednesday February 28, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. A mass shooting on February 14 at the school left 17 people dead. (Photo: Matt McClain / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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Donald Trump may have startled Republican lawmakers with his sudden and unexpected support for background checks and other gun control measures, but a closer look at his comments to lawmakers reveals his continued adherence to the core of the pro-gun script that he has been following all along.

At his meeting with lawmakers on February 28 Trump buckled down on the idea that the real problem is the existence of gun-free zones, arguing that eliminating gun-free zones "prevent [mass shootings] from ever happening, because [the shooters] are cowards and they're not going in when they know they're going to come out dead."

The president's repeated efforts to disparage the idea of gun-free zones fit with the earlier call for arming teachers made by Trump and one of his most powerful financial and ideological backers -- the dark knight of gun violence, NRA leader Wayne LaPierre. Meanwhile, Trump has shown no interest in preventing school shootings by hiring more guidance teachers, support staff and psychologists. Trump's call for a comprehensive gun bill may have made for "captivating" television, but it rattled NRA lobbyists and initiated a tsunami of calls to their allies on Capitol Hill. Nothing surprising to this reaction. It gets worse. Chris Cox, the top lobbyist for the NRA, met with Trump a few days after Trump made his remarks and suggested in a tweet that the president had backed away from his apparent embrace of gun control.

Moreover, there is little confidence following Trump's remarks that Republicans would even remotely endorse legislation for gun control. The NRA "paid $5 million to lobbyists last year" and there is no indication that the time and money spent buying off cowardly politicians will prove ineffectual.

Trump's proposal to arm teachers suggests that the burden of gun violence and the crimes of the gun industries and politicians should fall on teachers' shoulders.

The deeply troubling call for eliminating gun-free zones and arming teachers comes at a time when many schools have already been militarized by the presence of police and the increasing criminalization of student behaviors. Suggesting that teachers be armed and turned into potential instruments of violence extends and normalizes the prison as a model for schools and the increasing expansion of the school-to-prison pipeline. What is being left out of this tragedy is that the number of police in schools has doubled in the last decade from 20 percent in 1996 to 43 percent today. Moreover, as more police are put in schools, more and more children are brutalized by them. There is no evidence that putting the police in schools has made them any safer. Instead, more and more young people have criminal records, are being suspended, or expelled from school, all in the name of school safety. As  Sam Sinyangwe, the director of the Mapping Police Violence Project, observes:

The data ... that does exist ... shows that more police in schools leads to more criminalization of students, and especially black and brown students. Every single year, about 70,000 kids are arrested in school.... [Moreover] since 1999, 10,000 additional police officers have been placed at schools, with no impact on violence. Meanwhile, about one million students have been arrested for acts previously punishable by detention or suspension, and black students are three times more likely to be arrested than their white peers.

Trump's proposal to arm teachers suggests that the burden of gun violence and the crimes of the gun industries and politicians should fall on teachers' shoulders, foolishly imagining that armed teachers would be able to stop a killer with military grade weapons, and disregarding the risk of teachers shooting other students, staff or faculty in the midst of such a chaotic moment.

In addition, the proposal points to the insidious fact that mass shootings and gun violence have become so normalized in the United States that, as Adam Gopnik points out, "we must now be reassured that, when the person with the AR-15 comes to your kid's school, there's a plan to cope with him." Such statements make visible a society rife with the embrace of force and violence. How else to explain the fact that, at the highest levels of government, horrendous acts of violence, such as mass shootings involving school children, are now discussed in terms of containing their effects rather than eliminating their causes.

Protecting guns and profits have become more important than protecting the lives of young people.

In this logic the underlying causes of mass shootings and gun killings disappear and the emphasis for dealing with such violence reproduces an act of political and moral irresponsibility in its call to curtail or contain such violence rather than address the underlying causes of it.

We live in an age in which the politics of disposability has merged with what Jeffrey St. Clair has called the spectacle of "American Carnage." The machineries of social death and misery now drive a mode of casino capitalism in which more and more people are considered waste, expendable and excess. The politics of disposability now couples with acts of extreme violence as pressure grows to exclude more and more people from the zones of visibility, justice and compassion. This is especially true for children. Violence against children in the United States has reached epidemic proportions. As Marian Wright Edelman points out,

Pervasive gun violence against children is a uniquely shameful all-American epidemic. Consider that since 1963, over three times more children and teens died from guns on American soil than U.S. soldiers were killed by hostilities in wars abroad. On average 3,426 children and teens -- 171 classrooms of 20 children -- were killed by guns every year from 1963 to 2016. And gun violence comes on top of other major threats of global violence that threaten our children.

A culture of cruelty, silence and indifference to the needs of children, built on the backs of the conservative media politicians and the gun industry and lobby, has become a central and ethically disturbing feature of American society. This is a culture of political corruption and social abandonment that "has a remarkable tolerance for child slaughter, especially the mass murders of the children of others." This culture of violence has a long history in the United States, and has become increasingly legitimated under the Trump regime, a regime in which lawlessness and corruption combine to ignore the needs of children, the poor, elderly, sick and vulnerable. In the age of neoliberal brutality, protecting guns and profits have become more important than protecting the lives of young people. As is apparent from its policies, our society no longer views young people as a worthy social investment or the promise of a decent future. On the contrary, as John and Jean Comaroff note in Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy, instead of becoming a primary register of the dreams of a society, youth have become "creatures of our nightmares, of our social impossibilities, and our existential angst."

To read more articles by Henry A. Giroux and other authors in the Public Intellectual Project, click here.

Viewed largely as a liability, the institutions that young people inhabit have been discarded as citadels of critical thinking and social mobility. As a result, such institutions, including schools, have become zones of social abandonment -- often modeled after prisons -- that appear to exist in a state of perpetual danger and fear, especially for students marginalized by race and class, for whom violence operates routinely and in multiple ways. Children are now defined largely as consumers, clients and fodder for the military or the school-to-prison pipeline. As a result, their safety is now enmeshed with the weaponized discourse of surveillance, and security personnel and police patrol their corridors. Horrific shootings boost the ratings and profit margins of the mainstream press, undercutting these news outlets' will and ability to use their resources to address the culture and political economy of violence that now amounts to a form of domestic terrorism in the United States.

The message to students is clear. They are not worth protecting if they threaten the profits of the gun industries and the purses of the politicians who have become the lackeys for them.

As Brad Evans and I have argued in Disposable Futures: The Seduction of Violence in the Age of the Spectacle, violence has now become the defining organizing principle for society in general. It is also worth noting that the spectacle, marketing and commodification of violence powerfully mediates how the American public both understands the relations of power that benefit from the production of violence at all levels of society and how the visceral suffering that is produced can be neutralized in a culture of immediacy and "alternative facts."

Of course, this logic is part of the politics of distraction that has become a trademark of the Trump administration. At the same time, it creates more profits for the gun industries and makes clear that most people, including children, have no safe space in the US. The message to students is clear. They are not worth protecting if they threaten the profits of the gun industries and the purses of the politicians who have become the lackeys for them. It gets worse. Rather than engage young people and other gun rights advocates in a debate about gun control, some conservatives mimic the discourse of humiliation and lies used relentlessly by Trump in claiming that "bereaved students were being manipulated by sinister forces, or even that they were paid actors."

As objects of moral and social abandonment, young people are beginning to recognize that the response to their call for safety, well-being and future without fear is cruel and cynical. In addition, their struggle against gun violence makes clear that the Trump administration, the NRA, and the industries that trade in instruments of violence and death, are waging a war against democracy itself. The call to arm teachers also speaks to the Trump administration's efforts to further militarize and expand the weaponization not only of the armed forces but also of spaces in which large numbers of students congregate. In his call to arm 20 percent of all teachers, Trump is suggesting that 640,000 teachers be trained and given guns. The Washington Post estimates that the costs of training teachers sufficiently could reach as high as $718 million while the cost of providing teachers with firearms could amount to an additional $251 million. According to the Post, "the full-price, more expansive training and the full-price firearm ... creeps past $1 billion." Furthermore, putting 640,000 more guns in schools is not only a reckless suggestion, it also further enriches the profits of gun makers by adding millions of dollars to their bottom line. Why not invest this amount of money in providing support staff and services for students -- services that could meaningfully support those facing mental health issues, bullying, homelessness and poverty?

When combined with a culture of fear and a massive government investment in a carceral state, the politics of disposability eerily echoes the damaging legacy of a fascist past in the US, with its celebration of violence, concentration of power in the hands of the few, massive inequities in wealth and militarization of all aspects of society. There is no defense for weapons of war to be sold as commodities either to children or anyone else. Gun violence in the US is not simply about a growing culture of violence, it is about the emergence of a form of domestic terrorism in which fear, mistrust, lies, corruption and financial gain become more important than the values, social relations and institutions that write children into the script of democracy and give them hope for a decent future.

When the only self available to the public is rooted in the discourse of entrepreneurship, it is not surprising for a society to produce generations of people indifferent to the effects of mass violence.

A war culture now permeates American society -- extending from sports events and Hollywood films to the ongoing militarization of the police and the criminalization of everyday behaviors such as violating a dress code or doodling on a desk. War has become a permanent element of everyday life, deeply etched into our national ideals and social relations. And those responsible for the bloodshed it produces appear immune from social criticism and policies that limit their power.

This debate about school shootings is not simply about gun violence; it is about a neoliberal order that has tipped over into authoritarianism, one for which the highest measure of how a society judges itself ethically and politically is no longer about how it treats its children. Violence on a grand scale certainly has produced a high sense of moral outrage within the US public at times, but not over the fate of young people.

People in the US need a new language to talk about violence in order to capture its many registers and the threads that tie them together. Under such circumstances, school violence cannot be understood outside of the deeply inordinate influence of money and power in US politics. The call to model schools after prisons would have to be examined against the rise of the punishing state and the Trump administration's celebration of a "law and order" regime. The anger fueling what might be called white rage would have to be analyzed against the gutting of jobs, wages, pensions, health care benefits and the massive growth of inequality in wealth and power in the United States.

US society has become an abyss in which violence, disposability and the logic of social abandonment and terminal exclusion work against the interests of most children and for the interests of the rich and powerful. Weapons now operate in the service of what might be called the necro-power of casino capitalism. How else to explain the fact that there are more than 13,000 homicides a year in the United States, or that on average, seven teens are killed with guns daily. Yet the response on the part of politicians is either silence and inaction, or a more aggressive push to put more guns in circulation?

A cult of militarism has dragged extreme violence into the very soul of the US and has become a source of pride rather than alarm and anger. This depraved transformation is accelerated by a crisis of agency in which every relation is reduced to an exchange relation, one in which, as political theorist Wendy Brown has argued, "everything from learning to eating become matters of speculative investments -- ranked, rated, balanced in your portfolio." When the only self available to the public is rooted in the discourse of entrepreneurship, it is not surprising for a society to produce generations of people indifferent to the effects of mass violence, unsympathetic to the growing multitudes of disposable individuals and groups, and unmoved by a culture of deepening collective cynicism. Casino capitalism has numbed large segments of the American public into moral and political callousness. One consequence is an indifference to a society in which the killing of children is routine.

Mass shootings and gun violence in the US cannot be abstracted from what I call the death of the social, which involves the collapse of an investment in the public good, the ongoing destruction of democratic values, and the undermining of the common good. A toxic mix of rugged individualism, untrammeled self-interest, privatization, commodification and culture of fear now shapes American society, leaving most people isolated, unaware of the broader systemic forces shaping their lives, and trapped in a landscape of uncertainty and precarity that makes them vulnerable to having their anxieties, anger and rage misdirected.

The students from Parkland, Florida, are fighting back, embracing new forms of social solidarity and collective struggle.

All too often, the only discourse available for them to deal with their problems is provided by the disingenuous vocabulary of fear and security delivered in the call for gun ownership, the allure of violence as an antidote to their individual and collective anxieties, and a hateful appeal to racism, Islamophobia and demonization.

The hijacking of freedom and individual responsibility by extremists is corrosive and rots society from within, making people susceptible to what C.W. Mills describes as "organized irresponsibility" in his book The Politics of Truth. The right-wing attack on the welfare state, community and democracy functions to dissolve crucial solidarities and bonds of social obligation, and undermines mutual responsibilities. In the absence of the discourse of community, compassion and mutual respect, fear and violence have become the new currency mediating social relations at all levels of society. In a society in which the war of all against all prevails, the call for more guns is symptomatic of the shredding of the social fabric, the hardening of society, the evisceration of public trust, and a ratcheting up of a political and economic investment by the ruling elite in the machinery of cruelty, inequality and militarism.

Violence in the United States is part of a wider politics of disposability in which the machineries of social and political death accelerate the suffering, hardships and misery of children. For too long, youth have been written out of the script of justice and democracy. Gun violence, mass shootings and state violence are simply the most visible elements of a society that organizes almost every aspect of civil society for the production of terror and fear, and which views young people within the specter of uselessness and indifference.

Fortunately, the students from Parkland, Florida, are fighting back, shunning the coarse language used by apologists for systemic violence while embracing new forms of social solidarity and collective struggle. These young people are refusing to privatize hope or allow the ethical imagination and their sense of moral outrage and social responsibility to be tranquilized. They are not only outraged over the brutal actions of the defenders of gun violence, they feel betrayed. Betrayed, because they have learned that the power of the gun industries and the politicians who defend them do not consider their lives worthy of protection, hope and a future free of violence. They recognize that US society is unusually violent and that they are a target. Moreover, they are arguing convincingly that mass shooting in the United States have a direct correlation with the astronomical number of guns present in this country. But there is more at stake here than an epidemic of gun violence, there is the central idea of the US as defined by carnage -- violence that extends from the genocide of Native Americans and slavery to the rise of mass incarceration and the instances of state violence now sweeping across the US.

At least for the moment, young people are refusing to live with a modern system of violence that functions as a form of domestic terrorism. Engaged in a form of productive unsettling and collective dissent, they are fighting back, holding power accountable and giving birth to a vibrant form of political struggle. The distinctiveness of this generation of survivors is clear in their use of social media, their willingness to speak out, their planned marches, their civic courage, and their unwillingness to continue to live with the fear and insecurity that have shaped most of their lives. Hopefully, this moment will transform itself into a movement.

Categories: News

Chronicling the Struggles of Migrant Agricultural Workers, in Words and Pictures

Sun, 03/04/2018 - 05:00

The US and Mexico are connected by the flow of people who work in the fields of the US, and everything we eat is the product of their brutally underpaid work, says David Bacon, photojournalist and author of In the Fields of the North. A former union organizer, Bacon discusses how the farm workers participate in the larger social justice movements of the US and Mexico.

 David Bacon)Members of Unite Here 2850, the hotel union for the East and North San Francisco Bay Area, show their opinion of Trump in the march protesting his inauguration. (Photo: David Bacon)

Printed in English and Spanish, In the Fields of the North/En los campos del norte puts a close-up focus on people deemed disposable by many in the United States. Get the book now with a donation to Truthout.

Truthout interviewed David Bacon, author of In the Fields of the North/En los campos del norte, about how amplifying the voices of migrant agricultural workers can help in the struggle for social justice.

Mark Karlin: Before we launch into the book, can you tell us a little about your background and how you arrived at being an indefatigable chronicler and photographer of Mexican agricultural workers in the United States, immigrants, and those who work to create unions and just pay in Mexico?

David Bacon: I was a union organizer for 25 years, including for the United Farm Workers. It was the union and the workers in it who taught me everything from Spanish to what life is like for farm workers and rural people. Later I worked with other unions where immigrant workers were most of the workforce. I was increasingly interested in why people chose to come to the US, which led to an interest in Mexico and its politics and labor movement. Almost 30 years ago, I began working as a photographer and writer, documenting originally what I'd been seeing and hearing as an organizer. I became an immigrant rights activist as a result of these experiences, and the work in this book is intended to help people understand the reality of life for migrant workers.

 David Bacon)Members of the San Francisco hotel union, Unite Here Local 2, march in support of undocumented immigrants in a Labor Day march in 2006. (Photo: David Bacon)

Do you think most people in the United States know about the fields of the north and the people who work them? Can you define the term?

I used the term "fields of the north" because if you're looking at those fields from Mexico, which is where most workers are coming from, here in the US we are the "north." The title has its origin in an exhibition of my photographs of California farm workers organized by the College of the Northern Border and the Tijuana Cultural Center. They put these photographs up on the border wall itself. The idea is that our two countries are connected by the flow of people who do the work in the fields of the US ... we can cooperate to document that flow so that people on both sides of the border can see and understand it, and work for the improvement of the lives of farm workers.

What is the connection between the working conditions of these workers and food on the table of consumers in the US?

Everything we eat is the product of the work of the people who produce it. Since they feed us, we should acknowledge that labor and look at the conditions of the people doing the work. When the conditions for farm workers improve we benefit as consumers. If we ban the use of cancer-causing pesticides, for instance, farm workers won't suffer from exposure to them, and the residues won't contaminate the food that we eat. If families working in the fields have decent wages, they can live in better housing and participate more in the civic life of our communities. Our communities will benefit from this.

 David Bacon)Members of the janitors union, United Service Workers West, sit down in a downtown Los Angeles intersection in 2011, to protest the firing of immigrant workers. (Photo: David Bacon)

What is the range of living conditions for those from Mexico who pick crops in the US?

In the years when the United Farm Workers was at the peak of its strength, at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, workers' wages were 2-3 times the minimum wage. Today, the minimum wage, or close to it, is what's normal, and thousands of workers are paid illegal wages below that. The cost of low wages is brutal. People live under trees, in cars, packed into garages and in single rooms, because they don't have the money to pay high rents. The education of children suffers as a result, although we have migrant education programs that do a heroic job to help them. The book also shows the vibrant cultural life of immigrant communities -- the dance festivals, the music, the lives of families and children.

 David Bacon)During Occupy Oakland in 2011, the unions of the Alameda County Labor Council organized a march in support of Occupy. (Photo: David Bacon)

Truthout Progressive Pick In the Fields of the North By David Bacon

The humanity of those who put food on our tables.

Click here now to get the book!

Your photography complements your writing to give a strong sense of the dignity of your subjects. It is hard not to feel the humanity of the people whose stories you tell and capture in photos. Why did you choose to let the workers tell their own stories in most of the book?

This book looks at farm workers as active people, not just the victims of poverty or bad conditions. It's important, therefore, to hear their voices. They describe their lives and personal histories. They also talk about their own ideas and proposals for winning better conditions. The book concludes with photographs and a personal account of the strike in Washington State, which led to the organization of a new farm workers union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia. The photographs in the book were taken, and the interviews that produced the narratives, as a cooperative project between myself as a writer and photographer, and organizations in the migrant community, including California Rural Legal Assistance, the Frente Indigena de Organizaciones Binacionales and Familias Unidas por la Justicia.

What do you hope that readers of your photojournalism book take away with them?

I hope this book gives readers a better understanding of what life is like for people working in the fields, and therefore, a greater appreciation for those who produce the fruits and vegetables we all eat. It is a book that advocates for social justice, so I hope readers will gain a better idea of how farm workers participate in the larger social justice movements of the US and Mexico.

Categories: News

Paying Tribute to a Warrior Against Big Pharma: Zahara Heckscher

Sun, 03/04/2018 - 05:00

All of us at Public Citizen lift up in loving memory our dear friend and peaceful warrior Zahara Heckscher, who passed away on February 24 at the age of 53, after her years-long battle with breast cancer. 

Among her many talents as a writer, poet, teacher and facilitator, Zahara was a fierce, creative and committed activist. As she valiantly battled advanced breast cancer, she became determined to fight for all patients to have access to the cutting-edge cancer medicines that extended her life. 

When she learned that prescription drug companies were using the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations to lock in extended monopolies that threatened access to affordable medicines, Zahara became a passionate trade justice advocate on behalf of cancer patients around the world. 

She galvanized testimony from people living with cancer and HIV/AIDS from the United States and other TPP countries to protest what she dubbed the "TPP death sentence clause" -- a provision that would require governments to grant monopoly periods for biologic medicines used to treat cancer and other serious illnesses and thus deny patients access to more affordable generic and biosimilar medicines.  

The battle over biologics and access to cancer treatment was responsible for dragging out TPP talks for years. In October 2015, she carried those patients' stories with her to the final round of TPP negotiations in Atlanta to demand that the TPP negotiators drop the "death sentence clause". She was arrested as she attempted to enter the negotiations, holding an IV-pole, calling on the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) to drop its insistence on demanding the extended monopoly period for biologic medicines. 

The video of her arrest was shared widely on social media, and her subsequent media interviews on Democracy NowThe Big Picture and others contributed to the national conversation about the dangers of the TPP for health. Due in part to the advocacy of public health advocates like Zahara, the pharmaceutical industry and USTR failed to convince the other TPP nations to accept the full twelve-year monopoly they had been demanding, but the final TPP did include a five-year period.

Zahara insisted that cancer patients cannot wait even one additional year for access to medicines that can keep them alive, so she turned her efforts to stopping Congress from ratifying the TPP.

On World Cancer Day in February 2016, she and fellow cancer survivor Hannah were arrested blocking the entrance to PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry's lobby that had pushed the TPP death sentence clause, to warn the public and Congress about TPP's dangers for access to cancer medicines.  Together, Zahara and Hannah then co-founded Cancer Families for Affordable Medicines,creating public education and advocacy materials for cancer patients and their loved ones to support access to medicines by convincing their members of Congress to vote no on the TPP. 

As the pressure on Congress to pass the TPP mounted in the summer of 2016, Zahara took her message directly to Capitol Hill, getting arrested a third time at the office of Congressman Polis, and traveling to speak in-district to undecided members of Congress to demonstrate what was at stake in the TPP for cancer patients and their loved ones. Despite the fact that TPP passage was a top priority of the White House, Republican congressional leadership and Chamber of Commerce, the district-by-district activism by people like Zahara ensured that the TPP could not achieve majority support in Congress.

In the last year, Zahara's waning physical strength did not stop her from continuing her trade justice activism. Concerned by reports that the Trump administration was pushing for the same "death sentence clause" in its renegotiations of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), just last month, Zahara made an educational video to urge people to take action to ensure that NAFTA renegotiations not further undermine access to essential medicines.

Until the very end, Zahara used every tool at her disposal -- from her razor-sharp intellect to her poetic spirit to even the cancer itself  -- to bless the world and to change it for the better. Her strategic and creative trade justice activism was just one small piece of her multi-faceted legacy. She was an inspiration. We will miss her dearly.

Categories: News

California Court Blocks State Agriculture Department From Spraying Pesticides

Sun, 03/04/2018 - 05:00

In a win for environmental and public health advocates, a California court has halted a program that allows the state agriculture department to spray pesticides on public and private property without proper notice to the public about its intention to spray or adequate study of the possible adverse impacts of the chemicals used.

The court order, which came late last week, was in response to a lawsuit brought by 11 environmental and public health groups -- including the Environmental Working Group, Center for Food Safety, Pesticide Action Network North America, Center for Biological Diversity, and Moms Advocating Sustainability -- and the city of Berkeley.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture's (CDFA) Plant Pest Prevention and Management Program, which is supposed to control outbreaks of invasive plant pests, gave the agency the license to use 79 pesticides -- including some known to cause cancer and birth defects and to be highly toxic to bees, butterflies, and other wildlife -- anywhere it the state. The "anywhere" included school grounds, public parks, near organic farms, and even in private backyards.

The agriculture department uses the program to control pests such as the Asian citrus psyllid, which can infect citrus trees with a bacteria that has been wreaking havoc on citrus farms in Florida. Since the program was adopted in 2014, the agency has carried out more than 1,000 treatments across the state, sparying pesticides such as chlorpyrifos, neonicotinoids, methyl bromide, and chloropicrin, which are known for their toxicity.

The lawsuit sought to halt the program citing "far-reaching flaws in the state's analysis of the environmental harm" caused by the use of these pesticides, and the agriculture department's decades-long history of avoiding talking about the public health and environmental risks of the pesticides it uses by repeatedly granting itself emergency exemptions from environmental laws.

Environmental and public health activists have for years been trying to persuade the agency to shift to less toxic pest control alternatives to no avail. "The lawsuit was born out of concerns about flagrant pesticide spraying, rather than sensible pesticide policy," says Paul Towers, spokesperson for Pesticide Action Network North America. "State officials attempted to write themselves a blank check for 30 years to use harmful pesticides wherever they wanted."

California Superior Court Judge Timothy W. Frawley issued the injunction against the pest prevention program last Friday, following his January ruling that the program violated numerous state laws.

In his January ruling, Judge Frawley said the agriculture department had been relying on "unsupported assumptions and speculation" to conclude that pesticides would not contaminate water bodies. The ruling cited the state's "woefully deficient" analysis of the cumulative danger of increasing the more than 150 million pounds of pesticides already used in California each year.

The ruling halts the program until the state develops a system to give adequate public notice of its pesticide use activities and offer citizens more opportunities to comment on them. "The judge's ruling requires the department to adopt a tailored review and provide tailored solutions to each pest problem," Towers adds.

The agriculture department issued a brief statement on Monday saying it might appeal the ruling.

"The decision in EWG Plaintiffs vs. CDFA compels the state agriculture agency to reformulate its pesticide policies to restore the balance, as California law requires," Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook, a resident of Marin County, said in a statement. "For too long the state's own widespread pesticide spraying has been driven by agribusiness demands, without adequate consideration of the impacts on human health and the environment."

EWG also pointed out that California's agriculture department has a long history of working to downplay the risks pesticides pose to human health. In 2010, the agency gave a $180,000 grant to a chemical agriculture front group, the Alliance for Food and Farming, to attack EWG's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce.

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Categories: News

Emmanuel Macron Was Supposed to Be the Anti-Trump -- He's Not

Sat, 03/03/2018 - 05:00

Coming just months after the election of Donald Trump in the United States, and as illiberal authoritarianism seemed to be creeping all over Europe, the election of French president Emmanuel Macron brought a sigh of relief to many across Western democracies.

It was May 2017 when Macron, a pro-European centrist, decisively defeated the far-right, Euroskeptic Marine le Pen. Enthusiastic and patriotic messages such as "Vive la France" or "Vive l'Europe" poured in on Twitter from both sides of the Atlantic.

Some Americans weren't shy about describing Macron's victory as a defeat for both Trump and right-wing nationalism around the world. "Macron's win is a blow to far-right nationalism," former Obama adviser Ben Rhodes tweeted, and "and a sign that the Brexit-Trump wave has broken in West." Trump's defeated rival Hillary Clinton hailed the French vote as a "victory for Macron, for France, the EU, and the world."

Immediately after Macron took office, the young president postured to show the world he was no pushover. At his first official meeting with Trump ahead of the NATO summit that May, Macron engaged Trump in a bone crushing, never-ending, awkward handshake that played out like a standoff between the two men's divergent politics.

Videos and second by second analysis flooded the news cycle. "That's how you ensure you are respected," Macron gloated to the Journal du Dimanche newspaper afterward. "You have to show you won't make small concessions -- not even symbolic ones."

Riding on this confident wave, Macron went on to troll Trump's decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement by inviting US scientists and engineers to come work in France -- and then launching a campaign called "Make the planet great again."

But what some thought was the beginning of a boxing match between Macron and Trump ended up being a highly orchestrated WWE. The rivalry didn't last long. Indeed, just two months after the handshake, Macron feted Trump at a Bastille Day military parade in Paris. Trump was so impressed that he recently ordered his own military parade in the United States.

The policy convergence between the two rivals, however, goes far beyond a shared fondness for military pomp.

"President of the Rich"

Similarly to Trump, Macron promised a renewal of politics that would transcend the traditional left-right split. He crafted an image of himself as a highly ambitious leader who was unafraid of carrying out bold reforms and challenging the status quo in a Napoleonic -- or Trumpian -- kind of way.

More than eight months after he took office, it's now clear that Macron is no meek centrist -- and definitely not a progressive. He's more like a right-leaning, pro-market, elitist monarch, who shares more in common with Trump than his admirers imagined.

The former investment banker didn't wait long to start shaking the foundation of the French labor market. A few months after being elected, ignoring mass protests and concerns from unions, he enacted deeply controversial labor reforms with a series of executive orders.

Macron's "reforms" entirely reorganized the French labor market to give unprecedented power to employers and corporations. They play on the false and dangerous promise that deregulating labor markets will result in reduced unemployment and economic growth. While the French labor market remains more protective of workers than say, the U.S. model, this reform brings France much closer to the American model.

A few months later, Macron's bloc in the French parliament voted on a new budget that Trump would've happily signed. It slashed the corporate tax rate down to 25 percent (from 33 percent), scrapped a longstanding "solidarity tax on wealth" (France was the last EU country to have a wealth tax), cut 1.7 billion euros in housing aid, and eliminated 120,000 public contract jobs.

This led the well-respected French economist Thomas Piketty to compare Macron to Trump, who just passed a $1.5 trillion tax giveaway to the rich and corporations in the United States.

Both men, Piketty argues, share the same flawed economic vision -- a variant of the trickle-down theory that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher swore by. And both falsely claim that cutting taxes on the wealthiest benefits ordinary people and stimulates the economy by giving the rich incentives to invest in their country.

This theory was, of course, never proven scientifically -- and au contraire, reports have shown that these policies contribute to the rise of deep inequality. According to the Observatoire Français des Conjonctures Economiques (OFCE), an independent economic research center, 42 percent of the French tax reduction will in fact only benefit the wealthiest 2 percent. The numbers are comparably skewed in the United States.

Trump and Macron "refuse to take into account facts which are now well established, namely that the groups to which they give preference are those who have already acquired a disproportionate share of the growth in recent decades," Piketty concludes. Yet both presidents want the masses to cherish the wealthy, whom Trump hails as "job creators" and Macron calls "lead climbers."

No wonder opposition parties in France are calling Macron the "president of the rich."

Inhumanity to Immigrants

More surprisingly, given Macron's image as a redoubt against France's resurgent far right, the French president has tacked a decidedly Trumpian line on immigration. The man who once congratulated German Prime Minister Angela Merkel for responding "humanly" to the refugee crisis by opening Germany's doors now supports a crackdown on undocumented migrants.

This month, the administration is expected to unveil a new migration and asylum bill that will toughen immigration laws in an unprecedented way. NGOs, charities, and non-profit organizations describe the bill as inhumane and warn of potential human rights violations. "No government since the end of World War Two has dared" to go as far as Macron in tightening migration, French immigration Patrick Weil told Europe 1. Even members of Macron's own party are expressing serious concerns.

The bill reduces the time for migrants to apply for asylum from 120 days to 90 days, and to two weeks to appeal a decision instead of a month. On the other hand, it would increase the maximum time migrants spend in detention centers from 45 days to 90 days, and from 16 hours to 24 hours in case of administrative detention.

These measures give authorities more time and power to increase and accelerate deportations for those who are deemed unqualified for asylum. It's a tidy parallel to the massive deportation apparatus the Trump is building in the United States, while drastically cutting back the number of refugees the country accepts.

Meanwhile, humanitarian groups such as Human Rights Watch and Doctors Without Borders have been condemning French authorities for turning a blind eye to widespread reports of police violence against migrants, such as confiscating their sleeping bags and blankets in freezing temperatures, barring aid groups from distributing basic supplies, and indiscriminately attacking people with pepper spray.

And late last year, Macron's interior minister, Gerard Collomb, ordered regional authorities to conduct ID checks in emergency shelters. This would turn away undocumented migrants from seeking refuge and help in times of emergency.

Sure, the French president is highly educated, able to hold philosophical discussions, and does not bully his opponents on Twitter like his American counterpart, who's often described as unstable, provocative, and vulgar. However, they both have authoritarian tendencies and hold great disdain for the poor.

If there's a humane alternative to the plutocratic and xenophobic politics of the far right on both sides of the Atlantic, it won't be found in Macron's deceptively right-wing centrism.

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Categories: News

Five Things the Trump Administration Is Removing From Federal Websites

Sat, 03/03/2018 - 05:00
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Perhaps one of the best-remembered quotes from George Orwell's dystopian book 1984 is "Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past." Over the last year, the Trump administration has taken those words literally, using them as a blueprint to recreate a federal government focused on big business and socially conservative policy.

And nowhere has this been more apparent than on federal websites. Appointees have been scrubbing and rewriting text to erase climate changesexual health care, civil rights -- and even our nation's history.

Here are five things the Trump administration has removed from federal websites in an attempt to roll back progress.

1. Climate Change

As our country continues to be pounded by devastating and unseasonable storms, the Environmental Protection Agency is pretending that climate change remains just a theory. Removing mentions of climate change was one of Secretary Scott Pruitt's initial actions when he took over the agency, and he saw to it "personally," according to Newsweek.

"Recently released emails reveal that Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt personally oversaw efforts last year to strip information on climate change from the agency's website," Newsweek reports. "Internal messages sent in April 2017 show that newly appointed EPA leaders directed staffers to make key changes to the website. Edits ordered by Pruitt demanded that data on climate change and the Obama-era Clean Power Plan to be stripped away."

2. Our Historical Legacy of Immigration

Unless you're a Native American, there's no one in this country who doesn't have an immigrant in their family history -- willing or forced due to slavery. Yet in their anti-immigrant zealotry, the Trump administration is erasing that fact from our historical legacy.

USA Today reports:

The US is no longer devoted to securing "America's promise as a nation of immigrants." That's according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) anyway, which changed its official mission statement late Thursday and dropped the language to describe the country.

3. Bilingual Content

And as another sign of the administration's stance against immigration and racial diversity, the White House website has gone "English only" for the first time since the 1990s, with no Spanish translations of any information available online.

According to the Associated Press:

A year ago, then-presidential press secretary Sean Spicer said the new administration had deleted Spanish content on the White House webpage but its information technology folks were "working overtime" to develop a new site. In July, the White House director of media affairs, Helen Aguirre Ferre, said she expected a Spanish website to launch at the end of 2017. Now, Aguirre Ferre declines to say whether there are still plans to have a Spanish-language website.

4.LGBTQ People

One of the first actions taken by the administration was to remove any references to non-heterosexuality from the State Department website. Soon after the inauguration, NBC News reported:

On Tuesday, it appeared that nearly all mentions of the acronym "LGBT" had been taken off the State Department website (the department typically did not include the acronym's "Q," which is used by some -- though not all -- in the LGBTQ community). Entering "LGBT" into the website's search field resulted in numerous dead links where webpages used to house information about LGBTQ Pride month, LGBTQ refugees, LGBTQ human rights issues, human trafficking of LGBTQ people and the Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Persons.

Not only did such references never return, but the administration also created a "forbidden words" list that kept many LGBTQ terms from being used in official capacity at all.

 5. Women's Rights

And finally, as the State Department prepares to release its annual report on international human rights, women are being "pared back" when it comes to reproductive rights and freedom from gender-based discrimination. Politico reports:

State Department officials have been ordered to pare back passages in a soon-to-be-released annual report on global human rights that traditionally discuss women's reproductive rights and discrimination, according to five former and current department officials. The directive calls for stripping passages that describe societal views on family planning, including how much access women have to contraceptives and abortion. A broader section that chronicles racial, ethnic and sexual discrimination has also been ordered pared down, the current and former officials said.

Categories: News

"Excess" Emissions From Industrial Shutdowns and Startups Are Increasing Air Pollution

Sat, 03/03/2018 - 05:00

When Hurricane Harvey struck the Texas coast in August 2017, many industrial facilities had to shut down their operations before the storm arrived and restart once rainfall and flooding had subsided.

These shutdowns and startups, as well as accidents caused by the hurricane, led to a significant release of air pollutants. Over a period of about two weeks, data we compiled from the Texas' Air Emission Event Report Database indicates these sites released 2,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and other pollutants.

These types of emissions that result from startups, shutdowns or malfunctions are often referred to as "excess" or "upset" emissions and are particularly pronounced during times of natural disasters, as was the case with Hurricane Harvey.

However, as we document in a newly published study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, they also occur regularly during the routine operation of many industrial facilities, sometimes in large quantities. And, even if unintended or unavoidable, the pollutants released during these events are in violation of the U.S. Clean Air Act (CAA).

With the EPA now revisiting the rules regarding these air toxics, our study shows how significant they are to public health -- and how historically they have not been systematically tracked across the country or regulated comprehensively.

Excess Emissions in Texas

Our study examines the occurrence of excess emissions in industrial facilities in Texas over the period from 2002 to 2016. We focused on Texas because, unlike nearly all other states, it has established comprehensive reporting requirements. The state collects data on so-called hazardous air pollutants that cause harm to people exposed to them, such as benzene, as well as substances called criteria pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides that contribute to the formation of ozone.

As a general rule, states set limits to industrial air emissions based on provisions in their State Implementation Plan (SIP), which is their strategy for meeting CAA requirements. The EPA in turn is responsible for ensuring that each state's SIP is drafted in accordance with the CAA.

The CAA requires sources of air pollution to achieve continuous emissions reductions, which in essence means companies need to install and maintain equipment to limit the release of pollutants that happen during routine operations.

Excess emissions occur when pollution abatement systems, such as scrubbers, baghouses, or flares that curtail emissions before they are released, fail to fully operate as the result of an unexpected malfunction, startup or shutdown. That is, a facility fails to maintain continuous emissions reductions, thereby exceeding its permit limits.

Although one might assume that such occurrences are rare, we found that excess emissions in Texas are frequent, sometimes large, and likely result in significant health damages for individuals living in communities near where these emissions are released.

Specifically, there are four important takeaways from our study.

First, excess emissions represent a sizeable share of permitted (or routine) emissions. In the case of the natural gas liquids industry, excess emissions amounted to 77 thousand tons over the period 2004-2015, representing 58 percent of the industry's routine emissions for that pollutant. Refineries emitted 23 thousand tons of excess emissions (10 percent of their routine emissions of SO2) while oil and gas fields released 11 thousand tons (17 percent of their routine emissions of SO2).

A chart of excess emissions

Second, the distribution of excess emissions is highly skewed. While thousands of excess emissions events occur every year in Texas, the top 5 percent of events release more pollutants than all the other events combined. In extreme cases, excess emissions events can release vast amounts of pollutants in a very short period of time. In 2003, a Total oil refinery in Port Arthur emitted 1,296 tons of sulfur dioxide within 56 hours, due to a power outage caused by a lighting strike. That was almost twice the amount of the total sulfur dioxide that refinery emitted that year from its routine operations.

Third, several industrial sectors account for a disproportionate amount of excess emissions. Facilities in just five sectors -- natural gas liquids, refineries, industrial organic chemicals, electric services and oil and natural gas fields -- emit about 80 percent of all excess emissions from industrial facilities in Texas.

a chart of estimated damages from air toxics from excess emissions by county.

Moreover, a few facilities within each sector are responsible for the vast majority of excess emissions. For example, the top six oil refineries are responsible for 70 percent and 77 percent of the excess emissions of sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide, respectively, released from all 30 Texas refineries.

Finally, excess emissions have important health effects. Using a model that links pollution to mortality, we estimate that the health damages attributable to excess emissions in Texas between 2004-2015 averaged US$150 million annually. These estimates are certainly not comprehensive as they only consider damages from premature mortality due to particulate matter (PM) emissions caused by the emission of sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides.

The model does not account for the direct damage from other pollutants or from nonfatal, acute health events such as asthma attacks. As such, our estimate can be considered a lower bound.

Beyond Texas

The data we analyzed in our study reveal the magnitude of the problem caused by excess emissions. Yet, it is important to remember that they only capture the situation in Texas. We know very little about excess emissions and their trends over time at the national level. That's because Texas is one of just a few states (the others being Louisiana and Oklahoma) that systematically track and make public information on these type of pollution releases.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has gone as far as to implement a system that requires facilities to publicly report excess emissions events within 24 hours of their occurrence, information that the TCEQ then makes available on its website.

Although Texas is unique in its reporting requirements, excess emissions events are common elsewhere as the watchdog group the Environmental Integrity Project, has documented in a series of reports.

Excess Emissions Are Underregulated

The EPA, after decades of leaving excess emissions outside of its regulatory focus, made a concerted effort to update its approach during the final years of the Obama Administration.

Prompted by a lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club, the EPA issued a State Implementation Plan (SIP) call in 2015, asking states to revisit the way they regulate excess emissions. The agency found that certain SIP provisions in 36 states were "substantially inadequate to meet Clean Air Act (CAA) requirements."

This means that industrial facilities may have been regularly surpassing the limit of their permitted pollution limits, in part because of these excess emissions. But because of state agency exemption provisions, it could be the case that these facilities would not always be penalized. In other words, the EPA determined that many states had, as a matter of policy, often failed to treat excess emissions as violations and potentially shielded offending companies from paying fines.

The EPA is now revisiting its policy as part of the Trump administration's broader efforts to scale back many of EPA regulations and decisions during the Obama era. Given the frequency, magnitude, and important adverse effects for public health, the EPA's ultimate decision on how states should treat excess emissions is consequential.

In addition, much is still to be learned about the magnitude of the excess emissions problem across the country. If an effective regulatory framework is to be designed to reduce them, it is imperative that more states begin tracking excess emissions events in a detailed and systematic way, following the example set by Texas.

David Konisky receives funding from the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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The Conversation

Categories: News

Running for the White House Exits: Who Would Want to Work for President Trump Anyway?

Sat, 03/03/2018 - 05:00

White House Communications Director and presidential advisor Hope Hicks (C) arrives at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center February 27, 2018 in Washington, DC. Hicks is scheduled to testify behind closed doors to the House Intelligence Committee in its ongoing investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)White House Communications Director and presidential advisor Hope Hicks arrives at the US Capitol Visitors Center February 27, 2018, in Washington, DC. Hicks is scheduled to testify behind closed doors to the House Intelligence Committee in its ongoing investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

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Three weeks away from his next election, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia had developed an invincible nuclear weapon. America shrugged. There is so much craziness happening in US politics right now that it simply didn't register.

Even the most pessimistic of observers assumed that President Donald Trump's White House would have gotten at least a little bit better at this by now. But we're over a year into the Trump presidency and it's only getting more chaotic. There's a desperate quality to it that hasn't been there before and people are beginning to wonder if the administration is even minimally functional.

An astounding number of people have now left -- a nearly 34 percent turnover rate in the first year. It's unknown how many people have left the government since Trump took over, but the number is also quite likely high. And that's not even counting the number of vacancies that Trump and the Republicans just aren't bothering to fill in the first place.

From the moment Trump reluctantly let his good pal Michael Flynn go just three weeks into his presidency, it's been a series of resignations, firings, hirings and overwhelming disorganization. Apparently, the great businessman Donald Trump isn't a very good judge of talent. Nor can he manage his way out of a paper bag.

This week alone we learned that his most trusted aide, communications director Hope Hicks, is resigning -- a move that was apparently something that had been in works for some time but just happened to come on the heels of her embarrassing involvement with the accused domestic abuser Rob Porter, both on a personal and professional level. But it is also widely assumed that she may be legally exposed in the Russian investigation and is getting out before it gets any worse. Politico reported that yesterday:

President Donald Trump’s lawyers have urged him not to discuss details of the unfolding Russia investigation with anyone outside his legal team, warning of a conversational "bright line" that could put aides and associates in legal jeopardy, according to current and former Trump aides. But Trump often ignores that legal advice in the presence of senior aides -- including his departing confidante and White House communications director, Hope Hicks.

"I think the president has put her in a very precarious position," a senior Trump administration official said in a recent interview.

Hicks is not alone. Current and former Trump aides describe a president who often fails to observe boundaries about the Russia probe and who calls staffers into his office and raises the subject without warning.

That's typically selfish of Trump. He's putting staffers at legal risk and there's no way in the world that they won't be stuck with the legal bills. If he follows his usual pattern, Trump probably won't even pay his own.

Hicks isn't the only staffer to announce her resignation this week. According to BuzzFeed News, there are many more who are unhappy. And Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump's personal spokesman Josh Raffel also put in his papers. Who knows what he's been dragged into with the ongoing revelations of conflicts of interest and corruption by his bosses?

After all, this week we also learned that Kushner's top secret clearance had been downgraded to the point where most experts insist that he can no longer do the job he was supposedly hired to do. Evidently, American intelligence got word that foreign countries knew a sucker when they saw one and were plotting how to take advantage of Kushner's conflicts and naivete, so chief of staff John Kelly finally pulled the plug. Unfortunately, the word is that Kushner is one of the few who has no plans to leave. But perhaps that's understandable, since he's mainly been meeting with people who later gave his family business half a billion dollars in loans to help bail them out of their crushing debt.

According to CNN, FBI counterintelligence is also looking into Ivanka's business concerning a Trump Organization branding and management agreement with a Malaysian developer for a hotel in Vancouver, Canada. It's yet another of their complicated financing entanglements that is making it impossible for the members of this family to receive security clearances. (Why Ivanka needs one in the first place remains a mystery.)

Aside from dealing with a very, very difficult president who is clearly in way over his head, much of the tension in the White House stems from the Jared and Ivanka faction vs the Kelly faction. Kelly was on thin ice just two weeks ago over the mishandling of the Rob Porter affair but won a round with the downgrading of Kushner's security clearance. Nonetheless, Kelly seemed disillusioned on Thursday when he spoke at the 15th anniversary of Department of Homeland Security. He wryly joked, "The last thing I wanted to do was walk away from one of the great honors of my life, being the secretary of homeland security, but I did something wrong and God punished me, I guess."

One suspects that John Kelly may not be long for the Trump administration either. But he will probably last longer that national Security Adviser H. R. McMaster. Nicolle Wallace at NBC reported that he's leaving a soon as the end of this month. He and Trump don't get along well to begin with but Trump treated him like he was no better than a lowly Jeff Sessions after he said that the Russian interference was incontrovertible:

General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems. Remember the Dirty Dossier, Uranium, Speeches, Emails and the Podesta Company!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 18, 2018

Speaking of Sessions, Trump is also still lashing out at him publicly apparently hoping that he'll quit, a transparent gambit that now has Robert Mueller possibly seeing it as part of the cover up. Sessions seems to be staying put, even going so far as to put out a statement defending the integrity of the DOJ that almost sounded defiant. Then he went out to dinner with Trump's other nemesis, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, which had to make Trump blow his top.  After all, Trump wants Sessions gone but knows Senate Republicans would not be pleased. Whether that will ultimately stop him from doing what he clearly wants to do is unknown.

Trump and his White House are unraveling. The chaos and corruption are getting worse  and there's no end in sight. On Thursday, after an embarrassing lack of preparation or planning, and against the advice of his economic team, Trump announced that he's going to slap big tariffs on steel and aluminum, sending the stock market into a steep nosedive. Apparently his top economic adviser Gary Cohn has said he will resign  if this goes into effect.

So the exodus will not be ending any time soon. And nobody knows who they can find to replace all these people. What competent person would want to put on their resume that they worked for President Donald Trump?

Categories: News

We Can Be Heroes: Fighting to Win on Gun Reform

Sat, 03/03/2018 - 05:00

Activists hold up signs at the Florida State Capitol as they rally for gun reform legislation on February 26, 2018 in Tallahassee, Florida. In the wake of the February 14 school shooting that left 17 people dead, hundreds of people joined the Parkland students to call for gun reform. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)Activists hold up signs at the Florida State Capitol as they rally for gun reform legislation on February 26, 2018, in Tallahassee, Florida. In the wake of the February 14 school shooting that left 17 people dead, hundreds of people joined the Parkland students to call for gun reform. (Photo: Don Juan Moore / Getty Images) 

Genuine gun reform can happen, because it has happened; we need only look abroad to see that it's possible. Despite all the money and the political pressure and the vitriol and the stalled-out seeming hopelessness of the gun debate in the US, we can get this done, because we have to. Before you imagine yourself as nothing more than a bug smashed into the gun lobby's windshield, realize that you are far from alone.

Activists hold up signs at the Florida State Capitol as they rally for gun reform legislation on February 26, 2018 in Tallahassee, Florida. In the wake of the February 14 school shooting that left 17 people dead, hundreds of people joined the Parkland students to call for gun reform. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)Activists hold up signs at the Florida State Capitol as they rally for gun reform legislation on February 26, 2018, in Tallahassee, Florida. In the wake of the February 14 school shooting that left 17 people dead, hundreds of people joined the Parkland students to call for gun reform. (Photo: Don Juan Moore / Getty Images) 

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I … I can remember
Standing by the wall
And the guns shot above our heads
And we kissed as though nothing could fall

And the shame was on the other side
Oh we can beat them, forever and ever
Then we could be heroes, just for one day ...

—David Bowie

Sit by the river long enough and sooner or later you'll see everything. Now see this:

Hundreds of faithful at a Pennsylvania church on Wednesday carried AR-15-style rifles, in adherence to their belief that a "rod of iron" mentioned in the Bible refers to the type of weapon that was used in last month's mass shooting in Parkland, Fla.

The armed ceremony at World Peace and Unification Sanctuary in Newfoundland, about 20 miles southeast of Scranton, featured gun-toting worshippers, some wearing crowns of bullets as they participated in communion and wedding ceremonies.

Attendants carefully placed a zip tie into the receiver magazine well of each weapon to assure that a clip could not be loaded.

Well, thank packin' Jesus for the zip ties. Safety first, folks.

Rev. Hyung Jin "Sean" Moon, youngest son of the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon, presided over what was officially called the Cosmic True Parents of Heaven, Earth and Humanity Cheon Il Guk Book of Life Registration Blessing, part of a "Festival of Grace" that included a "President Trump Thank You Dinner."

Rev. "Sean" Moon's brother, "Justin" Moon Kook-jin, owns Kahr Arms, a gun manufacturer located just down the road in Greeley. "I actually purchased my weapon there yesterday," one parishioner told NPR, "because although I have several rifles, I didn't have an AR-15." The nearby elementary school was evacuated for the ceremony. A bunch of kids lost a day of learning so some folks could basically marry their assault rifles.

Encompassing all this, I very nearly surrendered on the spot.

You can't blow this off as just another strange Moon-related adventure, I thought to myself, not while still deep in the shadow of the Parkland massacre. The Cosmic True Parents of Heaven, Earth and Humanity Cheon Il Guk Book of Life Registration Blessing, starring God's own zip-tied "rod of iron," is as American as apple pie … or at least as American as the Westboro Baptist Church. Complete with a blessing for Trump, it is the inevitable endpoint of this nation's implacable gun obsession.

Can anything overcome the mindless, lethal inertia of this thing, or should we just turn every shooting range into a house of worship (tax-exempt, of course) and have done with it?

I'm wide open to new ideas. Thankfully, so are a lot of folks who are making real change in the realm of gun violence.

In April of 1996, a gunman using an AR-15 killed 35 people in Tasmania, Australia. The horror and sorrow left in the wake of the massacre motivated that nation to make sea changes to its gun laws. Called the National Firearms Programme Implementation Act 1996, the new law restricted private ownership of semi-automatic rifles, along with pump- and semi-automatic shotguns. Uniform firearms licensing was likewise introduced. All these measures enjoyed bipartisan support by the Commonwealth, states and territories, and Australia has not endured a single mass shooting since.

Last year, Australian authorities held a July-to-September illegal gun amnesty. When all was said and done, some 57,000 illegal weapons were turned over, including 35,000 rifles and 12,000 shotguns.

In 2011, a self-identified fascist opened fire at a Worker's Youth League summer camp on Utøya island in Norway, killing 77 people. Most of the victims were children or teenagers, and among the weapons used was a semi-automatic rifle similar to an AR-15.

Today, the Norwegian government is poised to approve sweeping restrictions on the private ownership of such weapons. The new measures would also include updated background checks.

In other words: Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. Genuine gun reform can happen, because it has happened. Despite all the money and the political pressure and the vitriol and the stalled-out seeming hopelessness of the gun debate in the US, we can also get this done, because we have to. Before you imagine yourself as nothing more than a bug smashed into the gun lobby's windshield, realize that you are far from alone.

Here in the US, a wide variety of organizations have been working for years to achieve true change. Mothers Against Senseless Killings (MASK) is a project undertaken by Chicago activist and mother Tamar Manassah after she had seen too many children and young people of color dying before the barrel of a gun. Armed only with fellow local mothers and lawn chairs, Manassah and her group placed themselves visibly on the street corners of a high-violence neighborhood at night. They fed the neighborhood youth and got to know them. They maintained a continual presence on the street.

"Three years -- and 15,000 meals, thousands of backpack giveaways, hundreds of pep talks, millions of hugs, a few bee stings, some sunburns and countless new relationships -- later, we have not had a shooting on the block," writes Manassah for Truthout. "Not one. The lesson I learned was in order to save my own children, I had to try to save them all. Even the ones who have guns. They are all still just children, and on any day in poor and forgotten neighborhoods, the shooter can very well be the victim and the victim the shooter."

Courage To Fight Gun Violence and the Giffords Law Center were established by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot along with 18 other people outside a Safeway near Tucson. Among the six who died in the attack were a six-year-old girl and a federal judge. Rep. Giffords formed these organizations in the aftermath as part of a mission to "save lives from gun violence by shifting culture, changing policies, and challenging injustice." Their ongoing work involves organizing like-minded activists, preparing and disbursing research on gun violence for use by other groups and lobbying lawmakers to pass effective gun reform legislation.

And then there are the Parkland student activists, coming down the mountain like a peal of highly organized thunder. The one-two punch of these youth and their courage, combined with an amazingly effective and still-growing NRA boycott, has the entire pro-gun universe rocked back on its heels. Even Donald Trump was preaching the gospel of gun reform on Wednesday, to the astonishment of his GOP colleagues, until the NRA's top lobbyist got in his ear and brought him back into the fold.

There are many heroes in this fight. They could use some company. There will always be a Cosmic True Parents of Heaven, Earth and Humanity Cheon Il Guk Book of Life Registration Blessing to make you question even the fundamental reality of the ground you're standing on. Thankfully, there will also always be folks to remind you up is that way, water remains wet and there is nothing that can't be done when the will of good people bends toward the light.

Categories: News

Is a US Consumer Watchdog Neglecting Payday Loans?

Sat, 03/03/2018 - 05:00

Over the past couple decades, as one state after another eviscerated its laws regulating how much interest can be charged on a loan, payday lending has exploded around the country. Millions of low-income Americans, locked out of more favorable credit systems, rely on these loans to tide them over from one payday to the next. In the Trump era, advocates working to alleviate poverty are concerned that this industry is experiencing a golden age.

In the Trump era, advocates working to alleviate poverty are concerned that the payday lending industry is experiencing a golden age. In the Trump era, advocates working to alleviate poverty are concerned that the payday lending industry is experiencing a golden age. (Photo: Taber Andrew Bain)

A little under four years ago, when Stephany Morales's daughter was 6 months old, the girl developed a bronchial infection. Morales, who was studying for her nurses' certification in Nevada at the time, took her daughter to the hospital, where doctors said that she needed a nebulizer unit.

Morales, then 19, didn't have a credit card or any other ready source of cash. Her health insurance didn't cover a nebulizer rental. Desperate to protect her baby's health, Morales ducked into a payday lending business and borrowed $400.

At the moment, the loan seemed the easiest way to get much-needed cash. In reality, it was the beginning of a nightmare. Already living on the edge financially, Morales found it impossible to repay the small loan. Every two weeks, she accrued another $55 in fees as she rolled the payday loan over again, on top of interest on the loan and origination fees for opening another loan to pay off the first.

Over the course of that first year, she paid, in fees, many times the original value of the loan. She began borrowing from one payday lender to pay off another. Each loan resulted in more debt, more fees.

"You don't see how deep you're getting in, because of the cycle of debt," Morales explains more than three years later. Swimming in debt, she lost her 1984 Toyota Camry, then had to quit nursing school. She moved to Washington state, where she has been treading water in a low-wage job, hoping against hope to find the means to complete her nursing studies. That original $400 loan, she estimates, has cost her more than $10,000 already. She says that she still owes more than $11,000 to payday lenders and a car title loan company. Her credit is ruined.

"There's no way I can ever pay it back," Morales believes.


Over the past couple decades, as one state after another eviscerated its laws regulating how much interest can be charged on a loan, in the name of deregulation, payday lending has exploded around the country.

Millions of low-income Americans, locked out of more favorable credit systems, rely on these loans, which critics call monstrously exploitative, to tide them over from one payday to the next.

The loans, critics add, are clearly structured so as to be unpayable, designed to fleece vulnerable clients for every cent they have. Borrowers risk losing their cars, their tax rebates, their bank accounts and even their homes simply because they need a few hundred dollars quickly, usually for a small, everyday, expense, and don't have collateral for a traditional loan.

In Albuquerque, New Mexico -- a state with 66,000 outstanding payday loans to 12,000 consumers, many of them on Native American reservations, and more than 700 payday lending companies in operation as of the end of 2015  -- grassroots advocates expressed concerns, among many, about a retiree who ended up $9,100 behind on his mortgage payments and was hovering on the edge of foreclosure after racking up huge payday loan debt.

"Their business model is to strip away wealth and security, to take advantage of people who don't have enough to make ends meet," says George Goehl, co-director of the Chicago-based People's Action Institute and People's Action's Action, a national organization which has been coordinating with other progressive groups nationwide to try to rein in the industry.

Rev. Wes Helm of the social justice organization Faith in Texas says his researchers have been interviewing Dallas-area congregants about payday loans since 2015. The loans, he observes, "put people into a financial death spiral."

Texas has some of the worst payday lending conditions in the country, advocates say, with some loans tapping out at more than 1,000 percent interest annually. That's about 300 times the interest rate banks charge a person with good credit for a 15-year-mortgage.

Helm recalls a musician who placed his tuba in a pawnshop, then took out a loan from a payday lender so he wouldn't lose his instrument.

It didn't work. Once he got caught in the payday lending trap, he quickly lost not only his tuba but his apartment as well. His marriage was destroyed by the stress of debt, and eventually he ended up couch surfing from one friend's home to the next.


In recent years, payday lenders have stripped poor communities of more than $10 billion, according to estimates generated by People's Action. Absent a federal mandate to limit interest rates, some states have become havens for what many view as predatory short-term lending. The Center for Responsible Lending has calculated that the average payday loan issued in Texas has an annual percentage rate (APR) of 662 percent; in Ohio, it is 677 percent; in Delaware, 521 percent; in Utah, it is 6548 percent; in Nevada, 652 percent; in Virginia, 601 percent; in Wisconsin, 574 percent; in California, 460 percent.

While these states, advocates say, are among the worst environment for payday loan clients, in the great majority of states  --  those lacking explicit interest rate caps  -- borrowers will rack up many hundreds of percent a year interest on these loans.

During the Obama presidency, however, consumer advocates began to make progress against payday lending practices that trapped borrowers. A dozen states -- including North Carolina, New Jersey, South Dakota and Arizona  -- enacted laws curtailing the interest day lenders could charge.

In many instances, these restrictions were explicitly intended to drive payday lenders out of the state, using as a template congressional legislation, passed in 2006  -- the Military Lending Act  -- that restricted interest charged to those in the armed services, and their families, to 36 percent.

The impetus for this legislation was a widespread recognition of the dangerous situation that occurred when large numbers of military personnel were driven into conditions of debt from which they could not escape. Where state legislators were unwilling to take action, localities -- including 43 cities in Texas -- placed their own ordinances regulating the activity of payday lenders.

While Congress hasn't expanded the Military Lending Act to cover the broader population, over the past decade there were a few small moves toward reining in the payday lending industry at the federal level. In the wake of the financial crisis, the Obama administration established the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). While legally prohibited from setting a federal cap on interest rates, the CFPB does have the power to mandate that lenders verify the income sources of borrowers, and also to limit the number of loans people can take out simultaneously.

In 2017, still controlled by Obama-era appointees, the CFPB established what is called an "ability to repay principle," mandating that payday lenders look at would-be borrowers' income and expenses before determining whether to grant loans in most instances. 

In part because of its attempts to control payday lending, which grassroots advocates say has a powerful lobby, the CFPB became a GOP punching bag. Trump has called the agency a "total disaster."

US Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, who is chair of the House Finance Committee, has pushed a bill that would limit the CFPB's abilities to carry out oversight of the payday loan industry.

In October 2017, when the CFPB released a set of rules intended to limit the reach of traditional payday lenders, the Trump administration-dominated Office of the Controller of the Currency (OCC), responded by repealing guidance that has kept banks out of the payday lending industry. The OCC is an independent bureau of the US Treasury Department.

Shortly after Thanksgiving 2017, a month after the rules aimed at the payday loan industry were released, Trump appointed Mick Mulvaney, an outspoken critic of the CFPB, as acting director of the bureau. Many advocates viewed it as a deliberately destructive appointment, similar to the naming of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

In January, Mulvaney said he would not ask the Federal Reserve, which funds the CFPB, for any money for the second quarter of 2017. Of the $177 million it has in its emergency fund, Mulvaney plans to spend that amount down until there is about $32 million left, The Associated Press reported. The financial watchdog also will review its payday lending regulations, as well as its entire operations, the news agency said.

Over the coming months, the fight to preserve the CFPB will likely intensify. For the estimated 12 million Americans caught in the payday loan trap, and the millions whose poverty and lack of access to traditional credit sources leave them vulnerable to payday lenders in the future, the stakes could hardly be higher. Dismantling the CFPB, warns Helm, "would be a free ticket for payday lenders. When you're driving a dangerous road, you don't need access to the ravine."

For 42-year-old Michigan resident Ken Whittaker, the payday lending trap opened up after he got into financial trouble when he cashed his paycheck from his IT support job one morning, and then dropped and lost the wad of cash while buying lunch at a hot dog stand later that day.

Divorced, raising four children and only recently employed again after a long stint of unemployment, with a history of poor credit and owning no credit cards, Whittacker was living paycheck to paycheck.

When he realized he had lost his cash, he went into a payday loan office in Ipsalanti, filled out some paperwork and walked out with $700 in cash.

"I took the $700, paid my bills, which left me with zero dollars. When I got my paycheck I went in and paid off my loan, which left me with no money. So, I took out another loan. I did that for a year," he says.

When he had to pay for car repairs, he took out another loan, meaning that now he had to service two short-term debts simultaneously. Soon, he was paying $600 a month in fees and interest. "Eventually I didn't pay them, and they said they'd take the money out of my bank account. So, I closed my bank account. They sent me to a collection agency," he adds.

Finally, the payday lenders seized his tax refund.


Community organizers around the country say payday lending has become a devastating crisis, exacerbating social divides between those with access to traditional sources of credit and those reliant on storefront payday lending operations.

In Alabama, for example, borrowers are disproportionately made up of African Americans, Latinos, and poor rural Whites who lack access to more favorable forms of credit, says Chris Sanders of Alabama-based Arise Citizens' Policy Project, a coalition organization working with to improve the lives of low-income residents.

In the Trump era, with regulatory agencies facing dramatic change and a growing concern about an effort to roll back consumer protections, advocates working to alleviate poverty are concerned that the payday lending industry is experiencing a golden age. At the federal level, the CFPB is being run by an acting director who is a critic of it. Also, some advocates have expressed concern that the little-known Congressional Review Act might be used to accelerate deregulation efforts.

Even small state-level gains, such as an Alabama requirement that the state's banking department track the number of payday loans issued to make sure that borrowers don't have more $500 dollars in payday loans outstanding, are being threatened by anti-regulators.

"There are forces in Congress looking at preventing any kind of regulation," says Helm, whose grassroots organization is affiliated with PICO National Network. "The Trump administration has a huge emphasis on deregulation, which we're concerned will extend to payday lending and other kinds of predatory lending as well."

Says the 68-year-old New Mexican fighting to stay in his home: "If anybody asks me about payday loans, I'd tell them, 'You'd be better off living on the streets.' They are going to want your money, and it's going to screw up your credit. I don't know how things are going to work out. I'm having to let it all go. If I lose my home, I may have to live on the streets, or with friends. Things are up in the air. I don't know which way I'm going."

Published by Marguerite Casey Foundation.

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Categories: News

Three Democratic Campaigns Now Have Staff Unions. Why Not More?

Fri, 03/02/2018 - 15:30

All signs point to a messy battle in the 2020 Democratic primaries, pitting establishment types against democratic socialists. The staffers for a few 2018 Congressional candidates could be pioneering a new litmus test for determining candidates' progressive credentials: Do they recognize their employees' union?

 Randy Bryce / Facebook)Congressional candidate Randy Bryce. (Photo: Randy Bryce / Facebook)

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All signs point to a messy battle in the 2020 Democratic primaries, pitting establishment types against democratic socialists. Thanks to an effort spearheaded largely by Bernie Sanders' 2016 campaigners, the staffers for a few 2018 Congressional candidates could be pioneering a new litmus test for determining candidates' progressive credentials: Do they recognize their employees' union?

Last week, the upstart Campaign Workers Guild (CWG) announced that staff members at three Democratic campaigns around the country have formed unions, each of which was voluntarily recognized. Campaigners for Jess King, running for a House seat representing southeastern Pennsylvania, Randy Bryce, vying to take Paul Ryan's Congressional seat, and Chris Wilhelm, running for Montgomery County Council, have each successfully negotiated union contracts with their progressive -- and in some cases openly Left -- bosses. The two non-management staffers in Democrat Dan Haberman's campaign for Michigan's 11th Congressional District have also taken first steps toward a collective bargaining agreement, with Haberman recently signing a letter of support for the process to move forward.

While these efforts will almost certainly transform working conditions for electoral staffers, the organizing drives might also transform the Democratic Party.

"Every campaign worker at a certain point has either joked about joining a union or unionizing their workplace," says Brian Wivell, field director for the Wilhelm campaign, and one half of a newly-minted, two-person CWG local. At a previous campaign he worked on, staffers hung the union logo from the fictional Springfield Nuclear Power Plant -- of Simpsons fame -- in their office. "As soon as we heard this was happening, we jumped on it," he tells In These Times.

Campaign work often involves long hours -- 80 to 100 per week -- for little pay, particularly for those on the lower rungs of the hierarchy of electoral politics. Piled-up expenses -- for gas, especially -- often don't get reimbursed, and staffers can find themselves staying in precarious housing with supporters of the campaign while out on the road. The frantic, temporary nature of campaigns also means there's little recourse for employees who face sexual assault or harassment on the job, a problem compounded by the fact that so much of the economy of campaign work depends on relationships within a relatively small network of staffers, at the state and local levels especially. Aside from improving wages and working conditions across campaigns, one of the biggest impacts of the CWG's efforts could be establishing an industry-standard policy for dealing with sexual assault and harassment.

Campaign staffers are hoping to address harassment from supervisors and coworkers, as well as volunteers, who they depend on to meet canvassing and phone-banking quotas. As CWG organizer Meg Reilly puts it, "If your boss is constantly breathing down your neck saying you didn't meet your goals, do you report [a volunteer] for being a creep or get your numbers up so you don't get fired?"

Reilly realizes the optics of CWG emerging from several former Sanders campaign staffers might raise questions about the Senator's labor practices. But she says that Bernie was not a bad boss at all. "The Bernie campaign was just about as good as you could get," Reilly underscores. "It's the Cadillac: We got days off and health insurance. It's just that on the Bernie campaign we had a lot of pro-labor people, and people who were fairly radical."

Of sexual harassment and assault, Reilly says, "Campaigns are just rife for it. You're spending 80 to 100 hours a week all together, and campaigns are so small. Everyone knows everyone, and there's a huge fear of being blacklisted if you do report something. A lot of people who are victims of harassment or assault don't say anything but because they're afraid of being blacklisted." When abuses are reported, she explains, they tend to be handled internally. By contrast, the contracts the Guild has negotiated so far explicitly outline a process for handling such processes through a third party.

"On campaigns, there is no HR department," says Lauren Hitt, communications director for the Bryce campaign and a member of the bargaining unit there. (I spoke with her and Bryce jointly by phone.) "Problems are always better solved when you address them before they're problems, and have policies laid out and written down. That's a big difference from the way campaigns operate now. There has never been anything like that."

Reilly says that some CWG contracts included mandatory training on issues of sexual harassment. "A big part of it is just admitting that it happens. A big part of this culture is silence around it," she argues. "And a big part of the training is just admitting that progressive and left campaigns are not immune from this."

The campaign staffers that have organized so far faced relatively friendly audiences. The first shop -- Bryce's campaign -- came about when his digital director, Nate Rifkin, asked him about the idea of starting a staff union as they were driving around talking to voters in Wisconsin. "It was a no-brainer," Bryce tells In These Times. "It's an extension of why I'm running in the first place. It comes down to what's important to me as a candidate. It's not about me. I am where I am today because we have a very talented staff." Staffers hammered out a contract with management, which includes Bryce and campaign manager David Keith, who both have hiring and firing power. An Ironworker, Bryce got his start in politics through his union, and has campaigned as a working-class opponent to incumbent Paul Ryan.

Reilly, who worked for the Sanders campaign in 2016, ultimately hopes that CWG will adopt a "hiring hall" model, along the lines of the building trades. As in those industries, campaign work can be sporadic, with staffers facing months-long gaps between election cycles. Membership in the union provides workers with a backstop of support in dry months, and sets industry standards on wages and working conditions.

"Even if campaigns go well, they end, and the staff is looking for another job," says Hitt. "Most campaign workers -- if they do it from campaign to campaign -- are looking at at least a month or two when they're unemployed." Several of the staffers In These Times spoke with noted that such chronic instability means campaign demographics tend to skew toward the people best able to shoulder it: young, white and middle class individuals, often recent college graduates. Hitt, Reilly and others were excited about the potential of unionization to diversify campaigning more generally, making it a more stable prospect for people dealing with student debt or familial responsibilities.

"You have to be pretty privileged to work for such little pay, and to have a place to crash in campaigns," Reilly says. "It all sort of fits together like a puzzle. Even progressive candidates who talk the talk about diversity -- even reparations -- don't pay attention to the fact that their campaign staff is coming from a pretty homogenous background." She notes that campaign workers are often expected to have their own cars and phones, on top of sacrificing time that might otherwise be used to care for children or loved ones.

"Just personally, I have epilepsy. So not having healthcare consistently and paying for anti-seizure medications isn't an option for me," Hitt says, adding that it was only in the past several years that healthcare benefits became widespread for campaign staffers. Stipulations already built into certain CWG contracts -- for benefits and higher wages, for instance -- could make campaigning more accessible to organizers from diverse backgrounds, potentially expanding the range of communities within candidates can build relationships with.

Wivell tells In These Times that he "would love to see a future where there's a Project Labor Agreement between the Democratic Party and campaign workers. There is a reason the building trades follow that path and are able to enforce certain standards for workplace protections." When unionized crews aren't used in construction projects, it's not uncommon to see an inflatable rat outside of job sites. Feasibly, the same thing could happen to Democratic campaigns who hire non-union staff.

Staff unionization could also factor into Democrats' efforts to win endorsements from organized labor. Especially in state and local races, union endorsements can offer critical resources. Often that money goes toward candidates considered to have the surest chance at winning; their willingness to fight for organized labor can sometimes take a backseat. Yet the optics of a union endorsing a candidate that either failed to recognize or even fought a staff union are more stark, and could create an uncomfortable situation for establishment or even progressive Democrats who are more willing to make public overtures to unions than welcome them into their own campaigns. "It's really hard to take labor's money and endorsement and not actively support labor when it's coming to organize," Harry Baker, Wivell's data director, tells In These Times.

As it broadens the range of people who are able to work on campaigns, CWG hopes that collective bargaining agreements will translate into rank-and-file campaign staffs having more say over their campaigns' strategy. It is well known that electoral work runs on strict hierarchies, but a strong bargaining unit could democratize decisions around things like outreach strategies and messaging.

As in the building trades, CWG envisions that the union could at some point offer not just economic security, but training -- to keep staffers updated on the latest voter database software, for instance. Like any other profession, political campaigns require specialized skills. The union could help candidates standardize how those skills are developed and ensure that staffers are competent and up-to-date on the latest developments in their field.

"Every cycle we hear about how field is the most important part of any campaign," Reilly says. "It's a really specific skill set, and we think that it's really been hurting candidates -- Democratic and others -- to not be systematically investing in it. We can train up these workers who are really excited to work. We think if we treated the workers better and kept them trained, we could win more campaigns."

Having started around a year ago, CWG now has a 16-member advisory board comprised of both former Sanders and Clinton staffers. Union members pay $30 a month in dues, and campaign workers who aren't actively working on a campaign can affiliate for $10 a month. CWG is eager to support union drives from Republican campaign staffers, although the union hasn't gotten any bites yet. To date, Reilly says, the union is working to win contracts and recognition on everything from local ballot-initiative campaigns to Senate races.

Organizers see the CWG as similar in spirit to the unionization campaigns taking place in some digital newsrooms -- beneficial both as a way to improve wages and working conditions and to build solidarity among white-collar workers for working-class politics in the United States and abroad.

In These Times asked Hitt and Bryce whether they had heard rumblings from Paul Ryan's Congressional campaign about any latent unionization efforts. Laughing, Bryce replied that his office had just dropped off 16,000 signatures to his Racine office calling for gun reform: "I kicked myself afterwards for not asking them."

Categories: News

Mother of Accused NSA Leaker Reality Winner: My Daughter Wasn't Read Her Miranda Rights

Fri, 03/02/2018 - 05:00

On Tuesday, former US intelligence contractor Reality Leigh Winner appeared in court in Augusta, Georgia, where her lawyers asked the judge to exclude her statements to FBI agents on the day she was arrested, arguing she was denied her Miranda rights. Winner is a former National Security Agency contractor who has pleaded not guilty to charges she leaked a top-secret document to The Intercept about Russian interference in the 2016 election. She is facing up to 10 years in prison on charges she violated the Espionage Act. For more, we speak with two guests. In Chicago, we're joined by Kevin Gosztola, a journalist and managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He was in the courtroom in Augusta on Tuesday, and his recent article is titled "In Reality Winner's Case, Defense Seizes Upon FBITestimony to Bolster Motion to Suppress Statements." And in Augusta, Georgia, we speak with by Reality Winner's mother, Billie Winner-Davis. She's joining us from her daughter's house, where Reality Winner was questioned and arrested by FBI agents on June 3.


AMY GOODMAN: We begin today's show with updates in the case of former US intelligence contractor Reality Leigh Winner, who's facing up to 10 years in prison on charges she violated the Espionage Act. Winner is a former National Security Agency contractor who's pleaded not guilty to charges she leaked a top-secret document to The Intercept about Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Reality Winner was arrested by FBI agents at her home in Augusta, Georgia, on June 3rd, two days before The Intercept published an exposé revealing Russian military intelligence conducted a cyberattack on at least one US voting software company just days before the US presidential election last November. The exposé was based on a classified NSA report from May 5th, 2017, that shows that the agency is convinced the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, was responsible for interfering in the 2016 presidential election.

Reality is the first whistleblower to be accused of violating the Espionage Act under the Trump administration. She's been denied bail and has been jailed since June. On Tuesday, she appeared in court in Augusta, Georgia, in orange jumpsuit and shackles, where her lawyers asked the judge to exclude her statements to the FBIagents on the day she was arrested, arguing she was denied her Miranda rights.

Well, we're joined right now by two guests. In Chicago, Kevin Gosztola is with us, managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He's been covering Reality Winner's case and has just come back from Augusta. He's also covered several whistleblower cases, including Chelsea Manning's. He was in the courtroom in Augusta Tuesday. And his recent article is headlined "In Reality Winner's Case, Defense Seizes Upon FBI Testimony to Bolster Motion to Suppress Statements." But first we go to Augusta, Georgia, where we're joined by Reality Winner's mother, Billie Winner-Davis. She's joining us from her daughter's home, where Reality was questioned and arrested by FBI agents on June 3rd.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Billie Winner-Davis, let's begin with you. As you sit in Reality's home, talk about what you understood happened that first weekend of June in 2017. Walk us through this.

BILLIE WINNER-DAVIS: Well, on June 3rd, Reality returned from a trip to the grocery store, and she was immediately approached by male FBI agents at her home. They advised her that they had a search warrant -- they had search warrants for her home, her car and her person. She cooperated with them fully. They took her cellphone. They took her keys. They asked her if she had a place -- if she wanted to basically be interviewed here at her home or if she wanted to go down to the FBI office. She agreed to be interviewed here at her home. They asked if she had a place that they could interview her that was away from everything. She advised them that she did have a spare back room, a bedroom here in the house. She advised them that she was not comfortable going into that room. She called the room creepy and weird. They nevertheless led her to that room to interview her with regard to their investigation.

This week, in court, her lawyers argued that, basically, the actions that the FBIagents took were actions that confined her. They had her in their custody. She never felt at any time that she was free to leave. And in fact, her actions during the interview and during the whole process told them that she felt like she wasn't free to leave. She asked for permission to move about. She asked for permission to even use the restroom, which they gave her. She was at all times accompanied by agents. And on that day, it was 11 FBI agents that came into this home to either interview her or search her. And so -- and it is a very small home. And so, basically, I get the impression that it was very frightening, it was very intimidating, for her that day.

AMY GOODMAN: Billie, the FBI agents were armed?

BILLIE WINNER-DAVIS: Yes. From what we've learned, nine of the 11 FBI agents and personnel here at her home that day were armed.

AMY GOODMAN: And they immediately took her cellphone and her car keys, and they said -- and they took her into that room that she has described as creepy?

BILLIE WINNER-DAVIS: Yes, that is correct. That is correct. And at no point did they return her cellphone to her, return her car keys to her. We saw photographs which definitely showed that her car was surrounded. There would have been no physical way for her to even leave in her vehicle if she wanted to. And so, the argument that the defense made this week was a strong one, that she was basically being held here.

AMY GOODMAN: Was she read her Miranda rights?

BILLIE WINNER-DAVIS: Yes, ma'am? No, she was never read her Miranda rights. And the FBI agents did admit to that. They did admit that at no time did they read her Miranda rights or did they feel like they had to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is what's at issue, is that right? Her lawyers want to suppress her statements to the FBI, saying she was not read her Miranda rights, not told she could remain silent or have a lawyer with her.

BILLIE WINNER-DAVIS: That's correct. That's correct.

AMY GOODMAN: Kevin Gosztola, you've not only covered this trial, but others. Can you talk further about what this means? What happened to Reality on that day?

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: [inaudible] rights, which goes to, you know, due process issues and whether a person has a right to remain silent. One of the aspects of the law that is at issue here is something that I didn't really know, until this case, existed: a concept called custodial interrogation. And FBI agents apparently can come into your home, and if you're not in a police-dominated atmosphere, if a court of law doesn't determine that police took over this area, then in fact you were never detained or arrested, and they can basically manipulate or have their way with you. And so, what the judge is looking at here is whether enough factors appear where she is actually in custody. And if that's the case, if the judge agrees with the defense, what they've listed off and what Billie was talking about, then, in fact, the judge may rule that her rights were violated.

And some other things that were talked about is the fact that, you know, she had a search warrant for her person -- or the FBI had a search warrant for her person. And when they came there, the government wants to maintain that they executed it when they took the cellphone. But about 28 minutes into this whole encounter, another agent, who did not take the stand, Wally Taylor, said something about still having a search warrant for her person. Nobody is free to leave if the FBI still has a search warrant to execute against you. And so, clearly, she couldn't have left her home and just wandered to the convenience store, as the government talked during the hearing.

Another aspect that's important is that she was regarded, even before this encounter, as someone who was a danger to the community. That's how the FBI viewed her. They also viewed her as a potential target of foreign intelligence. One way that the defense really tried to poke at the government's arguments that they didn't do anything wrong was to say that if you have somebody in their home and they're isolated in this way and they're surrounded by a surveillance team, you're not really going to let them leave and go into the community. You know, if we're going to follow your logic, you wouldn't have let Reality Winner leave her house.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Billie Winner-Davis, you know your daughter well. She's an Air Force veteran -- her rank, senior airman; her last duty, cryptologic language analyst. She had been stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland, before working in Augusta. That military training, with having FBI come in, what would be her assumption, now stripped of phone, car keys, asking to go to the bathroom?

BILLIE WINNER-DAVIS: Right. All of her actions that day -- and when you read the transcript, and we heard clips of the audio -- all of her actions that day told us that she did never -- she never felt like she was free to leave. And I know, in talking with her shortly after the incident, she did indicate to me that she was frightened. I heard her voice on the audio. I heard it shaking. The prosecution tried to make it seem that this was a very casual encounter, almost like one that would occur at Starbucks. But what I heard on the audio was far from that. Her voice was shaking. Yes, she was making small talk, and she was making jokes, and she was laughing. But that's out of nervousness. They twisted a lot of things to try to make it look like this was a very mild encounter that she had with FBI agents at her home.

But anyone puts themselves in her situation -- 11 male armed FBI agents -- nine of them armed, but 11 male FBI agents have come into your home. Two of them have taken you to the back room in your house, where you have already told them you are not comfortable. You are asking permission to make any movements in your home. She was never under the impression that she was free to leave. And, therefore, I believe she was in their custody.

AMY GOODMAN: Billie Winner-Davis and Kevin Gosztola, we have to break. We're going to come back to this discussion. Billie Winner-Davis is the mother of Reality Winner, who faces 10 years in prison. She has been now jailed for nine months, brought into a courtroom this week in an orange jumpsuit and shackles. We'll also continue with Kevin Gosztola, speaking to us from Chicago, just back from Augusta, where the courtroom scene played out this week. Stay with us.

Categories: News

Civil Rights Leader Who Desegregated University of Georgia on Student-Led Movements of 1960s and Today

Fri, 03/02/2018 - 05:00

As a student-led movement for gun control sweeps the country, we look back at a key moment in another historic student movement: desegregation. On January 9, 1961, African American students Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes walked onto the campus of the University of Georgia to register for classes, as a howling mob of white students screamed racial epithets at them. It was a pivotal moment in the African American student-led movement to desegregate America's public high schools and universities. Charlayne Hunter graduated in 1963 and went on to have an award-winning career in journalism, working for PBS, NPR and CNN. For more, we speak with Charlayne Hunter-Gault, award-winning journalist and author of numerous books, including In My Place, a memoir of her childhood and her years at the University of Georgia. Her recent piece for The New Yorker is headlined "Surviving School Desegregation, and Finding Hope in #NeverAgain."

Please check back later for full transcript.

Categories: News