Dr. Alfred Klinger, 91, has joined other Illinois residents in walking from Chicago to the state Capitol in Springfield to call for a full budget that helps all residents. (Photo: Jane Adams Senior Caucus)As Illinois neared its second year without a complete state budget, Dr. Alfred Klinger decided to start walking. He joined advocates and families on a 200-mile march to the state Capitol this month to demand an end to the mind-boggling impasse and a budget that puts people first.
A World War II veteran, Dr. Klinger had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Mississippi in 1965. At 90 years old, it was time to march again, this time from Chicago to Springfield, because the government couldn't even agree on a fiscal plan that invests in its most vulnerable families.
On the road, he joined other marchers led by ONE Northside and the Peoples' Lobby Education Institute' Lobby Education Institute and supported by the Grassroots Collaborative and Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR).
Along the way, they are asking people how the Illinois budget stalemate is changing their lives and discussing their own "people and planet first" budget. On May 30, after marching into the state Capitol, they'll hold a People's Assembly on their plan.
Their budget plan for greater investments in pre-kindergarten-through-high-school education, universal health care, moves to green energy, improvements to infrastructure and Illinois's pension commitments.
To pay for these investments, their plan would close corporate tax loopholes, create a graduated income tax and develop a financial transaction tax, raising $23 billion, according to a statement from Fair Economy Illinois, which is organizing the 200-mile march.
After a long day of walking, Dr. Klinger, who turned 91 on the road, talked with Equal Voice News about why he is marching, the need for voices of poor families and what's gone wrong in the Illinois state capitol.
Q: Why are you marching?
Revenue. We feel the wealthy are not paying their fair share… and that's what makes the difference between supporting those who are vulnerable and not supporting them.
Q: Did poor families have a stronger voice in the past?
The problems is…paying their rent, buying clothes to keep them warm… or shoes for their feet They don't have any way of getting it. They don't have time to have a voice. They are just trying, barely capable of surviving. I've seen a lot of that.
Q: How do we give poor families a stronger voice?
I think we have to give them support. I am a great believer in guaranteed income, in guaranteed jobs. The low-income people, they want to work. They want to be part of the community. But, they can't do it when they do not have anything to support them. And on a day-to-day basis they are almost starving, or in such a condition that they don't know what they are going to do the next day to survive.
Q: Why isn't the Illinois governor listening?
The governor comes in with a rigid list of things that he thinks have made him successful in business, and he believed all you have to do is be persistent and that rigid list in his mind will eventually conquer those who resist him.
He is trying to transfer that success into government. He has no idea how to negotiate in government because when he was in business…what he said goes.
You can't do that in government. You have to listen to other people's ideas.
Q: Do you see parallels between what is happening in Illinois and in the nation's capital?
Absolutely, it is very similar. You have two businessmen who have made a great deal of money.
And they think that anybody who is smart enough to make that kind of money is smart enough to bring about good government.
Gov. Rauner is a self-made person and does not need the input from you and me.
Q: Why do you think the government invests less in people today?
The rich have put a lot of pressure on the government. They pay a lot of lobbyists great deals of money to go and influence the Congress…the president…
They ignore those who are much more vulnerable.
I would like to see a GI bill, and one in which they didn't have to go to war and risk their life and limbs.
Q: You're 91 years old. Why are you out there marching?
Because I feel so strongly about the issues. I've kept myself strong.
Q: What stories do you want people to hear?
I would say that we need revenue…to give support to vulnerable people.
To stop them from dying, and to be able to live with dignity and security. Because these people are us and our families and our friends and our neighbors and our relatives. It affects us all.
Q: What's next?
After the march we will continue to put the pressure on the governor, on the legislature…and we hope to get that budget signed so that those who are most vulnerable will begin to get support. What is happening now is that many of these special and economic organizations are dying because they are not getting the support that they have contracted for with the state.
The state is walking away from them.
There is a crisis of impunity for corporate human rights abuses and it is getting worse. In our work with the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, we track the latest legal developments in holding companies accountable for human rights abuses, to share knowledge among lawyers and ultimately strengthen accountability. For years, we have highlighted increasing barriers for victims to obtain justice. As companies are rarely brought to account, there have been few reasons for optimism.
So bad is the crisis of impunity that we have had to dedicate a significant portion of space in our latest Annual Briefing to the threats directed at advocates and lawyers working on corporate accountability. In 2016, we even saw Pavel Sulyandziga, a well-known indigenous leader in Russia and member of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, speak out about the harassment he and his family are facing because of his work supporting local communities to retain control of their land from extractives companies.
The Law as a Weapon
Human rights defenders working on corporate accountability have faced killings, beatings and threats and are rarely, if ever, able to obtain justice. Moreover, the law is often used as a weapon. In the last two years, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has tracked over 450 cases of attacks against human rights defenders working on corporate accountability. The most common is judicial harassment (40% of cases).
In February 2016, six activists opposing the use of villagers' land for Socfin plantations were jailed after a Sierra Leone court found them guilty of destroying 40 palm oil plants. The activists say they are innocent and see the trial as a "tactic to get us into prison so that we cannot raise our voice on the unacceptable land deals in Malen Chiefdom."
These types of legal harassment are often not intended to be successful claims, but rather are designed to silence human rights defenders by tying them up in costly litigation processes. In France, the NGO Sherpa has been sued by the company Vinci for defamation, after the NGO filed a criminal complaint in March 2015 against the company and its Qatari subsidiary over alleged forced labour on their construction sites in Qatar. Sherpa said of the lawsuits: "[b]y involving us in these costly proceedings, Vinci is plainly seeking to pressure us into withdrawing our action for lack of resources."
These lawsuits are often a disproportionate response to statements as small as social media posts. During a mission to Indonesia in September 2016, we met with the NGO KontraS, which is currently campaigning against criminalisation of human rights defenders. They told us of an activist from the NGO WALHI (Friends of the Earth Indonesia) who faced a criminal defamation complaint by supporters of a land reclamation project in Bali, over a Twitter post that mocked them. In the US, community activists were sued for USD 30 million by Green Group Holdings after they complained on social media about the company's landfill and its impact on the local resident's health. Lee Rowland, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who worked on the case, said: "No one should have to fear a multi-million dollar lawsuit just for speaking up about their community -- but our clients did."
Lawsuits like these have a chilling effect on human rights activism and advocacy. The inequality of power and resources between large corporations with teams of lawyers and grassroots human rights defenders means that many activists may give into the demands of corporations rather than enter a costly legal battle. This chilling effect is immeasurably worse when defenders are threatened with physical assaults and death.
From Impunity to Accountability
Companies benefit from an environment where there is freedom of speech, satisfied workers, and an increased consumer base, and governments attract investment when there is a strong rule of law. Governments should decriminalise defamation as advocated by international and regional organizations and leading NGOs, enact laws to protect human rights defenders and their lawyers from harassment, and provide an enabling environment and open civic space for those working on corporate legal accountability. (Of course, detractors would argue that criminal defamation laws are needed to protect their reputation, but there are still civil liabilities.) Governments should pass legislation to address strategic lawsuits against public participation, like those passed in several US states and Canadian provinces.
Corporations can influence governments to improve by voicing opposition to governmental action or legislation that threatens to close the civic space. Natural Fruit filed a defamation lawsuit in Thailand against Andy Hall, a British labour rights activists and researcher, over a report that alleged labour abuse against migrant workers in the company's factories. The Senior Vice President of S Group, a Finnish retailer that sourced from Natural Fruit, testified in support of Andy Hall in the Thai criminal defamation lawsuit against him in July 2016. S Group's action in this case demonstrates the steps companies can take to support human rights defenders under legal attack. Companies can also draft a dedicated policy on human rights defenders, like adidas has done, explaining why human rights defenders are important to their work and setting out expectations towards the company's suppliers.
Everyone benefits from the work of human rights defenders and the promotion of the rule of law, so businesses and governments should work to support and protect them. The legal system should only be used to bolster the rule of law, not burden its defenders.
On April 22, as protesters swelled Earth Day rallies in U.S. cities and around the world, President Trump tweeted that he was "committed to keeping our air and water clean but always remember that economic growth enhances environmental protection. Jobs matter!" His message was eerily similar to assertions by governments in developing countries that environmental standards are less important than attracting jobs.
Indeed, over the last few decades many developing countries have adopted loose environmental standards to lure foreign firms to move production there. However, an emerging body of research shows that policies like this also bring heavy pollution to the host countries.
In a recent study, my co-author Xiaoyang Li and I found that a significant number of U.S. firms reduce their pollution at home by offshoring production to poor and less regulated countries. The greening of U.S. manufacturing over the past several decades may be partially caused by a growing flow of "brown" imports from poor countries.
Cleaner at Home, Dirty Abroad
A "jobs-first" policy can add to serious environmental challenges in the host country. For example, one recent study calculates that 17 to 36 percent of four major air pollutants emitted in China come from production for export. Among these export-related emissions, about 21 percent come from the production of goods for the United States.
Studies like this suggest that trade can potentially redistribute environmental footprints. This can happen via two pathways. One is for "dirty" firms in rich countries to stay out of the entire value chain that contains the polluting activities. In this case, some rich country customers will stop consuming the "dirty" products, which is good for the global environment. Others will keep consuming "dirty" products imported from poor and less regulated countries.
Another way is for firms in rich countries to keep selling the "dirty" products but redesign their production networks. They will offshore production (and jobs) in the "dirty" segment of the value chain to poor countries. They will then import the "dirty" unfinished products from poor countries for further domestic processing in the clean segment of the value chain.
Unfortunately, existing studies have not been able to tease apart these two pathways. To find out if some U.S. companies were taking the second route, we obtained data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Environmental Protection Agency about trade, production and pollution for more than 8,000 U.S. firms with 18,000 U.S. plants.
We first found that of all goods imported by U.S. manufacturing firms (not wholesaler or retailers), the share produced in low-wage countries rose from 7 percent in 1992 to 23 percent in 2009. At the same time, toxic air emissions from manufacturing industries in the United States fell by more than half. Industries that experienced the greatest increase in imports from low-wage countries include printing, apparel and textile, furniture, and rubber and plastics. These industries also experienced some of the largest drops in air pollution in the United States.
Second, using this unprecedentedly detailed data, we obtained some interesting findings at the firm and plant level. We found that as U.S. firms imported more goods from low-wage countries, their plants released fewer toxic emissions on American soil. In addition, their U.S. plants shifted production to less-polluting industries, produced less waste, and spent less on pollution abatement. In sum, these firms were improving their own environmental performance by shifting to less-polluting segment of the value chain domestically and moving more-polluting activities overseas.
To our relief, we found that not all U.S. firms chose to offshore their pollution. In particular, firms that are more productive and invest more in R&D and brand equity offshore less pollution. These firms may find it less costly to renovate production technology domestically to comply with stringent environmental standards. They may also find it more rewarding to do so because consumers become more loyal to their brand for their socially responsible behavior at home.
Changing Firms' Incentives
U.S. companies that offshore pollution are not violating environmental laws either at home or in their host countries. Indeed, rebalancing their global production is a logical response to higher environmental compliance costs in the United States.
However, to the extent that U.S. firms can choose either to purchase cheap and "dirty-to-make" goods from low-wage countries or to produce them under stringent environmental standards at home, they are making a strategic decision about the private costs of production compared to the public (and international) costs of pollution. Companies that offshore pollution to less-regulated countries are taking advantage of those nations' lower environmental and labor standards and letting the host countries bear the associated social costs.
Unfortunately, it is not always easy to induce companies to adopt higher standards for their operations in developing countries. After Nike was first reported to have unsafe and abusive working conditions at its foreign plants, it took the company almost a decade to announce that it would raise wages, increase monitoring and adopt more stringent air quality standards in its factories overseas.
Similarly, Foxconn -- a key supplier to Apple -- has incurred heavy criticism over its labor practices in China. The company reportedly has improved its working conditions there, but it has also diversified into other low-wage nations where regulations are more lax, including Malaysia, Mexico, Brazil, Vietnam and Indonesia.
Reward Social Responsibility
In a global market where companies compete fiercely across national boundaries, governments should coordinate closely to maintain a regulatory framework that incentivizes firms to undertake more socially responsible actions. Participating in trade agreements with strong environmental requirements, and in global coalitions such as those proposed at the United Nations Climate Change Conferences, is one way to coordinate. Unfortunately, some of the world's largest economies seem to be stepping in the opposite direction.
Jobs are important for both developed and developing countries. In the face of globalization, however, national leaders should focus more on jobs that are sustainable and do not come at the expense of the environment.
The research by Xiaoyang Li and Yue Maggie Zhou mentioned in this article was conducted while both authors were Special Sworn Status researchers of the U.S. Census Bureau at the Michigan Census Research Data Center (MCRDC). Support for this research at the MCRDC was received from the National Science Foundation NSF (ITR-0427889). Any opinions and conclusions expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Census Bureau. All results have been reviewed to ensure that no confidential information is disclosed.
Instead of divesting from his international real estate holdings and ventures, Trump turned the day-to-day operations over to his. This means he gets to keep racking up the profits -- and the conflicts -- while serving as president, and then step right back into the business the day after he leaves the White House. (Photo: Anthony Quintano / Flickr )
It's been one revelation after the other these days about President Trump's attempts to shut down the FBI's Russiagate investigation. Turn on the news and you're bound to hear comparisons to Nixon's Watergate scandal and phrases like "obstruction of justice," "intimidating a witness" and "cover-up" being hotly debated.
And then last Wednesday, the Department of Justice finally bowed to reality and appointed a special prosecutor, former FBI Director Robert Mueller. "Based upon the unique circumstances the public interest requires me to place this investigation under the authority of a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command," wrote Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Meanwhile, another scandal is brewing in the White House that demands equal attention -- Trump, his family and his inner circle cashing in on the presidency for personal profit.
Let's face it, Trump and his close associates have turned their backs on ethical norms and the anti-corruption protections written into the US Constitution and federal law in a way we haven't seen in modern times.
The list of unethical and illegal behavior by President Trump & Co. is long and getting longer. Honestly, it's hard to know where to begin.
The first big red flag came nine days before Trump had even been sworn into office. Trump and his lawyer, Sheri Dillon, stepped up to the mic at a press conference and announced that Trump was not covered by federal ethics laws, would not be releasing his tax returns and would not place his massive business holding in a blind trust -- shattering 40-plus years of ethics and transparency practices.
Instead of divesting from his international real estate holdings and ventures, Trump turned the day-to-day operations over to his sons Don and Eric.
Bottom line? Trump gets to keep racking up the profits -- and the conflicts -- while serving as president, and then step right back into the business the day after he leaves the White House.
In spite of this, Trump moved quickly to bolster his efforts to have the public blindly trust him.
"Over the weekend, I was offered $2 billion to do a deal in Dubai with a very, very, very amazing man," Trump announced at the same presser. "And I turned it down. I didn't have to turn it down, because as you know, I have a no-conflict situation because I'm president, which is … a nice thing to have."
It was a nice try, but ethical and legal dilemmas created by Trump's decision have cropped up on a regular basis ever since:
- Trump's continued ownership and operation of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC has prompted charges -- and a lawsuit -- that he is using his office to gain an unfair competitive advantage, as well as violating the express terms of his government lease. Foreign dignitaries and agents have flocked to the hotel since Election Day to curry favor with the president.
- Another lawsuit claims that Trump's continued ownership of both the DC hotel and his Manhattan hotel violates the US Constitution's "Emoluments Clause."
- The State Department promoted Trump's Mar-a-Lago luxury resort as "the winter White House" on its website, praising the property's virtues, and Trump himself extolled the resort as the choice for his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jingping.
- Trump's estate on St. Martin Island in the Caribbean has been put on the market for a stunning $28 million, "presenting an enticing new way for a wealthy interest to get the president's attention," according to the Associated Press.
- The value of having Trump's name on his business holdings has jumped 30 percent since the election, and increases "every time he shows up at one of these locations," says a research firm that has tracked his business for more than 20 years.
But the conflicts of interest don't stop at the door of the Oval Office; they permeate Trump's White House. For example:
- China approved three trademarks for Ivanka Trump's fashion lines and spas on the same day she had dinner with President Trump and the Chinese president at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate.
- Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway promoted Ivanka Trump's fashion products on national television.
- Trump has designated his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as his lead adviser on Middle Eastern affairs at the same time that Kushner is building a real estate empire with the financial backing of a controversial Israeli billionaire family. The family's leading figure, Reny Steinmetz, is under scrutiny for alleged bribery and money laundering by the United States and three other governments. The potential conflicts of interest are great, both in terms of Kushner's role and the Steinmetz investigation now that the DOJ is led by Trump appointees.
- Carl Icahn, appointed by Trump to be "a special adviser to the president on issues relating to regulatory reform," has used his position to push a change in biofuel regulations that would save his oil refining business, CVR Energy, hundreds of millions per year. Meanwhile, Icahn's holdings in CVR Energy have increased more than $500 million in value since Trump's election. Icahn's actions raise alleged violations of federal conflict of interest law, ethics regulations and the STOCK Act's prohibition on insider trading.
Just this week, news broke -- while Trump and his family were in Saudi Arabia for an official visit -- that the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates will donate $100 million to Ivanka Trump's charity for women entrepreneurs, and that Jared Kushner will not divest himself of 90 percent of his real estate assets, held by a myriad of shell companies that make monitoring conflicts nearly impossible.
And what about that "very, very, very amazing" Dubai developer Trump mentioned at his January press conference? Trump may not have taken that mysterious $2 billion deal, but the founder and chairman of Damac Properties -- who has paid Trump millions for two luxury golf resort licensing deals -- is a very happy man. "Since the election of Donald Trump," Jussain Sajwani said, "[our] brand name has got better publicity and become stronger."
So far, Trump and his family and friends have been allowed to enjoy the personal profits of their government service with impunity, and it would appear that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has no appetite or inclination to do anything about it.
The same grounds for Sessions' recusal from Russiagate (which he brazenly ignored) and the appointment of Mueller as special counsel apply to how DOJ handles political profiteering in the White House. As a close friend and key adviser to Trump, Sessions must recuse himself from all legal investigations involving the president and his inner circle under the Department of Justice's own rules.
DOJ regulations require recusal when an employee has a "personal or political relationship" with "any person or organization" that is either "the subject of an investigation or prosecution" or "has a specific and substantial interest that would be directly affected by the outcome of the investigation or prosecution."
Sessions' personal and political relationship with the president is well established at this point, and it is clear that an indictment of a member of the president's family, a close adviser or even a Cabinet-level appointee would have a significant adverse impact on the president's public image, political fortunes and ability to conduct government business.
But that's something that people are going to have to demand loudly and clearly; Sessions is not likely to recuse himself without a fight.
During his confirmation hearing, Sessions was asked repeatedly if he would recuse himself from a host of thorny legal issues surrounding Trump, his conflicts of interest and the Emoluments Clause. In each instance, he demurred, claiming: "I am not aware of a basis to recuse myself from such matters."
Congress should insist on the appointment of another special counsel to handle a whole host of White House corruption issues. American democracy is too precious to be cheapened by those who cannot -- and will not -- separate their personal fortunes from the fortunes of the nation.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, May 25, 2017. (Photo: Al Drago / The New York Times)
The budget proposal put forward by the Trump administration has been widely attacked on a variety of grounds. It is clearly making ridiculous assumptions on tax revenue, which don't make sense even with its implausible assumptions on economic growth. It also calls for large cuts to a variety of programs on which low and moderate income families depend like food stamps and Medicaid.
But in addition to these features, the budget also calls for a major downsizing of the federal government as we know it. If we pull out Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and the military, the rest of the government is projected to shrink from 6.3 percent of GDP at present to 3.6 percent of GDP by 2027. This 3.6 percent of GDP includes the cost of education programs, infrastructure, the Justice Department, research and development, national parks, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, TANF, foreign aid, and all the other things we think of as the federal government.
It doesn't seem plausible that we can downsize the federal government by more than 40 percent relative to current levels and still expect it to function. As much as Republicans may hate the federal government, they still expect it to enforce laws, keep our food and drugs safe, ensure the infrastructure is usable, and support basic research in health care and other areas. This cannot be done if we downsize the government as projected in the Trump budget. This is either a joke or a plan to ensure that the government no longer provides basic services.
Unfortunately, the Trump budget is not the first time the Republicans have proposed largely eliminating the federal government. Paul Ryan went even further in the budgets that he repeatedly proposed as head of the House Budget Committee and got the Republican controlled House to approve.
Ryan's budgets virtually eliminated everything except Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and the military by 2050. According to the Congressional Budget Office's analysis of the Ryan budget (done under Mr. Ryan's supervision), spending on everything other than Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid would be reduced to 3.5 percent of GDP in 2050. With military spending likely running in the neighborhood of 3.0 percent of GDP, this left around 0.5 percent of GDP for everything from education to foreign aid.
Rather than earning Ryan and the Republicans ridicule, these proposals for eliminating the federal government won him widespread applause in Washington policy circles. Folks like The Washington Post editorial page writers welcomed Ryan as a serious budget wonk. The deficit hawk Peter Peterson crew even gave Ryan an award for his budget plans.
Obviously, they could see that Ryan's plan was either a ridiculous lie, assuming that he had no intention of following through on his plans, or alternatively incredibly dangerous if he was serious. But the Washington establishment types were so anxious to have a politician who was prepared to take an axe to large chunks of the government that they didn't care about such details.
Given this background, the Trump administration can hardly be blamed for thinking that it could get away with the same sort of dishonesty that brought Paul Ryan to the top echelons of the Washington power structure. If it wants to show a budget that balances in a decade by making absurd assumptions on tax revenue and projects downsizing the federal government to the point of elimination, this is just par for the course in Washington policy debates.
In this sense, it would be nice if we could say that President Trump is bringing new levels of dishonesty to budget politics, but that is not true. The key problem is that the Washington elite types are dead set on sharp cutbacks to programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, which enjoy massive public support across the political spectrum. Even the vast majority of Republicans do not want to see cuts to these programs, which is a major reason they voted for Donald Trump in the primaries.
In order to overcome this mass based opposition, the elites are perfectly happy to lie to advance their agenda. They can hardly blame Donald Trump for adopting their tactic.
If a reinvigorated veterans resistance program offers anything new, it is a preliminary triad of concentric planks linking campaigns against all oppression with campaigns against capitalist exploitation with campaigns against militarism and empire. Perhaps we can build a countervailing force that will turn us back into human beings.
Around 250 activists associated with Answer Coalition, Code Pink, Veterans For Peace, Black United Front and other peace groups gather in Washington, DC, on March 21, 2015, for a rally ending on Capitol Hill to protest ongoing US military actions worldwide. (Photo: Stephen Melkisethian / Flickr)
I carry numbers. Ernest Hemingway carried numbers too. In his case, it was the numbers of roads and regiments. He didn't care much for platitudes about glory, sacrifice, honor, or courage. He found them obscene. So do I. But my numbers are different from his. The numbers I'm most conscious of -- that claw at me -- are the numbers of the dead.
Twenty-five. That's the number of Marines who died in one of the units I worked with back in 2010. Five to seven. That's the number of civilians I figure we killed one morning after I watched another unit pour heavy fire into a quiet (at least according to enemy radio traffic, which my unit was monitoring) village. One. That's the Marine who exploded within weeks of replacing one of my Marines -- news I learned almost immediately following my return to the states.
My obsession with such numbers began in country. Whenever I'd make it to a new outpost, I always made sure those were the first numbers to greet me. How many of us? How many of them? How many of the rest? The numbers would quickly blur, and the latter numbers were blurry from the start, but I accepted them all the same. Whenever I returned to a big base, I'd follow the numbers online. Not just the units I worked with, but all of them. They reminded me that I was, unlike them, still alive. For some reason, I needed those numbers to tell me what I already knew.
I still can't escape the numbers. Not long ago I posted several of them in a long entry on Medium. Six million. That's the low estimate of how many people have died in America's major wars since World War Two. 1.5 to 3.8 million: the estimated number of Vietnamese killed in the Indochina War, along with 600,000 to 800,000 Cambodians and around 1 million Laotians. 1.3 to 2 million: the number of people our military has killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan during the War on Terror.
Even these numbers don't tell the whole truth. They don't include Libya: tens of thousands dead and around a third of the population displaced. They don't include the war in Yemen, for which our government bears significant responsibility, and which has now butchered thousands and starved millions. They don't include the drone war in countries like Somalia, a routinized form of remote-control killing that has claimed thousands of lives. They don't include classified special operations across the globe, especially in Africa. They don't include the Israeli occupation of Palestine, a U.S.-sponsored apartheid that has killed thousands and encaged millions. They don't include Syria, a hellscape our government has done so much to frame and aggravate, by now having buried something approaching half a million.
As scholars like John Tirman and institutions like The World Bank have shown, such numbers fail to capture the all-encompassing destruction. For every person wiped out, far more have sustained gruesome injuries, inside and out. Hundreds of thousands of women and children have been raped, propelled to the streets or into prostitution, trafficked to the most sordid corners of the earth. Millions more have merely surrendered their homes, their jobs, their incomes, their livelihoods, their communities, their families or loved ones, and their will or capacity to live. Thousands of schools and hospitals lie in rubble, with roads and highways pulverized, bridges collapsed, sewage systems choked in their own muck, electricity grids darkened, and clean water a luxury item.
One imagines that official justifications would still somehow be mustered for this madness. One would be wrong. Hardly any of our government's stated aims have been met. We have been greeted not with open arms but with a refugee crisis beyond anything seen for generations. Authoritarian states have crumbled into failed states, vacuums sometimes filled by totalitarian ones. Civil wars have erupted across borders, terrorism in the West has worsened, international tensions have waxed, and experts remind us of the possibility of nuclear annihilation. The situation is so dire that the US Army's think tank, the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI), has concluded, "US efforts in the war on terror have been largely ineffective in achieving the stated objectives."
And yet, pundits are still glowing over the "presidential" exploitation of warfighter grief in the State of the Union address or gushing over reckless missile strikes that risk precipitating proxy wars with great nuclear powers, never mind World War Three. Generals are still anticipating further surges in Afghanistan. The media features the same national security experts and consultants as in the George W. Bush years, all of them itching to fight, while the liberal intelligentsia retains an unworldly faith in the United States military to achieve humanitarian goals in Syria and elsewhere, or sees the Obama presidency as having been burdened by a foreign policy of "restraint" -- a presidency responsible for the bombing of seven Muslim countries and the largest boom in arms sales since World War Two.
Perhaps the slaughter, regardless of how loud or frequent our protestations, really will proceed in gleeful forgetfulness. If past is prologue, this is certainly the most reasonable conclusion.
But what if the task before us -- to revise and repurpose the enigmatic phrase of the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard -- is to embrace a teleological suspension of the reasonable? That is, what if we are left with no choice but a leap of faith? What would such a leap look like?
This is a question I've lost many nights mulling over, as I'm sure numerous other likeminded veterans have. It is something thousands of war resisters and anti-imperialists have devoted their lives to bringing into being. For brief interludes during the Vietnam War or the War in Iraq, they succeeded. It is possible brief interludes are the most we can hope for. What follows, however, assumes a more long-term ambition.
There is little here that is original, and almost all of it owes its debt to those already toiling away in the trenches of resistance. If this program offers anything new, it is a preliminary triad of concentric planks linking (1) campaigns against all oppression with (2) campaigns against capitalist exploitation with (3) campaigns against militarism and empire.
1. Be the Barricade: The huge and arguably decisive, if dysfunctional, turnout of veterans at Standing Rock earlier this winter (where I played a microscopic part) marks a promising chapter in a likewise encouraging season of activism. It suggests that thousands of vets are willing and able to put their bodies on the line at the most hazardous of junctures, a mass readiness bursting with possibilities.
Such mobilizations force the hands of the authorities, propelling them to stand down or risk a public relations fiasco. They invert a repressive and historically illiterate paradigm that tends to identify leftist causes with traitors, drug-addled hippies, or pampered college students. They embolden previously reserved veterans and other citizens to speak out and take part. And they offer an ideal meeting ground for those with military backgrounds to share ideas, tactics, and strategies with organizers and activists.
Discussion of similar deployments in places like Flint, Michigan and other hotspots are already under way, although it is crucial that seasoned groups like Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) lead the way, so as to prevent the logistical chaos of the Standing Rock action. Large-scale, veteran-led training sessions in direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience are also being planned, something we can use a lot more of in the age of Trump, especially if these sessions become institutionalized across the country.
2. Occupy the Workplace: The best hope for a more equitable society involves securing democratic vibrancy in the workplace. As I've written elsewhere, America's veterans are perfectly primed for this sort of thing. The majority of vets are confident, they're experienced in the art of teamwork, they're fierce partisans of small-unit leadership, they're all about solidarity (what they call camaraderie), and they hate their superior officers (the managerial elite). They mark a natural body of recruits for any unionist or workplace democracy revival, and many would jump at the chance to take part in such a cause were a new veterans movement to underwrite such a labor struggle, particularly one that welcomes their contributions.
Groups like VFP and IVAW should collaborate with labor unions and freshly buoyant organizations like Democratic Socialists of America and Socialist Alternative. As the accomplished organizer Jane McAlevey argues, the labor movement is in sore need of organic working-class leadership. Newly politicized veterans, disillusioned by their war experiences and a complacent home front, offer a wellspring from which such leadership can be sought. Such an alliance would also help draw the connections between capitalism and imperialism, as well as assist the left in undermining global capital and empire simultaneously.
3. Tax the War: According to a March 2013 release from Face the Facts, USA, a project of the George Washington University, defense contractors have been awarded $3.3 trillion by the Pentagon since 9/11. The top winners have been Boeing (23.5 billion), Lockheed Martin (22.8 billion), Raytheon (11.4 billion), General Dynamics (11.34 billion), and United Technologies (6.3 billion). Defense lobbyists have spent over $2 billion since 1998, and over $100 million annually since 2005.
A 2011 report from The Commission on Wartime Contracting, a bipartisan congressional review board, estimated somewhere between $31 and $60 billion has been attributed to waste and fraud in Iraq and Afghanistan. A 2013 report to Congress from the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction (SIGIR) concluded about $60 billion was attributed to waste and fraud in Iraq. A 2013 testimony from the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction (SIGAR) estimated $100 billion was spent on reconstruction, where less than 10% had been accounted for.
• US government funding of reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan has totaled over $170 billion. Most of those funds have gone towards arming security forces in both countries. Much of the money allocated to humanitarian relief and rebuilding civil society has been lost to fraud, waste, and abuse.
• The cost OF the Iraq and Afghanistan/Pakistan wars totals about $4.8 trillion. This does not include future interest costs on borrowing for the wars, which will add an estimated $8 trillion through 2054.
• The ripple effects on the US economy have also been significant, including job loss and interest rate increases.
As the economist Jeffery Sachs has put it, "Over a 15-year period, the $4.7 trillion amounts to roughly $300 billion per year, and is more than the combined total outlays from 2001 to 2016 for the federal departments of education, energy, labor, interior, and transportation, and the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and the Environmental Protection Agency." The National Priorities Project has found that military spending accounted for 54% (almost $600 billion) of federal discretionary spending in fiscal year 2015.
In June of 2015, Senator Bernie Sanders proposed a "war tax" on millionaires and billionaires in order to pay for our wars. A new veterans movement should work with Senator Sanders and other politicians to craft and promote "war tax" legislation targeting all past and future war-profiteers. The increased revenue would be redirected to a myriad of progressive expenditures, including investments in socially beneficial industries like green energy, and veterans (as well as non-veterans) employed in defense firms would be the first afforded training and job opportunities in such newly subsidized fields. Consider it a scheme designed to euthanize the war-profiteering class.
This is a hard sell. Then again, we are living in an age of the hard sell, which in the cryptic logic of desperate times, makes the hard sell all the more possible. It was Simone Weil, the forgotten French mystic, who wrote during World War Two:
To define force -- it is the x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him.
One might add: Not even a corpse; just a number. Perhaps we can build a countervailing force that will turn us back into human beings.
President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Louisville, Kentucky, March 20, 2017. (Photo: Al Drago / The New York Times)
Less than four months in, Donald Trump's presidency is floundering. But experts on authoritarianism and totalitarianism -- calling on the wisdom of Hannah Arendt -- warn that, although Trump's administration is under fire, he remains a dire threat and should be taken seriously.
President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Louisville, Kentucky, March 20, 2017. (Photo: Al Drago / The New York Times)
Much has been written about whether Donald Trump is a despot authoritarian, fascist or merely a bumbling clown. As we approach this question of what Trump "is," it's important for us to realize that -- regardless of our assessments of his level of intelligence, or his adolescent mentality, or his bizarre mannerisms -- he is in the most powerful seat in the world. Trump is dangerous and he needs to be taken seriously.
Kathleen Jones is a political theorist whose publications and teaching about modern political theory and Hannah Arendt span nearly four decades. Her most recent book is a philosophical memoir, Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt, about her 30-year relationship with the work of the well-loved political thinker.
In understanding Trump, Jones says, we need to look at the gaps -- and potential gaps -- between his claims and the truth. She points to Trump's boasts of business acumen and accomplishments, alongside his refusal to release his tax returns, as well as his documented history of bankruptcies, which resulted in some of his business interests' restructuring.
Given that his claims to be a wildly wealthy and successful businessman are what generated much of his support among his base, it is important to address the fact that these claims are dubious.
"In the absence of full financial disclosures we lack solid data with which to assess whether Trump is a success or a failure," Jones, who is also a Professor Emerita of Women's Studies at San Diego State University, told Truthout. "Instead, we have Trump's bombastic proclamations, loudly and often, of his brand's excellence and dominance: 'Believe me,' he exhorts. And his core of supporters complies."
In fact, Jones sees Trump's supporters' compliance as similar to that of sympathizers of earlier European pre-totalitarian movements. Arendt called them the "masses."
"Socially atomized, isolated, 'lonely' individuals, drawn from the ranks of different classes, who felt adrift in an incomprehensibly changed world, formed the mass core of ideologically racist movements, like Pan-Slavism and Pan-Germanism of the mid-to-late 19th century," Jones added.
She quoted Arendt's comment that these masses "remained unequivocally hostile to all existing political bodies. [Their] general mood was far more rebellious and [their] leaders were far more adept at revolutionary rhetoric."
Jones explained that although the goals of the masses were vague and subject to frequent change, they consistently identified a conspiracy of enemies -- foreigners, especially Jews -- who they viewed as having fractured the social fabric of "the nation," and embraced an ideology of "enlarged tribal consciousness" and a movement to achieve its inchoate goals.
According to Arendt, a vaguely defined ideology and a loose movement was "quite enough in a time which preferred a key to history to political action, when men in the midst of communal disintegration and social atomization wanted to belong at any price [emphasis added]."
Jeffrey Isaac is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, and a long-time editor-in-chief of one of the top political science journals in the world, Perspectives on Politics: A Political Science Public Sphere.
Isaac told Truthout that he believes what Arendt wrote about "mob mentality" applies to Trump, who rose to power by flouting "respectable leadership."
"What is most important, though, is this: Trump has risen to power by fomenting resentment, xenophobia and mass hysteria among his supporters," Isaac, who has written six books and more than 70 articles on the topics of democracy, totalitarianism and political rebellion, explained.
Trump was able to win, Isaac said, because "the old parties" are both in crisis." It is exactly this "crisis" of "the old parties" that Trump has used to propel himself into power.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University, who writes and speaks frequently on fascism, authoritarian rulers and Donald Trump, agrees that much of Trump's political strategy relates to distancing himself from the US's two main political parties.
Ben-Ghiat told Truthout that Trump engages in "negative politics" by constantly referencing the failures of the established political parties and using these references as "a powerful lever to [his supporters'] personas as outsiders."
"Trump is in this tradition," Ben-Ghiat, who is working on a book entitled Strongmen: From Mussolini to Trump, added. "'I alone can fix it,' means the establishment parties have ruined the country; strong and new medicine is needed."
Pledging Loyalty to "His People"
Jones feels it is important to take Trump at his word.
"He's leading a 'movement,' not a 'country,'" she said. "That explains his preference for the campaign rally over the press conference. And it also helps explain what otherwise seems like a childish, egotistical and obsessive focus on his electoral victory."
From her perspective, by continuing to talk about his "huge," "big league" electoral victory, Trump reminds his supporters that they matter; they made The Donald into President Trump. He doesn't care about the rest of the country or the rule of law. He pledges loyalty to "his people" and he demands their loyalty in return.
"Arendt's identification of the social psychology of 'enlarged tribal consciousness' goes a long way, I think, to explain the persistence of support among Trump voters, despite the lack of real legislative or even administrative successes," Jones explained. "His supporters feel 'betrayed' by the mainstream institutions and traditional party politics; social changes of the last two decades or so have threatened their racial and sexual privileges and class status."
Thus, Trump's supporters want someone, in no uncertain terms, to acknowledge this status threat and "do something" about it, and are thus willing to wait for the future that Trump has promised them. Their support largely persists, despite obvious evidence that Trump's programs (like his disastrous health plan) would harm his base. Here, Arendt's analysis of the psychologically seductive appeal of "tribal isolation and master race ambitions" is helpful.
The appeal, Arendt writes, "was partly due to an instinctive feeling that mankind, whether a religious or humanistic ideal, implies a common sharing of responsibility.... Tribalism and racism are the very realistic, if very destructive, ways of escaping this predicament of common responsibility."
Jones explained how one of the hallmarks of totalitarian propaganda, according to Arendt, is its "ability to shut the masses off from the real world" by creating a "lying world of consistency." Thus, the persistent repetition of claims, even ones that have been debunked by opponents, is important, Arendt wrote, because it "convinces the masses of consistency in time."
Trump's public statements and tweets reinforce points of view his supporters have already gleaned from some of the same sources, such as Fox News, Breitbart or right-wing social media networks. "Yet the dangerous paradox we face is that attacking these statements by attacking the sources actually feeds his supporters' reasons to redouble their efforts to defend him," Jones said.
Thus, according to Jones, Trump's "America First" rhetoric lets people off the hook of having to care about undocumented immigrants, or about Syrian refugees, or about the impact of climate disruption on the planet's future.
"They are freed to concentrate, without any ethical qualms, on their own isolated concerns," Jones said. "'America First' becomes 'Me and Mine First,' and its model is Trump Family Enterprises."
Thus, it is irrelevant whether Trump delivers concrete programs that directly benefit his supporters, because according to Arendt, his movement's members are held together more with a "general mood than a clearly defined aim."
"Trump's appeal, like that of France's Marine Le Pen, is his sloganeering ideology and his movement: the reconquest of America for the so-called 'forgotten people' who pledge to stand with him," Jones said.
"The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist," Arendt wrote, "but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists."
Jones pointed out how Arendt wrote extensively about the social conditions of "spiritual and social homelessness" that made "the masses" susceptible to propaganda or fabricated narratives.
"Trump repeatedly wove stories about the cause of America's decline into his campaign speeches," Jones explained. "These stories hinged on the identification of targets -- Obamacare is a disaster, the American economy is failing, dangerous hordes of 'Mexican rapists' and 'Muslim radicals' are pouring into the country, the 'inner cities' are war zones, etc. -- to explain why America was waning and what would make it great again."
She added, "To his supporters, many who felt their lives were falling apart, either economically or because of cultural changes, this rhetoric struck a chord."
Jones pointed out how Arendt noted that the masses' gullibility wasn't the result of stupidity or wickedness but was rooted in how, in the face of their perception of their impending disaster, the "fantastically fictitious consistency of an ideology ... grant[ed] them a minimum of self-respect."
"They no longer have to blame themselves for their pain, or accept that random harms may have befallen them," she added.
"Trump identified the constellation of domestic and foreign forces corrupting the social order and promised to "drain the swamp," Jones said.
She then pointed to Arendt's observation, "through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home and are spared the never-ending shocks which real life and real experiences deal to human beings and their expectations."
Thus, more than concrete outcomes, or fact-based reality, what matters is the maintenance of a "general mood" that "things are getting done;" because this sustains supporters' sense of self-respect.
"And that means that every attempt to demonstrate factually that proposed policies will harm their interests leads supporters to a renewed defense of the leader who has been identified as the defender of their self-respect," Jones added. And as Arendt wrote, "[T]ruth was whatever respectable society had hypocritically passed over, or covered up with corruption."
This is how Trump's supporters overlook his questionable business dealings and ties with Russia, his gross massing of wealth for himself and his family, and his countless missteps.
"Creative Destruction" and the Echo Chamber
Ben-Ghiat also pointed out how authoritarians engineer processes of "creative destruction."
"The master of this was Lenin, someone Bannon has quoted," she explained. "You uproot the established system, engineer 'shock events' to destabilize things. I read the slew of executive orders following the inauguration in this light, and Conway tweeted "Get used to it.... Shock to the system ... and he's just getting started."
Then, according to Ben-Ghiat, the authoritarian hollows out the established state through purging the civil service, or more passively, by not hiring, leaving the chains of command and expertise broken. The dismantling of established expertise is key to the disruption.
"Trump's following this principle, leaving many hundreds of positions unfilled," she said. "Dismissing civil servants who disobey him; installing "eyes" among his loyalists to watch others; etc."
Another feature of authoritarianism, she pointed out, was the practice of narrowing the inner circle of decision-makers to loyalists, who usually include family or kin-like networks; something Trump has clearly done.
"The problem with this is that an echo chamber results in which no one has the courage to tell the leader the truth, making for bad decisions," Ben-Ghiat added.
If this sounds similar to how things are done in the Mafia, that is because it is. Trump has done business with the Mafia since the beginning of his real estate career, and has used a Mafia-linked company for his cement, according to Ben-Ghiat. He also appears to have emulated aspects of the organization's practices.
"The Mafia is notoriously an authoritarian organization, so it's logical that there are similarities, from the need for absolute loyalty, both from his followers -- thus the loyalty oath -- and from individuals, such as Comey," she said. "His habit of threatening people, claiming he has dirt on them through tapes, etc., is also mob-like, as of course, is his boast that he could stand on 5th Avenue and shoot someone and not lose followers."
Isaac doesn't believe we have yet reached the level of alienation and disconnection from established institutions of which Arendt wrote ... yet.
"The 'dedicated' supporters of Stalinism and Hitlerism were willing to do things that Trump's supporters have not yet evidenced; and they were supporting well-organized party-movements," he said. "There is no Trump party or even movement, really. There are important differences. That said, it is true that Trump has mobilized his supporters using ideological rhetoric that has parallels with the rhetoric of fascism."
Isaac believes, however, that Trump has taken to new levels the effacement of the distinction between truth and falsity.
"Trump is all about rejecting science, journalism and common sense as 'fake news' and 'hoaxes,' and maintaining that whatever he says at any given moment is what is true, even if he contradicts this the next moment," Isaac said. "This is very scary, and it does remind one of some features of totalitarianism, features probably best diagnosed by Orwell in 1984."
He added, "This is very frightening and dangerous, and it has strongly authoritarian dimensions and implications."
Ben-Ghiat sees Trump's base as having a strict sense of loyalty to him, and pointed out how polls and studies have shown that his followers don't care if he lies; they either believe the lies or explain them away as part of his jolt to the system. She explained Trump's supporters, inculcated by years of right-wing media, are primed for his portrayal of white people as victims, as well as his conspiracy theories (such as "birtherism").
"Authoritarians always aim to discredit all sources of information that don't emanate from themselves or from their close allies," she said.
Ben-Ghiat sees Fox and Breitbart as "palace medias" at this point, and pointed out a feedback loop in which misinformation starts with Fox News, goes to Trump, is tweeted by Trump and is then broadcast back to the public by Fox News.
She pointed to Trump's highly effective method of direct communication with the people: tweeting.
"We cannot underestimate the impact of receiving unfiltered messages from Trump at 9 pm, 3 am, 7am," explained Ben-Ghiat. "It makes people feel they are in direct communication with the leader."
She believes this practice, during the campaign, made the establishment Democratic communications practices look old hat and scripted. Meanwhile, she explains, Trump is a skilled propagandist: He "does the highly effective thing of calling into question something that has been accepted as fact, from climate change, to Obama's birthplace, etc."
Ben-Ghiat sees this as an "old authoritarian trick" and one used by Holocaust deniers: It essentially says that if you -- as an individual -- do not have direct, first-person evidence of something, maybe it did not happen.
Authoritarian or Totalitarian?
According to Ben-Ghiat, who is also on the board of directors of the World Policy Institute, totalitarianism entails the establishment of a one-party state, and the active suppression of opposition parties and press.
"The dictator may rule with a purged parliament, which rubber-stamps his desires, and there is usually a parallel party bureaucracy to that of the previous state," she explained.
Authoritarian leaders also have the desire for expanded executive powers, and the desire to disable the checks and balances of democratic systems, but -- unlike totalitarians -- they don't generally rule with a one-party monopoly.
"Nowadays, authoritarians can exert their power while keeping the semblance of democracy," Ben-Ghiat said. "This is the case in Turkey, Russia and elsewhere."
Jones explained that Arendt very carefully distinguishes simple authoritarianism from totalitarianism, both in terms of their very different organizational structures and the operation and scope of their power.
"Authoritarian, fascist movements are 'nationalist' in a territorially bounded sense," Jones explained. "Totalitarian movements are global in scope; their goal is world conquest through "a state of permanent instability" not limited by "the borders of the territory in which it came to power."
In using the term "totalitarianism," Arendt had in mind the Bolshevik concept of "permanent revolution" and the Nazi concept of a "thousand-year Reich," based on Himmler's notion of a "racial selection which can never stand still." Jones explained that, essentially, this "selection" meant "the continual evolution of new categories of people declared unfit to live."
Jones notes that one could argue, through Arendt's lens, that the function of Trump's repeated rallies is to sustain the development of a kind of "front organization" of sympathizers "who are to all appearances still innocuous fellow-citizens in a non-totalitarian society" and not "single-minded fanatics."
In this way, Arendt writes, totalitarian movements "can spread their propaganda in milder, more respectable forms, until the whole atmosphere is poisoned with totalitarian elements which are hardly recognizable as such but appear to be normal political reactions or opinions."
However, Isaac does not believe the US is in danger of totalitarianism under Trump, and said he does not think that Trump's actions have led to the overthrow of democracy and the creation of an authoritarian regime -- "yet."
Still, this does not discount the reality that Trump does display some characteristics of an authoritarian leader. Isaac said, "I do believe that he is authoritarian in many ways, and that his authoritarianism greatly threatens liberal democracy. In many ways, like Hungary's Viktor Orbán, Trump claims to stand for an 'illiberal democracy,' a kind of populist authoritarianism."
Isaac sees Trump "as an authoritarian" in at least four ways.
First, according to Isaac, Trump has a history of ruling, or trying to rule, his domain -- his family, his business and now the US government -- by decree, and exhibits an extreme form of authoritarian personality.
"Trump is a dictatorial individual," Isaac said. "By disposition, he is an authoritarian."
Second, Trump's administration is the most nepotistic and kleptocratic US administration that has ever existed, according to Isaac. He sees Trump's corruption as "a means of projecting his grandiose image and of maintaining his power. And it is a serious abuse of power."
Isaac's third point is that while only in his first months in office, "Trump has sought to institute some seriously authoritarian measures," and has done so by appointing a number of individuals with neo-fascist leanings to his administration, among other strategies.
Lastly, Isaac sees Trump as a performer using "Hitlerian rallies to denounce, bully and attack his opponents, and to mobilize angry crowds of supporters around resentful, xenophobic slogans.... Such behavior, on the part of a political leader who is a US president, represents a form of authoritarianism par excellence."
It is important to note that Arendt highlighted the "leader principle" to distinguish between totalitarianism and authoritarianism.
Jones explained how the leader's monopolization of responsibility and complete identification with every subordinate as "his walking embodiment" marked, for Arendt, "a decisive difference between a totalitarian leader and an ordinary dictator or despot."
She quoted Arendt, who said that an ordinary dictator "would never identify himself with his subordinates, let alone with every one of their acts; he might use them as scapegoats and gladly have them criticized in order to save himself form the wrath of the people, but he would always maintain an absolute distance from all his subordinates and all his subjects."
Thus, she said, Trump's practice of throwing people under the bus -- Michael Flynn, James Comey, Sally Yates -- is no surprise.
"In this respect, Trump's leadership is authoritarian but not yet totalitarian," Jones said. "Yet, his failure to appoint large numbers of civil servants to administrative positions, and his constant search for 'loyalists' is a worrying indication of the potentiality for a shift toward something more extreme."
Jones sees Trump's repeated attacks on the press and judiciary as very troubling.
Trump is "aided by his deceitful spokespersons, including Vice President Pence, and abetted by the unwillingness of key democratic institutions, notably Congress, to check his power grab or hold him accountable for the violation of his executive oath," she said. "This constellation of actions and inactions by elected or appointed public servants represents a clear and present danger to our democratic institutions."
Ben-Ghiat gave several examples of how Trump is an authoritarian president, and has behaved predictably as such.
"Authoritarians harass and criminalize those sectors of society that uphold the values of evidence and investigation: the judiciary, the press and sometimes intelligence services," she explained. "Trump started all of this during his campaign, declaring the press to be 'enemies of the people,' an expression with a long repressive history."
Ben-Ghiat also pointed out how just two days after the inauguration, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway said that Trump wanted to put in his own intelligence and national security community. Recent events with the FBI are likely part of this plan, Ben-Ghiat said. Furthermore, Trump established a particular authoritarian kind of bond with his followers from the start -- one based around his own charisma, and not loyalty to party or principle.
"He's shown time and again, he wishes to expand his presidential powers; criminalize protest; judge people not by what they've done, but who they are (Muslims, immigrants, etc.)," she said. "All of this is authoritarian."
What Is at Stake
Jones believes that without continued vigilance, protest and demands for accountability, which can hold back the tide in the shorter term, we will head into more dangerous and unpredictable waters every day.
"Although it would be a mistake to view Trump's election as the moment of some neo-totalitarian movement's 'seizure of power,' unless the constitutional checks on executive power are operationalized, some feigned or real state of emergency could trigger a move in an even more authoritarian, and potentially totalitarian, direction," she said.
Under such circumstances, she believes, Trump's outspoken support for other reactionary dictators, from Russia's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte and France's Marine Le Pen, indicates the outlines of a movement with internationalist, collaborationist aims.
Jones sees Trump's rise to power, combined with renewed attacks on immigration as a threat to "the nation," both in Europe and in the US, as signals of a renewal and expansion of the internationalism of fascist movements, of which Arendt warned.
Jones added that such movements "able to operate all over Europe at once, without being bound to a particular country" so they can "assume the appearance of a genuine European movement."
And those movements can now add significant forces in the US to the equation.
"Does this mean Trump's America is establishing itself as the center of a new international fascism?" Jones asked. "Too soon to tell. But it is certainly significant that the US, long considered, rightly or wrongly, as a bulwark against authoritarianism, has now come to symbolize the opposite to the various right-wing, white nationalist movements around the world."
Ben-Ghiat believes Trump has shown through deed and word that he'd gladly take the authoritarian path further if allowed. She added that he's managed to achieve a key authoritarian success: co-opting the decision-maker elites, which in this case is the GOP.
"The Republicans have stuck by him so far, as declarations of mistrust are not the same as action -- for example, John McCain denounces him publicly but then votes for his legislation -- and what they do will be crucial," she concluded. "He's managed to sow chaos, cause mass intimidation -- and also resistance to him and his agenda. We're set for a showdown this summer."
Officials from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) acknowledged they regularly allow energy companies to exclusively preview and revise draft permits as a matter of common practice.
This admission follows DeSmog's reporting on emails showing the state had quietly provided Spectra Energy (now Enbridge) several opportunities to edit a draft pollution approval permit for a compressor station in the town of Weymouth as part of its Atlantic Bridge gas project.
Following these revelations, concerned citizens and activists from around the state converged earlier this week on the DEP's offices for two separate protests. Among their demands, protesters want the DEP to revoke the draft pollution permit and redo the application process using an independent body.
Officials agreed to see the protesters for ad hoc discussions. During the Tuesday protest, DEP's Chief of Staff Stephanie Cooper acknowledged that the state environmental agency regularly sends draft approvals to the applicants for advance review and comment. Cooper defended the practice, claiming it assists the agency in receiving all the relevant information from the applicant.
"The practice of allowing the applicant to review and provide us feedback [i.e., on the draft approval permit] is one that we regularly undertake. We do that to make sure we have accurate information from them about their operation. It in no way means that they get to decide what is in the permit. We take their information, they make suggestions, as you saw happen in this instance. Sometimes we might take those suggestions, many times we don't. So in no way is it collusion; it's our regular business practice."
Yet as DeSmog has shown, Spectra and its consultants not only edited the permit's descriptive and technical sections, but also changed the state's conditions and requirements for the operation of the gas compressor station.
For instance, Spectra increased the threshold of what should be considered a leak from a pipe seal -- a revision which remained in the published draft permit. The draft in which Spectra made this change was already written on the state's official letterhead and addressed to Spectra's Houston headquarters.
The emails also suggest DEP informed Spectra that this review was not a privilege granted to the public or other stakeholders in the project.
Asked by DeSmog whether allowing the applicant to exclusively edit the draft permit before it is made public compromises the independence of the DEP as a regulatory body, Cooper replied:
"We have experience doing this for over 40 years. As you all are learning, this is incredibly complex, and, hopefully, you want to make sure you're getting it right. That you did not misunderstand some aspect of the application, what it's referring to, or its context. So we do find it helpful to provide a draft to the applicant to make suggestions. Like I said, we can say yes to them -- and we can say no. Our folks maintain that independence and we make the final decision."
It should be noted that DEP's own regulations regarding the permitting process do not include this de facto practice of allowing applicants to revise draft permits. According to these regulations, DEP may communicate with an applicant until it determines the application to be technically and administratively sound. Once that determination is made, the DEP moves to make an independent decision on whether to approve, approve with conditions, or reject the application.
Protesters at the meeting blasted the DEP for what they claim is a bias toward Spectra.
"I can understand that sometimes the DEP would follow up with an applicant to make sure the scope of the project hasn't changed, etc.," said Weymouth resident Andrea Honore. "What I cannot fathom is the DEP handing over the draft to Spectra and its lawyer saying 'have at it.' Right now, Spectra is running your house and I have to say that serving Spectra is not the function of your agency."
Massachusetts state Senator Patrick O'Connor, who represents the residents of Weymouth, stated the following in response to the developments with the DEP:
"As we continue to fight this project on the South Shore I hope that our regulatory agencies take into account the health of citizens and the impact to our environment. I have been encouraged by the ever-growing opposition to the compressor station having fought this project since the beginning. I feel we have more momentum than we ever have before to convince state and federal regulators that this is the wrong location for this gas compressor station."
A request for comment from the office of Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker went unanswered.
An Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer in Calexico, California, March 21, 2005. From "Neighborhood Watch" programs to crime hotlines, the US justifies profiling by creating an army of snitches. (Photo: Ann Johansson / The New York Times)
The Trump administration's immigrant-baiting crime hotline draws on a longstanding US tradition of making civilians responsible for surveilling each other. By creating an army of snitches, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies can justify racial profiling by declaring that they are merely following up on intelligence provided by "our fellow citizens."
An Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer in Calexico, California, March 21, 2005. From "Neighborhood Watch" programs to crime hotlines, the US justifies profiling by creating an army of snitches. (Photo: Ann Johansson / The New York Times)
This April, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced the launch of the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement Office (VOICE). The central feature is a hotline built to "assist victims of crimes committed by criminal aliens" by providing updates on immigrants' removal from the US. The office is transparent in its intent to bolster an atmosphere of anti-immigrant paranoia, and the community response has been laudable -- within hours, the line was rendered unusable as prank callers flooded it with false testimonies. But this hotline is nothing out of the ordinary. A dedicated tip line for reporting migrants already exists, and it predates the Trump Administration by a decade: ICE has maintained a hotline since its inception in 2003. The surveillance of non-white populations is a practice that is etched deeply into US institutions, as is the delegation of this effort to private citizens whenever possible -- with devastating impacts on accountability.
Founded in the aftermath of 9/11, ICE's reliance on rabid anti-immigrant sentiment is no accident -- it's a foundational tenet. The Homeland Security Act, which first authorized the program, earmarked $170 million toward racialized screening programs in its first year alone. It further sanctioned the registration and monitoring of "aliens from certain designated countries." The list of countries subject to scrutiny was not finite but could be amended at will as specified in recurring notices published in the Federal Register, leaving noncitizens subject to the changing and arbitrary whims of racist hysteria. Amidst an immobilizing climate of fear, the act was soon after amended with extended protections for citizen patrols under the See Something, Say Something Act of 2011. Cloaked in innocuous language around safety, the act granted immunity to individuals reporting suspicious activity, regardless of the veracity of their claims.
It is a terrifyingly effective strategy.
By outsourcing this surveillance through the mantra of "See Something, Say Something," the DHS is turning Americans into snitches for the police state and shielding itself from accountability. By creating an army of snitches, DHS and other "protectors of justice" can truthfully declare that they were not profiling a particular group but merely following up on intelligence provided by "our fellow citizens." This radical expansion of policing is thereby accomplished at a fractional cost, and as the scope of surveillance increases, the paranoia that underlies it inevitably does too.
The widespread adoption of Neighborhood Watch programs laid the cultural foundation for citizen policing. These programs centered subjects as the "eyes and ears" of the police, encouraging watchers to patrol and report suspicious behavior to the proper authorities. Gaining prominence in the era of America's "War on Crime" -- though similar, less developed projects date back to colonial North America -- the patrols were part of a concerted effort toward making the public responsible for patrolling itself, and over time, surveillance came to be effectively portrayed as a civic duty. As these programs expanded, so did inquiries around how to most effectively cement social control through community monitoring. The Hartford experiment, a 1973 study funded by the Department of Justice, grappled with this very question: How could geographic impediments to surveillance (the tendency for subjects to stay indoors and thus out of sight) be mitigated through urban planning? What followed was a radical restructuring of public space that created subtle avenues for increased surveillance.
The Hartford researchers took an environmental tack to criminality. In making purposeful changes to public spaces, they sought to control the actions of those who lived among them. Still, the program set out not strictly to reduce crime but largely to reroute it within the public eye. A self-assessment one year into the program touted its success in making it "more difficult for crimes to occur unobserved and unreported." The practice has grown to encompass an entire field of academic study, with a bizarre array of supporters: Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) studies are funded by institutions as diverse as the Heart Foundation, Disney and the Tiger Woods Foundation. As the scope of policing increases, what was once public space is reduced to a site of pre-criminality.
The rapid growth of the Minutemen border militia speaks to the widespread internalization of racialized surveillance norms. Dating back to 2004, the group advocates for more stringent immigration enforcement along the US-Mexico border, a project they've taken into their own hands by patrolling the region in search of undocumented migrants to report to border patrol.
The organization first gained notoriety for threatening immigrant activists and interfering with life-saving water distribution to migrants (as Border Patrol ramps up its commitment to "Prevention Through Deterrence," by re-routing migrant paths through arid and hostile terrain, water distribution quite literally becomes a matter of life and death). The Minutemen employ a combination of hyper-militarized vigilante tactics and are routinely recruited by white supremacist groups. Despite their nativist agenda and committed paramilitary structure, the group has largely been granted legitimacy through a flurry of positive media coverage across mainstream channels. So the surveillance continues. "Border watches" are organized alongside "internal vigilance measures" focused on monitoring work sites that tend to hire undocumented migrants. Over time, a sophisticated private surveillance apparatus has emerged, with designated roles for each member and no trace of accountability in view.
A recent spate of retaliatory deportation proceedings too attests to the dangers of "See Something, Say Something" culture. Just last week, an undocumented Honduran national, Jose Flores, was detained by ICE officials after filing a workers compensation claim. Flores' employer, Tara Construction, reported him to immigration officials in response to the claim. After a workplace injury left him incapable of providing for his family, Flores was advised by lawyers that he was well within his rights to apply for compensation despite his immigration status. After Flores vocalized his intent to do so, his employer arranged a meeting with him at which immigration officials lay in wait.
Tragically, the trap laid for Flores was not an isolated case: The Trump administration has emboldened ICE agents and those who call upon them to pursue personal vendettas and target those who pose any inconvenience. Numerous instances have been documented of deportation proceedings targeting community organizers and immigrant activists, with little attempt to hide their punitive nature. The culture of "See Something, Say Something" allows citizens to utilize ICE and the vast policing apparatus as personal enforcers.
The danger of this cultural shift goes far beyond the attack on our public spaces. The culture of "See Something, Say Something" upholds and legitimates the carceral state, while subjecting certain populations to radically differing forms of scrutiny. Though the language around the campaign is on a surface level neutral, race inevitably determines who is surveilling and who is surveilled. And while police have killed more US citizens than have been killed by terrorists in the past two decades, there remains no avenue to meaningfully say something about these abuses.
Through concerted efforts by the state spanning generations, our neighbors and communities are rendered suspect and public space, which was once an oasis, becomes stifling. As surveillance becomes the backdrop to everyday life, embodying anti-racist solidarity becomes more urgent than ever.
A Black Woman-Owned Company That Employs Youth and the Formerly Incarcerated Will Replace Flint's Corroded Water Pipes
The Flint water crisis has dragged on for over three years now, leaving residents to rely on bottled water for drinking and cooking while they await clean water. But one black woman and her business may finally end the injustice.
At the end of March, the state of Michigan agreed to pay up to $97 million in combined federal and state funds to replace Flint's corroded water pipes. The state will have three years to replace any lead or galvanized steel pipes for at least 18,000 homes.
A federal judge approved the agreement, which also entitles residents to have their water tested for lead four times a year, as well as access to free bottled water and filters.
"For the first time, we've been able to have a federal court enforce the state to do the right thing," Flint resident Melissa Mays told All Things Considered, "which is to replace the pipes that their agencies and their administration broke. And now the people can start to see progress."
WT Stevens Construction, a black woman-owned company, will lead that progress. One of four companies contracted to replace the city's contaminated pipes, WT Stevens is the only one owned by a black person.
W.T. Stevens founded the family-owned company in the 1990s, and when he died, Rhonda Grayer began running the company with her seven siblings. The company is a state-certified lead-abatement contractor, which started replacing the city's water lines in 2016.
This will be the biggest project the company has ever undertaken.
"I will tell you that it is really exciting and the most important part of it is the opportunity to employ people who may not have had other opportunities," Grayer told The Hub Flint.
But replacing the water pipes isn't WT Stevens' only contribution to the community of Flint. The company has added 20 employees to handle the project's workload, including ex-offenders and youth in order to provide training and opportunities to these specific populations.
Flint residents comprise about 60 percent of Grayer's team, so this project is definitely about more than a paycheck for them.
"They've had firsthand experiences with the water crisis," Grayer told Mic. "This is the community in which they live and when they're on the job they see that they're helping residents they know."
And Grayer thinks her dad would be "very, very proud" of the work that they're doing.
The crisis in Flint began when city officials wanted to save money by switching the city's water source from Detroit to the Flint River. The government then failed to treat the water with an anti-corrosive agent, so the water corroded the city's lead pipes, essentially turning tap water into poison.
The government's actions have been called an act of environmental racism against the city's mostly black residents.
Last summer, scientists finally considered the water safe for bathing and hand-washing -- but not for consumption.
And as of March, Flint residents were expected to start paying the full cost of their water, even though it is still unsafe to drink without a filter. More than 8,000 Flint residents now face foreclosure for outstanding bills on water that is still, after over three years, toxic.
Two members of the Berkeley College Republicans hold signs while an anti-facist group speaks about Ann Coulter's canceled speech at the University of California, Berkeley, April 26, 2017. (Photo: Jim Wilson / The New York Times)
Last weekend, while Vice-President and former Indiana governor Mike Pence was giving the commencement address at Notre Dame University, over 100 students walked out in protest over his anti-LGBTQ and anti-refugee policy positions. Pence used this opportunity to give a 15-minute lecture about free speech on campuses, condemning what he calls "speech codes, safe spaces, tone policing, administration-sanctioned political correctness -- all of which amounts to nothing less than suppression of the freedom of speech." In contrast, he extolled the virtues of civility, open debate, the pursuit of knowledge, and the free exchange of ideas. Pence's arguments, which sound lofty and noble, conceal as much as they reveal about the role of free speech in educational contexts today.
Much has been written in the past several months about dramatic conflicts at universities, especially those between protesters and high-profile far right figures like Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Richard Spencer, bringing the issue of student activism and free speech to the forefront. While the recent focus has been on these so-called "alt right" celebrities and the growing role of groups like the Young America's Foundation (YAF), there is a much longer history of conservative speakers being invited to campuses under the banner of free speech. Here I examine the groundwork laid by the Federalist Society, a long-standing legal organization which has been sending reactionary speakers to universities for nearly 40 years. Drawing connections between arguments used by liberal proponents of free speech and the rhetoric of the alt right, I examine how the free speech and open debate arguments being used today to defend the hateful messages of far right speakers have been established over a long period and need to be explored in the context of rising fascism, white supremacy, and extreme social inequality. From this perspective, the comments of Pence (himself an affiliate of the Federalists) take on a deeper and more ominous meaning.
The Federalist Society
Outside the legal profession, most people know very little about the Federalist Society, a group that has been called "quite simply the best-organized, best-funded, and most effective legal network operating in the country." As the political right gains traction under the Trump administration, it is worth exploring the mission and history of this group, which has played a critical role in the conservative shift of law and politics over the past 35 years. One of the ways the Society has spread its ideas and found new members is through its long-standing debate program, in which far right attorneys are sent to speak at law schools. According to their latest annual report, the Federalists spent $2.5M on student debates and hosted 1,100 events at law schools across the country in 2016 alone.
The Federalist Society was founded in 1980 by law students and faculty who felt alienated by the allegedly liberal atmosphere of law schools. Since then, the organization has been enormously successful in translating its ideas into law and policy, and has done so while remaining mostly outside the attention of media and the general public. In their recent book, The Federalist Society: How Conservatives Took the Law Back From Liberals, Michael Avery and Danielle McLaughlin show how unrestricted funding provided by billionaires like the Koch brothers and John Olin has allowed the Federalists to promote extremely conservative legal positions which privilege private property rights, criticize government interventions in social and economic problems, and target the rights of women, immigrants, people of color, and gay and trans individuals and communities.
Since its founding, the Society has grown exponentially. From four law school chapters in 1982, it has expanded to over 60,000 members in its 300+ student, lawyer, faculty, and alumni divisions. However, not all "members" pay dues and the organization's claims that they have active chapters at every law school are exaggerated. Regardless of actual numbers, the ideas of the Federalists have spread rapidly through members' prolific publications, presentations, and influential public positions. With an annual budget ranging from $10-15M, the Federalists have developed a powerful network of think tanks, law firms, faculty, judges, and politicians.
The Federalist Society has been extremely successful in getting its members into powerful positions while keeping its influence out of public view. Those unfamiliar with the Society may be surprised to learn that its members are represented at every level of government and the judiciary, including four current Supreme Court justices (Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, Samuel Alito, and most recently, Neil Gorsuch). Every Federal Judge appointed by Presidents Bush (Jr. and Sr.) was a member of the Society or of an approved affiliate of the organization, and every Republican administration since Reagan has included prominent Society members. This trend continues and has become even more pronounced with the Trump administration. During his election campaign, Trump promised that all of his judicial nominees would be "picked by the Federalist Society" and since becoming President he has consulted with both the Federalists and conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation in making lists to fill the 120+ currently vacant federal court positions.
Federalist Society members argue that they do not have a specific "agenda" and that there is nothing clandestine or nefarious about their organization. Indeed, the Society is very public about its mission, its focus on ideas, and its commitment to speaking openly about conservative legal perspectives. Furthermore, given its alliance of libertarians, economic conservatives, social conservatives, and Christians, it is true that the Federalists cannot be said to be an ideological monolith. In fact, the organization itself does not lobby or take public policy positions, but rather relies on its individual members and allied organizations to pursue goals such as rolling back affirmative action and identity-based discrimination laws, contesting government regulation of the economy and environment, removing access to legal remedies for workers and consumers, expanding state support for religious institutions, opposing abortion, protecting private property, challenging protections for immigrants, and limiting the size of the federal government. The overall impact of these various (sometimes disparate) positions is to provide advantages to the already wealthy, while leaving the rest of society poorer and increasingly disenfranchised. Although the Society presents itself as simply an intellectual forum, in reality it holds an immense amount of power and influence.
Free Speech and Its Discontents
For decades, the Federalist Society has sponsored debates at law school campuses in which their members argue the various positions described above. Organizing debates is a key strategy of the Society, which allows it to present itself as offering a dialogue of perspectives in order to provide a platform for what is often dehumanizing and far right rhetoric. In recent years, the Federalists have organized events featuring right luminaries such as John Yoo (author of the "torture memos"), Ryan Anderson (Fellow at the Heritage Foundation who calls gay rights "make believe" and defends conversion therapy), Roger Clegg (President of the Center for Equal Opportunity who argues that affirmative action discriminates against whites), Ilya Shapiro (Fellow at the CATO Institute who claims that corporate donations to political campaigns are not a problem), and Edward Whelan (President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and proponent of the controversial "Bathroom Bill" in North Carolina, who argues that transgender activism has produced legal absurdities).
During this time of controversy on campuses over the place of free speech within current political struggles, the role of the Federalist Society provides an example of how the conservative movement successfully legitimizes itself and spreads its message. Despite the conservative atmosphere of almost all law schools, and the current far-right influence in politics more generally, law student members of the Federalist Society still claim to feel silenced within the "liberal" context of their schools. Student groups and administrators invite far-right speakers under the banner of free speech, viewpoint diversity, and healthy debate, and portray challenges to or dissent against these speakers as attacks on the First Amendment (rather than seeing the protests themselves as protected forms of speech). While the Federalist Society does at least offer other perspectives by framing their events as debates, events sponsored by groups like YAF and College Republicans have increasingly been inviting provocative far right speakers the New York Times has described as "edgier, more in-your-face and sometimes even mean-spirited."
Competing perspectives on free speech across the spectrum of the left are worth examining at this fraught political moment. One popular approach, exemplified by our allies at the ACLU, argues that even hateful speech is constitutionally protected. From this perspective, speech that attacks individuals and groups based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation is both legal and defendable. The ACLU and many liberal-minded people assume that allowing all speech under any circumstances will ensure that the best ideas win out and that it is ideal to have even potentially dangerous ideas out in the open where they can be challenged. They question attempts by universities to adopt codes and policies prohibiting hate speech, arguing that this well-intentioned response is incorrect and akin to censorship. Rather than restrict the right to use racist, sexist, transphobic, ableist, or other such speech on campuses, the ACLU recommends an educational approach that offers less intolerant viewpoints from which individuals can choose. A final important argument from this perspective points out that the limiting of speech on one end of the political spectrum can produce limitations on any speech found to be controversial, and will inevitably lead to greater restrictions on the other end.
This approach may seem logical and commonsense to many, and this line has certainly been taken up by the far right, who complain that the failure to include conservative views alongside liberal perspectives is a violation of free speech. On university campuses, reactionary student groups and their supporters draw on First Amendment arguments to promote agendas that are openly racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, and ableist. They claim that any resistance from the administration or the student body to these hateful ideologies is in violation of legally protected speech, and even ostensibly progressive universities have given in to this pressure by monitoring and censoring opposition. Extreme right fascist and white nationalist groups outside of universities also rely on the discourse of free speech to claim their views are valid and protected. While complaining about the "politically correct snowflakes" on the left, these far right speakers and their supporters actively cultivate their status as victims by attacking the vulnerable through their hateful speech and then claiming persecution when challenged.
From the commonsense liberal approach described above, the best way to address these kinds of speakers would be to let them express their views so others can decide if they agree or not. If all sides are debated openly, advocates of this perspective contend, the best one will obviously succeed. However, far right conservative and fascist ideology is not simply based on logical and reasonable arguments; rather, these movements depend on the irrational mobilization of hate, fear, and anger against some of the most marginalized and vulnerable populations. Offering them an open forum and vigorously defending their right to promote harmful speech confers legitimacy on their positions as being equally as acceptable as any other.
Another problem with the liberal free speech model is that is does not take into account the asymmetry of different positions and the reality of unequal power relations. Arguments about free speech rarely address the significant imbalances in power that exist between, for example, a wealthy white speaker with the backing of a multi-million dollar organization and members of the populations affected by their words (i.e. immigrants, people of color, queer and trans people, low-wage workers, etc.). What are lost in the abstract notion of free speech are the rights of those who do not have the connections or wealth to equally participate in public discourse. The "marketplace of ideas" is like any other marketplace; those with the most resources dominate.
Finally, the trend of students and local community members protesting reactionary speakers at universities has led to outcry about the "intolerant left" violating the free speech of the far right. But those who are so determined to protect the free speech of fascists, white supremacists, and other hate groups should be equally as concerned with protecting the right of dissidents to protest these viewpoints. While giving a speech attacking individuals and groups based on their race, sexuality, or immigration status is considered legal and acceptable by universities, the protests of those who find these viewpoints reprehensible are often censured or punished by the same institutions. It should give us pause that recent model legislation to protect "free speech" on campuses and to discipline those who protest controversial speakers comes from conservative think tanks The Heritage Foundation, The Goldwater Institute, and The Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Since the 1980s, when the Federalist Society began sending extremely conservative speakers to law schools, concerned law students and faculty have responded in various ways. In 2001, the American Constitution Society was formed to help counter-balance the effect of the Federalists in law schools. The ACS position aligns with the general liberal perspective described above and held by the ACLU. By taking part in the Society's debates, and regularly co-sponsoring them, they hope to provide other, less harmful perspectives. NLG faculty members have also taken part in these exchanges, although Guild members are generally more cautious about participating in debates that are framed in biased or oppressive ways. While there are advantages to debating conservative speakers head on, this approach also comes with the danger of legitimizing or validating the terms of the debate. However, taking part and challenging the framing of the debate itself can be a politically useful strategy under some circumstances. Finally, it is important to acknowledge the reality that Federalist Society speakers have access to resources that make it far easier for them to have a platform than many ACS or NLG speakers. While the Federalists can afford to pay for travel, expenses, and honorariums for their spokespeople, many progressive speakers have to turn down speaking engagements for lack of funds.
Federalist Society speakers have often been met with protests from law student groups like the NLG, OutLaws, and If/When/How. Challenges to reactionary speakers have included putting up flyers with information about the speakers and their background, circulating petitions to have the event cancelled, organizing counter-events and speakers, writing op-ed pieces for campus and local publications, sending students to the event with a list of critical questions, and protesting outside or within the event by walking out or holding signs. University administration responses to these kinds of interventions have often been to stifle the protest, although these activities also fall under the banner of protected speech. Law students report having their fliers removed from the campus, being threatened with disciplinary sanctions, or even being told that protesting will lead to negative evaluations on the Character and Fitness Exam required for the bar. While the rights of dissenting students are suppressed, the ability of far right speakers to disseminate hateful rhetoric is protected through claims of the right to free speech.
These are only some strategies for confronting harmful speech in educational settings. While liberal advocates are quick to invoke First Amendment arguments to allow all speech, there are other considerations to take into account as well, such as: Who is able and allowed to speak, under what conditions and with what consequences? What voices are silenced and what forms of dissent are possible (or not)? Universities can use free speech principles to justify invitations to xenophobic and hate-mongering speakers, but not inviting or funding these people is not necessarily a violation of their free speech, especially when they have many other platforms for getting their message out. Private schools, for example, are not bound by the First Amendment in the same ways as public schools, and can therefore make policies about hate speech that limit invitations and/or funding to reactionary speakers and groups. When the views of speakers are actually dangerous to other people, universities should consider the implications and balance the need for a diversity of viewpoints with the consequences of invalidating the humanity or rights of entire groups of already disadvantaged people.
 Jerry M. Landay, "The Conservative Cabal That's Transforming American Law," Washington Monthly, March 2000.
 Michael Avery and Danielle McLaughlin, The Federalist Society: How Conservatives Took the Law Back From Liberals (Vanderbilt University Press, 2016).
 Ralph G. Neas, "The Federalist Society from Obscurity to Power: The Right Wing Lawyers Who Are Shaping the Bush Administration's Decisions on Legal Policies and Judicial Nominations," Report of the People for the American Way Foundation, 2001. Available at: http://files.pfaw.org/uploads/2017/01/federalist-society-report.pdf.
Over 500 protesters demonstrate outside the Republican Congressional Retreat in Philadelphia, January 25, 2017. (Photo: Joe Piette / Flickr)
New figures from the Congressional Budget Office show that, if passed into law, the so-called "Trumpcare" bill would spike the number of people without health insurance by 23 million in 2026. While the GOP pushes deadly health care rollbacks in Washington, communities from Pennsylvania to Maine are ramping up their organizing for universal health care at the state level. New York and California are celebrating major progress in their campaigns for state-based, single-payer systems, setting the tone for grassroots campaigns sweeping the country.
The Healthy California Act and the New York Health Act would establish improved Medicare-for-all-style systems in each state, eliminating out-of-pocket costs and guaranteeing comprehensive care to all residents. The California bill won approval from the Senate Health Committee in late April, and the Appropriations Committee is expected to vote on Thursday. Meanwhile, the New York Health Act has sailed through the Assembly and now awaits action in the Senate.
According to Ursula Rozum, upstate campaign coordinator for the Campaign for New York Health, the list of endorsing state senators has jumped from 20 to 31 since the start of the legislative session, bringing it just one vote shy of a majority. Rozum told In these Times that the bill's success this session is at least partly a response to Trump's regressive policies, explaining that "in this time of attacks on federal level, I think it helps to say look, we have something viable that could protect New Yorkers from the harms of the federal cuts to health care funding."
These victories constitute a positive sign that state-based campaigns for universal health care ramping up across the country -- and not just in states with progressive legislatures. In Maine, where Republicans maintain control of the Senate and voters have twice elected the far-right, proto-Trump governor Paul LePage, organizers are demonstrating non-partisan, grassroots political unity on the issue of health care.
Such a system appears to have buy-in from ordinary Mainers. The Southern Maine Workers' Center (SMWC), a member-based grassroots organization, recently released a report entitled "Enough for All: A People's Report on Health Care," which shows that the vast majority of people surveyed between February 2013 and March 2016 believe health care is a human right, and that it's the job of the government to protect that right. "Committed to building a movement of working class and poor people," the report states, "SMWC sought out people most directly impacted by our system's profit-driven model."
Over 70 percent of those surveyed reported that their right to health care is not currently protected. Maine is one of the 19 states that rejected Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Maine is also the only state in the nation that has not seen a rise in the number of residents with insurance since the implementation of the ACA.
The SMWC's report points out that the gap of coverage in states that rejected Medicaid expansion disproportionately impacts people of color, deepening racial disparities across the healthcare system. According to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, black people are twice as likely as white people to fall into that coverage gap. Nationally, more than half of all nonelderly uninsured are people of color. For the SMWC, a universal health system based in human rights would be one where all health disparities are "actively and systematically addressed."
And while the current system creates and exacerbates many health disparities, the SMWC points out that it is also not working for the vast majority of people. For organizations rallying around the human right to health care, both the failures of the current system, and the attacks on health care coming from the right, constitute opportunities to help people imagine a system that meets their needs. Rozum explains, "if you want to resist Trump, we need to organize around universal social programs that take care of everyone, that unite people as opposed to being means tested."
This strategy is reflected in the SMWC's approach to organizing. In a recent interview, SMWC member Cait Vaughan explained the process of surveying people for their report. "What we were trying to do was engage people wherever they were at, whether they had lost their Medicaid… were still on Medicaid, whether they got insurance with the ACA… had no insurance at all, or even employer based insurance. We were trying to engage all these folks to figure out, 'What are the real roots of the problem?'"
The SMWC is just one organization in a multi-state collaborative of grassroots groups also hailing from Vermont, Maryland, and Pennsylvania that are using the language of human rights to build a base of grassroots support for universal health care. Nijmie Dzurinko organizes with Put People First Pennsylvania (PPF), another member organization of the Health Care is a Human Right (HCHR) Collaborative. Dzurinko told In These Times that "it's important to be working at a scale we can influence." Dzurinko agrees with Rozum that "state-based efforts are gaining traction precisely because we're going backward in Washington. We have a strategic opportunity to push for a kind of healthcare sanctuary at the state level that insulates our people from the attacks and rollbacks of care at the federal level."
The Vermont Workers' Center (VWC), another member of the HCHR collaborative, won a historic victory in 2011 with the passage of Act 48, establishing a path to publicly-funded, universal health care in the state -- the first of its kind in the country. While still on the books, the act has yet to be fully implemented, in part because of former governor Peter Shumlin put up roadblocks around equitable financing. The VWC continues to organize for full implementation of the law, while pushing back against the harmful impacts of the insurance-based system kept in place by the ACA. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont has recently requested a 12.7 percent premium increase on exchange plans.
VWC member Ellen Schwartz explains, "we'll be testifying in July about how these rate increases affect us and our families and call for the full implementation of Act 48 as the solution. This is important because the rate hikes are a symptom of a sick healthcare system, and it's that system that we are challenging and proposing to transform."
The 2011 victory of the Vermont Workers' Center inspired similar campaigns, like that of the SMWC, to view healthcare organizing as a winnable strategy and unite people around human rights. Viewing state-based organizing as connected to the fight over federal policies, Dzurinko points to the fact that "single payer system in Canada started in the province of Saskatchewan before it was national policy."
With successes like those in California and New York thrown into the mix, single-payer supporters elsewhere in the country may be spurred towards state-based campaigns. Approaching these campaigns with an eye towards building broad bases of support for human rights has the potential to sow resistance against the larger trends of privatization and deregulation, as well as racism and xenophobia, that mark the Trump administration.
Two new documentaries screened at this year's Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival each profile a right-wing European militant coming to terms with his past. The thorny question raised by both The Unforgiven and Keep Quiet is a complex one: Is anything owed to history's most despicable actors, especially forgiveness?
(Screen grab: CAT&Docs / Vimeo)
The Unforgiven (2017). 75 min. Finland/Denmark. Directed by Lars Feldballe-Petersen.
Keep Quiet (2016). 93 min. United Kingdom/Hungary. Directed by Joseph Martin and Sam Blair.
Nothing really is owed to the ruthless. But if history's most despicable actors make a genuine attempt to seek help, should they be ignored? Supported? Condemned forever?
These questions are dealt with in two riveting new documentaries that screened at this year's Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival (CPH:DOX). Each profiles a notorious European right-wing militant trying to come to terms with his past. Each man was once a key actor in an ethnocentric and para-militaristic organization and each, struggling to overcome deep, irrational hatreds, expresses regret for past behavior. Whether tackled or avoided, thorny ethical questions must be dealt with by all parties, both in front of and behind the camera. After watching, many viewers will feel compelled to wrestle with what they just witnessed. These are the kinds of films that you find yourself thinking about for days.
Esad Landzo, the central figure in Lars Feldballe-Petersen's The Unforgiven, which had its world premiere at CPH:DOX, was a teenage guard at a prison camp in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 1990s. He explains that he set out to please his deputy commander by trying to be the perfect soldier, willing to go above and beyond what was asked of him -- which he understood to mean engaging with the innocent men on his watch as brutally and mindlessly as possible. During his brief career at the prison, he killed and tortured and beat and sexually abused civilian fathers, sons and brothers. After the end of the Bosnian War, along with 160 others, he was convicted at the International Criminal Court in The Hague and was sentenced to 15 years for war crimes, including murder and torture. We watch as he is released after 10 years and attempts to restart his life in Finland, the only country that will have him. In voiceover and clipped conversations with his new Bosnian wife (we unfortunately have no idea how they met or what their relationship is), his psychiatrist and his heartbroken parents, he explains a desperate need to return to Bosnia and apologize directly to his victims. Despite serving his time, Landzo states that he feels much worse now than he did at The Hague -- at least there he was being punished, but now he's a free man, which is apparently much more difficult. He's aching to forgive himself for his actions two decades earlier. His father repeats to him more than once that the Quran says, if you kill one innocent person you kill all humanity, and Landzo appears to carry this guilt deep within him. He craves purification and rebirth, and so -- some might say selfishly, others courageously -- he seeks out his victims and their kin. Why exactly he chooses this path is unclear.
If The Unforgiven weren't grounded in the voices and experiences of the victims, including their suffering at the hands of Landzo as a young man, the film might risk looking like the glorification of a reformed war criminal. Landzo is not an unsympathetic person, but the survivors of his crimes are the strength and backbone of this film, and the poignant footage of their brief meetings with the fragile Landzo at the prison camp is full of contradiction and complexity. While these climactic exchanges are rich with information and emotion and offer some degree of resolution, there are so many questions raised and left unanswered about what it means to be human that we are simultaneously left enlightened and stupefied. What is best for the victims as a perpetrator goes about making a movie that showcases him coming to terms with his monstrous past? Can asking forgiveness from victims cause further psychological harm? Can it help everybody? Is Landzo also a victim to some degree? What should ideally happen in these circumstances?
There are best practices for forgiveness seeking, diverse psychological and religious research literatures, and other related documentary films on the subject that have been released in recent years (see, for example, here and here). Yet, unlike the 2011 Sierra Leonean film Fambul Tok, which shows traditional bonfire ceremonies with victims and perpetrators discussing truth and forgiveness, The Unforgiven seems to dive into forgiveness with a relative degree of ignorance, and maybe even somewhat recklessly. We never learn how or why the victims' meetings were set up as they were. Little is explained or revealed about the process or how it was chosen. The support of a mental health professional for victims at the meetings with Landzo is made clear, but as far as we know, that's the full extent of the psychological care offered to those who have chosen to meet with him. The brief, tense discussions with Landzo have no real social or historical context, no ritual and no apparent frame except to take place in an empty lot at the scene of the crimes. Nor is there any clear goal, except apparently for Landzo to apologize and move on with his life. (And maybe to make a film? In the credits we see that Landzo himself is one of the filmmakers and he apparently shot many of the scenes.)
Even with the victims' active participation, the spectacle feels a bit invasive and, depending on the extent of the off-camera discussions around consent, maybe even exploitative. Everyone involved clearly is just trying their best to come to terms with their lives, including Landzo. But it seems like these terribly broken men who share such intimate and painful connections are thrown together somewhat irresponsibly. We don't know what safeguards were taken for the reunions at the prison camp, and we are left wondering who was helped, if anyone, and who may have been injured by the experience. Were there any lasting positive or negative effects from the meetings? We never find out. The final image is of Landzo under the shower, seemingly attempting to wash it all away.
There's a certain class of documentary that if pitched to Hollywood studios as a drama would probably never get a green light because the content sounds way too unrealistic to be believed. Take Joseph Martin and Sam Blair's Keep Quiet, which tells the story of a raving anti-Semitic politician and paramilitary leader in modern-day Hungary who is accused of being Jewish, finds out from his grandmother it's true (she's managed to hide the numbers tattooed on her arm with long sleeves since 1945), converts to Orthodox Judaism under the mentorship of a thoughtful and loving rabbi, takes a solemn journey to Auschwitz, and gets circumcised.
Like Landzo, Csanád Szegedi appears to have no qualms whatsoever about processing his identity transformation and regret on camera, and invites the world to watch him change. The camera -- the regard of others -- is likely a crucial part of this process for both. But in the case of Szegedi, the existence of remorse is less obvious than it is for Landzo, and his process is more conflicted. He seems deeply ambivalent about his past as a hardcore member of the neo-Nazi Jobbik party, and he still cherishes memories of their first major electoral victory, even as he devotes himself to studying the Torah. The internalized anti-Semitism he's nurtured since adolescence apparently doesn't dissipate so easily.
The New Yorker profiled Szegedi in an explosive 2013 article by journalist Anne Applebaum, and the makers of Keep Quiet use her insights to frame a jaw-dropping cinematic update. The images and words, including the priceless footage of his grandmother explaining her need to hide the family's identity for their own safety, is all very real, but the entire story feels absurd. Did the man who was just circumcised and who is now on a train to Auschwitz just wonder aloud to the survivor traveling with him that the Jews may themselves be to blame for their genocide? The absurdity of the story makes more sense if the film is seen as a sort of epilogue to the ultimate absurdity in an unhealed society; we're not usually confronted with detailed, personal, contemporary ramifications of the Holocaust in this way, and this film serves as a reminder that history is not just preserved in books and museums but is very much alive.
Ultimately, this is a complex psychological portrait of a descendent of Holocaust survivors in a modern Eastern European society where about one-third of the country, and one-half of Budapest residents, still hold onto negative, stereotyped attitudes toward Jews. Csanád Szegedi, who while growing up was forbidden to consciously understand his roots, has developed into a kind of sphinx -- whether a benevolent or treacherous sphinx is not clear -- and Keep Quiet offers us his riddle in elaborated form. It's also a film about the people and groups who have interacted with this strange character, including his family and Hungarian neo-Nazis. Rabbi Oberlander, infinitely patient with his student while also appropriately reality-based, is a standout. Overall, the Hungarian, German and Canadian Jews in the film who offer their thoughts about Szegedi as he makes his public speeches are split about his extreme transformation; some, especially the Orthodox, forgive him and open their arms, while others let on they do not trust him, they don't believe his change of heart is authentic and they will never be able to forgive. And you can understand them all.
Statement by Mike Litt, U.S. PIRG Consumer Advocate about how the upcoming House vote on the Financial CHOICE Act poses a threat to consumers, depositors, investors and the economy.
Late yesterday, Donald Trump’s EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, proposed suspending deadlines for new clean water protections against coal plants dumping massive amounts of industrial sludge into America’s waterways.
Today, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Employment Law Project, the National Women’s Law Center and 70 national organizations wrote to Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney to urge the Trump administration to abandon its proposal to eliminate the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), which is currently part of the Department of Labor, and transfer its functions to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The letter was also sent to congressional leadership.
On Friday morning, Republican State Senators introduced a companion bill to the anti-immigrant bill AB190 that seeks to turn public employees including law enforcement into an arm of Trump’s deportation machine. The bill is the same so-called “anti-sanctuary” bill that was defeated by the Day without Latinos and Immigrants general strike of February 2016. Anti-immigrant politicians are pushing similar legislation across the country.
Near the Giardini Naxos beach at Taormina, activists sailing on eight kayaks unfurled flags and banners with the message 'Planet Earth first'. The activists also unveiled on the shore a four-meter-high Statue of Liberty covered with a life jacket to symbolise the threat that climate change and rising seas pose.
Greenpeace is calling on the G7 leaders to rapidly implement the Paris Climate Agreement, a generation-defining pact signed by nearly 200 countries, and to resolutely move forward despite the threats of US President Trump to abandon the agreement.
We've taken as fact that the nation started in slavery and genocide and can't be redeemed but the country has always carred a revolutionary promise that has yet to be fulfilled, says activist and Ayni Institute trainer James Hayes. Movements, such as AllOfUs and Yes We Can in Ohio, are taking on the challenge of winning power for a multiracial anti-establishment democracy.
Hundreds of demonstrators march through the streets of Seattle, Washington, May 1, 2017. In the midst of all the tragedies that continue to happen globally, people are finding creative ways to come together and fight. (Photo: Ruth Fremson / The New York Times)
Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing "Interviews for Resistance" series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn't, what has changed and what is still the same. Today's interview is the 41st in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.
Today we bring you a conversation with James Hayes, a trainer with the Ayni Institute who formerly was an organizer with the Ohio Student Association.
Sarah Jaffe: You posted something on Facebook talking about the need to go beyond Trump, to think beyond Trump, to really think just not about resistance but about revolution -- actually fundamentally changing society. I wanted to talk about that because I think it does occasionally get lost in the wealth of horrors that Trump provides us.
James Hayes: I think this question of "How do we move from just being in the mode of resistance and rebellion to actually figuring out how we actually reorganize society?" ... is the central question for our movements and for our generation and for those of us who really want to deal with the fundamental problems that produced a Trump presidency in the first place and that are producing these right-wing populist movements all across the world.
Fundamentally, I think part of what we have to do really is be clear on what we mean when we talk about a revolution. The word gets thrown around so much.... Someone commented [on Facebook] that Hillary Clinton's presidency would have been revolutionary. I am like, "Wow. There are a lot of different ideas about what a revolution is." I just wanted to open up the conversation. I also have my own thoughts about how we can get more clear on what it means to fight for revolution. I think it is probably the most central question right now because even the centrists and the neoliberals are part of the resistance now and I don't think we need to try to stop them from taking that title. I think it is actually useful that they are in that mode and they don't have a clear vision for how to actually fix these problems.
But people across the country who know that we need health care for all, we need free college, that we need to deal with inequality, and we need to address racism and misogyny, people have been offering solutions for how to fix this country for a long time. We just need to get out of their way.
I have been watching all these movement groups come up over the last several years that really are thinking much, much bigger, and that doesn't often get covered. It doesn't really come across when people say, "This is a group that is fighting police brutality," and of course, you are fighting police brutality every day, but there are also so many bigger conversations that are happening that I think need more space in public.
So often our movements are stuck in a [reactive] phase and posture because there is so much happening urgently that we have to address, but [in] the last several years I have seen ... a lot more people who are asking very deep questions about "How do we actually move beyond just being against police brutality, against racism, and those things?" [and] really figuring out what we're for, and figuring out "What is the strategy to get there?" We definitely need more spaces for that.
After the election it became even harder to have that space because of how pressing everything was. Then, after the inauguration, Trump starts signing all these executive orders one after the other and we saw people jumping into the streets, but now the resistance is still strong and with the firing of Comey it is getting stronger, even. But this question of "How do we actually move forward?" isn't really being addressed. Even in the movements, I think part of what is going to have to happen is our social movement leaders are going to have to start taking responsibility for answering that question and then also fighting to have the power to govern society, to actually put those answers into motion, rather than just sort of being in the social movement space forever.
It is interesting because people are thinking seriously about "What would it look like if we took power?" Bernie Sanders had a lot of flaws but also presented this moment to think about "What if our people could win? What if we were in charge?"
Yes, definitely. For me, the day after the election, I was just kicking myself that I didn't do more personally and also as a participant and leader in that movement to push us to engage even more with the election and the Sanders campaign in the primary. I wasn't really sold on him as a person, as a candidate, but after the election I was thinking, "Wow, Bernie came so close" and started to reassess how I wanted to engage questions around electoral politics and whatnot in the future, because ... we honestly could have had [a Bernie Sanders presidency]. The times we are in right now are so different than what I expected at the beginning of the election.
I don't think I fully appreciated how ripe these times are for populist political campaigns. I think part of that is due to how successful the movements have been at polarizing society and exposing the deep problems [that] the traditional political establishment doesn't have any answers for. And Bernie Sanders was the best that we had to try to address some of these things. Hopefully, moving forward, we continue to find other folks to run, but it is looking like 2020 is going to be really slim in terms of people to support.
You work with a couple of national organizations that are thinking about and working on social movement strategies. I would love to hear a little bit about that work that you have been doing.
I have been working with the Ayni Institute, which is a training institute that supports a couple different training programs and communities of practice. The training program that we support that is doing the most work I would say is the Momentum training program, which is really looking at "How do we create mass popular social movements that can give participants what they need to maintain a balance of autonomy and unity so that we can grow in a distributed, decentralized way, but have a set of principles and what we call DNA to really help guide the movement?" A lot of the thinking has been influenced by civil resistance theory and some of the folks from struggles like Otpor in Serbia and the writings of Erica Chenoweth and a lot of folks, but in the last couple of years, there have also been groups in the country, such as Cosecha and IfNotNow, which have launched based on Momentum theory, the Momentum frameworks and also have gone through a process to develop their own DNA.
It is really amazing to watch how fast each of those movements have grown in terms of their membership and their leadership and types of actions that they are able to take on. I am really excited about Momentum. We just finished doing a Momentum training at the end of February for about 95 leaders from across The Movement for Black Lives and it was really a special experience. I am really excited to see what comes out of some of those conversations that we had just a couple meetings ago.
You also mentioned that you have been working with AllOfUs.
Yes, I've been working with AllOfUs, which is a project that is being pulled together by a lot of people who've been coming out of the social movements that we've seen arise over the last several years, people who see the limitations and also the strengths of social movements and really want to figure out how [to] take on the challenge of winning power so we can govern and not just be on the outside looking in, protesting, but actually take over so we can set the direction of the country moving forward.
Part of what is driving the team to come together is a desire to really reclaim the identity of the country, and there's been a lot of conversation about how we need to resist Trump. There was an interesting conversation that Michelle Alexander was a part of: She named Trump as the resistance in opposition to all of the progressive forces throughout the history of the country that have been really pushing to make true those words on parchment that say liberty and justice for all, that all human beings are created equal, that this is a country that could be home for everybody who calls it home.
That's what really excites me the most. I feel like the left has ceded this idea of the country to the right wing and to the worst elements of the nation, and we've just sort of taken as fact that the nation started in slavery and genocide and can't be redeemed. But we actually think that there at the beginning of the country was a revolutionary promise that has yet to be fulfilled and that's the major task of our generation today and successive generations to come is to keep figuring out how do we fulfil the revolutionary promise of America, and defeat Donald Trump in the meantime.
The questions of power and institution building are ones that have been fraught for a lot of people on the left and particularly electoral politics. It is interesting to see the way that is shifting. Speaking of power in your communities, talk about some of the work that has been going on in Ohio where you are. I guess we can start with policing.
In Columbus, just this past weekend, we actually had about 500 people come down from all over the state. There was a march organized by a bunch of different organizations around racial justice. Folks went to the governor's mansion, where the governor doesn't actually live, but the taxpayers still pay to have the lawn cut and all of that, to deliver this message from several mothers of young men who had been murdered by police in the last year who were there.
There have been several pretty high-profile police murders in Columbus. They haven't [broken] nationally, but in the city a lot of people are talking about them. Thirteen-year-old Tyre King was murdered in September. Twenty-three-year-old Henry Green was murdered last June. In January of this year, Jaron Thomas was murdered. Jaron Thomas was the man who was calling 911 for help. He was calling for help because he was having a schizophrenic episode and he told them that. When the ambulance showed up, there were also multiple cruisers who showed up, as well. He ended up in a coma after the police beat him and died in the hospital later. A few weeks after that, over 100,000 dashcam videos were erased or lost or misplaced, never to be found again. Then, [just a couple of weeks ago], the cop who shot and killed 23-year-old Henry Green last summer ... was not indicted after a grand jury convened for a little while in that investigation. Then, a week after he was found to not need to go to trial, he was caught on camera stomping another man's head into the ground while [the man] was already handcuffed. Now, people in the community are calling for him to be fired, as well as the officer who killed Tyre King.
There is a lot of organizing going on both around the issue and significant issue-based campaigning and protesting and movement-building work, but also, there is actually an electoral challenge happening in the city. There is a group here called Yes We Can that is running folks for city council against the establishment incumbent Democrats. It is a really exciting time in the city because while we have a lot of the movement work going on and people are mobilizing, we also have this very real electoral threat and there is a nice movement ecology developing in the city with a lot of different types of organizations supporting each other.
It is exciting to see even in the midst of all the tragedies that continue to happen here, the way people are finding creative ways to come together and fight. There is so much resilience in this community. Honestly, everything in this country is so crazy, but the community here really grounds me and helps me remember that we always have to keep fighting.
Can you talk a little bit more about the Yes We Can effort and the grappling with local electoral politics?
In my city there has been one person in my lifetime who has run for city council and is not an incumbent and won. Everyone else, they were either appointed to be on city council [after somebody stepped down] ... so in their first election, they actually run as an incumbent. There is really a hegemony of the sample ballot here, where if you are on the Democratic Party's sample ballot and they say, "These are our endorsed candidates" then you win. If you are not, you lose.
There is a really high bar of entry into local politics here if you are not part of the Democratic Party establishment, you haven't waited your turn and been picked. So what is happening with Yes We Can is really exciting because for the first time in the last 20 years there is actually a chance to see some people run with real vision for how to help the city and not just the city, but is connected to a national strategy about "How do we fight back against Trump's America?" because in Ohio we have already been dealing with Trump's America with our state legislature. Then, also, Columbus is such a progressive city, certainly in comparison with the rest of the state, but there is still so much that happens here. On the same night that the mayor and city council members declared the city a sanctuary city, there was a 4,000-person protest at the state house where people were protesting the Muslim ban. Later, a bunch of us, including myself, we got maced. There were a bunch of Muslim youth, Somali refugees -- we have a huge Somali population here in Columbus. A lot of young Muslim kids are out just standing against the Muslim ban and a few hours after the city was declared a sanctuary city, we were all maced. That serves to illustrate the kinds of issues that are ripe in the city.
Yes We Can -- they had the primary on May 2. All of their candidates, they are running for city council and also for school board, and all of the candidates made it through the primary and are going to be facing off against the incumbents in the general election. I think things are going to get really interesting here, personally.
The question of primarying Democrats seemed to come up a lot in early days around Trump's cabinet being confirmed and certain people voting for Trump's cabinet nominees. But then these days, because of Trump, it seems like there is a doubling down of criticism of people who dare to suggest that Democrats might also be part of the problem. I wonder if you have been experiencing any of that.
Without a doubt. I haven't been really involved in the Yes We Can campaigning, but I have seen both people saying, "Don't come after us," but also people saying, "You are not even a Democrat. You have all these other ideas." It is the Democrats narrowing their own base of support. It is not very logical politics. You want to have more people on your team.
I see it all over the place. It is part of the reason I wrote that Facebook post the other day about needing to distinguish between the resistance and the revolution, because these folks who don't want to deal with the idea that Democrats might be part of the problem -- they just want to take us back to the world of Barack Obama. A world where Guantanamo is still open, where we are still involved in multiple wars, where we bail out the banks and don't bail out homeowners, where Black people are being shot down every two weeks on Facebook Live and it is fine. That is the world they want to go to and want to live in and want to stay in. They don't want to deal with the fact that we have to move forward.
The thing is, it doesn't even matter what they want. We are moving forward regardless of whether they want to deal with these issues or not. But, it is just emblematic of the issues of mediocre leadership from the Democratic Party across the board. I know, because I used to work [as] ... a page in the statehouse. I was like, "Man, I like all these people. I don't think they are bad people, but mediocre leadership."
Going forward, thinking about specifically electoral politics, some of the things we have seen this year. We have seen Chokwe Antar Lumumba get through the Democratic primary in Jackson, khalid kamau in Georgia. I am wondering what you are thinking about electoral politics moving forward.
A couple of years ago I would have said, "No, I would never run for office." Now I am sort of reassessing a lot of things. I definitely think the folks at Yes We Can have done a great job in our city. In other cities, there are folks who are doing the same thing. I think there are also ways to use electoral politics to engage people around issues, using ballot initiatives. I know there is a lot of interest in bringing ballot initiatives to the state that we can use to really build new alliances with different types of folks, particularly around criminal justice reform. One in six people in the state of Ohio has a family member who is incarcerated or has been incarcerated or themselves have been incarcerated. It is an issue that affects so many people.
So we were looking at stuff like Prop 47 in California and thinking, "Would there be an ability to do something like that in this state in 2018?" Part of why we want to do that, too, is because in 2018 is when we have the governor's race in the State of Ohio. If a Republican wins, I will probably end up moving from the state because it will probably be until 2030 until we can actually do something about the gerrymandered districts. There is a lot on the line right now in my state. I think there will be people running for office. I think we can have people run for Congress and run for Senate and maybe not in Ohio -- our Democratic senator is pretty good, relatively, but maybe we should primary them all.
How can people keep up with you and your work and sign up to get some of your trainings?
People can go to the Ayni website and check out any upcoming trainings that are available. The next training that we are doing is in July. It is going to be a four-day training called Movement Ecology. It is going to be very exciting. Folks should also check out @TimeForAllOfUs on Twitter and also on Facebook. I don't really get on social media much myself, but my Twitter is @ContrabandJames. Those are the best ways to keep up with me right now.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.