Wisconsin Governor Walker and His Appointees Push Policy to Punish Students Protesting Right-Wing Speech
In the latest attempt to silence protesters, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his appointees on the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents are pushing a new policy that would suspend or expel students who protest right-wing speech on campus. Thomas Gunderson, an organizer for Our Wisconsin Revolution, discusses why the legislation lacks legitimacy.
Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin speaks at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference on March 13, 2016, in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)
We're now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world. Today's interview is the 84th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.
The battles over "free speech" on campus have loomed large in the era of Trump, with conservative provocateurs invited to campuses across the country only to claim that they are being silenced when students protest them. In one of the latest salvos in the battle to claim "freedom of speech" for the right wing, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his allies are pushing a policy that would suspend or expel students for protesting in ways the university deems infringe on the free speech of another.
Today we bring you a conversation with Thomas Gunderson, an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and an organizer (both on and off campus) with Our Wisconsin Revolution. Gunderson is organizing against Gov. Walker's policy.
Sarah Jaffe: The University of Wisconsin and Scott Walker's appointees there made headlines again last week with some sort of "free speech" policy. Can you explain that?
Thomas Gunderson: The big issue with it is that it is complicated to explain. The moral of the story is that it essentially threatens to suspend and expel students who ... violate a new set of really obscure and vague policies that the Board of Regents will be proposing.
So, you don't know what the policies that you could potentially be already violating are?
Pretty much. That is the really scary part. They promote it as a bill that is done to protect "freedom of speech" and "freedom of expression" while the obscure language really just chills the student body ... many think that this is the real intention of it, given that, really, the only thing that is concrete about it is that students will be suspended and students will be expelled.
For disrupting speech, right?
Yes, or disrupting just ordinary activity. Whatever that could mean.
Was there a particular incident on the University of Wisconsin's campus that made this seem necessary to the regents, or is this sort of a response to the national feelings that everybody is having about campus free speech?
This is really just about having a corporately captured state legislature and now, at this point, Board of Regents in Wisconsin. The Board of Regents policy is the other side to the Campus Free Speech Act, which comes out of the Barry Goldwater Institute from Arizona, a hard-right libertarian-esque type of think tank.
What would that act do?
That was pretty much giving the Board of Regents the go-ahead to make a new set of policies regarding academic freedom and freedom of expression, which is also just a huge irony. In Wisconsin, they are acting as if the University of Wisconsin Madison Board of Regents has been a stalwart of academic freedom when it has recently removed tenure and made the university a more exclusive place by raising the price of it.
This is all happening in the context of ongoing changes and attacks on the university. Could you talk a little bit more about those over the last few years?
I think it was around two years ago that they made pretty sweeping changes to what was once really sound tenure protection at the university. It caused a huge backlash among faculty and there has been a huge problem with retention since, as well as rising prices. It has really been pretty much an all-out assault on what once made [the] University of Wisconsin system kind of special.
Yes, I remember when Walker tried to change the Wisconsin Idea. Can you explain to people what that is?
Yes. That was really a sneaky Walker move, where he tried to slide in language changing that the goal of the university wasn't to promote the sifting and winnowing [of] the pursuit of truth, and instead to ... saying that the university's goal is to apply a sound workforce for Wisconsin.
Walker's attacks on the university have gone back to when he was first elected, but also, the university has been the source of a lot of the protests against him, going back to the Teaching Assistants Association ... who started the Wisconsin Uprising back in 2011.
On the one hand, we have something very specific here with Walker's specific motivations toward the university system. On the other hand, we are seeing similar attacks on public universities around the country, and we are seeing this particular obsession with student protest being somehow antithetical to free speech nationally. I wonder if you could talk about where you see these attacks on the university and on free speech in the broader national context.
It is especially annoying that they are just trying to do this in the UW system right now, because just in the recent year they have politically attacked both professors and students. Members of the state legislature have openly attacked professors and students whose expression, whose free speech they have found disagreeable.
For anything like a "free speech" legislation to have any sort of legitimacy to it, the restrictions upon free speech have to necessarily be viewpoint and value-neutral restrictions. That this would be the case in the UW system at the current moment is just completely unrealistic. I think that is what has many students, at least in my circles, very concerned about this: that they will be people who are targeted. Particularly a lot of minority groups at the university, those that are here are really worried about it.
In the moment of Trump, Wisconsin, of course, has been living with Scott Walker for a while now, so you have seen a lot of the things that are now being moved to the national level there.
Right. Just another really bizzarro quintessential timing thing of it is that as we speak, UW Madison is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the student Vietnam protests here on campus. If these policies were around then, those students wouldn't have only been pepper-sprayed, but they also would have been possibly getting suspended or expelled or worse.
Since we are talking about this and the work that people are doing on campus being potentially under threat, talk about what Our Wisconsin Revolution has been doing on campus.
At the moment, there [have] been a lot of op-eds written. We are trying to really just bring awareness that this happened on Friday the 6th [of October]. We also have a petition circulating that everyone is welcome to sign, saying they support the students and their right to freedom of expression and speech, and the language of this legislation is too vague and we believe will be used to target already marginalized students. We are, hopefully, going to build up some student awareness and, hopefully, be able to make something happen when the Board of Regents is actually at the University of Wisconsin Madison in these coming weeks, because they have not banned protests quite yet.
When did Our Wisconsin Revolution get started and when did the campus branch get started?
Our Wisconsin Revolution is fairly new. It is the state affiliate of Our Revolution. It arose in Wisconsin over this past summer, in June. I was able to attend the convention where we elected our board and made plans to get a Dane County and Madison chapter officially affiliated. Being that Our Wisconsin Revolution started in the summer, this is Our Wisconsin Revolution's student chapter's first semester. There has been a lot of energy around it, just because at this point, we have taken the [Bernie] Sanders vision and really tried to apply it to Madison, which has meant opposition to a new jail that the county board has been trying to build, and really building membership and awareness at this point.
Going forward, do you have anything coming up with Our Revolution on or off campus that people should know about?
We don't have a specific event planned at the moment, but the third Thursdays of every month we have a social mixer with the Democratic Socialists of America and that is always a great time. People should come to our general assembly meetings on the fourth Thursday.
How can people keep up with you online?
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BuzzFeed's leak of Breitbart's emails are not a revelation but confirmation that Milo Yiannopoulos, Steve Bannon and their supporters were not only in cahoots with white supremacists, they were aware of the violence they were stoking. While the leaks have widened the rift that developed between the Breitbart gang and the "alt-right" in the wake of Charlottesville, they likely will not unseat Breitbart from electoral politics without massive public pressure from anti-fascist movements.Far-right British commentator Milo Yiannopoulos is escorted from Sproul Plaza at the UC Berkley campus after a speech. (Photo: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images) Exposing the wrongdoing of those in power has never been more important. Support Truthout's independent, investigative journalism by making a donation!
The celebrity of Milo Yiannopoulos has always been a balance between career-end charades and headline-grabbing stunts. While tabloids were still fawning over his wedding photos, especially on the race of his new husband, BuzzFeed was preparing a feature that further demolished his defenses against allegations of white nationalism. In the story published on October 5, Joseph Bernstein unveiled what was apparently years of private emails and Breitbart memos that outlined the far-right publication's relationship with open white nationalists, including Yiannopoulos's clear reliance on them. What this revealed was how Yiannopoulos's celebrity became a tool by which Stephen Bannon engaged in an information war to "defend the West."
While the term "alt-right" was roundly used to describe Yiannopoulos as he railed against Black Lives Matter and feminism, it was always a bit misapplied. The "alt-right" has always meant white nationalism, though in a dressed-up form that would rather cite esoteric German philosophers than David Duke. Yiannopoulos, a queer Jew, did not fit that bill, and while he enjoyed denouncing Muslims and immigrants, he did not meet the ideological litmus test that white nationalists like Richard Spencer or Jared Taylor might.
Instead, Yiannopoulos led what is now called the "alt-light," a slightly more moderate sphere of angry far-right populists that have helped to mainstream "alt-right" memes and talking points without committing to their more shocking political fantasies. People like Anne Coulter, Lauren Southern, Gavin McInnes, Rebel Media and, of course, Breitbart, are all figures in this canon, and Yiannopoulos was simply their loudest and most prolific icon. Gaining fame by leading the misogynist troll army during Gamergate, Yiannopoulos was ported over the pond to work at Breitbart as a tech editor, but it was his pithy blogs going after Breitbart's favorite targets that garnered his celebrity. In 2015 and 2016, Yiannopoulos mingled with white nationalism, bringing people like male tribalist Jack Donovan onto his podcast and writing his much-cited outline of the "alt-right" for Breitbart.
What has allowed for Breitbart's and Yiannopoulos's success has always been plausible deniability. Yiannopoulos can say almost the same things as the "alt-right," but then ducks away from accusations since he effectively refused to take the final rhetorical step: He wasn't talking about people of color or women per se, just these particular people. This has been a known strategy for years as Breitbart replaced Fox News as the radical right organ of news. The email leaks show that Breitbart's connections to white supremacists were real.
In email after email, Yiannopoulos's directives came down from Bannon, who excoriated Yiannopoulos anytime he refused to hone in specifically on Muslims and those "we are in an existential war" against. Yiannopoulos, for his part, made friends with the white nationalists early on, especially with Weev, the famous troll known for his vulgar neo-Nazism and work with The Daily Stormer. Yiannopoulos's articles were shaped and edited by Devin Saucier of American Renaissance, the most prominent white nationalist organization in the country that focuses much of its time on trying to prove race differences in intelligence. Other "alt-right" figures did direct edits on stories, and far-right Breitbart investors like Rebekah Mercer of the Mercer Family Foundation filtered stories to Yiannopoulos through Bannon. While Yiannopoulos played the innocent dupe to the racism of the "alt-right," in email after email, according to BuzzFeed News, he not only understood its racism full well, but it appeared as though he and Bannon reveled in it and used Breitbart as a well-coded tool to stoke those racist feelings in readers.
The relationships of tech impresario Peter Thiel and Bannon and the Neoreactionary movement -- specifically race and IQ proponent Curtis Yarvin -- was again made explicit, but this inspired few surprises. Yarvin became famous under the pen name Mencius Moldbug, and wrote a blog outlining his opposition to equality, democracy and social progress. Moldbug's ideas have had major currency in Silicon Valley, and Thiel, as a major right-wing tech figure, was able to shelter himself from direct connections with Yarvin until the report was released.
Most damning of all, however, is likely the clip of Yiannopoulos's April 2016 Texas karaoke event, where "alt-right" leaders threw up "sieg heils," and Richard Spencer laughed in the audience. The private event was not open to the media, and presumably Milo had no intention of revealing his open admiration of the "alt-right" shown at the bar. Mike "Enoch" Peinovich, the host of the white nationalist troll-podcast The Daily Shoah, described on his show his own relationship with Yiannopoulos after the fact, admitting he was also at this karaoke event and that they had exchanged contact information.
What is more shocking, however, is the relationship that Yiannopoulos and Breitbart maintained with journalists at mainstream publications. Mitchell Sunderland at Vice's women's platform Broadly sent one email telling Yiannopoulos to go after the "fat feminist" Lindy West, a woman who has seen some of the most aggressive sexist harassment in the post-Gamergate internet. The undercurrent here is that Yiannopoulos's brand of reactionary abuse was a popular pastime for people in the media, and his antics created more clickbait stories for even leftist publications to lap up.
There have been few believers in the "alt-light" claims of anti-racism, or of Bannon's arms-length relationship with Neoreaction and the "alt-right," and that is the dark spot that BuzzFeed's info dump really elucidates. With such a massive leak as this, with such damning evidence, one could easily expect that the result would be firings (Vice did fire Mitchell Sunderland for his correspondence with Yiannopoulos), denouncements and social exorcisms. What is more shocking, in a sense, is that none of that will result because all of this is simply a confirmation for what has been both publicly known and privately accepted. That Breitbart is a tool for the development of white nationalism, that people like Bannon and Yiannopoulos know full well the type of violence they are stoking, and that backers like the Mercers and Thiel are allying with a revolutionary white supremacist movement is not particularly striking. Instead, we simply have the map laid out, our educated assumptions made transparent.
The recent fragmentation of the "alt-right," which really started with schisms in the days after Trump's victory, hit a fever pitch after Charlottesville. The effect of the social shift and the subsequent online platform denial the "alt-right" faced, as well as the betrayals that Yiannopoulos has brought on the "alt-right," has given him no quarter in the wake of this revelation. Yiannopoulos went as far as to go on social media to declare that it was an "alt-right" plot to reveal this information. "I am told a figure on the Right paid one of Richard Spencer's nutty goons $10,000 for this video," Yiannopoulos wrote on Instagram, with little evidence of this transaction. "I have been and am a steadfast supporter of Jews and Israel. I disavow white nationalism and I disavow racism and I always have." Figures like Paul Joseph Watson of Infowars have picked up on Yiannopoulos's allegations, pushing a conspiracy theory that establishment journalists colluded with white nationalists to bring down Yiannopoulos.
Spencer, for his part, has continued his anti-Yiannopoulos campaign on social media and podcasts, repudiating a figure he once celebrated. Around the troll-sphere of the "alt-right," Yiannopoulos's response to the revelations and his inability to take ownership for his racist protocols has further demonized him. The former alliance between the "alt-right" and the "alt-light" has been delivered a heavy blow, and no amount of revelations of previous collaboration is going to resurrect their Trumpian beast. Instead, this has the ability to permanently sever any future connections, and for "alt-light" figures who attempt to co-opt the energy of white nationalists, it will act as a warning about the potentially public nature of that friendship.
Revelations like this could cause Thiel and the Mercers to try and back away from their public associations with white nationalist people and movements, but if what we already know about them was not enough for them to go dormant, this is likely not dangerous enough either. It is unclear how Breitbart will respond, if the network will use this as an opportunity to clear its ranks, or to simply ignore the allegations and press forward with its mission. The only thing that forces these connections to dissolve is massive public pressure -- the kind that only organized movements with clear goals can grasp. All of these figures have been the target of anti-fascists over the past 18 months, and that is not likely to abate, but it will require larger coalitions of stakeholders to permanently unseat Breitbart's place in the American electorate.
President Trump's latest attempt to bar some citizens of eight Muslim majority countries from entering the US suffers a second defeat, as another federal judge rules that the latest policy is unconstitutional. We speak with Baher Azmy, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Please check back later for full transcript.
Guantánamo Bay detainees who are on hunger strike have accused officials of a sudden change in practice that could result in them starving to death, as doctors threaten to stop force-feeding them and are no longer monitoring their medical condition. We speak with Clive Stafford Smith of Reprieve, which represents eight of the 41 Guantánamo detainees. Reprieve is urging supporters to join a solidarity hunger strike with the detainees. Among those participating are British Labour Party MP Tom Watson, Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters, comedian Sara Pascoe, director Mark Rylance and French-born actress Caroline Lagerfelt.
Please check back later for full transcript.
Millions of football fans must have felt grateful to President Trump for provoking the entire National Football League into a goal line stand last month. The sight of hundreds of players on the sidelines, arms linked with coaches and owners during the playing of the national anthem, not only soothed fears that a disrupted season lay in the NFL's future, but gave those fans tacit permission to keep on enjoying the games without being too disturbed about brain trauma on the field, collusion in the front office, or demands for racial justice.
Once again, Trump had made it all about Trump, then quickly blitzed on to fresh outrages.
Had anything really happened?
One long-time national sports conscience, Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, declared that Sunday, September 24th, was "the most important sports day since [Muhammad] Ali decided not to fight in Vietnam." From it, he foresaw the possibility of a civic conversation emerging that would create "unity in our communities."
On the other hand, could that Sunday of Accord have actually been no more than a Hail Mary pass designed to briefly shore up a vulnerable sport? Could that show of NFL unity have helped to block growing concerns that, amid a blizzard of negative news and views, pro football was beginning to fade as America's most popular spectator sport?
In other words, could Donald Trump have saved professional football? Give him credit for this: he certainly spun a mild demonstration against racism into a flagrant case of disrespect for the flag, the military, our wars, patriotism, the nation, and above all else, of course, Donald J. Trump. With his usual skill, he then reshaped that sizzling package into yet another set of presidential pep rallies for his own fans, that much-invoked "base." In the process, he also helped highlight the Jock Spring that had stirred last year when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first refused to stand for the anthem. Though it seemed to fade after the initial blast of publicity, it was revitalized last month when the president labeled any football player who knelt or sat or stayed in the locker room during the playing of the pre-game anthem a "son of a bitch," the same term he used last year to describe the killer in the Orlando nightclub massacre.
Trump's slur clearly resonated with the resentment many everyday white male sports fans often seem to have when it comes to bigger, younger, better-paid African-Americans who don't appear grateful enough for the chance to live out their daydreams. Keep in mind that the NFL, like the National Basketball Association, is a predominately black league. Major League Baseball, on the other hand, has a relatively small percentage of African-American players, although many Latinos and Asians. (Only one active baseball player, Oakland's Bruce Maxwell, an African American, has taken a knee.)The Coming of the Jock Spring
When it comes to racism and professional sports, the arc from Muhammad Ali's refusal to be inducted into the Army on April 28, 1967, to Lapchick's next most important sports day is a distinctly interrupted story. In that long-gone year, the Olympic Project for Human Rights, led by a San Jose State sociology professor, Harry Edwards, staged protests against racism. Among their demands was that Ali, the heavyweight champion, be allowed to fight again, since every American boxing commission had by then refused to license him and his passport had been taken away. Those protests culminated in an enduring image of resistance: African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos thrusting black-gloved fists into the air from the medal stand of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
The Empire immediately struck back (as it would do 50 years later to Colin Kaepernick). Smith and Carlos were thrown off the U.S. team and hustled out of Mexico. They spent years as jobless heroes. Ali himself would not be allowed to return to the ring for another three years. The boundaries of the power of athletes to express themselves politically were now set. The O.J. Simpson and Michael Jordan generations of black sports stars would remain determinedly apolitical, concentrated on pleasing the white men who controlled their endorsement contracts. The most revolutionary movement in sports in those years came from women tennis players, led by Billie Jean King, who fought for equal economic rights and an end to the tyranny and corruption of what passed for amateurism (still widely practiced in college sports today).
The Jedi returned in 2016 when, after a week of Black Lives Matter demonstrations and a lone gunman's attack that left five Dallas police officers dead, basketball stars Carmello Anthony, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Paul exhorted their fellow athletes at an ESPN awards gala to speak up, oppose racial profiling, and use their influence to renounce all violence. As James said at the time, "The four of us we cannot ignore the realities of the current state of America. The events of the past week have put a spotlight on the injustice, distrust, and anger that plague so many of us. The system is broken. But the problems are not new, the violence is not new, and the racial divide definitely is not new. But the urgency for change is at an all time high."
It briefly seemed as if a Jock Spring might indeed be stirring and it seemed fitting as well that it would start in basketball, where international stars with guaranteed contracts in a relatively liberal league had some clout. But there would be no meaningful follow-up until, on August 26, 2016, in a more conservative and controlled sport, Kaepernick sat down during the national anthem before a pre-season game. It was one of the most vivid image of American resistance to racism since Smith and Carlos. He was Rosa Parks with a helmet. At some point, someone finally noted the link that connected Kaepernick to Smith and Carlos: Harry Edwards, the now-retired Berkeley sociology professor, was a 49ers team adviser.
As the season progressed, Kaepernick regularly dropped to his right knee because, he said, he refused "to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color." He later referred specifically to the shooting deaths of unarmed black men by white police officers.
Then-candidate Trump's immediate response was: "I think it's a terrible thing, and you know, maybe he should find a country that works better for him. Let him try -- it won't happen."
It took the rest of the season, but another link between 1968 and 2016 became apparent: Kaepernick would be shoved out of the game and left a jobless hero to some (and an ungrateful turncoat to others). By season's end, he had become a free agent and Trump, of course, had become president. In a move that could only please the new president, the NFL owners apparently colluded in informally banning Kaepernick from the game. A healthy, 29-year-old with Super Bowl experience, he hasn't been hired since, not even as a backup quarterback. The rationales have included claims that he's lost his skills or doesn't fit into existing offensive schemes. They ring hollow when you compare his supposedly degraded abilities to those of some of the lesser talents who take the field every week.
Even if there was a billionaire team owner whose politics were sympathetic, it seems clear that Kaepernick was simply not considered worth the trouble in Donald Trump's America. Owners of sports teams are dependent not only on fan support but on media and political complicity to sell tickets and to strong-arm cities into financing their stadiums. Being perceived as soft on "unpatriotic" black athletes could damage their relationships with their own mostly conservative base.
Nevertheless, the blooming of a Jock Spring looked even more likely this season as other athletes stepped up and dropped down. Kaepernick was unsigned but stars like Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch, and Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins kept the protest alive. One of Jenkins' teammates, Chris Long, who is white, even stood beside him, a hand supportively on his shoulder. After the game, he told reporters, "I think it's a good time for people that look like me to be here for people that are fighting for equality."
There even seemed to be a spring awakening in the grandstands and living rooms of America. Some fans questioned the morality of finding pleasure in the deadly head-banging of black guys killing themselves for the entertainment of white guys, even as others began to complain, in a Trumpian fashion, about the intrusion of social issues into what had been considered their sanctuary from real life. There was concern, too, that politics, which they had been told has no place in sports, would upset the personal dynamics within their favorite teams. Coaches have always emphasized the need for "unit cohesion" -- the same catchphrase the military used in the past when it was still trying to keep either blacks, women, or gays out of the line-up.Trump Takes the Field
And then, of course, President Trump strode onto the field. Not only did he put those uppity black "son of a bitch" players in their place, but he impugned their manhood by saying that there wasn't enough violence in the game. He similarly dissed the owners and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, daring them to fire any player who refused to stand for the anthem and later tried to go after them where it hurts, tweeting, "Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country? Change tax law!" (This was, however, a ludicrous claim, since only the NFL's headquarters, a non-profit corporation, qualified for such exemptions and the league had waived that right several years ago for public relations reasons.)
As a result, pro football's arm-linking response seemed, at the time, like an attempt to redeem itself to its fandom. It would, however, turn out to be a gesture that signified nothing more than a hollow pageant of pragmatic unity. To survive, in other words, the league reacted not with a show of force, but with a photo op that they thought might be reassuring to fans and advertisers alike.
That Sunday of Accord was kicked off by Pakistani-born Shahid Khan of the Jacksonville Jaguars, the league's first non-white majority owner and one of at least six owners who had donated a million dollars or more to Trump's campaign. His team was playing the Baltimore Ravens in London as part of a plan to bolster pro football by globalizing it and it was there, thanks to the time difference, that he became the first owner to stand entwined with his players.
The NFL is, in fact, moving toward the end of a 10-year collective bargaining agreement with those same players. It ends after the 2020 season, already sure to be a politically charged year. This will be the first agreement since the full impact of the league's betrayal of those same players -- its willingness to ignore the widespread brain injuries the sport causes participants -- became well documented in the groundbreaking reporting of the New York Times's Alan Schwarz and then the book and the film League of Denial.
The latest revelations of the link between playing pro football and brain injuries put the NFL in the same league with those other classic civic criminals, the tobacco companies and the Big Oil promoters of climate change denial, not to mention a sycophantic media that offered years of cover for all the deniers by creating a false balance in its reporting and claiming a lack of definitive scientific evidence.
Still, the NFL's biggest concern is undoubtedly the potential drying up of its player and fan pipelines, which has already begun (and to which the president has been lending a distinctly helping hand when, at least, it comes to his base and the league's fan base). Despite attempts to create safer practice models and tackling techniques for the sport, there has been a distinct drop in youth football participation in recent years as evidence mounts that early play leads to harm.
Prominent players and former players have even declared that they would not allow their sons to play or recommend the sport to other children. As former Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback and Fox NFL Sunday broadcaster Terry Bradshaw put it, "If I had a son today, and I would say this to all our audience and our viewers out there, I would not let him play football." After 20 years at ESPN, former player Ed Cunningham even quit broadcasting because of his concerns about traumatic brain injuries. "I can no longer be in that cheerleader's spot," he said.
The Sundays since that day of linked arms have offered anything but conclusive evidence as to who's really winning the hearts and minds of football fans and Americans more generally, but if a guess had to be made, so far the embattled Donald Trump has proven to be the provisional winner. He's used it to rally his base (and Republicans more generally), while the protests have continued, but at a diminished level, and the owners have begun slipping away from the sidelines and returning to their luxury boxes. Having had their moment of symbolism with their players, they now seem to be preparing for another kind of symbolism entirely. In their fashion, they are reportedly getting ready to lock arms with Donald Trump by threatening either to bench any players who kneel for the anthem or possibly change league rules to make standing mandatory.
And yet, as far as we can tell, the fans have not been heeding Trump's directive to "leave the stadium. I guarantee things will stop. Things will stop. Just pick up and leave. Pick up and leave. Not the same game anymore, anyway."
Oh wait, one fan actually did.
On Sunday, October 8th, Vice President Pence walked out of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis after about 20 members of the San Francisco 49ers took a knee during the anthem. Supposedly there for a ceremony honoring retired Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, he had flown in (and would fly out) at taxpayer's expense (chalk up a quick $242,500) and, reportedly at the president's bidding, he was clearly planning to walk out as soon as a knee hit the ground. (A protest was, of course, guaranteed since it was Kaepernick's former team on the field.) The VP was, it seems, running a play for the Coach-in-Chief.
Soon after, in a letter to owners, Commissioner Goodell supported standing for the anthem, while one of the most powerful owners, Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, threatened to bench any player who did not do so.
The players had yet to come together in any meaningful way either as free men or as mercenary gladiators. A journeyman veteran, DeAngelo Hall of the Washington Redskins, spoke openly about his concerns for personal financial security, while Russell Okun of the Los Angeles Chargers published an open letter calling on the players to address inequality together.
Then, a seeming turnover. Kaepernick filed a grievance against the NFL, charging own collusion against his employment. A few days later, the owners voted, at least for the moment, not to penalize players who refused to stand for the anthem, prompting a protesting tweet -- "Total disrespect for our great country!" -- from Trump.
So even as the Sunday of Accord became a distant dream, the reality of a Jock Spring was still spiraling in the air. Would it lead to a score by progressive players, would it be intercepted by Trump? Would America -- sports fans and a-sportuals alike -- come to understand that the issue was more than a political football? Would they grasp that it was a locker-room lesson in how kneeling for principle could be a man's way of finally standing up?
In this Progressive Pick excerpt from Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis, George Monbiot examines the power of stories, as what he calls "the means by which we navigate the world." Those who tell the stories wield the power. How do stories undermine facts, evidence, values, beliefs? And how has the story of neoliberalism shaped our present realities?
Powerful stories like the Narnia series move us to cheer the triumph of values that contradict our own. (Photo: Manuka / iStock / Getty Images Plus)
The idea that human nature is inherently competitive and individualistic isn't just harmful, argues George Monbiot in his new book. It's also contradicted by psychology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis provides a compelling argument for how we can reorganize our world for the better from the bottom up. Order it today by donating to Truthout!
In this excerpt from Out of the Wreckage, George Monbiot talks about the power of stories. Stories are the tool we use to make sense of the world: We will only be apply to supplant the story of neoliberalism, which has shaped the outlook of so many minds, with a compelling new story.
You cannot take away someone's story without giving them a new one. It is not enough to challenge an old narrative, however outdated and discredited it may be. Change happens only when you replace it with another. When we develop the right story, and learn how to tell it, it will infect the minds of people across the political spectrum. Those who tell the stories run the world.
The old world, which once looked stable, even immutable, is collapsing. A new era has begun, loaded with hazard if we fail to respond, charged with promise if we seize the moment. Whether the systems that emerge from this rupture are better or worse than the current dispensation depends on our ability to tell a new story, a story that learns from the past, places us in the present and guides the future.
Stories are the means by which we navigate the world. They allow us to interpret its complex and contradictory signals. We all possess a narrative instinct: an innate disposition to listen for an account of who we are and where we stand. In his illuminating book Don't Even Think About It, George Marshall explains that "stories perform a fundamental cognitive function: they are the means by which the Emotional Brain makes sense of the information collected by the Rational Brain. People may hold information in the form of data and figures, but their beliefs about it are held entirely in the form of stories."
When we encounter a complex issue and try to understand it, what we look for is not consistent and reliable facts but a consistent and comprehensible story. When we ask ourselves whether something "makes sense," the "sense" we seek is not rationality, as scientists and philosophers perceive it, but narrative fidelity. Does what we are hearing reflect the way we expect humans and the world to behave? Does it hang together? Does it progress as stories should progress?
Drawing on experimental work, Marshall shows that, even when people have been told something is fictitious, they will cling to it if it makes a good story and they have heard it often enough. Attempts to refute such stories tend only to reinforce them, as the disproof constitutes another iteration of the narrative. When we argue, "It's not true that a shadowy clique of American politicians orchestrated the attack on the World Trade Centre," those who believe the false account hear that "a shadowy clique of American politicians orchestrated the attack on the World Trade Centre." The phrase "It's not true that" carries less weight than the familiar narrative to which it is attached.
A string of facts, however well attested, has no power to correct or dislodge a powerful story. The only response it is likely to provoke is indignation: people often angrily deny facts that clash with the narrative 'truth' established in their minds.
The only thing that can displace a story is a story. Effective stories tend to possess a number of common elements. They are easy to understand. They can be briefly summarised and quickly memorised. They are internally consistent. They concern particular characters or groups. There is a direct connection between cause and effect. They describe progress -- from a beginning through a middle to an end. The end resolves the situation encountered at the beginning, with a conclusion that is positive and inspiring.
Certain stories are repeated across history and through different cultures. For example, the story of the hero setting out on a quest, encountering great hazard (often in the form of a monster), conquering it in the face of overwhelming odds, and gaining prestige, power or insight is common to cultures all over the world, some of which had no possible contact with each other. Ulysses, Beowulf, Sinbad, Sigurd, Cú Chulainn, Arjuna, St George, Lạc Long Quân and Glooskap are all variants of this universal hero. Our minds appear to be attuned not only to stories in general, but to particular stories that follow consistent patterns.
In politics, there is a recurring story that captures our attention. It goes like this:
Disorder afflicts the land, caused by powerful and nefarious forces working against the interests of humanity. The hero -- who might be one person or a group of people -- revolts against this disorder, fights the nefarious forces, overcomes them despite great odds and restores order.
Stories that follow this pattern can be so powerful that they sweep all before them: even our fundamental values. For example, two of the world's best-loved and most abiding narratives -- The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia series -- invoke values that were familiar in the Middle Ages but are generally considered repulsive today. Disorder in these stories is characterised by the usurpation of rightful kings or their rightful heirs; justice and order rely on their restoration. We find ourselves cheering the resumption of autocracy, the destruction of industry and even, in the case of Narnia, the triumph of divine right over secular power.Truthout Progressive Pick
How can we create a new "politics of belonging" to radically reorganize our world?Click here now to get the book!
If these stories reflected the values most people profess -- democracy, independence, industrial 'progress' -- the rebels would be the heroes and the hereditary rulers the villains. We overlook the conflict with our own priorities because the stories resonate so powerfully with the narrative structure for which our minds are prepared. Facts, evidence, values, beliefs: stories conquer all.
Copyright (2017) by George Monbiot. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher, Verso Books
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speaks to members of the White House press corps during a daily briefing at the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House August 25, 2017, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images)
For weeks President Donald Trump and the Republican Party have been peddling the demonstrable lie that their tax proposals are primarily geared toward helping the middle class, not the wealthiest Americans. But in an interview with Politico's Ben White published Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin gave away the game, admitting: "It's very hard not to give tax cuts to the wealthy."
The math, given how much you are collecting, is just hard to do," the treasury secretary added.
But as The Huffington Post's Arthur Delaney notes, the math is not hard at all. In fact, the White House's own tax framework, released last month, had a useful suggestion: add in a higher top marginal rate.
"An additional top rate may apply to the highest-income taxpayers to ensure that the reformed tax code is at least as progressive as the existing tax code and does not shift the tax burden from high-income to lower- and middle-income taxpayers," the framework says.
When asked about Mnuchin's comments during Wednesday's press briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders didn't deny that the rich would benefit enormously from Trump's tax plan. Instead, she claimed that cutting taxes for the middle class remains "the focus and the priority."
Mnuchin's comments came as the Senate debates a GOP-crafted budget proposal that Republicans need to pass in order to pave the way for a tax plan that non-partisan analyses have shown would almost solely benefit the top one percent, while increasing taxes on some low-income and middle class families.
On social media, critics mocked Mnuchin's claim, suggesting that it exposes the tax "scam" Trump and the GOP are attempting to ram through Congress -- despite the fact that an of Americans disapprove of the plan.
"It's very hard not to, so I guess we'll just have to do it exclusively" https://t.co/P3yPO2teTN— Fight For 15 (@fightfor15) October 18, 2017
And there you have it:
Steven Mnuchin admits "It's very hard not to give tax cuts to the wealthy." https://t.co/DtQk4CxIPw
Guy who wrote Trump's tax plan says that the laws of math basically forced him to give rich people a huge cut https://t.co/ltHThxD09K— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) October 18, 2017
Mnuchin says it’s hard to avoid cutting taxes for the very wealthy (such as Trump)https://t.co/IJyPqqAMF8— Citizens for Ethics (@CREWcrew) October 18, 2017 In times of great injustice, independent media is crucial to fighting back against misinformation. Support grassroots journalism: Make a donation to Truthout.
A helicopter prepares to drop water on a fire that threatens the Oakmont community along Highway 12 in Santa Rosa on October 13, 2017. Early morning mandatory evacuations happened on Adobe Canyon Road and Calistoga Rd. (Photo: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Out-of-control wildfires have devastated the Western US this year, causing not only immediate deaths and untold property damage, but dangerous levels of smoke pollution and long-term health effects. The impact of wildfires on human health and ecosystems will keep rising, unless serious and emergency measures are taken to counter climate change and its effects.
A helicopter prepares to drop water on a fire that threatens the Oakmont community along Highway 12 in Santa Rosa on October 13, 2017. Early morning mandatory evacuations happened on Adobe Canyon Road and Calistoga Rd. (Photo: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Explosive wildfires have raged in Northern California over the last two weeks. Forty-one people are dead, and at least 6,700 structures have been destroyed, making these the most destructive fires in the state's history. Parts of the city of Santa Rosa have burned to the ground. Extremely hot and dry conditions, continuing impacts of the state's drought, and high winds combined to create fires so fast-moving, many residents were forced to flee for their lives with only minutes notice. Tens of thousands have been forced to evacuate. In the last several days, better weather has been helping firefighters fight the blazes, though many are still continuing. Air quality in the region has been called the worst in recorded history due to wildfire smoke.
The fires in Northern California come after a summer of infernos and smoke spanning the West.
It began in Seattle on August 1, 2017. Coming out of work that day, I looked around to try to fathom why the entire atmosphere was thick with haze. Maybe the city's smog had suddenly become abominably worse for unexplainable reasons? Looking around, I noticed it was smoke that lay everywhere. It filled my throat and lungs. The world seemed suddenly wrong, without sense.
These days, and especially this summer, living on Earth feels like existing in dread of the next environmental apocalypse. That day, it felt like it had arrived.
That night, I heard the news. Smoke from wildfires in British Columbia was blanketing the area.
For the next two weeks, it was hard to take a breath outside. The air was acrid, lung-burning. The blue, fresh summer skies Seattle is known for were extinguished. Being outside felt like walking in a stagnant, dead, smoky bubble. The sun and moon eerily appeared through a deep haze, orange or blood red. It was like living in an alternate universe. The smoke returned throughout August and early September.
The Seattle Times said that the region's "natural air conditioning," marine air blown by winds from the west, had broken down. Air quality levels in August plunged so severely, at times Seattle and Portland had air quality worse than Beijing. Elderly people, children and those with compromised respiratory systems were warned to avoid going outside. The general population was told to avoid strenuous outdoor exercise.
I was happy to get out of town on August 11 to head for the Oregon coast and hiking in the Redwoods in Northern California. I looked forward to being able to breathe fresh air again. But it became clear the smoke went way beyond Washington State. As we drove into Eugene, giant plumes of white smoke billowed out of the Willamette National Forest to the east. Further south, more clouds filled the sky from the North Umpqua complex fire. Driving down Highway 101, we came to Brookings on the Pacific coast at the southern tip of Oregon. Smoke choked the town. A fire up the Chetco River had just "blown up" and was spreading in all directions. A few days later, we heard that people were being evacuated immediately due to the fires' rapid spread, in certain spots all the way down to the ocean.
Arriving in Redwood National Park, we were amazed to see the skies there clouded with smoke. In the late afternoon in the Tall Trees Redwood Grove, rays of sunlight angling through smoke and off the trees turned the grove a beautiful but surreal red. Coming home in late August, Oregon was smothered in smoke far thicker than it had been in Seattle, from the southern border almost to the northern. It was hard to imagine people having to try to live and function every day in this.Summer of Heat and Western Fire
This summer, Seattle broke records for the driest in recorded history, the most consecutive days without rain -- 55 -- and also tied for the warmest summer on record.
Similar conditions were present throughout the West. High-pressure systems repeatedly set up and refused to budge along the north Pacific coast or slightly onshore, and blocked any developing weather systems from the west. After weeks without rain, forest brush and understory that had grown thick after an unusually wet winter withered and dried to a crisp. It was like jet fuel awaiting a match. It was only a matter of time until lightning strikes from dry storms, as well as humans, set things alight.
Scorched by record temperatures, British Columbia (BC) went up in flames in July. Fires raged all summer and 1.2 million hectares burned -- the equivalent of 4,680 square miles -- an area almost as large as the state of Connecticut. The area burned exceeded the yearly average of area burned in BC from 2006-16 by almost 10 times.
In Oregon this summer, a Rhode Island-sized area went up in flames. The Chetco Bar Fire scorched old-growth redwoods in a protected grove at the northern edge of the Redwoods range, severely burning 25 percent of the trees. Another major fire was one along the Columbia River Gorge in northeast Oregon. Started by fireworks on September 2, the fire was fanned by extreme heat and easterly winds. It exploded. Dozens of hikers were forced to hike for their lives to escape. Embers crossed the Columbia River and set off new fires in Washington.
In late August and September, offshore winds created by high pressure inland pulled in more smoke to the Seattle area, now from Washington's own wildfires. Ash fell from the sky, reminding people of the volcanic explosions from Mt. St. Helens in 1980.Health Impacts of Wildfire Smoke
The smoke didn't just make life miserable at times this summer for the millions of people throughout the West; it was downright unhealthy.
Joshua Benditt, a pulmonologist with the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, said he was getting many calls from his patients with lung problems due to the wildfire smoke. Benditt said the poor quality of air from the smoke meant, "It's very difficult for patients with asthma or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and even some other kinds of lung diseases. It's quite irritating to them and it can cause coughing and wheezing and actually even respiratory failure."
Bonnie Henry, a deputy provincial health officer in BC, told the Vancouver Sun in August that emergency calls and hospital visits had increased 20 to 50 percent among people with respiratory and other health conditions.
In the inland regions closer to the fires, the air was worse than on the coast. Sarah Coefield, an air quality specialist with the Missoula City-County Health Department, described how desperate the situation was becoming for people in Seeley Lake, Montana where elderly, children and sick people were choking on smoke.
These types of conditions existed to varying degrees for weeks throughout the West. Air quality values ranged from "unhealthy for sensitive groups" to "very unhealthy" and worse. In early September in Spokane, Washington, air quality reached hazardous levels for several days.
A satellite image from NASA on September 5 showed smoke being blown across the US by the jet stream. NASA said, "Smoke from wildfires can be very dangerous. A 2017 Georgia Tech study showed the smoke from wildfires spew methanol, benzene, ozone and other noxious chemicals into the atmosphere." This study directly measured the amount of emissions from several Western wildfires of some of these potentially dangerous gases, as well as particulate matter pollution that is a mix of microscopic solids and liquid droplets. The study found that the particulate pollution from wildfires, already known to be a large source of particulate pollution in the West, was actually three times worse than previously thought.
A 2016 study, called a "Critical Review of Health Impacts of Wildfire Smoke Exposure" found that globally, the estimated premature mortality caused by wildfire smoke is 339,000 people yearly. High levels of particulate matter in the air from wildfire smoke have led to increases in deaths in Malaysia, Russia and Australia. The study drew a clear connection between wildfire smoke exposure and increased morbidity for people with asthma, COPD and general respiratory problems.
The Georgia Tech study cites other scientific studies that have linked particulate matter (PM) from wildfires to increased respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. While more research is required to fully resolve the whole picture of health impacts of PM in humans, the health impacts from fire smoke is clearly cause for real concern, when literally millions of people are living for weeks at a time in regions choked with wildfire smoke.Climate Change and Increasing Forest Fires
Wildfires have been a natural occurrence in the history of forests over many, many millennia. In many ways, fires have played a crucial role in helping regulate and regenerate the health of the forest. Natural variation in weather patterns is one factor in creating conditions for wildfires. But what has been happening over the last several decades is far from normal.
Mike Flannigan, director of the Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Service at the University of Alberta, says the "evidence is becoming more and more overwhelming" of the link between climate change and increasing fires globally. The length of fire seasons worldwide increased by 19 percent from 1978 to 2013, due to longer periods of warm and dry weather in a quarter of the world's forests. While the pattern is not uniform, various parts of the world are seeing clear changes over the last decades, according to Flannigan, including Alaska, Siberia, the boreal forests of Canada and elsewhere.
In the Western US, the length of the wildfire season has increased from five months long in the 1970s, to seven months today with 2015 being the worst wildfire season in the West on record as tracked by the National Interagency Fire Center, with over 10 million acres burned. As of October 15, the amount of land burned in 2017 would rank third highest. According to the EPA, of the 10 years with the largest acreage burned, nine have occurred since 2000.
In the Pacific Northwest as a whole, temperatures have risen 1.5°F since 1920. Extremely warm temperatures and drought mix with historically low amounts of winter snowpack to create conditions setting the table for fire.
The connection of climate change and a warming planet to increasing forest fires isn't just confirmed by observational statistics. Scientific studies have started quantifying the contributions of a warmer planet to increasing fires. A 2016 study in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences demonstrated that over half of the increases in "fuel aridity" (metrics that measure the degree of lack of moisture in fuels) since the 1970s, and a doubling of the amount of forest area burned since 1984 were due to human-caused climate change. A 2017 study in the same journal concluded global warming was responsible for increasing the severity and probability of the hottest monthly and daily events in 80 percent of the globe that they were able to study.
In a sense, the relationship isn't rocket science, but it is basic science. Warming temperatures means warmer air, and warmer air holds more moisture, sucking it out of plants and trees making them drier and more likely to ignite and readily burn. When this happens over whole regions of millions of acres, these conditions predispose regions to burn more readily. When the warmth and dryness lasts for longer periods of time, the time when wildfires happen also lengthens.
There are other ways in which climate change is contributing to increasing fires in the West. Lightning strikes are increased by warmer temperatures. It's estimated that for every degree Celsius of warming, strikes increase by about 12 percent.
Furthermore, bark beetle infestation of forests is spreading northward and to higher elevations throughout the West as the planet warms. As winters become warmer and spring comes earlier, conditions for beetle survival increases. Drought-induced stress severely weakens trees' ability to fend off beetles. Beetles interfere with a tree's nutrient delivery and this can kill trees, providing more raw fuel for fires. The beetle infestation has killed tens of millions of acres of forest in North America, and is the largest known insect infestation in North American history.
Human-caused activity is contributing in other ways to forest changes and fire increases.
Forest and other natural habitat continues to be eaten up by new housing and sprawl, driven by the inability of capitalism to restrict development and protect natural areas. Forest Service policy over many years has been to suppress fires, and this has contributed to a build-up of large amounts of fuel on public lands. As human habitation continues to encroach on forests, more fires are sparked. The US Forest Service is also increasingly pushed to try to fight fires to protect houses and towns, in some cases further adding to build-up of fuel. Many foresters are advocating that more scientific criteria be used to differentiate when and which fires should be fought, and which should be allowed to burn up accumulated fuel and return the forests to a more natural fire cycle.The 2017 Fires and the Larger Picture of a Changing Climate
The smoke and fires this summer were a wake-up call about how quickly things can change in the natural environment and how large the stakes are. But is this devastating summer just the beginning of much worse things to come? And if this is the harbinger of the future, what will this mean for the health of humans and ecosystems?
This summer has been one of truly devastating "natural" disasters overall. Intriguing and important scientific debates emerged from this hurricane season, including over whether global warming was causing more extreme and long-lasting weather events, such as Hurricane Harvey's stall over Houston that caused record rainfalls.
Jennifer Francis, a research professor at Rutgers University, has been studying the relation between the warming of the Arctic, the loss of sea ice and changes that are being observed in weather patterns in the Northern hemisphere, particularly at certain times of the year.
She has advanced a theory that the warming of the Arctic is causing the jet stream to wobble at certain times, creating big waves that draw warmer air up into the Arctic from the southern latitudes. Francis believes that with these big waves, which have been observed, the jet stream is also weakened in its flow from west to east. The jet stream then becomes more susceptible to any obstacles in its path -- physical ones, such as mountain ranges, but also areas of warm temperature, for example. The weakened, wavy jet stream leads to weather patterns that are more persistent. The main cause of this phenomenon is the way in which global warming is occurring more rapidly in the Arctic, lessening the temperature difference between the Artic, and the mid-latitudes.
These phenomena are also further warming the Arctic and melting more sea ice via a number of feedback loops.
Truthout asked Francis via email if this Arctic warming may also be responsible for hot, dry weather patterns that have occurred more frequently in the West over the last several years in summer, contributing to such massive wildfires.
She replied, "There are several new papers that connect Arctic warming and sea-ice loss in the Pacific sector of the Arctic with a strengthened Pacific ridge in the jet stream (large northward bulge), but the mechanism is not simple."
"It appears that there are two factors that need to happen simultaneously to create the strong, persistent ridge that has been so prevalent in recent years along the western coast of North America. One factor is the natural occurrence of a ridge in this location, owing usually to warmer-than-normal ocean temperatures along the west coast -- e.g., a pattern known as a positive Pacific Decadal Oscillation. If there is also substantial ice loss/warming in the Pacific Arctic sector, that ridge tends to be strengthened, which makes it more persistent. This favors the conditions conducive to wild fires: dry and hot."
This link is alluring, if not yet definitively proven. Truthout also spoke with Nick Bond, research meteorologist with the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean at the University of Washington. He said that the weather pattern we saw on the west coast this summer with the persistent ridge of high pressure was very unusual, but, "There's plenty of internal variability in the system -- I'm kind of reluctant, one particular weird year, to ascribe too much to that, but on the other hand, this weather we're having, is the kind of weather we expect to be more common in future decades ... in the long term maybe this is something we better get used to."
So, whether this summer's pattern of persistent high-pressure ridges and abnormally hot, dry weather is already a result of climate change enhancing natural variation, or if it's a harbinger of what's to come, these are important things to watch. Regardless, it's clear that the West, along with the planet, is warming overall, and that this is contributing to the conditions leading to larger wildfires right now. The impact of increasing wildfires on people's health and ecosystems will keep rising, unless serious and emergency measures are taken to counter climate change and its effects.Want to see more coverage of the issues that matter? Make a donation to Truthout to ensure that we can publish more original stories like this one.
Officially, the United States ended debtors' prisons in 1833. Unofficially, as we saw in the Justice Department's report on racially biased policing in Ferguson, there is a system of fines and fees for minor crimes that often result in jail time for the poor, mostly black citizens who cannot afford to pay them.
To provide more context on the issue, I talked with Peter Edelman, Georgetown University law professor and former staffer for Robert F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton, about his new book Not a Crime to be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America.
Rebecca Vallas: So, just to start off, what got you interested in writing this book?
Peter Edelman: I'd been working on poverty issues for long time, and I thought I'd kind of seen everything. But when it came out that Ferguson's budget was based on hauling everybody into court and whacking them with these huge fines and fees, it got me interested. I realized this is really something that people need to know more about than they do.
Part of what you did to research for the book was to speak with an array of lawyers who represent clients facing these problems. (In full disclosure, I'm one of those people you spoke with in my capacity as a recovering legal aid lawyer who used to represent these clients.) Would you mind sharing one of the client stories that came up in your research?
Absolutely. Vera Cheeks, who's a resident of Bainbridge, Georgia, was pulled over and ticketed for rolling through a stop sign. The judge hit her with a $135 fine -- which in this business is a relatively small one -- and ordered her to pay in full immediately. She told him she was unemployed and caring for her terminally ill father and had no money.
The judge said he would give her three months of "probation" to pay up, and he sent to her a room behind the courtroom where Cheeks says, "There was a real big lady, and there were cells on both sides of the room and there was a parade of people paying money to the lady. They were all black. It was like the twilight zone, totally mind-boggling."
The woman said Cheeks now owed $267; the fine, plus $105 for the for-profit probation people, and $27 for the Georgia Victims Emergency Fund. The woman put a paper in front of Cheeks and told her to sign it. Cheeks said she would not. The woman said, "You're refusing to sign the paper? I'm going to tell the judge and put you in jail for five days." Cheeks still refused and finally the woman demanded $50 or else Cheeks would go to jail right then. Cheeks' fiancé, who was at the courthouse, raised the money by pawning her engagement ring and a lawn implement.
She avoided jail, but Cheeks remained at risk of being locked up if she was late with even one payment.
You mentioned that this practice first drew serious national attention after the killing of Michael Brown in 2014, which cast eyes, nationally, on Ferguson. But not only was this not a new phenomenon, it has not been restricted to Ferguson. I personally saw something very similar play out in Philadelphia when I was still working in legal aid. What's the story behind the rise of fines and fees? You've put a face on the issue for us, but what's driving what has really become a national trend?
Well, you could say Grover Norquist. It's the anti-tax rebellion that goes back quite a bit in the past, certainly a couple decades or more. Municipalities just didn't get the money they needed to run their government, so they turned to going after people who were essentially defenseless because there aren't anywhere near the number of lawyers that we need. And then you get added to that the broken windows.
You're referring to broken windows policing.
Yes, absolutely. There was this belief that if we brought people in on junky little stuff, that would clean up the city. The big source of it that they use around the country is driver's license suspensions. In California, for example, 4 million people just a couple years back had lost their licenses. They didn't actually throw them in jails, like they do in many, many other places in the country. But they could take it out of their paycheck or their tax return. And so California was making billions of dollars going after these people.
And they don't take away the driver's license only for something you did when you're driving. They do it for a lot of different things.
People may be most familiar with traffic violations, but your book looks at a whole other range of types of fines and fees that states and localities are now leveeing on people, largely black and brown, largely low-income populations, some of which are particularly shocking. For example, you expose in your book that in 43 states people are actually charged for exercising their right to counsel if they need a public defender.
That shocked me. It was a terrific study done by Joe Shapiro of NPR. It doesn't compute, right? If you're low-income and charged with a crime, you're supposed to get a lawyer. And 43 states are charging money for it.
Well, you're a recovering lawyer, too. How is this not unconstitutional?
Well, it is. But it's got a combination of weasel language in the Supreme Court case, and it's also so prevalent you would need the legislature to fix it and they want the money. And to sue in each instance is just very difficult, so there it is. The judge says, "Looks like you got a nice tattoo on your arm there, so you must have the money to pay for the lawyer or pay for the fine," or, "You've got these fancy shoes and so you're able to pay."
Wrapped up in this is effectively a vicious cycle. The people that you're profiling in this book begin without having actually committed any crime, and it never ends just because they are poor and can't afford to get out from under a debt.
Well, this raises money bail, because it's a major player in all of this. So, as you said, someone who's innocent, but has allegedly done some very small-potato thing. Nonetheless, bail is set at $500 or $1,000, and they don't have it and they can't get it. So how do they get out of jail? They plead guilty even though they're not. Then they get a payment plan. And then they can't pay it.
At that point, when they haven't paid it and they have pleaded guilty, it's a whole new violation. They owe the criminal debt; they didn't pay so they're back in jail again. There's another bail deal. There's more money that they owe. It goes on and on and on.
I think it's helpful sometimes to put concrete examples to "small potatoes offenses." Things like laws against public urination. There is also a different kind of subset of what I think of as the criminalization of survival, where we criminalize the types of behaviors that people need to engage in to scrape by. This is one of the stories I shared with you for your book -- one of my own clients had sold blood platelets to a blood bank to supplement her family's income from food stamps and disability benefits, because it wasn't enough to live on. She ended up being charged with what's known in public assistance jargon as an IPV, an intentional program violation, which can itself bring criminal penalties.
Yes, it's not just the fines and fees and the money bail. There's issues with vagrancy and you can't sleep in a car and you can't sleep standing up and you can't sleep lying down. Instead of having mental health services and housing to help people, they just tell them to get out of town. There's a man in Sacramento who I talk about who had mental health issues. He was arrested 190 times.
190 times. So, we've talked about a lot, but I'm curious what shocked you the most in doing research for this book.
The one that really got me are chronic nuisance ordinances. For example, say a woman calls 911 to get protection from domestic violence. If it happens two or three times, the police have been given the power to say to the landlord, "This woman is a chronic nuisance, and you have to evict her." And it's just totally shocking.
Now the good news is the ACLU in various parts of the country has found or been found by the person who has been hurt in this way, and won lawsuits. In Pennsylvania, both the local town and the whole state changed their laws.
I mean it sounds like common sense that a domestic violence survivor shouldn't be punished for experiencing domestic violence. It is sort of astounding to think that litigation could be necessary to make that the law of the land.
Your book argues powerfully that we need to be addressing these problems. But we also can't miss the fact that addressing these problems is part of a larger anti-poverty agenda.
That's the last third of the book. It is about seven places that I visited and met the people doing the work. They're organizers and they're people who help families in a variety of ways, whether it's early childhood or mental health support or the Promise Neighborhoods that President Obama started.
If we're serious, we certainly have to have de-carceration. And Lenore Anderson in California with Prop 47, they've done the best job in the country and they're the first ones to tell you that it's not going to work if people get out but they're homeless or they can't find a job. They're going to be back in. So, one way to look at it is it's not going to work if we don't actually attack poverty itself.
There's obviously a lot at stake under the current administration. There is a lot of real fear on the part of communities as well as advocates working on these issues who had been seeing a tremendous amount of bipartisan agreement and momentum up until the election when it came to criminal justice reform, and obviously now there's not a lot of hope on that front at the federal level. But it sounds like you're arguing for there being a lot to be done at the state and local level in the meantime.
The action is heavily, mostly at the state and local level. Some of the things are suing in federal court and when you get up to the Supreme Court if you don't have the five votes then that way of doing it doesn't work. But that's going and meanwhile all of these things that are happening at the local and state level and that's now for example the chief justices and chief judges of all of the state systems as a group are strongly speaking about the fines and fees and not that long ago, ten years or so, they were talking about how "what a nice thing it is that we were getting money." And then somebody said, "Wait a minute, that's not right."
This interview was conducted for Off-Kilter and aired as part of a complete episode on August 13. It was edited for length and clarity.
The Trump administration has declared a war on media leaks and called for the US federal workforce and contractors to receive "anti-leak" training. The centerpiece of Trump's anti-leak campaign, aside from early morning tweet-storms railing against leakers and media, is the National Insider Threat Taskforce.
The Insider Threat Program is not Trump-era creation. In then-secret testimony to Congress in 2012, Directorate of National Intelligence official Robert Litt touted the original Insider Threat Program as a highlight in administrative efforts to "sanction and deter" leaks. In the past, Insider Threat Program training has improperly included "WANTED"-style images of whistleblowers pictured alongside actual spies and mass murderers.
As recently as last month, DOD has developed training courses, toolkits, templates, posters, and videos, all aimed toward silencing and deterring anyone who would disclose to the press or the public information the government wants kept secret for no legitimate reason and that the public has an interest in knowing. It is not only federal employees who receive these trainings, but tens of thousands of government contractors as well. Companies with any classified access are required to implement an "Insider Threat Program," an insidious presumption that employees cannot be trusted.
Part of the "Unauthorized Disclosure" training includes watching a Fox News clip on the crackdown on leaks and Attorney General Jeff Sessions' statement announcing an increase in criminal leak investigations. A student guide from the Insider Threat Awareness training includes the McCarthyesque request that employees report on each other for "general suspicious behaviors," including "Questionable national loyalty" such as "Displaying questionable loyalty to US government or company" or "Making anti-US comments." Never mind that the only oath government employees take is to the US Constitution, not to any government official or the US government itself and certainly not to a private company.
The many secrecy trainings come with promotional posters with unsophisticated rhyming slogans cringe-worthy to First Amendment advocates and marketing professionals alike, such as "There no delete when you tweet" or "Tweets sink fleets." The poster with the slogan "Every Leak makes us weak" is accompanied by a melting American flag info-graphic. Then there's the most anti-press poster, a mock newspaper website with the slogan "Think before you click," complete with a red, Trumpian-style, all caps "IT'S A CRIME" at the bottom. The messaging is so heavy-handed it would be funny if the consequences weren't the freedoms of speech and the press. Finally, there's the laughably inaccurate and awkward slogan "Free speech doesn't mean careless talk't mean careless talk." Actually, it does. Free speech does not mean screaming "FIRE" in a crowded theater, but there is no Supreme Court ruling holding that "careless speech" is somehow exempt from First Amendment protections, lest our President's Twitter feed be censorable.
There is an "unauthorized disclosures" video training from September 2017 billed as "compliant with White House and Secretary of Defense Memoranda" that condemns leaks, points out punishment for leakers, and warns apocalyptically that when there are unauthorized leaks, "we all risk losing our way of life."
Another informational video includes a fictionalized news story about Americans dying in a terrorist attack because of a release of classified information. Such a story has never appeared in the actual news media because it has never happened. In Chelsea Manning's criminal case – worth mentioning since her leaks are consistently singled out in the videos – the government was unable to provide a finalized damage assessment, even though the leaks occurred years prior. (Curiously, Edward Snowden's even more-well known leaks are not mentioned by name in the videos.)
The trainings include little or no mention of whistleblowing, except to say that leaking to the media is not whistleblowing, and the First Amendment offers no protection to whistleblowers. This is chilling, but not accurate. The Supreme Court has recognized that the media is a legitimate outlet for whistleblowers. And, information that has been classified to cover up government wrongdoing or prevent embarrassment is not properly classified. In fact, whistleblowers leaking to the media is a time-honored tradition dating back, at least, to Daniel Ellsberg's leaking of the Pentagon Papers.
The Insider Threat Program trainings do not send a simple message against leaking properly classified information, such as nuclear launch codes or covert identities. Rather, the trainings send much more destructive messages against all leaks and speech the government does not like: do not criticize the government or you will be reported as an insider threat and keep all government secrets, even when the government breaks the law. These are messages contrary to a free and open democratic society, especially one where the First Amendment protects freedoms of speech, association, and the press.
The training videos go beyond simply urging employees to keep quiet. Employees are instructed not to access or share information already in the public sphere. Considering that every major newspaper includes almost daily leaks of classified information, such an instruction is impossible to comply with, and will almost certainly be used, as it has in the past, to retaliate against whistleblowers. After all, the biggest leaker of classified information is the US government itself.
In the aftermath of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico, an obscure law governing maritime commerce has grabbed national headlines: The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, known colloquially as the Jones Act. After facing political pressure and at the request of Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, on September 28, President Trump issued a 10-day waiver of the Act to ease shipping regulations on the island. That waiver expired last week.
Many in Puerto Rico, along with members of the Puerto Rican diaspora living on the US mainland, argue that the statute is stifling aid by presenting an unnecessary barrier to the procurement of basic relief supplies. Maritime unions, meanwhile, contend that the measure is essential for protecting seafaring workers.
So what is the Jones Act? What does it do? And what other factors might be getting in the way of supplies reaching Puerto Ricans?What the Jones Act Does and Doesn't Do
The Jones Act stipulates that only US-flagged ships can operate between US ports, so any American goods coming into Puerto Rico via US-governed ports have to arrive on US-flagged, US-made ships. This mandate prioritizes the use of American ships and workers, and inhibits foreign shipping companies' access to inter-US shipping routes.
Passed on the heels of World War I, the measure, named for its sponsor, Rep. Wesley Jones (R-Wash.), was intended to ensure that America would thrive in maritime commerce and be full of seafaring men in case they were needed for another war.
The law includes provisions protecting seafarers' rights, requiring ships transporting goods between US ports to abide by the maritime labor laws and environmental standards outlined in the Jones Act.
Foreign-flagged vessels from foreign ports are not prevented from docking in Puerto Rico, only from shuttling goods from the mainland to the island. The law also doesn't mandate that imported goods bound for Puerto Rico pass through a mainland port first.
The Jones Act doesn't apply to goods shipped between the mainland and the US Virgin Islands, but does apply to goods shipped between the mainland and Puerto Rico. By comparison, US-made goods on the Virgin Islands are about half as expensive as they are in Puerto Rico.The Case Against the Act
Well before Hurricane Maria, the Jones Act was blamed for driving up the cost of living in Puerto Rico, where groceries are as much as 21 percent more expensive than on the mainland. In 2011, the US Transportation Department Maritime Administration found that day-to-day operating costs were 2.6 times higher on US ships compared to international vessels, and that labor costs could be as much as 5 times higher.
On the island and off, a waiver of the Jones Act has been a mainstay of demands for relief and recovery packages, both to ease the flow of goods after the storm and for long-term reconstruction.
"If Maria is enough to get us out of that, that would be amazing," says Sofía Gallisá Muriente, an artist and organizer from Puerto Rico who was also active in Occupy Sandy before moving back home to San Juan from New York City four years ago. "That's the best thing that could come of this storm, but I don't know if we could pull that off. The most I think we could get would be a waiver for a year."
Among those calling for a permanent lifting of the Jones Act for Puerto Rico is the Climate Justice Alliance, a network of climate justice groups in the United States with ties to several labor unions, but not the National Maritime Union, whose members would be most affected by a permanent lifting of the law. The network held a Day of Action on Wednesday, October 11 to call attention to their list of demands, including full debt relief and a transparent decision-making process around the distribution of aid resources, among other things.
After the Day of Action event in New York, Elizabeth Yeampierre, Executive Director of Uprose, a New York City-based group and member of the Climate Justice Alliance, told In These Times, "To have the waiver because they want to make the sipping industry happy at the expense of the lives of the Puerto Rican people is an international disgrace."
Asked about maritime unions' concerns over lifting the Jones Act, Yeampierre, herself Puerto Rican, says, "It can't just be about their pay and their resources right now, because climate change is coming for all of us. Justice is not one of those things you can parse. When I have a labor dispute it's not about getting justice for my people but no one else."Why Unions and Shipping Companies Like It
Maritime unions have mounted their defense of the Jones Act on the basis that it protects seafaring workers and well-paid American jobs. "The Jones Act is one way to insure that vessels operating between US ports respect fair labor standards and don't exploit seafarers," Craig Merrilees, Communications Director for the International Longshore & Warehouse Union, told In These Times.
To get around strict labor standards in the United States and elsewhere, ship owners may adopt a practice known as "re-flagging," or registering a vessel in a country -- say Liberia or Panama -- with lax worker protections. Flying under so-called "Flags of Convenience" is a way for maritime operators to exploit workers on their ships, who are especially vulnerable to mistreatment due to their dependence on employers during extended trips at sea.
By preventing this evasion, Merrilees says, "the Jones Act is an important protector of decent working conditions and good-paying jobs for seafarers in the shipping industry. Crews on US flagged ships rarely experience anything like the terrible abuse and exploitation often found on vessels flying a flag of convenience."
The Jones Act has created a somewhat counterintuitive set of political alliances: Shipping companies like it for the access it gives them to US ports and make hayabout its importance to national security, while maritime unions want to defend the workplace protections it provides. At the same time, opponents of the Jones Act make the case that the law unfairly drives up the cost of living in Puerto Rico, which is already higher than on the mainland by virtue of the island being largely dependent on imports. Then there are the politicians such as John McCain and free market think-tanks including the Heritage Foundation, that have lobbied against the bill on anti-regulatory, anti-labor grounds.The Scale of Disaster
While the politics surrounding the Jones Act remain thorny, several other factors also impede the flow of aid to Puerto Rican residents -- including the Trump Administration itself.
President Trump threatened on Twitter last week to disband federal relief efforts on the island entirely. An official statement later clarified that "successful recoveries do not last forever." Reports in the weeks since the storm have told of shipping containers stranded at ports due to downed logistics networks and government mismanagement, and even goods being confiscated at the San Juan airport after being flown in on commercial planes.
Gallisá Muriente dealt with similar issues after Hurricane Sandy, struggling to procure aid for some of the hardest-hit parts of New York City, albeit on a different scale. "That was a big lesson for me from Sandy: That there's no such thing as a natural disaster," she says. "It's really the human disasters that complicate things -- social conditioning, priorities, bureaucracy. And it doesn't work to go back to normal when that normal was also problematic."
Already, Gallisá Muriente notes, she and others have put some of the lessons learned in Occupy Sandy to work on the ground, while recognizing that there are major differences between conducting grassroots relief efforts in the Big Apple and on a small, austerity-stricken island.
"There are certain general logistical things that we've borrowed from that experience: creating lists of suggested donations, Amazon registries where people can buy specific things that we need," she says. "The governor keeps saying everything is fine and is talking about all the aid coming in, but no one sees it or feels like things are getting any better."
Heriberto Martínez-Otero, who teaches economics at a high school in San Juan and at the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico, told In These Times via Skype that there are still "5 or 6 municipalities that are incommunicado. Most of the municipalities with communications," he adds, "don't have ATMs or open banks. The schools are not open, and the hospitals are without power…except for some areas here in San Juan and some of the privileged suburbs, everything is a complete disaster."
He also notes issues with the sparse relief efforts that are being administered, mainly by the US government. "FEMA, I don't know where they are. But the US military are moving around most parts of the island with big guns," says Martínez-Otero. "These guys think this is a war zone."What's Next for the Island
Many Puerto Ricans -- while recognizing the role the US military plays in disaster relief -- are weary of having troops on the ground for the long-term. Speaking to me from his classroom in San Juan, Martínez-Otero says, "On the streets here, in front of the school, this is a military state."
"I am against the Jones Act," Martínez-Otero continues, "but I don't know if waiving the Jones Act is the way to solve the current situation we're in." He also mentioned that it was hard to tell whether the 10-day waiver had improved conditions on the island, saying that a year-long waiver would likely be necessary in order to improve Puerto Rico's distribution infrastructure.
Debates around the Jones Act aren't likely to be resolved in the near future, and certainly not before the Senate moves to vote on the short-term, loan-based aid package for Puerto Rico that the House passed on Thursday. What does seem clear is that the overlapping crises on the island aren't likely to end anytime soon -- and US policy is only helping deepen them.
The Yellowstone caldera has a lot of people on edge this week, apparently for good reason. For those not in the know, a caldera is the depression left in the ground after a supervolcano erupts. Yellowstone did so about 630,000 years ago, and the violence of that mighty explosion -- the likes of which have never been seen by human eyes -- made that gorgeous national park what it is today.
If Yellowstone decides to erupt, well, buy canned goods. An eruption won't be the continent-obliterating event depicted in the disaster flick 2012 (I'm sure Woody Harrelson will be fine), but it would be quite completely bad. Every crop within 500 miles in all directions at least will be buried in ash, and the sky will be last-book-in-the-Bible black until a good, stiff breeze picks up the ejecta cloud and drags it out over the Atlantic.
The good folks at the United States Geological Survey tell us not to worry, but people are worried anyway. An eruption at the Yellowstone caldera would be preceded by one if not several earthquakes, and there have been something like 800 earthquakes around the caldera in the last couple of weeks. Lots of smart people are saying no big deal, but if you hear a loud thud from the upper left corner of Wyoming, don't say you weren't warned.
Lately, when I think of Yellowstone exploding, I think of former White House adviser Steve Bannon's nascent "revolution." Like the caldera, it'll be something else indeed. If he fails, he could unleash chaos. If he succeeds, the very survival of the nation could be cast into doubt.
Steve Bannon's curiously corkscrewed path through this life has been well-documented. His husbanding of the far-right racist, misogynist, Islamophobic "news" site Breitbart landed him on the Trump presidential campaign and put him in the White House as chief strategist for a small slice of time, but it is his gleeful wrecking ball enthusiasm that has him in the news lately.
"I want to bring everything crashing down," he told Ronald Radosh of The Daily Beast in August of last year, "and destroy all of today's establishment." The establishment he has his eyes set on today belongs, as it happens, to the Republican Party. At the Values Voter Summit last weekend, he whipped the crowd into a delirious froth at the prospect of running primary challenges at any GOP officeholder who draws his ire by not living up to his white supremacist standards. "This is not my war, this is our war," he declared. "And you all didn't start it, the establishment started it. I will tell you one thing -- you all are gonna finish it."
Republican Senators Mitch McConnell, Orrin Hatch, Bob Corker, John Barasso, Dean Heller and Deb Fischer all were splashed with Bannon's mark of Cain, worthy of being overthrown and tossed aside because, in some form or fashion, they displeased or defied the president. Few will shed tears if these loathsome establishment Republicans lose their seats; they have harmed the country beyond measure. Yet if Bannon gets his way, it's possible they will be replaced with Roy Moore clones seeking to unmake the country even as they pledge their loyalty to Trump. Either way, there's no cause for celebration in sight.
The details behind the infrastructure of this insurgency remain murky, but here's the grim part: Bannon has the perfect partner in Donald J. Trump, whether or not the two are seen actually working together. The president has been a demonstrable catastrophe in office, but don't tell him that. "I'm not going to blame myself," said Trump before a meeting with McConnell this week. "I'll be honest; they are not getting the job done."
Trump blames Congress. Bannon blames Congress. Congress is Republican to all intents and purposes, so it's war on the Republicans on two fronts, and hats over the windmill.
The reality of this is ruthless in its irony. This whole bent, benighted situation has come to a boil exactly and precisely because the Republican Party set it up to be this way over the long course of many deliberate years. They created this scenario, and then totally lost control of it.
Take a large voting block and steal from them reason, science and expertise in the name of nonsense economic theories and a narrow-minded Jesus who offers absolution for irresponsible hate. Inculcate them with abhorrence for immigrants and Black and Brown people after you send their jobs overseas for your profit, because they'll need someone to blame when the factories close down. Make facts frightening, a cozen meant to steal from them what little they have even as the voracious ocean laps at their shoeless toes. Offer them enemies. Turn them loose.
That is the story of the Republican Party as brought to you by John Birch, first voiced in clarion call by Barry Goldwater in 1964, massaged into landslide victory by Nixon's brazenly racist "Southern Strategy" before being embraced and successfully marketed by Ronald Reagan. The rest is aftermath compounded by aftermath, resulting in a muscular voting bloc numbering in the millions which has gone from being "values voters" to Trump loyalists.
Steve Bannon and Donald Trump are opportunistic peas in a pod, the perfect symbiotic relationship. They are not publicly working together, but Bannon is firing up the only people Trump has left. They're both attacking the GOP leadership in Congress. They're both stoking the base for their own purposes. Bannon is using Trump, and Trump is all too happy to be used if it gets him in front of those cheering crowds. The two men seek approval from the exact same people. It isn't a spoken alliance, but there has been no public break between the two. Bannon is a Trump guy, using Trump for Bannon's sake.
Bannon is also a wrecker of the purest stripe, a white supremacist, an Islamophobic xenophobe, an anti-Semite, a racist and a misogynist pretending to be a cultural revolutionary. Trump, who shares many of these characteristics, mainly seeks cheering crowds. A rudderless GOP base makes for a perfect audience, and a better army. Bannon sets them up, Trump knocks them down, and the GOP establishment cowers in a corner dumbfounded at what they have wrought while still pining away for that billion-dollar tax cut their paymasters so desperately desire. It is the perfect storm.
This "revolution," like Trump's whole administration to date, is a scrambled and incoherent thing. Let that caldera crack, however, and we will be presented with a scenario unprecedented in modern US politics. The best-case outcome -- Bannon and Trump cause the complete collapse of the GOP -- would still be extremely dangerous and deeply destabilizing. The two (and those who think like them) might well retain control over a segment of the populace capable of wreaking terrible havoc both in and out of politics.
Or they could win, and find themselves in control of a dreadnought party set to make total war on everyone who is not white hetero Christian, anyone who ever crossed them, anyone and everyone simply because they can. That party in charge of all three branches of government, with the looming ability to nominate several Supreme Court justices, would signal the end of the country once and for all.
"I want to bring everything crashing down," Bannon said. He is going to try, he is in the process of trying, and one way or another, you'll be able to see the smoke for miles around.
(Photo: Rainer Vandalismus)
Even as he talks about declaring the opioid crisis a national emergency, Trump is actively seeking to cut Medicaid and undermine the Affordable Care Act, which extended access to addiction treatment for millions. It's time Congress acted to push government toward public health solutions for the US's drug problems rather than pouring money into failed law enforcement policies.
(Photo: Rainer Vandalismus)Want to see more coverage of the issues that matter? Make a donation to Truthout to ensure that we can publish more original stories like this one.
Last year, the Drug Enforcement Agency's marijuana eradication program confiscated 5.3 million marijuana plants in operations nationwide, a 20 percent increase from the year before and by far the heaviest haul since President Obama's first term in office. The DEA pulled 3.5 million plants in California, more than any other state by a long shot, even as Californians voted to legalize cannabis for recreational use.The DEA still spends millions of dollars every year aggressively searching rural communities for marijuana grown outside the law.
Most of the plants were confiscated from outdoor plots, and there's little doubt that expensive helicopter rides, tactical gear and backwoods excursions were needed to find them. Agents seized some $52 million in weed and assets, but that won't make much of a dent in a market worth $53 billion a year. Marijuana legalization has spread to states across the country and enjoys the support of a majority of voters. However, the DEA still spends millions of dollars every year aggressively searching rural communities for marijuana grown outside the law.
Now that marijuana is legal for recreational use in eight states and as a medicine in 29, the mass marijuana eradication program may seem like a drug war relic and a waste of taxpayer dollars. Yet the media hardly noticed when the DEA released the results of its 2016 eradication campaign earlier this month. Meanwhile, the DEA would soon be making headlines over another type of drug that authorities have spent decades trying to control: opioids.
The Washington Post and "60 Minutes" published a high-profile series of reports this week featuring Joseph Rannazzisi, a former DEA official. Rannazzisi blamed a law passed by Congress in 2016 for robbing his division of its best weapon for disrupting the supply of prescription painkillers fueling the nation's opioid woes. Fingers pointed at Rep. Tom Marino, a Pennsylvania Republican who championed the legislation despite opposition from the DEA and a spat with Rannazzisi, who resigned under pressure from Marino and other lawmakers.
Marino also happened to be President Trump's nominee for director of the National Office on Drug Control Policy, a position commonly known as "drug czar." Marino's nomination was already controversial, and Trump is currently under fire for doing little to address the opioid epidemic despite tough talk on the campaign trail. On Tuesday, Trump announced that Marino was withdrawing his nomination.
Rannazzisi, who is now a consultant for attorneys suing pharmaceutical companies over their role in the overdose epidemic, said the 2016 legislation made it harder for the DEA to justify crackdowns on companies distributing painkillers to areas where agents believe the drugs are diverted to people without prescriptions. The pharmaceutical industry pushed hard for the legislation and lined Marino's pockets with $100,000 in donations. The bill sailed through Congress and was signed by President Obama.
It's no secret that Big Pharma spends more on lobbying than any other industry, or that pharmaceutical companies have profited from rising rates of opioid misuse over the past two decades. Democrats in Congress have already pounced on the news and are pushing for a repeal of Marino's 2016 legislation, but experts say lawmakers should be looking much deeper into the issue. The DEA has always sought to cut off access to drugs at their source, and if its marijuana and opioid campaigns are any evidence, those efforts have failed.The DEA has been attacking the supply of illegal opioids for decades, but drugs continue to be readily available.
Sanho Tree, director of drug policy at the Institute for Policy Studies, said that opioids and addiction reflect complex social and public health challenges, but the DEA's answer has always been to get "a bigger hammer" because everything looks like a nail.
"[DEA agents] only have a once-size-fits-all solution, which is 'how much more force do we have to assert [there to] get our results,'" Tree said in an interview.
Tree said the problem with the Washington Post's story is that it paints the DEA as a hero in the effort to combat opioid addiction, even as it's becoming increasingly clear that drug problems are not solved by relying on law enforcement to make arrests and cut off the supply. The DEA has been attacking the supply of illegal opioids -- and marijuana, for that matter -- for decades, but drugs continue to be readily available in every corner of the United States.
A community does not automatically recover from opioids simply because the DEA cuts a corrupt doctor or pharmacy off from a supplier. Opioid addiction often requires medical treatment, and when people with opioid disorders can no longer access prescription painkillers, they are likely to turn to dangerous street drugs like heroin and fentanyl, particularly in areas where painkillers created a black market in the first place, according to Tree.
"The simplistic DEA solution, which is just cut off the supply and prohibit use, is really shortsighted," Tree said. "But that's how they've always operated."
Tree said that solving the opioid problem requires taking a "cold hard look" at why so many people decide to self-medicate with painkillers in the first place. Many areas hard hit by opioid misuse lack economic opportunity and health care options.
"If you overlay a map where Trump did well, and where the opioid crisis is hitting hardest, there is a pretty stunning correlation," said Tree, adding that regions such as Appalachia that have suffered from declines in manufacturing tend to have high rates of opioid misuse. "Opioids are a very effective way of numbing your pain and reliving, if you will, your past days or better days."
Tree said public dollars should go to drug misuse treatment and prevention before anything else. With support from President Obama, Congress allocated nearly $1 billion in 2016 for combating the opioid epidemic over a two-year period, largely through grants to expand access to treatment and recovery services. The Trump administration is now in charge of handing out a large chunk of the money, even though its policy toward opioids is still taking shape.
Under pressure to respond to the criticism flying around his former drug czar nominee, Trump has promised to declare the opioid epidemic a "national emergency" and roll out policy objectives by next week. He has made similar promises in the past, but has so far failed to keep them.As long as marijuana remains illegal under federal law, the DEA will fly helicopters across the countryside in search of secret plots.
Trump must also find someone to replace Marino and the chief of the DEA, who stepped down in September over disagreements with the White House. These picks could have lasting impacts on how the government responds to drugs, and the Trump administration has already indicated that it prefers an alarmingly authoritarian approach.
If the policies rolling out under Trump's attorney general, Jeff Sessions, are any indication, it appears that law enforcement will still have plenty of resources to continue waging a dangerous war on the supply chain. Trump has also supported large cuts to Medicaid and is working to undermine the Affordable Care Act, which expanded access to addiction treatment for millions of people.
Ultimately, it will take acts of Congress to defang the DEA and push the government toward public health solutions to the nation's drug dilemmas. As long as marijuana remains illegal under federal law, the DEA will fly helicopters across the countryside in search of secret plots, even in states where the drug is legal. As long as budgets are stretched to support the drug warriors in law enforcement, taxpayer dollars will go to making arrests instead of health care and economic initiatives that help people and communities stay healthy and whole.
"What does it take to build a healthy individual and healthy society?" Tree said. "That's the deeper question."
As raging wildfires in California scorch more than 200,000 acres -- roughly the size of New York City -- more than 11,000 firefighters are battling the blazes, and a number of them are prisoners, including many women inmates. We speak to Romarilyn Ralston with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners-Los Angeles Chapter, who is the program coordinator for Project Rebound at Cal State University. Romarilyn experienced 23 years of incarceration, and while she was incarcerated, she was a fire camp trainer and a clerk for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Reporter Jaime Lowe also joins us to discuss her New York Times Magazine report, "The Incarcerated Women Who Fight California's Wildfires."
Please check back later for full transcript.
One month after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, we hear from longtime Puerto Rican independence activist Oscar López Rivera, who was released in May and is now in San Juan to visit with community members affected by Hurricane Maria. Until earlier this year, Rivera had been in federal prison for 35 years -- much of the time in solitary confinement -- after he was convicted on federal charges of opposing U.S. authority over the island by force. President Obama commuted his sentence in January.
Please check back later for full transcript.
Gregory Katsas, nominee to be United States Circuit Judge for the District of Columbia Circuit, is sworn in during his confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, October 17, 2017. (Photo: Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call)
President Trump's first nominee to serve on the second most powerful federal court refused to unequivocally describe waterboarding as "torture."
Gregory Katsas -- picked to fill a vacancy on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals -- told Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on Tuesday that the coercive technique was "likely torture, in many circumstances."
"I hesitate to answer the question in the abstract not knowing the circumstances or the nature of the program," Katsas told Durbin at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He noted that waterboarding "has been abandoned."
Durbin shot back, claiming that it wasn't abstract and that the McCain Amendment, which was passed in 2006, expressly prohibited waterboarding.
President George W. Bush authorized the interrogation tactic, after launching the War on Terror, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The technique involves pouring water over a cloth placed on a blindfolded detainee's open mouth. It is designed to simulate drowning.
The so-called Senate Torture Report, overseen by Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), said in 2014 that the Bush waterboarding program "was physically harmful," and caused "convulsions and vomiting." One detainee was rendered "completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth."
"Internal CIA records describe the waterboarding of [alleged 9/11 mastermind] Khalid Shaykh Mohammad as evolving into a 'series of near drownings,'" the report also states.
Believing waterboarding was no longer up for legal discussion, Durbin asked Katsas: "Why is this still a matter in doubt?"
Katsas replied that the McCain Amendment didn't specifically bar waterboarding, but rather "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment."
"It clearly could be, no question about it," Katsas said, when asked if waterboarding was "cruel, inhuman or degrading."
Durbin said he was "surprised by the exchange."
"There clearly is uncertainty in your answer," the liberal senator remarked.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who followed Durbin, was satisfied with Katsas' reply, seizing on the jurist's reluctance to comment "in the abstract."
"It's fair to say you'd look to whatever Congressional statutes spoke to the issue, and any federal and congressional definition of torture," Cruz said, echoing Katsas' claim that specifics matter.
The DC Circuit has unique oversight power. It is the only appellate court with nationwide jurisdiction, and it almost exclusively rules on federal agencies' activities.
While on the campaign trail last year, President Trump promised to bring back waterboarding "and a hell of a lot worse." Trump has since said he would defer to cabinet officials who have advised against such a move.
Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch was asked about the practice, during his confirmation hearing earlier this year. Gorsuch told the Senate Judiciary Committee that "no one is above the law -- including the President," when asked about Trump's campaign vow.
"[T]orture, as well as cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, is expressly prohibited by law," Gorsuch said in a questionnaire submitted to the committee. During his confirmation, Gorsuch also noted that the McCain Amendment outlawed waterboarding. Both Gorsuch and Katsas served in the Bush Administration at the Justice Department.
Another one of the President's more hardline campaign trail promises came up in an April confirmation hearing, when CIA General Counsel nominee Courney Elwood was asked about Trump's pledge "to take out their families," referring to civilians related to Islamic State fighters.
Elwood said such rules of engagement "would implicate a variety of laws" and that it would target "persons who are not otherwise lawful targets under existing law." But she did not state that the deliberate targeting of families was explicitly illegal.
"If confirmed, I will work to ensure that all activities of the CIA fully and faithfully comply with the Constitution and US law," she said.With everything going on in the White House, the media must maintain relentless pressure on the Trump administration. Can you support Truthout in this endeavor? Click here to donate.
Maine is developing a well-deserved reputation for cutting-edge progressive ballot initiatives. In 2016, voters approved proposals to raise the state's minimum wage, raise taxes on the wealthy to fund education, introduce ranked choice voting, and legalize marijuana.
The key force behind the state's progressive ballot initiatives, the Maine People's Alliance, has just launched a campaign to put another landmark issue on the 2018 ballot: universal home care for the elderly and disabled.
There's no question that such services are sorely needed -- particularly in Maine, the state with the country's highest median age. Caring for this rapidly aging population is extremely costly. The median annual cost for home care is now more than $50,000. That's about on par with Maine's median income for an entire household.
Medicare does not cover the costs of in-home care and Medicaid reimbursement rates are so low that employers have difficulty finding workers willing to do this tough work for the meager wages they offer.
Universal home care would be a huge relief for family members facing impossible choices between paying bills for basic needs versus covering the exorbitant cost of services for their loved ones.
The big question is: how to pay for it?
The Maine People's Alliance proposal would raise the needed $132 million through a payroll tax increase of 1.9 percent on annual salaries and wages over $127,000 and a 3.7 percent tax on investment income above that same threshold.
In part, these taxes are designed to address the unfairness of the current cap on income subject to Social Security tax. That cap is now about $127,000, and so people who earn $1 million or even $100 million a year contribute no more to the nation's pension fund than those making $127,001.
The ballot initiative proposal would also address the fact that in Maine, as in many other states, the wealthy pay a smaller share of their income on state and local taxes than low-income residents. Because of regressive sales and property taxes, Maine's top 1% of earners pay only 7.5 percent of their income in state and local taxes, compared to 9.4 percent for families in the bottom 20% of the income scale, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.
Another innovative aspect of the Maine proposal is that it would be overseen by a board elected by home care services users and home care business owners and workers. It also stipulates that service providers receiving financing from the universal home care trust fund would be required to pay 77 percent of the money directly to workers. This measure is aimed at ensuring managers can't use public funds to reward themselves with outsized paychecks.
Maine's ballot campaign has drawn support from an array of national groups, including the Caring Across Generations campaign, which is co-led by Jobs With Justice and the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA).
NDWA Executive Director Ai-Jen Poo said in an interview that the Maine model could be a "blueprint for the nation" as we grapple with the aging of the US population. "Some call this demographic change a 'silver tsunami,'" Poo said. "At Caring Across Generations, we call it an 'elder boom' because of the opportunity it affords to fundamentally reform our care system in a way that's long overdue."
Earlier this year, the Caring Across Generations campaign had a major breakthrough in Hawaii, where state lawmakers approved the nation's first law to provide financial support to working family caregivers, no matter their income. "The Maine campaign for universal in-home care could be the next big thing in the care movement," Poo said.
One of the key long-term goals of the Caring Across Generations campaign is universal family care. Through a state-based social insurance fund, families would receive support not only for home care for the elderly, but also child care and paid family medical leave. According to the campaign website, "Our families deserve the care we need to live full and healthy lives, whether we're caring for an infant or child, a loved one with a disability, or an aging parent."
If Maine activists manage to get their universal home care proposal passed by voters in November 2018, it would be a significant step towards extending affordable caregiving across the age spectrum.Far more people read Truthout than will ever donate -- but we rely on donations to keep our publication running strong. Support independent journalism by making a contribution now!
The contest to win Amazon's second headquarters is beginning to look uncannily like an episode of "The Bachelor." As the Oct. 19 deadline to submit proposals nears, mayors across North America are ardently wooing the retail and tech giant, with offerings ranging from video love notes to a giant saguaro cactus (one assumes that the traditional bouquet of roses would not have sufficed). Stonecrest, Georgia, has even offered Amazon its very own town.
Tulsa, Oklahoma's, offer is in keeping with what many cities appear to be saying: "Whatever it takes." By dangling 50,000 new jobs and $5 billion in economic investment, Amazon's "HQ2" is expected to draw over a hundred proposals, despite a price tag likely to exceed $3 billion.
However, several cities are opting out. In a Wall Street Journal editorial, San Jose, California, Mayor Sam Liccardo calls incentives a "bad deal for taxpayers," noting that often their expense is not recouped by the revenues they generate. The state of Minnesota plans to bid, but Governor Mark Dayton is reluctant to offer up much more than the Twin Cities' strong local workforce. Officials in Toronto also plan to promote the city's existing assets rather than giving cash, noting that subsidizing Amazon would be unfair to businesses that have set up shop without incentives.
For cities doing their homework, this question is at the forefront: Are giant subsidies the best and highest use of economic development dollars?
Good Jobs First, the nation's leading watchdog on corporate subsidies, estimates that state and local governments spend $70 billion a year on cash handouts and tax abatements, mostly to big businesses. It's an inefficient investment. Their report Smart Skills versus Mindless Megadeals finds that small business cluster development initiatives, workforce development programs, and entrepreneurial assistance create jobs at a fraction of the cost of giant subsidies, and that the economic returns of those initiatives remain in communities even if one company departs.
Multiple studies have shown that economic growth and stability are highly correlated with the presence of many small, entrepreneurial employers, not a few big ones, and one study from Economic Development Quarterly said the presence of large nonlocal businesses had a negative effect on incomes.
Job growth comes primarily from start-up and small businesses. Areas that have more small, locally owned businesses see greater per-capita income growth than those with a few large entities, and locally owned, privately held firms recirculate two to three times more money back into local economies and contribute more taxes than non-locals.
Chicago is considered to be one of the top contenders for Amazon, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel has gathered a committee of 600 business and civic leaders to assemble the incentive package. But we know that these deals are inefficient. A 2017 Illinois Economic Policy Institute study found that if the state and its cities had directed their $288.5 million in average annual business subsidies to local initiatives such as infrastructure and education, Illinois would have created or saved more than nine times as many jobs.
Those jobs would also have been more secure. Having lured Boeing's headquarters with a $60 million relocation package, Chicago is well aware that businesses that chase incentives are not stable tenants. Washington state had previously given Boeing nearly $12 billion in subsidies, but that didn't stop the company from moving away and pulling 1,000 jobs from Seattle.
Perhaps the most important consideration is who benefits from economic development. Amazon's presence in Seattle has spurred some of the highest housing costs in the world. Rather than getting dazzled by the prospect of a "win," cities would do well do ask "for whom?" Will the investment improve the lives of people who live there now? In Chicago, the highest need isn't high-paying tech jobs, it's economic opportunities for the 27 percent of residents living in poverty, and serious investment in public schools to retain residents across all economic strata.
We know how to do economic development well. Let's hope that cities run the numbers before committing billions of dollars to a deal that may offer high-publicity bragging rights but little else.Truthout takes zero advertising money -- instead we rely on readers to sustain our site. Will you join the thousands of people who fund our work? Make a donation by clicking here!