"Those melons are contaminated by exploitation." That's what one melon worker in Choluteca, Honduras, told me she would say to a US consumer thinking about buying the fruit grown, harvested, and distributed under the control of the multinational Sumitomo and marketed under the brands Fyffes and Sol.
"They don't use that money to pay us well," she said. "What happens is they wind up with their pockets full, and we wind up with our bellies empty."
Seeking to improve their wages and working conditions, melon workers in the politically marginalized southwestern corner of Honduras are fighting to win recognition and a contract for their young union, a local of the Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Agroindustria y Similares (STAS, the Union of Agricultural and Related Workers).
The vast majority of the four to five thousand melon workers in Choluteca are women paid less than the country's official monthly minimum for agricultural workers: 6,848 lempiras ($292.15).
While the workers do get paid the daily minimum wage, 228 lempiras ($9.73), the boss, by limiting their number of days of work per week to maybe four, can get away with paying only about half the monthly figure. It's another example of how "flexibility" for management can translate into poverty for labor, especially in an area such as southern Honduras where employment opportunities are limited.
Melons Are Big Business
It's not that the melon sector is small. In 2016 Honduras exported some 268 million kilos (295,419 tons) of cantaloupes, honeydew, watermelons, and other melons with a value of $53.3 million, according to the statistics of the Central Bank of Honduras. Melons are the country's fourth-largest export, after coffee, electronics, and fish.
Nor is the corporate master a lightweight. Early this year Ireland-based Fyffes was taken over by the Japanese conglomerate Sumitomo, a trading, marketing, and investment operation with a market capitalization of $16.8 billion.
During my trip in May to Honduras to meet with workers from the operations owned by Fyffes/Sol, the women I spoke to described:
- being ordered to enter fields where toxic chemicals were just applied
- working in those fields without protective equipment such as boots and gloves
- being fired when management learns they are pregnant
- receiving only token health care -- along the lines of "take two aspirin and go to the public hospital"
The workers also say that the company provides no support for childcare or transportation, and that retirement is unheard of -- although being denied work because of advancing age is not.
To get to the villages where the workers live, you have to navigate semi-paved and unpaved roads. It's only recently that these communities got connected to the electric power grid.
Union Drive Met With Violence
STAS, started in 2013, is the newest member of the agricultural union federation, FESTAGRO, founded in 2012. Several of the other member unions date back to the great Honduran banana strike of 1954.
The employers have responded to the melon organizing drive with intimidation, threats, and assaults. Their tactics range from captive-audience meetings, familiar to US workers and organizers, to anonymous and public threats against leaders.
This pattern reached a peak in April, when a group of men with their faces covered cornered Moisés Sánchez, the leader of the Choluteca local of the STAS, as he bicycled home. They held him at gunpoint, and when his younger brother Misael attempted to intervene, one of the attackers slashed him in the face with a machete.
Moisés was held captive and searched for over half an hour. The attackers threatened to kill him if he kept organizing the union. Only two things allowed him to escape alive -- the fact that they found what they were looking for, Moisés' phone containing union information, and that a large group of villagers arrived to rescue him.
The attack, condemned by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, joins a series of threats and assaults against labor activists in Honduras, including FESTAGRO leaders.
Though it's not uncommon for the targets who are not killed to be driven into exile, Moisés is still in Choluteca.
The systemic violations of labor rights in the Honduran melon sector have begun to receive international attention. In 2012, Honduran labor organizations and the AFL-CIO filed a petition under the Central American Free Trade Agreement, CAFTA-DR, alleging that Honduras has failed to enforce its labor laws. In 2015 these allegations were substantiated in a report by the US Department of Labor, and in consequence that year the two governments signed a "Labor Rights Monitoring and Action Plan."
This move follows two other bilateral labor action plans between the US and Colombia and Guatemala. But all three share the same weaknesses: tending to favor changes on paper -- in laws, regulations, policies, and budgets -- over genuine changes on the job.
Even self-policing bodies with corporate participation have decided that the lack of respect for labor rights by Fyffes in Honduras is intolerable. In May the board of the Ethical Trading Initiative, an alliance of companies, unions, and non-governmental organizations based in London, adopted a recommendation to suspend and potentially expel Fyffes from membership unless the situation improves.
How You Can Help
The level of public protest in Europe, where Fyffes sells more bananas, has not yet been matched in the US, where it sells more melons.
To win real improvements, Choluteca melon workers say they will depend on consumer pressure where most of their product is sold, in the eastern US Between now and August -- while the retailers and Sumitomo/Fyffes will be negotiating the contract for the next harvest -- is a pivotal time.
You can listen to the voices of the workers themselves -- both full-length interviews in the original Spanish, and an edited, translated version -- at bit.ly/KBOOmelons . Then decide for yourself whose side you are on, and what you are going to do about it.
One concrete thing anyone can do is talk to the manager at your local grocery store. Ask where the melons come from, explain that you're concerned about the labor conditions for the workers who supply them, and ask the grocery manager to raise this issue with the wholesaler. You could also bring your complaint straight to the source: Sumitomo has corporate offices around North America, including a head office in New York.
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Trump did not initiate the US's tendency to avert its eyes when it comes to Saudi support for Islamic extremism, says Princeton professor and Middle East scholar Richard Falk. But Trump has brought a newfound affection for autocratic governments and dictators to US foreign policy -- an affection that appears to be a reflection of his own ideological affinities.
Professor Richard A. Falk speaks at the 10th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, March 23, 2009. (Photo: UN Geneva)
Since Trump's visit to the Middle East, the region is experiencing new forms of turmoil, with the boycott against Qatar by several Gulf countries and Egypt reflecting the manifestation of geopolitical rivalries encouraged by Trump's support for dictatorial regimes in the region willing to join the US in the fight against terrorism. For the latest developments in the Middle East, Truthout spoke with Richard Falk, emeritus professor of international relations at Princeton University, who is now in the region for a series of public lectures.
C.J. Polychroniou: Richard, you are traveling and lecturing at the moment in the Middle East. How are the media in countries like Lebanon, Israel and Turkey treating Trump's policies in the region, and what's your reading of the mood on the ground among common folk?
Richard Falk: I have just arrived in Istanbul after spending several days in Beirut. While in Lebanon, in addition to giving a public lecture at the end of a cultural festival on the theme, "The rise of populism, Trumpism, and the decline of US leadership," I had the opportunity to interact with a wide range of people. As far as Trump is concerned, there was virtual unanimity that he is worsening an already volatile situation in the region. His trip to Riyadh was viewed in Beirut as a stunning display of incompetence and bravado, topped off by succumbing to a Saudi/Israeli regional agenda focused on building a menacing anti-Iran coalition and misleading publicity surrounding a nominal commitment to join forces to combat ISIS (also known as Daesh). Trump was viewed as a leader who did not understand the region and was more interested in pushing destabilizing arms sales than in genuinely promoting stability and conflict resolution.
Why is Qatar singled out on terror when it is a well-known fact that Saudi Arabia has been a chief supporter of the most radical ideological version of Islam, and Turkey's President Erdogan has been accused of aiding ISIS and other extremists against Kurds and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad?
The short answer is geopolitics. Saudi Arabia, like Israel, has a "special relationship" with the United States, meaning that in diplomatic practice, Washington adopts a subservient posture that includes seeing the world through a distorted optic provided by the Saudi monarchy. Trump did not initiate this American tendency to avert its eyes when it comes to the massive evidence of Saudi support for Islamic extremism, but he seems to be carrying further this form of geopolitical [ignorance].
When it comes to Turkey, the American attitude is ambivalent, regarding Turkey as a sufficiently important strategic partner via NATO, as well as the site of the important American Incirlik Air Base to justify looking the other way when it comes to indications of earlier Turkish support for ISIS in the context of implementing its anti-Assad Syrian policies. Of course, there is evidence of contradictions along similar lines with respect to pre-Trump US policies in Syria. All hands are dirty with regard to Syria. The Syrian people are continuing to pay a huge price for this mixture of internal struggle and a multilevel proxy war engaging regional and global actors.
Singling out Qatar is the strongest instance of the Saudi regional game. Saudi Arabia has long been bothered by the relative independence of Qatar in relation to a series of issues that have nothing to do with terrorism. These include the creation of Al Jazeera, a show of sympathy for the Arab Spring movements of 2011, asylum for the Muslim Brotherhood leadership after the Sisi coup of 2013, hosting Hamas leaders and tangible support for the Palestinian struggle -- including aid to Gaza, and relatively friendly relations with Iran partly as a result of sharing a huge natural gas field.
The "terrorism" angle is a cover story that hides the real objective of the anti-Qatar policy, which is to assert Saudi hegemony with respect to all Gulf monarchies, and to make an example of Qatar so as to demonstrate that there is no room for either challenging Saudi primacy or departing from its policies of hostility to Shia governments and political Islam -- that is, organizations within countries that build grassroots support for political movements among Muslims seeking control of the national governance process. Saudi policies, as in relation to Egypt, show a strong preference for authoritarian secular rule over an Islamically-oriented movement that achieved control of the state through electoral victories.
Saudi Arabia has two regional enemies: Shia Iran and political Islam, whether or not Sunni. Riyadh is sectarian when it serves Saudi regional interests in countering Iran, and repressive toward any kind of challenge directed at dictatorial government and monarchical authority, even if religiously oriented in its political identity. One dimension of its policy is directed toward sustaining royal authority at home, another is preoccupied with Gulf hegemony, another with crushing any democratizing movement in the region, and still another with its anti-Iran rivalry. When it comes to ISIS and jihadism, Saudi policy sends the West an anti-terrorist message while continuing to spend billions on disseminating Wahhabi versions of Islam far and wide.
The United States is more confused than Saudi Arabia when it comes to Qatar, but equally ineffectual if anti-terrorism truly tops its regional agenda. For one thing, Qatar is not a supporter of ISIS or of terrorism except to some extent in the context of Syria, where it is on the same side as Saudi Arabia, the United States and Turkey -- each of which has from time to time made expedient use of anti-Assad Sunni terrorist groups. For another, the United States maintains a major military base in Qatar staffed by 11,000 American troops. For another, while celebrating the post-Riyadh moves against Qatar, the US has concluded a $12 billion arms sales arrangement with Doha. While Trump boasts about his role in crafting the anti-Qatar policies as a triumph of counterterrorism, the American secretaries of state and defense are vigorously trying to bring the confrontation with Qatar to an end through diplomatic mediation, illustrating policy incoherence between the White House and the governmental bureaucracy.Trump clearly feels a kinship with dictatorial regimes and authoritarian leaders throughout the world, and not just in the Middle East.
Do you think Donald Trump's warm embrace of dictatorial regimes and authoritarian leaders in the region -- including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey -- represents a new development in US foreign policy toward the Middle East?
Trump clearly feels a kinship with dictatorial regimes and authoritarian leaders throughout the world, and not just in the Middle East. As suggested earlier, the attitude toward Erdoğan is more complicated because of NATO considerations and overall Syrian policy coordination, and reflects a pre-Trump pragmatism with respect to the interface between American opposition to repressive government and the pursuit of a post-Cold War grand strategy in the Middle East and around the world. Trump is far less conflicted about embracing authoritarian leaders than his predecessors, especially Obama. In this sense, Trump's affection for autocratic governance patterns cannot be fully explained by the pragmatic priorities of earlier American leaders. It seems to reflect an ideological affinity that is independent of foreign policy goals. The sheer hypocrisy of Trump's approach to such choices has been recently underscored by his rollback of Obama's moves to normalize relations with Cuba because of its allegedly poor human rights record. Interpreted more transparently, this Trump move was a political payback to the support given his presidential campaign by Miami's right-wing Cuban exile community.
If we consider the question of whether Trump's comfort level with authoritarian governance should be regarded as a real change in American foreign policy toward the Middle East, we can only say now that it is too early to tell. There is no doubt that Trump's visit and talk to the 50 leaders of Muslim countries assembled in Riyadh allowed the most authoritarian among Islamic rulers (Iran excepted) a welcome sigh of relief. It meant they would no longer have to listen sullenly to lectures delivered by a liberal American president about the importance of observing human rights.
This may also help explain the closer policy coordination between the US and Gulf Arabs, illustrated by agreeing to ramp up pressure on Iran. The intensification of American hostility to Iran is more likely to flow from Trump's eagerness to please Israel than to be responsive to Saudi guidance. Unlike the Qatar initiative, which seems to disturb [US Secretary of Defense] James Mattis and [US Secretary of State] Rex Tillerson, the anti-Iran moves seem compatible with a shared militarist hostility to Iran, which is misleadingly blamed for spreading terrorism in the region through Tehran's support for such diverse groups as Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthis.
Now that ISIS is weakening, tensions and sectarian passions in the Middle East are actually on the rise. Any connection between the two factors?
ISIS certainly seems to be in the process of losing its territorial base and caliphate in Iraq and Syria, but whether it is really weakening overall is hard to tell. It has spread its terrorist operations to many countries throughout the world and still seems capable of causing havoc in Europe and the United States by using native sympathizers to mount terrorist attacks that inflame targeted societies.
With respect to the apparent rise of sectarian passions, there is a need for careful assessment. Sectarianism is used to mobilize support for the anti-Iran coalition and the Syrian War in Sunni-majority countries, but a more convincing explanation of these policies would emphasize the Saudi-Iran rivalry for regional hegemony based on competing expansionist aspirations. Sectarianism accounts for political alignments in Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, where Sunni rule feels threatened by Shia minorities -- in Yemen and Saudi Arabia -- and a Shia majority in Bahrain. As suggested earlier, where Sunni popular movements are perceived as threatening to the Arab monarchies, Sunni rulers will not hesitate to use or encourage bloody repressive tactics. In this respect, sectarian justifications for alignments are misleading unless interpreted as opportunistic. A more adequate understanding of Arab politics can be gained by evaluating intergovernmental tensions in the Middle East and related efforts to sustain the stability of existing political structures in the face of internal threats.
Both Jordan and Lebanon have managed to avoid becoming ISIS targets. What are the reasons for this?
I think there is no definitive explanation. It appears that ISIS is rather opportunistic in its selection of target societies, as well as in its tendency to treat some states as off-limits. By and large, where ISIS has enjoyed its greatest success in the Middle East and North Africa has been in countries experiencing chaos, combat and unrest, especially in contexts of American or European intervention.
Turkey and Iran have been targeted by ISIS, although neither can be considered chaotic or a combat zone. Turkey has been targeted in all likelihood in retaliation for switching from aiding and abetting ISIS to policies of belligerent opposition. There may be sectarian reasons for ISIS attacks on Iran, although this is highly conjectural. There are also rumors about various bargains struck by ISIS with governments and wealthy donors to engage in or refrain from certain attacks.
Jordan has been comparatively stable over the course of the last decade, which means that they do not seem to be the kind of society that ISIS targets. In addition, neither Lebanon nor Jordan has been active in anti-terrorist regional politics, although ISIS and Hezbollah are on opposite sides in Syria, and have there engaged in violent combat. There is very little public knowledge about the operational side of ISIS behavior, which means that either of these countries could come under pressure from ISIS militants at some future time.
How do you see the "Palestinian question" playing out under Trump's administration?
Everything about Trump's political style makes his position at one time subject to drastic revision almost on impulse. Up to now, Trump seems to be investing energy in the idea that a deal can be struck. This is highly unlikely to materialize, principally because Israel seems to be moving toward an imposed one-state solution, with its "Plan B" being a long-term apartheid administration of Palestinian territories that initially fell under its control 50 years ago in the 1967 War. The idea of revived negotiations seems like a Washington stunt that is given lip service by the Israeli government for public relations purposes and endorsed by the Palestinian Authority because of its weakness and vulnerability to the cutoff of foreign funding. Given the accelerated expansion of settlement-building, as well as the sheer number of settlers -- numbering at least 700,000 if the West Bank and East Jerusalem are combined -- the situation seems ill-suited for a political compromise envisioned by the two-state international consensus. In other words, a diplomatically induced end of the conflict seems currently implausible.
Palestinian prospects are increasingly dismal. The Trump presidency is not disposed to challenge Israeli policies, or to exert pressure on Israel to yield significant ground as to the manner with which it is administering the Palestinian people. The American ambassador at the UN, Nikki Haley, is outdoing herself by constant[ly] bashing the UN for its supposed anti-Israel bias. Whether these tactics of intimidation will result in a gradual disappearance of Palestinian grievances from the UN agenda remains to be seen, but it is clearly a major Israeli objective. It seems that with armed struggle no longer a threat and diplomacy at a dead end, the only real worry for Israel is the mobilization of hostile public opinion under UN auspices.
Palestinian hopes, such as they are, depend on several developments: continuing growth of the global solidarity movement as most vividly expressed by the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] campaign, which is the centerpiece of "the legitimacy war" that has been discrediting Israel's policies and practices while giving the high moral and legal ground to the Palestinian national movement; eventual achievement of sustainable Palestinian unity, overcoming the rift between Hamas and Fatah; and more tangible expressions of solidarity by Arab neighbors with the Palestinian struggle.
If none of these Palestinian hopes … materialize in the next decade, the Palestinian struggle will increasingly come to be seen as a "lost cause." What Trump does and doesn't do is likely to influence perceptions as to whether the Palestinian goals are credible or not, but at this point, the policy impact of the Trump presidency seems mainly to be emboldening Israeli hardliners.
Food is served to students at Public School 397 in New York, November 21, 2013. (Photo: Joshua Bright / The New York Times)
In response to austerity measures and the government's failure to maintain basic supports for families in need, public schools have been forced to raise private money to help homeless students complete their education. School administrators have established shelters, installed washers and dryers, and opened food pantries and no-cost clothing shops in efforts to help homeless students stay enrolled and graduate.
Food is served to students at Public School 397 in New York, November 21, 2013. (Photo: Joshua Bright / The New York Times)
Dr. Art McCoy, superintendent of schools in Jennings, Missouri, is a humble man. But when he speaks of his school district as "a lighthouse for informed practices that respond to the needs of homeless and low-income kids," his pride is obvious.
As a leader of the movement pushing public schools to address the overlapping emotional and material needs of impoverished students, Jennings is a model -- stepping in to provide food, shelter, health care and consolation to students who need it. Not surprisingly, school districts throughout the US are looking to Jennings for inspiration, especially since federal and state governments have done very little to assist this population.
Jennings is adjacent to Ferguson, the small city that was catapulted to prominence in August 2014 after police murdered 18-year-old Michael Brown. Each of Jennings' eight public schools -- with an enrollment of 2,600 students, most of them poor and 160 of them homeless -- have "comfort rooms": private spaces where students can meet with counselors and address the obstacles they're facing.
"The biggest issues for our students are domestic violence and the death of a loved one," McCoy states. "About 2,000 of our 2,600 enrolled students see school-based therapists each academic year to address the multiple traumas in their lives."
This alone would be a staggering achievement, but Jennings schools do far more: They distribute more than 8,000 pounds of free food every two weeks, and no-cost washers and dryers are available for student to use 13 hours a day. Why? Because having clean clothes is known to boost school attendance, McCoy says, something that is particularly important for folks whose electricity has been shut off or who simply don't have the money to use commercial laundromats. What's more, three Jennings schools have full-service health centers on-site where dental, optical, gynecological and medical care are available.
It's an impressive array, but the district considers its biggest achievement to be Hope House, a 4,000-square-foot residence that is home to seven children who would otherwise be homeless. "Hope House opened in November 2015," McCoy told Truthout. "The first year, it was run in partnership with the Missouri Baptist Children's Home and served four girls who had been abused." A year later, the district teamed up with the state division of Family Services and opened the House to both boys and girls, elementary through high school age.
"The current batch of residents are either estranged from their parents or facing other situations of duress," McCoy explains. "In one case, the mom's boyfriend tried to kill her and she is now trying to get to a safe space."
Such circumstances, he continues, sparked the need for innovation and, since vacant properties were essentially there for the taking, Jennings teachers and administrators wondered if they could establish a shelter for students. "There are a large number of vacant buildings throughout the Midwest that could be used to shelter kids who've fallen through the cracks," McCoy tells me. "There are at least 800 in Jennings County alone. When corporations and businesses leave the area, people move away and walk away from homes that can't be sold. In some places mayors are simply giving these properties to community groups in exchange for rehabbing them."
In the case of Hope House, it cost the district about $60,000 to renovate the dwelling. Local stores then donated beds, couches and other necessary items and a house parent -- a woman with 30 years of experience as a foster mom -- was hired to cook and oversee day-to-day operations.
Hope House has been so successful that the district is presently renovating a second home; this one will be reserved for homeless families and is expected to open in early 2018. McCoy sounds pleased by this. Nevertheless, he emphasizes that he is worried that, if enacted, the Trump administration's 2018 budget will put the project on tenuous footing. "We love being a community service agency," McCoy says, "and are outraged by the president's budget. Right after the election, in January 2017 we were notified that there would be federal cuts. The state of Missouri has agreed to continue our funding for one more year, and I've been able to raise $1.2 million in donations, but it is unfeasible to think we can do this every year. You can't sustain public education this way."
Schools Struggle to Fill a Gaping Void
Dr. Mark Naison, professor of African and African American Studies at Fordham University and a mentor to many aspiring educators, says that federal policy "has forced schools to make up for the vacuum that government has left."
That vacuum, says Barbara Duffield, founder and executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a Washington, DC-based advocacy organization that serves as a liaison between school districts, community activists, state education agencies and youth, is the direct result of policies promulgated by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
"HUD policy has, since 2002, prioritized single people at the expense of families and young people," she says. "Fifteen years ago, the federal government decided to focus on single adults living on the streets." Because it is less common to see whole families in doorways, under bridges, or camped out in train stations -- they tend to stay with friends or family, or settle into temporary shelters or hotels -- "HUD has paid less attention to them and left school districts to come up with solutions on their own."
Ironically, she continues, compulsory education laws are on the books in all 50 states, making schools "the sole universal organization to touch every child's life." This has pushed the onus of service provision onto educators, since teachers and administrators know that children can't learn if they're hungry, sick, tired or distracted.
The American Psychological Association notes that "chronic stress adversely impacts concentration and memory which impacts the ability to learn." Other issues, including anxiety, depression, increased impulsivity and low self-esteem also correlate with both deep poverty and homelessness. So do anemia, asthma, learning disabilities and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Experts estimate that between 1.3 million and 1.6 million kids enrolled in public schools currently lack a permanent address. Although the exact number is impossible to pin down -- folks living doubled up with friends and family don't always identify as homeless -- this accounts for nearly 2 percent of public school enrollment. Many are LGBTQ, with approximately 110,000 a year becoming undomiciled after coming out to their families. Most homeless youth, however, live with a parent or other relative. That said, at least 36,000 are completely on their own due to parental incarceration, alcohol or drug abuse, death or deportation.
Other Schools Rising to the Challenge
East High School in Salt Lake City, Utah, provides a number of programs that assist homeless and vulnerable low-income students, who comprise more than 90 percent of their enrollment. Unlike Jennings, East High School works with area shelters, rather than housing students themselves. Still, since two-thirds of the 2,000 students enrolled are eligible for two free meals a day, staff have their work cut out for them. Kris Barta, the school's family support specialist, says that while 80 students are officially homeless, many students live without daily input from a concerned adult, whether a parent, guardian, other relative or older friend. When faculty and the PTA came to grips with this, she says that they decided to "change focus from fluffy things to hardcore helping out."
In concrete terms, this meant establishing a year-round food pantry; giving students access to free laundry facilities; and opening a no-cost clothing shop. "We fired up a food pantry with purchased goods and donations of staples like flour, oil and canned goods; it is staffed five days a week for 30 minutes before and after school for students and their families. All they have to do is show up. They pay nothing," Barta says.
Similarly, a former ROTC room was converted into a boutique where donated clothing -- some new, some used -- is available to every student in the school. "About 100 kids a day stop by and go through the stash," Barta boasts.
Staff also pay close attention to each student. "If it looks like someone has a toothache, we get them to a dentist. If they can't see well we get them a voucher for an eye screening and glasses. If they need a doctor we get them to one," Barta says. "We also have several washers and dryers that were donated and a fully stocked shower room where students can bathe. A supply of deodorant, bath towels, shampoo, soap, sanitary napkins and razors are also provided and are plentiful enough to be taken as needed."
She further credits the personal attention that is meted out for keeping the lion's share of East High's students enrolled -- and on schedule to graduate.
Getting personal attention, says Sasha, a 20-year-old student at Delaware County Community College in Media, Pennsylvania, makes all the difference. Although Sasha bounced from state to state as she came of age, she says that she is grateful to a perceptive counselor who encouraged her to enroll in college. Originally from Sierra Leone, Sasha was never officially homeless; nevertheless, she and her family moved 12 times between 2004 and 2015. "We moved so much that I didn't think about my future or my education," she confides. "I grew up taking care of my sisters and brother and was just trying to survive. Then, in my second to last high school, a counselor introduced me to AVID, Advancement Via Individual Determination. This program showed me that there were things I could do after high school. It motivated me to graduate and further my studies. The counselor pushed me hard, literally bringing scholarship forms to me and helping me fill them out. She really opened my eyes to the world outside."
Sasha expects to complete an Associate's Degree in nursing in 2019. Her success, she stresses, is not solely an individual achievement, but was made possible by the academic and material supports she received -- among them a safe, affordable space in which to rest and work.
Providing Stable Housing Changes Things
A pilot program, orchestrated by the Tacoma, Washington Housing Authority and that city's McCarver Elementary School, is demonstrating the link between stable housing and successful academic performance.
Michael Mirra, executive director of the Tacoma Housing Authority, reports that 2017 is the seventh year of the Tacoma Housing Authority Education Project. Although the program has numerous components -- including encouraging reading by providing free books to residents of Housing Authority developments, helping children and parents set up bank accounts, and registering all eighth graders for Washington State's College Bound Scholarship -- its linchpin is an effort that began at McCarver Elementary School in 2012.
"The student population at McCarver was the poorest in the region and maybe the poorest in the state, with more homeless kids than any other school in the area," Mirra says. "What caught our eye was the transient rate, up to 179 percent per year. This meant that if 30 kids started in September, by June the student population would have turned over twice. We knew that that much transience was ruinous to students, their classmates and teachers."
A cash infusion enabled the Housing Authority to provide five years of rental assistance to 50 families with 85 K-to-second graders enrolled at McCarver. In exchange, parents had to agree to keep their children in the school, attend parent-teacher conferences and PTA meetings, help their children with homework, and address their own personal challenges -- whether domestic violence, lack of vocational or academic training, or physical or mental illnesses.
"About one-third of the families have done very well and are now able to find shelter independently; one-third have done so-so; and one-third have made zero progress and will need help moving into permanent, supportive housing," Mirra reports.
And the children? Mirra says that 67 percent are now reading at grade level and the McCarver transient rate has decreased to 80 percent.
Unfortunately, all of the families will lose their rent subsidy in August and no one can predict whether the gains made by students will last. Still, Mirra and the staff at McCarver are hopeful.
"The main enemy here is hopelessness," Mirra concludes. "People have to see a future for themselves and their families."
This, of course, is incontestable. At the same time, people need more than hope; they need concrete supports. As Art McCoy -- the school superintendent in Jennings, Missouri -- affirms, they need governmental support.
"Existing government programs do not meet student needs for food, transportation, shelter and financial assistance," he says. "Sometimes, this comes from a lack of understanding. At other times, it comes from a lack of empathy."
In 2016, he says, the Obama administration gave families the right to keep their children in the same school even if they moved to a shelter in a different neighborhood. "The goal was to stop displacing homeless children, but the law did not include provisions for additional funding to pay transportation costs," he says. "It was costing us $1000 to $1500 a month to transport students to school. This reflected a lack of understanding. Unfortunately, the government has now moved from lack of understanding to a lack of caring."
Researcher Abaki Beck, 23, has vivid childhood memories of helping her mother, grandmothers, and aunts pick traditional foods and medicines on the Blackfeet Nation in northwest Montana. Because her great-grandmother passed down her vast knowledge of the tribe's traditions, Beck learned the importance of eating these foods at an early age.
Well before white settlers colonized their land, Blackfeet Nation members used more than 200 types of plants for food and remedies. But forced assimilation and reliance on the US government for food adversely shifted most nations' diets from whole foods to industrialized processed foods and eroded tribal health. More than 80 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native adults are overweight or obese, and half of American Indian children are predicted to develop Type 2 diabetes in their lifetimes, according to the Indian Health Clinical Reporting system.
Beck, who has a degree in American studies and has researched the impacts of settler-colonialism on Blackfeet youth suicide, hopes to change those health disparities. Her report, published in May, "Ahwahsiin: Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Contemporary Food Sovereignty on the Blackfeet Reservation" (ahwahsiin translates to "the land where we get our food"), features oral history interviews with nine Blackfeet elders who discussed the nation's traditional foods and the health issues connected to a modern American diet. A 2016 survey -- the Blackfeet Nation has approximately 17,000 members -- found that one of the most cited barriers in accessing traditional or local foods was lack of knowledge.
"Our people survived genocide in part because of [traditional] foods and medicines," Beck says. "And because our elders are passing away and global warming is changing how our environment functions, now is a significant time to capture elders' knowledge and our own community's history."
Beck partnered with Saokio Heritage, a community-based and volunteer-run organization on Blackfeet. The report was funded by a $10,000 grant from the First Nations Development Institute and is available on the organization's website.
Many of the traditional foods, plants, and teas are still available on the reservation, and some are even sold in health food stores, Beck says, so younger tribal members can learn to integrate them into their daily lives. For example, traditional medicine like willow bark or blue root can replace Tylenol, and bison or venison can replace fatty beef. Local berries can either become a traditional berry soup or be mixed into other recipes like pancakes, muffins, and smoothies.
"Some Westernized foods and medicines are not best for tribal people," says Carolyn Angus-Hornbuckle, director of public health policy and programs at the National Indian Health Board. "These health disparities are happening throughout Indian Country, and we could see positive health impacts if Blackfeet chose to share Beck's report and their knowledge with other communities."
Most scholarly research reports are concealed behind paywalls and easily accessible by only those in academia, but Beck removed that barrier for the Blackfeet people by making her report available for free.
Danielle Antelope, a 21-year-old Blackfeet Community College student who helped Beck conduct the interviews, grew up eating chicken patties, cheeseburgers, and tater tots for dinner. "We never ate vegetables," Antelope says. "My mom was a single mom, so she wanted to make sure we were full when she fed us, but we didn't think about the nutritional aspect of what were we eating."
"I wish I had known of our traditional ways of eating when I was younger," she adds. "I didn't really learn about eating healthy in school, either."
Efforts to promote food sovereignty throughout Indian Country have included youth education, community gardening, and economic development. But because there are hundreds of distinct tribes -- with different needs and systems of food, government, and regulation -- approaches to tackling the health disparities vary greatly, Beck says.
Even though "health disparities on the Blackfeet Reservation [are] too broad to be solved by one report," Beck says, she's confident that awareness is part of the solution.
The Trump administration aims to slash spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, by US $193 billion over the next decade. The proposal would also overhaul how the nation's main nutrition assistance program operates, potentially encouraging additional cuts by the states.
Curbing SNAP's reach is only one way that Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and other officials are trying to trim the safety net to save taxpayer dollars -- while simultaneously boosting military spending.
As an economist who studies nutrition policy, I don't understand what good the administration thinks it can do by overhauling and paring back an effective and efficient program. By many measures, SNAP successfully satisfies an essential human need and fulfills its mandate to promote the general welfare.
To justify the SNAP cuts, Mulvaney argued that the government wastes money on aiding "able-bodied" people who ought to earn enough money to provide for themselves.
But nearly two-thirds of SNAP participants are children, elderly or disabled and thus are not expected to work. What's more, 44 percent of the Americans who rely on SNAP benefits live in a household with at least one worker. Among SNAP households with children, 55 percent include at least one employed person. Furthermore, when able-bodied adults who aren't caring for a dependent qualify for SNAP benefits, they lose them within three months if they aren't working at least 20 hours a week.
What about saving tax dollars? SNAP uses little federal money. The US is currently spending around $71 billion a year on the program. While this sounds like a lot, it accounts for only around 2 percent of this year's federal budget. The cuts proposed for the next 10 years would scale the program back by more than a quarter, but even eliminating it entirely would barely make a dent in federal spending.
As for government inefficiency and waste, research indicates that SNAP's benefits go where they are intended: to the poor. There are inevitable errors in all government programs that mean some people get paid who shouldn't, and others who should get paid don't. But the "error rate" for SNAP, at about 3 percent, is much lower than for Medicaid, Medicare, Unemployment Insurance and most other large-scale government programs. "Illegal trafficking," when SNAP recipients sell their benefits for a reduced amount of cash to food retailers, amounts to only about 1 percent of the program's total benefits, according to the USDA.
In short, SNAP is an efficient and effective program that helps millions of vulnerable Americans.
Changing SNAP's Structure
To accomplish the SNAP spending reductions, the Trump administration proposes dramatic structural changes, morphing SNAP from a federal program into a federal-state arrangement. Currently the federal government establishes basic eligibility and benefit level standards, but states have some power to alter them. The federal government funds 100 percent of SNAP benefits and shares administration costs with the states.
Under the new proposal, states would be able to change benefit and eligibility standards more. This means SNAP would no longer assure consistent levels of food assistance nationwide.
Of particular importance, the proposal would shift some of the responsibility for funding SNAP benefits to states, requiring them to shoulder 25 percent of the cost. Faced with this substantial new obligation and the requirement to balance their budgets, states would have an incentive to cut SNAP benefits even more.
In addition, the White House wants to cut back on waivers granted to states experiencing high unemployment. These waivers allow childless, able-bodied adults who have worked less than 20 hours per week to receive SNAP benefits beyond the current three-month limit.
What Economists Say
For example, food insecurity increases the risk of many ailments. Children who don't get enough to eat are more likely to have anemia, asthma, cognitive problems and behavioral problems. Food-insecure working-age adults report more hypertension and sleeping problems. Seniors who don't get appropriate nutrition are more likely to experience depression and lose the ability to do basic tasks, such as housework, for themselves. Food assistance for pregnant women is associated with reduced obesity, hypertension and diabetes for their children years after they're born.
Cutting SNAP, therefore, would probably increase health problems among low-income Americans, and the harm to children can be long-lasting. This doesn't bode well for national health care costs or for low-income Americans' ability to support themselves now or in the years to come.
Because of SNAP's income-based eligibility requirements, its caseloads track the unemployment and poverty rates. For example, the number of Americans qualifying for the program rose considerably during the Great Recession, but now that labor markets are recovering the caseload is declining.
And since SNAP automatically responds to the business cycle, it serves what economists call a countercyclical role. That means the program stimulates local economies and the national economy during economic downturns. Economists estimate that each $5 the government spends on SNAP triggers $9 of economic activity and that every $1 billion in benefits creates roughly 9,000 jobs.
The upshot is that if Congress approves the proposed changes, lots of people would have less to spend on food and thousands of Americans would lose their jobs -- mostly people who work in food sales and farming. All Americans could eventually be harmed because the economy as a whole would be more vulnerable during the next downturn.
Some conservatives fear that SNAP may discourage work, but research indicates that SNAP benefits do little to discourage paid work. Most of the nondisabled, working-age adults who get these benefits -- 58 percent -- work, and even more -- 80 percent -- are employed the year prior or following receipt. Given that SNAP benefits average just $1.40 per meal per person, they offer a meager incentive to remain unemployed.
Most voters do not seem to share these concerns, as SNAP enjoys broad-based support. One poll found that about 80 percent of respondents -- including about two-thirds of Republicans -- favored raising benefit levels after being told that someone living alone receives an average of $140 a month and a single mother with one child gets just $253.
Another poll found that 61 percent opposed cutting SNAP by $39 billion over a decade -- as Republican lawmakers tried and failed to do in 2013. The $193 billion cut President Donald Trump seeks would be much bigger.
Trump's proposal only begins the long process of building the budget. Hopefully, Congress will reject these cuts to SNAP.
The Senate Republicans' "Better Care Reconciliation Act," which would repeal the Affordable Care Act, would slash resources needed for Medicaid to pay for tax breaks for the wealthy. The home care workforce, one of the country's fastest-growing, would be extremely hard hit by the plan. The passage of this bill would not only kill home care jobs, but make home care workers sicker, while permanently destabilizing the industry.
(Photo: Katarzyna Bialasiewicz / Getty Images)
The Senate Republicans' "Better Care Reconciliation Act," which would repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), would slash resources needed for Medicaid to pay for tax breaks for the wealthy. The homecare workforce, one of the country's fastest-growing, would be extremely hard hit by the plan. The passage of this bill would not only kill homecare jobs, but make homecare workers sicker, while permanently destabilizing the homecare industry.
The number of homecare workers in the country is conservatively estimated to be two million, and it has been growing by about 7 percent per year. Every day, these workers, who are primarily women, provide critical care for seniors, people who are sick, and persons living with disabilities. Homecare workers meet the needs of seniors who want to stay at home as they get older and people of all ages who have disabilities and want to live independently. The daily assistance of homecare workers makes it possible for millions of people across the country to live in their communities.
Yet instead of investing in this critical industry, the new Senate bill spells disaster for those who provide care and those who need it most. Priscilla Smith, from Fayetteville, North Carolina, has been a homecare worker for seven years. She says she's most concerned that the people in the facility where she works won't get the care they need. "Medicaid is what pays for workers like me to provide care," Smith said. "And many elderly people can't afford private insurance."
The bill ends Medicaid expansion and introduces per capita caps and block grants. Combined, these changes spell the end of Medicaid in its current status as a successful, responsive program. For decades, Medicaid has allowed seniors and adults and children living with disabilities to get the homecare they need to live at home and in their communities.
At the same time, the bill includes multiple tax breaks for the wealthy, including retroactive tax breaks for high-income households.
The exact number of people who would lose Medicaid is not yet known due to the furtive and hasty way in which the bill was created, but the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has announced that by the year 2026, 22 million people would lose insurance under the bill and cuts to Medicaid would reach $772 billion. The CBO also predicts that few people who lose their Medicaid eligibility would be able to purchase insurance "because of the expense for premiums and the high deductibles" for individual market plans.
Because the ACA expanded healthcare access for many people, it additionally created positive growth in healthcare jobs, from doctors to home health aides. If the ACA is cut, there will be an estimated three million jobs lost by 2021. Between 305,000 and 713,000 homecare workers will lose their jobs if the Senate is allowed to restrict Medicaid through per capita caps alone. This estimate does not account for eventual job losses due to the end of Medicaid expansion.
Currently, most homecare workers subsist on poverty wages of under $12,000 a year, and as a result, have a turnover rate of up to 60 percent a year. As one of the fastest-growing sectors in the country, home care has the potential to provide good, stable jobs with wages that are high enough to support working families. However, the Senate bill sucks Medicaid's resources dry, limiting any possibility for raising worker wages and locking this majority woman-of-color workforce into perpetual poverty wages.
Most families and individuals must rely on Medicaid-funded services to obtain homecare. However, the average yearly cost of a home health aide is $45,760 -- unaffordable for most families. There are not enough homecare workers to meet current needs, let alone the growing needs of the nation's seniors. The ACA expanded the supply of homecare workers in the United States, primarily by providing Medicaid-funded services to more people who needed homecare. With the Senate's proposed Medicaid cuts, there won't be enough funding for lower-income adults and seniors to get help from homecare workers. This means that more people living with disabilities and seniors will be forced into institutional homes, which are far more expensive than in-home care.
Before the Affordable Care Act passed, one in three homecare workers was uninsured. Under the ACA, home care workers' uninsured rate decreased by 26 percent, in large part due to increased access to Medicaid. With the Senate bill's massive cuts to the program, homecare workers will lose their affordable coverage, and be forced to work with vulnerable and sick persons, while unable to treat their own illnesses.
Homecare worker Priscilla Smith is making her voice heard through We Dream in Black, a program of the National Domestic Workers Alliance that focuses on improving conditions for African American domestic workers. In the health care fight in Washington, she sees a bigger struggle over economic justice.
"This Senate bill sends a message that our work doesn't matter. That the lives of aging people don't matter. But we are the people who help put money into the health care system in the first place."
Smith's solution? "We need more people in political office who understand care from the bottom up, because at one point or another, everyone will need care."
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President Trump congratulates House Speaker Paul Ryan after Republicans passed legislation aimed at repealing and replacing Obamacare, during an event in the Rose Garden at the White House, on May 4, 2017, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
Just 2 years old when he was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, 27-year-old Raul Carranza is now a first-year law student who credits Medi-Cal (California's version of Medicare) with keeping him alive. For Carranza and others like him facing life-threatening diseases, the passage of Trumpcare could be nothing short of a death sentence.
President Trump congratulates House Speaker Paul Ryan after Republicans passed legislation aimed at repealing and replacing Obamacare, during an event in the Rose Garden at the White House, on May 4, 2017, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
I am the one you are about to kill. I am the one whose life you are about to destroy. Your obsession with dismantling our health care system by repealing and replacing Obamacare with your draconian abomination of a bill known as the American Health Care Act is the greatest existential threat I have ever faced.
I have a rare genetic mutation that presents itself as muscular dystrophy. I was two years old when the doctors diagnosed me and told my parents that I would be lucky to live past my teens. I'm 27 now and I have been able to live a full life -- thanks in part to the fact that my mom crossed the border to have me in order for me to be born a US citizen, just like my sister was. Now, that fact may make you angry, but think about this: My mom believed in America so much -- that I would have a better life here than I would in Mexico -- that when she went into labor, instead of going to the nearest hospital, she drove to the border crossing in San Ysidro and got in line with hundreds of other cars. I am lucky that she did, because it is thanks to programs like Medicaid (it goes by Medi-Cal in California) that I have not only survived but thrived. I wasn't always on Medicaid. My dad had a good job and we were able to afford Anthem/Blue Cross, but the older I got, the sicker I became. Hospital visits piled up, and I hit my lifetime limit well before high school.
My health took a sharp decline in middle school after I started having trouble swallowing. It wasn't long before I lost the ability to eat and weighed under 80 pounds. I needed a feeding tube and was lucky to survive the surgery to put it in. I was also lucky to have Medicaid. The program not only covered the surgery and hospital stay but also the formula and after-care supplies -- and it still does.
Not more than two years after my surgery, I was using a breathing machine full-time. My doctor didn't like my use of it because the machine was meant for sleep apnea, not to be used 24 hours a day. He wanted to put in a breathing tube because it was safer than wearing a mask all day, but I was 13 and I saw that breathing tube as the beginning of the end. One day, my family was in the kitchen, picking out which big screen TV they would get me for my birthday. This fact may make you feel like your brains will explode -- if I was on Medicaid, what business did my parents have buying me gifts? -- but I was a kid and I wanted a big screen TV. Having Medicaid meant that our family wasn't drowning in medical bills and they could afford birthday presents. But while they flipped through the catalog, the tube connected to my mask came undone.
My brother, who has the same disability, found me unconscious, blue, and with my eyes rolled into the back of my head. That is when the doctors finally put in the breathing tube. My pulmonologist was mad at my parents for not making the decision for me to have it put in earlier. They had it out in the hallway. Yet, giving me that autonomy allowed me to learn to take care of myself. I knew then that my decisions could mean the difference between life and death, so I needed to know my body better than anyone and make the right choices.
I spent two weeks in the hospital after the surgery and celebrated my 14th birthday in the playroom at Children's Hospital. My dad couldn't bring my birthday present. Instead, he found an Etch-a-Sketch and drew a big rectangle. I didn't get it. He shook it and wrote "BIG SCREEN TV."
Once again, Medicaid paid for the hospital stay and surgery. It paid for my new breathing machines -- one for my bedside and another for my wheelchair. It paid for rechargeable batteries that lasted eight hours. It paid for the supplies necessary to avoid infections and respiratory issues. Most importantly, it paid for nurses to help take care of me.
Adjusting wasn't easy, but I did. I was able to rely on Medicaid not just as a safety net, but as a springboard.
It was thanks to Medicaid that I was able to enroll in community college. It was thanks to Medicaid that I was able to transfer to a four-year college and live in the dorms with my peers, independent of my family. It was thanks to Medicaid that I was able to get my bachelor's degree in political science from one of the best universities in the country. And it's thanks to Medicaid that I'm starting law school in August.
I tell you this not to brag, but because I feel like I have to justify my life. I even hesitated to tell you that I got a TV for my 14th birthday. It's been 13 years since then and I still feel guilty about it. That's what's so screwed up: I have internalized your propaganda. I feel like I have to convince you that I deserve to live when it shouldn't matter if I have a degree or not.
People with disabilities deserve to live.
Too often, we use numbers and statistics to illustrate how inhumane your bill is. I am here to tell you that I am not a statistic. I have a name. I am Raul Carranza and I live in San Diego, California. And, should you vote for this bill, you are sentencing me to death.
US Marines participate in a nonlethal weapons and tactics course, May 11, 2017, in Jordan. In our own country, we don't have to know that in US wars real people die. (Photo: Cpl. Travis Jordan / US Marine Corps)
The headlines arrive in my inbox day after day: "US-led airstrikes in Syria killed hundreds of civilians, UN panel says." "Pentagon wants to declare more parts of world as temporary battlefields." "The US was supposed to leave Afghanistan by 2017. Now it might take decades." There are so many wars and rumors of war involving our country these days that it starts to feel a little unreal, even for the most devoted of news watchers. And for many Americans, it's long been that way. For them, the meaning of war is closer to reality TV than it is to reality.
On a June day, you could, for instance, open The New York Times and read that "airstrikes by the American-led coalition against Islamic State targets have killed hundreds of civilians around Raqqa, the militant group's last Syrian stronghold, and left 160,000 people displaced." Or you could come across statistics two orders of magnitude larger in learning from a variety of sources that famine is stalking 17 million people in Yemen. That is the predictable result of a Saudi Arabian proxy war against Iran, a campaign supported by the US with weaponry and logistical assistance, in which, according to Human Rights Watch, the US may well be complicit in torture. You could contemplate the fact that in Iraq, a country the United States destabilized with its 2003 invasion and occupation, there are still at least three million internally displaced people, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees; or that more than 411,000 Iraqis remain displaced from their homes in Mosul alone since the Iraqi army launched a US-backed offensive to drive ISIS out of that city last October.
Yes, it's possible to click on those links or to catch so many other Internet or TV news reports about how such American or American-backed wars are damaging infrastructure, destroying entire health care systems, uprooting millions, and putting at risk the education of whole generations thousands of miles away. But none of it is real for most of us in this country.
How could it be real? Most of us no longer have any idea what war is like for the people who live through it. No major war has been fought on US territory since the Civil War ended in 1865, and the last people who remembered that terrible time died decades before the turn of this century. There is no one around to give us a taste of that reality -- except of course for the refugees that the Trump administration is now doing its best to keep out.
In addition, Americans who once were mobilized to support their country's wars in distant lands (remember Victory Gardens or war bond drives?) are simply told to carry on with their lives as if it were peacetime. And the possibility of going to war in an army of citizen draftees has long been put to rest by America's "all-volunteer" military.
As the US battlefield expands, the need becomes ever greater for people in this country to understand the reality of war, especially now that we have a president from the world of "reality" TV. During the second half of the twentieth century, Congress repeatedly ceded its constitutional power to declare war to successive executive administrations. At the moment, however, we have in Donald Trump a president who appears to be bored with those purloined powers (and with the very idea of civilian control over the military). In fact, our feckless commander-in-chief seems to be handing over directly to that military all power to decide when and where this country sends its troops or launches its missiles from drones.
Now that our democratic connection to the wars fought in our name has receded yet one more step from our real lives and any civilian role in war (except praising and thanking "the warriors") is fading into the history books, isn't it about time to ask some questions about the very nature of reality and of those wars?
War From the Civilian Point of View
We think of wars, reasonably enough, as primarily affecting the soldiers engaged in them. The young men and women who fight -- some as volunteers and some who choose military service over unemployment and poverty -- do sometimes die in "our" wars. And even if they survive, as we now know, their bodies and psyches often bear the lifelong scars of the experience.
Indeed, I've met some of these former soldiers in the college philosophy classes I teach. There was the erstwhile Army sniper who sat in the very back of the classroom, his left leg constantly bouncing up and down. The explosion of a roadside bomb had broken his back and left him in constant pain, but the greatest source of his suffering, as he told me, was the constant anxiety that forced him on many days to walk out halfway through the class. Then there was the young man who'd served in Baghdad and assured me, "If anyone fought in Afghanistan or Iraq, and they say they came back whole, they're either lying or they just haven't realized yet what happened to them."
And there were the young women who told the class that, in fear, they'd had to move out of their homes because their boyfriends came back from the wars as dangerous young men they no longer recognized. If we in this country know anything real about war, it's from people like these -- from members of the military or those close to them.
But we only get the most partial understanding of war from veterans and their families. In fact, most people affected by modern wars are not soldiers at all. Somewhere between 60 and 80 million people died during World War II, and more than 60% of them were civilians. They died as victims of the usual horrific acts of war, or outright war crimes, or crimes against humanity. A similar number succumbed to war-related disease and famine, including millions in places most Americans don't even think of as major sites of that war's horrors: China, India, French Indochina, and the Dutch East Indies. And, of course, close to six million Poles, most of them Jews, along with at least 16 million Soviet civilians died in the brutal Nazi invasion and attempted occupation of major parts of the Soviet Union.
And that hardly ends the tally of civilians devastated by that war. Another 60 million people became displaced or refugees in its wake, many forever torn from their homes.
So what is war like for the people who live where it happens? We can find out a reasonable amount about that if we want to. It's not hard to dig up personal accounts of such experiences in past wars. But what can we know about the civilians living through our country's current wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or Yemen? There, too, personal accounts are available, but you have to go searching.
Certainly, it's possible, for instance, to learn something about the deaths of 200 people in a school hit by a single US airstrike in the Syrian city of Raqqa. But that can't make us feel the unendurable, inescapable pain of a human body being crushed in the collapse of that one school. It can't make us hear the screams at that moment or later smell the stench of the decomposing dead. You have to be there to know that reality.
Still, daily life in a country at war isn't all screams and stench. A lot of the time it's just ordinary existence, but experienced with a kind of double awareness. On the one hand, you send your children to school, walk to the market to do your shopping, go out to your fields to plow or plant. On the other, you know that at any moment your ordinary life can be interrupted -- ended, in fact -- by forces over which you have no control.
That's what it was like for me during the months I spent, as my partner likes to say, trying to get myself killed in somebody else's country. In 1984, I worked for six months in the war zones of Nicaragua as a volunteer for Witness for Peace (WFP). In 1979, the Sandinista movement had led a national insurrection, overthrowing the US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza. In response, the US had funded counterrevolutionaries, or "contras," who, by the time I arrived, had launched a major military campaign against the Sandinistas. Under CIA direction, they had adopted a military strategy of sabotaging government services, including rural health clinics, schools, and phone lines, and terrorizing the civilian population with murders, kidnappings, torture, and mutilation.
My job was simple: to visit the towns and villages that they had attacked and record the testimony of the survivors. In the process, for instance, I talked to a man whose son had been hacked into so many pieces he had to bury him in the field where he had been left. I met the children of a 70-year-old man a week after the contras flayed him alive, slicing the skin off his face. I talked to the mayor of a town in northern Nicaragua, whose parents were kidnapped and tortured to death by the contras.
The original dream of WFP was somewhat more grandiose than collecting horror stories. American volunteers were to provide a "shield of love" for Nicaraguans threatened by the US-supported contras. The theory was that they might be less inclined to attack a town if they knew that US citizens were in the area, lest they bite the hand that was (however clandestinely) feeding them. In reality, the Sandinistas were unwilling to put guests like me at risk that way, and -- far from being a shield -- in times of danger we were sometimes an extra liability. In fact, the night the contras surrounded Jalapa, where I was staying for a few weeks, the town's mayor sent a couple of soldiers with guns to guard the house of "the American pacifists." So much for who was shielding whom. (On that particular night, the Nicaraguan army confronted the contras before they made it to Jalapa. We could hear a battle in the distance, but it never threatened the town itself.)
All that day, we'd been digging to help build Jalapa's refugio, an underground shelter to protect children and old people in case of an aerial attack. Other town residents had been planting trees on the denuded hillsides where Somoza had allowed US and Canadian lumber companies to clear-cut old-growth forest. This was dangerous work; tree planters were favorite contra targets. But most people in town were simply going about their ordinary lives -- working in the market, washing clothes, fixing cars -- while the loudspeakers on the edge of town blared news about the latest contra kidnappings.
This is what living in a war zone can be like: you plant trees that might take 20 years to mature, knowing at the same time that you might not survive the night.
Keep in mind that my experience was limited. I wasn't a Nicaraguan. I could leave whenever I chose. And after those six months, I did go home. The Nicaraguans were home. In addition, the scale of that war was modest compared to the present US wars across the Greater Middle East. And Nicaraguans were fortunate to escape some of the worst effects of a conflict fought in an agricultural society. So often, war makes planting and harvesting too dangerous to undertake and when the agricultural cycle is interrupted people begin to starve. In addition, it was short enough that, although the contras intentionally targeted schools and teachers, an entire generation did not lose their educations, as is happening now in parts of the Greater Middle East.
Many rural Nicaraguans lacked electricity and running water, so there was no great harm done when "se fue la luz" -- the electricity was cut off, as often happened when the contras attacked a power generator. Worse was when "se fue el agua" -- the water in people's homes or at communal pumps stopped running, often as a result of a contra attack on a pumping station or their destruction of water pipes. Still, for the most part, these were unpleasant inconveniences in a rural society where electricity and running water were not yet all that common, and where people knew how to make do without.
Imagine instead that you live (or lived) in a major Middle Eastern city -- say, Ramadi, Fallujah, Mosul, or Aleppo (all now partially or nearly totally reduced to rubble), or even a city like Baghdad that, despite constant suicide bombings, is still functioning. Your life, of course, is organized around the modern infrastructure that brings light, power, and water into your home. In the United States, unless you live in Flint, Michigan, it's hard to grasp what it might be like not to have potable water dependably spilling out of the faucet.
Suppose you got up one morning and your phone hadn't charged overnight, the light switches had all stopped working, you couldn't toast your Pop-Tarts, and there was no hope of a cup of coffee, because there was no water. No water all that day, or the next day, or the one after. What would you do after the bottled water was gone from the stores? What would you do as you watched your kids grow weak from thirst? Where would you go, when you knew you would die if you remained in the familiar place that had so long been your home? What, in fact, would you do if opposing armed forces (as in most of the cities mentioned above) fought it out in your very neighborhood?
Reality or Reality TV?
I've been teaching college students for over a decade. I now face students who have lived their entire conscious lives in a country we are told is "at war." They've never known anything else, since the moment in 2001 when George W. Bush declared a Global War on Terror. But their experience of this war, like my own, is less reality, and more reality TV. Their iPhones work; the water and light in their homes are fine; their screens are on day and night. No one bombs their neighborhoods. They have no citizenly duty to go into the military. Their lives are no different due to the "war" (or rather wars) their country is fighting in their name in distant lands.
Theirs, then, is the strangest of "wars," one without sacrifice. It lacks the ration books, the blackouts, the shortages my parents' generation experienced during World War II. It lacks the fear that an enemy army will land on our coasts or descend from our skies. None of us fears that war will take away our food, electricity, water, or most precious of all, our Wi-Fi. For us, if we think about them at all, that set of distant conflicts is only an endless make-believe war, one that might as well be taking place on another planet in another universe.
Of course, in a sense, it's inaccurate to say we've sacrificed nothing. The poorest among us have, in fact, sacrificed the most, living in a country willing to put almost any sum into the Pentagon and its wars, but "unable" to afford to provide the basic entitlements enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: life, food, clothing, housing, education, not to speak, these days, of infrastructure. What could a US government do for the health, education, and general wellbeing of its people, if it weren't devoting more than half the country's discretionary spending to the military?
There's something else we haven't had to sacrifice, though: peace of mind. We don't have to carry in our consciousness the effects of those wars on our soldiers, on our military adversaries, or on the millions of civilians whose bodies or lives have been mangled in them. Those effects have been largely airbrushed out of our mental portrait of a Pax Americana world. Our understanding of our country's endless wars has been sanitized, manipulated, and packaged for our consumption the way producers manipulate and package the relationships of participants on reality TV shows like "The Bachelor."
If Vietnam was the first televised war, then the 1991 Gulf War against Saddam Hussein's Iraq was the first video-game-style war. Who could forget the haunting green images of explosions over Baghdad on that first night (even if they've forgotten the 50 "decapitation" strikes against the Iraqi leadership that killed not one of them but dozens of civilians)? Who could forget the live broadcasts streamed from video cameras attached to "smart" bombs -- or the time two of them demolished what turned out to be a civilian air raid shelter, killing more than 200 people hiding inside? Who could forget those live reports from CNN that gave us the illusion that we were almost there ourselves and understood just what was seemingly unfolding before our eyes?
In fact, a University of Massachusetts study later found that "the more people watched TV during the Gulf crisis, the less they knew about the underlying issues, and the more likely they were to support the war." And even if we did understand the "underlying issues," did we understand what it's like to find yourself trapped under the rubble of your own house?
During almost 16 years of war since the attacks of 9/11, the mystification on the "home front" has only grown, as attention has wandered and some of our ongoing wars (as in Afghanistan) have been largely forgotten. Our enemies change regularly. Who even remembers al-Qaeda in Iraq or that it became the Islamic State? Who remembers when we were fighting the al-Qaeda-inspired al-Nusra Front (or even that we were ever fighting them) instead of welcoming its militants into an alliance against Bashir al-Assad in Syria? The enemies may rotate, but the wars only continue and spread.
Even as the number of our wars expands, however, they seem to grow less real to us here in the United States. So it becomes ever more important that we, in whose name those wars are being pursued, make the effort to grasp their grim reality. It's important to remind ourselves that war is the worst possible way of settling human disagreements, focused as it is upon injuring human flesh (and ravaging the basics of human life) until one side can no longer withstand the pain. Worse yet, as those almost 16 years since 9/11 show, our wars have caused endless pain and settled no disagreements at all.
In this country, we don't have to know that in American wars real people's bodies are torn apart, real people die, and real cities are turned to rubble. We can watch interviews with survivors of the latest airstrikes on the nightly news and then catch the latest episode of ersatz suffering on "Survivor." After a while, it becomes hard for many of us to tell (or even to care) which is real, and which is only reality TV.
Sen. Bob Corker wrote a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday informing the top diplomat that future weapons sales to Persian Gulf coast countries would face more restrictions. The missive arrived at the secretary's desk as the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf is dealing with a diplomatic crisis.
Sen. Bob Corker talks with reporters before attending the weekly Republican Senate caucus policy luncheon at the US Capitol, November 5, 2013 in Washington, DC. Senator Corker has informed the secretary of state that future weapons sales to Persian Gulf coast countries will face more restrictions. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) wrote a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday informing the top diplomat that future weapons sales to Persian Gulf coast countries would face more restrictions.
The missive arrived at the Secretary's desk as the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) is dealing with a diplomatic crisis. Several of the council's members, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, are posturing for conflict with fellow council member Qatar, over alleged support of terrorist groups.
"Before we provide any further clearances during the informal review period on sales of lethal military equipment to the GCC states, we need a better understanding of the path to resolve the current dispute and reunify the GCC," Corker said in his letter. He also said that the GCC "chose to devolve into conflict."
Last week, Saudi Arabia gave Qatar 10 days to comply with a list of demands. It included Qatar shutting down news broadcaster Al-Jazeera, severing ties with the Muslim Brotherhood political party, and distancing itself from Iran.
The Trump administration has presented contradictory responses to the burgeoning diplomatic dust-up. President Trump attempted to take credit for Gulf coast nations taking a more aggressive posture toward Qatar. Secretary Tillerson, meanwhile, called for a ratcheting down of hostilities, and has urged Saudi Arabia to show restraint.
As the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Corker could put a check on the administration's arms sales. The State Department must notify Capitol Hill of most foreign weapons deals of more than $1 million at least 30 days before export. During that review period, lawmakers could pass a resolution blocking the sale.
Although Corker tipped his hand on future arms sales, he has recently denied an opportunity to block prior military exports.
Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tried last week to derail a $500 million weapons deal with Saudi Arabia over the Gulf monarchy's brutal bombing campaign in Yemen, where thousands of civilians have been killed. Riyadh stands accused of committing war crimes by indiscriminately targeting women and children in their aerial assaults.
The resolution failed, however, in 47-53 vote that saw five Democrats siding with mostly Republicans to defeat the measure, allowing the arms sales to go through. Sen. Corker was among those who voted down the resolution -- unmoved by allegations of Saudi war crimes.
"There is no classified intelligence that shows they have ever intentionally bombed civilians -- as a matter of fact, intelligence down there shows that they didn't," Corker said before the vote. He said that preventing the deal from going through would be akin to "cutting your nose off to spite your face."
Sana'a, Yemen, pictured in April, 2007. Saudi Arabia's war and blockade in Yemen would not be possible without US approval. (Photo: Richard Messenger / Flickr)
The development economist Amartya Sen famously asserted that famines do not occur in democracies. ''No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy,'' he wrote, because democratic governments ''have to win elections and face public criticism, and have strong incentive to undertake measures to avert famines and other catastrophes.''
Saudi Arabia's war and blockade in Yemen, which have pushed Yemen to the brink of famine and ignited the worst cholera outbreak in the world, pose a new test for Sen's assertion. Of course Saudi Arabia is not a democracy, but rather an absolute monarchy, and Yemen lacks a functioning democratic government capable of protecting its population from Saudi Arabia's war and blockade. But the United States is a democracy, and it is beyond reasonable dispute that Saudi Arabia's war and blockade in Yemen would not be possible without US approval.
On June 13, the US Senate took a "proxy vote" on US participation in the Saudi war and blockade in Yemen, when it narrowly failed (47-53) to support the Paul-Murphy-Franken of disapproval against part of Trump's Saudi arms deal. Two days later, the UN Security Council unanimously approved a statement calling for immediate cease-fire to save Yemen from cholera and famine. Yet the Saudi war continues, with US approval. Two days after the Security Council vote, at least 25 civilians were killed by a Saudi airstrike on a Yemeni market.
The US House of Representatives -- historically more responsive to war-skeptic forces than the more reflexively pro-empire Senate -- has not voted on any aspect of US participation in Saudi Arabia's war and blockade since June 2016, when it narrowly failed (204-216) to approve the Rep. John Conyers amendment barring the transfer of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia. Since that time, the Senate has voted twice. A House vote on US support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen is long overdue.
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is expected to be considered by the House on July 11. Depending on the actions in the House Rules Committee, amendments may be allowed to the NDAA or the Department of Defense Appropriation which would be a proxy votes on US participation in the Saudi war and blockade. Last year, the Representative Conyers' cluster bomb amendment was originally offered on NDAA but not allowed by Rules, then offered on Department of Defense Appropriations and allowed.
If the House Rules Committee does not allow such amendments -- or even if they do -- House members can force a vote on US participation on Saudi Arabia's war by invoking congressional war powers, since US participation has never been authorized by Congress. The last time such a vote happened in the House was during the unauthorized 2011 bombing of Libya. If July 28 is the last day before the House leaves for the August recess, then such a resolution should be introduced by July 17 at the latest in order to allow a vote to be forced before the House leaves town.
There is no guarantee that a House vote will end the war. If we win a House vote, it's possible, though not likely, that Trump would just ignore it. It's not likely that Trump would just ignore a House vote, particularly a vote invoking war powers, since even the existing level of pressure was sufficient to induce the Trump administration to vote for the UN cease-fire statement, although cease-fire is the opposite of the US policy actually being implemented. Ignoring such a House vote would have a real political cost. It's possible that the Trump administration is so attached to the Saudi war in Yemen that they are willing to sustain that cost. That's unknowable for us until we try. Our job is to keep increasing the political cost of the status quo until there is a cease-fire.
And, of course, it is quite possible that we will lose such a vote. On June 13 we narrowly lost a Senate vote. Last June we narrowly lost the House cluster bomb vote. There's no question that winning would be much, much better than losing. But in this case, losing would be much, much better than not fighting. Each fight increases pressure compared to no action, which is the relevant alternative. We know what the status quo path is: endless war, cholera and famine in Yemen. We have nothing to lose by forcing a floor vote, and a Yemen cease-fire to win.
You can urge your representative to demand a House vote on US participation in the Saudi war and blockade of Yemen here.
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Rome—Soils are polluted due mostly to human activities that leave excess chemicals in soils used to grow food, the United Nations reports.
Excess nitrogen and trace metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury can impair plant metabolism and cut crop productivity, ultimately putting pressure on arable land, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on 23 June informed. "When they enter the food chain, such pollutants also pose risks to food security, water resources, rural livelihoods and human health."
The issue took centre stage at the Fifth Plenary Assembly (PA) of the Global Soil Partnership (GSP) held at FAO headquarters in Rome this month.
"Soil pollution is an emerging problem, but, because it comes in so many forms, the only way we can reduce knowledge gaps and promote sustainable soil management is to intensify global collaboration and build reliable scientific evidence," said Ronald Vargas, a FAO soils officer and Secretary of the GSP.
"Combating soil pollution and pursuing sustainable soil management is essential for addressing climate change," said for his part Rattan Lal, President of the International Union of Soil Sciences, in his keynote address to the Plenary Assembly.
Tackling human-caused problems through sustainable practices will mean "more change will happen between now and 2050 than during the 12 millennia since the onset of agriculture," he added.
The GSP Plenary Assembly is a unique, neutral and multi-stakeholder platform to discuss global soil issues, to learn from good practices, and to deliberate on actions to secure healthy soils for an effective provision of ecosystem services and food for all," said Maria Helena Semedo, FAO Deputy Director-General, Climate and Natural Resources. "Action at the country level is the new frontier."
The Plenary Assembly endorsed three new initiatives aimed at facilitating information exchange: the Global Soil Information System; the Global Network of Soil Laboratories, set up to coordinate and standardize measurement across countries; and the International Network of Black Soils, launched to increase knowledge about the world’s most fertile agricultural soils, which are also known for their high carbon content.
Soil Pollution Under Scrutiny
Around one-third of the world’s soils are degraded, due mostly to unsustainable soil management practices. Tens of billions of tonnes of soil are lost to farming each year and one cause is soil pollution, which in some countries affects as much as one-fifth of all croplands, the UN specialised agency reports.
The term soil pollution refers to the presence in soils of chemicals that are either out of place or at higher-than-normal concentrations. Such contamination may be produced by mining and industrial activity or by sewer and waste mismanagement.
In some cases, FAO adds, pollutants are spread over large areas by wind and rain. Agricultural inputs such as fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides -- and even antibiotics contained in animal manure -- are also major potential pollutants and pose special challenges due to the fast-changing chemical formulas employed.
"Soil pollution is an insidious risk because it is harder to observe than some other soil degradation processes, such as erosion. The hazards posed depend on how soil properties affect the behaviour of chemicals and the speed with which they enter ecosystems."
The diversity of contaminants and soil types, and the ways they interact, make soil surveys to identify dangers difficult and expensive, according to FAO.
Although commonly referred to in national soil classifications, "black soils" are far from uniform. The new International Network of Black Soils defines them as containing at least 25 centimetres of humus and with soil organic carbon content above 2 per cent; by this definition they cover about 916 million hectares, or 7 per cent of the world’s ice-free land surface.
Around one-quarter of black soils are the classic "Chernozem" type, with a humus layer of more than 1 metre; these are found in the breadbasket steppe regions of Eastern Europe and Central Asia and in the former prairies of North America, the UN agency adds.
The International Network of Black Soils aims to promote the conservation and long-term productivity of black soils by producing analytic reports and serving as a platform for knowledge sharing and technical cooperation.
Although two federal courts of appeals halted Trump's Muslim Ban, the Supreme Court allowed part of the ban to go into effect pending the Court's decision on its legality next term. Not surprisingly, Neil Gorsuch, who previously defended torture and warrantless surveillance under Bush, was among the justices who dissented in favor of upholding Trump's ban without limitation.
Judge Neil Gorsuch testifies during second day of his Supreme Court confirmation hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill, March 21, 2017, in Washington, DC. The justice who favored torture and warrantless surveillance is also in favor of Trump's Muslim Ban. (Photo: Drew Angerer / Getty Images)
The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the first major test of the scope of executive power to protect national security since Neil Gorsuch joined the Court as associate justice.
Monday morning, the high court announced it will determine the legality of Donald Trump's executive order establishing a Muslim travel ban when it reconvenes the first Monday in October.
In the meantime, the high court allowed parts of the ban to go into effect. Trump can now exclude foreign nationals who lack any bona fide relationship with a person or entity, such as a school, in the United States.
The high court's majority ruling was signed "per curiam" (by the court), meaning that no justice took responsibility for writing it. Three justices -- Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch -- dissented from the majority ruling, saying they would have upheld the exclusion of everyone covered by Trump's ban without limitation. Gorsuch's dissent, while perhaps not unexpected coming from a person who obediently defended torture, warrantless surveillance and runaway executive power under the Bush administration, portends a far-right tilt for the court's newest justice.
Trump's initial travel ban, issued by executive order on January 27, was subsequently struck down by lower courts. On March 6, Trump issued a second, slightly narrower executive order (EO). It said that nationals of six predominantly-Muslim countries "present heightened risks to the security of the United States" and some of those who have entered the US through the immigration system "have proved to be threats to our national security."
The EO directed that the entry of nationals from the six countries be "suspended for 90 days from the effective date" of the order, to give the administration time to establish "adequate standards … to prevent infiltration by foreign terrorists."
Two Appellate Courts Had Halted the Travel Ban
Two federal appellate courts stayed the implementation of the ban on travelers from the six Muslim-majority countries -- Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen -- but on different grounds.
In May, the Fourth Circuit ruled in a 10 to 3 decision that the ban on nationals from these countries violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause because it was motivated primarily by a desire to exclude Muslims from the United States, not by considerations of national security. The appellate court wrote that the EO "drips with religious intolerance, animus and discrimination," citing Trump's campaign statements calling for a "Muslim ban."
Trump "expressed anti-Muslim sentiment" during the presidential campaign, Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory wrote for the majority. It is entirely plausible, Gregory added, that the EO's "stated national security interest was provided in bad faith, as a pretext for its religious purpose."
The Ninth Circuit, on the other hand, didn't reach the constitutional issue. A unanimous three-judge panel concluded earlier this month that the ban on nationals from the six countries, the suspension of all refugee admissions for 120 days, and the cap of 50,000 on refugees for 2017 exceeded the president's authority under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).
As the panel stated, "the [EO] does not provide a rationale explaining why permitting entry of nationals from the six designated countries under current protocols would be detrimental to the interests of the United States," which is what the INA requires before the president can "suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens" to the US.
Moreover, the panel wrote, the EO "does not tie these nationals in any way to terrorist organizations within the six designated countries" or "identify these nationals as contributors to active conflict or as those responsible for insecure country conditions. It does not provide any link between an individual's nationality and their propensity to commit terrorism or their inherent dangerousness."
"National security is not a 'talismanic incantation' that, once invoked, can support any and all exercise of executive power," the panel added.
The EO also runs afoul of an INA provision that prohibits discrimination in the issuance of immigrant visas "because of the person's race, sex, nationality, place of birth or place of residence," according to the panel.
The Supreme Court's Ruling
In its 13-page order on Monday, the Supreme Court stated, "An American individual or entity that has a bona fide relationship with a particular person seeking to enter the country as a refugee can legitimately claim concrete hardship if that person is excluded." As to those individuals, the Court left the appellate courts' injunctions against their exclusion in place.
Individuals with a "bona fide relationship" include those who have a "close familial relationship." Thus, "[a] foreign national who wishes to enter the United States to live with or visit a family member" cannot be excluded under the EO.
For entities, "the relationship must be formal, documented, and formed in the ordinary course, rather than for the purpose of evading the [EO]." Students from the designated countries who have been admitted to a US university have such a relationship. Workers who have accepted employment from a US company or a lecturer invited to address a US audience are also covered.
The Court directed the parties to address the issue of whether the challenges to the EO became moot on June 14, 2017, the end date of the EO's 90-day suspension period.
Thomas's dissent, joined by Alito and Gorsuch, concluded that the Trump administration "made a strong showing that it is likely to succeed on the merits" and that "failure to stay the injunctions will cause irreparable harm by interfering with 'its compelling need to provide for the Nation's security.'"
The dissenters feared "that the Court's remedy will prove unworkable" because government officials will have to decide whether those who seek to enter the US have sufficient connections to a person or entity in the US. "The compromise also will invite a flood of litigation until this case is finally resolved on the merits, as parties and courts struggle to determine what exactly constitutes a 'bona fide relationship,' who precisely has a 'credible claim' to that relationship, and whether the claimed relationship was formed 'simply to avoid'" the EO, Thomas wrote (quoting from the per curiam order).
This is precisely why the Court should've put a hold on the entire travel ban pending its decision on the merits next term.
The Case Will Test the Limits of Executive Power
This case sets the stage for a major ruling on the scope and limits of presidential power in the context of national security.
During the Bush administration, the high court told the executive he could not deny Guantánamo detainees their right to habeas corpus. But the Court held during the Obama administration that people could be charged with providing material support for terrorism even if one purpose of the charity to which they donated supported humanitarian work.
Gorsuch's joinder with Thomas and Alito in allowing Trump to fully implement his Muslim ban portends the new justice's strong deference to the executive.
When he worked in Bush's Justice Department, Gorsuch dutifully argued against Guantánamo detainees who sought to bring habeas corpus petitions to challenge their detention, opposed the Detainee Treatment Act's prohibition of cruel treatment, argued that "enhanced interrogation" (a euphemism for torture) works and defended Bush's warrantless surveillance program. At his confirmation hearing, Gorsuch said he was just following orders.
This case will reveal in more depth Gorsuch's willingness to unconditionally defer to the executive.
In three months, the justices will grapple with whether Trump's EO violates the First Amendment and/or the INA. And since US district court judges in New York and Massachusetts concluded it was likely that Trump's first EO violated due process and equal protection, the Court may also decide whether the second EO contravenes the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses.
It is also possible the Court will conclude the issue is moot, because the suspension on entry of travelers from the six Muslim-majority countries expired on June 14, 2017, by its own terms. On June 14, however, Trump amended his March 6 order to say that the ban would take effect after the lower court orders halting its implementation were lifted. That would mean the issue is still alive. We will see whether the Supreme Court decides the issue on its legal merits and defines the scope of executive power in national security matters, or dismisses the case as moot.
Meanwhile, we would do well to note the significance of Gorsuch's affirmation of unbridled executive power.
On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that taxpayer-funded grants for playgrounds could not be denied to a church-run school in Missouri. In an oral dissent issued from the bench, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, "This case is about nothing less than the relationship between religious institutions and the civil government -- that is, between church and state. The Court today profoundly changes that relationship by holding, for the first time, that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church." For more, we speak with Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor at Slate.com. She is their senior legal correspondent and Supreme Court reporter and the author of the recent piece, "Did the court just seriously wound the separation of church and state?"
Please check back later for full transcript.
Senate GOP Health Care Bill Estimated to Kill 28,600 More in US Each Year and Drop 22 Million From Insurance
Twenty-two million Americans would lose their health insurance under the Senate Republicans' healthcare bill over the next decade. That's according to the Congressional Budget Office, which released its assessment on Monday. Following the report, Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Rand Paul of Kentucky joined Senator Dean Heller of Nevada in pledging to vote against even debating their party's healthcare bill this week. Republican leaders had been pushing for a vote as early as today, ahead of the July 4 recess. On Monday, the American Medical Association came out against the Senate bill, writing in a letter to Senate leaders, "Medicine has long operated under the precept of Primum non nocere, or 'first, do no harm.' The draft legislation violates that standard on many levels." For more, we speak with Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, a professor at CUNY-Hunter College and a primary care physician. She is a lecturer at Harvard Medical School and the co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Twenty-two million Americans would lose their insurance under the Senate Republicans' healthcare bill just over the next decade. In addition, Medicaid would see a $772 billion cut over the next decade, while wealthy Americans would receive $541 billion in tax cuts. This is according to the Congressional Budget Office, which released its assessment of the Republican healthcare bill in the Senate Monday.
Following the release of the CBO report, Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Rand Paul of Kentucky joined Senator Dean Heller of Nevada in pledging to vote against even debating their party's healthcare bill this week. Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin has suggested he, too, would oppose voting on the bill. Republican leaders had been pushing for a vote this week, ahead of the July 4th recess.
The Republican bill also faces major opposition from all Senate Democrats, a slew of governors from both parties, the majority of the healthcare industry, hospitals, doctors, nurses, patient advocacy groups, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and even members of the far-right Koch brothers' political network, who claim the legislation is not sufficiently conservative.
This is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders speaking Monday on the Senate floor.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Mr. President, today's Congressional Budget Office analysis of the Trump-McConnell healthcare bill gives us 22 million reasons why this legislation should not see the light of day. What CBO tells us, in truth, is that this bill really has nothing to do with healthcare. Rather, it is an enormous transfer of wealth from the sick, the elderly, the children, the disabled and the poor into the pockets of the wealthiest people in this country. Mr. President, according to CBO -- and that report just came out a few hours ago -- this bill would throw 22 million Americans off of health insurance, cut Medicaid by over $770 billion, defund Planned Parenthood and substantially increase premiums for older Americans. ... Mr. President, this, in fact, is a barbaric and immoral piece of legislation.
AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, the American Medical Association came out against the Senate bill. In a letter to Senate leaders, the AMA wrote, quote, "Medicine has long operated under the precept of Primum non nocere, or 'first, do no harm.' The draft legislation violates that standard on many levels," unquote.
Meanwhile, a stunning new study in the Annals of Internal Medicine is estimating some 28,600 people could die early deaths if they lose health insurance.
We're joined now by the author of the study, Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, professor at CUNY-Hunter College, primary care physician, lecturer at Harvard Medical School and co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
DR. STEFFIE WOOLHANDLER: My pleasure.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us what you found.
DR. STEFFIE WOOLHANDLER: We reviewed the world's scientific literature on the relationship between health insurance and mortality. And there is really now a scientific consensus that being uninsured raises the death rates. It raises your death rates by between 3 and 29 percent. And the math on that is that if you take health insurance away from 22 million people, about 29,000 of them will die every year, annually, as a result. That's what we found by reviewing the literature. There was a similar review in New England Journal of Medicine. We punished our own study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, which is the official organ of the American College of Physicians, the nation's largest medical specialty society. So, being uninsured raises your death rate. That is established scientific consensus. And many of the Republicans have been trying to say, "Oh, you can take away health insurance from 22 million people, and nothing will happen." That's simply contradicted by the scientific consensus.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain how people die as a result.
DR. STEFFIE WOOLHANDLER: Well, people might have an acute illness, like major trauma. You get hit by a car, and you have to go to the hospital. If you're uninsured and you have major trauma, your death rates are higher. You might have an illness like breast cancer. If you're uninsured and you have breast cancer, your death rates are higher. But mostly this has to do with that routine medical care to treat high blood pressure, to treat diabetes, before they cause complications, and to prevent those serious complications and deaths. Seems like hypertension, high blood pressure, is probably the largest single contributor to deaths among uninsured people. You need to be taking medicines to control high blood pressure to prevent strokes and heart attacks and death.
AMY GOODMAN: So this number, 22 million people will lose their health insurance over the next 10 years, and then it only goes up from there.
DR. STEFFIE WOOLHANDLER: Well, according to the Congressional Budget Office, yes, it goes up from there, because the Medicaid cuts in the Senate bill are delayed, but then they're very, very deep. They're even deeper over the long run than what was in the House bill. So, Medicaid is going to be cut not just for poor people, but for people in nursing homes. You know, most people in a nursing home eventually have to rely on Medicaid to pay the bill, because nursing home care takes all your money, and you have to rely on Medicaid. If you have a disabled child, you have to rely on Medicaid. If you have a relative who has serious mental illness or substance abuse, they're going to be relying on Medicaid. So it takes money from all of these people, not just the folks who are poor now, to give this giant tax cut to the top 1 percent of taxpayers.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to a comment made by the Idaho Republican Congressman Raúl Labrador during a town hall meeting last month. He came under fire for his answer to this question from an audience member.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: You are mandating people on Medicaid accept dying. You are making a mandate that will kill people.
REP. RAÚL LABRADOR: No, no one wants anybody to die. You know, that line is so indefensible. Nobody dies because they don't have access to healthcare.
AMY GOODMAN: "Nobody dies because they don't have access to healthcare." Dr. Steffie Woolhandler?
DR. STEFFIE WOOLHANDLER: Well, Raúl Labrador said it. Senator Ted Cruz has said that. Marco Rubio has said that. Secretary Tom Price, the secretary of health and human services, has implied that, that you can be uninsured and nothing happens. That's simply not true. The science is showing us that if you lack health insurance, you don't get the care you need to stay healthy, and that people die earlier as a result. And I think it's a -- the Republicans recognize this is a very dangerous idea for them, that people are going to die because of their behavior. But that's what the scientific consensus is saying.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what has to happen now?
DR. STEFFIE WOOLHANDLER: Well, right now, the betting markets are saying it's 50/50 that this Senate bill will pass. So when something's 50/50, that means now is the time to mobilize. You know, you can call your senator. You can call your congressman. You can demonstrate. There's demonstrations all over the country about this bill. You can tweet about it. You can tell your friends about it. But now is the time to really get active on this issue.
We also need to be saying, "Let's move forward to single payer, that covers everyone, not backward through this repeal." You know, even under the Affordable Care Act, 28 million Americans have no health insurance. Many Americans are underinsured. They have insurance they can't afford to use because of gaps in their coverage, like copayments, deductibles and uncovered services. So we need to be fighting this Republican step backward, but also saying to our Democratic legislators, "We need to be moving forward to single payer," that will actually improve care for all Americans.
AMY GOODMAN: You were never an advocate of Obamacare. And now, what will happen? I mean, even if they don't vote on it, the gutting of the health insurance -- of health insurance today is, you know, moving full speed ahead. So what does it look like even if this bill doesn't move forward?
DR. STEFFIE WOOLHANDLER: Well, there's more support for the Medicare-for-all, single-payer idea than ever in history. Polls are showing 56 percent of the American people support the idea. The majority of House Democrats have endorsed the Conyers bill, HR 676, a Medicare-for-all bill. More than half of House Democrats have endorsed that bill, about 112. Senator Sanders is putting a bill into the Senate in July. So this is a great time for people to be saying, "We need to move forward from the ACA to single payer."
AMY GOODMAN: And what would Medicare for all look like?
DR. STEFFIE WOOLHANDLER: OK.
AMY GOODMAN: How would that happen?
DR. STEFFIE WOOLHANDLER: OK, well, it would be expanded and improved Medicare for all. You would get a Medicare card the day you were born, and have it your entire life. All medically necessary care would be covered by a tax-funded Medicare-for-all program, that's -- it would be a lot cheaper over the long run, because you save so much money on administrative costs. All that billing and insurance enrollment is extremely expensive in the United States, consuming 31 percent of total US health spending, according to our research that's appeared in New England Journal of Medicine. By going to a simple single-payer system, you could save about half of it, about $500 billion a year, which you could use to get to universal healthcare and to remove copayments and deductibles from people who now have them.
So, a single -- that's what's happened in other countries. Canada has a single-payer system -- doesn't work perfectly, but it does cover everyone. Scotland has a single-payer system. Much of Western Europe has single-payer systems. They cover everyone. They live two years longer. They pay less for healthcare than we do.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, now, this is important, because you talked about mortality, if this bill were to pass and become law, that close to 29,000 people a year could die, more Americans could die. What is our mortality rate with our insurance system compared to others?
DR. STEFFIE WOOLHANDLER: Well, Americans live two to three years shorter than people in Canada, just across the border, with very similar culture, very similar lifestyle, yet we live two years shorter. Similarly, we live about two years shorter than people in many Western European countries. And some of the studies we reviewed in our article actually look at the international evidence, which, again, is totally consistent with the idea that being uninsured is bad for your health, it can cause deaths, and that being fully covered for all medically necessary care, as would happen under Medicare for all, makes people healthier, and it prolongs their life.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to President Trump being interviewed recently by Peter Hegseth of "Fox & Friends."
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Because I want to see -- I want to see -- and I speak from the heart -- that's what I want to see. I want to see a bill with heart.
AMY GOODMAN: Your response?
DR. STEFFIE WOOLHANDLER: Well, Trumpcare has no heart whatsoever. The House bill was going to throw 23 million people off insurance. The Senate bill is going to throw 22 million off in 10 years but then keep throwing more off. You know, they're going to make health insurance worse for people with private coverage by getting rid of the rules about what has to be covered, so your private insurance will no longer have to cover maternity care. They're actually robbing money from the Medicare trust fund. They're taking $117 billion out of the Medicare trust fund, which pays for the health insurance when people turn 65. $117 billion is taken out of that trust fund to give tax cuts to the top 1 percent of taxpayers. That is not heart. That's the opposite of heart.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I thank you very much for being with us, Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, professor at CUNY-Hunter College here in New York, primary care physician, lecturer at Harvard Medical School, co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program. And we'll link to her report on the mortality that would be related to the Republican healthcare bill becoming law. Roughly 28,600 more Americans could die per year.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a Supreme Court decision. Stay with us.
Healthcare activists hold headstones as they stage a die-in while protesting the Trumpcare bill on June 21, 2017 in San Francisco, California. (Photo: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)
This is a piece I would write about health care, and how we can all fight Trumpcare, if I were well enough to do so. Those of you who know my work know that when my body fails me, I often turn to words, but today, as I try to organize against this bill, I find even words are a struggle, because I have so little strength.To those who don't know me or my situation, I think you'll find my story familiar: Even with insurance, I have fought like hell for what care I've received, and it hasn't been enough. My friends have crowd sourced care that should have been covered, and I face major delays in procedures that could help restore at least some of my mobility.
Amid my organizing efforts, and my desire to spout words of a defiance, I am frightened and deeply concerned, not only by the bill's contents, but also by the inadequate opposition Trumpcare has been met with. It seems this bill, and all its horrors, have faded into a background of horrors in the American psyche. That is a state of affairs that could likewise spell death for some of the most vulnerable among us, and I find that absolutely chilling.
If I could manage it, this would be another battlecry piece, filled with words I might yell through a bullhorn, if I could get my body into the streets, every day, as I feel this cause demands. But instead, I am writing this from bed, where I've spent the whole day, to tell you that I need your help. We the disabled, and other people who will be ground under by this bill -- including Medicaid recipients, who will see their benefits gutted over time -- need you. We only have three days. That's not a long time to commit your attention, so please do so. We have so many battles ahead, but this historically unprecedented attack on the US social safety net will do irrevocable damage to the lives of millions, and potentially shift the entire course of history against marginalized people in the US, in a way we have not yet seen in our lifetimes.
This piece is already longer than I thought it would be, as I expected to simply offer you a blank space, in brackets, that I would ask you to fill in your own spaces, on your own pages, in your own words, in talks with your senators, in the streets and in private conversations, with words taken from others, if necessary. But I feel so strongly, and so deeply worried, that I couldn't help but pen a plea as well.
As many of us have warned since the onset of Trumpism, they are coming for your neighbors. This is just one manifestation of a march to a much more terrifying place. As many of you know, Trump's Muslim ban was partially reinstated on Monday. After a long string of failures, Trump's agenda has found a second wind, and so must our movements. But for now, I am asking: Please act in solidarity, in whatever way you can, for the next few days. Your love and rage over the next three days could mean the world, and your anger after the fact won't save anyone.
Your disabled friends, and so many others, need your hearts and hands this week. Our lives and ability to live them depend on a broad network of solidarity, because we cannot do this without you. So please hold onto your values in this moment, and defend them, and us, with everything you have.
To those who are already doing all they can, I thank you, and I hope to hug you on the other side of this, and celebrate a much-needed victory against ableism and authoritarianism.
Author's note: If you live in Chicago, please join us tomorrow in Daley Plaza for a vigil for victims of health care neglect, past, present and future. I wasn't up for organizing this, but I am doing it anyway, because I feel the moment demands it, and I will deeply appreciate anyone else who extends themselves by attending, in spite of any obstacles they might face.
While Republicans in Washington try to take health care away from people, and a Democrat obstructs statewide single-payer in California, legislators in Massachusetts last week introduced single-payer legislation in both chambers of the state House. What makes this effort unique is the simultaneous introduction in both chambers of legislation to ensure health care cost control.
State Senator Jamie Eldridge of Massachusetts speaks at a rally at the State House just before he introduces single-payer legislation. (Photo: Rebecca Klein / MassCare)
This piece is part of Fighting for Our Lives: The Movement for Medicare for All, a Truthout original series.
It has been a disappointing week for advocates of health care justice.
As the GOP was working to take health care away from millions of Americans, news came that California's single-payer health care bill was shelved by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, provoking outrage among organizers and a strong condemnation from Sen. Bernie Sanders.
In Massachusetts, however, legislators and organizers are providing reason for hope that single-payer health care may in fact be possible at the state level. Last week, at a hearing before the state's committee on health care financing, single-payer legislation was introduced that would bring this important reform to the Bay State. State Sen. Jamie Eldridge and Rep. Denise Garlick issued bills in both chambers of the Massachusetts State House (S.619 and H.2987) that would create a single-payer system in Massachusetts. Of the dozens who testified, including experts, activists, nurses and organizers, all but one person -- a representative for the insurance industry -- supported the reform.
"There is real energy behind this issue both in Massachusetts and nationally," said Sen. Eldridge at a rally prior to the hearing, to loud applause. "The only way we can solve the issues of cost and of access is single-payer health care. We think Massachusetts should be a leader on this issue."
Proving Single-Payer Saves Lives -- and Money
Massachusetts, of course, is not the first state to introduce this kind of legislation. What separates this effort from others, however, is that in addition to Eldridge's bill, another piece of legislation was introduced into both chambers at the hearing. Sen. Julian Cyr and Rep. Jennifer Benson introduced "An Act to Ensure Effective Health Care Cost Control" (S.610 and H.596) at the hearing as well. This is a unique approach that would require the state's nonpartisan Health Policy Commission, "an independent state agency," which "monitors the performance of the health care system," to measure the impact that single-payer would have on costs and delivery of care in Massachusetts.
This is not just another study, organizers say -- it would have real teeth. Under the proposal, if the commission finds savings from single-payer, which studies indicate would be significant, the legislature would "be mandated to act," as Ture Turnbull, director of the single-payer advocacy group MassCare, said in an interview with Truthout.
"Rather than just commission a study -- which inevitably gets attacked for being partisan or biased -- we have a quasi-public agency with no partisan affiliation measuring the impact," Turnbull said. "People always want to see the numbers, so here, let's show them the real numbers."
This novel approach could serve to undermine one of the biggest hurdles to single-payer legislation at any level: the accusation that it would cost taxpayers a large amount of money. This has proved to be difficult since it is true that a switch to Medicare for All would require significant new taxes. This fact has enabled the likes of the Koch Brothers, the health industry and even Hillary Clinton (as she campaigned against Sanders) to scare voters with misleading claims. However, as Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) documents, "No increase in total health spending is needed to finance single payer. The increase in taxes required to finance national health insurance would be fully offset by a reduction in out of pocket costs and premiums."
Until advocates can successfully educate the public about the real impact of single-payer, the reform will remain elusive. The Cyr/Benson legislation aims to do this in a credible way.
Why Massachusetts Should Lead on Single-Payer
Massachusetts could be the ideal state to take the lead on single-payer, especially now that California's efforts have stalled. The state has a history of innovation at the state level, effectively implementing a version of Obamacare (Romneycare) four years ahead of the country. Years before the Affordable Care Act improved access for much of the country, Massachusetts insured 97 percent of its people, the best rate in the nation. Massachusetts is also a relatively large state, with a population of 6.6 million; it is the third most densely populated state in the country. If it were to implement single-payer, it would be able to do so on a scale that would demonstrate how this type of system can maximize savings.
Further, as the outpouring of support at the hearing showed, the state is a hub of single-payer activity, and home to many prominent experts and activists working on the issue. Harvard's William Hsaio, who has designed or helped design universal systems in a dozen countries (and created three plans for Vermont), was among those who testified on the benefits of such a system. So did University of Massachusetts economist Gerald Friedman, who has studied the impacts of single-payer in numerous states, including Massachusetts. "We could lower health care spending by nearly 15 percent while improving access for all residents of the Commonwealth," he testified. "What are we waiting for?"
University of Massachusetts Economist Gerald Friedman illustrates how single-payer in Massachusetts would impact residents by income. This was submitted to the Massachusetts Joint Committee of Health Financing. (Photo: Gerald Friedman / Testimony to Mass Joint Committee on Health Financing)
The national advocacy group Healthcare-Now! is based in Boston and its executive director Benjamin Day testified as well. So, too, did Donna Kelly Williams, the president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA), one of three founding members of National Nurses United. Some of the most important research on single-payer has been done by those with local ties: Steffie Woolhandler and David Himmelstein, among the founders of PNHP, spent decades working out of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and some of the organization's crucial work has been published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Importantly, Massachusetts is a progressive state, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans 124-35 in the State House. While the current governor is a Republican, Democrats running for office have been increasingly supportive of single-payer. In 2014, Donald Berwick ran for governor using single-payer as his key issue and had an impressive second-place showing in the primary. Candidates for the next gubernatorial election are already emphasizing single-payer health care as a key issue. Bob Massie, a candidate for Governor in 2018, was also among those who testified in favor of the bills at the hearing.
Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Bob Massie testifies in favor of single-payer at a hearing at the Massachusetts State House. (Photo: Rebecca Klein / MassCare)
Lastly, Massachusetts has led the way on important issues in the past, beyond health care. For instance, the state was first to legalize gay marriage in 2004, before other states (and eventually the nation) caught up. Barack Obama didn't come out in favor of same-sex marriage until 2012. "Our state has taken the lead on key issues before," said one activist who testified to the committee. "It is time to do it again."
The Lonely Voice of Opposition and the Shumlin Effect
As noted, the hearing consisted of scores of people testifying, discussing virtually matters related to health care. Maia Olsen, an advocate from Boston, spoke about her life dealing with a chronic illness. Jordan Berg Powers, an advocate from Worcester, discussed racial disparities in the health system. "I know statistically I am likely to die younger than my white friends," he said.
John Berg Powers, an advocate from Worcester, testifies about racial disparities in the US health system to Massachusetts legislators at a hearing for single-payer health care. (Photo: Rebecca Klein / MassCare)
Every single person who spoke was in favor of the legislation, with one exception. The lone opponent of the legislation was Eric Linzer, an executive for Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, a lobbying group for the state's for-profit insurance companies. Armed with predictable falsehoods about the issue, his presence angered some in attendance so much that the chairman of the hearing heard an audible hissing and used his gavel to call for order in the chamber.
Linzer relied on tired old tropes about single-payer that have been perpetuated for years by opponents. Linzer took aim at waiting times in Canada, arguing falsely that they were a byproduct of its single-payer system.
Most troubling, however, was his emphasis on failed efforts for single-payer in Vermont. As Truthout has previously documented, when Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin surrendered on health care he deflected blame, wrongly, on the costs of such a plan. By parroting false talking points, he provided fodder for the insurance lobby to use for many years. Indeed, while the legislators in attendance did not ask many questions, among the only questions asked was, "Why didn't it work in Vermont?" (For an answer to this question see Woolhandler and Himmelstein).
"The way Shumlin handled it, he really set the whole movement back nationally," Friedman told Truthout.
Conservative opponents of Colorado Care used former Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin as one of the main reasons to oppose statewide single-payer in Colorado. This has become common among opponents of reform. (Credit: Coloradans for Coloradans screen shot / 6/26/17)
His words have since been used to argue against the policy in Colorado and California. It has been cited by establishment Democrats and their friends in the media to smear Bernie Sanders's plan for Medicare for All. And now Linzer is already using it as a chief talking point to try and take down the efforts in Massachusetts. It is a stunning turnaround for Shumlin who in 2009 won the support of the single-payer community when he ran commercials promising to create a "single-payer system to contain costs" as the first plank of his agenda.
Why Statewide Efforts Keep Coming Short
Shumlin's flip-flop on the economic impacts of single-payer are a key reason why Massachusetts introduced two pieces of legislation, not just one. The legislation that aims to measure the bill's impact on finances can serve to help settle the cost question, organizers hope.
Indeed, when Colorado Care was defeated soundly by a ballot initiative in 2016, Dr. Don McCanne of PNHP observed that when it comes to single-payer, clarity is key. "If you find that you have to keep explaining what your proposal is, you haven't done enough, and your opponents can and will destroy your efforts with a few soundbites," he said.
Of course, despite many reasons for hope that single-payer could become a reality in Massachusetts, the battle will likely be a long, difficult one. Should the legislation prompting the Health Policy Commission to measure single-payer savings become law, it would have the option to measure the savings for as long as three years. Or, Turnbull notes, they could study the policy going back three years, which could expedite the process. Or they could find some middle ground. In any event, even under the most optimistic of scenarios, single-payer becoming law in Massachusetts is a few years away.
But if Massachusetts hopes to buck the trend of states trying and failing to pass a single-payer system, the work must continue today. There is reason for optimism. The national Medicare for All proposal, HR676, has a record 112 cosponsors in the US House of Representatives. The momentum behind Sanders -- now the most popular politician in the country -- has sparked a great deal of interest in the policy. Sanders has said he will introduce a bill into the Senate, though when this will happen is unclear.
The ongoing Trumpcare efforts have reminded many Americans how awful it is to allow health care to be treated like a commodity. Searches for "Medicare for All" and "single-payer" spiked when Trumpcare had peak media attention.
In a perfect world, the moral argument for single-payer would be enough to pass it, in Massachusetts and across the country. As images circulate of wheelchair users being physically removed by police while pleading with senators to spare Medicaid cuts, the moral imperative to save lives and minimize suffering has never been clearer.
But this is far from a perfect world and, since single-payer is far more efficient than private health care, it makes sense to make a strong economic argument as well. The efforts in Massachusetts to emphasize both the economic and moral reasons for health care justice will be needed across the country if single-payer, at any level, is to become a reality.
US Army pilots engage in a training exercise near Camp Buehring, Kuwait, July 8, 2014. (Photo: Sgt. Harley Jelis / US Army)
The tabs on their shoulders read "Special Forces," "Ranger," "Airborne." And soon their guidon -- the "colors" of Company B, 3rd Battalion of the US Army's 7th Special Forces Group -- would be adorned with the "Bandera de Guerra," a Colombian combat decoration.
"Today we commemorate sixteen years of a permanent fight against drugs in a ceremony where all Colombians can recognize the special counternarcotic brigade's hard work against drug trafficking," said Army Colonel Walther Jimenez, the commander of the Colombian military's Special Anti-Drug Brigade, last December. America's most elite troops, the Special Operations forces (SOF), have worked with that Colombian unit since its creation in December 2000. Since 2014, four teams of Special Forces soldiers have intensely monitored the brigade. Now, they were being honored for it.
Part of a $10 billion counter-narcotics and counterterrorism program, conceived in the 1990s, special ops efforts in Colombia are a much ballyhooed American success story. A 2015 RAND Corporation study found that the program "represents an enduring SOF partnership effort that managed to help foster a relatively professional and capable special operations force." And for a time, coca production in that country plummeted. Indeed, this was the ultimate promise of America's "Plan Colombia" and efforts that followed from it. "Over the longer haul, we can expect to see more effective drug eradication and increased interdiction of illicit drug shipments," President Bill Clinton predicted in January 2000.
Today, however, more than 460,000 acres of the Colombian countryside are blanketed with coca plants, more than during the 1980s heyday of the infamous cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. US cocaine overdose deaths are also at a 10-year high and first-time cocaine use among young adults has spiked 61% since 2013. "Recent findings suggest that cocaine use may be reemerging as a public health concern in the United States," wrote researchers from the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in a study published in December 2016 -- just after the Green Berets attended that ceremony in Colombia. Cocaine, the study's authors write, "may be making a comeback."
Colombia is hardly an anomaly when it comes to US special ops deployments -- or the results that flow from them. For all their abilities, tactical skills, training prowess, and battlefield accomplishments, the capacity of US Special Operations forces to achieve decisive and enduring successes -- strategic victories that serve US national interests -- have proved to be exceptionally limited, a reality laid bare from Afghanistan to Iraq, Yemen to the Philippines.
The fault for this lies not with the troops themselves, but with a political and military establishment that often appears bereft of strategic vision and hasn't won a major war since the 1940s. Into this breach, elite US forces are deployed again and again. While special ops commanders may raise concerns about the tempo of operations and strains on the force, they have failed to grapple with larger questions about the raison d'être of SOF, while Washington's oversight establishment, notably the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, have consistently failed to so much as ask hard questions about the strategic utility of America's Special Operations forces.
Special Ops at War
"We operate and fight in every corner of the world," boasts General Raymond Thomas, the chief of US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM or SOCOM). "On a daily basis, we sustain a deployed or forward stationed force of approximately 8,000 across 80-plus countries. They are conducting the entire range of SOF missions in both combat and non-combat situations." Those numbers, however, only hint at the true size and scope of this global special ops effort. Last year, America's most elite forces conducted missions in 138 countries -- roughly 70% of the nations on the planet, according to figures supplied to TomDispatch by US Special Operations Command. Halfway through 2017, US commandos have already been deployed to an astonishing 137 countries, according to SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw.
Special Operations Command is tasked with carrying out 12 core missions, ranging from counterinsurgency and unconventional warfare to hostage rescue and countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Counterterrorism -- fighting what the command calls violent extremist organizations (VEOs) -- may, however, be what America's elite forces have become best known for in the post-9/11 era. "The threat posed by VEOs remains the highest priority for USSOCOM in both focus and effort," says Thomas.
"Special Operations Forces are the main effort, or major supporting effort for US VEO-focused operations in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, across the Sahel of Africa, the Philippines, and Central/South America -- essentially, everywhere Al Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are to be found..."
More special operators are deployed to the Middle East than to any other region. Significant numbers of them are advising Iraqi government forces and Iraqi Kurdish soldiers as well as Kurdish YPG (Popular Protection Unit) fighters and various ethnic Arab forces in Syria, according to Linda Robinson, a senior international policy analyst with the RAND Corporation who spent seven weeks in Iraq, Syria, and neighboring countries earlier this year.
During a visit to Qayyarah, Iraq -- a staging area for the campaign to free Mosul, formerly Iraq's second largest city, from the control of Islamic State fighters -- Robinson "saw a recently installed US military medical unit and its ICU set up in tents on the base." In a type of mission seldom reported on, special ops surgeons, nurses, and other specialists put their skills to work on far-flung battlefields not only to save American lives, but to prop up allied proxy forces that have limited medical capabilities. For example, an Air Force Special Operations Surgical Team recently spent eight weeks deployed at an undisclosed location in the Iraq-Syria theater, treating 750 war-injured patients. Operating out of an abandoned one-story home within earshot of a battlefield, the specially trained airmen worked through a total of 19 mass casualty incidents and more than 400 individual gunshot or blast injuries.
When not saving lives in Iraq and Syria, elite US forces are frequently involved in efforts to take them. "US SOF are... being thrust into a new role of coordinating fire support," wrote Robinson. "This fire support is even more important to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a far more lightly armed irregular force which constitutes the major ground force fighting ISIS in Syria." In fact, a video shot earlier this year, analyzed by The Washington Post, shows special operators "acting as an observation element for what appears to be US airstrikes carried out by A-10 ground attack aircraft" to support Syrian Democratic Forces fighting for the town of Shadadi.
Africa now ranks second when it comes to the deployment of special operators thanks to the exponential growth in missions there in recent years. Just 3% of US commandos deployed overseas were sent to Africa in 2010. Now that number stands at more than 17%, according to SOCOM data. Last year, US Special Operations forces were deployed to 32 African nations, about 60% of the countries on the continent. As I recently reported at VICE News, at any given time, Navy SEALs, Green Berets, and other special operators are now conducting nearly 100 missions across 20 African countries.
In May, for instance, Navy SEALs were engaged in an "advise and assist operation" alongside members of Somalia's army and came under attack. SEAL Kyle Milliken was killed and two other US personnel were injured during a firefight that also, according to AFRICOM spokesperson Robyn Mack, left three al-Shabaab militants dead. US forces are also deployed in Libya to gather intelligence in order to carry out strikes of opportunity against Islamic State forces there. While operations in Central Africa against the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a brutal militia that has terrorized the region for decades, wound down recently, a US commando reportedly killed a member of the LRA as recently as April.
What General Thomas calls "building partner nations' capacity" forms the backbone of the global activities of his command. Day in, day out, America's most elite troops carry out such training missions to sharpen their skills and those of their allies and of proxy forces across the planet.
This January, for example, Green Berets and Japanese paratroopers carried out airborne training near Chiba, Japan. February saw Green Berets at Sanaa Training Center in northwest Syria advising recruits for the Manbij Military Council, a female fighting force of Kurds, Arabs, Christians, Turkmen, and Yazidis. In March, snowmobiling Green Berets joined local forces for cold-weather military drills in Lapland, Finland. That same month, special operators and more than 3,000 troops from Canada, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Kosovo, Latvia, Macedonia, the Netherlands, Slovenia, and the United Kingdom took part in tactical training in Germany.
In the waters off Kuwait, special operators joined elite forces from the Gulf Cooperation Council nations in conducting drills simulating a rapid response to the hijacking of an oil tanker. In April, special ops troops traveled to Serbia to train alongside a local special anti-terrorist unit. In May, members of Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Iraq carried out training exercises with Iraqi special operations forces near Baghdad. That same month, 7,200 military personnel, including US Air Force Special Tactics airmen, Italian special operations forces, members of host nation Jordan's Special Task Force, and troops from more than a dozen other nations took part in Exercise Eager Lion, practicing everything from assaulting compounds to cyber-defense. For their part, a group of SEALs conducted dive training alongside Greek special operations forces in Souda Bay, Greece, while others joined NATO troops in Germany as part of Exercise Saber Junction 17 for training in land operations, including mock "behind enemy lines missions" in a "simulated European village."
"We have been at the forefront of national security operations for the past three decades, to include continuous combat over the past 15-and-a-half years," SOCOM's Thomas told the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities last month. "This historic period has been the backdrop for some of our greatest successes, as well as the source of our greatest challenge, which is the sustained readiness of this magnificent force." Yet, for all their magnificence and all those successes, for all the celebratory ceremonies they've attended, the wars, interventions, and other actions for which they've served as the tip of the American spear have largely foundered, floundered, or failed.
After their initial tactical successes in Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, America's elite operators became victims of Washington's failure to declare victory and go home. As a result, for the last 15 years, US commandos have been raiding homes, calling in air strikes, training local forces, and waging a relentless battle against a growing list of terror groups in that country. For all their efforts, as well as those of their conventional military brethren and local Afghan allies, the war is now, according to the top US commander in the Middle East, a "stalemate." That's a polite way of saying what a recent report to Congress by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found: districts that are contested or under "insurgent control or influence" have risen from an already remarkable 28% in 2015 to 40%.
The war in Afghanistan began with efforts to capture or kill al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Having failed in this post-9/11 mission, America's elite forces spun their wheels for the next decade when it came to his fate. Finally, in 2011, Navy SEALs cornered him in his long-time home in Pakistan and gunned him down. Ever since, special operators who carried out the mission and Washington power-players (not to mention Hollywood) have been touting this single tactical success.
In an Esquire interview, Robert O'Neill, the SEAL who put two bullets in bin Laden's head, confessed that he joined the Navy due to frustration over an early crush, a puppy-love pique. "That's the reason al-Qaeda has been decimated," he joked, "because she broke my fucking heart." But al-Qaeda was not decimated -- far from it according to Ali Soufan, a former FBI special agent and the author of Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of Bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State. As he recently observed, "Whereas on 9/11 al-Qaeda had a few hundred members, almost all of them based in a single country, today it enjoys multiple safe havens across the world." In fact, he points out, the terror group has gained strength since bin Laden's death.
Year after year, US special operators find themselves fighting new waves of militants across multiple continents, including entire terror groups that didn't exist on 9/11. All US forces killed in Afghanistan in 2017 have reportedly died battling an Islamic State franchise, which began operations there just two years ago.
The US invasion of Iraq, to take another example, led to the meteoric rise of an al-Qaeda affiliate which, in turn, led the military's secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) -- the elite of America's special ops elite -- to create a veritable manhunting machine designed to kill its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and take down the organization. As with bin Laden, special operators finally did find and eliminate Zarqawi, battering his organization in the process, but it was never wiped out. Left behind were battle-hardened elements that later formed the Islamic State and did what al-Qaeda never could: take and hold huge swaths of territory in two nations. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda's Syrian branch grew into a separate force of more than 20,000.
In Yemen, after more than a decade of low-profile special ops engagement, that country teeters on the brink of collapse in the face of a US-backed Saudi war there. Continued US special ops missions in that country, recently on the rise, have seemingly done nothing to alter the situation. Similarly, in Somalia in the Horn of Africa, America's elite forces remain embroiled in an endless war against militants.
In 2011, President Obama launched Operation Observant Compass, sending Special Operations forces to aid Central African proxies in an effort to capture or kill Joseph Kony and decimate his murderous Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), then estimated to number 150 to 300 armed fighters. After the better part of a decade and nearly $800 million spent, 150 US commandos were withdrawn this spring and US officials attended a ceremony to commemorate the end of the mission. Kony was, however, never captured or killed and the LRA is now estimated to number about 150 to 250 fighters, essentially the same size as when the operation began.
This string of futility extends to Asia as well. "US Special Forces have been providing support and assistance in the southern Philippines for many years, at the request of several different Filipino administrations," Emma Nagy, a spokesperson for the US embassy in Manilla, pointed out earlier this month. Indeed, a decade-plus-long special ops effort there has been hailed as a major success. Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines, wrote RAND analyst Linda Robinson late last year in the Pentagon journal Prism, "was aimed at enabling the Philippine security forces to combat transnational terrorist groups in the restive southern region of Mindanao."
A 2016 RAND report co-authored by Robinson concluded that "the activities of the US SOF enabled the Philippine government to substantially reduce the transnational terrorist threat in the southern Philippines." This May, however, Islamist militants overran Marawi City, a major urban center on Mindanao. They have been holding on to parts of it for weeks despite a determined assault by Filipino troops backed by US Special Operations forces. In the process, large swaths of the city have been reduced to rubble.
Running on Empty
America's elite forces, General Thomas told members of Congress last month, "are fully committed to winning the current and future fights." In reality, though, from war to war, intervention to intervention, from the Anti-Drug Brigade ceremony in Florencia, Colombia, to the end-of-the-Kony-hunt observance in Obo in the Central African Republic, there is remarkably little evidence that even enduring efforts by Special Operations forces result in strategic victories or improved national security outcomes. And yet, despite such boots-on-the-ground realities, America's special ops forces and their missions only grow.
"We are... grateful for the support of Congress for the required resourcing that, in turn, has produced a SOCOM which is relevant to all the current and enduring threats facing the nation," Thomas told the Senate Armed Services Committee in May. Resourcing has, indeed, been readily available. SOCOM's annual budget has jumped from $3 billion in 2001 to more than $10 billion today. Oversight, however, has been seriously lacking. Not a single member of the House or Senate Armed Services Committees has questioned why, after more than 15 years of constant warfare, winning the "current fight" has proven so elusive. None of them has suggested that "support" from Congress ought to be reconsidered in the face of setbacks from Afghanistan to Iraq, Colombia to Central Africa, Yemen to the southern Philippines.
In the waning days of George W. Bush's administration, Special Operations forces were reportedly deployed to about 60 nations around the world. By 2011, under President Barack Obama, that number had swelled to 120. During this first half-year of the Trump administration, US commandos have already been sent to 137 countries, with elite troops now enmeshed in conflicts from Africa to Asia. "Most SOF units are employed to their sustainable limit," Thomas told members of the House Armed Services Committee last month. In fact, current and former members of the command have, for some time, been sounding the alarm about the level of strain on the force.
These deployment levels and a lack of meaningful strategic results from them have not, however, led Washington to raise fundamental questions about the ways the US employs its elite forces, much less about SOCOM's raison d'être. "We are a command at war and will remain so for the foreseeable future," SOCOM's Thomas explained to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Not one member asked why or to what end.
Jackson, Mississippi Mayor-Elect Chokwe Lumumba: I Plan to Build the "Most Radical City on the Planet"
We end the show today in Jackson, Mississippi, where just one week from today social justice activist and attorney Chokwe Lumumba will be sworn is as the city's next mayor. He has vowed to make Jackson the "most radical city on the planet." He is the son of the city's former mayor, the late Chokwe Lumumba, who was once dubbed "America's most revolutionary mayor." We air the mayor-elect's speech at the People's Summit and speak to him in Jackson about his plans for the city and his father's legacy.
Please check back later for full transcript.
On June 14, 33 women who have been detained and incarcerated by ICE in California's Adelanto Detention Facility launched a hunger strike. They were protesting the poor conditions at the facility as well as the policies that were keeping them away from their children and loved ones. The Adelanto Detention Facility, with a capacity of 1,940, is the largest private immigration detention facility in the US.
On June 14, 33 women who have been detained and incarcerated by ICE in California's Adelanto Detention Facility launched a hunger strike. They were protesting the poor conditions at the facility as well as the policies that were keeping them away from their children and loved ones.
The Adelanto Detention Facility, with a capacity of 1,940, is the largest private immigration detention facility in the United States. Run by the GEO Group, ICE pays $111 per person per day for the first 975 detainees, thus guaranteeing GEO a minimum of $40 million each year. If more than 975 people are detained inside Adelanto, the daily rate drops to less than $50 per day.
Immigrant rights organizations, such as Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, or CIVIC, and Detention Watch Network, have sharply criticized Adelanto for its widespread and systemic abuses towards immigrants in custody.
Since March 2017, three people have died at Adelanto. Others have reported medical neglect and, on at least one occasion, being punished for seeking medical care. Norma Gutierrez, one of the women on hunger strike has suffered multiple strokes during her incarceration at Adelanto. Instead of receiving proper medical care, she was placed in solitary confinement. Such medical neglect is not new; Human Rights Watch found that Adelanto has had ongoing failures in providing medical care to detainees, including extended delays in responding to medical requests, overmedication of people with mental disabilities, the use of shackles during psychiatric appointments, a lack of continuity of care for those with chronic conditions, delayed or denied care for people whose removal seems to be imminent, and denial of care or misdiagnoses for people with serious conditions or diseases.
Among the women's demands were better medical care, respectful treatment by prison staff, an end to ICE's unreasonably high bonds, and reunification with their children and families. According to Christina Mansfield, co-founder and co-executive director of CIVIC, many of the women had been detained for over six months by that point. "We want them to speak to us like we are humans, not animals. We don't want to be disrespected and cursed at," Sara Salcido, one of the women on hunger strike, told Mansfield.
This is not the first hunger strike in Adelanto this month. The week before, nine men launched a hunger strike protesting these same conditions. They had arrived with a refugee caravan from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala claiming asylum at the US border. Instead, they were detained and sent to Adelanto.
On Monday, June 12, they refused to return to their assigned beds for count, a practice in prisons, jails and immigrant detention centers in which all movement stops while each and every person is counted. But that morning, the nine men locked arms; in response, guards pepper sprayed them and put them in isolation. Advocates said that guards also physically beat the men, a claim that ICE officials disputed in an email statement, saying that the guards "applied the necessary degree of force to extract the resisting detainees from the residence unit and transfer them to a restricted housing area." Shortly after, six of those men began refusing food.
The men issued nine demands: a fair bond for all detainees, political asylum, new uniforms -- especially new underwear -- instead of clothes previously worn by other people, more time for religious services, paperwork provided in their own languages, 24-hour access to clean water, better food, and an end to throwing away their belongings. They also demanded that they be released on their own recognizance rather than remain detained for their inability to pay bond.
The women were aware of the men's actions, Mansfield said. Hoping to avoid similar forms of retaliation, they asked that their names be made public.
That Wednesday morning, as 33 women refused to eat breakfast, Mansfield received another call from inside. According to the women calling her, guards had threatened the women with pepper spray, solitary confinement and confiscation of their belongings if they continued to refuse food.
However, that afternoon, 20 of the women, all of whom had been unsuccessfully seeking health care, were taken to see medical staff. Jail staff also agreed to treat the women with respect, including respecting their religious freedom. However, ICE officials told the women that they have no control over the bonds. In reality, however, the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, has the authority to grant conditional parole and release a person on their own recognizance rather than set bond.
By dinner that evening, the women had ended the hunger strike.
In the limited communication Mansfield has received since, none of the women have reported retaliation. But that doesn't mean that Adelanto staff and GEO administrators are not on the alert and ready to quash any future signs of activism or solidarity.
On June 20, one week after the women's hunger strike and two weeks after the men's, CIVIC and over 60 faith leaders and attorneys boarded a bus to head to Adelanto, 85 miles outside of Los Angeles, to visit the people detained inside. Upon disembarking, the group held a five-minute interfaith prayer outside the facility. In response, GEO staff not only denied the visitors entrance, but also placed the entire facility on lockdown and kicked out the attorneys and family members who were already inside waiting to visit.
Though ICE's federal standards mandate that detention facilities provide 24-hour access for attorneys to visit their clients, Christina Fialho, an attorney as well as CIVIC's other co-founder and co-executive director, was denied visits with 14 of her clients despite having received prior approval from ICE. Other attorneys were denied entry as well, including those who had not come or were not affiliated with the bus from Los Angeles.
"When we see abuse in detention, it is our moral obligation to speak up and stand in solidarity with our friends in detention," Fialho stated. "By denying us access after a peaceful and short prayer, ICE has tried to make us choose between our First Amendment rights and visiting our friends and clients in immigration detention. This is not a choice our government can legally ask us to make."