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Updated: 4 days 27 min ago

Kathie Lee Gifford Is a Trojan Horse for Conservative Causes

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 09:27
The less-than-candid 'Today' show host lets her real right-wing flag fly on her podcast.

“Today” personality Kathie Lee Gifford was recently admonished by NBC higher-ups for promoting her line of wines, the punnily named Gifft, on-air. The idea, in part, is that “Today” is to some degree a news program, one that ought to be held to a higher standard than a regular chatfest.

Fortunately Gifford has a podcast, where she has for months been endorsing personal causes, from her wine to right-wing politics. It turns out that Gifford is something of a Trojan horse for conservatism, presenting for an hour a day the banal niceties that get viewers through the morning–then putting out a weekly podcast that’s one long dog whistle with occasional wine plugs.

There’s nothing wrong with this, of course — Gifford’s entitled to her opinions. But the success of her TV persona has rested upon the perception of Gifford as a freewheeling truth-teller who will say anything on camera. As it so happens, this whole time she’s been holding back more than a few opinions.

On a recent podcast episode, for instance, Gifford interviewed Cal Thomas, a Fox News commentator who has said that no new mosques should be allowed to be built in the U.S. and has been outspoken against acceptance of homosexuality. Oddly, Gifford consistently represented Thomas as a nonpartisan figure striving only to find solutions to unnamed crises. “There’s no hidden agenda with you, is there? You just love this country and want it to be great.” The pair went on to discuss the necessity of Congressional term limits (because, in Gifford’s telling, the human heart is twisted and dark) and the so-called “Age of Entitlement.” Gifford told a stem-winder about how she once confronted Hillary Clinton and asked her when rich people “became the enemy.” (The social safety net, in Gifford’s telling, “destroys lives” because dreams of growing rich are what make life worth living.)

Gifford and Thomas agree on just about everything — for much of the interview, neither will mention President Obama at all, but they shame the listeners for not voting, or for not paying attention to the consequences of how they voted. (The idea that those who vote for Democrats were somehow tricked into it and not thinking is an old conservative canard that Obama’s popularity at election time has brought roaring back.) When Obama finally came up explicitly, it was in Gifford’s allegation that his administration is not telling the truth over Affordable Care Act enrollment numbers: “I don’t know that there’s a person on the planet who believes those numbers are true.” Thomas said those who did were “drinking the Kool-Aid.”

And so it is with Gifford — without a TV production team holding her back, she’s considerably more loose-lipped than she is on “Today.” Her interviews (all available here) had, for a long time, been focused on either generic show business gab or Gifford’s brand of evangelical Christianity (viz. interviews with the cast of the film “Son of God” or with, say, Glenn Beck). The political turn has been a more recent development, with Candace Cameron Bure using the show as a platform to defend her claims that wives should be “submissive” to their husbands, or with Donald Trump stopping by after CPAC. Gifford joked that Trump “didn’t need a TelePrompTer” — a random reference to year-2008 critiques of Obama — and said that those who believe the Tea Party has any position on social issues are confused. “It’s not the social issues — they keep combining the social issues. The Tea Party, as I understand it, was low taxation, small government, and fiscal responsibility. By that definition, that’s me!”

And why not? Gifford has, through her career, been outspoken not about politics but about religious belief, from her advocacy work for children to her Broadway musical about Charismatic Christian Aimee Semple McPherson. But it’s not shocking that she, a wealthy woman of faith, would hold conservative beliefs. It is a little shocking, though, that she expresses them so freely as someone in the employ of a network news program — would she be as easily able to allege, on “Today,” that the president were lying about Obamacare enrollment? Or to put out nebulous language about the war on the wealthy? We have no idea what Gifford’s “Today” cohort believes politically — if Matt Lauer voted at all, no one’s heard about it. But “Today” is ostensibly, at least in part, a news show, if a softball one. And Gifford’s insistence that people need to wake up and see it her way is the nastiest side of conservatism: the belief that the baseline human should see this worldview as the common-sense solution, and that other outcomes are the result of weird subterfuge. That’s how Cal Thomas becomes a figure who, very simply, just wants America to be great.

Gifford’s podcast is compulsively listenable for the new insight it offers into the brain of a person whose life has been up for public consumption since the early nineties. That said individual is really, really interested in conservative talking points is not troubling in and of itself. At least, if one presumes that a deep-seated belief that a massive swath of the country has been tricked into hating the rich has as little bearing over one’s ability to cover the news objectively as does a new line of novelty wines–and that both can be easily put aside.

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Paul Ryan and the GOP's Anti-Robin Hood Spending Plan—Less Money for Poor Kids, More for the Rich

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 08:23
Could it be more obvious that Washington is owned by the wealthy?

Rejecting dozens of heroic characters, from Captain America to Underdog, Republicans last week chose instead a villain for their figurehead. 

They selected Prince John, the guy who coddled the rich and tried to crush Robin Hood. House Republicans voted to elevate Prince John as their champion when they passed a budget slashing taxes for the rich and decimating programs for workers and low-income Americans.

Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, who authored the anti-Robin Hood spending plan, said the budget “comes down to a matter of trust.”  Trust, Ryan believes, should be placed in the rich and Washington politicians like him, a Prince John man who devised a spending scam enriching the rich and depriving the rest. Ryan asked, “Who knows better: the people or Washington?” The GOP answer: Washington, of course. A place purchased by the very, very rich.

Ryan’s anti-Robin Hood spending plan takes health care from the poor and elderly and gives tax breaks to the rich and super rich. Really. Republicans voted to cut taxes for millionaires and billionaires from 39.6 percent to 25 percent. Nice, right? Except for Americans who depend on Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare.

Republicans voted to voucherize Medicare, which would force senior citizens to pay thousands of dollars more each year. Ryan and his fellow House Republicans voted to kill Obamacare, which means the 7.1 million who got insurance on the exchanges would lose it; the 3.1 million young people covered under Obamacare’s extension of their parents’ plans would lose insurance, and the 3 million who got insurance under Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion would lose it.

That’s 13 million without health insurance, in addition to low-income seniors struggling to pay premiums as Ryan’s vouchers lose value. But, hey, billionaires get a tax break!

Ryan’s anti-Robin Hood spending scheme provides more money for guns and less for bread. Republicans would increase military spending by $483 billion above caps in the 2011 Budget Control Act while slashing non-arms spending by $791 billion. 

That works out well for Republican hawks like John McCain who want to “bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.” Not so much for low income parents who want their children to eat. Republicans voted to cut food stamps, school lunches and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). The GOP serenade to those Americans: “Starve, starve, starve, starve, starve poor kids.”

Ryan’s anti-Robin Hood spending plan robs low-income Americans of funding for Pell Grants, Head Start and special education while granting tax breaks to corporations so profitable that they are sitting on $1.5 trillion in cash. Republicans would hand corporations a tax rate cut from 35 to 25 percent, while ensuring that an uneven educational playing field prevents impoverished Americans from ever achieving those new, lower tax rates for the rich.

Ryan’s anti-Robin Hood plan would pierce Big Bird’s heart with an arrow while freeing corporations from paying taxes on overseas corporate earnings. Just to be clear, that would mean the death of Junior’s Sesame Street program and his daddy’s manufacturing job, since this tax system would encourage corporations to ship factories overseas where profits wouldn’t be taxed.

Ryan said federal subsidies for Big Bird’s nest – the non-profit Corporation for Public Broadcasting – “can no longer be justified.” But, Republicans believe, for-profit corporations that don’t provide public education should pay no taxes at all on offshore earnings – even while Americans supply the big military stick that protects these corporations’ foreign facilities.

Washington politician Paul Ryan’s priorities are not America’s. Seventy-nine percent of Americans believe corporations should pay the same tax rate on foreign profits as they do on domestic profits.

Forced to choose, the majority would pick Big Bird over a big bomb. Support for the war in Afghanistan has plummeted to 17 percent. Fewer than 13 percent support military action against Russia for its actions in Ukraine.

Some 70 percent of Americans oppose cuts to food stamps. Similarly, 69 percent want the nation’s education system improvedSixty-one percent say the rich don’t pay enough taxes.Sixty-six percent believe corporations don’t pay enough taxes. Seventy-four percent favor the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare.

The Republicans’ priorities are all wrong. As were those of Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Ryan and his right-wing crew focus on the demands of the wealthy and ignore the values of the vast majority of Americans.

Ryan uses magical accounting to assert that his budget will balance in a decade. Eliminating the deficit is an urgent matter for Ryan and Washington Republicans, but it’s not among the top priorities of most Americans. Theirs are improving the economy and increasing jobs. Republicans ignored that, approving a budget that will reduce jobs.

Over decades, Americans created and strengthened social programs for themselves that they now cherish. These include Medicare, Medicaid, Pell Grants, Head Start, and public radio and television.

In polls, Americans have even said they are willing to pay more taxes to support beloved social welfare programs. Most believe, however, that if corporations and billionaires paid their fair share, these programs would not be threatened. For example, if millionaires paid the same percentage of their income into Social Security that minimum wage earners do, the trust fund would not run dry in 20 years potentially limiting benefits in 2033. 

In a principled budget process, elected representatives would fairly tax the rich, not steal from the poor. There’s even a partial antidote for Ryan’s anti-Robin Hood budget. It’s called theRobin Hood tax. It’s a tiny fee on financial transactions. Many experts believe it would discourage risky trading on Wall Street while raising billions for programs like Pell Grants and Big Bird. Eleven European Union nations, including the four largest, are moving toward levying it.

That tax is not in the Republicans’ anti-Robin Hood spending scheme. That’s because Ryan’s a Washington politician who believes he knows better than the American people.

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Unarmed Black Man Shot in the Back by San Antonio Police, Parents Say

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 07:55
The officer has a history of racial profiling and a short temper.

 

SAN ANTONIO (CN) - An off-duty San Antonio police officer shot to death an unarmed black man as he walked away from a restaurant drive-through, the man's parents claim in court.Cheryl Jones and Black Lamkin sued the city, police Officer Robert Encina, Quinonez Foodservice, Chacho's 8614 Perrin Beitel Ltd. and John Burke, president of Quinonez and Chacho's, in Federal Court.Their son, Marquis Jones, 23, was a passenger a car driven by Fabian Garcia on Feb. 28. Jones' sister, Whitney Jones, and her roommate, Dominue Carter, also were passengers. None are parties to the lawsuit.Garcia's car struck the car in front of it in the drive-through lane at Chacho's and Chalucci's, a Tex-Mex restaurant in northeast San Antonio. The collision was minor, no damage was done and the unidentified driver of the other car returned to her vehicle to wait on her order "without incident" after Garcia apologized, the parents say in the complaint.Encina was in uniform working security at the restaurant."Out of nowhere, defendant Encina approached Garcia's car and demanded that he turn off his vehicle and get out of his car for no lawful reason," the 26-page complaint states. "Defendant Encina searched and handcuffed Garcia and used inappropriate force on him. Jones, witnessing how defendant Encina was treating Garcia, became afraid and decided he would leave so that he would not be attacked by defendant Encina."Jones was afraid because he Officer Encina harassed him a few days before, his parents say."Defendant Encina, noticing Jones leaving, pushed Garcia aside and began to pursue Jones," the complaint states. "Not once did defendant Encina identify himself or command Jones to stop. Defendant Encina, for no lawful reason or fear of imminent danger, pulled out his service revolver and shot Jones in the back as he attempted to leave Chacho's. There exist no reasons for Defendant Encina to shoot and kill Jones in cold blood."Police told the San Antonio Express-News that Jones displayed a handgun as he left the front passenger seat. They said Jones ran and collapsed after a short distance, dying at the scene. Jones' handgun was found nearby, police claimed.Jones' parents disagree. They say Garcia and his passengers were leaving to go home and that they "did not want any problems, nor were they causing any problems.""Upon information made available to the plaintiffs by a number of witnesses, Jones did not have a gun in his hand nor was he attempting to cause bodily harm to defendant Encina," the complaint states." Defendant Encina fatally shot Jones in the back for no lawful reason as he attempted to leave Chacho's."The parents claim Encina has a "short fuse" and a bad history of dealing with minorities, particularly blacks. They claim Encina was suspended from the police department for 45 days after an incident in 2010 at Mama Margie's Restaurant in San Antonio involving black males."Defendant Encina was found to be highly intoxicated, used profanity, insulted customers and employees of Mama Margie's, assaulted an employee and identified himself as 'a baller' and 'from the East side' as he initiated a confrontation with several African American males and employees of Mama Margie's," the complaint states.Encina has been known to harass customers at Chacho's as well, the parents claim.They blame the city for having "a longstanding record" of not providing officers with adequate training and of not stopping excessive force and extrajudicial killings. They claim police officials know its internal affairs section is a "real problem.""As a result of the lack of training and the official custom or policies of the SPD, San Antonio remains at the top of the list in the state of Texas for police misconduct," the complaint states. "The internal affairs section of the SPD has received hundreds of complaints involving the use of excessive force by police officers without ever having taken disciplinary action. This has resulted in a failure to supervise, discipline, counsel, or otherwise control police officers who are known or should be known to engage in the use of excessive force."The parents also claim that Chacho's is an unsafe establishment - that police have been called there 220 times since 2012."During the same period of time, SPD officers responded to a restaurant across the street from Chacho's 13 times and a liquor store two blocks north of Chacho's 17 times since the start of 2012," the complaint states.City officials did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon.The parents seek actual and punitive damages for wrongful death, excessive force, racial profiling, negligence, assault, battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress. They are represented by Daryl Washington of Dallas.

 

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The 1% Wants to Ban Sleeping in Cars Because It Hurts Their 'Quality of Life'

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 06:47
Depriving homeless people of their last shelter in life is Silicon Valley at its worst.

Across the United States, many local governments are responding to skyrocketing levels of inequality and the now decades-long crisis of homelessness among the very poor ... by passing laws making it a crime to sleep in a parked car.

This happened most recently in Palo Alto, in California's Silicon Valley, where new billionaires are seemingly minted every month – and where 92% of homeless people lack shelter of any kind. Dozens of cities have passed similar anti-homeless laws. The largest of them is Los Angeles, the longtime unofficial "homeless capital of America", where lawyers are currently defending a similar vehicle-sleeping law before a skeptical federal appellate court. Laws against sleeping on sidewalks or in cars are called "quality of life" laws. But they certainly don't protect the quality of life of the poor.

To be sure, people living in cars cannot be the best neighbors. Some people are able to acquire old and ugly – but still functioning – recreational vehicles with bathrooms; others do the best they can. These same cities have resisted efforts to provide more public toilet facilities, often on the grounds that this will make their city a "magnet" for homeless people from other cities. As a result, anti-homeless ordinances often spread to adjacent cities, leaving entire regions without public facilities of any kind.

Their hope, of course, is that homeless people will go elsewhere, despite the fact that the great majority of homeless people are trying to survive in the same communities in which they were last housed – and where they still maintain connections. Americans sleeping in their own cars literally have nowhere to go.

Indeed, nearly all homelessness in the US begins with a loss of income and an eviction for nonpayment of rent – a rent set entirely by market forces. The waiting lists are years long for the tiny fraction of housing with government subsidies. And rents have risen dramatically in the past two years, in part because long-time tenants must now compete with the millions of former homeowners who lost their homes in the Great Recession.

The paths from eviction to homelessness follow familiar patterns. For the completely destitute without family or friends able to help, that path leads more or less directly to the streets. For those slightly better off, unemployment and the exhaustion of meager savings – along with the good graces of family and friends – eventually leaves people with only two alternatives: a shelter cot or their old automobile.

However, in places like Los Angeles, the shelters are pretty much always full. Between 2011 and 2013, the number of unsheltered homeless people increased by 67%. In Palo Alto last year, there were 12 shelter beds for 157 homeless individuals. Homeless people in these cities do have choices: they can choose to sleep in a doorway, on a sidewalk, in a park, under a bridge or overpass, or – if they are relatively lucky – in a car. But these cities have ordinances that make all of those choices a criminal offense. The car is the best of bad options, now common enough that local bureaucrats have devised a new, if oxymoronic, term – the "vehicularly housed".

People sleeping in cars try to find legal, nighttime parking places, where they will be less apparent and arouse the least hostility. But cities like Palo Alto and Los Angeles often forbid parking between 2am and 5am in commercial areas, where police write expensive tickets and arrest and impound the vehicles of repeat offenders. That leaves residential areas, where overnight street parking cannot, as a practical matter, be prohibited.

One finds the "vehicularly housed" in virtually every neighborhood, including my own. But the animus that drives anti-homeless laws seems to be greatest in the wealthiest cities, like Palo Alto, which has probably spawned more per-capita fortunes than any city on Earth, and in the more recently gentrified areas like Los Angeles' Venice. These places are ruled by majorities of "liberals" who decry, with increasing fervor, the rapid rise in economic inequality. Nationally, 90% of Democrats (and 45% of Republicans) believe the government should act to reduce the rich-poor gap.

It is easy to be opposed to inequality in the abstract. So why are Los Angeles and Palo Alto spending virtually none of their budgets on efforts to provide housing for the very poor and homeless? When the most obvious evidence of inequality parks on their street, it appears, even liberals would rather just call the police. The word from the car: if you're not going to do anything to help, please don't make things worse.

 

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What Made the Chicago Teachers' Strike a Success? Their Commitment to the Community

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 05:00
The dramatically victorious strike showed it's possible for unions to fight back and to win.

In a newly published book, Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity, Micah Uetrich offers a gripping profile of what has been called, "the most important domestic labor struggle so far this century.”

In just 130 pages, Uetrich makes the case that, after a successful strike in 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) achieved victory with their new contract through the powerful combination of thoughtful militancy, community engagement and massive member outreach. Public support for the strike was so high that the red solidarity T-shirts became hot items; independent polls found a majority of parents supported the teachers—despite having to deal with the personal inconvenience of finding care for their children while schools were closed.

Uetrich, a contributing editor for In These Times and an assistant editor for Jacobin, lays out how the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), which won leadership of the CTU in 2010,fought back against school closures and helped shift the narrative away from one where teachers are seen as primarily concerned with advancing their own interests. On a book tour stop in San Francisco, Uetrich talked to AlterNet about how the CTU combined militancy with community outreach to stand up neoliberal education reforms; the gains they won in the contract; and the need for unions to reposition themselves as part of a broader social justice movement in order to realize victories of this kind. (The interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

AlterNet: What made you decide to write this book?

Micah Uetrich: It’s a very dramatic story that won’t sound real. It was, I believe, the third day of the CTU strike, and I was downtown [in Chicago] at a mass protest the union did almost every day during the strike. I was there with my friend, [journalist] Danny Postel, and I had written an article for Jacobin that had come out that day. We were marching, and all of a sudden, Danny stops in the middle of the street, and says, “Micah, this tale of the CTU must be chronicled and you must be the one!” I’m like, “Danny, you are insane. I have no business writing a book about anything.” But he sort of badgered me over the weeks to come, and he convinced me I could write a book on this.

I had reported on [the strike] for different places like Jacobinand the Nation. So I wrote up a pitch, and sent it to [editor] Bhaskar Sunkara at Jacobin.  He was interested, and I think he recognized the tale of what happened in the CTU could be a resource for other rank and file activists.

A: How did CORE, the group elected to leadership of the CTU in 2010, come into being?

MU: The free-market education reform agenda was quickly picking up steam in the '90s and 2000s, and there were school closures and attacks on teachers and the growth of charter schools. The union leadership [at the time] repeatedly indicated it had no real interest in creating any kind of movement to fight back against these attacks. So there was an attempt in the union, at first, to have a kind of reform from above, where some liberal reformers told members, “The union leadership has failed you in the past, vote for us, and we’ll take care of it for you.” They ended up failing after one term in office; they didn’t engage the mass rank and file of the union in any significant way.

Then there’s a small group of activist teachers who says, “OK, our union leadership still isn’t pushing back against these attacks that could destroy public education in Chicago. We’ve seen this top-down effort doesn’t change our union in any way.” So this small group starts organizing among community members and building up a strong organization of rank-and-file members to try and work with parents and community groups who had been fighting against school closures for years. That was the first priority—not running somebody for office or taking over the union, but fighting back against free-market reform.

A: It sounds as if the community played a critical role in CORE’s success. What was different about how CORE approached community engagement?

MU: A lot of times support from community looks like just trotting out a member of a community group at a press conference and saying, “Look! Right here, it’s the community! We brought them.” It’s a very shallow level of engagement.

What’s unique about what’s going on in Chicago is the caucus has its roots in working alongside these community groups as equals. CORE would approach parents and community groups at meetings who were speaking out against school closures. They would engage with them and tell them about the organization they’d started.

So they started working together to fight school closures, and for the first time they were able to get some school closures off the list. The official union had never tried to engage folks around school closures in any significant way, and the CORE folks had some real victories, and forums CORE was hosting would draw 500 people to talk about free-market education reform. This was all before they were in power. They’ve created an organizing department that tasks itself with solidifying relationships with community groups, and they take these relationships seriously. They have approached their work with community groups in [a] very intentional way in order to make sure it’s not this shallow veneer of “community support.”

A: You talk in the book about how militancy was key to the success of the strike, but you also say that more than just militancy is required. What else did CTU do that was critical to their success?

MU: On the one hand in the American labor movement, we’re at a time when strikes are at an all-time low, and many union leaders want to pursue these kind of union/management partnerships. Militancy among unions is seen as part of a bygone era; maybe we had to do that in the 1930s or something, but now we’re more mature.  

But on the other hand, sometimes we get folks on the left whose response to anything is militancy, and going on strike. The thing about the CTU is not that they went on strike, but that they went on strike after they spent years at a community level establishing themselves as fighters for a broad educational justice movement. They had countered the narrative of being lazy overpaid public sector workers who don’t care about kids. And once they had established that, then they could go on strike, and the strike could be seen as a way of furthering the educational justice movement.

I don’t think the answer to all of labor’s problems is to go on strike. In many ways, if folks do go on strike without [movement] building those strikes could end badly. It’s not just militancy, but creating broad movements in tandem with militancy. And one of the key lessons of the strike is when you do that you can actually win.

A: Did you feel, during the strike, that there was a great deal of support for the teachers?

MU: One of the most incredible things that came out of the strike was that at the moment when teachers are out on strike and parents are having to make childcare arrangements and their lives are potentially in upheaval, two independent polls showed the majority of Chicago backed the teachers over Rahm Emanuel. And one poll showed two-thirds of black and Latino parents supported teachers over Emanuel, at the moment when they’re being inconvenienced.

That doesn’t happen spontaneously. The only way to get that kind of support is by doing that long-term building with community members. I think that was the moment when the Board of Education and Emanuel realized they had lost the battle and there was no way they could win.

The feeling on the street level in Chicago during the strike was just full of excitement. There was a sea of red everywhere you went. I left my house on a bike and every few blocks as I was heading downtown, there was a group of teachers. There was no sense of an enraged Chicago public. Every picket line I was on or heard about was a cacophony of supportive honks, people stopping by bringing breakfast and coffee; there was a feeling in the air that there was never any doubt the teachers are going to win. There was never any feeling of desperation.

I tell the story in the book of wearing the CTU solidarity shirt, which was a very hot fashion commodity, these red solidarity shirts. I walked into a café and got a free cup of yogurt from this minimum-wage cashier who says she wishes she could be out there with the teachers. And a bus driver waves me on and tells me to get on the bus for free, and he says, “We’ve got to support these teachers.” There was just this outpouring of support from the public. Teachers unions have to establish themselves as credible voices for social justice and public education in order to get that kind of support.

A: Tell us about the gains they secured in the contracts. What did the teachers actually win?

MU: There was a sort of wish-list of neoliberal reform in the initial contract, and the union scaled back the worst of that. For example, the district had wanted to raise the percentage of a teacher’s evaluation based on test scores, and the union was able to negotiate that down to the legal minimum of 30 percent.

Rahm Emanuel had wanted to introduce merit pay; they were able to fight back on that. Knowing that a big fight was going to happen on school closures, they won some provisions that allowed teachers from schools that would be closed to follow their students. Crazily, they had to fight to get textbooks on the first day of class, so the district guaranteed that. The district had wanted to raise the cap on class sizes, and they were able to defeat that. They doubled their budget for what teachers could get reimbursed when they spent money on classroom supplies. And they did get a pay raise.

A: What’s the most important thing labor can learn from this strike?

MU: At a time when labor is so beaten down and we’re accustomed to hearing defeat after defeat, it is possible for unions to fight back and to win. The war has not been lost, but it’s not going to happen with just the election of the right people —leaders who have all kinds of blustery militant rhetoric. These kinds of victories can come about when unions are more democratic and engage with community groups, and [act as] part of a broader movement for social justice.

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Fort Hood Massacres Show How Vulnerable We Are to Soldiers Who Have Suffered from the Traumas of War

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 15:17
And the government is cutting services to the very vets who need help.

Iraq veteran Army Spc. Ivan Lopez was dealing with depression and anxiety. On April 2, Lopez went to the 40th Transportation Battalion administrative office at Fort Hood, Texas, where he requested a leave form, so that he could attend to “family matters.” He was told he would have to return later to retrieve it, which then sparked a verbal altercation between him and Sgt. Jonathan Westbrook and Sgt. First Class Daniel Ferguson. Within minutes of the dispute, Lopez returned with a .45-caliber pistol. In a killing spree that would last 8 minutes, filled with more than 35 rounds, Westbrook, Ferguson and Sgt. Timothy Owens would lay slain, alongside 16 wounded, before Lopez ended his own life with a bullet to his head.

The shooting grabbed national headlines. The memorial for the dead was nationally televised with President Obama in attendance. The nationalistic pomp and ceremony of military memorials is not only orchestrated to purge the reality of war, but also to fool us into believing these tragic events are unique. They’re not. They’re all too familiar and now serve as reminder that the American empire is in rapid decline.

In small towns across America’s heartland, local newspapers contain headlines with similar stories. Colorado Springs: “Iraq War Vets Suspected in Two Slayings.” Lakewood, Washington: “Family Blames Iraq After Son Kills Wife.” Pierre, SD: “Soldier Charged With Murder Testifies About Postwar Stress.” Las Vegas: “Iraq Veteran Arrested in Killing.”

In 2008, the New York Times published a detailed report showing an explosion in the rate of military veterans who commit murder. The paper found Iraq and Afghanistan veterans had committed 121 instances of homicide on U.S. soil. Two years later, Current TV explored the link between post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans of the two recent wars and violence after returning home. The documentary found that the trend had continued with another 43 veterans charged with murder in the period 2008 to 2010.

Another report showed that the murder rate among the 3,500 members of the 4th Infantry Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team based at the U.S. Army’s Fort Carson, Colorado, was 114 times the average for Colorado Springs.

The NYT report found that murders committed by active-duty military personnel rose 89 percent from the pre-war period to present day. Of the 121 veterans who were charged with murder through 2008, 13 had committed suicide, which leads to the next alarming statistic: 22 veterans in this country, who are no longer able to fight the silent enemies of depression, PTSD, and anxiety, commit suicide each day, according to the Veterans Affairs Department. More than 2,000 veterans have committed suicide in 2014 alone. More sobering still is the fact that more Vietnam War veterans committed suicide after the war than the 55,000 killed during it.

The purpose of this piece is not to stigmatize veterans. It’s a reminder of what the corporate-led war machine does to young men and women, and how our crumbling infrastructure and decaying state is unable to care for them when they return.

It’s easy to stigmatize veterans who suffer mental health disorders when you have no idea what war is really like. The media and Hollywood present war as heroic and entertaining, turning war into nationalistic porn. I have not witnessed war, but I have witnessed a terrorist suicide attack. The smell of burning human flesh, the grisly sight of severed limbs, and the violent end to life is something I do not wish to see magnified by a scale of 10 on any battlefield. I trust returned soldiers and veteran war correspondents when they recount stories of 19-year old soldiers holding their intestines while screaming for their mothers.

Jess Goddell, who served in the Marines mortuary division during the war in Iraq, published a memoir titled Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq. "Our cammies would be stained with blood or with brains," she writes. "Sometimes things come in with nametages. Or sometimes one is Hispanic and you could tell who was Hispanic and who was the white guy. We tried separating flesh. It was ridiculous. We would open a body bag and there was nothing but vaporized flesh. There were not four hands or a whole leg in a bag. We tried to distribute the mush evenly throughout the bags. We had the last body bag come in. We opened up the body bag and it was filled with the heads. I looked at four before looking away. The eyes were looking back at us. We saw on the heads the expressions of fright and horror."

"War is disgusting and horrific and it never leaves the people who were involved in it…the war is never over for us. The fighting stops. The troops get called back. But the war goes on for those damaged by war,” Goddell writes.

The wars fought in Iraq and Afghanistan were wars of occupation fought against insurgent forces. Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton says soldiers placed in this kind of environment are vulnerable to “atrocity-producing situations.” When soldiers perceive the enemy is all around them, unidentifiable from the civilian population, the soldier feels his life may be taken at any moment by any passerby. This stress only needs a spark to result in that soldier mistakenly or intentionally killing an innocent civilian.

“The rage that soldiers feel after a roadside bomb explodes, killing or maiming their comrades, is one that is easily directed eventually to innocent civilians seen as supporting the insurgents. It is a short psychological leap, but a massive moral one. It is a leap from killing —the shooting of someone who has the capacity to do you harm—to murder—the deadly assault against someone who cannot harm you. The war in Iraq primarily involves murder. There is very little killing,” writes former NYT war correspondent Chris Hedges, who was embedded with U.S. combat divisions in Iraq.

The military trains our professional killers to be emotionless operators, so they may execute missions and cope with the chaos and confusion of war in an emotionally detached manner. When these soldiers return home, the military doesn’t give them an off button. The best care and assistance they can hope for is that offered by Veterans Affairs. Veterans are being denied the care they need because the Republican Party continues to starve the federal government of the revenue it needs to provide social assistance programs, like veterans benefits, so as to protect the rich and corporations against paying more in taxes.

In February, Senate Republicans blocked what would have been the largest piece of veteran’s legislation in decades, aimed at expanding healthcare, education and other benefits to those returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Remembering it was a Republican-controlled congress that voted for both wars, 54 Democrats and only two Republicans supported the bill. “If you can’t afford to take care of your veterans, don’t send them to war,” Senator Bernie Sanders fired at the Republican chicken hawks.

More and more of our military being outsourced to the corporate state, which means future wars will drive even greater profits for private corporations. And with increased political influence afforded to corporations and the rich, which means a deprivation of adequate funds for the federal government, expect war and atrocities like that of Fort Hood to be the new normal. The decay of empire is well underway.

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Why Is ABC Paying Laura Ingraham Lots of Money to Be a Racist?

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 15:12
In apparent effort to counter non-existent "liberal media bias," here's what ABC News will get from Laura Ingraham.

It was once an article of faith among many Americans, including many members of the press, that the news media was a hotbed of left wing propaganda, so filled with liberal bias that one had to use a decoder ring to get the truth. There may have been a grain of truth in it during the early days of Camelot and perhaps in the immediate aftermath of Watergate, but for the most part the media has always shown a bias toward the establishment, regardless of which party or ideology is dominant at a particular time.

However, the modern conservative movement, believing as it does in the All American capitalist maxim “there’s a sucker born every minute” used this perceived bias as a political tactic, what wags called “working the refs,” wherein they would accuse the press of being liberal so often that reporters would second-guess themselves and bend over backwards to accommodate a more conservative viewpoint. Despite the rise of FOX News and hundreds of right wing talk show hosts dominating much of the airwaves, they are still able to convince mainstream news organizations that they are biased  and lacking in authentic conservative voices. Recall a few years back when even the New York Times ostentatiously declared that it planned to devote significant resources to covering “the conservative beat” (which might have been just a bit more understandable if it hadn’t come immediately in the wake of its credulous reporting on the Bush administration’s push for war with Iraq.)

Nobody has been more of a vociferous critic of the news media’s alleged liberal bias than talk radio host and conservative commentator Laura Ingraham. Going all the way back to her years as a notorious campus activist making her name as a vicious homophobe (since partially recanted,) she has been hitting the mainstream media for its so-called liberal bias. This “Reliable Sources” exchange with E.J. Dionne from early 2003 is an amusing example of how the best of them get the job done:

KURTZ: Let’s turn now to media bias. E.J. Dionne, you wrote a column recently saying there is no longer any such thing as the big, liberal media. Is this a fantasy we’ve been talking about for some years now? … You’re saying that the “New York Times” and the “L.A. Times” and “The Washington Post” and the networks and magazines have been intimidated and they’re cowering and they can’t do their jobs anymore?

INGRAHAM: I must have missed that.

DIONNE: That’s not what I said…

INGRAHAM: When they cover a Bush press conference, how is it covered? Is it covered in a fair and balanced way…

DIONNE: Bush has gotten an extraordinarily good press. I challenge you to compare…

INGRAHAM: He’s been an extraordinarily good president, much to the media’s chagrin.

You see, when a Republican president gets bad coverage it’s because the press has a liberal bias. When he gets good coverage it’s because he’s so good.

Ingraham must be feeling some sort of vindication today.  ABC News has announced that she is their newest contributor. And she’ll be allowed to keep her job at Fox News subbing for Bill O’Reilly and also her daily radio show. Perhaps conservatives can finally relax a little bit about being so marginalized. It would appear we won’t be able to escape them.

One hopes that Ingraham will get along better with ABC than she did with FOX in the early days when Harry Shearer’s My Damn Channel posted behind the scenes footage of her frustration with the staff of her soon to be cancelled show, (especially a mysterious “Hispanic man” who kept spontaneously appearing in her teleprompter.) It occasioned James Walcott to comment: 

Ingraham sounds like a U-Boat commander just before everything goes pitch-black and desperate cries compete with the ominous clanging of pipes. The point is, it’s not her fault the ship’s about to spend eternity as a steel turd on the ocean floor.

ABC undoubtedly hopes such a fate does not await any shows on which she will appear in the future.  And anyway, it was a few years ago. Surely she’s mellowed by now, right? Well, I suppose it depends on what the meaning of “vile anti-immigrant zealot” is. She may have softened her stance on gays, but she has transferred all of that hatred on to undocumented workers.

Here are a few of her most disgraceful immigration comments from just the last year:

November 21, 2013

Ingraham Repeatedly Mocked An Immigration Protestor For Speaking English With An Accent. In November 2013, Ingraham repeatedly mocked a woman who was protesting the Obama administration’s record number of deportations, saying, “Wait, what did she say at the end? I can’t — I need a translator. I speak Spanish too. I’d rather have her just speak Spanish, at least I’d understand that.” She then went on to affect the woman’s accent, stating, “No want more amnesty. No want more lies. No want more phony promises. No want more people coming into the country, filling up our schools and our emergency rooms, having anchor babies and then blaming us for it. No want more that.“

January 28,2014:

The Associated Press reported that if Snyder’s plan is approved, “Detroit would be allocated 5,000 visas in the first year, 10,000 each of the next three years and 15,000 in the fifth year.” Immigrants would be allowed to live and work in the city for five years, but could apply for a green card after that time.

On her Tuesday radio show, Ingraham said the idea was “the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of. The people of this country, they’re smart enough to know that they don’t want to go anywhere near Detroit. Right?” she explained. “But we need to get these people from other countries to live and work in Detroit to save us because we can then wall off Detroit, apparently, so they can’t then move to other parts of the country.”

“Is that what Rick Snyder is gonna do?” Ingraham asked. “Is there gonna be, you know, is there gonna be finally a border enforced in our country? Except it’s going to be around Detroit.”

May 10, 2013

Ingraham used a May 2013 hearing on immigration reform to claim that immigration from Mexico would create a “hellhole” and a “mini-Mexico,” saying, “I think a lot of you look around at this culture of ours, and some of it is our own fault, but we see America disappearing. I’m not even talking about demographics, I’m talking about our culture.”

A few days before that:

Ingraham’s attacks against pro-immigration reform Republican politicians were accompanied by numerous smears against immigrants and Latinos, including referring to the American children of undocumented immigrants as “anchor fetuses” during a discussion about Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) “embrace of the path to citizenship” in May 2013.

As you can imagine, Ingraham isn’t one of those squishy conservatives who thinks that calling illegal immigration “an act of love” will bring some Latinos over to their side. She doesn’t want them:

“If the reaction to the election is let’s dig into our core principles and try to remake them, I think the GOP will lose even more seats in 2014,” Ingraham told Fox News host Chris Wallace. “If it becomes a bidding war with Republicans in either this group or that group — whether it’s Latinos or women — we’re going to give you more stuff or we’re going to do amnesty plus… it’s not going to work.”

“The Republicans have to take a lesson from — and I hate to bring up Reagan again — when Goldwater got shellacked in ’64, Bill Buckley and Brent Bozell Sr. and all these conservatives got together and they said, we’re going to figure out how to sell this idea of economic conservatism and the conservative framework to new voters. And they went into the South and they transformed Mississippi and Alabama, all these places where people had never voted Republican before.”

Apparently, ABC News doesn’t care to have Latinos as part of their audience. If they did, they wouldn’t hire someone with the kind of noxious anti-immigrant views that one would never expect to see outside the hardcore right wing media. And I certainly hope they don’t expect this hire to allay the complaints that they have a liberal bias. Way too many people make a very good profit from such absurd claims, including Laura Ingraham. It’s quite a coup that she’s conned them into paying her for the privilege.

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The Secret Anti-Abortion Law That's Sweeping America

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 15:06
Pro-lifers can't reverse Roe v Wade. So they're shutting down clinics with red tape and a smile. Don't believe the lie.

Last November, a new law went into effect in Texas: abortion clinics would now be required to have an agreement with a local hospital so that patients needing treatment could be transferred.

Now that sounds reasonable, doesn't it?

Perhaps, until you consider the fact that it caused one-third of health centers to stop providing abortions. Women in the Rio Grande Valley now have to travel hundreds of miles (if they're lucky enough to have the transportation and resources) to get access to a safe, legal abortion.

The Texas legislature has become an extreme example of new restrictions on abortion continuing to sweep statehouses in 2014, and the particulars buried by all those Wendy Davis profiles showcase a slick new tactic of the pro-life movement: a requirement for admitting privileges. At first glance, that kind of rule appears designed to protect women's health – to have an abortion provider make an arrangement with a local hospital in case of an emergency seems harmless, even helpful.

But this law, like so many others in the works, also imposes all kinds of obstacles to providers and clinics actually gaining these privileges. The end result: abortion clinics are shutting down all across the country. And because the (often Evangelical) bill-crafting language is so deceptively reasonable and so effective at defusing public outrage, we might not even have noticed that our constitutional right to safe and legal abortions is being steadily eroded.

Under the notorious House Bill 2, qualified Texas physicians may be denied privileges for reasons that have nothing to do with their credentials. Some hospitals, for instance, require providers to admit a certain number of patients each year. But because abortion is extremely safe and rarely warrants a referral to a hospital, meeting these quotas may be difficult – if not downright impossible. Sometimes hospitals may be religiously affiliated and will therefore deny abortion providers admitting privileges applications, or doctors may be required to live within a certain distance from a hospital.

Dr Sherwood Lynn, an abortion provider in San Antonio, told me that hospitals won't even send him the paperwork required to apply for privileges, and give no explanation for doing so. Hospitals have the power to dictate the kind of healthcare available to women in their communities, and they are using that power arbitrarily. 

The admitting-privileges workaround is growing across the country, and at an especially alarming rate in neighboring states around Texas. Oklahoma's SB 1848, for example, could shut down two of three abortion providers in the state; in Louisiana, HB 388 could close three of the five. This May, a case challenging an Alabama admitting privileges law will go to trial.

The trend began with a 2012 Mississippi law that would have closed all abortion clinics in the state. Physicians performing abortions in Mississippi were required to be board-certified obstetrician-gynecologists and have admitting privileges at an area hospital. Though a court eventually blocked the law, it sparked a new pro-life maneuver: bills with similar language appeared, state-after-state, like clockwork in the laboratory of democracy.

This is not a coincidence. Lawmakers are not suddenly concerned about women's health. According to a report by the Guttmacher Institute, in 2013 alone, 22 states adopted 70 different restrictions, including late-abortion bans, doctor and clinic regulations, limits on medication abortions and bans on insurance coverage.

And medical experts have disputed these restrictions again and again. In an amicus brief filed in response to the passing of the Texas law last year, the American Medical Association and American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists wrote:

There is no medical basis to require abortion providers to have local hospital admitting privileges … Unless there is a substantial public health justification, legislators should not interfere with patient care, medical decisions, and the patient-physician relationship.

To repeat: there is no medical basis for the restrictions. But legislators seem to care little for reason, or even actual medical advice. Because the pro-life movement hasn't succeeded at overturning Roe v Wade, they're focussing on generating enough red tape to shut down as many abortion facilities as possible.

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Matt Taibbi: The SuperRich in America Have Become 'Untouchables' Who Don't Go to Prison

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 14:51
Taibbi discusses his new book, "The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap."

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, attorney James Kidney, who was retiring from the Securities and Exchange Commission, gave a widely reported speech at his retirement party. He said that his bosses were too, quote, "tentative and fearful" to hold Wall Street accountable for the 2008 economic meltdown. Kidney, who joined the SEC in 1986, had tried and failed to bring charges against more executives in the agency’s 2010 case against Goldman Sachs. He said the SEC has become, quote, "an agency that polices the broken windows on the street level and rarely goes to the penthouse floors. ... Tough enforcement, risky enforcement, is subject to extensive negotiation and weakening," he said.

Well, for more, we turn to our guest, Matt Taibbi, award-winning journalist, formerly with Rolling Stone magazine, now with First Look Media. His new book is called The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.

Matt, we welcome you back to Democracy Now! It’s a remarkable, important, certainly needed book in this day and age. Talk about the thesis. What is the divide?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, this book grew out of my experience covering Wall Street. I’ve obviously been doing it since the crash in 2008. And over and over again, I would cover these very complex and often very socially destructive capers committed by white-collar criminals. And the punchline to all of the stories were basically the same: Nobody would get indicted; nobody went to jail. And after a while, I started to become interested specifically in that phenomenon. Why was there no enforcement of any of this? And around the time of the Occupy protest, I decided to write this book, and then I shifted my focus to try to learn a lot more for myself about who does go to jail in this country, because I thought you really can’t make this comparison accurately until you learn about both sides of the equation, because it’s actually much more grotesque to consider the non-enforcement of white-collar criminals when you do consider how incredibly aggressive law enforcement is with regard to everybody else.

AARON MATÉ: Now, you spent time with the—with the poor and vulnerable and people of color, who have been targeted by this system. There was one case of a man in New York, who lives in Bed-Stuy, standing outside of his home who was arrested. Can you take it from there?

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, sure. I was in a law office in Brooklyn, and I was actually waiting to speak to a lawyer about another case, when I met this 35-year-old African-American man, a bus driver. And I asked him what he was there for, and he told me that he had been arrested for, quote-unquote, "obstructing pedestrian traffic." And I thought he was kidding. You know, I didn’t know what that meant. And I asked him to show me his summons, and he pulled out a little—little piece of pink paper, and there it was. It was written, you know, "obstructing pedestrian traffic," which it turns out it meant that he was standing in front of his own house at 1:00 in the morning, and the police just didn’t like the way he looked and arrested him.

And this is part of the disorderly conduct statute here in New York, but this is one of these offenses that people get roped in for. It’s part of what a city councilman in another city called an "epidemic of false arrests," basically these new stats-based police strategies. The whole idea is to rope in as many people as you can, see how many of them have guns or warrants, and then basically throw back the innocent ones. But the problem is they don’t throw back everybody. They end up sweeping up a lot of innocent people and charging them with really pointless crimes.

AARON MATÉ: There’s a very comic scene where then he goes to court, and he has a hard time convincing his public defender why he doesn’t want to pay a fine for standing in front of his home.

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, and this is something that I encountered over and over and over again, is that people who were charged with these minor sort of harassing offenses, they—when the state discovers that the case against them is not very good, they start offering deals to the accused. And when people protest that "I’m not going to plead, because I didn’t do anything wrong," they keep offering better and better and better deals. And no one can understand why they won’t plead guilty, because, in reality, most people do. They will end up taking—

AMY GOODMAN: Like all the bankers plead guilty.

MATT TAIBBI: Right, yeah, exactly. Of course, it’s completely the opposite situation on the other side of the coin. But in the case of Andrew, the guy who was arrested for obstructing pedestrian traffic, he literally could not convince his own lawyer that he was innocent. And it took a long, long time before they got the judge to ask the policeman on duty if there was actually anybody else on the street to obstruct. And it wasn’t until that moment that they dismissed the case, and it just took that long.

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s talk about the other side. And I want to go to Attorney General Eric Holder, his remarks before the Senate Judiciary Committee last May in which he suggests that some banks are just too big to jail.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to—to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if you do prosecute, if you do bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy. And I think that is a function of the fact that some of these institutions have become too large. Again, I’m not talking about HSBC; this is just a more general comment. I think it has an inhibiting influence, impact, on our ability to bring resolutions that I think would be more appropriate.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Attorney General Eric Holder testifying before Congress. His remarks were widely criticized. This is Federal Judge Jed Rakoff speaking last November at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

JUDGE JED RAKOFF: To a federal judge, who takes an oath to apply the law equally to rich and poor, this excuse, sometimes labeled the too-big-to-jail excuse, is, frankly, disturbing for what it says about the department’s apparent disregard for equality under the law.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Federal Judge Jed Rakoff. Matt Taibbi, if you could respond? And then talk about the history of Eric Holder, where he came from.

MATT TAIBBI: Well, first of all, this idea that some companies are too big to jail, it makes some sense in the abstract. In a vacuum, of course it makes sense. If you have a company, a storied company that may have existed for a hundred, 150 years, that employs tens or maybe even 100,000 people, you may not want to criminally charge that company willy-nilly and wreck the company and cause lots of people to lose their jobs.

But there are two problems with that line of thinking if you use it over and over and over again. One is that there’s no reason you can’t proceed against individuals in those companies. It’s understandable to maybe not charge the company, but in the case of a company like HSBC, which admitted to laundering $850 million for a pair of Central and South American drug cartels, somebody has to go to jail in that case. If you’re going to put people in jail for having a joint in their pocket or for slinging dime bags on the corner in a city street, you cannot let people who laundered $800 million for the worst drug offenders in the world walk.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait, this can’t be a parenthetical. Explain what you’re talking about with HSBC.

MATT TAIBBI: So, HSBC, again, this is one of the world’s largest banks. It’s Europe’s largest bank. And a few years ago, they got caught, swept up for a variety of offenses, money-laundering offenses. But one of them involved admitting that they had laundered $850 million for a pair—for two drug cartels, one in Mexico and one in South America, and including the notorious Sinaloa drug cartel in Mexico that is suspected in thousands of murders.

And in that case, they paid a fine; they paid a $1.9 billion fine. And some of the executives had to defer their bonuses for a period of five years—not give them up, defer them. But there were no individual consequences for any of the executives. Nobody had to pull money out of their own pockets for permanently. And nobody did a single day in jail in that case.

And that, to me, was an incredibly striking case. I ran that very day to the courthouse here in New York, and I asked around to the public defenders, you know, "What’s the dumbest drug case you had today?" And I found somebody who had been thrown in Rikers for 47 days for having a joint in his pocket. So—

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s—is that even illegal?

MATT TAIBBI: No, in New York City, actually, it’s not illegal to carry a joint around in your pocket. It was decriminalized way back in the late '70s. But with part of the now past stop-and-frisk, what they do is they would stop you, and then they would search you and force you to empty your pockets. When you empty your pockets, now it's no longer concealed, and now it’s illegal again. So they had—in that year, they had 50,000 marijuana arrests, even though marijuana—having marijuana was technically decriminalized at the time.

So, my point was: Here’s somebody at the bottom, he’s a consumer of the illegal narcotics business, and he’s going to jail, and then you have these people who are at the very top of the illegal narcotics business, and they’re getting a complete walk. And that’s just totally unacceptable.

AARON MATÉ: But back to this doctrine that you can’t punish an entire company for the misdeeds of a few because you might hurt the economy, you might hurt shareholders, you know, some of which are pension holders and—pension funds and so forth, how do you get from hurting a—how do you equate hurting an entire company to just not jailing a couple of executives?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, that’s the whole point. They’ve conflated the two things. Originally—so, this—to answer the second part of your original question, "Where does this come from? Where does this doctrine come from?" way back in 1999, when Eric Holder was a deputy attorney general in the—in Clinton’s administration, he wrote a memo that has now come to be known as "the Holder Memo." And in it, he outlined a number of things. Actually, it was originally considered a get-tough-on-corporate-crime memo, because it gave prosecutors a number of new tools with which they could go after corporate criminals. But at the bottom of it, there was this thing that he laid out called the "collateral consequences doctrine." And what "collateral consequences" meant was that if you’re a prosecutor and you’re targeting one of these big corporate offenders and you’re worried that you may affect innocent victims, that shareholders or innocent executives may lose their jobs, you may consider other alternatives, other remedies besides criminal prosecutions—in other words, fines, nonprosecution agreements, deferred prosecution agreements. And again, at the time, it was a completely sensible thing to lay out. Of course it makes sense to not always destroy a company if you can avoid it. But what they’ve done is they’ve conflated that sometimes-sensible policy with a policy of not going after any individuals for any crimes. And that’s just totally unacceptable.

AARON MATÉ: Is it not the case that some of these cases are just too complex to explain to a jury?

MATT TAIBBI: Yes. And that—well, they are complex, and juries do have a difficult time with them, but they’re not impossible to explain to a jury. I mean, I attended a trial involving bid rigging in the municipal bond markets where they obtained convictions. Now, that case couldn’t have been more complicated. That was as hard as a case gets. And I actually watched some of the jurors fighting off sleep in the early days of the trial. That’s how difficult it was. And in that case, amusingly, one of the attorneys for the banks got up initially, and he tried to defend his client’s behavior by saying, you know, "When you call up a—if your washing machine breaks and you call the repairman and he tells you how much it costs, you just have to trust him what the price is because you don’t understand how to fix your washing machine, and we do." In other words, this stuff is so complex, you just have to take our word for it that we didn’t commit a crime. And—but that excuse, I think that’s a weak excuse that prosecutors give out. It’s a cop-out for not taking on, you know, difficult cases. Rich or poor, black or white, if somebody has broken the law, you should want to go after wrongdoers no matter who they are, and the fact that it’s a difficult crime to prove should just be more of a challenge for you.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to remarks by Lanny Breuer in 2012 about prosecuting large companies. At the time, he was the assistant attorney general. He spoke before the New York City Bar Association.

LANNY BREUER: I personally feel that it’s my duty to consider whether individual employees, with no responsibility for or knowledge of misconduct committed by others in the same company, are going to lose their livelihood if we indict the corporation. In large multinational companies, the jobs of tens of thousands of employees can literally be at stake. And in some cases, the health of an industry or the markets are a very real factor. Those are the kinds of considerations in white-collar cases that literally keep me up at night, and which must, must play a role in responsible enforcement.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Lanny Breuer in 2012, who was like number two in the Justice Department.

MATT TAIBBI: He was the head of the Criminal Division, so he’s basically the top cop in America at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: He was at the Justice Department; of course, Eric Holder is the attorney general—both from the same company. Respond to what he said, and then talk about Covington & Burling.

MATT TAIBBI: Well, first of all, his—that whole thing about the innocent white-collar employees perhaps losing their livelihoods keeping him up at night, I want to know what his response is to, you know, the idea that maybe a single mother on welfare is going to lose her kids because she’s going to lose custody in an $800 welfare fraud case. You know, I saw so many of these cases that it was—that is was just overwhelming to me. Those are the kinds of things that would keep me up at night if I were the attorney general, thinking about the consequences that ordinary people feel—suffer when they are caught up in the criminal justice system.

People—for instance, again, going back to welfare fraud, your relatives can lose their Section 8 housing. So, you know, if you’re—again, if you’re on welfare and you get caught in a fraud case, that may just involve checking the wrong box or having somebody, one of your neighbors, say that you have a boyfriend living in your house, when you really don’t, your mother or your grandmother can lose their housing because of something like that. That would be the stuff that would keep me up at night. I mean, I wouldn’t be worried about millionaire and billionaire executives, you know, who are working at these banks, if I were Lanny Breuer. So that tells you a lot about the priorities of somebody like him.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about Lanny Breuer, Eric Holder, where they come from, where they go back to.

MATT TAIBBI: So they both came from a law firm called Covington & Burling, which in the 2000s represented basically every single one of the too-big-to-fail banks. They were also involved in the setting up of the electronic mortgage registry, so they played an enormous role in the subprime mortgage crisis.

But here’s the key thing about the presence of these two people at the head of the attorney—of the Justice Department. Prosecutors, by and large—and I interviewed a lot of prosecutors for this book—they basically all have the same personality, the old-school prosecutors. They’re just—if you think of somebody like Eliot Spitzer, they’re all like bulldogs. They just want to get their—you know, get their target; by hook or crook, it doesn’t really matter. They have this ferocious aspect to their personalities. And it’s an admirable quality in a prosecutor. They’re all kind of the same, in a certain way. Cops are the same way. But in the 2000s, that kind of person started to be replaced in the regulatory system by a new kind of figure who tended to come from the corporate defense community. And their attitude was not, you know, get their target at all costs; it was more: "Let’s bring a bunch of people in a room and hammer out a solution where all the sides are going to end up walking out happy." And that’s why we end up with settlements, like the $13 billion Chase settlement last year or the $1.9 billion HSBC settlement, instead of prosecutions.

AMY GOODMAN: Covington & Burling represented JPMorgan Chase.

MATT TAIBBI: They did, yeah, and a host of other banks that also were involved in nonprosecutions during this time. So, I mean, it’s—you have a whole bunch of people sort of at the top of the regulatory agencies, whether it’s Justice, the SEC, the CFTC, maybe the Enforcement Division of the SEC, who all came from these big banks or from law firms that represented these big banks. And it’s a very incestuous community. And just like you talked about with James Kidney, theSEC official who left, as a result of this kind of merry-go-round of people who all work for the same companies—and they’re going to go to government for a while, then they’re going to go back to the corporate defense community after they leave and make millions of dollars—they’re very, very reluctant to be aggressive against these companies, because it’s their—culturally, they’re the same people as their targets, whereas there isn’t that same simpatico with the very poor. And I think that’s a very—it’s an important distinction to make, and people don’t understand it.

AARON MATÉ: You also suggest that Holder and Breuer are perhaps overly concerned with their conviction rate—

MATT TAIBBI: Oh, yeah.

AARON MATÉ: —and that’s why they don’t go after these banks.

MATT TAIBBI: Again, that’s something I heard over and over again from people within the Justice Department, that once those two came in, the edict came down from above that we were only going to go after cases where we were absolutely sure we were going to win. Now, you can never guarantee a victory in any criminal case, and oftentimes the cases are difficult to prove or the evidence may not be 100 percent there, but the state has a moral obligation to proceed with investigations and, in many cases, criminal cases against people who are guilty. You know, the fact that it’s difficult shouldn’t be a limiting factor. And that’s why you saw—instead of cases against these big banks, you saw ridiculously large amounts of resources devoted to things like prosecuting Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens, you know, cases where there are like only a couple of pieces of evidence and it was hard to screw up. And yet, you know, they didn’t always succeed even in those cases. So, it was a terrible, terrible thing for the Justice Department during that period.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, then come back to this conversation. The award-winning journalist Matt Taibbi is with us, formerly with Rolling Stone magazine. His new book is called The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap. When the government does go after banks, what banks do they go after? We’ll talk about that in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Aaron Maté.

AARON MATÉ: Well, we are speaking with Matt Taibbi, the award-winning journalist formerly withRolling Stone magazine, now with First Look Media. His book is The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap. Now, turning to the banks—or the bank that was prosecuted, Abacus Bank, last May it became the first bank to be indicted in Manhattan in over two decades. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. announced the indictment.

CYRUS VANCE JR.: Today we are announcing the indictment or guilty pleas of 19 individuals on charges including mortgage fraud, securities fraud and conspiracy, as well as the indictment of Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a federally chartered bank that has been catering to the Chinese immigrant community since 1984. Now, these defendants—the bank and former employees and managers from its loan department—are charged with engaging in a systematic scheme to falsify and fabricate loan applications to the Federal National Mortgage Association, commonly known as Fannie Mae, so that borrowers who would otherwise not legally qualify for Fannie Mae’s mortgages could obtain them unlawfully. This is a large-scale mortgage fraud case that we estimate to include hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of falsified loan applications. If we have learned anything from the recent mortgage crisis, it’s that at some point these schemes unravel, and taxpayers can be left holding the bag. Financial institutions, in short, have to obey the law and follow the rules. Our financial system is predicated on this basic concept.

AARON MATÉ: That’s Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr. Matt Taibbi, you were at this trial. You heard Prosecutor Vance there suggesting some link here to the financial crisis, but that wasn’t the case.

MATT TAIBBI: So, this is—I mean, it’s almost humorous. It’s not humorous for the bank involved, obviously. But here he is holding this grand press conference. They actually had a chain gang, where they chained 19 of the defendants together and hauled them into court for this—for this exercise.

AMY GOODMAN: All working for Abacus?

MATT TAIBBI: All working for Abacus. And these are working-class Chinese immigrants, basically. The highest-ranking official in this entire case made $90,000 a year. Many of them didn’t speak English. This is a small bank wedged between two noodle shops in Chinatown. And this was the target they chose to go against as a symbol of the financial crisis? In the chain gang incident, actually, three of the—three of the defendants had actually already been arraigned, but they asked them to volunteer to come down to the courthouse for the photo op that day, brought them in, chained them up to the rest of the defendants so they could be re-arraigned for the benefit of the cameras.

But the point of this whole thing is that Abacus Federal Savings Bank, which is a small, community, minority bank in Manhattan, this was the sole target of any reprisal by the federal—by the government in the wake of the financial crisis. And they’re a stone’s throw from all these gigantic skyscrapers, you know, housing all of these other major banks that committed crimes that were hundreds of times worse than Abacus was even accused of. And it was such a visually striking contrast for me that that’s where I wanted to start the book, because here you have this bank being arraigned in downtown Manhattan, and they looked northward towards Chinatown for their target as opposed to, you know, a few blocks south, where they could have found—you know, walked in any direction and found an appropriate target.

AMY GOODMAN: Contrast that with Jamie Dimon testifying before—what was it—the Senate Judiciary Committee, the head of JPMorgan Chase. And talk about what his bank was fined for and what he ultimately—what happened to him.

MATT TAIBBI: So, Jamie Dimon is the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, and they—last year that bank paid $20 billion in fines, which is an extraordinary number. Think about it. I think it beats by a factor of five the record for the largest amount of regulatory fines in a single year, which was previously held by BP for their Deepwater Horizon incident. They were accused of an extraordinary array of things, everything from being Bernie Madoff’s banker and not raising red flags early enough, to manipulating energy prices in Michigan and California, to failing to disclose to investors the extent of losses in the London Whale episode, to abuses during the subprime mortgage period by some of their subsidiaries. The list of things goes on and on and on and on. And—

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, if this were translated into common criminal law—

MATT TAIBBI: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —this is—this is sort of replacing hundreds of years in prison for many different people.

MATT TAIBBI: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, I made the point in another case—there was another case involving a company called General Reinsurance where a bunch of executives were charged with a $750 million stock fraud, that that amount of fraud that year was more than the total value of all the cars stolen in the American Northeast that same year. So you think about everybody who’s doing time for a stolen car that year, and, you know, these guys ultimately got off on a technicality.

So, again, going back to Chase, they paid $20 billion in fines. And what the government always says in response to the question of why aren’t these guys in jail, they always say, "Well, we don’t have enough evidence. These cases are hard to make." But my question is, over and over again, they somehow seem to have enough leverage to get billions of dollars of fines out of these companies, but not enough leverage to get even a day in jail for any of their executives? It doesn’t add up. Logically, it’s a total non sequitur. There’s no way you can have a company paying that much money and not have somebody guilty of a crime. It’s just—it’s not possible.

AARON MATÉ: And Jamie Dimon, of course, gets a 74 percent raise.

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, exactly. I mean, that’s the punchline to this whole thing, right? I mean, if you were, you know, the head of any other business—Alex Pareene of Salon.com made this point, that if he were running a restaurant and he got the biggest fine in the history of restaurants, there is no way that he would be kept in, kept on the job as the head of the company. But he was not only not fired, not only not prosecuted, but he was kept in the job, and he got a 74 percent raise. And they essentially paid for $20 billion fines by laying off 7,500 lower-level workers that year, and so that’s where the pain came from.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Richard Fuld, the final chair and chief executive officer of Lehman Brothers. In 2008, he spoke before the House of Representatives Oversight Committee and was grilled about his own exorbitant earnings as the bank went under. This is Committee Chair Henry Waxman questioning Fuld.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: You’ve been able to pocket close to half-a-million dollars. And my question to you is, a lot of people ask: Is that fair for the CEO of a company that’s now bankrupt to have made that kind of money? It’s just unimaginable to so many people.

RICHARD FULD: I would say to you the 500 number is not accurate. I would say to you that although it’s still a large number, I think, for the years that you’re talking about here, I believe my cash compensation was close to $60 million, which you have indicated here. And I believe the amount that I took out of the company over and above that was, I believe, a little bit less than $250 million.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to the last head of Lehman Brothers talking about his salary?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, first of all, there was a whistleblower within Lehman Brothers who wrote to theSEC before Lehman Brothers collapsed, talking about how Fuld had actually earned a significantly larger amount of money than he represented there in Congress. It’s quite possible that if the SEChad followed up on some of those complaints by that whistleblower, that they might have uncovered some of the corruption at Lehman Brothers ahead of time and maybe, possibly even headed off that disaster.

But what’s interesting—what’s symbolic about Richard Fuld is that here’s a guy who nearly blew up the planet by, you know, loading up his company with deadly leverage and making a string of irresponsible decisions to over-invest in subprime mortgages, and the collapse of the company resulted in all of us having to pay these enormous bailouts. But Fuld walked away with, by his count, $300 million, maybe $350 [million], but by the count of some others, more closer to half-a-billion dollars, and he kept the money. And that is a consistent theme of the financial crisis. Not only were these guys not prosecuted, they got to keep all of their money, all of the ill-gotten gains that they made during these periods.

AMY GOODMAN: You call that chapter "The Greatest Bank Robbery You Never Heard Of."

MATT TAIBBI: Right, yeah. No, there was something that happened at Lehman Brothers at the end of the—you know, when the company went out of business. It was—there was essentially a merger with the British bank, Barclays, and there was an incredibly interesting episode where a series of Lehman insiders agreed to take upwards of $300 million in compensation—in future compensation from Barclays, before they did the process of valuating the company for sale to Barclays. I know that sounds complicated, but basically they took jobs at Barclays, and then they basically marked down the price of Barclays so that the Lehman creditors got less money in the end. So, if you were—if you lost money in the Lehman debacle, you can probably lay some of the blame at the feet of those executives.

AARON MATÉ: And it was so shady that didn’t most of this happen in the middle of the night?

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, actually, they made—they struck many of the deals with these Lehman insiders before dawn on the day of the last board meeting. Literally before dawn, you had emails going back and forth between some of these Lehman Brothers executives saying, "Well, how much did you get? You know, I got $15 million," and, you know, etc., etc.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, the way the media covers, and the prosecutors go after or don’t, these institutions, it’s all from the perspective of those who would be or should be charged. When it comes to people on the street, it’s always from the perspective of the victim.

MATT TAIBBI: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: Which, by the way, it should be.

MATT TAIBBI: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, if someone is raped or murdered, you should hear their story, their name—

MATT TAIBBI: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: —and a person should be held responsible. But in this case, you never hear about the victims.

MATT TAIBBI: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: Instead, you are identifying with those who are charged. They say they have families; they’re really a wonderful person.

MATT TAIBBI: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the victims of these crimes that JPMorgan Chase was fined for.

MATT TAIBBI: Well, I mean, we’re all victims of these crimes. I mean, that’s the difficult thing about this new era of financial corruption is that, you know, these crimes are executed on such a massive scale that we can all be victimized and basically not know it. If you think about something like the Libor scandal, right, where the world’s biggest banks got together and colluded to monkey around with world interest rates, well, that crime affected anybody who held a variable rate investment of any kind. So if you have a floating rate credit card or a floating mortgage, or if you’re a town that has swaps, you may be paying more, you may be paying less. It doesn’t know—you don’t know, but they’ve been affecting the amounts of your holdings. There have recently been charges that some of the banks have been monkeying around with the prices of things like metals, like aluminum and tin and zinc and copper. So if you go to buy a can of soda, you may be paying more than you would have otherwise.

In the subprime mortgage crisis, typically the victims were people who held pensions, because what would happen often was the banks would create these gigantic masses of essentially phony subprime loans. They would disguise them as AAA-rated investments. Then they would sell them to an institutional investor like a pension fund. So you’re some, you know, working stiff, a toll booth operator in Minnesota. You’ve got a state pension. And you wake up one morning, and 30 percent of your pension fund is gone. Well, you’re a victim of this stuff.

But it’s very hard to trace that back to these people. And it’s hard—and journalists don’t want to do the work of identifying who the victims are in these scandals, because it’s too complicated. And that’s why you often see these crimes described from the point of view of the perpetrator and not from the victim, because we’re all the victims. These crimes are ethereal. They’re existential. They’re on such a gigantic scope that it’s difficult for us to get a—wrap our heads around. And that’s a—so that’s a very good question to ask.

AARON MATÉ: You mentioned earlier people who are targeted for welfare fraud. In one case, you went to San Diego and profiled a woman who was targeted by this program P100—

MATT TAIBBI: Right.

AARON MATÉ: —a very invasive action in her home. Can you talk to us about that case?

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, they have this program in San Diego where if you apply for welfare, the state gets to pre-emptively search your house to make sure that you’re not lying about, for instance, having a boyfriend. You know, so you’re a single mom. You go to the welfare office. You need financial assistance. You represent on the form that you’re not cohabiting with anybody. And just to check, they tell you to go sit tight in your house. And I’ve heard stories of people who waited, literally sitting in their house for a week, not knowing when the inspector is going to come, because if you’re not there when they come, you don’t get your welfare.

So, the person comes finally. It’s not a social worker. It’s very often a law enforcement official. They go in, and they search your house. I talked to a number of women who have recounted the experience of having their underwear drawers rifled through. You know, one woman talked about an inspector sticking his pencil end into the underwear drawer and picking out a pair of sexy panties and saying, you know, "Who do you need these for? If you don’t have a boyfriend, what’s this for?" And this is the kind of thing that people have to go through.

And I understand that, to many middle Americans, you know, welfare recipients are not—are perhaps not the most sympathetic people. But it’s very striking that, for instance, the recipients of bailouts, we don’t have the right to go in and check their books, but somebody who applies for federal assistance to feed their kids, we have the right to go through their underwear drawer. And I thought that was a striking comparison.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt, the cover of The Divide, of your book, American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, is very striking. And you have this artwork throughout your book. Explain who did this.

MATT TAIBBI: So this is Molly Crabapple. She’s a great artist. I met her during the Occupy protests. We had—we have a mutual friend, and Molly had done these amazing posters for the Occupy protests that were—that were based—some of them were based on my work, because there was a vampire squid theme to some of them.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain vampire squid.

MATT TAIBBI: Well, I had referred to Goldman Sachs as a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity. So she had done these series of posters that were like, you know, "starve the vampire squid," "stop the vampire squid." So we got together, and she was—she ended up becoming sort of famous as like the semi-official artist of Occupy. And we decided to work together on this project. And what’s so perfect about her is that she really specializes in doing these kind of grotesque, horrifying, Boschian portraits of dysfunction, you know, like the cover. It actually looks quite beautiful from a distance, but if you look at it closely, it’s this horrifying image of people being ground up in this mindless justice machine. So it’s beautiful stuff, and Molly should get—she gets all the credit in the world, I think. They’re incredible images.

AARON MATÉ: At sentencing hearings, you have sometimes family members and friends coming to plead to the judge for leniency. And you sort of contrast this in your book. You have one scene where you have executives bringing in hundreds of people.

MATT TAIBBI: Mm-hmm.

AARON MATÉ: Can you compare what happens there to what happens to people on the bottom?

MATT TAIBBI: So this is interesting. Again, this is that same Gen Re case I talked about, the $750 million stock fraud where these guys all got off. And what was so interesting about that is—so, if you go to court, the judges almost never are from the same neighborhoods as the accused. But when you do have a case where it’s, you know, somebody from the suburbs who lives in Connecticut and the judge is also somebody who’s from the suburbs and lives in Connecticut, and he has members of the local PTA come out and say that, you know, "This guy is somebody who wouldn’t even jaywalk. You know, he’s a God-fearing person. Yes, maybe he might have committed a $750 million stock fraud, but he’s a very decent person," they will very frequently—like, bail is never an issue for this kind of defendant, which is very, very important. You know, these—and beyond that, in that particular case, after they were convicted, all of these defendants were allowed to remain free pending appeal, which removed all of the leverage the state might have had to roll up these defendants up into higher targets, whereas that’s exactly the opposite of what happens to poor defendants, who are frequently thrown in jail. Their, you know, bail is set at a level that’s higher than they can afford. And then, while you’re in jail waiting for trial, you start to do the math, and you realize that you could stay in jail longer in bail than you would do if you were sentenced. And that’s one of the reasons why people plead out, even when they’re innocent, because the math just works in the state’s favor. They have all these tricks they can use to keep you in jail longer than you’re supposed to be.

AMY GOODMAN: Who was tougher on corporate America, President Obama or President Bush?

MATT TAIBBI: Oh, Bush, hands down. And this is an important point to make, because if you go back to the early 2000s, think about all these high-profile cases: Adelphia, Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen. All of these companies were swept up by the Bush Justice Department. And what’s interesting about this is that you can see a progression. If you go back to the savings and loan crisis in the late '80s, which was an enormous fraud problem, but it paled in comparison to the subprime mortgage crisis, we put about 800 people in jail during—in the aftermath of that crisis. You fast-forward 10 or 15 years to the accounting scandals, like Enron and Alelphia and Tyco, we went after the heads of some of those companies. It wasn't as vigorous as the S&L prosecutions, but we at least did it. At least George Bush recognized the symbolic importance of showing ordinary Americans that justice is blind, right?

Fast-forward again to the next big crisis, and how many people have we got—have we actually put in jail? Zero. And this was a crisis that was much huger in scope than the S&L crisis or the accounting crisis. I mean, it wiped out 40 percent of the world’s wealth, and nobody went to jail, so that we’re now in a place where we don’t even recognize the importance of keeping up appearances when it comes to making things look equal.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you end with the story of Patrick? And we just have a minute.

MATT TAIBBI: Sure, yeah. There was a saxophonist named Patrick Ocean Jewell who was assaulted by police here in New York City. They mistook a hand-rolled cigarette for a joint.

AMY GOODMAN: He had brought his girlfriend to the subway, liked to walk with her every morning.

MATT TAIBBI: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: He actually did not know who attacked him.

MATT TAIBBI: Right, yeah. No, the police can be anyone these days. That’s another thing that most people don’t know about. They don’t always come in uniform, and they don’t always come in those unmarked Plymouths that they used to drive. They can drive fancy cars. They can drive beaters. They can be dressed in plainclothes. They can be black, white. You don’t even know who the cops are anymore. And this guy was just sitting there at a train station smoking a hand-rolled cigarette, and all of a sudden he’s being beaten up by all these people, you know, and he only later figured out that they were cops.

AMY GOODMAN: When he called to a police officer, started crying for help.

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, he’s crying for help, and a uniformed police officer comes and tells him to shut up. And that’s when he realizes that they were cops. But this is—this is sort of stop-and-frisk expanding its universe of targets. So, you know, now, even if you’re white and middle-class, you know, now you, too, can be part of this whole process. And that’s—

AMY GOODMAN: And your point in bringing—putting this in The Divide?

MATT TAIBBI: Is that—you know, is that this is now beginning to affect everybody. I think one of the problems that the increasing wealth gap is bringing to us is that there’s a smaller and smaller group of untouchables, and then there’s a sort of widening group of everybody else, and we all have the same lack of respect from the law enforcement.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Matt Taibbi, I want to thank you for being with us, award-winning journalist. His book is called The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.

 

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Meet the Drug Rehab Celebrity Dispensing a Dangerous Brand of Intolerance

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 12:54
Bob Forrest gives the finger to opioid maintenance—and to the consensus of international scientific opinion.

The following article first appeared on Substance.com

In a better world, there would be no conflict between abstinence-based treatment and harm reduction: As in other types of medicine, addiction care would occur on a continuum. Just as you don’t see cancer doctors blogging that radiation is a “con” and only chemo should be used in all cases, you wouldn’t see addiction counselors making a similar case that abstinence should always be used, never maintenance.

Unfortunately, thanks to the likes of Bob Forrest, that’s not the world we live in. Forrest, who identifies himself on his website as the “longtime partner of Dr. Drew,” now runs his own treatment program, Acadia Malibu. It’s hard to believe, but yes, a man who worked on Dr. Drew’s Celebrity Rehab actually advertises this fact to sell addiction services—despite the show having a mortality rate of nearly 13% among its “patients.”

Forrest opposes maintenance treatment—even though three of the five patients who died after their season on the show lost their lives to opioid overdose or its complications, which could have been prevented if they had been given support for maintenance, rather than told abstinence is the One True Way.

Nonetheless, here’s what Forrest—after noting, “I thought of calling this blog ‘The Open-Minded Report’”—writes about harm reduction:

“It’s a con in my opinion. I have seen the suffering and degradation it causes: the confusion it brings to the 12-step community about who is sober and who is not; the irrational fear of detox, where the list of medications designed to help you avoid actually experiencing any withdraw symptoms grows longer and longer every year; and just generally, the lies and danger and horror it is causing. The medical profession and pharmaceutical industries drive the use of Suboxone and Subutex. This is code for ‘profitable to doctors and drug companies.’”

Nearly everything about this paragraph is wrong. For one, if harm reduction—by which he means opioid maintenance here—is a “con,” why is it endorsed by every major public health organization that has investigated the issue, from the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health in the US to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence in the UK and the World Health Organization?

Why does the Cochrane Collaboration—an independent organization widely viewed as producing the highest-quality evidence on which to base medical decisions—say this about methadone: “It retains patients in treatment and decreases heroin use better than treatments that do not utilize opioid replacement therapy,” while concluding of 12-step programs that “no experimental studies unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of AA or [12-Step Facilitation] approaches for reducing alcohol dependence or problems”?

And why does research show that patients who leave methadone treatment double their risk of dying—and quintuple their risk of overdose death if they are injection drug users? Why do studies consistently find death rates among addicted people in methadone treatment to be about one-quarter or one-third the rate of those not on maintenance? Even if Forrest relies only on anecdote, not data, his own experience with Celebrity Rehab deaths clearly bears this out.

OK, so it’s clear that Forrest is on the fringes here, ignoring both an overwhelming international consensus on best practices and the evidence of his own eyes. Let’s move on.

Is there any truth to the idea that maintenance treatments are simply a profit center for doctors and drug companies? While some money is being made, a look at the actual history of maintenance makes evident that if this is a pharma conspiracy, it’s an extremely strange one, because the US government basically had to pay drug companies to participate in it.

Let’s start with methadone. It’s a generic drug, long off patent and therefore definitely not of current interest to Big Pharma. As an addiction treatment, methadone was developed by Vincent Dole and Marie Nyswander of Rockefeller University in the mid-1960s—starting with money scraped together mainly from the government of New York City, not drug companies.

At first, virtually all methadone treatment was funded by the federal government as an anti-crime measure—and while there certainly have been unscrupulous providers, that’s linked far more to the stigma of addiction, and the lack of oversight of the care addicted people actually get for the money spent on us, than to any drive for pharmaceutical profit related to selling methadone.

What about Suboxone? It, too, was first studied as an addiction treatment, by the government—in fact, there was so little commercial interest in it that the National Institute on Drug Abuse had to push the FDA to give it “orphan” status in order to get the company that now makes it to enter the market. As Nancy Campbell writes in Discovering Addiction: The Science and Politics of Substance Abuse Research, “Lack of coordination between public and private interests delayed development far longer than the notoriously slow FDA approval process. To bring ‘bupe’ to market, NIDA worked to stimulate private interest.”

In other words, we have Suboxone despite the disinterest of pharma in the addiction market—not because it saw dollar signs when it looked into our eyes. While Reckitt Benckiser did ultimately profit from the drug, this is not a scandal like the overselling of antipsychotic medications, for which every single manufacturer has paid at least multimillions, and sometimes billions, of dollars in fines for misleading marketing. Indeed, it’s an example of a drug that is doing precisely what a drug is supposed to do: restoring health more often than harming it.

Of course, it’s not completely wrong to say that there is an excess of shady doctors in the Suboxone business—but again, the reason for this is that addicted people are, to put it mildly, not popular with physicians. Those who have the choice not to work with us generally make that decision whenever they can—because of both the stigma and the legal scrutiny that maintenance treatment for addiction brings.

All of this is not to say that everyone who has ever had an opioid addiction should be on maintenance: I am personally an example of someone who is not. But good medical practice is about finding the right treatment for the right person—not prescribing the same therapy at the same dose for every patient with every variant of the disorder in which you supposedly specialize.

Finally, I have to add that it’s laughable that someone like Forrest would claim that maintenance proponents are scaring people away from abstinence by raising fear about withdrawal—when on Celebrity Rehab, patients were brutally detoxed in the most uncomfortable way possible.

Need I remind him that one person who later died of an overdose actually became psychotic during withdrawal on the show and another, who later committed suicide, suffered a seizure? Actual experts say that neither symptom should have been allowed to emerge in appropriate medical treatment with slow, careful detox—but this is the picture of withdrawal that the supposed abstinenceadvocate presented to the world.

There’s truly no need for abstinence and harm reduction advocates to be at each other’s throats: Both forms of treatment are needed and belong in the continuum of care. Not every person addicted to opioids needs lifelong maintenance—but some do; likewise, while some people benefit greatly from 12-step participation, others don’t. We can, and should, all get along here, to paraphrase Rodney King, another patient who died after Celebrity Rehab.

While there is room for many different approaches in addiction treatment, we’ve got to start being intolerant of this absurd and often deadly intolerance.

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The Rise of Corporate Democrats in California

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 12:28
California, the most progressive state in the U.S., still boasts a sizeable — and growing — corporate Democrat contingent.

Marin County is one of California’s most liberal regions and, with its iconic redwoods and stunning coastline, it is also a power center for environmental activism. And so, when a bill to give the state Coastal Commission authority to levy fines against shoreline despoilers came for a vote in the state Assembly in 2013, it was taken for granted that Marin’s new Assemblyman, Marc Levine, would vote for passage. That didn’t happen. Instead, the San Rafael Democrat sat out the single most important vote for his constituents that year — which helped doom the measure.

But Levine was not finished. In Sacramento he would abstain or skip votes on bills helping farm workers and creating a bill of rights for domestic workers. He has also voted against legislation requiring economic impact reports for big box stores and requiring more rate-increase disclosure from Kaiser Permanente. That Levine keeps at arm’s length the progressive values of the 10th Assembly District, which includes much of equally liberal Sonoma County, should come as no surprise. During his two Assembly campaigns he has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from some of the state’s largest business interests.

What is baffling is that Levine, who declined to comment for this article, is neither a DINO (a conservative who is a Democrat in name only) nor a farm belt centrist. He remains a committed suburban liberal. One, that is, who happened to attend a local Mitt Romney rally in 2012 and who felt at ease appearing at a Republican Lincoln Dinner last year. Levine is also no aberration. Rather, he is part of a new breed of Democrat, one exceedingly attentive to big business while tone-deaf toward the Democratic Party’s traditional base, which includes union workers, environmentalists and public school advocates.

At the very moment that California’s Republican Party is melting into electoral irrelevancy, Levine and other hybrid Democrats are appearing in all corners of the state. Their ranks include Bill Dodd, a Napa County Supervisor and former Republican who is running as a Democrat for a wine country Assembly seat, and Palmdale Assemblyman Steve Fox, another erstwhile Republican. Fox, who says he is proud to have earned the California Chamber of Commerce’s highest approval rating for a Democrat, tells Capital & Main that the Democratic Party’s becoming friendlier to business is a positive development.

“We’re pulling the party to the center, towards being more business friendly,” Fox says.

Then there’s Orinda city councilman Steve Glazer, a former top advisor to Governor Jerry Brown, who recently worked as a consultant to the California Chamber of Commerce and its Jobs Political Action Committee. Glazer is currently running for an Alameda County Assembly seat and has fiercely challenged the right of transit workers to strike.

“I am trying to redefine what it means to be a Democrat,” Glazer told Capital & Main. “I think you can be a financial conservative and be a strong Democratic officeholder.”

The rise of what might be called the Corporate Democrat can only be partly explained by shrinking GOP delegations in Sacramento. It is also the product of redistricting and effects of the “top-two primary,” by which members of the same political party can win the top two primary positions and then face off in November. These two structural changes were approved by voters in, respectively, 2008 and 2010. Since then, powerful corporations, agricultural associations and other political high rollers have been turning away from their traditional Republican partners and placing more and more of their chips on the Democratic end of the table — specifically, on candidates like Marc Levine. These changes are only now catching the attention of Democratic electeds and activists, who see a coming fight for the soul of their party.

“Democrats, we are just as guilty of getting sucked into the influence of money and power about which we criticize Republicans,” state controller candidate Betty Yee told Democrats at the party’s annual state convention last month. Yee, who is a member of the State Board of Equalization, expanded on her wake-up call in an interview.

“What’s different now is the wholesale moderation of Democratic positions on issues we used to own — education, income inequality and poverty,” Yee says.

Those issues don’t rate high on the bucket lists of the corporations and millionaires now backing friendly Democratic candidates. Campaign contribution records maintained by California’s Secretary of State reveal a dense constellation of wealthy backers of candidates such as Levine, Glazer, Dodd and Fox. In the 2014 election cycle these benefactors form a Who’s Who of developers, gaming concerns, Big Pharma and agribusiness — and their largesse often overlaps across political races.

Both Levine and Glazer, for example, have received top dollar from Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad, PG&E, Time Warner, Walmart, Safeway and such pharmaceutical titans as Eli Lilly and Pfizer. Levine, Glazer and Dodd count as patrons Walmart heiress Carrie Walton Penner, San Francisco magnate Joseph O. Tobin II, the California Chamber of Commerce, public pension reform advocate David Crane, Gap stores scion William S. Fisher and Basic American Foods heir George Hume. Meanwhile, former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan has contributed to both Levine and Dodd’s campaigns, while PricewaterhouseCoopers, the California Real Estate PAC and the California Forestry Association PAC are among those donating to both Levine and Fox. And Levine, Glazer and Fox all receive funds from AT&T’s political action committee.

This donor list represents only a selection of contributors who have donated money through mid-April of this year — the number of donors and the amount of campaign spending will only increase as the June primary nears, and then afterwards, leading up to the November runoffs.

[The Corporate Democrats from LAANE on Vimeo.]

 

“What business is doing is coming to terms with the new structure of politics in California,” says Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. “The top-two primary [system] really opens the door to be able to support business-friendly Democrats.”

Fernando Guerra, a political science professor and director of the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, agrees.

“This new environment,” says Guerra, “where Democrats are very dominant, and with new electoral laws, allows for a strategy for electing moderate Democrats in districts particularly defined as liberal-leaning districts.”

Indeed, a recent University of Southern California studyfound that the electoral reforms in California are associated with an ideological shift toward the center for Democrats (i.e., in a rightward direction) in California’s state legislature — with no perceptible move to the center from the Republican Party. Except, perhaps, from Republicans who have simply switched parties. The legislative effects of such defections have yet to be gauged.

“It’s something that may look as though I switched my party so I could run for this seat,” admits Bill Dodd, the former Republican who is running for the Fourth Assembly District seat. “Nothing could be further from the truth. I fit comfortably under the Democratic tent.” Still, when asked whether he has a better chance of winning the Assembly seat by running as a Democrat, Dodd doesn’t hesitate with his answer.

“Clearly,” he acknowledges. “If you look at the registration in the district and the history of the races, this district is a predominantly Democratic leaning district.” Dodd is sitting on a campaign war chest of nearly $528,000, which eclipses even Levine’s huge treasury. Dodd’s contributions come mainly from wineries and other businesses — as they have since his first supervisorial election in 2000. Then Dodd was a political novice and “the Chamber of Commerce candidate,” as James Conaway described him in "The Far Side of Eden," Conaway’s book about development in the Napa Valley. Yet Dodd also boasts deep funding from individuals who, like David Crane, are influential advocates of cutting public employee pensions or, like Greg and Carrie Penner, are wealthy supporters of school privatization — views that run counter to longstanding Democratic Party positions.

In 2012 the California Chamber of Commerce and other business groups played a key role in targeting a pair of progressive, pro-labor Democratic incumbents in two liberal districts. In Northern California, Marc Levine narrowly defeated Michael Allen, while in the 50th Assembly District, which includes Santa Monica, challenger Richard Bloom squeaked by Betsy Butler. Levine and Bloom (who was then mayor of Santa Monica) were widely considered friendlier to business than Allen and Butler.

“Those are two shining examples of candidates that might not have been elected pre-top two primary,” says Franklin Gilliam Jr., dean of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Luskin School of Public Affairs. The USC study similarly pointed to these races, adding that “Levine supported the CalChamber in 43 percent of votes, which is high for a Democratic legislator.”

In fact, the Chamber’s Jobs PAC had paid at least $100,000 for polling and mailers that were used to attack Allen and Butler. A group affiliated with the Western Growers Association was heavily involved with the attack mailers — which played a role electing Levine and Bloom.

It’s not unusual for big business to hedge its bets by contributing to liberal candidates. Likewise, the mere acceptance of corporate money doesn’t guarantee a candidate will always vote business’ way. What raises eyebrows about Corporate Democrats, however, is the preponderance of corporate money in their coffers, which more resemble the treasuries of traditional Republican candidates than of progressives. At first glance, Corporate Democrats may not seem to be conservative surrogates, thanks to their votes for causes dear to progressives and because of the ratings they receive from liberal activist groups. To look at the high rankings (often in the 90 to 100 percentiles) bestowed by environmental organizations, reproductive-rights groups and unions — and correspondingly low scores from, say, conservative tax organizations and gun lobbyists — Corporate Democrats have little trouble appearing to be pragmatists who are forced by circumstances to stand up to their party’s base for the common good of California.

Yet the fact remains that California is the most progressive state in the nation, governed by the most progressive wing of a Democratic Party that has discovered its Sacramento supermajority is not so super. (What’s stopping the state from enacting more visionary legislation than it has since 2012? Or from offering its low-income workforce a higher minimum wage than $10 an hour — and sooner than 2016?) Unlike Washington D.C., where progressive reforms have been thwarted by a determined conservative opposition, in California that opposition comes from within. And, voting records show, this opposition does not necessarily exercise power in obvious ways.

Once elected, Corporate Democrats don’t always flex their muscle by openly sponsoring or supporting business-friendly bills, but sometimes by doing nothing — by abstaining from voting on bills that business opposes. A single abstention can mean life or death for a measure that requires a supermajority to pass. The bill to give enforcement power to the Coastal Commission, AB 976, for instance, died after Levine and several other Democrats abstained on the final vote. The same thing happened to AB 880, the “Walmart Loophole” bill, which received 46 Aye votes, with 27 lawmakers voting against it and six abstaining. A total of 54 Ayes, or a two-thirds supermajority, was required. Although Levine voted Yes, three other Democrats voted against the bill, while five more abstained.

The California Chamber candidly acknowledges the importance of persuading Democrats to abstain from voting as part of its strategy to defeat bills business opposes. In its website recap of legislators’ 2013 voting records, the Chamber notes, in a section titled “When Not Voting Helps”:

Sometimes a legislator is unwilling to vote against a colleague, but is willing to support the CalChamber’s opposition to a bill. In such cases, a legislator may abstain from voting, which will hinder passage of a bill, just as a “no” vote does.

Kenneth Burt, who has taught as a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, agrees that the Chamber has been increasingly involved in trying to elect Democrats who are aligned with big business interests. Burt adds that this process has accelerated since the 2010 passage of another ballot initiative, Proposition 25, which allows a simple majority vote to pass the state budget. (Disclosure: Burt also serves as the political director for the California Federation of Teachers, a financial supporter of Capital & Main.)

“Prop. 25 eliminated the ability of a few Republicans to demand additional tax breaks for big business as the price of passing a budget,” Burt says. “As a result, the Chamber could no longer get its Republican allies to hold hostage the whole legislative process.”

Loyola Marymount’s Guerra foresees consequences for progressive initiatives in California that are more profound than the loss of one party’s supermajority.

“I could see,” Guerra says, “in the future almost three parties in California — Republicans, the liberal progressive wing of the Democratic Party and moderate Democrats.”

Such a tectonic divide may already be in motion.

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Why the Christian Right Is Freaking Out Over a Honey Maid Graham Crackers' Ad

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 11:36
Family-positive marketing from Chips Ahoy, Oreos and Honey Maid has conservatives going crackers.

Everyone has probably experienced a Honey Maid graham cracker sometime in their lifetime. Last month, Nabisco, the company that makes Honey Maid Graham Crackers, as well as Oreos, Chips Ahoy, Nilla Wafers and an assortment of other well-known cookies and crackers, came up with an extraordinary family-positive/gay-positive advertisement. And "traditional values" conservatives went, well ... crackers.

Ironically, at the end of the day, the graham cracker dust-up may in fact benefit both the folks at Nabisco, and its chief critics, the American Family Association's One Million Moms.

'Everyday wholesome snacks for every wholesome family'

The advertisement, which was unusually family-positive, started out with two men taking care of their child, and was followed by a diverse group of families spending time together. The New Yorker's Andrew Solomon described the ad: "It shows a two-dad family, a rocker family, a single dad, an interracial family, a military family. The two-dad household is featured at some length; you cannot be distracted away from it. Most striking is the tagline of the ad: 'No matter how things change, what makes us wholesome never will. Honey Maid. Everyday wholesome snacks for every wholesome family. This is wholesome.'"

The response to the ad - issued earlier this month -- was both heart-warming - many people responded in a very supportive way - and super critical. It was the latter responses that caused the company to put together a second ad, which takes the sometimes super-nasty comments and turns them into a one-of-a-kind inspirational art project, in which two artists glue together the complaints to spell out the word love in cursive.

Andrew Solomon: "'On March 10th, 2014, Honey Maid launched 'This is wholesome,' a commercial that celebrates all families,' the online short proclaims. 'Some people didn't agree with our message.' Viewers see close-ups of tweets and e-mails with remarks such as 'Horrible, NOT 'WHOLESOME,' 'DO NOT APPROVE!,' and 'Disgusting!' The title card says, 'So we asked two artists to take the negative comments and turn them into something else.'

"We then see thirty-year-olds Linsey Burritt and Crystal Grover, who collaborate under the name INDO, taking a printout of each hateful comment and rolling it into a tube, then grouping the tubes at one end of a vast, industrial-looking space to create an assemblage that spells out 'Love.' The artists appear to walk away, their work done. Then the online ad proclaims, 'But the best part was all the positive messages we received. Over ten times as many.' Then we see e-mails with epithets such as 'family is family' and 'love the Honey Maid ad' and 'this story of a beautiful family' and 'most beautiful thing.'

"The entire room fills up with tubes made from these messages. Finally, we are told, 'Proving that only one thing really matters when it comes to family ... ,' and then we see the word 'love' embraced by a roomful of paper tubes. The pacing of the spot is impeccable: the first half turns hatred into love, and the second half provides evidence of love itself. In its first day online, it garnered more than 1.5 million views."

The Motley Fool's Beth Nichols pointed out that "For a brand that had previously been floundering in its social media presence, this is social media gold: millions of viewers who have not only seen an ad, but who can also presume to have been quite engaged when they watched it."

'No longer wholesome' writes Charisma's editor

Jennifer LeClaire, news editor at Charisma, an evangelical online magazine, wasn't amused: "Nabisco's brand is no longer wholesome," she wrote in a piece titled "Gay-Affirming Nabisco Is Shoving More Than Oreos Down Our Throats."

LeClaire pointed out that members of the conservative American Family Association's One Million Moms group were "up in arms": "The American Family Association-linked group insists Nabisco should be ashamed of itself for the cracker commercial that attempts to 'normalize sin.'"

"One Million Moms stands up for Biblical truth which is very clear in Romans 1:26-27 about this particular type of sexual perversion," the group stated. "Honey Maid is also using the hashtag #thisiswholesome. There is concern about the way this ad is pushing the LGBT agenda, but an even greater concern is the way that they are changing the meaning of the word 'wholesome.' This is truly sad. If this is what Honey Maid thinks is wholesome, then my family will no longer purchase Honey Maid or Nabisco products."

The scolds at One Million Moms have declared war on Honey Maid Graham Crackers: "That's how they [the company] decided to respond, and that's fine. That's their choice. Now we know where they stand," Monica Cole, director of One Million Moms, tols Vocativ.com. "Now we know not to support Honey Maid, and we won't be buying their products. ...We can vote with our wallets."

As Luke Malone pointed out at vocative.com, this is pretty much standard procedure for One Million Moms, which really doesn't have one million moms as members. The group "attacks brands and television shows that members feel are bad for children by initiating email campaigns and boycotts. They focus on the use of profanity, sexuality and positive depictions of same-sex couples or families. Comprised of 'Christians and/or conservative parents,' the group believes that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and that anything else is a departure from the biblical teachings they are trying to pass on to their children."

Cole told Malone how they "choose which television shows to target": "Even if part of the show has a good base as far as the plot line, if there's anything added in it that we would find not appropriate, it's kind of like a batch of brownies," One Million Moms Director Monica Cole said in the interview. "You put a little poison in it, you're still not going to eat them. A little bit of poison can ruin the whole batch."

And if anyone can recognize the "poison" in a batch, it's the American Family Association's One Million Moms. Over the years, the AFA has launched a myriad of campaigns and boycotts of products and programs it considers to be poisoning the culture. Some have been moderately successful and some not so much. The main takeaway: The only way to keep your base engaged and enraged is to constantly find targets of discontent.

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Washington in Libya: A Case Study in How Not to End Violence in a War-Torn Land

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 11:26
Sending more armed men is not the solution.

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Is the U.S. secretly training Libyan militiamen in the Canary Islands? And if not, are they planning to?

That’s what I asked a spokesman for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). “I am surprised by your mentioning the Canary Islands,” he responded by email.  “I have not heard this before, and wonder where you heard this.”

As it happens, mention of this shadowy mission on the Spanish archipelago off the northwest coast of Africa was revealed in an official briefing prepared for AFRICOM chief General David Rodriguez in the fall of 2013.  In the months since, the plan may have been permanently shelved in favor of a training mission carried out entirely in Bulgaria.  The document nonetheless highlights the U.S. military’s penchant for simple solutions to complex problems -- with a well-documented potential for blowback in Africa and beyond.  It also raises serious questions about the recurring methods employed by the U.S. to stop the violence its actions helped spark in the first place.   

Ever since the U.S. helped oust dictator Muammar Gaddafi, with air and missile strikes against regime targets and major logistical and surveillance support to coalition partners, Libya has been sliding into increasing chaos.  Militias, some of them jihadist, have sprung up across the country, carving out fiefdoms while carrying out increasing numbers of assassinations and other types of attacks. The solution seized upon by the U.S. and its allies in response to the devolving situation there: introduce yet another armed group into a country already rife with them.    

The Rise of the Militias

After Gaddafi’s fall in 2011, a wide range of militias came to dominateLibya’s largest cities, filling a security vacuum left by the collapse of the old regime and providing a challenge to the new central government.  InBenghazi alone, an array of these armed groups arose.  And on September 11, 2012, that city, considered the cradle of the Libyan revolution, experiencedattacks by members of the anti-Western Ansar al-Sharia, as well as othermilitias on the American mission and a nearby CIA facility.  During those assaults, which killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, local armed groups called on for help or which might have intervened to save lives reportedly stood aside.

Over the year that followed, the influence of the militias only continued to grow nationwide, as did the chaos that accompanied them.  In late 2013, following deadly attacks on civilians, some of these forces were chased from Libyan cities by protesters and armed bands, ceding power to what the New York Times called “an even more fractious collection of armed groups, including militias representing tribal and clan allegiances that tear at the tenuous [Libyan] sense of common citizenship.”  With the situation deteriorating, the humanitarian group Human Rights Watch documented dozens of assassinations of judges, prosecutors, and members of the state’s already weakened security forces by unidentified assailants.  

The American solution to all of this violence: more armed men.

Fighting Fire with Fire

In November 2013, U.S. Special Operations Command chief Admiral William McRaven told an audience at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library that the United States would aid Libya by training 5,000 to 7,000 conventional troops as well as counterterrorism forces there.  “As we go forward to try and find a good way to build up the Libyan security forces so they are not run by militias, we are going to have to assume some risks,” he said.

Not long after, the Washington Post reported a request by recently oustedLibyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan that the U.S. train his country’s security forces.  In January, the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which coordinates sales and transfers of military equipment abroad, formallynotified Congress of a Libyan request for a $600 million training package.  Its goal: to create a 6,000 to 8,000-man “general purpose force,” or GPF.  

The deal would, according to an official statement, involve “services for up to 8 years for training, facilities sustainment and improvements, personnel training and training equipment, 637 M4A4 carbines and small arms ammunition, U.S. Government and contractor technical and logistics support services, Organizational Clothing and Individual Equipment (OCIE), and other related elements of logistical and program support.” 

In addition to the GPF effort, thousands of Libya troops are to be trained by the militaries of MoroccoTurkey, the United Kingdom, and Italy.  The Libyan Army also hopes to graduate 10,000 new troops at home annually. 

While Admiral McRaven has emphasized the importance of building up “the Libyan security forces so they are not run by militias,” many recruits for the GPF will, in fact, be drawn from these very groups.  It has also been widely reported that the new force will be trained at Novo Selo, a recently refurbished facility in Bulgaria.

The U.S. has said little else of substance on the future force.  “We are coordinating this training mission closely with our European partners and the U.N. Support Mission in Libya, who have also offered substantial security sector assistance to the Government of Libya,” a State Department official told TomDispatch by email.  “We expect this training will begin in 2014 in Bulgaria and continue over a number of years.” 

There have been no reports or confirmation of the plan to also train Libyan militiamen at a facility in Spain’s Canary Islands mentioned along with Novo Selo in that Fall 2013 briefing document prepared for AFRICOM chief Rodriguez, which was obtained by TomDispatch.

Click here to see a larger version

Official briefing slide mentioning a U.S. military training effort in the Canary Islands.

Officials at the State Department say that they know nothing about this part of the program.  “I'm still looking into this, but my colleagues are not familiar with a Canary Islands component to this issue,” I was told by a State Department press officer.   AFRICOM spokesman Benjamin Benson said much the same.  “[W]e have no information regarding training of Libyan troops to be provided in the Canary Islands,” he emailed me.  After I sent him the briefing slide that mentioned the mission, however, he had a different response.  The Canary Islands training mission was, he wrote, part of an “initial concept” never actually shared with General Rodriguez, but instead “briefed to a few senior leaders in the Pentagon.”

“The information has been changed, numerous times, since the slide was drafted, and is expected to change further before any training commences,” he added, and warned me against relying on it.  He did not, however, rule out the possibility that further changes might revive the Canary Islands option and demurred from answering further questions on the subject.  A separate U.S. Army Africa document does mention that “recon” of a second training site was slated to begin last December. 

Neither the State Department nor AFRICOM explained why plans to conduct training in the Canary Islands were shelved or when that decision was made or by whom.  Benson also failed to facilitate interviews with personnel involved in the Libyan GPF training effort or with top AFRICOM commanders.  “Given the continuing developing nature of this effort, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time, and we have not been giving interviews on the topic,” he told me.  Multiple requests to the Libyan government for information on the locations of training sites also went unanswered.     

Training Day

Wherever the training takes place, the U.S. has developed a four-phase process to “build a complete Libya security sector.” The Army’s 1st Infantry Division will serve as the “mission command element for the Libyan GPF training effort” as part of a State Department-led collaboration with the Department of Defense, according to official documents obtained by TomDispatch. 

Agreements with partner nations are to be finalized and Libyans selected for leadership positions as part of an initial stage of the process.  Then the U.S. military will begin training not only the GPF troops, but a border security force and specialized counter-terror troops.  (Recently, AFRICOM Commander David Rodriguez told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S. was also helping to build up what he termed Libyan “Special Operations Forces.”)  A third phase of the program will involve developing the capacities of the Libyan ministries of justice, defense, and the interior, and strengthening Libya’s homegrown security training apparatus, before pulling back during a fourth phase that will focus on monitoring and sustaining the forces the U.S. and its allies have trained.   

Click here to see a larger version

U.S. Army Africa document details four-phase plan for U.S. training of Libyan forces.

Despite reports that training at Novo Selo will begin this spring, a State Department official told TomDispatch that detailed plans are still being finalized.  After inspecting a briefing slide titled “Libya Security Sector Phasing,” AFRICOM’S Benson told me, “I do not see us in any phase as indicated on the slide… the planning and coordination is still ongoing.”  Since then, Lolita Baldor of the Associated Press reported that, according to an unnamed Army official, a small team of U.S. soldiers has now headed for Libya to make preparations for the Bulgarian portion of the training. 

A timeline produced by U.S. Army Africa as part of a December 2013 briefing indicates that the Novo Selo site would be ready for trainers sometime last month.  After communications systems and security sensors are set up, that training range will be ready to accept its first Libyan recruits.  The timeline suggests that this could occur by early May. 

While this may have been an early version of the schedule, there’s little doubt the program will begin soon.  Baldor notes that formal Libyan approval for the training may come this month, although AFRICOM Commander David Rodriguez pointed out at a Pentagon press briefing that the Libyan government still has to ante up the funds for the program, and a Libyan official confirmed to TomDispatch that the training had yet to commence.

Click here to see a larger version

U.S. Army Africa timeline of U.S. training of Libyan "General Purpose Force”.

Experts have, however, already expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of the program.  In late 2013, for instance, Benjamin Nickels, the academic chair for transnational threats and counterterrorism at the Department of Defense’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies, raised a number of problematic issues. These included the challenge of screening and vetting applicants from existing Libyan militias, the difficulty of incorporating various regional and tribal groups into such a force without politicizing the trainee pool; and the daunting task of then devising a way to integrate the GPF into Libya’s existing military in a situation already verging on the chaotic. 

“For all their seriousness,” wrote Nickels, “these implementation difficulties pale in comparison to more serious pitfalls haunting the GPF at a conceptual level. So far, plans for the GPF appear virtually unrelated to projects of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) and security sector reform (SSR) that are vital to Libya’s future.”  

Berny Sebe, an expert on North and West Africa at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, noted that, while incorporating militiamen into a “mainstream security system” could help diminish the power of existing militias, it posed serious dangers as well.  “The drawback is, of course, that it can infiltrate factious elements into the very heart of the Libyan state apparatus, which could further undermine its power,” he told TomDispatch by email.  “The use of force is unavoidable to enforce the rule of law, which is regularly under threat in Libya.  However, all efforts placed in the development of a security force should go hand in hand with a clear political vision.  Failure to do so might solve the problem temporarily, but will not bring long-term peace and stability.”

In November 2013, Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an expert on Libya, pointed out that the project seemed reasonable in the abstract, but that reality might be another matter entirely: “[T]he force’s composition, the details of its training, the extent to which Libyan civilians will oversee it, and its ability to deal with the range of threats that the country faces are all unclear.” He suggested that an underreported 2013 mission to train one Libyan unit that ended in abject failure should be viewed as a cautionary tale.  

Last summer, a small contingent of U.S. Special Operations Forces set up a training camp outside of Libya’s capital, Tripoli, for an elite 100-man Libyan counter-terror force whose recruits were personally chosen by former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan.  While the Americans were holed up in their nighttime safe house, unidentified militia or “terrorist” forces twice raided the camp, guarded by the Libyan military, and looted large quantities of high-tech American equipment.  Their haul included hundreds of weapons, Glock pistols and M4 rifles among them, as well as night-vision devices and specialized lasers that can only be seen with such equipment.  As a result, the training effort was shut down and the abandoned camp was reportedly taken over by a militia.

This represented only the latest in a series of troubled U.S. assistance andtraining efforts in the Greater Middle East and Africa. These include scandal-plagued endeavors in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a program that produced an officer who led the coup that overthrew Mali’s elected government, and an eight-month training effort in the Democratic Republic of Congo by U.S. Special Operations forces that yielded an elite commando battalion that took part in mass rapes and other atrocities, according to a United Nations report.  And these are just the tip of the iceberg among manyother sordid examples from around the world.

The Answer?

The U.S. may never train a single Libyan militiaman in the Canary Islands, but the plan to create yet one more armed group to inject into Libya’s already fractious sea of competing militias is going forward -- and is fraught with peril.

For more than half a year, a militia controlled the three largest ports in Libya.  Other militiamen have killed unarmed protesters.  Some have emptied whole towns of their residents.  Others work with criminal gangs, smuggling drugs, carrying out kidnappings for ransom, and engaging in human trafficking.  Still others have carried out arbitrary arrests, conducted torture, and been responsible for deaths in detention.  Armed men have also murderedforeigners, targeted Christian migrants, and fought pro-government forces.  Many have attacked other nascent state institutions.  Last month, for instance, militiamen stormed the country's national assembly, forcing its relocation to a hotel.  (That assault was apparently triggered by a separate unidentified group, which attacked an anti-parliament sit-in, kidnapping some of the protesters.)   

Some militias have quasi-official status or are beholden to individual parliamentarians.  Others are paid by and support the rickety Libyan government.  That government is also reportedly engaging in widespread abuses, including detentions without due process and prosecutions to stifle free speech, while failing to repeal Gaddafi-era laws that, as Human Rights Watch has noted, “prescribe corporal punishment, including lashing for extramarital intercourse and slander, and amputation of limbs.”    

Most experts agree that Libya needs assistance in strengthening its central government and the rule of law.  “Unless the international community focuses on the need for urgent assistance to the justice and security systems, Libya risks the collapse of its already weak state institutions and further deterioration of human rights in the country,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said recently.  How to go about this remains, however, at best unclear.  

“Our Defense Department colleagues plan to train 5,000 to 8,000 general purpose forces,” Anne Patterson, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, told the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year, noting that the U.S. would “conduct an unprecedented vetting and screening of trainees that participate in the program.”  But Admiral William McRaven, her "Defense Department colleague," has already admitted that some of the troops to be trained will likely not have “the most clean record.” 

In the wake of failed full-scale conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has embraced a light-footprint model of warfare, emphasizing drone technology, Special Operations forces, and above all the training of proxy troops to fight battles for America’s national security interests from Mali toSyria -- and soon enough, Libya as well. 

There are, of course, no easy answers.  As Berny Sebe notes, the United States “is among the few countries in the world which have the resources necessary to undertake such a gigantic task as training the new security force of a country on the brink of civil war like Libya.”  Yet the U.S. has repeatedly suffered from poor intelligence, an inability to deal effectively with the local and regional dynamics involved in operations in the Middle East and North Africa, and massive doses of wishful thinking and poor planning.  “It is indeed a dangerous decision,” Sebe observes, “which may add further confusion to an already volatile situation.”

A failure to imagine the consequences of the last major U.S. intervention in Libya has, perhaps irreparably, fractured the country and sent it into a spiral of violence leading to the deaths of Americans, among others, while helping to destabilize neighboring nations, enhance the reach of local terror groups, and aid in the proliferation of weapons that have fueled existing regional conflicts.  Even Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Amanda Dory admitted at a recent Pentagon press briefing that the fallout from ousting Gaddafi has been “worse than would have been anticipated at the time.”  Perhaps it should be sobering as well that the initial smaller scale effort to help strengthen Libyan security forces was an abject failure that ended up enhancing, not diminishing, the power of the militias.

There may be no nation that can get things entirely right when it comes to Libya but one nation has shown an unnerving ability to get things wrong.  Whether outside of Tripoli, in Bulgaria, the Canary Islands, or elsewhere, should that country really be the one in charge of the delicate process of building a cohesive security force to combat violent, fractious armed groups?  Should it really be creating a separate force, trained far from home by foreigners, and drawn from the very militias that have destabilized Libya in the first place?

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5 Explosive Revelations Leaked from Senate Report Exposing CIA Torture

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 10:57
What's already public is a clear and systematic abuse of power and human rights.

The controversy over a Senate investigation documenting the Central Intelligence Agency’s post-9/11 regime of global torture continues to generate headlines—even though the report has yet to be released.  The Senate report has sparked a bitter war between the CIA and senators like Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who accused the CIA of spying on those looking at CIA documents on torture.

But while the official inquiry has not been published, dogged journalists have published key—and disturbing—details of what is contained in it.

Based on CIA documents, senators on the powerful committee conducted a four-year long, $40 million inquiry into the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, which included torture tactics like the waterboarding of terrorism suspects, beatings and the smashing of suspects’ heads into walls. While the public may be aware of some of these practices due to past revelations, the information carries heavy weight because it is the Senate confirming many of those claims, which has oversight power over the agency.

The CIA’s torture program started soon after 9/11. The Bush administration signed off on what they called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” but which clearly constituted torture, a crime under U.S. and international law.  

The American people may never see the full report. Earlier this month, the Senate committee voted to declassify the executive summary and conclusions of the report—480 pages out of 6,400. But the White House and CIA are now vetting the reportto determine what exactly gets declassified. That fact has prompted people like Trevor Timm, writing in theGuardian, to call on somebody to leak the full report.

Meanwhile, journalists like Al Jazeera America’s Jason Leopold, McClatchy’s Ali Watkins, Jonathan Landay and Marisa Taylor and others are busy digging up details they can confirm and publish for the public. Here are five important revelations from recent news reports on the Senate’s landmark report on CIA torture.

1. Black site at Guantanamo. It is well known that the Guantanamo Bay detention center is where hundreds of prisoners have been held without charge. But what wasn’t officially confirmed until recently is that Guantanamo was also the site of a CIA black site—a detention center the CIA did not acknowledge where they tortured suspects. The CIA operated such sites in a number of countries, and the Senate investigation reportedly says a black site was operated at the Guantanamo detention center.

On April 9, Jason Leopold wrote in Al Jazeera America that the Senate inquiry confirms the CIA used the Cuba prison as a black site. Leopold wrote that “top-secret agency documents reveal that at least 10 high-value targets were secretly held and interrogated at Guantánamo’s Camp Echo at various times from late 2003 to 2004.” The detainees were then taken to Morocco, and then officially sent back to Guantánamo in September 2006.

2. CIA used British-controlled island. Leopold also revealed that the Senate report confirms long-standing claims of high-level British collusion with the CIA.  

Journalists and human rights advocates have claimed that a United Kingdom-controlled island called Diego Garcia, located in the Indian Ocean, was used to secretly detain suspects. The Senate report says the CIA used the island with the “full cooperation” of Britain.

These reports have sparked a debate in Britain. Human rights investigators are urging the government to come clean. The report seems to confirm the story of Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, who was rendered to Libya and was told by a Libyan security force member that he stopped at Diego Garcia.

Belhaj says he was tortured during his CIA-led rendition and during his incarceration in Libya.

The confirmation of the use of a British-controlled island is the latest reminder of high-level collusion between the UK and the U.S. in prosecuting the war on terror.

3. CIA handed over prisoners who are now dead.Yet another explosive detail in Leopold’s report is that 10 terror suspects eventually handed off to foreign governments are unaccounted for. U.S. officials told Leopold they are presumed dead.

Those 10 suspects were part of a larger group of 85 detainees that were deemed to be low-level enough to be taken to Guantanamo or given to foreign countries. Leopold writes that 24 of the men labeled “low-value” were “been wrongfully detained and rendered to other countries on the basis of intelligence obtained from CIA captives under torture and from information shared with CIA officials by other governments, both of which turned out to be false.”

4. CIA went beyond legal memo.In 2002, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel drafted a report authorizing CIA torture, saying that the use of waterboarding, sleep deprivation and stress positions were perfectly legal. It was written by Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo; Jay Bybee, then head of the office, signed off on it.

But even that memo attempting to legalize torture wasn’t enough for the CIA. On April 11, McClatchy reported that the CIA went beyond what it was authorized to do by the Bush administration.

In a phone interview with AlterNet, Leopold said this revelation casts a harsh light on the Obama administration’s arguments that those who relied on Department of Justice legal advice shouldn’t be prosecuted. “It literally demolishes any rationale that Obama and Holder had for not investigating, for not bringing criminal charges, or even launching a criminal inquiry, against people who were responsible for implementing this,” said Leopold.  

Despite the fact that CIA operatives went beyond legal advice, the Senate report does not recommend that a criminal investigation be launched for the purposes of prosecuting people.

Another revelation in the report is that the Justice Department legal memo was based on CIA information the Senate report says was wrong. For instance, the CIA claimed that repeatedly waterboarding a suspect was not effective. But in fact, the CIA waterboarded terrorism suspects Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and Abu Zubaydah 183 and 83 times, respectively.

“If the CIA fundamentally misrepresented what it was doing and that was what led [Justice Department] lawyers to conclude that the conduct was legal, then the legal conclusions themselves were inaccurate,” Andrea Prasow, senior national security counsel for Human Rights Watch, told McClatchy.

5. CIA lied about number of prisoners. McClatchy’s reporters also revealed that the CIA lied about the number of prisoners it had in its custody in black sites around the world. The CIA’s claim that the torture program was “targeted” was “BS,” according to one former U.S. official.

In addition, the CIA held 26 people that did not meet the legal standard for detaining someone.

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Why I Am Totally Hooked on the Oscar Pistorius Murder Trial

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 10:38
Televised celebrity trials are nothing new, but watching this male star sob and squirm is extraordinary.

The only person who will ever know for certain whether Oscar Pistoriusmeant to kill Reeva Steenkamp, or knew he was shooting her but didn't consider the consequences, or simply did not realise he was shooting anyone because she managed to stay superhumanly silent while being shot through a bathroom door with brutal expanding bullets, is, of course, Pistorius himself. But everyone who has been gripped by Pistoration for the past week – a state of being when one has plenty of work to get on with but instead spends all day watching the Pistorius trial – will have some pretty strong opinions on the subject. Especially now that state prosecutor Gerrie Nel's cross-examination of the athlete has, after five pitiless (Nel) and retch-filled (Pistorius) days, come to an end.

The public is now so used to the idea of wealthy and well-protected male celebrities being accused of committing crimes against vulnerable women that it often feels like the news value of such stories lies in the exposure of the crime, rather than the crime itself. What is more novel is to watch the accused male celebrity be called to account for it, and to see him wriggle and squirm. Pistorius once felt overwhelmingly "agitated" that a police officer had dared to ask to see his gun. He once had a friend take the blame when he shot a gun in a restaurant – which wasn't his fault anyway because, according to Pistorius, the gun was "unsafe" and so, as often seems to happen with guns in Pistorius' hands, must have gone off by itself. To watch Pistorius sob and bleat "m'lady" at the end of each of his answers in court is to watch a man appear to confront the results of his actions for the first time in his life.

I can mark my life stages by the celebrity trials I have watched on TV during odd hours of the day: OJ Simpson's, of course, as a teenager in 1995, and, earlier, as a child, the now largely forgotten William Kennedy Smith trial in 1991 (Smith was a Kennedy family scion accused of rape). Both pretty much set the template of how modern-day celebrity cases play out: male celebrity is accused of a terrible crime against a woman; cocky male celebrity arms himself to the teeth with flashy lawyers; male celebrity is found not guilty (and, in the case of Simpson, later found guilty of another crime, and, in the case of Smith, settled with another woman over charges of sexual harassment years later). To watch Pistorius be eviscerated by Nel, awkwardly shifting between claiming that he fired in self-defence or by accident, is a very different experience. Nel has managed to nail an image of the accused as a self-entitled, spoilt man with anger issues, an inability to take responsibility and a fondness for guns. "Who should we blame for the fact that you shot her? Should we blame the government?" sneered Nel. Of course, Pistorius could not really answer, and how could he? He can't even accept the responsibility for when guns go off in his own hands, let alone for who they're aimed at.

For some, this image of Pistorius will not come entirely as a surprise. His anger issues and self-entitlement have been noted before, not least when he – to his astonishment – came second in the 200m final at the London Paralympics. Pistorius promptly accused the winner, Brazil's Alan Fonteles Cardoso Oliveira, of having an unfair advantage with his blades,even when Pistorius himself had long fought against that same accusation when running against non-disabled runners. Petulance does not make a man a murderer, but it does suggest someone who doesn't consider the consequences of his rage when he doesn't get his way.

Then there is the violence. In South Africa, a woman is killed every eight hours by her partner – a statistic that takes one's breath away. Even more astonishingly, this figure is slightly better than it was at the end of the 20th century. What has become very clear is how comfortable Pistorius felt around guns, with acquaintances testifying to his habit of carrying one on him at all times, and his apparently unthinking purchase of the most destructive bullets on the market. "I don't understand the question," he replied when asked who should be blamed for the black talon bullets that tore so destructively through Steenkamp's body.

Questions about the legitimacy of Pistorius's tears in court have occupied many viewers. Nel accused him of crying to buy time while he rethought his defence. Steenkamp's family have been, understandably, even more sceptical: "He is trying to convince the court that they were really close, and that he cared for her. It's not true," Steenkamp's sister Simone said in an interview (she also disputed Pistorius' claims that he and Reeva were talking about moving in together). What is more certain is that Pistorius is certainly feeling sorry for himself, complaining at times, "I'm under a lot of pressure. I'm defending my life."

Steenkamp, of course, had no such opportunity, and that is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this celebrity trial: the presence of the female victim. She is not being judged, nor called a slut, nor forgotten. The other big TV event of the past week was the finale of True Detective, a great show but – like so many murder stories on TV – one that reduced women to bodies and bitches. Steenkamp's innocence, by contrast, has been all too obvious, every day. One of the last things Pistorius was asked to do yesterday before he left the stand was to read out Steenkamp's last Valentine's Day card to him: "Roses are red/Violets are blue/I think today is a good day to tell you that I love you." A few hours later, he shot her dead.

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Some Psychiatrists Distancing Themselves from Profession as Drug Company Dominance Makes Some Shrinks Very Rich, and Many Patients Over Drugged

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 10:05
Psychiatry has a real credibility problem on its hands.

What does it tell us about the state of psychiatry when some of the biggest names in the psychiatric establishment are distancing themselves from psychiatry’s diagnostic system and its treatments?

In 2013, National Institute Mental Health director Thomas Insel, citing the lack of scientific validity of psychiatry’s official diagnostic manual, the DSM, stated that, “NIMH will be re-orienting its research away from DSM categories.” In response, Robert Whitaker, investigative reporter and author of Anatomy of an Epidemic, observed, “This is like the King of Psychiatry saying that the discipline has no clothes.”

“When Insel states that the disorders haven’t been validated,” Whitaker points out, “he is stating that the entire edifice that modern psychiatry is built upon is flawed, and unsupported by science... If the public loses faith in the DSM, and comes to see it as unscientific, then psychiatry has a real credibility problem on its hands.”

Other establishment psychiatrists are also distancing themselves from psychiatry’s diagnostic manual. Psychiatrist Allen Frances, the former chair of the DSM-4 task force, now writes about how the DSM is a money machine for drug companies (“Last Plea To DSM-5: Save Grief From the Drug Companies”).

Frances, emeritus professor of psychiatry at Duke University, was until recently among the most inside of insider psychiatrists. However, in an April 11, 2014 New York Times article about “sluggish cognitive tempo,” which would add 2 million more children to the already 6 million diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Frances stated, “Just as ADHD has been the diagnosis du jour for 15 years or so, this is the beginning of another. This is a public health experiment on millions of kids.”

That’s the kind of language that once so marginalized mental health professionals critical of establishment psychiatry that we were not quoted in the New York Times or any other mainstream media.

NIMH director Insel has also increasingly been distancing himself from standard psychiatry drug treatments. In 2009, Insel wrote: “For too many people, antipsychotics and antidepressants are not effective, and even when they are helpful, they reduce symptoms without eliciting recovery.”

The sad fact is that treatment-resistant depression is increasing, and there is a great deal of evidence that the reason is long-term use of antidepressants. A review of the research in 2011 in the journal Medical Hypotheses concluded: “Depressed patients who ultimately become treatment resistant frequently have had a positive initial response to antidepressants and invariably have received these agents for prolonged time periods at high doses.”

In 2013, Insel announced that the latest research shows that psychiatry’s standard drug treatment for people diagnosed with schizophrenia and other psychoses needs to change. In February 2014, the New York Times published a feature story on Insel, noting that his questioning the long-term use of antipsychotics caused a major stir in psychiatry.

But while politically astute establishment psychiatrists such as Insel, Frances and others are calling for reform, the institution of psychiatry may well be so damaged by a generation of drug company corruption that it cannot be reformed in any meaningful way.

Too Corrupt

The DSM is published by the American Psychiatric Association, and according to the journal PLOS Medicine, “69% of the DSM-5 task force members report having ties to the pharmaceutical industry.” The corruption of the APA by Big Pharma is nothing new. In 2008, the New York Times reported the following about APA: “In 2006, the latest year for which numbers are available, the drug industry accounted for about 30 percent of the association's $62.5 million in financing.”

Congressional investigators in 2008 also discovered that then president-elect of APA (Alan Schatzberg of Stanford University) had $4.8 million stock holdings in a drug development company.

Perhaps Big Pharma’s biggest bang for its buck has come through “thought leader” psychiatrists who popularize new diagnoses and drug treatments. One of psychiatry’s most influential thought leaders is Harvard’s Joseph Biederman who put pediatric bipolar disorder on the map. Due in great part to Biederman's influence, the number of American children and adolescents treated for bipolar disorder increased 40-fold from 1994 to 2003.

Biederman's financial relationships with drug companies was discovered by the public in 2008, when congressional investigations revealed he was on the take for $1.6 million in consulting fees from drug makers from 2000 to 2007. As part of legal proceedings, Biederman was forced to provide documents about his interactions with Johnson & Johnson, the giant pharmaceutical company; Biederman pitched Johnson & Johnson that his proposed research studies on its antipsychotic drug Risperdal would turn out favorably for Johnson & Johnson — and then he delivered the goods.

Biederman is not alone among psychiatrists lining their pockets with drug company money. The New York Times reporting on the 2008 congressional investigation of psychiatry, stated this about Charles Nemeroff: “One of the nation's most influential psychiatrists earned more than $2.8 million in consulting arrangements with drug makers from 2000 to 2007.”

While psychiatrists have grabbed the big money from drug companies, a few thought leader psychologists are picking up Big Pharma loose change. A major popularizer of sluggish cognitive tempo (SCT) is psychologist Russell Barkley. The Times recently reported that Barkley said, “SCT is a newly recognized disorder”; that he received $118,000 from 2009 to 2012 from Eli Lilly for consulting and speaking engagements; and that Barkley stated Lilly’s drug Strattera’s performance on SCT symptoms was “an exciting finding.”

Psychiatrists routinely dominate ProPublica’s “Dollars for Docs” list of large payments from pharmaceutical companies. And being on the take from Big Pharma affects prescribing practices. The New York Times reported in 2007, “Psychiatrists who took the most money from makers of antipsychotic drugs tended to prescribe the drugs to children the most often.” A 2007 analysis of Minnesota psychiatrists revealed that psychiatrists who received at least $5,000 from makers of newer-generation antipsychotic drugs wrote, on average, three times as many prescriptions to children for these drugs as psychiatrists who received less money or none.

In her bookThe Truth about the Drug Companies (2004), Marcia Angell, physician and former editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, documents the corruption of medicine by Big Pharma, with some of the most egregious examples being in psychiatry. Angell details how the head of the psychiatry department at Brown University Medical School made over $500,000 in one year consulting for drug companies that make antidepressants. Angell writes, “When the New England Journal of Medicine, under my editorship, published a study by him and his colleagues of an antidepressant agent, there wasn’t enough room to print all the authors’ conflict-of-interest disclosures. The full list had to be put on the website.”

In Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic, I document several areas in which Big Pharma has corrupted psychiatry, including funding university psychiatry departments (Harvard Medical School’s psychiatry department at Massachusetts General Hospital received $6.5 million from four drug companies).

Insane and Ridiculous

The Oxford dictionary defines insane as “a state of mind that prevents normal perception, behavior, or social interaction; seriously mentally ill.” Has the institution of psychiatry become insane, and is that why politically astute psychiatrists are trying to distance themselves from it?

Besides drug company payoffs, another way psychiatry as an institution has been prevented from having “normal perceptions” is that most psychiatrists no longer talk to their patients to discover the context of why they behave as they do. Robert Spitzer, perhaps the most inside of all insider psychiatrists in the 1980s and the chair of the DSM-3 task force, is now critical of the DSM’s inattention to context that results in the medicalizing of normal reactions.

In 2011, the New York Times reported, “A 2005 government survey found that just 11 percent of psychiatrists provided talk therapy to all patients.” The article points out that psychiatrists can make far more money primarily providing “medication management.” A typical medication management session consists of checking symptoms and updating prescriptions, and patients are usually in and out with a new prescription in five or 10 minutes.

When Big Pharma is paying thought leader psychiatrists who invent and popularize “illnesses” such as pediatric bipolar disorder, and when most psychiatrists are only conducting medication managements, tragically insane treatments becomes the “standard of care.” The high-profile case of Tufts-New England Medical Center (a bastion of the psychiatric establishment) and Rebecca Riley, covered by “60 Minutes,” reveals that standard of care in psychiatry has become insane.

When Rebecca Riley was 28 months old, based primarily on the complaints of her mother that she was “hyper” and had difficulty sleeping, psychiatrist Kayoko Kifuji diagnosed the toddler with ADHD. Kifuji prescribed clonidine, a drug with significant sedating properties, a drug Kifuji also prescribed to Rebecca’s older sister and brother. The goal of the Riley parents — obvious to many people in their community and later to juries — was to attain psychiatric diagnoses for their children that would qualify them for disability payments and to sedate their children making them easy to manage. But apparently this was not obvious to Kifuji who, when Rebecca was three years old, added a bipolar disorder diagnosis and prescribed two additional heavily sedating drugs, the antipsychotic Seroquel and the anticonvulsant Depakote. Rebecca died at the age of four years old, due to the toxicity of these drugs. After her death, Tufts-New England Medical Center, Kifuji’s employer, told “60 Minutes,” “The care we provided was appropriate and within responsible professional standards.”

Psychiatry has a long history of ridiculous and invalid disorders and insane and dehumanizing treatments. Until the early 1970s, homosexuality was an official DSM mental illness and was treated with aversive conditioning, which included electro-shocking same-sex attraction.

Since 1980, the DSM has pathologized stubborn, rebellious and noncompliant young people, diagnosing them with opposition defiant disorder (ODD); symptoms include “often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules” and “often argues with adults.” And once again, a ridiculous and invalid “illness” has a dehumanizing and insane treatment. In December 2012, the Archives of General Psychiatry reported that, between 1993-2009, there was a seven-fold increase of children 13 years and younger being prescribed antipsychotic drugs, and that “disruptive behavior disorders” — which includes ODD — were the most common diagnoses in children medicated with antipsychotics, accounting for 63 percent of those medicated.

In the 1970s, before Big Pharma corrupted and virtually annexed psychiatry, and when most psychiatrists knew something about their patients’ lives, it was not all that radical for psychiatrists to make connections between emotional suffering and societal problems. With Big Pharma corruption of psychiatry, a denial of the importance of society, politics, and culture to our emotional well-being has ensued.

As I wrote last year, the Centers for Disease Control reported on May 3, 2013 that the suicide rate among Americans age 35-64 years increased 28.4 percent between 1999-2010. The Lancet estimates that the three-year recessionary period from 2008 thru 2010 was a source in the United States for “4,750 excess suicide deaths.” But how much has the American public heard from psychiatry that suicide and depression are related to a crappy economy and societal misery?

A generation ago, the institution of psychiatry, with the backing of Big Pharma, began to exclusively focus on patients’ symptoms, and stopped focusing on anything but superficial aspects of their patients’ lives, while at the same time self-promoting its progress in diagnostics, research and the prescribing of drugs. Today, as Robert Whitaker puts it, “We see that its diagnostics are being dismissed as invalid; its research has failed to identify the biology of mental disorders to validate its diagnostics; and its drug treatments are increasingly being seen as not very effective or even harmful. That is the story of a profession that has reason to feel insecure about its place in the marketplace.”

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Police Charge High School Student with Disorderly Conduct for Using an iPad to Prove He's Being Bullied

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 08:59
The teen sought proof that school administrators were ignoring his plight. So they had him arrested.

Trigger-warning if you hate incompetent bureaucrats and the abuse of power.

Photography Is Not A Crime has flagged a story out of McDonald, Pennsylvania about a high school student whose attempts to prove he was the victim of bullying ended up landing him in front of a judge and charged with disorderly conduct.

According to reports, a high school sophomore at South Fayette High School had grown so sick of having teachers and administrators look the other way whenever he was being bullied that he decided to record some of the routine abuse with his iPad. When school administrators found this out, they took swift action — against him, not his bullies.

Officials at South Fayette High School allegedly told the student to delete the recording and threatened to have him arrested on charges of felony wiretapping. By the time the police arrived at the school, however, the student had already deleted the file.

But rather than leave it there, the police chose to charge the student for disorderly conduct. About a month later, a judge convicted him. No disciplinary actions have been taken against either the administrators and teachers who ignored the bullying or the bullies themselves.

In her remarks defending her decision to convict the bullied child, Judge Maureen McGraw-Desmet claimed that the student’s recording of his abusers’ taunts was an “extreme” move. It would’ve been better, the judge said, if the child had opted to “let the school handle it” instead.

Here’s her full statement, which Photography Is Not A Crime describes as “almost incoherent”:

Normally, if there is — I certainly have a big problem with any kind of bullying at school. But normally, you know, I would expect a parent would let the school know about it, because it’s not tolerated. I know that, and that you guys [school administrators] would handle that, you know. To go to this extreme, you know, it was the only alternative or something like that, but you weren’t made aware of that and that was kind of what I was curious about. Because it’s not tolerated, but you need to go through — let the school handle it. And I know from experience with South Fayette School that, you know, it always is. And if there is a problem and it continues, then it is usually brought in front of me.

Photography Is Not A Crime also notes that the judge is herself the daughter of a judge, a family relationship which likely helped secure her own election to the bench.

 

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Robert Reich: Happy Tax Day VIDEO—Why the 1% Pay a Much Lower Rate than You

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 08:32
The former labor secretary explains why the rich pay less, and how we can change it.

It’s tax time again, April 15, when our minds turn toward paying the taxes we owe or possibly getting a tax refund. But what we don’t think about enough is whether our tax system is fair. The richest 1 percent of Americans are now getting the largest percent of total national income in almost a century. So you might think they’d pay a much higher tax rate than everyone else. 

But you’d be wrong. Many millionaires pay a lower federal tax rate than many middle-class Americans.

Some don’t pay any federal taxes at all. That’s because they‘re allowed to deduct from their taxable income such things as large interest payments on mortgages for huge homes, also the costs of business entertainment and conferences  (aka vacations at golf resorts), and gold plated health care plans.

Some also take advantage of tax loopholes that let them park some of their earnings in offshore tax havens like the Bahamas or the Netherlands Antilles.

And other loopholes that allow them to treat some income as capital gains – subject to a much lower tax rate than ordinary income. If you happen to be a hedge-fund or private-equity manager, there’s a capital gains loophole designed especially for you.

Consider the Social Security payroll tax and the situation is even more lopsided. That tax applies to every dollar of income up to a cap — which this year is $117,000. Anything earned above the cap is not subject to Social Security taxes at all – meaning anyone with a high income pays a much smaller percentage of it in Social Security taxes than most people do.

Put these all together and you see why Warren Buffet, the second richest person in America, pays a lower tax rate than his secretary, as he readily admits.

State and local taxes are even more regressive. The poorest fifth of Americans pay an average state and local tax rate of over 11 percent, while the richest fifth pay only 5.6 percent. This isn’t small change. State and local taxes account for about 40 percent of all government revenues. 

Believe it or not, Republicans want to make all this worse by cutting taxes on the wealthy even more. Paul Ryan’s new budget doesn’t just slice Medicare, education, and food stamps. It also lowers the top federal tax rate to 25 percent. 

When the rich are let off the hook in all these ways, the rest of America has to pay more in taxes to make up the difference – or have services cut because government doesn’t have the funds.

Watch the whole video here.

 

 

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Google Joins the Kochs in Pumping Funds into the Conservative George Mason University

Mon, 04/14/2014 - 13:15
A new article reveals the notorious university is deep in the pockets of the Internet search giant.

Here’s how the free market works. Libertarian think tanks get paid by private corporations to host conferences designed to push industry-friendly regulation. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.

The emergence of Google as a major lobbying force in Washington is a generally well-reported story. But the Washington Post added fresh, intriguing details over the weekend that reveal the search engine company has been deeply involved with financing and organizing conferences on Internet regulatory policy at a major center of libertarian research — George Mason University.

Since at least the 1990s, George Mason has been sucking up millions of dollars of libertarian funding — from the likes of the Koch brothers and others — and has in the process established itself as a major, perhaps even preeminent, player in the world of libertarian thought. The Washington Post article, with the help of emails discovered through a public records request, details how Google helped set up two conferences devoted to “Internet search competition” in 2011 and 2012 that were attended by “regulators from the Federal Trade Commission, federal and state prosecutors, top congressional staffers.”

What the guests had not been told was that the day-long academic conference was in large part the work of Google, which maneuvered behind the scenes with GMU’s Law & Economics Center to put on the event. At the time, the company was under FTC investigation over concerns about the dominance of its famed search engine, a case that threatened Google’s core business…

On the day of the conference, leading technology and legal experts forcefully rejected the need for the government to take action against Google, making their arguments before some of the very regulators who would help determine its fate.

For the past several years, reports the Post, the George Mason Law and Economics Center has received an annual donation of $350,000. In the first of the two conferences, Google was listed as a co-sponsor. For the second, however, “Google’s involvement was not publicly disclosed.”

Even as Google executives peppered the GMU staff with suggestions of speakers and guests to invite to the event, the company asked the school not to broadcast its involvement.

From Google’s standpoint, it’s easy to understand why it would not trumpet the news that it was helping to organize a conference designed to fend off burdensome regulation. That’s the kind of thing that makes journalists and anti-trust regulators grouchy.

But I’m less certain why George Mason would feel any need to oblige. Because in a perfect free market, one in which all actors are free to pursue their own self-interest, one would not only expect private companies to pay think tanks to promote their views, but be actively disappointed if they failed to do so.

 

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Society Is Starting to Wake Up to Rampant Street Harassment of Women

Mon, 04/14/2014 - 13:10
A growing and vocal movement is fighting to empower the women who have to deal with public harrassment on a daily basis.

Last week a wave of demonstrations took to the public walkways of the world to protest street harassment. March 30 to April 5 was International Anti-Street Harassment Week, with 25 countries and 150 groups organizing to raise awareness about a category of assault that is rarely thought of as violent or serious, and to ease the onslaught of such commonplace offenses, in solidarity with the global community.

In 2011, the gender justice nonprofit Stop Street Harassment founded International Anti-Street Harassment Day, and by 2012 they had expanded the mission to a full week. “They held marches, rallies, sidewalk chalking parties, wheat pasting nights, workshops, and comedy events,” Holly Kearl, the founder of Stop Street Harassment, told AlterNet over email. “Countless more groups participated as well by raising awareness online through sharing images and stories, participating in tweet chats, and more.”

One of the largest events was held in New York, where more than 500 protesters gathered on Saturday for a rally organized by 46 social justice groups to end street harassment. As part of the demonstration, a 12-foot tall inflatable cat was hoisted on the mainstage: its side read “cats against catcalls.”

Also last week, Chicago’s streets were graced with Brooklyn-based artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s “Stop Telling Women to Smile,” a traveling art installation advertising such slogans as “My name is not baby” and “Women are not outside for your entertainment.” The installation heads to Baltimore next, on display April 20-27.

Some Facts About Street Harassment

Does a man asking a stranger on a date in a respectful manner without the expectation that he or she will say yes, constitute street harassment? No. Is a man asking a woman he encounters in public for directions to the nearest cologne store street harassment? No.

Here is what does count as street harassment: groping, stalking, sexist comments, and publicly masturbating in someone's presence. These kinds of assaults happen with great frequency. According to a 2010 study conducted by the CDC, “non-contact unwanted sexual experiences,” the category into which most instances of street harassment fall, is the most prevalent form of sexual assault: 70-99% of women worldwide have experienced street harassment.

The fact that victims of street harassment are usually unwilling to report their experiences also speaks to a culture that has deemed such actions appropriate. A 2007 study found that 63% of 1,790 surveyed New York City subway riders said they had been sexually harassed. Just as concerning was the discovery that a mere 4% of these respondents said they had contacted authorities in reference to the incident.

Street harassment also impacts women more severely than it does men. As a result of personal experience with street harassment, not to mention a culture that accepts the shaming of women as inevitable, most women feel far less secure being on their streets alone than men do. A 2012 Gallup poll, which collected data from people in 143 countries, found that men feel significantly safer walking outdoors alone at night than women. Worldwide, 72% of men and 62% of women feel safe walking alone at night. In high-income countries the gender differential jumps considerably to 82% and 59%, respectively.

“Street harassment, like sexual harassment in schools or the workplace, has a more negative impact on women who are harassed than on men who are harassed,” says Kearl.

A slightly more qualitative approach to analyzing the effects of street harassment is to listen to what politicians say about it, especially those on the left. Politicians’ reactions to such attacks on women’s personal liberties have been slow, and—in the rare instances statements are made—weak. When she was Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton remarked, "Studies suggest that women's physical security and higher levels of gender equality correlate with security and peacefulness of entire countries." This may well be true, but the real issue is that as long as there’s national consensus that women’s bodies exist only as vessels for the production of social good, whether that is giving birth or avoiding war, the problem will be rationalized, the patriarchy will not be challenged directly.

Even organizations that are supposed to specialize in helping victims of sexual assault can get this one wrong and put the onus where it shouldn’t be, on the women. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network recently received some criticism for posting some tips for women on how to avoid sexual assault on its website. “Walk with purpose,” RAINN suggests, “Try not to load yourself down with packages or bags as this can make you appear more vulnerable,” or, if all else fails, “Avoid putting music headphones in both ears.” Because one ear is better than none.

Public Misconceptions About Street Harassment

My personal favorite catcall was a man who shouted at me from across the street, “You look like the kind of girl who men pretend to walk their dog just to get a look at.” He wasn’t walking a dog, so this was a purely creative catcall, though no points for calling me a girl. But usually it’s worse, and I’ve heard stories that are much worse. 

Men are often surprised to hear about such uncouth propositions coming from the ranks of their own gender. When I tell them a week never goes by without some guy hissing sweet nothings at my earlobe, their jaws drop. By the time I get around to telling them it usually happens every day (I live in New York, I go a lot of places), their jaws have hit concrete.

A popular response is the defensive “most guys are gentlemen” ploy, often paired with the old “sexual expression is healthy” dig, this belief that feminists should seek equality by upping their sexual boldness, not “censoring” men.

Such commentary flows in the vein of David Foster, in a column for the Guardian recently, which he wrote in opposition to the Everyday Sexism Project: “The liberal left should be envisaging a society where adults of both genders are comfortable both making and receiving straightforward sexual propositions.”

Contrary to Foster, Stop Street Harassment's Kearl understands that street harassment has real consequences for those who deal with it on a daily basis.

“As second-class citizens in the USA, street harassment can remind women of that status. Likewise, for persons in the LGBQT community, street harassment can remind them that they too are second-class citizens. For rape survivors—and there are far more female rape survivors than male—street harassment can be retriggering.”

Finally, there is a pernicious race component to public perception of street harassment, the misconception being that most harassers are black and Latino men.

Some people do have a racial bias as well as class bias when it comes to harassers,” Kearl explains. “For example, they may see comments from a white, middle- or upper-class man as complimentary or at least harmless, but see the same comments as harassment by low-income men of color. But I think more and more women are recognizing that they have the right to be free from unwanted sexual and sexist attention in public spaces from all men and are less willing to see any of it as complimentary.”

The stereotype also simply isn’t true. “Men of all races and socioeconomic status are harassers. However, in general, people are harassed by people of their own race the most…so for women of color, men of color may be their main harasser.”

Know Your Rights

Kearl writes, “There is no national street harassment law and only a handful of states have a general harassment law that could include some forms of street harassment (Maryland, for example). Most states have laws like disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace that one could argue some forms of street harassment would fall under. Unfortunately, most laws are written in such a way that the harassment must cause the person being harassed 'serious alarm' or fear of ‘bodily harm’ and so that would only include more severe forms of verbal harassment, such as rape threats.”

Groping and flashing are illegal in every state; up-skirt photos are illegal in some states, but not all.

While little legal assistance is offered to victims of street harassment, there are ways to resist that do not involve court dates. One way is to know your rights, be confident in your power to push back and not self-silence, if that’s how you choose to fight back. Before the laws come, or, hopefully, in place of laws, there needs to be a shift in power relations, in agency.

In response to the Supreme Court’s decision in January to hear a case that calls into question the legality of buffer zones for abortion clinics, Jessica Valenti suggested her own general approach to men who are disrespectful and invade women’s bodies, space and dialogues, which she calls “Back The Fuck Up.” The message is simple: women know best about their bodies and they know when sexual attention paid to them—whether threatening or not—is patronizing and unwelcome.

“The ethos is one we can all embrace, “wrote Valenti for the Nation, “the idea that women have a right to live their lives free of discrimination and without encroachment on their rights and physical space. It’s really not that difficult to understand, nor is it too much to ask.”

Hannah Gold

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