As immigrant rights protests erupted Saturday in 50 cities across the country, we look at one of the most controversial policies President Obama passes on to Donald Trump: family detention. Since 2014, thousands of Central American women and children seeking asylum have been held in private jails. Despite complaints of medical neglect and poor oversight, the Obama administration resisted calls to end the practice. Now, advocates worry Trump could expand it, with even less oversight. Democracy Now! correspondent Renée Feltz reports from the Texas-Mexico border.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As immigration protests erupt in 50 cities across the country, we end today's show looking at one of the most controversial policies President Obama passes on to Donald Trump: family detention. Since 2014, thousands of Central American women and children seeking asylum have been held in private jails.
AMY GOODMAN: Despite complaints of medical neglect and poor oversight, the Obama administration resisted calls to end the practice. Now advocates worry Trump could expand it with even less oversight. We turn now to Democracy Now! correspondent Renée Feltz with this report.
RENÉE FELTZ: The Obama administration says its policy of detaining Central American families seeking asylum is meant to deter others from following. But thousands of women and children continue to come. In Texas, agents have erected large tents to hold them, near El Paso, in a small town called Donna. I tried to film the tent in Donna, next to a busy border crossing. The security guard didn't make it easy.
SECURITY GUARD: Hello.
RENÉE FELTZ: Yeah.
SECURITY GUARD: No, they don't want nobody here. It has to be across the street
RENÉE FELTZ: Across the street?
The tent can hold a thousand people. It's surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, and Border Patrol jeeps are parked outside. Immigration lawyer Carlos García took a tour in December.
CARLOS GARCÍA: Basically, you walk in, and it's tents. It's like a tent city. And inside, they have chain-link fence, cages. They look like cages. And they call them temporary facilities, but they're detention facilities nonetheless, where, you know, babies and children and parents are sleeping, are being jailed, while the government figures out what they're going to do with them.
RENÉE FELTZ: This is the first step in family detention. Customs and Border Patrol has 72 hours to interview the so-called family units, collect their biometric data and send them to private prisons near San Antonio. In some cases, it gives them a notice to appear in immigration court and lets them go. Agents coordinate the drop-offs at the McAllen bus station with the nearby Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
SISTER NORMA PIMENTEL: They say, well, expect about a hundred between 9:30 and 10:30, about another 50 between 12:30 and 1:00, another 50 or 60 between 3:30 and 4:30, another hundred between 6:00 and 7:00. And that's how it goes.
RENÉE FELTZ: Sister Norma Pimentel oversees a volunteer-run respite center in the parish hall.
SISTER NORMA PIMENTEL: Here in the community of the Rio Grande Valley, we started to see the families in very devastating conditions. They needed to regain their dignity, because they've been through very difficult times. As soon as they arrive, we welcome them. You know, we clap our hands and say "bienvenidos." And it's a way of letting them know that we're here for them. We immediately will take them for their first stop, where they sit down and we will register them, at least take down their name, where they're from, where they're going and what time their bus leaves. They get a bag with all the items they need to go shower and get cleaned up. We then move them to the section where they go and sit down at the table, so they have something to eat, while the volunteers will look for them some clothing. Once they finish eating and have all the clothing collected, they go off and to the showers, take a shower, get cleaned up. After that, they come and ask for a phone call, so they can call their family and tell them what time they're arriving.
RENÉE FELTZ: Even though women and children who are released can reunite with relatives, court records show few find a lawyer and remain free. Asylum claims in such cases are rejected 90 percent of the time. Almost half are ordered deported at their first hearing and wind up in detention.
MANOJ GOVINDAIAH: I think everyone -- advocates, the administration -- I think everyone sort of thought this was a temporary thing, and we would nip this in the bud.
RENÉE FELTZ: Manoj Govindaiah is director of family detention services at the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.
MANOJ GOVINDAIAH: And unfortunately, it looks like it's going to turn into some kind of protracted thing that's here to stay, similar to adult detention, similar to detention of unaccompanied minors. It looks like there is now this new space carved in the detention world for moms and kids.
RENÉE FELTZ: Immigration and Customs Enforcement has occupied that space with two family detention centers run by private prison companies. It has a contract with GEO Group in Karnes County to run a thousand-bed facility. And it recently extended its contract with CoreCivic in the town of Dilley to hold another 2,400 mothers and children until 2021 in a facility next to a state prison.
JOSÉ ASUNCIÓN: When you combine the population of the state prison with the population of CoreCivic's facility, which is capacity 2,400, you get potentially 3,700 incarcerated people in Dilley, which is the equivalent of our town's population.
RENÉE FELTZ: José Asunción manages an auto body shop in Dilley and opposes the family detention center, partly because it's failed to deliver promised economic benefits. Documents he requested show Dilley took out millions in bonds to upgrade water and sewer lines needed by CoreCivic.
JOSÉ ASUNCIÓN: There's 600 employees at the CoreCivic detention center. And this was a big deal when they came to pitch it to the city. "Oh, we're going to bring 600 jobs." And even still the city touts that number. Well, it's great, except that most of those jobs didn't go to people from the area.
RENÉE FELTZ: In October, ICE renegotiated CoreCivic's contract from $20 million to $13 million. And the company passed the cut onto employees.
JOSÉ ASUNCIÓN: So, a resident supervisor that was making 24 bucks an hour was making $16 an hour after that contract renegotiation. They had a number of people quit.
RENÉE FELTZ: Not long after CoreCivic cut wages, more than 400 mothers and children were suddenly released from Dilley. This was about the same time a Texas judge refused to issue child care licenses to private prison operators. Immigration authorities claimed the mass release was part of normal operations, but it may have been linked to one or both of these events. The average stay in family detention is now 17 days before a family is deported or released. Those who are released while their asylum claims are pending in court are again dropped off at the bus station, this time in nearby San Antonio. Those not ready to travel can find housing and a good meal at a shelter RAICES operates.
YANIRA LÓPEZ LUCAS: [translated] My name is Yanira. I'm from Guatemala. And I work here in Casa RAICES. This is a kitchen. We have a fridge. We have this stove, where we prepare food for all the women that are coming in. It truly is very important, because, on the way here, a person doesn't eat the way that a person really should be eating. On top of that, in detention centers, the food is a total disaster. I understand, because I went through that same thing and I know what the food in those detention centers is like.
RENÉE FELTZ: A Department of Homeland Security Advisory Committee on Family Residential Centers has urged the Obama administration to discontinue the general use of family detention. It noted allegations of medical neglect in retaliation against mothers who protested inadequate care. At Casa RAICES, I met a woman named Erica from Honduras who experienced just that. She was detained in Dilley after she requested asylum with her two young children. It was at CoreCivic's detention center where her then-14-month-old daughter got sick.
ERICA: [translated] The third day in Dilley, she started having fevers and coughing. Took her to the medic, the hospital there. They told me there was nothing wrong with her. I cried and told the nurse that, please, to give me some medicine, because my daughter was having such a high fever. Even after we finished the treatment, my daughter was still having very high fevers and coughing a lot. Nothing was better. I wanted to sign my deportation, because I wanted to get out of there. And I told the other moms there, but they told me to not do that.
RENÉE FELTZ: Erica says at one point the medical staff gave her daughter VapoRub when she had a hard time breathing. When she was released to Casa RAICES, they immediately took her to the emergency room.
ERICA: [translated] She was hospitalized for seven days. A doctor told me that she was glad that I brought the child, because she could have died. She had pneumonia, and she had an infection in her right lung.
RENÉE FELTZ: Advocates worry Erica's experience could become more common under Trump, who has vowed to crack down on immigrants, and surrounded himself with policymakers who oppose oversight and regulation of private industry. For now, she is one of many voices calling for the Obama administration to end family detention before he leaves office.
ERICA: [translated] The father of my children had already been here before. And he used to say that the children were treated much better and that there was a lot of medical attention. But truly, he was wrong.
RENÉE FELTZ: Reporting from South Texas, I'm Renée Feltz for Democracy Now!
AMY GOODMAN: And that does it for today's show. Tune in for our special live coverage of the presidential inauguration on Friday, January 20th, from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Eastern. We'll carry the official proceedings live, as well as analysis and voices from the streets. On Saturday, January 21st, we'll broadcast live from the Women's March on Washington from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Eastern, bringing you voices from the stage and the march. Go to democracynow.org for details.
As a new study by Oxfam finds the world's eight richest men control as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity, the group says it is concerned that wealth inequality will continue to grow following the election of Donald Trump, whose Cabinet members have a combined wealth of nearly $11 billion. We look at the rise of Trump, and those joining his administration, with award-winning Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi. His new book comes out today, titled Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, as a new study finds the world's eight richest men control as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity, six of the eight billionaires are Americans, including Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos. Oxfam said it's concerned that wealth inequality will continue to grow following the election of Donald Trump, whose Cabinet members have a combined wealth of nearly $11 billion.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we're joined by award-winning Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi, who's been chronicling the rise of Donald Trump during the 2016 election campaign. In his new book, just out today, he writes, "It's an Alice in Wonderland story, in which a billionaire hedonist jumps down the rabbit hole of American politics and discovers a surreal world where each successive barrier to power collapses before him like magic." Yes, Matt Taibbi's book is titled Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus. As this week, Friday, the inauguration of the 45th president, Donald Trump, is set, your thoughts, Matt Taibbi?
MATT TAIBBI: I mean, it's unbelievable. I think this is an unprecedented crisis heading into an inauguration week. I think we never could have imagined that some -- this last twist, at the end of what was already the craziest election season in history, with this Russia controversy and this sort of unparalleled intelligence crisis, in a way it's actually kind of the perfect anti-ending to this, you know, incredible tragicomedy of the last couple years.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Matt, on the title, as we hear in the news that the real circus, Ringling Brothers Circus, is about to --
MATT TAIBBI: Shutting down.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: -- close down after 146 years --
MATT TAIBBI: Perfect, right?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: -- how did you get the title, decide on the title for the book?
MATT TAIBBI: Oh, I was going for something subtle, actually. No, I mean, honestly, it's funny. If the president-elect and his followers have complaints about the title, they should really blame Trump himself, because I actually learned a lot about marketing watching Donald Trump over the last couple years. There's no reason to be subtle at all in the current environment. So, I thought this -- that, you know, the title kind of reflected how what happened in the last couple years was a mix of kind of the extremely horrible and the extremely ridiculous. And it had that clown car theme, as well, I wanted to kind of reference.
AMY GOODMAN: So, more than 40 years ago, your magazine, Rolling Stone, chronicled Nixon's campaign in 1972. There are parallels, because you now have an inauguration where, well, just at this point, 42 congressmembers, Democratic congressmembers, like one in five, will not be attending. And that number may certainly go up. The only thing we saw -- only time we saw anything like this was Nixon, 1972 -- 1973, inauguration, in the midst of the war. It's also a time when The Washington Post reports that Donald Trump's popularity rating -- more than 50 percent of the people are not happy with what he's doing -- is at a 40-year low.
MATT TAIBBI: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: So talk about what you have found in this year, and particularly now in this rush of Cabinet members' confirmation hearings, who these Cabinet members are, representing the wealthiest Cabinet in U.S. history -- what, $11 billion, their combined wealth?
MATT TAIBBI: Sure, yeah. Just to go back to the beginning, I mean, yeah, obviously, you know, I cover the campaign for Rolling Stone magazine. It's sort of one of the iconic jobs on Earth. It's kind of like being the Dread Pirate Roberts. And this is a tradition that kind of goes back all the way to, you know, Hunter Thompson and when he covered Richard Nixon, and then eventually compiled it into a book called Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. And that was sort of the gold standard, I think, and always will be, for campaign writing. And I think what made that series of articles and that book art, as opposed to just kind of snappy magazine writing, was that Thompson was personally obsessed with how horrible and disgusting Nixon was, in a way that no other politician really touched him. For the rest of his life, no matter who he wrote about, whether it was Carter or, you know, even George Bush, it just wasn't the same thing. He almost had like the opposite of a love relationship with Nixon. And that kind of obsession is something you really can't force. You either have it or you don't have it.
I would never compare myself to Hunter Thompson. I think that's an unflattering comparison for any writer, but I think I do a little bit understand what he was going through with Nixon. I kind of feel a little bit the same way about Trump. He's a -- you know, it was kind of hate at first sight, actually, when I first saw him on the campaign trail. He's a fascinating, repellent, awful, epically horrible character. And in a way, it makes for this incredibly engrossing story to follow him. So, you know, I think that, to me, is what really stood out about this last year, is Trump himself, he is just such a unique figure in our time. He's kind of the perfect foil to reflect everything that's excessive and vulgar and disgusting and tasteless and cheap and greedy about American culture. He is the perfect mirror to reflect everything about our society.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And yet, the reality is that he did get such a huge number of votes. And one of the things that you've talked about is not only him, but the crowds that he gathered and their relationship to you and to reporters, as well.
MATT TAIBBI: Right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about that? Because that didn't get much coverage by the press of how they, themselves, were treated at these Trump rallies.
MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, and I think that was kind of a big oversight by a lot of the media. Trump -- look, how do politicians get elected? There's a very simple formula that people on both sides have followed for ages. They tell people that, you know, things are bad, and we're going to give you somebody to blame. You know, on the right, they've traditionally pointed the fingers at minorities and foreigners. And on the left, we point at corporations, you know, the pharma companies, insurance companies, etc., etc.
Trump did all of those things. He appropriated all of those bogeymen, both the liberal and the conservative bogeymen, but he also made the campaign process itself a villain. He said, "These people, these reporters, these donors, these two entrenched political parties, they are against you." And unfortunately for us reporters, we were the only people from that particular group who were actually in the room during these events. So what he would do is he would say, "Look at these people. Look at these bloodsuckers. You know, they've never come so far for an event. And they didn't want to come. They all said I was going to lose," etc., etc. And the crowds would physically turn toward us and start, you know, sort of hissing and booing. And he made us part of this kind of WWE act. And it was -- in a way, it was brilliant theater. And I think that the people on the campaign plane didn't understand the significance of what he was doing. He was villainizing the process. And it was really effective.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But in terms of your ability even to interview some of the Trump supporters, you had a lot of difficulty, right?
MATT TAIBBI: Sure, sure. And this is something, to be fair, that had been happening gradually for a while now. I mean, I think the reporters have been increasingly unpopular with people in, quote-unquote, "flyover America." It's always been hard for, you know, sort of coastal media types to interview people in red state America. But this time around, I had a success rate of about one in five in getting people to actually talk to me. You know, when they heard where I worked, it sometimes got even worse than that. So, there was a lot of abuse, a lot of anger. You know, but some of it, to be fair, was justified. I think a lot of these people felt betrayed by the media, not just the liberal media, all media. Even the people from the conservative publications and TV stations had difficulty connecting with Trump's voters.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, that anger represented at Bernie Sanders' rally yesterday outside of Detroit. You had 10,000 people demanding that the ACA, the Affordable Care Act, not be repealed, and a number of them actually were Trump supporters, now getting extremely scared.
MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, and there are obviously -- there's some crossover between the anger on the Trump side and the anger that fueled the Sanders campaign. I think that was something that everybody who was following the campaign recognized from very early on. But we just were slow to recognize that some of that anger was directed toward us.
AMY GOODMAN: During a presidential debate in October, Hillary Clinton was asked about the content of a trove of emails released by WikiLeaks that were allegedly hacked from the account of her campaign chair, John Podesta. Those emails included excerpts from her paid speeches to Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street firms. During the debate, Donald Trump weighed in on the leaked Clinton speeches.
DONALD TRUMP: She got caught in a total lie. Her papers went out to all her friends at the banks, Goldman Sachs and everybody else. And she said things -- WikiLeaks -- that just came out. And she lied.
AMY GOODMAN: So, there you have Donald Trump. Talk about the significance of this.
MATT TAIBBI: Well, Trump made Goldman Sachs a villain very early in the campaign. He was extremely explicit about it throughout the entire campaign season, dating back to January and February, when he used it as a club to beat on Ted Cruz, because both his wife -- Cruz's wife and Cruz himself had a financial relationship to Goldman Sachs. He said, "Cruz is totally controlled by Goldman Sachs. Hillary is totally controlled by Goldman Sachs. You know, I know those people from Goldman Sachs. I'm not going to be a puppet of Goldman." He actually ran a campaign ad, a 30-second campaign ad, very close to the election, that specifically mentioned Goldman and Wall Street banks.
And then he turns around right after the election, and he brings five people from Goldman Sachs, or four ex-Goldmanites and a Goldman lawyer, into the White House. So this is, you know, your immediate, obvious contradiction in his campaign rhetoric. You know, he talked about draining the swamp, and the first thing he did is he filled it with people who were from that very company.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, keep talking about that. You've got Steve Mnuchin --
MATT TAIBBI: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: -- who, now we know, his wealth may be well over $400 million, treasury secretary.
MATT TAIBBI: Right, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Steve Bannon, who comes from Breitbart, the white nationalist, white supremacist website, news website, also was a Goldman banker. Some people are starting to talk about -- what is it? -- Government Sachs, not Goldman Sachs.
MATT TAIBBI: Right. And let's be fair. Goldman has always had a major presence in government all over the world, not just in America. They've been presidents of the World Bank. They've been presidents of, you know, the EC Bank and Bank of Canada. You know, they head a lot of the Federal Reserve branches, etc., etc. But now it's not just -- it's not just Mnuchin. It's not just Bannon. There's also Gary Cohn, who was the number two at Goldman Sachs behind Lloyd Blankfein. In fact, they were sort of co-heads of Goldman Sachs for all the relevant crisis years. Cohn is now the chief economic adviser to Donald Trump; he's the head of the NEC. There's Jay Clayton, who was Goldman's lawyer. He worked for Sullivan & Cromwell, but he represented Goldman. Anthony Scaramucci, who's another ex-Goldmanite, who is now a principal Trump adviser. So there's at least -- at least five high-ranking people already in the White House who have a relationship with Goldman Sachs. And again, this is a company that he specifically denounced during the campaign.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about Russia. Over the weekend, we've had the controversy with John Lewis saying that he believes that Trump is not a legitimate president, in part because of the Russian meddling in the election. Your take on that? But also, you've raised the issue that Americans are forgetting about the United States' role in meddling in internal Russian politics in the past.
MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, I think people, they might want to look back at July 1996, at the cover of Time magazine, actually. There was a cover that said "Yanks to the Rescue." And it was all about how we sent American advisers over to save Boris Yeltsin's re-election campaign. We openly talked about how we participated in helping Boris Yeltsin get past his communist challenger, not only in 1996, but in 1993 during the referendum. I was there throughout that period, so I know we had an enormous influence on Russian politics, not just during the election campaigns, but also in terms of advising the Yeltsin government on how to do things like privatize the economy. So, there were a lot of people out there in Russia, all over the country, who, when they think about things like how I don't have health insurance anymore, or I don't have free education, they point the finger at us for that, because some of that was due to policies that we recommended. So, it's a subtext that probably a lot of Americans don't -- aren't conscious of, because it wasn't heavily publicized here, but it's certainly something to think about.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And your reaction to the allegations of Russian meddling here?
MATT TAIBBI: Sure. Well, I mean, I've talked to people who have a pretty high degree of confidence that Russia did hack the DNC, and then they do think it's probable that they also passed it to WikiLeaks. But beyond that, I think, is where we start getting into this grey area, where it's very, very dangerous for reporters to start making statements and insinuations about what may or may not have happened, because Russia hacking and trying to influence the election, and Donald Trump being in on it, there's an order of magnitude of difference between those two things. And I think they're being conflated a little bit in the media, and we have to be careful about saying that before we know what the facts are. I mean, it could very well turn out to be true, but I think we need a full investigation to know why people are saying that they believe that.
AMY GOODMAN: You recently ripped The Washington Post for what you considered one of the worst investigative jobs ever. Explain.
MATT TAIBBI: Yeah. You know, they ran this story about how a group called PropOrNot had -- which is a sort of a private cyberteam, I guess. They claimed to have identified 200 independent new sources who they called, you know, "useful idiots" in support of the Russian state. And coincidentally, or maybe not coincidentally, almost all of those sites were pretty well-known alternative media organizations. You know, it was a very sloppy piece of reporting that the Post did. And their excuse was they didn't openly recommend these allegations and didn't endorse them, but they linked to them, and anybody could look at them. And, of course, that's how -- that's an end run around, you know, the usual factual standards that we have in the media. And I think that's the kind of thing that I'm worried about with a lot of this Russia talk, is that we have excesses when people believe things that maybe aren't true.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Donald Trump speaking at a news conference, saying it was probably Russia that broke into the DNC's servers and also hacked John Podesta's emails.
PRESIDENT-ELECT DONALD TRUMP: As far as hacking, I think it was Russia. But I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people. And I can say that, you know, when -- when we lost 22 million names and everything else that was hacked recently, they didn't make a big deal out of that. That was something that was extraordinary. That was probably China. We had -- we have much hacking going on.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Trump later insisted he had no loans or business dealings with Russia. Of course, the real question is the amount of Russian money in his development projects even here in the United States --
MATT TAIBBI: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: -- from Trump SoHo downtown, when banks -- what, he owes something like a billion-and-a-half dollars to 150 financial institutions, as it's been reported. And when he couldn't get lines of credit, Russian oligarchs were a good place to turn. But this issue, this -- in the last few days, he's announced perhaps, you know, NATO should not be around. He has said that -- talked about lifting the sanctions against Russia. Talk about all of this.
MATT TAIBBI: Well, I mean, I think we have to get to the bottom of it. And clearly --
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think he'll be leading an investigation?
MATT TAIBBI: No, I wouldn't imagine that. I wouldn't hold my breath for that to happen.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Rex Tillerson, the CEO of --
MATT TAIBBI: No, I don't -- I don't think so.
AMY GOODMAN: -- Exxon, whose company has a huge amount to gain --
MATT TAIBBI: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: -- if the sanctions against Russia are lifted?
MATT TAIBBI: Of course. I mean, look, it's an oil company. And the subterranean dealings between ExxonMobil and whatever, you know, the Russian oligarchy, I'm sure that's a tangled web that we need to get to the bottom of. But I think, somehow, someway, there has to be some kind of independent investigation. Whether, you know, some people in the Senate can be prevailed upon -- you know, we do have this joint intelligence committee in the Senate that is allegedly going to have subpoena power and is allegedly going to be able to interview people about what went on. But, you know, it's an urgent question.
Clearly -- one of the things that's been clear in the last couple of weeks is that our intelligence services either believe that Trump has some kind of a relationship and that there was some kind of quid pro quo in the last year. They either believe that that's true, or they're putting that out there for some reason. And we have to get to the bottom of it, one way or the other. If it's a disinformation campaign, we have to know that. And if it's true, we need to know that, because there's really nothing more serious than a compromised person becoming president of the United States.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Matt, I wanted to ask you -- your book basically is a chronicle of your time on the campaign trail, but you were surprised, as well, by the victory of Donald Trump, weren't you? Talk about that and the -- how so many people got it wrong.
MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, it's kind of the big flaw in the book, is in the second half, because I actually saw from the beginning -- I had been waiting for something like Trump to happen for a long, long time. I mean, there's actually an excerpt from a book I wrote 10 years ago, in this book, about how, you know, people were tuning out the mainstream media, and they were turning to more conspiratorial directions, and there was going to come a time when they were going to shut us out completely. And I kind of saw that coming. And I did see, early on in the campaign, that Trump -- I never thought anybody else was going to be the nominee.
But I was fooled, I think, in the second half of the campaign, like a lot of people were, by the poll numbers and also by -- there was a little bit of a change in his strategy, where he seemed to be moving away from themes that had been successful for him during the primary season, and he was trying this crazy new thing, talking about how he was going to rescue -- be the rescuer of the African-American community and all that. I thought that was a terrible, disastrous move and that it was going to lose him the election. It turned out it won him the election, because it rehabilitated him with, quote-unquote, "mainstream Republicans," who didn't want to think of themselves as racists. So, it turned out to be this brilliant move that helped him build a coalition, which he himself, you know, wouldn't have been capable of alone. He needed Steve Bannon's help to do that.
And I just never saw that result coming, and I think a lot of reporters didn't, because -- and this is the main problem with campaign reporting. We just -- we aren't out there enough talking to people. We tend to spend all of our time with other reporters and other politicians and other pollsters. We don't -- we're not out there physically taking the temperature of voters enough, and that's why things like the Trump phenomenon can happen and take us by surprise.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Matt Taibbi, final thoughts, as you reflected back on all your work of this past year? We are in this inauguration week.
MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, I mean, this is the most extraordinary political story, I think, in our history. I don't think anything has ever -- on this scale, has ever happened before. Trump -- what people need to remember about Trump is -- they're overwhelmed by the horror of it right now, but they have to remember also that this was an extraordinary story about how democracy, in a weird way, does work. He penetrated all of these different layers, these barriers to power that had been thrown up to ordinary people. And he was a true outsider, who somehow made it past all those barriers, through all these loopholes that we had left open. And I think that's an amazing story that we need to focus on. How did that happen?
AMY GOODMAN: You covered occupy in your book The Divide. We are seeing a kind of mass movement developing now. Yesterday in New York, a major meeting planning the inauguration sendoff of Donald Trump on Thursday night --
MATT TAIBBI: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: -- outside Trump Tower. We saw thousands of people rally around the country on all different issues, massive protests. Women's march is planned for Saturday, the day after the inauguration.
MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, no, I think this is a moment when people have to do that. This is a -- again, it's an unparalleled crisis. If any of this stuff about Russia is true, people need to do whatever they can to prevent him from becoming president, or at least try to get him impeached as quickly as possible. And, you know, again, we have to take the example of what Trump supporters did. They defied the odds to get him in office. And I think it's a demonstration that if people are organized enough, they can accomplish anything. And then, they -- people on the other side should take that lesson.
AMY GOODMAN: Matt Taibbi, award-winning journalist with Rolling Stone magazine. His new book, just published today, Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.
Within months of taking office, President Donald Trump is likely to face one or more major international crises, possibly entailing a risk of nuclear escalation. Not since the end of the Cold War has a new chief executive been confronted with as many potential flashpoints involving such a risk of explosive conflict. This proliferation of crises has been brewing for some time, but the situation appears especially ominous now given Trump's pledge to bring American military force swiftly to bear on any threats of foreign transgression. With so much at risk, it's none too soon to go on a permanent escalation watch, monitoring the major global hotspots for any sign of imminent flare-ups, hoping that early warnings (and the outcry that goes with them) might help avert catastrophe.
Looking at the world today, four areas appear to pose an especially high risk of sudden crisis and conflict: North Korea, the South China Sea, the Baltic Sea region, and the Middle East. Each of them has been the past site of recurring clashes, and all are primed to explode early in the Trump presidency.
Why are we seeing so many potential crises now? Is this period really different from earlier presidential transitions?
It's true that the changeover from one presidential administration to another can be a time of global uncertainty, given America's pivotal importance in world affairs and the natural inclination of rival powers to test the mettle of the country's new leader. There are, however, other factors that make this moment particularly worrisome, including the changing nature of the world order, the personalities of its key leaders, and an ominous shift in military doctrine.
Just as the United States is going through a major political transition, so is the planet at large. The sole-superpower system of the post-Cold War era is finally giving way to a multipolar, if not increasingly fragmented, world in which the United States must share the limelight with other major actors, including China, Russia, India, and Iran. Political scientists remind us that transitional periods can often prove disruptive, as "status quo" powers (in this case, the United States) resist challenges to their dominance from "revisionist" states seeking to alter the global power equation. Typically, this can entail proxy wars and other kinds of sparring over contested areas, as has recently been the case in Syria, the Baltic, and the South China Sea.
This is where the personalities of key leaders enter the equation. Though President Obama oversaw constant warfare, he was temperamentally disinclined to respond with force to every overseas crisis and provocation, fearing involvement in yet more foreign wars like Iraq and Afghanistan. His critics, including Donald Trump, complained bitterly that this stance only encouraged foreign adversaries to up their game, convinced that the U.S. had lost its will to resist provocation. In a Trump administration, as The Donald indicated on the campaign trail last year, America's adversaries should expect far tougher responses. Asked in September, for instance, about an incident in the Persian Gulf in which Iranian gunboats approached American warships in a threatening manner, he typically told reporters, "When they circle our beautiful destroyers with their little boats and make gestures that... they shouldn't be allowed to make, they will be shot out of the water."
Although with Russia, unlike Iran, Trump has promised to improve relations, there's no escaping the fact that Vladimir Putin's urge to restore some of his country's long-lost superpower glory could lead to confrontations with NATO powers that would put the new American president in a distinctly awkward position. Regarding Asia, Trump has often spoken of his intent to punish China for what he considers its predatory trade practices, a stance guaranteed to clash with President Xi Jinping's goal of restoring his country's greatness. This should, in turn, generate additional possibilities for confrontation, especially in the contested South China Sea. Both Putin and Xi, moreover, are facing economic difficulties at home and view foreign adventurism as a way of distracting public attention from disappointing domestic performances.
These factors alone would ensure that this was a moment of potential international crisis, but something else gives it a truly dangerous edge: a growing strategic reliance in Russia and elsewhere on the early use of nuclear weapons to overcome deficiencies in "conventional" firepower.
For the United States, with its overwhelming superiority in such firepower, nuclear weapons have lost all conceivable use except as a "deterrent" against a highly unlikely first-strike attack by an enemy power. For Russia, however, lacking the means to compete on equal terms with the West in conventional weaponry, this no longer seems reasonable. So Russian strategists, feeling threatened by the way NATO has moved ever closer to its borders, are now calling for the early use of "tactical" nuclear munitions to overpower stronger enemy forces. Under Russia's latest military doctrine, major combat units are now to be trained and equipped to employ such weapons at the first sign of impending defeat, either to blackmail enemy countries into submission or annihilate them.
Following this doctrine, Russia has developed the nuclear-capable Iskander ballistic missile (a successor to the infamous "Scud" missile used by Saddam Hussein in attacks on Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia) and forward deployed it to Kaliningrad, a small sliver of Russian territory sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. In response, NATO strategists are discussing ways to more forcefully demonstrate the West's own capacity to use tactical nuclear arms in Europe, for example by including more nuclear-capable bombers in future NATO exercises. As a result, the "firebreak" between conventional and nuclear warfare -- that theoretical barrier to escalation -- seems to be narrowing, and you have a situation in which every crisis involving a nuclear state may potentially prove to be a nuclear crisis.
With that in mind, consider the four most dangerous potential flashpoints for the new Trump administration.
North Korea's stepped-up development of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles may present the Trump administration with its first great international challenge. In recent years, the North Koreans appear to have made substantial progress in producing such missiles and designing small nuclear warheads to fit on them. In 2016, the country conducted two underground nuclear tests (its fourth and fifth since 2006), along with numerous tests of various missile systems. On September 20th, it also tested a powerful rocket engine that some observers believe could be used as the first stage of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that might someday be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the western United States.
North Korea's erratic leader, Kim Jong-un, has repeatedly spoken of his determination to acquire nuclear weapons and the ability to use them in attacks on his adversaries, including the U.S. Following a series of missile tests last spring, he insisted that his country should continue to bolster its nuclear force "both in quality and quantity," stressing "the need to get the nuclear warheads deployed for national defense always on standby so as to be fired at any moment." This could mean, he added, using these weapons "in a preemptive attack." On January 1st, Kim reiterated his commitment to future preemptive nuclear action, adding that his country would soon test-fire an ICBM.
President Obama responded by imposing increasingly tough economic sanctions and attempting -- with only limited success -- to persuade China, Pyongyang's crucial ally, to use its political and economic clout to usher Kim into nuclear disarmament talks. None of this seemed to make the slightest difference, which means President Trump will be faced with an increasingly well-armed North Korea that may be capable of fielding usable ICBMs within the coming years.
How will Trump respond to this peril? Three options seem available to him: somehow persuade China to compel Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear quest; negotiate a disarmament deal directly with Kim, possibly even on a face-to-face basis; or engage in (presumably nonnuclear) preemptive strikes aimed at destroying the North's nuclear and missile-production capabilities.
Imposing yet more sanctions and talking with China would look suspiciously like the Obama approach, while obtaining China's cooperation would undoubtedly mean compromising on trade or the South China Sea (either of which would undoubtedly involve humiliating concessions for a man like Trump). Even were he to recruit Chinese President Xi as a helpmate, it's unclear that Pyongyang would be deterred. As for direct talks with Kim, Trump, unlike every previous president, has already indicated that he's willing. "I would have no problem speaking to him," he told Reuters last May. But what exactly would he offer the North in return for its nuclear arsenal? The withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea? Any such solution would leave the president looking like a patsy (inconceivable for someone whose key slogan has been "Make America Great Again").
That leaves a preemptive strike. Trump appears to have implicitly countenanced that option, too, in a recent tweet. ("North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen!") In other words, he is open to the military option, rejected in the past because of the high risk of triggering an unpredictable response from the North, including a cataclysmic invasion of South Korea (and potential attacks on U.S. troops stationed there). Under the circumstances, the unpredictability not just of Kim Jong-un but also of Donald Trump leaves North Korea in the highest alert category of global crises as the new era begins.
The South China Sea
The next most dangerous flashpoint? The ongoing dispute over control of the South China Sea, an area bounded by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and the island of Borneo. Citing ancient ties to islands in those waters, China now claims the entire region as part of its national maritime territory. Some of the same islands are, however, also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Although not claiming any territory in the region itself, the U.S. has a defense treaty with the Philippines, relies on free passage through the area to move its warships from bases in the Pacific to war zones in the Middle East, and of course considers itself the preeminent Pacific power and plans to keep it that way.
In the past, China has clashed with local powers over possession of individual islands, but more recently has sought control over all of them. As part of that process, it has begun to convert low-lying islets and atolls under its control into military bases, equipping them with airstrips and missile defense systems. This has sparked protests from Vietnam and the Philippines, which claim some of those islets, and from the United States, which insists that such Chinese moves infringe on its Navy's "freedom of navigation" through international waters.
President Obama responded to provocative Chinese moves in the South China Sea by ordering U.S. warships to patrol in close proximity to the islands being militarized. For Trump, this has been far too minimal a response. "China's toying with us," he told David Sanger of the New York Times last March. "They are when they're building in the South China Sea. They should not be doing that but they have no respect for our country and they have no respect for our president." Asked if he was prepared to use military force in response to the Chinese buildup, he responded, "Maybe."
The South China Sea may prove to be an early test of Trump's promise to fight what he views as China's predatory trade behavior and Beijing's determination to resist bullying by Washington. Last month, Chinese sailors seized an American underwater surveillance drone near one of their atolls. Many observers interpreted the move as a response to Trump's decision to take a phone call of congratulations from the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, shortly after his election victory. That gesture, unique in recent American presidencies, was viewed in Beijing, which considers Taiwan a renegade province, as an insult to China. Any further moves by Trump to aggravate or punish China on the economic front could result in further provocations in the South China Sea, opening the possibility of a clash with U.S. air and naval forces in the region.
All this is worrisome enough, but the prospects for a clash in the South China Sea increased significantly on January 11th, thanks to comments made by Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil and presumptive secretary of state, during his confirmation hearing in Washington. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he said, "We're going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed." Since the Chinese are unlikely to abandon those islands -- which they consider part of their sovereign territory -- just because Trump and Tillerson order them to do so, the only kind of "signal" that might carry any weight would be military action.
What form would such a confrontation take and where might it lead? At this point, no one can be sure, but once such a conflict began, room for maneuver could prove limited indeed. A U.S. effort to deny China access to the islands could involve anything from a naval blockade to air and missile attacks on the military installations built there to the sinking of Chinese warships. It's hard to imagine that Beijing would refrain from taking retaliatory steps in response, and as one move tumbled onto the next, the two nuclear-armed countries might suddenly find themselves at the brink of full-scale war. So consider this our second global high alert.
The Baltic Sea Area
If Hillary Clinton had been elected, I would have placed the region adjoining the Baltic Sea at the top of my list of potential flashpoints, as it's where Vladimir Putin would have been most likely to channel his hostility to her in particular and the West more generally. That's because NATO forces have moved most deeply into the territory of the former Soviet Union in the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. Those countries are also believed to be especially vulnerable to the kind of "hybrid" warfare -- involving covert operations, disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, and the like -- that Russia perfected in Crimea and Ukraine. With Donald Trump promising to improve relations with Moscow, it's now far less likely that Putin would launch such attacks, though the Russians continue to strengthen their military assets (including their nuclear war-fighting capabilities) in the region, and so the risk of a future clash cannot be ruled out.
The danger there arises from geography, history, and policy. The three Baltic republics only became independent after the breakup of the USSR in 1991; today, they are members of both the European Union and NATO. Two of them, Estonia and Latvia, share borders with Russia proper, while Lithuania and nearby Poland surround the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Through their NATO membership, they provide a theoretical bridgehead for a hypothetical Western invasion of Russia. By the same token, the meager forces of the three republics could easily be overwhelmed by superior Russian ones, leaving the rest of NATO to decide whether and in what fashion to confront a Russian assault on member nations.
Following Russia's intervention in eastern Ukraine, which demonstrated both Moscow's willingness and ability to engage in hybrid warfare against a neighboring European state, the NATO powers decided to bolster the alliance's forward presence in the Baltic region. At a summit meeting in Warsaw in June 2016, the alliance agreed to deploy four reinforced multinational battalions in Poland and the three Baltic republics. Russia views this with alarm as a dangerous violation of promises made to Moscow in the wake of the Cold War that no NATO forces would be permanently garrisoned on the territory of the former Soviet Union. NATO has tried to deflect Russian complaints by insisting that, since the four battalions will be rotated in and out of the region, they are somehow not "permanent." Nevertheless, from Moscow's perspective, the NATO move represents a serious threat to Russian security and so justifies a comparable buildup of Russian forces in adjacent areas.
Adding to the obvious dangers of such a mutual build-up, NATO and Russian forces have been conducting military "exercises," often in close proximity to each other. Last summer, for example, NATO oversaw Anaconda 2016 in Poland and Lithuania, the largest such maneuvers in the region since the end of the Cold War. As part of the exercise, NATO forces crossed from Poland to Lithuania, making clear their ability to encircle Kaliningrad, which was bound to cause deep unease in Moscow. Not that the Russians have been passive. During related NATO naval exercises in the Baltic Sea, Russian planes flew within a few feet of an American warship, the USS Donald Cook, nearly provoking a shooting incident that could have triggered a far more dangerous confrontation.
Will Putin ease up on the pressure he's been exerting on the Baltic states once Trump is in power? Will Trump agree to cancel or downsize the U.S. and NATO deployments there in return for Russian acquiescence on other issues? Such questions will be on the minds of many in Eastern Europe in the coming months. It's reasonable to predict a period of relative calm as Putin tests Trump's willingness to forge a new relationship with Moscow, but the underlying stresses will remain as long as the Baltic states stay in NATO and Russia views that as a threat to its security. So chalk the region up as high alert three on a global scale.
The Middle East
The Middle East has long been a major flashpoint. President Obama, for instance, came to office hoping to end U.S. involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet U.S. troops are still fighting in both countries today. The question is: How might this picture change in the months ahead?
Given the convoluted history of the region and its demonstrated capacity for surprise, any predictions should be offered with caution. Trump has promised to intensify the war against ISIS, which will undoubtedly require the deployment of additional American air, sea, and ground forces in the region. As he put it during the election campaign, speaking of the Islamic State, "I would bomb the shit out of them." So expect accelerated air strikes on ISIS-held locations, leading to more civilian casualties, desperate migrants, and heightened clashes between Shiites and Sunnis. As ISIS loses control of physical territory and returns to guerilla-style warfare, it will surely respond by increasing terrorist attacks on "soft" civilian targets in neighboring Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey, as well as in more distant locations. No one knows how all this will play out, but don't be surprised if terrorist violence only increases and Washington once again finds itself drawn more deeply into an endless quagmire in the Greater Middle East and northern Africa.
The overriding question, of course, is how Donald Trump will behave toward Iran. He has repeatedly affirmed his opposition to the nuclear deal signed by the United States, the European Union, Russia, and China and insisted that he would either scrap it or renegotiate it, but it's hard to imagine how that might come to pass. All of the other signatories are satisfied with the deal and seek to do business with Iran, so any new negotiations would have to proceed without those parties. As many U.S. strategists also see merit in the agreement, since it deprives Iran of a nuclear option for at least a decade or more, a decisive shift on the nuclear deal appears unlikely.
On the other hand, Trump could be pressured by his close associates -- especially his pick for national security advisor, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, a notoriously outspoken Iranophobe -- to counter the Iranians on other fronts. This could take a variety of forms, including stepped-up sanctions, increased aid to Saudi Arabia in its war against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, or attacks on Iranian proxies in the Middle East. Any of these would no doubt prompt countermoves by Tehran, and from there a cycle of escalation could lead in numerous directions, all dangerous, including military action by the U.S., Israel, or Saudi Arabia. So mark this one as flash point four and take a deep breath.
Going on Watch
Starting on January 20th, as Donald Trump takes office, the clock will already be ticking in each of these flashpoint regions. No one knows which will be the first to erupt, or what will happen when it does, but don't count on our escaping at least one, and possibly more, major international crises in the not-too-distant future.
Given the stakes involved, it's essential to keep a close watch on all of them for signs of anything that might trigger a major conflagration and for indications of a prematurely violent Trumpian response (the moment to raise a hue and cry). Keeping the spotlight shining on these four potential flashpoints may not be much, but it's the least we can do to avert Armageddon.
The news is full of efforts to read the tea leaves of incoming President Trump's startling and somewhat erratic pronouncements on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). NAFTA was a bad deal, he says, and as a consummate dealmaker, he will tear up the existing agreement and get America a better deal. Perhaps he'll raise tariffs across the board, sending up trial balloons of 5 or even 10 percent tariff hikes. Perhaps he'll go after currency manipulation, although that hasn't really been an issue so far with Canada or Mexico.
What ties together all of these edicts is that they are simplistic, blunt instruments to fix complex problems. In the case of NAFTA, for example, trade flows among the three countries have quadrupled since the agreement began. That means goods -- and investments -- flowing back and forth across borders to create complex supply chains. Take the example of pork production. US corn and soy exports to Mexico have soared, as has domestic and foreign investment in industrial-scale pork production. US pork production has also increased, using the same cheap feeds, much of which is exported to Mexico and other countries.
According to a superficial explanation, US farmers must be relatively better at producing animal feed and hogs than their Mexican counterparts. Consumers should benefit from lower prices, so all must be well. But look more closely at that rosy picture and the festering dysfunctions come into view. Millions of Mexican farmers lost their land after NAFTA, driven from their communities to seek work in cities in Mexico and the United States. Consumption of cheap meat, highly processed foods, and dairy products spiked in Mexico too, resulting in dramatic increases in obesity rates.
On the US side, oft-repeated assertions that increasing exports would save the farm have turned out to be flatly wrong. Or rather, wrong for family farmers and entirely right for agribusinesses. Any way you look at it, corporate concentration in US agriculture has increased dramatically over the last two decades, as companies nimbly shift various aspects of production around the world, protected by trade rules on tariffs, food safety, intellectual property rights, and investment. The US Farm Bill programs that more or less hold that system together have not resulted in healthier foods or strong rural economies but instead have contributed to rising rates of dumping of cheap farm goods overseas.
Untangling this mess so that trade rules actually contribute to thriving rural economies and healthier food and farm systems will require a lot more than the blunt instruments of raising tariffs or inane suggestions to ban immigrant workers. On the other hand, the complexity of trade rules proposed in deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) shouldn't mask the clear intentions behind those rules. Although Robert Lighthizer, Trump's nominee for US trade representative, has been critical of past trade deals, Public Citizen has pointed out that many of the other appointees who will be deeply involved in trade policy were strong TPP supporters.
Trump claims that NAFTA and other existing trade deals have failed. They haven't for their proponents. The rules were specifically designed to help big global firms remove regulations and programs that might limit their profits, whether in the US or overseas. The entirely foreseeable increases in income inequality and environmental degradation were not accidents. Rather, the deal's proponents simply saw those effects as unavoidable or even unimportant.
The real story of recent changes in the trade debate is that organizations representing workers, the faith community, the environment, public health, and family farmers stood up and said no, translating tradespeak into plain, if shocking language. Terms like "Investor State Dispute Settlement," for example, sound vaguely benign. But this mechanism in trade deals like NAFTA in fact sets up unaccountable private tribunals of trade lawyers to enable companies to extract hundreds of millions of dollars from governments over public interest regulations such as cigarette labels, controls on toxic wastes from gold mines or the recent corporate lawsuit challenging the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline. These agreements were never about "free" trade in the first place.
New Rules for NAFTA
So if the new administration were serious about righting the wrongs of trade policy, a first reasonable step would be to eliminate some of the worst aspects of current trade deals, starting with Investor State Dispute Settlement. There is no reason such disputes cannot be resolved under existing national judicial systems.
There is a very real danger that any efforts to renegotiate NAFTA could make it much worse, including for food and farm systems, if negotiators rely on new proposals from other failed trade deals. TPP provisions to tighten agribusiness controls over seeds and plant varieties or to speed up approvals of imports of biotechnology products using data hidden as confidential business information would give farmers fewer options over their seeds. Similarly, "innovations" on regulatory cooperation in the stalled Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) would undermine local efforts to ban toxic pesticides or to clean up noxious manure lagoons from factory farms.
If, in fact, we want better deals, we need new rules. US groups such as the National Family Farm Coalition, Rural Coalition, National Farmers Union, Western Organization of Resource Councils, Food & Water Watch, and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy have come together to discuss what really should be on the agenda if NAFTA were to be replaced with a different agreement with the goal of increasing living standards in all three countries. These conversations are happening in Mexico and Canada as well.
It's hard to be optimistic that NAFTA renegotiations will go well. A key early indication will be whether the Trump administration continues the current practice of secretive negotiations among corporate advisors or if it begins with a thorough, open, and democratic assessment of NAFTA that involves both rural and urban communities, including farmers. If the agreement includes provisions related to agriculture, the overall goal should be to support fair and sustainable rural economies and food supplies.
A Better Deal for Farmers and Consumers
Trade and farm policy go hand in hand. Both should ensure that farmers are paid fairly for their crops and livestock. The current US Farm Bill is almost entirely geared to growth in international exports in order to raise incomes for farmers -- an approach that has dramatically failed, with farmers now experiencing the third consecutive year of low prices. Discussions on the Farm Bill will likely heat up in 2017, but in the meantime, the US could stop trying to dismantle other countries' efforts to support their farming communities. These issues are mainly being debated at the World Trade Organization, but frank discussions with NAFTA partners on more sensible joint approaches for food reserves or other efforts to minimize wild swings in prices or supplies would be a welcome step.
The US could also press its NAFTA partners to abandon their challenges to Country of Origin Labeling for meat. A pledge to take on this issue appeared in early drafts of Trump's NAFTA plans, but seems to have been discarded for now. Canada and Mexico won a WTO challenge of a US program that required the same kinds of disclosure typically required for fruits and vegetables. A survey commissioned by the Consumer Federation of America found that 90 percent of Americans want to know where their meat is from. Accurate information is an essential component of well-functioning markets. Current trade rules prioritize trade flows over consumers' right to know what's in their food. That simply has to stop.
It's easier to see what needs to be removed from current trade policy than to see how the trade rules themselves can proactively help advance food security and rural livelihoods. Most of the reforms that need to happen in our food system -- whether in a community, a nation, or on the global scale -- must start with local conditions and priorities. This will become increasing clear as climate change destabilizes weather, disrupting global supply chains and making massive, single-crop production more vulnerable. A recent study co-authored by an MIT economist found that increasing crop diversity within countries is likely to be much more important in confronting climate change than relying on trade to make up for declining productivity. The idea that we should build up from what farmers know about their soil, weather, and local markets to feed their families and their nations is at the center of the global movement for food sovereignty. Trade policy should support that process, not create new obstacles.
It is impossible to know now whether Trump's campaign promise to renegotiate NAFTA will result in any substantial improvements, and there's every reason to question what the three governments might eventually decide to do. But there is also no reason for the civil society movements that defeated the TPP to allow other interests to set the agenda on NAFTA.
Demonstrators march to protest the election of Donald Trump on November, 19, 2016. (Photo: CaliCal / Flickr)
With only days to go until Donald Trump and his bevy of far-right appointees take the White House, communities across the United States are preparing for a potential escalation in immigration raids, police repression, Islamophobic targeting, corporate exploitation and climate chaos. Many of those taking to the streets to protest fascism and preparing mutual defense plans in their neighborhoods were also actively organizing throughout the Obama years, which saw a record number of deportations, open-ended wars and the highest levels of imprisonment in the world.
In the following interview, activist, scholar and movement lawyer Dean Spade takes stock of this harrowing political moment and offers frameworks to help social movements navigate the treacherous waters ahead. Spade is an associate professor at Seattle University School of Law, founder of the the legal collective Sylvia Rivera Law Project and author of the book Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law. His writing and organizing spans issues from prison and police abolition to queer resistance and global anti-militarism. Spade told AlterNet, "We need to support the people getting killed in the current systems, and figure out how to build the systems we need to get everyone everything they need. This empire is crumbling and we're going to keep losing the crappy, insufficient infrastructure that exists. We need to build infrastructure we want."
Sarah Lazare: You've argued previously that we should understand the U.S. government as being in a constant state of war. Can you explain what you mean by this?
Dean Spade: For the last several years, especially throughout Obama's second term, I've been doing a lot of thinking, writing and connecting with others about the ways that major institutions and politicians co-opt ideas or symbols or words from left struggles and deploy them to shore up the very institutions of oppression that left struggles are trying to take down. For example, toward the end of Obama's first term he came out in favor of same-sex marriage and repealing the ban on lesbians and gays in the military to make his presidency look progressive when under criticism for drone warfare, targeting whistleblowers, not closing Guantanamo, deporting records of numbers of immigrants, continuing U.S. military imperialism globally and more. Obama used gay politics to brand himself as progressive, just as the U.S. military used the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell and the ban on women serving in combat to rebrand itself as a site of liberation and freedom when it is the most significant source of violence on the planet.
Understanding this way that institutions, public officials and corporations manage public relations is essential right now. Whether it is a bank promoting itself as gay-friendly or an oil company promoting itself as green, grabbing left movement ideas, symbols and words is a widespread, effective propaganda tactic right now. Especially during the Obama administration, I was interested in how we could fight this form of propaganda, how we could build tools to discern when various ideas and symbols from our movements were being cynically used to cover over the ongoing operations of violence our movements exist to dismantle. Especially when I saw straight people who are usually very clearly anti-war celebrating gay military service and all the pro-military propaganda that came with it, or feminists who usually recognize marriage as a mechanism of gendered social control celebrating same-sex marriage as a moment of liberation, I felt concerned about how harmful institutions that are under attack from our movements can rehabilitate themselves through shallow "inclusion" strategies.
One frame that I think can help us through this, which has been central to so many left movements across time, is to understand the relationship between the United States and both targeted populations and resistance movements as a relationship of war. Movements have articulated that the U.S. is at war with targeted populations, and that the U.S. government uses counter-insurgency strategy when approaching our movements. In other words, the U.S. acts like this is war, so we should, too.
One example that is useful to look at is the framing from the 1951 "We Charge Genocide" petition brought to the United Nations arguing that the United States has engaged in genocide against black people according to the international law definition of genocide. The United States attempted to prevent the delivery of the petition, seizing the copies that were mailed to Paris and revoking the passports of Paul Robeson and William L. Patterson as they tried to deliver it. The petition became an international media sensation and a widely read document in the U.S. The framework it lays out remains vital to understanding anti-black racism in the U.S. Contemporary resistance to police violence has lifted up this same frame, arguing that state violence against black people is not about a few bad cops but is instead systemic. This is a particularly important frame in the context of contemporary rhetoric about how the U.S. is "post-racial" because we have a black president.
Indigenous movements in North America have also, obviously, consistently framed the United States and Canada as settler colonial nations that have engaged in warfare and genocide against Indigenous people. This frame is essential to comprehending the colonial context of their struggles, the outrageous claims of the United States to be in a "trust" relationship with Indigenous people, the meaning of treaty violations and the daily state violence faced by Indigenous people. The warfare frame has also been used by those working to dismantle the war on drugs, recognizing that it instead has been a war on people of color. Left activists have also consistently critiqued the war on terror as actually a war on Arab and Muslim people and a rationalization for permanent U.S. imperial warfare abroad.
This war-frame lets us understand the relationship between the United States and our movements as one of counterinsurgency. Counterinsurgency has two prongs. The first is repression. The U.S. government consistently and overtly oppresses resistant movements. We can see recent examples in government spying on Black Lives Matter groups, or the ongoing "green scare," which includes infiltration of environmental and animal liberation groups, entrapment of members and extensive criminalization of activists. We can see it in the fact that police cleared the Occupy encampments across the U.S. These activities are part of a long, well-documented history that included the government infiltration of the American Indian Movement, the Black Panthers, Young Lords and other important organizations in the 1960s and '70s resulting in the assassination and incarceration of many leaders.
The other prong of counterinsurgency is recuperation. Recuperation is about increasing the legitimacy of the government and marginalizing the views of resistant movements. This is the part where the very institutions and arrangements that are being criticized by the movements are recast as sites of freedom and liberation. The Obama administration did both prongs very effectively, particularly the propaganda part. Obama's presidency was consistently framed as progressive and associated with left causes and movements in a way that rehabilitated its reputation, and the reputations of its key institutions like the military, despite the realities of what the administration was doing.
The Trump administration is not using the same strategy of cloaking its activities in a surface-level nod to progressive politics: the war against targeted populations is more overt. However, understanding counterinsurgency will be just as important for shaping our resistance during this period, particularly because with Trumpism on the scene, so many elected officials, corporations and institutions will be declaring themselves progressive or "anti-hate" since he makes it a low bar, meanwhile continuing to take actions that harm people and the planet.
The warfare and the counterinsurgency frames can give us some useful tools for discernment and debate about who our allies are, and whether particular reforms are helping dismantle harmful institutions and arrangements or just rehabilitating their public images.
How do you see this warfare framework as helpful for navigating which reforms set us back and which move us toward harm reduction?
The powers that be (owners, industries, governments and militaries) want to keep things the way they are or enhance exploitation and violence. Our movements want to dismantle the apparatuses of control and violence that rob people of their land, labor and collective self-determination. When movements are growing to resist harm and violence, they first ignore us. When we get big and loud enough, they acknowledge the problem in some limited way and tell us they will take care of it, creating a minimal reform that, as much as possible, maintains the status quo.
Critical race theorists call this dynamic "preservation through transformation," and the example that they often use for it is civil rights. In the face of a powerful, disruptive, widespread movement for black freedom, the United States made the concession of civil rights laws, which formally make racism and racial segregation illegal. So, the surface of the law changed, and the story the U.S. tells about itself changes ("racism is a thing of the past"). But the material conditions facing black people did not change much. Schools are wildly segregated and unequally funded, the racial wealth gap continues to widen and the imprisonment of black people and other people of color has skyrocketed in the last half-century. This is a major danger of reforms—that they change the surface, but the injustice and suffering that movements were raising hell about goes mostly unchanged.
Often we see reforms that are solely symbolic. The elected officials or institutions get to take up the cause and associate themselves with the idea of justice and freedom without having to endure anything actually changing. For example, after the Trump election public officials in Washington State, where I live, held a press conference to declare Washington a "hate-free state." It was a feel-good opportunity where they could all show how they are against racism, Islamophobia and homophobia. However, these are the same politicians who are building a $210 million new youth jail in Seattle while the school system is operating at a budget deficit. These kinds of empty declarations are a dime a dozen right now, and can effectively provide legitimacy and cover to institutions and people who should actually be held accountable for the harm they are doing.
Sometimes reforms are problematic because they aren't totally symbolic, but they provide relief to only the least-marginalized of the effected group. An example would be immigration reforms that are aimed only at people with no criminal histories or are who are wiling to join the military or excel at school and pay for college without access to financial aid. Since poorer immigrants, black and indigenous immigrants, and immigrants with disabilities are more likely to have been targeted by police and less likely to have been given educational support, any policy that picks out the "deserving" will also reinforce existing hierarchies of vulnerability and legitimize the targeting of the most vulnerable.
Many reforms provide little or no meaningful change to conditions, but go far to legitimize and even expand harmful systems. We can see this when states propose to build "gender-responsive prisons" in the face of criticism about gendered violence in prisons. Building more prisons means filling more prisons, but cloaking that project in purported care for women prisoners can legitimize prison expansion. Similarly, police forces faced with criticism about racism and sexism sometimes initiate hiring focused on women and people of color. Our movements want to dismantle policing and imprisonment, not win reforms that expand them.
Because of these complex dynamics, a big question for movements is how you tell whether a reform (that we're proposing or that the powers that be are proposing) advances our struggle or recuperates their institutions?
Some of the criteria that I have found useful are: Will it provide material relief? Will this improve the life chances of people who are most vulnerable under the current conditions? Does it leave out an especially marginalized part of the affected group (such as people with criminal records, people convicted of "violent" crimes, or people without immigration status)? Is it a reform that says some groups (families, children, people with jobs, people with education) are deserving and should be given relief but others (single people, adults, poor people, people on benefits, people with criminal records, people without degrees) deserve to get targeted? Is it dividing our constituency, undermining our power, and exposing the most marginal people to more harm? Does it legitimize and expand the system we're actually trying to dismantle?
And the question isn't just about the content of the reform, but also how it is being fought for. Who's pushing for it? Is it a bunch of people in suits behind closed doors, or is it most affected people in the streets fighting for this? Are we building power in this fight, power that we can keep using to continue the fight? Or is this reform coming from the powers that be, the sheriffs and prosecutors and elected officials saying they have solved the problem and we can all go back to sleep?
In his recent book, The Failure of Nonviolence, Peter Gelderloos suggests that we ask, "Does it have elite support?" That's a very useful question right now, because with everyone excited to get on the Trump-is-bad bandwagon, the bar has gotten very low for what constitutes a racist. If you're not Trump, you get to proclaim you are progressive or right-on, even if you're actually a jail-building elected official. Many elites are trying to get mileage for their reputations out of supporting reforms that won't threaten their power or the power of their donors, but make them look like they are on a moral high ground compared to Trump. It is a good time for us to be suspicious of any purportedly justice-oriented reforms that are backed by elites.
The organizer, educator and writer Mariame Kaba made a very useful contribution to this thinking about how we evaluate reforms in an article about evaluating police reforms. She asks: does it allocate more money to the police? Does it advocate for more police and policing? Is the reform primarily technology-focused? Is it focused on individual dialogues with individual cops? These kinds of concrete questions help advance our thinking about reforms, and they do so because they keep an understanding of the adversarial relationships between the government and capital and our movements in focus.
What kind of organizing do you think is important in this political moment, less than a month out from Trump taking the White House?
Trump is not promoting himself as progressive. Obama did promote himself as progressive, but only as cover for his actual actions as the deporter-in-chief, the expander of drone warfare and domestic surveillance, the president of the most imprisoning nation in the history of the world, etc. The Trump moment is different from the Obama moment in many ways, but there are also important similarities. We're under a lot of the same conditions, but not under any illusions that we can negotiate at the federal level to transform them. We're all pretty aware that the levels of danger that vulnerable people (people in public housing, people on benefits, immigrants, prisoners) are in are very high already and worsening under Trump. A lot of people are scared and many are getting mobilized by that fear, whether they are the ones in the most direct line of fire or whether they are concerned for the people they care about.
This moment, importantly, turns us to the local level. Most of the things we're concerned about—immigration raids, people losing their welfare benefits, public housing being closed or privatized, a growing private prison industry, more power for landlords, bosses and polluters—these things might be federal decisions, but when they are implemented on a local level. This is the moment to establish local projects to obstruct the implementation of these harms and support the people most endangered by these forces. It is time to build many, many local projects everywhere, to do things like support prisoners, go with people to housing court and benefits hearings, create rapid response and alert systems for immigration raids, create community networks to house each other, create emergency response for climate-change created disasters, create community care networks to support people with disabilities and old people, create childcare projects and more. We need to do this mutual aid work alongside work to disrupt the operations of the systems that pulverize our communities. We need to be blocking deportations with our bodies, sabotaging jail and prison building efforts and occupying public housing slated for demolition.
In contemporary culture, we are strongly encouraged to spend all our political energy declaring our positions on social media, and none on supporting targeted people or actually building the world we want to live in. The work we need to do is deeply local. It is not glamorous, but it is satisfying and radical. Figuring out how evictions work in our town, what resources tenants are missing in those processes, and how to support the most vulnerable tenants who are the least likely to make it through those processes when fighting rich landlords is work we can actually do. And when it fails, we must also be ready to use direct action to protect tenants and target landlords.
We don't have to be lawyers to support people through bureaucratic procedures. Many of us have the research skills to support these kinds of projects and can share and build those skills with others. If we have the internet, we can be doing research for people getting out of prison about housing and health care, helping them with that transition. We can be using various kinds of literacy and access to create meaningful advocacy and accompaniment projects. It is the right time for solid, long-term, committed mutual aid work. It is a matter of survival, and it is a matter of creating a new world.
I'm very inspired by groups like No One Is Illegal, which has chapters across Canada. NOII has done organizing around people being in immigration detention and facing deportation. They consistently use grassroots organizing and direct action to assert political pressure to support people facing detention and deportation and delegitimize Canadian border enforcement policies and practices. We've seen these strategies building in the United States with the hunger strikes of people in immigrant detention over the last several years and work to block deportation buses. #Not1More has demonstrated the powerful work that can happen with solidarity between people inside and outside immigration prisons.
When we're committed to regular practice with group of people with whom we build trust to commit to a project, and those groups are in solidarity and connection with other groups in similar kinds of deep work, I think this is our way to prepare for this Trump moment and all the ongoing moments we're going to face during and after this presidency. This work builds the relationships and movement infrastructure we need to prepare for the next storm, the next war. To be honest, we needed this work with Obama in office too. Local, grassroots work that is rooted in mutual aid and has lots of people participating is vital for both survival of the most targeted and building the power to displace the structures that have been making war on targeted populations for centuries. I hope that the ways that many people are feeling mobilized by the election help us develop more of this work.
You've talked about now being the time for 'nobodies.' Can you explain what you mean by that?
I got this concept from the activist, writer and filmmaker Reina Gossett. She talks about "nobodies" and "somebodies" and asks us to think about when we are doing things to try to not feel like a nobody. When are we doing things to try to feel like a somebody? Her inquiry made me think about how many people are excited about social movement ideas and transformation but don't actually give a f*ck about homeless people in their neighborhoods, or actual people in prison in their city and state. Even people who have been through poverty or criminalization or migration are encouraged to wash our hands of it as soon as we can, to villainize anyone still struggling.
In our movements, it often seems like people are struggling to be seen, to be somebody, to meet with someone who is somebody like the mayor or an activist celebrity or a Hollywood celebrity. What would it look like to turn that upside-down? How could I shift that and say, I can't wait to shake the hand of the person whose name I don't know who's in solitary in the prison 50 miles from my house. And that's my life goal, not meeting Beyoncé or Noam Chomsky, but connecting with someone who is being tortured and denied human touch.
As someone who has been a poverty lawyer and spent time fighting in these murderous bureaucratic systems, I have seen how they are very local and idiosyncratic. We need to getting in the muck of local systems. All of us need to figure out something that we're kind of good at or willing to study up on, something we feel passionate enough to make a long-term commitment to and dig into material work. We need to support the people getting killed in the current systems, and figure out how to build the systems we need to get everyone everything they need. This empire is crumbling and we're going to keep losing the crappy, insufficient infrastructure that exists. We need to build infrastructure we want. We need to actually, concretely build the world we want to live in, before the next blackout or storm comes, and in the face of the longer-term deterioration of our educational systems, hospitals, all of it. This local work is building our movement, because people who are doing that work are mobilized, have relationships with each other, know each other's kids and elders, and have skills for connecting across difference that are lost in an individualist, isolating society.
The warfare frame helps us with this work. If we understood that there is a war against targeted people and our movements, we would be more ready to help people escape the raid, escape the jurisdiction, escape from prison. We might be more ready to open our homes to the person getting out of prison, set up the bail fund, hide someone from the cops or ICE, give someone a ride, or whatever it takes.
Debbie Southorn helped with this interview.
A government report recently released tied the poor health outcomes of Native Americans to a lack of consistent management at federal hospitals tasked with caring for indigenous people in the US.
According to an analysis by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Indian Health Service (IHS) has practiced only "limited and inconsistent" oversight of its network of hospitals. The lack of health care standards, the watchdog reported, is a contributing factor to the shorter life expectancy of many Native American populations.
The GAO noted that IHS's mission is to "raise the physical, mental, social, and spiritual health of American Indians and Alaska Natives to the highest level." Last year, the agency allotted $1.9 billion to provide care to indigenous populations at HIS-operated hospitals and health care center around the country.
But the quality of that care is in question.
During testimony last year before a congressional subcommittee on Indian Affairs, tribal members described several weaknesses at IHS facilities. They included patients being sent home without seeing a doctor, the wrong medication prescribed, and misdiagnoses that have led to death. On average, American Indians have a life expectancy of 4.4 years below other races. They also die at much a higher clip from preventable illnesses, including diabetes, liver ailments, and respiratory diseases.
Oversight of those IHS facilities is conducted through a loose network of nine area offices where officials hold occasional meetings to examine quality performance data. As GAO reported, however, this schematic lacks consistency. Some offices hold meetings more frequency than others. Not all area offices have the same access to quality health care data.
"As a result," the watchdog stated, "IHS officials cannot ensure that facilities are providing quality health care."
GAO also said the oversight is "exacerbated" by high turnover of leadership at those area offices. Officials told investigators that four of the nine offices reviewed had at least three area directors in the past five years.
Recognizing its own problems, the IHS drafted new procedures to last November to improve oversight and patient experiences. But GAO warned that this new framework has yet to be implemented, and that the agency has to develop "quality performance standards."
The watchdog issued two recommendations, including ensuring that agency-wide health care standards exist. It also called on the IHS to prevent problems associated with high turnover, and "develop contingency and succession plans for the replacement of key personnel, including area directors."
The IHS, which was established in 1955 to provide to care to members or descendants of 567 tribes recognized by the federal government, operates 26 hospitals, 56 health centers, and 32 health stations in 33 states. Those facilities provided services to over 5 million patients in 2014.
President-elect Donald Trump outside the home of Robert Mercer, co-chief executive of the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, where he attended a costume party, in Head Of The Harbor, New York, December 3, 2016. (Photo: Hilary Swift / The New York Times)
When it comes to climate science denial, some names come easily and deservingly to mind.
There's oil giant ExxonMobil -- a company that contributed millions of dollars to organizations that told the public there was no risk from burning fossil fuels.
There are the oil billionaire Koch brothers -- Charles and David -- and their ideological zeal against government regulations that drove them to pour vast amounts into groups spreading doubt on the realities of human-caused global warming.
But a name that has not yet reached those heights of climate science denial infamy -- but likely should -- is the Mercer family.
Who Are the Mercers?
A DeSmog analysis of Federal Electoral Commission returns shows Robert Mercer, the reclusive hedge fund manager, has donated $30.1 million to politics since January 2015 (a further $2.3 million has come from daughter Rebekah and wife Diana).
Some $15 million of Robert Mercer's money went into the Make America Number 1 super-PAC that was headed by Rebekah Mercer and that bankrolled the final months of Donald Trump's campaign. One source told The Hill: "The Mercers basically own this campaign."
But DeSmog has found the Mercers have also pumped at least $22 million into organizations that push climate science denial while blocking moves to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Trump too refuses to accept the evidence that climate change is caused by humans and has consistently called the issue a hoax.
Before diverting to Trump, the Mercers' cash was backing Senator Ted Cruz, who made climate science denial a main feature of his speeches.
Those positions on climate change, challenged by every major scientific institution in the world, are identical to those of the groups and individuals the Mercers have been handsomely funding through their own family foundation.
Climate science denial also fits well with Robert Mercer's reported investment in Breitbart -- the hyper partisan media outfit that calls climate change a hoax. Many see Breitbart as Trump's very own propaganda vehicle -- the Trump Pravda.
Steve Bannon, Breitbart's former chief, was picked by Trump (or, more likely, by the Mercers) to lead his campaign. The controversial figure will be Trump's chief strategist.
Climate Denial Funded
Very little is known about what the Mercers think about climate change or, for that matter, anything else. Both father and daughter avoid media interviews.
But Rebekah has been described as the most powerful woman in GOP politics and is a pivotal member of the Trump team. Rebekah also runs her father's charitable foundation.
So, the best way to get a handle on what the Mercers think, is to see where they spend their millions.
DeSmog has analyzed the Mercer Family Foundation's tax returns since 2005 and finds some $22 million has gone to groups pushing climate science denial.
Across the board, the groups funded by the Mercers have misrepresented climate science, promoted fossil fuels, denigrated renewable energy, and pushed to strip powers from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The Chicago-based Heartland Institute has received $4,988,000 from the Mercers, cashing its first $1 million check in 2008.
The Heartland Institute holds regular "international climate change conferences" where denialists, fossil fuel-funded scientists, and politicians come together to talk tactics.
In 2012, the institute famously started a billboard campaign that used a picture of terrorist Ted "Unabomber" Kaczynski next to the phrase: "I still believe in global warming. Do you?"
Despite the generosity of the Mercers, the Heartland Institute does not publicly acknowledge the funding, perhaps indicative of the Mercers' desire to stay below the radar.
The Mercer name was even left out of internal Heartland budget documents leaked in 2012. If the Mercers had asked for anonymity, then Heartland's coyness is not unusual.
Another organization shy about getting cash from the Mercer Family Foundation is the George W. Bush Foundation, the organization set up in 2006 to look after the official archive of the George W. Bush presidency.
The George W. Bush Foundation publishes a lengthy list of its financial supporters and the Mercers are not on it. But tax records show the Mercers have given the Bush Foundation $4.1 million since 2010.
Alongside funding for Breitbart and the Heartland Institute, Robert Mercer has also spent $1.25 million supporting an obscure group known as the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, led by Art Robinson.
Robinson was behind a long-debunked "survey" of university graduates, known as the Oregon petition. First published in 1998, the petition claimed that 30,000 "scientists" had declared humans were not to blame for global warming.
Robinson also thinks climate change is a hoax. His institute sells nuclear survival manuals, is currently stockpiling human urine for testing, and sells home schooling kits for parents worried about their children being exposed to socialism.
Robert Mercer also supported Art Robinson's failed 2010 Republican run for Congress.
As well as Robert and his family donating to Robinson's campaign committee, Robert Mercer personally gave $643,750 to a super-PAC that ran attack ads against Robinson's Democratic opponent (that opponent, Peter DeFazio, has noted that he had co-sponsored legislation to tax hedge fund transactions).view this map on LittleSis
The MRC's outlets regularly give favorable coverage to climate science denialism, while ridiculing credentialed climate scientists and others who place a priority on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
MRC alumnus Marc Morano, communications manager at the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, recruited his former employer to help him produce the climate science denial documentary Climate Hustle. Rebekah Mercer is an MRC director.
The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research is another group on the receiving end of the Mercers' generosity, to the tune of more than $1 million since 2011.
The institute's researchers tend to argue against renewable energy while promoting fossil fuels and underplaying or ignoring the impacts of climate change.
Rebekah Mercer recently joined the institute's board of trustees.
The Heritage Foundation is a relative newcomer to the Mercer family's giving, but the think tank's positions on energy, political ideology, and climate science fit the pattern perfectly -- underplay and misrepresent the science, promote fossil fuels, and push for low government regulations.
Predictably, Rebekah Mercer is a trustee at Heritage, a think tank seen as influential in the Trump camp. The Trump team is drawing heavily from Heritage Foundation staff for its transition teams.
On the EPA "landing team" is Heritage's David Kreutzer, who claims the recent run of record-breaking hot years globally is nothing unusual.
Rebekah Mercer is also on the board of the Moving Picture Institute (MPI), a group that helps finance and distribute movies which, according to its website, "make an impact on people's understanding of individual rights, limited government, and free markets."
MPI even has a program to support stand-up comedians who promote this "freedom" ideology in their stand-up routines.
Climate Denial's Most Powerful Ally?
Until now, the Mercer family's funding of climate science denial groups has gone relatively unnoticed.
Most of the attention of investigative journalists had fallen on three overlapping groups that have either influenced or funded the climate science denial movement across the United States.
The first was the network of groups funded and orchestrated by the Koch brothers, who have invested millions into creating and sustaining conservative "think tanks" that take positions protecting the Koch brothers' fossil fuel interests.
Groups like the Cato Institute (which cashed a $300,000 Mercer check last year) and Americans for Prosperity have attacked the science of human-caused climate change while challenging the legitimacy of solutions, such as renewable energy and electric vehicles.
Both Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund are "donor-advised funds" and are used by rich conservatives to funnel money to "libertarian" causes while hiding the identity of the donors.
A third major supporter of the climate science denial industry are those who stand to lose most from the public fully understanding the implications of climate change -- the fossil fuel industry itself.
Companies including ExxonMobil, Peabody Energy, and Koch Industries, alongside trade groups representing the fossil fuel industry, have helped fund the machinery of doubt for decades.
Now, Robert Mercer's fortune and the political prowess of daughter Rebekah have created another wealthy and powerful ally for the climate science denial industry.
President-elect Donald Trump is the most powerful vehicle yet for those billionaires willing to spend big to misrepresent climate science and gamble on society's future.
Bad news: Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R–Tennessee) is the new chair of the House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. That's the body charged with overseeing the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission, and it's supposed to ensure that everyone has access to open and affordable communications tools -- no matter who they are or where they live.
Granted, none of the candidates for chair of this subcommittee have consistently spoken out for communications rights, but Blackburn stands out from the crowd -- and not in a good way. Over the years her utterly indefensible and uninformed opinions about everything from Net Neutrality to SOPA have made it clear that she's far more concerned about protecting the profit margins of cable companies and Hollywood studios than she is about protecting you.
Here are a few of Rep. Blackburn's greatest hits:
1. She's leading the fight to kill Net Neutrality.
Blackburn has proposed legislation (the misleadingly titled "Internet Freedom Act") that would overturn the FCC's open internet protections and block what she has falsely labeled "job-killing regulations."
In fact, Blackburn has proposed this legislation multiple times. She called earlier attempts to pass Net Neutrality rules a "hysterical reaction to a hypothetical problem" and a "government takeover of the internet," regurgitating nonsensical industry talking points and denying the very real concerns of millions of Americans.
Blackburn is way off track. Besides protecting online free speech, giving a platform to marginalized voices, and promoting truly affordable internet access, the Net Neutrality rules and the FCC decisions backing them up level the playing field for businesses of all kinds. Far from killing jobs, an open internet fosters innovation and economic growth.
In 2014 alone, more than 4 million people urged the FCC to pass strong Net Neutrality rules. But that means nothing to Blackburn, who stands squarely on the side of monopoly ISPs -- consumers and constituents be damned.
2. She was one of SOPA's most vocal supporters (and maybe still is).
Blackburn pushed hard for the draconian Stop Online Piracy Act, which would have allowed the film and recording industries to black out large tracts of internet content without due process. She relented only after a massive online protest drew attention to this harmful legislation and ground it to an abrupt halt in 2012.
As we reach the fifth anniversary of this historic victory for internet users, Blackburn is still bitter. Two months ago she argued on CNN that if SOPA had passed, it would have prevented recent cyberattacks -- even though SOPA had nothing at all to do with cybersecurity. Adding insult to injury, Blackburn then referred to the millions of real people and companies that protested SOPA as "cyberbots."
3. She wants Comcast to censor your news.
Net Neutrality stops cable and phone companies from editing the internet for you.
That doesn't sit well with Blackburn: A few weeks ago, back on CNN once again, she called for cable and phone companies to edit away: "If anyone is putting fake news out there, the ISPs have the obligation to, in some way, get that off the web."
We do need better journalism, but what Blackburn is proposing is downright dangerous. Better news coverage comes from journalists digging into hard-hitting investigations and working with communities to build trust and strong relationships -- not from giving Comcast authority over what counts as "fake news." Censoring content that ISPs or members of Congress don't like threatens the free speech rights of everyone online without providing a viable means of stopping the proliferation of dishonest news stories.
Blackburn should focus less on the imaginary "obligation" of ISPs to censor fake news and more on her obligation to serve the public.
4. She wants to take Lifeline phone and internet service away from people who can't otherwise get affordable connections.
The Lifeline program was created in the 1980s to make essential telephone service more affordable for low-income families. It's succeeded at connecting millions of disadvantaged families, and was updated in 2016 to include support for people trying to get access to the internet.
Blackburn believes this program should be abolished. Coupling the most vile kind of racist dog-whistle politics with an incredible ignorance about the facts, she argues that this program feeds into a culture of government dependency that is "weakening America" -- all while blaming President Obama for a program Ronald Reagan founded and George W. Bush expanded. Never mind that shuttering Lifeline would rip vital communications tools away from those who need them most: The new chair of the subcommittee has political points to score.
5. She wants to kill community broadband networks.
Blackburn has long opposed public broadband alternatives. When communities build and manage their own networks, they sometimes provide the only affordable high-speed broadband in places that phone and cable companies simply refuse to serve. In other areas, they provide real competition to cable monopolies -- the very same companies that donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to Blackburn.
To throttle this competition, industry lobbyists have successfully pushed for state laws in at least 19 states that prevent municipalities from building their own broadband networks. Blackburn has defended the industry-written rules and attacked local choice. In 2014, she proposed an amendment that would stop the FCC from preempting any of these anti-competitive state laws. She brought the legislation back again a year later, calling the FCC's decision to protect local competition and authority a "troubling power grab."
Blackburn should know better: Her state of Tennessee is home to the city of Chattanooga, which boasts one of the nation's leading municipal broadband success stories. A recent Consumer Reports survey ranked Chattanooga's EPB network first in the country for internet service; it earned better consumer ratings on value, reliability and speed than all of its private sector competitors.
That's exactly the kind of innovative, thriving broadband competition Blackburn and her industry allies want to kill.
6. She wants to stop the FCC from protecting your privacy online.
When the FCC proposed new rules to prevent ISPs like Comcast and AT&T from using or selling your online data without your consent, Blackburn opposed the plan. She called the Commission's proposal to give internet users control over their own data a "big government power grab" and tried to block the proposal with an amendment tacked on to a must-pass omnibus appropriations bill.
In a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, Blackburn argued that these common-sense privacy protections would "create confusion" for people who use the internet. That's nonsense. As Free Press has noted, "You won't hear too many people complaining about how 'confused' they'd be if FCC rules better protected their privacy."
As chair of the House subcommittee that's supposed to promote open and affordable access to communications tools and information, Rep. Blackburn couldn't be more dangerous. She'll now have an even bigger microphone to push bad policy that gives giant ISPs free rein to trample on the communications rights of real people. It's time to gear up for the fights ahead.
In 1846, there was an advertisement in the Springfield, Illinois Gazette that said, "Westward ho. Who wants to go to California without costing them anything?" The ad was signed G. Donner. Responding to the appeal, a group of travelers, including several families, got snowed in by a blizzard on the way to the West Coast. They were trying to take a "short cut" to California -- the land of milk and honey -- but they ended up eating each other (literally). They are typically remembered as the Donner Party. Donald Trump's cabinet is shaping up to be the Donors Party.
One common refrain during the 2016 campaign was that Trump's success both in the primary season and the general election proved that money in politics doesn't matter. And while Trump did beat better-funded candidates such as Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, Trump always had his personal wealth to tap into at a moment's notice. In the end, he supplied 22 percent of the $247 million his campaign spent.
"I want people that made a fortune." Trump has said of his cabinet picks. The idea that these individuals will work for the public good instead of their own narrow self- interest is as seductive as Donner's 1846 advertisement purporting to give something of value for nothing.
What the Trump cabinet choices show is that money in politics is still a large determinate of who gets positions of power. After the Supreme Court's twin decisions in McCutcheon and Citizens United, donors don't have be choosy about where they spend their largesse in politics. Citizens United allows donors to put money in an unlimited set of Super PACs to fund independent ads and McCutcheon allows donors to give hard money donations to all federal candidates simultaneously. And add onto that the growing dark money problem which allows big donors to hide their role if they wish.
And that's just spending in federal elections. Big donors have been bankrolling the Republican Governors Association (RGA) for years. A couple years back I did a study of the donors to the RGA between 2002 and 2010. Those in the million-dollar donor RGA club were: Paul Singer (a legendary hedge fund manager), Richard DeVos (co-founder of Amway), Sheldon Adelson (owner of the Sands Casino), and David Koch (part owner of Koch Industries).
Big donors like these often give as members of a family (fathers and sons, husbands and wives, or brothers). In the 2016 cycle the RGAs donors include multiple members of the DeVos family, Paul Singer ($500,000), Sheldon Adelson ($500,000) and Koch Industries -- the privately held corporation owned by the Koch Brothers -- which gave the RGA $2 million.
Of this group, Trump picked Betsy DeVos as his nominee for Secretary of Education. (She's the daughter-in-law of Richard DeVos.) Besides their long-term funding of the RGA, the DeVos family gave to the RNC and Trump's campaign. I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop on other historical big donors being named to positions of power.
But newer big donors are already getting the nod. Linda McMahon and her husband Vincent (of World Wrestling Entertainment) gave millions to support Trump and the Republican Super PAC supporting Senate Republican candidates, among other conservative causes. Ms. McMahon is now Trump's nominee to run the Small Business Administration.
Todd Ricketts is the son of billionaire Joe Ricketts. Before this election, the two were best known as owners of the no-longer-cursed-by-a-goat team known as the Chicago Cubs. Todd is now Trump's pick to be Deputy Commerce Secretary. Todd Ricketts followed an unusual trajectory to land his job. He began the 2016 cycle as fundraising co-chair for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. After Walker left the race, the Ricketts family, whose political contributions Todd manages, gave $5.5 million to a super PAC opposing Trump. But then, late in the general election campaign, Todd helped raise $66 million for two pro-Trump super PACs. Although Trump is notorious for never forgetting a slight, money has a remarkable way of inducing amnesia.
Meanwhile, Steven Mnuchin who is Trump's pick for Treasury secretary, gave over $300,000 to conservatives in 2016, according to Open Secrets. By the standards of the Trump administration, Mnuchin's political donations are trivial. Perhaps that's because, relatively speaking, Mnuchin is a pauper. His net worth is roughly estimated at a paltry $40 million
And Trump's pick for Secretary State, ExxonMobil CEO and Putin Pal, Rex Tillerson, gave more than $70,000 to Republicans in 2016 and over $400,000 over the past 24 years. Yet, these contributions obscure Tillerson's real political financial power. At least from what's publicly available, ExxonMobil has contributed $7.1 million to Republican candidates since 2010, representing 87 percent of its total candidate contributions. Meanwhile, the company gave another $5.8 million to PACs during this period, and it's a safe bet most of them supported Republicans.
Given ExxonMobil's size, it's perhaps not surprising that nearly 8 percent of members of the House and Senate reported owning stock in the energy behemoth. Yet Exxon's stockholders include Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), who sits on the House Subcommittee on Environment, which oversees environmental standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. And in the Senate, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) is a member of the Subcommittee on Surface Transportation, which oversees the Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
So lecture me again about how money in politics has nothing to do with power. Please. The Donors Party is about to move into the administration. We'll see what short cuts they make and what fate befalls them. But just as the Donner Party's cost to get to California was not "nothing," the cost for having a cabinet of billionaires likely won't be zero either.
Last week auto workers from Chicago and Detroit made a pilgrimage to the birthplace of auto workers' sit-down strikes to lend solidarity to workers who've been locked out for eight months and counting.
Honeywell locked out 320 aerospace workers with Auto Workers (UAW) Local 9 in South Bend, Indiana, on May 9 after they voted 270-30 to reject the company's offer. Another 40 Honeywell workers with Local 1508 at in Green Island, New York, are also locked out.
Honeywell was demanding the power to change health care premiums and deductibles unilaterally. The rejected proposal would also have eliminated cost-of-living increases and retiree health care, frozen pensions, curtailed overtime pay, subcontracted work, and voided seniority rights.
The company's 2015 profit of $4.77 billion set a new record. Yet Honeywell claims it has to rein in costs because declining demand is producing "turbulence" for plane manufacturers.
Honeywell is a major defense contractor. The two plants produce wheel rims and braking systems for commercial and military aircraft, including the Boeing 737, the Boeing B-92, and Lockheed Martin F-35.
Indiana's UAW Local 9 asked the Navy not to renew the company's $18.3 million contract as long as the lockout went on. But the contract was renewed.
The average wage of Local 9 hourly workers is $21.83 -- while Honeywell CEO David Cote, one of the top-paid corporate executives in the country, makes $15,865 an hour.
After he retires in March he will receive an estimated $908,712 every month for the rest of his life.
Scabs Shadowed Workers
Honeywell had prepared for a lockout carefully, hiring Strom Engineering to provide 150-200 scabs, who shadowed workers inside the plant in the lead-up to the contract vote.
For months the locked-out workers went without their unemployment benefits, because the state agency that handles unemployment -- part of the administration of Indiana Governor Michael Pence, now vice president-elect of the United States -- classified the case as "under review" and sent it to an administrative law judge. Eventually the workers got their benefits.
From May until September, negotiations ceased. When the company finally came back to the table, it offered to move on health care. The bargaining committee brought the new, still concessionary proposal to the membership without a recommendation on how to vote.
This time, as unemployment benefits ran out and the holidays approached, the company's proposal passed in the smaller Green Island unit -- but Local 9 voted it down by 70 percent.
Meanwhile another Honeywell facility, in Minneapolis, has a contract deadline of February 2. The corporation is using the same tactics to try to scare workers there into accepting a concessionary contract.
In several other Honeywell facilities, the membership is composed of Steelworkers and Teamsters.
Caravan of Supporters
Last summer the community of South Bend -- particularly members of UAW Local 5, who make Mercedes there -- turned out for rallies and pickets.
Members of UAW Local 551, who work 80 miles away at the Ford plant in Chicago, have made trips to the picket lines and raised funds. For Christmas they raised $7,500 for Local 9 members.
A dozen autoworkers and retirees from Detroit and Chicago, members of the Autoworker Caravan group, drove through the snow on January 5 to be at Local 9's split-shift union meetings and talk to officers and members. We brought a check for $525.
Locked-out workers told us what it's like to survive on just the $200 a week they get in benefits from the union (plus basic health care). Some have found work in other plants and industries.
Local 9's recording secretary told us that when he had toured the plant with safety inspectors just a few days before, it seemed there were only about half as many scabs as pre-lockout workers. Parts-making has apparently been outsourced; the scabs merely assemble.
Some workers told me the plant was old and they thought Honeywell might want to shut it down. On the other hand, the facility is profitable enough that over the last five years, the corporation has invested $27 million there.
Where the Sit-Downs Began
The Honeywell plant in South Bend was originally a Bendix plant. A thousand workers sat down there in November 1936, making it the first US auto plant to employ the sit-down tactic. Their eight-day occupation eliminated a company union and won UAW representation.
Following their model, workers at Kelsey Hayes Wheel Company on Detroit's west side organized a series of sit-downs, which ended with an agreement for higher wages (but not union recognition) just before Christmas that year.
And by the end of December, autoworkers occupied General Motors plants in Flint, Michigan. Their historic sit-down ended on February 11, 1937, with UAW recognition and a commitment from the company to negotiate a national agreement.
Over the years the UAW International has asked its members to honor that victory by wearing white shirts to work on that date. This symbolizes that "blue-collar" workers, just like "white-collar" workers, are individuals who deserve management's respect.
Autoworker Caravan members have pledged to go back to South Bend on February 11. We hope that event can be both a celebration of the 80th anniversary of the Flint victory and a support rally for the locked-out workers.
CORRECTIONS: This article has been updated to correct the number of locked-out workers in South Bend (320, not 340) and title of the union officer who toured the plant, recording secretary, and to clarify that the Bendix sit-down was the first in a US auto plant, not in any US plant. We regret the errors.
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Protesters demonstrating support for the Affordable Care Act hold signs and chant in the lobby of Trump International Hotel and Tower at Columbus Circle in New York City on January 15, 2017. (Photo: Demetrius Freeman / The New York Times)
One of the lines the Republicans often used to attack Obamacare was complaining that it would lead to a massive switch to part-time work. The argument was that employers would cut all their workers to less than 30 hours a week. This would exempt them from the employer mandates in the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The line "part-time nation" was a regular refrain on Fox News and other conservative news outlets.
It didn't turn out that way. The share of workers who are employed part-time is virtually the same today as it was when the ACA was fully implemented at the start of 2014. It turns out that covered employers, those with more than 50 workers, have more important issues to consider in scheduling their workforce than avoiding the ACA requirements. Of course, since more than 90 percent of these employers already provided health care for their workers, it is not surprising that they didn't change their behavior.
However the aggregate numbers on part-time work conceals an important shift that has largely gone unnoticed. While total part-time employment has changed little over the three years the ACA has been in effect, there has been a huge shift from involuntary part-time work to voluntary part-time work.
The number of people who report that they are working part-time involuntarily -- they could not find full-time jobs -- has fallen by 2.2 million since December of 2013, the last month before the ACA took full effect. By contrast, the number of people who report that they are working part-time because they have chosen to work part-time has risen by more than 2.4 million. Both parts of this picture are good news and almost certainly are attributable to the ACA.
The reason the ACA increased voluntary part-time employment is that the exchanges allowed people to get insurance without having to rely on an employer. Typically employers require people to work full-time in order to get health care insurance.
As a result, many people who would rather work part-time jobs, such as parents of young children and older workers nearing Medicare age, were forced to work full-time jobs to get health care insurance. This was especially likely if they or someone in their family had a serious medical condition that would make insurance very expensive or unobtainable.
In an analysis done the first year after the exchanges were in operation, Cherrie Bucknor and I found that voluntary part-time employment was up by more than 8 percent among young mothers. A separate analysis found that voluntary part-time employment was up by almost 5 percent in 2014 for the workers between the ages of 55-64 who are still too young to qualify for Medicare.
This is one of the major unsung successes of Obamacare. Millions of people who wanted to work part-time jobs so they could spend more time with young children now have the option to do so. Similarly, many older workers, some who are in bad health, now have the ability to cut back their hours and still get affordable health care insurance.
The flip side of the movement to voluntary part-time employment was also good news. The decision by millions of people to voluntarily leave full-time jobs to take part-time work opened up these jobs for people seeking full-time employment. Since the ACA, the rise in voluntary part-time employment closely mirrors the decline in involuntary part-time employment. People who needed full-time jobs were now much more likely to get them.
We can expect this story to go in reverse with the Republicans' repeal of Obamacare. Young parents and older people in bad health who would prefer to work part-time will again be forced to get full-time jobs so that they can get insurance through their employer. When these workers take full-time jobs, it will displace workers who want and need full-time employment. There may be little net change in part-time employment under the Republican plan, but fewer of the people who will be working part-time will be people who actually want part-time employment.
Extending health care insurance to 20 million people was a really big deal and an important driver for the ACA. Arguably an even bigger deal was providing security to people who already had insurance. The surge in voluntary part-time employment was evidence of this security, as was a 6 percent jump in the number of people who are self-employed. But providing security to the nation's workers is obviously not the Trump-Ryan agenda.
On January 21, I will march in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. and the nameless, countless multitudes who joined his movement. Donald Trump's policies are going to disadvantage the white women who voted for him. So when I march on January 21, I will also be marching for them.
Demonstrators gather in front of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue to protest the election of Donald Trump, in New York City, on November 12, 2016. (Photo: Christopher Lee / The New York Times)
I have not spent much time with the white women and girls of Middle America since fifth grade, when we sat on the school bus and sang the soundtrack from Grease, giggled through "health" class, exchanged knowing glances when a classmate carried a small purse with the classroom hall pass on her way to the restroom, when we laughed out loud at slumber parties. I grew up in what was then semi-rural Pennsylvania, where most of the other girls in my class were white. We lived near dairy farms and deep woods and open fields that led to the Allegheny Hills. In summer, fireflies lit the night, and we punched holes in glass jar tops to catch their magic. In fall, so many birds flew for the hills in "V" formations perfect and sure, it seemed like every bird in the world had taken flight. In winter, plows pushed the deep, deep snow into perfect forts for our snowball fights. In spring, gnats swarmed into clouds so thick, they got in our eyes and noses. We ran, laughing, through each season, together. We spent our glorious childhood together, so I know the culture of white Middle America. Well.
I know that Pittsburgh is the best team in the NFL, no one has greater work ethic than the Amish, good neighbors keep tidy yards, and when someone tells you who they are, you should take them at their word. This is one of the reasons I was hurt when I found out how many white, rural women voted for Donald Trump.
This is MLK Day, and I want to say to my childhood friends: I am going to need you, and I think you're going to need me, too.
On January 21, I will march in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. and the nameless, countless multitudes who joined his movement -- and made it possible for us to be childhood friends at all. Remember, I was one of just a few African American students at South Side Elementary School. And when we moved out by Linglestown, Pennsylvania, I was the only Black student at North Side. The only one. It was on the bus to North Side that I was called the N-word for the first time in my life. The boy throwing the word at me, over and over and over again, laughed as he said it. He laughed and pointed, said the N-word, and laughed some more.
So I was not surprised when I heard that, three miles from Linglestown, a group of students at Central Dauphin High in Harrisburg posted a picture of themselves in 2016, holding a hand-written sign that reads, "You stupid N*****." The students, all girls, are all smiles as they pose for the selfie. Just like the boy who pointed and cursed at me all those years ago, they are laughing. Their image will live forever because it was posted on social media. His image will live forever because it was driven into my heart.
News of the high school girls' post circulated in October, the same month I went back to Harrisburg with my husband and son to visit family. We went apple-picking on a glorious fall day. There were families of all hues and backgrounds walking the orchard together. The Harrisburg area has gotten browner since I was a child, and that image of my child running under a bright sun near those Allegheny Hills with a beautiful and diverse group of children is an image I want to live forever, too. The rush of wind and taste of fresh apples and the golden rays of light on my son's face.
Harrisburg is home.
My great-great-grandfather was an army soldier in the Third Regiment Infantry organized at Camp William Penn and served the Union Army in the Civil War. My great-grandfather founded Hooper Memorial Funeral Home and served on the board of the Forster Street Y. His wife, my great-grandmother, was a schoolteacher in the Harrisburg schools. My grandmother secured Hooper's as a family legacy and served in numerous capacities to improve the lives of all Harrisburg residents. I have a picture of her receiving a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award for community and civic service that ran in The Evening News on February 11, 1980. Her husband, my grandfather, was a Capitol Hill correspondent for the Pittsburgh Courier and became a member of the Harrisburg Friends. My Harrisburg roots run deep and strong. When I was a child, my father worked for human relations and my mother taught at Harrisburg Middle School. I went to Hansel and Gretel Nursery School before my parents separated, my mother and I moved out, past the Colonial Park Mall, and I rode the bus to North Side. My family had prepared me for the day that boy called me that hateful term. They had heard that same epithet for four generations. I was the fifth.
But I still love semi-rural Pennsylvania. Now there are strip malls where farms used to be. You have to drive farther to see cows lolling near barns affixed with hex signs to keep the bad spirits away. Like the rushing waters of the Susquehanna, home changes. But, then, there are the things that stay the same. Things that are there, as sure as the mighty, mighty Allegheny Mountains. When I drive into Lancaster, there are those Amish farms, there are those corn fields. When I drive back to the 'burg, around The Park and over to The Hill, I can see that capitol dome that tells me I am home.
It is easy for me to love home. Not just because of the good times we shared at the Harrisburg Community Theatre or earning Girl Scout badges. But because, when I think way back to that day on the school bus I remember this, too: All of my old childhood friends telling that boy to stop. To shut up. To leave me alone. To stop using that word as he pointed and laughed at me. The bus stood up against him, for me. That is another image I want to live forever.
There is an academic word for what the children on the bus did. That word is "ally." I have a more accurate word for what they did. That word is "friend."
I will never forget the sound of the bus, silencing the boy who tried to silence me. It is the roar of justice. King would have liked to hear those voices rising to overwhelm hate.
I know things are not perfect in Harrisburg. Girls are scrawling epithets on loose-leaf paper, posing with frozen smiles, clicking send. Did they check comments, count likes, seek validation for what they did? And what of the child their hate was aimed to pierce? Has her wound healed? Did her friends, blonde and blue-eyed, rally around her? I ask because I know that racist hate.
But I also know that white women voters have been misunderstood. I am a Black woman who gets that most of the television pundits have the world of my classmates all wrong. This MLK Day, in the spirit of the national harmony that King agitated to try to achieve, I want to reach out to my childhood classmates and other white women in Middle America with this message:
I know you are not stupid, because our schools were excellent, but you are accepting FOX commentary as hard news. I know you are not burning crosses on your neighbor's lawn, but you did plant a Trump sign on yours. I know you don't hate your mother, your sister, your daughter. I know you don't hate yourself. But you didn't take that Trump sign down when he was caught on tape boasting of his sexual assault of women. You kept it up even when he was accused of raping three different women (well, one of them was just a girl). I know you are not crazy, but you voted for an unqualified xenophobe, even though deep in your heart you know Mexico is not gonna pay for any wall. I know you pay your taxes but, counter-intuitively, you admire Trump's ability to not pay his. I know this is complicated. But I need you to stand with me now just as you did years ago on that school bus.
One thing is simple and true: Half of our country is in deep, convulsive pain. Think. Americans have marched and protested for many reasons, but never have so many hundreds of thousands pledged to come together in defiance of a swearing-in. This time is very, very different.
Will the kids who stood up in protest when I was subjugated by hate speech rise against racism now that we are adults and hate crimes have increased around the country? Where will the girls who giggled with me in health class stand now that we are women, and access to basic health care is being taken away from millions of Americans?
Because, this is the thing: Trump's policies are gonna kick the white women of Middle America right in the part where he boasted he liked to grab. So when I march with women, children and men on January 21, I will also be marching for them.
Dawn at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC, on January 18, 2016. (Photo: Zach Gibson / The New York Times)
With a neo-fascist president-elect taking office in just four days, it is past time to deconstruct sanitized narratives of Martin Luther King Jr.'s activism. History shows us that in times like these, a radical vision of what is possible is exactly what people need.
Dawn at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC, on January 18, 2016. (Photo: Zach Gibson / The New York Times)
Coretta Scott King testified before Congress twice, in 1979 and 1982, to argue for the importance of instituting a national holiday in honor of her late husband, Martin Luther King Jr.
Pushback to the proposed holiday included conservative Democrat Congressman Larry McDonald's assertion that a recognized holiday centered around King -- a figure who both engaged in civil disobedience and openly criticized the government -- would encourage young people to foster "contempt for the law."
Contrary to this conservative (and racist) fear, MLK Day has since become a day centered around a watered-down or "sanitized" telling of the life of King and the movement he was a part of. What McDonald seemed to underestimate was the ability of people in power to control popular understandings of history and paint the past as something that supports the conditions of the present.
Today, many young people will be taught a warped version of history -- punctuated by King's inspiring speeches -- that overlooks the hard work of organizers by suggesting that the Montgomery bus boycott organically evolved in response to Rosa Parks singlehandedly refusing to give up her seat.
With a neo-fascist president-elect taking office in just four days, these ahistorical narratives are dangerous. They work to mislead the public about the tools it takes to make change, the honest historical context in which we exist and the true political legacies of our icons and our ancestors. Although King's persona and charismatic calls to action held a strategic place in galvanizing people, it was not charisma that turned out thousands of people to march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965; it was organizing. And it was not a spontaneous decision by a tired woman on the bus that led to the most massive transportation boycott of the century; the Montgomery bus boycott was a result of coordinated organizing efforts, and Parks' refusal was a strategic direct action.
MLK Day narratives about the Black freedom movement of the 1960s too often allow King's shadow to eclipse acknowledgment of the contributions of the many organizers and strategists who made the movement -- including Ella Baker and the students who formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); Fannie Lou Hamer and the countless other former sharecroppers who joined the movement; Diane Nash and the coordinators of the 1961 Freedom Rides; Pauli Murray and those who challenged the movement to interrogate gender and sexuality; Kwame Ture and others who went on to lead the shift away from nonviolence and toward a Black power framework. As Baker once said, "Martin didn't make the movement, the movement made Martin." The erasure of these essential movers and shakers is both a result of the limitations of a leadership model that rests on figureheads and singular icons and the intentional whitewashing of King and of history.
James Baldwin once wrote that "the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do." These words emphasize what is at stake for us in trying to make sense of history. Taking history as seriously as Baldwin suggests we should, organizers of my generation have participated in efforts to reclaim MLK Day. These attempts to "#ReclaimMLK" aim to de-sanitize the stories we've been told in order to uncover radical impulses and organizing strategies that may better equip us to navigate the intense present.
The transition of power we are about to witness marks not only a shift in the political climate, but also a radical transformation of power structures and, likely, a new political normal. For this reason, the moment we are in demands that we pay close attention to history. Our lives depend on it.
We must understand the fight for the right to vote as one part of a movement that understood the dehumanization inherent in the denial of Black people's right to vote, and how that dehumanization was a part of enforcing the hierarchy necessary in order to maintain the system of racial capitalism.
In 1967, King named racism, capitalism and militarism as the "three evils of society." In this moment, we have a similar responsibility to name and connect how larger structures are behind the impacts people feel and will increasingly feel in their daily lives. Pursuing incremental reforms rather than structural transformations is no longer going to be a feasible strategy, nor has it ever been enough.
As we see mass mobilization happening on the extreme right, it is necessary that we work toward mass political engagement of the left, of poor people, of Black people, of immigrants, of Muslims, of Indigenous people, of queer people, of trans people. History will show us that in times like these, a radical vision is exactly what people need. In fact, it is the only thing that will serve as a hopeful North Star leading us toward what is possible.
An Indigenous Water Protector and an Alpine resident were arrested after locking themselves to pipe-laying equipment at an Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) Trans-Pecos pipeline work site in Presidio County. Another Native Water Protector who locked to equipment at a separate ETP pipeline, the Comanche Trail pipeline, voluntarily unlocked under pressure, and with only a formal warning. The actions are part of a rolling direct action campaign in West Texas and a new Indigenous-led resistance camp there.
An Indigenous Water Protector with the Frontera Water Protection Alliance locks to a track hoe, a machine being used to construct Energy Transfer Partner's Comanche Trail pipeline in El Paso County, on Friday, January 13, 2017. (Photo: Courtesy of Frontera Water Protection Alliance)
Marfa, Texas—A new Indigenous-led direct action campaign is gaining momentum with two more lockdown actions targeting Energy Transfer Partners' (ETP) twin pipeline projects in far West Texas.
An Indigenous Water Protector and an Alpine resident were arrested Saturday, January 14, after locking themselves to pipe-laying equipment at an ETP easement and work site in Presidio County, Texas. The lockdown disrupted construction on the company's 143-mile Trans-Pecos pipeline that, if completed, would carry 1.4 billion cubic feet of fracked gas from West Texas to Mexico every day. A third Protector, who was not locked to the equipment, was also arrested at the site.
The action was the second to be organized by the new "Two Rivers" Indigenous-led prayer and resistance camp on private land in far West Texas' pristine Big Bend region, and the third to target the Trans-Pecos pipeline since December. The camp's ongoing campaign is waged in solidarity with the Sacred Stone and Oceti Sakowin camps' historic standoff against the Dakota Access pipeline at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. The same Dallas-based company is behind both the Trans-Pecos and Dakota Access pipelines.
Presidio County sheriffs arrested two Water Protectors who locked themselves to a sideboom, Saturday, January 14, 2017. Another Protector who was not locked was also arrested. (Photo: Courtesy of Society of Native Nations)The two Water Protectors who locked down Saturday are Madelein Santibáñez, a member of the San Antonio-based Society of Native Nations who is of Purépecha descent, and Lori Glover, cofounder of the Big Bend Defense Coalition. Both organizations have been working to organize the Two Rivers camp in recent weeks. Glover and was charged with criminal trespassing and criminal mischief, a felony. The Protector who did not lock down was also charged with criminal trespassing. Santibáñez was not charged, and was released Saturday evening. The other two Protectors were both released on bond the following day.
Glover told Truthout that Presidio County deputy sheriffs forcibly removed her and Santibáñez from their locking device, yanking on Santibáñez's arm so forcefully that it caused Santibáñez to scream and cry out in pain. Glover says the officers bruised and hurt both of them in the process of trying to pull them out, and threatened to use a stun gun on Glover at one point, but did not.
"After they finally dragged me out of there, and handcuffed me, and put chains around my feet, then they yanked me back up and the sheriff just started ... talking about ... religion. [Presidio County Sheriff Danny Dominguez] started asking me did I believe in God? And I said, 'I believe in the Spirit,' and then I wouldn't say anything, and then he said 'Answer me ... I'm talking about the God, the creator. Do you believe in that God?'"
Glover told Truthout she is planning to fight her felony charge in court, saying that the charges have been trumped up in order to scare the Water Protectors from engaging in further actions. "[The police] were very aggressive. We were peaceful the whole time. Because we didn't do anything to the property, I don't think that the charge they have chosen will stick," she said.
Both the police presence and charges against the Water Protectors have escalated since the camp's consecrating action, in which two Water Protectors locked down to pipe-laying equipment Saturday, January 7, and were charged with trespassing. During the latest lockdown, officers with the US Border Patrol assisted the Presidio County Sheriff's Department in making the arrests.
Additionally, as the Two Rivers Water Protectors were awaiting news of Saturday's arrestees' booking statuses at the Marfa police station, a Presidio County deputy sheriff told the Protectors and this reporter that he and other county deputy sheriffs have been moonlighting as private security guards for ETP during their off hours. The Presidio County sheriff could not be reached for comment in time for the publication of this article.
Another Native Water Protector with the Frontera Water Protection Alliance who locked herself to machinery at a sister ETP pipeline, the Comanche Trail pipeline, voluntarily unlocked under pressure, and with only a formal warning, telling Truthout that El Paso County sheriffs threatened to arrest the other Native Water Protectors who were also on the work site if she didn't voluntarily unlock.
"When the [El Paso County] sheriff came over, he told the Protectors that either we all leave or we all get arrested, and so at that point, I just unlocked because I had elders there that I had asked to come and pray with us, and I just didn't want to feel responsible for them getting arrested," said the Water Protector of Coahuiltecan descent, who asked not to be named. "I did it because I ... hate that we continue to abuse [Mother Earth] by digging up death and contaminating ourselves with it, and poisoning ourselves with it. We're just risking so much."
Society of Native Nations members look on as three Water Protectors are arrested at an Energy Transfer Partner Trans-Pecos pipeline work site in Presidio County, on Saturday, January 14, 2017. (Photo: Courtesy of Society of Native Nations)The Two Rivers Water Protectors say they are protecting the Rio Grande River -- which both ETP pipeline projects would cross under -- from contamination, as well as their sacred sites. Archeologists have already documented ETP's destruction of archeologically significant Indigenous cultural sites to build the Trans-Pecos pipeline. The Native Water Protectors want a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement conducted for the full lengths of both pipeline projects, as well as earnest consultation with Texas tribes, many of which remain unrecognized by the state and federal governments. They are also opposed to the pipeline's destruction of critical habitat and the condemning of land by eminent domain.
"The Rio Grande is like in North Dakota, [the Missouri River] that they're fighting for over there," said Pete Heflin, a member of the Society of Native Nations and Water Protector with the Two Rivers camp. "[ETP] is destroying sacred sites and maybe some burial grounds and they don't have a concern about that. That's what we're doing here. We're trying to stop them. We need answers. They need to be accountable. They think they don't have to be accountable just because of who they are."
Texas billionaire Kelcy Warren, the CEO of ETP, had previously agreed to meet with Heflin after he confronted Warren during a Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission hearing. Warren was appointed to the commission by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott through 2021, and Heflin confronted him about the destruction of sacred sites at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota and the Trans-Pecos pipeline. After agreeing to meet with him, Warren later reneged, saying he wanted to meet with Heflin in private, and not agreeing to any allow any transparency measures.
The Two Rivers' Water Protectors are working with Indigenous leaders at Standing Rock. An Indigenous Environmental Network delegation from Standing Rock is planning to meet with the Native Water Protectors at the Two Rivers camp this month to engage in prayer and ceremony, and to provide additional training to the camp's new Protectors as they anticipate dozens more will flock to the camp in the coming weeks.
We insist on positioning white supremacy as central to the US sociopolitical landscape. White supremacy needs no "normalizing." To the contrary, it already constitutes the heart and core of US politics and society.
Ku Klux Klan members supporting Barry Goldwater's campaign for the presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention on July 12, 1964, in San Francisco, California. (Photo: Library of Congress)
In December 2016, A&E announced the January 10 premiere of Generation KKK, an eight-part documentary series aimed at examining the lives of Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members and their families. Mere hours after the network's announcement, various celebrities took to Twitter to lambast the network for "normalizing the KKK" and for "giving a platform to hate groups." While such critiques are understandable in our current political climate, they expose a misguided mainstream assumption about the nature and foundation of white supremacy -- namely, that the ideology of white domination resides near the outskirts of the American political landscape. Such an assumption is both false and dangerous.
Despite the fact that the series will never air -- the network recently cancelled the show after discovering producers were paying Klan members for on-camera interviews -- the basic thrust of popular critique surrounding the show's probable content is valuable for what it reveals about how the political mainstream conceptualizes white supremacy and strategies for its elimination.
Rather than existing at the recalcitrant edge of US politics, white supremacy is central to the US nation-state–a political entity whose very kernel rests on exclusionary practices, policies, and laws that racialize national belonging. Martin Luther King's 1963 "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" underscores this point. King writes that he has
almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice.
In Whiteness of a Different Color, historian Matthew Frye Jacobson echoes King's analysis, rejecting the assumption that white supremacy is peripheral to the American political ethos. Rather, he argues that white supremacy is the very "guarantor" of US democracy through the frameworks of slavery, race-based immigration statutes, "anti-miscegenation" laws, racialized criminalization, and de facto and de jure segregation and disenfranchisement.
To be sure, mainstream US politics -- perhaps best represented by the Office of the President -- is a racial project marked by nearly uninterrupted intergenerational appeals to white dominance. Irrespective of political party and historical epoch, mainstream US politics itself has normalized -- and continues to normalize -- white supremacy more powerfully than A&E's Generation KKK ever could. From indigenous genocide to the enslavement of black people to scientific racism and our current era of colorblind racism, US politics -- and the Office of the President -- has ratified white supremacy with brutal uniformity.
Indeed, thirteen men who would become US Presidents enslaved black men, women, and children at some point in their lives. Beyond the "peculiar institution," however, many presidents have themselves "normalized white supremacy" and served as "platforms for hate" by virtue of their words and deeds.
In 1779, George Washington popularized white nationalism when he ordered General John Sullivan to "destruct" and "devastate" as many Native American settlements as possible. "It will be essential to ruin their crops in the group and prevent their planting more," he proudly declared. Half a century later Andrew Jackson stated in his fifth annual message of 1833 that Indigenous Peoples "have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement which are essential to any favorable change in their condition. Established in the midst of another and a superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear." Just a few years earlier James Monroe, in a letter to Andrew Jackson, noted that "hunter state" of Native Americans, "tho maintain'd by warlike spirits, presents but a feeble resistance to the more dense, compact, and powerful population of civilized man."
In Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson postulated that "the blacks…are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind." Jefferson's biological white supremacy was echoed in the political arena by Abraham Lincoln in 1858 at his fourth debate with Stephen Douglas in Charleston, Illinois. "I am not, nor even have been," Lincoln stated, "in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races -- that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people…and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."
In 1865, James Garfield repeated Lincoln's theme of "white superiority," arguing in a letter to an anonymous friend that "I have a strong feeling of repugnance when I think of the Negro being made our political equal. And I would be glad if they could be colonized, sent to heaven, or got rid of in any decent way." A year after the passage of the 13th Amendment President Andrew Johnson underscored Garfield's sentiments: "This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President; it shall be a government for white men." Less than a decade later -- and in the middle of Reconstruction -- President Ulysses S. Grant noted in his second inaugural address that he would not "ask that anything be done to advance the social status of the colored man."
In 1879, Rutherford B. Hayes gleefully referred to "the Negroes and Indians" as "weaker races" and in 1895 Theodore Roosevelt argued in North American Review that "a perfectly stupid race can never rise to a very high plane; the negro, for instance, has been kept down as much by lack of intellectual development as by anything else." Whereas presidents Cleveland, Hoover, and Coolidge focused their racial animus on the Chinese at the turn of the century, saying they were "backward," "dishonest," and "unamerican," respectively, Woodrow Wilson described the KKK as "great" and "veritable."
At the turn of the twentieth century, William Howard Taft noted that "social equality between the races shall be enforced by law" has "no foundation in fact." In conjunction, presidents Warren Harding and Richard Nixon rejected "miscegenation." Meanwhile Harding opined in 1921 that "racial amalgamation there cannot be," Nixon advocated for abortion "when you have a black and a white…or a rape."
Outspoken "liberal" President Lyndon B. Johnson repeatedly referred to the Civil Rights Act of 1957 as the "ni***r bill" and Ronald Reagan noted in a 1980 conversation with Laurence Barrett that the 1965 Voting Rights Act was "humiliating to the South."
Jimmy Carter railed against "black intrusion" into white neighborhoods and Bill Clinton played golf at a "whites only" country club in Little Rock, Arkansas. Most recently, Donald Trump -- who will take the Oath of Office of the President on January 20, 2017 -- endorsed white supremacy when he categorically dismissed Mexicans as criminals and rapists.
It is against this backdrop that we insist on positioning white supremacy as central -- not peripheral -- to the American sociopolitical landscape. Arguing that mainstream US politics more powerfully and enduringly normalizes white supremacy than the KKK forces an important analytical shift: it demands that we recognize that white supremacy needs no "normalizing." To the contrary, it already constitutes the heart and core of US politics and society.
While Oil Front Group Touts Cheap Fossil Fuel to Low-Income Families, Industry Negotiates Deal to Drive World Oil Prices Up
Fueling U.S. Forward, an oil industry PR group, has spent the second half of 2016 running an on-the-ground campaign targeting African-American communities and spreading a message focused on energy prices, a front-page New York Times investigation reported on January 5.
The organization's tactics included sponsoring a Richmond, VA gospel show where a few lucky families could win up to $250 off their household energy bills -- though the music was paused mid-concert for a panel discussion about fossil fuels.
"[A Fueling U.S. Forward rep] discussed what high energy costs could mean for households in Richmond, which has a large African-American population," Times reporter Hiroko Tabuchi wrote. "And he encouraged audience members to contact their legislators to lodge concerns about energy costs, according to Clovia Lawrence, a local journalist and radio personality who helped host the show."
That Richmond event wasn't the only event Fueling U.S. Forward threw with the same basic theme. "Since its start in the spring of 2016, Fueling U.S. Forward has sent delegates to, or hosted, at least three events aimed at black voters, arguing that they benefit most from cheap and abundant fossil fuels and have the most to lose if energy costs rise," the Times added.
As the Times noted, Fueling U.S. Forward says it will focus on "people of diverse backgrounds … [including] low-income families -- and share their stories."
But at the very same time that the oil industry front group was out cheerleading low gasoline prices to low-income families, behind the scenes, the international oil industry was negotiating a deal designed to raise the price of oil worldwide.
Two major oil deals, announced in November and December, are expected to push oil prices higher -- meaning that the relatively low gasoline prices touted by the industry right now might be very short lived.
The drilling industry is famous for its heady economic booms -- and equally famous for its devastating financial busts. Gasoline prices have broken records over the past decade, with American drivers at times finding themselves paying $4 or even $5 a gallon at the pump repeatedly since 2007.
The price of oil started out relatively low this year -- dipping below $30 a barrel in January, which meant that on average U.S. drivers paid $1.99 for a gallon of gasoline that month, according to AAA.
But those prices for consumers also had the oil and gas drilling industry wailing about the financial squeeze that low prices were creating -- for their bottom line profits.
The reasons for the price drop were complex. Some pointed to a glut of oil from fracking U.S. shale in places like Texas and North Dakota, while others pointed to decisions by countries like Saudi Arabia to keep oil flowing when markets expected them to cut back. By June 2016, the oil industry had laid off over 350,000 workers worldwide since oil prices started falling in 2014, many drillers had declared bankruptcy, and the top 40 U.S. onshore drilling companies had lost their investors over $66 billion.
At the tail end of 2016, many oil producers worldwide -- in Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries [OPEC] and non-OPEC countries -- announced they had agreed to slash oil production, with countries like Saudi Arabia, Russia and Khazakstan promising to limit production from their oil reserves by a total of over 2 million barrels a day for six months. Drillers in the U.S. did not agree to domestic production cuts (though U.S.-based companies that operate abroad, like Exxon in Russia, are expected to potentially pull back on drilling as a part of that agreement).
After those deals were announced, oil prices began rebounding. Oil futures were up almost 45% compared to the start of 2016, MarketWatch reported at the end of December -- marking the largest annual rise for oil since 2009.
American consumers are already feeling the impact of oil's rise. U.S. gasoline prices have begun creeping up, rising 12 cents a gallon in just three weeks.
No one was more excited about those deals than the U.S. oil drilling industry, commentators noted, because the recent dip in oil prices had driven many U.S. drillers to aggressively tighten their belts or risk bankruptcy.
"If anyone is cheering the news of an OPEC deal it is U.S. shale producers," OilPrice.com reported after one part of the deal, in which members of OPEC agreed to slow down production to boost oil prices, putting an end to a roughly two-year trade war, was announced. "Surely there were champagne corks being popped in Texas as OPEC announced its decision. The share prices of more than 50 U.S. oil and gas companies shot up by more than 10 percent on Wednesday."
The rush to drill and frack American shale helped create sudden gluts of oil and gas -- and abrupt shortfalls as infrastructure failed to keep pace with drilling -- since the shale rush first began, leaving fossil fuel consumers confronting extraordinary price volatility.
Since 2000, the price of oil has repeatedly made wild swings, with prices dipping down to an inflation-adjusted bottom of just over $26/barrel in 2001 and spiking to over $154/barrel in 2008. Drivers might recall paying $4 or even $5 a gallon at the pump back in 2014 or 2015, roughly double the prices at the start of last year.
By contrast, renewable energy sources have shown a steady pattern of price declines. To be sure, the prices of renewables started out higher, but wind and solar energy have a history of steady declines rather than the oil and gas industry's track record of repeated booms and busts.
The falling cost of renewable energy means that those fuels are on track to become the cheaper source of energy for consumers -- even cheaper than coal, long the lowest-price fossil fuel. "Since 2009, solar prices are down 62 percent, with every part of the supply chain trimming costs," Bloomberg reported on Jan. 2. "By 2025, solar may be cheaper than using coal on average globally, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance."
Meanwhile, in response to the bust for oil prices in the past couple years, oil producers worldwide spent the end of 2016 negotiating production cuts designed to push the price of energy higher.
That's a message that groups like Fueling U.S. Forward don't mention when they talk about the relatively low prices of oil and gas in 2016. Yesterday's low oil prices might not be here to stay. In fact, if history is any indication, the most predictable thing about oil and gas is that low prices will eventually be followed by higher ones.
And that means -- much like the energy bill sweepstakes that Fueling U.S. Forward held at the Richmond, VA concert -- fossil fuels are a risky gamble, for investors and families alike.
Indigenous battles to defend nature have taken to the streets and to the courts, through the development of innovative legal ways of protecting nature. In Ecuador, Bolivia and New Zealand, Indigenous activism has helped spur the creation of a novel legal phenomenon -- the idea that nature itself can have rights.
Cofan Indigenous leader Emergildo Criollo looks over an oil contaminated river near his home in northern Ecuador. (Photo: Caroline Bennett / Rainforest Action Network (flickr))
Indigenous battles to defend nature have taken to the streets, leading to powerful mobilizations like the gathering at Standing Rock. They have also taken to the courts, through the development of innovative legal ways of protecting nature. In Ecuador, Bolivia and New Zealand, indigenous activism has helped spur the creation of a novel legal phenomenon -- the idea that nature itself can have rights.
The 2008 constitution of Ecuador was the first national constitution to establish rights of nature. In this legal paradigm shift, nature changed from being held as property to a rights-bearing entity.
Rights are typically given to actors who can claim them -- humans -- but they have expanded especially in recent years to non-human entities such as corporations, animals and the natural environment.
The notion that nature has rights is a huge conceptual advance in protecting the Earth. Prior to this framework, an environmental lawsuit could only be filed if a personal human injury was proven in connection to the environment. This can be quite difficult. Under Ecuadorian law, people can now sue on the ecosystem's behalf, without it being connected to a direct human injury.
The Kichwa notion of "Sumak Kawsay" or "buen vivir" in Spanish translates roughly to good living in English. It expresses the idea of harmonious, balanced living among people and nature. The idea centers on living "well" rather than "better" and thus rejects the capitalist logic of increasing accumulation and material improvement. In that sense, this model provides an alternative to the model of development, by instead prioritizing living sustainably with Pachamama, the Andean goddess of mother earth. Nature is conceived as part of the social fabric of life, rather than a resource to be exploited or as a tool of production.
The Preamble of the Ecuadorian Constitution reads:
"We women and men, the sovereign people of Ecuador recognizing our age-old roots, wrought by women and men from various peoples, Celebrating nature, the Pacha Mama (Mother Earth), of which we are a part and which is vital to our existence…. Hereby decide to build a new form of public coexistence, in diversity and in harmony with nature, to achieve the good way of living, the sumac kawsay."
The traditional Quechua relation to the natural world is firmly rooted in the Constitution. The interchangeable use of nature and Pacha Mama testifies to the indigenous influence on the Constitution.
The Concept and the Practice
In the 1970s, Christopher Stone, an American environmental legal scholar, articulated the legal notion of the rights of nature in his widely read essay Should Trees Have Standing? Stone envisioned a new way of conceptualizing nature through law that broke with the existing paradigm of the commodification of nature, often established through law.
Property rights are a primary example of commodifying the natural world. When treated as property, nature incurs damages that often go unrecognized. Stone writes that an argument for "personifying" nature can best be considered from a welfare economics perspective. Under capitalist economic logic, many externalities that negatively impact the environment are not registered when calculating the cost of an action. Transforming nature legally from mere property to a rights-holding entity would force byproduct environmental effects of production to factor into cost calculations. Under this framework, nature would be better protected.
Incorporating rights of nature into a national constitution is a powerful paradigm shift, but may seem hypocritical and idealistic given states' continuing dependence on extractive industries. In Ecuador, 14.8 percent of the GDP comes from profits from natural resources as of 2014.
Moreover, under Ecuadorian law, the rights of nature are subject to principles of so-called national development. Article 408 of the constitution stipulates that all natural resources are the property of the state, and that the state can decide to exploit them if deemed to be of national importance, as long as it "consults" the affected communities. However, there is no state obligation to abide to the result of the consultation to these communities– a gaping hole in full protection of these environments and the people living within them.
Nonetheless, Ecuador's Constitution was a significant step in changing the legal paradigm of rights to one that is inclusive of nature.
Bolivia followed in Ecuador's footsteps. Evo Morales, the first indigenous head of state in Latin America, was elected in 2005 and called for a constitutional reform that ultimately established rights to nature in 2009.
Again, indigenous philosophies were instrumental in the formulation of Bolivia's new Constitution. The constitution's preamble states that Bolivia is founded anew "with the strength of our Pachamama," placing the indigenous understanding of nature as central to the very creation of the revised political state. Like in Ecuador, the Bolivian Constitution allows anyone to legally defend environmental rights.
Bolivia's government soon instituted the Law of Mother Earth in 2010, later re-coining it as the Framework Law of Mother Earth and Integral Development to Live Well. The law lays out a number of rights for nature, such as the right to life and to exist, to pure water, clean air, to be free from toxic and radioactive pollution, a ban on genetic modification, and freedom from interference by mega-infrastructure and development projects that disturb the balance of ecosystems and local communities.
Part of the rationale behind the law is the hope of helping the environment through reducing causes of climate change, which is directly in Bolivia's interests. Increasing temperatures in Bolivia pose problems to the nation's farming sector and water supply.
Again, however, this legal concept does not match economic realities. The rights of nature are directly at odds with extractive industries that are intimately tied to Bolivia's model of economic development. Despite legal frameworks defending the rights of nature, Bolivia's profits from natural resources comprise 12.6 percent of the GDP as of 2014.
But there are alternatives to the Andean experience. Across the Pacific, New Zealand has also granted a legal status of personhood to specific rivers and forest, thus enabling the environment itself to have rights.
The New Zealand Take on Right of Nature
Unlike Ecuador and Bolivia, New Zealand's rights of nature are not embedded in its constitutional law, but rather protect specific natural entities. Native communities in New Zealand were instrumental in creating new legal frameworks that give legal personhood, and thus rights, to land and rivers.
New Zealand has bestowed legal personhood on the 821-square mile Te Urewara Park, and the Whanganui River, the nation's third-largest river. This was part of the government's reparation efforts for the historical injustice at the foundation of New Zealand's state: colonial conquest of land from native peoples.
The Tuhoe tribe's ancestral homeland is currently the Te Urewara Park. With the imposition of colonial governance, most of their land was taken from them without consultation, resulting in great spiritual and socio-economic losses. The land was designated a national park in 1954.
The Tuhoe tribe never signed the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi with the British Crown, which stripped the tribe of their sovereign right over their land. They have since contested the British assertion of sovereignty that undergirds the formation of the modern New Zealand state.
Their centuries-long struggle finally yielded results. As part of New Zealand's reparation process towards Indigenous Peoples, the national government negotiated with the Tuhoe tribe regarding their historic land. In 2012 the Tuhoe tribe accepted the Crown's offer of financial reparations, a historical account and apology and co-governance of Te Urewera lands. The national government renounced ownership of the land, giving the land its own personhood.
Under this framework, the land is now a legal entity in itself, owned neither by the government nor the Tuhoe tribe. The land is no longer property. It is its own untamed natural presence in and of itself, with, as per native understanding, its own life force and identity.
The land is now co-governed by the Tuhoe people and the New Zealand government.
The 2014 Te Urewara Act declares the park "a place of spiritual value." The Act acknowledges that it is the sacred home of the Tuhoe people, integral to their "culture, language, customs and identity," while also being of intrinsic value to all New Zealanders.
In a similar process of granting legal personhood, the local Maori tribe, the Iwi, helped the Whanganui River earn legal personhood status in 2014 after winning a long-fought court case.
This was part of a centuries-long struggle that the Whanganui tribes undertook to protect the river. Since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the river has been subject to gravel extraction, water diversion for hydro-electric plans, and river bed works to better navigability, under protest from local tribes.
The Maori fought to protect the river through a series of court cases beginning in 1938, defending their claim to the management of the river as its rightful guardian. Throughout the court cases, negotiations were undergirded by the native saying "Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au," which translates to "I am the river and the river is me." This reflects native philsophies of reciprocal and equal relations between people and nature.
New Zealand's attorney general Chris Finlayson was quoted in the New York Times as acknowledging the Maori perspective as formative in the granting of rights to these natural entities, saying "In their worldview, 'I am the river and the river is me,'" he said. "Their geographic region is part and parcel of who they are."
Expanding Legal Horizons
The legal concept of rights of nature signal the influence of Indigenous Peoples as political actors in state-making, fundamentally reimagining law and how the natural world is conceived. These ideas present a revolutionary rupture in the conventional anthropocentric understanding of sovereignty, and a realignment of how the natural world is valued. In fact, they could chart the path forward for a new understanding of mankind's relation to the natural world, even if they operate within the legal structures that are not conducive to indigenous philosophies.
It is true that the rights of nature as they currently stand have deep limitations, particularly given the ongoing extraction of non-renewable natural resources in Ecuador and Bolivia. Problems of corruption, environmental inequality and economic dependence on extractive industries are major challenges to the full realization of the rights of nature.
Yet small acts can lead to lasting change. This shift in the way we relate to and legally protect nature, however small and plagued by obstacles, could be an incremental step toward a more sustainable relation to the planet that could allow us to preserve the earth for future generations.
Young men watch the sunset from a destroyed building situated near the Mediterranean Sea in the Gaza Strip, May 29, 2015. (Photo: Wissam Nassar / The New York Times)
A father and his two daughters were three of the first Palestinians to suffer injuries related to Gaza's electricity crisis this year. They have been left with moderate burns after a candle the girls lit to do their homework started a fire in their apartment in Gaza City on 2 January.
'At least five children have burned to death and many more injured over the last few years in similar incidents,' Gazan Abu Ahmed writes in a message to me at night, on an electricity-dependent device. There will be more candle-related disasters during a winter of 20-hour blackouts in the crowded Strip.
As nightly temperatures plummet, so do the number of hours of electricity. Two million Palestinians have been living on three to four hours of electricity per day for the past two months, with LED lights, batteries and candles the only substitutes for most families. Expensive generators and car battery inverters pick up the slack for some households and businesses while the most privileged install solar panels; a luxury few can afford.
These alternatives fill some electricity gaps but cannot power many appliances such as washing machines, baby bottle sterilizers and water pumps, says Gazan translator and blogger Jason Shawa. 'So you need to shift all washing, ironing and bathing to when you have electricity. Many people do such chores after midnight because that is when the power comes on'.
The power cuts are devastating for Gaza's hospitals. Incubators, ventilators and other life-saving equipment are powered by industrial generators but fuel, and money, is running out. Even if hospitals had access to enough fuel, generators are only designed to provide emergency electricity, not for hours, days and months on end.
Israel's decade-long military blockade has helped create Gaza's electricity and resource crisis.
The Strip's sole power plant has been the target of repeated airstrikes during Israel's three military bombardments of Gaza since the start of the siege. It has also been forced to shut down several times due to a lack of fuel.
Egyptian and Israeli electricity grids provide some of Gaza's electricity but the two countries have severely restricted fuel imports into the tiny Middle Eastern enclave since the blockade began in 2007. Egyptian and Israeli authorities have destroyed the majority of tunnels built between Gaza and Egypt over the past few years, meaning it is no longer possible to smuggle in cheap diesel and other basic necessities.
Caravans for Winter
A thousand families are still living in caravans and tents two and a half years since Israel's 50-day military bombardment during July-August 2014, with only an extra layer of nylon keeping out the cold and harsh winds.
The offensive, dubbed Operation Protective Edge, killed 2,251 Palestinians and 72 Israelis, and destroyed 70 per cent of Gaza's infrastructure.
Some 20,000 homes were destroyed or so severely damaged that they became uninhabitable, leaving 100,000 people internally displaced and sheltering in makeshift shacks, schools, relatives' homes, rented accommodation or in their dangerously damaged homes. Some families are still living in tents next to their destroyed houses because they are afraid that if they leave, their land might be taken -- the only thing they have left.
Along with fuel, the military blockade has limited construction materials entering the Strip. The Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism set up in 2014, has tightened these restrictions, says Shawa.
Lack of funds have also prolonged the displacement of Palestinians: at Cairo's 'Reconstructing Gaza' conference in October 2014, $3.5 billion was pledged to help. But only $1.6 billion has been donated so far, according to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and Aidwatch.
The diversion of media attention to other parts of the region such as Syria and Iraq has taken the pressure off countries to deliver on their promises, while some donors say that the lack of unity between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Hamas party in the Gaza Strip is frustrating efforts to fund projects, but the real issue, tweets Jewish Voice for Peace director Rebecca Vilkomerson, is the Israeli blockade:December 9, 2016
This June will mark the 10th anniversary of Israel's military siege on Gaza. Movement has been restricted for Palestinians living in the 25-mile long enclave since the early 1990s, but when Hamas came to power in June 2007, Israel imposed a land, sea and air blockade. Many Gazans describe this blockade as living in the world's largest prison, with two million people denied access to other parts of Palestine and the rest of the world.
Since the start of the blockade, Egyptian authorities have also restricted movement by closing the Rafah crossing into Eygpt -- and the only way in and out of Gaza -- for days and weeks at a time.
The new year does not signal renewed hope for Gazans.
'We are forgotten here, but we are desperate', says 24-year-old Rana via WhatsApp. 'Most people are even denied a medical permit to leave Gaza for urgent treatment'.
Shawa feels the same. 'I see no glimmer of hope', he writes. 'We are totally locked in by Israel; they control every single aspect of what leaves or enters Gaza, be it people or food or medication or anything else. Egypt too has us locked in from their side'.
'Okay, there is big hope', starts Abu Ahmed, before abruptly changing track: 'but hope was there for many years and nothing changed. Things are even worsening'.
The UN agrees. In 2015, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development published a report which said that because of 'de-development' caused by the economic and military blockade, Gaza may be uninhabitable by 2020 'if current economic trends persist'. Hurtling towards that deadline and Gazans' basic necessities for life -- drinking water, shelter, physical and mental health and employment -- are becoming ever more scarce.
Only 10 per cent of Palestinians in Gaza have access to safe drinking water, and, according to the World Bank, unless desalination and waste water plants are given approval by Israeli authorities to replenish Gaza's depleted natural aquifer by 2020, the water crisis will be irreversible. For now, Gaza's poorest drink salty and dirty water from the tap, risking disease, others use water filters or buy expensive bottled water.
Unemployment is the highest in the world at 43 per cent, with young people under 30-years-old particularly affected by the lack of work. The blockade has taken 50 per cent off Gaza's GDP and were it not for the multiple restrictions and Israel's military bombardments, Gaza's GDP would be four times higher.
One third of children displayed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder even before 2014's military offensive, say The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, with many children having been born under siege and living through multiple bombing campaigns.
With Gaza at breaking point, will the rest of the world finally put pressure on the Israeli administration to end the siege?
'Not with US President Donald Trump at the helm of the "free world" now,' writes Shawa. 'We have heard some of his opinions on the Middle East and none of them are promising.'
'No. Other countries could end our suffering but they let Israel do what it wants,' says Khan Yunis resident Rana, as her wifi signal comes and goes. 'But we will keep on surviving, just as we always have'.
President-elect Donald Trump leaves after speaking to reporters in the lobby of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in New York, January 13, 2017. The retweet of an Islamophobic post by Trump's pick for assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism is another example of Team Trump's comfort in mainstreaming such messages. (Photo: Kevin Hagen / The New York Times)
Former Bush adviser Thomas Bossert, Trump's pick for homeland security adviser, is not very well known. His record, however, suggests someone comfortable with the type of anti-Muslim rhetoric used by Trump. Will we see a revival of some of the Bush-era discriminatory policies against Muslims and other minorities?
President-elect Donald Trump leaves after speaking to reporters in the lobby of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in New York, January 13, 2017. The retweet of an Islamophobic post by Trump's pick for assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism is another example of Team Trump's comfort in mainstreaming such messages. (Photo: Kevin Hagen / The New York Times)
Some of President-elect Donald Trump's most controversial cabinet nominees face Senate confirmation hearings this week, but one top adviser will not have to be approved by the Senate: Thomas Bossert, who will serve as the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism. Bossert will occupy a powerful position in the White House, though little is known about his current political positions. The few indications of his political leanings that are available are not reassuring; for example, Bossert retweeted an Islamophobic Twitter post in 2015 -- a choice that could potentially foreshadow the incoming administration's homeland security policies.
Unlike many top Trump aides, Bossert maintains a low public profile, but his previously unpublicized retweet raises concerns about his willingness to promote anti-Muslim rhetoric. In the hours following the Paris attack in November 2015, Bossert retweeted a post from former NSA official and conservative columnist John Schindler that read: "The liberalism I was raised in was not a societal death-wish. If you think political Islam is a plan for progress or diversity, get help." (Schindler has also, however, tweeted statements denouncing Trump's Muslim ban and praising Muslims who fight against ISIS.)
Robert McCraw from the Council on American-Islamic Relations said he found the tweet to be concerning, especially in the larger context of the people Trump is surrounding himself with. "Bossert's retweet is just another troubling example of the Trump administration's comfort in mainstreaming Islamophobic messages," he told me in a phone interview. "A number of the Trump administration's national security, homeland security and intelligence appointees and nominees express a deep fear and mistrust of Islam and Muslims."
The Trump transition team did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Trump has proposed a total ban on Muslims entering the United States, and a process of "extreme vetting" that would by design disproportionately impact Muslims. His advisers have at times seemed like they are attempting to one-up each other in anti-Islam rhetoric.
Bossert will serve as an equal-ranking counterpart to Michael Flynn, Trump's pick for national security adviser and one of the president-elect's closest confidants. Flynn has been extensively scrutinized by journalists for his history of Islamophobic statements, though Bossert remains a relatively unknown quantity. His retweet of Schindler, however, suggests he is at least comfortable with the type of anti-Muslim rhetoric used by Trump and Flynn. As homeland security adviser, he could push Trump to revive some of the discriminatory policies carried out by George W. Bush's administration at the height of the global war on terror.
In a statement announcing Bossert's appointment in late December, the Trump transition team highlighted a 2007 report Bossert coauthored during his time as deputy homeland security adviser to President Bush. The National Strategy for Homeland Security of 2007 lays out priorities for law enforcement for the year, and praised fusion centers and intelligence-led policing. The report is an important window into the kind of advice Bossert may give Trump, particularly considering the relative lack of recent public statements he has made and the fact that he won't have to go before the Senate.
Now nearly a decade old, the report is most remarkable in revealing how little has changed in the Republican approach to homeland security -- a mindset shared by many Democrats as well. For one, the report called on Congress to make a controversial bill called the 2007 Protect America Act permanent. The ACLU at the time referred to the bill as the "Police America Act," because it gave the government broad eavesdropping power with virtually no oversight. That act was replaced in 2008 with the FISA Amendments Act, which had many of the same problems.
In addition to calling for increased surveillance powers, the report praises fusion centers -- hubs that were created after 9/11 to facilitate increased intelligence sharing between federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement. Even at the time, civil liberties groups criticized fusion centers as potential areas of concern for privacy issues. The ACLU in 2007 criticized fusion centers for their excessive secrecy, their reliance on corporate partners and the massive amounts of data they were collecting.
Subsequent reports found endemic problems with fusion centers also. A Senate report in 2012 found they were ineffective in preventing terrorism and regularly infringed on citizens' civil liberties. A 2012 study from The Constitution Project, a bipartisan think tank, have found that "Some fusion centers' policies and training programs have enabled racial, religious and political profiling, and their collection of information for 'suspicious activity' reports has threatened constitutional rights of privacy."
Jake Laperruque covers privacy issues at The Constitution Project, and told me that there simply isn't enough information in the 2007 report to make detailed predictions. "In terms of fusion centers, the devil is in the details," Laperruque told me. "It's important that you have those privacy protections, especially as the federal government and local police are rapidly scooping up more and more information. There's some reason for concern there, depending on how it is laid out, but I don't think as it's mentioned in the report itself there are any red flags."
Another possible area of concern is the 2007 report's call for an increase in "intelligence-led policing," which can lead to discriminatory practices, especially directed at Muslim communities in the United States. Laperruque notes that as it is referred to in the report, intelligence-led policing (ILP) could simply be a method for allocating resources and gathering data on when and where crimes happen. Still, the report adopts a paradigm common in law enforcement known as "prevent," which seeks to anticipate and disrupt attacks before they happen. As it was practiced by the FBI, the NYPD, and other federal and local cops, that approach effectively resulted in widespread surveillance of Muslims.
While the report gives lip service to the fact that non-Muslims can commit acts of terror -- saying "we recognize that terrorists and violent extremists can arise in many other faiths, communities, or persuasions" -- it does so essentially in passing. The document focuses almost entirely on violence perpetrated by Muslims. When the authors do focus on other perpetrators of violence, they lump "white supremacist groups, animal rights extremists, and eco-terrorist groups" together.
Beyond the 2007 report, an op-ed written by Bossert gives clues as to his current counterterrorism thinking. In 2015, Bossert wrote a piece for the conservative Washington Times defending the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan on moral grounds. "To be clear, the use of military force against Iraq and Afghanistan was and remains just," Bossert wrote. He added that the invasion of Iraq was "at the time, necessary."
In at least one area, however, there appears to be some positive news for Bossert's willingness to protect civil liberties. In his writings about TSA security provisions, he specifically criticized PreCheck, an expedited screening system he believes is ineffective and could result in profiling. Though many have raised concerns that PreCheck, as it was first proposed, might include scanning a traveler's social media posts and credit card purchases, Bossert's concerns extended to what he saw as a lack of security. To his credit, he criticized outsourcing data mining of travelers' information to private companies as "a bad idea," arguing that the "privacy and civil liberties implications alone are astounding."
Compared with some of the outsized personalities in the Trump circle, Bossert remains a bit of a mystery. Several experts I contacted had no specific knowledge about him whatsoever. It is obviously good that Bossert hasn't been making a name for himself by repeatedly and loudly stoking anti-Muslim bigotry, like Flynn has. Still, a return to 2007-era policing at the federal and local level would be a disaster for Muslims and other marginalized and disproportionately policed communities. As the other top advisors claim the majority of the spotlight, one of the quietest people in Trump's circle could be one of the most influential.