A vigil is held in downtown Philadelphia on August 13, 2017, in support of the victims of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend. (Photo: Jessica Kourkounis / Getty Images)
Opposing white supremacist mobilizations is important in the defense of marginalized people and civil society. But focusing mainly on the acts of individuals or emotions like "hate" obscures the role of structural racism in white supremacist violence. To prevent more acts of violence, we must confront and eradicate the structural foundations of white supremacy.
A vigil is held in downtown Philadelphia on August 13, 2017, in support of the victims of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend. (Photo: Jessica Kourkounis / Getty Images)
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White supremacist James Alex Fields Jr.'s murder of 32-year-old Heather Heyer and near-massacre of antiracist protesters at the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville turned the mobilization into a flashpoint for politicians on both sides of the aisle, as well as for media outlets. Heyer's death shifted the mainstream portrayal of Charlottesville from a "street fight between the right and the left" to a terrorist attack aimed at the antiracist left.
Donald Trump, of course, did not make this shift. Although he has supplied swift responses to the attacks that have occurred in places like Paris, the president initially remained mum about Heyer's murder and the dozens of people who were injured in the white supremacist attack.
Trump's conspicuous silence and weak response led both conservatives and liberals to frame their conversations on Charlottesville through discussions of the president's lack of moral leadership. Republicans and Democrats, such as Senators Orrin Hatch and Marco Rubio, and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe condemned Trump for his initial silence. Once Trump finally issued a response condemning what he described as "violence on many sides," he attracted more criticisms from both liberal and conservative politicians and pundits for failing to identify that white supremacists were at fault and suggesting that both the left and the right were to blame.
While Trump's comments were indeed egregious, mainstream narratives about Charlottesville that focus primarily on Trump's bad character and the actions of one murderous racist (Fields), leave something to be desired: They obscure the need to creatively confront and defeat the white supremacist right. These limited narratives belie the structure of white supremacy in the US. Ultimately, this framing tells many of us on the left what we already know: Neither liberals nor conservatives have a real strategy for eradicating white supremacy at its root.
Like many Americans, I was horrified to hear about the murder of Heather Heyer and the injuries to other anti-racists and anti-fascists resisting white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday. As an organizer working to confront racist police violence in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I have seen tense moments where drivers have threatened to ram their vehicles into marchers exercising their right to protest, so I knew that this violence was not a case of a few "rotten apples;" the threat of it persists everywhere.
Fields' evil deed recalls this nation's deep history of state-sanctioned white supremacist violence aimed at people of color, especially African Americans, and the left. Friday night's tiki-torch march and Saturday's deadly assault recall the wave of race riots as well as the first Red Scare after World War I. Part of the white nationalists' vision, at least as described by white supremacist leader Richard Spencer, is to create a white "ethno-state." Driving through a multiracial flank of radicals could represent a pursuit of this goal, or at least an attempt to create the space needed for further white nationalist organizing.
However, the framing of Saturday's attacks by liberal and conservative politicians and pundits does not really present death as a logical outcome of white supremacist organizing and a white nationalist White House. The overwhelming emphasis on the actions of the driver, as well as on Trump's responses, reduces the problem of eradicating white supremacy to one murderous act by an individual and a lack of moral leadership from an immoral president, not the product of structural racism. Rather than seeing white supremacy as a system, many analysts are describing Friday's and Saturday's events as the result of an emotion: "hate."
Critiques of Trump focused on his days-long inability to reference Neo-Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan, eventually forcing him to deliver a new statement. But what is the point of pushing Trump to denounce white supremacists, when he clearly does not have the moral authority to criticize them? Trump helped popularize birtherism, which offered a basis for Republican Party obstructionism during the Obama era. Trump-fueled birtherism also helped delegitimize certain policies, such as the Affordable Care Act.
Trump has employed white nationalists, such as Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, in his administration. His administration has sought to implement a constellation of policies that can only be described as an attempt to explicitly center white racial nationalism in domestic and foreign affairs. These policies include the Muslim travel ban, the continuation of restrictive immigration and aggressive deportation, a turn toward resurrecting racist drug war policies, and the Department of Justice's flirtation with suing colleges and universities over their use of affirmative action policies. Trump is also "seriously considering" pardoning racist Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Calling on him now to denounce a part of his electoral base that he helped cultivate with his birtherism -- without rolling back any of the aforementioned policies -- seems like an empty gesture. Would we take seriously a well-known jewel thief's disavowal of the latest bank robbery because the robbers killed a hostage? Probably not. So, why should anyone believe this president if he says he condemns white supremacists?
We are mistaken to focus on Trump's inability to do the easiest thing ever -- call folks who wave Nazi flags "Nazis" and white nationalists who commit murder "white supremacist terrorists." We are also mistaken to reduce Heyer's murder and white nationalist organizing to "hate" and a product of "fringe" and "bad" beliefs. We will not defeat white supremacy by just trying to shoo all of the "bad racists" back out of public life.
Black- and people-of-color-led movements against state violence have illustrated how white supremacy is resilient and powered by acts of institutional violence. These acts are perpetrated by policies constructed and enacted by both Democrats and Republicans. Bill Clinton was not wearing a KKK hood when he signed the 1994 crime bill, which fueled the mass incarceration of people of color. George W. Bush was not waving a Nazi flag when he and Congress enacted the Patriot Act, which led to egregious forms of racial profiling of Arab and Muslim folks after 9/11. While the KKK and other white supremacists have a history of using violence to block African Americans' property, labor and voting rights, the federal government has not always needed the KKK to enact discriminatory policies.
So, yes, we must use a diversity of creative tactics to resist white supremacists whenever and wherever they organize, but that is not the only strategy. Eradicating institutional racism -- especially as it is related to a host of other legal, political and material structures, such as private property rights and policing, restrictive immigration and deportation, wage and property theft, deindustrialization and the assault on organized labor, the patriarchal assault on reproductive rights, the theft of Indigenous land, imperialist wars, and other crimes committed by capitalists and the state -- offers us the best chance to eradicate the foundation of white supremacy.
Without the acts of the criminal state to stand on, white supremacists will not have a platform to build a movement. Denying white supremacists' racist symbols and ideas is important. I am a fan of confederate flag burners. But we may be able to prevent more acts of white supremacist violence if we finally eliminate their structural foundation.
This elimination will not be initiated by Democrats or Republicans. The focus on Trump's behavior reflects the lack of a structural analysis. This should not surprise us. Before Black Lives Matter's emergence, Republicans mainly operated on the official line that the United States was colorblind, while Democrats, colleges and universities, and much of corporate America embraced superficial notions of diversity and multiculturalism. In recent years, however, resistance to economic injustice, deindustrialization, mass incarceration, racist police violence, Islamophobia, restrictive immigration and deportations, and theft of Indigenous land for corporate gain has shattered both of these visions.
As Democrats scramble to adjust their racial politics, we should, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor emphasizes in her piece demanding "No More Charlottesvilles," confront the violent right whenever and wherever it emerges. And while we are opposing the violent right, we should continue to offer our alternative: a working class-focused multiracial solidarity politics that aims to enact racial justice and economic democracy for everyone. Working from these strategies, hopefully, we will be able to prevent future Charlottesvilles.
This is a tall order, because structural transformation is difficult. Let's not take the easy way out.
Ta-Nehisi Coates on How Cities and Municipalities Are Winning Reparations for Slavery at Local Levels
The white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend came after thousands of neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and other white nationalists descended on Charlottesville to protest the city’s plan to remove a Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee. The effort to remove this statue was spurred in part by the African-American city Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy, who convinced his fellow city councilmembers not only to vote to remove the statue, but also to create a "reparations fund" for Charlottesville's African-American residents. For more, we speak with award-winning author and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who in 2014 penned the influential piece for The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations."
Please check back later for full transcript.
A North Korean soldier (R) looks at South Korea across the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on July 12, 2017, in Panmunjom, South Korea. (Photo: Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images)
The highest-ranking US military officer again warned that the Trump administration stands ready to attack North Korea, despite pleas for peace from South Korea.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Joseph Dunford on Monday said that the Pentagon is prepared "to use the full range of military capabilities to defend our allies and the US homeland." Dunford made the comments in Seoul while meeting with South Korean civilian and military officials.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Monday urged the sabre-rattling to stop, declaring "there must not be another war on the Korean Peninsula."
President Moon also vowed to work with the US "to safeguard peace," according to the AP, and told Pyongyang to "stop issuing menacing statements and provoking."
"Whatever ups and downs we face, the North Korean nuclear situation must be resolved peacefully," Moon also stated.
Top ranking US officials have been claiming that President Trump is intent on avoiding war, and that he has issued threats to back-up diplomatic efforts.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis wrote an op-ed, published on Sunday by The Wall Street Journal, saying that "diplomacy is our preferred means of changing North Korea’s course of action."
Dunford claimed on Monday that the US is "seeking a peaceful resolution to the crisis."
The crisis comes in the wake of North Korean missile tests, UN sanctions, and a Washington Post report about the US intelligence community's assessment of North Korean capabilities.
The paper said Tuesday that American intelligence officials believe Pyongyang "has successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles," and that it "is also outpacing expectations in its effort to build an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the American mainland."
President Trump responded to the Post report by vowing that North Korea "will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen."
North Korean officials then threatened to launch four missiles into the sea off the coast of Guam.
Trump replied with another aggressive claim on Friday, tweeting that: "Military solutions are now fully in place,locked and loaded,should [sic] North Korea act unwisely."
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When we declare war on phenomena like crime, drugs, or terror, instantly militarizing such problems, we severely limit our means for understanding and dealing with them. (Photo: Pixabay)
Since September 11, 2001, the United States has been fighting a "war on terror." Real soldiers have been deployed to distant lands; real cluster bombs and white phosphorus have been used; real cruise missiles have been launched; the first MOAB, the largest non-nuclear bomb in the US arsenal, has been dropped; and real cities have been reduced to rubble. In revenge for the deaths of 2,977 civilians that day, real people -- in the millions -- have died and millions more have become refugees. But is the war on terror actually a war at all -- or is it only a metaphor?
In a real war, nations or organized non-state actors square off against each other. A metaphorical war is like a real war -- after all, that's what a metaphor is, a way of saying that one thing is like something else -- but the enemy isn't a country or even a single group of Islamic jihadists. It's some other kind of threat: a disease, a social problem, or in the case of the war on terror, an emotion.
In truth, it may not matter if the war on terror is a real one, since metaphorical wars have a striking way of killing real people in real numbers, too. Take the US war on drugs, for example. In Mexico, that war, fueled by US weapons, using US drones, and conducted with the assistance of the Pentagon and the CIA, has already led to the deaths of many thousands of people. A 2015 US Congressional Research Service report estimates that organized crime caused 80,000 deaths in Mexico between 2007 and 2015. Most of the guns used in what has essentially been a mass murder spree came from this country, which is also the main market for the marijuana, cocaine, and heroin that are the identified enemy in this war of ours. As with our more literal wars of recent years, the war on drugs shows no sign of ending (nor does the US hunger for drugs show any sign of abating). If anyone is winning this particular war, it's the drugs -- and, of course, the criminal cartels that move them across the continent.
American metaphorical wars fought in my own lifetime began with President Lyndon Johnson's "war on poverty," first announced in 1964 when I was 12 years old. Indeed, my mother "served" in that war. We lived in Washington, D.C., at the time and she worked for the United Planning Organization, a community-based group funded under Johnson's Model Cities program. It fought poverty in the slums of my hometown, just a few blocks from the White House. As with other similar groups around the country, its personnel tested new "weapons" in the war on poverty -- job training programs, citizen advice bureaus, and community-organizing efforts of various sorts. I was proud that my mother was a "soldier" in that war, which for a few brief years it even looked like we might be winning.
And there were victories. After all, the legacy of Johnson's Great Society and the war that went with it included Medicare for older people -- I'll be starting on it next month myself -- and Medicaid for people of any age living in poverty. The struggles, sacrifices, and deaths of civil rights activists together with Johnson's political mastery gave us the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. (Of course the Trump Justice Department is doing its best to roll back both of these victories.) Then, as now, poverty touched the lives of many white people, but it flourished most abundantly in black and brown communities and so these new rights for people of color, some of us believed, signaled a light at the end of the tunnel when it came to the genuine abatement of poverty.
By 1968, Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council were addressing poverty across racial divides, organizing a Poor People's Campaign. It was to include a march on Washington and culminate in the building on the Capitol Mall of a "Resurrection City," which was to serve as a model -- a metaphor -- for a United States risen from the cross of poverty. King was, however, murdered that April and so didn't live to see that city. It turned out, in any case, to be a plywood encampment that would be drowned in mud from days of torrential rain. In the minds of those who still remember it, Resurrection City became a sad metaphor for Lyndon Johnson's war. "The war on poverty," as the saying went, "is over. Poverty won."
Meanwhile, much of the country was distracted from that metaphorical war by an actual war in Vietnam, where the only metaphor around was the insistence of commander of US forces General William Westmoreland that there was "light at the end of the tunnel" when it came to that disastrous conflict.
What's in a Metaphor?
The war on poverty was hardly this country's first metaphorical war. In the 1930s, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover launched a "war on crime," anticipating by some 40 years Richard Nixon's war on drugs, which itself has lasted another 40 years with no end in sight. Nixon also gave us the "war on cancer" -- still ongoing -- even as he continued to pursue the actual war in Vietnam, a rare American conflict in the second half of the twentieth century, metaphorical or otherwise, that came to a definitive end (even if in defeat).
Nor is the United States alone in fighting "wars" against nonhuman enemies. The World Bank, for example, ran a seven-year "total war" on AIDS in Kenya. The project ended in 2014, by which time 1.6 million people, or 6% of the population, were infected with HIV. Perhaps the bank was smarter than the US in choosing to declare victory and go home, as at one point Vermont Governor George Aiken famously suggested we should do in relation to Vietnam.
What, you might wonder, is the problem in using the metaphor of war to represent a collective effort to battle and overcome some social evil? Certainly, fighting a war often requires from whole populations a special kind of heroic focus, a willingness to mobilize and sacrifice, a commitment to community or country, and for those in uniform, loyalty to one's fellow soldiers. It also requires people to relinquish their own petty interests in the service of a greater whole. Correspondent Chris Hedges caught this aspect of war in the title of his powerful book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. Aren't such qualities useful ones to bring to the struggle to solve urgent, life-destroying problems like disease, poverty, or addiction? Wouldn't it be wonderful if human beings could confront those horrors with the same kind of passion, intensity, and funding we bring to actual wars?
Yes and no. A metaphor is, of course, an implied comparison in which two things share enough qualities in common that calling one by the other's name will be illuminating. If, for instance, you said, "Donald Trump is a giant Cheeto," you wouldn't be suggesting that the president is actually a large, puffy piece of junk food. You would be highlighting the way he shares with that particular delicacy a certain orange coloration, as well as an airy structure that crumbles when you try to get your teeth into it -- as so many of Trump's statements crumble in the jaws of truth.
Metaphors only work when the similarity between two things is striking enough that you learn something about one by comparing it to the other. Those two things must also, however, be different in crucial ways, or what you have isn't a metaphor but an equation. For instance, Trump as Cheeto works exactly because you and I are unlikely to transfer to Donald J. Trump the feelings and attitudes we have toward Cheetos. We know enough about the nature of both never to want to eat the president, however much we may love the salty crunch of that snack food. When, however, you know less about at least one of the terms of comparison -- or less than you think you do -- then a powerful metaphor can be a deceiver, making us think we understand a phenomenon that actually goes over our heads (another metaphor). A bad metaphor can affect how we act individually and as a society and in some grim cases even whether we, or others, live or die.
And the use of war as a metaphor -- the treating of every human ill as if it were an enemy that could be defeated by a battle plan -- works just that way. When we declare war on phenomena like crime, drugs, or terror, instantly militarizing such problems, we severely limit our means for understanding and dealing with them.
The Power of Metaphor
What happens, for example, when we transform the problem of human addiction into a war on drugs? For one thing, fighting a war requires an enemy, at least one group that, given the logic of war, we can imagine as not quite human as well as an existential danger to the rest of us. It's easy to forget that the ultimate aim of the war on drugs is not, or at least should not be, to destroy drug users but to release them from the prison of addiction (to mix metaphors dangerously). Instead, not just drugs but drug users often become the enemy.
One consequence of militarizing the problem of drugs -- a lesson from the war on terror, too -- is that our survival comes to seem dependent on ensuring that captured enemies be detained until the end of hostilities. And since such hostilities never seem to end, that means essentially forever. In other words, as soon as you make war on drugs (and so on those who use them), the urge to end the real human suffering that drug addiction causes quickly devolves into, in Trumpian terms, "winning." That, in turn, means ensuring vastly more suffering through actual violence and the endless incarceration of millions of people, a startling number of them for drug offenses, or what might be thought of as the Guantanamo-ization of America.
Can a metaphor really do all that? It can indeed when it so limits our vision that any other approach becomes unthinkable, unimaginable. In the war on drugs, as in all wars, there must be good guys and bad guys, good citizens who are to be mobilized (at least in their sympathies) against not-quite-human drug users. Similarly, when we declare war on a disease, like cancer, we risk limiting understanding of the disease process to models like invasion, or territorial aggression, and so limit imaginable treatments to therapies that eradicate the invaders with poison or radiation. In effect, we accept that in the case of cancer, as in the case of the Vietnamese village of Ben Tre, it may be necessary to destroy the patient in order to save her. (This is not to say that chemotherapy and radiation don't save lives; they do. Rather, it suggests that a military approach to disease can cause doctors to think of patients as battlefields, rather than as people.)
There's another problem with declaring "wars" on threats to human well-being: a tendency to conflate the threat and the victim of the threat. A war on AIDS becomes a campaign to protect "society" from "AIDS carriers," as happened in 1986 when California voters were asked to approve Proposition 64, which would have made it possible to quarantine everyone in the state with HIV. Proposition 64 was soundly defeated, but by then almost 30% of that state's voters had been convinced that the enemy they confronted wasn't AIDS, but people living with AIDS.
Suppose we were to think about the struggle to deal with drug abuse not as a metaphorical war, but as a real public health problem (as seems to be happening in the case of the opioid crisis that presently affects mainly white people). What might change? For one thing, we might be able to separate the concepts of drug use and criminality in our minds. Not automatically identifying drug use with crime might make it possible to imagine adopting a program similar to Portugal's decriminalization of drug possession. In 2001, that country stopped prosecuting simple possession of all illegal drugs and made government-run drug treatment easily available. Unlike the rest of Europe, let alone the United States, Portugal's addiction rates have plummeted since decriminalization took effect and that country began putting funds that would previously have gone into incarceration into treatment instead. With Americans stuck on the idea of fighting a drug war, however, the Portuguese example remains beyond imagining here. It would be the moral equivalent of surrender.
Another problem with war as a metaphor for social ills is that warring and caring call upon very different moral qualities. While both share characteristics like courage, persistence, and often the need to endure real hardship, the prosecution of war also requires other qualities: obedience, indifference to the suffering of oneself and others, and the necessity of viewing the world in black and white. War requires that we recognize in ourselves only virtue and, in our foe, only inhuman evil. We should not be surprised when President Trump informs us that, in his wars on crime and drugs, the human enemies -- gang members, and by extension immigrants in general -- are not people, but "animals." And to be good soldiers, the rest of us are expected to practice dehumanizing the enemy, too.
When, in the twentieth century, the United States began fighting metaphorical wars against social ills, most Americans understood actual war as something with a beginning (requiring a congressional declaration) and an end (the surrender of one side, with a peace treaty to follow). However, the American wars of the second half of that century turned out to lack such clear demarcations. With the exception of outright defeat in Vietnam, starting with the Korean War, our military conflicts have lacked endings. We now have a generation of young people who have never known a time when the United States was not involved in war, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, or Yemen.
In a 2001 essay, "The War Metaphor in Public Policy: Some Moral Reflections," the philosopher James Childress argued that, like real wars, metaphorical wars against social evils ought to be just wars. In the tradition of what ethicists call "just war theory," legitimate wars begin for just reasons (primarily defense against direct aggression), are necessary and proportionate (military action taken is in proportion to the aggression suffered), and have a reasonable expectation of success.
Most crucially, just war theory imagines wars with beginnings and ends. But in the twenty-first century, Washington's wars have essentially become endless, or as the Pentagon has taken to saying, "generational." Former CIA head Michael Hayden is typical these days in predicting that the fight against ISIS alone will last 30 years. And the country's metaphorical wars have followed an eerily similar pattern.
War metaphors mainly have the effect of distorting legitimate efforts to resolve real social problems, while at the same time cheapening our understanding of actual war. We misunderstand the complexities of a problem like poverty when we approach it as if it were an enemy to be defeated. We also fail to appreciate the horrors of actual war when we equate the destruction of entire nations with attempts to end the suffering of impoverished people. A bad metaphor obscures at least as much as it illumines. Unlike attempts to improve people's lives by eradicating poverty or curing disease, actual war involves the imposition of the will of one group on another, through acts causing injury, pain, destruction, and death.
Of course, as we've seen with recent Republican attempts to repeal Obamacare, policy proposals can kill, too, but they are not wars. It's important to maintain that distinction.
White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" exchange vollies of pepper spray with counter-protesters as they enter Emancipation Park during the "Unite the Right" rally August 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
In July of last year, after The New York post ran the headline, "CIVIL WAR: Four cops killed at anti-police protest," I wrote the column "How We Report on Structural Racism Can Hurt Us -- Or Heal Us." I could have easily written the same article today.
That column recalled the Kerner Report, the findings of President Johnson’s commission investigating the uprisings that occurred throughout 1967, to determine what happened and why, and to provide recommendations to prevent them from happening again.
While reading and watching the news stories unfolding from the college town of Charlottesville, Virginia, what I and many others are calling White nationalist race riots, I couldn’t help but recall the Kerner Report again.
A fundamental criticism in the report was that news media had failed to analyze and report adequately on the many incidents of racial injustice in the United States. The report noted that the social ills, challenges, and grievances African Americans face were "seldom conveyed."
In considering the history of racism in this country, they wrote, "By and large, news organizations have failed to communicate to both their Black and White audiences a sense of the problems America faces and the sources of potential solutions. The media report and write from the standpoint of a White man’s world." This "White press … reflects the biases, the paternalism, and the indifference of White America. This may be understandable, but is not excusable of an institution that has the mission to inform and educate the whole of our society."
The commission found media outlets had distorted information and made protests look more racially divisive and destructive than they actually were.
They were not accurate. They were not truthful.
Today, still, not much has changed.
In the case of Charlottesville, media outlets are being careless with words, whitewashing the intentions and the actions of White nationalist protestors. The "Unite the Right rally" stopped being a rally sometime Friday night when a stream of torch carrying White supremacists arrived at night to the University of Virginia campus chanting "blood and soil." They used those torches as weapons in fights with counter-protesters.
On Saturday, NBC said, "Charlottesville rally turned deadly." CNN said, "1 dead, 19 injured after crash near Unite the Right rally."
What took place was not a rally. Who wears paramilitary gear and carries automatic weapons to a rally? Who takes shields and helmets and pepper spray and bats and sticks to a rally? The car didn’t "crash" -- it was driven at full speed into a crowd of counter-protesters.
What happened in Charlottesville was White nationalist extremists inciting a riot.
We cannot unite, come together, overcome, Kumbaya, or whatever else, until we get some truth-telling. Media professionals need to get it right this time.
It is also the responsibility of those of us who are anti-racist not to be silent in this time. Call out every media outlet that is soft-selling White supremacy and sidestepping the ugly truth.
Nothing less is acceptable. This milquetoast coverage lets White nationalists off the hook, even when the dithering commentary comes from President Trump.
His statement about being against violence "on many sides" stopped short of calling out the domestic terrorism of the White men who carried out acts of violence on American citizens today. Walking away when you’re asked if you denounce these actors is the definition of cowardice.
Trump managed to anger both "sides," Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke as well as anti-racists.
What side are you on? Are you on the side that makes excuses for and sanitizes these acts and actors by calling them misunderstood Americans, the "alt" right, misguided, upset, fringe, and whatever other name might diminish the outright terrorism these people are perpetrating.
Or are you on the side that calls bullshit on anti-Black, anti-Native, anti-Jewish racism, bigotry, and xenophobia -- and the White supremacist domestic terrorists who marched on Charlottesville to shed some blood.
As the future dims for Trumpcare, one administration official has apparently taken it upon himself to threaten lawmakers. Ryan Zinke, secretary of the Interior, allegedly contacted Alaska's Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan about Senator Murkowski's "no" vote on the latest version of Republican health care reform. Zinke suggested that the state might come to regret the decision, in a veiled threat.
The Department of the Interior is heavily involved in the decision-making process for activities like granting oil and gas permits, reviewing mineral rights and using other natural resources on both federal and tribal lands. In Alaska, a state that relies heavily on resource extraction, a good relationship with the department is critical -- failure to gain approval from Interior could snarl major projects, including those bringing key jobs and other economic growth to remote communities.
President Donald Trump had already lashed out at Murkowski for her vote, which proved to be a critical deciding point in the failure of the bill. And this isn't the first time the president has used Twitter to make critical statements about lawmakers and government agencies.
Sullivan and Murkowski both evidently received calls from Zinke with warnings about the state's energy future, though they didn't go into lengthy detail.
In addition to concerns about pending and future projects, the state is also worried about potential Interior Department appointments for people from Alaska. The positions can represent important jobs, as well as opportunities to help shape federal land use policy. And being shut out of these opportunities would leave the state at a disadvantage.
The Department of the Interior's Inspector General's Office just announced that it will be looking into reports of the threat. Internal investigations of this nature are important for the integrity of federal agencies.
If their investigation turns up evidence to support the concerns raised by people on both sides of the aisle, it would certainly cast a negative light on the Department of the Interior's ethics. Many federal agencies are in a position to have tremendous influence over the social and economic well-being of individual states, and evidence of threats to states over individual votes is very troubling.
It could also raise some questions about whether ethically questionable activities could govern which projects are and aren't approved at the agency.
While the Department of the Interior hasn't responded to questions for comment, Zinke seems eager to smooth over rumor. He even posted a photograph of himself drinking beer with Senator Murkowski, calling them "friends," as the news about the threats broke.
Murkowski's office has also remained fairly tight-lipped about what happened during the call, playing down some of the allegations surrounding what Zinke said and how seriously she and her fellow senator took it.
Murkowski, notably, is quite popular in Alaska, and the concern driving her vote was with the speed of the legislation, not necessarily the content. The senator said she wasn't pleased at how quickly it was moving, as the high speed left little time for thoughtfully considered hearings and opportunities to discuss the full ramifications of the legislation. Murkowski was also concerned by reports from her constituents, who worried that the Republican bill as presented might make it difficult to afford health care.
A white supremacist brandishes a 9mm pistol during the beating of Deandre Harris on August 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia. The attacker pointed the gun in the face of photographer Zach D. Roberts but backed down in the face of his camera. (Photo: © Zach D. Roberts 2017)
It took just eight months for some of our worst fears about the Trump presidency to come true, as demonstrated by these photos of brutal racist violence in Charlottesville. Coupled with Virginia's purging of voter rolls, Saturday's attacks and Trump's lukewarm response, they show that white supremacy is alive and well in Charlottesville and beyond.
Note: This article contains graphic photos of anti-Black violence.
A white supremacist brandishes a 9mm pistol during the beating of Deandre Harris on August 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia. The attacker pointed the gun in the face of photographer Zach D. Roberts but backed down in the face of his camera. (Photo: © Zach D. Roberts 2017)
Don't look away. Four white neo-Nazis are beating a Black man, crawling on the ground, with their metal poles and a yellow hunk of lumber. The beating continues -- there's blood on the pavement.
The young victim is Deandre Harris, a special education teacher in Charlottesville, Virginia. On GoFundMe, which Harris is using to raise money to pay for his emergency medical care following the beating, he recounts his own experience of being attacked following his participation in the counter-protest against the "Unite the Right" march of white supremacists:
I arrived at Emancipation Park around 11 AM as a counter-protester to voice my opinion on racial tensions and to literally stand up for what I believe in. I was only there for a few minutes before I was hit with water bottles, maced with pepper spray, and had [derogatory] slurs hurled at me. Just forty-five minutes in to the rally our Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency to aid state response to violence. About fifteen minutes or so after that I was brutally attacked by white supremacists in the parking garage right beside the Charlottesville Police Station. I was chased and beat with metal poles. I was knocked unconscious repeatedly. Every time I went to stand up I was knocked back down.... If it was not for my friends that I came with I would have been beaten to a pulp. No law enforcement stepped in to help me. Once I was dragged off to some near by steps I was taken to the designated area for injured protesters & counter-protesters. My injuries were too extensive to be treated at the scene so I was taken to the ER at Martha Jefferson Hospital.
The medical care that Harris received included eight staples in his head and care for a concussion, ulnar fracture, laceration across his right eyebrow, abrasions on his knees and elbows, and a chipped tooth.
During the attack on Harris, Zach D. Roberts, an investigative photojournalist who has been with the Palast investigations team for 11 years, continued to shoot -- even as a white militant raised a 9mm pistol to his face.
One photo has gone viral internationally. These others we bring you here because they must be seen. Including, for the first time, the gunman.
Welcome to Charlottesville, USA. Trump's America, month eight.
White supremacists beat Black schoolteacher Deandre Harris in a parking garage in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017. (Photo: © Zach D. Roberts 2017)
(Photo: © Zach D. Roberts 2017)
(Photo: © Zach D. Roberts 2017)
According to President Trump, the violence was perpetrated on "many sides." The only sides I see are the beaters and the beaten; Harris on the ground with the "alt-right" storm troopers with weapons.
Here is Roberts' report. First, he saw Harris walking down the street with friends, trading taunts with the white-supremacist demonstrators.
Harris' jibes were hardly fighting words. "Go home! Leave town!" That's when fists flew and Harris was slammed by one of the white guys straight into a parking lot barrier so hard the yellow wooden arm broke.
Now Harris fell to the ground, "alone, surrounded by all these white guys -- and they started beating him with the poles that almost all the white supremacists were carrying."
In the photos, you can see one white guy picking up the yellow barrier arm and raising the three-foot hunk of lumber high over his head before he brings it down on Harris -- who is being kicked by another white man's boots, while two others bring down metal rods on the prone man.
And no, that's not a cop on the left in the photo -- that's a neo-Nazi in full riot gear. (Where were the cops? Good question: this parking garage is next to the Charlottesville Police Station.)
Harris was saved when some courageous young Black men -- with no weapons -- ran into the underground garage and the white posse scattered.
Except for one. The gunman.
He pulled out what looks to be a 9mm pistol, maybe a Glock semi-automatic, and positioned himself to fire on the rescue squad. But then he heard the click of Roberts' camera, just three feet away, and realized he was getting photographed.
Simultaneously, Roberts realized he'd left his bullet-proof vest in his car. In this strange stand-off, the camera proved mightier than the bullet: The would-be shooter figured it would be wiser to quickly conceal the weapon and flee.
Harris "ran into the garage's staircase and collapsed bleeding profusely from the face," Roberts said. Roberts waited with him and his protectors for half an hour but no ambulance arrived for Harris or the other people who were injured.
In an interview published Sunday on The Root, Harris said that he is in the process of pressing charges and that his mother is working with Roberts to identify the racists who attacked him.
"How do you expect the KKK to come to your city to protest, and them not be violent?" Harris told The Root.
The white supremacist attacks on Harris and others this weekend were not isolated incidents. They are connected to a host of ongoing structural attacks against Black people in Virginia.
Roberts and I have been working these past four years on a story of how Trump's henchman, one Kris Kobach, now head of Trump's so-called, "Election Integrity Commission," conceived of a secretive program to remove hundreds of thousands of Black Americans from the voter rolls.
Virginia removed an astonishing 41,637 voters based on Kobach's accusation that they could have voted twice. Not one of the accused was arrested -- but, you won't be surprised to hear, the list of the "scrubbed" was filled with African-American names.
And Virginia is removing tens of thousands more with this Jim Crow tactic -- despite a nominally Democratic Governor, Terry McAuliffe.
Virginia refused us their "scrub" lists. But Roberts obtained a copy -- half a million names in all -- much to the state's dismay. And those lists are every bit as obscenely racist and, in the long run, far more wounding, than the iron rods of the neo-Nazis.
We will be going back to Virginia on September 9 to the capital, Richmond, to fight against this racist disenfranchisement.
Meanwhile, Harris and the other people of color who bore the brunt of the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville this weekend are continuing to spread their story and challenging the US public not to look away.
"We will not let this fade & disappear," Harris wrote on his GoFundMe page. "People are carrying real hate in their hearts for the Black Community and I refuse to just let it happen."
Greg Palast is the director, and Zach D. Roberts the associate producer, of The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, a film about racial vote suppression and the billionaires behind it.
Lisa Woolfork is a member of the Black Lives Matter chapter in Charlottesville, Virginia, and worked to oppose the gathering of white nationalists that rocked the city with violence. Confederate monuments are not just "symbols" of white supremacy, Woolfork says. Allowing them to stand was a racist action leading to many more.
Members of the clergy form a human chain between counter-protesters and white nationalist militia in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 12, 2017. (Photo: Heather Wilson / Dust & Light Photos)
Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing "Interviews for Resistance" series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn't, what has changed and what is still the same. Today's interview is the 63rd in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.
Today, in the aftermath of the white supremacist rally and attacks in Charlottesville, Virginia, we bring you a conversation with Lisa Woolfork of Black Lives Matter Charlottesville.
Sarah Jaffe: How are you holding up?
Lisa Woolfork: No Black woman, like myself, would have been wandering around anywhere down here by themselves yesterday. So, that is a big shift.
So, the last time there was a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville was not that long ago.
You know, there has been one every single month since May. Every month. I think that is important. To me it is a type of escalation on the part of the "alt-right." We had that torch rally around the Lee statue. I think in May they had an event. In June they had one. In July, of course, the Klan. Then, August, it is this one. We have started calling this the Summer of Hate. We are trying to say, "What was the last white supremacist rally we had here? Was that the May one? With the handful of Klansmen? Was it the June one?" Yes, it has been quite a bit.
This one was obviously a bit of an escalation for them, but tell me how your day went yesterday? What was going on where you were?
I began the day at the First Baptist Church on Main Street. It is an historic African American church that did a service to galvanize people to come out and stand up for their community. There were wonderful messages given there. Reverend Traci Blackmon from the United Church of Christ, she spoke. Cornel West, who is a well-known activist, he spoke. There were song selections. The service was called a sunrise service and that began at 6 a.m. Then, we walked over to the Jefferson School and a group of us proceeded from there to McGuffey Park.
At McGuffey Park, there was programming. There was a gigantic live theatre puppet show with a gigantic puppet of Sally Hemings that was like 15 feet tall, and other props to tell the story about Charlottesville and the march. That was by a wonderful team of very creative activist artists. It is a community called Charis Community. Grace Aheron put that together. That is just an example of, basically, togetherness. The "alt-right" had come here to threaten the largest gathering of hate that they had ever put together, at least since the 1960s. That is what some of the people had been saying, that this was a very powerful gathering. I was very gratified and encouraged to see that so many in the community, as well as visitors and people from other allied organizations and unaffiliated individuals, people who had no connection to Charlottesville and weren't members of any kind of organization. They just wanted to come out and stand on the side of justice. I find that very encouraging.
I helped this one woman, she must have been in her 80s, walk down a very steep slope. She was kind of struggling by herself. I just walked over and put my hand out so she could have balance. To me, that seemed like a great metaphor for the day. How do we help one another? How do neighbors, people who come together by common cause in the face of hatred and intolerance and promised abuse and vitriol? This was a very powerful and encouraging part of the day, as well as seeing the Nazis and the "alt-right" retreat from Emancipation Park after their event was declared an unlawful assembly. That was quite a parade of hate. As they were leaving the area, they threw flares, they spit on people. There were several altercations of shouting matches and shoving matches. But still, it was a very powerful display of how love conquers hate. To stand there shoulder to shoulder to shoulder with neighbors, with colleagues from my department in English, with other faculty from around the university that I have seen a few of, from people in my own organization representing Black Lives Matter Charlottesville, which is a very small and new group, has since developed allied connections.
These were all examples of how the community wants to stand together against the threat and the promise of racist violence. Something that I thought was, again, very heartening, was that too often people want to believe that symbolic hatred and symbolic racism has no real world consequence, that if we are to maintain symbols of white supremacy, those are completely devoid from the practices of white supremacy. That is false.
That is a really good point. Obviously, these people were drawn to Charlottesville and are having this massive rally in Charlottesville not because Charlottesville is uniquely welcoming to white supremacists. You all clearly proved you are not, but because the symbols there are meaningful to them.
Yes, absolutely. One thing that I like to impress upon is that I think it is very important to retain attention on the Confederate monument. Of course, many people are turning to Louisiana and New Orleans as an example of a mayor who decided to step up and say, "No more. These are relics of a racist past and I want us to build a better future as a city. We do not need these any longer. They have outlived their usefulness." Charlottesville has not done that. They have not done a complete process of reckoning. There was a commission that worked hard to uncover lots of very interesting information about Charlottesville's unique southern history, but the recommendation that they made -- there were two recommendations. One was to remove the statue and the other was to re-contextualize them in place.
I have always been against the re-contextualization argument, because I don't believe that you can make a huge monument to the Confederacy mean anything other than a monument to the Confederacy. What I find really compelling is that when the Monument Fund, I think that is the name of the organization that sued the city in court when the city council voted to remove the statues. Now, mind you, they voted to remove them from one place to another. Then, they had a later amendment where they would move the statues outside of the city. They didn't want them anymore. The Monument Fund said that one of their arguments in court was that if the statues were to be moved, it would do them irreparable harm. The quote as part of the legal argument that the Monument Fund made was about irreparable harm. I really think that we need to concentrate on that claim.
What does it mean that someone's personal identity is bound up in a racist Confederate monument, a monument to white supremacy? For me, the argument about re-contextualization has already been made. I think the best and most honest context for these monuments is white supremacy. Nothing says what these monuments really mean like a thousand white supremacists coming to defend them.
Speaking of the symbols, there was the controversy about them wanting to have their rally in this particular park that had just been recently renamed, having been named for Robert E. Lee, right?
Yes, that is right. One of the recommendations that the blue ribbon commission made was that the two parks that have Confederate monuments in them be renamed. We have a Robert E. Lee statue and that is in Lee Park. Then, there is a Stonewall Jackson statue, and that was always called Jackson Park. So, they changed Jackson Park to Justice Park, and they changed Lee Park to Emancipation Park. To the city, that was a name-change that they approved. They agreed to do that recommendation. That has already taken effect. So, people are now, in our local media and places throughout the city, [referring] to these parks now as Emancipation and Justice rather than Lee and Jackson.
So, the white supremacists had complained and sued over wanting to be able to have their rally in this particular park, even though the city had ruled that they could not.
Yes. They did. They were helped by the Rutherford Institute, which I believe concentrates on free speech issues and constitutional issues here in Virginia. And, they were also aided by the ACLU Virginia chapter. Both of which turned out to be representing them in a legal capacity. The judge, not the city, the judge ultimately ruled that they could hold their rally in Emancipation Park. Some of the legal issues … I don't want to get too much into them, but it was around heckler's veto and not wanting a heckler's veto to change anybody's unpopular views. The judge just ruled and sided with the "alt-right," with the white supremacists, with the Nazis, with the white nationalists.
At whatever point that their gathering was ruled unlawful and they were pushed out of the park, tell us what happened because that seemed to be when the real violence broke loose.
I would say that the real violence was allowing these Confederate monuments to remain in the center of our city as a paean or a testament or an endorsement of not just 19th century white supremacy, but 21st century endorsement or tolerance of white supremacy. I think that is something that I would certainly emphasize. There are so many ways to think about and define violence.
But, yes, from what I was able to see from where I was standing was when they had their walk of shame from Emancipation Park to McIntire Park, which is a park that is a little bit … maybe a mile or a mile and a half away from their original location. There were a lot of scuffles. There was a lot of pushing. Again, they would throw smoke flares at the counter protestors or counter demonstrators and the counter demonstrators would kick them back. There was yelling. There was a lot that was certainly at work in that moment. It was quite chaotic and yet heartening, because my personal feeling at the time was that Charlottesville had come out and had drawn other likeminded people of good conscience to aid in combatting white supremacy and fascism and white nationalism.
That we had worked to reclaim in some small part that promise that America makes to all of us, and that is the promise of equity, the promise that the Constitution shouldn't be used as a battering ram, it shouldn't be used as a weapon to deprive other people of rights. That was pretty heartening.
Let's go back a little bit and talk about the organizing leading up to this. Like you said, there have been all of these rallies. There have been new groups forming and organizing, going on the ground for a while now to counter this. Tell people about what has been happening.
The way that we have been working is in a coalition basis. We believe that we are stronger together than separate. There has been an umbrella of groups working as an organizing network to best utilize a variety of resources. That is something that has been very powerful. Groups like Congregate, which is a collection of different faith organizations and pastors, ministers, rabbis from a variety of different faith traditions. You have the group SURJ, Showing Up for Racial Justice. You have Black Lives Matter Charlottesville as another example and just one of a constellation of groups that, when we pull together, are trying to mobilize our community for the greater good.
Particularly coming into this rally, what was the plan that folks had for dealing with this day? You talked about the sunrise service, the clergy and the day of programming, but tell us a little bit more about how you planned to respond to this?
One of the strengths of coalition-based activism is that it allows for a variety of approaches. Unlike the Klan rally, which was much more focused on a particular single place and time -- I was involved in different seminars and symposia surrounding that, as well as some activism on the ground -- this was much more dispersed. We understood that this was not meant to be a one and done type gathering for the "alt-right." It was meant to be basically a weekend party where they would come in on Friday and then they leave on Sunday. They would need much more infrastructure in order to work.
Our goal was to help pull the community to respond to the larger, more capacious threat of the "alt-right" and the white supremacists, neo-Nazis [and] nationalists were representing and threatening to bring forward. I think we were able to do that. We were able to bring together a variety of people, several groups issued individual calls. The clergy, for example, had a really wonderful one calling on, in particular, white people of faith, white ministers, white clergy to come and join in taking a stand against not just explicit violent racism, but also the subtle institutional racism that their own institutions had created and cultivated over time. It was I think a really powerful soul searching on the part of the clergy, for example.
Charlottesville BLM also issued a call where we invited people who wanted to come and stand with us and to challenge white supremacy, as well as some of the other issues that we are dealing with in our cities, which include things like the disproportionate nature of stop and frisk [police profiling] in Charlottesville, where African Americans constitute about 80 percent of the stops and frisks, even though we comprise less than 19 percent of the community. It is not just the statues, but we can see a very clear connection between symbolic racism and institutional racism.
Going forward … you said you were on your way to a vigil. Tell me, what is next? What are people planning going forward from this weekend?
One of the things about the coalition is not everybody knows what everyone is doing. But, as a coalition, our goal is to continue in the vein in which we have started. That is helping to pull people to come forward and to join and stand in community against these types of aggressive, dangerous, menacing, racist practices and symbols. I know, particularly, that Charlottesville Black Lives Matter is interested in talking more about the Confederate statues and how these monuments should be removed, and how the city council should work hard to fight in court against the legal challenges that we might face as the court case to remove the monuments continues to go through the system.
We want the city council to basically care as much about the lives of citizens as they did about preserving the rights of the "alt-right" when they allowed their permit to go through. We want the city to be committed to questions of racial justice and to appreciate that in the age in which we are living racist rhetoric is not just talk. Racist rhetoric produces racist actions. Racist statues are not just art. Symbolic racism is rooted in actual racist actions.
How can people keep up with you and with Charlottesville BLM?
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.
Jalane Schmidt, an organizer with the local Black Lives Matter movement and an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, describes the school's history of connections to the KKK and its alumnus, white nationalist leader Richard Spencer.
Please check back later for full transcript.
We spend the hour examining the "Unite the Right" white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend that erupted into violence, resulting in three deaths. After a torchlit march of hundreds on the University of Virginia campus Friday night, more than 1,000 white nationalists descended on the city on Saturday to oppose a plan to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a city park. They were met by anti-racist counterdemonstrators, and fights broke out before the rally began. Witnesses report police did little to intervene. Shortly after the protest began, a man later identified as James Alex Fields drove his vehicle into a crowd of counterdemonstrators in what many are calling an act of terrorism. A local paralegal named Heather Heyer was killed in the attack, and at least 19 others were injured. Two Virginia state troopers also died Saturday when their helicopter crashed en route to the scene of the violence. On Saturday, Trump addressed reporters at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey, blaming the violence in Charlottesville on "many sides." We begin our roundtable discussion with Brandy Gonzalez, who survived the car rampage, and Lisa Moore, a registered nurse who assisted a victim of the car attack.
Please check back later for full transcript.
Two seemingly unrelated national policy debates are afoot, and we can't adequately address one unless we address the other.
Health care reform has been the hottest topic. What to do about America's aging infrastructure has been less animated but may be more pressing.
Yet even as cracks in America's health system and infrastructure expand, political divides between parties and within parties have stalled efforts to develop policies and implement solutions. Problematically, debates over health care reform and infrastructure projects remain separate.
As a professor of architecture who also studies health equity -- the establishment of systems, laws and environments that promote fair access to health care -- I believe we have reason to be concerned.
What if a solution to bridging both the political and sectoral divides between health care and infrastructure was, literally, a bridge? Sure, bridges are core elements of infrastructure, but what do bridges have to do with health care?
As it turns out, a lot.
Abroad, Substandard Infrastructure Kills
We have seen the negative effects of poor infrastructure most in poverty-stricken countries.
In October 2016, Haiti saw the importance of bridges. Still reeling from the devastating 2010 earthquakes, the poorest country in the Americas was struck by Hurricane Matthew.
Torrential rains led to contaminated food and water supplies, and, subsequently, a cholera outbreak. They also washed out the bridge over the River La Digue. The collapse broke a link in the primary highway connecting the capital of Port-au-Prince to the southern peninsula of Haiti, the area worst hit by Matthew.
Without road access, medical supplies, water and food rations, community-education programs, and equipment to repair water and sanitation systems could not be delivered. Disease spread further.
Disasters are not the only situations where fractures in infrastructure impact health.
In Uganda -- a country with a high prevalence of preventable and treatable illnesses, such as respiratory infections -- the "last mile" of the supply chain"last mile" of the supply chain is a matter of life and death. While effective, low-cost treatments exist, the leading causes of childhood mortality include pneumonia, malaria and diarrheal diseases.
As in the U.S., rural children in Uganda are at a greater risk of death than those living in cities. In fact, children living in the rural northeast region of Karamoja die at more than double the rate of children living in the capital region of Kampala. The health literacy of parents is one factor; access to health facilities is another.
Improving Infrastructure, Improving Health
New research from the University at Buffalo reveals something more striking about the role of supply chains: Many preventable deaths are occurring simply because local clinics and kiosks ran out of supplies.
"In some districts," according to Biplab Bhattacharya, a Ph.D. student on the team, "only 50 percent of health facilities have regular supplies of ACTs," a primary treatment for malaria, "and many were vulnerable to stock-outs between deliveries."
Li Lin, the lead researcher, also noted that retailers who struggle to keep adequate supplies of inexpensive yet lifesaving over-the-counter therapies, like oral rehydration solutions for children with acute diarrhea.
This research comes from a rather unexpected partnership between scholars in industrial and systems engineering who worked with partners in the Clinton Health Access Initiative and the Ministry of Health in Uganda. The work illustrates the value of nontraditional partnerships in identifying problems and finding solutions.
Future public health efforts in Uganda, therefore, may focus not on the development of vaccines or treatments but on infrastructure, such as information management systems, which can predict stock-outs before they happen, and improved roads, which can enable faster delivery of supplies.
US Vulnerable, Too
While robust technologies shore up America's supply chains's supply chains, including the delivery of medications and other health supplies, other areas of infrastructure are not only deteriorating but also do not address imminent, or recurring, public health threats. I fear that America is slowly returning to its status in the early 19th century as a developing nation.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, cities throughout the U.S. eradicated the spread of waterborne diseases, such as typhoid, by investing in water and sanitation improvements.
However, as the Flint water crisis of 2014 illustrated, America's infrastructure presents one of the greatest threats to the health of Americans. Michael Beach, associate director for healthy water at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stresses that "the U.S. commitment to bring safe water and sanitation to the country," in the 19th and 20th centuries, "was a great first step, but we can't let our guard down; germs adapt."
Beach adds that outdated infrastructure has contributed to an estimated 240,000 water main breaks each year, and, if not upgraded can "expose users to sewage, pathogens, and other contaminants."
According to the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, the average U.S. bridge is 43 years old and there are, on average, 188 million trips each day across structurally deficient American bridges. With each passing car and each passing day, these bridges become more life-threatening.
According to the World Bank, approximately 17 percent of the U.S. GDP goes to health care spending, more than any other country. By contrast, spending on transportation infrastructure amounts to less than 0.4 percent of the country's GDP. Moreover, during the past decade, health spending has grown, while infrastructure spending has constricted despite the need for upgrades.
While political debates often tie public works projects to economic development and health care policies to human health, infrastructure and health care intersect. Both have economic and health implications. Civic infrastructures -- including the seemingly unrelated sectors of energy, transportation and housing -- are as important to the health care toolkit as vaccines, hospital beds and surgical units.
For example, over half a million children under the age of five die every year worldwide due to air pollution. Transportation-related smog is one contributor, which is why cities with the best transportation systems often have a lower incidence of respiratory diseases. Investments in transit not only improve convenience and access but also reduce governments', and individuals', burden of treating otherwise preventable diseases.
Of course, infrastructure spending is not immune to political roadblocks. Questions regarding how to resource a plan, which projects to prioritize and how to award contracts present challenges. New approaches to funding might be legislation on improving health infrastructure, like the construction and renovation of rural hospitals, or the development and purchase of medical technologies for specialized urban health centers, or the training of community-based health professionals who can work across sectors.
We might then build outward, ensuring better transportation to these hospitals, stronger paths of communication from major health centers and the integration of neighborhood services across health, education and transportation sectors. We could also shore up rural hospitals, structurally and financially, as, according to the Chartis Center for Rural Health, 80 have closed across the U.S. since 2010. This is despite higher levels of patient satisfaction than their urban counterparts.
Moving the health care debate to a discussion on infrastructure might accomplish two vital needs. It might advance the health care debate by both walking away from the current gridlock and approaching the destination from a fresh perspective. It might also advance public health by making America's highways, neighborhoods and water systems safer, mediating the risks of health care and bridge collapses.
In a one-year period, the US has had more proposed laws prohibiting voting than cases of actual voter fraud incidents. The 2016 presidential election was the first in 50 years without the protection of the preclearance clause, and it was marked not by record-breaking turnout, but by first-time voter suppression laws in 15 states.
Members of the NAACP marched to restore voter's rights in New York City, December 10, 2011. (Photo: Michael Fleshman; Edited: LW / TO)
If judging only by the 99 new laws proposed in 2017 to restrict registration and voting access, one might assume that voter fraud is a widespread issue.
Yet according to a study in May by the Brennan Center for Justice, of the 23.5 million votes cast in the 2016 general election, only an estimated 30 incidents across 42 jurisdictions were referred to by election officials as suspected noncitizen voting.
In a one-year period, America has had more proposed laws prohibiting voting than cases of actual voter fraud incidents. So what makes a statistically nonexistent issue warrant the current level of scrutiny or legislative action?
If the proposed cures appear worse than the problem they're designed to solve, that's because the problem isn't voter fraud, but the growing number of women, people of color, young, and low-income voters filling out ballots.
Over half a century ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in order to guarantee the elimination of racial discrimination in voting. It resulted in a sharp increase in African American voter registration and has been considered the most effective piece of civil rights legislation in history.
That is, until it was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013 in Shelby County v. Holder. This decision removed the preclearance clause. Effectively, this meant jurisdictions with histories of passing discriminatory voting laws were no longer subject to federal oversight when passing voting laws that could impact minority voters.
Let me restate that: Regions with a history of racial discrimination no longer have federal oversight of their voting process.
The 2016 presidential election was the first in 50 years without the protection of the preclearance clause, and it was marked not by record-breaking turnout, but by first-time voter suppression laws in 15 states. The 52nd anniversary of the Voting Rights Act is this month, but the number of states with newly proposed voter restrictions is up to 31.
It's time to get serious about restoring and strengthening the Voting Rights Act.
The Rising American Electorate
The Voter Participation Center reported that the fastest-growing demographics in the U.S. are unmarried women, people of color, and millennials. The center calls this group the Rising American Electorate (RAE) and notes that they make up the majority of voting-eligible Americans yet are statistically less likely to be registered to vote or engaged in the political process.
There's a reason certain candidates don't want that statistic to change: RAE members tend to prioritize support for working families, wage and gender equity, and a progressive economic agenda. In other words, where the RAE votes en masse, progressive candidates and issues are likely to win.
Seventeen states enforce restrictive voter ID laws that require voters to prove their legal names and addresses already, and in 2017 so far 99 bills have been proposed to restrict access to registration and voting. These increasingly rigid laws and ever-shifting rules are making it particularly difficult for people of color, women, and millennials to take part in our democracy.
Jen Tolentino, director of policy and civic tech at Rock the Vote, said that "these policies are designed to disproportionately impact people of color, with up to 25 percent of African American citizens lacking an ID, versus 8 percent of White citizens."
Not exactly what President Johnson had in mind for the Voting Rights Act.
Young voters are particularly vulnerable, according to Tolentino, as they often move for education or work and lack government-issued IDs with a current address. "If they move to a state with a voter ID law and do not pay for an updated state ID," says Tolentino, "they are prevented from exercising their right to vote in their community of residence."
Tolentino explained that for transgender people, there are significant barriers and even potential humiliation at the polls if appearance and gender do not match the government-issued ID. Several states have passed voter ID laws making transgender people ineligible to update their government-issued ID until they have undergone gender reassignment surgery -- which not all transgender people need or want -- further compromising their rights to vote.
A recent study by Williams Institute scholar Jody Herman estimates that 30 percent of voter-eligible transgender individuals across eight voter ID states don't have identification that aligns with their genders.
Voting While Female
While the 19th Amendment states that "the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex," voter ID laws enacted by state and local governments disproportionately impact women, who consistently vote for Democratic candidates at higher rates than men.
Tolentino said that "across the populations most suppressed by voter ID laws -- like people of color and low-income, elderly, students, and LGTBQ people -- 50 percent are women. In addition, 90 percent of married women -- from any group -- change their name and are also impacted. So across the board, women have a more difficult time casting a ballot under these laws."
Women -- particularly the 90 percent of whom change their names when they marry or divorce -- may lack a state-issued photo ID matching their current legal names. An official copy of a marriage license must be obtained to get a photo ID, which can be cost-prohibitive for some low-income women at $75 to $175, depending upon the required documents and distance of travel.
In fact, only 66 percent of voting-age women are reported to have access to documents proving their citizenship that match their current legal names. Only 48 percent have birth certificates matching their current legal names.
"These discriminatory laws create barriers and confusion to purposefully silence entire populations," Tolentino said.
Let the People Vote
In honor of the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, and believing that it's time for a new kind of visual weapon against these attacks, artist Ashley Lukashevsky teamed up with Amplifier and Rock the Vote to bring voter suppression to light. Her three-part illustration series is available as free high-res downloads on Amplifier's website, as well as animated gifs.
"Voting is supposed to be the one foundational political act that all Americans have equal access to," Lukashevsky said. "To take that away is deeply wrong and reveals so much about our broken political system."
While restoring the full Voting Rights Act would be a significant step toward reducing discrimination in voting, on its own this step wouldn't eliminate the issue. Many of the recent discriminatory laws passed would have been blocked by the act, but not all.
Now through Sept. 4, while the House and Senate are in recess, our representatives will be at home and available to meet with their local constituents. I encourage you to call your representative's district office and schedule a time to talk with them about the Voting Rights Act.
It's time not only to restore the full Voting Rights Act, but strengthen it to protect our right to vote.
(Photo: BrianAJackson / iStock / Getty Images Plus)
Last week, I heard BBC announce the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the financial crisis. This is dated to the decision by the French bank BNP Paribas to prohibit withdrawals from two hedge funds that were heavily invested in subprime mortgage backed securities. According to BBC, this was when lending began to freeze and house prices began to fall.
The problem with BBC's story is that house prices had already been falling for more than a year. While the nationwide decline was still relatively modest, around 4 percent, the drop in many of the most active markets was more than 10 percent.
This was the reason that the mortgage-backed securities in the Paribas hedge funds had plunged in value. When people bought homes with zero or near zero down, and the price dropped by 10 percent (and was falling rapidly), the mortgages suddenly did not look like very good investments.
While some people may try to make good on a mortgage that exceeded the value of their home, many others would simply walk away. This was especially likely when the mortgage was an adjustable rate mortgage that was due to reset to a much higher interest rate in the next year or two.
This timing matters because the financial crisis was first and foremost the story of the housing bubble. If mortgage debt had not been tied to an asset that was hugely over-valued, there would not have been a crisis shaking the financial system. This is true even if we recognize the corruption of the financial sector and the number of people who were dealing in complex financial instruments they did not understand.
It is understandable that economists and economic reporters would like to turn attention away from the housing bubble since it was easy to see for anyone paying attention at the time. The country had an unprecedented nationwide run-up in house prices, as house sale prices rose far faster than the overall rate of inflation across most of the country. This was a break with the usual pattern where nationwide house prices just tracked inflation.
This should have set off alarm bells, not only because the run-up was extraordinary, but because there was no remotely corresponding change in rents. The rental indexes barely outpaced the rate of inflation in these years. Also, even as house sale prices were going through the roof, the vacancy rate for housing was reaching record levels.
The fact that houses were being purchased with dubious loans was also hardly a secret. It was common to refer to "NINJA" loans, which stood for "no income, no job and no assets." Banks were happy to make loans to anyone who would take them since they knew they could resell these loans almost immediately in the secondary market.
A survey by the National Association of Realtors found that 43 percent of first-time buyers in 2005 had a down payment of zero or less on their mortgage. The "or less" refers to the fact that some homebuyers actually borrowed more than the sale price in order to get money to cover closing costs, renovations or moving expenses.
The housing bubble was also the story of the Great Recession. The housing bubble was driving the economy in the years leading up to the crash. Soaring house prices lead to an unprecedented boom in construction, which peaked at just under 6.5 percent of GDP. This would be more than $1.2 trillion annually in today's economy. After the crash, the glut of housing led construction to fall to less than 2 percent of GDP. Anyone have a quick way to fill a demand gap of $800 billion a year?
But it was actually worse than this. Soaring house prices led to an unprecedented consumption boom as people spent against the bubble generated equity in their homes. When prices came back down to Earth and the equity disappeared, people cut back their spending accordingly. We lost the equivalent of more than $500 billion in annual demand due to the fall in consumption in the wake of the crash.
In all, we were looking at a demand gap on the order of 7-8 percentage points of GDP, or $1.4 to $1.6 trillion in today's economy. The Obama stimulus, which was less than 2 percent of GDP in 2009 and 2010, was helpful, but nowhere near large enough, nor did it last long enough. The result was the slow and weak recovery that we have seen.
The economic disaster that cost millions of people their jobs and/or their homes, and forced tens of millions to accept lower wages, was 100 percent avoidable if the people responsible for making economic policy had been awake. Turning the story of the housing bubble into a story about the financial crisis is an effort to make issues that are quite simple seem very complicated.
This is a way to let those who are responsible off the hook, since, hey, it's complicated. And if they have to rewrite history to make the case, well that can be done.
A man tends a makeshift candlelight vigil for those who died and were injured when a car plowed into a crowd of anti-fascist counter-demonstrators marching near a downtown shopping area August 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo: Win McNamee / Getty Images)
Here is the car, stopped along Monticello Avenue in Charlottesville, Virginia. It has clearly been involved in a high-speed incident. Video shows this same car -- allegedly driven by one James Alex Fields Jr. of Ohio -- plowing into a crowd of peaceful anti-fascist protesters at high speed. When it reversed to escape, the damaged fender swung wide, and a shoe clearly bounced out of the grille. The roar of the engine fades, leaving in its wake screams and curses.
According to everything we have heard from the federal government about vehicles being used as weapons worldwide, everything we have heard from the White House and Homeland Security on the issue, everything we have heard in the news media after London and Paris, this was an ISIS-style terrorist attack deliberately perpetrated against a crowd of innocent people to lethal effect.
This was terrorism. By the book. Someone should probably tell the president. He doesn't seem to get it.
The short version: A well-organized pack of white supremacists, Nazis, Klan members and generalized fascists tried to hold a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday, ostensibly to protest the removal of a monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Large numbers showed up, greeted not only by law enforcement and angry locals, but by a sizeable contingent of anti-fascist activists who came prepared to shout them down.
A number of those counter-demonstrators, after scuffling with the fascists here and there, gathered on a side street to march. They had scarcely begun when a gray Dodge Charger snarled into the crowd at high speed, sending bodies flying and blood spraying. The Charger immediately reversed and fled, flapping its damaged bumper. As of this writing, one person is dead and 35 are injured. Two state police officers were killed in a helicopter accident near the rally. Officials said the helicopter was monitoring the rally. The name of the protester killed in the attack is Heather Heyer. She was 32 years old. The driver of the attacking car is under arrest and faces second-degree murder charges.
Fascists have committed terrorism and murder in a Virginia city. In celebration of the event, former KKK leader David Duke proclaimed,
This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That's what we believed in. That's why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he's going to take our country back.
In response to this paradigm-shifting act of right-wing terrorist violence committed by those among us who think World War II ended the wrong way, the president of the United States had this to say. I transcribed his remarks by hand as he gave them, quite simply because I could not believe what I was hearing:
We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides. It's been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama, it's been going on for a long, long time.
"Many sides, many sides," and thus the coward-in-chief again finds himself unable to denounce right-wing violence in the nation he allegedly leads. With Bannon, Miller and Manafort daily fogging his follicles with their fetid fascist breath, one can imagine how difficult it must be to collect a hate-free thought … and I'm not going to even try and explain the Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama bit. It's just too weird.
No matter our color, creed, religion or political party, we are all Americans first.
No matter how much blood was lost under the wheels of that attacking automobile in Charlottesville, no matter how many bones were crushed or organs damaged, no matter who died, we must adhere to a slogan beloved by Nazis for three generations running. The president said so, on national television.
We love our country, we love our God, we love our flag, we're proud of our country, we're proud of who we are.
We love each other, we love not being forced to love anyone's God, we love the fact that we are free to burn our flag in an act of conscientious protest, we are ashamed of what our country has become and labor mightily to rectify its catastrophic course, and we are proud to say that Donald Trump and his curious new friends are not who we are. The fact that Trump doesn't need a Teleprompter to be an effective neo-Nazi on TV does not make him a leader, and he proved that in the aftermath of Charlottesville with such vim and vigor that you'd think he was trying to win a bet.
On the night Donald Trump won the White House, I named him for what he is: A fascist. On Saturday, fascists declared open war against the rest of us, and for all intents and purposes, the president sided with them. Maybe Appomattox was merely a preamble, an overture. These people mean business, and they have friends in the White House. I fear a Rubicon was crossed in Charlottesville, and flat mayhem awaits on the new bank of that old, bloody river.
A labor protest at Beacon Hill, Boston, Massachusetts, February 26, 2011. (Photo: sushiesque / Flickr)
At the Tufts Medical Center in Boston, 1,200 nurses recently walked off the job, initiating "the largest nurses' strike in Massachusetts's history and the first in Boston for 31 years."
In New York, lawyers representing farmworkers recently argued in the State Supreme Court that they have a constitutional right to organize.
In the Pacific Northwest, indigenous Oaxacan farm workers have organized the "first new farm worker union in the U.S. in a quarter century."
In New York City, Fast Food Justice, a new nonprofit, will advocate for fast-food workers on issues affecting members, although they will be forbidden to undertake bargaining wage levels directly with employers.
And in the South, "workers involved in the Southern Workers Assembly are ... focused on building a network of smaller minority unions that lack collective bargaining to create a groundswell of union support."
These encouraging and varying actions to organize workers could portend resurgence in the labor movement in this country -- or they may be the final act in the slow death of unions.
Glimmers of hope are matched and sometimes overshadowed by defeats, as when the United Auto Workers union lost a unionization vote last week at the Nissan car plant in Canton, Mississippi by 62 to 38 percent vote. A victory could have led to a revitalization of organizing in the South. Instead, the union's lack of influence among Southern auto workers serves to reduce its bargaining power to stop plant closings in Detroit and other manufacturing centers.
The future of unions is precarious. Union membership has been in steady decline. The stridently anti-union stance of the Trump administration, Congressional Republicans and state government Republicans, as well as a hostile Supreme Court, pose a substantive threat to union existence.
Since 1983, the number of unionized employed wage and salary workers has decreased from 17.7 million to 14.6 million in 2016. As a percentage of total employed wage and salary workers, the decline has been from 20.1 percent in 1983 to 10.7 percent in 2016.
Union Affiliation: 1983 to 2016:
(Source: Current Population Survey)
Despite his rhetoric during the presidential campaign, Donald Trump's administration has moved to reverse several pro-labor actions taken by the Obama administration. His proposed budget will decrease funding for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB, an institution intended to protect workers from employers, and his expected appointment of Republicans to the two vacant seats on the NLRB will likely result in the reversal of various pro-union rulings, including those holding companies responsible for labor violations committed by contractors and franchisees, making it easier for relatively small groups of workers within a company to form a union, and granting graduate students at private universities a federally protected right to unionize.
The Department of Labor is rescinding the "persuader rule" which previously required contractors to disclose if they had hired a consultant to "persuade" employees against joining together in union. And Congress is discussing three anti-union bills: The Workforce Democracy and Fairness Act, The Employee Privacy Protection Act and The Employee Rights Act.
Right-to-work laws now exist in twenty-eight states, including Wisconsin, Missouri, Kentucky, Iowa, and Michigan, once the heartland of American labor. In right-to-work states, workers who are not union members are not required to pay union dues or their equivalent, although they benefit from collective bargaining agreements reached on behalf of all workers in a specific sector. The huge financial burdens placed on unions as a result threaten to undermine their financial viability.
The death of Antonin Scalia forestalled an unfavorable Supreme Court decision that could have doomed unions in the case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. With the addition of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and the pending hearing of a similar case -- Janus v. AFSCME -- the Court may rule against unions in its next session. A ruling against labor will have the same effect nationwide for public sector workers as right-to-work laws have at the state level.
Resisting this threat, unions need to recognize the changing composition of their membership. Whereas union membership was formerly predominantly male, white, and concentrated in the private sector, especially in the transportation, construction, and manufacturing sectors, it is now increasingly female, disproportionately black, and has gained membership only in the education and health sectors, while declining substantially in the transportation and manufacturing sectors. Union membership in the government sector is now almost equal to that in the private sector.
Between 1983 and 2016, the number of male union members decreased by about 4 million -- from 11.8 million in 1983 to 7.9 million in 2016. By contrast, the number of women union members has increased by almost 800,000, increasing from a little less than 6 million in 1983 to almost 6.7 million in 2016.
Union Membership: Demographic Composition 1983 to 2016:
(Source: Current Population Survey)
Although the percentage of unionized workers has decreased for all racial and ethnic groups, black unionization rates are proportionately higher than for whites, Hispanics, or Asians. In 2000, about 17 percent of all employed black wage and salary workers were union members; by 2016, it had fallen to 13 percent. By contrast, only 13 percent of white wage and salary workers were unionized in 2000; in 2016, the percentage had fallen to 10.5 percent.
Overall, whites made up 69 percent of union members in 2016, compared to almost 75 percent in 2000; the share of blacks has remained constant at almost 14 percent; the share of Hispanics has increased from 9 percent to almost 13 percent, and that of Asians from 4 percent to almost 5 percent.
Union Membership: Racial and Ethnic Composition, 2000 and 2016
(Source: Current Population Survey)
Union membership in the private sector declined from almost 12 million in 1983 to about 7.5 million in 2016. By contrast, union membership in the government sector has grown from a little more than 5.7 million in 1983 to 7.1 million in 2016. While only 6.4 percent of all private sector workers were unionized in 2016 -- down from 16.8 percent in 1983 -- 34.4 percent of government workers were unionized in 2016, slightly less than the 36.7 percent rate in 1983. Within the government sector, 27.4 percent of federal workers were unionized in 2016, 29.6 percent of state workers and 40.3 percent of local government workers.
Union Membership: Private and Government Distribution, 1983 to 2016
(Source: Current Population Survey)
Among the industrial sectors with higher rates of unionization, membership is still primarily concentrated in transportation, construction, and manufacturing. However, their share of union members declined considerably between 2000 and 2016: in the transportation sector from 26.0 percent to 18.9 percent, in construction from 17.5 percent to 13.9 percent, and in manufacturing from 14.9 percent to 8.8 percent. Although much smaller, membership has fallen slightly in the wholesale and retail sector -- from 5.9 percent to 4.2 percent -- and in the leisure sector -- from 3.8 percent to 3.0 percent. By contrast, union membership has risen slightly in the education and health sectors -- from 7.9 percent to 8.2 percent.
Union Membership: Industrial Composition, 1983 to 2016
(Source: Current Population Survey)
Many of the benefits workers have gained going back to the late 19th century ("eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will"), including unemployment insurance, workers' compensation, health and safety laws, child labor laws, health and retirement benefits, and others, are a result of the long history of union activity. Unions continue to be a pivotal bulwark against further deterioration in working conditions. Additional threats to unions will further corrode economic security of working people.
The evidence demonstrating the successful achievements of unions is clear. For example, research shows:
- Non-unionized workers, in particular non-unionized men, have endured substantial wage losses with the declining membership of private-sector unions since the late 1970s, exacerbating wage inequality. The most hurt have been non-union men who did not complete college or go beyond high school.
- Membership in unions has raised the wages of black workers and increased their access to health and retirement benefits. They enjoy higher wages and better access to health insurance and retirement benefits than their non-union peers.
- The steady disappearance of the middle class is a direct outcome of the decline in union membership. Research shows that, between 1984 and 2014, almost half of the decline in the middle-class workers can be attributed to a weakening labor movement, in turn contributing to rising inequality.
- The decline in unionization among the working poor is the most important state-level influence on individual working poverty, larger than the economic performance or social policies of the state as well as many other individual predictors of poverty -- "where unions are weak, working poverty is widespread and where unions are stable, working poverty is much less common . . . the striking decline of unionization in the U.S. has stalled what might have been progress in reducing working poverty."
- A comparative international analysis found "strong evidence that lower unionization is associated with an increase in top income shares in [twenty] advanced economies during the period 1980–2010," although causality is difficult to establish.
- Research by the Economic Policy Institute supports the correlation.
Union Membership and Share of Income Going to the Top 10 Percent, 1917 to 2015
(Source: Adapted and updated from EPI)
The union-household vote for Hillary Clinton in the recent presidential election was the lowest for a Democrat since Jimmy Carter won only 48 percent of the union-household vote in his defeat by Ronald Reagan. Only 51 percent of union households voted for Clinton, while Donald Trump won 43 percent, more than any other Republican candidate since Reagan in 1980 and 1984.
White workers, especially union workers in Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, many of whom had voted for Obama, backed Trump, casting the decisive votes to secure Trump the presidency. While Obama won white union workers by a margin of 18 percent, Hillary Clinton did so by only 8 percent.
Union Household Vote in Presidential Elections, 1976 to 2016
(Source: Roper Center; Note: Doesn't always add up to 100 percent)
The Democratic Party recently announced "A Better Deal" for working people in the United States. Writing in the New York Times, Senator Chuck Schumer claimed that "Democrats will show the country that we're the party on the side of working people." Similarly, Nancy Pelosi in the Washington Post wrote, "Americans deserve better than the GOP agenda, so we're offering a better deal."
Aside from criticism of the slogan, the Democrats have received guarded support for this initiative from parts of the left, accompanied by harsh criticism for some of the policy proposals, as well as dismissal from other sections of the left.
Noticeably absent from "A Better Deal" is any mention of unions. Maybe the Democrats still have much to learn from Jeremy Corbyn's achievement in the British election. In its election manifesto, the British Labour Party makes clear that in striving for "a fair deal at work," it will "empower workers and their trade unions -- because we are stronger when we stand together."
Reading personal testimonials can bring to life the human dimension of cruel conflicts, says author Wendy Pearlman, whose book, We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled, presents firsthand interviews with Syrian refugees in eight different countries. Treated as pawns in a proxy international conflict, civilians deserve a chance to present their own narratives about the conflict.
Thousands of displaced Syrians wait in deteriorating conditions to enter a reception center on the island of Lesbos on October 14, 2015, in Mitilini, Greece. (Photo: Spencer Platt / Getty Images)
The personal stories of ordinary Syrians have all too often been ignored or distorted by the media to exploit their suffering and serve an agenda. In a heart-wrenching and enlightening new book, We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled, Syrians speak for themselves, sharing their memories of war and displacement with Wendy Pearlman and thus, with readers. Order your copy by making a donation to Truthout today!
Through their personal narratives, Wendy Pearlman tells the story of Syrian refugees and those persecuted in Syria. Pearlman is optimistic that in the end, the valiant will of the Syrian people will triumph over an oppressive regime and the use of Syrian civilians as pawns in a proxy international conflict.
Mark Karlin: How did you decide to tell the story of the Syrian crisis through the voices of refugees?
Wendy Pearlman: I am a great believer in personal testimonials as a way of honoring how ordinary people make history in general, and bringing to life the human dimension of cruel conflicts, in particular. My first book, Occupied Voices: Stories of Everyday Life from the Second Intifada, was a collection of interviews that I conducted with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the year 2000. When protests began in Syria in 2011, I was again moved to record personal stories. Syrian citizens were transforming history, and I believed that it was important to document the feelings, thoughts and experiences that were a part of this transformation. As conditions in Syria were becoming increasingly dangerous, I decided to interview Syrians who had fled to other countries. I made my first interviewing trip to Jordan in 2012 and during the years that followed continued interviewing displaced Syrians across the Middle East and then Europe. Over time, I saw how the personal stories that I gathered fit together to tell a larger Syrian story. I curated the book to express that collective narrative, which I hope can help readers both understand the Syrian conflict and deepen their respect for Syrians' sacrifices, courage and resilience.
What criteria did you use for the persons whom you interviewed?
Wendy Pearlman. (Photo: HarperCollins Publishers)My initial goal was to interview any Syrian I could. I was convinced that every person had a story, and every person's story contributed a piece to the larger puzzle of the Syrian conflict. I began the project with just a few contacts and these snowballed into an ever-growing number of entry points into diverse communities and social networks. I made special efforts to speak to people who varied by gender, socio-economic class, rural or urban background, educational level, and home region in Syria, among other characteristics. To this end, I did interviews in eight different countries and different towns within each country.
The book offers a diverse portrait, with one important caveat: the overwhelming majority of people I interviewed were opposed to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and my book focuses on this slice of the Syrian political spectrum. While this does not represent all Syrians, it is a part of the population that meets with too few chances to represent itself. I believe that it is important to understand their perspectives and experiences, and to appreciate what the Syrian revolution means to those who have championed it.
In your introduction and in the categorization of refugee perspectives, you have divided them into sections. Let's go back to the beginning: How did Syria become an authoritarian one-party military dictatorship?
That is a long story, but here is the political history that I believe to be essential. Under French rule and then after it became a sovereign state in 1946, Syria had a parliamentary system dominated by a small, conservative, affluent elite. This system, already weak, unrepresentative and out of touch with the population, was further discredited by defeat in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Against this backdrop, a military coup in 1949 launched what became nearly 15 years of political instability and repeated military interventions in politics. During the same years, socioeconomic developments fostered the rise of a new middle class, an increasingly politicized peasantry and radical political movements, such as the Ba'ath Party. In 1963, army officers affiliated with the Ba'ath Party launched a coup. In 1970, General Hafez al-Assad, one of many Ba'ath rivals jostling for position, margin seized power. Assad built a single-party security state that severely curtailed political rights and freedoms and concentrated power in the person of the president. He ruled through a combination of redistributive economics, a large public sector, an omnipresent security apparatus and pervasive threat of violent repression.
When the Muslim Brotherhood launched an insurrection in the city of Hama in 1982, Assad responded with an assault that flattened the city and left up to tens of thousands dead. This state violence warned generations of what the regime would do to those who challenged it. During the decades that followed, Syrians adopted the expression, "Whisper, the walls have ears," as a way of indicating that it was safest not even to talk about politics. Meanwhile, the Ba'ath's once-revolutionary ideology was reduced to increasingly empty rhetoric, while the party stood as a tool for cooptation, surveillance and intimidation.
What relationship does the current Syrian configuration as a nation have to the European colonial era of rule?
The borders of the nation-states in the Eastern Mediterranean, [including] Syria, Lebanon, Iraq [and] Jordan ... were drawn by European powers after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Still, I think it is unhelpful to view these countries as strictly colonial impositions, and thus ignore the agency of the people living there. The post-Ottoman national configurations built on foundations of pre-colonial authenticity. Under late Ottoman rule, trade relations, transportation routes, circulation of newspapers, intellectual movements and other developments began to connect towns and villages in ways that fostered supra-local senses of community. National identities further solidified under colonial rule as governments instituted national symbols, practices and institutions, such as a flag, national currency, school curriculum, state bureaucracy, state laws, police forces and enforced borders. Also, each of these countries birthed anti-colonial movements that sought independence in the name of the nation. That also helped make nation-state identities real and meaningful for citizens. Patriotism continued to solidify during the generations since independence.Syrians are divided about who should be in power in Syria -- but I think, most deeply want Syria to remain a unified country.
Then and now, there remains an important role for identities that are smaller than the nation-state (such as local or family-based ties) or larger than the nation-state (such as Pan-Arabism or transnational Islamism). But I agree with most scholars of the modern Middle East who emphasize that national identities are the chief unit of political belonging in the region today. This was clear in the 2011Arab uprisings to the degree that, in every country, protesters went out in the streets carrying national flags and chanting songs and slogans in the name of the nation. It remains clear to me today as I continue to do interviews with Syrians who are pained by the thought that the Syrian nation-state that they love and cherish might undergo some sort of partition. Syrians are divided about who should be in power in Syria -- but I think, most deeply want Syria to remain a unified country.
There is a moving richness of thought and emotion voiced by the people who speak in your book. How do you respond to Donald J. Trump labeling all Syrian refugees -- among others -- as potential terrorists?
In my opinion, the labeling of all Syrian refugees as potential terrorists is not just factually inaccurate, it is also an unethical slander that smacks of racism and Islamophobia. Syrian refugees, like other refugees, are fleeing the terror of war, persecution and violence by both state and nonstate actors. Who will oppose terror more than those who have been subjected to it?
As I discuss in an essay in The Washington Post, refugees have not carried out terrorist attacks, and most people charged with terrorism in the United States are native-born. I hope that my book, and the plethora of amazing written, audio and visual works by Syrians themselves, can encourage more Americans to listen to Syrian refugees and not believe baseless accusations about them.Truthout Progressive Pick
"A powerful must-read book for anyone wanting to understand what’s happening in Syria and why it matters." -- Chicago Review of BooksClick here now to get the book!
Given the many nations such as the United States and Russia that are using Syria as a proxy war, do you have any optimism about a resolution in the next few years?
The Syrian war today shows the dominance of geopolitical interests and power struggles, and the absolute shredding of principles of universal human rights and responsibility to protect civilians from atrocities. The international dimension leaves little room for optimism. What gives me optimism, however, is the inspiring strength of the Syrian people. Refugees scattered across the globe continue to work to achieve their aspirations and dignified futures for their families.
Activists in Syria, as well as those who have been forcibly displaced from it, continue to undertake ingenious initiatives to build institutions of self-governance, to demand accountability for abuses, to resist tyranny in all its forms, and to keep people alive amidst nightmarish violence. They continue to bring tremendous talent and creativity to the struggle for freedom. I hope that more people will try to learn about and support their efforts, and also demand that our government take more meaningful action to bring about a genuine political transition in Syria.
In this exclusive interview, historian and author Gerald Horne discusses the resistance to white supremacy in the US from both enslaved Africans and displaced Indigenous peoples, and the need to emphasize that resistance in the teaching of history. He also touches upon the history of the KKK in Cuba and Fiji and the role of imperialism in religious conflict.
Students need classes that emphasize histories of resistance. (Photo: iStock / Getty Images Plus)
What first enthralled me about historian Gerald Horne was reading his book Black and Brown: African Americans and the Mexican Revolution, 1910-1920, where he tells the story of the boxer Jack Johnson, who was denied food in Mexico City by a US store owner thinking he could uphold Jim Crow laws. Jack left the store and returned later with three or four generals who revoked the store owner's license, made him apologize and told him that Mexico was no "white man's country."
These are histories of resistance seldom heard to which Horne gives a voice. While there should be no illusions about the Obama presidency, the age of Trump is a caravan of injustices. Horne's analysis of the legacy of white supremacy and the refusal of mainstream US history and education to acknowledge colonialism shows us how the age of Trump came about.
While teaching political science in the community college circuit in Colorado, I was faced with preassigned textbooks that presented history from a Eurocentric male perspective, devoid of a critique of capitalism, patriarchy and colonialism.
On the first day of teaching comparative government, a student in the course asked why the textbook didn't cover any of the genocides in Africa, such as Belgian King Leopold II's genocide of an estimated 10 million in the Congo for rubber, or Germany's genocide of the Herero and Nama in 1904. I reflected on my white colonial mind and college education and realized I was never assigned readings that had to do with genocides in Africa.
I decided to rework the course readings with student input to change this pattern of reproducing global white supremacy in the classroom, as well as the cultural, intergenerational and historical trauma that students of color often endure throughout education by not receiving the whole picture of history.
Historian Gerald Horne offers a sober perspective that was indispensable in this endeavor: He seeks to stab through hagiography and dismount from historical mythology, allowing his readers to see the connection to capitalism, slavery, the genocide of Indigenous peoples, Pan-Africanism and liberation struggles with a worldview that is often absent in the classroom and mainstream discussions. Horne holds the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston.
Known for his stunning use of historical archives, Horne has authored more than 30 books on topics ranging from biographical works on W.E.B. Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois to white supremacy's legacy in Fiji, Hawaii and Australia. His newest book, titled, The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in Seventeenth-Century North America and the Caribbean, is set to be released in January 2018.
In this interview, Horne discusses radical internationalism and the importance of educators teaching history in a way that honors how Black and Indigenous resistance have shaped history.
Chris Steele: What is one's role in the classroom as an educator and framer of history?
Gerald Horne: With regards to the United States of America -- since the United States of America is a nation that was built on slave labor, particularly of Africans -- it's mandatory to have that story embedded in the basic narrative and it's mandatory for the teacher to frame the narrative of the construction of the United States of America through the lens of the African slave trade and the enslavement of Africans.
Can you speak about how teachers can avoid the pitfall of just describing atrocities of colonialism instead of also addressing the perseverance, resistance and complexities of people of color throughout history, such as the 1712 revolt in Manhattan and other slave revolts?
Well, I think even today in 2017, you have historians who even consider themselves to be progressive who tend to downplay the question of resistance, which I think does a disservice to history and certainly it does a disservice to Black people. In some ways, it reminds me of the reaction to Trump in liberal and left circles; there's a lot of denunciation of Trump, which is fine, I can resonate with a denunciation of Trump. But what we really need is an explanation of how this happened and likewise, if you don't have a story of resistance along with the story of enslavement, you really can't provide an explanation of how we got to this point, and therefore you are doing a disservice to history and you're doing a disservice to those who are trying to resist today.
Can you speak about representation and resistance in the classroom, tying in Indigenous history -- which is US history -- or other issues, such as patriarchy throughout US history?
Well, certainly if you look at the revolt of 1776 that led to the creation of the United States, in my book [The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America], I stress the question of slavery and only mention the Royal Proclamation of 1763 in passing. The Royal Proclamation, of course, was London's attempt to avoid expending more blood and treasure fighting Native Americans for their land, but the settlers ... resisted this Royal Proclamation and [it] led directly to kicking London out of what is now the United States.
Certainly, in the state of Colorado where you're sitting, Native American resistance has shaped the history of that state. For example, unfortunately in terms of writing about the US Civil War, many historians do not engage the question of how that led directly to more expropriation of Native American land -- I'm thinking of the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado, for example. Certainly, we need an integrated history of the United States that braids and threads the question of African suffering and African resistance, Native American suffering and Native American resistance, the question of patriarchy, the question of ethnic cleansing -- all of that needs to be incorporated into a grander narrative history of North America.
Two of the principles you routinely talk about are organization and what civil rights leader and Black intellectual Paul Robeson called "radical internationalism." Can you talk about how these can be applied to education?
With regard to radical internationalism, I would say that given the unsavory origins of the United States, which led to the empowerment of powerful white supremacists and right-wing forces ... in order to overcome that tendency, the victims of capitalism and white supremacy have had to reach across the oceans and reach across the borders. In order to reach across the oceans and reach across the borders for solidarity and assistance, you need organization. I mean, otherwise it doesn't work very well and certainly that's a central lesson that needs to be imparted in the classroom.
Have you researched how this colonizer form of history in the classroom can reproduce cultural or intergenerational trauma?
Oh sure. I haven't researched it, but I have an opinion, which is that if those who are the victims of white supremacy and ethnic cleansing are not told in the classroom about the history that has led us up to the present moment, then there might be a tendency to feel that their present unfortunate circumstance is a personal individual issue as opposed to the result of the tides of history. Obviously, that can lead to a kind of individual trauma, which I would say could be avoided if there was more engagement with an accurate portrayal of history in the classroom.
You are working on a new book about anarchists, communists and Black nationalists and how they have confronted the seat of national power. What is your perception of anarchism and US history?
It's complicated. I haven't begun to research deeply into this project, but I wrote a book a couple years ago on William Patterson, who was a Black communist ... inducted into the communist movement through his engagement with anarchists, particularly with the Sacco and Vanzetti case of the 1920s in Massachusetts. From my past reading, I also know that in Mexico and in Spain in particular, there's been a strong anarchist movement. Now, of course there have been tensions between and amongst these three forces that I've mentioned -- anarchists, Black nationalism and communism -- but one of the purposes of my project when I finally get lift off and take off is to try to deal with those differences, because I think if we're going to build a more stable and more productive and more progressive environment, we're going to have to grapple honestly with these differences so that we can build that more productive environment.
With the rise of the right wing, can you speak about the KKK in Cuba and Fiji?
It's interesting, I guess you're familiar with my book, The White Pacific, where I deal with the KKK in Fiji, which of course, was in the context of the attempt to revive Black slavery -- this time focusing on Melanesians as opposed to Africans, with the site of the exploitation being Queensland, Australia and Fiji. I'm doing a book on Southern Africa now, and of course, there are many ties between the masters of apartheid in South Africa and the KKK and white supremacist organizations here in the United States. I mean, there's been this sort of "white right international" ... and it certainly needs more attention, particularly nowadays, because as you know, in the United States, there has been a resurgence of what's euphemistically called the "alt-right" and what could be more accurately called white supremacist, white nationalist organizations. I think now more than ever we need close scrutiny of these organizations and their history so we can better defeat them.
Throughout your research have you studied the so-called Doctrine of Discovery and the implications it had on the Indigenous population?
Yes, it is sort of ridiculous. It's like if I come to where you are staying in Colorado and bust into your apartment and say, "I think I discovered your laptop and under the 'right of discovery' I'm going to claim it." I mean, the arrogance of the ridiculous nature -- but obviously it was deadly serious, obviously the Christian church, particularly the Roman Catholic church, has a lot of explaining to do ... a lot of apologies to craft since we know that that rise of that doctrine has been congruent with the expansion of Catholicism and in particular in the Americas, but of course, this takes place in the context of religious conflict.
I have a book coming out early next year on the 17th century, and of course, the 17th century -- that is to say the 1600s -- marks the rise of the expropriation of the Indigenous population and enslavement of the Africans, and this is taking place against the backdrop of religious conflict, particularly between Christians and Protestants and the reconciliation ultimately between Christians and Protestants (or an attempted reconciliation, I should say) reaches its zenith in North America, in the trade union movement in the United States.
This used to be called pork chop unity. That is to say ... folks would bury their contradictions and intentions in order to get those pork chops -- with the pork chops being in this case the land of the Native Americans and the bodies of the Africans and certainly that whole Doctrine of Discovery. The more I think about it, [it] is obviously so utterly ridiculous.
People openly live on the streets of the world's major urban centers -- from Cairo to Washington, DC -- a disconcerting reminder of homelessness. While some maintain homelessness is a solvable problem, others conclude that the condition is an enduring feature of modern urban landscapes.
Homelessness was once considerably less visible. In 1950, for example, 70 percent of the world's population of 2.5 billion was spread out across rural areas. Housing problems, far removed from urban centers, were largely unnoticed. Today, most of the world's population of 7.6 billion, 55 percent, is concentrated in urban centers, in close proximity to the politically influential and economically well-to-do.
Based on national reports, it's estimated that no less than 150 million people, or about 2 percent of the world's population, are homeless. However, about 1.6 billion, more than 20 percent of the world's population, may lack adequate housing.
Obtaining an accurate picture of homelessness globally is challenging for several reasons. First, and perhaps most problematic, is variations in definitions. Homelessness can vary from simply the absence of adequate living quarters or rough sleeping to include the lack of a permanent residence that provides roots, security, identity and emotional wellbeing. The absence of an internationally agreed upon definition of homelessness hampers meaningful comparisons. The United Nations has recognized that definitions vary across countries because homelessness is essentially culturally defined based on concepts such as adequate housing, minimum community housing standard or security of tenure.
Second, many governments lack resources and commitment to measure the complicated and elusive phenomenon. Authorities confront a dynamic situation with frequent changes in housing status, and many communities have not established accurate trends of homelessness.
Third, homelessness is often considered embarrassing, a taboo subject, and governments tend to understate the problem. Obtaining accurate numbers is difficult, especially in developing countries. In Moscow, for example, officials report that the homeless number around 10,000, while non-government organizations claim that as many as 100,000 live on the streets. Also, in the Philippines capital of Manila, reported to have the largest homeless population of any city in the world, estimates vary from several million to tens of thousands. In the world's billion-plus populations, China and India, reported numbers of homeless are 3 million and 1.77 million,respectively, rates of 0.22 percent and 0.14 percent -- on par with levels reported by many wealthy developed countries. Given their levels of socioeconomic development, the Chinese and Indian rates of homelessness appear unduly low.
Fourth, many of the homeless are reluctant to be enumerated or registered. Homeless youth often avoid authorities who may contact parents or place them in foster care. Some parents may not wish to be labeled as homeless out of fear of losing custody of children. Also, some homeless persons, especially those suffering from mental disorders or substance abuse, fear arrest or confinement at a medical facility for treatment.
Acknowledging that national definitions of homelessness vary and the limitations in available data and statistical measures, the highest levels of homelessness, typically double-digit rates, are in the least developed nations, failing states and countries in conflict or suffering from natural disasters. Haiti, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Syria, have large numbers of internally displaced persons, many living in makeshift temporary housing, shantytowns or government shelters.
Homelessness rates reported in most developed countries, including those in shelters and on the streets, are comparatively low. The proportions of homeless among OECD countries, for example, are below 1 percent. The highest rate, nearly 1 percent, is in New Zealand, where more than 40,000 people live on the streets or in emergency housing or substandard shelters.
Ten countries, including Italy, Japan and Spain, report homeless rates of less than a 10th of 1 percent. While rates in wealthy developed nations are small, they represent large numbers of homeless persons, more than 500,000 in the United States and more than 100,000 in Australia and France.
Trends in homelessness among OECD countries with available data are mixed. In recent years rates of homelessness are reported to have increased in Denmark, England, France, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands and New Zealand, while decreasing in Finland and the United States.
National levels of homelessness are typically lower than those of their major cities. For example, while the US rate of homelessness is 0.17 percent, the rate in its capital, Washington, DC, is more than seven times higher at 1.24 percent. The majority of homeless in the United States, 60 percent, are male, with rates nearly twice as high as those of women.
Causes of homelessness across countries are multifaceted, though some factors stand out, including shortages of affordable housing, privatization of civic services, investment speculation in housing, unplanned and rapid urbanization, as well as poverty, unemployment and family breakdown. Also contributing is a lack of services and facilities for those suffering from mental illness, alcoholism or substance abuse and displacement caused by conflicts, natural disasters and government housing policies. In some cases, too, homelessness leads to alcoholism, substance abuse and mental illness.
In many countries the prices to buy or rent homes are relatively high and rising faster than wages. Urban "gentrification" leading to rising property values and rental rates push low-income households into precarious living arrangements including slums, squatter settlements and homelessness.
Even people with jobs sometimes cannot afford adequate housing on minimum wages. One recent study, for example, found that nowhere in the United States can someone who works 40 hours a week at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour afford a one-bedroom apartment at fair market rent. To afford a one-bedroom apartment at the average fair market rate without paying more than 30 percent of one/s income, a person must earn at least $16.35 an hour.
In many cities, growing homelessness is straining resources for social workers and shelters. When officials try to open new facilities or provide services for the homeless, they encounter financial constraints as well as resistance from the public and private enterprises in many neighborhoods, which consider homelessness burdensome and bad for business.
Measures to keep the homeless away, on the move and out of sight include laws banning loitering, noise projection, panhandling, and public feedings/services for the homeless, panhandling or begging; restrictions on camping, sleeping in vehicles; or sitting or standing in public places; limits for can and bottle refunds; and studs, spikes and arms in the middle of benches. Law enforcement officials and security personnel generally lack mandates or specialized training to address homelessness. The only recourse is ordering people move on to another locale.
Many international agreements, declarations and development goals have been adopted stressing the basic human right to adequate, safe and affordable housing. Also, there are no shortages of reports, policy recommendations and efforts to address homelessness including public housing schemes for the poor, giving stable housing first to the homeless, land and agrarian reform, promulgation of laws that protect women's right to adequate housing, creation of shelters in urban centers, and integrated rural development to prevent involuntary migration to cities.
However, the continuation of homelessness, especially among the wealthy countries, reflects denial and the lack of political will to address poverty and many other issues. Homelessness men, women and children will likely remain an accepted feature of modern urban life for the foreseeable future.
While we rightly upbraid Trump for the crimes he is committing as president, we should not succumb to rosy illusions about his predecessor. Despite his idealistic rhetoric, President Obama set the precedent for many of Trump's most egregious actions.
President Barack Obama speaks at Prince George's Community College on March 15th, 2012. (Photo: Daniel Borman / Flickr)
Seven months into the Trump presidency, many people still deny how some of Donald Trump's most regressive and harmful policies directly continue the legacy of Barack Obama. Yes, Trump is demonstrably worse than Obama. The nasty rhetoric that Trump spews from his bully pulpit does real harm to marginalized communities, especially Muslims and immigrants. Under Trump's watch, US airstrikes have killed innocent civilians at a much higher rate than under Obama, with horrifying numbers of people killed in Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile Stephen Bannon is overseeing the "destruction of the administrative state," including the attempted rollback of environmental regulations and federal rules protecting internet freedom; and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has rekindled the racist, classist "war on drugs," reversing Obama's policy of prosecutorial leniency for low-level drug offenders. And the Republicans' attempts to gut Medicaid and sabotage Obamacare could do unconscionable violence to millions of Americans.
Nonetheless, we do ourselves a disservice by fixating solely on the overt discontinuities while ignoring the major continuities between the two administrations. Even Bernie Sanders, the champion of the democratic socialist left in this country, fails to adequately acknowledge that Obama committed many of the offenses that he now accuses Trump of committing. In a recent speech at the People's Summit in Chicago, Sanders condemned Trump for his major constitutional violations and disregard for democracy. He spoke about Trump's "unprecedented attack against the media," calling it an effort to "undermine respect for dissent and free press." Sanders criticized Trump's outlook and treatment toward the judiciary, charging the president with "seek[ing] to diminish the separation of powers that our Constitution outlined." And Sanders lamented the fact that Trump appears "to be more comfortable with autocrats and authoritarian politicians than with leaders of democratic nations." But has he (and have we) honestly reckoned with how Obama was guilty of the same kinds of undemocratic acts -- that Obama undermined the free press, violated the separation of powers, and aided and abetted dictatorships and war criminals abroad?
Everyone who opposes Trump agrees that he treats the press as his adversary. The Trump administration on numerous occasions has explicitly branded the news media "the enemy of the people." In recent weeks, the White House has banned TV cameras from press briefings with greater and greater frequency. Trump even singles out specific journalists that he doesn't like for bullying on Twitter. But if we really want to defend the First Amendment, the public's right to know, the free press and the right to dissent, then we have to understand how the Obama administration laid much of the groundwork for Trump’s anti-free speech agenda.
One person to ask about Obama’s disappointing record on free speech is James Risen, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist who helped reveal Bush's program of warrantless wiretapping, and who the Obama administration prosecuted for seven years, threatening him with jail time. Led by Attorney General Eric Holder, the Obama Justice Department called on Risen to testify in a criminal case against one of Risen's alleged sources, former CIA agent Jeffrey Sterling, charged with leaking classified documents to Risen that Risen published in his book, State of War. But Risen refused to testify, arguing that forcing journalists to identify confidential sources infringes their ability to do their jobs. The work of journalists being instrumental in fulfilling the purposes of the First Amendment, this infringement constitutes a constitutional violation, Risen argued.
But Holder and Obama would not relent and prosecuted the case all the way up to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court ruled against Risen. The Justice Department ultimately did not call on Risen to testify, as it would've effectively meant that the Obama administration was imprisoning a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist, which would've created a major publicity scandal for the administration. Nonetheless, Obama succeeded in establishing a highly problematic precedent with the nation's top court: According to the Supreme Court, there is no such thing as journalist-source confidentiality in the way that there is doctor-patient confidentiality or lawyer-client privileges. Hence, according to our country's highest court, journalists' communications with government whistleblowers are not, under the First Amendment, protected from state surveillance.
Six weeks after Donald Trump's election and on the eve of the New Year, Risen published a prescient op-ed in The New York Times, headlined, "If Donald Trump Targets Journalists, Thank Obama." Risen wrote: "If Donald J. Trump decides as president to throw a whistle-blower in jail for trying to talk to a reporter, or gets the F.B.I. to spy on a journalist, he will have one man to thank for bequeathing him such expansive power: Barack Obama."
Though Risen's own story is a case in point, Obama accumulated a long and illustrious record of going after journalists and news agencies, which Risen recounts in the piece. For example, in May 2013, Obama's Justice Department informed The Associated Press that over a two-month period, it had seized records for more than 20 phone lines associated with the agency's staff. That same year, the Justice Department also seized phone records and emails between a Fox News reporter and a State Department contractor. In 2014, at the near end of his tenure as Obama's Attorney General, Eric Holder signed off on a subpoena request on a "60 Minutes" producer.
In addition to journalists, Obama has also executed an unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers and leakers. As Risen highlights in the op-ed, the administration's signature practice for responding to leaks was to charge the leakers/whistleblowers under the 1917 Espionage Act, a vestige of World War I-era red-baiting. Obama's Justice Department prosecuted nine such cases during its eight years -- three times as many as all past administrations combined. Never mind the fact that the people who Obama was prosecuting weren't spies but government officials who talked to journalists.
Trump's actions have proved Risen's prediction to be correct. In June, Trump's Justice Department announced its first leak case, charging intelligence contractor Reality Winner with spying under the Espionage Act for leaking a highly classified document to The Intercept. The document that Winner leaked reveals a Russian intelligence cyberattack just days before the 2016 presidential election aimed at voting software and local election officials. The document is no doubt newsworthy, especially to Democrats, who have been alleging Russian interference in the election for months. Unfortunately, because of Obama's pattern of prosecution, Trump and Sessions now have a strong legal precedent for pursuing these bogus charges against Winner and other leakers. Moreover, Sessions's recently pledged to clamp down harder via subpoenas and prosecution on journalists who report on leaks, extending the problematic practices employed by Obama and Holder.
So, while Trump's attacks on the media may indeed be "unprecedented" in a sense, we have to clarify what specific actions are new to the presidency. Obama did not openly attack specific news outlets, TV anchors or reporters in the manner that Trump now does flippantly (e.g., Obama didn't tweet a video of himself beating up someone with the CNN logo on their head). But the Obama administration did search through and seize journalists' notes and records, and prosecuted journalists, whistleblowers and leakers for informing the public of the nefarious business that our government does in the shadows. The long-term damage of the Supreme Court ruling in Risen's case will potentially be felt for decades. As of now, Trump has not succeeded in undermining the free press at its foundations. But Obama may have permanently hindered the ability of journalists to do their job without fear of governmental repression.
Senator Sanders, in the aforementioned speech, channeled mainstream liberal opinion when he pointed out Trump's second nascent constitutional violation: that is, violating the separations of powers by disrespecting and demeaning the judiciary. To his point, Trump has called judges he disagrees with "so-called judges." He has made racist remarks about a judge presiding over the lawsuit against Trump University. And, as with the media, Trump appears to resent the checks that the courts impose on his authority.
But how did Obama, the constitutional law professor, regard the separation of powers in this country? In terms of civil liberties, we might also ask: How did Obama regard the constitutional right to due process?
Perhaps Obama's most flagrant violation of the Constitution occurred when he ordered the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki. Awlaki was a US-born imam whose sermons and lectures became widely popular throughout the English-speaking Muslim world during the 1990s and 2000s. For much of his life, Awlaki opposed terrorism and violent jihad. After 9/11, President George W. Bush even called upon Awlaki to join a coalition of American imams publicly opposing terrorism. But as the "war on terror" dragged on, and with the disastrous and criminal US/UK invasion and occupation of Iraq, Awlaki became more and more radicalized, eventually calling for violent jihad against the United States. Awlaki moved to Yemen and continued sermonizing, praising groups like Al Qaeda for their bloody resistance to US hegemony in the region.
It's worth noting that praising Al Qaeda publicly is not itself a crime. In fact, it is protected free speech under the First Amendment. One can, of course, morally disagree, but as a legal matter, a president cannot legally arrest -- much less assassinate -- someone for praising Al Qaeda, ISIS or any other group, no matter how violent that group may be.
All of this notwithstanding, in a one-month span in 2011, Obama ordered a series of drone strikes that killed not only Awlaki, but also Awlaki's 16-year-old son Abdulrahman, who was, by all accounts, totally innocent.
Awlaki had links to Al Qaeda, expressed despicable views and glorified violence. But Awlaki was nonetheless an American citizen, and as such, he was legally entitled to due process, including the right to a trial in which he could respond to evidence against him. With his assassination of Awlaki, Obama assumed the role of judge, jury and executioner. Despite the president's assertion that "Awlaki was the leader of external operations for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," and "In that role, [Awlaki] took the lead in planning and directing efforts to murder innocent Americans," his administration steadfastly refused to make its evidence for these claims public.
So, what precedent does the killing of Awlaki set for President Trump? If President Obama killed multiple US citizens with impunity, what should we fear from President Trump, who is, by all signs, more belligerent and indifferent to the lives of Muslims? We know that Trump is already continuing (and expanding) Obama's terroristic drone wars in the Middle East. Hence Trump has already conferred upon himself the same authority as judge, jury and executioner that Obama did when it came to foreigners and, in the Awlaki family's case, US citizens. But will Trump go so far as to violate the constitutional rights of his own citizens as Obama did? This remains to be seen.
Lastly, there is Trump's affinity for dictators and his support for their repressive regimes abroad. Trump has openly embraced authoritarian rulers such as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Prime Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, both of whom have visited the White House and shook hands with the president in the Oval Office. But that's just it: What is criticized is the openness of the embrace. Where were these critics when Obama more quietly aided and abetted repressive regimes the world over, particularly in the Middle East?
Take an especially horrifying example from the final years of the Obama presidency, the period that many of his supporters celebrate as the highest point of his tenure. In the spring of 2015, Saudi Arabia, unprovoked, began bombing Yemen, supposedly targeting the Houthi rebels, which Saudi Arabia and the United States claim to be Iranian proxies. The Saudi bombing has continued up to this day with more than 10,000 civilians dead directly at the hands of the Saudis. Using US weapons and fighter jets, Saudi Arabia has committed serious war crimes according to human rights groups, hence making the US complicit in war crimes. Due to the devastation of Yemen's health, water and sanitation systems by Saudi bombing, a cholera outbreak has killed more than 1,600 people, and the Red Cross reports that there are over 300,000 more suspected cases. The UN is warning that about 19 million people are on the brink of famine. Meanwhile, the Saudis maintain their vicious, total blockade of the country, which depends on imports for 90 percent of its food.
There can be no serious debate over the fact that the US has given Saudi Arabia support that makes it possible for it to starve and slaughter the people of Yemen in the face of the entire world. In the course of his presidency, Barack Obama approved an estimated $115 billion in arms sales to the Saudis, including the sale of cluster munitions, which are considered illegal by most countries on the planet. And Obama continued to approve weapons sales to Saudi Arabia even after its act of open aggression in Yemen. The flow of arms, the refueling of Saudi jets and the sharing of intelligence continued over the course of the next 18 months as the civilian death toll mounted and human rights groups were alleging more and more war crimes committed by the Saudis.
All of us on the left have heard how openly the Trump administration has disregarded human rights concerns. Trump literally did the war dance with the Saudi leadership. Obama, in contrast, made the politically correct rhetorical flourishes. Hence, former White House press secretary Josh Earnest was quite correct when he said, apropos his blocking some weapon sales to Saudi Arabia, that Obama had "long expressed some very significant concerns about the high rate of civilian casualties" in the Yemeni conflict. Yes, in fact Obama had expressed concerns, just as he expressed opposition to Israeli settlement development in the West Bank, and promised us that he would only authorize drone strikes when there was a "near certainty" of avoiding civilian casualties. Contrary to this rhetoric, though, none of the above statements turned out to be true in fact: The billions of dollars of military aid continued to flow to Israel even though Israel, like Saudi Arabia, is a known violator of international law; and US drone strikes continued to take the lives of scores of innocent civilians.
We cannot exonerate Obama for the same crimes that we upbraid Trump for committing. We must recognize Obama's major infringement on the freedom of the press, denial of citizens' right to due process, and alliances with dictators and waging of endless war -- crimes that Trump is already (or will likely soon be) guilty of as well. Forgetting and/or forgiving these crimes of the past invites their reincarnation in the present, and that's not something we can afford.