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Back in 2008, residents of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and surrounding areas received a notice in the mail advising them to drink bottled water instead of tap water -- a move that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) internal memos at the time described as "one of the largest failures in US history to supply clean drinking water to the public."
The culprit: wastewater from oil and gas drilling and coal mines. This included fracking wastewater that state officials had allowed to be dumped at local sewer plants -- facilities incapable of removing the complex mix of chemicals, corrosive salts, and radioactive materials from that kind of industrial waste before they piped the "treated" water back into Pennsylvania's rivers.
The levels of corrosive salt in some of the oil and gas wastewater was so high that at some sewage plants, it was suspected of killing off the "good bacteria" that removes fecal coliform and other dangerous bacteria from raw sewage.
State and federal regulators responded with a mix of voluntary requests and, eventually, rules designed to stop drillers from bringing their wastewater to ill-equipped water treatment plants.
Eight years after the Pittsburgh incident, in 2016, the EPA finished writing the rules that would stop that kind of failure from reoccurring, specifically forbidding sewage treatment plants from accepting untreated wastewater from fracked wells.
A few months earlier, the EPA had announced its long-awaited national study of the risks that fracking-related pollution posed to American drinking water supplies. That study specifically examined the impacts of using sewage plants and commercial wastewater plants to handle fracking waste. It made special note of the dangers of toxic chemicals called trihalomethanes that were created during the treatment process, as well as the likelihood that "radium, metals, and organic compounds can also be discharged."Changing the Rules Again?
Now, the Trump administration's EPA is announcing that it wants to study the industry's wastewater all over again. The Trump-era study will examine oil and gas wastewater, asking, in the administration's words, "whether any potential federal regulations that may allow for broader discharge of treated produced water to surface waters are supported."
In other words, Trump's EPA is questioning whether the rules should be changed, allowing wastewater from oil and gas wells, including fracked wells, to make its way into America's rivers, streams, lakes, and reservoirs after some treatment.
The problem is that treating oil and gas waste from fracked wells remains particularly tricky because the industry is still allowed to keep secret information about which chemicals drillers use when injecting fluids to crack open shale formations to release oil and gas.
This situation means even the EPA doesn't know what exactly to test for if inspectors want to find out whether that treated wastewater is safe to re-enter American water supplies.
The EPA has long struggled with internal conflict between the agency's scientific experts and its political appointees, but that battle has taken on an entirely different dimension under its current leadership.
The problem is so severe that George W. Bush's EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman penned a column calling Administrator Scott Pruitt "unfit to run the EPA," adding that his proposals are "a surefire way to kill science at the agency."
Pruitt is also under multiple investigations for misconduct so glaring that The New York Times editorial board described him as "not just an industry lap dog but also … [a] small-time grifter." His personal grasp on has been frequently questioned -- perhaps in part because recently released internal EPA emails show that he has sought briefings from industry-funded science deniers while rejecting meetings with premier scientific organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The EPA's May 2 announcement seems to have largely flown under the radar, generating virtually no press coverage outside of the industry trade press. Its timing could play into that. The announcement came just one day after two high-level EPAaides left the agency under ethics investigation.
In addition, most of the national press has been focused on Pruitt's ever-growing list of ethics and personal spending scandals: the first-class flights, bullet-proof desk and high-security motorcades to fancy restaurants, his sight-seeing trips, and other apparent abuses of taxpayer funds.
While the press spotlight shines on those issues, Trump's EPA is moving to shake the foundations of protections for American drinking water supplies from contamination by oil and gas waste, opening the doors for the industry to sell its wastewater as a product instead of paying for its disposal.
"Currently, the majority of this wastewater is managed by disposing of it using a practice known as underground injection, where that water can no longer be accessed or used," Trump's EPA wrote in a release announcing the new study.
"Some states and stakeholders are asking whether it makes sense to continue to waste this water, particularly in water scarce areas of the country, and what steps would be necessary to treat and renew it for other purposes."Not Just Fracking: Radioactivity and Brine
The levels of pollution found in oil and gas wastewater can vary, depending on which heavy metals and radioactive materials are found in the ground where the well is drilled, whether the waste comes from a conventional oil and gas well or a fracked well where drillers mix large amounts of chemicals into the water, and how long after drilling and fracking the water rises up from the ground.
There's no set definition for many of the labels that the industry uses to describe that wastewater, to differentiate between "produced water" or "brine," for example.
When EPA wrote its 2016 rules, officially known as the Oil and Gas Extraction Effluent Guidelines, the agency believed that no wastewater, whether from fracked wells or conventional, was still being trucked or piped to sewage treatment plants, but it turned out that some conventional oil and gas drillers in Pennsylvania had in fact kept on trucking. They objected and the EPA gave them until August 29, 2019 to stop their dumping.
An industry group has now filed a lawsuit, still pending, seeking to block the 2016 rules from applying to conventional oil and gas drillers.
Though public awareness of the hazards of fracking waste has grown over the past decade, oil and gas wastewater that has nothing to do with fracking can be heavily polluted as well. Conventional oil and gas wastewater, which the industry often calls brine, carries high levels of corrosive salts, and it has in some cases been linked to pollution problems similar to those associated with fracking.
For example, researchers have continued to find radioactive pollution in Pennsylvania's streambeds, just downstream from commercial treatment plants that accepted brine from conventional wells. (Unlike sewage treatment plants, commercial water treatment plants are designed to handle some industrial wastes.)
Radium levels up to 650 times higher than those upstream from the commercial treatment plants were found downstream of discharge pipes, according to a peer-reviewed study by Duke University published in January.
The sediments that the team, led by Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke, found in Pennsylvania's streambeds carried levels of radium as high as 25,000 Becquerels per kilogram (Bq/kg) -- about eight times the threshold at which radioactive oilfield waste like sludge is considered "contaminated."
Radium mostly emits alpha radiation, which can be blocked by people's skin, and the health risks associated with radium stem primarily from drinking contaminated water or eating fish that lived in those polluted waters. Radium has a half-life of 1,600 years, meaning it persists in the environment for an unusually long time, and researchers were able to establish that the pollution occurred during the last three years.
"Despite the fact that conventional oil and gas wastewater is treated to reduce its radium content, we still found high levels of radioactive build-up in the stream sediments we sampled," Vengosh said. "Radium is attached to these sediments, and over time even a small amount of radium being discharged into a stream accumulates to generate high radioactivity in the stream sediments."Recycling, Trump-Style
Trump's EPA wants to explore whether it makes sense to use more oil and gas wastewater instead of requiring it to be disposed. The main disposal method currently used in most states involves trapping that wastewater deep underground using injection wells, a practice that has led to earthquakes in Oklahoma, Texas, and other states.
It's a significant problem given that the sheer volume of wastewater coming from the oil and gas industry is enormous, with one 2015 estimate putting it at over 800 billion gallons a year.
"In New Mexico's arid environment, conserving our resources by recycling produced water for more beneficial uses presents a significant economic development and water supply opportunity," New Mexico Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department Cabinet Secretary Ken McQueen said in an EPA statement.
The industry has struggled to find effective treatment methods to recycle the volume of wastewater it generates, which is sometimes calls "produced water." That produced wastewater can be five to eight times saltier than ocean water, and those salts aren't simply the familiar table salt but are instead corrosive salts that lace the water from oil and gas wells.
Recycling wastewater not only raises concerns about spills, transportation, and other logistical headaches, it also begs the question of what to do with the waste left over from the wastewater recycling process itself. That process can concentrate toxic and radioactive materials into highly contaminated sludges. And re-using the water for more drilling can also raise the levels of pollutants in that water which will ultimately have to be disposed somehow.
Trump's EPA is forging ahead with plans to re-open the question of what rules the industry will have to play by as it seeks to offload its waste.
"In the coming months, EPA plans to reach out to stakeholders -- including states, industry, and nongovernmental organizations -- to facilitate conversations," the agency's announcement states. "Following this study, EPA will determine if future agency actions are appropriate to further address oil and gas extraction wastewater."
An Israeli soldier stands next to Merkava Mark IV tanks in a deployment area near the Syrian border in the Israel-annexed Golan Heights on May 10, 2018. (Photo: Menahem Kahana / AFP / Getty Images)Like what you're reading? Help Truthout publish more articles like this one by donating now!
With Donald Trump's decision to shred the Iran nuclear agreement, announced last Tuesday, it's time for the rest of us to start thinking about what a Third Gulf War would mean. The answer, based on the last 16 years of American experience in the Greater Middle East, is that it won't be pretty.
The New York Times recently reported that US Army Special Forces were secretly aiding the Saudi Arabian military against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. It was only the latest sign preceding President Trump's Iran announcement that Washington was gearing up for the possibility of another interstate war in the Persian Gulf region. The first two Gulf wars -- Operation Desert Storm (the 1990 campaign to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait) and the 2003 US invasion of Iraq -- ended in American "victories" that unleashed virulent strains of terrorism like ISIS, uprooted millions, and unsettled the Greater Middle East in disastrous ways. The Third Gulf War -- not against Iraq but Iran and its allies -- will undoubtedly result in another American "victory" that could loose even more horrific forces of chaos and bloodshed.
Like the first two Gulf wars, the third could involve high-intensity clashes between an array of American forces and those of Iran, another well-armedstate. While the United States has been fighting ISIS and other terrorist entities in the Middle East and elsewhere in recent years, such warfare bears little relation to engaging a modern state determined to defend its sovereign territory with professional armed forces that have the will, if not necessarily the wherewithal, to counter major US weapons systems.
A Third Gulf War would distinguish itself from recent Middle Eastern conflicts by the geographic span of the fighting and the number of major actors that might become involved. In all likelihood, the field of battle would stretch from the shores of the Mediterranean, where Lebanon abuts Israel, to the Strait of Hormuz, where the Persian Gulf empties into the Indian Ocean. Participants could include, on one side, Iran, the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and assorted Shia militias in Iraq and Yemen; and, on the other, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). If the fighting in Syria were to get out of hand, Russian forces could even become involved.
All of these forces have been equipping themselves with massive arrays of modern weaponry in recent years, ensuring that any fighting will be intense, bloody, and horrifically destructive. Iran has been acquiring an assortment of modern weapons from Russia and possesses its own substantial arms industry. It, in turn, has been supplying the Assad regime with modern arms and is suspected of shipping an array of missiles and other munitions to Hezbollah. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have long been major recipients of tens of billions of dollars of sophisticated American weaponry and President Trump has promised to supply them with so much more.
This means that, once ignited, a Third Gulf War could quickly escalate and would undoubtedly generate large numbers of civilian and military casualties, and new flows of refugees. The United States and its allies would try to quickly cripple Iran's war-making capabilities, a task that would require multiple waves of air and missile strikes, some surely directed at facilities in densely populated areas. Iran and its allies would seek to respond by attacking high-value targets in Israel and Saudi Arabia, including cities and oil facilities. Iran's Shia allies in Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere could be expected to launch attacks of their own on the US-led alliance. Where all this would lead, once such fighting began, is of course impossible to predict, but the history of the twenty-first century suggests that, whatever happens, it won't follow the carefully laid plans of commanding generals (or their civilian overseers) and won't end either expectably or well.
Precisely what kind of incident or series of events would ignite a war of this sort is similarly unpredictable. Nonetheless, it seems obvious that the world is moving ever closer to a moment when the right (or perhaps the better word is wrong) spark could set off a chain of events leading to full-scale hostilities in the Middle East in the wake of President Trump's recent rejection of the nuclear deal. It's possible, for instance, to imagine a clash between Israeli and Iranian military contingents in Syria sparking such a conflict. The Iranians, it is claimed, have set up bases there both to support the Assad regime and to funnel arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon. On May 10th, Israeli jets struck several such sites, following a missile barrage on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights said to have been launched by Iranian soldiers in Syria. More Israeli strikes certainly lie in our future as Iran presses its drive to establish and control a so-called land bridge through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. Another possible spark could involve collisions or other incidents between American and Iranian naval vessels in the Persian Gulf, where the two navies frequently approach each other in an aggressive manner. Whatever the nature of the initial clash, rapid escalation to full-scale hostilities could occur with very little warning.
All of this begs a question: Why are the United States and its allies in the region moving ever closer to another major war in the Persian Gulf? Why now?The Geopolitical Impulse
The first two Gulf Wars were driven, to a large extent, by the geopolitics of oil. After World War II, as the United States became increasingly dependent on imported sources of petroleum, it drew ever closer to Saudi Arabia, the world's leading oil producer. Under the Carter Doctrine of January 1980, the US pledged for the first time to use force, if necessary, to prevent any interruption in the flow of oil from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to this country and its allies. Ronald Reagan, the first president to implement that doctrine, authorized the "reflagging" of Saudi and Kuwaiti oil tankers with the stars and stripes during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War that began in 1980 and their protection by the US Navy. When Iranian gunboats menaced such tankers, American vessels drove them off in incidents that represented the first actual military clashes between the US and Iran. At the time, President Reagan put the matter in no uncertain terms: "The use of the sea lanes of the Persian Gulf will not be dictated by the Iranians."
Oil geopolitics also figured prominently in the US decision to intervene in the First Gulf War. When Iraqi forces occupied Kuwait in August 1990 and appeared poised to invade Saudi Arabia, President George H.W. Bush announced that the US would send forces to defend the kingdom and so played out the Carter Doctrine in real time. "Our country now imports nearly half the oil it consumes and could face a major threat to its economic independence," he declared, adding that "the sovereign independence of Saudi Arabia is of vital interest to the United States."
Although the oil dimension of US strategy was less obvious in President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq in March 2003, it was still there. Members of his inner circle, especially Vice President Dick Cheney, argued that Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the safety of Persian Gulf oil lanes and needed to be eliminated. Others in the administration were eager to pursue the prospect of privatizing Iraq's state-owned oil fields and turning them over to American oil companies (a notion that evidently stuck in Donald Trump's mind, as he repeatedly asserted during the 2016 election campaign that "we should have kept the oil").
Today, oil has receded, if not entirely disappeared, as a major factor in Persian Gulf geopolitics, while other issues have moved to the fore. Of greatest significance in animating the current military standoff is an escalating struggle for regional dominance between Iran and Saudi Arabia (with a nuclear-armed Israel lurking in the wings). Both countries view themselves as the hub of a network of like-minded states and societies -- Iran as the leader of the region's Shia populations, Saudi Arabia of its Sunnis -- and both resent any gains by the other. To complicate matters, President Trump, clearly harboring deep antipathy toward the Iranians, has chosen to side with the Saudis big league (as he might say), while Benjamin Netanyahu's Israel, fearing Iranian advances in the region, has opted to weigh in on the Saudi side of the equation in a major way as well. The result, as suggested by military historian Andrew Bacevich, is the "inauguration of a Saudi-American-Israeli axis" and a "major realignment of US strategic relationships."
Several key factors explain this transition from an oil-centric strategy emphasizing military power to a more conventional struggle among regional rivals that has already deeply embroiled the planet's last superpower. To begin with, America's reliance on imported oil has diminished rapidly in recent years, thanks to an oil drilling revolution in the US that has allowed the massive exploitation of domestic shale reserves through the process of fracking. As a result, access to Persian Gulf supplies matters far less in Washington than it did in previous decades. In 2001, according to oil giant BP, the United States relied on imports for 61% of its net oil consumption; by 2016, that share had dropped to 37% and was still falling -- and yet the US remains deeply involved in the region as a decade and a half of unending war, counterinsurgency, drone strikes, and other kinds of strife sadly indicate.
By invading and occupying Iraq in 2003, Washington also eliminated a major bulwark of Sunni power, a country led by Saddam Hussein who, two decades earlier, had been siding with the US in opposing Iran. That invasion, ironically enough, had the effect of expanding Shiite influence and making Iran the major -- possibly the only -- winner in the years of war that followed. Some Western analysts believe that the greatest tragedy of the invasion, from a geopolitical point of view, was the ascension of Shiite politicians with close ties to Tehran in post-Hussein Iraq. Although that country's current leaders appear intent on pursuing a path of their own in the post-ISIS moment, many powerful Iraqi Shiite militias -- including some that played key roles in driving Islamic State militants out of Mosul and other major cities -- retain close ties to Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
While disasters in themselves, the wars in Syria and Yemen have only added additional complexity to the geopolitical chessboard on which Washington found itself after that invasion and from which it has never extricated itself. In Syria, Iran has chosen to ally with Vladimir Putin's Russia to preserve the brutal Assad regime, providing it with arms, funds, and an unknown number of advisers from the Revolutionary Guards. Hezbollah, a Shiite political group in Lebanon with a significant military wing, has sent large numbers of its own fighters to Syria to help Assad's forces. In Yemen, the Iranians are believed to be providing arms and missile technology to the Houthis, a homegrown Shiite rebel group that now controls the northern half of the country, including the capital, Sana'a.
The Saudis, in turn, have been playing an ever more active role in bolstering their military power and protecting embattled Sunni communities throughout the region. Seeking to resist and reverse what they view as Iranian advances, they have helped arm militias of an extreme sort and evidently even al-Qaeda-associated groups under attack from Iranian-backed Shiite forces in Iraq and Syria. In 2015, in the case of Yemen, they organized a coalition of Sunni Arab states to crush the Houthi rebels in a brutal war that has included a blockade of the country, helping to produce mass famine and a relentless American-backed air campaign, which often hits civilian targets including markets, schools, and weddings. This combination has helped produce an estimated 10,000 civilian deaths and a singular humanitarian crisis in that already impoverished country.
In response to these developments, the Obama administration sought to calm the situation by negotiating a nuclear deal with the Iranians and by holding out the promise of increased economic ties with the West in return for reduced assertiveness outside its borders. Such a strategy never, however, won the support of Israel or Saudi Arabia. And in the Obama years, Washington continued to support both of those countries in a major way, including supplying massive amounts of military equipment, refueling Saudi planes in midair so they could strike deeper into Yemen, and providing the Saudis with targeting intelligence for their disastrous war.The Anti-Iranian Triumvirate
All of these regional developments, in play before Donald Trump was elected, have only gained added momentum since then, thanks in no small degree to the pivotal personalities involved.
The first of them, of course, is President Trump. Throughout his election campaign, he regularly denounced the nuclear deal that Iran, the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, and the European Union all signed onto in July 2015. Officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action(JCPOA), the agreement forced Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program in return for the lifting of all nuclear-related sanctions. It was a plan that Iran scrupulously adhered to. Although President Obama, many senior American policymakers, and most European leaders had argued that the JCPOA -- whatever its flaws -- provided a valuable constraint on Iran's nuclear (and so other) ambitions, Trump consistently denounced it as a "terrible deal" because it failed to eliminate every last vestige of the Iranian nuclear infrastructure or ban that country's missile program. "This deal was a disaster," he told David Sanger of the New York Times in March 2016.
While Trump, who has filled his administration with Iranophobes, including his new secretary of state and new national security adviser, seems to harbor a primeval animosity toward the Iranians, perhaps because they don't treat him with the adoration he feels he deserves, he has a soft spot for the Saudi royals, who do. In May 2017, on his first trip abroad as president, he traveled to Riyadh, where he performed a sword dance with Saudi princes and immersed himself in the sort of ostentatious displays of wealth only oil potentates can provide.
While in Riyadh, he conferred at length with then-Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 31-year-old son of King Salman and a key architect of Saudi Arabia's geopolitical contest with the Iranians. Prince Mohammed, who serves as the Saudi defense minister and was named crown prince in June 2017, is the prime mover behind the kingdom's (so far unsuccessful) drive to crush the Houthi rebels in Yemen and is known to harbor fierce anti-Iranian views.
At an earlier White House luncheon in March 2017, bin Salman, or MBS as he's sometimes known, and President Trump seemed to reach an implicit agreement on a common strategy for branding Iran a regional threat, tearing up the nuclear agreement, and so setting the stage for an eventual war to vanquish that country or at least to fell the regime that runs it. While in Riyadh, President Trump told a conference of Sunni Arab leaders that, "from Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms, and trains terrorists, militias, and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region. It is a government that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death of America, and ruin for many leaders and nations in this very room."
While no doubt gratifying to the Saudis, Emiratis, Kuwaitis, and other Sunni rulers listening, those words echoed the views of the third key player in the strategic triumvirate that may soon drive the region into all-out war, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also known as "Bibi." For years, he has railed against Iranian ambitions in the region and threatened military action against any Iranian move that would, as he saw it, impinge on Israeli security. Now, in Trump and the Saudi Crown Prince, he has the allies of his dreams. In the Obama years, Netanyahu was a fierce opponent of the Iranian nuclear deal and used a rare appearance before a joint session of Congress in March 2015 to denounce it in no uncertain terms. He has never -- right up to the days before Trump withdrew from the accord -- stopped working to persuade the president that the agreement should be junked and Iran targeted.
In that 2015 speech to Congress, Netanyahu laid out a vision of Iran as a systemic danger that would later be appropriated by Trump and his Saudi confederates in Riyadh. "Iran's regime poses a grave threat, not only to Israel, but also the peace of the entire world," he asserted in a typically hyperbolic statement. "Backed by Iran, Assad is slaughtering Syrians. Backed by Iran, Shiite militias are rampaging through Iraq. Backed by Iran, Houthis are seizing control of Yemen, threatening the strategic strait at the mouth of the Red Sea. Along with the Straits of Hormuz, that would give Iran a second choke-point on the world's oil supply."
Now, Netanyahu is playing a major role in driving the already volatile region into a war that could further destroy it, produce yet more terror groups (and terrorized civilians), and create havoc on a potentially global scale, given that both Russia and China back the Iranians.Girding for War
Pay attention to the words of Netanyahu in Washington and Donald Trump in Riyadh. Think of them not as political rhetoric, but as prophesies of a grim kind. You're going to be hearing a lot more such prophesies in the months ahead as the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia move closer to war with Iran and its allies. While ideology and religion will play a part in what follows, the underlying impetus is a geopolitical struggle for control of the greater Persian Gulf region, with all its riches, between two sets of countries, each determined to prevail.
No one can say with certainty when, or even if, these powerful forces will produce a devastating new war or set of wars in the Middle East. Other considerations -- an unexpected flare-up on the Korean Peninsula if President Trump's talks with North Korea's Kim Jong-un end in failure, a fresh crisis with Russia, a global economic meltdown -- could turn attention elsewhere, lessening the importance of the geopolitical contest in the Persian Gulf. New leadership in any of the key countries could similarly lead to a change of course. Netanyahu, for example, is now at risk of losing power because of an ongoing Israeli police investigation into allegedly corrupt acts of his, and Trump, well, who can say? Without such a development or developments, however, the way to war, which will surely prove to be the road to hell, seems open with a Third Gulf War looming on humanity's horizon.
While tens of thousands of Palestinians gathered near the heavily fortified border with Israel for nonviolent protests against the US Embassy's opening in Jerusalem Monday, a new Poor People's Campaign launched in the United States. Rev. Dr. William Barber II, a co-founder of the movement, is bringing together low-wage workers, clergy and community activists around the country to advocate for the rights of the poor. People in 40 states are participating in actions and events starting today that will culminate in a mass protest in Washington, DC, on June 23. We are joined by Rev. Dr. William Barber, president of Repairers of the Breach and distinguished visiting professor of public theology at Union Theological Seminary, to discuss human rights from Gaza to Washington, DC, and the anti-gay, pro-Trump pastor from Dallas chosen by the Trump administration to lead the prayer at the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem.TRANSCRIPT
AMY GOODMAN: I was wondering if you can comment -- as you're there in Washington, DC, there are mass protests in Gaza. And it looks like the deadliest day of violence, with Israeli military gunning down, it looks like, at this point, something like 37 protesters. Overall, since March 30th, thousands have been injured, I think something like 84 people killed. But the person who is opening the ceremony for the US Embassy to be moved to Jerusalem is Pastor Jeffress, who has spoken out against Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, gay men and lesbians, Mormonism. Can you comment on what this Southern Baptist preacher represents, from Dallas, Texas?
REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, yes, and it's hurtful, but it's necessary. You know, I'm thinking about that this May 10th was the end of the Birmingham campaign, 50-some years ago, 55 years ago. And remember, we saw the images of dogs attacking children and women in Birmingham. And today we see the images of drones attacking our Palestinian brothers and sisters. We see our president playing every race card he can, and connecting -- he's an extremist, and he's connected with Netanyahu, who's an extremist. And now they're connected together. And he's doing this for all the wrong reasons, splitting people, splitting people who historically are brothers and sisters.
And now he has chosen not only Jeffress, but Hagee, who once actually described -- John Hagee, I understand, described Hitler as a hunter, a God-sent hunter, who was designed, ordained by God to hunt the Jewish people, to force them to come back to Israel in order to bring about the coming of Christ. Jeffress, as you remember, also said at President Trump's inaugural sermon that God endorsed the building of walls. Now, both of these men, if you really check their theology, they are not preaching Christian theology. They are heretics, in many ways. What they're talking about is heresy. They claim to be Christian, and they claim a certain brand of Christianity. But when you look at it theologically, it does not line up with the Scriptures' call to love. It does not line up with the Scriptures' call that you treat the person or persons that are not of your particular race or your particular lineage as brothers and sisters. It does not line up with the Scriptures' anti-violence, anti-killing. This is just a form of what -- it's nothing more than a modern-day form of what my good friend Jonathan Hargrove calls slave religion, the kind of religion that abuses the Scriptures and uses it to support political opinions that are not the politics of God or the politics of Christ. Jeffress is spewing hate and meanfulness. And by the president choosing him, that joins him to that kind of theology.
And we see it happening in this country. That same group of people will go in and pray -- P-R-A-Y -- with President Trump and his other allies in the Congress and bless them, while Trump and his allies are preying -- P-R-E-Y-I-N-G -- on the poor and the broken and the hurting and the least among. It is sad. It is theological malpractice. It is costing people their lives. It is mean-spirited. And the world should stand up and speak out against it. And clergy and people of faith should speak out against it. And we should stop, in the media, assigning "Christian" and "evangelical" to persons like this. If we say it, we should say it in quotes, or we should call it what it is. It is not Christianity. It is not evangelicalism. It is not the religion of Jesus, who, in his first sermon, said to follow Jesus was to preach good news to the poor, to care for the brokenhearted, to provide liberty and healing to the bruised, and to declare the acceptable year of the lord. Nothing in that says endorse killing, endorse hatred, endorsed meanness.
And lastly, Amy, the two pastors that are going over there, they don't even like Jewish people. They have some weird theology, that by creating certain actions in Israel, it can force the coming of Christ. But they don't even believe anybody, except people who believe like them, are going to go to heaven. Well, I say what my grandmother and what the slaves used to say about slave master religion: Everybody talking about heaven ain't going there. And Jeffress and Hagee and others like that, who are abusing, who are misusing the theology of Christ to promote these attitudes and these actions of hate, they are wrong. It is heretical. It is theological malpractice. And it's high time that people of faith take it on. I'm an evangelical, and I'm deeply offended -- deeply offended -- by what they're doing.
AMY GOODMAN: Before we go, I want to bring in Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis, who co-chairs the Poor People's Campaign. You visited Marks, Mississippi. In 1967, Dr. King was there, brought to tears as he met with the poor there, one teacher dividing an apple into four parts so she could feed her four hungriest students. Reverend Liz Theoharis, as we wrap up, talk about your action today and why you're organizing around the country right now.
REV. LIZ THEOHARIS: Well, today, Amy, in -- as Reverend Barber said, in almost 40 states across this country, there are people, impacted folks, poor people, who are taking action together. And we were in Marks, Mississippi. We were in Lowndes County, Alabama. We were in El Paso, Texas. We have traveled around this country, because this campaign is a deep organizing drive amongst people who need to have their voices heard, need their stories to be told, so that we hear that there are 140 million poor people in this country, that in this country there are 38 million poor children. Almost half of this country's children are poor. And this is unacceptable. And so, people are taking action together, and not just today, but they are deep-dive organizing in their communities. They'll return, week after week, for this 40 days and into the future, as we build a deep moral movement to turn this country around.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. We'll follow what happens today in Washington and what you're doing around the country. Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis co-chairs the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival with our other guest, the Reverend Dr. William Barber, both speaking to us today from Washington, DC
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the former finance minister of Greece. We'll be joined by Yanis Varoufakis. Stay with us.
"It's Time for Moral Confrontation": New Poor People's Campaign Stages Nationwide Civil Disobedience
On Mother's Day 50 years ago, thousands converged on Washington, DC, to take up the cause that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been fighting for when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968: the Poor People's Campaign. A little more than a week after her husband's memorial service, Coretta Scott King led a march to demand an Economic Bill of Rights that included a guaranteed basic income, full employment and more low-income housing. Half a century later, Rev. Dr. William Barber II and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis have launched a new Poor People's Campaign. Starting today, low-wage workers, clergy and community activists in 40 states are participating in actions and events across the country that will culminate in a mass protest in Washington, DC, on June 23. We speak with Rev. Dr. William Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chairs of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.TRANSCRIPT
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I'm Amy Goodman. On Mother's Day 50 years ago, thousands converged on Washington, DC, to take up the cause that Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been fighting for when he was assassinated just months before, April 4th, 1968: the Poor People's Campaign. It was a little more than a week after her husband's memorial service that Coretta Scott King led a march to demand Economic Bill of Rights, that included a guaranteed basic income, full employment and more low-income housing. In the coming weeks, caravans traveled from around the country to take part in a 6-week-long protest camp on the National Mall called "Resurrection City."
Today we look at the new Poor People's Campaign, launched by the Reverend Dr. William Barber II and Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis. Starting today, continuing for the next six weeks, low-wage workers, clergy and community activists in 40 states are planning events that will culminate in a mass protest in Washington June 23rd. This week's focus is on children, women and people with disabilities who live in poverty.
OLGA BAUTISTA: We're going to do something different here, and because we deserve it, because we matter. And I think that that is the spirit of the Poor People's Campaign, is just saying, "It ends with me. You know, we're going to have a different community, a different neighborhood."
GIRL: Union busting.
OLGA BAUTISTA: What? What's disgusting?
GIRL: Union busting.
AMY GOODMAN: The new Poor People's Campaign officially launched last year, and, since then, Reverend Dr. William Barber and Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis have been touring the country. Today they're in Washington, DC, for a major day of nonviolent direct action, joining us now.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Reverend Dr. William Barber, you're president of Repairers of the Breach, distinguished visiting professor of public theology at Union Theological Seminary, former president of the North Carolina NAACP, and Moral Mondays leader. Talk about what you're doing now. What is different today? What are you doing in Washington, DC?
REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Thank you so much, Amy. Today, in more than 30 states and here in the District of Columbia, activists, clergy and, most of all, impacted people, the poor, will be organizing a nonviolent, moral, fusion direct action Mondays, a direct confrontation with what we call policy violence and the immoral policies that we see are continuing to hurt the poor. And particularly the focus today will be on women in poverty, children in poverty and the disabled. We cannot continue to have a democracy that engages in the kind of policy violence that we see happening every day.
I think about the low-wage worker I met in North Carolina who could not get insurance, because North Carolina did not expand Medicaid, and was also sick with ovarian cancer and has children. Or Amy in West Virginia, who is a woman who's a working poor woman, who watched her state, her governor, Republican governor, cynically give a little raise to teachers, but chose to do it by cutting Medicaid and cutting food stamps. Or I think about the lady Pamela in Lowndes County, Alabama, who has raw sewage in the back of her yard, who was taken advantage of by predatory lenders and had to pay over $100,000-some for a single wide trailer that is now falling apart, full of mold and holes. And her son, who is an 11-year-old, now has to wear a CPAP machine because of the infections in his lungs. And she, herself, is disabled.
All over this country, we continue to see what is not often seen or talked about in our politics, in our political debates, or even in the media, except for places like here, Amy. Two hundred fifty thousand people are dying every year from poverty and low wealth. Sixty-four million people work with less than a living wage, 54 percent of African Americans. And these realities hurt children and women and the disabled the most. Thousands of people who are homeless, of every different race, creed, color and sexual orientation.
And what we are saying, it is time for a moral confrontation, a nonviolent moral confrontation, because whether you look at the morality of our Constitution, the establishment of justice, or you look at the morality of the Scriptures, that says, for instance, in Isaiah 10, "Woe unto those who legislate evil and rob the poor of their right and make women and children their prey." It is immoral to have 37 million people without healthcare. It is immoral not to pay living wages when we know we can do it. It is immoral that people don't have single-payer healthcare for everybody as a matter of human rights -- and children have access to public education and college, and that we stop the trend of resegregation. It is immoral the way we've suppressed the vote in a way that allows people to get elected who, once they get elected, using racialized methods to do so, they then vote policies that hurt women and children and disabled. They're against living wages. They're against healthcare. They're against unemployment -- and those things that hurt families, hurt children, hurt women and hurt the disabled.
And we're coming together, of every race, creed, color, kind, people from every part of this country. There will be simultaneous nonviolent actions, beginning today with a 2:00 rally and then 3:00 direct action. And this will go on for 40 days, every Monday, along with other things that will be happening across the country.
AMY GOODMAN: What is that direct action, Reverend Dr. Barber?
REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: The direct action, well, today, after the rally, we will link arms, clergy, in full vestment, with impacted people. And today, we will -- under the theme "Somebody is hurting our people, and it's gone on far too long, and we can't be silent anymore," we will take a particular street, right near the east side of the Capitol, and we will engage in that street. Many people will sit down to pray and lay, because we are saying that the country is headed in the wrong direction. That's why today it's the street. Later on, it will be other places in DC But today it's the street, because we're saying the country is headed in the wrong direction. We have to break through the moral narrative. Our first goal is to break through the moral narrative to where we're talking about it. We're not even talking about these issues in the country. And we're also going to be calling people to engage in massive voter mobilization. We're also going to be doing power building among poor communities. And this, Amy, is a launch. The 40 days is not the end of the campaign. It is the launching of a multiyear campaign.
Rudy did it again. Last Friday, Giuliani gave an interview to the Huffington Post, and the subject of Trump fixer Michael Cohen's recently revealed arrangement with AT&T about the pending merger with Time Warner came up. In his usual thoughtless, arrogant fashion Giuliani explained that AT&T didn't get anything for their money because "the president denied the merger."
The president is not supposed to interfere in such decisions, and the White House has repeatedly denied that he did. But ever since the Department of Justice unexpectedly moved to block the merger, unless (among other things) the company agreed to spin off CNN, Donald Trump's nemesis, it had seemed likely Trump was behind the move. He had said on the campaign trail that he was opposed to the merger, but blocking it was considered an unusual decision by a Republican DOJ, and the stated rationale seemed thin. Considering Trump's repeated threats to take the Justice Department in hand and muzzle the press, it's not surprising people would wonder about all this.
The resulting lawsuit has been in court for some time, and the judge has not allowed AT&T's attorneys to pursue this line of inquiry, so the suspicions quieted down until Giuliani stuck his foot in it again. He later walked it back, of course, telling CNN's Dana Bash that the president had nothing to do with the decision after all. But it was yet another example of Giuliani creating more problems than he solves.
Not that he's shutting up, mind you. In fact, he telegraphed the Trump team's plans to "make a little fuss" this coming week over the length of the Mueller investigation as it approaches the one-year mark. They had already trotted out the talking point last week when Vice President Mike Pence sat down for an interview with Andrea Mitchell and put on his patented pained expression and sanctimoniously declared it was time to wrap it up, reminding everyone of another sanctimonious phony who served as veep and later president:
Morning Joe put together clip of Pence using Nixon's old talking points to call for end of Mueller investigation ? pic.twitter.com/u343CweV4e— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) May 10, 2018
Nixon resigned seven months later.
Shameless as they are, or perhaps just historically illiterate, even after that embarrassing allusion, Trump and his henchmen are apparently going with this new P.R. push to try to force Mueller to close up shop. After all, he's only indicted or gotten guilty pleas from 19 people. If the man can't finish an investigation that runs from New York to Moscow into a possible criminal conspiracy to upend American democracy in a year, there's obviously nothing there.
According to The Washington Post, the administration is going on a "war footing" or, as Giuliani put it, "We've gone from defense to offense." What that evidently means is a new push in the campaign of character assassination against Mueller himself. Trump's angry denunciations of the FBI, the DOJ and the special counsel have already had an effect.
According to a new Economist/YouGov poll, 75 percent of Republicans now agree that the Mueller investigation is a "witch hunt." Only 13 percent of the GOP believe it's legitimate. An alarming 61 percent of Republicans and 25 percent of independents believe the FBI is framing Donald Trump. Only 17 percent of GOP voters disagree with that. This is a testament to the efficacy of Trump's constant repetition on Twitter and television of mantras like "Witch hunt!" and "No collusion." Those have had their effect, particularly as they are echoed by Fox News and talk radio:
NEW BOOK - A MUST READ! "The Russia Hoax - The Illicit Scheme to Clear Hillary Clinton and Frame Donald Trump" by the brilliant Fox News Legal Analyst Gregg Jarrett. A sad chapter for law enforcement. A rigged system!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 2, 2018
The president of the United States has managed to convince tens of millions of Republicans that he's being set up by his own Justice Department. That would seem to run counter to everything they have previously believed -- until you realize that his victimization at the hands of Big Government fits neatly into the well-worn grooves of the conservative movement's narrative about itself. Nobody knows the troubles they've seen.
Only 34 percent of Republicans believe that Trump should fire Mueller, while another 34 percent say he shouldn't, with the rest unsure. It's not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it suggests that Trump still has some work to do if he's planning to take steps to end the investigation.
It has become an article of faith among the political class that the country doesn't care about any of this and that Trump and his problems are just a fetish inside the Beltway and among the political media. Speaker Paul Ryan spoke to a group in Wisconsin over the weekend and insisted that nobody cares about the Trump scandals:
Whether I'm running around southern Wisconsin or America, nobody is talking about Stormy Daniels. Nobody is talking about Russia. They're talking about their lives and their problems. They're talking about their communities, they're talking about jobs, they're talking about the economy, they're talking about national security.
This refrain is picking up speed on both sides of the aisle as the midterms approach. You would think that would motivate the White House and people around President Trump to try to calm the waters and tout their alleged accomplishments, rather than going on a war footing over the Russia investigation. After all they seem to have convinced their base that the whole thing is a hoax. But The Washington Post quoted former Trump legal adviser Mark Corallo saying, "I don't see any downside at this point for the president and his team to make a full-throated public defense of their situation. There are very few outside the Beltway who are in the we-need-to-prosecute-and-impeach-this-guy camp."
That sounds like wishful thinking. If the turnout in special elections over the past few months is any indication, Trump "fighting back" does have a galvanizing effect -- on the Democrats. In this polarized political world, for every member of the base he thrills with his tweeted war cries, there's a member of the Democratic base having exactly the opposite reaction. Trump's new "war footing" will likely raise their already high enthusiasm for winning back the Congress.
Donald Trump has an instinct for what his voters want to hear from him, and he knows how to deliver it the way they want it. His weakness is that he thinks everyone else agrees with him and it's just that the system is rigged and the media is dishonest. He believes the whole country, not just his base, deep down loves him. That's a very big blind spot.
School teachers across the US are striking for many reasons, from atrocious working conditions to low pay. Polls show that most Americans support these teachers' strikes.
What many people may not know is that similar protests are taking place at colleges and universities across the country. Graduate students, adjuncts, and lecturers are quietly engaging in direct actions that are just as important as the teachers' strikes.
For example, lecturers recently took over the administration building at the University of Michigan, and half threatened to strike. And not so long ago, adjuncts organized a national walk-out day to draw attention to their problems.
To understand the recent protests, you need to understand one word: adjunct.
According to the dictionary, adjunct is defined as "supplementary, rather than an essential part." We're part-time faculty. Yet despite the definition, we are an essential part of the university.
In fact, around three-quarters of college professors are adjunct professors. Universities couldn't operate without us.
Many people still think that professors make a lot of money. We adjuncts, however, don't. We have the same credentials and responsibilities as full-time tenured faculty, but we make a fraction in comparison -- often as low as $1,200 for a semester-length class.
Our employment is precarious: We only get paid if enough students sign up for a course, and it can get canceled even if we've spent weeks preparing for it. We typically get no health care benefits and we usually have no retirement or job security.
Many of us are deep in debt due to student loans and have to work multiple jobs around the clock trying to make ends meet. Far too many struggle with food scarcity or homelessness.
So why should we care about the protests of adjunct professors? Because academic job conditions now mirror conditions everywhere else in America.
When I lived in Flint, Michigan, in the "old days," many of my friends' parents were able to live a comfortable life in good factory jobs.
General Motors was a solid career path and college was an achievable dream for kids. Plant workers held jobs for 30 years and often could support their families on one income. People could take vacations, go to the doctor, and pay off their homes.
Those days are long gone. The plants have moved overseas and the jobs that are left don't pay a living wage. All workers face stagnant and low wages. Foreclosures haunt neighborhoods, many people still can't afford medical care even with Obamacare, and student loan debt lasts a lifetime.
In short, the university is just like any corporate employer across the US.
Years ago, I assumed that if I worked hard, my part-time position would eventually morph into a full-time position. I only realized too late that this was probably never going to happen.
Part-time faculty, like school teachers, have had enough. Yet we continue to teach because we have a love for teaching and for our students. We know there's no way the administration will pay us what we deserve unless we demand it. So we're demanding it.
I believe that these movements by educators are every bit as significant as the social justice movements of the 1960s, or the unionization struggles of the labor movement in the 1930s. Like those struggles, today's teachers are making history.
We're working Americans who teach future generations of students. Let's all stand united -- teachers, students, and adjunct professors together.Truthout takes zero advertising money -- instead we rely on readers to sustain our site. Will you join the thousands of people who fund our work? Make a donation by clicking here!
A picture taken on May 14, 2018, from the southern Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz across the border with the Gaza Strip shows tear gas canisters launched by Israeli forces falling down on Palestinian protesters gathering along the border fence with Israel. Dozens of Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire on May 14 as tens of thousands protested the US transfer of its embassy to Jerusalem. (Photo: Jack Guez / AFP / Getty Images)
Israeli forces have killed dozens of people and wounded hundreds in Palestinian protests against the new US embassy, which was officially moved to Jerusalem Monday.
The death toll was climbing rapidly Monday morning, with news outlets including Haaretz and CNN stating that at least 41 have been killed, and Reuters reporting that about 900 Palestinians had been injured including 450 by live bullets.
We are witnessing an abhorrent violation of international law & human rights in #Gaza. 38 confirmed dead, including 6 children, with close to 2000 people injured. Many are reporting injuries to the head and chest. Over 500 injured with live ammunition. This must end immediately.-- AmnestyInternational (@amnesty) May 14, 2018
A local journalist posted a video on Twitter showing Israeli troops firing indiscriminately at unarmed protesters.
#video: Israeli army firing at a group of unarmed #GreatReturnMarch protesters - not even near the #GazaFence.
At least 18 Palestinians killed & 448 wounded from Israel live ammo today - 50 in critical/serious condition - Gaza MoH pic.twitter.com/M2wmQoebhP
B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, condemned Israel for its violent response to the protests, which follow weeks of demonstrations at the Israel-Gaza border.
"The demonstrations held in Gaza today came as no surprise. Israel had plenty of time to come up with alternate approaches for dealing with the protests, apart from firing live ammunition," B'Tselem said in a statement. "The fact that live gunfire is once again the sole measure that the Israeli military is using in the field evinces appalling indifference towards human life on the part of senior Israeli government and military officials."
The opening ceremony of the US embassy -- which President Donald Trump decided to move to Jerusalem months ago over the objections of Palestinians, the United Nations, numerous international leaders, and 63 percent of the American public -- comes one day before Palestinians mark the 70th anniversary of Nakba, in memory of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were expelled from their land by Israel. Palestinians have held protests at the border of Gaza and Israel since late March, with Israeli troops killing dozens of people and wounding hundreds.
Human rights groups and a number of European leaders repeated their strong opposition to the moving of the US embassy, which Palestinians view as recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem.
"The Trump administration may portray this action as simply hauling desks from one building to another. But in reality this move intentionally undermines Palestinian rights and in effect condones decades of violations by Israel, including the creation of illegal settlements, which constitute war crimes," said Raed Jarrar, Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International USA.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said that the move "is inflaming already a very tense situation, and the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians," while Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said, "We don't consider it a wise decision to move the embassy."
But the European Union was kept from officially condemning Trump's decision on Monday, as the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Romania blocked a statement censuring of the new US embassy.
B'Tselem called for "an immediate halt to the killing of Palestinian demonstrators," and said, "If the relevant officials do not issue an order to stop the lethal fire, the soldiers in the field must refuse to comply with these manifestly unlawful open-fire orders."Why doesn't this site have ads? In order to maintain our integrity, Truthout doesn't accept any advertising money. Help us keep it this way -- make a donation to support our independent journalism.
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The Republicans in Congress are again pushing the idea that we have to make people work for benefits like food stamps and Medicaid. Since most people who get these benefits are already working, caring for young children or ill family members, or are themselves disabled, this seems like needless harassment of lower-income families. But, the Republican Party specializes in needless harassment of people without power.
What if, instead of imposing work requirements on people who are struggling to get by on a $126 a month (the average food stamp benefit), we instead focused on whether the people at the top are working for their money.
Specifically, let's look at the private equity fund managers who often get hundreds of millions of dollars in fees from public pension funds for the promise to deliver higher-than-average returns, but end up costing them money. The investigative reporter David Sirota had a fascinating piece in Westword last week, showing that the State of Colorado's main public employee pension fund had paid out over a billion dollars in fees to outside investment managers between 2009 and 2016.
We might think such payments were reasonable if these managers were market whizzes who earned the state extraordinary returns on its pension fund. But it turns out they weren't. The returns on the state's pension funds lagged the major market indexes. This means that the state paid over $1 billion to these investment managers over an eight-year period to lose the state money.
If you're wondering who got this money, think of the rich people who run private equity companies. Think of people like Mitt Romney, the former Republican presidential candidate who was a partner at Bain Capital. Or, think of Steve Schwarzman, the CEO of Blackstone, who is getting buildings all over the country named after him because of his generous donations. When you get so much money handed to you by the taxpayers, you can afford to be very generous with it.
Since the Republicans think it is essential that food stamp recipients are working to earn their $126 a month benefit, how about we require the same from the people who get millions or tens of millions in investment fees from the government? We know that the private equity folks will tell us that they were working very hard, but how hard could they have been working if they actually lost the state money with their investments?
Suppose we said that if a state pension fund's investments in private equity or other assets failed to meet the performance of the relevant comparison index, the managers had to work to pay off the fees the state paid them. We should be able to get lots of time out of these people.
The billion dollars that Colorado paid to its outside investment managers comes to 7,937,000 months of food stamp benefits. If we required them to work for the federal minimum wage, it would give us almost 138 million hours of work from these people.
It's not just public pension funds that feel the need to hand millions of dollars to very rich people to lose them money. The New York Times ran a piece last month reporting on how the investment returns for the endowments at Harvard and other leading private universities trailed the returns from simple index funds over the prior 10 years. Here also, outside managers were paid millions of dollars to lose the school's money.
It is striking that we have so many people in this country that can be furious at the idea of someone getting $126 a month without working for it, but are apparently fine with rich people pocketing millions, or even tens of millions, for nothing. And, just to be clear, this appraisal of "nothing" is not my personal assessment of the value of the work of the private equity and hedge fund managers; it is the market's assessment.
Their job was to produce returns for pension funds or university endowments. If they failed to beat low-cost index funds, the value of their work was zero.
So the rule in the US in the second decade of the 21st century is that if you get $126 a month in food stamps, you better be able to prove you're doing something the government considers as valid work. But if you're an investment manager getting millions or tens of millions from the government or a university, it's OK if you don't do anything productive for your money. Welcome to the swamplands.
We count on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to look out for our public health interests -- whether responding to outbreaks or identifying emerging threats. These should be nonpartisan activities, but there are signs that the Trump administration's antipathy to climate science is creeping into CDC policy. And that's bad news for all of us -- including climate change skeptics.
That point was made clear in a recent CDC report about the rise of tick-borne illnesses. While many people associate ticks with Lyme disease, they can also cause Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, dengue, Zika, West Nile and a number of other illnesses.
Epidemiological evidence suggests that some tick-borne illnesses are becoming more common and spreading out of their traditional range. One reason for the shift is environmental pressure, as development expands into former wilderness areas. But warming patterns are partially responsible too, making it possible for ticks to thrive further north than ever before.
These facts are pretty inescapable, but the lead author of the CDC report is dodging the question of why, exactly, the weather's getting toastier. Instead, he's focused on activities like “jet travel” and the unavailability of vaccines for some of these conditions. While there are definitely additional factors, climate change feels like the elephant in the room.
That hasn't always been the case. Until pretty recently, the CDC openly acknowledged the role of climate change in thriving tick populations. The organization didn't lay the blame entirely at the feet of climate change, but it did acknowledge it as a contributing factor. That's important, because without openly discussing the topic, it's very hard to control for climate change's role in the spread of disease: Saying you know it's a problem means you can start thinking about how to combat it.
In the long term, of course, taking steps to slow the rate of climate change is important for global health. But in the short term, thinking about how rising temperatures might incubate more vectors and diseases is important -- for example, health agencies can make predictions for the coming years about where infections might turn up. That could inform activities like public education and outreach, showing people how to protect themselves, and making sure that clinicians are aware of symptoms to look out for when treating patients.
With formerly rare diseases, that last point is really important. A doctor might not think to test for an illness that hasn't been seen in an area before, or might dismiss a patient with complaints suggestive of an unusual tick-borne disease. Someone who's aware that a disease is spreading, however, might be more proactive in patient evaluations and conversations; for instance, a patient who works out in the woods might get extra screening, or advice on avoiding insects and a warning that ticks might be active earlier in the year than they used to be.
The decision to overlook climate change in official documentation doesn't go unnoticed. The World Health Organization acknowledges that climate change is an issue of global health concern, and the US is a member of the WHO. It doesn't look great to have the country's leading health agency refusing to acknowledge climate change -- and it feeds the fires of climate change denial.Thanks to reader support, Truthout can deliver the news seven days a week, 365 days a year. Keep independent journalism going strong: Make a tax-deductible donation right now.
While medical bills are a leading source of personal bankruptcy in the United States, a far more common problem is the widespread damage they do to people's credit. This means greater difficulty with transactions such as financing mortgages, taking out student loans or purchasing cars. Even when patients emerge with their credit unscathed after a medical crisis, the endless stream of collection letters and threats is a source of concern, often pressuring patients to pay medical bills they should not.
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After a devastating horse-riding accident in January 2017 landed him in the hospital for about 30 days, requiring trauma care and hospital-based therapy, Jeff Woodard considered himself lucky.
The bills amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars. But Woodard's employer-sponsored health insurance limited his out-of-pocket maximum payment to $5,000. He reached that "within like a day," he recalled.
His retired parents relocated from their small town in Massachusetts to help Woodard, now 27, who lives just outside of Denver, through his recovery. With their support, and regular outpatient therapy, he returned to working full time in just two months.
But he didn't expect another set of payments to haunt him and his parents for nearly a year, ultimately going to collections, and threatening to weaken his credit rating for years more.
While medical bills are a leading source of personal bankruptcy in the United States, a far more common problem is the widespread damage they do to people's credit. Almost 40 percent of adults younger than 65 reported a lower credit score because of medical debt, according to the most recent Commonwealth Fund analysis, based on 2016 data.
That means greater difficulty with transactions such as financing mortgages, taking out student loans or purchasing cars.
In Woodard's case, his parents had been deliberate in making sure that all the care their son received was within his insurance network. But it turned out that the trauma doctors at the in-network hospital were not. They were employees of Aspen Medical Management, a Colorado Springs, Colo., physician staffing firm that employs physicians and contracts them out to hospitals.
That generated about $3,000 worth of out-of-network surprise bills, sent directly to Woodard. United Healthcare had paid Aspen the standard rate for in-network care, and Aspen expected Woodard to come up with the rest.
Stunned, Woodard complained to his insurer and Aspen, and filed paper appeals. His parents hectored Colorado lawmakers and filed complaints with both the hospital and various state agencies. But as notices from Aspen and then collections agencies piled up, with threats to report a delinquent bill to credit bureaus, his worry grew.
"I was planning on refinancing my mortgage," he recalled, a change that he said would have saved him $15,000. "But if I got a bad hit to my credit score, it wouldn't save me any money. I was paranoid about that."
Woodard's persistent appeals succeeded, and his debt was settled just days before it was set to hit his credit report.
"I was going to write [Aspen] a check, but my parents insisted I didn't," he said. "I was incredibly lucky -- and it sucked."
When contacted by Kaiser Health News, an Aspen spokeswoman said the company had no comment, declined to provide her full name and then hung up.An Unpayable Bill, and Years-Long Damage
Even when patients like Woodard emerge with their credit unscathed after a medical crisis, the endless stream of collection letters and threats is a source of concern, often pressuring patients to pay medical bills they should not.
Medical debt isn't like other financial obligations. It might result from unplanned illnesses and accidents, or because consumers do not fully understand the intricacies of a health plan. Good coverage is not necessarily sufficient to shield someone from considerable costs. It can take months of negotiation and processing for consumers to know what they actually owe.
Left unpaid, these bills are ultimately sent to collections agencies.
Eventually, that medical collection dings the patient's credit, staying for as long as seven years, depending on state laws.
It's part of a multibillion-dollar industry: In 2016, the most recent year for which there are figures, agencies collected just under 10 percent of the $792 billion consumers owed in overall debt, according to an industry report.
That same year, about 46.8 percent of collected debts were health care-related, according to data kept by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Any outstanding bills can have serious ramifications for consumers, explained Chi Chi Wu, a staff attorney at the Boston-based National Consumer Law Center, who specializes in medical debt and credit reporting.
"Let's say, two years from now, mortgage rates plunge down to 2 percent and I want to refinance," Wu said. "And the mortgage broker tells me, 'You can't get the best rate. Your credit score is 650 and it's being dragged down from this unpaid collection from this hospital.'"
In that context, even an unmet deductible or copayment can be catastrophic.
Rodney Anderson, a mortgage broker in Plano, Texas, sees this regularly.
Starting in 2008, he noticed that almost half of his clients had weaker credit ratings -- and therefore secured less favorable loans -- because of medical debt. Even now, it affects "five to 10" of his clients each day.
The most recent federal analysis, a 2014 CFPB report, found that almost 20 percent of credit reports had at least one medical collection account listed. An average unpaid medical collection is about $580.
Protections that took effect in September 2017 could provide some relief.
As a result of a settlement reached by multiple state attorneys general and credit reporting agencies, collections agencies now must wait 180 days before reporting an unpaid medical bill to the credit bureaus to allow consumers adequate time to sort out insurance disputes.
A narrow provision of a banking regulation bill stalled in Congress would extend this waiting period to a full year for military veterans.
Apart from credit reporting modifications, some states, including Woodard's Colorado, have laws on the books to protect patients from surprise billing, which many experts say trigger these financial issues. But these measures are also limited. They typically prohibit balance billing -- charging patients for the difference between a list price and what insurance paid -- in only certain care settings, or shield patients from the payment responsibility, though they don't necessarily stop providers from sending a bill.
This patchwork approach reflects a larger truth: Efforts to legislate meaningful change have foundered.
Anderson, for instance, spent eight years and $2 million of his own money lobbying lawmakers in Washington to keep paid and settled medical debt off credit reports. He has since given up, after strong opposition from the credit reporting industry, which, Open Secrets data shows, consistently lobbied Congress about the legislation he supported.
Unpaid medical debt "is an important metric for lenders and creditors," said Eric Ellman, senior vice president for public policy and legal affairs at the Consumer Data Industry Association, a major trade group. Citing changes such as the 180-day waiting period and upgrades to reporting systems, he added that "I'm not sure there's more that needs to be done on this."
Some observers argue, though, that changes in insurance design have made the issue more pressing.
Private insurance -- both marketplace plans and those offered by employers -- have shifted so consumers are responsible for more of their health care costs, noted Sara Collins, the Commonwealth Fund's vice president for health care coverage and access. Middle-class people in particular, she added, are more likely to see unpayable medical bills, exposing them to the risk of medical debt.
A January 2017 study found that 20 percent of patients who went from the ER to the hospital in 2014 likely received an unexpected medical bill. Meanwhile, research published last July found that in 22 percent of emergency room cases from 2011 to 2015 --almost 1 in 4 -- patients went to an in-network hospital but were treated by an out-of-network doctor.
The risks are more than just credit rating, Collins warned. Consumers delay education plans, or take out extra credit cards to pay off their bills. They may forestall other medical care, for fear of another unaffordable expense.
By comparison, Woodard got off easy. With the help of his parents, he eventually won the fight and his health plan paid the difference.
Woodard's debt was settled just days before it was set to hit his credit report. He has since been able to purchase a new car -- replacing an older one -- with favorable terms that would have been unavailable to him had this situation turned out differently.
His 72-year-old father, Chuck Woodard, is now advocating for changes in how Colorado bills patients.
"No one tells you what your rights are," Chuck Woodard said. "The only reason this consumer, Jeff, knew what was going on … was he had two retired parents who got pissed off."
But Jeff Woodard's case may not be over yet. This March, he received another bill for an ambulance he took to the hospital.
He has started negotiating once more, with his insurance plan and the fire department's billing company. And based on his experience, he doesn't expect an easy process.
"I was incredibly well-advantaged, and I barely made it through," he said.
Most cities that have adopted sanctuary ordinances in defiance of the Trump administration's anti-immigrant stance only seek to protect "law-abiding" immigrants without police records. In doing so, they leave unprotected the immigrants already ensnared in racist systems of aggressive policing that disproportionately saddles people of color permanently with criminal records.
An undocumented immigrant is frisked by an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer after arriving to an ICE processing center on April 11, 2018, at the US Federal Building in lower Manhattan, New York City. (Photo: John Moore / Getty Images)
This story is the second installment in Truthout's series "After the Raid: The Communal Trauma of Immigration Enforcement." Read more about the vision behind the series in William Lopez and Nicole Novak's Introduction to Truthout's "After the Raid" Series.
Cities across the US have enacted sanctuary measures to resist the Trump administration's escalation of anti-immigrant policing, but most municipal sanctuary measures have a central weakness: They only seek to protect immigrants deemed as "law-abiding," leaving those already ensnared in a racist system of criminalization and policing unprotected.
Sanctuary ordinances, such as the ones adopted by Chicago in 2012 and by the state of Illinois in 2017, seek to inhibit cooperation between local policing agencies and federal immigration authorities by prohibiting local police departments from using agency resources to hold immigrants for federal agents. But as with most sanctuary legislation, these bills distinguish otherwise "law-abiding" undocumented immigrants from "criminal aliens," who are left unprotected by sanctuary measures and rendered highly vulnerable to detention and deportation.
In major US cities, however, the distinction between "innocence" and "criminality" is often the result of policing practice itself. In aggressively policed low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color, for example, residents are subjected to measures such as "stop and frisk," as well as "broken windows" and "predictive" policing, which disproportionately ensnare residents in the criminal legal system and saddle them permanently with criminal records. In Chicago, a major mechanism of this racist criminalization is the city's gang database.
In March of 2017, Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez, a young immigrant father from a South Side Chicago neighborhood, was violently arrested and detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents during a nationwide series of raids. ICE agents entered his house and held him at gunpoint, breaking his shoulder as they arrested him in front of his wife and small children; Catalan-Ramirez's wife recorded the violent raid live and posted it to social media in a widely watched video.Chicago's gang database is a tool of racialized criminalization that brings thousands of people into the criminal legal system based on little more than the whims of city police officers.
Following Catalan-Ramirez's arrest and detention, the Chicago group Organized Communities Against Deportation (OCAD) partnered with the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP 100), Mijente, and the Policing in Chicago Research Group at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), led by sociologist Andy Clarno, to learn more about how Chicago policies leave select immigrants vulnerable to deportation in spite of the city's sanctuary policy. They learned that Catalan-Ramirez was targeted by immigration agents after his placement on a database that Chicago police officers compile to identify suspected gang members, and that ICE used the database to find his home address.
The activist coalition's report finds that problems with the gang database abound.
First, residents can be added to the database at the discretion of Chicago police officers who are not required to provide any evidence of gang affiliation or criminal activity; indeed, 67.5 percent of those in the gang database have no arrest record involving violence or weapons use. In Catalan-Ramirez's case, he had been placed in the database by two different officers who identified him with two different gangs; there was no evidence of his affiliation with either.
Second, people are not notified when they are placed in the database and have no mechanism to contest their inclusion. Catalan-Ramirez found out he was tagged in the gang database only after ICE detained him.
Third, the gang database is entangled in a web of myriad local and extra-local databases that obscure the reliability of the data and make it difficult to trace and remove erroneous information. For example, even after city officials admitted that Catalan-Ramirez's addition to the gang database was erroneous, they said they could "modify" his records but not remove them.
Finally, the database overwhelmingly tags people of color as "gang affiliated": Of the nearly 65,000 Chicagoans labeled as "gang affiliated" in the database, more than 95 percent are Black or Latinx.
Catalan-Ramirez's case helped expose how federal agencies use information in local databases to target immigrants, and it also showed how tools of the Chicago Police Department are wielded to disproportionately target Black and Brown Chicagoans. In all, Chicago's gang database is a tool of racialized criminalization that brings thousands of people into the criminal legal system based on little more than the whims of city police officers. And in spite of the capricious nature of the database, the consequences of being added to it can be devastating. Following his being targeted by federal immigration agents, the raid on his home and his violent arrest, Catalan-Ramirez spent the next 10 months in immigrant detention, where he was denied adequate medical care and repeatedly placed in solitary confinement as a reprisal for community efforts to get him released. For him and for so many others, the gang database functions as a weapon that marks Black and Brown bodies as targets of police and belies Chicago's promise to be a sanctuary city.
Insofar as the database disproportionately targets Black and Latinx Chicagoans, it has also illuminated common cause among communities whose interests are often painted as distinct and even opposed. The coalition of BYP 100, OCAD, Mijente and UIC researchers, for example, brings together Chicago organizers concerned with racialized policing in a campaign to eliminate the gang database and reroute Chicago resources away from policing and toward community investment in education and social services. As they draw attention to racist policing practices and the false promises of city leaders who vow to protect them, organizers mobilize community members to create real sanctuary in their relationships with each other and a wider Chicago community truly invested in equality and justice.Who are the powerful funders behind Truthout? Our readers! Help us publish more stories like this one by making a tax-deductible donation.
Over the past four months, four New York City taxi drivers have been pushed to suicide in an industry that is becoming increasingly dangerous. In response to the recent deaths, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance has launched a campaign for regulation and released its own proposal to re-establish driving as a viable occupation.
On April 25, the Taxi Workers Alliance demanded that city leaders address the lethal impact of lax regulation of app-based, ride-hailing services at a press conference in front of City Hall. The conference preceded a hearing on April 30 concerning regulations for app-based companies.
The business model offered by Uber and Lyft, they argued, has been instrumental in lowering labor standards so that drivers from across the taxi industry -- whether they are behind the wheels of yellow cabs, green cabs or black cars -- are literally working themselves to death. Ride-hailing companies have gained notoriety for being able to put an unlimited number of vehicles on the road, underpaying drivers and even going so far as to not recognize them as employees. This has created a "race to the bottom" with severe repercussions.
Before shooting himself at the gates of City Hall Park, Douglas Schifter called the industry in which he'd been working for decades "the new slavery." Schifter wrote this in a suicide letter he posted on Facebook and blamed the Taxi and Limousine Commission, the Mayor's Office and Gov. Andrew Cuomo for promoting deregulation without regard for the impact on workers.
Joined by fellow founders Biju Matthews, Beresford Simmons and Taxi Workers Alliance organizer Mohammed Tipu Sultan, the NYTWA's executive director Bhairavi Desai addressed the assembled drivers and members of the press. "No matter what Uber wants to claim," she said, "this is a struggle about the workers trying to defend a full-time job in a gig economy that offers nothing but poverty pay." Founded in 1998, the alliance currently represents over 50,000 drivers throughout the city and has affiliates across the country. It has played a pivotal role in defending workers' rights and livelihoods from the impacts of deregulation.
According to Matthews, the situation created by Uber and its peers has taken a broad psychological toll on drivers. It is a situation that became even more dire due to Uber clogging city streets and shrinking worker income by constantly adding new vehicles. He hopes this is the last spate of suicides, noting that the alliance regularly refers drivers to suicide prevention services.
Danilo Castillo Corporan leapt from the window of his Manhattan apartment in December of 2017 after being told by the Taxi and Limousine Commission that he could lose his license for picking up an illegal hail. Charges against him were dropped the day after his death. Castillo penned his suicide note on the back of his summons, citing the "disastrous state" of the industry. Corporan had been a Bronx-based driver, as was Alfredo Perez who also committed suicide earlier this year.
On March 16, yellow cab driver and medallion owner Nichanor Ochisor hung himself in the garage of his Maspeth home. He, like so many other drivers, found himself starved of fares after Uber led the charge in flooding the streets with vehicles. Ochisor and his wife both worked but found their combined income to be half of what he had been making individually before app-based cars flooded the streets with the blessing of both Gov. Cuomo and the mayor's office. Last year there were a total of 83,000 app-linked cars, which outnumbered the city's remaining yellow and green cabs. Increasingly burdened by mortgage payments and mounting debts on his medallion, Ochisor saw no way out.
In response to these tragic suicides, the Taxi Workers Alliance has gathered drivers from all sectors and their allies for repeated demonstrations in front of City Hall. They demand action to address the wide reaching harm caused by ride-hailing companies' dominant position in the gig economy and their antipathy to regulation. These are not limited to promoting hazardous labor conditions or normalizing inconsistent and low pay. Companies like Uber and Lyft have also ensnared drivers in a web of predatory financial relationships and have been accused of discriminating against disabled passengers. City council member Ruben Diaz Sr. and members of Disabled In Action Metro NY, a group fighting for civil rights of disabled people, are among those who have joined the taxi drivers in this fight.
Working incessantly while earning very little is a norm across the industry. According to one study, 41 to 54 percent of Uber drivers make less than minimum wage. According to Taxi Workers Alliance member Bigu Haider, it's common to work 70-80 hours a week and have nothing left over after paying rent and other living expenses. "If you want to save, you have to add 100 hours," he said. Before taking his life, Douglas Schifter wrote he had regularly been working 100-120 hours per week.
The activists of Disabled In Action, who have been allies of the Taxi Workers Alliance since 1998, point out that the impact of ride-hailing companies' allergy to regulation extends beyond worker abuse. Uber, Lyft and Via took the Taxi and Limousine Commission to court over whether or not they have an obligation to provide vehicles that disabled passengers can access. Starting this July, commission rules will mandate that 5 percent of outgoing trips from taxi bases be wheelchair accessible. This is part of a broader effort to ensure that half of all New York City taxis are able to accommodate passengers with disabilities. Uber, Lyft and Via filed a petition with Manhattan's Supreme Court in early April to have the same Taxi and Limousine mandate "vacated and annulled." "They should just bite the bullet and stop fighting the system," Disabled in Action's president Edith Prentis said. "You don't want to follow the rules in New York? Then get out."
In response to these companies' intransigence when it comes to being regulated, Ruben Diaz Sr. is backing a measure that would require the city to vet new app-based services. Only those that fulfill an "actual need" would be allowed to operate. Additionally, this legislation would require drivers to work with only one company. Battling against diminishing incomes, many drivers currently shift from driving the city's cars to working under one or more ride-hailing companies on a regular basis.
The Taxi Worker's Alliance has put forward its own position, though. Their plan offers a model for fair labor standards that would also check the power ride-hailing companies have gained in New York. A cap on the number of ride-hailing vehicles, a wage floor based on the yellow and green taxi meters, an increase in fares, industry caps on drivers' expenses and an end to predatory leasing practices are among the key points of the plan.
"We are asking for an immediate moratorium on new cars," Biju Matthews explained. "Then, through attrition we have to bring the numbers down." The cap itself, however, will not provide a solution to drivers' woes concerning pay and saving. That is why Matthews says the wage floor is crucial. The plan also demands the city's congestion pricing scheme, which would fund maintenance of the MTA, not burden drivers and that the city implement the health and wellness fund, which is the product of Taxi Workers Alliance victories in 2012 and 2013.
Biju Matthews is optimistic about the prospect of pushing regulations through despite Gov. Cuomo's longstanding support of Uber and its model. "I think there's enough support in city council that we'll be able to see this through … there at least eight or 10 city council members that openly come out to say they openly support the alliance."
For Mother's Day and everyday: listen to a discussion and poetry by women of color writers and editors of the anthology Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines. They dedicate the book to "all the revolutionary mothers and all the revolutions they've created, because mothering is love by any means necessary."
You'll also hear about a recent investigation into Black maternal and infant mortality.
Special thanks to Maureen Mohapatra and The Laura Flanders show, Democracy Now! and PM Press.Featuring:
Roundtable on Revolutionary Mothering Anthology, on The Laura Flanders Show with Dr. Gumbs as guest host:
- Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, guest host and anthology co-editor and "A queer black troublemaker, a black feminist love evangelist and a prayer poet priestess, Alexis has a PhD in English, African and African-American Studies, and Women and Gender Studies from Duke University."
- China Martens, co-editor and "a zinestress extraordinaire based in Baltimore, MD. Her first book, The Future Generation, is a compilation of sixteen years of her first zine. She is also the coeditor of Don't Leave Your Friends Behind: Concrete Ways to Support Families in Social Justice Movements and Communities."
- Mai'a Williams, co-editor and writer, visual artist and birth worker and "the creator and director of Water Studio, which supports and co-creates with underground community artists and revolutionaries in Cairo, Egypt, and she organizes with the Revolutionary Youth Councils of Cairo."
- Cynthia Dewi Oka, anthology contributor poet and "author of Salvage. She is a member of the Sanctuary Advocate Coalition, which works to expand sanctuary in vision and practice through the framework of black-brown unity."
- Victoria Law, anthology contributor and "Victoria Law is a freelance writer and editor. She is the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women… She is the co-editor of Don't Leave Your Friends Behind: Concrete Ways to Support Families in Social Justice Movements and Communities."
WEB Extra Segment from Democracy Now, Why America's Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis:
- Linda Villarosa, journalist and New York Times Magazine contributor, director of the journalism program at the City College of New York
- Amy Goodman, journalist and host and executive producer of Democracy Now
- Nermeen Shaikh, producer & co-host of Democracy Now
- Host: Sandina Robbins
- Audio Mixer: Emily Harris
- Episode Producer: Lisa Rudman
- Producers: Anita Johnson, Monica Lopez
- Audience Engagement Director/Web Editor: Sabine Blaizin
- Development Associate: Vera Tykulsker
- The Laura Flanders Show and Democracy Now recorded material by permission
Far more people read Truthout than will ever donate -- but we rely on donations to keep our publication running strong. Support independent journalism by making a contribution now!
Some Republican lawmakers continue to try to work around the federal health law's requirements. That strategy can crop up in surprising places. Like the farm bill.
Tucked deep in the House version of the massive bill -- amid crop subsidies and food assistance programs -- is a provision that supporters say could help provide farmers with cheaper, but likely less comprehensive, health insurance than plans offered through the Affordable Care Act.
It calls for $65 million in loans and grants administered by the Department of Agriculture to help organizations establish agricultural-related "association" type health plans.
But the idea is not without skeptics.
"I don't know that anyone at the Department of Agriculture, with all due respect, knows a darn thing about starting and maintaining a successful insurance company," said Sabrina Corlette, a professor and project director at the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute.
Association health plans are offered through organizations whose members usually share a professional, employment, trade or other relationship, although the Trump administration is soon to finalize new rules widely expected to broaden eligibility while loosening the rules on benefits these plans must include.
Under that proposal, association plans would not have to offer coverage across 10 broad "essential" categories of care, including hospitalization, prescription drugs and emergency care. They could also spend less premium revenue on medical care.
Under the farm bill, the secretary of Agriculture could grant up to 10 loans of no more than $15 million each, starting next year, to existing associations whose members are ranchers, farmers or other agribusinesses.
The language is strikingly similar to a bill introduced April 12 by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), a supporter of association health plans. He did not respond to calls for comment.
Although the farm bill is usually considered "must-pass" by many lawmakers, it is currently facing pushback because of controversy surrounding other parts of the measure, mainly language that would add additional work requirements to the food stamp program.
Still, the focus on association health plans won't go away.
The plans -- coupled with another Trump administration move to make short-term insurance more widely available -- could draw healthier people out of the ACA markets, leaving the pool of beneficiaries with higher percentages of people who need medical care. And that, some say, could drive up premiums for those who remain.
The National Association of Insurance Commissioners, for example, has warned that association plans "threaten the stability of the small group market" and "provide inadequate benefits and insufficient protection to consumers."
Actuaries have made similar arguments.
Others are concerned about the idea of the government providing funding for such plans.
"We have reams of experience with AHPs that have gone belly up … and the notion that we should put taxpayer money into them is irresponsible," said Georgetown University's Corlette.
She was referring to the industry's mixed track record with plans. Some have served members well, but other plans have been marked by solvency problems that left consumers on the hook with unpaid medical bills or were investigated for providing little or no coverage for such things as chemotherapy or doctor office visits.
It's not fair to simply focus on the failures, countered attorney Christopher Condeluci, who served as tax and benefits counsel to the Senate Finance Committee and now advises private clients, some of whom are interested in association plans.
"Some AHPs were not successful," he agreed. "But there's arguably more examples of AHPs that work. The trouble is everyone focuses on the negative."
Although the GOP generally supports association plans, using taxpayer funds to help start them could prove problematic for some conservatives in Congress.
Many Republican lawmakers expressed concerns about the use of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to start insurance co-ops that were part of the ACA, most of which failed.
"The hard-earned tax dollars collected from working Americans, sitting at Treasury right now, are not venture capital, said Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) at a subcommittee hearing in November 2015. Currently, Brady is chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
The provision could also be popular in rural areas.
"We think it's a good idea," said Rob Robertson, chief administrator for the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation, whose group is considering sponsoring one.
About half of his members, Robertson said, have a spouse working a non-farm job, mainly for insurance coverage. Of those who buy their own plan, some are facing astronomical premiums and are looking for relief.
"I can't think of any sector that is affected more by the huge premium increases under Obamacare than farmers and ranchers," he said.
The farm bill -- including the AHP provision -- was approved by the House Committee on Agriculture in mid-April, and is currently awaiting floor consideration. Meanwhile, a final rule on the Trump AHP rule, which has drawn more than 900 comments from supporters and opponents, could be issued as early as this summer.
Palestinian women hold banners during a protest against US President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in Gaza City on December 17, 2017. (Photo: Majdi Fathi / NurPhoto via Getty Images)
With the U.S. embassy officially set to open in Jerusalem on Monday after President Donald Trump recognized the city as Israel's capital last December -- a move that has been decried by much of the international community and human rights groups as a "stark violation of international law" -- Israelis opposed to the embassy move gathered in Jerusalem Saturday night to denounce Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the brutal occupation of Palestinian territory.May 12, 2018
The demonstrations came just hours before a delegation of Trump administration officials -- including Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin -- arrived in Israel on Sunday ahead of a "gala reception" set to take place later Sunday evening in celebration of the embassy opening.
As Haaretz reports, most European Union ambassadors in Israel are boycotting the event -- around "30 of the 86 ambassadors in Israel accepted the invitation."
In an open letter to the United Nations Secretary General and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, a coalition of Palestinian rights groups urged the international community to take action against the embassy move and argued that "by relocating its embassy to Jerusalem, the U.S. endorses and unlawfully legitimizes Israel's policies and measures that seek to undermine Palestinians' fundamental human rights which amount to grave breaches of international law and internationally recognized crimes."
"The move further perpetuates the longstanding impunity granted to Israel in the face of its continuous and systematic violations of international law, including by endorsing the illegal annexation of Jerusalem," the groups added.
On Monday, thousands of Palestinians across the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem are expected to march in opposition to the embassy move.
As Middle East Eye reports, "The Israeli army said it would almost double the number of troops surrounding the Gaza Strip and in the occupied West Bank to tackle Palestinian protests against the U.S. embassy opening."
In recent weeks, 47 Palestinian demonstrators -- as well as at least two journalists -- have been killed and thousands more injured by Israeli forces during anti-occupation protests along the Israel-Gaza border.
(Photo: oleandra / Shutterstock)
April 24, 2018 — When the improper disposal of wastewater from the construction site of a joint shopping center and apartment complex threatened to contaminate hundreds of residents’ water in Sonsonate, El Salvador, activists and community leaders filed a lawsuit through the country’s specialized environmental justice system. In response, Lina Pohl, El Salvador’s minister of environment and natural resources, went to inspect the water. When she found signs of contamination, she ordered the suspension of construction.
Using legal tools to report an alleged violation of the law might not seem groundbreaking. But in El Salvador, justice in environmental disputes has long swung in favor of rich developers with political connections rather than activists and citizens. So, in 2014 the Central American nation established three regional environmental tribunals to even the playing field in environmental disputes.
“Historically, institutions in El Salvador have operated with lots of corruption. This is a system that breaks with that tradition of corruption,” says Salvador Recinos, specialist in ecological policy for the Salvadoran Ecological Unit (UNES), a non-governmental organization based in San Salvador. “With this court system, there is clearly a better chance of people in El Salvador having access to justice in these types of environmental cases.”
Justice systems around the world face obstacles to settling environmental cases quickly and fairly, whether from corruption, drawn-out trials or judges who lack understanding of environmental issues. Specialized environmental courts have emerged as an important defense against human-caused destruction of the environment. In 2009 there were only 350 of these specialized court systems in the world. Today there are at least 1,200 in 44 countries.Evolving Understanding
The boom in environmental courts is driven by an evolving understanding of human rights and environmental law, increased awareness of the threats of climate change, and dissatisfaction with general court systems, according to George (Rock) Pring, co-author of “Environmental Courts & Tribunals,” a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) guide for policy-makers.
“Human rights and environmental rights are now seen as overlapping and complementing each other, not surprisingly,” he says. “Climate change has also been a big pressure on creating environmental courts, as have concepts such as sustainable development.”
International agreements like the Paris Climate Change Accords have made important strides in recognizing the severity of the problems posed by climate change, but their non-binding nature means that it is up to national court systems to ensure these promises are carried out.
Specialized environmental justice systems are now operating on every continent except Antarctica with a range of responsibilities and capabilities. The goal of these specialized justice systems is always the same: to decide cases quickly, fairly, and more cheaply than would be the case through the conventional court system. Specialization, the logic goes, is the way to do that.
Take India, for example. The country suffers from intense air and water contamination, problems that have dire consequences for the environment as well as public health. Solving these problems is urgent, but the country of 1.3 billion people has a court system that is notoriously slow, with some cases dragging on for more than 10 years.
In 2011, a specialized court system called the National Green Tribunal (NGT) began operating in India. The tribunal, with multiple branches across country, is made up of specialized environmental judges and scientific experts. The court can settle cases in multiple ways. In some cases, instead of just handing down judgments, the court practices a stakeholder consultation process, working with the activists, companies and government institutions to come up with solutions, such as phasing out older cars to reduce air pollution.
“Problem solving is very central to this tribunal, and to solve the problems the court is looking beyond the traditional remedies that are available because they want to solve the issue rather than linger on for years to come,” says Gitanjali Gill, a National Green Tribunal expert and professor of environmental law at the Northumbria Law School in the U.K.
To ensure swift judgments, the tribunal is required to solve cases in six months. Gill reports that this rule is not strictly followed, with some cases lasting longer than six months, but they are still resolved much faster than in India’s general justice system.Key to Success
In Australia, the Land and Environment Court of New South Wales has operated successfully since 1980, solving problems of sustainable development, fighting against the effects of climate change, and protecting the coastline and national parks.
Its longevity has given it the time to evolve and test difference approaches, making it one of the most innovative environmental court systems to date. One of these innovations is the concept of the “multi-door courthouse,” which offers different types of conflict resolution so all parties involved can reach an agreement that is not necessarily handed down from a judge.
Strong leadership, steady funding, and political support have been the key pillars to the court’s success, according to the UNEP report.
The UNEP report attributes the success of the court to “judicial leadership, sufficient budget, comprehensive jurisdiction, political support and stakeholder overview.
In El Salvador, trust in the justice system is low and risk of environmental damage by climate change is high, making the country a prime candidate for a specialized environmental court system. Before the system launched in 2014, some Salvadoran citizens and activists didn’t see the point in reporting environmental violations. Without pressure from civil society, government institutions didn’t keep on top of environmental violations. But that’s changing.
“Now, citizens know that there are environmental tribunals. Companies also know. So there is a new push within the country towards recognizing the importance of environmental laws …" "Now, citizens know that there are environmental tribunals. Companies also know. So there is a new push within the country towards recognizing the importance of environmental laws given that there is a new institutionalized system that handles these cases," says Samuel Lizama, presiding judge at the Environmental Tribunal of San Salvador, one of the three regional courts in the country’s specialized environmental court system.Far From Perfect
These specialized systems are far from perfect. Some experts oppose them in principle, arguing that they lead to biased judgments, that the benefits do not outweigh the costs, and that they are a Band-Aid for a larger problem of a weak justice system, as Pring explains.
In India, judgments are not always carried out, and the tribunal does not have the capability or resources to follow up on all the cases. In El Salvador, environmental judges balance other caseloads, taking their time and energy away from environmental cases. In at least seven cases, including Bahamas, Netherlands and South Africa, environmental court systems have been discontinued because of lack of funding, change in political leadership or pressure from special interest groups.
In addition, it’s hard to objectively judge the value of environmental court system decisions in a world in which environmental law evolves and climate change creates new challenges.
“The problem is, how do you tell if something is a good environmental judgment?” says Pring. “Ten years ago, courts were not focusing on sustainable development or climate change and rulings that looked good at the time are not good now. It’s hard to tell today what today’s good-looking environmental decision will look like 10 years from now.”
Environmental courts don’t provide a one-size-fits-all approach to solving problems of governance when it comes to environmental issues, but they have proved effective for many countries, from El Salvador to India to Australia. They will likely continue as an important line of defense against environmental deterioration as the threats from climate change intensify in the coming years.
Editor’s note: This feature is being co-published with Public Radio International.
The United States is exceptional in believing it is exceptional. It dominates the world with its military but falls behind many other nations in standards that define quality of life. "Only in the United States can you have endless discussions of the legality of war without ever mentioning that war is illegal," says author and activist David Swanson in this interview.
Two US Navy Grumman A-6A Intruder aircraft drop bombs over Vietnam, December 20, 1968. American exceptionalism implicitly includes the notion that the US excels at making war. (Image: US Navy)
The United States is exceptional in believing that it is exceptional. It dominates the world with its military but falls behind many other nations in standards that define quality of life. "Only in the United States can you have endless discussions of the legality of war without ever mentioning that war is illegal," says author and activist David Swanson in this interview.
Mark Karlin: What is your working definition of the sense of United States exceptionalism?
David Swanson: What I describe in the book is a collection of beliefs or attitudes, whether or not articulated, that hold the US government, military and nation to be central to one's identity and to be superior to and not even to be judged on the same plane with anyone else. This is a way of thinking that is not dependent on any empirical facts, but is itself observable in opinion polls and in uniquely US phenomena, such as debates over whether or not to bomb another country, or discussions of history or of public policy that assume the rest of the world does not exist. The United States destroys whole forests for the paper on which to debate what would theoretically happen if a government provided universal health care, for example, despite so many nations having actually done so.
David Swanson. (Photo: courtesy of David Swanson)Last week, US Sen. Tim Kaine spoke here in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia about war powers. He claimed that Trump sending 100 missiles into Damascus could have been legal if only Trump had gotten approval from Congress. I brought up something that went unmentioned through the whole event and asked him if the UN Charter was not the supreme law of the land under Article VI, and he admitted as much but shrugged it off. Only in the United States can you have endless discussions of the legality of war without ever mentioning that war is illegal. If Canada bombed Minneapolis, exactly zero people on Earth would care whether the prime minister had acted alone or not because the act would be a crime rather than an action of the US government and therefore not eligible to be considered a crime.
You spend a good portion of your book comparing the United States to other nations. How does the US fare?
Miserably. The United States leads the world in everything from military spending to war-making to incarceration to various measures of environmental destruction, and various other undesirable categories. The United States trails behind all other wealthy countries, managing only to surpass poor countries in all kinds of measures of well-being, such as life-expectancy, health, education and happiness. And this poor showing is not balanced out by something else. Even in every conceivable measure of "freedom" and "democracy," even those measuring the viciousness of capitalism, the United States fails to rise to the top. "We're Number 1!" taken as a factual and positive claim is simply false.
What is the relationship between the concept of American exceptionalism and white Christian supremacy?
I think there are many relationships there, historical and current. The United States is far more religious than most wealthy nations, and far more fundamentalist. The pattern of thought that makes up exceptionalism is similar to that of white Christian supremacy. It's a form of bigotry based on differences falsely construed as superior. But US exceptionalism comes in various forms and is far more popular than white Christian supremacy, serving even as an acceptable form of bigotry for many who have rejected less respectable types of racism and prejudice.
What is the damage the notion of American exceptionalism does?
It's hard to fit into a book, much less an interview, but this attitude damages everyone it touches. It deprives people of identifying with 96 percent of humanity and most of human history and prehistory. It deprives the people of the United States of emergency aid, of global cooperation, of everything good and decent that a military budget could have bought, of all the world's innovations in environmental sustainability, education, crime reduction, health coverage, democracy, etc. And, of course, it is central to the propaganda that launches murderous wars and justifies all cruel foreign policies.
How is the Trump slogan "Make America Great Again" related to American exceptionalism?Truthout Progressive Pick
"American exceptionalism" is a myth.Click here now to get the book!
I think in virtually the same way in which the response "America already is great" is, namely in that it is an assertion of national superiority. But it's also an admission of decline and a claim to mythical past greatness.
As I write in the book,
... almost from Day 1 exceptionalists who have recognized shortcomings have pined for the good old days which lacked any. A television series called "The Newsroom" premiered on the cable channel HBO on June 24, 2012, and the first episode opened with a panelist on stage being asked why the United States is the greatest country on earth. "It isn't," he replies to a stunned and scandalized audience, rattling off the US failures to rank first in literacy, math, science, life expectancy, infant mortality, and median household income, while reaching top status in number of people incarcerated, military spending, and percentage of the public believing angels are real.
Then this straight-talking truth-bringer wistfully remarks: "It sure used to be." Without providing any details, he claims that the United States used to be the greatest country on earth and used to act for moral reasons and does so no longer. But when exactly was that age of moral greatness? Was it just a decade or so back, when the chief writer of "The Newsroom" Aaron Sorkin was depicting a very fictional and moral White House in another series called "The West Wing?" The US wasn't tops in education or health then either. The point, I think, was not to communicate any such specific claim, but rather to abide by the requirement of exceptionalism that one balance any fault-finding with a claim of past and potentially future perfection.
What are some of your suggestions for curing exceptionalism?
I go into some detail in the book, but I think that such steps can include:
1) Understanding the problem.
2) Meaning something else by "we" other than the Pentagon. Nobody says, "We just increased my taxes," or "We just seized part of my property," or "We just gave human rights to fracking companies," so why must one say, "We just bombed Syria." I didn't bomb Syria. Did you? The US government did that. At least part of the time, try to see if you can make "we" mean a smaller or larger group than a nation.
3) Walk a mile in others' shoes. In the book, I suggest imagining a number of roles reversed. Double standards don't hold up well under such procedures.
(Image: Stockbyte / Getty Images)
Institutional racism caused me to have a medical emergency a month after giving birth to my son. A year after the emergency procedure, I was diagnosed with uterine fibroids and sought information on my ability to become pregnant again. The dismissive treatment I endured was yet another example of how the reproductive health care system in the US is failing Black women.
(Image: Stockbyte / Getty Images)
Institutional racism caused me to have a medical emergency a month after giving birth to my son.
The emergency was entirely preventable. Following the birth, I knew something was wrong because I couldn't walk two feet without extreme pain and was passing large blood clots. I made phone call after phone call to three different hospitals. I informed the attending physician immediately after birth but was told everything looked fine. A couple of weeks later, I went to the emergency room, but when I showed up, I was told large clots and exhaustion were normal postpartum experiences.
After a month of phone calls and visits, a doctor finally listened to me long enough to discover that after giving birth, I had retained a piece of placenta inside my uterus. All of a sudden, the medical establishment acknowledged the dangers of the situation I was facing: increased risk for hemorrhaging, infection, and even death.
I was rushed into an emergency again in a different state where they determined I needed a dilation and curettage procedure to remove the piece of placenta. The emergency procedure could have been prevented if my attending physicians had done a more thorough assessment to examine my discomfort before releasing me.
Naturally, I was afraid that the experience had left physical scars to match the emotional ones. I was told the chances of lasting uterine problems were low but that anything was possible.
A year after the emergency procedure, I was diagnosed with uterine fibroids and was curious how that would affect my ability to become pregnant again. My past experience, however, left me hesitant to seek care. And I was embarrassed about speaking with a fertility specialist as a Black woman in her mid-20s. In the Black community, there is often a heavy emphasis on "God's timing" and our society expects young women to be fertile. I was facing intracommunity and gender-based stereotypes. I was too young to need this kind of help.Every stage of the reproductive process comes with additional risks if you're a Black woman.
As the wife of an airman, I was relying on a clinic at the local military base for care. I was pleasantly surprised that the clinic had an opening the following business day. But from the moment my son and I were called out of the waiting room, I began to feel uncomfortable. As a Black woman, I am well aware that both my sexuality and my reproductive decisions exist under increased surveillance. Still, I didn't expect to experience this so acutely.
From the moment the medical professional who would be leading my appointment arrived, the environment felt cold. She sat down and harshly asked me why the information reported from my last annual exam showed I wasn't trying for a baby. It didn't matter that I wasn't comfortable revealing that information at the time of my last appointment. To her, I'd been caught in a lie and needed to be punished. In the following moments, she made me take an informal quiz to "prove" to her that we had indeed been trying to conceive. Then she made comments on the fact that I already had a child -- as if secondary infertility didn't exist -- and asked me if I was with the same partner as before, despite the fact that I was still clearly a dependent on the same military installation.
Facing this dismissive treatment in a vulnerable time crushed any ounce of trust I had left. I left feeling like I'd been put on trial for seeking help. Her inquisition was enough to make me never want to seek reproductive advice again.
The experience weighed so heavily on me that I cried while reflecting on it later. There were plenty of women on our military base with multiple children who had gotten fertility assistance. I couldn't help but wonder if my appointment and question would have gone the same way had I been a white woman.
I also wondered how many Black women like me have been continually let down by the reproductive health care system. How many of us have reached out for help only to be forced to prove our struggle, or turned away completely? As much as I wanted to ignore it, my experience reeked heavily of the institutional racism that permeates the health care system.
Lately, there has been a lot of attention paid to the fact that Black women are three times more likely than white women to die from childbirth-related conditions, such as postpartum hemorrhage, preeclampsia, uterine rupture, spontaneous coronary artery dissection and peripartum cardiomyopathy. However, our national dialogue still overlooks the fact that Black women's reproductive risks start long before childbirth. Every stage of the reproductive process comes with additional risks if you're a Black woman.
Although infertility affects women of all races at a rate of 6 percent, Black women face increased risk and are 1.8 times more likely to be infertile than white women. A telling indicator of the reproductive health issues faced by Black women is our disproportioante risk of contending with the "benign" tumors in the uterus that are referred to as uterine fibroids. Fibroids are three times more common in Black women than in white women. Black women's fibroids also appear earlier, are larger and cause more pain. Fibroids can increase the chance of problems like preterm delivery and placental abruption -- a condition in which the placenta partially or completely separates from the uterine wall. While the reason is unknown, Black women with polycystic ovarian syndrome have an increased risk for metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease. Black women also have worse outcomes for cervical cancer. And for treatment of these conditions, Black women are more often advised to seek a hysterectomy -- a procedure found to have many long-term consequences, such as higher potential for high blood pressure and higher risk for heart disease. Additionally, women who had the procedure under the age of 35 had a 4.6-fold increased risk of congestive heart failure and a 2.5-fold increased risk of coronary artery disease.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 12.1 percent of women ages 15-44 nationwide experience "impaired fecundity" (being able to become pregnant but struggling to carry a child to a live birth), and 6.7 percent experience infertility.Few if any reproductive health programs are prepared to address the ways that infertility and other reproductive issues uniquely affect Black women.
For Black women, the numbers are even higher, and we also face increased barriers to care: Reaching out to a reproductive specialist as a Black woman requires contending with providers influenced by stereotypes about Black women only having unintended pregnancies. It also requires overcoming valid mistrust of medical institutions based on the historical abuses against Black women that range from experimentation on slaves to involuntary sterilization and our current maternal-mortality crisis.
With so much at stake, it is particularly important that Black women have access to gynecological and reproductive services. But unfortunately, this is seldom the case. Only 12 percent of women ages 12-44 have ever accessed infertility care, but according to the CDC, white women are nearly twice as likely as Black and Latina women to have ever used medical help to get pregnant: only 8 percent of Black women and 7.6 percent of Latinas have done so.
Perhaps Black women are less likely to take part in these resources due to the myriad financial and sociocultural obstacles in the way. In 2015, authors of the University of Michigan report "Silent and Infertile: An Intersectional Analysis of the Experiences of Socioeconomically Diverse African American Women With Infertility" found that Black women are more likely to deal with infertility alone. The research found that infertility affects Black women's sense of self and gender identity. Religious messages on reproduction also contributed to their negative feelings, as did the expectation for Black women to be strong and deal with trials head-on.
Not surprisingly, few if any reproductive health programs are prepared to address the ways that infertility and other reproductive issues uniquely affect Black women. The lack of cultural competence is so vast within our medical system that there are still professionals who believe Black people have higher pain tolerance than people of other races. It is also likely that, like me, other Black women have also sought assistance only to be turned away due to false perceptions of Black women's fertility or left uncomfortable after being subjected to embarrassment via interrogation.
Black women are also more likely to be employed in low-paying jobs that don't provide insurance benefits that cover these types of services. But even Black women with good benefits can be placed in financial strain with in vitro fertilization starting around $12,000 at the very minimum. The price tag might be seen as even more frustrating since racial disparities in in vitro leave Black women with higher rates of spontaneous abortion post-procedure.
Continuous exposure to racism, also known as toxic stress, has already been linked to the maternal and infant mortality crisis in the Black community. Despite the fact that the health care system should be a bias-free safe haven for assistance, institutional racism in health care continues to run rampant. Sometimes dealing with the same prejudiced attitudes in the medical system that we deal with in everyday life is too much to bear. As a result, racism is surely another reason for Black women's reproductive health disparities.
The mistreatment I have received within the health care system has made me hesitant to reach out for assistance in the future. But I know there are culturally competent professionals to fill the gap. In the last decade, organizations like Fertility for Colored Girls have been created to provide Black women with the holistic fertility awareness they deserve. Similarly, organizations that circulate first-hand accounts of Black women dealing with infertility, like The Broken Brown Egg, are working to normalize conversations about infertility among women of color. Other websites like Resolve provide a more general look into infertility.
My experiences have shown me just a couple of the many ways in which the reproductive health system ostracizes Black women. It is especially important that Black women have access to quality reproductive care because -- all too often -- our very lives are at stake.
On July 26, 2017, after a series of tweets by President Donald Trump, which proposed to ban transgender people from military service, thousands of New Yorkers took the streets of in opposition. (Photo: Michael Nigro / Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images)
In a policy shift LGBTQ rights groups denounced as "a deliberate recipe for violence against transgender people," the Trump administration on Friday rolled back rules allowing transgender prisoners to use facilities that match their gender identity and instructed federal officials to use "biological sex" in determining housing assignments.
"The extreme rates of physical and sexual violence faced by transgender people in our nation's prisons is a stain on the entire criminal justice system," Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said in a statement responding to the Trump administration's move. "Instead of leaving the existing policy alone, the administration is clearly prepared to encourage federal prisons to violate federal law and advance its own inhumane agenda."
Trans prisoners are sexually assaulted at a rate of more than 13 times that of non-trans prisoners. This will only exacerbate an already dangerous set of circumstances https://t.co/Moke36zNIw via @dominicholden— Betsy Ginsberg (@BetsyGinsberg) May 12, 2018
According to Buzzfeed, which first reported the rule rollback on Friday, the White House's policy shift "comes after four evangelical Christian women in a Texas prison sued in US District Court to challenge the Obama-era guidelines," asserting that sharing facilities with transgender women put them in danger.
The Trump administration appears to have accepted this claim wholesale.
Last August, Trump's Justice Department announced that it would "evaluate" the issues raised in the Texas case, and on Friday the administration issued new "guidelines that instruct officials to 'use biological sex as the initial determination for designation' for screening, housing, and offering programming services, saying the policy is 'consistent with maintaining security and good order in Federal prisons,'" Buzzfeed reports.
"Once again, the Trump administration is turning its back on those most vulnerable. It is well established that transgender prisoners -- particularly transgender women housed in men's facilities -- suffer much greater rates of sexual abuse than other prison populations," Richard Saenz, a staff attorney at Lambda Legal, said in a statement. "Conversely, it is increasingly common for correctional facilities to house transgender people consistent with their gender identity, and agencies have made these placements without experiencing any increase in abusive incidents or security risks."
"There is no justification for this policy shift; it is a deliberate recipe for violence against transgender people based in inexcusable prejudice," Saenz added.May 11, 2018
Responding to the Trump administration's rule changes on Friday, Vanita Gupta, chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said the shift is part of the White House's broad anti-LGBTQ agenda that has already significantly impacted numerous sectors of American society.
"This administration seems to be using every opportunity to roll back progress for LGBTQ and transgender people, even against the grain of where the American public is, and is headed, on these issues," Gupta concluded.The day-to-day costs of keeping Truthout running are significant -- we rely on donations to keep us online. If you like what you're reading, support us today!
Members of the U.S. Army Drill Team perform in Times Square in New York City in honor of the Army's 240th birthday on June 12, 2015 in New York City. (Photo: Spencer Platt / Getty Images)
The US has been in an active shooting war in one form or another for almost 30 years now, and we have become smothered by the sense that it will always be this way. No greater lie could be told, yet we tell it to ourselves in word and deed every day. This must end. We cannot let the Forever War into our heads any more.
Members of the U.S. Army Drill Team perform in Times Square in New York City in honor of the Army's 240th birthday on June 12, 2015 in New York City. (Photo: Spencer Platt / Getty Images)
My daughter was born in the 22nd year of the Forever War, which stands today upon its 27th year and counting. People who should know better may tell you the war started only 17 years ago, after September 11, but those people are likely trying to sell you something, and it's probably more war.
The Forever War began as Desert Storm and wended its way through different iterations such as Operation Desert Fox, before morphing into the current multi-theater murder machine we know today. It has no Pentagon jargon name any more, not really. It's just forever.
They came for me just before it all began. I was a newly minted high school graduate, green as new grass, when the man in the uniform paid his call. Saddam Hussein is as dangerous as Adolph Hitler, the Army recruiter told me in my living room, with a huge army that threatens the world. War is coming. If I join the Reserve Officer Training Corps in September, however, I wouldn't see that war for another four years, and I would be an officer when I did. "Probably," he said, "it will all be over by then."
My father heard a similar argument some 25 years before my conversation with the recruiter, and heeded it by joining ROTC before volunteering for Vietnam. A good FDR liberal from the Deep South, where they still remembered the Tennessee Valley Authority (a wildly successful New Deal jobs program) with deep fondness, my father wanted to run for office someday, and you didn't run for office without time in uniform back then.
So he went, and he came home, but he never came back, not all of him. In many ways, I lost my father to that war before I ever met him. Even then, so long ago, I knew this about him, about war. Remembering, I thanked the recruiter for his time and sent him on his way.
My father passed away three years ago with pieces of his heart, mind and soul still lost thousands of miles away. I still have his dog tags. His war lasted 25 years. My war, the one I chose not to fight, will be turning 30 soon with no end in sight. I have never fought in it, but it is my war nonetheless, and now my daughter's. The Forever War is a generational affair.
"Probably," the recruiter said, "it will all be over by then."
I think about him now and again, and wonder how many kids like me he fed to the Forever War. I wonder if he even knows. I wonder if he remembers saying that to me. I wonder how many times he said it to others, and if he is still saying it today, out there in living rooms with other green kids. Someone like him is saying something like that somewhere, right now, because the machine is always hungry.
Here is a slice of our cruel, blood-rusted Forever War in its current state: Bombings and killings continue unabated in Afghanistan. Bombings and killing continue unabated in Iraq, where weapons of mass destruction have still not been found. Syria is a killing field, as is Yemen. Lebanon still bleeds. Iran, which has entirely fulfilled its end of the bargain, watched in rage this week as a nuclear deal struck with the US and Europe was shredded in yet another dangerous move by Donald Trump, who sought to placate the John Bolton wing of his rudderless party. Libya, Egypt and much of North Africa are in violent turmoil. Millions upon millions of war refugees suffer the cruel indignities of displacement and want.
With the nomination of Gina Haspel to run the Central Intelligence Agency, we see a day in the life of the Forever War in miniature. A debate has broken out regarding the efficacy of torture. See, our government tortured some folks during the Forever War, as President Obama blithely admitted back in 2014. Our government tortured people in Iraq, Afghanistan, in so-called "black sites" around the world, on a base 90 miles from Florida and, in at least one instance, right here on US soil.
Gina Haspel ran one of these black sites as a CIA operative, oversaw the practice of torture, and later destroyed the evidence of those vicious crimes. Now, Donald Trump wants to put her in charge of the CIA, because torturing other human beings is no impediment to promotion these days. When questioned by Congress this week, Haspel pledged not to re-start a torture program but stopped short of condemning the practice outright.
For John McCain, Republican Senator from Arizona, Haspel's answers fell far short of the mark. "Ms. Haspel's role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing," McCain said in a statement after her testimony was concluded. "Her refusal to acknowledge torture's immorality is disqualifying. I believe the Senate should exercise its duty of advice and consent and reject this nomination."
For the record, I generally do not like John McCain much at all. Notwithstanding his glorious ability to get under Trump's skin like an Alabama tick, I consider the Senator from Arizona to be a cruel bannerman for the hard right. On this specific issue, however, McCain's opinion is above reproach, as well it should be given his personal experience.
In 1967, McCain's A-4E Skyhawk was shot down over Hanoi by a missile. The crash left him with two broken arms and a broken leg. His captors crushed his shoulder with a rifle butt and stabbed him with a bayonet. He was given scant medical treatment, beaten at two-hour intervals for extended periods, and placed in solitary confinement for two years. Then it got worse. An attempt at suicide was thwarted by the guards. This was his life for more than five years. When he finally came home, his hair had turned white.
In a just world, the opinion of a man like John McCain on the topic of torture would be respected. At minimum, it would not be insulted. Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney and Kelly Sadler of the White House communications office remind us, sadly, that we do not live in a just world.
Lt. Gen. McInerney went on Fox Business this past Thursday to argue in favor of torture, and by proxy the nomination of Haspel, claiming that torture is effective because it worked on John McCain. "That's why they call him 'Songbird John,'" said McInerney, coughing up the old canard about McCain giving intelligence to his captors in exchange for better treatment. In essence, McInerney said torture works because it turned John McCain into a traitor.
Kelly Sadler's job at the White House is to manage talking points for administration allies to deploy during media appearances. On the same day that an Air Force general accused a sitting US senator and torture survivor of treason on live TV, Sadler found herself in a communications office staff meeting about the Haspel nomination. When the subject of McCain's statement came up, Sadler said, "It doesn't matter, he's dying anyway." This statement has since been twice confirmed.
In other words, for the crimes of detesting torture and disliking the president, spokespeople for the party McCain has served throughout his career have now labeled him traitor and buried him before he is dead. "I like people that weren't captured," Trump said of McCain during the campaign. The fish rots from the head down.
That's where we are today, but that's not all of it, not by half. Donald Trump and his henchmen are a symptom, not a cause.
To nick a line I once used about George W. Bush, blaming Trump for all this is like blaming Mickey Mouse when Disney screws up. We have been in an active shooting war in one form or another for almost 30 years now, and have been on a wartime economic footing since President Truman signed the National Security Act more than 60 years ago. Within that context, Trump just came down with the last drop of rain.
The Forever War is not just in the Middle East. It is in Korea, where US troops still stand to post along the DMZ. It is in Vietnam, where hundreds of thousands of children have been born with spina bifida, neural tube problems, missing limbs, missing vertebrae, autoimmune disorders and more, four decades after the US finished hosing that nation down with Agent Orange. And yes, the Forever War is also in Iraq, which practically glows at night from all the depleted uranium the US has detonated there since 1991.
This is why we find ourselves today talking about torture the way other people talk about their sandwich order, and why powerful voices see fit to accuse torture survivors of treason. We have been thoroughly debased by all this war, all this violence, all this death for so many years. The most popular video games come with body counts. Neighbors with massive arsenals are the norm, and massacres flicker by like dandelion seeds.
We are a crumbling nation not just in a moral sense, but in a literal one. The trillions of dollars spent on the Forever War have turned our economy into a shaky shell game, and deprived us of the opportunity to make education, infrastructure, genuine health care and artistic achievement the cornerstones of our culture. When capitalism sits at the table with democracy, sooner or later all the plates are empty save for a golden few. The United States did not invent the concept of using war to plunder the treasury. It simply perfected the practice.
Donald Trump did not do this. He and his friends are merely taking mighty advantage of it. They know we are all smothered by the sense that it is this way because it has always been this way, and so it will always be this way. No greater lie could be told, yet we tell it to ourselves in word and deed every day, because we are very well trained after all these years.
This is the only world my daughter has known, the world I have known since I was a boy, the world that counts my father among its countless casualties.
By accepting this unendurable reality as the new normal, we are doing the war machine's work for it, oftentimes with earnest diligence. This must end. We cannot let the Forever War into our heads any more. I'm ready when you are.This Truthout original was only possible because of our readers' ongoing support. Can you make a monthly donation to ensure we can publish more like it? Click here to give.